Cultural Catchup Project: Stuck in a Story You Can Get Out Of (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Stuck in a Story You Can Get Out Of

July 9th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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64 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

64 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: Stuck in a Story You Can Get Out Of (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. Beth

    I for one am glad that you have enjoyed Season 4. WTWTA is a pretty hated episode in the Buffy community, but it has some really funny moments, plus Giles singing – so I can’t dislike it. You’re in for a treat with “Restless.”

    • I see why people aren’t jumping up and down about the episode (obviously the weakest of this group), but it’s inoffensive for me.

      And I completely forgot about Giles’ singing (I watched these episodes a few nights ago, they blurred together) – both entertaining in the sense that it’s Giles singing and that it shows some of the ways he’s trying to find his own identity amidst his unemployment.

      • Hansen

        WTWTA is one of those episodes that I know I should dislike if I were able to look at the show objectively, but it got a bunch of small moments I enjoy and a nice appearance by Kathryn Joosten so I can’t hate it too much.

        I’m not gonna lie and say that I don’t enjoy watching SMG moan and pretend to have sex as much as the next guy, but I also enjoy a good story. And I’m not so sure we’re getting that in this one.

        Looking forward to hearing your reactions to Restless.

  2. Jason

    Love that song

  3. Great piece Myles. I *completely* agree with your assessment of the fourth season: fairly poor plot arc but fantastic character development and many standout episodes. Note that, while “Restless” is a real treat on first viewing, it’s the definition of one of those episodes that doesn’t fully reveal its full depth until you’ve seen the entire series. The episode goes from experimental and insightful to all-out brilliant. Buckets of foreshadowing in it too.

    As for some of the episode in this post… I care for “Superstar” less than you, but you actually make a few excellent points that I sadly hadn’t considered before. I’ll have to re-evaluate my position on it.

    A few small character moments aside, I found “Where the Wild Things Are” to be pretty bad — S4’s worst.

    You’re about to enter what I consider the best part of Buffy! “Restless” through the first half of S7 marks the show at its best and most daring, with S5 being the peak of the show in my analysis. I’m really looking forward to your take on it all. 🙂

    • Tyler

      I find myself agreeing with your comments just about everytime I read them, mikejer.

      I don’t just find “Where the Wild Things Are” to be S4’s worst, but the worst episode across Buffy and Angel.

      • Seasons 4 and 6 of Buffy are easily the most criticized among fans from those central five seasons when the show was at its best. People quibble with elements in seasons 2, 3, and 5 (especially 2 and 5), but they seem to like them overall, for the most part.

        Seasons 4 and 6 are really the flipside of each other though. The former has great individual components that rarely add up to a great overall arc. The latter has a great overall arc with some lackluster individual components that look a little better in the light of where the story goes.

        • Todd, in my experience with the Buffy fandom I’ve found that S7 gets trashed on a fair bit more than S6 and a lot more than S4. S5 also has a lot more haters than S2 does, although I agree that it’s generally more liked than 4, 6, and 7. I kind of find S7 to be a good comparison to S4, as they both share some similar difficulties (plot) and achievements (character development).

          While I love S2 and S3, I feel that S5 and S6 pack an overall stronger punch are are the strongest two-season grouping of the whole series. S6 actually follows through in some key areas that S3 really let me down, and S5 is my favorite season across the board. The show begins taking a lot bigger risks and succeeding at almost all of them.

          Although not the case for everyone, many of the detractors of the later seasons end up struggling with the darker tone and adult themes. Also, people who hate Spike (and there are a surprising number of them) have plenty of complaints coming up. I’m not one of them! 🙂

          • You’ll notice I said “central five.” Seasons 1 and 7 are, in my experience, toward the bottom of most serious Buffy fans’ lists.

          • Susan

            It’s rather early to get into a discussion of S7, but as a serious Buffy fan, I just want to say a quick word for it, because I admire it very much.

            While it’s very different from other seasons (I’m wondering whether any season is really like any other, actually), I think the main arc is tight both as a story itself and in the ways it informs the stories of the characters.

            Moreover, there are several really wonderful, top shelf, individual episodes. I’m going to list a few by number here, in case some of the titles might feel a bit spoilerific: 7.5, 7.7, 7.16, and 7.17. And I adore the goofy glee of 7.6.

          • Ah, I wasn’t sure at first what you meant by “central five” due to the context possibilities in your use of “central.” 🙂

            Susan, I pretty much agree with you although I do think S7 competes with S4 for the mantle of weakest *full* season. It’s still a solidly good season of Buffy though.

