Thursday, 15 November 2012

Buffy Season Four

The Freshman written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: Buffy is off to university…

The Chosen One: ‘Don’t take this the wrong way but you fight like a girl…’ In contrast to Willow’s excitement, Buffy is completely overwhelmed by college and trying to find her place in it (in more ways than one). When confronted with a cute college TV Buffy’s brain and mouth no longer have a filter and she comes off looking like a real dizzy blonde. Everything that she recognises has been taken away from her; Giles is no longer her Watcher, the High School is no longer her haunt, Angel has left her and with Cordelia gone she has no clue who her enemies are any more. How can you not feel sorry for her when she is trying to feel her way around this new environment and she is bullied and patronised by the lecturers? Seeing how well Willow seems to be fitting in just makes things ten times worse. When she finally gets to indulge in a fight to relieve herself of her frustrations, Buffy gets her ass kicked and it’s the final dent in her confidence. Without her powers as the Slayer she feels completely incapable. Her last port of call for a semblance of normality is home but her mother has thoughtfully filled her bedroom with packing crates. Its not until her chat with Xander that she feels needed again and he gives her enough confidence to reclaim her status as the Slayer. I especially love how casually she dusts Sunday after all the bitching is over. Buffy’s back and I think she’s going to be better than ever.

Ripper: ‘I’m not supposed to have a private life?’ ‘No! Because you’re very, very old and its gross…’ Just when Buffy needed a dose of normality and heads to Giles for some reassurance she is confronted with a hot chick in her knickers. Being sacked from the Watcher’s Council has really allowed him to let go a little. It’s a look that suits him.

Witchy Willow: That hyper confident Willow who was beginning to emerge last year has found a fresh new setting to develop her further and she’s raring to go. Knowledge was frowned upon in High School whereas now she has found somewhere that will encourage her to be the best that she can be. Her excitement is pretty infectious.

Gorgeous Geek: Isn’t it strange. We take Xander for granted for three years to the point where he manages to be frequently quite annoying and yet you take him out of action for a single episode and his lat appearance is suddenly a moment of triumph. To be fair this was a stage where as far as the regulars were concerned (having lost Cordelia, Angel and Wesley) anything could happen and with Xander not heading off to university he could very well have been written out of the series altogether. By making such a late appearance in the episode (half an hour in) Whedon almost seems to be toying with the fact that that might be the case. He looks older and has wise words for Buffy to snap out of her doldrums and remember how fabulous she is. I remember at the start of season three I loathed the direction that Xander had been taken in. Now its like looking at different person.

College Boy: At this stage its hard to have any concrete feelings about Riley considering he has about the same amount of screen time as Angel had in Welcome to the Hellmouth. My one presiding thought was…phwoar! Because the clean cut college brainiac sort is right up my street. Far more so than the brooding, silent types.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This store discriminates against short people!’ ‘Oh I think there’s a protest next week.’
‘I’m Professor Walsh. Those of you who fall into my good graces will come to know me as Maggie. Those of you who don’t will come to know me as the name my TAs use and think I don’t know about. The evil bitch monster of Death.
‘Does this sweater make me look fat?’ ‘No the fact that you’re fat makes you look fat. That sweater just makes you look purple.’
‘You’re sitting here in the Bronze looking like you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer of the puppy.’
‘You up for a little reconnaissance?’ ‘You mean where we all sculpt and paint and stuff?’ ‘No that was the renaissance.’
‘Let me answer that question with a head butt.’

The Good: This was the year that Buffy had to prove itself. Before there was only this show but now the same production team were concocting a spin off brand set in a far more cosmopolitan location and stealing some of Buffy’s most loved characters along with it. At the same time Buffy was leaving behind its High School location so it feels like the show is starting afresh, a second pilot so to speak. I personally don’t think Buffy had anything to worry about because despite the draw of some excellent writers and actors on Angel, this show still had its secret weapon – Willow. Whereas Angel chose to shroud its pilot in shadows and dark themes, Buffy’s fourth season opener went for precisely the other approach. College is intimidating but the location work is sunny, vibrant and packed with life. You’ve never seen so many extras as those that they pack the university campus with. Whedon makes it easy for Buffy to feel like a tiny fish in a tumultuous shoal. Everything feels bigger and better and this is exemplified in the gloriously vertiginous shots of the new library which makes Giles’ moderate affair look positively stuffy. The teaser is nicely judged and far more appealing than last years misery, a protracted gag about a vampire waking up and Buffy and Willow failing to notice because they are trying to pick her courses. Kathy is a pretty special sort of character and its clear that her ‘super fun’ songs and chirpy attitude are going to get irritating very quickly. Buffy’s rasion d’etre is experience the pains of growing up and adding a supernatural element and whilst it is much quieter than, say, Jonathan trying to commit suicide with a rifle in the clock tower of Sunnydale High, Whedon’s device of vampires exploiting the freshman fear of acceptance, murdering them and leaving a note for their parents saying they couldn’t hack it is quite audacious in its own way. Sunday and her gang go through their stuff and casually rip the piss out of everything that made them who they are. Their Monet/Klimt competition is an economic way of showing how many freshman they have preyed upon. Did I say that Faith reminded me a lot of my sister? I take that back. I was wondering why I never really took to Sunday when Buffy’s villains are often my favourite characters and I think I’ve finally realised why. She is my sister – ruthlessly bullish and condescending, reacting to criticism with her fists, seeking approval through her own little gang of nobodies and taking away from the achievements of others when she has none of her own to speak of. They even look similar, its uncanny. To her credit Katherine Towne is one of the few actress that plays a vampire on this show that manages to avoid coming across as melodramatic. She has a mildly disinterested air to her performance but that suits the character down to the ground. Saying that I wouldn’t have wanted her to be more than a one hit wonder since Harmony (who fulfils the same role as a blonde bombshell) is much tastier prospect. I love a good bitch fight and the spat between Buffy and Sunday is really nicely choreographed so both girls play dirty (plus it might be my imagination but I can’t see the stunt doubles faces in shot as much as I could last year). Have we ever seen just Buffy and Xander working together before? That’s a combination that really works. You shouldn’t laugh when a fat chick gets smacked in the face with a tennis racket but this one’s a vampire so I guess its okay. The hippy vampire that impales himself is pretty special too.

Moment to Watch Out For: Buffy finding her own suicide note on her bed. Like much of this episode, it is quietly very affecting. Excellent Beck score during this scene too but that’s practically a given this at this stage. Oh and Buffy falling through the skylight. Which is perfectly timed.

Fashion Statement: Willow has had a sexy new haircut which makes her look far more fashionable and yet still as cute as a button. Its probably my favourite look for her.

Foreboding: Oooh. Just how are those combat figures approaching the camera at the end of the episode?

Result: Despite the fact that Buffy is suffering horribly (but what’s new in that?) this is a much more upbeat opener than last year and therefore a far more likable step into the new season. The university location, Professor Walsh, Riley Finn and the giddy feeling of innovation are all pluses in my book and it really feels like Buffy is stepping into a brand new, more adult world. A consequence of introducing so many new elements is that there isn’t much of a story here but the infectious vibe of a show stretching its wings is enough to allow it to coast just this once. The focus is on Buffy’s displacement and how alienated she feels now everything that she recognises as her life has been stripped away from her. What’s odd is how I went in the opposite direction to the character for a change, basking in the novelty whereas she rejects the changes and seeks solace in old, familiar haunts. Sunday and her cronies are a fun bunch but not memorable enough to hang around beyond this episode but I can’t wait to spend more time with Kathy. It’s a small thing given the big changes but Whedon’s handling of the three regulars is masterful and I think this might be some of his best dialogue to date. And with a cliffhanging ending that really whets the appetite it looks like season four is going to get to the heart of its arc far quicker than last year. All in all, promising: 7/10

Living Conditions written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Buffy Summers playing happy families with her new roommate Kathy…

The Chosen One: ‘This is the new Buffy! Kinder, gentler, room mate extraordinaire…’ As far as Buffy is concerned she has swapped her mother’s prying eyes for Kathy with the added disadvantage that she cannot go to her room to get away from her (instead she’s using Giles’ house as a secret escape). Its not revealed until quite far into the episode that Buffy is being affected by Kathy’s dreams but by that point she has already unveiled an inner bitch that we rarely get to see. The one who is all smiles and innocence when she is going out of her way to be annoying. Oddly this appeals to me far more than all that existential angst with Angel last year…Buffy is acting like a normal person for once. Mind you it does feel like Kathy is encroaching way too much into Buffy’s personal space; turning up when she slaying, sitting with her friends, sharing her dreams and flirting with her potential new hottie. I’ve seen girls turn into a bitchasaurus over far slighter infractions. At the end of the episode Buffy has a spanking new roomie in the shape of Willow but it soon becomes clear that it wasn’t just Kathy’s soul sucking that turned Buffy into the evil bitch queen from hell.

Ripper: ‘He’s our grown up friend. Not in a creepy way…’ When Buffy starts turning not just bitchy crazy but homicidal mainiac crazy Willow sends her to Giles hoping that might be the answer.

Gorgeous Geek: A massive problem with series four is how do you deal with a problem like Xander who hasn’t gone to university and yet seems to turn up all the time anyway. To the writers credit they deal with his isolation from the group in due course and re-introduce to give him something to do but it isn’t until season five where there is a base of operations (the Magic Shop) that he is integrated back into the Scoobies full time. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I mean can you believe her? First she acts like she has sit privileges on my lunch table just because some computer decided to make us cellmates…’
‘On the plus side you killed the bench which was looking shifty.’
‘In the middle of the night those toenails could have attacked you and left little half moon marks all over your body!’
‘Buffy this hurts me more than it hurts you’ ‘Not yet but it will…’

The Good: I hate to admit it but I am one of those people who listens to a song over and over like Kathy when I find one that I really love. However I listen to it through my headphones. I have also lived with a friend before and I wouldn’t exactly be exaggerating if I said that we have never contacted each other since. It’s the whole issue of compromise that kills both parties; you want to live your life your way and they want to live their life their way and you end up compromising all the time and hating each other for it. So things like labels on things that are Kathy’s (including every item of food in the fridge) and call logging are very well observed because that is exactly the sort of hell I lived (along with watching the guy eat ice cream from the tub with a spoon every morning and catching it dribble onto his gargantuan hairy belly) for an entire year. Dagney Kerr deserves a lot of credit for really pushing the irritating characteristics of Kathy (even down to the stilted way she walks) to the forefront, especially the whiny, sing song voice she adopts when she is being hyper critical. The Mok’tagar are fantastically designed (I especially love the fluorescent eyes staring out of the darkness) and conceived. For once this isn’t a creature hell bent on destroying the world but a father who is trying take his daughter back home. The fact that Living Conditions plays on the being the villain of the piece for Buffy when its Kathy that he is after is very cunningly done. Love the editing (and sound effects – the flossing is enough to send shivers up my spine!) during the slow motion ‘stares of death’  between Kathy and Buffy – I can vividly remember how the smallest of actions could set me off (such as sauce on a jumper). I mean how cool are those sound effects for the toenail clippings flying in the air and hitting the floor (usually reserved for full scale battle scenes)? Buffy’s friends trying to trap her in a net and tie her up is very funny and Gellar plays those scenes for all that she is worth (that’s quite a bit by the way). For once I don’t mind that the episode speeds up the pace in the last ten minutes because the revelations have been adequately set up and the fun of the roommate nightmare well explored. Even the ‘do you mind…people are trying to study’ gag is chucklesome, again using the new setting in a very amiable way.

The Bad: Let me get this out of the way before I lavish the praise…Kathy is a fun character that should have stuck around beyond this episode. Its good for Buffy to have people around her who she doesn’t always get along with (Cordelia was a great example) and it might have been nice to bed Kathy in as Buffy’s room mate and see where the relationship went.

Moment to Watch Out For: ‘I knew it!’ Buffy and Kathy come together at the climax like two armies waiting to hack away at each other (listen to Beck’s militaristic score) and fight that ensues proves hilariously destructive. There’s hair pulling, biting and even some bitch slapping involved. It’s a glorious couple of minutes of frenzied violence and very different from the Buffy/Faith death match last year (primarily down to the comedic tone). The way they use this path of destruction to deliberately seek out the things that irritate them the most (Kathy ripping one of Buffy’s sweaters in half and Buffy stamping on Kathy’s pencils) is wonderfully catty.

Fashion Statement: What Buffy ever saw in Parker is beyond me. His eyebrows are HUGE and you know what they say about men with big eyebrows. No, neither do I but I don’t like them. On the plus he makes Riley look like a real keeper.

Foreboding: In a make a coffee and you’ll miss it sequence Noxon sets up two threads for the season in the same scene. Oz and Veruca sense each other in passing through the university campus and the soldier boys are still stomping around in the background clutching their weapons. Immediately it feels like season four knows where it is going with much more alacrity than last year.

Result: ‘Its share time now!’ The second episode written by Marti Noxon after the introductory piece has settled us in…this sounds like a recipe for Dead Man’s Party Part II! Maybe it’s a writer who has learnt from her mistakes or maybe the new setting excites her but this is far more disarming and funnier than her effort this time last year. Kathy is monstrous long before she is revealed to be a demon and Dagney Kerr and Sarah Michelle Gellar are perfectly matched in some hilarious and nasty scenes. I really love how fans of the show were upset by this installments trivial nature wanted to get back to the ‘love that spans centuries’ tedium of the Buffy/Angel relationship because for me it is the most refreshing change of pace. A tightly focussed little comedy/drama, the sort of which the show knocked out week after week in its first two years which has no aim but to provide a good time for 45 minutes. Living Conditions also cunningly introduces elements that will be very important in the season ahead (Parker Abrams the love rat, Veruca the she-wolf and there’s another appearance of the boys in fatigues tracking down demons on the university campus). Its an episode that builds to the biggest bitch fight ever committed on celluloid (including one of them literally having their face ripped off) and who doesn’t love a good bitch fight? Great fun: 8/10

The Harsh Light of Day written by Jane Espenson and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Spike, Harmony and Anya all return to Sunnydale to wreck havoc…

The Chosen One: Willow and the audience come to the same conclusion at the same time that Buffy is free to explore her sexuality once more with Angel out of her life. All she has to do now is choose the right guy. I can see that Parker is a douche, you can see that Parker is a douche and so it baffles me that Buffy falls for his ‘charms’ hook, line and sinker. He is clearly telling her everything she wants to hear in order to sympathise with him and his line about ‘living for now’ (despite mirroring something Buffy herself said in Welcome to the Hellmouth) is the most obvious effort to bed a freshman. He even asks her repeatedly if she is sure that she consents to their night of sex just so he can say it was what she wanted in the morning when he moves on the next fresh piece of ass. Waking up in an empty bed is a painful lesson to learn, especially after experiencing that with Angel too but somehow Parker turning up and dismissing her so casually is worse. Buffy’s confidence is thrown into completely turmoil and who hasn’t been there at some point in their adolescence. As naïve as Buffy has been here, once again she is behaving in an extremely relatable way. Something about the university setting has really made her feel like a normal person again. The words that no girl wants to here is ‘I’ll give you a call…’ Even when Parker lets Buffy down he still tries to play the injured victim. She should have punched him. I know she does. But just the once wasn’t enough. Buffy laughs out loud at the thought of her and Spike dating…oh my.

Sexy Blond: It was sacrilegious that Spike was only used once during the whole of the third season (especially when his solo appearance was so delightful) and the writing staff have finally decided to add him to the show full time. He always did have bad luck with women (the last girlfriend was mad as a box of frogs) and now he is saddled with Harmony who might be good for some undead loving but comes with a whole host of annoying whining. Its great how he doesn’t really give a damn about her at all whilst she’s convinced that she is the love of his life. It means he can abuse her horribly (he as good as tosses her straight into Buffy at the frat party so he can make his escape) and she will always come back for more (which wouldn’t normally appeal but since this is Harmony we’ll make an exception). Usually when a romantic works so well on a TV show its hard to adjust to one of the characters being with somebody else but James Marsters makes Spike’s pairing with Drusilla, Harmony and Buffy (with time out for a little Anya) feel perfectly natural and yet completely different each time. Following his character throughout the shows run, each girl is well matched for the period of life he is in. This is the rebound, I’ll take anything that’s going period.

Ebony & Ivory: The removal of so many characters from the cast to Angel means that previously unexplored characters like Harmony suddenly get a look in. Her blink and you’ll miss it biting in Graduation Day told you everything you needed to know about her reappearance. Harmony has a bad habit of revealing all of Spike’s plans in her boasts to Buffy which as you can imagine causes him a lot of trouble. Cue much pantomimic slapping off heads.

Gorgeous Geek: There was a time when Xander couldn’t get a decent girl for trying. Now they fling themselves his way and he turns them down because he has turned into a girl and thinks that casual sex leads to unhelpful feelings. He learnt something from Faith then. Proving that he doesn’t know anything about women whatsoever Xander shrugs off his and Anya’s night of passion much to her chargin.

Vengeance Demon: ‘I need to talk to Xander…go away.’ Our Cordelia replacement has arrived but Anya is so much more than that. She’s turned up Giles doorstep to find Xander and demand answers as to where their relationship is going…which baffles Xander because he didn’t think that they had one. He will pretty much be this baffled by her for the next five seasons whilst falling head over heels in love with her at the same time. Rather wonderfully Anya walks Xander through her plan to have sexual intercourse with him in order to get him out of her head. Anya’s distinctive manner of speaking (directly with no pretence whatsoever) is very refreshing in a show where the regulars are always hiding how they really feel and the way it differs from Cordy is that she was always an outsider (except for a tiny period in the middle of her run) whereas Anya will be right in the heart of the Scoobies for the rest of the shows run telling everybody precisely what they are feeling. Hurrah!

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Don’t you just hate guys who are all ‘I’m so dark and broody so give me love…’
‘Buffy. What a cute outfit. Last year.
‘I think it’s the secret of getting you out of my mind. Putting you behind me. Behind me figuratively. I’m thinking face-to-face for the event itself.’
‘Its ludicrous to have these interlocking bodies and not interlock.’
‘You love that tunnel more than me!’ ‘I love syphilis more than you.’
‘Did he play the sensitive lad and get you to seduce him? That’s a good trick if the girl’s thick enough to buy it.’
‘I’m your friend. I would call you repulsive in a second.’

The Good: There’s a terrific moment where the camera begins above ground looking at the university and slides into the mud and ends up in an underground chamber. It looks simple but a lot of work has gone into that transition. I love the final shot of the three forlorn women walking in opposite directions, all three of them let down by a man that they hoped they could trust.

The Bad: As much as I love the Bronze as a night time setting for the show to hang loose in perhaps they should have created a new club/bar for the Scoobies to hang out in to go with the ‘new broom’ feel of season four. As the show opens you would be hard pressed to tell which year this was set in. If I thought that Angel was gentle in bed (remember the flowing silk sheets from Surprise) then Parker is even more tentative and the way he kisses Buffy as though experiencing a new food for the first time. Compare this to her first experience with Riley and Spike and he’s barely touching her! A bet he kept asking her throughout if it was good for her too. She’s a tough girl – have at her! When you get to the end of the episode there is very little plot to look back on and admire. The Gem of Amarra is just an excuse to bring Spike back to Sunnydale and doesn’t cause anything like what I would consider a stir. The Harsh Light of Day is all about seeding in characters for their use later in the season. Spike and Buffy’s very exposed fight on the university campus where she can be seen plunging a stake into his chest just feels wrong somehow. Anybody could have witnessed that. Like seeing Spike doused in sunlight and the gem plot moving onto Angel rather than being dealt with here, there is something a little of about the whole thing. Saying that, the fight is very nicely choreographed with dialogue chipping in and out of the blows and once I again I could barely detect the stunt doubles which is something the show has improved on massively this year.

Moment to Watch Out For: Xander’s spunking cran-apple in the face of Anya’s naked body is the funniest visual gag this show has seen since Cordelia’s funeral in Lovers Walk. And the moment when Spike attempts to dust Harmony and fails proves that he hasn’t exactly gotten the hang of this love lark.

Fashion Statement: Parker’s eyebrows haven’t gotten any smaller. Brrr…

Foreboding: Spike, Harmony and Anya will all be back. I’m toasting to this tonight.

