Buffy and Dawn are entertaining Joyce at the hospital, waiting on a surgery date while the Scoobies cover patrol. And by Scoobies, I mean just the starter pack: Xander, Giles, and Willow. They take out two female vampires in a battle which is both comic and an excellent demonstration of their years of experience and ability to do the teamwork thing. Sure, it looks bumbly, but could the three of them have killed two vampires, sans Slayer, in S1?
Afterward, Willow celebrates her two-kill evening while Xander continues to be the Chorus of Riley’s Damnation, pointing out that Iowa was supposed to come along and tip the odds in their favor by being soldierly.
But Riley’s terribly busy getting, well . . . sucked. I’m sorry, but it’s true! By the dead she-vamps’ friend, or at least someone who shares their fashion sense. He’s gotten himself a comfy chair for his new self-abasement ritual. Every pity party is better with a little cushy upholstery, am I right?
And, perhaps since female vampires are getting thinner on the ground every second, he doesn’t stake this one the way he did poor double-doomed Sandy.
A BFF’s work is never done. Willow makes a care package run to the hospital the next day, bringing goofy presents and a bit of banter to the weary Summers women. By now, Joyce’s brain tumor symptoms are starting to make themselves known: she’s saying irrational things, in a clearly angry fashion. It’s all very disconcerting, and Buffy tries to soothe Dawn by telling her the doctor predicted this.
As they flee the unpleasantness, leaving Joyce to nap, they get accosted by the security guard Glory attacked in “No Place By Home.” Like all of Glory’s victims, he’s noticed that Dawn is bright and sparkly and only a reasonable facsimile of a human. He says so, too.
Buffy understands why the guard’s words are significant. Nobody else thinks much of it—he does appear to be very confused, after all—and when curly-haired Doctor Ben comes up to check on them all, still alive and mysterious in that ‘why hasn’t he been killed by something awful yet?’ way, it’s obvious he missed it too.
Dawn, meanwhile, is deeply and understandably unimpressed to once again be called not real by a person of questionable sanity.
Willow and Tara are together stargazing next, which is partly about Willow decompressing after seeing Joyce and even more about being sweet and romantic and cute together until they see a big meteor come crashing to earth. The meteor disgorges a monster, who beelines straight for the demented security guard and suffocates him. It is super convenient that the guard’s family has turned him loose in the woods to let nature take its course just as the demon’s looking for someone unstable to kill. But we’ll let that pass.
While that’s happening, Buffy and Joyce agree that two pointless days in the hospital, waiting for nothing to happen, is an appalling use use of their time. They beg the doctor to send them home for the two days before her surgery. “Only if we can pile immense responsibility on Buffy’s shapely shoulders!” replies the doctor. “Got any experience with responsibility, young lady?”
She allows as how she might be able to handle it.
Meanwhile the gang, including Riley this time, go off to check out the space rock. They work out very quickly that it was a monster-bearing space rock, and from there Willow homes in on the dead guard’s corpse. She’s tired of finding the bodies, you guys. I can’t blame her for that.
Riley sends everyone off to hit the books and then secretly calls Graham while the monster blithely wipes out all of the patients in the mental ward. Naturally, Buffy doesn’t quite get her family checked out of the hospital before the thing notices that Joyce would make a pretty decent dessert.
And so home they all go. The girls get Joyce settled and keep her from setting the kitchen on fire. She erupts at Dawn with the same stuff as the now-dead security guard: you’re not real, you’re a thing. Then she tells Buffy she’s fat. Everyone’s hurt and upset. Later, Dawn tells Buffy the ‘you’re not real’ thing has been happening a lot, which is good information but not immediately useful. (What would be useful at this point, in my opinion, would be for Joyce to not have a brain tumor.)
Elsewhere, research is yielding knowledge: the group has realized the killer snot-monster from outer space, as Xander puts it, is a Queller demon. Riley Company, meanwhile, has found the bodies in the psychiatric ward and figured out where the Queller is going.