          • Aeryl

            7.11 is a fave of mine. It gets it out of a slump that it was getting stuck in, IMO.

          • Susan

            I see your point, Aeryl (I just watched 7.8-7.10 last night). I’m not sure, though, that I agree that the season was slumping, exactly–or, better put, I feel like the slump was an intentional part of the narrative.

            . . .

            GAH! Must stop talking about S7!

          • Aeryl

            Oh, it’s definitely part of the narrative, it’s just a part I’m not that fond of.

    • Eric

      “I *completely* agree with your assessment of the fourth season: fairly poor plot arc but fantastic character development and many standout episodes.”

      This is, I think, why S4 tends to be so widely disparaged. When Buffy fans play the “Rate the Seasons” game, there is a natural tendency to think of each season in terms of its Big Bad and associated plot arc. Doing that makes S4 one of the worst seasons of Buffy, since Adam is easily the worst Big Bad of the series, and the entire Initiative plot arc never really gelled. The difficulty is that thinking of the season in those terms completely misses the excellence of its individual episodes, and its character development.

  4. lawrence

    I would say for all intents and purposes, Season 4 ends with Primeval. Restless, despite having aired at the end of S4, is almost more a part of season 5.

    • I completely agree lawrence. Also, “Restless” ends up being a great setup for the final three seasons in general.

      • mothergunn

        I feel like it’s hard to place “Restless.” It’s as much a part of season 5 as “Buffy vs. Dracula,” IMO. They’re both strange stand-aloners (as much as any Buffy ep can be) but they both totally work for me.

        Oh, and for all the people hating on the S8 comics, you have to admit that all the stuff with Dracula there was pretty rad. “I’ve killed more men than God’s plagues combined. And that was before I started eating people for fun,” etc. Yeah. Dracula rocks.

        Just pretend this comment is part of that discussion.

  5. Karen

    Myles, your overall review of S4 nicely demonstrates something we rabid fans often forget…that any Buffy, even *bad* Buffy such as Beer Bad or WTWTA is really still outstanding television. Awhile back I mentioned that S4 is my least favorite (or second from the bottom, just above S1, depending on my mood) and yet, I have loved so much of so many things about it that it’s clear that ranking the seasons really obfuscates an important truth – Buffy the series, as a whole, is pretty amazing.

    Which is why you’re doing this project. So thanks for reminding me Myles.

    • What’s accomplished in S4 far outstrips anything S1 does, imo. For me S4’s only competition as second-worst (meaning: still good) season is S7 which shares a lot of S4’s qualities: a plot that loses itself mid-season, some great character development, and some stand-out episodes.

      • Jason

        I find there is a lot to enjoy about season 7 despite all the fans who hate it…oh and i still disagree with you about empty places 😉

        • mothergunn

          I’m interested to see what Myles thinks of that one event in “Empty Places.” I don’t hate it but sometimes I wonder why. Just, why? Maybe we can discuss and come to some kind of conclusion.

    • Susan

      Yep. The worst of Buffy (and we’re pretty much through any of the “worst” now, imo) still ranks among the best TV.

      • greg

        Oh, I dunno. I can think of two in the last two seasons that qualify. And at least two others that a lot of other people strongly dislike that I look forward to defending.

  6. Shambleau

    Great analysis. The show was passionately committed to change, so it was inevitable that the season would dissatisfy people who idolized the first three years, but I think it was damn solid overall. Glad to see your comment that Where The Wild Things Are was inoffensive, if slight. The reaction at the time was pure vitriol. People seemed to have the same reaction to Buffy and Riley doing it as the twisted orphanage lady did to her charges thinking about it.

  7. James

    Really glad to see that you appreciate this season despite some its shortcomings in plot.

    Yes, the overall structure is ultimately loose and disappointing but it isn’t enough to negate the amount of outstanding episodes and character moments.

    .

  8. Cameron

    I think your assessment of Season 4 meshes nicely with the fandom at large. 🙂 The “Restless” piece from you will be quite an endeavor; many thousands of words have been spent on the episode already. Looking forward to it as always.

    • I don’t really agree with that assessment Cameron. There are plenty that don’t stop at bashing the plot — according to a lot of the fandom I’ve run into the show becomes completely inert after the allegedly perfect S3. “Hush” aside, I see S4 unjustly tossed aside by most.

  9. Morda

    I’ve recently just finished watching season 4 again (The latest in a long line of rewatchings FYI) and I must say I found it to be a hell of alot better than I did before. There’s alot of depth there and the character work and epic scope worked really well for the series. I think alot of people diss the season because it feels more like a transition year between the first three and last three seasons (Highschool and Adulthood). So in that respect people are right. The season is chaotic and uneven and not entirely well thought out. But thematically this says a hell of alot about what this season is designed to do. So in that sense, it’s f***ing amazingly done.

