[Review by Mike Marinaro]
What an absolutely jumbled season! I say this not necessarily in a bad way, but in more of a ponderous way. While I consider this season to be the worst of the lot, aside from the first, that doesn’t mean there’s not brilliance here. On the contrary, there’s a lot of brilliance here. That brilliance, unfortunately, has nothing to do with the main plot arc, and that’s ultimately this season’s downfall. I loved that Whedon and Team continued to do what always helped make this series special: change for the better. Now, keep in mind, change isn’t always good — a lot people seem to miss this important fact. In the case of BtVS, though, change is very good.
The college setting allowed a whole new plethora of metaphorical stories about growing up to be told, many of which have more of an adult feel to them. This season also showed more of a direction to dive into areas of gray rather than sticking largely in a black and white zone of seeing the world. Aside from simply the setting, many other things are fresh this season including there being no library for everyone to meet at, no Cordelia, no Angel, and an intimidating future beyond high school.
I feel that “The Freshman” [4×01] , while flawed, is a fantastic introduction to the new setting and problems Buffy and the Scooby Gang will be facing in this new time in their lives. One thing I neglected to mention in that review was how much I adored how Buffy was hugging that UCSD book in the post-credits opening sequence. It’s a small thing that really connects the viewer to her. From personal experience I can say I also tend to latch onto objects like that when unsure of my setting and surroundings. Buffy has good reason to be nervous and a bit scared: this season makes a huge transition for the characters and the series as the bridge between the years of being a child to the years of becoming and being an adult. S4 does succeed fantastically at accomplishing that goal through its wonderful continued character arcs and development.
While I observed S3 as being about identity, I see this season as more about separation and exploration: physically, sexually, and emotionally. These issues are being encountered by all the characters, including new members Anya and Riley. Buffy is dealing with life after not only college, but also life after Angel. This leads her initially to Parker and then later to Riley. Xander is facing the prospect of getting endless junk jobs in conjunction with living in his parents’ basement forever and exploring an interesting relationship with Anya. Willow loses Oz in a painful way, continues to delve into blacker magics, and gets involved with Tara, which is obviously a huge change for her and a surprise to everyone. Giles is completely lost and without direction this season, in some ways similar to how Buffy is lost in S6 (though obviously not nearly to the same extent). Spike joins on this season not only as a regular cast member, but also one who is separated from what he’s used to and is exploring new ways to survive.
From a plot perspective, the season begins with a five episode non-arc of stand-alones that tackle what it’s like for the Scoobies post high school. “Wild at Heart” [4×06] sends Oz off and “The Initiative” [4×07] sparks the primary plot arc. One problem is that there isn’t another arc episode until “The I in Team” [4×13] . It just goes to show the writers didn’t seem to have a lot of gas to fuel the Initiative from the very beginning, although I’m not complaining too much considering we got episodes like “Pangs” [4×08] , “Something Blue” [4×09] , and “Hush” [4×10] in between. After “Goodbye Iowa” [4×14] , though, the plot arc was once again ignored until the end of the season, once again producing excellent stand-alones like “Who Are You?” [4×16] instead.
The Faith two-partner really gave this part of the season the jolt it needed to keep from sinking, because a lot of the episodes around it didn’t succeed very well. Finally, the end of the season rolls along with the character-driven “The Yoko Factor” [4×20] and the action finish of “Primeval” [4×21] . As kind of an epilogue to the season, we get the cryptic masterpiece that is “Restless” [4×22] to finish things off and wonderfly set up the final three seasons. In terms of scoring, the season is up, down, and all around. The consistency that S3 had is not seen here, but the standout episodes this season eclipse the standouts of S3. This is a solid B season: great character progression and lots of fun mixed in with a poor seasonal plot arc.
- The Initiative (which happens to be the main plot arc).
- Lack of focus.
- Too much cheese.
- Lack of big plot episodes with real danger (think “Passion” [2×17] , for example).
- “Where the Wild Things Are” [4×18] : first F since S1!
