The fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer is about her shift into college life, which is to say it’s really about her transition into adulthood, which is most of all to say it’s a continuation of the show’s Coming Of Age story. Once again, it lacks the propulsive drive and completeness of the second season’s “I slept with a guy and now he’s a bastard” story, but it does have a very fun arc of shaking up the world the characters live in*. This is best represented by Willow, who radically changes her look and subtly reveals a confidence and competence, with the new and exciting environment allowing her to display all her good qualities and none of her shyness (which doesn’t necessarily mean nothing bad happens to her, certainly). The other characters often find themselves adapting less well than her, giving us some pleasure in seeing them adapt to new circumstances; Giles initially takes pleasure in having less formal responsibility over Buffy only to fear he’s losing her entirely, and Xander is disturbed to find himself nearly totally dysfunctional and moving from shitty job to shitty job.
(*And it does have a much more literal “I slept with a guy and now he’s a bastard” story.)
Buffy herself has an arc of being humbled by life a little bit. On a broader plot scale, she comes into contact with The Initiative, a previously unknown military outfit targeting demons, vampires, and other supernatural phenomena, and she rubs up uncomfortably against their strict discipline and technical know-how. On the more personal level, she’s finding herself less of automatic authority figure. Classes are both less regimented than high school and more difficult; Cordelia has moved across the country and the assholes who took her place are smarter and have more authority behind them; most of all, her friends have their own lives, interests, and abilities, and they’re tired of kowtowing to her Slayer authority even when they don’t have powers equal to or surpassing hers.
This is an arc I really like in fiction – the crumbling of an ideal. No character in a well-written story can be both compelling and perfect for long; history builds up, mistakes get made, actions have unexpected long-running consequences. The first couple episodes of this season make continuity references to the point of it feeling like a bit of a crutch to fill time, but the sense that we have made history together with these characters is undeniable. Fewer people see Buffy as a moral authority, and in fact they have begun to see her as something much worse: a victim to be protected. Someone who has gone through enough suffering and needs people to watch out for her. One thing I like about Buffy as a character is that she complains endlessly about being the Slayer, but she also believes in it 100%. She won’t walk away until she’s not the Slayer.
I liked Angel almost immediately because it revealed itself as one of the rarest things in television, especially American television: a show with a clear, complex central theme that it will explore rather than lecture on. That is to say, it asks the most noir of questions – how do you do good in an evil world? I liked the nuance in it that popped up almost immediately. Angel, unlike Buffy, is an adult, and thus has had time to commit wrongs that can never be taken back. The fact that they are heightened and supernatural only makes them more fun and comfortable to relate to than the wrongs most people do. The first clear point is that this will not ever stop him from trying to do good now; as he points out once, what else is he gonna do? Even better, this shady past gives him the ability to relate to people who commit evil, even if he can’t always get through to them; he can forgive others because he already forgave himself, and that helps him help people like Faith.
I fell in love with Angel at about the halfway point of the first season. The first eight episodes have an incredibly compelling thematic hook, but that drives a lot of middling-to-weak procedural stories. Famously, Doyle’s arc was always intended to be short – rumours persist that Glenn Quinn’s drug problem contracted it further – and his death ends up kicking the show into gear almost immediately. It’s not just that the episode itself is a solid Heroic Sacrifice narrative condensed into forty minutes, or even that his death is given more weight by Angel and Cordelia taking it so hard for a while; it’s as if it woke up the writers and made them start taking the premise and world a little more seriously. The melodrama of his death gives them permission to commit to more heightened melodrama moving forward.
I decided I love Angel as much as I love any Shield or Mad Men or LOST or Mass Effect character, partly because the writers decide to make him practically a stereotypical introvert – I got a big laugh out of him sighing with relief when Cordelia lets him sit and brood in the dark, and he’s never more sympathetic than when he gets testy over being interrupted while trying to read a book – but mostly because he not only wants the things that happen to mean something, he actively works to make that happen. I get the sense that he doesn’t just save Faith because he likes her personally or even because he can relate to her struggle, but because he can’t just stand by and let a person’s life story be that she killed people and then died. It has to mean something more than that. Our suffering has to go somewhere.
