“Life Serial,” by David Fury and Jane Espenson
A chicken-bearing Buffy returns home after her meeting with Angel last week. (Though this is never shown on screen, the Internets tell me there’s an Espenson-written comic, Reunion, that covers this. Was it good? Am I sorry I missed it? You tell me.) WillTara, Dawn and Giles are just wrapping up a dinner that makes the bucket of chicken pointless, but because they love her they all eat some anyway.
After Buffy declines to tell them what happened with Angel, the gang wants to know what she’s going to do with her life besides mope over the bills and run off to see her ex. She makes a half-hearted flail in the direction of returning to school—how? with what money?—and Willow and Tara encourage her to audit their classes. She then asks Giles what he thinks.
What he thinks, mostly, is: Why are you asking me?
What the Trio thinks, meanwhile, is that it needs to find Buffy’s weaknesses if they’re going to defeat her. Since they’re agreed that they aren’t going to murder her—though Warren’s lying—I’m faintly interested in what they think they mean by “defeat.” Anyway, they’ve equipped themselves with an enviably uber-cool surveillance Supervan. Or, perhaps, uber-uncool? Andrew, you see, has painted the Death Star on the side. Once they all stop arguing about whether he’s got the specs right, Warren points out that this could get them spotted, recognized and Slayer-pummelled.
Andrew offers to paint over the Death Star. He doesn’t mean it, but Warren and Jonathan take him up on it anyway. This is something we should all remember: don’t volunteer if you don’t mean it.
Buffy could have taken this advice, for example. She doesn’t really want to go to school. She thought she was safe in suggesting it because it’s mid-term. But now she’s trying to be upbeat and perky about fitting back into WillTara’s world. Possibly because she has no better answer: what else is she going to do?
After a disastrous class where Mike the groovy professor and his sociology proteges all make her feel completely too slow to do university anymore, Buffy gets tagged by Warren, who plants a very tiny super gizmo on her. It makes time zoom past her. One second she’s flipping pages in an art history book, and the next Tara’s telling her she missed class. It’s confusing and scary, but she eventually finds the device.
The Trio panics, destroying the gizmo remotely. Then Jonathan and Andrew score Warren.
Next day they move on to the next test. Buffy has figured out that auditing classes isn’t for her, and is going to do construction work with Xander. She’s not fitting in with his peers all that well—she’s disturbingly strong, too efficient and way too female for their taste—so in a sense it may be a mercy when Andrew summons a bunch of monsters to attack the site. When Buffy saves the guys, trashing the work site in the process, they are too macho to admit it and thus she ends up getting fired.
The gang was already looking into Buffy’s weird loss of time, and now they add the monster attack into the research mix. The two don’t mesh well, and they can’t even decide if they’re related. At the same time, with school and construction work crossed off her to-try list, Buffy is reluctantly checking out Giles and Anya’s answer to life, by embarking on a career as a Magic Box Minion.
Even the Trio has noticed, by now, that our Slayer’s a bit unfocused.
That doesn’t stop Jonathan from taking up his magic bone and tossing Buffy into a service industry version of the film Groundhog Day. Warren and Andrew are delighted because this gives them a chance to talk about Star Trek: TNG and the X-Files episodes that also riffed on this idea of, as they call it, looping.
And the media references continue, because Buffy essentially has to satisfy a female customer who’s come in looking for the undead version of Thing from The Addams Family. And the mummy hand in question just plain doesn’t want to be bought.
Personally, I would score Jonathan well for this sequence, because unlike the first two tests, it’s darned funny. We get Buffy crying, Buffy throwing a customer a slug-flavored candle, Buffy fighting undead Thing with salad tongs, Buffy stomping Giles’s glasses, and even Buffy weeping in frustration.
In time she hits upon the idea of a special order and completes the appointed task, thereby breaking the spell. The Trio starts totting up their points. Anya, meanwhile, discovers that Buffy didn’t charge the woman for delivery. “We’ll just take it out of your pay,” she chirps. (She’s also kind of greedy.)
At this point, Buffy’s out of legitimate options. If she can’t live the lives of any of her Scoobies, she might as well give Spike’s existence a whirl. At least his comes with addictive substances and, as it turns out, kittens. (Plus also Clem the loose-skinned demon, in his first Buffyverse appearance. Hi, Clem!)
The Trio’s competition has them tied on points, and looking for some kind of sudden death round to give them a winner. At this point, they’ve all but forgotten the point of this is supposed to be tactical data-gathering. They’re looking to see if their surveillance equipment can pick up cable pornography, and arguing about which Bond was best. They’re barely paying attention to the poker and drinking going on with Spuffy mere meters away.
(Be interesting to see how that conversation about the Bonds might go now that we’ve had Daniel Craig, hmm?)
I think I’ve mentioned before that as the general tone of BtVS gets darker, it’s the Jane Espenson episodes I find myself liking best. Here’s one reason why: Buffy, inebriated, saying: “… the only person I can even stand to be with anymore is a neutered vampire who cheats at kitten poker!”
That’s the kind of line that just makes me cheer out loud. She’s not ignoring her problems—nobody’s forgotten that she’s deep in the Valley of Suck—but she’s making me laugh just the same.
Buffy frees the kittens and storms out, and despite her incredible drunkenness she recognizes the Trio’s van, which tootled John Williams music from Star Wars at her in an earlier scene. Because of her incredible drunkenness, she doesn’t capture or kill Jonathan when he jumps out of the van, disguised as a demon, and announces that he’s been testing her.
And so the Trio escapes.
Buffy then goes home and spends some undefined long period of time throwing up. I’m thinking that if you’ve been raised from the dead and feel like you’re in hell, this would make matters worse… while also being a little validating. Wouldn’t there be a “I told me so, this is Hell!” flavor with every heave?
Thankfully, we don’t have to watch that part.
After she has recovered a bit of her sobriety and can form coherent sentences, she debriefs with Giles, who can’t bear to watch her beat herself up over falling apart. He cuts her a big anxiety-relieving cheque. Anxiety-relieving for her, I mean: Buffy mushes all over him. What Giles hears: this is like having Mom back, thank you for always taking care of everything forever!
To say this worries him is an understatement.
As I recall, Giles’s decision to go back to England came about primarily because Anthony Stewart Head was tired of never seeing his family. Team Mutant Enemy was stuck with shrinking his role in the story, and it’s to their credit that they didn’t have another silly villains contest in the writer’s room (Giant attack clowns! Ferrets of unusual hungriness! Super-intelligent flying demon cabbages! Your suggestions welcome!) and send him off to the land of we loved you, but you’re dead now.
In a season whose theme is about growing up, it makes sense for the parent figures to all be absent. But, as some of you have already argued, what we’re building up to here—Giles leaving Buffy because she needs too much support—is a bit of a shaky proposition.
Good thing Halloween’s coming. All the demons will be indoors tinting their scales and painting their toenails with Ichor Black #17, and the gang can catch up on their sleep.
Next: Dawn’s in Danger?
A.M. Dellamonica has tons 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. (Watch for the second Gale, story too—“The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)