Result: It would be very hard to dislike an episode of Buffy written by Jane Espenson that re-introduces Spike, Anya and Harmony and The Harsh Light of Day certainly proves that is the case. And yet oddly it doesn’t sparkle in quite the same way that any of her season three episodes did because of the interminable learning curve for Buffy involving Parker Abrams. With a trip to the Bronze, Xander and Giles squabbling over books and the return of so many characters it feels as though the show is trying back peddle slightly and appease the fans who aren’t quite sure about the new approach. Combined with all the new elements, it does feel a little uneasy in places. However Espenson fills the script to bursting with witty lines (the gangs reaction to Giles having a TV is wonderful) and there are terrific moments from each of the returning characters (Spike and Harmony are meant for each other and Anya’s direct approach is even more fun than Cordelia’s). Is this the sexiest episode of Buffy yet with Spike and Harmony (rough’n’ready), Parker and Buffy (gentle’n’exploratory) and Xander and Anya (hilarious) all hitting the sack at various points during its running time. It feels like another transition episode from the old to the new (which The Freshman did perfectly well) but is buoyed by so many sparkling moments that the net result is still very entertaining: 7/10

Fear Itself written by David Fury and directed by Tucker Gates

What’s it about: Buffy and her friends facing their fears. For real.

The Chosen One: Buffy is still feeling low after her experiences with Parker and starts empathising with a pumpkin which has had its guts ripped out after innocently growing in the sun for many years. She needs a good boyfriend, fast. Joyce makes a rare appearance in season four and shows what an unusual mother she is by complimenting her ex husband and telling Buffy how much he loved spending time with her at Halloween. This episode might be about everybody else’s fears manifesting themselves in reality but I really like how it is pre-empted by Joyce’s admission of her demons. When they moved to Sunnydale she was too scared to make friends because of the messy divorce but with a lot of time and effort she allowed people to get close to her again. Gently, Joyce shows Buffy that no matter how bad things get you will always heal.

Ripper: I’m not sure if Giles is dressing as the campest Mexican in human history or a walking lampshade but either way this guy needs some focus in his life and quickly.

Witchy Willow: ‘What is college for if not experimenting?’ asks Willow with no idea how right she is but not in the Wicca kind of way. Oz is worried about how much magic Willow is playing about with because he knows only too well what it is like to have too little control over a power. At this stage I can see precisely why the writers might feel the need to write Oz out of the show. He and Willow have been through the various phases of a relationship – the pain of cheating, the first night of nookie, the coping with one half of the pair being a werewolf…it kind of feels like the pair of them are coasting now and there aren’t any new areas to explore beyond splitting the pair of them up permanently. I say this with no detriment to the characters or the actors who are fine but there is only so long you can watch two perfectly lovely people getting on really well before it becomes…well a bit dull. Buffy has always been the dominant voice amongst the Scoobies because she is the one with the power but now Willow commands forces of her own. Add to that her growing independence and confidence throughout season three and its finally time for her to stand up for herself and perhaps take the lead. She doesn’t want to be the sidekick any more. Willow also fears that the magic might be too much for her and we watch as a spell goes spectacularly wrong and surrounds her with a swarm of angry green lights.

Gorgeous Geek: You have to feel sorry for Xander who is constantly on the periphery of Buffy and Willow’s social schedule at the moment. Every special occasion there seems to be something happening at the university which gives him the complex of a social leper. Anya is the only one who will actually say how little he has in common with his friends these days (and that’s pretty much to get him for herself) and rather than argue against that he just asks her to change the subject. With both Giles and Xander this year the theme of their characters is obsolescence and by the end of the year they will both have revealed and worked through their demons. Many people complained about how the two of them were treated in season four but actually they are the characters I empathised with the most. It’s an uncomfortable transition season (next year the family unit is very much in evidence again) but with some palpable drama present because of it. Xander fears being ignored so the house makes that come true. None of his friends can see him even though he is standing right in front of them. The way this is woven into the script is very subtle, making the point of Buffy and Xander pointing out exactly the same things but not revealing immediately that they cannot see him.

Vengeance Demon: ‘Its been exactly one week since we copulated…did you forget?’ Clearly Xander needs to leap into a relationship as quick as possible with this girl because she is pretty much making one up as they go along anyway just without him participating in it. Anya dressing up as a rabbit might seem like a daft joke but to their credit the writers refer to her leporiphobia many times during the course of the show. Its one of her defining characteristics. She’s distraught that Xander is trapped in the haunted house of horror. But never mind Buffy and the others.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘She didn’t even touch her pumpkin. It’s a freak with no face.’
‘You’re basic spells are only about 50/50’ ‘Oh yeah? Well so’s your face!’ ‘What?
‘Don’t taunt the fear demon!’ ‘Why can it hurt me?’ ‘No its just tacky.’

The Good: How many Halloween themed jokes can they squeeze out of the holiday in this show? Apparently quite a lot as the trio of Halloween Buffy episodes prove. Demons leap out at her on the street and she gives them a bloody nose only for it to turn out to be a kid in a costume. This year an accident with Oz setting up the sound system means that his blood is spilt over a mystical symbol that is painted on the floor of the frat house and suddenly everybody’s fears are coming to life. It’s a slightly less fun (because it doesn’t give the actors the chance to play different roles) but much more interesting (because it tells us a lot about the characters and their phobias) turn of events than season two’s Halloween. Because everybody is wearing masks at Halloween, the soldiers that we have seen lurking about the campus at night can finally prowl in the open. Having them walk right in front of Buffy and her friends (and knowing that one of them is Riley) is a great touch. The haunted house set up is so clichéd by now you would think that there would be no mileage left in it but directed with this much energy and style it still manages to send shivers down the spine. I especially love the cut to the screaming strobe-lit madness as Buffy and her friends approach the party in complete ignorance of the horror that awaits them. The old tricks are often the best (which is why I still find suggested horror so much scarier than exposed nasties) and bats flying at our heroes that turn out to be the rubber variety is a neat take on an old favourite. The wall that closes over the window with the screaming girl trying to escape is a quick and creepy addition. Oz in his proto werewolf make up is far more convincing than the shaggy dog costume we usually have to endure and it baffles me as to why this isn’t all we ever see. Hands bursting through the walls and floor don’t usually make me jump but the scene with Buffy in the cellar gets me every time I watch it. Tucker Gates’ timing is perfectly judged. Giles and the chainsaw = unforgettable. What’s especially clever about this episode is that brings to light many of the character threads that have been bubbling under since the beginning of the season and leaves them hanging, ready for the rest of the season to address them.

The Bad: The least interesting fear for me is Oz’s lack of control over his inner wolf because that is nothing new. Its worth it, however, to see the usually unflappable character lose his cool for ten minutes.

Moment to Watch Out For: The final few minutes of Fear Itself build up to the release of a terrifying, screaming demon that has conjured everybody’s fears into being. Surely the most terrifying opponent Buffy has ever faced? Buffy destroying the mark of Gaknor is another perfectly timed gag, which brings forth the demon. What springs forth is a devastating nasty the height of a tennis ball! Is this the only episode of Buffy that sees her squish the monster of the week underfoot?

Fashion Statement: Willow’s costume choices are always unique. Remember when she dressed up as an Eskimo, a ghost and a prostitute? Now its her turn to rock the town dressed as Joan of Arc! And she’s still cute. The last time Buffy dressed up in a red cloak things went very badly so she’s taking her chances with that one. Mind you saying that the first time Xander slipped into a tuxedo things between him and Willow took a turn for the unexpected. Best costume of the episode however goes to Oz as GOD. Or rather a sticker that tells everybody that he is GOD. What a guy. Prize for cutest dressed is awarded to Anya who I could just gobble up (not in a hunter gatherer sort of way) in her fluffy bunny costume.

Foreboding: Doctor Who recently turned its hand to a similar sort of episode, The God Complex. There it wasn’t a house that made your horrors come alive but instead there was a room in a hotel that was the living embodiment of everything you fear.

Result: ‘Actual size…’ Featuring outstanding direction, this is one Halloween episode of Buffy that lingers in the mind. What I love most about this house of horrors chiller is that it isn’t just an excuse to scare the pants off people (all that is as good a reason as any) but it also reaches deep inside the characters to plunge out their deepest, darkest fears and then exposes it for all the world to see. Considering it covers ground already covered in season one, it feels fresh and exciting and far more assured than Nightmares. It’s a crime that Tucker Gates’ only directed a single Buffy episode because he clearly has the chops to bring this show alive with some real scares and laughs. Every time I though Fear Itself had hit its zenith (Willow’s out of control spell, Buffy’s zombie nightmare, Giles and the chainsaw) another great moment came along to top that. The fact that this excellent exercise in suspense and making the audience jump climaxes on such a clever gag is priceless. Season four comes in for a lot of stick but so far it has been far more watchable than the previous year. I make that four for four and whilst only one episode has approached what I would considered to be top notch Buffy (that’s this one) it is still a promising upward trend. Fear Itself is probably Buffy’s finest Halloween episode and it’s certainly the one with the most to say about the characters and the horror genre: 9/10

Beer Bad written by Tracey Forbes and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Buffy becomes a cavewoman under the influence of alcohol…

The Chosen One: Buffy having daydreams about saving Parker’s life and him being eternally grateful for the fact might seem trite but I seem to recall experiencing similar flights of fancy during my teenage years when lust took control. Its frustrating that Parker only sees her as another freshman when she has so much more in her life to show off as long as he bothers to look.

Witchy Willow: Willow gives Parker the evil stare of death that only a best friend can dish out when their comrade is hurting. Unfortunately before long Parker is attempting to seduce even her and she starts falling for it! Is there no girl on campus that this sleaze bag cannot corrupt. Fortunately this is all an act and she throws his cheap tricks back in his face in a moment of Willow triumph.

Gorgeous Geek: In a desperate bid to give Xander something to do on campus, he is now the bartender at the university bar. The jocks from the college are such assholes that they go out of their way to make Xander feel as pathetic as possible. Which is pretty pathetic indeed.

College Boy: Riley is clearly desperate for Buffy and eager to please but he doesn’t even appear on Buffy’s radar yet. She barely hears a word he is saying to her whilst rat boy is in the same room.

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Nothing can defeat the penis!’ – a whole world of not funny.
‘Then came beer’ ‘And group sex?’ – there is literally no moment of subtlety in this episode even from the characters that usually have it coming out of their backside.
‘You stoopid!’
‘Beer good!’ ‘Beer bad!’ – yep this is intelligent stuff!
‘You’re a bad, bad man’ is how Xander condemns Jack the bartender.

The Good: I said they should have introduced a university bar in The Freshman. I was wrong. What have I done? Strangely the transformation sequence is far more realistically achieved than any of Oz’s wolfy turns. Perhaps because the completed look of the Neanderthals is much less obvious than that of a werewolf.

The Bad: Is Buffy still mooning over that loser Parker? Bring back Angel! Or bring on Riley! I never thought I would be advocating either of those characters but this never region between them seems to be going on forever. Watching her watch Parker flirt with other girls is interminable. When Marti Noxon said that every episode gets read by and altered by Joss Whedon perhaps she meant except this one. That might be why newcomer Tracey Forbes’ dialogue is so irritatingly clunky where it has flowed like fine wine so far this year. Xander’s triple helping of ‘rough day?’ is but one example of how low the dialogue sinks. The characterisation of the college jerk is ridiculously overdone even before he gets turned into a primate. I hope that the scenes of unintelligible psycho-analysis spouted by the college boys aren’t stolen from Forbes’ own experience, I would hate to think that any person alive could ever sound quite that pretentious. Even under the influence of alcohol. The subtlety of them going from being hyper intelligent (apparently) to acting like chimpanzees escapes me. Can you imagine anything more boring than listening to Parker trying to explain why it was okay for him to treat Buffy the way he did in the same kind of psychobabble that the students were using to patronise Xander? Few Buffy ‘villains’ (I use the term as loosely as possible) have motivations as vague and unconvincing as the bar manager who wants to turn the kids into primates for no other reason than they are condescending fuckwads. And don’t even get me started on the whole beer turns all men into morons metaphor because I might start comparing Buffy to Star Trek Voyager in the metaphor stakes and the latter show will come out with a shinier butt. Despite efforts, the cavemen really aren’t scary and the artificial danger that is provoked with the burning of the bar lacks any finesse. The least Buffy could have done was left the idiot cavemen to burn to death? They were potential kindling even before they transformed. Apparently the answer to dealing with pain is to dish it out in return. Yep, there’s a great message for the kids. Even the way that is handled is beyond obvious (she hits him with a stick for goodness sakes!). And she had the chance to let Parker burn and she saves him. Grrr…argh!

Moment to Watch Out For: The best scene in this episode by a million miles is when Veruca steps up to the mike at the university bar and Oz feels an instant attraction to her. It’s an electrifying moment of foreboding for the next story and most pleasing of all it contains very little dialogue.

Fashion Statement: Is cavewoman Buffy supposed to be hot? It looks like Sarah Michelle Gellar has just leapt out of a tumble dryer that was filled with soil. Plus why wasn’t she given the full treatment like the other students? Did Geller refuse to don the heavy forehead and pronounced eyebrows? Were cavewomen

Result: Oddly not a patch on the last time a group of boys where turned into wild animals (The Pack), the putrid premise at the heart of Beer Bad is compounded by the inexperience of the new writer who penned it. The characterisation is flat and uninteresting, the plot progresses in a tired and predictable fashion and you would be hard pressed to find a Buffy episode with worse dialogue. When duff episodes like this come along sandwiched between two such gems you have to wonder how the quality can fluctuate with such dramatic peaks and troughs. Few Buffy episodes feature one thoroughly despicable scene after another like this (on this level I can only pull Dead Man’s Party out of a hat) and there is no way that even as the season four apologist that I am that I could ever endorse this kind of ineptitude. I don’t want to watch college assholes spouting a psychobabble textbook to make themselves feel important almost as much as I don’t want to see them leaping around the campus in the guise of Neanderthals. As if that unsubtle transformation wasn’t bad enough, the beer turns men into morons metaphor wasn’t shoved in our faces with irritating regularity and the climax wasn’t built on artificial danger, this is the third episode in a row to waste time on the godawful Parker Abrams storyline. Snap out of it Buffy - the guy’s an idiot! She comes across as real moron for continuing to pine after such a twat. Hideous on every level, this is far from what I have come to expect from even the lesser episodes of Buffy: 2/10

Wild at Heart written by Marti Noxon and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: What could possibly cause Oz to cheat on Willow?

The Chosen One: Its hard to know who to root for more in a scene that sees Buffy get a higher grade than Willow in a psychology paper and the latter hugs her in triumph because of it.

Ripper: ‘If the Stones can keep on rolling why can’t Giles?’ Wow, Giles is so desperate for something to do these days he’s taken to hanging out at the Bronze when there isn’t a demonic force brewing there. Willow thinks that it is brave that he is there by choice.

Witchy Willow: Oh my, if you are a fan of Willow (and only crazy people aren’t) prepare yourself for a world of hurt. Oz has been noticing Veruca around campus and Willow has been noticing Oz noticing Veruca around campus but now it is time for all that angst to come into the light. The scene at the Bronze is beautifully done because who hasn’t had that moment where you notice the person you love checking somebody else out. It’s a stab of hurt that no amount of words can soothe. Scenes of Oz and Willow snuggling close together in the morning exposes them at their cutest which can only mean that severe mercilessness is about to ensue. This is a Joss Whedon show which means pain equals sympathy – there is definitely a reason why we care about his characters so much. There’s such an immediate attraction between Oz and Veruca that goes beyond personality or looks into something that is much more primal – instinct and hormones. There’s no way on this Earth that Oz would choose to cheat on Willow so Marti Noxon needed to find a way to make it beyond his control and the wolfy side of his character gives him precisely that option. The moment when Oz, Willow and Veruca share a lunch table is wonderfully awkward with Veruca going out of her way to make Willow feel like the third wheel. Its nice that Willow isn’t presented as a holier than thou victim, she freely admits that she has ‘wrong feelings’ about other guys but afterwards she flogs and punishes herself. I said in my review of Fear Itself that the Oz/Willow relationship was a little past its prime and it’s the work of a twisted genius to wrench them apart with quite this much hurt. Oz has no control over his inner wolf and his alter ego wants Veruca. It places him in the uncomfortable position of having to lie to Willow about his extra curriculum activities. Even more uncomfortable is after Oz has done the deed, Willow tries to seduce him to apologise for giving him such a hard time about Veruca and wracked by guilt he rejects her outright. Oz tries to resist Veruca but as soon as the sun sets his common sense switches off and his impulses take over and they are soon wrestling in the mud. Once discovering their affair Willow’s thoughts turn to revenge on both of them and she turns to magic to punish them. At this point I was absolutely gripped, I couldn’t see how this was going to end well for any of the characters. Willow is consumed by pain as Oz decides to walk out of her life and find himself in the wilderness. It’s the first step towards Willow discovering something very special about herself and seeking out her soul mate. But none of that is in evidence yet. The restrained heartbreak played by Hannigan and Green during the last scene left me absolutely shattered. I had to watch something very light afterwards to cheer me up again.

Gorgeous Geek: This is a much better use of Xander than Beer Bad but then that’s hardly a surprise. Willow seeks solace and advice from her closest friend when she needs a guy perspective on what is happening with Oz. Like The Freshman, Xander proves surprisingly insightful. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How come you didn’t tell me I look like a crazy birthday cake in this shirt?’ ‘I thought that was the point.’
‘What does it mean when a girl wants to…you know?’ ‘If you’re doing it I think you should be able to say it.’
‘Oz are you okay? I don’t know if its possible but you seem more monosyllabic than usual.’
‘Oz…don’t you love me?’ ‘My whole life, I’ve never loved anyone else.’

The Good: Almost immediately the dialogue is a massive step up from that which featured in Beer Bad and almost as if to point that out Buffy is even self congratulating herself on her witty quips (because a dusty vampire isn’t going to do it!). The teaser is a superb appetite whetter for the next episode that has absolutely nothing to do with this one whatsoever. Who the hell are those soldier boys dressed up in masks parading around the university campus? And why are they doing Buffy’s work for her? Spike makes a blink and you’ll miss him reappearance before he is tazered and whisked away. After the prolonged trip to the university bar last week we are back at the Bronze which, as Willow points out (and I will never argue with again, is like a nice comfy blanky. Veruca is such a compelling character because she is allows her sexuality to run loose and doesn’t care who might stand in her way when she sets her eyes on someone. This makes her much more of a convincing predator than most of the villains on Buffy. She is appalled at how domesticated Oz has become and would never consider locking herself in a cage during that time of the month. In many ways it is Oz who is the victim, the man who tries to walk in both worlds. Veruca knows who she is and embraces her inner wolf, basking in her savage nature. Out of necessity that they happened to blow the High School up and they have relocated to High School, Oz has created a makeshift cage in a crypt to hide away during his time of the month. Unfortunately it seems about as sturdy as the one in Giles’ library because he breaks free and encounters Veruca and that’s where this episode gets really interesting. There’s a nice bit of misdirection when Professor Walsh is surrounded by Oz and Veruca and plays the shrinking Violet. There’s no way you would be able to guess her real role at the university after that scene. I love the twisted morality on display here, technically Oz is doing the right thing by locking Veruca in a cage with him to save lives but as a consequence he knows he will cheat on Willow and kill his relationship with her dead. The hardest choices are often the most compelling. Notice the lighting in scene where Veruca confronts Willow, its seductively good.

The Bad: The werewolf costumes are still shite but that wont be a problem for much longer.

Moment to Watch Out For: You will literally be screaming at the TV for Willow not to enter the crypt with Oz’s breakfast. Its Buffy at its absolute best, pushing a raw sexuality into the face of the audience and forcing its characters to confront their worst demons. Alyson Hannigan’s performance in the scene where she finds Oz and Veruca naked and entwined will break your heart because she plays her with such vulnerability. Willow is not prepared for this in any way and recoils in horror as if to push the hurt away from her. The tears fall from her cheeks as if it is the most natural thing in the world. I have never wanted to hug her more.

Orchestra: Wild at Heart has a fantastic soundtrack featuring some perfectly chosen songs and another scorching Christophe Beck score that gets right to the nub of the hurt the characters are feeling. The piano score as Willow runs away from Oz is strikingly tender. Even better is how dark and exciting the music gets once we realise that Veruca has lead Buffy and Oz on a wild goose chase so she can deal with Willow.

Foreboding: Willow has joined a magic circle and Oz has skipped town. These two elements combined will see the introduction of a new character in a few episodes time.

Result: From the ridiculous to the sublime or should that be from the farcical to the heartbreaking, Wild at Heart is a shattering episode that is full of beautifully observed moments that charts a relationship self destructing. Its one of Buffy’s finest character dramas because it isn’t trying to juggle loads of narratives at once, it is completely focused on the burgeoning attraction between Oz and Veruca and Willow’s heartbreaking response to that. Alyson Hannigan deserves some kind of award for the emotion she expresses her and its so contained and skilfully judged that you will be wiping tears from your face before the end of the episode. It’s a fantastic Marti Noxon script that explores the pain of cheating in what feels like it comes from a powerful personal experience and I don’t think the dialogue on Buffy has ever felt quite this real before. Despite what I said about how tightly resolute this script is to deal with Willow’s pain there is an excellent cameo from Spike and an exciting confrontation between Buffy and one of the soldier boys. Season four has been handling this growing mystery with real skill and it feels like answers are within touching distance. Christophe Beck is on fire this week and David Grossman manages drain every last drop of emotion from this tragic tale. If this is the sort of drama we can expect from Buffy’s newfound maturity in the college setting then count me in. I’m only detracting one point because of those bloody awful werewolf costumes: 9/10

The Initiative written by Doug Petrie and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Riley is trying to juggle up his love life and his job. Makes a change from Buffy!

