The board is set, and all the big and bit players in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer S4 story arc are moving into position for the annual throw-down. Acting Chief Initiator Colonel MacNamara, for example, is video-conferencing a report to his handlers, complaining about the state of things at the secret underground office. Riley thinks too much and is large with the anarchy and AWOL, the Colonel grouses. Adam, too, is still on the loose. All the lesser soldiers are, quite simply, in a bad mood. Still, their cells are so fulla monsters that the team vivisectors are spoiled for choice. That’s something, right?
Spike is also getting some scary bossman facetime, which means trying to convince Adam that Buffy is a threat to his plans. Adam, perversely, wants a threat. Just, you know, not too much of one.
Spike plays his big take me serious card. “I killed two slayers, you know!”
But what have you accomplished lately, Spike?
Adam promises to make him whole again if he can handicap Buffy, and when this gets Spike to kvetching about the wild card that is the Scooby gang, a plan is born: take the friends away from her.
This suggestion makes Spike all perky. It’s like he’s figured out the perfect holiday gift for his dear dead mumsy, and now he can’t wait to get to Evil R Us to pick out a color.
Buffy, meanwhile, is just getting home from another crossover visit to L.A. and Angel, one I remember not at all. It went badly, we see; she’s not a happy camper. And the home she comes back to is empty, because Willow’s sleeping over at Tara’s place. This is sad, but what’s sadder is that unbeknownst to Buffy, Xander has been tapped for the the daily food and laundry run to Riley’s hidey-hole. Since all the men in this part of the episode have a major case of the complainies, and Xander loves nothing more than to crab about Angel anyway, it’s no surprise when he manages to find something upsetting to disclose to Riley. It’s possible he’d have kept looking until he did find something, but there’s no need because—big shocker!—Riley didn’t know about the “sex with Buffy” part of the whole soul-losing equation.
Dating a superhero is low on fun, Riley. Maybe it’s finally sinking in?
Over at Casa Watcher, Giles is singing a happy song, and we can sing along. Freebird! Then Spike drops by, nukes himself a little blood, and reveals that he has some delicious steaming Initiative information for sale. This is really just an opportunity to get started on his favorite part of the Evil plan by undermining Giles’s already-shaky sense of authority and relevance to the team. Over the course of the next few scenes, William the Snidey continues to engage in this world-class bout of stirring, implying to Willow that the team is all judgey about her shiny new lesbian relationship, then telling Xander he’s so useless the others figure he might as well join the army.
But first, back to WillTara, because they have a cat! And I am all about the cat. It’s all honeymoonish over in Lesbianland: they have that happy new-parent glow of admiring every single breath inhaled by Miss Kitty Fantastico. They’re also talking about cohabitation plans for next year. Along the way, Willow realizes she and Buffy don’t see much of each other at the dorm. Or in class. Or socially.
After doing exactly nothing to allay Riley’s anxieties about her visit to the ex, Buffy goes off on patrol, where she runs into Forrest, a cave, and finally Adam. Hi, Adam! Bye, Forrest! Bummer about the fatal puncture wound, eh? Buffy has always had an uncanny ability to know when to run for her life and she does it now. She ends up getting klonked on the head, hard enough to knock her out—which is some hard—but Adam doesn’t track her down and finish her off.
He also doesn’t drag her down to the Initiative so she can fight demons, without her friends, at a time to be determined later. This isn’t a plot hole. No, not at all. It is because Adam is a leader. He’s given Spike the chance to prove himself and he wants to see him succeed. Yeah, that’s it.
Riley has by now realized that some of his former InitiaBros are in trouble and gone looking to see if he can help. Instead he finds Angel. Hurrah? Manly fisticuffs ensue. Angel gets tasered and goes all game facey, but eventually Riley loses the fight. They both run off to Buffy’s dorm to tell on each other, which is where Buffy finds them when she staggers home with her bleeding forehead.
