Friday, October 31, 2014

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Four)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Season four is basically Buffy: The College Years. The feel of the show is a bit different, with the characters moving from high school to college, and living in dormitories. Plus, Giles is out of a job, having lost the library with the rest of the school at the end of season three, although he continues to fulfill his role as mentor (officially sanctioned by the Watcher's Council or not), from his apartment - which becomes the new central hub for the characters.

In spite of these changes, it's still a good season filled with some excellent drama. And that's also in spite of the ambiguous loyalties of the new Big Bad. Season four features The Initiative, which is a covert military operation based in Sunnydale, helmed by [not-quite-mad] scientist Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse), who daylights as a university psychology professor (ironically, given her insensitive personality). She's not actually evil (although she does at one point try to kill Buffy), but she is a bit misguided in her dedication to her dubious research.

The purpose of The Initiative is to capture "hostile sub-terrestrials" (i.e., supernatural baddies) for government research. Spike - who returns as a regular character this season, after being absent for most of the last season - is captured, and a computer chip is installed in his head which inflicts terrible pain every time he tries to hurt someone (who is not evil or a demon). This is the beginning of his long and gradual transformation into a good guy, though at this point he is still very much a reluctant anti-hero.

The other purpose of The Initiative is to steal demons' supernatural abilities, so that Maggie Walsh can give them to her bio-mechanical Frankenstein uber-demon, simply named Adam (played by George Hertzberg). Why would a scientist who's not exactly evil create an all-powerful uber-demon? I guess she just got carried away with her scientific curiosity - and certainly the military doesn't ask enough questions when they see an opportunity to weaponize new technology.

Adam himself is a pretty interesting character - he's certainly badass enough, with all his power, yet he possesses a calm demeanor and a rational intellect, and is prone to philosophizing about the meaning of his existence (which I think is pretty cool). Still, his ambiguous morality and origin makes him less compelling than the Big Bads of other seasons. And his ultimate takedown by the "Scooby Gang" (I've never liked that term) at the end of the season feels a little anticlimactic, although it does a good job of cementing the core group - Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles - and demonstrating each one's role in their combined fight against evil.

From The Initiative also comes new character Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), who will become Buffy's new paramour. He's the most normal and well-adjusted of Buffy's lovers in the show, and their time together is sweet and romantic, while it lasts. This season also features Xander and Anya strengthening their unlikely relationship (Anya being a vengeance demon who hates men). I like Anya in this season - her frank approach towards the subject of sex is charming, and her otherwise lack of understanding basic human social cues is similarly endearing.

One of the most dramatic moments of this season - and of the whole show, if you ask me - is when Oz leaves Willow - not for lack of love, but due to the complications of his werewolf nature. Sad as that is, it opens the door for another new character, Tara Maclay (Amber Benson), whom Willow meets through a Wicca gathering. The development of their friendship is sweet and subtle, and feels incredibly natural, and I was really excited when the show ultimately confirmed the romantic subtext that appeared to be going on between them.

Now, as great as Willow's conversion to lesbianism is (and it is!), I do feel that the show pushes a little too hard to present her as a Gay Character (TM). Nothing about her gayness is wrong or unwelcome, but I wonder about her transformation from perfectly straight to exclusively gay. Could she not be bisexual? It seems to me that there wasn't any faking going on in that very passionate relationship she had with Oz. Then Tara comes along, and it's like, this could be a character who is capable of falling in love with a person regardless of his/her sex, that's great! Except she's all stereotypically "guys are gross now" once the Tara thing takes off.

Granted, there could be other stuff going on under the surface - like the pressure to align oneself with a gay identity, and coping with the invisibility of bisexual people. At the time this show came out, I imagine having a proud and openly gay character was probably a big deal, and I'm looking at it from a lens at least ten years in the future, when gay rights are making huge leaps and bounds, and I'm coming from the perspective of a more open sexuality, where people don't have to just be straight or gay, but can express themselves along the whole Kinsey scale.

It's possible that the character of Willow is actually bisexual, and she's merely constructing for herself a gay identity for the sake of simplicity, or community. Or, more likely, it's possible that the writers decided at some point, "let's make Willow gay!", and then wanted to make a positive example out of her. Neither approach I could really criticize, and certainly there's much to applaud in making Willow a gay character. However, I feel like the truth is a little more involved than that, and the way the character is occasionally treated on the show buries the complexity of her situation.

Memorable episodes from this season include Hush - one of the few genuinely scary episodes in the series - in which baddies referred to as The Gentlemen steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale; an episode where Faith returns to get her revenge by switching bodies with Buffy (and learning something in the process); Superstar, a clever alternate reality episode in which dorky outcast Jonathan (Danny Strong) becomes the talk of the town; and the unconventional season finale (after the Big Bad has been taken down), Restless, which breaks formula and explores the origin of the Slayer through a series of surreal (and very Lynchian) dream sequences.

Continue to season five!

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