Following up with what I said last week about Buffy almost becoming a different show with The Initiative in play, here we have “Hush,” an episode unlike any other, with a lusher score and some of the most genuinely disturbing imagery I’ve yet seen on Buffy. The bad guys—The Gentlemen—are like something out of a Neil Gaiman story, with the way they float delicately through the air, their faces frozen in a horrific rictus grin. And as for the way they steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale—in advance of embarking on a heart-removal spree—it is, to say the least, not so very nice.
I don’t want to go overboard with the thematic analysis here, because mostly what’s great about “Hush” is the way it combines some imaginatively scary stuff with a few set pieces that rank among the funniest in series history. (And all mostly silent!) Still, the way The Gentlemen do their business—by making sure no one can scream before they start—could be read as a metaphor for the way evil spreads. When dissent is stifled, or people fail to tell the truth, or when we’re just distracted by other concerns, things can get out of hand. Think about Giles, failing to finish his research into The Gentlemen because his long-distance girlfriend Olivia pulls him away. Think about Willow, frustrated with her Wicca group because outside of the mousy Tara, they’re all more into New Age trappings and bake-sales than they are in witchcraft. (And they’d rather she sit quietly than keep bothering them about it.) Finally, think about Buffy and Riley, each keeping their nocturnal activities a secret, when they could be joining forces and getting more done.
Of course it is Buffy who ultimately saves the day. She’s the first one to get an inkling that The Gentlemen are in town, when she falls asleep in Professor Walsh’s class and dreams about kissing Riley on the teacher’s desk, and about kids chanting “Can’t even shout/Can’t even cry/The Gentlemen are coming by.” And she’s the one who ultimately tracks down their lair and gets Riley to smash open the box containing all the town’s voices, so that she can scream and destroy The Gentlemen. (Waiting for Buffy to scream reminded me of Brian De Palma’s Blow Out. And seeing The Gentlemen’s heads explode reminded me of De Palma’s The Fury. As an unabashed De Palma fanboy, I’m always happy to reminded my of my man.)
Again, I don’t want to make too much of this episode’s “finding your voice and shouting what needs to be shouted” theme, because I think “Hush” works on a much more visceral level than that. (Like De Palma… okay, I’ll stop now.) Once Sunnydale’s voices are gone, “Hush” becomes a mini-masterpiece of silent comedy, from the way Xander and Buffy’s faces simultaneously fall when they try to talk to each other on the phone, to the way Forrest writes “come on come on” on a notepad when he gets frustrated with Riley’s attempts to override The Initiative’s voiceprint security. (The second “come on” is what makes the gag work.) And I’m incapable of describing the hilarity of the scene where Giles explains the situation to everyone via overhead projector, so how about we just watch that scene again together?
There’s a nice sub-theme to “Hush,” having to do with how much people need people. When The Gentlemen’s lackeys go after Tara, she remembers Willow’s interest in witchcraft and pounds on her door, and together the two of them are able to ward off the villains by moving a soda machine with their minds. When Xander thinks he sees Spike attacking Anya, he rushes to her rescue and shows, at last, that he really does care. And after Riley and Buffy finish their long dance of avoidance, their true selves are revealed to each other and they do finally get to work as a team. The episode ends with the two of them, after the danger’s passed, staring at each other and preparing to spill their secrets. This is excruciating for Riley, because all things being equal, he’d just as soon not talk. “Hush,” then, is a potent case of “be careful what you wish for.”
Picking up where we left off, Buffy and Riley begin “Doomed” still facing each other, trying to figure out how to broach a difficult subject. Turns out that Riley’s never heard of The Chosen One (as in “Slayer, The”), and Buffy’s not that impressed with The Initiative’s use of code names (Riley is “Lilac 1”) and euphemisms, like referring to the undead as “hostile subterrestrials.” Even worse, Riley’s insistence that Buffy can’t tell anyone about The Initiative means that she’s once again in a position of having to lie to Giles and Willow and Xander… something she’s not all that wild about doing.
