Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer concluded with Buffy and her friends graduating with style, putting high school behind them with all the finality anyone could wish for, burning the school to the ground. Season 4 moves into a brand new stage of life. Buffy, Willow and Oz are off to college, Cordelia, I gather, has vanished over to the other side with Angel (though I haven't watched his series) and Xander is trying to figure out just what he wants to do with his life. As well as graduating from high school, Buffy has decided she no longer needs a Watcher telling her what to do. Giles is still there to advise her, but thankfully there are no more of the arguments about whether or not a Slayer can live an ordinary life.
Buffy: "I'm going to do a thing.
Giles: "You can't do the thing. You're the Slayer."
Buffy: "I never get to do the thing. It's not fair."
Giles: "It might not be fair, but you have a sacred duty. No doing of the thing, not for you."
Buffy: *sulks* *does the thing anyway* *chaos and disaster ensues.*
Now Buffy has to juggle university life, her slayer duties the other side of town, and a brand-new boyfriend, the decent but dull Riley Finn, an older student and member of a top-secret government monster-fighting initiative.
There were some great episodes in season four, but I have to say I wasn't wildly interested in the main plot about the Initiative and the Frankenstein's monster they created. It was all very military and clinical, and I didn't feel that the monster, Adam, was really worthy of being the series' Big Bad. He came across more of a monster-of-the-week. For a while I wondered if Riley might be the ultimate villain; surely someone that bland must have hidden depths. But no. I suppose Buffy does really need someone ordinary and nice in her life. Her boyfriends can't all be tormented vampires. She needs a break and can't always be mixing business and pleasure.
Once again, Joss Whedon managed to take everything I loved and smash it into tiny little pieces in episode six, in which Oz discovers another werewolf in town, and is faced with the terrible dilemma of either letting her run free killing people on the full moon... or betray Willow. The episode goes to great pains to show a true and loving relationship that really ought to be able to survive the strain of jealousy - but the werewolf thing is too much, and Oz leaves town, unable to trust what he might do under the curse of the full moon. Alyson Hannigan's acting is devastating. Poor, poor Willow. (And poor Oz.) Her heartbreak is so painful to watch, and rings so true to anyone who's been on the wrong end of being dumped: denial, bitterness, anger. And there was another level to the sadness from a viewer's point of view, when I noticed Seth Green had gone from the title credits. He really had left, then.
But not for good. Be careful what you wish for around Joss Whedon, because he is an evil mastermind and will give it to you in the most painful way possible: Oz returns once more just as Willow is getting cutely awkward with Tara, a shy girl from her college witchcraft club (the only other witch who practises actual magic instead of talking about "energy" and "auras" and the like. Well... as well as talking about energy and auras.) Oz returns and wants to pick up where he's left off, but Willow isn't in the same place any more. She loves Oz... but she also loves Tara. EVERYTHING IS HORRIBLE. This is what love triangles are like: everyone gets hurt and it is ugly and not in the least bit romantic. CURSE YOU WHEDON!!!!!
All through season 4, I felt that something was a bit off with the storytelling, or the characters: it felt wrong. It was difficult to pin down, but the Scooby gang just didn't feel so much fun to be with any more. The banter was off, the chemistry wasn't the same, they didn't feel so much like a team, but a set of individuals whose stories didn't quite mesh together as well as they used to. And in the last few episodes, it becomes clear that this is a crucial part of the narrative. It is some very subtle storytelling, a commentary on how friendships do sometimes grow apart in a new stage of life, whether that be in college, or when some people get married and start families, or move to different places. But it also builds towards the series finale, in which Spike uses his observations about the characters' insecurities and the widening rift between them, as an attempt to separate Buffy from her friends so that the creature Adam can use and defeat her. A very clever long game - and quite a brave decision to sabotage the overall feel of the show in order to tell a greater story. Of course Spike and Adam don't succeed, and the Initiative storyline is wrapped up with one more episode to go.
