Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Initiative   Rewatch 
August 20, 2015 12:03 AM - Season 4, Episode 7 - Subscribe

Buffy's TA Riley is crushing on her. They've got more in common than either of them know, as he's part of the Initiative, a military organization hunting vampires and demons on campus. Spike escapes their facility and goes after Buffy, finding Willow and immense headpain instead. Xander and Harmony face off.
posted by yellowbinder (16 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Ok so the Initiative as a plot line ends up a little lacklustre, but The Initiative the episode is a super solid entry that I never see get any love. It's a table setting episode for sure, but there's so many small scenes and moments that work really well. Buffy telling Walsh off, raspberry fruit punch, Willow helping Riley woo with the stated goal of eventual heartbreak, the slap fight and the way Harmony says "Sex Pistols," Spike bonding with Willow post performance issues... All so good.
posted by yellowbinder at 12:27 AM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

Spike bonding with Willow post performance issues...

That scene just played creepy to me, to be honest. Part of it was that Spike had already come to seem relatively harmless, before this point. Despite all his bluster, it seemed pretty obvious that he didn't actually want to kill Buffy and her friends but he had unresolved feelings for Buffy and he wanted to be in her life and that was making him nuts. It seemed like he'd reached some frenemy detente with the Scoobies where they let him kill people for food and he postured a lot about how he was going to destroy Buffy and her friends but then sometimes he'd just kind of hang around with them. It was weird, but that was just how things were going.

So it was shocking and kind of hard to believe that Spike was ready to kill Willow. It seemed like he didn't NEED the chip to not kill Willow, but the chip was just kind of a justification the writers tossed in there. It was like they had to push him to be MORE awful in this episode, so they'd have a justification for why he needed the chip.

Also, the whole murder = sexual performance and failed murder = impotence thing just seemed icky to me. Maybe Spike would see it that way, but Willow was almost killed and I just can't see her responding to that like she's on a date with a guy who can't get it up. The show was all about dark comedy and supernatural metaphors, but this particular gag did not land with me at all.

All that being said, it's not a bad episode and it's around this point when the show starts to find its feet again. This season probably won't be anybody's favorite, but the initiative stuff does finally get things cooking again.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:53 AM on August 20, 2015 [4 favorites]

This is a really mixed episode. On the one hand, it has great moments like Willow giving Riley advice on how to woo Buffy and getting very stern about how he'd better not hurt her, and on the other there's the lovely discussion about how "mattressable" Buffy is. The truly awesome fight between Xander and Harmony and Parker's oh-so-classy comparison of Buffy to a toilet seat. (Yes, Riley punches him, but it's clear that it's due to his feelings for Buffy rather than any real sense of impropriety.)

The scene between Spike and Willow for me crystallises this line between awesome and crass. On the one hand, it is a beautiful send-up, but on the other, well, Ursula Hitler has it above. It's really quite tacky and inappropriate. Especially when Willow is hand-holding him. Talk about unnecessary emotional labour! I'm not saying I don't see the perverse humour in it, because I do. But it is simultaneously wrong and creepy.

Overall though, it gives the season a focus it's been lacking. We now have a clearer sense of the conflict Buffy will face this season, even if Adam has yet to be unveiled.
posted by Athanassiel at 3:46 AM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Especially when Willow is hand-holding him. Talk about unnecessary emotional labour!

My head-canon for this is that she either doesn't have a pencil handy or doesn't feel strong enough to use magic to stake Spike, so she's using her vulnerability and sympathy to trick him into lowering his guard so she can escape (which she does at the end of the scene.)

Man, every time I see Riley and Willow get scenes together, I wish I had access to some alternate universe version of Buffy (don't want to wish away what we got) where they made Riley and Willow a couple, and Buffy dated Tara. Blucas and Hannigan play off each other so well, and Riley and Willow have some common ground (intelligence, awkwardness, weird insecurities) as well as a lot of differences to keep things interesting. (i.e. his supernatural power comes from science, hers from magic, he's Christian (the only regular character I can remember who actually attends church), she's Jewish and later Wiccan, he's a straight-laced soldier who follows the rules, she's a hacker who finds ways to break them.) And there could be a ridiculous amount of melodrama for Riley could be drawn out of the breaking-into-the-Initiative-to-rescue-Oz scene in New Moon Rising. There's always fanfic, but since so much of this arises from watching Hannigan and Blucas work together, I just wish I'd have been able to see it play out.

