“Doublemeat Palace,” by Jane Espenson
Last week, Buffy and Willow were the only members of the gang present at the showdown against the Trio, so “Doublemeat Palace” opens with XandAnya getting their very own “previously-on” catch-up. Since their semi-visible throwdown in the local arcade, Willow tells them, Buffy has raided the Trio lair. The search yielded spell books, some pictures of Jolene Blalock, and assorted nerd toys.
The three would-be evil amigos had fled, which proves they aren’t completely entirely without a sense of self-preservation.
Anya begins to make a point about their villainous lack of work ethic, only to be interrupted by Buffy in her technicolor and somewhat frightening Doublemeat Palace uniform.
Yes, it’s come to this—Buffy has a McJob.
Soon she is watching a training video about how she, a cow, a chicken are all about to become part of the Doublemeat experience. She meets Manny, the humorless manager of her new place of employment, and he introduces her to two tuned-out fellow wage slaves. She—and we—find out that there’s a lot of turnover: people leave without cleaning out their lockers, and there are a whole bunch of timecards in a bucket marked “Gone.”
(This caused me to stop and doublecheck that I wasn’t in fact watching “Gone” again.)
In the restaurant kitchen, Buffy continues to be struck by the zombielike mien of her peers. Then she’s obliged by Manny to eat a Doublemeat Medley.
(This caused me to stop and wonder how many of you enjoyed season one of Hannibal.)
Buffy asks Manny what the Doublemeat Medley secret ingredient is and is told: “It’s a meat process.”
Well. Yummers, am I right?
After the force feeding, work continues. A chirpy boy cashier named Gary shows her the ropes, demonstrating the nuances of bringing an old lady and a cherry pie together in a joy-inducing consumer transaction. While Gary’s got his back turned, the lady mentions that she’s in for her pie every single day and lots of the employees just vanish. Buffy looks like she might be in for the long haul, adds the old lady. This is not a statement calculated to make anyone happy. Buffy musters a weak grin.
Usually in a five minute stretch of BtVS, we bounce from the Magic Box to the Summers house to Spike’s crypt. There’s a villain scene, maybe a fight or two, a shot of the Hellmouth burbling, Angelus with long hair in his pre-Liam days, Dawn moping, a quick peek in at the Bronze... and then, eventually, we make our way back to Buffy. In this story, nothing supernatural happens and we don’t go anywhere else for a really long time. There is no escaping Buffy’s new job, not for us and not for her. You kinda do feel like you’re on shift in a hellish fast food factory. In fact, when it’s finally time to get the Scoobies back into the story, they come to her—to order lunch and be supportive.
Buffy tells the gang something unsettling is up. But Xander has worked at exactly this kind of crappy job, and he tells her that comatose coworkers and high staff attrition are all part of the racket. This would be a reasonable thing to say if Buffy wasn’t a Slayer and Xander wasn’t a battle-hardened veteran of her Scooby unit.
How many times do we have to go through this, people? She’s not being paranoid. Remember Ted? Remember that kooky college roommate?
Even Spike comes to visit. Unlike her friends, he argues that she has to get out of the McJob before it McKills her. He even offers to get her McMoney. By “get” he means steal, but it’s still, arguably, kinda sweet.
My heart breaks for her a little when she pleads with him, asking him not to make it even harder.
They also talk about the Initiative chip’s refusal to punish him for hitting her. Buffy insists it’s not because she’s a demon.
Next morning, it turns out that Gary the friendly cashier has met a typically horrific Sunnydale end. Manny the manager promotes Buffy to chef duty. The grill and its operator are gut-wrenchingly gross.
At long last, if only for a moment, we get to leave it all behind. Instead we go to Chez Xander, where Halfrek the Vengeance Demon is bringing the fun in. Hallie is a friend of Anya’s—a work friend, of course, because that’s the thing this week—and she has grave doubts about the whole Xander element of the XandAnya marriage scheme.
And at the Summers house, Amy shows up looking for her rat cage. This is pretty much the same gambit Spike used recently when he turned up claiming to need his lost lighter. It’s less sexy, though. Amy asks Willow about having quit magic, and basically tries to tempt her back into the spellcasting fold. She makes snarky comments about her long incarceration in rat form. When temptation, guilt and bullying fail, she zaps Willow full of illicit magical power.
