Despite the almost overwhelming odds against her survival, Buffy has turned nineteen. Has it really been a year since Giles took her powers offline and helped the Watcher’s Council try to kill her? It seems like only yesterday.
This year, instead of suffering unimaginable horrors at the hands of a loved one, she’s celebrating by smacking lips with Riley. Things are getting pretty steamy when Willow turns up with tales of fire-breathing monsters, interrupting the smutty fun in service of luring the Slayer out to a surprise party.
And, really, given that Angel turned to Angelus after having the birthday sex, this may be for the best. Buffy was sure to make the connection at an inappropriate moment.
The party of far more than two is a convivial gathering for everyone except Giles. Maybe he’s finally working off the karma for the events of “Helpless,” but there are all these new young people about, and none of them owes him a tardy library book or the faintest morsel of respect. Anya is up front, as always, about being bored by one of his stories. And when Buffy introduces him to Riley—oops, Giles didn’t even know she was dating!—Iowa promptly asks if he’s retired.
We’re not meant to miss that Giles is feeling old, old, so very old. Also unloved, ill-informed, and disconnected from his raison d’etre, fighting ancient paranormal evils in the tradition-steeped magical fashion of his forebears. (Or, sometimes, with axes and other medieval weaponry). Buffy tactfully sends Riley in search of cake and then piles on some insensitivity of her own, telling Giles that Mad Scientist Maggie is the smartest person she knows and, unlike him, probably has friends her own age. Ouch.
Speaking of venerable Englishmen, we learn next day that Spike is feeling well enough to get back into the wild. Now that he can beat up other demons, he sees no reason why he can’t leave Xander’s basement behind him. He’s looking for a nice crypt so he can set up on his own.
In the no-time between episodes, Riley has disabused Maggie of the notion that Slayers are mythical woodland creatures. He’s set up a meet between his two favorite women. “We can learn much from each other!” Maggie says. (This will turn out to be not very true at all.)
She goes on to brag about how Riley has killed eleven vampires and six demons. Against her will, Buffy is obliged to embarrass her beau in front of his boss by quoting some of her own kill stats. She makes up for it later, though, with some very gracious flirting.
As all this is happening, Giles realizes that some demon prince with the unfortunate name of Barvain is scheduled to rise and wreak some havoc, Hellmouth style. Heading out in search of Buffy, he instead finds Maggie. This is a little odd, but we’ll go with it. They have a little verbal duel, wherein she expresses her opinion that Buffy’s lacking a strong father figure and then scowls all over Giles having called her a girl rather than a woman.
Giles, not surprisingly, takes offence. He’s in an extra-special mood by the time Barvain stands them all up at the crypt. Willow and Xander then tell him the Initiative probably took care of our friend Barv.
(Did they? Nobody ever gets back to this. Did Adam end up with Barvain bones?)
Buffy’s been distracted, see. The prospect of getting to maybe have sex soon, regularly, with someone who isn’t soulless or a weasel, made her forget to tell Giles that Riley is one of the commandos, and that Professor Walsh is in charge of the whole demon-splicing operation under campus.
On the upside, Ethan’s hanging out in Barvain’s tomb.
(Why? Are they friends? Was he going to help with the raising?)
I shouldn’t care, I know, and Giles so doesn’t either. He’s so happy about the prospect of beating on his obvious slash interest that he lets himself be lured out for drinkies and intel.
Robin Sachs has so much delightful, wicked, sleaze-oozing charm as Ethan Rayne. You have to love a villain, however minor, who revels in his evil. It’s enough to make one wish he’d been in even more episodes. By way of delaying the inevitable collision of his teeth and Giles’ knuckles, he divulges some lukewarm intel: something’s harming Sunnydale’s unique wildlife specimens and it’s not their fate-appointed game warden.
Giles, naturally, is all “Blah blah bladeeblah, I know this, can I hit you now?”
Ethan counters with the mysterious mantra of demon fear: 314. They’re scared of a number! One that, but for a decimal point, could be pi! Eeek!
(Okay, and who told him this? Was it a psychic, like Dru? Or is Spike not the only Initiative escapee? Does Ethan have a fake login on a demon discussion forum?)
Alcohol is the rocket fuel that launches any decent pity party, and Giles isn’t sure the Initiative is truly a bad thing. He’s feeling washed up and ineffective, a relic of times gone by. “I’m an unemployed librarian with a tendency to get knocked on the head,” he whinges. He boozes it up with Ethan while BuffRiley explores new horizons of intimacy by whaling on each other—Riley loses—and WillTara tries floating a rose so they can rip off its precious little petals—the rose comes off pretty badly too. Which date has the sexiest sexual overtones? You tell me.
