Note: Since this week’s episodes are more tightly serialized than usual, I’m treating them as two two-parters, and writing about them in two hunks.
“The I In Team”/“Goodbye Iowa”
Joss Whedon’s sure got a thing for turning the screws midway through a season, doesn’t he? It was halfway through Season Two when Angel became Angelus, and halfway through Season Three when Faith became Dark Faith. An here at the midpoint of Season Four, Buffy The Vampire Slayer has our heroine join The Initiative, just in time to discover that Professor Walsh has been harvesting body parts from demons in order to create a Frankenstein monster, presumably to be used by the government as some kind of super-weapon.
As I’ve mentioned maybe too many times, this stretch of episodes—13 through 16—are ones I’ve seen before, during a brief flirtation with becoming a Buffy fan about four or five years ago. My impressions at the time were positive, perhaps because I didn’t realize then how new to the show the whole “Initiative” concept was. This second time through, I found myself a little dismayed by how quickly everything goes sour. At the start of “The I In Team,” Buffy officially joins The Initiative; by the end of the episode, Walsh is trying to have her killed (before getting skewered by Adam, her own creation). It all happens so fast, and seems to me to squander a lot of dramatic and comic potential for the sake of a few quick twists.
That said, the Buffy team does make the most of her brief time as a government employee. We see pretty early on that she’s not going to fit in so neatly with The Initiative. While the higher-ups are giving orders and saying, “That’s all you need to know,” Buffy’s raising her hand with questions, and wondering what the enemy’s really after (which is exactly the kind of thing that Giles would explain up front). When they ask her to gear-up, she waves them off, explaining that, “I’ve patrolled in this halter many times.” Even though she’s worked with her own team for years, she’s far too individualistic to be just another blocker on the field—or even a quarterback.
It seems the only reason Buffy even wants to be part of The Initiative is so she can fight alongside Riley—something she apparently considers to be a turn-on. (Perhaps she’s starting to understand what Faith was talking about last season, regarding the post-slaying high.) Director James Contner captures the sensuality of fighting evil with your honey by your side, by cutting together a slow-motion fight scene with shots of Buffy and Riley in full bedtime tumble. Then he undercuts the sexiness by showing Professor Walsh, checking out the intimate action via spycam. (Ew.)
The big news in “The I In Team”—besides the whole business of Walsh really not knowing what a Slayer is and thinking a couple of The Initiative's spare demons can kill Buffy—is that for once Buffy has sex with someone and that someone’s actually there in the morning. (And isn't evil.) On the other hand, Buffy’s new closeness with Riley sets up their heartbreaking separation in “Goodbye Iowa.” Once Walsh’s monster Adam destroys his mommy and flees into the wild, Riley doesn’t know what to do. All evidence would seem to indicate that Buffy killed Walsh, and the fact that she seems to spend more time socializing with bad guys like Spike than hunting them down doesn’t impress Riley much. Also, it doesn’t help that with Walsh gone Riley doesn’t have access to his “vitamins,” and is going through a painful, paranoia-inducing withdrawl.
In that way, Riley’s much like Adam: just another lost creation of Walsh’s, abandoned in a world he can’t quite navigate. Adam’s dilemma is illustrated well in an overt homage to Frankenstein, when he approaches a child at play and asks questions about who he is. When the boy tells him he’s a monster, Adam kills the boy. Input: output. Riley though has conflicting information coming from his girlfriend and his soldier buddies. What does it mean that he was programmed to be a demon-hunter by a woman who was building her own demon. Does not compute.
There are some very funny bits in “Goodbye Iowa,” particularly in the scene where Buffy ties her hair into a severe bun and pretends to be a scientist so that she can infiltrate The Initiative’s lair with Xander. (When Xander hears that entry require a retinal scan, he briefly thinks it’s something else, and gets grossed out.) This episode is largely about the construction of identity, as it applies to Adam and Riley, but it’s underscored well by the sight of Xander in his pretend soldier clothes, standing up against actual soldiers. What we pretend to be can only take us so far. Riley understands this all too well, when he faces off against Walsh’s monster—his own “brother”—and gets a stab wound for his troubles.
