This post is inspired by the ongoing Buffy Re-watch being conducted over at Nik at Night. Check them out for a better, more detailed look at each episode every Tuesday.
<--Season 3b Season 4b-->
Series Four of Buffy saw a major shift in the series. High School was over. College was about to begin. Over the course of the first three years of the series the heroes had become confident in their little world. In fact, we had been led to believe that they had indeed saved the whole world on several occasions. Now we learn not only that there is a whole larger world out there, but that Sunnydale itself is quite a bit bigger than we initially thought. Buffy moves to the other side of town and is rendered a little bit helpless for a while as she adjusts to life after High School. Unfortunately, this leads to a little instability in this season. The sum of all of its parts is not as strong as several of the components that make up this season.
College Life itself dominates a few of the early episodes: 1. The Freshman, 2. Living Conditions, and 5. Beer Bad. In these episodes the writers do a good job of showing Buffy’s disorientation embarking on this new phase of life, but it renders her as an annoying and whinny character at times. (This will not be the last we see of this side of Buffy’s character.)
The Initiative is the “little bad” for the season, and three seasons running now we are following a rather clear formula. This combined with the more sci-fi aspect of the threat causes the season to feel a bit weaker. There is a clear and essential difference between what could be called the “vampire” and the “mad scientist” streams of horror fiction. Buffy obviously belongs to the former, but in season four they focus on the later. This is another big shift for the series. Basically we have a government institution seeking to fight and/or tap into the power that is focused in Sunnydale. The episodes in this half of the season that develop this plot are: 3. The Harsh Light of Day, 7. The Initiative, and 11. Doomed. The last of these has some hilarious stuff involving Spike, who returns this season in a regular role.
The standout episodes of season four are the stand alone ones:
4. Fear, Itself
A frat Halloween party turns sour when, in an attempt to create a scary atmosphere they invoke a “fear demon.” The house that hosts the party starts to tap into everyone’s deepest fears and seemingly makes them come true. The only problem is that a fear demon apparently only has that ability—to scare. The discovery of this episode is that, sometimes, the biggest threat our fears pose for us is what they cause us to do.
6. Wild at Heart
Oz and Willow’s high school love is threatened in the new environment of college when Oz meets a girl who is a lot more like him. She is a musician… and a werewolf. The problem is that she has another idea about what this side of their nature means for them and Oz has to stop her. However, through the experience Oz realizes that he has a serious problem and he has to find a way to master his baser instincts. He is safe for no one until he does, so he leaves to find the answer.
Buffy (the show) does a pretty good job of addressing the whole European Explorers vs. Native American cultures debate. They present both sides and then use a couple “disinterested observer” characters to place the whole thing into perspective.
9. Something Blue
We continue to see Willow turn to magic to help her deal with the problems in her life. The overarching theme in “mad scientist” horror fiction is humanity reaching into forbidden sources of power; trying to tread where only God should venture. Magic in the Buffy-verse is similar to this theme. The difference is that the mad scientist tries to tap into God’s creative power. The magician looks to just as forbidden powers but they are demonic and not divine. This is a dangerous (and therefore forbidden) venture, and the series will do a good job of showing Willow’s slow spiral down into areas she should not go. This time around, we see that her capacity for evil is truly huge—even though she resists the temptation for now.
An effective fairy-tale. Demons invade the town in search of a certain number of hearts and they render the town incapable of speaking—both to weaken their defenses and because a scream is their Achilles Heel. This episode is beautifully creepy.
12. A New Man
Giles has struggled to find purpose this season, having been let go by the Watcher’s Council and being somewhat left behind by Buffy as she embarks on the new phase of life that is college. In this comedic episode, his “mid-life crisis” is accentuated when he is turned into a demon. By this episode, it has become quite apparent that the little community of heroes we follow in this series has lost their connection and could easily be pushed to the breaking point…