Morning comes. Giles has one demon of a hangover. I’d been waiting for this transformation since the episode started and this latest time around, it seems like we waited forever to see Tony Head break out in monsterflesh. But now, yay, it’s happened! He’s superstrong, super-hideous and smashing up his apartment. He flees to Xander, hoping for help, and not realizing he’s no longer speaking American.
So, naturally, Xander freaks out.
The Scoobies go racing to Casa Giles in search of desperately needed facts that will help them fight the evil. Instead they find signs of a struggle and a mashed telephone. Anya says what they’re all thinking: “I think it ate him up.”
Why don’t Willow and Xander suspect Barvain? I mean, the last they heard, everything’s all “Here comes Barvain, woe unto us all!” And then Giles, whom they left in a crypt to do what? Fight Barvain if he showed, right? Is missing. I’d draw that conclusion.
Okay, yes, Xander saw the demon, but he’s a soldier type. They go as far as theorizing that someone summoned or hired him.
Luckily—sort of—for Giles, Spike happens to speak Fiorl. He agrees to help track down Ethan for two hundred bucks. It’s a race: Team U.S.A., as represented by the Initiative, is helping Buffy track down clues at the magic shop (Hi, the Magic Shop! Looking forward to seeing more of you!) The British, meanwhile, are doing the gumshoe thing, checking with a waitress Ethan hit on the night before.
As FiorlGiles and Spike putter toward Ethan’s hotel in Giles’s sometimes-running and about-to-be-mashed car, Giles is battling his inner Fiorl, struggling against a mindless need to destroy. His rigid self-discipline works pretty well right up until the moment when he decides to chase Mad Scientist Maggie out of a coffee shop.
Go Giles! We all laughed. Who wouldn’t watch that scene repeatedly? Did anyone out there like Maggie?
The chase morphs into a brawl at the Sunnydale Motor Inn, where Ethan’s plotting his escape—but not fast enough to actually get away. Punches are thrown, furniture smashed, and Buffy stabs FiorlGiles with an allegedly silver letter opener before realizing—from the look of “Oh, this is bloody perfect, isn’t it?” in his exasperated eyes—that it’s him.
Take that, Maggie! The woman knows a father figure when she stabs one.
Ethan is made to restore Giles, cough up an allegedly unattractive shirt for him—I thought he looked quite spiffy, myself—and go with the Initiators. Riley makes a big point to Buffy that he’s all into alpha women and does not feel threatened by her immense strength and tendency to kill twenty times as many demons as he before breakfast. This is very terrific of him, and also pretty much necessary if they’re going to be in a relationship. It’s not Riley the Hostile Capturer, after all.
Buffy then takes her immense strength (of character, in this case) over to Casa Giles and apologizes most fervently to Giles for having kept him out of the loop. He takes the opportunity, while he’s got her attention, to offer some sage dad-figure counsel about the Initiative.
Speaking of whom, Maggie’s getting essentially the same warning, about Buffy, from a minion. She gives him the yes, yes, yawnorama, treatment before heading off into room 314 (OMG!) to work some more on her monster scrapbooking project.
“A New Man” is full of fun, laughs and lots of romp, plus perhaps some plot holes, but it carries a decent amount of infrastructure for the season four BtVS story arc. All of Team Buffy knows about the Initiative, by its end. And the government types have been told about Buffy, too. We see how all-encompassing their federally-funded reach is: Riley has keys to all the businesses in Sunnydale, for example, and the Initiative monitors local 911 calls. Old-timey magic and the warrior chosen by fate are suddenly contrasted with the few, the proud, the covered in camo. Should Slayage be modernized? This is the question posed by the Initiative. It’s a good one.
The tensions pushing the Scoobies in opposite directions land squarely on Giles in this episode, and they’re so believable: his role in the kids’ lives is strange and tenuous, not to mention hard to explain to outsiders. He’s been pushed to the periphery of their existence in some very real ways; it’s an awkward situation, and nobody’s at fault, but there’s no easy answer either.
Finally, we are also treated to a few careful reminders that Spike is chipped, not converted. He tells Xander he’s evil as he’s stealing a radio from the basement, and he sets that cash price on aiding Giles. Defanged he may be, but he’s nothing like a hero yet.
Next: Did anyone else think Maggie would last a little longer?
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.