Many people assume that just because this is one of my least favorite seasons, I don’t like it. This assumption would be incorrect. This is a great season of television, only behind the pack by BtVS standards because of its weak plot arc: the Initiative. While very flawed from its introduction in “The Initiative” [4×07] because of the simple fact that the writers made this secret military organization oddly incompetent, the Initiative didn’t really begin to completely lose credibility until “The I in Team” [4×13] and especially “Goodbye Iowa” [4×14] . The biggest problem with using the Initiative to initiate discussion on the theme of magic vs. science was that no serious discussion was ever genuinely started. Early in the season the writers seemed to be setting up Professor Walsh as an intellectual villain who whole-heartedly believes in science. This was smart, but never utilized. Instead they opted to kill off Walsh mid-season (big mistake), which left the lackluster Adam in charge.
I don’t really blame Adam for this season’s poor plot arc. I think if he had been used correctly, possibly as just a minion of Professor Walsh, he and his dialogue would have been much more fascinating. Seeing Walsh and Buffy having debates about ethics, science, magic, war, and the likes with Adam as the Professor’s fist would have been extremely captivating if written well. What we’re left with instead is the light shining brightly and soley on Adam, as when he appears the entire Initiative fades into the background and gets even more incompetent. The dialogue that Adam does get is largely uninteresting, even though he occassionaly has something somewhat insightful to say. Unfortunately he completely fails as the primary villain. He doesn’t do anything, gets little screen time, and is only slightly threatening because the writers made him pretty strong. As a minion he would have had enough depth, but as the big bad, it’s just not enough.
All of the problems mentioned thusfar ultimately result from a serious lack of focus. It took forever for the Initiative arc to establish itself, then the writers just sat on it. There’s really very little in the way of direct plot development or movement in this season. The Initiative appears, Adam kills Walsh, Adam tries to build his demonoid army. That’s it. The rest of the season was busy telling stand-alone stories, many of which were admittedly great character pieces, but still don’t help create a coherent whole. That’s really the entire problem here. When looking at the season one episode at a time it seems pretty sharp, but when looking at it as a whole it stumbles.
While I love the food type of cheese as much as Buffy does, I can’t say the same for that other kind of cheese that applies to film. While not extremely prevalent this season, the cheese factor did become much more apparent than in previous seasons (excluding S1). Examples where I tend to cringe inlcude moments in “Living Conditions” [4×02] , “Beer Bad” [4×05] , “Doomed” [4×11] , “Superstar” [4×17] , and “Where the Wild Things Are” [4×18] . Many of the hokey things done this season simply weren’t necessary and detracted from the overall quality of the episodes they were in. Fortunately, this issue was limited to a relatively small group of episodes and did not seriously hurt the entire season. Thankfully this is the last time noticeable amounts of cheese are present in the series.
The final major thing that bothered me about this season was that it inherited one of S3’s biggest flaws: lack of big emotional outpours, danger, and pain. In some ways it’s nice to have a relatively lightweight season before the final three heavy-hitters step up, but I just need there to be heavy emotions involved to be riveted by something. Once again I must use S2 as an excellent example of not only producing one of these plot-heavy, life-altering, emotional extravaganzas, but rather three of them! It’s clear to me that S2 is the winner for riveting television out of the first four seasons. Fortunately the final three seasons manage to remember this important piece of the Buffy puzzle and finally compete with S2 in this area. It’s one of the main reasons I love those final seasons so much.
- Character development and interesting changes.
- Continued brilliant writing and continuity.
- Standout individual episodes.
As has been stated before, S4 is very much a transition season. When I think what it’d be like to jump from the end of S3 to the beginning of S5, I freeze up. That wouldn’t work! That just goes to show that the development all the characters had this season was very important and meaningful. The group as a whole split apart, and when they get back together the relationship between them is left in a very different state from where it was before. Early in the season they’re still just really good friends with each other, while by the end they start to resemble more of a family, which is where S5 begins. The characters that undergo the most change this season are Willow and Spike. However, Giles, Faith, and newcomers Riley, Anya, and Tara all get a lot of superb growth themselves. I’ll go into more detail about the specifics in each character’s respective section (or in Tara’s case, Willow’s section).