For the first eight episode of season four of Buffy, I actually found myself liking Riley. I knew going in that he’s considerably disliked by the fandom – beloved Soluter wallflower had a few not-very-nice things to say – but I initially found his Iowa farmboy viewpoint fascinating and refreshing in the context of the show. His service to a higher ideal – the military in a professional context and gentleman behaviour on a day-to-day level – stands out from Buffy’s more personal ideals. There’s initially a sense that Buffy is a rank amateur who has stumbled into the path of a professional; an organised team with the power of an institution driving them, which would be a neat Buffyesque metaphor for a child who was editor of their high school paper, only to go to college and discover dozens of other kids who were editors of their high school paper to compete against.
Two things end up ruining this. First, Riley fucking sucks. I can almost get it down to the minute – in the final scene of episode nine, when he finally gets Buffy and fully reveals his identity to her (and she reveals hers), he seems to lose all motivation. He starts acting almost randomly, and not in a Shane Vendrellian “so many motivations competing at once” way, in a “the writers had no fucking clue what they were doing with this guy” way. Were they drunk when they wrote his scenes? Was it a personal challenge to see how hard they could make one element of the show suck? Was there some kind of Producers thing going on? Was someone trying to get fired?
Secondly, Whedon’s anti-authoritarian tendencies seem to get in the way of a good story here. Serenity told this kind of story a lot better; plausibly (if you ignore the show a bit) setting up a conspiracy that gets out of hand. This season feels more like Buffy wins because she’s the good guy with superpowers than anything else; it’s saved by the fact that the heroes all rally together to do it, but I’m left feeling a bit ‘yeah sure whatever’ about the whole thing. Whedon simply cannot allow a military operation – or any organisation larger than a dozen people – to be smarter than a teenage girl. I’ve always been puzzled by the hypocrisy there; Whedon himself was so successful because he piggybacked off of an institution that was willing to trust him at an absurdly young age with no real qualifications. It goes alongside his love of found families over blood considering he was a nepo baby. I assume it’s his instinct for stories people are attracted to.
Angel often feels like it’s made up of the spare parts of Buffy. This feels especially true at the end of the first season, when the three main characters are all side characters from that show; Wesley in particular wasn’t just a representation of the authority Buffy was chafing against, he was a comic loser who was wrong about everything. Their transition into protagonists has some particularly clever writing in its attempt to keep true to who they were whilst centering their choices, with Cordelia getting the most sophisticated work. Season three of Buffy already tried to make her more sympathetic by taking away her family’s money, and the pilot took this further by making her another voice in a city of millions. It’s her taking of Doyle’s powers that’s the really clever move; if she had gotten those powers straight away in the pilot, her journey would probably have been fun but it wouldn’t be nearly as complicated; the fact that Doyle passed them to her in sacrifice is both very inconvenient for her and turns it into a matter of honour – it’s a mark of respect for Doyle that she keeps up his role.
Withholding her receiving all the suffering of others until the very end of the season turns it into a larger journey – as if she comes to that mass empathy of suffering on her own. I don’t always like all the choices and talents (and, more importantly, lack of talents) of other people, but I do recognise their humanity, which means tolerating that they make choices I don’t always agree with. You have to accept that other people make their own decisions, and watching Cordelia find her way to her most good self is the kind of journey you can get when you allow them to. Angel and Angel are built upon that kind of thinking; David Boreanez always had a great grasp of his brooding, but his performance manages to find more depths and nuances than I ever thought possible. He’s possibly the funniest performer of Whedonesque dialogue because it comes off as him finding a use for the ten percent of his brain not focused on the job at hand.
