Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
Buffy and Willow are at a graveyard. Willow’s looking at a course catalogue for UC Sunnydale. Buffy hasn’t registered for her classes yet. (Crazy woman! Doesn’t she know how quickly these things can fill up? Doesn’t she know that freshmen are on the lowest rung of the registration priority ladder? The only way to be even a little certain you’ll get good classes held at sane times of the day is by registering at the first possible moment.) Willow’s trying to sell her on various courses that sound interesting. Apparently Psychology is something to look forward to. And some class about pop culture. TAKE A FOLKLORE CLASS, BUFFY. You’ll learn things that can help with your slaying AND you’ll have fun! Buffy teases Willow about having known her major since she was a small child, but do we ever actually find out Willow’s major? I can’t recall that we do.
A vampire pops up from a grave behind them. He sees the two appetizing human girls sitting there and initially thinks they’ll make a fine first meal. But then he notices all their weapons. Annoyed and regretful, he creeps away instead. Buffy looks around, but he’s already gone, and she doesn’t notice him. Hahaha.
Version 1 of the season four opening credits! Nobody new yet, but Angel and Cordelia are no longer included.
It’s freshman orientation day! Buffy stands somewhere on the UC Sunnydale campus, looking small and lost in a sea of students. She tries to find her freshman orientation group, and she notices protestors, a line of fraternity pledges, and a bunch of people promoting activities, clubs, and religions. Eventually, Willow finds her. Willow is having a blast, and I think Joss might have been having a blast coming up with absurd course titles. Ethnomusicology. Wait a second, my word processor didn’t mark that as being misspelled. Is that actually a thing? Holy crap that’s actually a thing.
For some reason, Buffy and Willow aren’t roommates. Considering that they spend most of their free time protecting Sunnydale from monsters, you’d think they’d want to ensure themselves one space where they can speak freely. Like their dorm room. But I guess they think they need potluck roommates to get the full college experience. Whatever. Willow has been collecting colorful fliers. One of the reasons she’s so excited is that learning is actually encouraged in college, unlike in high school. And it’s true. College is a nerd’s paradise. I quite enjoyed it. Unfortunately, Willow expresses this in a way that’s accidentally an extremely thin double entendre, so she breaks off, embarrassed. Buffy mostly just feels overwhelmed.
Then Oz shows up for some Willow kissage. Buffy is hopeful that he feels overwhelmed too, but he seems to know what’s going on even more than Willow. He knows the people, he knows the campus better than some of those people, and he’s chill as ever.
Buffy and Willow find the library. They discuss Giles and Xander on the way. Giles hasn’t found a new job since they blew up the high school, and Xander’s still on his road trip. The library is ginormous. Buffy clearly would have preferred something a little cozier, but Willow is still super psyched.
They go to the bookstore, where they find all their very expensive textbooks. When Buffy goes to grab a psychology textbook off a tall shelf, she has what could either constitute a meet-cute or a lawsuit when she knocks them onto the head of a very tall muscular blond dude. I guess it depends on whether or not he now has a concussion. The guy could be cute, but only if he does something about his hair, which looks lanky and gross. Turns out he’s the psych TA. Buffy manages to be extremely awkward during the introduction while Willow is smooth and confident. This is not a shift in their dynamic that she enjoys at all. Psych TA guy’s name is Riley. He and Willow start talking psychology at a much deeper level than Buffy can follow.
Buffy finds her dorm room, where a perky girl with short dark hair is getting unpacked. And holy crap that is a huge dorm room. The room I had for my first three years of college was probably about half that size. The roommate is already showing signs of being a passive aggressive nightmare. Fun! Also she has horrifying taste in music. And she snores and smacks her lips and giggles while she sleeps.
The professor in the pop culture class is not nearly fun enough to deserve to be the professor of such a fun subject. Buffy hasn’t registered yet and she hopes to discover if she still can, but instead of being helpful, the professor insults her in front of the entire class and kicks her out. He is the biggest jerk of all the jerks. I never had or heard of a professor who actually did crap like that.
Buffy runs into Riley on the way to Psych. He’s already forgotten her, mostly. He remembers her as “Willow’s friend,” which isn’t a great self-esteem booster. She asks him if the psych professor is going to be as big of a jerk as the pop culture professor. He doesn’t think so. She sits next to Willow and Oz. Professor Walsh arrives. She seems extremely strict and tough, but capable. Buffy feels even more discouraged.
