Sunday, 30 October 2011

"'Hey everybody, it's Giles! With a chainsaw!'"

From the highs of season three, to the lows of season four. I won't lie to you guys, four is my least favourite season of Buffy. It has some fantastic episodes, but the weakest overall arc. Let's crack on with with whys and wherefores of the good, bad and ugly of season four...

SEASON FOUR: Originally Aired 1999-2000

The Good:

The only really good thing about this season is a few stand-out episodes. There are other strong elements - I like that we see alternatives to going to college, that there are no judgements about what the characters are choosing to do with their lives. It feels very real, that Xander is trying to find a job he likes and establish his own post-high-school identity; that Buffy initially struggles to fit in with the world of college whilst Willow was made for it; the way the group dynamic wobbles and suffers whilst the Scoobies adjust to these major life changes. It's something the viewers can identify with and it's handled well.

This season also shows Willow's growing fixation on magic and hints at elements of her personality that will make this a problem. After Oz leaves, Willow runs into someone from high school and all her old insecurities come flooding back. She had been leaning on the "I have a boyfriend in a band" thing to grant her a cache of coolness. Without that, Willow is left feeling vulnerable, like the same, dorky Willow saw was when we first met her. She wants to be seen as cool, powerful, different - a need that is probably exacerbated by her friendship with the Slayer. In 'Fear, Itself' Willow says to Buffy, "I'm not your side-kick" - but of course she is. Living in the Slayer's shadow can't be easy: it's something that Xander will discuss with Dawn in season seven, but in the continuity of the show this is something that Willow is just beginning to struggle with. She wants to become her own person, to start developing her adult identity. That, after all, is one of the things that college or university is about, establishing yourself as your own person, exploring yourself, trying out new things and finding out who you are. Willow starts strong: she's great in class and this is an environment where intelligence and hard work is rewarded rather than mocked and she has Oz to give her a bit of the cool factor. Once Oz leaves, however, Willow's new identity begins to crumble, just as Buffy is finding her feet in the world of college. Willow is obviously very insecure about this and feels that magic helps with that. Willow begins to use magic as a crutch: her new identity is "kick-ass powerful witch" and this increasing reliance will store up problems for the future, which come to a head in season six. I'll be discussing the problems with where it ends up in my season six review, but for now it's nicely handled and very subtle. 

To talk specifically about strong episodes, we have 'The Harsh Light of Day', 'Fear, Itself', 'Wild At Heart', 'Something Blue', 'Hush', 'A New Man', 'This Year's Girl', 'Who Are You', 'Superstar' and 'Restless'. Now, 'Restless' is so great and so complex that I am going to go ahead and give it a blog entry of its very own, so watch this space. As for the others, most of them are just great comedy episodes. 'The Harsh Light of Day' is both good and bad: most of what I enjoy about it is the return of Spike, but the episode suffers for just dealing literally with what season two dealt with figuratively, that being a man changing after sleeping with Buffy. 

'Fear, Itself' is much stronger: not only is it flat-out hilarious, but it deals with some great issues. There's the friction between Willow and Buffy that I've already mentioned; Xander's struggling to come to terms with the changes in their lives and how he feels left behind and left out since the others went to college; also Oz's fears about being a werewolf, something that hasn't much been touched on in the rest of the show. This will be important later.
Also there's Giles with a chainsaw
Also, there's Giles. With a chainsaw.
'Wild At Heart' continues dealing with the werewolf thing. It was hinted at during season three's 'Beauty And The Beasts', in which Oz is for a time suspected of killing a person, but it's always been largely swept under the carpet. In 'Wild At Heart' we get to see Oz's animal attraction to a female werewolf and the consequences of giving in to the animal id that the wolf side represents. 

'Something Blue' and 'A New Man' are, again, mostly comic relief, but 'Hush' is just stand out magnificent. It's the only Buffy episode to be nominated for an award and why it did not get the Emmy is beyond me. For a start, the villains of the piece are genuinely terrifying.

Serious nightmare material.
Everything about the episode is just excellent: there are moments of laugh-out-loud comedy (Giles' projector presentation being a highlight) balanced by horror, all with the most perfect musical score. It's a brilliant exploration of just how much we can say through body language and Lowri and I are fond of discussing just how much is said in this episode, without speaking a word. Willow finds out that Tara is a witch, whilst an attraction develops between them; Riley finds out that Buffy is more than human and Buffy discovers that Riley is part of the Initiative; and Anya realises that Xander does truly care for her. Everyone is listening to each other and it makes a great counter-balance to 'Once More, With Feeling' in season six, during which everyone is baring their hearts through song but no one actually pays attention to anyone else. We'll come back to that episode in a later post. 

