Reviews

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season

Cynthia Fuchs

That is, the season that many fans have called out as disjointed and erratic, maddening and disappointing. To a point, the complaint is justified, as Joss Whedon and company tend to concede. But only to a point.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Cast: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, James Marsters, Emma Caulfield, Anthony Stewart Head, David Boreanaz, Amber Benson, Marc Blucas, Seth Green, Kristine Sutherland
Subtitle: The Complete Fourth Season
Creator: Joss Whedon
US Release Date: 2003-06-10
Amazon
That's the whole point of the series: nobody thinks they're a bad guy. Nobody thinks they're not righteous.
-- Joss Whedon, commenting on "Wild At Heart" (4-6)

It's almost like we're taking a field trip to another tv show. This is very different for Buffy.
-- Douglas Petrie, commenting on "The Initiative" (4-7)

I'm Cowboy Guy!
-- Riley (Marc Blucas), "Restless" (4-22)

As Buffy came to its forever-and-done-with finale last month, you might think fans are missing it terribly. Not much chance of that. Between FX's four-times-a-weekday-reruns, and Fox's weekend revisitations, not to mention the notably robust season collections DVDs, there's now more Buffy available than ever.

Last week, season four came to DVD -- the season when Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) goes to college. That is, the season that many fans have called out as disjointed and erratic, maddening and disappointing. To a point, the complaint is justified, as Joss Whedon and company tend to concede. (Is there a less satisfying episode in all of Buffy than "Beer Bad"?) But only to a point.

As this collection demonstrates, the season offers more complex intrigues than the poltergeisty hijinks of "Where the Wild Things Are" (4-18). In a post-Angel (and post-Cordy) Buffyverse (as much as it was ever post-Angel), the primary location shifted from Sunnydale High to Sunnydale U, the primary concerns from teen angsts to adultish commitments, and the primary sex object from Angel (David Boreanaz) to Riley (the underappreciated Marc Blucas). The DVDs include several commentary tracks, by Joss Whedon (especially helpful for the standout episodes, "Hush" [4-10] and "Restless" [4-22]), writers Douglas Petrie, Marti Noxon, and Jane Espenson (who reconsiders "Superstar," the Jonathan-as-celebrity-superspy episode (4-17). Seth Green joins Whedon and Noxon to discuss "Wild at Heart" (4-6), which involves jokey reminiscing about Oz's wardrobe, Green's physique, and the first of many references throughout the DVD's commentary tracks to Blucas' height. While watching the surprisingly poignant scene where Willow (Alyson Hannigan) finds Oz with the she-werewolf Veruca (Paige Moss), "It's a rule on Buffy, if anybody ever has sex, the reason they shouldn't be having sex will walk into the room."

Indeed, this season is often surprising. While Whedon and Petrie point out more than once that the general theme has a "science versus magic" shape, it's also a time when the series reinvents itself, taking on new characters and themes. Adventurous, uneven, and often brilliant, these 22 episodes (presented in their original aspect ratio of 1.33, with note from Whedon, explaining that this is how the shows were conceived at the time), work through all sorts of tangles. Oz leaves Sunnydale to grapple with his wolfishness (in "Wild at Heart"), then stops back for a little closure ("New Moon Rising," 4-19). Spike (James Marsters) comes back, with day-walking ambitions ("The Harsh Light of Day," 4-3) and a brief engagement to La Slayer ("Something Blue," 4-9), all by way of setting up his increasingly complicated and compelling trajectory in seasons five through seven. Anya (Emma Caulfield) underlines her extraordinary comic capacities as well as her willingness to fill in the Cordy void. And Tara (Amber Benson) arrives, shares a couple of sexy spells with Willow (Alyson Hannigan), and then a lengthy kiss, off camera, but much to Xander's (Nicholas Brendon) utter shock and boyishly lusty delight, in the frantically lovely "Restless," 4-22).

Perhaps best of all, Faith (Eliza Dushku) awakes from her eight months of coma and returns to Sunnydale, plagued by Buffy-infested nightmares ("To her," observes writer Petrie, "Buffy is a monster"), and a psychopathic hankering for vengeance. In a two-part seasonal "climax" that comes before the season's end, "This Year's Girl" and "Who Are You?" (episodes 15 and 16), Faith does her best to punish Buffy for neglecting her (Buffy's) mom (Kristine Sutherland) and oh yes, killing Faith's erstwhile pseudo-father figure, the Mayor (the terrific Harry Groener, who makes a brief reappearance on a videotape he's left his Dark Slayer). Everything Faith does is dazzling, of course, but this one-two punch of an arc has her performing all shades of tragedy, rage, and snarky self-sufficiency (the image of her putting on a bit of red red lipstick, Joyce tied up hostage-style on her own bed, is among the series' most memorable).

Faith's diabolical plan (set in motion by the Mayor's legacy to her, a magic gizmo) is to swap bodies with Buffy, to have the family she's never had, the friends, the respect, and the devotion that wild, parentless child Faith would never admit wanting but can't help but covet. As writer Marti Noxon observes on the commentary track for this episode, "Faith is really shaken by the possibility of feeling love." Moreover, as Faith repeats in "Who Are You?", she's carrying a certain interest in moral codes, wondering how one might invest in abstractions and loyalties in spite of all the cruelty, violence, and betrayals she sees everywhere around her. "You can't do that," she whines in Buffy's body, "Because it's wrong!" That Faith comes to understand what this means, that there is concrete reason to invest in the seeming abstraction, means serious moral growth. It also means that she leaves town again, for now, but will come back to Sunnydale to help fight the Biggest Bad, the First, at series' end.

