FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Initiative
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy and the gang have been running into mysterious commando types around campus who seem to have a yen for kidnapping vampires, including Harmony's very own Blondie Bear, Spike.
Spike wakes up from his kidnapping in a sterile, white kind of cage with electrified glass and is one of several in a row. It turns out he's being held captive at what appears to be a demon-hunting and experimentation facility. When he manages to escape, he starts a manhunt across campus that also involves one disgruntled Buffy. She's been at a party trying to cheer up Willow and dealing with goofy attempts at flirting from Riley, who has figured out he has a crush on everyone's favourite slayer. He doesn't know her secret, but nor does she know his; Riley just happens to be one of those commando types and is also on the hunt for Spike.
The Initiative is mostly a filler episode, designed to fill in some gaps in audience knowledge and advance the narrative for the season. Relationships start with Riley and Buffy, Willow starts to get her mojo back a little and Giles and Xander still feel a little out of sorts, given everyone else is college-based. The big reveal is, of course, Riley and Maggie Walsh's involvement in The Initiative and it's very existence beneath the university, though the series wisely keeps the majority of information around it hidden for now. On repeated viewings, it's easy to see those mechanics at work, like watching a chess master move their pieces across the board without ever really making an aggressive move.
However, I do have a real soft spot for this episode because it's more character work than anything else. Riley steps into the spotlight for a start and, though I know he's a character near-universally reviled, but I love him in Season 4. He's a kind of all-American goofball that the series doesn't use very often, precisely because he's one of the popular, bright kids who never seems to struggle.
Whedon's focus is rarely on those people because he's much more interested in those on the fringes. Riley's scenes with Willow's carry an adorable teen comedy's innocence to them and it's always nice when the show steps back a gear like that. Alyson Hannigan makes the most of her lines and her delivery is pitch perfect, especially the line where she threatens Riley with beating him to death with a shovel if he hurts Buffy, followed by a cheery "now go have fun!"
Riley also brings a traditional idea of masculinity in line with the show's ongoing critical undercutting of gender roles and presentations; he's tall, strong and gentlemanly, though there's hints already that he's not one for understanding women who can take care of themselves. When Buffy questions him on it, his immediate response is to say that women should be protected. Naturally, it doesn't go down very well and Sarah Michelle Gellar's reactive expression is gold.
Elsewhere in the episode, ideas of masculine virility become associated with Spike's ability to bite people. His scene with Willow, in which we discover he can no longer bite people without an intense headache, is one of those on the nose metaphor scenes that the show can often do so well, but sometimes get a little wrong. Here, Spike's lack of bite is played as an erectile dysfunction metaphor, after his attempt to bite Willow is played like an attempted rape. It makes the moments after where everything is played for laughs quite disturbing. The jokes are too awkward to land properly and despite the best efforts of Hannigan and Marsters, it doesn't work at all.
The episode does redeem itself though by having one of the most epic subversions of its own conventions take place during the story. Fight scenes have quite a specific build-up in Buffy; insults are exchanged, one liners fired out, the score swells to a dramatic crescendo and the fights are choreographed to look pretty spectacular despite the lack of budget. All of this takes place as Xander and Harmony meet. Well, everything apart from the martial arts. If you ever wondered what a fight between a vampire and a human without any kind of fighting skills would look like, this scene is for you. It's hair-pulling, face-hitting, shin-kickingly hilarious, especially when it takes place in slo-mo.
Though I still love it, The Initiative functions as a microcosm of how the fourth season eventually plays out itself. There's some great high points in the there, but there are also moments that really kinda suck. Also, I should probably prepare you for more Riley Finn defences as the season goes on. Sorry.
Quote of the Week (for Anthony Head's perfect line delivery):
Xander: Every man faces this moment. Here. Now. Watching, waiting for an unseen enemy that has no face. Nerve endings screaming in silence. Never knowing which thought might be your last...
Giles: Oh, shut up!
Let's Get Trivial: This is the first time that the main credits cast has changed during the mid-season; Seth Green is removed after Oz's departure whilst James Marsters is promoted to a regular, where he'll stay for the rest of the series.
Demonology 101: One of the demons spied in the Initiative bunker is the same one which Buffy kills at the start of The Wish with a "knurf"
You can read Becky's look at previous episode, Wild at Heart, here.
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