Stuck in a Story You Can Get Out Of
July 9th, 2010
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I knew of Season Four’s somewhat divisive nature before I started watching it, but I’m sort of glad for this knowledge: while going in unspoiled might have created a more visceral response to the material, I’ve found it quite stimulating to be able to sort of reconstruct the initial disappointment with the season while I’m experiencing it for the first time. I think watching it on DVD, inevitably, won’t create the same sort of response that viewers experienced back at the turn of the century, as watching at this pace the season’s low points go by pretty quickly and are largely overshadowed by some really strong individual episodes sprinkled throughout the season. I’ve seen the moments when fans would begin to be frustrated, but I’ve yet to see anything that would really turn me against the season, and heading into the final series of episodes I was anticipating something to really change my mind.
However, I’ve watched up to “Primeval” with only the much-beloved “Restless” waiting for me, and I’ve yet to see anything here which really cripples Season Four. I still have plenty of reservations about Adam, and the Initiative, and how wacky and incoherent much of “Primeval” ends up being as a result of its focus on those elements, but this season was never at any point in time about those elements. Every now and then the series would get too caught up in these particular parts of the season, but it was common for the show to step out of them entirely, able to deliver the genius of “Superstar” or return to Oz’s storyline in “New Moon Rising” without feeling as if the overarching storyline was being neglected.
The relative insignificance of the Initiative and Adam is at once the season’s greatest failure and its redemptive quality: while it keeps the season from reaching anywhere close to the Mayor’s arc in the third season, the fact that it doesn’t truly dominate the season’s narrative allows for the subtle character transformations unfolding to rise to the surface, keeping the intriguing but ultimately underdeveloped Initiative storyline secondary to the parts of the show which really matter.
“Primeval” brings The Initiative to its end, but the season isn’t over yet, so I don’t want to make this post a sort of definitive view of the season considering that “Restless” is still to come. However, I think that these episodes continue the trend started by the Faith two-parter, which includes the Initiative but isn’t really that changed by the fairly substantial elements within “Goodbye Iowa.” Adam is a planner, the sort of super-villain who spends more time organizing his plans than actually doing any sort of vengeance, and so the show doesn’t really need to funnel all of its resources towards his capture. He’s a particularly dangerous threat, certainly, but he’s not going to keep them from dealing with other issues, and whatever role he does play is going to be quite minor, just as the Initiative becomes even less important over these episodes as Riley becomes more and more distinct from the Initiative (ironically, and I guess meaningfully, leading up to the moment at the end of “The Yoko Factor” where his programming kicks in and he becomes Adam’s slave). There’s an overwhelming sense that The Initiative was just a means to an end, window dressing for the season, and that Adam exists because they needed a villain as opposed to a grand plan or anything of the sort.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and while Adam’s design still hurts my brain I do think that the character served its function quite nicely, even if it never truly had a purpose to go along with that function. While the character was technically tied in with questions of identity that were important as the season came to a close, his plan ended up boiling down to world domination and eugenics as opposed to any sort of corrupted perspective which could have been an unintended side effect of his creation. I hate that Adam is quite so pure despite being pieced together, that he shows no weakness and feels nothing that bothers him. Any of the potential of Adam coming to terms with his world disappeared after a while, which sort of makes me happy (in that I disliked the character enough that spending more time with him wouldn’t have been worth it) but also makes the character even less significant than he was upon his introduction. There’s an inverse relationship between my interest in Adam as a character and his importance to the storyline, which made “Primeval” particularly unsatisfying in terms of a conclusion to his storyline and to the Initiative.