Back to season four, there's the great two-part 'This Year's Girl' and 'Who Are You'. I'm sure you know by now how much I love Faith so to see her back in the series is a joy. It's also a very strong two-parter: the video message the Mayor left for Faith is genuinely poignant, whilst the body-swap twist is a great take on an old theme. Sarah Michelle Gellar acts her socks off here: seeing Faith-as-Buffy is very, very creepy and allows for some great insight into Faith's self-loathing and her desire to be Buffy whilst also wanting to defeat Buffy. Eliza Dushku does a solid Buffy impression, too. 

Finally, 'Superstar' - great because it is absolutely hysterical viewing and also because it manages to drive the plot forward in some vital ways. It's through Jonathan that we learn of Adam's only potential weak spot; and through Jonathan that Buffy and Riley managing to move past Riley's mis-step of sleeping with Faith-as-Buffy. It makes for some awesome television.

The Bad:
The most outstanding badness of this season is the Initiative and the whole damned season four story arc. Up until know, the show's internal logic has made sense: the Hellmouth has been allowed to flourish and get so many demonic problems because the Mayor wanted it that way and was using his power and influence to cover up the weird goings-on in Sunnydale. The rest of the world had few enough problems with demons and vampires that one Slayer at a time, supported by the work of the Council and the Watchers, was enough to prevent the world sliding into darkness. By suddenly saying that the US government know about demons and vampires, it undermines the logic of the show. If the police and the army know, why is there a need for a Slayer at all? The show struggles with depicting guns and weapons: you just can't have a show aimed at teenagers that is saying guns are great. I get that. However, why hunt vamps with a wooden stick when you could go out hunting with a flame-thrower? If the government know about the supernatural then they'd have the police out fighting the forces of darkness - with serious weaponry. Nest of vamps? No problem, drop a grenade. Hellmouth opening? No problem, drop lots of grenades. Yet that doesn't happen in the show: the Initiative go out patrolling with freaking tasers and nets, with the poor rationalisation that this is an experimental team trying to capture and experiment on demons.

Having the government as the bad guys is very old hat, too, and there's nothing fresh about this take on it. Men In Black handled it way better. Mixing in a bit of Frankenstein's monster just raises more glaring flaws - like how has Adam been created and built by just two scientists, without anyone else in the base finding out? In 'A New Man', Ethan Rayne tells Giles that demons have been talking, mentioning a "314" and being scared. If the Initiative aren't letting their captives go, how do any other demons know what's going on? And how do the demons, who have either never been to the base or only been there as captives in cages, know about room 314 whilst Riley, who works there, doesn't notice it until Buffy asks him about it? Oh and speaking of the base, why have it under the college? Why not at the pre-existing army base? Or another, totally separate, location? Why spend a fortune making something covert and creating a fake college dorm, getting your soldiers in as fake students, when you could just have a base that was restricted access? It's stupid.

There's also Spike. Now, I love Spike - but it's total fan service having him in this series. Joss loved writing the character, James Marsters loved playing the character and the fans loved watching the character, so they found a way to wedge him in as a regular. And much as I want it to, it just does not work. Watching this season with Boyfriend really brought home just how badly it's done; Boyfriend was slating Spike's role in this season and I was trying to defend it...but couldn't. Putting a chip in Spike's head is ridiculous, I won't lie to you. For a start: how did the Initiative sneak up on him in the first place? Spike is over a hundred years old; a hundred years of being a vampire, a predator, a hunter - and a group of soldiers can surprise him? It totally demeans the character. As does him turning to the Scooby Gang for help after his escape - why does he do that? And why would they help him?! I get that Buffy wouldn't stake him, because killing someone who is now helpless isn't something she would do - but why would they take him in? Why would they get blood for him? Why can't he figure out how to buy blood from the butchers himself?! 

How much Spike can and can't hurt people also varies wildly: during his escape from the Initiative base, Spike his able to punch people and throw them around; later in the series, he can't event think of hurting people without his chip going off. On which note: how is the chip meant to work in the first place? How does it distinguish between demon and human? How does it know when Spike is intending violence? And as the brain lacks nerves, how does it even cause him pain? The whole concept is just stupid and, much as I love having Spike's sarcasm and sneering contempt as a regular feature of the show, it doesn't work. Boyfriend says he lost all respect for the character and he's not wrong to do so.