Ah, boyfriend troubles! Buffy and Angel sort out their differences like vaguely mature adults and he leaves. Then she and Riley process some irrational jealousy. He admits he’s too in love with her to think straight.
Buffy ripostes with “Guess what, honey? Forrest is dead.”
Adam, cannily enough, chooses that exact moment to activate a surprise behavior chip in Riley’s chest, luring him away. Buffy mistakes this for grief and lets him go... bopping off to the emotional minefield Spike has been planting for her. Boom, boom, boom. Giles goes off, Willow goes off, Xander goes off. The core four start tearing at each other. Tara and Anya retreat, sensibly, to the bathroom.
What I like about this argument, as a piece of scriptwriting, is that it has a slightly forced feel to it. It’s not quite one of those horrible family throw-downs the gang has had in the past. Because the trigger comes from outside, rather than within, the hurt and resentments spewing forth are ever so slightly less heart-felt. Giles is drunk, breaking with his usual pattern of supporting Buffy while the others are present and then kicking out her knees when they’re alone. Xander and Willow are hurt, and everyone has a legitimate reason for being upset. It’s all real—nobody’s faking or lying—but at the same time you can feel that Buffy, at least, senses something’s off.
This isn’t one of those “You guys don’t understand my pain,” fights, is what I’m saying. She’s not at her most vulnerable, and therefore keeps trying to pull the group back on task, at least until they succeed in pissing her off.
Spike has tried to hack the gang’s family dynamic and he’s done a not-bad job, but I’d say he didn’t quite strike to the heart of them.
Maybe this is because, for once, this isn’t a case whereby the other three are piling on the Slayer for Angel-related behavior like hiding the fact that he’s not dead or going off to L.A. to mourn for months on end without calling. It’s not three on one so much, this time, as it is a random slapfest.
It’s also reasonable for Buffy to expect that the looming crisis will get her friends to set aside the animosity: in “Dead Man’s Party,” for example, the zombie attack effectively put paid to all the yelling. But as “The Yoko Factor” ends, it seems that Spike has achieved his goal: the group fragments, and Buffy goes in search of poor chipnapped Riley.
Which brings us to “Primeval.”
Adam is in full Bond-villain gloat mode as we begin, telling Riley about how he’s going to take that chip in his heart and attach tentacles and horns and pieces of the Bionic man until our Iowa is super-powerful and probably dead and full of patriotic happiness about that state of affairs. Adam still wants Buffy down in the Initiative so that he can start a semi-balanced free-for-all between the soldiers and the trapped demons. This will give him his pick of the Frankenparts for his robomonster army.
Spike shows up and tries to join in this game of count your chickens, claiming he’s done his bit to break up the Beatles and demanding that his own chip get removed. But he’s screwed up: without Willow to decode the fake clue they left her, Buffy won’t come on down to the Initiative and start kicking monster butt.
(Quoi? I would argue that the presence of Riley in the military subbasement would be plenty to ensure her attendance at the party, on any terms Adam chose.)
Willow has by now let her overdeveloped sense of responsibility drag her back to the fight against evil. She drops by to retrieve her laptop from a deeply hungover Giles. There’s that awkward moment where they don’t make up. Then she heads off to do the decrypting. In the house with the kitten. That is not a recipe for successful focusing. Just knowing they have a kitten makes me want to go looking for one.
Buffy has failed to find Riley. She thinks he’s off mourning Forrest, possibly in L.A., possibly in a cute waitress uniform, and she’s moping on the dorm floor against her bed, separated from her friends just as Spike predicted. (Interesting that Buffy picks the floor while Willow climbs right in under the covers, mmm?) She has a look at a picture of her, Xander and Willow and picks up the phone. Then she puts it down.
Maybe that sense of wrongness is still niggling, but she doesn’t have anything to connect it to. Spike didn’t try it on her, after all. So instead, she loads up an axe and heads back to the Forrest death cave.