The plot of “Doomed” takes hold fairly early: an earthquake strikes Sunnydale, signifying a group of demons’ attempt to re-open The Hellmouth under the rubble of Sunnydale High. But more than anything, this is an episode designed to get some work done in the season’s overall narrative. Buffy and Riley come clean with each other, and at the end of the hour, when Riley stumbles into Buffy & The Scoobies’ Hellmouth-protecting party, his secret identity is revealed to them as well. Spike, who’s so frustrated that he's on the verge of staking himself, learns that his neutered state is only in effect when he tries to attack humans; he can beat up and kill all the demons he likes. So he becomes a full-fledged member of the team, fighting “for justice, and the safety of puppies”
There are three writers credited with penning “Doomed”—three of the biggies: Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson and David Fury—and though it’s an entertaining episode, it felt a little choppy at times to me. But I’m going to go waaaay out on a limb here and say that some of the choppiness is intentional. I haven’t read or heard anything to back me up, but while watching “Doomed” I couldn’t help noticing what a throwback episode it is. I mean, the gang has to return to Sunnydale High, to fight the kind of rubbery-looking demons they dispatched in Season One. There’s even a cameo appearance by Percy, the jock that Willow tutored last season. In musical theater, a show made up of old songs and sets is called a “trunk show,” because it uses things the company already has in storage. “Doomed” felt to me like a “trunk episode.”
It also felt to me like a rebuke to any fans back in mid-January of 2000 who might’ve been complaining about the show’s new direction. It was the first episode back after a month off (and even “Hush,” which aired in mid-December, aired after a week off, so it had been about six weeks since the show had gone through an unbroken run of episodes). Were fans grumbling? I wasn’t watching then so I don’t know. If they were, were the writers aware? Joss Whedon seems more fan-attuned than most TV creators, but given the long lead time of production, “Doomed” might've been written and shot before the new season even started, for all I know.
Still, when Willow responds to Percy’s rebuke of her by muttering, “I haven’t been a nerd for a very long time,” it struck me as the writers’ way of acknowledging that this show couldn’t go back to being what fans first fell in love with. As the gang strolls through the wreckage of Sunnydale High—passing by “mayor meat… extra crispy”—Willow seems to be delivering one final kiss-off to the show that was by saying, “Everything seems so small. And more charred. And ruiny”
“A New Man”
I’d been wondering when Giles’ slacker interlude was going become integral to a Buffy plot, and now here we are: “A New Man,” an episode that I haven’t heard bandied about much as one of the season’s best, but one that I thought was every bit as smart and funny as “Pangs” and “Something Blue” (if not quite as brilliant as “Hush”).
We begin with Buffy’s birthday party, which launches a serious bout of ennui from Giles. As he looks around at all the college friends in Buffy’s life that he’s never even met, it begins to dawn on him just how removed from the action he’s becoming. Everyone but him knows about Riley and The Initiative. And they’ve all transferred a lot of their respect-for-wizened-elder energy to Professor Walsh, whom Buffy describes to Giles at her party as “absolutely the smartest person I’ve ever met.” (When Giles asks why Walsh isn’t at the party, Buffy glibly says, “She’s, like, 40… she’s got better things to do than hang out with a bunch of kids.”) Like Xander in “The Zeppo,” Giles is starting to feel like the only thing he’s good for is getting “knocked on the head” and his “drawer full of grotty amulets.” So he braves the labyrinth of the UC Sunnydale psych department—“like Theseus with The Minotaur in the, uh, labyrinth”—and stands face-to-face with Walsh, to declare his importance in Buffy’s life. “I was her high school librarian!”
Walsh, meanwhile, has just learned that Buffy’s “The Slayer,” something she thought was only a demon world myth. (“You were myth-taken,” Buffy jokes nervously.) I wrote last week ago about how I liked the contrast between The Initiative’s high-tech methods and Buffy’s version of evil-fighting, which involves, according to Walsh, “poking them with a sharp stick.” Riley boasts about having captured or slain 17 hostiles, while Buffy… well, what is the plural of apocalypse, anyway? Last week I also grooved on the idea of Buffy Season Four showing us the world just outside the Buffyverse we’ve come to know. But the reverse is true, too: In this episode we learn that the world outside has no real idea just what wonders Buffy and her team have been working all this time.
