You know that awkward phase when you first get to college? That short period when you’re still trying to get used to everything. You’re still not used to the campus or living on your own for that matter. You feel slightly out of place most of the time and you haven’t exactly made a good group of friends yet. And despite your best efforts to put it behind you, you have this nagging feeling that you’re starting to miss high school.
This kind of describes season four of Buff the Vampire Slayer. Having recently experienced this myself as someone starting their first year away at college, I can kind of relate to the show’s “awkward phase.” Like I said previously, season three is easily the best season of the show, with season two as a close second. Where does this leave season four? Not quite on top, that’s for sure.
Like most television shows portraying teens as the main characters, the transition from high school to college isn’t quite graceful. The characters always seem awkward and out of place, now trying to find a hangout to replace their beloved high school library. They spend a lot of the season in Rupert Giles’ apartment when they’re not on campus at UC Sunnydale.
I suppose that’s realistic though, as most college freshman lose a sense of identity and belonging when they first go away to school. The first few episodes of season four make it quite clear that the writers are using the situation to their advantage. Season opener “The Freshman” really makes use of this. We find Buffy, Willow, and Oz on their first day of college. Willow and Oz are able to transition decently to college and seem excited while Buffy is still unsure. The audience can tell that she’s still very unfamiliar with the area and feels out of place. Meanwhile, Xander watches his friends go off to school without him while he struggles to find a job and figure out what he wants to do with his life. The two console each other, but Buffy is eventually able to move on and accept her new role as a college student.
What would Buffy be though without making metaphors out of situations at hand? In “Living Conditions,” we see Buffy fight off her demonic roommate and in “Beer Bad,” we see the overconsumption of beer turn Buffy and her new friends into cavemen. The novelty of the college situation soon fades though.
This season follows Buffy as she tries to adjust to college and get over her breakup with Angel. It doesn’t take too long before she and her Psychology TA, Riley, start a relationship. And then it doesn’t take too long for Buffy to find out that Riley isn’t exactly a normal guy (what a surprise). It turns out Riley is a special agent for a government operation known as the Initiative. Located beneath his fraternity house, the Initiative consists of a group of students-turned-soldiers that capture demons while a group of lab scientists study them. The two develop a lot of trust issues throughout the season, as they handle things very differently.
Meanwhile, Xander is left to live in his parents’ basement, looking for jobs here and there. Anya, the former demon he took to prom, comes back to him in hopes of starting a relationship. Initially reluctant, Xander slowly starts to accept her as his girlfriend and Anya is one of the Scoobies by the season’s end.
After being fired from the council and being let go by the high school, Giles is left without a sense of belonging as well. He no longer feels that he has a place in Buffy’s life and eventually comes to realize that his group of friends consist of a bunch of teenagers who he can’t relate to. This idea is explored in a few episodes. In “A New Man,” Giles is turned into a demon by his former colleague, Ethan, after expressing to him his thoughts about how he doesn’t belong.
Willow and Oz are still going strong at the beginning of the season and it sort of gives you hope for high school relationships, as none of the others have really lasted. But our hopes for the two are soon crushed in “Wild at Heart” when Oz and sultry werewolf Veruca make love with each other on a full moon in wolf form. Willow finds out and the two end up breaking it off before Oz leaves town to find a way to control his wolf form. Willow, heartbroken, takes a little while to recover before meeting Tara, a fellow witch. The two are both quiet and shy, but romance slowly blooms between them. The funny thing is, no romantic relationship between them is referenced for a while and it takes almost to the season’s end before Willow admits that she and Tara are pursuing each other romantically. Willow doesn’t even necessarily come out to her friends, but more so just hints to Buffy that she likes Tara, making it seem like it should have been obvious all along.
And then there’s Spike. It seems that someone had to take over Angel’s vampire presence on the show. As much as he’s loved by fans, I think the writers did a good job by only having him appear in one episode in season three. While he definitely provides some humor to the show, he still doesn’t quite add to the mix. Spike was captured by the Initiative and a chip that stops him from harming humans was placed in his brain. This forces him to go to the Scoobies for help. But he doesn’t quite find his place as a main character yet in this season, and I feel that he would have been better in a recurring role like in season two.
