The Best and Worst of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4

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For previous installments:

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Season 4 saw Buffy go to college, and introduced us to Riley Finn, who I really hated with a passion. A very strong passion, I might add.

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The Best:

This Year’s Girl, and Who Are You?

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The relationship between Faith and Buffy has always been a very impressive storyline within the show. Two powerful women leading very different lives. With her introduction in Season 3, which is when I began watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was impressed with the overall storytelling between these two characters. According to the A.V. Club review:

“This Year’s Girl” picks up where “Goodbye Iowa” left off more or less, with Riley recuperating from his wounds in The Initiative’s infirmary, and Buffy out on the bloody trail of Adam, all day and all night. But you can’t really call these two episodes a continuation of the previous two, except inasmuch as the whole Buffy season is one long story. Because out of nowhere, a long-dormant subplot pops up to sidetrack our gang.

In short: they gotta have Faith.

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Apparently, while Faith’s been in a coma for the last half-year, she’s been having dreams that recast her recent history as an idyll, ruined by a certain blonde slayer who hates fun and thinks she’s better than everybody. Then Faith wakes up in a world where all her best-laid plans have been scotched. The Mayor—the one person who genuinely liked her—is dead, while Buffy’s in college and carrying on with a man who’s not even the one she betrayed Faith for.

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Part one of this two-parter is really all about setting up the big twist that plays out in part two. After Faith escapes the hospital, taunts Buffy, and then takes Joyce hostage (did the writers really need to bring Joyce back just to be a victim again?), and as The Watchers Council’s team of covert operatives swoop in to spirit Faith away for punishment, Faith uses a device The Mayor left her that allows her to switch bodies with Buffy. Now it’s Buffy-Faith who’s in custody, and Faith-Buffy who gets to romp around Sunnydale, living it up. In “Who Are You,” Faith-Buffy dances at The Bronze, dusts a vamp or two when necessary, teases poor Spike, and has athletic sex with Riley. All and all, a pretty good day.

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There’s so much to unpack with “Who Are You” that I almost don’t know where to begin. I find it interesting that “This Year’s Girl” begins by showing us the world from Faith’s perspective, allowing us a certain sympathy with her that’s necessary in order for “Who Are You” to work. I also find it interesting that the question of an “after the fall” identity extends beyond Faith. Who is Faith if she’s not conspiring with The Mayor to wreak havoc on Sunnydale? Who is Riley if he’s not following orders? Who is Spike if he’s not purely malevolent? All of these characters a little betwixt and between in these episodes. And in “Who Are You,” Whedon seems to provide an answer to their troubles: collaborate, cohabitate, commingle. Two heads are better than one.

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We see this in small ways, as in the relationship between Xander and Anya, who seem so comfortable and settled. (“We were going to light a bunch of candles and have sex near them,” Anya says about their big plans for the evening.) We see it in more dramatic ways with Tara and Willow, who join forces on the creation of a spell to switch Buffy and Faith back, and in doing so have an experience that is clearly bigger than the both of them—and is more than a little sexual.

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And of course we see it in Faith-Buffy and Buffy-Faith. The latter uses a lot of Faith’s cunning and viciousness to extricate herself from the Watchers’ wetworks agents. And the former finds herself cursed with a conscience, affected by Riley’s tenderness, Joyce’s concern, and the gratefulness of the people she saves. At first Faith uses Buffy’s voice and body to offer some sideways defenses of herself to Joyce and Willow. But at the end, when Faith-Buffy is punching away at Buffy-Faith, she’s essentially yelling at herself and expressing a profound self-loathing. (A nice bit of double-acting from Sarah Michelle Gellar throughout “Who Are You,” channeling Eliza Dushku.)

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I thought “Who Are You” was pretty brilliant all around, as evidenced by the way Whedon takes a very funny scene—Faith pulling a Taxi Driver and talking to herself in the mirror, in a mockery of Buffy—and makes it poignant by the end of the episode. While pretending to be Buffy, Faith puts on her faux-innocent face and says, “You can’t do that; it’s wrong.” But at the end, when she’s rushing into a church to save the congregation from the vampires holding them hostage, she tells the bad guys, with full conviction, “You are not going to kill these people. Because it’s wrong.”

It’s clear to me that “Who Are You” is a dry run for Whedon’s Dollhouse in a lot of ways. The episode skillfully finesses the whole “different identity in a familiar body” gimmick very well, and asks whether some traces of the people we surround ourselves with (sometimes literally, in the case of personality transference) affects how we behave, and what we believe, and, well, who we are. It’s just too bad that Dollhouse hasn’t had many episodes that handle this kind of material as well as “Who Are You” does. At least not yet.

