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Recap: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” S4.E1 — “The Freshman”

“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 Roommate

By [E] Slay Belle

Slay Belle is an editor and the new writer mentor here at Persephone Magazine, where she writes about pop culture, Buffy, and her extreme love of Lifetime movies. She is also the editor of powderroom.jezebel.com. You can follow her on Twitter, @SlayBelle or email her at slay@persephonemagazine.com.

She is awfully fond of unicorns and zombies, and will usually respond to any conversational volley that includes those topics.

28 replies on “Recap: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” S4.E1 — “The Freshman””

Aw yea season 4 recaps!! I loved this season. I checked out during season three (because I kind of hated watching Faith crash and burn), and season 4 brought me back. Spike!! Harmony!

I did not know Sunday was supposed to be an embraced Slayer. That’s really interesting. Maybe they didn’t do it because last season was already all about a fallen Slayer? I’ve always wondered what would happen if a Slayer became a vamp.

I’ve already re-watched up to the 4th episode, and I was just so happy with Spike came back on the scene. He’s just a great character. And Harmony-as-a-vampire was a real surprise. Who would have thought she was gonna be a real asset to the season after her high school stuff?

Oh, Faith. Once Fella and I get to the point where Faith returns, I’m going to make him watch the Faith-in-LA episodes of Angel (just for that sense of closure). Because you just CAN’T ignore that Faith is a slayer herself and a compelling character in her own right. And, in the long run, Faith’s one of my favorites.

I also love Spike, and kind of like him better when he’s bad. Or when he’s bickering with Angel, because they’re old vampire not-buddies.

Seriously…Riley starts out ok, but then he becomes like a total tool! When he got together with Buffy, I thought, “Aw, yay! A normal guy for Buffy!” But then he got all macho and “I have to protect Buffy!” and here I am, thinking, “She’s the slayer. I think she’s got this!”

AND THEN when he shows up again and fails to mention that he’s MARRIED, and Buffy’s introduction to his wife is, in short, “what the hell were you just doing with my husband”. ashgfddsud.

As much as Xander shows the defining traits of the Nice Guy TM, I always thought Riley was worse. At least Xander grows up (and really, truly was the Butt Monkey in a lot of situations). Riley leaves in a snit (sure, it’s for a job, but seriously) and then comes back, married and smug, and speechifies about moving on, and then leaves.

Ahem. I may have feelings here.

I just screamed out loud at my desk when I saw this recap was up! Three people came running to see if I was okay. I MISSED YOU BUFFY RECAPS!!

I had never heard that Sunday was an embraced Slayer; that is really interesting, and I never really thought about the fact that the show didn’t mention it, ever. I would think that if there was one, they would have to kind of make it a season long Big Bad, instead of a MOTW, since slayers are bad ass and all, do I guess they just didn’t want to go that route? It shines a whole new interesting light on this episode, though.

The DVR was getting full last night, and I was making Jon delete movies he hadn’t watched yet when he said “seriously?!?! I have to delete things I haven’t seen, but you can have 12 episodes of Buffy and Angel taking up space? The DVD’s are sitting right underneath the DVR!!” I’m not sure what point he was trying to make, but they are still on there and his shows aren’t, so hah. I win. Buffy Wins. We all win.

I never watched Buffy when it was on air, but I recently finished the series back in December, and I have to say, I loved it! I also liked the beginning of season 4, but then it started getting weird. I appreciated how out of place Buffy was when she first got to college, and I liked the vamp chick that showed up. :)

Season 4 is a bit uneven. There’s a lot of padding in it, more than most of the other seasons if I remember correctly. But I’m really interested in hearing what you have to say as a relatively recent Buffy watcher. Sometimes I miss things just because I’ve seen them so often.

I’ll see what I can do. ;) I started watching Buffy probably middle of 2011 and got to nearly the end of season 3 towards the beginning of 2012. Then I stopped watching for a really long time and started back up at the end of November, so I ended up watching four seasons in maybe a month and a half?

But yeah, season 4 just felt “off” from the rest of the show, but I has super excited to see Spike make one of his many reappearances, and couldn’t stop laughing every time he’d have a cameo. Spike is so great! I actually had dreams about Spuffy for a few weeks after I finished watching the series.

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