(I've read about the struggles Mutant Enemy had with getting Willow/Tara on screen as a real relationship, so I get that making Buffy a lesbian would have likely been a show-killer, but sometimes my heart wants things that were not commercially viable for a TV show in the 1990s.)
posted by creepygirl at 5:56 AM on August 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

Man, every time I see Riley and Willow get scenes together, I wish I had access to some alternate universe version of Buffy (don't want to wish away what we got) where they made Riley and Willow a couple

Huh, I didn't realize I wanted this until now. They could really bond over the whole straight-laced turned rebel thing.

Now that I work in higher education (so to speak) my brain always yells "DON'T DATE YOUR STUDENT/DON'T DATE YOUR TA IT'S CREEPY." Come to think of it, it's really odd that the Initiative guys basically have a frat house to begin with, if they're grad students. I feel like grad student frats aren't a think. Carrels, maybe. Also how the hell does Forrest know that Buffy dated Parker for a few days? Really?

"That girl's so hot, she's buffy." Oh, Forrest, never change. Oh, wait, no, change immediately. But not into that zombie you actually did change into.

"She never feels like she's really there when you talk to her" is consistent characterization, at least, as this is basically Buffy's Scott Hope problem redux. Basically, if she can't let a person in on her secret identity, she can't ever really connect. That's true to a greater or lesser extent to everyone here in a way; the crazy supernatural events these characters face works as their major binding agent. You even see how awkward some of the conversations get between characters (like Oz and Cordelia when he visits on Angel) when they're no longer regularly thrown into mortal peril together. One of the nicest things about the Buffy-Willow and Willow-Xander relationships is that you actually feel like these people enjoy hanging out with each other when there's no greater mission involved. Peril also basically pushes most of the couples together. Xander/Cordelia, Xander/Faith, Xander/Anya, Willow/Tara, etc etc.

We actually see an indication that the characters are aware of this when Xander and Giles are feeling useless, and Xander suggests: "Well, how about this? We whip out the ouija board, light a few candles, summon some ancient, unstoppable evil. Mayhem, mayhem, mayhem. We show up and kick its ass." Taking this into consideration, his later action in Once More With Feeling makes a lot more sense, and is slightly less "who's responsible? Let's pick a person at random...uh, Xander did it. Yeah."

Riley: There's something off about her. Graham: Maybe she's Canadian. (As a Canadian...HEY!)

He's not Angel-level at portraiture, but looking at Giles' picture of the Initiative trooper, man, do his drawing skills ever devolve between here and Hush. Maybe it's the transparencies' fault.

"I always wondered what would happen if that bitch got funding" feels like the writer admitting that was the inspiration for this entire arc.

Ha ha roll call in a lecture-sized class. Who does that? Love Buffy chewing out Walsh, though. I know Riley's intentions in punching Parker aren't pure, but I just love seeing that guy get whacked in the head, so I'll let it slide.

Willow: "You like Buffy, she likes you. You spend time together, feelings grow deeper, and one day, without even realizing it, you find you're in love. Time stops, And it feels like the whole world's made for you two, and you two alone, until the day one of you leaves and rips the still-beating heart from the other, who's now a broken, hollow, mockery of the human condition." I'd say this is spot-on foreshadowing/predicting, but really this is just how every relationship goes in this show, so no credit.

Giles and The Raspberry Fruit Punch, a Nancy Drew Mystery. Actually, most of the Giles and Xander stuff in this episode, mostly involving Giles fixing Xander's gun and telling him to shut up, is pretty good. They could use more screen time together.

I also like cheese, so at least I know how to start a conversation with Buffy now. Does anyone else think that this is a buried reference to the upcoming Cheese Man in Restless?

"A vague disclaimer is nobody's friend" is one of my favourite lines in the series. I want it on a T-shirt.

Willow : This song...
Riley : Oh, yeah, it's a tape of some bands from last year's party. Associations?
Willow : Big.
Riley : Bad? (You know they did "Big Bad" like that on purpose, just for kicks)
posted by ilana at 11:51 AM on August 20, 2015 [6 favorites]

My headcanon is that the cheese man in Restless is in the dream simply because Buffy likes cheese. And it's her dream basically. I don't recall whether the mention in this episode is the only time we're told about her love of cheese though.
posted by wabbittwax at 1:07 PM on August 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

So it was shocking and kind of hard to believe that Spike was ready to kill Willow. It seemed like he didn't NEED the chip to not kill Willow, but the chip was just kind of a justification the writers tossed in there. It was like they had to push him to be MORE awful in this episode, so they'd have a justification for why he needed the chip.

I don't agree with this, I think you are letting your past memories of the show get away from you. His appearances up to now were Lovers Walk in 3, where he was pretty frightening to Willow and Xander, and Harsh Light of Day, where his entire plan was to kill Buffy again. It's only post chip that he becomes incredibly neutered.