The Chosen One: Its really nice to have outsiders take on Buffy and the three lads watching and discussing her as she has a really bad time trying to get her food in the cafeteria is very funny. She’s such an unbelievable klutz but still walks away with a smile on her face. Her judgement on Riley after all the high jinks of this episode – he’s a little peculiar. I think they’re going to get along fine.

Ripper: Giles has now taken to hanging out with Xander in his basement and getting excited about raspberry fruit punch from his mother. Get that man a job!

Sexy Blond: Given the purpose of the organisation it is wonderful that our introduction to the Initiative is through Spike’s eyes and not Buffy’s. To dump such a wisecracking, savvy vampire into such a hellish environment could only create magic. Imagine if it had been Angel? He’d be curled up in a ball crying already. Not only does Spike look super cool sliding under closing doors action man style but he also throws his ally into a group of Initiative soldiers to effect his escape. Its interesting to note Harmony’s succinct observation that Spike is obsessed with Buffy. This is something that would return to haunt both of them next year. Something is very wrong with Spike, all of a sudden he can’t bite people without suffering searing pain. Another terrific development that will be explored in full over a great number of episodes and a real turning point for the character. ‘Hostile seventeen can’t harm any living creature in any way…’

Ebony & Ivory: ‘You dumped me and staked me and hurt me and left and…’ To be fair to Harmony, all of her complaints are true and Spike did deserve a proper slap around the face. She’s such a sap though, a few sweet words has her melting into his lap.

Witchy Willow: She’s trying to cope with the black hole that exists in her head instead of her heart but even with Buffy’s help it isn’t going so well. She proves to be the most useful ally to Riley as he tries to impress Buffy although if you ask her about it she will deny all knowledge. I’m not sure what’s more lovely; Riley refusing to leave Willow when she is upset even though he is desperate to be with Buffy or Willow ordering him to go find her and let her know she is alright when she visibly is not.

Gorgeous Geek: Apparently Xander requisitioned a ton of weapons back when he was ‘in the military.’ I’m so glad Giles pointed out that that was over two years ago. I just wish that somebody would point out to the writers that it was always a momentary transformation in a comedy episode. There must be some other way to secure weapons than continually referring to this plot point.

College Boy: ‘You don’t understand. I’m good at things. That’s what I do. I work hard, apply myself…get it done!’ ‘Well you failed extremely well…’ It seems paradoxical that a man who is a TA in a psychology class should completely miss the burgeoning feelings that he is developing for Buffy. It takes a particularly insulting remark from the ever loathsome Parker Abrams to make him realise how much of an effect she has had on him. Plus he punches Parker in the face which is strangely more triumphant than Buffy hitting over the head with a piece of wood in the episode that shall no longer be referred to. As ever with these things, the person in love is the last person to know when everyone around him is hyper aware. The things that make Riley such a true gentlemen and exactly the sort of person you probably would want to find in real life are exactly the same reasons that he never exactly lights up the screen – he’s just so nice. Like all nice characters, he only gets really interesting when bad things start happening to him (look at Oz and Willow in the last episode). He’s exactly the sort of boy your mum wishes you would bring home which in real life means he’s the type of lad that most girls avoid. Mind you I did like the way he tried to manoeuvre himself into Buffy’s life by first getting the tough part over and done with - getting permission from her best friend. Riley actually uses the word ‘courted.’ You might just want to crawl away and die when he tries to chat up Buffy and scores an F. There’s a momentary touch of jealousy on Forrest’s part when Riley pulls rank to save Buffy – amongst all the big stuff going on here it is completely irrelevant but (as this show has perfected at this point) it’s the first seed of dissention between them that would continue to flourish as the season evolves.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I always worried what would happen when that bitch got some funding!’
‘If you hurt her I will beat you to death with a shovel.’

The Good: This might be a strange observation to make considering we are only halfway through the shows run but with the unveiling of the size and scale of the Initiative in this episode it is the last time that the show opens its boundaries outwards. Season five deliberately looks at the family dynamic of the group and focuses on recognisable locations and a very contained storyline, season six is one of the most inward looking and self destructive seasons of television I have ever seen, often touching on something very profound but refusing kick out beyond elements we already know. And season seven for all its pretensions of having a dominating, worldwide storyline pretty much uses its villains nature to provide a final comeback year for every old character you can think of before curtain call. Season four is the last time you see Buffy actively pushing at the walls to create something completely fresh and interesting. Whether it worked for you or not is down to personal taste (personally I love the whole set up) but the fact of the matter is that its one of last times the show took a massive risk in this respect. Doug Petrie does a very clever trick by having Riley, Forrest and Graham sitting around discussing college work and girls in exactly the same way that Buffy and her friends do. It teases us into thinking that they might wind up joining forces. Its not until their big secret is revealed that the parallel is made even clearer, college boys by day, evil fighters by night. They’ll definitely be joining forces. Until now the show has forbidden any scenes with the Initiative characters away from Buffy and her friends so as not to give away that they have any life away from them (in terms of their jobs). Watch as Petrie starts giving them all their own moments now, pre-empting the surprise by suggesting there is more to them than we originally thought. Spike waking up in the equivalent of a white padded cell, the camera away from him to reveal it is only one of many interconnected cells is a visually arresting and attention grabbing opener. With poisoned blood packs falling from the ceiling its like we’ve crossed over into a demonic version of James Bond. Securing an actress as impressive as Lindsey Crouse you’ve got to hope there is a meaty part for her and whilst I enjoy her no-nonsense Professor Walsh a great deal, I enjoy her even-more-no-nonsense Head of the Initiative even more. It looks like we are going to be seeing a great deal more of her and that can only be to the seasons merit. The episode waits just long enough to make its big reveal and has given us just enough clues to make Riley and his friends descent into the Initiative base make perfect sense even when all your sense are tingling. Not only is Buffy stretching its wings but I love how that is emphasised by the amount of space on display – the Initiative base is a massive aircraft hanger filled with scientists and aliens chopped up into several clinical sections. It’s a fantastic location and explains why we have been hanging out in Giles’ house so much this year – they’ve been saving all the budget for this! Walsh, Riley, the army fatigues, Spike being tazered…suddenly everything falls sharply into place with a satisfying click whilst leaving acres of untapped potential. Having Buffy and Riley both trying to capture Spike whilst pretending to be civilians and nonchalantly trying to get rid of the other is such a fun idea. It’s the Superman syndrome squared, they both have a secret that they are trying to protect the other one from. This could run and run… The attack on the university to attack Spike is very excitingly realised with the director switching to night vision for some shots, filling the corridor with gas and climaxing with the gorgeous shot of Buffy firing the flare in a contained space. It suddenly feels like we’re watching big budget Buffy. Buffy and Riley’s first night together results in the two of them punching each others lights out. They just don’t know it yet. The government is aware of demon life running rife in Sunnydale. That makes things very interesting.
The Bad: Oz’s real name is Daniel? Don’t get me wrong there is nothing wrong with the name Daniel but I’d gotten so used to him being Oz. The reveal of the Initiative base underneath the university does make you ponder the question where these guys were when Buffy faced all of her foes in the first three seasons.

Moment(s) to Watch Out For: There are loads of comedy vignettes that prove without a doubt that Buffy hasn’t lost its bite. In fact the come with such alarming frequency that the show might actually be funnier than ever. Xander’s army speak and Giles’ despair at it made me hoot. The slow motion bitch fight between Harmony and Xander that sees them resorting to hair pulling by the end is a seminal Buffy moment and the sort of wet your pants funny kind of set piece that separates Buffy from other, humourless shows. The macho look on Xander’s face as he slaps like a girl is unforgettable. But most brilliantly of all is everything surrounding Spike attacking Willow. Its played for real and approaches what I would consider unacceptable because its given all the emphasis of a rape scene (Spike turns the music up to mask his attack, Willow tears at his flesh desperately and the camera slides along the corridor to expose her fellow dorm mates completely unaware of her suffering inside her room) and for a second you actually pause and think that Willow will spend the rest of the series as a vampire. Then it twists again into dark humour as Willow comforts Spike for not being able to ‘do it.’ It’s a blissfully funny parody of impotence and played to the hilt by both actors. The confident shifting of tones, the jet black humour, the fact that both parties are extremely likable even when doing horrible things – Buffy at its best. ‘This sort of thing as never happened to me before…’

Fashion Statement: This is a time when Riley’s floppy hair was considered to be the height of fashion (indeed my husband sported a similar haircut). I hate to say it but it does make him look kind of cute. In a dopey sort of way. When he dons his fatigues he looks practically edible.

Result: Proving my point (and then some) about season four being much more tightly plotted than the previous year, The Initiative sees Doug Petrie dovetailing all of the mysteries that have been taking place at the periphery of the previous episodes and providing some very satisfying answers. If this had simply been an exercise in solutions it would have been a very dull thing indeed so hooray for the razor sharp comedy vignettes that are liberally scattered about and making me choke with laughter on the way. There’s also some fine development of Riley and Walsh, Buffy and Willow are seen in a refreshingly bright manner after their recent heartbreak and everybody’s dialogue is sharp and sunny. Even more impressively The Initiative sees Buffy expanding its horizons in a very rewarding way, opening out to a world beyond the lives of Buffy and the Scoobies for the show to play around with for a while. Season four is probably the furthest the show dared to step into science fiction but that doesn’t bother me one bit and its quite refreshing to give the fantasy elements a rest for a season and see what else can be achieved with in a colder, more exciting setting. Spike and Harmony are better than ever before and there’s even some hope that Buffy might meet the man of her dreams. All this and a pant wettingly funny slow motion bitch fight. It’s a fulsome episode and James A. Contner’s direction makes all the transitions and top heavy elements fall into place with consummate skill. A joy to watch: 10/10

Pangs written by Jane Espenson and directed by Michael Lange

What’s it about: Its Thanksgiving and the Indians are finally taking their revenge…

The Chosen One: She’s got no boy to mope over anymore (hurrah!), her best friend is upset, her mentor is bored shitless and her geekazoid pal needs to try and integrate his new girlfriend into their social group…its time for Thanksgiving dinner! Its nice to have Buffy obsessing over something other than the apocalypse and horrible murders although she soon becomes a little too frenzied in her insistence that they all have a nice time (reminds me of Christmas with my family) and turns into a right food Nazi.

Ripper: I appreciate everything that Willow is saying but I almost applauded when Giles tore her down from the moral high ground and reminded her of the reality of the situation, morality aside. He has quite a line in sardonic wit that we don’t see enough of. More please.

Sexy Blond: Amazing how the fates of characters (and our opinion of them) can change in just a week. The last time we saw him he was forcing himself on Willow ready to gorge himself on her blood. Now he’s homeless, friendless, looking a little sallow for the lack of sustenance and hunted by the Initiative. Is this sympathy I am experiencing for this character? You would never imagine the Scoobies offering any kind of compassion for Spike, and certainly not refuge but once again season four has sneakily thought this through and his knowledge of his time in the Initiative base gives him a way in that nobody expected. Cue brilliant scenes as the neutered puppy joins them for dinner and throws in his sarcastic comments despite the potential threat to his life.

Ebony & Ivory: Spike has played the returning suitor too many times now and whilst I don’t believe for a second that Harmony has been reading books on empowerment she can certainly stand up for herself and she’s had enough of his empty promises. She lets him slide his hand just far enough up her skirt to give her time to reach for a stake to return the heartbreak she has suffered.

Witchy Willow: Anthony Head really rates this episode for Alyson Hannigan’s passionate performance and whilst I agree that she is superb (she’s always superb), he should take a look a few episodes back to when Willow was torn away from Oz to see what this actress can really do.

Gorgeous Geek: Nobody pratfalls quite like Xander and this time he has a whopping great hole to break through and fall on his ass. Unfortunately in the middle of his spell of icky diseases he makes a glib demonist remark that hurts Anya and will probably haunt him for some time. Should be survive. Something to look forward to there then.

Vengeance Demon: Just when the constant sex talk was starting to make Anya a little predictable she chooses to care for Xander when he is struck with the ‘funny syphilis’. You can see by the way that she dotes on him that they have a bright future together and he even slips out the word ‘girlfriend’ accidentally whilst she is mopping his brow.

 Puppy Dog Eyes: You might be the sort of person who gets excited when shows crossover as Buffy and Angel do in this season but I found Angel’s appearance here more than a little tiresome. Primarily because such a big deal was made about his departure it seems a little disingenuous to follow up that with a return visit to Sunnydale eight episodes into the next season. What it does highlight though is how well the show is doing without him – I always said he was surplus to requirements in season three! Hilariously he spends most of the episode doing his favourite things: moping about in the shadows and trailing after Buffy unawares. The reason he wants to keep Buffy out of the loop of his visit baffles me (it seems to be in place simply to make those who long to see them reunited sigh longingly throughout the episode) although his best moments come when he turns out to be present (such as at Giles’) and she is completely unaware. Willow might be in a bad place but I love that she goes at Angel and accuses him of behaving irrationally (plus the joke that Angel has turned evil again never gets old – if only!).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m a great cook. In theory. I’ve eaten a lot.’
‘You mean Angel? I saw him too’ ‘That’s not very stealthy of him’ ‘I think he’s lost his edge.’
‘I happen to think that mine is the level head and yours is the one things would roll off of.’
‘You won. You came in, you killed them and you took their land. That’s what conquering nations do. That’s what Caeser did and he’s not going around saying ‘I came, I conquered, I feel really bad about it…’ The history of the world is not people making friends, you had better weapons and you massacred them. End of story.’

The Good: Good on Jane Espenson for taking hold of an American tradition and exposing the pretence at the heart of it. Twisting the knife in even further (and adding that unique supernatural twist) the Indians are back on home soil and taking their bloody vengeance on anybody who stands in their way. All the discussion surrounding the persecution of the Native Americans is very intelligently scripted and reveals a great deal about the characters. It’s the sort of group conversations where everybody pitches in with a valid and opposing opinion that I was always praising DS9 for. Buffy wants to stop the vengeful spirit but giving the reason they are seeking revenge she wants to do it in as gentle a way as possible. Giles on the other hand doesn’t see this as any different from any other supernatural force they have encountered and doesn’t want historical guilt to stand in their way of preventing any more murders. Willow is consumed by guilt the more learns about the atrocities that occurred to the Indians and fervently tries to make a case for why they have every right to recreate the wrongs that were done to their people. Its great that this show would have its fluffiest central character as good as defending murder. Spike is the one who makes the most sense, shrugging off Willow’s over baked guilt and telling her to get over the fact that something bad happened long before she could do anything about it (‘you exterminate his race…what could you possibly say that is going to make him feel better?’). I like that the show is willing to make all of these points but not make any kind of definitive judgement – that’s left for you to decide. The Indian who explodes into crows is an effects triumph. I love how so much of the exposition in this episode that usually takes place with everybody sitting around a table and looking very serious is instead inserted into scenes of Buffy and Giles making Thanksgiving dinner. Listening to them discuss murder and mortal combat with spirits whilst peeling the spuds and basting the Turkey is brilliantly unconventional. There’s another terrific concluding set piece this season with Giles’ house coming under fire from an army of Native Americans and arrows filling the air and threatening to ruin Buffy’s plans. The shot of Spike tied to a chair with several arrows sticking out of him really made me laugh, as did Giles’ telephone warning (‘yes we’re well aware of that…we’re under siege now actually…’). And then there’s Anya smack and Indian with a spade over and over and screaming ‘why wont you die!’ Espenson is the funniest writer this show has and she shoots this script through with some absolute belters. Keeping Buffy and Angel apart isn’t done in a particularly witty way (compared to say the glorious slapstick of the Doctor and Donna Noble in Doctor Who’s Partners in Crime) until the fight at the end where some nifty editing allows them to take part in the same fight and never once clap eyes on each other.

 The Bad: I’m not entirely sure how staking a bear destroys the Indian spirit but who cares just this once…this is such a blast to watch I honestly don’t give a damn.

Moment to Watch Out For: The perfect Buffy moment comes when Giles and Buffy are under siege from a rain of arrows and they hope against hope that Willow and company are on their way to rescue them. Cut to them making their way across town on bicycles in the most hilariously inoffensive fashion with the most heroic musical cue imaginable. Trust this show to take a pause to laugh at itself in such a spectacularly mundane way. Its one of things that marks this show out from so many others.

Fashion Statement: There’s something for everyone at the dig that Xander is about to start work on. A brunette, a redhead and a blonde all looking smoking hot…and Nicky Brendon in a vest top and a hard hat!

Orchestra: Christophe Beck is the past master at adapting his music to suit the tone of an episode and he deploys the pipes here to great effect as Buffy trades blows with an Native American.

Foreboding: Buffy discovering about Angel is the long overdue payoff for the pair of them not meeting up in this episode. It’s a great final reaction shot by everybody concerned. She’s off to Los Angeles to have it out with him.

Result: A massive departure for Buffy which takes an American tradition and exposes the hypocrisy festering at the heart of it, Pangs more than justifies its lurch away from the continuing plotlines because it is so astutely written and passionately performed. Its an episode I never used to have any time for but subsequent re-watches and a certain developing maturity (if you can believe it) has allowed me to see past the pointless return of Angel and focus on the clever myth deconstruction and hilarious gags on display. One of the unexpected joys of Pangs is that by having Spike and Anya turn up for Thanksgiving dinner Espenson has exposed the central cast that will make sure that this show continues to flourish for the next three and a half seasons. It’s a fantastic mix of characters and the group dialogue scenes see personalities bump, sparks fly and witty lines trip from everybody’s tongue as though humour is their first language. The irony is that in the episode where Angel makes a (frankly unnecessary) reappearance, its Spike who makes the best impression leaving his former killing partner in the shadows. Pangs has a big point to make about viewing a tradition objectively (and takes its time to let everybody have their say without making any official judgement) which makes it sound as dry as dust but with Espenson at the typewriter its also really, really funny: 9/10

Something Blue written by Tracey Forbes and directed by Nick Marck

What’s it about: Another of Willow’s spells goes awry and everything that she says starts to come true…

The Chosen One: Riley is an extremely solid, dependable bloke and is exactly what Buffy needs after losing Angel and suffering Parker. She needs to be reminded that there is some hope out there. Forbes may not realise it but by highlighting how square Buffy is she has always explained why her and Riley have a finite relationship before they even get together. A whiter than white college boy just isn’t going to be enough for this gal for an extended period – she likes her men with dark secrets and bad behaviour. She’s come to expect desire and pain to go hand in hand and worse, I think she’s started to enjoy it. Of course Buffy can empathise with Willow, she’s been through this kind of heartache so much she’s developed a taste for it. Buffy casually mentioning how bored they all are of Willow’s grief unexpectedly made me laugh.

Ripper: It’s the perfect time for Giles to be made to feel impotent and surplus to requirements because that has been a nagging feeling that has tailed him ever since the High School blew up and everybody went to college. He’s been embracing the Halloween spirit and enjoying some extra curriculum activity with Olivia and only been consulted when it has been absolutely necessary. For him to lose his sight and ability to do the one thing he is really good at (researching) is like rendering him completely worthless.

Sexy Blond: As if we needed reminding, we get to experience just how much Buffy violently loathes Spike as a precursor for the comic happenings later in the episode. I can’t imagine his life getting much lower than being manacled in Giles’ bath being fed blood through a straw from a cup that reads KISS THE LIBRARIAN. Although somehow they do manage to punish him further. Much further. Its come to a point where if he hits Buffy, it hurts and if she hits him it also hurts. He’s in a lose/lose situation, poor lamb. The funniest half of the Buffy/Spike engagement is left entirely to the groom who gets jealous of any mention of Angel and considers Giles to be his father-in-law.

Witchy Willow: Willow seems to be getting progressively worse about her split with Oz rather than time being a healer and helping to soothe things. I can’t help but think that this is schedule issue, that this episode might have been better taking place immediately after Wild at Heart. The events of the previous two episodes have seen her getting over the heartache and distracting herself with other issues (Buffy’s love life for one, the hypocrisy of Thanksgiving for another) and this feels like a massive step backwards. I’m not saying that the pain of being dumped isn’t a lengthly feeling to work through but in fictional terms there is only so long you can watch somebody suffering like this before you start to lose sympathy for them. Thank goodness that Tara is about to introduced because things are about to get interesting for Willow again in a very positive way. The way that Forbes uses Willow’s grief as a catalyst to the events that befall all the characters is clever although I cannot remember a time before or since where she has made so many fatuous comments about her friends (she has to do it in order for the enchantments to effect them). Willow has a major choice to make at the end of the episode where she is offered the powers and privileges of a Vengeance Demon (thus twisting the knife in once again for Anya). The real choice is whether to be consumed by her angst or to try and move on from it. Finally she’s no longer in the dumps and she’s back to being the cutesy, cookie baking Willow we all know and love. Just in time for a new love to arrive.

