“Lessons,” by Joss Whedon
Istanbul! Eastern music, an exotic courtyard of... death! But whose death? A young girl, nobody we recognize, is fleeing from entities in dark robes, and nobody seems keen to help her. Though she fights hard for her life, she’s outnumbered, and soon enough she’s so very fatally stabbed.
Before we can ponder that further, we move on to Sunnydale, where Buffy is looking at a newly risen vampire, still slick from the tomb, and delivering a new riff on her awesome I do so have power! monologue (To the Watchers. From “Checkpoint.”) The text is for Dawn’s benefit—the kid is out on Slay training. And the moral is It’s about power, and monsters can haz it. Teenaged former dimensional gates turned shoplifters? Not so much. Dawn may have a stake, but he’s the super-muscled blood-sucking fiend.
Sadly, this particular demon is also stuck in the grave he’s trying to escape.
Buffy lifts him out, very helpfully, and tosses him at Dawn, who fights well until she misses his heart with her stake. It’s a light battle, with some good laughs, and this guy’s no more a keeper than the girl who just keeled in Istanbul. Buffy beheads him with a sword, then confides that she missed the heart too, the first time.
What this scene makes me realize is, first, that we’re going to get at least a little of the uplift promised at the end of “Grave.” Buffy’s in a much better space, and even the graveyard seems cheerier. What it makes me realize, second, is that since nobody seems inclined to just give Buffy money to save the world, her faux day job should be the thing she’s about to add to her volunteer roster: teaching women to fight.
With the vamp duly dusted, the sisters move on to worrying about an ominous unnamed something, which turns out to be the official reopening of the Sunnydale High School. Robin Wood is cutting the ribbon. Hi, Robin! Let’s all enjoy the new credit sequence together!
Next we go to Westbury, England, where I’m torn between joy at seeing Giles and awe (or, perhaps, Awwww!) because he’s riding a super-gorgeous horse. There’s no especial reason for him to be on horseback except that it’s such a dreamy shot, so after we’re well and truly reminded that Anthony Head is quite the looker too, he dismounts and heads off to find Willow. She’s been coaxing Paraguayan flowers from the English soil, demonstrating that everything on Earth is connected. They looked like passiflora to me, but Giles calls them Kua Alaya.
Botanical observations aside, I can’t help thinking it’s nice that we didn’t have to wonder for long about what happened to Willow.
What has happened? Well, she’s been taking peace, love and magical harmony lessons from Giles’s coven friends, learning the sacred arts of the Kumbaya. But she’s skipping class today because she’s tired of scaring her teachers by simply existing and having the power to unleash an Apocalypse. In a moment of “Argh, FML!” she says her power should be taken from her.
Giles reminds her they can’t, asserting that magic is not a hobby or an addiction, just a thing that’s inside her. (The “not an addiction” line comes off a bit clumsy, but it had to be said, didn’t it?) Willow’s power is big dangerous thing that she essentially has to caretake, now, until she dies. She expresses remorse over Warren’s murder and gratitude that Giles went all mentory on her rather than consigning her to death or a mystic jail. He is wise, kind, and fatherly in his response and doesn’t even point out that as long as he’s taking care of her, here, he gets to ride the coven horsies.
Also, probably, nobody’s knocked him unconscious since spring. It’s a cushy gig, as long as she continues to refrain from killing them all.
Having caught up with the two of them, we head back to Sunnydale, just in time for Dawn’s first day of high school. Xander has come bearing presents: the plans of the rebuilt campus. He has been stealthily checking the building for pentagrams and other evil booby-traps, which is so smart! He has also figured out that the Hellmouth is now under the principal’s office.
Buffy and Xander speculate about who would want a position whose two prior occupants were eaten. And Dawn gets a gift, which she fervently hopes is a weapon.
We don’t find out what this gift is right away, though we can reasonably assume it’s not Buffy’s other gift, “Death!” That said, Buffy is extremely nervous about leaving Dawn to the tender mercies of SHS. She is expounding about the place being evil to the last brick when Robin Wood shows up and is extravagantly handsome and charming. There’s an “am I old?” mix-up about whether Buffy is Dawn’s mom. (Because, you know, if she’s a mom she can’t possibly be cool.)
Robin has heard of her, which is unsettling. But is he evil?
As soon as she’s alone, Buffy takes a poke around the building and is briefly alarmed by the sound of a basketball. She follows the basketball player for awhile, then hits the loo and has an encounter with creepy bathroom monsters.
Dawn, meanwhile, is having a perfectly normal first day, and is even making her classmates laugh when Buffy bursts in. She’s freaking out about the bathroom monsters, as you do, and is there just long enough to mortally embarrass her sister. Way to go, Buffy!