Although I’ve repeatedly mentioned my problems with the plot arc of this season, I feel it’s equally as important to mention how utterly brilliant the writing still is. The writers still ‘have it’ here and episodes with the character analysis of “Fear, Itself” [4×04] , the stunning hilarity of “Pangs” [4×08] and “Something Blue” [4×09] , the sheer innovation of “Hush” [4×10] , the amazing development for a secondary character in “Who Are You?” [4×16] , the textured relationships in “New Moon Rising” [4×19] , and the layered and cryptic foreshadowing that is “Restless” [4×22] are all (and not exclusive) evidence to prove it. I also feel the need to bring attention to the very intelligently-handled Parker arc in the first third of the season. I thought this was well-done, interesting, realistic, and informative all at the same time. With this level of continuity and intelligent writing, this season still soars high above the vast majority of television seasons I’ve seen in my life. Not only that, but this season took some substantial risks in what ended up being the big episodes of the entire season: “Hush” [4×10] , “Who Are You?” [4×16] , and “Restless” [4×22] .
In addition to everything already mentioned, my favorite thing about this season is definitely the humor. I’m calling this BtVS’s funniest season. Starting immediately with “The Freshman” [4×01] the dialogue sparkled with wit and fun. The trend continued heavily throughout the first half of the season. In here lies what I feel are two of the best comedic episodes in the entire series: “Pangs” [4×08] and “Something Blue” [4×09] . Even episodes like “Living Conditions” [4×02] , “Fear, Itself” [4×04] , “Beer Bad” [4×05] , and “Doomed” [4×11] had their fair share of really amusing moments. The second half has its humor as well, especially in “A New Man” [4×12] and “Superstar” [4×17] . This is a purely entertaining and fun season to watch, even though the plot arc is lacking. By BtVS’s standards it’s near the bottom of the pack, but but any other standard this is still wildly entertaining television.
This is a very tumultuous season for Buffy. She faced a number of challenges that, while not as life altering as previous years, prove to be necessary development. These challenges include: life in college, the Parker Incident, Riley, increasing isolation from her friends, the return of Faith, and reconnecting with her friends. Buffy begins the season overwhelmed by the freedom and size of her university. She feels lonely and even a bit out of her league in this environment, and these emotions affect her slayage immediately in “The Freshman” [4×01] when Sunday, a vampire leader on campus, beats the crap out of her. Even though I felt the writers over-amplified Buffy’s troubles here, the point made is still valid. I know that I felt like Buffy did on my initial days at university. “Living Conditions” [4×02] continues on the college experience theme by focusing on “the roommate from hell” idea. With the roommate actually being a demon, her and Willow finally dorm-up like they should have in the first place.
It is in “The Harsh Light of Day” [4×03] , however, where we finally get to see some of the negative consequences of indulging in the university lifestyle. This is actually a very important episode for Buffy, as the last remnants of her being able to open up on a supremely personal level are destroyed by her sexual encounter with Parker. While she obviously has sex again in the future, her heart is completely closed up after Parker, even though the root of her problems stem from the repercussions of “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] and can even be traced as far back as her parents’ divorce. Buffy’s entire relationship with Riley, which is one of love that’s not entirely from the heart, is evident of this. All of these relationship issues Buffy has are wonderfully brought to the surface much later, in “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] .
A lot of people don’t like Buffy’s relationship with Riley. Personally, I love it. This is not because I think Riley has a sparkling personality (he doesn’t), but more because I love seeing what he brings out in Buffy. This relationship isn’t one built on undying love or romance for Buffy (see all of “Doomed” [4×11] for starters) like it was with Angel, but rather one out of companionship. While Buffy genuinely cares about Riley, it is obvious at each step of the way that this isn’t a solid relationship built on trust and love. Riley is full of insecurities and Buffy just gets used to him being Mr. Dependable. Both of these issues are brought out in the aftermath of the Buffy/Faith body swap in “Who Are You?” [4×16] . While S4 continuously drops hints at this relationship’s eventual failure, it never directly addresses it. This is where S5 picks it up and runs with it.