Vengeance Demon: Sweetly Anya says that she would liquefy Oz’s entrails if she had her powers back. Maybe there could be a friendship between her and Willow after all.

College Boy: Riley considers Buffy as tricky to talk to as it is to sit an exam and invites her to a picnic that will be raided by ants – its astonishing that he hasn’t got a girlfriend already! Riley is such a gentleman that invites Willow to join him on his date with Buffy even though she is the perpetual black cloud at the moment.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘This is the crack team that foils my every plan? I am deeply shamed!’

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘Anybody remember when Buffy had the fun beer fest and went 100,000 years BC?’ – no Tracey, we’re doing our level best to forget it ever happened. And the use of the word fun in that sentence is a misnomer.

The Good: The increasing use of magic on this show is a positive trend and leads to well realised set pieces such as the atmospheric, candle lit sequence in Something Blue. The blink and you’ll miss it appearance of Amy is gorgeous and kudos to Elizabeth Anne Allen for showing up for a split seconds footage. D’Hoffryn is one of those characters on Buffy who is always a delight when he shows up and his poker face humour is as winning as ever. His reaction to Willow’s rejection is perfectly played by Andy Umberger.

 The Bad: Giles turning up at Willow’s room to lecture her on her responsibilities is Forbes’ clunky characterisation at its worst. Compare and contrast to Espenson’s work with the same characters (Giles condemn Willow in Pangs too but in a much funnier, sarcastic sort of way) in the previous episode and there is a world between them. Buffy telling Riley that she is getting married to Spike is absolutely ridiculous and should never have been included. It doesn’t raise a laugh and it muddies their burgeoning relationship in a way that makes both characters look like complete idiots afterwards. Anya stating ‘its just the two of us’ is so obviously asking for an invasion of demons to attack lusting after Xander – its not like Buffy to signpost its humour this much.

Moment to Watch Out For: Probably the funniest moment in the entire episode comes when Forbes isn’t trying to be amusing but instead writers natural dialogue that Nicky Brendon runs with. Xander finally knows something that is vital to the comic misshapenness of this madness and reaches into his brain for the answer. Watching him grasp for some scrap of information is really chucklesome. 

Fashion Statement: Buffy’s hair is straying towards Beer Bad territory but without the crap smeared all over her face and the grunting she looks like a wild and exciting thing.

Result: Something Blue is far superior to Tracey Forbes’ previous effort but still falls short of being a classic Buffy episode on the count that its still a little too obvious and awkward in spots. This time she has hit upon a much funnier and more imaginative premise bourne that affects the characters at precisely the right point in their developing arcs this season (Giles feels impotent, Willow is devastatingly heartbroken, Xander has just managed to capture the heart of another demon). The Buffy/Spike engagement is the most blatant comic blunder that Willow causes and whilst it is funny (my mom still cites this as her favourite Buffy episode because of it) it could be even funnier if it wasn’t pushed to such extremes. Sometimes a little subtlety goes a long way. Where Forbes scores big time is her understanding of the characters (which has improved tenfold) and everybody gets a moment where their real feelings are laid bare with Willow in particular having to make a choice whether to lose herself to her grief or to move on with her life. Whilst the dialogue would have been much sharper in the hands of a better writer (if Joss Whedon did cast his eyes over this script he certainly didn’t invest it with the same love as the next episode) and the whole thing feels a little top heavy with efforts to trying and be funny, this is still wildly entertaining for the most part and another season four winner: 7/10

Hush written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: ‘Can’t even run, can’t even cry, the Gentlemen are coming by…’

The Chosen One: The running gag in Hush is that Buffy and Riley can’t tell each other the truth (because they don’t know the other is hiding a secret of their very own) and their relationship is currently built on subterfuge shared by two. The transition between one scene with Buffy talking to Willow about how she wishes she could tell Riley the truth about slaying to Riley talking to Forest about how he wishes he could tell Buffy about the Initiative drives the point home beautifully. Its also another reminder of the careful plotting of season four, expertly getting both characters to this point where their anxieties are mirrored and exposed at the same time. The incongruity of these characters not being able to verbally communicate with one another but falling into each others arms when that barrier is broken down between them is delicious. Physical affection is far more intimate but its all they have now and as a result their relationship moves onto another level, starting with a hug but soon developing into a kiss.

Ripper: Giles makes rather a lovely point about why everybody is bringing their problems to his home. Its become the default location for season four and its nice to see Whedon acknowledge how that needs to change. Giles becomes more tactile because he has to communicate his affection for his friends beyond simply telling them everything is going to be okay.

Sexy Blond: Now there’s an idea for a sitcom – a vampire (Spike) and a librarian (Giles) sharing a house. Imagine the comic mishaps that would ensue! Well now you don’t have to because that’s pretty much what’s occurring at this point in their lives. Bitching over Weetabix and eating habits, they make a surprisingly engaging pair. Spike is (mostly) kept out of the action in this episode but he can’t be the centre of attention every week and this is much more of an ensemble piece anyway where everybody gets the chance to shine.

Witchy Willow: Joining a wicca group on campus seems like a perfectly valid option until Willow turns up and they are less interested in the art of magic and more obsessed with bake sales and  newsletters. However will ultimately be very pleased that she did take the time to check out because there is one member of the ‘coven’ who is set to be an important part of her life. Tara Maclay is shy, mousy and awkward, pretty much everything Willow was when we were introduced to her in the first season. She’s clearly not had the benefit of the social group that Willow has and as result lacks confidence in herself and her abilities. Their meeting is fated and the scene where they come together to take on the Gentlemen’s lackeys with their magical abilities sizzles with an energy that suggests far more than friendship on the horizon. It’s a massively empowering moment for women, for lesbians and for the positive depiction of witchcraft. Alyson Hannigan’s breathless reaction to their spell sees something very powerful awakening inside of her and it isn’t just magic.

Gorgeous Geek: Naturally Xander thinks that his sudden lack of speech is somehow down to his new roommate and Spike’s silent reaction is to gesture emphatically with a single digit at the suggestion.

Vengeance Demon: ‘This isn’t a relationship! You don’t need me! All you care about is lots of orgasms…’ Xander and Anya are suffering from precisely the reverse problem to Buffy and Riley – they are discussing their feelings and roles too much. The joy of Hush is seeing them communicate without words and deciding how much they care about through their actions alone. In a gorgeous parody of those oh-so tasteful scenes where objects are specifically placed to comic effect to hide the genitals of naked actors on screen, Xander walks into Giles’ house at precisely the wrong moment where Spike appears to have suck the blood out of Anya’s neck. She’s sprawled on the sofa asleep and he’s just had a tasty cup of blood which has vamped him up and of course Xander puts two and two together and makes two hundred and eight. In a bout of physical violence Xander gets to express how much he cares about Xander in a way he never could with anything as banal as language. Anya, as subtle as ever, makes a sex mime with her two hands so we know precisely how she is going to thank him.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Well get with it I need my vicarious smooches!’
‘I guess we have to talk…’

The Good: As somebody who is currently studying psychology it is fascinating to watch an episode of television that removes verbal communication completely and revels in the comic and dramatic potential of purely physical interaction. Whedon jumps straight to the point with Professor Walsh introducing the idea at the heart of the episode in her lecture. He proves that he understands the horror genre perfectly, riffing A Nightmare on Elm Street by setting up the introduction of the Gentlemen with a catchy (and creepy) rhyme sung by a child in a dream. Every now and again a cult TV show will come up with an idea that is so groundbreakingly perfect you have to question why nobody has thought of it before. Everything about the Gentlemen is so exquisitely achieved they are still spoken about in a certain hushed (hoho) reverence by my friends (geeks and non-geeks alike for this is an episode that an awful lot of my friends sought out upon its critical acclaim) to this day. Their appearance is inspired (floating cadavers dressed up as undertakers with a permanent psychotic grin fixed to their faces), their modus operandi makes them one of the most chilling creations ever devised (they steal your voices so you can’t scream when they come to cut out your heart) and the additional features (the vile, straight jacketed demons that run after them and hold down their victims as they perform their heat surgery) only add at to the bone gnawing terror they inspire. Christophe Beck furnishes them with an unforgettable theme (that I can hum in its entirety I have listened to it so many times) and the perfect finishing touch is their amiable, effete behaviour towards each other – every bit the refined gentlemen they are described as they wave away praise and gesture thanks for their assistance in deploying their weapon of choice. The atmosphere that surrounds the theft of the towns voices feels for all the world like the best Tim Burton film that never made it to the big screen. We’re slowly given clues that something is wrong as Buffy walks the halls of the university and people are already reacting to their sudden muteness but what I really like is that she doesn’t realise herself instantly because its rare that the first thing you do in the morning is open your eyes and burst into conversation. Buffy and Willow’s rising panic feels perfectly natural (especially Willow thinking that she has gone deaf). To ask the cast to act out the equivalent of a silent film for half an hour is a massive ask but fortunately Whedon has assembled a superb cast that is more than up to task of draining every last nuance out of this opportunity. Xander calling Buffy and her picking up the phone are both perfectly natural reactions until you think about it for two seconds and then they both look like complete idiots. That is some very sophisticated humour because the audience is made to look the numpty along with the characters. The Initiative boys are clever enough to cotton on to the idea of writing down their dialogue but stupid enough to almost get themselves killed in a voice activated lift when there is an emergency stairwell that is perfectly serviceable. Whedon approaches his brilliant idea from so many well observed angles, its his writing at its absolute best. Naturally there are people exploiting the situation; the church is holding prayer meetings, people are selling message boards and the liquor shops are practically out of stock with everybody drowning their sorrows and they slump into depression. Its very clever that Whedon allows the characters to adjust to the situation before allowing the Gentleman to roam free. There’s a period of normalising before events take a turn for the terrifying. When something terrifying usually occurs in Sunnydale the first reaction of the populace is to panic and scream but that isn’t an option anymore and its somewhat unnerving for Buffy to patrol the streets populated by lost and lonely individuals unable to communicate with each other, walking around like zombies. There’s a fantastic shock moment that is up there with the very best examples of this kind of jump out of your seat jolt when Olivia looks out of the window and one of the Gentleman suddenly flashes past the window grinning at her. Beck’s suddenly attack of violins is perfectly timed. The way they float past peoples houses and dorms and politely select or dismiss their victims chills me to the bone but nothing could have prepared me for the murder of the boy who cannot cry out for help. Unbelievably they knock at the door as if they are too courteous to enter unannounced but once access is granted their malformed brutes hold the poor kid down as they delicately play pass the scalpel and I swear the smile on their faces gets larger as they start cutting into his chest. Its great that Giles reaches for a book on Fairy Tales once Olivia hands him a drawing of the creature he saw, Whedon not even bothering with the pretence of hiding his influences. The Gentleman have had enough exposure by the time we reach the scene where the sneak up on Tara unawares and you are left screaming at the television for her to turn around. There is something about their unhurried and yet relentless pursuit that is the stuff of nightmares. Amongst all this glorious horror movie material there is still time for Whedon to pull off one of his trademark subversions. I really thought Tara had finally caught up with Willow when she knocked on her door and we cut to Willow inside reacting…only for one the Gentleman to open up holding a human heart dripping with offal in his hand. This is punch the air television. As with season four to date the fight sequences are better than ever but as exemplified by Hush (where everything is that little bit better than the best the show has been before this) it takes place on an ambitious scale within the town clock tower. It’s a multi level location that is smashed to pieces and the combat itself is savagely choreographed. Its only when it occurs that you realise this has all been leading up to the fantastic statement that a show that is about empowering women should feature in one of its finest episodes a climax where the terrifying scream of its lead (female) character defeats the monsters. But not before a blissful comic pause where Riley fails to destroy the box that is holding all the voices. Even in death the Gentlemen kick ass, their heads exploding in slow motion ickiness.

The Bad: Not a fault of this episode but it looks like Olivia is being set up as a long term investment so it’s a bit strange that we should never see her again. Hush, in itself, is perfect.

Moment to Watch Out For: As much as I want heap as much praise upon the Gentlemen as possible, it is the slide show sequence that I have chosen as the zenith of this incredible episode because this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer after all and it is the characters that make this show so special. This is possibly the finest group scene that the show ever presented, revealing what makes each of these characters so special without a single line of the razor sharp dialogue that the show is renowned for. Giles manages to be dictatorial and long winded even without the English language to back him up but at the same time proves hilarious with his ridiculously graphic depiction of the Gentlemen’s handiwork and his drawing of Buffy with massively wide hips. Anya loves the bloody drawings and munches away on her popcorn. Xander mistakes Buffy’s mime of slaying for masturbation in one of the funniest misunderstandings committed to celluloid. Willow is super smart even if her correct answers are completely mis-interpreted as being about a spread of fairy tale monsters that are obsessed with boobies. This is observational humour at its best coupled with some of the sunniest characters on television. The result is pure, unadulterated win.

Fashion Statement: Riley in a sweaty vest top, Xander in his boxers and Spike tied to a chair – this is a whole world of male hotness! Amber Benson is one of the most beautiful women you will ever see on television.

Orchestra: What an incredible achievement for Christophe Beck who single handedly has to hold up this episode aurally whilst the dialogue is missing. Its one of my favourite scores from any TV show and film, haunting, spellbinding and beautifully matching the sinister fairytale tone of the piece. The climactic music where Tara is searching the university dorms being pursued relentlessly by the Gentlemen might just be Beck’s finest work on the show.

Foreboding: The gorgeous cliffhanging moment where Buffy and Riley have to talk about seeing each other for the first time. This is picked up from exactly the spot where we left them in the next episode. The irony is that now they have their voices back they simply don’t know what to say to each other.

Result: The best piece of storytelling that Tim Burton never made. A sinister, imaginative, thrilling fairytale that captured the hearts (hoho) of an audience far beyond the reach of Buffy’s usual viewers. Whilst being the scariest and the funniest episode of Buffy to date, Whedon also manages to use his ingenious premise of a town with no voices to write a treatise on the nature of communication and how language can often be a limiting barrier to what you are really trying to say. Without dialogue, direction, characterisation and music are more important than ever and all of these elements are peerlessly realised throughout this episode and draw interest to themselves because the audience is paying attention even more than usual. We’ve left the science fiction elements for one week and walked into pure fairytale territory but with a dark twist and the Gentlemen are just about the finest creations this show bestowed upon an unsuspecting audience. Conceptually they are terrifying but for once that is translated perfectly on screen and the result is a handful of scenes that are enough to get adults wetting the bed, let alone the kiddywinks. Whedon would go on to write and direct other near flawless episodes of Buffy but I don’t think there is another occasion where he would pack a single episode with so many inspired moments of comedy, drama, scares, subversions and great, great character nuggets. Hush literally never stops giving right up until the last second that leaves you desperate for more. Quite simply one of the best hours of television you will ever see: 10/10

Doomed written by Marti Noxon, David Fury & Jane Espenson and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Buffy and Riley, Willow and Percy, Xander and Spike, the Hellmouth…anything that the writers can grab hold of basically.

The Chosen One: Buffy proves the more observant and insightful of her and Riley since she is able to determine practically everything about the Initiative whereas he can only sum up everything he has picked up about her as ‘you’re incredible.’ When Riley suggests that Buffy doesn’t look the slightest but scarred because of her work she simply replies (in a wholly metaphorical way) ‘you’re not looking hard enough.’ Buffy should be revelling in the opportunity to share her life with somebody who does the same thing but instead she bizarrely pushes him away for the slightest of reasons (so slight it feels like she is doing it just to create some drama that isn’t there). It feels like for some reason the writers wanted to delay the Buffy/Riley romance for one more episode even when everybody (except Buffy) can see that it is inevitable. They simply cannot find a way of stalling convincingly anymore now the cat is out of the bag about their jobs.

Sexy Blond: When Spike decides to come along to see the Hellmouth resurrected wearing a Hawaiian shirt it was the first time ever that I thought he was surplus to requirements in an episode. He’s just there because he’s a popular character and that’s not reason enough. Actually no I take that back, he does discover that he can hurt demons (and thus give him a place in the Scoobies for the time being) but it takes a long time to reach that conclusion.

Witchy Willow: Buffy chooses to deliberately not tell Willow the truth she has discovered about Riley which goes hand in hand with this years emerging theme that relationships are shifting within the group and everybody is keeping secrets. Something has happened to Willow since Oz that has left the character surprisingly bereft of confidence to the point where a throwaway remark from Percy (the sort that she had tossed her way all the time at High School) completely shatters her self image. It doesn’t quite come off, although I can see how they are trying to prepare for her triumphant return to form when she gets close to Tara.

Gorgeous Geek: Buffy: The Sitcom continues and the Xander/Spike house share continues to provide the laughs. When Xander’s back is turned and he is making jibes and Spike’s ineptitude his lodger is attempting to kill him and suffering a brain aneurysm as a result.

College Boy: He’s finally been added to the credits after numerous appearances this year. I guess that means he’s going to be sticking around for some time. Riley proves his worth to Buffy by…stumbling in on the scene at the last minute.

The Good: Willow lying down in bed next to a corpse definitely raised an eyebrow.

The Bad: Doomed opens on a much needed catch up between Buffy and Riley where they feel each other out (with regards to their jobs). Its not a bad scene per se, and given the events of the last episode it is practically essential but considering the writing talent that went into producing this script it is entirely lacking in the wit department and the direction is flat and lacking visual interest. Even an earthquake can’t provide much excitement. Suddenly the Initiative isn’t a fresh new environment but just somewhere else that the action takes place…it all comes down to the way that the episode is shot which is shockingly bland for Buffy and a first for the usually reliable Contner. I’m not sure what the purpose of bringing back Percy for one scene was beyond making fan boys scream ‘its Percy!’ but since he was never the shows most memorable character it feels like a waste of a cameo. It just goes to show how much the director brings to a show because the last time Willow was disturbed by the sight of a bloody corpse (Prophecy Girl) and confided in Buffy about it the scene was powerful and revelatory but this time around there is a real shoulder shrugging ‘been there, done that’ attitude. Bailey Chase is remarkably wooden as Graham Miller. He’s from the Kristen Stewart school of acting where one expression suits all situations. We veer between Willow worrying about Percy’s fatuous comments to Buffy having reservations about her relationship with Riley because of her history with Angel to Spike and Xander in the basement to the end of the world (which even these characters bemoan has become a little old hat) and none of it seems to cohere…the writers don’t have anything to fix on and so they try and focus on everything and as a result nothing sticks. When returning to Sunnydale High is a positive step because we need something to fixate on rather than swinging pendulously between one agonising character scene to another, you know something has gone horribly wrong. Even Spike trying to stake himself lacks any interest and feels completely out of place. The threat of the week is so vague and irrelevant it takes Giles half an hour to find out anything substantial about it. Its just an early earthquake and talk of the end of the world. If this was the apocalypse, it would be a really anti-climatic way to go. There’s a demon fight thrown in at Giles’ place simply because nothing has happened for a few minutes. It serves no real plot purpose. The writers are so desperate to pull some kind of danger out of the bag they plump for opening the Hellmouth. For the third time.

Moment to Watch Out For: It’s the cheapest of apocalypse of all time (perhaps they were scared to pull out that godawful Hellmouth puppet for a third time) with the emphasis on a smoky hole in the ground that we never get to see in to. Riley pulling Buffy out of the hole by a slack piece of string is particularly cut-price.

Fashion Statement: Its hard to know what is funnier…Xander in his horrendous burger bar outfit or Spike in the Bermuda top and explorer shorts. How outfits make these two gorgeous men look so ugly is baffling.

Foreboding: There’s a nice mention of Faith still being in a coma which reminds us of her existence ready for her triumphant return later in the season.

Result: What a come down after the high that was Hush. Doomed is an unexpected failiure for Buffy and the sort of episode that just needed a revision or two to iron out its wrinkles both in terms of writing and direction. With three writers on board there is clearly a great deal of content but the trouble with this particular installment is that there is too much, almost as if they are trying to throw so much at you until you submit. Even more jarring for this show is how the tone is so misjudged; oddly serious when it should be funny and missing out on the laughs when it should be funny. I’ll tell you what Doomed feels like, its like the end of season episode where everybody is tired and nobody is doing their best work. Which is odd since this is in the middle of the season, coming straight after the biggest score of the series (not the season, the series) and when the show should be riding high on its success. To return to Sunnydale High after we have so successfully moved on from it by now also feels like a massive step backwards. All in all, extremely jarring and not at all what I was expecting…and for once that is not a positive statement. Worst apocalypse ever: 3/10

A New Man written by Jane Espenson and directed by Michael Gershman

What’s it about: Giles is turned into an oggie boogie demon!