(It occurs to me the Initiative could have done worse than to have posted a permanent guard on the high school, various Slayer residences, and the Bronze.)
Early Buffy episodes combined excruciating real-life situations with monster stories, but those situations were high school awful: dates gone wrong, social humiliations, and mean principals. Joyce’s illness takes the real-life part of that formula but leaves out the intensely personal and very survivable scale of many teenage crises. This somewhat reflects the fact that awfulness, as we grow up, tends to take a more serious form. Not all of us get into bitter showdowns over who’s going to be homecoming queen, after all, whereas nursing a desperately ill loved one, alas, is a pretty common experience if you live long enough.
The drawback to this in a TV’s supposed to be entertaining sense is that sickbed vigils are less likely to be the sort of thing a person looks back at and laughs about later.
So caring for Joyce and Dawn in this episode is just a drawn-out marathon in rottenness for Buffy. It’s what she has to do, and she does it beautifully, but there’s little room here for a parade of yucks. Excluding a few low points—the day she killed Angel springs to mind—Buffy’s worst days slaying are practically heart and puppies moments by comparison.
Understandably, she melts down the first chance she gets, turning up the tunes and weeping into the kitchen sink, and this is so very true to life. It’s also damned sad. This episode opens the door a little further to that overbearing bleakness that crept over the latter portion of the series.
It is also, in its way, kind of awesome, because it means that for a few short minutes, Dawn is the one on the hook for saving Joyce from the monster.
Ah, yes, the monster. Remember Monsieur Snot? Joyce is in bed a-raving and it naturally makes straight for her.
It’s not like Dawn gets to bust out previously undiscovered ninja skills. Her defence of house and parent are accomplished mostly through running, strategic door-slamming—Joyce’s bedroom may have as many as three doors—and, once again, unleashing the amazing and ear-splitting power of The Shriek.
Buffy stops crying. Buffy hears the ruckus. Buffy comes running to the rescue. And then here’s a weird thing: all this time, Spike has apparently been rummaging through stuff in the basement.
Okay, if I were a vampire in love with Buffy and not-so-subtly stalking her, I’d totally move in while the family was away. Hang out in her room, read her diary… that far I can go. But you know what? I’d hear it when they came home and started yelling, banging things around and bawling to the hits in the kitchen sink.
Not our Spikey. He pops up from downstairs with no apparent clue that anyone’s around, much less that there’s a battle going on. He gets attacked by the Queller demon, and in a quite-nice move, redeems himself by tossing Buffy the knife she uses to kill it. . . all before Riley can show up, just a bit too late to get in on the useful suitor action.
Blame that on the blood loss, I guess.
If Initiative guys get wacky nicknames when they rejoin the fold, I think Graham and the others should start calling Riley ‘Afterthought.’ Or perhaps just “Tardyman.” “Lo how the mighty have fallen” is just a bit too much of a mouthful.
About this time, we might all start wondering why it is that snot monsters from outer space are even bothering to crash into town to kill and not eat the mentally ill. To you I say: since when did monsters need a reason to come to the Hellmouth? No? Not convinced? Fortunately, Dreg is curious, too, and he asks the guy who knows. Hey, Ben, what’s the deal? Why are you summoning things that kill? Doesn’t that wreak havoc with your Hippopeacenik Oath?
Plus, also: Ben, you’re totally in this season for a reason!
Ben blames Glory without providing details and leaves Dreg to stew. Now we know he’s up to his eyebrows in villainy, he’s marginally less of a sore thumb.
And then it’s surgery time. Before she goes in for prep, Joyce asks Buffy about her encounter with Dawn, and Buffy ’fesses up. No, she’s not really yours, she admits, and yes, I promise to protect her no matter what. It’s a sweet moment, as far as such things go and it’s where we end off as the whole Scooby gang watches Joyce get wheeled into the Queller-free bowels of the hospital for brain surgery.
Next: Into the Woods
A.M. Dellamonica has kaboodles of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales.