“Beneath You,” by Douglas Petrie
This episode opens with noisy club music in Frankfurt and a pink-haired Potential (who we don’t know is a Potential, yet) on the run for her life. It doesn’t work out any better for her than it did for the young woman last week. This time, though, Buffy sees it all unfold, in one of her prophetic dreams.
“From beneath you, it devours,” the dead dream-girl tells her, before she wakes up screaming.
Dawn is on hand, being comforting. Buffy tells her there are other girls dying out there. The awareness is something of an escalation of her prophecy powers, but it makes sense, what with the girls being connected to Slayerness.
Speaking of the whole concept of beneath, something is doing a subterranean Tremors homage through the highways and birdbaths of Sunnydale.
Now that we’ve been properly teased with both some arc story and the monster of the week, we have a little tour belowstairs in the school, where Spike is raving, raving some more, and chasing rats. The basic theme of his ramble is that it’s not time yet—naturally, he doesn’t say time for what—but then an earthquake-type rumble sets him to screaming.
Gibbering William, I must say, is just about my least favorite version of Spike. He’s too soft-voiced and mumbly, for one thing. And somehow raving Drusilla worked far better for me. Plus she had those creepy dolls.
But speaking of the new improved Sunnydale High School (now fully equipped with Bidet of Evil! for all senior administrators!), Buffy and Dawn are headed there in the Xandermobile, talking about Buffy’s new and somewhat ill-defined job on campus. Xander is very sweet and says he appreciated having a Slayer and friend to keep him alive while he was in school.
This turns into his expressing nostalgia for the good old days when he was dating, and they hash over the failure of his wedding.
Aside from his understandable sadness about being single again, Xander’s life seems, in every other way, to be on track. He’s supervising a couple construction crews, meeting with the occasional client, and car ownership seems to have become a permanent feature of his existence. In the absence of Giles and to the extent that they need one, he even seems to be serving as ad hoc patriarch to the Buffy family.
Oh, I’m sure he misses Willow and Giles and being part of a couple, but he looks comfortable. Almost contented.
Everyone’s day gets underway. Buffy gets shown her cubicle and gets a pep talk from Robin Wood. He offers wisdom on the value of listening and she asks why he gave her the job. He doesn’t really answer her, and as soon as he moves on to his own duties, she hits the basement.
No luck, though. It’s a lot of rat encounters, a slammed door, and no Spike sightings.
Back in Westbury, Willow is moping about having to go back to Sunnydale. She has a long list of things she’s afraid of, the Hellmouth and reverting to veiny evil Willow being two of them. Really she’s just worried that her friends won’t want her back. Giles is supportive and reassuring, and packs her off, qualms despite.
Things have been moving rather slowly up to this point, haven’t they? Too much angst, not enough action! It must be time for the underground rumbler to make another appearance. From beneath us it devours a terrier—hurrah!—and goes after its owner. She freaks out and runs straight into Xander’s arms. Also hurrah? He seems to think so.
The woman’s name is Nancy, and Xander takes her to Chez Summers. He doesn’t entirely succeed at being suave, but she’s pretty rattled so he gets a pass. The tiny remnants of the Scooby gang are discussing the dog-eating tunnel grubber when Spike shows up. He’s cleaned up and articulate, and reveals that Buffy saw him at school.
This gives Dawn a chance to be angry, not least because Buffy has gone back to her secret-keeping ways. Also, it’s the first time anyone’s seen Spike since the rape attempt, so that’s awkward. As soon as the gang has their backs turned, Dawn makes a point of telling him that if he pulls it again, or anything else, she’ll set him on fire while he sleeps. This is, pretty much, the only thing she gets to do this episode.
Articulate Spike tells Buffy he thinks some trouble’s a-brewing. He offers to help, but says it’s up to her. She agrees to take him out on a worm hunt while Xander drives Nancy home.
Processing relationship stuff while on patrol is a big thing for these two. (For everyone in the series, I know, but Spuffy make a real art of it. Mostly because if they’re not working, they’re engaged in adult sports.) Spike claims the source of his earlier raving insanity was last week’s ghosts in the school. Buffy’s freaked out by memories of the rape attempt, and tells him this is not the path to the two of them getting back together.
As for why he’s helping her? “I can be useful,” he says, “Because honestly I’ve got nothing better to do.”
I’m fighting for good because I’m bored. Buffy’s too smart to buy that for long.
By now, Xander and Nancy are flirting in the time-honored dysfunctional fashion of people still getting over horrible break-ups. She’s faintly like Anya, physically, I notice—the structure of their faces is similar. They’re saying goodnight when there’s a rumbling and the worm-thing, which is ginormous and has big teeth, comes after them.