    Also, although narratively the series is probably at its weakest at this point I have to say that individually this season probably has more “OUTSTANDING” episodes than any other; Hush, Restless (The best episode of all time – TV, not just Buffy), This Year’s Girl/Who are you?, Superstar, Wild at Heart/New Moon Rising (Aly’s eyes…And revolutionary lesbian relationship), Something Blue, A New Man, Primeval, Fear Itself….

    I mean you could say that any season of the show has more outstanding episodes than any other but with this season it’s particularly effective because the central narrative is very noticably weak (Particularly coming off of season three which I think is the show at its best).

  10. ck

    Thanks for the Catchup Myles.
    I often wonder (well…not really) how S4 would have been different if Maggie Walsh was the big bad (as planned) instead of Adam. Would there have been an Adam? Who knows…maybe we might have liked it less.

    • greg

      Well, I’m pretty sure they’d need some kind of Adam, if only to keep the metaphor alive. The High School kids are out of their element in College and a Vampire Slayer having to fight a Frankenstein Monster while having to piece themselves back together in order to fight something that was pieced together; how can you just abandon that?

      I think they managed to say what they wanted to with the Initiative and Riley’s place in it without needing to go much further. Not that I wouldn’t have liked to see more of Walsh (and possibly even more Walsh vs. Giles interaction), but I can;t help but worry that that would have only taken away more screen time from the Scoobies self-destructing and then pulling themselves back together, which is what I really enjoy most about the season.

  11. greg

    I find the character stuff here interesting – Willow shows up at Tara’s door and takes credit for choosing her over Oz when, really, she never did make any decision – Oz, as always, makes the unilateral decision to leave without involving her in the process. Also, I can’t help but find it amusing that Willow, while claiming herself to be Wiccan, doesn’t even know when it’s a full moon. The approach to magick that comes from an interest in science rather than something more organic is a theme the writers like to play with. I love that Jonathan steps up and doesn’t even give a second thought to losing everything he has to save Buffy. That Jane doesn’t give him a “moment” when he has to decide whether to be evil or not is a big part of what makes the character work for me. WRT to the spell in ‘Primeval’, it was supposed to paralyze Adam to Buffy could remove his core, but they never actually got around to it – once Buffy was in a trance and they were all connected something else took over and the spell itself never became an issue. But I’ll save that for the ‘Restless’ discussion.

    I’ll admit that WTWTA is never gonna be one of my favorite episodes, but that reaction shot of everyone seeing Giles sing makes for one heck of a great screensaver. “Astonished Willow” is always attractive.

    • Eldritch

      “Willow shows up at Tara’s door and takes credit for choosing her over Oz when, really, she never did make any decision …”

      My take on that is different. She was stunned and surprised at Oz’s reappearance. She obviously still has warm feelings for him. But not once did she do anything to indicate she was willing to give up Tara. That, in and of itself, was her decision. She talked about feeling confused because the situation was complicated, but my sense was that it was complicated only because she didn’t want to hurt Oz. Some part of her may have wanted Oz, yet the bigger part was committed to Tara.

      Had she just been waiting for Oz to return, she would have hugged and kissed him immediately. But she didn’t. Did they ever touch at all before the goodbye? She was glad to see him, if only to see how things had worked out with him, but choosing him was never a possibility for her.

      She had committed to Tara, which trumped any previous feelings she had had for Oz. Once Oz realized she was in a lesbian relationship with Tara, he too realized their affair was over.

      And that’s when the episode turned into action/adventure, Oz gets captured and they have to rescue him, during which the story morphs into Riley’s resigning from the Initiative. While Riley’s leaving the Initiative needed to happen, I wish the writers could have kept the story focused on the romantic complications.

      • greg

        I certainly don’t think she was waiting for Oz to return, nor was she overjoyed when he showed up. I still see it as Willow being emotionally caught in the headlights and freezing. She stayed up all night talking with Oz and never once plainly told him that she had moved on?

        Let’s not discount the status element in play here, either. As Oz’s girlfriend, she was dating a musician and had some reflected glory in that (in addition to the reflected glory of being Buffy’s sidekick). Tara, however, looks up to her, sees her as a far more successful witch who’s already active and has her own group of friends. Just recall the look of delight on her face when Willow, surprised to see (who she thinks is) Buffy at the Bronze, casually marches Tara over to introduce her. And how shy and introverted Tara gets when she thinks there’s a risk of losing Willow. When Oz shows up, Willow automatically goes into sidekick mode, waiting for someone else to to the decision making for her. Gender relations notwithstanding, Oz is a step backward emotionally and there might well have been a whole episode devoted to Willow having to make up her mind whether to move forward or backward.