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The Worst:

Where The Wild Things Are

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Heterosexual sex is just so boring, and in this episode, we get about 42 minutes of it. Plus, gross Riley and Buffy sex, to boot. Just awful. According to the Nerdist review:

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The general gist, the big idea that gets everything going, is “College People Like to Bone.” What insight! Glad it took a horror show to tackle this universal truth. The episode was written by Tracey Forbes, who only wrote three episodes of Buffy, the well-received “Something Blue,” and another universally-derided episode, “Beer Bad,” about another obvious thing about young people, that they don’t know how to drink responsibly. Not a good batting average, but hey, I didn’t get to write any Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, so she’s got a million up on me.

The story is this: Buffy and Riley, her new Initiative boyfriend, have a lot of sex. It’s funny because they think of lame excuses to leave a group of people in order to do so. Anya is upset with Xander because they didn’t have sex one night. It’s funny because she thinks humans have to have sex every night in order to remain in a relationship. Willow and Tara are starting to make the doeiest of eyes at each other. Adam, the Frankenstein’s Monster made up entirely of bits of different demonic things, isn’t in the episode but we see that his proposed truce between vampires and demons seems to be starting out okay. That’s for the season-long arc, though, and far too interesting to have more than a few minutes devoted to it here. The Initiative guys decide to throw a party at their frat house, which I must remind you is sat on top of the Initiative underground laboratories.

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During the party, Buffy and Riley go off to have sex again and weird things start happening in the house. There’s a piece of wall that if people touch it, they receive sexual gratification. Tara recoils violently when Willow touches her knee; a girl Xander meets during his “I bet Anya’s gonna break up with me” mope throws herself at him during a game of Spin the Bottle and then runs to a closet to hack her hair off in shame; then Willow and Anya see ghosts of children, one drowning in the tub and another running screaming down the hallway, and the house begins to shake. All during this, Buffy and Riley can’t have enough sex, and clearly this is feeding the malevolent force somehow.

After retrieving Giles from a coffee shop where he’s playing “Behind Blue Eyes” acoustically causing Willow, Anya, and even Tara to swoon a little bit, the Scooby Gang go to the library to find out what might be causing the disturbances. They almost immediately find that the frat house used to be a home for orphans run by a very devout Christian woman who received plaudits from Sunnydale. They go and visit her in an old folks home and, after asking like two questions, they learn that she punished the kids when they were “dirty,” having any impure thoughts at all, preened or even looked at themselves in a certain way, and certainly if they acted on any sexual urges. It was a coed house and they were all adolescents. Giles yells at her and they decide that he and the two witches will call the spirits to them so that Xander and Anya can go into the house to save Buffy and Riley, which is done pretty easily with the use of a machete to cut through vines that have grown out of nowhere. The spell is broken when they finally open the door and snap the two lovers out of it.

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Okay. I mean, where to start? This has to be one of the more convenient plots and most easily-solved mysteries in the whole of the series. They find one article, check one lead, and it happens to be exactly what they need to divine what’s happening. And the old lady tells them what they need to hear incredibly fast, like almost too fast, like she was ready for them to ask about it. There’s no explanation given about why the house held on to this repressed and abused sexual energy, nor why it was this exact moment that it chose to manifest. This is a fraternity house, right? Initiative or no, frat houses generally have a LOT of sexual activity in them, but it’s Buffy and Riley constantly doing it that awakens the poltergeists? There’s also no reason for the spirits to have gone away just by someone walking in on two people boning. Is that really all it took?! So, decades of deep-seeded scarring has a whole 3 hours to do anything about it and gives up almost immediately? And SOOOO much of the dialogue here is just explaining what’s happening. There’s a Spike and Anya subplot that’s pretty funny, but other than that the jokes fall super flat and are all just “Ha ha, it’s funny because sex.”

This is an episode that falls into the category of “Who gives a shit?” It comes very late in Season 4, only four episodes left after this, and THIS is what they give us? I know every episode can’t be all arc progression, and the occasional funny episode can ease some tension, but holy crap, guys. NOTHING happens in this and even the relationship building it attempts to do could have been served in a million other ways. And, chiefly egregious for a comedy episode, it’s not very funny.

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Next is the best and worst of Season 3.

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12 thoughts on “The Best and Worst of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4

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