At first glance—at second glance, even—“Doomed” is largely about the BuffRiley relationship. The two start right there after the end of “Hush,” after all, picking up where they left off. It’s an exchange of truths: she’s a Slayer, he’s an Initiadude, and boy is Buffy bummed about having another beau with superpowers, not to mention super-responsibilities.
Her misgivings are only enhanced when there’s an earthquake and Riley’s response is all, “Yay, what a ride!”
The real meat of this episode, though, is less about romance and more about emotional security, optimism and faith. (Small “F” there, alas.)
Spike, for example, is having something of a crisis of the above. His accommodations have been downgraded from the classy Chez Giles couch to the basement of Casa Harris. I think we can agree it’s sad when you’re technically underground and yet a crypt would be more chic.
So he’s a hundred years old or so, he’s grown accustomed to thinking of himself as a badass, and now Spike’s being told to do housework for what may be the first time in his entire existence. “Earn your keep or you don’t get kept,” Xander tells him.
It’s starting to sink in that he’s harmless, helpless, and dependent on others.
At the same time, the top-secret nature of the Riley gig puts Buffy in this weird position where the thing her whole team is investigating is suddenly something she feels obliged to hide from them. She’s therefore denied the opportunity to go get a bracing reality check from Willow on the subject of Riley. Without some good BFF-ly advice, she’s freaking out about how she totally has to call the whole relationship off.
To make matters worse, Giles is in hot pursuit of clues about Mad Scientist Maggie and the location of her secret lair. He has maps and pins and valid theories! Buffy tries to distract him with end of days predictions about recent events: “The last time we had an earthquake, I died!”
But thinking about Buffy dead is way less fun than thinking about secret underground army science lairs, so Giles poo-poos this. It’s cute and a little funny, but deep down Buffy’s not really joking. She’s in full glass-half-empty mode. Riley has powers? Riley fights monsters? Only world-ending awfulness can come of this.
Down in the not as hidden as they might prefer secret Initiative base—henceforth, secretish—Riley discovers that Forest is better informed than he on some things Slayer. (Does he do more homework? If so, why isn’t he the designated class helper in Psychology? How come Forest isn’t the boss of the team?) Forest believes Slayers are the demon equivalent of the bogeyman...the thing they’re all scared of, the thing they use to threaten bad or perhaps good little monsters.
This is rather shaky logic, if you ask me. In a world where the mythical nasties are real, what are the chances the Slayer wouldn’t be? Who’s to say there isn’t a real Great Pumpkin or Tooth Fairy or Santa Clause in the Whedonverse?
Basically, though, there are a lot of theories floating around this episode, and everyone’s right but poor Forest. Buffy’s wild assertion about the earthquake being a harbinger of Apocalypse Number ... um... Whatever We’re On? Turns out true. Sure, she only brings it up to to divert Giles.
And how about Giles, with his maps of the Initiative base? Also right on the money! Plus he does it using geographic profiling. Which both shows that he’s awesome brainy! And that the Initiative really sort of isn’t. Get off campus a little more, guys!
As for Buffy believing a relationship with Riley will all end in tears...okay, her sleigh’s a bit before the eight tiny reindeer at this point, but we get there eventually too, don’t we?
Finally, there’s Spike. In his secret heart of unbeating hearts, he’s left to wonder if he’s become something even less impressive than William the Bloody Awful Poet. And he might just be.
Spike’s been in free-fall for a long time now. The failed attempts to kill Buffy, the weeks as Angelus’s wheelchair-using whipping boy and his betrayal of Drusilla were all enough to make him a significantly less credible threat than he was when he initially crashed through the Welcome to Sunnydale sign, bent on mayhem. The broken Spike of “Lover’s Walk” rallied a bit under the healing influence of quality violence. But then there was Harmony, the failure to hang onto the Gem of Amara, and now, finally, capture and chipping. He’s been victimized by science geeks. It’s not good.
Spike’s initial coping strategy is pretty much his go-to: be a jerk to someone. This backfires when Xander agrees with his unvoiced fears by saying, basically, “Yes indeed, Spike, this is exactly how pathetic you’ve become!” After a brief interlude where he flings himself at a stake and we all get a jolly yuck out of casual attempts to off yourself (this is one of those TV moments you can’t think about too much or it stops being funny, at least if you’re me) he finds Willow, ever his champion, inviting him on the latest save-the-world mission. What’s a Faux-pocalypse without a suicide watch?