  12. Nicole

    I definitely think that while S4 is the weakest, it has some pretty amazing standalone episodes. I find myself thinking of S 1 through 3 as one part, and 5 through 7 as another, with S4 being kind of the bridge. I think it was hard to transition BTVS from being such a *high school is hell* show to a more adult one, and though it was shaky, I think they pulled it off. Restless is probably one of my favorite episodes, and it almost made up for what I think was not a great season (of course it’s still Buffy, so it was fantastic compared to other things, in my opinion, just not in comparison to the other seasons).

  13. Spot-on, Myles — and pretty much all the other commenters who are agreeing. S4 has the weakest overall season arc, but an astonishing number of absolutely amazing, knock-em-out-of-the-park, top-ten episodes.

    WTWTA is blah and heavy-handed. Meh.

    I had no idea there was so much passionate love for Restless out there. I always thought it was interesting, and neat, and yet another cool risk for television, but I’ve never felt about it the way some of y’all obviously do. I’ll have to re-watch.

    • Eldritch

      “I always thought it was interesting, and neat, and …, but I’ve never felt about it the way some of y’all obviously do.”

      Same here. Have to view it again to see what I missed. Can’t wait to read posts explaining what I missed!

  14. Susan

    Myles, you make some excellent observations, and you are redeeming S4 for me. It’s been my least favorite of the complete seasons, despite containing so many “series’ best” episodes, and I’ve been deconstructing my issues with it as you’ve been writing about it.

    I think that I’d become so habituated to the idea of the Big Bad as central to the seasonal arc that I let the failure of that story here affect my estimation of the season as a whole.

    But if we think of the season’s arc as the characters’ individual stories, with these discrete questions of identity and belonging, Adam becomes virtually immaterial. Thankfully.

    However, I’ll always hold a grudge against David Fury–and Joss, who must have okayed it–for Maggie Walsh the zombie. That’s my big “you have got to be kidding me” moment. Lame lame lamey lame lame. Lamey Lamerson of Lameytown. Lame.

    • Lame wrapped in lame on a lame stick covered in lame sauce served on a bed of lame with a side of lame.

    • I found the Forrest Zombie to actually be even *more* lame. I did enjoy when he got all blow’d up, head flying off and all, though. “Primeval” does do the big explosions and action-extravaganza quite well despite its numerous other shortcomings.

      • Susan

        You’re right. It *is* quite satisfying to see Forrest’s stupid head spiralling across the lab. He was such a d-bag.

        • mothergunn

          Yeah, Forrest is right up there with Kate for me in the realm of really crappy, pointless characters. He does one-up her, though, because he started out cool and became lame (she’s just always sucked). And he might have stayed cool if he could have gotten over his man love for Riley for, like, 2 seconds.

  15. Susan

    One more thing. I don’t want to get into it now, but since you kinda-sorta touch on it in your analysis, I’ll set out this little note as a placeholder for a conversation I’d like to have at some point down the line.

    I have, uh, let’s call it “complicated” feelings about the series’ use of magic as a metaphor.

    More on that later.

    • Gee, I didn’t think we’d be having *any* conversations on that topic…. I mean, it’s such a minor issue……

    • Hansen

      That “magic metaphor” is only an issue for me in one specific episode, but yeah; it’ll be a conversation worth having when Myles gets there.

    • Karen

      :::deleted::: Well, hell. There’s nothing I can say that doesn’t become spoilery. And it’s not like we’ll forget to talk about this, so…

      • Susan

        You mean I’m not the only one who thinks about this topic? Shocked. I’m shocked, I tell you. 😉

        • greg

          I look forward to defending the frilly heck out of this issue in the future. I may be accused of fanwanking, but I believe a case can be made that the metaphor issue is just misdirection. It’s not a lie, but I don’t see any reason to believe it’s the truth either.

          • Aeryl

            I’ll be interested in hearing that.

          • mothergunn

            I have mixed feelings about it also, mostly because here it’s a metaphor for Willow/Tara sexiness (and a very well-done one at that) and later it’s for something else entirely. Not that the upcoming metaphor is bad, I just think it’s kind of a cop-out to change it up like that. But yeah, conversation for another day.

  16. Eldritch

    Just wanted to say about “Superstar” that I really enjoyed Jonathan’s singing. I know his voice was dubbed, but it was a great scene.

