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Retro Recap: Buffy the Vampire Slayer S4.E20 — “The Yoko Factor”

“You feel smothered. Trapped like an animal. Pure in its ferocity. Unable to actualize the feelings within. Clinging to one truth, like a flame, struggling to burn within an enclosed glass: that a beast this powerful cannot be contained. Inevitably, it will break free and savage the land again. I will make you whole again, make you savage.”

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Welcome back, Buffy fans and friends. The last couple of weeks has put the pause in our rewatch of season 4. But now we’re comfortably settled in our new digs — Persephone virtually and me in real life — and we’re back to close out the season. There’s really not a lot left for us in season 4 — this week’s ‘The Yoko Factor” is the lead up to the Big Bad Off and then we close out with the funland symbolic dream journey with The First Slayer. Not that there is plenty of stuff to talk about in these three episodes. There sure is, so let’s get to it.

Timeline note: If you tune into “The Yoko Factor” immediately after watching “New Moon Rising” and find yourself confused by the off handed comments about Buffy being in LA, or Buffy having her head worked over by Angel, don’t be alarmed. You haven’t missed anything. Ok, well, you did, but not on Buffy. In between our two episodes is part of the Faith/LA crossover arc. We covered “Sanctuary” earlier this year when rewatching all 4 Faith episodes. You can find the recap for it here.

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The overarching storyline for season 4 is The Initiative/Adam, which will come to a head next week, but the main theme that’s been running through show is the awfulness of adjusting to adulthood. It’s been about growing pains and the fractures they cause — look back to the early part of the season, with Buffy feeling out of sorts as she moves from being The Slayer to “another coed.” Or Willow and Oz’s devastating break-up. Giles and Xander’s floundering as they bounce from job to job (or maintain an uninterrupted line of unemployment), their structure and purpose in the group seemingly evaporated. Willow’s discomfort and then acceptance of her homosexuality, and then the discomfort and worry of how her friends will react to Tara.  The introduction of new romantic partners and the resentment it causes among the friends. Season 4 and season 6 are often looked down upon as the “worst” of the Buffyverse and that’s no real surprise. As I’ve mentioned several times, these are parallel seasons, dealing with the same themes of transition and maturation, and as a consequence, have some of the darkest stories of the show, and the most instances of discord between the formerly tight knit Scoobies.

All these disparate storylines — some seemingly dropped, some right in our faces — are masterfully manipulated by Spike. Spike, our Big Bad defanged, has been having his own identity crisis this year thanks to the chip The Initiative stuck in his noggin. He starved until he was desperate enough to team up with the Scoobies, tried on demon fighting to get his violence kick, and settled into a life as a low influence information broker, trading gossip for a couple of bucks and some butcher’s blood. Adam preys on Spike’s own vulnerabilities, promising to get the chip out of his skull if Spike can help keep the Slayer too busy to interfere with Adam’s master plan. Spike, excited by the offer and blinded by the promise of being a better monster (see Adam’s sales speech above), eagerly agrees to injecting some quality chaos into the Scooby Gang. He doesn’t quite remember to ask what Adam’s actual plan is. If he had, he might have realized that chip wasn’t going anywhere.

The fight might have gone out of Spike but he still has a formidable weapon — invaluable insight into the workings of the gang, and the lack of compunction to use it. He’s always been insightful (see “Lover’s Walk”), which is the real reason he’s such a threat. Unfortunately, the Scoobies have forgotten that and it’s gonna bite them in the tukus.

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While Buffy is dealing with the aftermath of her meeting with Angel, which involves Angel actually showing up in Sunnydale to butt heads and other body parts with Riley, Spike systematically visits each member of the gang.

With Giles, he casually mentions that Giles hasn’t really been Buffy’s Watcher for a long time, and that he would prefer to deal with someone with actual authority, preying on Giles’s feelings of insecurity.

To Xander, he claims he overheard Buffy and Willow suggesting that Xander might as well join the army, since there’s nothing he can do for them anyway. Not only does this reinforce the impression that he’s being left behind while the girls are in college, but it ticks Anya off as well.

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And Willow, who gets a casual remark that she’s not so helpful anymore now that she’s going through her “Wicca phase.” Tellingly, Tara seems onto to Spike’s manipulation, trying to defuse the defensiveness that Willow throws up, and Spike immediately changes tactics, but not before the seed is planted.

“The point is, they were once a real powerful group. It’s not a stretch to say they ruled the world. And when they broke up everyone blamed Yoko, but the fact is the group split itself apart; she just happened to be there. And you know how it is with kids. They go off to college, they grow apart. Way of the world.”

And then he leaves them to implode. It just took a handful of well-chosen words to have the gang at each other’s throats. He didn’t even have to talk to Buffy. She’s already pissed off after finding out that Xander told Riley about the sex-with-Angel-leading-to-Apocalypse thing and worn down by having to soothe overly masculine egos of her current and ex-boyfriends.  She watched Forrest get gutted by Adam, was electrocuted and then suffered a concussion, and she just came from LA, where her worst enemy was being tenderly cared for by Angel. Our girl was worn out.