“Ronnie would love this,” Nancy says, and this leads into her telling Xander about her abusive ex, and how she foolishly wished he’d stop pursuing her.
“Wish?” All Xander’s alarm bells go off.
Okay, what she actually wished was that he’d turn into a worm, I’m thinking, because he obviously hasn’t stopped pursuing her.
Soon Xander, Buffy, Nancy are headed for the Bronze, where Anya is fishing for another destructo-wish from a lovely young woman in a red dress.
Did Anya turn Ronnie into a worm? You betcha! Is she sorry? Not until she hears about the dead terrier. Nancy actually didn’t specify what kind of worm Ronnie should be, and so Anya went with the close relative Sluggoth demon. If you ever want your garden aerated, go Sluggoth. And give up using Red Wigglers (the Cadillac of worms!) as fishing bait. Imagine what you’d catch if you used one of these babies.
Nancy, formerly of Ron and Nancy, is barely catching this stuff about the Sluggoth. What she’s really marvelling about is all the failed couplings at the table: XandAnya, Spanya and Spuffy.
Anya then notices that Spike is crawling with soulfulness. She’s intrigued and apparently delighted on his behalf, and about to blab—when he punches her in the mouth. This does keep his secret. Obviously, he’s very dedicated to nobody learning the truth for at least another fifteen minutes.
For once, there’s a Scooby brawl at the Bronze and they aren’t saving anyone from anything. Anya flings Spike across the room, convincing Buffy that if anyone’s going to hit Spike, it ought to be her. She thumps him. He, meanwhile, makes a good pretence of being his old soulless bastard self. There’s a bit of a whiff of multiple personality disorder here: we’ve seen gibbering William, and now we’ve got a pre-Chip Spike villain persona on the go.
In the midst of it, Nancy gets disgusted—who wouldn’t?—and runs off.
This triggers a chase: the worm comes after her, Buffy goes after the demon, and Spike goes after Buffy. Xander, meanwhile, stays behind to try to talk Anya into reversing the spell. She’s not overly keen. Halfrek’s intervention convinced her that she needs to up her vengeance game. She blames Xander for her switch back to Team Evil and he tells her she’s verging into excuse-making.
Outside the Bronze, Nancy almost becomes worm-food until Buffy swings in with a big rescue, Tarzan style. Then Spike comes rushing in with a steel bar, still being macho, to fight the monster. He’s really insistent about it, which is nice for Buffy, because when the Sluggoth turns back into a Ronnie-shaped naked human being, said steel bar goes through his right lung.
Ronnie is, I figure, kind of ahead here. Sure, he’s been punctured, perhaps fatally, but if he’d remained a Sluggoth, Buffy would surely have done him in. (Anya, naturally, gave in and did the right thing, which is why he transformed back. Way to not be Avenger of the Month, Anya.)
Still, skewering a human causes a huge guilt meltdown on Spike’s part. We see more of his personalities, and hear much babble. The First is referred to, so obliquely that nobody really has a chance to pick up on it. Buffy just watches in amazement while Ronnie flops and bleeds.
Again, I want to care more than I do. Just shut up and be Spike already, I’m thinking. He ends by singing the “From beneath you it devours” refrain and runs off to the nearest church.
Buffy cares, though, despite everything. She gets to go after him, too, because Xandanya show up and take over waiting on the ambulance with Ronnie detail. Xander and the local ambulance guys must be on a first name basis by now. As for Nancy, she’s still single and looks to be staying that way.
The Spuffy encounter in the church starts off bad and gets worse when Gibbering William reaches for his zipper and offers to service Buffy. This gets him thrown across the room for the second time in one hour.
“Have you completely lost your mind?” she asks.
“Well, yes. Where have you been all night?”
Okay! See, this version of mad Spike I could go for.
He says he tried to find his missing piece: “They put the spark in me and now all it does is burn.”
Oh. The penny drops. The soul thing. Why didn’t you just let Anya tell them, Spike?
Buffy asks why and he sort of kind of says, in a crazy-babbly way, a) to be the kind of guy who’d never try to rape her again; and b) more importantly, to have a chance at having his love returned. Then he drapes himself over the cross, and asks if they can rest as his body starts to smoke.
It’s poignant, with bonus semi-naked eye-candy for the James Marsters fans. It’s also yet another of those conversations where you have to feel terrible for Buffy—what do you do with something like that?
I know! Let’s ask Willow, since she’s on her way back and all. If, you know, we see her.
Next: Xander’s Mouth Saved the World!
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”!)