The Freshman (4x01)

I admit it; I was more than skeptical about the fourth season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

With the confirmed departures of David Boreanaz (Angel) and Charisma Carpenter (Cordelia) and rumors of Seth Green (Oz) abandoning the show mid-season (which by now he has), it seemed the gang was falling apart. And let's face it, with Spike gone on a quest to win back his lady love Drusilla, who had left him for a lowly vengeance demon, Sunnydale just didn't seem sufficiently evil-ridden for an interesting slaying season.

Luckily, after a rather mediocre start in the first two episodes (more detail about this later), the WB heralded the return of everyone's favorite villain, the deliciously evil Spike a.k.a. William the Bloody. With outrageous demonic plots, sarcastic wit and a fake British accent to die for in store for the remainder of the season, it's high time everyone got caught up on the latest evil, defeated or still thriving, that emanates from Sunnydale, Calif., the friendly town built right above the Hellmouth.

Note: I have seen all of the episodes, but since it's been several weeks, I refreshed my memory on buffyguide.com and found some nice details to add to my own recollection.

"The Freshman" (Season 4, Ep.1)
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Willow (Alyson Hannigan) are in the cemetery, trying to figure out Buffy's schedule for the semester while waiting for a vampire to emerge form his grave. Engrossed in a discussion about taking on too much in the first semester and staying sharp and focused on slaying the evil undead, they never see the vampire emerge from his resting place. He, on the other hand, spots their weapons arsenal and takes off the other way, presumably to find a dinner less capable of driving a stake through his heart. Mr. Pointy slay-ready in hand, Buffy complains, "Is this guy ever gonna wake up?"

At freshmen orientation the next day, Buffy is overwhelmed by campus life and generally disoriented, while Willow thrives on the "collective intelligence, like a penetrating force that spurts knowledge into my mind." (Hey, I'm just quoting here!) The girls run into Oz, who Willow happily refers to as, "my on-campus boyfriend," and make their way over to the library, discussing the whereabouts of Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and Xander (Nicolas Brendon). The latter, we learn, went on a cross-country road trip to find himself. Meanwhile, Giles, long relieved of his watcher duties and out of a job since Sunnydale High exploded in the season finale, enjoys life as a gentleman of leisure (the British version of a slacker as Willow puts it).

Next stop is the bookstore where Buffy leaves an impression (and I mean this literally) on Riley (guest star Marc Blucas) when she accidentally drops several heavy-bound books on his head. Riley, it turns out, is the teaching assistant for their psychology class and, if you ask me, an Angel look-alike. (Coincidence? I think not.) Willow and Riley bond quickly, talking psychology, while Buffy stands by and feels left out.

She returns to her dorm room in Stevenson Hall to encounter her new roommate, the unnervingly hyper Kathy (guest star Dagney Kerr). Kathy assures her that she is not always like this, but rather that the excitement of college has gotten the better of her. While Buffy grows more uncomfortable by the second, Kathy declares that she can already tell Buffy is cool. After plastering a Celine Dion poster on the wall, Kathy turns, smiles broadly at a stone-faced Buffy and says, "I just know that this whole year is gonna be super-fun!"

The next morning is the first day of class. When Buffy tries to petition an "Images of Popculture" class, the teacher catches her talking and unceremoniously kicks her out. Later, on her way to psychology class, she runs into Riley, who at first doesn't remember her. (Excuse me? If somebody dropped their books on my head, accidentally or not, I'm pretty sure I'd remember them for weeks to come. That is, if my memory wasn't wiped out completely by the blow to my head.) After Riley assures her that Professor Walsh (guest star Lindsey Crouse) is not planning on yelling at her or kicking her out of class, Buffy goes to sit with Willow and Oz. The first thing Walsh tells her new students is that she teaches hard, talks fast and expects everyone to keep up. "Those of you who will fall into my good graces," she says, "will get to know me as Maggie. Those of you who don't will come to know me by the name my TA's use and think I don't know: the evil bitch monster of death." (Huh?)