But I renew my objection from earlier in this write-up: As much as I appreciate Whedon’s willingness to tear down what he’s built just when the audience is getting acclimated, I do feel that he’s sometimes wasteful. I’m sure there’s more to come with Adam and The Initiative, but it would’ve been nice to have had a little more time to settle into a status quo before we were told that nothing is as it seems. There’s a lot of good stuff in these episodes, but they still feel… abrupt.
“This Year’s Girl”/“Who Are You”
“This Year’s Girl” picks up where “Goodbye Iowa” left off more or less, with Riley recuperating from his wounds in The Initiative’s infirmary, and Buffy out on the bloody trail of Adam, all day and all night. But you can’t really call these two episodes a continuation of the previous two, except inasmuch as the whole Buffy season is one long story. Because out of nowhere, a long-dormant subplot pops up to sidetrack our gang.
In short: they gotta have Faith.
Apparently, while Faith’s been in a coma for the last half-year, she’s been having dreams that recast her recent history as an idyll, ruined by a certain blonde slayer who hates fun and thinks she’s better than everybody. Then Faith wakes up in a world where all her best-laid plans have been scotched. The Mayor—the one person who genuinely liked her—is dead, while Buffy’s in college and carrying on with a man who’s not even the one she betrayed Faith for.
Part one of this two-parter is really all about setting up the big twist that plays out in part two. After Faith escapes the hospital, taunts Buffy, and then takes Joyce hostage (did the writers really need to bring Joyce back just to be a victim again?), and as The Watchers Council’s team of covert operatives swoop in to spirit Faith away for punishment, Faith uses a device The Mayor left her that allows her to switch bodies with Buffy. Now it’s Buffy-Faith who’s in custody, and Faith-Buffy who gets to romp around Sunnydale, living it up. In “Who Are You,” Faith-Buffy dances at The Bronze, dusts a vamp or two when necessary, teases poor Spike, and has athletic sex with Riley. All and all, a pretty good day.
There’s so much to unpack with “Who Are You” that I almost don’t know where to begin. I find it interesting that “This Year’s Girl” begins by showing us the world from Faith’s perspective, allowing us a certain sympathy with her that’s necessary in order for “Who Are You” to work. I also find it interesting that the question of an “after the fall” identity extends beyond Faith. Who is Faith if she’s not conspiring with The Mayor to wreak havoc on Sunnydale? Who is Riley if he’s not following orders? Who is Spike if he’s not purely malevolent? All of these characters a little betwixt and between in these episodes. And in “Who Are You,” Whedon seems to provide an answer to their troubles: collaborate, cohabitate, commingle. Two heads are better than one.
We see this in small ways, as in the relationship between Xander and Anya, who seem so comfortable and settled. (“We were going to light a bunch of candles and have sex near them,” Anya says about their big plans for the evening.) We see it in more dramatic ways with Tara and Willow, who join forces on the creation of a spell to switch Buffy and Faith back, and in doing so have an experience that is clearly bigger than the both of them—and is more than a little sexual.
And of course we see it in Faith-Buffy and Buffy-Faith. The latter uses a lot of Faith’s cunning and viciousness to extricate herself from the Watchers’ wetworks agents. And the former finds herself cursed with a conscience, affected by Riley’s tenderness, Joyce’s concern, and the gratefulness of the people she saves. At first Faith uses Buffy’s voice and body to offer some sideways defenses of herself to Joyce and Willow. But at the end, when Faith-Buffy is punching away at Buffy-Faith, she’s essentially yelling at herself and expressing a profound self-loathing. (A nice bit of double-acting from Sarah Michelle Gellar throughout “Who Are You,” channeling Eliza Dushku.)
