StephenT (stormwreath) wrote,

Buffy season 4: a question of identity

(This was originally inspired by elisi's review of Buffy season 4, where she lamented that "Adam is pretty much hopeless. He's dull and ugly and never does anything interesting." While I don't think I’m about to change anyone's mind on that, it did strike me that he fits well into what I believe is the overarching theme of season 4... identity.)

Season 4 is about identity, and it's about masks. It's about people not being what they seem, and people struggling to discover who they really are. It's the season when the old certainties of life are shattered, and it's not yet clear what will take their place. Season 4 is when everything changes.

You think you know.
What's to come, what you are...

You haven't even begun.

(Note: unless marked otherwise, all episode quotes are from 'Restless')

In many ways, this is the season where the show comes of age. In the literal sense, Buffy, Xander and Willow are now 18, legally adult and living away from the parental home for the first time. (Well, apart from Buffy's few months in LA after 'Becoming 2'...and Xander is living under the parental home rather than away from it, but anyway.) Season 4 also marks the bridge between the three 'High School seasons', with their strong focus on metaphor, external threats and an episodic format, and the last three seasons with a more serialised format and action arising more from the characters' own interaction and personality. So in a sense, the show's own identity is also in flux.

Now, when I started recapping the season to write this, the one thing that struck me above everything was just how many of the plots revolve around mistaken identity or people not being what they seem. Just consider:
  • Kathy, Buffy's roommate, is a demon in disguise; and she's trying to steal Buffy's soul so she can perfect that disguise.
  • Riley and his frat brothers aren't just students and Maggie Walsh isn't just a professor of psychology.
  • In fact, Maggie's identity includes a second layer of deception: she's not the benevolent leader of the Initiative, dedicated to protecting humanity, that Riley believes her to be.
  • Veruca isn't just an intense young woman who sings in a band: she's a werewolf, and that's why Oz is drawn to her.
  • The Fyarl demon that 'killed' Giles is, in fact, Giles himself. And was Ethan being malicious and deliberately evil, or just playing a practical joke on his old friend?
  • Buffy is really Faith. And vice versa. (At least for one episode.)
  • Is Jonathan really the centre of everything, multi-talented, charismatic and loved by everyone?
  • And why is Tara sabotaging Willow's demon-location spells?
As for episode 4.22, it breaks all the rules for 'normal' season finales... but instead it treats us to an in-depth and intimate tour of our four main characters' subconscious beliefs about themselves. What could be a better finale for a season that focuses on identity?

With so many episodes being about deception and masks, the heroes' struggle to establish their own identity is put into sharp contrast. They're at the stage in life where this is a major concern for them. Living at home with your parents and going to school is a very structured environment. There are rules to follow, people making major decisions on your behalf: you don't really have to think much about the deeper issues. Of course some people chafe against that - that was the theme of season 3, where Buffy was first tempted then frightened by the idea of rebellion. But in season 4 all our main characters have left behind their structured lives - Buffy and Willow at university, Giles unemployed, Xander having to earn a living.

Will they be able to find their own inner purpose, and create an identity for themselves? Or will they just drift along without any structure? Or, perhaps worse, will they allow other people to dictate the structure of their lives on their behalf, and mould them into what other people want them to be?


By all accounts he had a lousy childhood and was never very fond of school, but it did give him a routine, a dependable structure. Now he's drifting. An endless cycle of minimum-wage, casual jobs, which are mostly played for laughs by the show. Living in his parents' basement... in fact, it's rather remarkable that he maintains his optimism and general good nature.

"I got other stuff going on. Gotta have something. Gotta be always moving forward."

This suggests hidden strength; but his own poor estimation of himself holds him back. As we see repeated again and again in 'Restless', he's afraid that he's being left behind; that his friends are moving on in life and leaving him going around in circles - literally, as he always ends up back in the basement.

JOYCE: "Oh, no. Anyway, they all left a while ago."
BUFFY: "I'm way ahead of you, big brother."
WILLOW: "I'm way ahead of you."
GILES: "Hmm. Now, the others have gone on ahead."

His situation won't be resolved until the start of season 5 and 'The Replacement', when his gain in self-confidence and recognition of his own true strengths sets him on path that - apart from some rather serious backsliding in S6 - will result in him being the most mature and adult of the Scoobies by the end of S7.