Walking back to her dorm that night, Buffy gets lost and bumps into Eddie (guest star Pedro Balmaceda). Talking while they try to find their way home, they discover that both of them are in Professor Walshe's class and vow to help each other survive it. When Buffy mentions that she is so scared of college she'd like to carry around a security blanket, Eddie recommends "Of Human Bondage," a novel he says he's read at least ten times and always keeps by his bed.

As soon as they part ways, Eddie is attacked by a group of vampires and dragged into the night. Later, the demons clean out Eddie's room and take all of his belongings to their lair. They leave behind a forged note, signed with Eddie's name, saying that college was just too much to handle and he took off.

When she can't find him the next day in psych class, Buffy goes to Eddie's dorm room and finds it empty save for "Of Human Bondage" in his nightstand. Years of experience with evil, unnatural forces (and the otherwise complete lack of a story line) tell the slayer that something is wrong here.

Meanwhile, the vampires are going through Eddie's stuff and their leader, Sunday (guest star Katharine Towne), is not at all pleased with the freshman's CD collection. As she leaves the room, we see the lifeless form of Eddie on the floor. Suddenly his eyes pop open and he stares at the ceiling. You guessed it, Eddie is now one of the undead.

Buffy, in the meantime, goes to see Giles to tell him about Eddie's suspicious disappearance. To her (and certainly my) surprise, she encounters a British woman named Olivia (Phina Oruche), clad only in what I presume to be one of Giles' shirts. Giles appears, in his bathrobe, and introduces Olivia as an old friend. Thoroughly grossed out by this new facet of Giles' character, Buffy explains the Eddie situation and asks him for help. He says he doesn't think she needs his help and she should learn to take care of herself (since she opted to forego an official watcher). Upset, Buffy leaves.

Later on patrol she encounters Eddie and quickly ends his demonic existence with a stake through the heart. Just then the rest of the vampire gang shows up and you think you're in for the first real slaying demonstration of the season. Well, think again. Emotionally subdued by her depressing experiences of the past few days (that sounds about as dubious as I thought this scene was), Buffy has lost her killer instinct and gets kicked around pretty good by Sunday, who realizes that she's dealing with the slayer. After Sunday yanks the slayer's left arm until it makes a nasty popping sound, Buffy gathers her wits, gets in a kick and a punch and makes a run for it.

The next morning a battered-looking Buffy avoids Willow and Oz and goes home to see her mother (guest star Kristine Sutherland). Here, yet another surprise is waiting for her. Her room is filled with packing crates, because Joyce didn't expect her daughter back home so soon, and the art gallery where she works is doing inventory and needed a temporary storing space. The phone rings, but when Buffy answers it, nobody's there. (Factoid from buffyguide.com: Angel made that call during the season premiere of his own show)

Upon returning to her dorm, Buffy finds that the vampires have taken her stuff and left a note with her signature, saying that she decided to take off. Looking thoroughly depressed and puzzled (hey, now that's rather unpredictable), Buffy heads to the old gang hangout, the Bronze, to wallow in her sorrow and watch happy couples dance to slow songs. For a fleeting second there, she even thinks that she saw Angel in the crowd (I am told, however, that the person we see on-screen looks suspiciously like Buffy-creator Joss Whedon).

Suddenly, Xander appears out of nowhere, much to Buffy's (and my own) excitement. Coaxed by Buffy he indulges us with the hilarious story of his road trip. He only got as far as Oxnard (since no state is mentioned I assume it's still in California and suspect it's not far from Sunnydale) where his car broke down. "The engine fell out. And that is literally," he says. To pay for the repairs, he washed dishes at a strip club called "The Ladies Night" for six weeks until one night a male stripper called in sick and, "no power on this earth will make me tell you the rest of this story." Now back home, Xander lives in his parent's basement and has to pay rent.

The first person to show genuine interest in her college experience, Buffy confides in Xander that a vampire took her down and she is afraid she can't cut it at UC Sunnydale. He does his best, in his unique way, to reassure her. "At night, when it's dark and I'm alone and scared, I always think, 'What would Buffy do?' You're my hero." And then, "O.K., so sometimes at night, when it's dark and I'm alone, I think what is Buffy wearing."