I thought “Who Are You” was pretty brilliant all around, as evidenced by the way Whedon takes a very funny scene—Faith pulling a Taxi Driver and talking to herself in the mirror, in a mockery of Buffy—and makes it poignant by the end of the episode. While pretending to be Buffy, Faith puts on her faux-innocent face and says, “You can’t do that; it’s wrong.” But at the end, when she’s rushing into a church to save the congregation from the vampires holding them hostage, she tells the bad guys, with full conviction, “You are not going to kill these people. Because it’s wrong.”
It’s clear to me that “Who Are You” is a dry run for Whedon’s Dollhouse in a lot of ways. The episode skillfully finesses the whole “different identity in a familiar body” gimmick very well, and asks whether some traces of the people we surround ourselves with (sometimes literally, in the case of personality transference) affects how we behave, and what we believe, and, well, who we are. It’s just too bad that Dollhouse hasn’t had many episodes that handle this kind of material as well as “Who Are You” does. At least not yet.
I laid out pretty much the full extent of what’s great (and what’s not so) about these four episodes in the write-ups above, but I do have one note that I almost hesitate to introduce. I don’t want to be one of those Buffy fans who piles on Marti Noxon; after all, she’s responsible for some great episodes so far and she’s currently working on one of my favorite shows, Mad Men. But, it’s hard to ignore the fact that while the David Fury-penned “The I In Team,” is funny and exciting, its Noxon-penned second half “Goodbye Iowa” feels rushed and overly dour. But I can’t be too hard on it. The episode does feature the Frankenstein/kid homage, and the sleepover scene (more on that below), and Xander and Buffy’s Initiative infiltration. Plenty of bright spots, just not connected as well as they could be.
Of course the champion of all these episodes is “Who Are You,” written and directed by Joss Whedon himself. So there’s that.
-The use of the word “Scooby” as a descriptor for our gang ramps up big time in these four episodes. I’m still not wild about it, but if the show itself is using the term, I may have to fall in line.
-How did the whole Willow/Tara thing go down with fans at the time? I’m curious to hear from those of you who were watching back then. I’m finding it all quite sweet, largely because I like the way Amber Benson plays Tara, as shy, giving and underconfident. (Her muttered “not really” when Willow talks up her power is very cute.) And I’m intrigued by the scene in “Goodbye Iowa” where she tanks Willow’s spell on purpose. That indicates to me that she knows a lot more about the forces Willow’s dealing with than Willow does.
-There’s a terrific partly visual gag in “The I In Team” that’s hard to explain in print, but here’s the dialogue that accompanies it: “I’m certain in time you’ll pick that up. Don’t pick that up.”
-Welcome To The ‘90s: When Buffy joins The Initiative, she’s given her very own pager.
-One Buffy character trait that’s been consistent all along: If she gets something on her mind, she becomes oblivious to all attempts to shake her out of it. More than once on this series there have been scenes where she can’t stop talking in class because something’s bothering her, and in her scenes with The Initiative her curiosity makes her a total pain. I wonder if that’s a case of the writers taking a Sarah Michelle Gellar character trait and working it into the character?
-Bufy, wowed by The Intiative’s digs: “Not that I thought this was some fly-by-night operation. Unless it is. I mean, if you guys fly. At night. With those jetpack things. Do you guys have those?”
-Was there a point to the subplot of Xander selling nutrition bars? I mean, it was mildly amusing, but usually Whedon’s writers don’t include anything in the plot that doesn’t pay off in some significant way.
-I liked the scene in “Goodbye Iowa” where everyone crashes at Xander’s place for safety: Buffy in her Yummy Sushi pajamas, Giles unable to sleep “in my beach ball”… good times.
-Always good to hang out at Willy’s place, where they’ve got Lou Reed on the jukebox and some of the best chicken fingers in town. Demons go crazy for chicken fingers
-As much as I like the idea of The Initiative, the revelation of its existence raises a lot of questions. For example: Did The Initiative know about The Mayor? Or are we to assume that because Walsh had such a narrow mission herself—to build Adam—The Initiative as a whole wasn’t really doing what she told everyone it was doing?
-Any particular reason why the gang hasn’t just killed Spike by now (besides the fact that he’s an interesting character)? Is it because he’s no threat (and therefore killing him would be immoral) or is this like some “don’t name your dinner” thing?