One thing that really bugs me about this season is its total lack of direction. The big bad, Adam, doesn’t show up until halfway through the season and he doesn’t necessarily add anything to the show. The writers could have come up with a better antagonist. In addition, the whole idea behind the Initiative might have been okay for one or two episodes, but certainly not to prolong over a whole season. After a few episode, it’s easy to get tired of it. All I can help thinking is that the writers could have come up with a much better plot. Dealing with a college campus, you’d think they’d have a whole world of possibilities. Instead, they decide to go with a part demon, part robot, and part human creature created by a government agency.
And Riley is much like that guy or girl you meet the first month of college and end up briefly dating before realizing you’re totally wrong for each other. He really doesn’t hold a candle to Angel. By season five, we realize that perhaps that’s what the writers intended, as it becomes apparent that Riley realizes Buffy doesn’t love him the way she loved Angel. More on that later, but for now, the guy just doesn’t cut it. He’s not particularly annoying (though he can be by challenging Buffy’s authority at times). It’s just, competing with someone like Angel or even someone like Spike, he doesn’t have a chance.
As sad as I am to see Seth Green (as Oz) go, I will admit that the writers did something right by introducing Tara Maclay (Amber Benson). She slowly works her way into Willow’s world, and the two go from having to use magic as a metaphor for their romantic relationship to being up front about their feelings for one another. She leads Willow further into a world of magic and we’ll later (at least I do) fall in love with Tara for her responsibility and morality. In addition to this, this was a step in the right direction for the show by portraying a lesbian relationship and the troubles they might have to go through.
We see Oz leave in “Wild at Heart” and come back in “New Moon Rising” to find Willow in love with another woman. I have to say that their breakup is definitely the most heartbreaking moment this season. Seeing the usually silent Oz about to break down before taking off especially sticks in my mind.
On the other hand, Oz had some pretty great potential as a character. Only a few episodes have really focused on him as a very central character. Even though he was in main role during season three, Oz was never really a central character. If you haven’t figured it out by now, this is why Seth Green decided to leave the show in season four. I think the writers could have made a lot better use of him, what with the whole him being a werewolf thing. I guess we’ll just have to settle for Oz fan fiction.
And then there’s Anya (Emma Caulfield), who we’ll see until the end of Buffy‘s run. I’ll have to say it’s nice of the writers to introduce a recurring character from a previous season as a romantic interest for Xander. She adds some humor to the show, as she is an ex-demon and doesn’t quite understand how not to be rude yet, and she absolutely doesn’t understand the pop culture references the Scoobies love to make. But Anya appears to be a useful ally to the gang, as she knows a lot about demons and magic.
It’s hard introducing new characters to replace the old, and expecting fans of the show to accept them. Cordelia, Oz, and Angel are part of what made the earlier seasons so great, but I’ll give them credit for replacing them with some decent people who actually add something to the show.
At the end of the day, season four just feels out of place. There are a few gems here and there. “Hush” is known as a fan favorite, as most of the episode was filmed without any dialogue. “The Freshman” accurately portrays the struggles a college freshman has their first semester at school. Eliza Dushku guest stars as rogue slayer Faith in “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You.” But these don’t exactly stop season four from being a bit of a downer. The writers have the right idea by playing on the awkward transition from high school to college, but the season long story arc isn’t even there. By season finale and the foreshadowing episode “Restless,” you’re excited to be over with the season and moving on to something new.
The end of the season plays on the fears of each main character, as they all worry that they’re being forgotten by their friends. Xander worried that his friends are moving on without him. Willow fears that her friends don’t understand her relationship with Tara – and her interest in magic – and think that it’s just a phase. Giles worries that no one cars about him anymore and that he has no purpose. Even Buffy’s mother, Joyce, is saddened by the fact that her daughter rarely comes to visit because she’s become so caught up with her life at school. I think, after graduating high school, we all like to tell each other that we’ll keep in touch, but in the end, we grow apart, make new friends, and move on with our lives. And by the end of this season, you start to realize just how much the gang has grown apart without high school keeping them together. Even though I try to keep in touch with my own high school friends, it’s definitely hard when you’re all off on your own making new friends and new experiences. But at the end of the day, you start to realize that if people are worth it, you make room for them in your life. And that’s exactly what Buffy and her friends come to realize.
Season four is an awkward, but necessary transition phase that I’d like to say we all go through. Whether it be with college, a new job, anything. And as season finale “Restless” hints at, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Whether you’re dealing with a lame demon-fighting government operation, getting over your high school boyfriend by pursuing a lesbian witch, trying to move out of your parents’ basement while teaching an ex-demon how to be mortal, or just struggling to adjust to college, you will get through it.