In fact the main theme of this episode would have to be “recognition:” who’s earned it, who’s not getting their due, etc. While Riley knew before “A New Man” that Buffy was strong and brave, now he knows that she can toss him aside without breaking a sweat. Even Willow’s new friend Tara is getting a sense of just how powerful her fellow witch can be, as their combined magic wells up and gets a little out of control. The excuse given for the Willow/Tara spell craziness is that someone in the area might be using a lot of dark magic, but I’m not so sure. I think those two made it happen all on their own.
Of course there was someone magic-ing up a storm nearby: the gang’s old nemesis Ethan Rayne, who takes sad old Giles out for a drink and then turns him into a Fyarl demon. And it’s here where “A New Man” really kicks into gear. While Giles’ apparent absence leads his friends to appreciate just how much they’ve been neglecting him—“He’d find himself in a second,” Xander laments, when he realizes he has no idea how to track the ex-librarian down—Giles is out terrorizing the town while trying to find and exact revege on Ethan. “He needs a good being killed,” he tells Spike, before offering him a hundred dollars to be his driver. (Spike’s insulted by the offer, but he does it for two hundred.)
It turns out Spike knows a lot more about Fyarl demons than he does about driving Giles’ car—“If you can’t find third gear, don’t try third gear,” Giles snaps—so he fills Giles in about his new body’s “paralyzing mucus” and how most of the Fyarl have an emotional response to the world that’s about as complex as “like to crush… crush now.” Even after Giles finds Ethan and is restored to his natural state, some of that residual brutishness remains, as he chooses to watch The Initiative “manhandle” Ethan while they take him into custody. And though he insists to Spike that he’s a human being with a soul and a conscience, the Fyarl-ized Giles can’t resist chasing after Walsh and waving his arms like a loon when he spots her on the street.
Then again, Giles’ instincts may be right about Walsh. Ethan warns that the demon world is buzzing about some new horror called “314,” and in the final shot of “A New Man,” Walsh enters a room numbered 314. As funny as this episode is, it also may serve a larger purpose: it’s given Giles some work to do.
Boy, outside of the intermittently “off” vibe to “Doomed,” I don’t have much to complain about with this trio, which were all funny and exciting even as they moved the plot forward. There is one thing I noted, though. Not a bad thing; just an unusual thing. Between all the new music cues and the varying tones and plots, these three episodes almost felt like installments of some horror anthology series, not consecutive episodes of a serialized adventure. I mean, the serialized elements were still there, but there was definitely much more of the Monster Of The Week vibe that Buffy went for most often in Season One. Only the writing and directing and effects and acting and music and costumes and sets have all improved immeasurably since then. Again, it was like Masters Of Horror or Fear Itself or something; a show where well-known writers and directors are given a substantial budget and told to deliver an hour of good TV. These three episodes felt professional, if you see what I mean.
-I meant to note the double-meaning of “The Initiative” as a title last week, given that it refers both to the organization and to Riley’s attempts to declare his romantic intentions to Buffy. But I failed. I’d note the double-meaning of “A New Man” now but I’m afraid I’d be edging into spoiler territory. If I recall correctly, I think with next week’s set I’ll be able to do it.
-Is the show going to the well too often with the dream sequences? “Hush” is the second episode this season to open with what looks to be a real scene and then turns out to be a dream; and of course Season Three was peppered with the same. I can’t tell if there’s a thematic reason for all these fake-outs, or if it’s just becoming a storytelling crutch.
-Spike eats all of Giles’ Weetabix. Those two are very, very British.
-Anya’s frank announcements of her sexual business continue to be comic gold, as when she complains that Xander doesn’t care about her, but only wants “lots of orgasms.” She even asks Giles whether the friend coming to stay with him is “an orgasm friend.”
-The Wicca mockery in “Hush” is super-choice, whether it be one of the group-members complaining, “Who left their scented candles dripping all over my women power shrine?” or Willow reducing their patter to, “Blah blah Gaia blah blah Moon… buncha wanna-blessed-bes… nowadays every girl with a henna tattoo and a spice rack thinks she’s a sister to the dark ones.” Of course the Wiccans’ rebuttal to Willow’s pro-witchcraft stance is pretty cutting too: “We could climb on our broomsticks and fly away on our broomsticks.”
-I like the enterprising soul selling dry erase boards to the silent Sunnydalers in “Hush.” And I like how in the next scene, Buffy and Willow are wearing a couple around their necks.
