“If you think that’s enough to kill me,
you really don’t know what a Slayer is.
Trust me when I say you’re gonna find out.”
After graduating from high school at the end of season 3, Buffy is starting college at the beginning of season 4. Vampires seem as common on the UC Sunnydale campus as they were in town, and several old enemies reappear. And in addition there is also a new mysterious force in form of some paramilitary meddlers.
Season 4 is often maligned by fans, mostly for its main villain. But I assume it also has something to do with fans of shows generally not liking change. A move from high school to college brings changes and challenges, and the show mirrors that on several levels, including the cast list. Some old friends leave, others you see far less often, and new people come into the picture. And the changes in the show’s cast, as well as the frequency of appearances by some characters, reflect these circumstances.
For Buffy herself, living on campus – with a roommate – is one of the challenges. But mostly she seems overwhelmed by the size, the structure, and the workload of college, which seems a far less relaxed place than high school.
Her usual “support group” is less of a permanent fixture, with not everyone going to college, and with her mother and Giles being less immediately available (UC Sunnydale being several miles outside of town). It takes Buffy 5 or 6 episodes to finally get settled in, though bruised by her adjustment experiences. Seeing a weaker, more vulnerable Buffy for so long might be another reason why many fans do not like season 4.
All the characters that remain on the show face challenges, whether on or off campus. This general change also means that the characters grow and change. And so the characters are trying to fit into their new environment, into their post-high-school life, and trying – again – to figure out who they are and what their place in this new world is. And in the very same way, the actors have to readjust, find their way back into their characters and change with them. Not that this shows a lot, but I feel that it is fitting that the actors face similar challenges to the characters they play. It gives the whole affair a very believable vibe.
This season again has a number of episodes dealing with curses and spells, so the actors again get to act out a variety of alternate “versions” of their characters.
In my opinion, the new character constellation in season 4 (and moving forward) works great, mostly thanks to Anya (Emma Caulfield) who is pivotal for the humour department.
As I said, many fans do not like season 4, frequently listing it as their least favourite. But I always liked this season, and I in particular enjoy the season-wide story-arc, even though the character that is chosen near the end of the season for the “final boss battle” has undeniable shortcomings.
But what strikes me most about season 4 is the quality of some of the stand-alone episodes. “Pangs”, “Something Blue”, and the critically acclaimed “Hush” are amongst my favourite episodes of the entire show, and these pearls are lined up in direct succession (episodes 8, 9 and 10). Even the sillier episodes like “Living Conditions”, “Fear Itself”, or “Beer Bad” have some remarkable moments.
Thematically, the show follows its famous formula of tackling teenage issues by viewing it through its own peculiar lens and employing its own allegories – although in this season the presentation is often far less allegorical and much more direct. This includes roomies, alcohol, break-ups, sex, and several crises of identity. As mentioned earlier, the overall connecting theme of this season is linked to the changes, challenges, and adjustments in moving from high school to college. The risk of friends growing apart is of particular concern for the writers and is a theme that is always lingering under the surface even in episodes that are not directly addressing it.
There are other themes in this season, unconnected to college. Hubris is one of them: thinking you understand things when you don’t; thinking you are in control, when you are not. There is a Frankenstein theme feeding into this, a theme of humans playing god. And another related theme is a lack of independent thinking, a willingness to follow orders without asking questions, and a naïve believe that you are doing the right thing just because someone told you so.
The season’s story-arc ends with episode 21 (“Primeval”). Episode 22 (“Restless”) is a “dream” episode that sort of stands on its own and could easily be seen as a transitional sequence. It reiterates many of the personal fears that have appeared as themes throughout the season, but it also slightly foreshadows season 5.
There are a lot of things I like about this season, in particular the humour and the stand-alone episodes; but I also like the idea about an additional player muscling in on the Slayer territory and messing things up for everyone. And I like all the themes connected to that particular aspect of the show.
Overall, I will rate the fourth season at 7.5 out of 10.