That night, she’s wandering campus when she runs into another lost freshman. He seems friendly. She helps him find his way with his map. He’s also in the psych class. He is very obsessed with Of Human Bondage, an early 20th century novel whose central theme deals with how humans have a tendency to become slaves to their emotions. There’s probably no connection between that and Buffy’s current situation. How does she keep running into guys who have weird taste in books for their age group? First Owen and his Emily Dickinsen obsession, now this kid and Of Human Bondage. Don’t any teenagers in Sunnydale just read YA fiction and obsess over TV shows? Buffy and Eddie part ways, only for Eddie to be attacked by a gang of vampires, who then go to his dorm and clean out his stuff, leaving behind a note.
Buffy looks around for Eddie in psych the next day, but he’s missing. Then she goes to his dorm and finds the note he left. His RA thinks he just couldn’t deal and bailed, but that wasn’t the impression she got from him. Also, she finds his precious copy of Of Human Bondage in his nightstand. Even if he had decided to bail, he wouldn’t have left that behind. Eddie is lying dead in the lair of the vampire gang, who are all acting like upperclassman college stereotypes. Of the ones with speaking parts, there’s stoner guy, punk queen, and that one girl who is part of the group because she needs a group to be part of. Also they turned Eddie into a vampire.
Buffy, seeking familiarity and someone to talk to about the suspicious disappearance of Eddie, goes to Giles’s apartment, where she finds a woman wearing nothing but one of Giles’s shirts. And Giles in a bathrobe. The woman is British and knows Giles from his Ripper days. She tactfully leaves the living room so Giles and Buffy can talk. Buffy is so grossed out by the evidence that Giles has a sex life that she kind of doesn’t want to talk anymore, but he convinces her to open up anyway. She tells him about Eddie. She thinks there’s a gang of vampires working the campus. Giles thinks she can handle it without him. She tries to pretend she’s not hurt by his attitude, which she interprets as unwillingness to help.
That evening, Buffy spots Eddie walking on campus. She follows him, and he leads her to a secluded spot, then flashes his fangs at her. She dispatches him in short order. Then Punk Queen and her lackeys pop out. Punk Queen wants to take Buffy on her own. She insults Buffy’s outfit (which is hilarious, considering her choice of hairstyles), then attacks. Buffy actually seems outmatched against her. She does serious damage to Buffy’s left arm (and whole body, generally), and Buffy flees. She sits in her dorm, figuratively licking her wounds and feeling miserable while roommate Kathy snores in the next bed.
The next day, she spots Willow and Oz fitting in with perfect ease, as they have since they arrived. In their lair, the gang of upperclassman vampires are laughing about the patheticness of Buffy.
Buffy goes home, once again seeking familiarity. Joyce is there, and she hugs her. However, she’s already turned Buffy’s bedroom into storage for her art gallery. Buffy is not happy. She’s on her way out when the phone rings. She answers it, but no one seems to be there.
She goes back to her dorm, and it’s empty! All her stuff has been taken, and a note like the one in Eddie’s room left on her bed. Is she going to let them do this to her?
For now, it seems like she is. She goes to the Bronze, where that band from “I Only Have Eyes for You,” with the lead singer who wore that bizarre sheer red/metallic gold dress, is back. The lead singer is now wearing something that looks like it was made by stitching a bathroom rug to a few sheets of tissue paper that happened to be the same shade of blue, topped off with a collar made of yellow plastic. At least she has better bangs this time.
Buffy wanders around mopily. She sees the profile of…Angel?! She perks up immediately, and—oh wait, no. It’s just some dude with a vaguely similar head shape. Boo. (They actually did get David Boreanaz for that first profile shot, though.) She goes back to moping, and then Xander finds her! She’s instantly happy. He’s back from his road trip and he’s wearing a cable-knit sweater-vest over a long-sleeved tee. Ew, why? Turns out, his road trip wasn’t much of a trip. His car broke down and he had to work at a ladies’ club until he could trade up for a slightly better car. Now he lives in his parents’ basement and pays rent. She tells him about college, where Willow and Oz are fitting in great and she feels like she’s totally in over her head. He points out that she’s being silly, not wanting to get the old gang together to help with this vampire gang, and that she’s way too strong to let fear control her. Oh hey there’s that Of Human Bondage theme. His point is that just because high school’s over, that doesn’t mean she’s not Buffy anymore. (And it doesn’t mean this show isn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer anymore.) His pep talk works, despite being delivered with Xander’s usual gracelessness.