-Did I see Willow drinking Virgin Cola? Is that even around anymore?
-It’s weird: After “Hush,” I almost expected everyone to still be silent when “Doomed” began.
-Riley’s colleague Forrest thinks of demons as “animals,” and mocks Riley’s Iowa roots by adding, “just like the farm in Smallville.”
-I’m not sure why, but the comparison of styles of demonology—military vs. academic—reminded me a little of Jaws. It’s like Quint vs. Hooper.
-Giles has the Word Of Valios talisman that the demons need, but when they take it from him, why don’t they kill him? Strange to see demons valuing human life like that. Still, it’s a funny scene when Giles realizes he’s had the thing all along and he mutters, “Oh, as usual, dear.”
-Walsh, mocking Giles’ theory that children should be allowed to “find their own footing” as they mature: “And if it’s true in hiking, ergo it must be true about life.”
-Possibly the funniest moment in “A New Man:” when Ethan’s giving his bad guy speech to an empty crypt and suddenly Giles pops his head back in. (“Oh bugger, I thought you’d gone,” Ethan groans.)
-At the end of “A New Man,” Giles installs a new phone and suggests to Buffy that if she has something to tell him she can do so “through this ingenious speaking tube.”
-The poster on Buffy’s door: chocolate. The poster on Riley’s: balls. Make of that what you will.
-I am always serious about naked limbo. I’m in!
-Next week I’ll be covering four Buffy episodes since the set includes a two-parter. I may only get through three Angels, and if that’s the case I’ll do four the week after, since I believe that’s when the big Angel two-parter arrives.
A lot of big changes this week, starting with the arrival of Wesley into the cast, semi-replacing Doyle. I say “semi” because Wesley—at this point anyway—isn’t actually duplicating any of Doyle’s functions. He fashions himself a “rogue demon hunter,” but outside of his Watcher-like adeptness at research, he doesn’t have the connection to the supernatural that Doyle had. (Also he’s a bit of a bumbling boob.) As for Doyle’s ability to receive messages from The Powers That Be about Angel’s mission, that’s been passed on to Cordelia. I find it interesting how when a Joss Whedon production shakes up the cast, it rarely goes for a direct one-for-one substitution. Whedon’s shows keep looking for ways to radically alter the chemistry.
The other big moment in this trio of episodes (which, by the way, are “Parting Gifts,” “Somnambulist” and “Expecting”) comes when Detective Kate finds out at last that Angel’s a vampire with some very bad history. For now, their alliance has been set aside, because as a trained crimefighter, Kate can’t partner with a killer--even a reformed one. But I imagine this rift will be healed before too long. (Or perhaps not; I don’t know much of anything about Angel’s future arcs.)
This was also some kind of week for guest stars. In “Somnabulist,” Jeremy Renner (currently garnering raves in The Hurt Locker) pops up as a former student of Angelus, now copying his ex-master’s killing ways in L.A. And in “Expecting,” Josh Randall (best known for a long stretch on Ed and one memorable episode of Lost) plays a bartender, while Cordelia’s ill-intentioned date is played by Ken Marino (a member of The State comedy troupe who’s currently staring in the hilarious Starz sitcom Party Down, after previously appearing in a wide range of movies and TV shows, including a recurring role on Veronica Mars).
All three of these episodes were enjoyable, although “Parting Gifts” was the best, both for its reveal of Wesley (first seen as an avenging bad-ass, then as… well, Wesley), and for a entertainingly twisty plot that has Cordelia getting kidnapped and auctioned off by a very slick, very funny con-man demon. “Somnambulist” and “Expecting” were both quite clever as well, and significant in their own way. (The former for delving back into Angel’s past; the latter for continuing the growth of Cordelia as a character by showing her haunted apartment again, and by giving her one doozy of a dramatic scene when she wakes up full-term pregnant after her one night stand with Marino.)
But like I said: When Whedon shows shuffle casts, they change the chemistry, and it usually takes a while to get the formula right. The stretch of Buffy I’m on right now is just about perfectly balanced. Angel's more off-kilter at the moment. The show needs to do more with Wesley than just have him be the one-note comic relief. He needs his own “haunted apartment” or “ability to talk to The Powers That Be” or something. I’m happy to see Wesley again, but right now, Cordelia’s a far, far more interesting character.