He also gets both humour and pathos out of Angel’s genuine compassion for others; I got a really big laugh of “I thought it was funny,” in his final scene of the season finale, and the further we get into the whole season, the more we see Angel’s acceptance that things aren’t always gonna go the way he wants them to. On a basic level, Angel knows that he of all people is in no position to lecture anyone on morality; what he instead does is either offer advice for a different path or tell people what he’s going to do to them (usually both in that order). He becomes a man who broods in motion – head in the clouds but feet on the ground. He is a man who is never going to be happy (we get an episode where a facsimile of Angelus appears to remind us what happens if he ever is) and he’s accepted this, throwing it out as a goal entirely and submitting to the ideal of the knight in shining armour.
Oddly, I found this easy to relate to as a neurodivergent person. It’s been suggested that some neurodivergent people – particularly those with ADHD – don’t get a hit of dopamine from task completion the way neurotypical people do. This is definitely something I relate to and have come to accept (in my meaner or angrier moments, neurotypical people come off as unaware addicts to task completion surprised that I’m not jonesing alongside them) and Angel’s journey away from happiness mirrors my own journey away from pretending I find to-do lists emotionally satisfying.
I’m intrigued by how Buffy becomes more technically accomplished as it goes along, even if inspiration comes and goes. For one thing, it really gets the hang of connecting scenes by jokes; most of it is a fairly basic Gilligan cut with a lot of “character asks a question, a different character in a different situation answers” gags. Most interesting is Adam; on a plot level, he’s another unkillable big scary monster who mostly fills time by standing around and talking – no different from the Master or Mayor before him (by comparison to all three, Spike is a real character who makes decisions all the time). Actor George Hertzberg mines the dialogue for sweetness and childlike curiosity; he takes disagreement in stride and is puzzled rather than infuriated or amused by others. It’s mere icing on the plot’s cake, of course, but it’s very tasty icing.
I absolutely love the way Wolfram & Hart is seeded throughout the first season of Angel. As a rule, conspiracy plots in American genre television suck – The X-Files is most people’s pyrite standard for this, though I think it’s intermittently more interesting than its reputation. Most of the time, it falls into delirious nonsense with random twists pulled out of the writer’s asses to make the Conspiracy look really powerful without bothering with plausibility. One that worked for me was Metal Gear Solid, because its fictional conspiracy is worked out as a clear system with many individuals operating with a clearly established amount of power and no one person controlling everything.
Wolfram & Hart works here because it’s closer to the various Number Twos on The Prisoner – the story suppresses most of the technical explanation for how it works and merely presents us with a series of lawyers, played by different people but with identical personalities, who throw around money to solve problems. My favourite example is when Angel is stuck in a demon slave gladiator battle and a lawyer from W&H comes to him and offers to buy his contract as a favour, giving him a really potent deal-with-the-devil situation informed by a long history with their organisation. It also makes it a pleasure when several of them come together in the end to tell their own little story. Lindsey ends up telling the story of a guy with a conscience who ends up selling out in the hopes of trying to change the system from within; very different from Angel’s lone warrior.
Willow has one of my favourite arcs in the show in her romances with Oz and Tara; I found myself wondering if Oz was an invention of writer Marti Noxin, partly because his ‘type’ didn’t recur over Whedon’s other works – the closest we get is Mal when he’s terrified and maybe Shepard Book – and partly because the show took a steep rise in quality whenever her name and Oz’s face showed up in the opening scenes. Willow and Oz is one of the all-time great romances in fiction because neither is stupid or irrational, and at the beginning of the season, Oz is part of Willow being a Normal Functional Person in a larger cast of dysfunction. The breakdown of their relationship is awful and comes from Oz’s pragmatic reaction to his werewolfism as opposed to either of the characters suddenly losing all sense.
The relationship between Willow and Tara buds because the former is cool and attractive and looking for friends with similar interests and values, and while the latter is shy and anxious, Willow allows her the space to be herself without criticism or expectation. This all brilliantly comes together when Oz returns, believing he’s dealt with his werewolf issues and causing an honest-to-god heartbreaking love triangle. It’s a great romance for the exact same reason Alien and The Thing are great horror movies: nobody has done anything wrong, nobody is really the bad guy, everybody is acting as practically and decently as they can. It’s Oz who once again rises to the occasion and proves himself the coolest guy in the world, and he does it using dramatic principles.