After the pep talk and Xander's enthusiastic, "Let's put that bitch [Sunday] in the ground," the two of them go off to do some research. Articles in the school paper dating back to 1982 reveal an abandoned fraternity house on campus that was closed because of unresolved zoning issues. Thinking it the possible lair of the vampires, Buffy and Xander climb up to the building's skylight and find themselves looking into a living room occupied by several of the undead and strewn with Buffy's belongings. Xander heads to Buffy's dorm (I wonder how he found it, since Buffy couldn't even find it herself) to get weapons while Buffy keeps watch.

Things speed up unexpectedly when the skylight gives in under Buffy's weight (Gellar reportedly weighs a whopping 98 lbs) and she crashes onto the floor, landing on her already injured arm. Pleased with the rapid developments, Sunday immediately begins to beat the crap out of the slayer.

Xander meanwhile has found Willow, Oz and the still annoying Kathy in Buffy's room. Covering up Buffy's identity as slayer in front of Kathy, Xander declares the empty room a prank by, "Buffy's funny friends. Those guys who sleep all day and don't have a tan." Getting a supply of weapons from Willow's room, the gang comes to Buffy's rescue.

At the frat house, Sunday breaks Buffy's "Class Protector Award" (the funky little gold umbrella they gave her at the prom), which is one of her most prized possessions. That does it. When Sunday goes for the slayer's arm again, remarking that it might have to come off, Buffy retorts, "Guess what, I only need one." Back to her fierce, demon-slaying self, the slayer kicks some major, undead butt and when the rest of the rescue gang arrives, the vampires are turned to dust in a group effort.

The battle is over and the gang is carrying Buffy's stuff back to her room when Giles comes running across campus, carrying an armful of weapons. Wracked with guilt after leaving Buffy to her own devices, Giles is ready for battle. To his astonishment, Buffy declares college not so bad after all, but much like high school. "At least," she says, "I know what to expect."

But does she?

Somewhere on campus a vampire (I think it's the guy who climbed from the grave in the beginning) is shocked with a taser gun and surrounded by three guys clad in black, wearing ski masks and carrying really big guns. He is still alive, his eyes darting from side to side, as he lies on the ground, unable to move.

So here's what I think:

It was a solid but average episode. For one thing, my personal favorite, Spike, wasn't in it, so the ep didn't stand a chance of being great.

The highlight was Xander who was his usual, funny puppy-dog self, with his road trip story, which I hope we haven't heard the last about. Remember the collective excitement when he was on the swim team and wore Speedos in one ep? Just think about what dollars in the waistband could do for the ratings.

Giles' new life seemed just plain awkward. They're gonna have to find something for him to do, other than lounging around on his sofa and entertaining old friends (at first I thought he was under another spell!). And let's face it, he was let go from the watcher's council, so now he's got to make a living some other way. Also, he never seemed like the kind of guy who could go for long without working.

Unchanged, of course, were Willow and Oz. Willow still is her over-analytical self, but I think she will really come into her own at UC Sunnydale, because now she doesn't stand out as the smart computer geek anymore. She's found people at her level who share her interests, and her excitement about it was kind of touching. Oz, on the other hand, remained unflappable as usual. I've asked myself if the guy actually has a pulse, because nothing seems to throw him off track, ever. But maybe that's the werewolf in him. He does get some funny lines though.

Kathy. Well, what can I say other than that she's incredibly annoying and somehow creepy. She must have a purpose though. Why else would Buffy and Willow not room together?

So what was the deal with Buffy? I just didn't buy it, the slayer letting Sunday and cohorts walk all over her. No matter how bad things got, I don't remember Buffy ever just giving up.

Then there is the Riley thing. I really think he physically resembles Angel. It's not far fetched to think he and Buffy will get together, even though he seems kind of strange for now. What's his real deal?

Lastly, there was the interesting tidbit about those guys in black. Who are they? What are they doing here? Why do they want the vampire alive? This, I think, will be the major story line for the entire season.