Also, in 'The Harsh Light of Day', why the big bad bloody hell does Spike tell Buffy what the Gem of Amarra is and thereby reveal how he can be defeated?! Idiot.

There are also some fundamental problems with Faith's reappearance. She's been in a coma since graduation day - yet when she awakens she has no problems with muscle wastage, no brain damage, nothing. She can just get right up and start throwing punches. Now I get that within the time constraints of the show it would be difficult to realistically depict recovery from a coma, but even allowing for Slayer healing, having zero negative consequences is a bridge too far.

Not your average recovery time.
There are also some terrible episodes to balance out the good ones. I'll talk more about the worst of the bunch, but dishonourable mention goes to 'Pangs', thanks to the whole Native American Indian angle. Clearly the show doesn't know whether to just cold have Indians as the bad guys, or whether to make them sympathetic. The script dithers over this and the plot of this already weak episode suffers further for it. Also, Xander gets syphilis - syphilis - and "all the diseases" that European settlers brought to the Native Indians, which must surely include small pox, yet instead of causing an epidemic this is apparently meant to be high comedy that just sort of goes away.

Giles gets a tough ride in this season, too. He's unemployed and totally lacking in direction and it does demean him. It's as though the writers had no idea what to do with the character this season. It does lead to some great lines like, "She called me an absent male role model" ('A New Man') but overall it just doesn't work.

Boyfriend also criticises 'Superstar' for having Buffy be feeble and ineffective when Jonathan is awesome - but considering this is the result of a magic spell which means Jonathan starred in The Matrix, I'm willing to let it slide. Boyfriend's right, though; there's no reason why Jonathan being super-awesome would mean no one would take Buffy seriously.

The Ugly:
Watch out, kids! There's something on campus worse than vampires - the horror of that demon drink! In 'Beer Bad' we see the terrible, terrible consequences of that most awful of sins - drinking beer. Buffy and a bunch of frat boys turn into Neanderthals thanks to some cursed beer or something. It's bullshit and insulting to the audience - I understand that you don't want to show the characters regularly necking vodka with no ill effects, because younger viewers could get the wrong idea from that. But to go with a preachy episode like 'Beer Bad' is ridiculous, especially considering that in the very next season the characters are all drinking and it's fine. Then we have the travesty that is 'Where The Wild Things Are', which shows the total horror of enjoying sex with your consenting partner. It seems like the episode wants to explore, through analogy, how people can lose themselves in a new relationship and allow that initial lust and sexual desire to block out everything else in your life - but it just comes across as stupid. It's pretty much the only episode of Buffy I feel embarrassed to watch.

For me, though, the most awful thing about this season is the way the Scoobies, including Giles, react to Oz leaving Willow. Willow goes through utter horror: her boyfriend cheats on her, finding another woman more sexually magnetic than Willow; the woman that Oz cheated with then tries to kill Willow, only for Oz to tear her throat out - and then Oz, having fully changed into a wolf, nearly kills Willow as well. And how do Willow's friends support her during this difficult time? They get angry with her.

Yep, the same gang that has to listen to Buffy's endless whining about her doomed affair with Angel can't bear to listen to Willow's suffering. In 'Something Blue' we get another "drinking is evil!" moral diatribe because Willow is trying to have a few beers and dance at the Bronze to get over her pain; and throughout the episode, no one seems to have time for her. Yes, Willow is wallowing in her pain - but my god does she ever have a right to. Instead of consoling her, making time for her, or at least telling Willow "I hear your pain, let me just go patrolling then I'll come back and spend time with you", Buffy just wants her to shut up and get over it. Instead of the endless sympathy Buffy gets, we get the following exchange about Willow: 

Xander: Something about Willow and her grief-y poor-me mood swings. So, so tired of it.

ANYA: You mean I don't have to be nice to her anymore?

BUFFY: We're all tired of it [...]

It's awful. 

There's also Sarah Michelle Gellar, who I'm putting into the "ugly" category because of her physique. She is starved thin and looks totally unhealthy.

Also an horrifically clear example of slim vs anorexic.
I know that the producers of the show aren't exactly in control of how their actors look, but damn. The change is so profound and so noticeably awful that I felt it really needed a mention.

Overall I'd say this is more of a "bad" season than an "ugly" one, but that's the best I can say of it. Next time, an in depth analysis of 'Restless'!