They break into the registrar’s office and find records of kids like Eddie who’ve gone missing. The disappearances have been happening since at least ’82, which happens to be when one of UC Sunnydale’s frat houses went abandoned. So they’ve found the vamp lair. They investigate and discover that, sure enough, that’s where the vamps are. Buffy falls through the skylight just when they’re making plans to go get weapons. Owwww. Buffy tries to witty banter her way out of this very bad situation, but Punk Queen opts to reopen hostilities mid-quip.
Roommate Kathy is showing “Buffy’s” farewell note to Willow and Oz. Willow is panicking about how maybe there were circumstances that caused Buffy to run away again, and she was too wrapped up in her own happy college world to notice. Oz is more practical; it’s not Buffy’s handwriting on the note. Xander comes in and hugs Willow and then Kathy before he realizes he doesn’t know Kathy. He explains to Willow and Oz that Buffy is hanging out with her pale, nocturnal “friends” who pranked her by taking her stuff. They get it, and they head out to help. They think they have time because Xander left the frat house roof before Buffy fell down.
Punk Queen breaks Buffy’s Class Protector parasol. And that would be Buffy’s Berserk Button. She’s much more emotionally focused on the fight now. Also, Willow, Oz, and Xander burst in with weapons. They manage to stake two of the minions (the other two flee), and Buffy finally gets the better of Punk Queen and stakes her. They all gather Buffy’s stuff to take it back to her dorm. Giles catches them on the way out, ready to help them fight. Instead, he ends up helping them carry her stuff. Buffy is now confident that college won’t be that different from high school.
Au contraire. One of the escaped minions gets tased by guys in military outfits. That’s new.
“The Freshman” is a pretty strong opener for the new season. Joss was very aware that this needed not only to set up another season, but it needed to establish that Buffy can still be Buffy without the high school setting. Having Buffy herself be lost and uncertain in the college setting, beset by all the Plot B problems of normal college life and Plot A problems that are metaphors for even more normal college problems was an excellent way to do that. It feels like a very organic evolution of the show. Of course Willow and Oz would be immediately comfortable in college, but Buffy’s experience is much more relatable. Part of me wishes that Sunday had been more than a one-shot villain. She had serious potential. I read somewhere that the original idea was for her to have been a Slayer who was turned into a vampire, and was therefore much stronger than ordinary vampires. Maybe they decided it was too soon after rogue Slayer Faith to go that route, or maybe they felt there wasn’t room for her with all the Initiative stuff. I can see how it works for this episode to have Buffy defeat the vampire who represents everything big and scary about college to a new freshman, but she didn’t need to be a one-shot villain to serve that purpose. Can you imagine what might have happened if Sunday was still around when Spike came back? They probably would’ve ended up a couple instead of Spike and Harmony, which would have helped him not become quite as pathetic, and possibly would have meant Harmony never came back into the story at all. That would’ve been fantastic. Also, while Sunday would seem like a likely romantic option for Spike, given their similar punk aesthetics, if they’d stuck with the Slayer-turned-vampire idea, then the Sunday/Spike pairing would have made even more sense because of his Slayer obsession. I also kind of wish the Watchers’ Council hadn’t just taken Buffy’s defection lying down. They already had one Slayer switch sides on them. Even though Buffy hasn’t turned evil, she has essentially also gone rogue. We’ve seen glimpses of how much power they hold, and we’ve seen more than glimpses of how ruthless they can be. So I can’t help wondering what S4 could have been if, at least for the first half, Buffy had been caught between the chaos of Spike and Sunday on one side and the Council’s attempts to get her back under their control on the other. And I think the Initiative would’ve been more interesting if the period of foreshadowing had been longer. They’re such a huge operation; how did they pop up out of nowhere in one year? The Mayor was set up in S2. Maybe the Initiative should have been set up a season before they came front and center as well. I mean, we already got foreshadowing for the end of S5 in “Graduation Day.” Nothing for S4 at all?
