TV Lists

Buffy The Vampire Slayer – The Top Five Episodes of Season Four

Baz Greenland continues his look back at the best episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer...

Buffy The Vampire Slayer is returning… in some form. Whether it is the (second) reboot of the premise or a spin-off remains to be seen. However one thing is certain – no matter what path it takes, it has a lot to live up to. The Joss Whedon TV series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar as the titular slayer, is one of the most beloved shows of all time.

So while we wait for news on what the new Buffy might bring, we’ve decided to revisit the classic show, looking at the very best of each season. Next up is the fourth season, which served as a quasi reboot for the series, transporting Buffy and the gang from the confines of the now destroyed Sunnydale High to the university setting, while Cordelia headed off with Angel for the first season of the spin-off Angel.

The fourth season saw Buffy The Vampire start to take risks with its premise, giving way to more experimental episodes like ‘Hush’ and ‘Restless’. It set up one of television’s most ground-breaking LGBT relationships in Willow and Tara and brought back fan favourite Spike to replace outgoing Oz as a season regular. And while it faltered at several points, there was no denying the grander scale of the Initiative arc.

Not everything was so successful. New love interest Riley (Marc Blucas) never really had the same impact as Angel, Oz’s aforementioned departure faltered (though was redeemed by an encore performance in ‘New Moon Rising’). Bad guy Adam came in too late and lacked the impact of previous season big bads. And both Giles and Xander, who were not part of the university crowd really suffered – though again the season used that to its advantage at the end coming to a head in the wonderfully comic blow out in ‘The Yoko Factor’.

It wasn’t always the strongest season but there was still plenty of magic to be had, as these top five episodes demonstrate.

4×07 – The Initiative

‘The Initiative’ was certainly the weakest villain arc to date, but it starts off strong with this episode. The demon-hunting military force have been teased since the first episode, while returning villain Spike returned to Sunnydale seeking revenge and immediately found himself tasered and bound in the pre-title sequence of the previous episode. Here we learn that potential new love interest Riley is part of the organisation and Buffy’s psychology professor Maggie Walsh is the ruthless leader. It adds scale and grandeur to the season and plays the fine line between being an unknowing ally to Buffy’s fight against the darkness and a pain in her ass.

But it’s the rehabilitation of Spike that is the episode’s biggest success, starting his path from villain to hero. He’s a long way off from saving the world but the chip in his head is the first step as he finds himself unable to feed on humans. Attacking Willow makes for a shocking pre-advert tease, followed by a hilarious moment as he struggles to deal with his impotency and a somewhat bewildered Willow tries to console him.

4×10 – Hush

‘Hush’ regularly sits in the top three of any Buffy The Vampire Slayer best episodes list and deservedly so. It is an absolute masterpiece. It’s the first of Joss Whedon’s big three experimental episodes and an absolute risk in theory. The show was known for its trademark wit and sharp, post-modern dialogue; could it work in the absence of such a fundamental part of it’s DNA?

It helps that it is creepy as hell, arguably the most frightening episode in the show’s history/ There is a real sense panic as Buffy and her friends wake up and discover that their voices have been stolen and the Gentlemen are chilling creations. With their twisted, ghoulish faces, they sneak through the town, knocking on doors and (in the episode’s scariest moment) will tie you down why you are unable to scream and cut out your heart. It’s a beautifully macabre fairy tale, accompanied by a fantastical musical score and is funny, horrifying and dramatic in equal measure.

Oh and it introduces Tara, which is another tick in the box.

4×12 – A New Man

Like Xander, Giles suffers in season four without any real sense of purpose. The library has gone, Buffy has moved on from her days training under his guise as watcher and by this mid-season four episode he’s become a shadow of his former self. Enter the returning Ethan Rayne for his final performance as he reunites with his old pal Ripper and transforms Giles into a demon.

There is something rather tragic and twisted about Giles’ fate. He finds himself hunted by the Initiate and Buffy herself, unable to convince any of his friends what is really happening. Though he does get a fantastically funny moment as he leaps out of his car to scare Maggie Walsh. Buffy only realises the truth the moment she has stabbed him; fortunately he lives to fight another day.