The Chosen One: Finally Buffy and Riley are making out and having fun like normal, ordinary students – not worrying about the weight of the world or the responsibilities of their jobs but simply having fun. I thought it would never happen. Now Buffy and Riley have joined forces, Buffy and the Initiative can do the same. Willow is right…Buffy should definitely have a new boyfriend every week. She is more fun!

Ripper: ‘What am I? I’m an unemployed librarian who tends to get knocked on the head a lot…’ The theme of obsolescence in season four takes dominance and the writers address the fact that Giles has stood on the periphery of the show for half of the season now. He’s feeling useless and somehow in that way that when you are at your lowest ebb everybody else seems to be having a really great time. Without you. There’s nothing worse than feeling unwanted and Jane Espenson has great fun reminded Giles of this over and over whilst somehow managing to make us laugh at the same time. He doesn’t recognise anybody in Buffy’s social circle, he didn’t know that she was dating Riley and he has been left completely out of the loop with regards to the Initiative (even Spike knew about that). If all of that wasn’t bad enough he gets to meet the Evil Bitch Monster of Death (otherwise known as Professor Walsh) who inadvertently points out that his tutorage of Buffy over her first three years in Sunnydale has been shockingly deficient. To be told that he hasn’t fulfilled the role of a male role model for Buffy by a woman who barely knows her must be gutting. Rubbing salt into an already infecting, puss filled wound, Giles cannot even predict the latest evil rising correctly and gets everybody tooled up for an appearance of a nasty that doesn’t even show. Poor guy, impotence has rarely been this authentically portrayed. He couldn’t have been turned into a demon with laser eye beams or something cool like that…nope our Giles gets the demon with the paralysing mucus that shoots out through the nose! The way the episode swings entirely in Giles’ favour with all the Scoobies recognising his strengths in a crisis is very touching.

Sexy Blond: Spike is looking to move somewhere dark and dank…but not as dark and dank as Xander’s seedy little basement pad. Spike continues to be the sitcom character on the show but the material is of such a superior vintage of that we endured in the last episode they might as well be from different shows. Teaming up Spike and Giles is always going to lead to sparkling lines and interaction and their misadventures in Giles’ old rust bucket had me howling with laughter. Spike pretends he is in it for the money but to be honest what else has he got going on? This is the most excitement he has had since he was kidnapped by the Imitative and since they seem to be the ones after Giles it could be his way of killing two birds at once!

Witchy Willow: Tara’s return is a massive step in the right direction for Willow who has been floundering like a fish out of water ever since Oz left. Something about her being in the vicinity of Tara turns her into the cutest thing to walk upon the Earth. It turns out that their minds are in sync but we didn’t need a spell to tell us that. They’re chemistry is instant and plain as the nose on your face. Clearly her developing feelings for Tara aren’t something that she feels comfortable sharing as she lies through her teeth about their time together. This could be very interesting.

Vengeance Demon: Anya is trying very hard to perform socially with Xander’s friends but she can’t quite manage it without insulting everybody in the room. It’s a gift. Her comforting opinion to the Scoobies who are worried about Giles is ‘I think it ate him up.’

College Boy: Giles isn’t the one feeling impotent this week. Riley learns that Buffy has killed for demons and averted more apocalypsi (its my plural and I’m sticking to it!) then he could ever dream. And she can kick his ass too. This might not make me popular but these early days of Buffy and Riley are much more fun than Buffy and Angel ever were. With Angel it was all doom and gloom, end of the world if they don’t stay together melodrama which worked during the moments of high drama but was pretty tedious otherwise. With Riley there is real sense of Buffy just letting go and being a teenager and that’s rather joyful to experience with her. I honestly don’t think I have ever seen her smile as much as she does in this episode before.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Its only our methods that differ. We use the latest in scientific technology and state of the art weaponry and you if I understand correctly poke them with a sharp stick.’
‘You wont have to worry about that anymore mate. When you went to the loo I slipped a small pellet of poison in your drink. You’ll be dead in an hour….just kidding!’
‘Oh and it might have a saucepan shaped bruise…’
‘I’ve really got to learn to do the damage and get out of town. It’s the stay and gloat that gets me every time!’

The Good: If that doesn’t go down as one of most amiable Buffy pre titles sequences ever then my names not Joe Ford. The second Ethan Rayne turns up this goes from being a good episode to being a great one (‘oh bugger I thought you’d gone!’). He’s just so much fun, playing up to the camera, taking the piss out of his friend, always involved in some dodgy scheme and aware of all the clichés so he can subvert them with glee (the poisoned drink gag is priceless). Ethan turns up at exactly the right point to develop Giles’ already suspicious feeling about the Initiative and their meddling in supernatural affairs. Its as if they have been saving the best make up for the time when one of the regulars is going to be turned into a demon because the job that they do on Anthony Head is astonishingly detailed and impressive. Hilariously he walks like he has shat himself and tears up his flat performing task that he can normally manage perfectly fine. This is comic gold! Buffy stabbing Giles and realising it is him at the same moment should be shocking but they judge the tone just right and its laugh out loud hilarious. Ethan being taken off by the Initiative to an undisclosed location is very satisfying. I still wish we could have seen him one last time in the nostalgia-packed season seven though.

Moment to Watch Out For: The moment when Giles gets out of the car and chases Professor Walsh down the street in the guise of a demon is not only one of the funniest moments of the season but the series. I snorted coffee from my nose!

Foreboding: It’s the first real hint that there is anything genuinely perturbing about the organisation  (Giles suspicions so far have been based purely on the fact that they make him feel like a useless twat) but that idea is about to developed in the next couple of episodes.

Result: ‘Bloody humans!’ And Jane Espenson is back in the room and automatically the show is funny and warm and rather wonderful again. Unlike the last episode which tried to squeeze in everything accept the kitchen sink, A New Man concentrates on Giles’ story and works all the other elements around that and the result is a much more satisfying and involving episode. What is clear from this episode is that Anthony Head is perfectly capable at playing broad humour and has been quietly tucked away doing a lot of the serious stuff whilst the kids get all the fun. Now is his chance to really go for the comic jugular and he is clearly enjoying himself immensely. By setting up Giles as an obsolete old fart this season they had to address the fact at some point and the only real way that could explore this was by kicking him (or turning him into a demon) whilst he is down. Within this gleeful examination of obsolescence and re-establishing Giles as an important figure in Buffy’s life we also get bonus developments in the sunny opening days of Buffy and Riley’s relationship and a growing concern that all is not as it appears to be at the Initiative. In the middle of a season where there is so much going on I’m glad that there is still time for a character based comic gem like this. It’s the sort of episode that Buffy excels at: 9/10

The I in the Team written by David Fury and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Buffy discovers there is no place for her in the Initiative …

The Chosen One: ‘She’s probably off living the life of Riley…’ Ever since Buffy has started date Riley she is rarely around anymore and speaking as somebody with friends who conform to the same stereotype this is a perfectly natural occurrence. Buffy is utterly distracted by the things happening in her own life and is enjoying her honeymoon period with Riley which is exactly as it should be…although perhaps not to the detriment of her friends. People say that Riley and Buffy were never much of a good match and whilst there might be something in that down the line at this moment in time he is exactly what she needs. Somebody who is whiter than white and will still be there in the morning. Somebody she can trust in completely. Somebody with a reflection. If all Riley is is the living embodiment that there is life (and happiness) after Angel then he has fulfilled a vital function. I loved the little gag where you think Buffy and Riley will be sharing their first night together and he asks if she’s really ready…and it turns out he is talking about her first visit to the Initiative. This new organisation is all about gadgets, discipline and controlled circumstances which works to a point but Buffy knows that instinct and improvisation have their place too. The real difference between the two approaches is exposed when Buffy asks a bunch of questions during the briefing to get as much intel as possible whereas the commandos stand silently, happy with the information that they are given. Ouch, the moment that Buffy brings all of her new friends along to a Scoobies only night out goes down like a lead balloon. Sometimes she doesn’t have a clue.

Sexy Blond: The first appearance of Spike’s crypt which is a location that this show so desperately needed because they were running out of ways to have him interact with the case. Typically Spike is the one to tell Giles and the others to piss off but I think he forgets that he was the one who foisted himself upon them in the first place. Of course this is just setting up his ignominy when he once again needs their help as the Initiative catch up with him.

Witchy Willow: Buffy’s obsession with her new social groups means that Willow is seeking solace in the arms of another and despite herself she is clearly developing feelings for Tara very quickly. I love the fact that this is a secret relationship at this point, their own little world. Its even come to a point where Willow feels bad that she cannot spend time with Tara (who clearly doesn’t have a massive social circle) to be with the Scoobies. She suggests to Buffy that there is somebody in her life but she’s still not comfortable telling anybody that it is a girl. This is such a sensitively handled exploration of her shifting sexuality…I have rarely seen this sort of thing done better elsewhere. 

College Boy: Walsh can see how Buffy is distracting Riley, making him curious where he has always been compliant.

The Good: It has only just struck me that during season four there has been so little of the original trio just hanging out together because of all the new people in their life. Willow has Tara, Xander has Anya and Buffy has Riley and they tend to be monopolising their time of late. Fortunately they are all good additions to the show (even Riley, at least for now) and it does highlight the fact that when you move to a new environment (like university) you do meet new people and move on. Some friendships endure and others fall to the wayside…fortunately Buffy, Xander and Willow’s proves to be robust but their general disassociation has to be dealt with (in the upcoming two part season wrap up) before they realise that. Now here’s a new spin on things…Buffy is proving much more effective than the Initiative at tracking down demons and Professor Walsh doesn’t like her authority or her methods being undermined. The Initiative does feel like the next logical step on this show, not only fighting the forces of darkness but studying them and utilising their skills. If only it had somebody less barmy in charge it really could have worked. In the way that it has been introduced slowly but teasingly and how it has now completely opened out the show in a fresh direction sees Buffy braving new waters at its confident best. Now there is a mystery at the heart of the show that Willow puts out there in the course of this episode: what is their ultimate agenda? Forrest’s growing unrest with Buffy and Riley’s closeness is another element that has been seagued into the story really well and would go on to provides some nice moments in the coming episodes. Walsh sipping her coffee whilst watching Buffy fight to the death is way cool. The Initiative closing in on Spike whilst Giles tries to remove the implant gives the closing scenes a real sense of race against time momentum. I love the scene where Walsh in a fit of villainous glee tells Riley that Buffy has been killed and all of her plans unravel spectacularly as she appears on the screen behind them and reveals that his mentor tried to kill her. Perhaps the ‘Buffy works for the Initiative’ could have played out for longer (its such a fun idea) but at least the unravelling of this concept is played out with real bite.

The Bad: It’s a shame that we get to see Adam before the climax because his gruesome hotchpotch appearance seems perfectly suited to a cliffhanger. For an episode that is strikingly well realised for the most part the attack on Buffy and the subsequent malfunction of her weapon feels very cheap and slackly directed. A bizarre misstep considering it is the most important moment of the episode.

Moment to Watch Out For: Contner proves that he is one of the directors on the show with his penchant for gorgeous imagery, fast paced action and imaginative set ups. Never is that more apparent than the sequence which intercuts Buffy and Riley fighting a demon and their post-combat love making. It looks gorgeous, its graphic enough to get you hot and bothered, the music is exquisitely chosen and it cuts away at just the right point to show the true horror of Professor Walsh’s involvement in Riley’s life as she watches them make love in disgust. Fantastically good, and I especially like the not-so-subtle use of the taser discharge as a metaphor for…well something else.

Fashion Statement: More Amber Benson is only a good thing and I think I might be in love with her smile. This might make me sound a little kinky but its such a relief to see Buffy finally getting some action after having to hold back with Angel for so long. She must have been ready to burst. The atmosphere ioniser gag is hilarious, especially Willow’s hair (how did they do that?).

Result: Another confident, well made season four episode. How did I ever think that this was one of the weaker seasons? It’s the year where Buffy feels like it has really matured and it is filled to the brim with engaging content and exciting developments. There are plenty of treats in The I in the Team that make it a delight to watch; more of the gorgeous Willow/Tara relationship, Buffy forced into the unusual position of being happy for a prolonged period (it was a long time coming), Anya’s hilarious one liners, Spike moving on and lots more mystery and intrigue down in the Initiative. Not only has the central premise of the series four (the Initiative) been plotted out superbly but the theme of disassociation amongst the Scoobies since their move to university has been beautifully played out too. As we have moved into the latter half of the season that has really started to come into play and David Fury handles the feeling of awkwardness when friends realise that you aren’t quite as you once were because there are new people in your life really well. The awkward scene between Buffy and Willow towards the end of the episode says everything about where their relationship has been heading of late. The only downside is that there does seem to be an unnecessary acceleration of the Professor Walsh/Initiative storyline (which was entirely down to Lindsey Crouse’s unavailability and thus not the creative teams fault) but even that can be turned into a plus. I’d rather there was an abundance of substance and development than suffer a agonisingly slow burn season like last year. Buffy being sent unknowingly on a suicide mission and the fireworks that ignite when Walsh’s attempts to have her killed are revealed provide some excellent scenes and I can’t imagine anybody was expecting the cliffhanger. Its not quite as tight as some of the other episodes this season but its still packed with stirring material and therefore cannot be awarded any less than: 8/10

Goodbye Iowa written Marti Noxon and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Riley has to find his place in the world following his ‘mothers’ death…

The Chosen One: In the aftermath of her murder attempt Buffy has questions as to how much Riley knew about Professor Walsh’s plans, thanks to a little Spike intervention. Buffy making a rousing battle speech in her yummy sushi pyjamas is worth a smirk.

Witchy Willow: The scenes between Willow and Tara continue to impress which is mostly down to the incredible chemistry between the two actresses. Willow needs to do a spell with Tara but wants her to know that that isn’t the only reason that she hangs around with her and that she enjoys her company a great deal too. These two are almost giddy with joy the way they keep smiling around each other, almost as if they are high on each others presence. The writers are already introducing doubts to the audience about Tara’s character (the way she sabotages the spell here) which means they are either setting her up to be written out already or looking to explore her further. I sincerely hope it’s the latter.

College Boy: This is Buffy so of course the titular character cannot remain happy for long and the protracted comfort that has been developing between her and Riley comes to an abrupt end when his mother figure tries to kill her and he realises that she has been harbouring the fugitive that his organisation has been looking for. Its all a bit of mess, all told and they both have a lot of explaining to do. It does take Riley ages to engage with anybody, spending the first fifteen minutes of this episode wandering around in a daze which is about as exciting to watch as it is to read. Whilst he has hardly been the most compelling of characters, there has always been something pleasingly puppyish about Riley but his accusatory tone and actions in this episode are the first time that I have actively disliked him. I realise he’s suffering from withdrawal and not exactly responsible for his actions (and Marc Blucas is acting his heart out) but he still comes across as a little boy who has lost his mummy and is stamping his feet in frustration rather than a trained soldier that can cope with trauma.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Maggie tried to kill me’ ‘It didn’t work but they’re all upset anyway.’
‘That’s why they call them cartoons and not documentaries.’
‘He’s the only one with military experience’ ‘Its not like he was in Nam. He was G.I. Joe for one night!’ I’m so glad somebody has finally pointed this out!
‘I totally get it now. Can I have sex with Riley too?’

The Good: To be fair to the designers Adam is a magnificent piece of work, part Terminator, part Frankenstein and portrayed by the skilled character actor George Hertzler. Noxon takes elements of the latter inspiration and has the character stumble on a child which he then goes on to dissect in order to understand humanity. Buffy isn’t bold enough to show a child being murdered but I appreciated the effort they went to to try and make Adam a frightening new nemesis. There’s a lovely scene of Buffy, Anya and Willow snuggled up in bed together watching cartoons expressing a warmth between the characters that has been (deliberately) missing of late.

The Bad: Given the high standard of direction in season four, a sub par effort in this regard is highlighted much more than it would otherwise be and this is David Solomon’s first effort since Beer Bad which is extremely telling. Either he isn’t quite in tune with the tone and pace of this season or he’s simply having an off period (because he would go on to direct some memorable episodes in the shows last three years) I couldn’t tell you but a lot of this material as written comes off better than it is realised on screen and for that you have to look to the top. Back in the day Buffy and her pals used to take the fight to the enemy which makes their response here to hide in Xander’s dank basement a little jarring. Without Maggie Walsh at its head the Initiative setting does lack something and watching the rest of the characters running around like headless chickens and fill the gap that she has left behind shows that there is no decent structure to the organisation (anywhere else would have somebody who could step into her shoes instantly and with absolute authority). We’re in pretty desperate territory when characters are overheard revealing important plot information in a corridor (with regards to the Initiative soldiers being controlled by meds). Lucky Buffy heard that otherwise there would be no explanation (or cure!) for Riley’s condition! I can’t decide whether Spike works or not in the role that they have created for him this year…on the one hand he has been given some of his funniest ever material but on the other he suddenly seems so pathetic in a way that he never did before. Things are a lot better in series five when they take him in a terrifying new direction and give him a real place on the show and reason to hang around Buffy. The way the story refuses to give Riley a happy ending or bring the narrative to a close whilst the show takes a detour into another storyline for a couple of weeks is deeply unsatisfying. Its like we just have to pause whilst we deal with Faith and then the pieces are still in this pattern when we pick them up in three weeks time.

Moment to Watch Out For: The big confrontation between Adam and Buffy/Riley lacks any tension whatsoever. He answers his own questions, fails to provide a physical threat (he’s far too cumbersome in the action sequences) and talks about his ‘mother’ with such disinterest that I wouldn’t have taken that route at all. Its different, for sure but gone are the days of Angelus and Spike at his most vicious. In their place is a great lumbering silky voiced hotch potch. It feels as if the whole Initiative plot is being suddenly tossed away on some insane b movie excesses. A shame.

Result: Given the dramatic developments of the last episode there is something oddly flat about the first half of Goodbye Iowa where Riley Finn wanders about in a life changing stupor and the Scoobies hide away in Xander’s basement. Marti Noxon’s script is riddled with some fine humour but it doesn’t really come alive until the second half where Buffy and chums infiltrate the Initiative and Riley decides to try and do something about the horrors he has been forced to confront. Sabotaging that is some shockingly weak direction from David Solomon who has lost it a bit this year and between this and Beer Bad (although the script has a lot to do with that one too) has managed to provide two of the worst episodes of the season. An all out military assault on Spike’s crypt should be one of the most exciting things ever but shot head on without much thought looks like a bunch of pretend soldiers playing in a graveyard. Its nice to see Buffy attempting to create a different sort of villain in Adam but perhaps he is a little too silky voiced and ineffective at this point where we needed an in-yer-face threat to take over from Walsh immediately. Plus I’m not sure that I buy the soap opera angle with him and Riley being ‘brothers.’ It’s the first time the arc elements this season have felt badly handled and ill thought through and that’s a shame because things have been steam rolling along fantastically until this point. Despite some strong dialogue I was a bit bored throughout: 5/10

This Year’s Girl written by Doug Petrie and directed by Michael Gershman

What’s it about: Faith is on the loose and set to dish up a world of pain to Buffy…

The Chosen One: There’s no nice way of saying this but Sarah Michelle Gellar makes a superb villain (in the dream sequences) and I would love to see more of this dark side of her. Fortunately this episode ends on a cliffhanger that looks as if I am going to get my wish. Buffy can empathise with Riley’s predicament because just as he quit the Initiative she told the Watcher’s Council where to go and had to find her way afterwards. You can tell they are going to be good for each others…at least for the time being. As much as the emphasis is all wrong, Faith is right that the reason Buffy stuck a knife in her belly (acquiring her blood for Angel’s recovery) is now a complete irrelevance in her life. In fact its nice to be reminded just how effectively the show has completely forgotten all about that walking plank of wood. Is it shameful though that I had forgotten all about Joyce too? It would seem Buffy has too given the pile of unopened mail that Faith discovers at the Summers house. Nobody can get under Buffy’s skin like Faith…this time the fight is personal. In a moment of pure bitch Buffy informs Faith that the reason everybody forgot about her was because they wanted to which earns her a vase in the face.

Sexy Blond: Spike has to remind the Scoobies (and the audience) that he is still a badass (because you would be hard pressed to remember that this year he has been integrated so well) and promises to let Faith know where they all are and watch as she murders them all horribly. How lovely.

Witchy Willow: Willow has vivid memories of Faith and considers a good ass kicking from Buffy to be the solution for her awakening. She recognises that if she got into a fight with Faith she would be lucky to bruise her face with her fist but that doesn’t stop her trying to be helpful and pooling her own resources (Tara). Watching Tara attempt to mime punching is a delight.