Speaking of that backsliding... it's interesting that Xander's dream in 'Restless' is filled with the most obvious sexual imagery of all the dreams, but his actual real-life girlfriend only features briefly, when she gives him her blessing to go off and enjoy a threesome with Willow and Tara instead! Indeed, his dream revolves around being offered tantalising promises which are never actually fulfilled... and ends when his father tells him "The line ends here with us, and you're not gonna change that. You haven't got the heart." So Xander believes he'll never have children? Judging by his own experiences at his father's hands, its not surprising he's afraid of the prospect. When it comes to family life, "That's not the way out."


He's not literally coming of age, of course, but is in a similar state of transition; he's lost both his jobs (as librarian and as Watcher), he feels purposeless. He's a father-figure watching his child leave the nest. He's proud of her, but also feeling useless - and perhaps also experiencing a little resentment and desire to get his own life back. In 'Restless', we see him trying to understand what can't be understood: "And I can defeat you with my intellect. I can cripple you with my thoughts." - of course, he can't. No parent can understand a teenage child, let alone the spirit of the First Slayer... :)

In contrast to Xander, Giles doesn't progress in the next season; if anything, he backslides, trying to recover his father-figure role with Buffy. Making the 'hard' decisions on her behalf (killing Ben, leaving her alone to stand on her own two feet, having Spike killed...) instead of discussing them with her - as if she were still a 16-year old child rather than an adult and colleague. We only see a hint of the more healthy relationship between them that could exist right at the end, in 'Chosen'. Hopefully, that wasn't too late...


In some ways she has the most obvious 'finding your identity' story. Willow goes to university and blossoms intellectually, magically and sexually; the shy, geeky wallflower with a crush on her best friend becomes a self-confident, enthusiastic student and accomplished witch, in a committed relationship with another woman. Of course, her massive insecurities are still lurking under the surface, as we see when Oz leaves her and her world temporarily crumbles... and Willow's dream in 'Restless' is all about her fear that it's all an act, that she's the same old Willow underneath and her popularity is based on false pretences.

Even in her relationship with Tara, there are hints of the darkness to come. She's manipulative, keeping Tara's existence a secret and not introducing her to her friends even though that's what Tara wants, because she wants to keep her all to herself. In 'Restless' the scenes between Willow and Tara are all warm, dark and languid, with soft voices and soft (if eerie) music and a red colour palette - all very womb-like (and in the first scene, Willow pulls aside a red curtain to let in the harsh daylight - while in the second, Joss's commentary admits that the red curtains were intended as a Big Obvious Female Sexual Metaphor).

A womb may be very cosy and pleasant, but you can't really spend your entire life there (your mother might object, for one thing). By contrast, the theatre set has discordant music, bright light, clashing colours and far too many people... is this Willow's view of what real life is like? No wonder she prefers computers or magic. And interestingly, the scene where she and Buffy enter the empty classroom has the most realistic sound and lighting of all... does Willow think that her life's only real when she's fighting evil alongside Buffy? (or is that over-thinking it? :) )

A final, truly sinister note comes from what Willow's doing to Tara in her dream. At first viewing, it's simply a very sensual and intimate scene. Once fans discovered that the words Willow was painting on Tara's back were from a poem by Sappho, it added an extra layer of meaning. Now, I don't know if the costume department chose that specific poem deliberately, or if it was a coincidence (it's Sappho's Ode No.1, so presumably would be the first in the book), but I was curious enough to track down the words myself (H T Wharton's translation):


Immortal Aphrodite of the broidered throne,
daughter of Zeus, weaver of wiles,
I pray thee break not my spirit
with anguish and distress, O Queen.
But come hither, if ever before
thou didst hear my voice afar, and listen...

So the words Willow is writing, quite literally behind Tara's back, are an invocation to Aphrodite, goddess of love. How romantic... but in the Buffyverse, when Willow calls upon a goddess and commands her to listen, it's not normally just a matter of poetry! With that in mind, let's look at how Sappho's poem ends:

Thou, blessed one, smiling with immortal countenance,
didst ask what now is befallen me, and why now I call,
and what I in my mad heart most desire to see.
"What Beauty now wouldst thou draw to love thee?
Who wrongs thee, Sappho?
For even if she flies she shall soon follow,
and if she rejects gifts shall yet give,
and if she loves not shall soon love, however loth."
Come, I pray thee, now too, and release me from cruel cares;
and all that my heart desires to accomplish, accomplish thou,
and be thyself my ally.

"If she loves not, shall soon love, however unwilling."?? In her subconscious mind, Willow is already casting a spell behind Tara's back, to force her to love her. And some people say the plot of S6 came out of nowhere...

