The memory cheats. I remembered Season Four of Buffy as being far weaker than the seasons that surround it. So far, that’s not the case. It might be that the closing few episodes created that impression; we will see. But so far I’ve been very happy with the new direction the show has taken. Interestingly, when Doomed takes us right back to what Buffy used to be, I didn’t like it at all. Maybe that was the point, but I doubt it. This episode delivers a clear message: if you thought it was better last year, you were wrong. I think that’s accidental, because I can’t imagine a showrunner deliberately weakening an episode just to make a point like that, but either way this all feels oddly old-fashioned, with the return to the school and a very familiar plot about demons opening the hellmouth. It’s so last year. And that’s a reminder of how the new direction, like it or not, is vastly better than getting stuck in a rut.
Although Doomed comes across as some kind of a rebuttal to unhappy fans, I’ll dismiss that idea on the grounds that it makes no sense to sabotage your own show to make a point, and you don’t get three good writers on board to pen something deliberately weak. So if it’s not there to make a point about things being better now, why does this feel so backwards looking? I think it’s because the plot of the episode doesn’t really matter. It’s an episode that exists to get through some important business, and the threat of the week is simply a useful old favourite: chanting demons, hellmouth, apocalypse. Those things feel old now, but it’s a story that almost writes itself. The viewers know all the plot beats, so it works like The Zeppo did last year: an apocalypse as a shorthand, a familiar backdrop to some character stuff going on in the foreground.
I think the reason this one doesn’t quite work so well is that the writers are not quite in tune with the viewers in terms of what matters. They probably thought the important business was moving on the Buffy/Riley story, but we just want to watch Spike. So Buffy and Riley get all the key moments, while Spike gets major character development as comedy asides. It works, and I suppose at this stage it probably has to be that way, but Riley can’t help but come across as a bit dull in comparison to Spike and those he calls Buffy’s “groupies” and it’s hard to really care about who knows what. Xander and Willow finding out about Riley feels like a small story, and Buffy lying to Giles is just plain wrong. It makes little sense for her to keep Riley’s secret. Why does she do that? Because she said she would? Has she learned nothing about lying to Giles and her friends? Sometimes you have to prioritise your principles. Hopefully that error in judgement will be addressed soon, because it goes unremarked upon here. Buffy is repeating one of the worst mistakes of her life, and lying to Giles. She doesn’t have a good enough reason for doing that, and he’s now the last to know. That’s just not fair.
But the bit that’s really interesting and entertaining this week is Spike’s transformation from puppy dog to fully fledged member of the Buffy groupies, when he learns that he can hit demons without pain. It’s always darkest before the dawn (or in Spike’s case it’s always sunniest before the dusk), so we see him reach rock bottom first, humiliated in Xander’s clothes and trying to stake himself. It’s a slightly problematic development because it trivialises suicide, but the comedy is so effective that we don’t have much time to feel awkward about that.
One final point. I mentioned a few weeks ago the subtext of the season: the feminine vs the masculine in the approach to fighting evil. Spontaneity vs systemic. Family vs organisation. Riley’s integration into Buffy’s world in this episode starts with a bit of comedy business about his “lilac” call sign, and by the end of Doomed he is embracing her more spontaneous tactics of going into a situation without the backup of his military organisation. In contrast, Forrest dehumanises (well…) the enemy, describing them as “just animals, man, plain and simple.” And in that very same episode we see Xander save Spike’s life more than once, and Spike the vampire on a path to something that makes him far from being just an animal. Unnoticed by any reviewer of any article I have ever read, Spike unknowingly takes the label Forrest places on him and his kind, and reappropriates it.
“That’s right! I’m back, and I’m a bloody animal!”
But can the physical fighting ever be divorced from the side he is fighting for? We saw with Oz and Angel how the animal inside is hard to keep suppressed. Spike is on the opposite trajectory. Can he keep denying the human who lives deep inside the animal? RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press:
I love that Doomed picks up exactly where Hush left off. However, I don’t love that they don’t do more with it at that moment. There’s more dialogue than was shown before, but it’s not until later that the episode redeems the miss when Riley confronts Buffy for the folly of her thinking. I can appreciate that especially after this episode, but first one thing that I disliked immensely – I’d be inclined to call it borderline irredeemable – is that Riley never comes off as a real military man; none of his squad do. They all come off as college kids pretending to be in a military squad. Now, I’m willing to squint to ignore that due to how good the rest of the cast is and how good the stories are otherwise, but I do wish the casting around this group was a little better.
Having said that, Doomed is a fun episode which seems wholly designed to showcase how good Buffy and Riley actually are together despite Buffy’s belief that she won’t do this again. And that extends beyond the two lovers! Spike is rapidly falling in with the Buffy gang proving they are better with him than without. (I nearly guffawed when Spike tried to hit Xander with a wrench, in fact!) I think that’s a fantastic idea and I’m delighted to see them mining that! Spike has become yet another of a long line of characters I’ve come to really enjoy. The point of this growth is really driven home when the group goes back to high school which, cleverly from a production standpoint, remains a destroyed structure. Why the return to school is significant is that throughout the episode Willow and Xander are made to feel like they still have to grow up. Willow’s feelings are hurt when she overhears a guy she tutored talking about what a nerd she is while both she and Xander are the targets of Spike’s “10th grade” mockery. Granted, we don’t see that so much with them as we do with the Buffy/Riley relationship, but Riley effectively tells Buffy to grow up and I think that is symbolized brilliantly when they go back to school. Ironically, Willow said the same thing I said when I went back to my own grade school: it looks smaller than she remembered it! It’s like the act of growing up puts things in perspective both on the literal sense and the figurative. So unless I utterly missed the memo, this episode’s “real life lesson” is that there comes a time to grow up. (I’m so tempted to rewatch this series when I finish just to see how many real life lessons I missed!)
Speaking of the high school, I did love that Xander steps in the remains of the old Mayor. I wouldn’t have been ok with this had the school not been left in the condition it was so that again speaks well of the production. Speaking of that level of continuity, I also appreciated Buffy’s reference to Faith. She’s gone but not forgotten. The writers really did pay attention to detail and it’s fueling my love of this series so much more than I ever thought possible. One other prime example is Buffy saying that the last earthquake she was in, she died. We remember that from the season one finale, don’t we?
I also really have to praise the fact that Riley hadn’t heard of the Slayer. One of my early complaints about Giles is that you could say Yog, and he’d whip out a convenient book on Yog Sothoth and have all the information at his fingertips. While that still gets under my skin, I’ve come to accept it since he’s had years to study in preparation of the coming of the Slayer, but the fact that Riley doesn’t know is more logical; he knows only that they have to fight these creatures but doesn’t have the full picture. Buffy will hopefully be his tutor in that realm!
However, I can’t give this episode a free pass with the way the episode ends. Even the joke about the CBS logo, while wonderful, was not enough to make me turn a “blind eye” to the demon that they just leave behind. Two demons jump into a crack (sounds like the start of a joke) but Buffy manages to kill the last one by jumping into said crack with the longest cord anyone has ever kept on their belt. That scene was idiotic, but moving on… when she hauls him back up, they just leave him there. Were there only 3 of those demons on all of Earth? No others could come and jump in later? Did anyone plug the hole? Did they just run out of time so we just don’t see the wrap up? That was a weak ending! Overall, I have come to love this show, but when an oversight of that magnitude occurs, it feels like one of Buffy’s killer earthquakes. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A New Man