However, “Primeval” was perfectly satisfying on the same level that the other episodes in this stretch were satisfying: as a story of Buffy getting the Scooby Gang back together to fight evil, the episode was a whole lot of fun, with lots of explosions and gun fights and everything else you want in a story like this one. Sure, having Marc Blucas appear paralyzed led to some unfortunately wooden acting, and his ability to surgically remove a chip from his own shoulder (and thus overpowering the body control) was preposterous, but the parts of the episode which dealt with the core group of characters spoke to the ways in which they’ve drifted apart all season. I still don’t entirely understand what they did to have all four of them possess Buffy’s body and defeat Adam, but the meaning of it was spot-on. The episode had no subtleties, and was chaotic and lacking in the sense of purpose which the show had towards the end of its third season, but the parts of the show I most care about were prioritized, so I can’t really complain. That’s sort of my motto for the fourth season: yes, there are some parts which are clunky and which seem like a big step back from the third season, but since the show never seems to suggest that Adam is replacing the Mayor I don’t really have grounds to complain (although I think those really invested in the show’s relationships probably have a case for Riley being positioned as a replacement for Angel, but as I am not so much invested I’ll leave that to others).
Plus, there’s some great television in here, which is sort of what draws me into Buffy in the first place. “Superstar” is yet another great episode from Jane Espenson, and what I love about it is how it transforms from parody to satire to something quite honest and heartfelt. It starts with the fantastic opening credits, where Jonathan reenacts iconic and stereotypical images from cheesy credit sequences (including Buffy’s own) in what I’d term a parody; however, once we enter this alternate reality, it becomes an expanded satire of stardom and the way we treat celebrities, with Jonathan’s impact on everyone around him (making Buffy doubt her abilities, making the women swoon, etc.) gaining a tiny bit of an edge to go along with the humour of it all. By the end of the episode when it’s revealed that Jonathan has made a devil’s bargain, and that his elevation to the status of demi-god has resulted in a demonic force being unleashed upon the world, you realize that the episode is actually saying something quite substantial about the dangers of success and more interestingly the fear of the unknown. I love the way that the characters can’t imagine a world without Jonathan, not dissimilar to how they couldn’t imagine a world without high school, or how Buffy couldn’t imagine a world without Angel (and vice versa), and how any sort of substantial change creates that sense of loss and terror. It’s an enormously fun episode, but the initial cleverness evolves into a sophisticated piece of television that connects nicely with some ongoing themes.
Adam’s role in that episode is seconds long, with Adam the only “person” not affected by the spell and the first to confirm for the audience what’s going on, which is a clever use for the character that shows just how small a role he needs to play in an episode like this one. Heck, “Where the Wild Things Are” doesn’t feature Adam at all, but it’s a perfectly fine standalone episode with some evocative images and a nice way to emphasize the ways in which Buffy’s relationship with Riley has her trapped in her own world. Throw in the ways in which the abused children awaken tensions between Xander and Anya along with Willow and Tara, and it’s a solid little piece of television featuring characters that I’ve come to enjoy, which is all I can really ask for.
“New Moon Rising,” clearly, is trying to do something more, as Oz’s return unearths some pretty substantial pieces of character development, and this is the episode where Willow finally acknowledges what the audience has known for quite some time. Willow’s relationship with Tara is the season’s long-form greatest triumph, benefiting from its introduction taking place during “Hush” and the ways in which the growing reliance on spells and magic have placed their interaction central to the story of each episode. It’s just the perfect environment to deal with Willow discovering a connection she never expected to discover, and I really wish that I had been able to see it unfold as viewers would have initially seen it unfold: since I knew in advance of their relationship (which was a pre-project awareness), any of the small hints (the touches, the kitten, etc.) towards the depth of their connection were confirming rather than revealing for me. Still, their connection was more than strong enough to make Willow’s struggle with Oz returning into the picture some really compelling television, as she is suddenly forced to compare one sort of love with another (which is made even more difficult with Oz being “cured” of his werewolf-ness by a strict regiment of herbs and charms).
Not surprisingly, this is a big episode for Alyson Hannigan, and she knocks it out of the park: she has always been fantastic at depicting Willow as both strong and vulnerable, and this is a situation where the character embodies both simultaneously. She is confident in her decision, knowing her feelings as well as anyone else, but in order to demonstrate that strength she needs to open up about something she’s kept purposefully private (for reasons beyond the initial desire to have a “secret of her own” to match Buffy’s relationship with Riley and the Initiative), which makes her more vulnerable than she’s ever been before. It’s the same thing which Oz struggles with in the episode, as he has the strength to hold back his transformation until that moment when he becomes emotionally involved and his realization about Willow finding someone else sends him back into Werewolf mode, and to some degree it’s the same sort of struggle which Buffy and Angel have been experiencing all season on their respective shows. There’s a lot of strong work in the episode, and even when it becomes about Riley’s desertion from the Initiative it still ends up back at those meaningful connections (with Oz pulling an Angel, Buffy telling Riley about Angel, and Willow with the one she loves).