An important side-effect of Buffy’s newfound attachment to Riley is that she spends significantly less time with the Scoobies. The fallout of this involves continued isolation and friendship bonds that are being stretched thinner and thinner. Buffy’s relationship with Willow, Xander, and Giles is very strained and will never be like it was. What I love so much about this series is how the characters and their relationships are naturally and constantly evolving. They never return to a place they used to be at. These isolation issues began early in S3 when no one really got a chance to properly resolve the issues surrounding Buffy taking off after “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] . My only problem is that this seems like a fault of the writers (see “Dead Man’s Party” [3×02] ) rather than the characters. However, at least those unresolved issues line up with how the characters started breaking apart in S3.
The separation that began in S3 continues to accumulate in this season, which finally explodes out into the open in “The Yoko Factor” [4×20] in a way that reminds me distinctly of “Innocence” [2×14] . The fact of the matter is, Buffy’s been so caught up in her own stuff (Riley, the Initiative, slaying) that she’s let her friendships go to the wayside. Buffy is not the only culprit of this, though, as the others are also going through their own crap. It’s in “Primeval” [4×21] that wounds are healed and friendships are repaired (albeit far too quickly). Buffy’s relationship with the gang, however, resembles more of a family dynamic rather than a group of friends by the end of this season. Giles still serves as her father figure (this is something that remains unchanged throughout the season and is even solidified in episodes like “A New Man” [4×12] ) and mentor, but the rest of the gang feels more like a group of siblings to Buffy rather than simply her friends.
S4 wisely focuses on Buffy’s external relationships and issues rather than on her psyche and personal issues. This sets up and allows S5, now with most of the external issues addressed, to return the focus to Buffy’s emotions and internal struggles.
If I were to give an award for the most changed character this season, it would definitely go to Willow. It’s really amazing how far she’s come over the years. This season we get to see her really dive into witchcraft, lose Oz, gain Tara, and come into her own more than ever before. It turns out Willow’s comment in “The Freshman” [4×01] had a lot more meaning than I originally thought. She says, “It’s just in high school, knowledge was pretty much frowned upon. You really had to work to learn anything. But here, the energy, the collective intelligence, it’s like this force.” Now that’s what I’d call embracing the freedom that university can offer. While this freedom can be a positive thing, it can be equally as dangerous. We get to hear exactly where Willow is heading with her questionable ambitions in “Fear, Itself” [4×04] and the first strong signs of Dark Willow appear in “Wild at Heart” [4×06] .
When the season begins, Willow and Oz appear happier than they’ve ever been before. Very quickly, however, problems are seeded and grown. The very first sign of upcoming trouble was the passioned glance Oz and Veruca shared “Living Conditions” [4×02] . This gets extended further in “Beer Bad” [4×05] where Oz gets extremely distracted when Veruca sings. This gets Willow a little worried, but naturally she doesn’t make it into something it’s not. It’s obvious, though, that she’s not pleased with how entraced Oz is becoming with another girl. It’s in “Wild at Heart” [4×06] , though, that everything blows wide open. Oz and Veruca make some werewolf love and Willow’s heart-broken. I feel terrible for Willow here, because she did absolutely nothing wrong. She was even extra supportive at first and told Buffy, “I don’t wanna be the kind of girl who freaks every time my boyfriend notices somebody else.” And so Oz is gone, Willow is completely shattered, so here comes the magic!
