Hallowe’en’s over, Giles and Xander are feeling as though the Slayer doesn’t need them and Willow has discovered an endless black hole of heartbreak and despair as “The Initiative” begins. How fun! But all is not lost, because not only is Buffy done being obsessed with Parker, all praise to the Hellmouth and its belchings, but suddenly we find out that Riley has friends! Friends who have figured out that our boy from Iowa feels major love-interest type emotions for a certain special chosen one. In the spirit of bro-hood, they have decided to help him along with his raging case of denial on that subject.
Forest and Graham are on the scene, in other words. The former is an especially welcome sight, because he’s the Initiative… Initiator?… who brings the funny. And I suspect we can all agree that the funny is often S4’s big saving grace.
After Buffy destroys the campus yogurt dispenser and Riley tells the guys that really, he just kinda finds her peculiar, Spike awakens in a secret underground lair. You would think this would be a good thing from his point of view, but alas, it’s not his underground lair. It’s clean, for one thing and booze-deficient. It’s the government’s, for another. They’ve got white-walled cells, nifty electrical zap doors, ceiling-enabled blood deliveries and wicked science-y plans aplenty. His next door neighbor tells him the blood is drugged, and the humans do experiments on them.
Spike thinks this over and, except for incorrectly deducing that Buffy is the one behind his incarceration, comes up with the answer anyone would: this seriously bites.
Over in psych class, Willow is continuing her meltdown as she discovers that Oz has actually dropped out of school. Maggie Walsh doesn’t care—she’s got vampires to vivisect, after all, and homework to assign. Buffy calls her on being mean and Riley puts all this charming spunkiness down to her being one peculiar freshman.
And he may be right, because she’s also a freshman who has decided that dragging Willow to a party is a good idea. (As Willow’s done this to her at least once, it’s fair on paper. But, really, does this ever work on heartbroken introverted nerds?) Since she’s on cheer-up duty, Buffy assigns patrol to Xander and Giles. See, guys, you’re needed! It’s all cool! We see them prepping. We also see Xander has lost some of his two-years-ago soldier skills. Apparently if you don’t practice, you forget how to assemble an assault rifle.
Graham and Forest, being masters of manipulation, take on the incredibly tough task of getting Parker to say something insensitive about Buffy in Riley’s presence. Despite having recently apologized to the woman herself—because she saved his darned skin!—Parker gleefully obliges with an extremely crass remark. Riley punches him so hard he knocks loose an epiphany. Gosh! Could it be that… is it possible… could he maybe like her?
(Had this occurred today, one can only imagine the OMG Finally! #mybestbudissuchatool Tweets from Forest. Feel free to do better than this.)
In other words, I’m not feeling as though Riley is having one of those days where, were he the vamp in the clean underground lair, he’d be up to enacting a clever and successful escape plan. Fortunately for Spike, he’s got more going on above his shoulders than hair gel. He’s smarter than your average caged vampire, and the government security measures. He gets loose, and flees.
It’s saying something that even though she’s been steamrollered by love, the best scenes in “The Initiative” are all Willow. There’s the one where Riley comes to her for dating-Buffy advice, and she asks if they’re going to leave each other a “broken, hollow mockery of the human condition.” Doug Petrie’s dialog is incredible in this episode, and the scene manages to be sad and funny at the same time. Willow relents, gives Riley a few tips, denies being his accomplice, and then completely buys into the scheme. The woman just can’t help matchmaking.
Spike, having escaped from the clean underground lair, makes for the cobwebby, Harmony-infested one. She’s happy for about as long as it takes her to work out that he’s still obsessed with Buffy. Then she sends him packing, which is admirable. She didn’t survive high school, but she managed a bit of personal growth after death. Is that a good thing?
At the same time, partying is in progress. Riley has apparently gotten into his house’s impounded supply of So You Wanna Be A Caveman beer. He is nervous. He can’t dance. He says wacky barely-coherent things and entirely fails to make an impression on Buffy.
By now Xander and Harmony have had an epic, silly slap fight, and fought each other to a draw. Once again she retreats and proves to be of some bizarre worth to the Scoobies, inadvertently, by revealing that Spike’s looking for Buffy. Xander comes running with the newsflash, interrupting the party and possibly saving Riley from further embarassment.
This is convenient, because Spike’s escape means Riley has to bail on the party, too. And so we get the big reveal: Riley, Forest and Graham have the keys to the ominous white elevator of death! They are, in fact, brawny Initiative underlings to Mad Scientist Maggie’s coat-wearing, monster-making, misguided Boss Lady of Death. They’ve got a huge hide-out, and a very mighty and intrusive orchestral soundtrack.
As the next scenes unfold, the dialog continues to rock: Xander fits in a little jealousy about his friend’s new Teutonic boytoy, and the Initiatrio stumbles upon Buffy, hunting, and gets into an argument about using, as Riley puts it, “… the girl I have a crush on as bait?”
(And right there, we get the first glimmer of Buffy-resentment from Forest, when Riley pulls rank and says no to that plan.)
The soon to be lovebirds end up trying to divert each other from their chosen hunting spot on campus. Spike who has better things to do than hang out in the open waiting to get staked or tasered, looks up the Slayer’s room number in the campus address book and goes after Willow. Ouch! Try again. Ouch!
This leads to the second awesome Willow scene of the night, when she consoles Spike about his sudden inability to suck the blood of the living. (It’s awesome squared, really, because this is the second time Willow’s consoled Mister The Bloody after he’s assaulted and scared the crap out of her in a scene with sexual overtones. And a bed.)
After that, it’s all melee and wrap-up. The Initiatrio and assorted armed minions come after Spike. Buffy and a badly-deployed smoke grenade save his bacon. Everyone runs in opposite directions, and Mad Scientist Maggie is deeply unimpressed.
There is an upside though, at least from the government’s perspective: Spike can’t eat people anymore.
And, speaking of eating, it’s almost time for turkey.
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.