The Big Picture
- Season 4 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer successfully transitioned the characters from high school to college, addressing the real-life challenges of adulthood.
- The season’s standout episodes, like “Hush” and “Restless,” showcased the show’s ability to combine maturity and horror in a unique and compelling way.
- While Season 4 had some flaws, such as a lackluster love interest for Buffy, it remains underrated and managed to maintain the show’s endearing and standalone qualities.
The first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer felt like a breath of fresh air when they first began airing. Unlike other science fiction and fantasy shows at the time, Joss Whedon’s coming-of-age drama series found a way to balance its complex mythology within compelling characters that transitioned into adulthood. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was as much about the perils of high school as it was about the threat of the undead; the mythology behind each season’s main “big bad” antagonist never felt more important than any of the individual character arcs. While the last three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer transformed into a serialized series and increasingly relied on crossovers with its spinoff show Angel, the transformative fourth season found a more natural way to transition the characters from childhood to maturity. Although its pivotal antagonist left something to be desired and some of the supporting characters felt flat, Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 4 remains the most underrated installment of the series.
Season 4 Turned ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Into an Adult Show
Things had significantly changed in the “Slayer-verse” after the end of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s third season. The gripping Season 3 finale, “Graduation Day,” saw Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Willow Rosenberg (Alison Hannigan), and Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) both defeating their most evil enemy to date, Mayor Richard Wilkins (Harry Groener), and receiving their high school diplomas. Additionally, their longtime allies Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) and Angel (David Boreanaz) had left Sunnydale for Los Angeles, as they were now starring in an equally successful spinoff series. This left the group fractured; it felt like the characters had reached their peak, and the fourth season had to elevate the stakes in different ways.
Part of the joy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s first three seasons was the familiarity of each episode. While there were ongoing storylines involving Buffy’s role within the history of the Slayers and the ongoing redemption of the vampire Spike (James Marsters), a majority of the best episodes were simply “monster of the week”-style adventures where some sort of otherworldly threat would require the attention of the “Scooby Gang.” There was a safeness to the formula that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer endearing, but it was evident that this dynamic would become stale after a while if the show continued to pretend that the characters were in high school. Season 4 had the difficult task of putting Buffy, Willow, and Xander facing their most frightening demon ever: college.
The fourth season doesn’t pretend that things are the same; the gang no longer can rely upon the protection of their watcher (and school librarian) Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), and their relationships are no longer the same. Willow’s boyfriend Oz (Seth Green) abandons the group after judging his werewolf powers to be too dangerous to control, and Buffy has to move on from Angel’s departure by going through a series of equally unlikeable boyfriends. Xander used to be able to read his friends’ feelings by spending time with them in class, but now he’s separated from the group when he doesn’t attend college. The stakes felt real, and the transition felt authentic to the experiences that many young adults went through.
However, the final three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer attempted to equate the characters’ increased maturity with the necessity of larger threats; this was contradictory to the inherent nature of the series, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer wasn’t intended to be a serialized adventure like Game of Thrones or Twin Peaks. Despite the fantastical elements, Buffy the Vampire Slayer always felt very realistic in the idea that new dangers could appear at any moment; life couldn’t be encapsulated into a quest narrative where it’s easy to play the hero. It’s here where Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fourth season truly succeeded, as individual standout episodes reflected the “case of the week” quality that had made the series so successful in the first place.
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Season 4 Had Many Standout Episodes
Each season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a central “big bad” villain that the series would go up against; Season 4’s synthetic creature Adam (George Hertzberg) paled in comparison to the first season’s vampire leader The Master (Mark Metcalf). However, the threats that Buffy and her friends went up against in the fourth season felt more mature; here, they were facing an institutionalized justification of evil that they hadn’t borne witness to in high school. As a result, the individual episodes that worked best were the ones that focused on standalone threats that weren’t related to one central antagonist.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 4 reached its peak scariness in the Emmy-nominated episode “Hush,” which transformed Sunnydale into a silent horror film when a group of morbid demons literally steal the sound from the city. Whedon was able to explore the characters’ maturity with the shocking season finale “Restless”; unlike previous finales that had focused on massive face-offs with a big villain, the final installment of the season explored an unconscious shared reality that reflected a David Lynch-esque surrealism. The haunted house-style installment “Fear Itself” was much scarier than any of the previous Halloween-centric themed episodes, with a visceral body horror that felt reminiscent of Wes Craven.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom though, as Season 4 also had some of the funniest episodes. “Something Blue” helped to reintroduce the vampire Spike as a hapless romantic sadsack; his redemption and infatuation with Buffy would become one of the strongest character arcs in the entire show. Additionally, “Superstar” allowed the teenage loser Jonathan (Danny Strong) to literally write himself into the narrative in a clever satire of toxic masculinity that feels particularly profound considering the allegations made against Whedon.
Season 4 wasn’t perfect. The introduction of Buffy’s love interest and eventual boyfriend Riley Finn (Marc Blucas) was incredibly dull, and episodes like “Beer Bad” represented the worst of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s metaphors. However, the season successfully helped to turn a teen-focused show into something more serious, and did it without sacrificing the standalone quality that had made the series so endearing in its inception.