In “Fear, Itself” [4×04] Oz himself realized the danger in Willow’s path of magic. Willow says, “Then again, what is college for if not experimenting? You know, maybe I can handle it. I’ll know when I’ve reached my limit.” Oz eventually replies that he’s afraid she will get hurt and that “I won’t lie about the fact that I worry. I know what it’s like to have power you can’t control.” “Fear, Itself” [4×04] is also a big episode for bringing out what exactly it really is that Willow wants from her exploration of the black arts. She doesn’t want to be Buffy’s “sidekick” anymore — she wants power and wants to be respected for having that power. Obviously this is a dangerous path and we all know where it eventually ends up: Dark Willow.
An important moment to recognize is Willow’s reaction to finding out about Oz and Veruca’s sexual encounter. In a moment of extreme pain and anger she nearly casts a very evil spell on both Oz and Veruca, but barely stops herself. We can see what she might be capable of when she is hurt bad enough. This constitutes massive foreshadowing of her actions in “Tough Love” [5×19] and “Seeing Red” [6×19] . We see a more immediate follow-up to this in “Something Blue” [4×09] where Willow casts a spell to have her will be done. While the spell is cast in innocence, intended just to make her pain go away, she continues her pattern of failing to confront the nature of the magic she is indulging in. We see short term consequences of her friends being annoyed by her (and Buffy disgusted over kissing Spike…*wink*), but her unwillingness to realize how unpredictable and dangerous this magic is continues.
Enter Tara. At first I was thinking that Tara was a magic catalyst for Willow that sped up her development even faster than it would without her. Upon further thought, however, I think I got it backwards. Every time Willow wants to do something dangerous or over her head, Tara is the first to point that out and tell her to slow down. So in that respect, I believe that Tara was certainly a positive companion for Willow. Their relationship, which is inextricably tied to magic, is also of interest. I’m not exactly sure when or how Willow discovered she was a lesbian, or even why Whedon felt the need to take this route. I can say that the way her relationship with Tara was handled was superb. It began as a pure friendship based on the mutual love of magic. At some point in the latter half of the season it became something more. I really appreciated how gradual and natural this development was — this is a touchy subject that could have easily been botched by gratuitous scenes. Instead, the more racy stuff was left to subtext while the focus of the screentime between them was on their friendship and care for one another.
It’s also interesting to note how much sense it makes that Willow would want a relationship with someone like Tara, personality-wise. Tara essentially idolizes Willow for her confidence and raw magical ability. This behavior completely panders to what Willow reveals, in “Fear, Itself” [4×04] and even back in “Doppelgangland” [3×16] , she wants so badly: power and respect. Tara gives Willow the dominance and therefore power in their relationship because of her own lack of confidence, one which will grow significantly over the next couple seasons. As Tara’s confidence grows, the two of them start to have some disagreements because Tara is speaking up for herself. All of this, of course, leads right into the thick of the S6 issues. Willow’s relationship with Tara also had another side-effect: isolation from the other Scoobies. Just as Buffy isn’t around much because of Riley, Willow’s equally away from the gang because of Tara. This bit of isolation is yet another thread that Spike is able to grab onto and use to his advantage to split everyone up in “The Yoko Factor” [4×20] .
When S5 begins Willow is in a pretty good place, but unbeknownst to her extremely dark roots within are just waiting to burst free. They finally do in “Tough Love” [5×19] .
This season Xander is really in search of his place in the world. He jumps from job to job with no focus or direction, and is stuck living in his drunken parents’ basement the entire time. This is not a good year for Xander, but a necessary one. The only thing besides his friends, who even lightly make fun of him from time to time, he has in his life is Anya, who really comes into her own and falls in love with him. This is an odd, yet highly entertaining, relationship that begins with pure sex and awkward discussions (see “The Harsh Light of Day” [4×03] ) then grows into something much more real (beginning in “Hush” [4×10] ). All of these issues naturally lead to Xander feeling lesser than the college-bound Scoobies as well as being in a bit of his own world, which brings us back to the isolation thread running loose this season. All of these issues are, of course, exposed through an excellent use of Spike in “The Yoko Factor” [4×20] .
