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Now reading: Recap: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” S4.E1 — “The Freshman” in LadyGhosts Of TV Past on Persephone Magazine..


“Uh, are we gonna fight, or is there just gonna be a monster sarcasm rally?”

Buffy on her college campus, looking lost

Hello friends.

I know, I know. It’s been a long time since my end of season break. I intend that the time off I take between seasons is about a month, enough time to recharge, consider what I wrote about the previous season, and get ready to plunge in again. But S3 ended at a bustling time in my life, so S4 got put off. And put off. And put off. Finally, I had to consider: had I had enough Buffy in my life?

The show has been in my life since the premier in 1997. It has literally been in my life longer than my daughter, who didn’t make her debut until September of that year. I watched the season during its initial run and faithfully during its syndication. I taped (taped! On VHS!) the last several months of season 5, which ran when I was studying in Japan, and came home to marathon the emotional, devastating final episodes. I can name episodes from the tiniest hint, identify them from 20-second gifs, and toss off one-liners like I’m getting paid for it. I’ve written about the show academically and here for Persephone.

In short, there’s been a lot of  B:TVS in my life. Maybe I was a little burned out.

My husband is working abroad right now. He’s been my consistent companion as I’ve reblogged the series, though you may not be aware of his presence in my recaps. When he returned for a visit over the holidays, we settled in to watch the first several episodes of season 4 together, just like we used to do. I was a little wary about coming back to the show — what if I was really burned out? What if distance didn’t make the heart grow fonder?

I shouldn’t have worried. It was like falling back in with an old friend. Our jokes were still funny. Our adventures were still tense. Only the fashions stagnated. It was nice to come back to. I can only hope that you, my friends, feel the same way.

Let’s talk about season 4.

Cast photo for season four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer

It’s not missed my attention that season 4 is not very popular among the Buffy fandom. We’re not a group that’s great with change. It was the first season to move beyond the beloved high school and I think the lack of familiarity didn’t play well in Peoria. Season 6, in my opinion, suffered unfairly from that resistance as well. Both seasons represent big tonal shifts on the part of the storytelling. It took a long time for me to recognize how fantastic season 6 really is, but I was onboard with season 4 right at the time. I loved our Frankenstein’s monster, Spike’s return, and Giles’s lack of direction. I could have done without milquetoast old Riley. There are few stinkers among the episodes (sex house, I’m looking at you), but come on, the Halloween episode! The return of Spike! It’s worth two mentions! Harmony! Some other things that I can’t think of right now!

So we find the gang beginning the school year at UC Sunnydale, a school that must absolutely cook the crime stat books to get anyone to enroll there. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen our girl out of sorts, but that’s exactly what Buffy is here. In the Scooby world, she’s the center of attention. Everything revolves around her position as the Slayer, so it follows that she always fits in. In high school, she was on the fringes and sometimes she was accused of murdering people, but everyone knew who she was. At UC Sunnydale, she’s another lost freshman. The episode revolves around this uncertainty, our super-powered BFF standing in for us, teenagers thrust out into the world, away from our comfort zone. Willow is suddenly the cool girl, with her short, flippy hair cut and her band boyfriend, and her intelligence, and her ability to show up on time, in the right classroom.

Buffy is off-kilter, which  is what the episode hinges on. Unshockingly, because this is Sunnydale, a band of vampires is living in the tunnels on the campus, preying on the students. They kill their targets and then toss their rooms, leaving behind a note saying they just couldn’t hack the stress. It’s an almost perfect plan.

Sunday, a goth vampire with long messy blond hair pulled back in a headband

Because she is Buffy, our girl stumbles across this plot almost immediately, after the lone friend she makes on campus disappears while leaving behind his conveniently mentioned favorite book.  And from there, she runs into Sunday, the head goth of this motley vampire crew. Maybe it was the hair, maybe it was the attitude, but Sunday is one of my personal favorite baddies to show up on B:TVS. I wish she had stuck around longer. An initial idea for the character noted that Sunday was actually an embraced Slayer, which explains why Buffy handily gets her ass handed to her in their initial fight. It’s an idea that I always wanted explored within the context of the show and it pretty much never comes up. We know vampires kill Slayers, but they don’t embrace them.

Buffy’s thrashing leaves her more off her game than ever. For all Buffy is adaptable in her fighting style, she’s always been resistant to change in her personal life. Her family and friends ground her Slayerness; when that’s disrupted, everything follows. We saw it happen in season 3, we’ll see it happen in season 5, we’ll see it again in season 7.

Buffy on the floor after fighting with Sunday

We know, because this is her show, that she’ll snap out of this funk. And in the middle of the second, vicious beatdown from Sunday, Buffy is reminded of her place in the grand scheme of things. It’s not to be the popular girl or the smart girl or the sorority girl. When Sunday snaps the handle of  the Class Protector umbrella, Buffy’s hard won acknowledgement from the senior class of Sunnydale High, the Slayer wakes up.

And so we get this, one of the best stakings of the series:

Animated gif from Buffy the Vampire Slayer of Buffy throwing a stake across the room to kill Sunday

Next week: The R