There are moments in our lives where everything seems to change at once. At the end of the third season of Buffy we saw one of those: the end of school. At the beginning of the fourth season we get another, albeit one that doesn’t apply to everyone: going to university. This is a show that never stands still, and is always great at showing the challenges that life changes bring. So we have basically a whole episode of Buffy feeling like she doesn’t fit in, and worse still she doesn’t have the comfort blanket of her old life to go back to either.
What makes matters worse is that everyone else seems to be doing better than Buffy. University is a natural fit for Willow, the moment her life has apparently been building to, while Oz is a social chameleon who seems to know everyone already. When it seems Buffy has made a friend who is similarly struggling, the friendship doesn’t even last until the next day before she has to dust him. Living away from home proves a further challenge, with a room-mate who is a bit weird and snores and laughs her way through the night, and Buffy is knocked off her game so much that even the slaying isn’t going well.
What do we want and expect from a new series of an ongoing show? Probably a reminder of why we love it, but Joss Whedon refuses to do that for most of the episode, avoiding a comfort blanket for the viewers just as much as he avoids one for Buffy. That makes the moment of triumph when things start to come together all the sweeter. But before that happens, Buffy has to turn to some familiar faces and places for help.
Interestingly, the first place she goes is to Giles, not to her mother, the latest in a long line of examples of how much he has become a father figure to her. Also not for the first time, Giles lets Buffy down, at least initially, and for what he thinks are the right reasons: she has to stand on her own two feet:
“You’re out of school and I can’t always be there to guide you.”
The fact that he has a girlfriend staying adds to the feeling of unfamiliarity, and then the second place Buffy goes simply serves to pull another rug out from under her. Her bedroom is full of packing crates, so her home doesn’t even feel like her own. The third attempt seems increasingly desperate: the Bronze. But after a reminder that Angel has gone too, who should turn up to save the day? Of course it had to be Xander. He is ever reliable, despite being superficially the least reliable and useful in the group and the furthest removed from Buffy’s life as it is now, but at last here is somebody who can give Buffy the emotional support she needs, and a quick pep talk about being his hero, to shake her out of her understandable self-pity. As always, Xander is the beating heart of Buffy’s group of friends.
Once the gang is back together, the little vampire gang who are killing students doesn’t stand a chance, and it looks like things are going to get better from now on, but this wouldn’t be Buffy without some kind of an ongoing story arc for the season, and we get our first hint of that when uniformed men turn up at the end of the episode and zap a vampire. Something military seems to be an odd choice for Buffy’s world, but the show has often thrived on crashing the fantastical and the mundane together (e.g. Buffy’s run-ins with the police) so we’ll reserve judgement. This is going to be an interesting re-watch for me, because I remember this as being one of the weakest seasons of the show, and yet I also remember that it contains some amazing episodes, including the best episode of the lot (and boy is there strong competition for that title). Will this be a reassessment, or will it confirm my original opinion: Buffy the Vampire Slayer struggled to find its feet in a new setting, just as much as Buffy herself did. Let’s find out together… RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
Due to other obligations, I had to put Buffy on the backburner for a few weeks but I’ve got to tell you, I am happy to be back. For a show I started largely as a reluctant agreement, I now look forward to this series more than almost any other that I’m following. I was wondering if the spell would have been broken by taking a break. Would I come back with the same vim and vigor that I’d had during the last season? I am happy to report that in no time at all, I was certain that this show had a magic to it that no grimoire could dispel.
We’ve seen this with Doctor Who as well, but the opening episode of a season is rarely epic. This story is an introduction to Buffy being in college complete with feeling out of place and finding that the cooler class of kids can be a bunch of jerks. Hell, even the teachers could be, which is unpleasant to watch and just serves to bring Buffy down. Pretty pedestrian stuff for a show that’s supposed to be an action/drama/comedy/horror… (actually, what the hell is this show? I love it, but I have no adequate way to really categorize it… sorry, I digress…), but when we get the gang together, even the pedestrian is fun. Giles is a “gentleman of leisure”, which is to say, he’s unemployed and not feeling particularly like he needs to be a Watcher anymore. Xander has been out cruising America… just not very well. Willow is helping Buffy select classes like Pop Culture (a class I had taken and loved) and Oz is still playing in a band and making friends with ease. Things are pretty status quo for the group except for Buffy who is really struggling to find her place in college. And that’s where the series shines…
It took me at least the better part of a season, maybe more, but I eventually picked up on the fact that these stories are about something in real life, not just a girl who fights monsters. In this story, we are seeing Buffy struggling with going off to college, branching out on her own, finding her place. She even goes back home and finds her room is occupied by her mom’s job. She is feeling very alone. It’s actually deeply heartfelt because we’ve all been there at one time or another. Maybe it wasn’t college, but a new school, a new job, a new neighborhood… trying to fit in gets harder the older we get too. Young kids have no preconceived notions and are as versatile as the wind, but as we age, fitting in means finding people that you identify with and that means getting out there and talking to people. That’s not easy for some, especially a girl who has such a unique set of talents; she’s not just going to join the after school slayers club to make friends! Watching Buffy struggle is hard; she’s our hero and we want her to be the hero. And then, with a little help from her friends, she rises to the occasion again.
When Buffy turned the tides on Sunday, what can I say? It was fantastic. It was that moment that she told Sunday that her arm was hurt, not broken, I am pretty certain I punched the air. Buffy punched Sunday and sent her through the air… the physical action was much the same! I was bummed to see Sunday get dispatched in the first episode though. I was hoping she’d be a main villain for the season; I saw her as the cool upperclassman picking on the freshman but that dispute ended in one single episode and I was definitely disappointed by it. At least that gets remedied by the comedy that is just so priceless in this series. It started with the vampire coming out of the ground, seeing the slayer tools and walking off, dejectedly. It culminated with Xander asking Buffy if she wanted to go on reconnaissance with him to which she asks, “where we all sculpt and paint?” Xander realizes she’s thinking of Renaissance and I spent 5 good minutes wiping tears away.
I still think of this show as a guilty pleasure but it’s one I can’t wait to get back to each night. Now, with the team back together, it’ll be interesting to see how everything connects while they are in college. I can’t imagine Xander and Giles finding a way to wander about on campus when they don’t go to the school. I am missing Cordelia terribly but find myself comfortable with the absence of Angel the Brooding. Maybe Buffy’s new roommate will take Cordelia’s place. I know they’ll try to keep it a secret from Kathy, but you know how it is: the living conditions will just make it too challenging. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Living Conditions