Anya, Spike, Faith, Riley

Before we get to the show's title character, a quick round-up of the secondaries. Anya's identity, of course, is very much a work in progress. She's learning how to be human, and at this stage it's mostly played for humour. Spike, too, is going through a radical reassessment of his identity, forced upon him by the Initiative. However, through most of S4 he's not accepting the change, but still trying to get back to what he was. "You feel smothered. Trapped like an animal, pure in its ferocity, unable to actualise the urges within." (Adam, 'The Yoko Factor'). Faith is forced to accept that nobody in Sunnydale really cared about her (well, maybe the Mayor did - but his video message screams manipulation to me. He's subtly making her feel hopeless and desperate, so he can goad her into carrying out his beyond-the-grave revenge on Buffy)... and by the end of her two episodes, she even hates and despises herself and what she's become.

As for Riley, he's this season's poster boy for the search for an identity. He starts out secure and happy, knowing his job and his place in the world, and not having to think about it too deeply. Meeting Buffy and being betrayed by Maggie forces him to question everything. It's a shattering experience as his entire world falls apart: one of the strongest images of the season is in 'Goodbye Iowa', as he lies in the infirmary bed clinging to Buffy's scarf as if it's his only lifeline to the world. In the end, he defies everything - even the chip controlling his body - to do what his own conscience dictates is right.

And finally:

Buffy (and Adam)

She starts out uncertain and insecure - you know you're in trouble when Willow is more self-confident than you are - and Sunday exploits this brutally. 'The Freshman' thus sets the tone for the season. At first, Buffy struggles to find her new adult identity by doing the things she thinks she's supposed to do. Be a normal girl. Have a normal boyfriend. She seizes on the Initiative enthusiastically because she thinks it can provide her with a ready-made cool new life, and she wants to be part of it. But it's built on sand. She can't fit in even before the secret of 314 is revealed; she's too used to independence and speaking her mind.

She loves her friends and family, but all season long she's drifting apart from them. In 'This Year's Girl' Faith brutally exposes the fact that she hasn't been to visit her mother in weeks... and in 'Restless', she's worried about Joyce living inside the wall, but when Joyce suggests that she could break down that wall, Buffy ignores her and wanders off. In 'The Yoko Factor', she rejects any help Willow, Xander and Giles might offer her:

"Is that it? Is that how you can help? You're not answering. Go on. How can you possibly help? So I guess I'm on my own. And you know what? I'm starting to get why there's no ancient prophecy about a Chosen One And Her Friends."

While she (and all of them) get over the immediate effects of that tantrum, it does show a clear pattern (and one that will be repeated in season 7: note that after that speech quoted above, Buffy storms off to find Riley, just as in S7 she turns to Spike). In 'Restless', Buffy knows she should find her friends: but instead she goes out into the desert:

BUFFY: "I'm never gonna find them here."
TARA/THE FIRST SLAYER: "Of course not. That's the reason you came."

But Buffy's sense of self is still in balance. The spirit of the Slayer within her has led her away from her friends out into the desert; but she remembers that there's more. "There's trees in the desert since you moved out. And I don't sleep on a bed of bones." In the end, she can defeat the First Slayer because she refuses to accept an identity forced upon her by others. "You're not the source of me."

Doing what you're told to do, being what you're expected to be is attractive. Safe. The ultimate symbol of this is Adam. Unlike the many identity-thieves and mask-wearers of this season he's totally upfront about who and what he is: in fact, he's the only one not affected in the slightest by Jonathan's spell in 'Superstar'. But Adam had no choice in his identity: it was programmed into him when he was created in a laboratory... and he accepts that willingly, even sees it as an advantage.

"I have been blessed. I have a gift that no man has, no demon has ever had. I know why I'm here. I was created to kill. To extinguish life wherever I find it and I have accepted that responsibility." ('Who Are You?')

Filled with child-like curiosity, Adam seeks to learn about the world; but he already knows his own place in it. Each new fact he discovers just confirms his ideas. Ultimately, he is defeated by something he can't understand, because it's entirely outside his programming. He dies asking a question, a look of confusion on his face.

So is the answer just "Do your own thing"? Not really - for a start, how can you be sure it's your own decision? Riley had an actual chip implanted in his body without his knowledge, that could control his actions; but all of us are affected by our upbringing and surroundings. That needn't be a bad thing in itself if you recognise the influences and choose rationally.

Buffy recognises her apartness from her friends and the influence of the Slayer spirit, but she realises that's not all there is to her life. It's not the source of her. Discovering her true identity will be her task in the next three seasons.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Robert Frost back before Dawn...

Tags: buffy, meta
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