“The Freshman” [4×01] is a really great season opener for Xander. When he surprises Buffy with his return at the Bronze, we get some vital insight into where this guy’s at. First we hear about his summer journey involving a broken car and work in interesting places. More importantly, though, we find out Xander still has his sense of humor and admiration of Buffy. This is made completely evident by his speech made to cheer Buffy up, something that he does consistently throughout the series. I feel this speech really says a lot about Xander’s character, so here it is: “Buffy, I’ve gone through some fairly dark times in my life, faced some scary things, among them the kitchen at ‘The Fabulous Ladies Night Club.’ Let me tell you something, when it’s dark and I’m all alone and I’m scared or freaked out or whatever, I always think, ‘What would Buffy do?’ You’re my hero. Ok, sometimes when it’s dark and I’m all alone I think, ‘What is Buffy wearing?'”
Although Xander’s infatuation with Buffy never fully disappears, it’s this season where we really begin to see him develop a relationship that might really last. Anya proves to be a great match for Xander exactly because of how unique she is. She’s got a sense of humor Xander loves and is very literal about the way she views things (in more of an innocent way than Cordelia dealt it). It’s also extremely fitting that their relationship begins with pure sex, something Xander’s always spent a lot of time thinking about. For a while it appeared as though this relationship wasn’t going anywhere, but “Hush” [4×10] showed that there is something more to this relationship than sex. That, however, was only the beginning for these two. Throughout the rest of the season their bond only continued to grow. It’s in S5 that Xander realizes just how much he seriously loves Anya and takes a big step forward in the relationship (see “Into the Woods” [5×10] ).
Xander spends a large part of S4 getting all kinds of jobs including bar tender, pizza delivery guy, construction worker, and ice cream truck driver. While he doesn’t really find a steady job by the end of the season, he does gain something of insurmountable value: experience. Anyway, as each job comes and goes, the one thing that remains static is being stuck in his parents’ basement. We get to see more evidence of how unfavorable his family is and that being stuck with his parents, in that environment, is driving him nuts. In “The Yoko Factor” [4×20] everyone’s feelings about each other come to a head, and Xander finds out that his friends pretty much think he’s, as Anya puts it, a “lost, directionless loser with no plans for his future.” During a scene with Anya in “Primeval” [4×21] , Xander replies “Anya, you can’t “pfft” that stuff away … ‘Cause I think maybe they’re right.” I feel this is a big moment of realization for Xander, and the beginning of his growing motivation to make things change in his life for the better. In S5 we get to see this thread being picked up on immediately. He discards his status as “butt monkey” in “Buffy vs. Dracula” [5×01] and moves out of the basement in “The Replacement” [5×03] .
Several times in S4 both Giles and Xander can be seen hanging out together alone. There’s a reason why: both are in very similar situations. Both of them have employment and self worth issues. Both of them are completely directionless. All of these issues developed as a result of the fallout from S3 where he lost his job as Buffy’s Watcher and his job as school librarian. We can see, in “The Freshman” [4×01] , that while Giles wants Buffy to be able to handle things on her own, he stills wants to be her father figure and to be needed, appreciated, and loved. This is why we see Olivia, his girlfriend, make some appearances. She is a manifestation of the kind of companionship and love he wants, even though it’s extremely obvious Olivia never satisfies that role.
“A New Man” [4×12] is the episode that really tackles all the problems that make Giles feel so worthless and out-of-place. It turns out Buffy forgot to tell Giles that Riley is a commando, and this understandably makes him feel like he’s really not a part of Buffy’s life much anymore. This is further developed later in the episode when Professor Walsh tells him that “Buffy clearly lacks a strong father figure.” All of this leads to him feeling like he’s not being understood and appreciated, and he worries that Buffy is separating herself from him. The charm of the episode, though, is that Giles gets turned into a demon where he literally can’t be understood, gets a chance to scare the crap out of Professor Walsh, and ends up seeing that Buffy still does deeply care about him. This occurs when she stabs him but realizes right afterwards that the demon is actually Giles by simply looking in his eyes.