-Nevertheless, Spike does have a fairly interesting arc in these four episodes. He wants out of the Scooby Core, though he learns that he’s not welcome among demonkind either, so he’s sort of stuck. He comes to Giles for help when he needs it, then tells him and Xander to sod-off when he’s safe. He’s in a dangerous place right now—dangerous to him, and dangerous to the people he knows.
-In the Faith/Buffy dream sequence at the start of “This Year’s Girl,” there’s a reference to “little sis coming.” Interesting.
-Xander says of Faith’s return, “I think this qualifies for the Worst Timing Ever award,” but in terms of the structure of Season Four, she arrives at exactly the right time, distracting Buffy from the Adam-hunt long enough to let that plotline simmer a bit. Meanwhile, Adam is busy in the background of “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You,” recruiting followers from Sunnydale’s ever eager community of vampire lackeys. You think eventually Sunnydale’s underworld would get tired of new outside agitators arriving like clockwork every six months or so.
-Anya, frustrated with Giles’ inefficiency: “Well I’m glad you called us all here because that information could never have been conveyed via telephone.”
-Faith-Buffy has a hard time distinguishing between poetic justice and regular justice.
- Tara soesn’t know what “5x5” means. Willow reassures her that nobody does.
-After Tara tells Willow that something’s not right with Faith-Buffy, Willow calls back to an old episode, asking, “You didn’t sense a hyena energy, did you?”
-Giles, trying to convince the police to let him into the church where the hostages are being held: “Our families are in there. Our mothers, and tiny, tiny babies.”
-Riley shows up at the church not because The Initiative told him there was trouble, but because he was actually going to church.
-Some nice action sequences in these episodes, with clever staging of fights and kills. I like the part where Faith-Buffy stakes a vampire and then flips him, so that he turns to dust in a kind of mid-air twirl. Some nice handheld shots and jump cuts in the post-coital scene between Riley and Faith-Buffy too. Very nouvelle vague.
-Buffy’s not sure whether to feel betrayed or not at Riley having sex with Faith-Buffy. That’s a tricky one, you’ve got to admit.
-“It's called a Blaster, Will. The word that tends to discourage experimentation. Now if it was called The Orgasminator, I'd be first to try your basic button-press approach.”
Only got through three Angels this week—I’ll do four next week—and for the most part they were more noteworthy for the familiar faces in small roles than for anything that happens in the episodes themselves. (Hey there’s Kirk from Gilmore Girls! Hey there’s Joan from Mad Men (and, of course, Saffron from Firefly)!) There are some significant developments in the series as a whole though. For one, Wesley is beginning to step up and put his arcane expertise to good use. (He even stands up to Angel memorably in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” the best of these three.) For another, Detective Kate begins to thaw towards Angel, though she freezes up again when his investigation of her father’s shady drug dealings leads to his death.
But I couldn’t shake off the weaknesses in each of these episodes. “She” is pretty awful in my opinion, undone by its clunky metaphor for genital mutilation. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is much better, with some clever misdirection on which member of a troubled suburban family has been possessed by a demon, and then a further twist when we learn that the possessee is actual a bigger bad than the possessor. But I felt like the writers—or the network—copped out by having the bad guy reveal his evil before Angel came to the rescue. (It would’ve been a ballsier move if Angel had dispatched the wicked kid without the family knowing why he was doing it.) And then “The Prodigal” returned to Angel’s past in order to set up a blunt meditation on daddy issues, though the episode is well-plotted and well-acted regardless.
Two things stuck out to me this week: 1.) Angel’s gotten to know a lot of people during his time in Los Angeles. Every week we meet a new guy who owes him a favor. And 2.) I’m really starting to love the theme song. Like the Buffy theme, it sounds at first like it should be playing behind some Marvel comics syndicated cartoon, but the more I hear it the more appropriate (and catchy) it becomes. I’ll say this: I’m never tempted to skip past the Buffy or Angel credits.