While Buffy represents basically every new freshman who has ever felt small and overwhelmed in their first week of college, she’s still very much Buffy. Buffy has always been wary of new things and too polite to openly express her unease, particularly when the people around her are enjoying themselves. As strong as she is, college is exactly the right combination of things to hit her where she’s vulnerable. But Buffy never stays discouraged for long. As soon as she stops letting her sense of being overwhelmed by this new experience control her, she snaps back to being just as good at kicking butt as she’s always been.
Xander has a habit of heading up the emotional turns of episodes. In “Nightmares,” he was the first one to overcome his fear. In “Graduation Day,” it wasn’t until after he turned down Anya’s offer to flee town that the other Scoobies started finding valuable information about the Mayor. His support and optimism helped keep Buffy from losing hope in “Amends.” The opposite applies as well: Faith crosses an evil threshold when she attacks Xander in “Consequences.” So Xander’s absence until roughly the 2/3 mark in “The Freshman” is very deliberate. He represents Buffy’s hope, determination, and confidence. He’s absent because those emotions are absent in Buffy. When he returns, she gets them back. Even if he isn’t always the most sympathetic character, he’s often Buffy’s best source of inner strength, just by being there. He went down with her the very first time she went into the tunnels in “The Harvest,” he went with her to the mansion to confront Angelus, and he was the last one who spoke to her before she went to fight Faith. He’s always there in the moments when it’s most crucial for her to be strong. (And, of course, there was that time he literally brought her back to life.) I don’t think any of this means Buffy would be helpless and weak without Xander, but he seems to play a much greater role on the metaphorical level than the literal one. Which kind of annoys me. All metaphors, in order to be effective, have to work on the literal level first, and I have a harder time seeing what purpose Xander serves on the literal level, because so many of his qualities make him seem like an unlikely best friend to girls like Willow and Buffy.
Willow is more in her element in college than she ever was in high school. As much as I relate to poor overwhelmed Buffy, I also relate to Willow. Sort of. I definitely had a bigger group of friends who shared my nerdy interests in high school, but the general atmosphere of college is far more welcoming to nerds. In high school, everyone’s “too cool” to admit they like things like Nerf guns and Disney movies, but in college, there’s Humans vs. Zombies and you can have pajama parties with screenings of your favorite Disney classics. It’s like teenagers are so obsessed with proving they’re grown up that they can’t admit how fun many aspects of childhood were, but college students are grown up enough to have realized that the only difference between adults and children is the amount of things adults have to be responsible for. Nobody really knows what they’re doing, but it’s a lot easier to fake it ‘til we make it if we’re also owning the things we enjoy, childish or not. Wow, I’ve sort of gotten away from talking about Willow, haven’t I? But I think she’s aware of this stuff, at least subconsciously. She already seems so much less inhibited than she was in high school. There is no pressure for her to be something she isn’t, so she’s thriving.
Oz is just cool, as always. Since he did his senior year twice, most of his friends are now sophomores, and he’s evidently been spending enough time with them because of his band connections that he was able to pass all his freshman checkpoints before he was an actual freshman. Also, he’s ditched his outer layer of open button-up shirts, and is just wearing tees now. His hair color is more stable too. Red, now officially. It’s a good look for him.
Giles’s status as unemployed is as much a reflection of Buffy’s initial experience at college as is Xander’s absence. He thinks Buffy doesn’t need him anymore because she’s an adult. *cough* Okay, being eighteen and a high school graduate does not instantly equal being equipped to handle everything the adult world might throw at you. College is actually sort of the grace period in which most people transition from being dependent on their parents to being able to support themselves independently. He’s acting like she’s already completed that transition, which on one hand speaks highly of his confidence in her abilities, but on the other shows poor understanding of how she currently feels about it all. But at least he comes to his senses about it (this time) and shows up to help.
“He said he wasn’t coming back until he’d driven to all fifty states.”
“Did you explain about Hawaii?”
“Well, he seemed so determined.”
“Did you lose your way?”
“No, I’m just going to Fisher Hall, which I know is on the…Earth planet.”
“Does this sweater make me look fat?”
“No, the fact that you’re fat makes you look fat. That sweater just makes you look…purple.”
“Thanks for the Dadaist pep talk. I feel much more abstract now.”
The Watcher's Diary
In this blog, I'll be reviewing, analyzing, and generally fangirling over excellent television. Exhibit A: the Whedonverse.