  17. jules

    Myles–very nice analysis of S4–can’t wait to see what you make of Restless and I am really looking forward to your coverage of S5 (my favorite).

  18. Aeryl

    “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.

    I really liked this part, it seemed to me to be the explanation as to why we didn’t learn more about the nuts and bolts of The Inititative, and why the writers didn’t delve into that much, because it was part of a bigger story.

    • Gill

      I’ve always felt that Marcie Ross was absorbed into some branch of the Initiative. Never trust the government. Any government!

  19. Gill

    Another excellent and thought-provoking analysis, Myles. The magic fusion of the Scoobies makes no logical sense but is really important as a statement of their relationships. They continue to grow and shift, mind you.

    Looking forward to your take on Restless!

  20. mothergunn

    I hope I’m not too late to this party for anyone to read this, but I want to say that there’s this amazing episode of the X-Files (I’m too lazy to go look it up) where this guy can shape shift and becomes Mulder so he can mack on Scully. My point is that at the end of the ep, Mulder goes to talk to him and he’s wearing this really great cap (I think his therapist made him) that has a patch on it that says, “I’m a Superstar!” I always draw a comparison between that character and Jonathan, and not just because of the cap. They both use supernatural means to become a person they idolize because they completely lack self-esteem which, of course, makes them more pitiful than evil.

    I love Jonathan 🙂

  21. mothergunn

    Oh, and I’m really surprised that no one has talked about this yet but, as much as I really am just bored by Adam, I think the boss fight in “Primeval” is hands-down the best in the entire series. I mean, they go all Matrix and “We are the Slayer” and magic doves! How can that not be awesome? Plus it solidifies the themes of Buffy needing people in order to be THE Slayer (which only becomes more important as the story continues). And it sets up all the awesome in “Restless.”

    Am I really all alone in thinking it’s rad?

  22. Bob Kat

    I still say “Primeval” and “Restless” should have been doubel-length epsiodes (giving us 146 Buffy ep.s instead of 144!) and Cordelia should have been a guest star.

  23. Becker

    “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….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.”

    “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.”

    First, there is a difference between not feeling that the season lived up to the standard set by S2&S3 and feeling that S4 was comparatively inferior is not turning against the season. It is pointing out that it is lesser and for the reasons you point out. It is not saying that it does not have it’s moments. I really don’t like S6, but that had more than a few moments.

    Second, why not complain? Is it wrong to want the show to keep those higher standards, to not have the problems that this season and this season finale have? (I count “Restless” as technically part of the season, but as a button that happens after the actual season ended) Is it wrong to criticize the writing of a show that is singled out for it’s writing time and time again? It wouldn’t be wrong to criticize a restaurant for it. Drop a 5 star hotel to a 4 star, or a 4 to a 3, etc. Things had been done better before and could have been better, but they weren’t. Why not complain? Do the weaker parts make the good parts stand out more? I don’t know. Are the good parts so good that the weaker parts should be dismissed? No. Do the weaker parts negate the quality of the good parts and/or dismiss those? Also, no. The parts of the season that are good and work should be praised, but the weaker parts don’t need to be excused. They are also deserving of discussion. And when comparing seasons you don’t just compare how high the highs are, but you compare the overall, how consistent the highs, how low the lows, how does a season stand as a whole: the good, the bad, and everything between. Dismissing the Initiative/Adam is a problem as it (the former at least) was a running thing throughout the season. Yes, Adam was not a replacement for The Mayor, but he wasn’t a replacement for Angelus/Spike/Dru and they didn’t replace The Master. They were all their season’s villains and others will come in the future. It is the nature of the series. But not being a replacement doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be written well, just written differently.

    For this bunch of eps, I really liked Superstar, and thought that WTWTA was one of the worst of the season. Just badly done and the permasex being the worst of it. I only have vague memories of NMR and TYF with me liking the former and not really liking the latter. Primeval did suffer at the time for coming out shortly after the Matrix and using the same effects. It felt too ripped off. Though I’ve heard Joss recite the whole Neo/Smith interrogation scene, so I guess the preferred term would be homage. 😉

    To sum up, though my words seem to be condemning this season, I’m not. I felt it lacked in many ways and those factors dragged it down in comparison to the previous seasons. A brand new BMW is no Rolls Royce, but it is also no Chevy and definitely no Yugo. And I own a brand new Chevy, but a BMW would be way cooler. Most TV is a Chevy or less, S4 is definitely better than that, but S2&3 are even better. No season of Buffy is perfect and neither is any devoid of Jossian magic, some just have more than others.

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