Man, every time I see Riley and Willow get scenes together, I wish I had access to some alternate universe version of Buffy (don't want to wish away what we got) where they made Riley and Willow a couple, and Buffy dated Tara.

That... sounds great. And hey, if Buffy exploring her sexuality is your bag, check out the not very good Season 8 comics!

(Yes, Riley punches him, but it's clear that it's due to his feelings for Buffy rather than any real sense of impropriety.)

To be fair, while it is clear that he does it because of Buffy, it's clear that he absolutely does not approve of this kind of attitude towards women (well... Season 4 Riley anyway. I'm on 5 now, and 5 Riley is a completely different kettle of awful, awful fish).

I agree with everyone else that this is, all told, a solid episode. The Initiative does look pretty imposing on our first look (although it will only get more stupid as the series continues, and even in this episode has some oddness). The interesting thing about this episode is that it primarily follows two men who aren't the main characters: Spike and Riley. It's Riley's realization of feelings/pursuit of Buffy, and Spike's escape from the Initiative that drive this episode. This is odd, but actually I'be been thinking about it, and I think that's what makes 4 an odd duck in total.

Buffy actually doesn't have much of an arc this season. Ignoring the very first episode, she's fairly comfortable with who she is, and mild romantic woes aside, doesn't change a great deal. Sure she loses touch with her friends a bit, but that's college for you. The actual character experiencing an arc is Riley. This mirrors Angel to some extent, but in an ultra compressed way. We get a whitebread boy who believes his job is good and pure, who finds a girl who shows him that he's wrong, and he has to choose to break away from his initial support network. To back this up, the show introduces two new characters, Graham and Forrest, who hardly even interact with the rest of the main cast at all. They are there entirely to give us an inner voice to Riley, something romantic interests on this show tend to be denies.

Ultimately I feel like that was... kind of a bad idea, especially as Riley's story isn't incredibly interesting (and who guessed that the government conspiracy was actually evil!). The question is how aware the writers were of what they were doing while it happened.

-She's so hot she's Buffy. I keep forgetting how goofy a name Buffy is, because, well, it's Buffy's name and she's awesome, right?
-How.... does Spike escape? Why is it so easy to get out? If he had a tracker, why didn't they find him immediately? How come the chip doesn't really activate throughout this episode? The writer's wanted Spike to escape, so made it happen.
-Harmony and Xander's slap fight is really funny, even if it completely is at odds with how the show normally works
-"You forgot one other thing I did. I missed you."
posted by Cannon Fodder at 1:18 PM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't agree with this, I think you are letting your past memories of the show get away from you.

Yeah, tbh after I posted this I was thinking that it's been long enough since I watched the show that I really need to stop assuming that I'm remembering stuff right. My memories feel pretty clear, but more than once I've gone back and looked stuff up and it didn't match. So, mea culpa.

I stand by feeling that the failed murder = impotence scene was weird and creepy, though. You DON'T forget a scene like that!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 1:33 PM on August 20, 2015

I'll buy the creepiness, especially in light of the recent emotional labour conversations. I keep meaning to dig into that monster of a thread more thoroughly.
posted by yellowbinder at 2:07 PM on August 20, 2015

This was actually a bit more of a gem than I had remembered, and it's the first S04 episode of the rewatch that's really clicked for me. ("Fear Itself" came close, but that was mostly because of the ending) Willow playing reluctant fairy godmother to Buffy & Riley, the revelation of who's behind the Initiative, Spike realizing that he's been V-chipped, Xander & Harmony's slo-mo slapfight: All major bits in the Buffy canon, and I'd honestly forgotten that they were all in exactly the same episode.

There's a few rough edges in the dialogue. The running "doof"/"teutonic" bit feels clumsy by normal Whedonspeak standards, and Forrest's coining of "mattressable" is ... shudderable. But those are minor quibbles in the context of the whole episode.

I also don't recall liking Riley this much during my first viewing, way back when. Maybe it's because I still bought in big time to the Buffy-Angel pairing (the awfulness of which is much more obvious to me during this go-round), and maybe it's because I was a bigger fan of Batman than Captain America at the time. For whatever reason, Riley's squareness here actually seemed kind of charming, so I'm waiting until we get further along to see if there's something I've forgotten that justifies his also-ran status. Because right now I'm actually rooting for the guy, which is more than I can say for any of Buffy's league of evil exes.
posted by Strange Interlude at 5:38 PM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I have a soft spot for Riley. He's wholesome, sure, but I've kind of gotten over Buffy liking her bad guys the way she likes her men: evil. Bring on wholesome! But yes, creepygirl, a Riley/Willow pairing would be a thing of beauty. And yes, her speech culminating in: "Time stops and it feels like the whole world's made for you two and you two alone until the day one of you leaves the other and rips the still-beating heart from the other who's now a broken, hollow mockery of the human condition." —I want that on a tshirt. Fortunately I wear big tshirts.

