In Defence of Season Four: Identity Crisis

Starting off Sheffield Gothic’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Four posts is Jennifer DeRoss exploring the big bad of Season Four. Don’t forget to share this post and check out our series so far, and if you want to get involved with the conversation use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

Season Four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the seasons that get placed near the bottom of most people’s favourite seasons list. The reason that is often cited for this is that the writers hadn’t yet figured out how the show was going to function after the main characters literally blew up Sunnydale High. As one of the show’s original premises was high school is hell, it makes a lot of sense that there would be some growing pains as they readjusted to life without it. Interestingly, this was also a key theme in the season making these issues supportive of that theme. Season Four is when the main characters each struggle to move on and determine who they are going to be in this next chapter of their lives: Willow is trying to come to terms with herself as a queer woman; Xander is trying to find a fulfilling career, Giles is trying to reinvent himself during a midlife crisis; Buffy is trying to learn how to maintain meaningful relationships with the people around her… Harmony, Oz, Spike, Anya, Riley, and Tara are all going through similar struggles as well. For those whose ages fit the main characters’, these were very recognizable experiences that they were going through in their real lives as well. I argue that, like in Season Six, the big bad is not the main villain that Scoobies must face. Season four’s big bad is the first step in the life long struggle to find one’s identity.

(Adam: the big bad of Season Four?)

Building up to the end of the season, many of the episodes function like a deconstruction of identity. Almost every episode explores the topic of personal agency and responsibility in some way. Body swapping or changing is also something that occurs in this season as they interrogate the positions that each character is born into and how that impacts the choices that they have. They delve into identity-based fears, anxieties, and behavioural control issues as well. The character who best serves as a catalyst for these questions is Adam. Very shortly after he awakens, the part demon, part human, and part robot begins philosophizing about his very existence. In an attempt to learn who he is and why he feels the way he does, he seeks information about each aspect of himself. Still, he sees all of this information as lacking leaving him to state that it, ‘tells me what I am, but not who I am’ (‘Goodbye Iowa’). Having access to the knowledge is not the same thing as knowing it. As if he had forgotten this, just two episodes later, he asserts that he has more clarity than any other creature because his known purpose is to kill. Mirroring the Scoobies, Adam shows an ignored disjunction. It is a whole lot easier to ignore insecurities than to deal with them. He is the perfect example of what many try to do when we make our first attempts at adulthood. Like Adam, we believe we can achieve what no other could before; however, nobody can do it all. It is this over confidence, and lack of understanding, that results in Adam’s death.

(Buffy taking out Adam’s heart in ‘Primeval)

Ultimately, these same flaws almost take down the Scoobies as well. Adam is the only big bad to be taken down in the penultimate episode of the season, which not only signals that he was not, in fact, the true big bad, but also that the issues within the season remained unresolved after his threat was neutralized. Foreshadowing this four episodes before, Buffy tells Jonathan that: ‘you can’t make everything work out with some big gesture’ (‘Superstar’). The enjoining spell did indeed work and relying on one’s friends is a necessary act, but an over-reliance on one’s friends is also a weakness. In other words, ‘Primeval’ shows that we need to recognize our inability to do everything, but ‘Restless’ reminds us that only you can work through your insecurities and learn to be ok with who you are. Each dream represents a part of the character that causes anxiety for them: Willow is uncomfortable with her new and cooler status; Xander fears his ability to ever leave his parents basement; Giles regrets the inadequate fathering he has done; Buffy doubts herself and her role as a slayer. Thankfully, Buffy may not be cookies yet, but she was self-confident enough to recognize that her power is her own and not something that was simply handed down to her. This places her on the path to self-discovery and ‘it’s all about the journey’ after all (‘Restless’).

(Buffy, the First Slayer, and a man with cheese in ‘Restless’)

In conclusion, the very thing that Season Four is criticized for is what makes it such a great season. It feels clunky and unresolved because life is clunky and unresolved; none of the characters were done baking yet. This is a journey every person spends their whole life on and these characters are still growing and becoming who they are in the comics. As we are told in the final words of the season: ‘You think you know what’s to come… what you are…You haven’t even begun’  (‘Restless’). Without conquering that first step on the path of discovery, Buffy would not have been able to make the huge life changing decisions she has made after this point. Echoing a famous quote about Batman, season four may not be the season we want, but it is the season we need.

Jennifer DeRoss, a slayer in her own right, is a mother and comic scholar who focuses on the Modern American Superhero. She is currently writing a biography on Gardner Fox through Pulp Hero Press while writing reviews for Comic Crusaders. You can find her on twitter @JenniferDeRoss.