Gorgeous Geek: Its lovely to be having fun with Xander once more and the pained look on his face as he tries to fiddle with the Initiative taser and it phuts all over the place is hilarious.

Rogue Slayer: ‘What did you think I’d wake up and we’d go for tea? You tried to gut me blondie…’ Despite my feelings about the arc that played out sluggishly in season three by far the best thing to come out of that year was Eliza Dushku’s fantastic portrayal of Faith. The way she was left in a hospital bed whilst the finale of the season that she had a significant part in played out was deeply unsatisfying and not having heard from her since the show has moved on left the impression that it was going to just be left hanging. Leave it to season four then to pick up where the last year left off and give Faith some of her all time best material yet. Thunder ominously sounds as she twitches her way out of her coma to wreck havoc on the woman who put her in hospital. Buffy pursues Faith with her knife in her dark fantasies which reminds us that she sees Sunnydale’s resident Slayer as the villain whilst she is the victim. Faith learns that she has lost a year of her life, that her mentor is dead and that she no longer has any purpose in life. It’s the kind of new that might make you go on a murderous rampage! I loved the subtle way the director shows us that Faith attacked the woman she met in the hospital without ever having to show us (she’s wearing her clothes). Faith watches from the shadows as Buffy plays with her latest boy toy and you can see in her eyes that she is already planning on punishing her through him. The message that the Mayor left for Faith reminds the audience of the special bond that existed between them and I love the fact that he can still make her smile from beyond the grave (although it is quite defeatist of him to make a ‘in case things don’t work out’ tape in the first place!). Its nice to know he had a back up plan for her in case she did wake up. Faith’s rant to Joyce about them being in the same boat (being forgotten by Buffy) is little more than a childish rant that boils down their rivalry to jealousy.

College Boy: Riley makes a massive choice to walk away from the Initiative and be with Buffy, even when his closest friends try and convince him otherwise. That’s the kind of effect that our Miss Summers can have on people. In a moment of ‘I’m the new boy’ Riley endures an entire scene where the Scoobies discuss Faith in some detail before asking who the hell they are talking about.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’ll say this qualifies for a worst timing ever award…’ and ‘I’d hate to see the pursuit of a homicidal lunatic get in the way of the pursuit of a homicidal lunatic…’ Xander is really on form this week.
‘I’ve been looking for you’ ‘I’ve been standing still for eight months, B. How hard’you look?’
‘You took my life, B. Payback’s a bitch.’
‘Five by Five? Five what by five what?’ ‘See that’s the thing…no-one knows!’
‘How do I look?’ ‘Psychotic.’

The Good: I don’t know whether the dream sequence where Buffy sticks a knife in Faith’s gut after making the bed with her or the one where Faith and the Mayor enjoy a picnic in the park is the better. One thing is for sure Buffy hasn’t lost its touch in providing thrills and great imagery in these dream sequences and it is a helpful reminder before the show embraces the formula in the unforgettable season finale. The way the dream sequences build and build until they have reached the stunning dramatic crescendo of Faith killing Buffy and rising from the rain lashed grave (pure Shawshank Redemption) is exceptional and the perfect visual metaphor for her snapping out of her coma. The demon that they find strung up between two trees with his insides on the outside might just be the most graphic thing that this show has displayed to date and is a firm reminder of what Adam is capable of. Petrie has great fun with Buffy’s conventions…having the shows titular character state her long winded plan for smuggling Riley out of the Initiative only to have him show up behind her in the very same scene. There’s a great shot of the discarded wreckage of Sunnydale High, the second (and superior) time we have returned to the scene of the crime this year. The direction when Buffy and Willow share a dialogue scene which dramatically swings around to reveal Faith waiting for them is excellent, it really made my heart skip a beat. By the end of the episode it feels like we have dipped our toes back into season three for a little nostalgia but all the season four elements (Spike, Tara, Riley) fit in really nicely too. It’s a very comfortable compromise between the two. I cannot believe that Faith punched Joyce in the face! Although I guess I should get used to bad things happening to her.

The Bad: One complaint; Sarah Van Horn as the orderly is spectacularly wooden but she’s only on screen for a couple of minutes. Do you have to go to special school of acting to act that mechanically?

Moment to Watch Out For: We’ve seen the Summers household destroyed before (Dead Man’s Party) and we’ll see it destroyed again (it becomes a running joke in season seven) but never has it been done with such a whirlwind of manic violence and malevolence. Buffy and Faith tears shreds out of each other, pulverising furniture and trading vicious quips. Its staggeringly brutal and more than a match for the last time that they were in this situation. 

Fashion Statement: As Willow starts to settle once again thus her wardrobe becomes more funky and her multicoloured hat and snowflake jumper have to be seen to be believed.

Orchestra: The hallucinatory, nightmarish music during the dream sequences and when Faith wakes up is some of Christophe Beck’s best. Violins have never sounded so haunting. And how exciting is the reprise of the Buffy/Faith fight music from Graduation Day?

Foreboding: ‘Little sis coming…so much to do before she gets here…’ At the time this felt like a throwaway line in a dream sequence but little did we know the impact that it would have on the series. The body swapping cliffhanger promises great things for the second episode (although how it will top this is beyond me) and I love that the only reason that Faith (or should that be Buffy?) comes out on top is because she got the first left hook in.

Result: Faith returns in this intense shocker and the show scores its biggest win since Hush. I love how the episode involves itself with Faith’s dilemma completely and yet still has time to allow for the continuing plot threads of season four to run through it. Director Michael Gershman ensures that Faith’s return from the grave (or as good as) is as memorable as possible; filling the show with some lingering imagery, shockingly violent moments and great performance pieces. The first half of the episode dealing with Faith’s revival is gripping but once she hooks up with Buffy again things get really dark and Gellar and Dushku do some of their finest ever work together. It all culminates in one hell of a fight at the Summers household and a cliffhanger that leaves the audience hanging on for dear life. There isn’t one part of This Year’s Girl that isn’t firing on all cylinders and it makes for a mesmerising drama: 10/10

Who Are You written and directed by Joss Whedon

What’s it about: Buffy and Faith have swapped bodies and just imagine the mayhem that ensues…

The Chosen One: Joyce proves that she is a truly good person by wishing that Faith gets some kind of help even after she has attacked her in her own home and tried to kill her daughter. Its actually kind of refreshing to see Buffy letting her hair down this much at first, throwing herself at men at the Bronze and dancing like a complete tramp. Our Buffy could do with a little of Faith’s looseness, perhaps not how much she displays here. Occasionally she is a stuck up tight ass with no sense of fun. Eliza Dushku has less fun playing Buffy because frankly it’s a less fun character to play (the altruistic ones always are…) but she hits the nail right on the head with her over annunciation of words like ‘Giles’ and has clearly been paying attention to Gellar’s speech patterns and body language. Episodes of this nature really do expose how talented the cast are. After being treated like little more than an animal, Buffy starts to behave like one, taking on some of Faith’s wilder instincts in her attempts to free herself from the Watchers Council’s assassins. By the end of the episode she is wielding a gun, trashing trucks through doors and living a life on the run. You might think its as dark as Buffy will ever get but you would be mistaken.

Ripper: Its very amusing that season four would have an episode where Giles has to convince Buffy who he is trapped inside a demon and just a few episodes later Buffy would have to try and convince him of the same thing inside a demon of a very different nature. That they manage to achieve this despite all the evidence to the contrary shows the bond that has developed between them. Giles’ sitcom moment (‘dammit man we have to get inside!’) is hilariously funny but also proves why Anthony Stewart Head has never been snapped up for a sitcom of his very own.

Sexy Blond: Its obviously to the blind man on the street that Spike has spent a great deal of the past two year thinking about Buffy (mostly thoughts of trying to eviscerate her) but this is the first instance where there is a suggestion of sexual chemistry between them. Perhaps Joss Whedon saw how Gellar and Marsters played the scene where Faith (in Buffy’s body) seduced Spike and thought there was real potential to let this idea run. How can you spend so much time thinking about somebody that hot and not get a little obsessed?

Witchy Willow: Amber Benson is so good at playing those awkward and shy moments that you would never believe how confident and charismatic she is in real life. Willow finally comes out and admits that she is happy to have somebody in her life that is just hers and doesn’t revolve around slaying and the Scoobies. Clearly something very special is happening between these two women that even they can’t quite pin down but Tara happily points out that she is Willow’s and is very comfortable with that. She’s still bitching off about Faith (with good reason) and her nemesis imagines sticking a knife in her belly as a result. Its heartbreaking that the moment that Willow finally introduces Tara to Buffy she is surreptitiously being driven by an insane psychopath like Faith who tactlessly points out their lesbian interest in each other, tries to hurt her by pointing out how much Oz meant to Willow and mocks her stutter. Its torturous viewing and expertly played by Amber Benson who begins the scene in a relatively confident fashion (for Tara) but withdraws into herself in the usual fashion as she is ridiculed and ostracised. If Whedon wanted us to feel for Tara, to sympathise with her then he couldn’t have gone down a more effective route. Willow needs an anchor into this world as she tries to search for Buffy on the astral plane and she admits with some clarity that she trusts Tara entirely to fulfil that role. Its as good as admitting that she trusts her with her heart. They just have to see it themselves.

Rogue Slayer: The face that Faith pulls when Joyce tries to hug her says everything you need to know about her comfort with physical intimacy. When staring in the mirror she is not only playing about with Buffy’s face but also staring very hard to see who is inside that head. Sarah Michelle is extraordinary in this role, playing Faith in an unguarded, dangerous way the likes of which we have never seen in her four years as Buffy. It really shows what the actress is capable of; taking the piss out of her usual portrayal and scaling to new psychological heights. The way that Whedon plays out Faith’s story is far more compelling than her handling last year because it is so condensed and it goes somewhere quite rapidly (season three was bogged down by its slack pace). To have Faith luxuriate under Buffy’s skin and take advantage, mocking her selfless attitude to slaying but slowly come to realise that that is the right approach is exceptional characterisation. The way she repeats the words ‘because its wrong’, first contemptuous of them, but then realising their meaning and then finally saying them because she means it is a simple but extremely effective way of showing her journey. Tellingly Faith can’t handle being told ‘I love you’, almost as if nobody has ever said those words to her before and she hates herself she is allergic to the sentiment. She is used to playing the villain, she likes it but now she’s afraid to confront the part of her that longs to conform and fit in.

College Boy: To play with somebody like Tara is unkind but to be fair we hardly know her at this point. To manipulate Riley who is the walking embodiment of a bruised puppy is just cruel because you know when he finds out the truth he will flog and punish until the cows come home. In one fail swoop you can see just how exciting Riley is going to be as a boyfriend – when Faith offers to role play as herself in Buffy’s body Riley rejects her offer and refuses to role play himself. What a dullard.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I could squeeze you until you pop like warm champagne and you’d beg me to hurt you just a little bit more…’
‘Vampires are a paradox. You walk in both worlds and belong to neither.’
‘If you are Buffy then you’ll let me tie you up without killing me…’
‘You’re not going to kill these people’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because its wrong.’
‘You slept with her’ ‘I slept with you’ – oh my I think I can see more heartache around the corner for Buffy and Riley. These two just can’t seem t cut a break.

The Good: I’ve heard the idea of body swaps being mocked ad nauseum in the past but I have rarely seen it attempted and fail. It gives the actors a chance to stretch their wings and play something a bit different and it gives the writers the chance to have their characters learn something profound about each other, living in each others skins. Faith living in Buffy’s body and ruining her life from the inside is such a strong idea its almost a shame that it is confined to one episode. I groaned when it looks liked a random car crash was going to affect Faith’s release so imagine my surprise when it is revealed as being contrived by the Watcher’s Council to steal her away. Its really dark that members of the Watchers Council, the authority figures on this show, should abuse Faith as badly as they do with threats of physically violence and spitting in her face. There’s time for one last glorious Buffy/Faith fight during the climax and I swear they just get better and better. Now Buffy (or rather Faith in her body) isn’t playing by the rules.

The Bad: It is a fact that during body swap episodes that all of the characters that are not affected by the swap suddenly become temporarily blind to the fact that people that they know extremely well are acting way out of character. Given how good Gellar is at channelling Faith in the early scenes it is extremely frustrating that Joyce cannot see that her daughter is no longer the person she was. Adam continues to be a background threat (hardly the best approach as we charge towards the end of the season). Mind you he does decapitate a vampire by literally ripping his head from his shoulders which is kind of funky. It was all going so well with the British accents in this episode (so convincing these must be British actors…no American can sound that authentically cockney) until one character cries ‘stop her you ponce!’ which smacks of trying a little too hard. It’s a shame that there is so little closure for Faith in this episode with her choice to simply run away proving more of a whimper than a bang. However the follow up to these developments in Angel are one of the few moments when I genuinely think that show bested Buffy – her breakdown at the end of Five By Five is one of the most uncomfortable scenes I have ever watched on television and really marked Angel as a show that was prepared to take risks.

Moment to Watch Out For: With the pair of them performing a spell that sees them sweating, breathing heavily and feeling really good when touching, Tara and Willow have their first sensual encounter. The sex will come later. How Whedon manages to sneak this very hot love scene between two women into American television and dresses it up as a magic spell is inspired. He always was my hero but this pushes him into another league. The climax which sees Faith beating the shit out of her own body and screaming at hoe disgusting she is probably the most frightening moment of psychological drama in this show to date and utterly revealing of her true feelings. Its deeply uncomfortable to watch and yet completely compelling.

Result: A risky episode that starts out tentatively but pays off in spades, Who Are You is another sign of how much Whedon has matured as a writer on this show and how well he understands the characters that have come to make a name for him. There’s the obvious pleasures of watching Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku playing against type which they both do with consummate skill (although the former gets to have more fun for a change because she’s playing the baddie). What really stands out is the journey that both characters take in their enemies skins, each learning a lot more about their foe and taking on far more of their characteristics than they ever thought possible. Buffy gets to play the rogue slayer for a change and the role suits her rather well and Faith learns that doing things because they are right does have its own reward. Even more spectacular is Whedon’s handling of the Willow/Tara relationship. Its so sensitively guided that by the end of the episode we are watching the pair of them come as close to making love as the censors would dare and it is completely absorbing and not at all mucky. Its prove conclusive that writing out Oz was the smartest move possible because Willow hasn’t been this gorgeously handled since early season two. The only real downside to this episode (besides how daft Buffy’s friends and family are for not realising she is quite herself) is the handful of scenes featuring Adam which are shoehorned awkwardly into the episode and serve no purpose as a part of it. The mixture of standalone and arc goodness was handled far more effectively in the last episode which is the only reason this triumphant character piece earns a point lower: 9/10

Superstar written by Jane Espenson and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Dusting vampires, solving love problems, coping with adoring fandom and singing a tune…all in a days work for one Jonathan Levenson. 

The Chosen One: Following on from her remarkable turn in This Year Girl, season four affords Gellar more opportunities to play with her character. In this universe Buffy is a bit awkward and slightly ineffectual as a super hero, trying her hardest but often falling short of her expectations. What’s interesting is how she knows that she can do better, as though the scales of this recently altered universe haven’t quite fallen over her eyes completely. Ultimately Superstar is as much about Buffy as it is Jonathan. She has re-discover herself and everything that makes her special (her willingness to question, her persistent nagging doubts, her ability to see what’s right and wrong and her fight against the odds) without the aid of her incredible strength and dexterity. Somehow that makes her even more impressive than usual. To try and convince her friends that she should be stronger and more able than Jonathan she has to fight a world that adores him and has memories of his many feats.

Witchy Willow: Wowzas, has Willow ever smiled as much as she does since she met Tara? It’s a real sign of how much this character has gotten under my skin in such a short space of time that I was desperate for Tara not to be killed during the attack (it would be right up Whedon’s street to kill off a regular character in such an unexpected episode). Strange that as much as I liked Oz, I never felt that protective of him as I do Tara. Replacing one with the other has really been a positive step for the show.

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is appalled that Anya should moan Jonathan’s name whilst they are making love. Although listening to him playing the trumpet makes them both horny. 

Shorty: ‘I doesn’t make any sense. He starred in The Matrix but he never left town!’ What an inspired idea to make Jonathan the centrepiece of an episode. He’s always been something of a background player on Buffy until his unforgettable appearance at the climax of Earshot when we realised just how much all those bullying remarks hurt. He was the living embodiment of what the show was all about in its first three years (the horrors of High School) and he expressed wounds in a way that touched my heart far more than any of the regulars had at that point. Alone in the clock tower with a high powered rifle, I think everybody could empathise with the helplessness that he was feeling in his teens. Since then he has been in rehab, trying to put his life together again. So for him to turn up that beginning of Superstar as a glorious James Bond-esque hero that the Scoobies all turn to in a time of crisis is a fantastic starting point for an episode. What’s really interesting is that with somebody to centre their world around the Scoobies are much, much closer in this episode than in much of the rest of the season. Notice their relaxed chemistry in the post-titles sequence. Whether his motives were good or otherwise, Jonathan definitely brings something unified out in his newfound friends.  Its not just the way that Buffy, Willow and Xander treat him so reverently that makes him such a charismatic figure here, Danny Strong abandons all of the doubts and tics and embodies the confident and focussed hero that Jonathan truly wishes he was. Its an incredible performance that proves what an asset he is to this show and that he should be utilised more. There is something effortlessly likable about a character who is so revered and yet seems so humbled by his fame. He looks really sharp in a white tuxedo serenading Buffy and Riley, playing love maker like DS9’s Vic Fontaine. Jonathan knows that he needs to get rid of Buffy in order to keep his secret but some vestigial goodness means that when the time comes he cannot go through with it. Unlike Maggie Walsh, there is space for redemption. When the times comes he is willing to sacrifice his life to save Buffy and after the world changes back and he’s good old, socially awkward Jonathan again it is that act which offers hope for the future. There’s another great wrap up scene between Gellar and Strong (just like in Earshot) which shows how rich the Buffy/Jonathan relationship has become.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Yeah back off Betty!’ ‘Its Buffy!’
‘Oh my God! He’s going to do something off the new album!’
‘You could have a world without shrimp…or nothing but shrimp. You could even make a freaky world where Jonathan some kind of not-perfect mouth breather if that’s what’s blowing up your skirt these days. Just don’t ask me to live there.’
‘Xander don’t speak Latin in front of the books.’
‘Do you know what I’ll always remember?’ ‘The swimsuit calendar sticks in my mind. Not in a good way’ – even Riley’s funny this week.
‘Who really did star in The Matrix?

The Good: The opening sequence is cleverly directed so if you were squinting you might mistake it for a normal dusting night out for Buffy and the Scoobies but when examined closely it is clearly more accident than skill that sees them score their successful vampire kills. Which paves the way for the unforgettable return and reveal of Jonathan the Vampire Slayer, a man of such charisma and ability he leaves all other superheroes in the shade. Season four once again shows exactly how this sort of thing should be done. In season three it took nearly half the episode to reveal Cordelia’s jump into an alternative universe whereas this kicks off the episode after things have already changed so we get to the fun stuff from the off. It doesn’t waste any time getting to the good stuff whilst ensuring there is an intriguing mystery to be solved. What the hell has happened to make Jonathan so prominent? Little details such as the Jonathan posters, calendar, books and T-shirts abound to show what a profound change he has made to the world. How blissful that we get to skip over all the Buffy and Riley hangover angst after the last episode in such a creative and amusing way. Other shows take note. Jonathan turning up in fatigues to advise the Initiative boys that tower over him is wonderful visual comedy (‘its about time we brought out the big guns…’). I don’t think they will ever strike gold quite like they did with the Gentlemen again but the demon that pollutes Jonathan’s world is quite obscene with its drawn back teeth and oversized arms, it radiates a sense of wrongness. The Wish will always score higher because its premise afforded more space for inventiveness and clever details but Espenson proves that she has learnt from Noxon and has written a much tighter script. The premise is revealed much sooner and the way the mystery is dissected and the deceit exposed far more effectively handled. The Wish ended wrapped up terribly abruptly (which was fine because it left further development for subsequent episodes) whereas here we sort out this fine old mess and still have time to deal with the consequences. It might not be as gloriously perverse or as dark as The Wish but Superstar is a much stronger standalone episode because it is beautifully self contained. If there is a moral then its that you can’t make everything work out for yourself with a big gesture…things take time and work. Its something that is definitely worth consideration.

Moment to Watch Out For: At this point in the game Buffy is brave enough to play about with its formula enough to revamp the opening titles to includes shots of Jonathan to express the premise of the episode in a very creative way. It’s the blink and you’ll miss it subtlety of the clips that makes it work so well, slipped in with no warning so if you don’t pay attention you’ll miss out on the fun. Plus some of them are really funny (I especially love Jonathan on the red carpet waving to his adoring fans although some of his gymnastics are impressive too).

