Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Initiative

This is the moment we are guaranteed there will always be something hugely entertaining in every episode, because Spike is now a regular cast member, added to the opening credits. I remember watching this the first time round, with no knowledge of behind-the-scenes decisions, and it was a moment where many Christmases turned up at the same time… because Spike is amazing.

Let’s face it, he’s the best thing about this show, and that’s saying something considering how good the rest of the cast are. You can pair him with anyone and it’s instant guaranteed double act. The highlight of this particular episode is a brilliantly scripted and performed scene where Spike’s inability to bite Willow is obviously compared to erectile dysfunction, without ever using that term. We go from Willow attempting to comfort Spike, telling him he was trying too hard and it must happen to every vampire, to Willow blaming herself and Spike comforting her (“Don’t be ridiculous. I’d bite you in a heartbeat.”), and then there’s the moment you can see the realisation dawn on Willow’s face: they are actually talking about Spike trying to kill her, and maybe she would be better off hitting him with a lamp rather than encouraging him to try again. There’s absurdity there, but it’s the kind of comedy we can expect from the show now that Spike is in for the long haul. This has always been a funny show, but it just got a whole lot funnier.

Forming another great double act are Giles and Xander, who are hanging out together like a couple of teenage boys, having fruit punch that Xander’s mum made, lamenting their uselessness:

“Once again I would say that you and I will not be needed to help Buffy.”

Nothing ever goes unremarked on in the world of Buffy, such is the standard of the writing. Giles and Xander have been left out on a limb by Buffy growing up and moving on to a new phase of her life, and that needs to be acknowledged before we can move on to re-establishing how important they actually are to her. They are family… and that brings us on to the contrast between the Initiative and Buffy, which is going to be a key theme for the rest of this season.

I am going to have to discuss this over the course of several articles, because it’s a huge and very important topic, but let’s establish the basics at this point. I think that’s appropriate for the episode that reveals the Initiative for the first time. Buffy’s geographical and emotional separation from her friends, a group spread wider than it used to be when the setting was a school, is no accident. We are being shown how a family can drift apart, but are still a family and can still support each other. In contrast, the Initiative is a military hierarchy, based in… well, a base. It’s a cold, clinical location, and their methods are high-tech and built upon military principals and decision-making. Buffy’s world is the darker, softer contrast to the bright lights of the Initiative, comfortable(ish), domestic settings like Giles’ apartment, Xander’s basement, Buffy and Willow’s dorm room… heck, even Spike’s hide-out. Do you see where we are heading here? This is where Buffy really becomes the feminist show it was celebrated for being, and it’s not just about the female lead. This is the contrast between Buffy’s world: instinctive, familial, soft; and the Initiative: organised, logical, clinical. And here’s the bit that makes this show so much more grown-up than anything that surrounded it at the time, and just about anything since: the senior figure in the male-leaning group is Maggie Walsh, and in the female-leaning group is Giles. This is a representation of male/female traits that goes beyond physical gender… and it happens all the time. Take the second funniest comedy moment this episode has to offer, as an example: Xander and Harmony having a girly, slapping fight in glorious, ironic slow motion, just after we’ve had a scene that explained that Xander’s military knowledge is now virtually useless. In some respects, the most feminine member of Buffy’s family is her brother-in-arms: slapping, flapping, hair-pulling arms. Fabulous.   RP

The view from the Sunnydale Press…

For every win this series scores with me, it also loses some with continuity mistakes.  Now, in the grand scheme, we can ignore or even explain away some of them, but it’s great when the audience has to supply the rationale for the blunder.  Take this week’s thorn in the side during The Initiative.  We have a really strong episode and I won’t deny that the reveal that the frat boys are actually paramilitary members of The Initiative really blew my mind.  Simply put, I didn’t see it coming.  And for a moment, the reveal that Mrs. Walsh, the hard-nosed teacher, is also part of it really amazed me too.  Until I remembered all the way back one whole episode ago when she encountered “wild dogs”.  She was clearly frightened and threw her bag to escape the two werewolves.  Now yes, I fully acknowledge that she may have known that they were werewolves and she was playing it off, which is what I mean by the idea that it could be excused away with a “yeah, but she knew what they were and made up the story” but I’m not convinced because, why say anything at all?  Why not wait until she was alone with her team and explain it to them?  Why say anything in the presence of the other students?  Even if I am willing to accept that, how about the heat-sensing night goggles which show Spike in the room with Willow.  Notice he’s sitting on the bed talking to her before we cut to the heat-overlay view. Now he’s walking slowly towards her, as she appears to be standing near the window.  Cut back to the inside of the room, and they are sitting on the bed again.  “Maybe they stood up for a moment and walked to the window…”  Nah, that was a mistake, friends.  And what of the great baddie, Spike, who can no longer hurt any living creature… except the two guards he hurt before escaping the lab.  Maybe whatever the Initiative did to him takes time to kick in?  See, there are ways to make sense of some of the issues, but that’s not a fair way to play the game; the audience shouldn’t have to supply for the flaws.  It’s those little things that get under my skin.

Having said that, I give full credit to the unexpected brilliance of having these “students” as part of The Initiative.  This reminded me of the movie The Cabin in the Woods (2011), where a secret organization pumps out these monsters like they are factory productions; in many ways exactly like the movie industry does but with that sense of reality in that these creatures are real.  (In looking up the year that movie was released, I discovered the name of that organization was… The Organization!  Coincidence or unsolved mystery… or just amazing writing being emulated years later?)   It was wholly unexpected.  To find Buffy even coming close to this idea years before the movie was released, really left me speechless.  To a lesser extent, finding out Oz’s real name was surprising in a way I couldn’t wrap my head around.  Who knew his mom and dad didn’t name him after a fictional land known for its wizard?  Color me impressed.   And I actually really loved the parallel between Buffy and Riley both keeping secret identities from one other.  So while those potential oversights bother me, I can’t deny the fact that I’m dumbstruck by the writing time and again.   What worries me with this one is that I hope we’re not in for another relationship for Buffy that’s destined to fail, like that of Angel before.  If we’re just going through those same motions again, I’d be sort of upset.  I don’t know that I want Buffy to get over Angel, but at the same time, I want her to be able to move on and Riley is a good candidate for her, but they’ll have to get out of that Phil Collins rut – you know, living separate lives.  Sorry, it just popped into my head!

Speaking of my lame attempt at comedy, this series never fails to have some great lines.  Speaking of the “peculiar” Buffy, one of the guys suggests, “Maybe she’s Canadian!”  Brilliant.  (Also, speaking of peculiar, the symmetry at the end with Buffy referring to Riley as peculiar was extremely well written!)  Also, for the viewers unsure of the direction the story will go around Oz, Willow’s “I assure you, Oz will be back” was as much to the teacher as it was to the audience.  Lastly, Buffy’s retort to Walsh was phenomenal, “You’re right.  A human being in pain is nothing to do with your job!”  I applaud you, ma’am!  Well said, indeed.

I don’t deny that I was expecting more out of this episode but it was still a strong one.  I really enjoy this show so much more than I ever expected and I’m very glad Roger prompted me to give it a shot.  It is head and shoulders above what I expected and the cast is absolute gold.  I just hate getting these little pangs of a headache I get when the production crew overlooks something!  ML

Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Pangs

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Television and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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