While this episode grants Gellar and Dushku the chance to play one another's characters (with fine results), the other famous moment here is the sex scene for Willow and Tara, intercut with a scene where Faith seduces Riley, in Buffy's body. Where the heterosexual romance will show signs of stress owing to this development, the girls will go on to satisfying and much-beloved intimacy.

Petrie's commentary track for "The Initiative" (4-7) is most entertaining. His affection for Riley, "the Jimmy Stewart of the Buffy universe, this big square doof," is especially affecting: "poor Riley is so lost in the world of girlie empowerment." As he loses his corn-fed idealism and sees the evil of his organization, Riley "just got darker and darker and darker," notes Petrie, embodying "the American metaphor," finding corruption and forced to "question his own team." His shift in thinking is marked by his impossible love for Buffy. Petrie observes that when Riley uses the phrase "one girl" for his voice identification in Initiative elevator, he's speaking his heart, which the series just won't be able to accommodate.

Petrie goes on to explain some of his thinking about the Initiative's paramilitary excesses (and pretty boy excesses, or what he calls "the homoerotic fashion spread patrol"). He and Whedon based their concept in large part on their shared affection for The Prisoner (the original title of the episode, he notes, was "Secret Agent Man"). Petrie also reflects on the transformation of Spike, as "the Clockwork-Oranged Spike" becomes heroic. As the vampires are victimized ("There's something worse than vampires here"), Spike has to bust out of his cage (the series' "first foray into science fiction," as the holding cells are modeled after the brig in Star Trek). Petrie also reveals that Initiative overseer Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse) is his own "revenge on every condescending professor I ever had: what a bitch."

In addition to the episodes, the collection includes a set of featurettes on disc three, some more interesting than others. "The Sets of Sunnydale" explains design concepts for the university, the Initiative (Whedon: "We wanted, basically, James Bond"), Spike's crypt, even Xander's basement. For "Spike, Me" Marsters and others discuss Spike's return (Whedon again: "All of our characters got to loving and hugging, it was sort of like, 'Where's Cordelia?' We needed someone to shake things up, and Spike is that guy"), his shift owing to the chip installed by the Initiative and his efforts to resist and then work within the restrictions on his killing capabilities. That is, he joins up with the Scoobies so, as writer David Fury puts it, he can "vent his frustrations on demons. He can kill something and that seems to be enough for him."

The interviews concerning "Hush" (including Whedon, composer Christopher Beck, and Petrie) pretty much repeat what Whedon says on his commentary track for the episode, with focus on the driving ideas: Whedon's challenge to himself, to reject standard tv-directing techniques (shot/reverse-shot patterns, stationary cameras), and to explore "the idea that language, because it is so specific and restrictive, can interfere with actual communication." Whedon describes his inspirations for the Gentlemen ("I was drawing on Nosferatu, Pinhead, Mr. Burns -- anything that gave that creepy feel") in his quest to conjure truly scary monsters. As he says, "I wanted a generation of children who would grow up traumatized by the Gentlemen on the Buffy episode."

Whedon admits that season four was a "very strange, sort of schizophrenic season for all of us," in part a function of the transition to college, as the series thematized "the search for identity" endured by freshmen. It was, he says, an "anarchic and upheavally season (and yes, I know that 'upheavally' isn't a word) for all the characters." And the makers. His commentary on the season finale, the oddly graceful and wonderful "Restless," brings together some of the season's ideas, and points to directions the show will take in its coming three seasons. It's particularly pleasurable to revisit the episode's weird ironies and insights: Joyce stuck in the wall, Riley and Adam (George Herzberg) feeling the need to "build a fort," the Cheeseman, Xander immersed in his own Apocalypse Now, complete with Principal Snyder (Armin Shimmerman) as Kurtz.

Whedon reiterates that "Restless" is "different than anything else I've ever done before or since," that it is more a "tone poem" than an episode proper, an exploration of identification and naming processes. As the Primitive (Sharon Ferguson, voiced by Amber Benson) says, "I have no speech. No name. I live in the action of death, the blood cry, the penetrating wound." The Primitive remains one of the series' most compelling and vexing characters -- black, angry, agile, and frightening, passionate and vital, a product of her moment, called on to commit horrific violence without benefit of a rule book, a Watcher, or a precedent of any kind. She was the first and the path-maker, raging still through time that doesn't end. Most all the other Slayers are categorically white -- save for Nikki (April Weeden-Washington), killed by Spike on the subway, circa 1970s, in "Fool for Love" (5-7) whose son, Robin Wood (D.B. Woodside) appears during the series last season, looking for vengeance on Hostile 17 -- and that makes the Primitive all the more resonant, the beginning of her line, the beginning of the end, the beginning of race consciousness and race difference in Buffy.

As the most visibly restless figure in the episode, the Primitive is also the most difficult to parse. And so she serves as provocative and inspired representative of what's being twisted and rethought in the series. To this end, the much-remarked anti-climax of "Restless," Whedon insists, is deliberate, as Buffy resists the notion of climax. As the Primitive murmurs at episode's end, "You think you know what's to come, what you are. You haven't even begun."

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