Season Four finds the Scooby Gang leaving high school and either heading to college at UC-Sunnydale or the real world. No single season of BUFFY ever witnessed as many changes as this one did. Buffy, Willow, and Oz all head off to college, Angel and Cordelia head off to Los Angeles, Giles is no longer a watcher and no longer a librarian and no longer has a sense of what he is supposed to be doing, Xander flounders in a number of horrid jobs until finding his niche in construction, Joyce has to struggle with her daughter being in college, Anya, the former vengeance demon, has to struggle with being a mere human being, and Spike has to adjust to the fact that he is no longer a Big Bad due to a chip in his head that prevents his attacking humans. As if this were not enough, Oz leaves the show entirely; Willow unexpectedly falls in love with a fellow Wicca, Tara (to bring forth the first convincing and realistic homosexual relationship in television history); and Buffy gets a new boyfriend, Riley, who is probably the least popular character (with the possible exception of Connor in ANGEL) in the Buffyverse.
If you read reviews of the five seasons of BUFFY that have either been released or announced on DVD in the US, you will find people willing to label any of these five as "the best." I think this kind of diversity of opinion is awesome, and it shows how magnificently BUFFY appeals to a huge range of people at a variety of levels. My own opinion is that Season Four is a bit of a drop off from Seasons Two and Three, and not quite as good as Season Five would be. Part of the reason it strikes me this was is the enormous amount of change that I alluded to in the first paragraph. So many things were changing and altering, that my sense is that it all didn't mesh quite as well as in previous seasons. An additional reason was the unexpected departure of Seth Green to pursue film projects. Not having Oz around hurt the cast chemistry, and while adding Spike as a core character was a tremendous addition (he and Anya managed to take over Cordelia's role of bluntly saying aloud what others might merely be thinking), Riley is perhaps the lone BUFFY character who simply never meshed with the rest of the cast (I know some feel this way about Dawn, but I always liked her, perhaps because I have a daughter the same age as Dawn). To top matters off, the Initiative was just a bit too clinical and not sufficiently evil to rank with Angelus of Season Two, or the Mayor in Season Three, or Glory in Season Five. Adam, the Frankenstein-like creation of Professor Maggie Walsh, was not particularly involving, perhaps because the make up hid most of the actor's face, making him particularly inexpressive.
Nonetheless, BUFFY at not quite at its best is still better than 99.99% of anything else ever done on television, and while the season as a whole may not be quite as strong as others, there are some individual episodes that easily rank among the best in the history of the show. I have two favorites. First, the justly celebrated episode "Hush," in which the fairy tale monsters The Gentlemen capture the voices of all the inhabitants of Sunnydale, forcing most of the show to be played out in mime. The sheer visual imagery of the episode is profoundly unsettling. The Gentlemen are simultaneously terrifyingly evil, and a parody of obsequiousness. Bowing in a parody of extreme politeness to one another with macabre grins on their faces, they glide down the streets hovering a foot or so off the ground. The episode garnered an Emmy nomination, the only one the show ever received for writing, which is utterly absurd when one considers that it is probably the best-written show in the history of television.
My other favorite episode is the second half of the two-parter dealing with Faith's awakening from her coma and her attempt at avenging her near-death at the hands of Buffy. The first part, "This Year's Girl," is good, but it primarily sets up the extraordinary second part, "Who Are You?" In the former, the Mayor, in a videotaped message made before his Ascension, gives faith a device that will allow her to switch bodies with Buffy, which she does at the end of the first part (allowing the eerie opening credits of part two, where it reads: "Eliza Dushku as Buffy"). Body switching has been a staple of television and movies for decades, but BUFFY does something amazing with it. Primarily, the focus of the episode is an exploration of Faith's sense of self. We gain insight into her own lack of self and moral focus in the scene immediately after first entering Buffy's body when just after taking a bath she stands in front of a mirror and keeps repeating the words, "It's wrong!" in a parody of what she imagines to be Buffy's moral judgmentalism. Gradually Faith interacts with Buffy's friends and boyfriend, and comes to understand what Buffy has and she lacks: a strong group of friends who care for her and support her. This triggers self-doubt about her own worth, and when in the climax she in Buffy's body beats Buffy in hers, the viewer realizes that both the blows and the angry epithets she screams are directed not at Buffy but at herself. "Who Are You?" ends up being one of the most profound episodes of any season. Upon getting their own bodies back, Faith flees to LA in an attempt to get revenge on Angel instead. The Angel episodes "Five by Five" and "Sanctuary" ended the Faith Saga until her return in Season Four of Angel, and her return to Sunnydale in BUFFY's final season.
So, while this is not my favorite season of BUFFY, it is still an enormously entertaining one. The addition of Spike can hardly be underestimated. Always a welcome guest in previous seasons, his permanent addition to the cast brought a caustic edge to the humor that definitely lacking after Cordy's departure to LA. As a whole, the season reflected the growing pains the characters in the show also experienced. For any BUFFY fan, this is an essential set.