The basis of drama is the removal of elements. Writing Act One appears to be the generation of ideas at first glance, but what you’re really doing is reducing the whole world just down to the objects you want to play with; I want to tell a story about this guy in particular, and I’m going to be following him and nobody else. The final act becomes a process of stripping out what elements you have chosen until there’s nothing left to do and nowhere else to go. If one treats the real world as a dramatic playground, one becomes not upset but invigorated by the removal of options and the tossing aside of lesser motivations.
This is what Oz does. He’s motivated by a desire to play guitar in a band, and by a desire to be with Willow, and by a desire to protect Willow, and when one becomes impractical he ruthlessly tosses it aside for what he wants more. He loves Willow, he wants to be with Willow, but he wants Willow to be safe more, and he accepts the loss of the lesser for the greater. That’s sad, but it’s also awesome, awe-inspiring, and beautiful. It’s as much a heroic sacrifice as what Doyle does; it’s a deeply romantic way of living life, and it’s based upon what one is willing to lose – to sacrifice, to burn up – rather than what one wants to gain.
I am astounded by how interconnected Buffy and Angel are, especially by the standard of most TV spinoffs. The Stargate TV franchise has continuity as its most powerful and obvious asset, but it feels thuddingly literal compared to this; one can easily watch any of its shows without needing to see any other, because any continuity reference feels of a piece with the constant flow of exposition anyway and the emotional journey is predictably static. The characters in the Buffyverse are very much on developing emotional journeys; the third episodes of each of these seasons of the shows experiment with following Oz, Spike, and a vampire superpower ring from Buffy to Angel, something that must have been exhilarating to see in the two-hour block in which they originally aired and sure was fun as shit to see alternating between the shows as I watched them every other day.
After that, the show gleefully seeds stories between the two of them and allows dramatic events to echo out from one show to the other; this is the first and only show I’ve ever seen where the ‘previously on’ references an entirely different show on a semi-regular basis. It reaches the zenith of ambition with Faith, who wrecks shit up Buffy only to be hit with an emotional hangover on Angel a few episodes later (amusingly, LA is pretty consistently half an episode away from Sunnydale; Faith presumably spent time rocking shit in towns between for a few days). It’s during this arc that we get the real difference between Buffy and Angel, in that the former is driven by vengeance and the destruction of evil whilst the latter is attempting to actively creative goodness. Buffy is righteously angry at Faith and understandably so, given that we saw her offer the latter nothing but friendship that was thrown back in her face constantly.
At the same time, Angel’s desire to stoke Faith’s goodness is equally understandable, given that not only have we seen flashbacks to his fall into depravity, we’ve seen the crimes he committed in the present as Angelus. We see why he believes that a bad person, no matter how far they’ve gone, can be made good again through careful and consistent action (“No chance. Jail.” / “You think that’ll help?”). One thing that delights me about Boreanez’s performance is his complete lack of offence to anyone who disagrees with him; he loses his temper with Buffy once (and in general she seems like the one person he’s invested in swaying with his views), but otherwise he’s as honest about his intentions with his allies as his enemies and completely accepting that they aren’t always going to back him up.
Buffy suffers the most with this comparison – it’s definitely the world of a child whereas Angel is at least a young adult out on their own – but otherwise both end up enriched by a shared universe with distinct takes on the same core ideas. It feels gripping and cool to feel these titanic figures moving through the same world; it’s incredibly funny to me that Angel being a vampire becomes something I straightforwardly accept as a basic element of the world and of my heroic protagonist because the rules of these particular vampires have been so well established that they can be manipulated (like Angel constantly taking the sewers to get around or getting frustrated when he can’t enter a house). I feel as if I have truly entered a larger-than-life world of melodrama, and I get to see the same place from all different angles.