FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Freshman
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy decides to go to UC Sunnydale in order to continue her slaying duties on the Hellmouth after she exploded the Mayor and quit the Watcher's Council. Willow joins her despite offers from seemingly every university in the world whilst Xander takes on his not-quite-Kerouac wanderings.
Buffy arrives at UC Sunnydale and immediately feels out of her comfort zone in this new, unknown environment. Meanwhile, Willow unknowingly exacerbates this by taking to the life straight away and fitting in more than she ever did in high school. Buffy's feelings of alienation take a dark turn when she realises that freshmen are disappearing, leaving nothing but a note to say that they couldn't cope. After her brief friendship with a guy called Eddie ends in such a fashion, she discovers a vampire nest led by a vamp called Sunday, who decides to inflict the same fate on the Slayer.
The first day at university is terrifying. People are throwing leaflets at you, you don't know anyone and everything looks at least ten times bigger than usual. Buffy's wandering through the Sunnydale campus and meeting all kinds of people looming at her with coloured paper is a brilliant encapsulation of that. There are so many things that can seemingly go wrong on that first day; bad first impressions, you join the wrong society, you get singled out by a nasty lecturer. Thankfully we don't usually have the roommate system here in the UK because let's face it, Kathy is terrible, but more on that next episode.
The Freshman also effectively skewers that desperation to look cool and intellectual that so many of us have when we move into halls of residence and don't have the brain of Willow with which to show off to handsome TAs. For me, that was getting the most classic of my classics on my book shelves and pretending to have read them in full view of all my slightly cult film posters. I still haven't read at least half of them, but I can talk a better game now. Sadly, no Klimt or Monet on my walls to add to Sunday's collection.
The episode quickly establishes several dynamics that will continue throughout the fourth season (one which you will find me defending a lot of the time... Sorry), particularly with Buffy feeling lost without that comfort blanket of having everyone around her all the time. At the end of the episode, we get the first appearance of the commando guys that we later come to know as the Initiative and I remember this particular cliffhanger being something of a thrill upon first viewing. Riley, that controversial love interest figure, also makes his first appearance as Buffy lands a pile of hardbacks on his head and Maggie Walsh, a quasi-maternal figure for the Slayer as she tries to negotiate impending adulthood. Xander even starts to flesh out his role as the group's 'heart', psyching up Buffy to take down Sunday.
Speaking of whom, Sunday is so horrendously late 90s that the fact she criticises Buffy's outfit gets funnier each year, but Katherine Towne's performance ensures that she ranks as one of the best monster-of-the-week villains. She offers up a sort of anti-Buffy; a blonde, kickass leader of a gang who is used to being the Big Name on Campus, at least for creatures of the night. Her popularity and strength are what Buffy has lost, but the episode's purpose is to allow Buffy to realise that, once again, she will be able to cope with whatever is being thrown at her. Her material possessions, stolen by Sunday, represent that sense of self, but seeing them in the hands of others gives our Slayer enough momentum to kick the crap out of everyone.
Much of the fourth season attempts to navigate these identity shifts that go on when venturing out into the big, scary world of college and the sort of impending doom that it all seems to represent. The show does suffer a little from losing that 'high school is hell' comfort zone, in which the metaphors and their monsters were a more easy marriage. This season is often more experimental and it's clear that Whedon wants to keep trying to tackle those Big Ideas.
Sometimes, it's not wholly successful and this season is probably that veers most up and down the spectrum of quality. No, I'm not looking forward to rewatching Beer Bad either. However, there are also some of Buffy's best episodes here and I am going to be majorly enthusiastic about them. You have been warned!
P.S. Don't forget that The Angel Rewatch kicks off on Tuesday! Be there or be a cliche.
Quote of the Week:
Sunday: "What about breaking your arm? How's that feel?"
Buffy: "Let me answer that question with a headbutt."
Let's Get Trivial: Ok, not really trivia, but I just want to revel in the fact that Xander said "Avengers assemble" and then Joss Whedon got to do just that. GRIN.
Inventive Kill: Buffy stakes Sunday with a wicked accurate throw from across the room.
Sunnydale Who's Who: Eddie is played by Pedro Pascal, last seen as the significantly-cooler-than-Eddie Red Viper in Game of Thrones
You can read Becky's look at Graduation Day here.