Tuesday, September 1, 2015

BtVS: The Whirlwind: Season 4, Episodes 10-14

Covering from “Doomed” to “Goodbye, Iowa,” in which that you fight evil is secondary to why and to what end you fight evil.

“Doomed” is a fairly rote episode about everyone not feeling cool which I really enjoy on the strength of three scenes. Spike, driven to the pits of despair by shrunken laundry and an unfortunate tropical shirt, has his suicide attempt botched by Willow and Xander, who have differing perspectives on his attempt (“It’s ookie, we know him!” vs. “We’ve shared a lot here! You should have trusted me to do it for you!”). Later, Riley fails to credibly explain why he was on hand to save the world (“Uh…paintball! I was playing paintball.”), and nearly recognizes Spike (“No, sirr. I’m just a friend of Xanderr’s herre.”). And lastly, the piece de resistance, realizing he can hurt not-humans all he likes, tries to rouse Willow and Xander to battle (“For…justice, and the safety of puppies, and for Christmas, right? Let’s fight that evil!”), but can’t hide his real desires (“Let’s kill something!”). This last bit is, by far, the most important to the show as it moves forward. Most of the issues of doomed—Buffy’s fear of loving another, Willow and Xander feeling inept and lost, another vague Armageddon—are resolved by episode’s end, but the question of Spike is merely posed: is it enough that he wants to fight evil, even if it’s not for a very good reason?
            But “Doomed” is also a harbinger of things to come, and more episodes will get by on fun individual scenes rather than by being particularly good. All is not lost just yet, there’s plenty to enjoy still to come. But there are far more Doomeds than Hushes on the horizon.
            As we know, Buffy’s birthday lands somewhere in the low teen episodes, and as we also all know, her birthdays have a habit of being histrionically bad. It’s when she thought she was losing Angel only to actually lose him, and when she was subjected to the Cruciamentum, which went spectacularly awry. This year, though, Buffy gets a birthday where the awfulness is pretty minimal. No, perhaps in a bit of karmic payback, it’s Giles, who had a role in ruining her last birthday, that has a spectacularly awful time. Giles feeling unmoored, purposeless, and lonely has been one of the background stories all season, but the last few episodes have added an element of him being off his game (also he sounds weird at the start of “Doomed,” like they couldn’t get Anthony Stewart Head in for some ADR, so they let the guy who’d go on to be Giles in the video game to do it…except that ASH did voice Giles in the video game). In “A New Man,” this coincides with Ethan’s return to town. Yes, Ethan does transform Giles into a demon, but he also gives him a night of commiserative drinking with a real peer, and some information gleaned from the demon underground that gives Giles a sense of purpose again—the Initiative is doing something that threatens to unbalance everything, all pivoting around the mysterious “314.”
            Turns out, “314” is a room. And in that room is a guy. It also turns out “314” is the project code to create that guy. He’s named Adam, and apparently the balance-threatening thing about him is that he takes a punch real good. After so much build up, Adam is something of a letdown. Initially, though, it isn’t clear exactly how much. He’ll be dubbed the “most boring” of the big villains, and I’d have to agree, though I’d not that doesn’t mean he’s the worst. Not by a long shot. Anyway, he’s actually works well enough in “Goodbye, Iowa,” but it’s hard to shake the sense that the dark secret of the Initiative should have been something more impressive and grander.
            Anyway, he’s going to be around for a bit, so we’ll be able to discuss Adam’s failings later. “The I in Team” and “Goodbye, Iowa,” our traditional season-escalating de facto two-parter, is much more about the Initiative itself and how it functions, and how it’s going wrong. Buffy is invited into the Initiative’s under-frat lair by Riley where she joins the team. Would it surprise you to learn she fails to endear herself to the command structure with her unconventional ways and her tendency to respond to orders with questions? It really shouldn’t. She, however, doesn’t realize that, as she adopts their military lingo and jumps at their summons like the rest of the soldiers. Partially, this is billed as her eagerness to work with Riley, and partially it’s to impress Maggie Walsh, but it seems noteworthy that this is the first new college experience Buffy has truly embraced. I think that’s because it’s the first one she truly understands—the fight against evil.
            But the Initiative isn’t about the fight against evil, or at least not for the sake of fighting evil. This is why, despite appearances, Buffy doesn’t actually fit in at the Initiative, as Walsh doesn’t intend to just fight evil, and seeing her ulterior motives to fruition requires Riley, Forrest, Graham, and the rest of the Initiative boys to be proper soldiers and not ask why their food tastes kind of funny. She needs effectiveness and obedience both.
            At least for me, this is the sort of stuff that could have made the Initiative really shine, the more paranoid, X-Files-esque spy business, like Riley showing up at Giles’ house immediately after the latter says the Initiative is unlikely to drop by. Is he there on his own accord? Or did they actually send him? No, he’s totally there on his own accord, but the Scoobs don’t know that.
            Riley, it turns out, isn’t quite as simple a boyfriend as he initially appears. He’s got a mean drug habit (which he doesn’t know about), and the withdrawals make him violent and even more paranoid, though “Goodbye, Iowa” doesn’t spend a whole lot of time digging into that circumstance—besides, nursing a lover through a crippling affliction is pretty old hat for Buffy at this point. But his deteriorating physical state reflects his deteriorating mental state, as we see when his hunt for Adam converges with Buffy’s at the newly rechristened Willy’s Place, and he winds up waving a gun at something that looks like an old lady. The supernatural world is one of uncertainty, but not asking questions helped Riley navigate it, and once he questions one thing, he ends up questioning everything, down to his senses and perceptions. It’s a better way, but a rough transition.
            But before all that, there’s the “honeymoon” period, where Riley and Buffy fight as a happy, confident team, their rapport leading to sexy times, which we see intercut with the fight itself.
            Say, wasn’t there a character who talked about how slaying got her hot and bothered?

            A Separate Tribute: “A New Man” marks the final appearance of Ethan Rayne, which is really too bad. Ethan was a great spice to throw in, tied directly to the show’s earliest strongest non-Buffy character, and just all around a delight: wry, cowardly, and droll. His observation in this episode that the “stay-and-gloat” that fails him is great. I wish the show had been able to make more use of Ethan, but it was not to be.
            Imagine my surprise, years after Buffy ended, when I discovered the actor who gave Ethan so much life had turned up in not one, but two media I truly adored, both from the Bioware game studio. And I didn’t even realize it, until I was told. Actor Robin Sachs contributed his gravel to both Dragon Age and Mass Effect. If you asked me to name two series I could play forever, both make that list.

            Robin Sachs died on February 1, 2013. I, and many other Mass Effect fans, marked the passing by only using the iconic gear of the character he voiced, by way of tribute. Since Ethan doesn’t pass here, I didn’t give him the full tribute, but I felt I should honor Sachs again. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Dragon Age, to Mass Effect. You can think of a more prestigious path, but a cooler one? No.

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