4×15/4×16 – This Year’s Girl / Who Are You?

The two part tale featuring the return of rogue slayer Faith was just the shot in the arm season four needed (the recent emergence of super villain Adam failing to same impact as his predecessors). Like previous lists, I’m cheating adding both parts, but they really are some of the best episodes season four did, ‘Hush’ aside.

The first part throws Faith into the mix at the worst possible moment and she sows absolute chaos (Eliza Dushku adding an extra element of menace to her performance in these stories and her continuation over in Angel). With nothing left to loose she openly hunts Buffy, the confrontation on the school campus is a dramatic turn of events. But aided by one final gift from the Mayor, it’s the final fight in Buffy’s home (with a welcome return of long-neglected mum Joyce) and that really ups the stake, delivering the show’s best fight since…well, ‘Graduation Day’ Part 1′.

The twist, swapping bodies with Buffy is a great move, with Sarah Michelle Gellar getting to play badass faith while Eliza Dushku embues Buffy’s earnest nature and both absolute succeed in making the audience believe they are the other slayer, trapped in the wrong bodies. While Buffy’s journey is a desperate quest to escape the authorities and a vengeful Watcher’s council, it is Faith’s story that is the most fun; playing “I’m Buffy” in the bathroom mirror is suitably chilling, messing with Spike for the first time (nicely refenced when they proper meeting in season seven) and doing the worst possible thing and sleeping with Buffy’s boyfriend Riley. Faith likes to cause chaos and her she is at her absolute finest, being bad to the core…

4×21 – Primeval

The climax to season four takes place in the penultimate episode, laying the groundwork for the dreamlike ‘Restless’ (an episode that I almost included in the list). But as great as that episodes are, ‘Primeval’ is a real blast, delivering a dramatic and brutal showdown against Adam himself.

The action is brilliant – Adam’s unleashing his Triojan horse and pitting demons and Initiative soldiers against each other in an explosive battle which was never really matched in scale. But the highlight is Buffy finally reuniting with her estranged friends to create one hell of a spell to take down Adam. Buffy going on Neo on Adam was a thrilling moment, showing the Slayer at her most bad bass indeed.

The fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the first season where it can be said that not every episode is great. Oz’s departure in ‘Wild At Heart’ is flat and painfull (though the performances are great) and the sex shenanigans of ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ are painful (though Giles’ surprise singing is not). However there is one episode that is universally regarded as the worst in the show’s history that does take place this season…

4×05 – Beer Bad

There’s very little to redeem ‘Beer Bad’, an episode that truly is the worst that Buffy the Vampire Slayer ever produced. Buffy hangs out with a group of obnoxious college jocks and becomes intoxicated with enchanted beer for reasons, descending into a Neanderthal state. There’s no clever twist, no humour or wit, just Buffy reacting to fire with a grunt and bashing people over the head. This was not Sarah Michelle Gellar’s finest performance…

And there we have the five (well six) best episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s fourth season. What are your thoughts on her debut college year? Are there other entries that would have made your list. And is there anyone out there that actually likes ‘Beer Bad?’

Next time, I’ll head over to Angel for its debut season, picking the five best episodes of season one…

1 comment

  1. Season Four, I think, suffers from the same reason that “Beauty and the Beasts” fails – in that the season one metaphor-of-the-week-monster was outgrown by that point. Season four falls into that gap a few times. After seasons two and three showed that the series is capable of being better than that, the opening season one-like stories just fall a little flat. “Where the Wild Things Are” falls into this a bit, too.

    But I don’t think season four is a complete write-off. There’s execution fails rather than concept fails. I quite like the idea of Adam as a villain, but I think he doesn’t get as much development than he should’ve gotten. Spike’s role as Cordelia this season is his best role in the show (this role gets fitted to Anya post S5) and we don’t see it until S5 of Angel. Plus even the more average of episodes have some great memorable moments.

    I’m quite sad we never got a Giles/Spike sit-com spin-off where they share an apartment.

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