I’m glad we got this episode out of the way so that now I can stop talking obliquely about the strange uniformed commandoes stalking the campus of UC Sunnydale, and can just call them “The Initiative.” I’ve known their name all along (as well as who’s involved with them), since they figure heavily in the handful of Season Four episodes I watched a couple of years ago. But it didn’t feel right to jump the gun and start using the proper name until said name had been introduced. The Initiative. Initiative, Initiative, Initiative. Ah… that’s better.
I have to say, even though I’ve seen the headquarters of The Initiative in those episodes I’ve already watched (which for the record are episodes 13 through 16… I think), it was still a knockou to see how it was originally introduced. From the initial reveal of Spike in a featureless glass cell, to Riley and his fraternity brothers’ descent into a technologically advanced laboratory (overseen by Professor Walsh!), everything about our first good look around The Initiative's digs was, to me, stunning. It felt like I was watching a different show, but in a good way. It felt like someone had opened a locked door in the back of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and had shown me a parallel series that’s also been going on this whole time, just outside the intimate sphere we’re familiar with. The Initiative reveal made everything feel… grander. At least to me. And at least for now.
The introduction of The Initiative also set up a nice dynamic between the low-rent way that Buffy and her team gets things done, and the high-tech methodology of the Walsh bunch. Spike and his fellow captives get fed from blood bags and subjected to a process that removes their ability to attack and kill living things. The result? An escaped Spike corners Willow, and then can’t get it up, vampire-ly speaking. (Still, she’s nice enough to flatter him on his technique, which he appreciates. “I hate being obvious,” Spike says. “All fang-y and grrrrrr…”)
Meanwhile, the budget-priced vampire hunters are either lounging around Giles’ apartment or Xander’s basement, scarfing Doritos and making plans that go nowhere. Xander makes an effort to aid Buffy in finding out more about The Initiative, by utilizing his dormant “Military Guy” skills, but too much time at home with an intrusive mother and her copious glasses of fruit punch have dulled his edge. Later when he runs into Harmony on campus, the two of them engage in the most desultory slap-fight (with occasional shin-kicking) in the history of stage combat.
Ultimately, the episode comes down to Buffy tracking Spike to Willow’s room just as Riley and his fellows do the same. And in the confusion, the two never discover each other’s secret identities. Outside the Spike-fighting arena though, the Buffy and Riley story is beginning to warm up. Riley has approached Willow to get some inside info on what Buffy’s really like, and though Willow’s reluctant to help out—“I’ve seen honest faces before,” she says. “They usually come attached to liars.”—she finally spills that Buffy likes sensible shoes and cheese.
By the end of “The Initiative,” Buffy and Riley are walking across campus while the soundtrack plays an acoustic guitar “love theme” that I don’t think I’ve ever heard on Buffy before. Like I said: this is becoming a different kind of show.
I have only one qualm about “Pangs,” which I’ll get out of the way up top so that I can talk more about what an outrageously entertaining episode this is. I appreciate that “Pangs” attempts to talk, in a humorous way, about natural orders and historical guilt, and I appreciate that in order to do so our cast of regulars has to have strong opinions about past oppression and the ongoing Darwinian struggle that shapes societies. But I never quite bought Willow’s adamancy throughout this episode. Feeling bad about the decimation of Native American culture is one thing; arguing that a revived Indian spirit should be allowed to slaughter people at will as reparation doesn’t sound much like something Willow would support. (Perhaps I can just chalk it up to her not thinking clearly, post-Oz.)
Okay, with that taken care of… yay, “Pangs!” Gotta like any TV episode that begins with the characters questioning the meaning of Thanksgiving and ends with Xander throwing fruit at a bear, in retaliation for the bear giving him syphilis.
“Pangs” is partly about Buffy’s efforts to force her makeshift family to sit down with her for the perfect Thanksgiving, even though none of them are exactly eager to do so. (Only Anya’s a Thanksgiving fan, claiming that it’s “a ritual sacrifice… with pie.”) It’s also partly about that family’s squabble over what to do with the rampaging “Spirit Of The Chumash” that Xander inadvertently revives while breaking ground for a new cultural studies center. And of course the big hook for the episode at the time it originally aired was that it marks the return of Angel, who lurks in the shadows—“large and glowery,” according to Anya—and tries to protect Buffy without her knowing he’s there.
Angel’s presence is kind of a red herring in "Pangs," frankly, though a useful one. He arrives because of a premonition of peril experienced by his colleague Doyle at the end of the Angel episode “Bachelor Party,” but really nothing that happens in “Pangs” is any more life-threatening to Buffy than any other day of her life. The real reason he’s there in Sunnydale is to set up the Angel/Buffy crossover episode that immediately followed when “Pangs” originally aired. Angel’s in town for Whedon/WB business reasons, not because he necessarily has to be in this story.
