After adoring the second and third seasons, I was more than ready for Buffy to continue dazzling me as the slayer embarked on her freshman year at UC Sunnydale. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite as graceful a transition as I’d hoped for.
I’d gotten so used to the strength of the central storyline—from everything with Spike and Angel to Faith and the Mayor—that it was hard not to be somewhat let down by the new developments centering around Riley, Adam, and the Initiative. There was simply a lot less momentum to everything. At first there was the mystery over what exactly the Initiative was, then once we discover that Riley and Professor Walsh are part of it (a great reveal, actually) it takes longer for Buffy and the others to catch on. Walsh’s inevitable betrayal followed that, no surprise to anyone familiar with Joss’s mistrust of shadowy government conspiracies. Then finally Adam murders Walsh and becomes the season’s Big Bad…only he barely does anything until the finale and in the mean time he has a stupid green face.
It likely would have been a more compelling backbone for the season if Riley had more going on, but as a love interest for Buffy he can’t really hope to compare to the drama Angel stirred up, and at his worst he came off like an irritating farm boy.
Aside from the main plot, the rest of the season was wildly uneven in terms of quality. All of the “getting used to college” episodes at the beginning felt like a waste of time. The show didn’t seem to know what to do with Giles or Xander anymore, though at least the latter got to keep dating Anya, who’s quickly become one of my favorite characters. Spike is now a main cast member, and of course he’s a very welcome addition, but he spent far too much of this season whining and moping around. Let’s hope he gets a bit more proactive, because right now the once terrifying threat has been reduced to comic relief. He’s effective comic relief, sure, but I like him with teeth.
It also felt like their were fewer standout episodes compared to last season. “Hush,” “Who Are You,” and “Superstar” ranked up their with the best of the series, but they were the exceptions in a season that—despite having no shortage of enjoyable moments, with characters as consistently well-written and acted as always—felt like a step down whether assessed as a whole or in terms of its individual installments. “Doomed,” in particular, might have been my least favorite episode of Buffy ever. I couldn’t even enjoy it on a camp level like I do so many of the sillier episodes (“Beer Bad” and “Where the Wild Things Are” being this season’s brilliantly heavy handed misfires).
There was, however, one major bright spot in Willow. Everything about her was fantastic; her relationships with Oz and Tara broke and warmed my heart, respectively, and she truly felt like the character the writers best knew how they wanted to grow over the season. Her arc was wonderful.
I also watched a few episodes of Angel, which certainly has some growing to do, and by God its flashy scene transitions are idiotic, but there’s obvious potential there.
Though I was a little disappointed with this season, it was still enjoyable and, most importantly, still Buffy in all the ways I’ve come to love. I might be wary for the immediate future were it not for season five’s sterling reputation.
Onwards we go.