While Buffy’s reassurance of her daughter-like love of Giles is very comforting, it still doesn’t nullify his feeling of being completely directionless. This leads him to, for the first time since arriving in Sunnydale, consider flying back to England and rebuilding his life there, which we see in “Buffy vs. Dracula” [5×01] . It’s really not until the end of “Buffy vs. Dracula” [5×01] and into “Real Me” [5×02] when he finally regains a focus and purpose to his life in Sunnydale with Buffy’s new attitude about learning her Slayer heritage and his ownership of the Magic Box.
Note: for even more analysis on the core four characters, I recommend reading my “Restless” [4×22] review.
Ah yes! It’s time for Captain Cardboard! Riley is a widely hated character in the Buffyverse, and I can understand why. The guy’s horrendously boring most of the time. However, while not one of my favorite characters, I will say I often love what he adds to the mix. I’ll be up front here I say that I find Riley considerably more interesting in S5. Here, though, he goes from All-American government good boy to outcast, and becomes Buffy’s love interest. This is where I feel he shines the most, although I admit that in the middle part of the season even I was tiring of some of the pining. As a tool of the Initiative, Riley has some insightful moments. Some of these occur with his introduction to the world of gray in “Goodbye Iowa” [4×14] and others arise from just living in Buffy’s world for an extended time (see “New Moon Rising” [4×19] ).
Aside from his loss of innocence through the nature of the Initiative, which as stated has its insightful moments, the real reason I find Riley so fascinating is in his relationship with Buffy. Here represents that normal guy that Buffy’s always wanted from the beginning of the series (think Owen in “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05] ). Buffy’s got him, and yet something still isn’t quite right — this relationship’s got its share of problems as well. Just look at Riley’s face when Buffy kicks him across the room in “A New Man” [4×12] ! That happens to be just one of the problems the two of them face. However, most of their issues do revolve around the fact that Buffy is different, not whether or not her boyfriends are supernatural. This is an incredibly important point, because it really goes to show she can make a relationship with just about anyone work as long as both people are understanding of the other and completely honest with each other. This revelation is why I find Buffy’s relationship with Riley so important to the overall fabric of the series.
If nothing else, I think everyone can agree that Riley punching Parker in “The Initiative” [4×07] for Buffy’s sake was awesome. When S5 begins, we can see that while Buffy and Riley have had a relatively happy summer, all their issues that were subtle but prevailent in S4 are all still there. These issues are dealt with head on in episodes like “The Replacement” [5×03] , “Out of My Mind” [5×04] , and more.
This season represents a huge change for Spike. Although at times he appears quite pathetic, with the chip and all, he still develops as a character and certainly still entertains. Spike is hilarious this season, being forced to work with the Scoobies in order to keep fed. If there’s one thing that annoyed me a bit, it’s that Buffy didn’t stake Spike at multiple points in the season. Sure he had information on the Initiative, but I still feel like the writers could have given some more reasons why Buffy shouldn’t just off him. In addition to pure survival, Spike also began an amusing relationship with Harmony. There’s really not much to say about this relationship, though, as Spike only keeps Harmony around for easy sex. An interest parallel to the Harmony/Spike relationship is the Buffy/Spike dynamic in S6. There Buffy treats Spike like Spike treats Harmony in this season. But because Buffy’s human, the Slayer, and has a massive history with Spike, the connection between the two couples ends there.
Aside from a brief stint in the sun with Buffy in “The Harsh Light of Day” [4×03] , we get to see Spike in a very vulnerable and pathetic state for the first half of the season. He’s actually begging Buffy for help in “Pangs” [4×08] , and in “Something Blue” [4×09] he becomes trapped in Willow’s inadvertant spell for much comic relief. It isn’t until “Doomed” [4×11] , now living with Xander in his basement, that we see all this lameness amount to something significant. Spike feels utterly useless and worthless, so he tries to stake himself. After he fails, he talks with Willow and Xander about it only to discover he does actually have some power left: the spoken word. He tears into Willow and Xander, making them feel more pathetic than him, using his knowledge of the group’s inter-dynamics against them. This is something that will come up again in a huge way during “The Yoko Factor” [4×20] when Spike tears apart the entire group with nothing more than a sly mix of truth and lies.