Wait, what? That's not how it's meant to happen. Every season of every TV show ever has to end on an epic finale, when the bad guys are defeated, the plot strands are pulled together and everything makes sense, leaving the viewer feeling happy and contented in the knowledge that the writers delivered on their promise. How can they finish a series-long story and then tack one more episode on the end? A standalone is never going to live up to a twenty-odd-episode story, right?
Personally, I love it when writers break the rules of storytelling. Dollhouse (also a Whedon project) was another series which finished the first season too early, and the season finale, "Epitaph One" showed a terrifying flash-forward into an apocalyptic future. So I went into the real finale of Buffy season 4 with some trepidation. What did it have in store?
Well, I can safely say, I was not expecting that. The last episode, "Restless" is probably the most surreal thing I have ever seen on a mainstream television show ever. It takes place almost entirely in dreams, and is far more like real dreams than any dream sequence you will ever see on TV; a mixture of character psychology, foreshadowing and complete nonsense. Picking through the images and dialogue, it's tricky trying to figure out what is going to be significant in the future, what was significant only for that episode, and what can be discarded. We see each of the main characters' fears and insecurities played out in symbolic scenes: Willow, for example, dreaming of being back at high school, and going to her first drama class to find that she was expected to act in a play she had never rehearsed in front of everyone she knew. (I've had that one.) Then, there is this supernatural element in the form of the first Slayer, whose spirit was apparently invoked in Buffy's last battle against Adam in what would ordinarily be the season finale.
In Buffy's dream, there was a bed. Just an ordinary, unmade white bed, and I suddenly remembered several episodes back, she had another dream, wherein she and Faith were making up the same bed. Actually, I remember it as part of Faith's coma-dream. What's going on there? I forgot it, as it didn't lead to anything in that particular storyline. I think Faith said something about "Li'l sis is coming." And then, right at the end of the episode, when the Scoobies have all woken from their nightmares, Buffy walks into a room in her house... and the final image is of that bed. As Buffy would say, "it gave me the wiggins." Who would think a simple piece of furniture would have that power? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? (Don't you dare actually tell me.)
I scribbled down some of the lines that stood out from the weirdness as having an air of foreboding.
"Time is running out."
"I'm never gonna find them here."and, most significantly:
"You think you know... what's to come... what you are... you haven't even begun."I think that just about sums it up!
6. Wild at Heart. Oh Willow! Oh Oz! Oh, my heart! This was so upsetting and well-written and brilliant and human and upsetting.
7. Initiative. In which Buffy and Riley work at hilarious cross-purposes, both trying to get the other one out of the way so that they can fight the monsters. A scene which shows Spike attempting to vampire Willow rapidly switches from disturbing to very funny, very quickly.
9. Something Blue. Another comic episode, in which Willow casts a spell to make everything she says come true, with hilarious results.
10. Hush. In which the entire town of Sunnydale is struck mute. A gimmick episode, done very well, in the style of a silent movie. A shame it wasn't made in black and white.
15/16. This Year's Girl/Who Are You?: Faith returns! A far more dynamic storyline than the Top Secret Government Organisation plot, which felt quite cold and un-Buffyish. Also: BODYSWAP! Sarah Michelle Geller and Eliza Dushku do an uncanny job of playing each other's roles. I wonder if that was why Eliza Dushku later got the lead in Dollhouse.
17. Superstar: HUH? Did I miss something? Suddenly, Jonathan, a recurring extra who got promoted to supporting character in one episode near the end of season three, is a Slaying mastermind. And promoted to credits. And appearing everywhere, in the background of every shot. Something is off here. The world has changed, but no one seems to have noticed. This time we are plonked into an alternative universe without being told we're in an alternative universe! (I had figured it out before it was spelled out.) Very clever premise, and a lot of fun.
19. New Moon Rising: Be careful what you wish for. My favourite character returned, and I wish he didn't. Everything is horrible.
22. Restless. The aforementioned dream episode. Mind. Blown. Also, what is going on with the man with the cheese?