Fashion Statement: I wont pretend that I’m above titillation because the scenes of Riley walking about his room in his jeans with his chest exposed really got my heart pumping. It might be shallow but its at moments like these that I’m really glad he’s around and Angel’s gone. Gellar has never looked hotter than in her last scene with Jonathan.

Orchestra: It breaks my heart to think that Beck is off to pastures new soon as his scores for season four have been incredible (season seven aside, I don’t think the music would ever top this year). His zany Bond-esque stings highlight the superhero frippery of the opening scenes. :

Result: Is there nothing that Jane Espenson can do wrong? Look at her credentials in the past two seasons (Band Candy, Earshot, Pangs, A New Man) and tell me you don’t get excited every time her name turns up in the credits. Her scripts always seem to be full of substance and great character development whilst maintaining a deliriously sunny disposition and a great sense of humour. The combination of Danny Strong and Espenson worked magic in Earshot last year and it conjures up similar delights here with the emphasis on giggles rather than heartbreak with a very subtle thread of trying to fit in running throughout the comedy. What’s really clever about this episode is how it slots so neatly into the season where it is placed. It might be taking place in an altered universe where Jonathan is some kind of charismatic James Bond figure but the running character threads of the previous episodes still run seamlessly through it. So whilst we’re having fun with all the secret agent parody there is discussion of Faith’s recent appearance, Buffy and Riley’s romantic hitch, the threat of Adam (in fact this is the episode that introduces his Achilles Heel so it is vital in that respect) and Tara being brought out into the open. The confidence it exudes by simply getting on with the season whilst playing new games is breathtaking. Its probably what convinced Joss Whedon that completely changing the layout of the series by adding Dawn so brazenly at the beginning of the next season was going to work. Smart, self-assured and hilarious, this is another knockout season four episode in what has been the an overgenerous year of Buffy. A massive eye opener of a season in the rewatch and a smashing installment: 9/10

Where the Wild Things Are written by Tracey Forbes and directed by David Solomon

What’s it about: Lots of sex. Lets not pretend otherwise.

The Chosen One: Buffy and Riley are working together now, taking out vampires and demons alike and then heading back home for some post-slaying sex. They can barely keep their hands off each other, even in public and it suggests that there is something rotten at the core of their relationship. I find those relationships where the couples have to constantly remind each other with intense physical gestures to be the ones that last the shortest time. Relationships like Willow’s and Tara where there is clearly a great deal of affection without the need to convince others that you are so in love are usually based on the strongest foundations. Giles does remember what its like to be a young, horny teen but Buffy and Riley display no discretion whatsoever in their desire to quit the investigation and get to the copulation. Its more than a little crude if I’m honest. The episode goes to some lengths to show that these two are under the influence of a supernatural presence and that is why they are continually making love at the potential expense of their friends. That’s all well and good but just a few episodes earlier (The I in the Team) saw them doing just that anyway without any external influence. In fact this episode seems to be based around pointing that fact out as it is the punchline of the last scene. Please don’t underestimate how selfish Buffy can be when she has a new boy toy to play with and don’t pretend she needs an excuse to block out her friends needs to sate her own needs.

Ripper: We need a new central location on the show, stat. Giles has taken to hanging out on the university campus to discuss supernatural matters with Buffy which makes the exposition scenes come across as awkward as they have to keep their voices down so onlookers don’t overhear. Bring on the Magic Shop. When he’s not hanging with the kids he’s singing in coffee shops. Somebody get this guy a job (although he has a lovely singing voice). 

Sexy Blond: Spike is so impotent that he can’t even commit petty theft anymore. Luckily he chooses Anya and they get to have a heart to heart about how helpless the pair of them are these days. They actually have a great deal in common and its quite telling that when they both at their lowest ebb again in season six they turn to each other again but in a far more spectacular way. The drama in that situation is seeded here.

Witchy Willow: The one interesting character beat to come out of all of this exploration of the sexual senses is the powerful moment where Tara reacts very badly to Willow touching her leg as they discuss their future together. Clearly the two of them haven’t taken their relationship to the next level and everything between them has been experienced emotionally until now. Affected by the supernatural presence in the house that hates sexual contact, Tara tells Willow not to touch her and that she is disgusting. It’s a heartbreaking moment of rejection in a relationship that continues to surprise. Where is all this going? How is Willow ever going to fall into a relationship with this woman that she clearly worships if problems such as these (and those of Who Are You with Faith-in-Buffy abusing Tara as she did) persist? It seems that every time Willow takes Tara out to meet her friends she gets abused. If I were them I would just stay at home and make out. Willow used to have a crush on Giles? In which alternative universe?

Gorgeous Geek: Xander is driving an ice cream van now? Are trying to show just how pathetic this guy really is this year? I don’t have anything against ice cream van drivers per se but I’m sure even they would admit it is hardly the most stimulating of professions. Its certainly far beneath Xander’s capabilities and I’m glad they took him in a new direction professionally next year. Anya thinks that they are on the verge of a break up because they haven’t had sex for two nights! Why are the pair of them flirting with other people when they are clearly made for each other? Why does everybody act like a complete goon in Forbes’ scripts?

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘You have to keep touching me…aahhhhhh….oooohhhh!’ is about as sophisticated as it gets.

The Good: Nothing at all to do with the episode but the opening ‘previously on’ montage points out with some degree of self congratulation that season four has successfully paired by Buffy, Willow and Xander with new partners and they have worked out rather well to different degrees of success. They have truly moved the show on from its High School years and I for one am glad of that. Bless David Solomon who has emerged as one of the weaker directors of a very strong year for the show visually – he’s trying really hard to make this thing look as good as possible (possibly in reaction to his previous efforts) and he swings the camera about the dormitory (with a stunning Christophe Beck score hauntingly playing in the background) trying to pretend that something more chilling than Buffy getting her rocks off is going on. The visual metaphor for Riley spreading his seed into Buffy is the fire in the heath exploding outwards. Its not restrained but it works as a metaphor for the release of emotion.  The impotence of Xander, Giles, Anya and Spike is all leading somewhere…all four of them are seen to be floundering as Buffy and Willow flourish at college. Before the end of the season its clear that this has to be dealt with. Xander being held underwater is a hearts stopping moment.

The Bad: Forbes simply isn’t the most convincing dialogue writer in the world which wouldn’t be a problem on most shows but she has chosen to join the pone show where the dialogue is consistently trendy, stylistic and memorable. It means when somebody below par is writing for these characters it really stands out. The joke of Xander screaming about giving Anya hot, sweaty big sex in front of a bunch of children misses the mark by a country mile and then some. Its called subtlety, Ms Forbes. Why does she insist on writing university students as arrogant know-it-alls who think they are smarter than everybody else. At least this guy is cut off in his prime by a forced ejaculation. Yeah you read that sentence correctly. Forbes bizarrely seems to want to go to great lengths to prove that relationships are all about sex (whilst I agree it is important otherwise all you have is a very close friendship) which is about as far from the usual message this show wants to promote about relationships as you can get. By the end of the episode Solomon has run out of ways to shoot Buffy and Riley thrusting at each other provocatively and so chooses a bizarre high angle shot with supernatural weirdness happening on the sidelines. The way everything is blacked out so all we can focus on is their sweaty writhing exposes precisely what this episode has been about. Not the exploration of child abuse, oh no. Its been all about getting the juices flowing. I never thought we’d have to suffer the indignity of Xander and Willow attempting to break down a door that has Buffy and Riley shagging their brains out on the other side whilst fake looking tendrils worm their way underneath. These are disturbed children that are haunting the dormitory, children who had their heads held underwater and had their hair cruelly shaved off to protect them from vanity and Willow’s response to their pain is ‘get over it.’ And Anya’s is ‘shut up you cry babies!’ Ouch. Oh and there’s a wall that makes you cum in your pants. Yep, this is sophisticated stuff. Season four basically only has three real flaws and their names are Beer Bad, Goodbye Iowa and Where The Wild Things Are. Two of those scripts are written by the same author. Something Blue isn’t brilliant either, but compared to Forbes’ other efforts it is like the show is shitting gold.

Moment to Watch Out For: Kathryn Joosten is a superb actress and bringing her in to speak such trashy dialogue is an insult to her. The script demands that we find out that Mrs Holt mistreated her ‘kids’ as soon as we meet her so in a deeply unconvincing fashion she admits as much with very little provocation.

Fashion Statement: Riley is walking around with his smooth chest on display again. I can’t say I’m disappointed. I remember talking to Simon about the impending departure of Angel in season three and the introduction of Riley in the next season and he suddenly went all dreamy eyed and purred. I was appalled, how comes my husband has the blandest taste in men (Alias’ Michael Vartan is another tragic example…and yes I include myself in the list)? Now I think I am starting to realise. Its nothing to do with the puppyish personality of the drip…it’s the fact that he’s always got his pecs on display!

Result: Where do you begin to review an episode that is a cross between a softcore porn movie (all Buffy and Riley do in Where the Wild Things Are is have copious amounts of sex and pull that strained I-think-I’ve-burst-a-blood-vessel face when reaching a climax) and worse, a b-movie (the wall that allows students to orgasm upon touching it belongs in a cheap straight-to-video 80s movie). Oh and Kathryn Jooston’s character who is proud of abusing kids for the weakest of reasons has slipped straight from a bad horror flick straight from the pound shop. It baffles me that we can move from something as sophisticated as Superstar to this nonsense. The usual Buffy tropes (the charismatic cast, strong direction) are ensuring that whilst the script is one of the weakest ever in the series run that it is at least entertaining on some level. Its certainly not as offensive as Dead Mans Party or Beer Bad and I can’t promise that by the end of an episode that sees so many people getting down and dirty you wont have to flush something out of your system. If you enjoy a soundtrack moans and groans then this might be for you but most people turn to their partners or something a lot harder to get their kicks – if you’re looking for an intelligent slice of science fiction then look elsewhere. Somebody fire Tracey Forbes before she can produce any more excrement…oh wait. They did. Why anybody would want to base an episode around the supernatural expression of latent childhood sexuality and their abuse at the hands of their carer is beyond me…but having it flourish in the loins of horny, late teenagers shagging themselves to death is tasteless and uncomfortable.  Some genuinely creepy imagery aside, Where the Wild Things Are is about as tawdry as Buffy comes: 4/10

New Moon Rising written by Marti Noxon and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: Oz is back…

The Chosen One: I loved Buffy’s defensive reaction when Riley says that he didn’t think that Willow was ‘that kind of girl’ when referring to the return of Oz. Its beautifully subtle but says much. Of course Riley is as innocent as he seems but she is either going to condemn him as a homophobe or a bigot so its lose/lose as far as he’s concerned. My word she is high maintenance sometimes. She makes up for this by apologising at the end, after she has had a similar reaction to Willow’s news throughout the course of the episode. That’s why I can always forgive her, she’s woman enough to admit when she’s wrong.

Witchy Willow: Its weird because I never feel that lesbian storylines are done particularly well in dramas (particularly soaps but I have seen some dreadful sci/fi examples as well) because they often verge on titillation rather than genuinely trying to grasp with the issues inherent in the subject matter. How often have we seen a random lesbian character thrown into an alternative universe episode to add a little vicarious thrill (I’ll let DS9’s Indendant off on the premise that she is so pantomimic that she is impossible to take seriously…whilst at the same time being a genuinely awesome character and sexually charged in all the wrong ways)? Given that I’m not a lesbian myself (or even into girls for that matter) its not a subject matter that I am going to deliberately seek out (I’ve never actively sought out an episode of The L-Word) but then I don’t go in for homosexual dramas, novels or plays either. I’m kind of the impression that my sexuality is the least interesting thing about me and other people and I would much rather get to know characters for who they are rather than who they fall into bed with. But there was something different about Willow and Tara and I can’t quite put my finger on a single reason why. It could be because Alyson Hannigan and Amber Benson are both superb actress and their chemistry literally sets the screen alight. It could be because the relationship is charted in a sensitive and not at all exploitative way. It could be that they are simply a damn cute couple and its is impossible to resist them (somehow despite displaying oodles of gooey goodness they never tip over the edge into tweeness). I don’t know…all I know is that I was more invested in this relationship than any other I have ever seen on television or film. Perhaps its because for the most part it was never considered a ‘gay relationship’ but the coming together of two people who fall in love who just happen to be of the same sex. Anyway I was longing for the day that their affair would be outed and Oz would return to see that his girlfriend isn’t ready and waiting for him and finally my wish has come true…

They are holding hands, Tara is talking of getting a pet which is Willow friendly and she is translating the Scooby talk for Tara at the latest update meeting. She’s really happy and so naturally this is time where Whedon (and his cackling evil cohort Noxon) decide to bring back Oz to send her world into orbit again. Straight off the bat Oz looks like he doesn’t fit in anymore and everybody is awkward around him. Oz saying all the right things that Willow needed to hear around the time of Something Blue and if this had been set then she would have been all over him. But she’s moved on and her reluctance to touch him or even spend time alone with him should point to the fact that she is attached in a rather personal way to somebody else. Willow is in awe of the journey that Oz has been on and is completely blinded by her own incredible passage since he has gone. Who hasn’t been that person who thinks they are losing the person that they most desire? Imagine how Tara must feel when she visits Willow first thing in the morning and Oz opens the door. The relief on her face is palpable when Willow tells her they were just talking. For Oz it is the worst horror imaginable. Its not the moon that brings the wolf out in him, it is the thing that he feels strongest about: Willow. Which means he can’t even stick around and try and fight for her. Understandably he doesn’t want to know about Willow and Tara and doesn’t understand it…but he is glad that she is happy and can go away with that knowledge. What makes this so special is that we saw the pain Willow suffered (in a little too much detail if you ask me but now I can see the wisdom of it) and so it isn’t like she just forgot about Oz and moved onto Tara. It was gradual and it was painful. It was a very natural transition and you can’t say that about many TV relationships. In the end of the day Willow takes the tougher option by following her heart. If she had chosen Oz he could have slipped back into the Scoobies as if he had never been away. By choosing Tara she faces the potential loss of her friends (if they react badly to her burgeoning sexuality) and has to take the trouble to find a place for her within the other parts of her life. It was a brave decision but a brilliant one and I can’t wait to see where we go next with this.

Gorgeous Geek: I’ve realised watching New Moon Rising that the character that Noxon is most comfortable writing for is Anya. Check it out, she gets the best lines. Between Noxon and Espenson, Anya is in very safe hands. Sorry…Cordelia who? ‘Any you can help by making this a quiet time…’

College Boy: Who gets out of bed and does press ups straight away? Riley is such a square but if that means he can maintain his perfectly lickable chest then it’s a foible that I would be able to live with. Riley gets an objective lesson in bigotry as he goes to shot the werewolf and he transforms into helpless, harmless little Oz. When it comes to a choice between the allegiance to the Initiative and saving one of Buffy’s friends, Riley chooses the latter. It means he loses everything but he manages to keep hold of his integrity. He might be the goofiest anarchist known to man but there is something attractive about a man that goes rogue against every fibre of his being. Riley’s marked now and has earned his place in the Scooby gang. He’s the sort of guy who needs to know where he stands rather than walking between two worlds.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There’s something between us. It wasn’t something I was looking for. Its powerful and its totally different from what Oz and I had.’
‘Life was starting to get so good again and you’re a big part of that’ – argh, is there something in my eye?
‘I understand. You have to be with the person you love’ ‘I am.’

The Good: I love how this episode uses Oz’s return not just to screw Willow up and sort her feelings out for Tara but also to show Riley how dangerous the Initiative is and how it needs to be dealt with on a permanent basis. It seems they answer to no-one and can behave as they choose (its Torchwood’s Outside the Government, beyond the Police’ without ever having the temerity to say it) and if they have your card marked you are a gonner. The way this organisation has been handled is one of the best elements of season four. The espionage scenes are great fun, I love it when Buffy strays into James Bond territory and this is one of the best examples; pacy, visually exciting and with everybody involved. Isn’t great how they parallel the ending to Wild at Heart with Willow and Oz saying goodbye in the car (even the music is the same) but the emphasis is entirely different. This is a season about moving on and this exemplifies it more than ever.

The Bad: The Adam plot is just a joke at this point – the withering branch on season fours sparkling oak. Its being wrapped up in the next two episodes and yet he has hardly featured and when he has it has been little more than ineffectual lecturing about humanity. He’s just dull and somehow even more badly handled than the Mayor last year. Fortunately Whedon takes a good long look at what went wrong here and introduces his central villain early next year and gets some really meaty mileage out of her. What a waste of the great George Hertzberg. Also the werewolf costume is still abysmal. I’ve seen b-movies that have made better attempts. They show Oz in the halfway stages of turning wolfy and once again it is million times better than the final result. Why don’t they just use that?

Moment to Watch Out For: I love love love the scene where Willow admits her feelings for Tara to Buffy. Its exquisitely played by Gellar who injects that same ‘I’m trying to figure how to react/I’m surprised but I don’t want to show it/how do I make them feel comfortable/how do I show that I’m really not bothered/are they really gay’ discomfort that I experience every time I meet somebody new and they discover I am gay. Its written so well you would think that Noxon had been there herself. Proving that they know how to handle these things, Noxon and Whedon provide a spellbinding final scene that manages to tell the audience precisely what Willow and Tara are about to get up to without crossing a line or making it cheap.

Fashion Statement: Oz’s giant suede jacket…not so flattering. Willow wears her fuzziest jumper to visit Tara and apologise. Who could resist her in that? Seth Green in the nude looks about twelve so it’s a good thing that I don’t fancy him.

Result: As one door closes another one opens and this sensitive drama catalogues Willow’s release of Oz and her commitment to Tara. This is the sort of material that Marti Noxon was made to write and she characterises all three characters magnificently so that there are no villains, only people ensnared by their feelings and caught in an impossible situation. Oz returns and has found peace within himself and his scenes with Willow are delightful, re-capturing the chemistry they displayed early in their relationship. But her scenes with Tara are even more magical and Hannigan and Benson emote their lives off and the result is clear. Willow was always going to choose the latter. There will come a time when I think that Buffy becomes a little too introverted and self-examining (this occurs during season six which paradoxically has some of my favourite episodes because of it) but New Moon Rising is precisely what the show needed at this point. An honest-to-God exploration of these characters true feelings and setting some things in stone rather than flirting around the issue. Next up Giles, Xander, Willow and Buffy will re-discover their ties to each other and the season long drift and collective will be complete. I adored this, a few problems with Adam and the werewolf costume aside this is exactly how I like my Buffy. Raw, exciting, direct and heartbreakingly emotional: 9/10

The Yoko Factor written by Doug Petrie and directed by David Grossman

What’s it about: Its basically Dead Mans Party with all the Scoobies fighting. Only good.

The Chosen One: How Angel has the right to turn up in Sunnydale after smacking Buffy around the face and telling her to get out of his town is perplexing. But then I suppose their relationship has always been this abusive. Rather wonderfully Buffy takes out both Angel and Riley when they come to blows in front of her (although I bet she loves it really). For once one of Buffy’s rants is entirely justified as she asks Angel what the hell he is playing at.

Ripper: When it comes to drunken acting you’ve either got it or you haven’t and Anthony Stewart Head has got it.

Sexy Blond: For a time Spike has been nothing but a mild inconvenience (albeit a very funny, charismatic one that is always welcome) but allied with Adam and with the purpose of splitting the Scoobies up psychologically he is suddenly a very real threat again, and a far more insidious one than before or since. Interestingly he would also be given a reason to stay in season five after his loose handling this year, a purpose for hanging around with the Scoobies so much and which is highlighted against Riley’s impotence.

Gorgeous Geek: There is some long overdue therapy for Xander with regards to Angel in The Yoko Factor which is odd since it comes after his departure but still feels like it is tying up a necessary loos end. Xander as good as admits it wasn’t Angel that he hated but the curse which was all we needed to hear back in seasons two and three when his allergy to the vampire made him come across as an ass. Xander has always had a problem with feeling a bit useless, the guy without any powers. Its quite easy for Spike to prey on his insecurities because he wears his heart on his sleeve so often. There isn’t a great deal of difference between the Xander in season seven and the Xander now (he’s still got no super powers), its just that by then he has learnt to come to terms with it and is comfortable with his place within the group.