Next we head across town, to a cafe where earnest singers of folk are attempting to entertain Halfrek and Anya. The performers’ obvious couple-y happiness leads our vengeance demons into a conversation whereby Hallie tells Anya she’s lost her edge. Her lack of vengeful spirit is potentially unpleasing to the lower beings, which is ill-timed because and bad things are coming. She probably doesn’t mean a wage freeze and a round of layoffs.
Anya demands to know why, if this is an intervention, her other demon friends aren’t around. Halfrek says she’s it. So what happened between Anya and all those demons who came to her wedding? We’ll never know.
At the high school, Buffy checks in with Xander and he asks a few delicate questions about the monsters. He’s suavely not quite asking if she saw the things specifically because she was at school. After all, they could have just sought her out because she’s the Slayer.
But it’s not that simple: as they’re checking in with each other, Dawn’s getting an imaginary pencil in the eye from a zombie. It’s a good scare, for her and us, but no harm is done, unless you count further damage to her social status. She heads off to the bathroom to recover, and finds a scared girl who also saw a dead guy.
Okeydoke then! So it’s not just Buffy they’re after, and it’s not Buffy and Dawn either. Broader threat to the student body, check!
Robin Wood, meanwhile, finds Buffy exploring the school and hints that she ought to push off. Is he evil? Next he tells her he knows more about her than he let on initially. Wicked or no, what a tease this guy is!
Dawn and her new bathroom friend, Kit, have barely gotten acquainted when zombies pull them down through the floor. This should take us to the basement, but first we flash over to England, where Willow is on the ground and Giles is helping her through some kind of attack. Willow says she saw the teeth of the Hellmouth. It’s opening. What a shocker.
Now we’re in the basement. Dawn and Kit find the basketball player, who came downstairs for a smoke and couldn’t get out. Monsters attack them all. But Dawn has her “weapon,” which is a Batsignal disguised as a cell phone.
She calls, obliging Buffy to rush off just as Robin is warming up to a real interrogation about her colorful history as a student. She leaps through the hole in the bathroom floor, and finds a trio of dead people who claim she failed to save them. They’re blocking a door.
Behind the door, to everyone’s surprise, is Spike. With yet another round of startling hair!
“Are you real?” she asks, which sets off a serious attack of the William giggles.
Spike is a mess. “It’s just the three of us down here,” he says, amid other babbling and word salad, but Buffy is too distracted by impending Dawn Doom to count heads. She finds cuts on his chest and asks what they are: he tells her he tried to cut “it” out. Does she know he means his soul? No.
It’s interesting that he went looking for his soul about where Riley’s chip was implanted, don’t you think?
Dawn phones again: “You bought me this thing so you could save me in a timely fashion, right?”
(Okay, she didn’t say that.)
Buffy expresses confusion about what they’re fighting, because ghosts can’t touch you and zombies can’t disappear. Spike, in a moment of helpfulness and clarity, says they’re spirits raised by a talisman. He then refuses to go with her or provide any more help. But it’s enough. Buffy remembers seeing a talisman in the bathroom.
Dawn takes charge of the other kids, building weapons and planning to fend off the baddies. Buffy calls Xander and sends him after the talisman, then rushes back to help. Fighting ensues.
And it’s Xander for the win! One of the ghost-things jumps him, but he snaps the talisman anyway.
With that, Buffy herds the kids upstairs, where the boy calls her the coolest mom ever and she worries again about whether she has mom hair. She tells them, in the nicest possible way, to stick together if they want to survive.
Robin Wood pops up then, like a Cheshire Cat. He has used his enormous deductive skills to figure out she’s gonna be hanging around anyway, and so he offers her a low-paying counselling gig. He doesn’t make air quotes when he says “counsellor,” which is very suave of him.
Downstairs, Spike is lamenting the fact that he had a speech prepared for Buffy’s appearance, and failed to deliver it. And there really was a third not-person in the basement. It’s Warren! Well, not really. Now he’s Glory. Next he’s Adam, and the Mayor, and Dru—she tells Spikey he’ll always be in the dark with her. His next companion is emphatically not Angel, although he’d be the logical next Big Bad in the sequence. Instead we see the Master.
It’s fun to see all of Buffy’s defeated enemies. This whole episode is quite fun—it moves quickly and while it’s no “The Zeppo,” it doesn’t gouge big bleeding chunks out of anyone’s fannish heart.
“We’re going back to the beginning,” the Mastery Mark Metcalf exults. “The next few months will be quite the ride, and we’re all going to learn something about ourselves in the process.” This is all still by way of taunting Spike, and he wraps up by telling him it’s not about right or wrong before he finally morphs into Buffy.
Who says, as she did at the beginning of the episode: “It’s about power.”
Next: Xander gets his date on!
A.M. Dellamonica has a book’s worth 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 of The Gales, “The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)