Xander’s not happy either, and unlike Willow he can’t take it out on a decryptable CD. Anya comes to help him jobhunt and finds him wondering if he really is a directionless, kittenless loser with no plans for the future.
She says: “Who cares, you’re a good person, I love you.” This is lovely, but fails to cheer him up.
Back at the cave, Buffy’s search for Adam turns up, surprise of surprises, Spike. He’s shown up specifically to remind her that Willow! Has important info! So she should go get it! But really, there’s nothing going on! The real clue, as far as Buffy’s concerned, is WTF is Spike doing in the Adam cave?
Speaking of Adam, guess who’s still selling Riley on his DIY master race scheme, letting him get a look at undead Mad Scientist Maggie and her sidekick, undead Doctor Angleman? Riley plays it cool, acting unimpressed. But they’re just the preview, because then he gets to meet undead Forrest! Who has awesome grotesque make-up, a badder attitude and tons of Team Adam spirit.
Buffy still doesn’t know that Riley’s been grabbed. She sets up a meet for the gang, on neutral campus ground. This is staged like one of the many scenes from Leverage where that adorable bunch meets to agree that they are either are breaking up or getting back together, depending on which part of the season you’re in. It takes the Scoobies ninety seconds to work out that Spike set them on each other. They conclude that they’ve made up, though they haven’t really, and knuckle back down to defeating Adam.
Poor Riley. He’s trying to get through to Professor Walsh and instead gets a shot, along with Forrest’s, “Yay, I am dead and loving it, and also I want to kill your girlfriend!” speech.
Working together, the core four come up with a plan to fuse themselves into one powerful Adam-fighting entity. Giles brings the Sumerian language skillz, Willow the witchy power, Xander the heart, and Buffy is the fist of them all. They rappel into the Initiative and on the way down, on the ropes, Buffy and Willow have a real conversation about their alienation from each other, about Spike and the troublemaking and how they’ve drifted.
Then it’s hugs all ’round, genuine reconciliation and everything’s great for about a second before Initiasoldiers try to arrest them. Buffy attempts to talk sense into MacNamara, which fails spectacularly right up until the moment when the monster containment cells also fail spectacularly.
(Anyone else think the mass demon escape is like a sort of less CGI-intensive version of the same event in Cabin in the Woods?)
Finally, after midterms and finals and “Hush” and Faith’s return and McJobs and Oz’s meltdown and an impressive number of frat parties—most of them equipped with horrible death as well as beer kegs—the group goes boldly into battle. Spike is forced to flee decapitation when Adam sees that Buffy still has her friends and reaches the obvious conclusion: never delegate the important stuff. The team hunkers down just shy of Adam’s location so that Willow, Giles and Xander can call upon the spirit of the first slayer (all the slayers, really) and work the enjoining spell. Buffy goes in, realizes Adam has Riley, and is obliged to fight Undead Forrest.
Then Riley gets back into the game after scenes of paralysis by grabbing up a piece of broken glass and ripping the behaviour chip out of his heart. We are as impressed by his commitment and overall spunk as we were meant to be. Right? He tags Buffy and takes on Forrest (for the win!) so that she can move on to fighting Adam.
When the enjoining spell takes hold, I must say, it’s pretty cool. Buffy gets weird contact lenses and transformation powers. She turns bullets into doves and it’s all a little Matrix-y as she rips out Adam’s uranium power pack and a charming bonus hunk of spine.
Spike then saves the spell-shocked Scoobies from a rampaging demon, just to get on their don’t-stake-me side again. For denouement, the grey-haired bureaucratic bosses of MacNamara (who also call themselves a council, interestingly) admit the demons cannot be harnessed or controlled, so their experiment’s failed. Luckily they have a Groupon for a billion tons of cement.
And that’s very nearly it for S4. I say nearly, because unlike the other BtVS seasons, this one comes with a tasty if surreal epilogue. We’ll give that a whirl next week.
Next: Say Cheese!
A.M. Dellamonica has so much 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.