Still hoping to catch a stake from one or the other of our beloved Scoobs, Spike concludes that misery loves company and kicks them both right in the insecurities. You guys are the same big losers you were in tenth grade, he tells them. Buffy’s just too nice to blow you off.
You kinda have to wish this didn’t work. His strategy’s pretty transparent. But Xander, being as he’s a no-college basement boy struggling to hold onto pizza jobs, has no reason to think things will ever go his way. And Willow has just had her belief in her own cool profoundly undermined. Earlier in the episode, she was having big social failure at a party. Then Percy the Lout—who should by rights display respect and eternal gratitude to her, forever—dissed her to some girl he was trying to impress.
I’m once again amazed by the things the writers of this season of Buffy at college chose for real-life (as opposed to monster-based) challenges for our heroes. This is another of those things that happens to almost everyone. We think we’ve grown past some old and unlovable pattern, some habit or situation that makes us think badly of ourselves. Then we hit a pocket where we’re convinced we’re right back there in the old badness. And it’s horrible! It’s terrifying for Spike, even though the old inept William is more than a century in his past. It’s terrifying for Willow to have to question whether she was only not a nerd when she was dating a musician.
It’s not hard to take anyone who wasn’t Prom Royalty at high school and convince them, at least for one painful moment, that they’ve made no progress at all—that they’re friendless, immature, eternally dorky and ill-dressed to boot. Spike knows this better than either Xander or Willow might guess. He’s feeling like he lost the thing that made him amazing. He decides to share the pain. Soon they’re all questioning whether they are the people they thought they were.
Buffy, by way of contrast, has a slightly different issue: she thinks a boyfriend who can keep up with her in a brawl with seeping death, vampires, tentacle monsters, The Watcher’s Council goons, Amy the rat, steroid enhanced fish-men or whatever is a fundamentally bad thing. She tells Riley that dating him would be a “huge black pit of a mistake.”
In so doing, she’s trying to avoid going back to a bad pattern of her own: the whole Angel/Angelus dynamic. Understandable enough. But what is she actually thinking? That a non-powered guy whom she’d lie to... forever? Would make for a better and more sustainable relationship?
Riley counters the pit of blackness gambit with an “I’m humming for you,” monologue, which is sweet and earnest and reasonably convincing. When that doesn’t work out, he tells her she’s being a pessimistic stupidhead. Which, you know. Maybe true.
It’s not that Buffy doesn’t believe in herself so much: she just thinks the whole world is geared to break her heart when it isn’t actively trying to kill her so very dead. The seasons to come, I would argue, bear this out. Things get sadder and sadder for our Slaygirl. At this point, it could be argued, her worldview is actually pretty upbeat.
As it always does in Sunnydale, all of this important soul-searching happens while demons who’d really like to be the ones to finally open the Hellmouth are digging up the bones of dead children (Ewww!) They’re also bashing in Giles’s head because he bought the key ingredient for their sacrifice at a garage sale. Is it too much to ask that Giles be given a vault, an electric fence, and one of those robo machine guns from the extended cut of Aliens?
Clearly we’ve reached the point in the story where the real demons—as opposed to the various characters’ inner ones—can’t be ignored any longer. And then, since a bunch of the show’s key peeps are asking themselves if they’re exactly who they were at fifteen, they all get to go back to high school, where the demons are making ready to fling themselves into the Hellmouth.
The school itself is a blackened shell of a metaphor. No, it’s not the same place. It’s a crumbling relic of its former horrible glory. Also, there’s Mayor meat on the floor. Again: Ewwww!
Combat ensues. Instead of diving into a huge black pit of a mistake, Buffy just plain leaps into the Hellmouth, head first, chasing the final demon sacrifice and Giles’s ugly necklace. Riley offers her a safety line and shows admirable follow-through by using it to haul her out. She concludes, from this, that he’s kissable after all.
Willow and Xander then find their happy through Riley too, when he totally blows his secret identity coming out of the high school with Buffy. A big display of complete social ineptitude, from a demonstrably athletic blond with muscles—well, somehow it just makes them feel better.
And Spike bounces back from his big crisis when he realizes he can fight demons. As long as he can punch something, his self-image as a dangerous guy, while tattered, remains intact enough to afford him that necessary morsel of self-respect. So “Doomed” ends with him exhorting Xander and Willow to come on out and fight evil with him.
Giles, perhaps fortunately, missed out on most of this angst. He just has to recover from yet another concussion. Maybe next week he’ll catch a break. Or.... maybe not!
Next: A Very Unwatcher Birthday
A.M. Dellamonica has two novelettes 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.