The Cheese Man is definitely puzzling. The best I could ever come up with was "the cheese stands alone" where Buffy is obviously the big cheese and the dreams are trying to convince everyone that she has to do it on her own because that's what Slayers do. But yeah, wacky.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:41 PM on August 20, 2015 [2 favorites]

I always loved Riley and Willow and I wished they'd explored their friendship a bit more (it was even hinted at early on -- when they were in the bookstore earlier, it was Willow that Riley connected with, and not Buffy) and his kindness at having them turn the tape off at the party was so genuine and sweet -- he wasn't trying to score point with Willow; he just understood she was hurting and could do something about it.

I'm kind of a Riley defender, mostly because I think Marc Blucas deserved better than the part that was written for him in the end (but then I love the move of We Capture the Castle, where he basically plays Riley, but in the 1930s in England).

The Initiative was definitely a cool idea, but whether it was budget or poor plotting or ... I don't even know ... it didn't go to the place it could have (and also ... not like I'm super into military culture, but the weird inaccuracies there really started to bother me. People really didn't do their research).

The Spike/Willow scene was funny at the time but is so much weirder now, but I like the chemistry between the actors. I always wish Alyson Hannigan had gotten to do a bit more on Buffy, and had had a better chance to be paired up with more of the characters than she was.
posted by darksong at 7:48 PM on August 20, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you think about the parallels between Willow and Riley:

1. "I'm not your sidekick!" says Willow in Fear Itself. Riley, too, struggles with being Buffy's sidekick, which eventually tears them apart.
2. Choosing to use their intelligence to go where the good vs. evil action is
3. Both kind of sweet, innocent and guileless-seeming at their introduction
4. Addiction issues: Riley getting his blood sucked by vampires, Willow and magic
5. Rambling.
6. Both are fearful of losing their power that makes them special, while part of Buffy longs to be "normal." Riley flips out when he loses his strength and becomes "kittenish," too weak for Buffy. Willow says, about pre-magic her, that she was a nobody. "Tara didn't even know that girl."

I sort of feel like we see a similar progression in Buffy and Riley's relationship as we might have seen if Buffy dated Willow (though they have a much richer history and I think Willow's obviously a much better character as a whole).

My last name is Lucas, and my Buffy-loving friend has sometimes called me Blucie (Blue-key) ever since Marc Blucas arrived on the show, so thanks, Riley.
posted by ilana at 7:54 PM on August 20, 2015 [3 favorites]

Is the modern fan consensus that Xander sucks and Riley is great? Damn, sure didn't see that coming.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:24 AM on August 21, 2015

UH: Riley gets worse in S5 but at the moment we are seeing his good side. I've gone on the record before about how I think Xander starts badly but develops into being someone more likeable, though of course he always has flaws. Characters have different narrative arcs.

But in many ways they are pretty similar. Both have no superpower (well, we find out about Riley's performance enhancement later) but have some military-esque experience that makes them useful. They are both caring guys. They both struggle with how to protect the people they love, particularly the women they love, and have trouble dealing with the fact that they can't always do that, because often the women they love are strong and powerful and don't need their protection. Both are awkward around girls.

But I think Riley is smarter and better at fitting in. Xander's always a bit more marginal - doesn't do so well academically, isn't as popular and has a huge set of issues about women and being desirable etc. Riley is overall a lot more confident and self-assured, which lets him be more generous and kind. But essentially, they are both variations on the Nice Normal Guy. Xander having been eliminated as a Buffy-consort earlier on, they had to find another option for her next paramour post-Angel-breakup.
posted by Athanassiel at 1:12 AM on August 21, 2015

Every time they first introduce Riley I think "aww, man, I've been too hard on him. I need to re-evaluate. Even if he's part of the Initiative, he's still a relatively normal, stable dude who just likes Buffy. She needs that right now."

And then he goes and uses the word "court" as a verb, and I remember that he's utterly unacceptable on any level.

On a (slightly) different note: Buffy writes guys talking about women like Start Trek writes flirting: they've heard that this happens and they're making the most careful guess they can in hopes that they don't get caught out for having not done the reading.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:11 AM on September 23, 2021 [1 favorite]

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