That said, Jane Espenson puts Angel to good use in “Pangs,” whether it be having him bicker with Giles over whether either one of them is ultimately responsible for Buffy’s safety, or having everyone who encounters Angel in Sunnydale immediately assume that he’s turned evil again. (Angel’s exasperated reaction to their distrust is a comic highlight in an episode packed with them.) And Angel’s presence is also a reminder of one of the major themes of the episode. As the gang debates what malevolent forces have a right to exist, there’s Angel in the background: a bloodthirsty vampire they have no plans to annihilate.
And despite my complaint about Willow’s stubborn refusal to fight The Chumash Spirit, I loved the complexity of the argument that results, from Buffy contending, “I like my evil like I like my men: Evil,” to Willow arguing that Giles worldview amounts to “slay the demon and go ‘la la la’,” to Giles sarcastically sniping, “Let’s give him some land, I’m sure that will clear everything right up.” Meanwhile, in the background of the story we have Anya, a vengeance demon who’s been integrated into society, and Spike, a neutered vampire who still has to eat. If you’re looking for a jumping off point for a discussion of how to deal with malevolence on a private and public level, you couldn’t do much better than “Pangs.”
You also couldn’t do much better if you’re just looking to laugh. So many great moments here: Buffy spotting the sickly Xander and gasping, “You didn’t bring rolls?;” the gang riding bicycles to come to Buffy’s rescue; and of course Willow having a change of heart on the whole “demons have a right to live too” question and yelling, “WHY… WON’T… YOU… DIE?!!” as she hits one of the Chumash with a shovel. I’ve griped a little about how this season hasn’t done much with its university setting, but you can’t get much more “college life” than this, as an abstract dorm room debate is rendered moot by an actual murderous beastie.
Earlier this summer I wrote about Season Three’s graduation episodes, and how the hard part about any kind of concluding passage in someone’s life is that there’s no fast-forward button. That’s the theme of “Something Blue” too, as Willow struggles to heal from the deep, deep wound of losing Oz. (I know how she feels; for about a month after my college break-up I’d lie down in my darkened bedroom and listen to Nick Cave’s Your Funeral… My Trial on an endless loop.) She tries drinking light beer and doing “the dance of a brave little toaster,” but when that doesn’t work, she casts a spell that she believes will allow her to get past the hurt.
But alas… the universe won’t allow such chicanery. Willow’s spell goes awry, causing Giles’ vision to fail, Xander to become a demon-magnet, and Buffy and Spike to declare their love for each other and start making plans for marriage. And because it all happens at odd times, with no big poof to make it clear that magic is afoot, it takes a while for everyone to figure out what’s going on.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about “Something Blue,” though by no means should you mistake my reticence for disapproval. This is a well-balanced episode, starting with a believable potrayal of Willow’s pain, coupled with some cute business involving Riley’s fumbling attempts to court Buffy. (“Was that a conversation we actually had, or one I was just practicing?” he asks after one botched flirtation.) Then it becomes wildly comic, with the pacing and gags of an old Warner Brothers cartoon. Willow brings Amy back from her rat-state, but just for a split-second, in the background of a scene. Willow accidentally makes Buffy and Spike fall in love, and in the next shot he’s on his knees, proposing. Buffy and Spike bicker about their wedding plans, because she wants an outdoor ceremony and he reminds her that if they do that they’ll be registering as “Mr. & Mrs. Big Pile Of Dust.” All funny, funny stuff, delivered perfectly.
The whole mess even ends funny, with Willow being recruited by a band of vengeance demons who are certain she’s wreaking havoc on purpose. When she assures them that she’s not, they look menacing for a moment, then the leader shrugs and says, “Oh well. Here’s my talisman. You change your mind, you give us a chant.”
This set of episodes really clicks along nicely—so much so that it makes me think the loss of Oz was overall a good thing for this show. I had some of the same feeling with these three episodes that I did back at the beginning of Season Three, where it seemed like the cast had filled out just right and everyone had a role to play and a distinguishing presence to offer. Now with Spike, Anya and Riley in the mix, there’s a lot more variety to where an episode can go and who our core characters have to play off of. (My main complaint about some of the early Season Four episodes, as you may recall, was how thinly plotted and repetitive they were.)
I know Riley’s not a fan-favorite, and perhaps I’ll grow tired of him as the season wears on, but right now I’m liking the energy he brings. Too many of the Buffy boys have been brooding nerds and/or hipster types. I like that Riley, as he puts it, “grew up in a Grant Wood painting.” There’s only one question I need answered about him. We know the sacrifices that Buffy has to make to fulfill her obligations as The Slayer; but what does being part of The Initiative mean to Riley? I’m hoping we’ll get to that before too long.
-Hey, Spike joins the credits! I ask you people who watched the show the first time around: Did that seem abrupt at the time? I knew Spike was coming back and it still seemed odd to see James Marsters’ name up top.
-In the wake of the Oz break-up, Willow’s lost some of the swagger that made her so appealing when the season started. I hope it’s not gone for good.