The end of the episode leaves us with the gang in tatters, angry, drunk or outraged. Buffy is storming off to take on Adam on her own, and the rest of the group won’t even look at each other.

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Images courtesy of BuffyWorld and Goodbye Piccadilly Farewell Leicester Bloody Square  and property of 21st Century Fox.

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.

5 replies on “Retro Recap: Buffy the Vampire Slayer S4.E20 — “The Yoko Factor””

Our girl Buffy is having a rough couple of months, isn’t she? (And she doesn’t even KNOW what’s coming.)

I’ve always thought that the Gang’s treatment of Spike was very interesting. They’ll use him (for information, brute force, whatever), sometimes they “protect” him, and then they’re surprised when he’s more inclined to throw them under the bus. Dudes, just a few episodes ago, Xander gave Spike a good description of Faith — and Spike basically promised to tell Faith where to find them and giggle while she murdered them all for fun. He’s in their blind spot, which he uses to his full advantage. Plus, Spike is a jerk. He likes stirring the pot and then drinking a beer while he watches the aftermath. They keep forgetting that Spike is in it for Spike, and he plays whatever side will help him get what he wants.

It’s also interesting that it’s so easy for Spike to pick up on and use the Gang’s insecurities and tensions to try and turn them against each other. Giles, it’s been established, is well-off (and frugal) enough that he doesn’t HAVE to work, but his “gentleman of leisure” project is boring the hell out of him. AND his Slayer is more independent, until she wants to have Thanksgiving dinner at his house. Or lock their pet prisoner vampire in his bathroom. Xander has been job-hopping, and feeling disconnected and useless because he’s not in college with his best buddies. Anya doesn’t feel like part of the group, but she doesn’t really TRY to feel like part of the group, and wouldn’t really mind if Xander didn’t spend all of his time with his two pretty female friends. Willow is in the self-discover stage of college, with one relationship nuking itself, another beginning, her own need to accept those changes…And knowing that there are people who wouldn’t accept her relationship with Tara (so she’s hiding it). Tara, like Anya, doesn’t feel like part of the group, but wants to be part of it; she WANTS to be included and to have those real, true friends. And she’s started to become part of things, little by little.

And Buffy. Buffy’s the heroine, and a college freshman, so she’s still in the mindset that It’s All About Buffy. Her relationships with others are focused on how they affect her, Giles isn’t her Watcher anymore, but she calls him when she needs something — information, somewhere to hide a prisoner, somewhere to cook and host Thanksgiving dinner without having to wash dishes. Willow is her best friend and roommate, and Wills’ struggles this year have pulled them apart, which sure is hard for Buffy. Joyce is around, but very much in the background, because Buffy’s at college now. Angel BETRAYED her by focusing his attention on helping Faith regain perspective and sense of humanity, instead of just killing Faith like a rabid animal. Riley can still be forgiven because he’s contrite about his failings and still prioritizing Buffy’s needs. At least she’s not completely self-righteous and giving multiple daily speeches yet (spoiler alert).

It really wasn’t that difficult for Spike to pull at those loose threads so that everyone notices just how worn out the connections have become. And only Tara noticed what he was doing (and I love that she’s perceptive, even if it’s to the exclusion of everyone else, because she hasn’t been living in the Gang’s pockets for four years).

It seems a good enough time as ever to point out that the friction between Willow and Buffy is because of growth, but the friction between Xander and the gang is because of stagnancy. They’re on at least their third go around of ‘Xander is easy to break and not super useful’, which is to say ‘Xander gets left behind’. He’s fretted about this so many times and every time that fear seems to be resolved (see: “The Zeppo”) it comes right back up. Buffycast had a great episode about Xander called ‘Dude, Where’s My Story Arc’ and I think of that title every time I see an episode like this.

I mean, there’s a weird one-off line in the episode in which Willow suggests she take drama because she thinks she’d be good at it, but there were two high school episodes that highlighted Willow’s fear of performing on stage (including her memorably running off it during the talent show). You can read the line as a symbol of her growth (I always thought of it as a continuity error) and a hint towards her resentment of Buffy in season 6. But there’s nothing like that for Xander.

Seriously. Willow gets to grow up and learn about herself and change, take interesting classes, and heal from the catastrophic breakup with Oz. And she meets Tara.

Xander’s epic bohemian trip across the country fails when his car dies. He gets to work another hourly job (after being fired from, um, most of the businesses that hire hourly employees in Sunnydale). He gets to baby-sit Spike, who steals his clothes and makes fun of him. And his two best friends are just continuing their own adventures, forgetting that his life has dwindled into what I’m assuming he’s seen his parents and other relatives do: working to keep a roof over his head and food on his plate, but not having any passion for what he does. He hasn’t found his niche yet. His early-next-episode tantrum makes sense, honestly. He has a girlfriend, but he’s always either just barely getting by or not at all. As much as he can veer into Nice Guy territory, I can empathize with Xander during this season.

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