College Boy: To be fair to Riley I do understand why he reacts so awkwardly to the news that the thing that brings out the worst in Angel is sex with Buffy. Nobody enjoys being reminded that their partner has had sexual experiences before you that they enjoyed and might even miss (unless you’re kind of kinky) and it must break his heart to know that he hasn’t come anywhere near as close to her emotionally as Angel did. It means that Angel’s return to Sunnydale is going to be met with more resistance than otherwise. They both exhibit so much testosterone in their scenes together I think I was being emasculated whilst watching (and also slightly turned on). When Riley stands there like a puppy whose owner has left him for days thinking that Buffy is going to leave him it is impossible not to like him. He’s such an odd creature, both masculine and really very soft. I can’t quite get a hold on him. He would be marvellous to have around if you were feeling insecure but if you were having a confident day then his wagging tail would just grate. I can see why Buffy fell for him and why she quickly has enough.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You know for someone who has Watcher on their resume you might want to cast your eye on the door every now and again.’
‘You cannot have more catnip. You have a catnip problem’ – I roared at this scene.
‘That chip in your head means you can’t even hold a gun? How humiliating.’
‘I am a whiz!’ ‘She is a whiz!’ ‘If ever a whiz there was…’
‘Its not just today. Buffy, things have been wrong for a while don’t you see that?’
‘Tara’s your girlfriend?’ ‘Bloody hell!’
‘I guess I’m finally beginning to understand why there isn’t an ancient prophecy about the Chosen One and her friends…

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘He’s the deadest man, Deadonia’ – sometimes the Buffy speak sucks big time.

The Good: Season four has seen a fascinating experiment take place with regards to the Scoobies. The destruction of the High School in Graduation Day was like a catalyst for an explosion with a chain reaction between them that has seen the various individuals in the group scattering ever outwards and away from each other. Its not a direction I have ever thought that I would want them to go in (I must prefer the family theme of season five when they are brought back into a tight knit unit in Primeval) but as a one off experiment it has been fascinating to see how they cope when they are alienated from each other. I think at the time I was appalled (which might have been why I had such an allergic reaction to season four upon first viewing, missing its many, many strengths) to see them wrenched apart so badly but now with the hindsight of knowing how close they would become because of the lessons learnt I now see that it their dynsfunctionalism in this year might just be the most interesting time between them. As a result of their disassociation Xander gets closer to Anya (this is great), Willow gets closer to Tara (this is great) and Buffy gets closer to Riley (within the context of this season, this is great but its interesting that as soon as everybody gets back together he is suddenly superfluous to requirements…it just takes both parties half a season to realise it). Clearly this schism had to be resolved but the way Petrie (although I should imagine Whedon had this all plotted out) does this is to break them apart more than ever… Another thing that has worked really well this year is the set up and exploration of the Initiative (even if some of the by products such as the premature death of the awesome Professor Walsh and Adam didn’t work out quite so well). If I had had my way I would have kept the organisation around for longer because there was clearly still a great deal of untapped potential in the concept but I understand their reasons for wrapping things up at the end of the season. With that in mind Doug Petrie introduces the power behind the organisation here and it transpires it is government run with men in suits (X-Files style) pulling the strings. Eww…Spike warms up blood in the microwave! Finally we get some action from Adam. Its not the most dynamic of sequences but there is something about the way he grins with wild eyes whilst firing a gun that makes this scene rather chilling. Buffy to this point) isn’t one to offer big end of episode twists, Dexter-style (although it certainly offers a few humdingers in seasons to come) but the climax to The Yoko Factor comes as a complete surprise with Riley turning up at Adam’s lair, apparently to form some kind of pact with the creature.

The Bad: Forrest has rather got lost amongst the myriad of other threads that have been playing out this season. He was a big presence in Riley’s life back in the day but since he has defected to the Scoobies he is more than a little defunct. His death was just necessary, it was overdue. Isn’t it bizarre that Buffy’s two visits to LA this year were the highlights of Angel season one whereas he barely made an impact in Sunnydale. Its hard to believe that Buffy’s opening gambit was ‘I love you’ and not ‘Forrest is dead.’ Sometimes she doesn’t quite have her priorities right.

Moment to Watch Out For: After nearly 40 minutes of Spike stirring things up what we needed to see was a group scene where all these insecurities come into play. Its marvellously scripted by Doug Petrie who has emerged as one of the finest dialogue writers on the show for these characters. It’s a moment where the core Scoobies have to have it out so rather wonderfully we cut to the newer elements (Anya and Tara) in the bathroom listening to all the rowing.

Result: Great title. Taken in isolation, The Yoko Factor might be one of bizarrest episodes of Buffy. Dealing as it does with the separation of the Scoobies and the return of Angel, it features two developments that I never sought out. However at the end of season which has seen the Scoobies alienated from each other and considering their reconciliation in the next episode it is a much needed (and fascinating) exploration of the theme of disassociation that has run rife this year. Spike is suddenly a real threat again, planting suggestions in the Scoobies heads and capitalising on their fears and strengthening the schism between them all. With Giles it is all about how impotent he has become in Buffy’s life. With Willow it is her friends having trouble coming to terms with her relationship with Tara. And with Xander it is how much of a loser they think he is. None of these things are strictly true but they have a grain of accuracy to them and its enough for Spike to stir things up even more. Given all this great character stuff it seems almost a shame to throw Angel into the mix as well, his second was that really needed appearance this year (I get that its hangover from Buffy’s visit to Angel but suppose you aren’t watching the sister show…then its just a lot of hullabaloo about something you no nothing about and rather isolating). However the tension between Riley and Angel is excellent and surprisingly the former manages to hold his own (at least until the fighting begins and then he winds up being tossed about like a rag doll).The Yoko Factor confirms that Angel no longer has a place on this show (to be fair that began way back at the end of season two) and his continued presence is an anathema. Lots of great stuff then and it feels like the season is heading somewhere exciting both in regards to its character work and its arc plotting. The sooner we get rid of Adam the better, though: 8/10

Primeval written by David Fury and directed by James A. Contner

What’s it about: An engine of destruction as Adam and the Scoobies tear down the Initiative between them…

The Chosen One: Buffy looks longingly at a photo of herself and her friends and wishes things could be the way they were. I wonder if she took the time to wonder that if she hadn’t been quite so self absorbed (understandably in some cases given it is a year that has offered her a hunky new boyfriend and a top secret government run alien experimentation organisation) then she could have stopped all of this from happening. There’s a great moment where Buffy and her friends all come together and realise they have been manipulated by Spike and hastily decide that everything is okay between them without dealing with any of the issues that have brought them to this place. Its something I’ve seen happen many times when my friends have fallen out. You can put a plaster over the wound but if you haven’t dealt with the root cause then it will just fall off and start bleeding again. All I needed to hear was Buffy admit that she has been wrapped up in her own stuff and bad friend and when she did my heart melted. All is forgiven. Until the next time… I’m a sucker for happily ever after so the cuddles at the bottom of the lift shaft made me go all smooshy.

Ripper: After their major argument in the last episode its upsetting to see Giles and Willow unable to be around each other, especially when he tries to reach out to her and ask her to stay.

Sexy Blond: It feels like Spike’s chip storyline is genuinely coming to end here. Little would we suspect that it would be another two and half seasons before he can kill again (psychotic Celtic ditties aside) and by then he doesn’t even want to.

Witchy Willow: Willow wanted to tell Buffy about Tara earlier but she was so scared. That’s quite an admission and so hearing that she can tell her anything back must be like the ultimate therapy after this year of secrets. It would have been hilarious if Willow had followed that up by spilling out a load of dirty secrets.

Vengeance Demon: ‘So they all thing you’re a lost, directionless loser with no plans for his future…pfft!’ Anya has spent many centuries wrecking bloody vengeance on men so its safe to say that she has never had a consistent, tight social circle. As such she has no idea why Xander cares so much about fight that he had with his friends hours ago. She offers the most amazingly sweet gesture to him though, telling him he is a good person, a good boyfriend and that she is in love with him. It really affirms that this relationship, as unconventional as it is, is here to stay. In the next series it is the most stable relationship in the show by far.

College Boy: Riley has to come to terms with the fact that although she had a great deal of affection for him, Professor Walsh thought of him as much as a scientific prototype as Adam. He shows great strength by cutting open his chest pulling his control device out. I don’t know if I would be so brave.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Spike stirred up trouble’ ‘Yeah but I think trouble was stiruppable. I think we’ve all started to drift apart this year, don’t you?’
‘You know we love you, right?’ ‘Oh God we’re going to die, aren’t we?’
‘Buffy I still don’t like you going in alone’ ‘I wont be…’
‘You can never hope to grasp the source of our power…but yours is right here’ says Buffy shoving her hand in Adam’s chest and pulling out his Uranium core.
‘Maggie Walsh’s vision was brilliant but ultimately insupportable.’

The Good: Let’s not beat around the bush,, they have saved back a lot of cash for this climactic end of season spectacular (even though the rest of the season has looked really plush too so I’m not sure where they have scrimped…perhaps they have a bigger budget this year and this isn’t even the end of the season). Adam’s lair is another huge set that is captured in its entirety at every possibility and married to the Initiative sets I can’t think of an episode of Buffy that has ever looked quite as pricey design wise. Adam’s make up is still the best thing about him (I so want to say that its George Hertzler’s performance but he has to say the pretty tiresome dialogue) and now he is joined by two similarly excellent make up jobs for Professor Walsh and Forrest. I can remember when this show was producing horrific effects like the stop animation Hellmouth creature (it wasn’t stop animation but it looked so ropey you could easily have mistaken it for coming from that period of film making…and keep an eye out during the action packed climax because his tentacles make a little cameo!) and now we have work like the awesome half man, half yellow spiny looking fella (the way Forrest’s face is literally stitched inside the demon is extraordinary). And whilst I might have complained that Where the Wild Things Are was akin to a b movie I am rather fond of that particular genre (just not mixed with softcore pornography like that episode was) and so Walsh turning up as an undead puppet with a massive tube of blood filtering around her body would not look at all out of place in a really cheesy b movie. Thumbs up for that. Things have completely been turned on their head in this episode – during season four we have had all the usual Scooby detective work taking place whilst the gang have been pretending that everything is fine socially. The only points where they have been able to function is in their work fighting demons and such like. Now their feelings are out in the open and they have gone their separate ways they are now approaching the problem of Adam independently of each other (Willow and Tara at the computer, Buffy and Spike in the caves) and it just feels wrong. Fury deliberately highlights how they need each other to make this work before he does what we have all been craving and brought them back into a cohesive whole. In pure James Bond fashion, Buffy and Willow get to scale a lift shift on zip wires! Finally Adam makes his move and it was more than worth waiting for, powering down the Initiative, setting all of the demons loose and creating merry heel for Buffy and her friends to try and contend with. There’s bullets flying, monsters everywhere, flashlights screaming across the action, soldiers flying through the air, necks being snapped, explosions billowing…its bedlam and its fabulous. One scene (which must have been a really tense moment because I can’t imagine they could have gone for a second take) sees Buffy working her way through all of this chaos with the delirious actions being choreographed to perfection around her. When action is this well crafted it is practically an art (see also DS9’s The Siege of AR-558). Whilst time consuming, this must have been so much fun to film (and I love how Giles who has been deprived of any action smacks a soldier boy in the face before they scarper!). More terrific visuals as the camera spins around the three remaining Scoobies as they perform their spell, getting ever faster before dashing off to infuse Buffy with the magical energies. The spell allows them all to bring their own particular strengths and give them to Buffy to fight Adam. Giles (the mind), Xander (the heart) and Willow (the hand). It so tightly winds up the character arcs this season I could write a thesis on it…oh wait I already did. Buffy fights Adam because he is this seasons nemesis and Riley fights Forrest because that is the one character thread still dangling. Just how beautifully plotted has the character work been this year? When his arm turns into a machine gun of awesome of destruction just for that moment Adam is the best villain we have ever seen on Buffy. The way we cut between the government agents discussing the inception and failiure of the Initiative (and how they are going to fill it full of concrete) and Buffy and her friends charging through the chaos in slow motion is about as clean an ending as we could have hoped for. I would have liked to have seen more from the Initiative personally but I’m not unsatisfied with this ending.

Moment to Watch Out For: I could pretty much point to most of the episode in this section but I can’t pretend to be above getting as excited as kid in a sweetshop when they pull out the Matrix-style effects. Buffy flying through the air in slow motion as bullets cut through the air around her. Its just dizzyingly good fun. Thank goodness Joss Whedon was such a fan of the Matrix franchise. I bet he was screaming with joy when he saw this footage.

Result: Extremely satisfying in every respect, Primeval ties together the multitude of threads that have been woven throughout season four and does it by producing an exciting, emotional ride. On a character level it kicks ass, portraying the Scoobies and independent agents that are trying to bring Adam down on their own before drawing them all together in some of the most heart-warming scenes on the show in a while. The way that their separation and unity is worked into the plot (they each have a role to play in the conclusion and it couldn’t be achieve without any one of them) is inspired. The Initiative has been a glorious experiment that has paid dividends and although I wish they hadn’t quite tidied everything away so neatly (besides a few mentions in subsequent seasons and a return to the base in season seven its like it never happened) the engine of destruction that is unleashed in its demise has to be seen to be believed. This is Buffy how it would look on the big screen with countless action set pieces, explosions, gunplay and some really nifty Matrix-style stunts. It looks phenomenal, it really gets the heart pounding and it might just be the shows ultimate expression of the word climactic (far more so than Graduation Day). Even Adam works in this setting of total carnage, finally getting to behave like the villain he was always set up to be. I can only think that it was the uncomfortable schism between the Scoobies that turned people away from season four because it really is consistently excellent. James A. Contner’s handling of Primeval is almost enough to know Joss Whedon’s Hush off the top spot in the direction stakes. By the end of this you will genuinely feel as though you have watched a (really good) Bond movie. For wrapping everything up in such style, this deserves full marks: 10/10

Restless written and directed by Joss Whedon

 What’s it about: Dreams can come true, baby…

The Chosen One: Joyce finally gets to meet Riley and it feels oddly like old times to have all the gang back around Buffy’s house hanging out (along with Giles who slips in unnoticed and accepted by Joyce). Buffy has always had prophetic dreams and this is no different as Tara informs her to be ‘back before Dawn.’ She has unconscious guilt about how little she has seen her mother this year and that Riley sees her as little more than a demon assassin.

Ripper: Buffy can be seen in kiddie dungarees running through a funfair holding onto Giles’ hand with Olivia in tow as surrogate mother and father. He would normally offer her treats for good behaviour but he doesn’t have any on him. They all expect Giles to have the answers all the time.

Witchy Willow: Willow dreams of Tara naked in bed, discussing Miss Kitty Fantastico and reveals that she is safe in her company but has subconscious doubts that Tara has secrets of her own. Oz and Xander talk about he she does ‘spells with Tara…’ as though that is something that is preying on her mind. Her stage fright rears its ugly head except this time she is the star of the show and her entire family is in the front row of the audience and they look really angry. She’s scared that people will no the truth about her, will know that she is different. Willow experiences that awful sense that there is something after her in her dream, something out of vision and unknowable. Oz and Tara flirt together as Willow is de-frocked and everybody can see her for the geek that she is (dress much like she was in the first season).

Gorgeous Geek: Xander might have resisted in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered when Joyce tried to come on to him but something must have lodged inside his brain because subconsciously he desires her, turning up here in her sexy red underwear. He feels he has missed an opportunity to do anything special, instead he sells ice creams for a living and he wishes that Buffy would consider him a brother. Xander fears that Anya will leave him and go back to vengeance but at the same time he has insanely lustful thoughts about Willow and Tara. For Xander all roads seem to lead back to the basement, as though he has so much low self esteem that he feels that is where he belongs. His father is an intimidating presence at the top of the stairs, accusing him of upsetting his mother. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Sometimes I think of two women doing a spell…and then I do a spell by myself.’
‘Everyone that Willow has ever met is out in that audience!’
‘Men! With your…sales!
‘Come on put your back into it! A Watcher scoffs at gravity!’
‘The spell we cast with Buffy must have released some primal evil that’s come back seeking…I’m not sure what…Willow look through the chronicles for some reference to a warrior beast…I’ve got to warn Buffy…there’s every chance she might be next…Xander and Willow…and try not to bleed on my couch I’ve just had it steam cleaned…’
‘You never had a Watcher…’
‘You think you know what’s to come, what you are. You haven’t even begun. Be back before Dawn.’
‘Why are you living in the walls?’
‘We’re drawing up a plan for world domination. The key element: coffee makers that think.’

Imagery: Kicking off the weird, there is no pre-titles sequence, just a ‘previously on…’ montage. Yay for the return of Joyce, Oz, Olivia and Snyder (Armin Shimmerman is particularly excellent in his cameo). Willow paints an ancient language on Tara’s back…desert exists outside the window and something wild is moving amongst the dry and broken shrubbery…Miss Kitty marches towards the camera in slow motion like the most terrifying of creatures…Harmony is vamped up and attempting to nibble at Giles’ neck as he gives a pep talk to the cast of the upcoming musical…a tunnel of billowing red curtains…Sarah Michelle Gellar performing an audition of Ringer with her monologue of anti-male propaganda and no-nonsense attitude. New car smell flavoured corn…Willow’s pained response to the First Slayer leaking into Xander’s dreams…Joyce speaking telepathically…Xander has an Initiative audience as he tries to pee…Giles and Spike swinging amiably together in the park, the latter as a wanabee Watcher…Buffy playing in the biggest sandbox known to mankind…Willow and Tara the naughty schoolgirls…Anya steers by gesturing emphatically…the TARDIS-like ice cream truck whose depths knows no bounds…the freaky bleached in colours of an 80s pop video as Xander is pursued through the university by the force…Giles explaining the plot in French…the astonishing Apocalypse Now sequence with Snyder. Spike has hired himself out as an attraction, having his pictures taken baring his fangs and posing in black and white…Anya the stand up comic (‘Quiet! You’ll miss the humorous conclusion!’)…Giles singing the plot explanation…trying to defeat the creature with his thoughts whilst literally being scalped. Buffy appalled that the bed she made with Faith has been unmade…Joyce living in the hole in the wall of the university campus…secret agent Riley Finn in his plush headquarters…positive/negative Buffy, her face covered in clay…the impossibly gorgeous Ariel shot of Buffy in the desert…slow motion fight sequence…waking from the dream but not waking from the dream…

What a Nightmare: I might have gone the whole hog and not bothered to have included the ‘Buffy and friends have a sleepover’ scene at the beginning and simply started in the midst of the first dream. I can understand why Whedon (or possibly the network) decided otherwise to ease people into the episode but it would have been brave to have kept the audience completely out of the loop until the end.

Cheese Man: He’s made all the space for the slices, they will not protect people, he wears the cheese but it does not wear him…

Orchestra: It’s the final curtain (next years The Gift aside) for Christophe Beck who Joss Whedon and a handful of the cast aside has probably been one of the most influential elements to this shows success. His music is extraordinary; its emotive, exciting and catchy and its easy to see why he was snapped up by Hollywood. It seems perfectly apt then that he should go out on his most experimental and involving of scores, one which affords him the greatest scope and offers the biggest surprises. Now lets go and have some fun with Thomas Wanker.

Result: Isn’t it just tedious talking about other peoples dreams? Not in this case! How do you even begin reviewing an episode like Restless, a piece of drama so unique and untranslatable (dreams by their very nature are open to interpretation) that it is a arduous effort to try and explain what you see in the Scoobies insane hallucinations. Instead it is best to just let Restless wash over like the string of conscious thoughts and images that it is, revelling in the powerful and stunning direction, the unbeatable musical score and the performances that are completely in tune with Joss Whedon’s vision. He perfectly captures that sense of disorientation that you suffer in dreams, the sense that they could evolve into anything (the way he has characters move seamlessly from one location to another is utterly disquieting) or wind up anywhere. To end season fours main plot arc an episode early and to cap the year with an extended therapy session of the most beguiling kind was inspired and cements Whedon as a risk taker. Some people wont get this, others will adore it and the third category will be left wondering why they have wandered into an alternative dimension where absolutely nothing makes any sense. Its unlike anything you will ever see on television (which for all its pretension of originality Buffy only managed to achieve about three times…but I will leave it to you figure out the other two) and it impressed me more and more each time I watch it (and I was bowled over by it on my first watch). Weirder than Twin Peaks and The Prisoner combined, Restless however does have an internal logic to it which if you are paying attention you can follow to its conclusion. The way the characters can communicate and pool their resources within each others dreams, sharing each others experiences means they can work together to figure out what is going on. Restless kicks ass to a point where I am on the ground embracing the pain, embracing it and giving it a big sloppy man kiss. Its an episode that looks backwards (Willow the nerd, Oz, Snyder), embraces the present (Tara speaking for the First Slayer, Riley the Secret Agent) and looks to the future (portents of Dawn’s arrival, Buffy’s death and the first appearance of the First Slayer). It’s a cornerstone achievement for the show. I love it: 10/10

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I really can't believe your praise for this season, the one that most disappointed me on original transmission. It's still very watchable but a definite step or two down after the last 2 years.

The initiative storyline is probably the worst arc Whedon devised, and the constant change of credits jarred week by week and still does on box set marathons.

Seasons 5 and 6 took the promise shown at times and did much better work.

Without spike, Giles and tara this would be my least favourite season. But it's OK when all is said and done.