“Doomed” [4×11] represents a turning point for Spike this season, because in “A New Man” [4×12] he decides to branch out and live on his own by moving into a crypt and making it his own. At this point he helps the gang out occasionally in exchange for cash so he can buy blood and cigarettes. It’s important to note he realizes fairly quickly that just because he can’t hurt anyone himself, it doesn’t mean he can’t send a “loose canon” after them. Although he threatens them in that way when he hears about Faith in “This Year’s Girl” [4×15] , he doesn’t actually act on it until he hooks up with Adam in “New Moon Rising” [4×19] . Additionally, Spike thinks this little alliance will lead to him getting his chip removed.
All of this build-up leads to Spike really screwing with the Scoobies in “The Yoko Factor” [4×20] . He uses the personal information and instabilities facing the group this season to split them all apart for Adam’s gain. Sure he messes up with the follow-through (giving the disk to Willow), but this just proves how good Spike is at understanding the people around him and using that knowledge for his own personal gain. We see this skill put to use a lot in S5. By the end of S4, Spike is once again stuck working with the Scoobies and is really beginning to get frustrated about it. This is where S5 picks up and directly addresses it in “Out of My Mind” [5×04] .
Now here’s a character that has a rich history, unfortunately left largely untapped until “Selfless” [7×05] , and a wicked sense of humor. Anya is a wonderful (if obvious) replacement for Cordelia, and one that I actually prefer. This season she was left largely undeveloped, but the development she did get was solid. Her season-long focus was pretty much tied to everything Xander, as that relationship means everything to her. Anya always globs onto to whatever comes along: Olaf, being a vengeance demon, and now Xander. This obviously presents problems for her future, but for now she’s completely invested in loving Xander. At first she just has sexual feelings towards him and, very directly, seeks to inact those feelings. That act, in “The Harsh Light of Day” [4×03] , didn’t have the affect she was expecting though. Instead she only become more attached to Xander. In “Hush” [4×10] she asks him some important questions that show she’s serious about having a real relationship, and by the end of that episode Xander ends up showing that he feels the same way.
The relationship between Xander and Anya pretty much stays exactly the same throughout the rest of the season. S5, however, gives this couple some serious foreward movement. Anya also develops a lot as a human being and flourishes as a result of her work at the Magic Box.
Adam is a really poor big villain. As I’ve mentioned before in my episode reviews, he just doesn’t have enough personality to warrant being the big bad. Sure the writers made him pretty strong, but since when does pure strength constitute a good villain? The real mistakes here were not developing the Initiative correctly and then murdering Professor Walsh, who was actually proving to be an interesting opponent for Buffy. Instead the Initiative completely falls apart and acts like a bunch of monkeys while Adam is left alone as the only threat remaining, and he just doesn’t cut it. I found some of his child-like pondering about his existence and the world around him fascinating, especially a speech he gives to some vampires in “Who Are You?” [4×16] , but ultimately I just found him mostly boring. I really believe that had he simply been a primary minion of Professor Walsh’s, he would have worked beautifully. As it stands on film, though, I rank Adam as the worst villain in the series besides the Master.
I’ll begin wrapping this up by saying that this is a fantastic season of television. When comparing it to other seasons of BtVS, though, it unfortunately does fall short. This is a season with a very flawed primary plot arc, but one that also has stunning character development, astonishing individual episodes, and a whole lot of humor. In the grand scheme of the entire series this season proves to be a vital entry in these characters’ lives and is extremely important to the flow of the series. This is a year of confusion, transition, uncertainty, exploration, and identification. While I consider this my sixth favorite season, I don’t want that fact to dimish how much this season accomplishes and does right. It ranks so low only because it’s up against such stiff competition.
Well, that’s it. The more light-weight years are now over. Next up is the wonderful fifth season and all the life-changing events that come with it. I can’t wait to get started!