It was the best of episodes, it was the worst of episodes. It was Buffy: season four.
What can you say about a season that includes both Hush and Beer Bad? That includes Restless and Where the Wild Things Are?
I have this theory that the writing staff on Buffy did not have typical childhoods. My theory holds that they didn't have the same college experiences that most of us did, nor did they have the same twentysomething experiences that most of us had (it's easy to see in Whedon himself, as his background is fairly unique). This made it very hard for them to tell "college" stories and, later, "twentysomething" stories. This explains why season four is so hit and miss and why season six is so bad.
All that said, even the worst season can be saved by a qualified overarching storyline. Season two is constantly referred to as being great, when the reality is that it's only great because of the main plot. This, of course, is of no help to season four, as the big storyline is horrible on almost every level.
There's a common complaint that Buffy failed when the characters graduated, that the show was unable to expand beyond it's central metaphor of high school as hell. I disagree. I love season five. I think the show's failure comes when it tries to expand beyond its borders. The show is at its best when it's telling small stories. The characters are the key. No one is tuning into Buffy for the fight scenes -- no one. They're tuning in to see what's going on with their favorite characters.
Season four attempted to expand the mythology, but did so without using a character as the focal point. Yes, an argument can be made that Riley was that focal point, but Riley was a brand new character that no one ever had the chance to get to like. Expanding the world by incorporating the Initiative and then making the only access character someone brand new to the show was a bad idea on almost every level.
Notice how the expanded mythology worked in season two -- because it all came through Angel, a character we knew. To a certain extent, the same could be said for Faith in season three and, appropriately, Buffy in season five.
On the big character arc front, there's not much to write home about. Obviously, the big one is Oz leaving and Willow dating Tara, but even by the end of the season that relationship is still too new to really appreciate. It's easy to forget how groundbreaking it was when it originally aired, though, which makes it a pretty big deal.
Giles finally gets a girlfriend, or at least a friend with benefits and, hey, look, there's a non-white character on the show! Whedon often gets criticized for having a vanilla cast (as Mr. Trick says in season 3, "...strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the 'Dale.") which is underscored by an expanding cast that stays white. As the new additions are ultimately added as romantic interests, I have to wonder if the show ran into a road block with the network regarding interracial relationships.
The biggest development for the show is the evolution of the relationship between Xander and Anya and the eventual addition of Anya as a core cast member. She's a fantastic character who is unique among the Scooby Gang. It's something they never manage to achieve with Riley and something that takes more than a season to achieve with Tara.
And speaking of characters finding their role on the show, we come to perhaps the biggest problem: Spike.
Spike initially helping the group doesn't bother me. After all, they appear to have a mutual enemy. Given that, it doesn't seem strange that they'd keep him alive, let alone take care of him. They need information.
But as soon as Buffy discovers that Riley is a part of the Initiative, Spike should be dust. There's no reason for him to be kept alive. At one point, he becomes suicidal and Willow intervenes. Now, I appreciate that Willow is a kind, gentle soul, but let's think about all of the things Spike has done since he was introduced in season two, let alone the things he did before he came to Sunnydale.
It's absolutely insane that Spike is left alive. Once you start forcing a show to change for the sake of a single character, you're in trouble. It's less problematic in season five, but becomes intolerable again in season six.
I would love to say that season four worked as a metaphor for the transition some of us make the year after we graduate from high school, but it simply wasn't good enough. There was transition there, for sure, but it came in the form of the writers not really having any idea what the show was about anymore. They knew the characters well enough to write some funny bits, but they spent most of the season desperately searching for drama, and when they couldn't find it, they manufactured it in a way that was untrue to the show.
Still, by the end of the season they'd found their footing. They managed to bring the gang back together while strengthening them. The finale did an excellent job of setting up the fifth season, laying the groundwork that they so desperately needed for season four.