And of course, “The Yoko Factor” tears it all apart. I don’t find the episode to actually be that interesting in and of itself, struggling a bit with the weight of Angel’s appearance and the transparency of Spike’s plan and how it’s going to unfold, but that confrontation between the members of the Scooby Gang represents a refinement of the scene in Season Three’s “Dead Man’s Party” where emotions ran high after Buffy’s return from Los Angeles. There, it felt like we hadn’t seen enough of that summer to truly understand the vitriol, and so the over the top nature of Xander’s reaction (in particular) seemed, well, over the top. However, here we saw an entire season where these divisions emerged, and as Buffy says in “Primeval” there was trouble to be stirred by Spike’s game of sorts: Xander was left out due to not attending college, Giles felt left out by no longer serving in an official capacity, and Willow felt as if Riley was stealing away her best friend. And yet, at the same time, Xander and Willow each started relationships of their own, which meant that Buffy felt they were drifting away from her as well, leaving the entire group incredibly vulnerable to Spike’s nefarious plans.
You’ll notice I don’t bring up Adam’s role in the episode because it really doesn’t matter: he dies an episode later, and his plan is never fully-formed even up to the point in which it plays out. We get hints of the plan through here, with the trojan horse strategy revealing itself in bits and pieces, but in the end what matters is what the characters experience: Spike may have been trying to get the chip out of his head by trying to separate Buffy from her friends, but in reality he brought them closer together by forcing them to voice feelings they had buried beneath the surface, allowing them to come clean, reevaluate their position, and then band together to take out Adam in “Primeval.” These episodes do nothing to “save” the fourth season from an uninteresting villain or a poorly constructed story arc, but the complete lack of construction within that arc allows the more important parts of the episodes, the characters, to emerge, demonstrating that the fourth season was not designed to live or die based on the success of its Big Bad.
Which is why, of course, the story will continue without him.
- While I thought Adam’s plan lacked any sense of scale (in that his next step after that initial bloodshed was incredibly vague) and impact (in that we didn’t know Prof. Walsh enough for her reanimated corpse to make a huge impact, and Forrest was too insignificant a character for his transformation to hold any sort of weight), I thought David Fury’s script did a nice job of making “Primeval” seem pretty substantial. The explosions helped, I think.
- It may seem like a cheap ploy, but I love how Jonathan’s celebrity involves Buffy so extensively (in that she is hanging around him seeking his approval, and he was the recipient of the Class Protector award at Prom); it makes perfect sense considering the role she played in his high school experience and his time in the bell tower, and it also allows for the show to logically deal with Riley and Buffy’s ongoing relationship issues within such a different sort of episode as Jonathan talks to both about their current troubles.
- Speaking of which, Buffy’s moan of “Jonathan!” at the end of “Superstar” joins the list of fantastic cut to black lines for the show.
- Liked the little beat at the end of “The Initiative” about the government assessment of the project – felt a bit over the top, but is a nice way to put a bow on that for now, and to sort of suggest that this was Buffy and the gang stumbling into a much larger story, which is something I like shows to do even if they don’t follow through on that potential. Sometimes worlds like this one can start to seem too small (especially being so isolated in Sunnydale), so the idea that big things are going on outside of the show’s gaze is key.
- The fact that Buffy didn’t tell Riley about the whole sex part of the Angel saga is understandable, but I’m really curious what lie she came up with to explain it, and what kind of image of Angel that gave Riley – based on “The Yoko Factor,” it’s clear that Riley doesn’t view Angel as the same tragic figure we do, and that’s sort of Buffy’s fault, isn’t it?
- Yes, the title of this piece is a U2 reference.