-Is Buffy hot or not? That’s the question Riley and his friends contemplate at the outset of “The Initiative.” Speaking strictly in physical terms, Buffy’s clearly an attractive young lady. But watching her spill FroYo everywhere an get pen-smudge all over herself, it’s clear that she’s not exactly “together.” She’d be a high-maintenance girlfriend, that’s for sure. I don’t think I’d be up to the task.
-Professor Walsh on her teams’s findings: “This report reads like a child’s riddle-book!” (For a moment there, Lindsay Crouse got to get back to her Mamet roots.)
-Buffy insists to Willow that while Thanksgiving is a sham, it’s at least a sham with yams… a yam-sham. Willow’s reply: “You’re not going to jokey-rhyme your way out of this one!”
-Giles, explaining to Buffy that he doesn’t have a ricer for her to use to mash potatoes: “We’ll mash them with forks, much like the pilgrims must have.”
-Willow, trying to piece together the clues left behind by The Spirit Of The Chumash: “Maybe it’s an ear-harvesting demon, building a new body entirely out of ears!”
-Anya is turned on by Xander The Physical Laborer. “I want to see Xander dig!” she moans, and more than one she announces that she’s imagining having sex with him. “Imaginary Xander is quite the machine,” mutters Buffy.
-Anya’s opinion of the disgruntled dean’s wife: “I liked her! She gave me pie.”
-Spike: “Do you know what happens to vampires who don’t get to feed?” Giles, speaking for pretty much everyone in the audience: “I’ve always wondered that, actually.”
-Riley wants to take Buffy for a drive by the vineyards. So I guess Sunnydale is in Northern California.
-Riley's helping hang banners for The Lesbian Alliance. Yes, I’m aware that’s foreshadowing. I know more than I should about what’s to come over the course of the series for some of our heroes. Oddly enough though, I know almost nothing about what happens to Xander over the next three seasons, so I’m looking forward to finding out more about that.
-A forlorn Willow crashes Buffy and Riley’s lunch date, and casts her eyes on their food: “Your apples are turning brown… the way they do.”
-Some bad fashion choices in “Something Blue:” Buffy’s crimped hair; Willow’s enveloping poncho. Willow had a nice sense of style going early in the season but she’s been kind of a late ‘90s fashion victim over the past few episodes. (But hey, don’t mind me; I hated the poncho craze at the time, too.)
-Some good Spike moments in “Something Blue,” which begins with him “chained in a bathtub drinking pig’s blood from a novelty mug” and later has him rolling his eyes at the ineptitude of The Scooby Gang, sighing, “This is the crack team that foils my every plan?’
- Anya’s demon expertise comes in handy in “Something Blue.” She’s becoming a valuable addition to the team.
-I’m assuming it was sheer coincidence that had Willow consulting with immortals just a week after Angel did the same in the Angel episode “I Will Remember You.” Coincidence, but still strange to see so close together.
- I will that this Q-Tip gets unbendy.
-Hey, is anyone going to Whedonfest? If so, send my love.
This week’s Angel notes are more pertinent than ever, since this the big crossover week, when Buffy—and her awesome suede skirt—visits Los Angeles, for the very romantic episode “I Will Remember You.” I read some fan poll which places “I Will Remember You” at the top of all Angel episodes, which isn’t too surprising, I guess. It does give longtime fans a moment of sublime fantasy, as Angel becomes human again and gets to live briefly with Buffy as a proper boyfriend, before turning back time and erasing their days together for her own good (though they live on in his memory). It’s an undeniably sweet episode, but I have to say I found the set-up clunky and the complications a little forced, no matter how beautifully it all plays out. (That said, it must’ve been a good night for Whedon fans on November 23, 1999, with “Pangs” and “I Will Remember You” back-to-back.)
I’m also of two minds about “Hero,” the episode that bids farewell to premonition-bearing half-demon Doyle. It’s a powerful hour in a lot of ways, giving Doyle a proper send-off while showing Cordelia that there can be a vast gray area when it comes to dealing with creatures of the night. But the story-driver—involving pure-blood demons who hunt the half-breeds while wearing Nazi-like regalia—is too heavy-handed by half, and yanked me away from the important series-altering business
There was however one unequivocal standout in this week’s Angel trifecta, and that would be “Bachelor Party,” a very funny, well-pitched episode that’s easily my favorite Angel to date. (It’s the first one that Donna’s watched with me too, and she really dug it.) Maybe it was the deadpan comic presence of Carlos Jacott—an actor I nearly always enjoy—as a demon who intends to eat Doyle’s brains as part of a pre-wedding ritual, or maybe it was the clever way “Bachelor Party” deals with how normal-seeming American families handle their weird religious traditions, but this one just delighted me all around. It’s purposeful, well-acted, and it shows glimpses into the wider supernatural world Angel inhabits. (As does “Hero,” actually.) I don’t know if the show is going to continue to go in this direction—in fact I don’t know much at all about what happens on Angel, unlike Buffy—but even if “Bachelor Party” is an anomaly, it’s a welcome one.