Back at the Doublemeat doubleshift, Buffy is so bummed out by her job that she has a sad, soulless and not at all sexy hook-up with Spike out back by the office’s inspirational teamwork sign. A little while later, she finds a human finger under the meat grinder.
In a sense, her day is looking up. She gives Manny the manager the finger. He seems pretty horrified. But Buffy is freaking out now. She runs into the restaurant and tries to get everyone to stop eating the alleged food products. Her thinking, logically enough, is that the Palace’s so-called meat process involves heaping portions of 100% USDA approved minimum wage proletariat. When the staff tries to stop her, Buffy’s super-strength comes out to play. She wreaks enough mayhem that Manny ends up firing her.
Elsewhere, Anya is telling Hallie that Xander is kind and brave and loves her despite her deficiencies. Hallie points out—not incorrectly—that Xander shouldn’t necessarily be making all of Anya’s wacky ex-demon quirks seem like faults. This vengeance demon is a world-class stirrer, making straight for the worst thing about Xander’s treatment of his beloved—at least to date—and shining a big old spotlight on it.
She does it to be mean, in a way. If Xander didn’t have this particular unlovable habit, Hallie would surely have found another. But it’s not a bad thing for Anya to have to consider, either.
While that particular trouble is brewing, Buffy calls a Scooby meeting to discuss the finger. Xander and Dawn are the only ones who show. By the time she gets around to saying she thinks the burger might be made of soylent green, Xander has eaten the thing. He’s nauseated and freaked out through the rest of the scene.
Willow shows up next. She’s trying desperately to hide the fact that she’s brim-full of magic. But Buffy doesn’t notice. She’s imagining peopleburgers being eaten all across California, and with that charming image indelibly stamped on her imagination, she heads back to her now-former workplace for some after-hours snooping. She’s looking for clues about the burgers’ secret ingredient. Instead, she finds Manny’s leg.
Even as Willow is shakily making her way through a magic-free chemical analysis of the remaining traces of the burger, Dawn is struck by an epiphany: Doublemeat Palace may be the best day job Buffy can ever hope for. Ow.
Xander suggests that maybe she can support her big sister by getting a high-powered high-paying flashy career. But why should Dawn do what the Watchers won’t?
Anya is last to arrive at the meeting. She’s feeling stroppy even before Xander asks about Hallie’s demonic face and offends her. It’s probably a good thing that he is so distracted by the fact that he may have recently eaten human flesh that he’s not exactly spoiling for a fight.
But, in fact, he hasn’t done any such thing. Willow finds no meat at all in the Medley.
Buffy’s search of the palace has, by now, turned up a wig. Then she finds the old lady, the regular, who ordered cherry pie from Gary. Wig lady has a demon in her head and the ability to paralyze her intended prey. This makes the battle between them more of a fight than it would otherwise be, when she incapacitates Buffy and chases her through the kitchen.
Fortunately, Willow shows up to report on the chemical analysis—the whole there’s no meat in the Doublemeat issue. She also confesses about Amy’s having zapped her, through the drive through P.A. She is so wrapped up in her own problems that she barely realizes what’s going on inside the restaurant in time to get inside.
But when she does, she saves Buffy! She’s actually kind of awesome. She beheads the old lady—and not using magic. The two girls finish off the snake-like monster and toss it in the grinder.
It’s yucky; I think we can all agree.
And so, for two weeks in a row now, the final battle has come down to Bummed Buffy and Abstinence Willow versus the bad guys. There’s a bit of a fissure developing here—Xander and Anya are, oddly, kind of stuck in the Giles role, waiting at home to hear what’s gone down. Is it just because they’re so wrapped up in wedding plans? Is the Dawn-sitting falling to them? I’m not sure.
Amy shows up at Chez Summers next day, expecting Willow to be all ready to go back to being mystic playmates. Willow sends her packing with one of her most menacing (and most justified) threats. “If you’re my friend, you’d better stay away from me. And if you aren’t, you’d better stay away from me.”
I got chills.
While that’s happening, Buffy goes back to the Palace to return her uniform. Since she’s there anyway, she asks the new manager about the secret ingredient, which is... not meat! In the ensuing conversation, she asks for her job back. It’s a horrible job, but Dawn is right—it’s the best she can do, at least for now.
Next: Katrina’s back! Who? Never mind. The key thing is: don’t get attached to her.
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”!)