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Throwback Thursday - Buffy The Vampire Slayer - "The Freshman"

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"When it's dark, and I'm all alone, and I'm scared, or freaked out or whatever, I always think, 'What would Buffy do?' You're my hero. Ok, sometimes when it's dark and I'm all alone, I think, 'What is Buffy wearing?’" - Xander Harris

Written & Directed by Joss Whedon
First aired: October 5, 1999 on The WB

If high school is hell, what’s college?

That seemed to be the main question going into Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s crucial fourth season. For three years, the central themes of the series revolved around the demons – both figurative and literal – that haunted the characters through their high school years. For many series, graduating from high school to college can be a death sentence; for Buffy, it was just one of many reinventions.

In truth, season four isn’t my favorite. If I was ranking them, it’d probably be somewhere near the bottom of my list. That’s not because it isn’t a largely great season of television, rather because Buffy has too many stellar seasons. There are certainly a lot of growing pains present throughout the year, but that’s basically the thesis of the season: change is hard, people grow apart, and life is confusing when you try to make it on our own. Watching season four, particularly the first several episodes, certainly made a lot more sense to me after I moved away to university myself back in 2009. The constant shifts between extreme highs and lows is extraordinary, and this season (which kicks off with “The Freshman”) was no different. As a whole, it’s a bit murky, but there are several episodes that are absolute series highlights.

Xander: You up for a little reconnaissance?
Buffy: You mean where we all sculpt and paint and stuff?
Xander: No, that was the Renaissance.

When the episode starts, Buffy feels like so many of us did on our first day at a new campus. She's out of her element, overwhelmed, and intimidated as she watches others thrive. Willow, for example, is truly at her best. She’s ready for her classes, excited about extracurriculars, and in awe of the massive campus library. Obviously this just compounds Buffy’s own fears that she's underprepared and inadequate. And then she meets her roommate.

There’s nothing quite like meeting the person that you’re going to be living with for the next year (or in Buffy’s case, the demon that you’re going to be living with for a few days). Buffy’s new roommate Kathy has a Celine Dion poster and raves about how the upcoming year will be ‘super fun’, though Buffy clearly doesn’t feel the same. From there, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. She’s humiliated during her first day of class, has an embarrassing encounter with a TA (her future boyfriend) in the bookstore, her first new friend is quickly murdered, and, during her first encounter with a vampire on campus, she’s overpowered and forced to run away.

Elsewhere, Xander has had a less-than-stellar ‘see all 50 states’ summer trip, and Giles has become “a gentleman of leisure”, AKA unemployed and a bit aimless. Basically, everyone is feeling a bit lost.

By the end of "The Freshman", Buffy has whooped some ass and is starting to feel like things are looking up, but the themes of the episode reverberate throughout the entire season. Buffy and her friends go off in different directions, and as their past relationships (both romantic and platonic) crumble, new ones are formed. “The Freshman” does the ‘going to college’ story better than almost any show I can think of that graduated from high school to post-secondary settings, and episodes like “Living Conditions” and “The Harsh Light of Day” are stellar follow-ups.

Whether you’re getting ready to head to school, just started back, or – like me – are older than you’d like to admit and feeling a bit nostalgic around the ‘back to school’ season, you can rewatch “The Freshman” and know that you’re not alone.

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