4.14 Goodbye Iowa
4.15 This Year’s Girl
This week we have two guests who have covered off this week’s episodes so thoroughly there isn’t really much for me to say, other than A) I snicker every time Buffy gets her pager, thinking of the 30 Rock Beeper King episode (to paraphrase Jack Donaghy, Hey Maggie Walsh, 1983 called and they want their technology back…) And also I love how even years later, fans love to talk about Buffy’s yummy sushi pajamas (which I STILL see selling in stores). There’s a Japanese restaurant in Toronto called Yumei Sushi, and I like to think they named it after her pajamas. Unlikely, but a gal can dream.
OK, first up this week we have Elizabeth Rambo, who I first met at Slayage in 2008 when she was a keynote speaker and staying with me at the gorgeous B&B next to the school. We immediately hit it off. She’s the author of Buffy Goes Dark: Essays on the Final Two Seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Television (2009), the brilliantly titled book that covers the last two seasons of the series (I won’t go into detail about why that title works on so many levels), which she edited with Lynne Y. Edwards and James B. South. She is an Associate Professor specializing in medieval English literature at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC. Unofficially, she was a Buffy fan from the day “Welcome to the Hellmouth” premiered in 1997, and her academic involvement dates from the first international conference at the University of East Anglia in 2002. That paper, “Yeats’s Entropic Gyre and Season Six,” eventually found its way into Buffy Goes Dark. She slips Buffy and Firefly episodes into her first-year composition courses, and hopes one day to teach an entire course on Buffy. One of her two cats is named Xander. She reads Middle English really well.
As always, in the following essays if you see a strange white space, it's because I'm hiding spoilers. If this is a rewatch for you, highlight the blank areas and you'll see the words hidden in there. Take it away, Elizabeth!
“The ‘I’ in Team” and “Goodbye Iowa” could almost be considered a two-part episode. Together, they mark the point in season 4’s where the narrative arc turns from what has been called the “little bad”--the Initiative and Maggie Walsh--to the season’s real “big bad,” the cyborg Adam, a product of the Initiative. (The pattern of Buffy seasons with minor & major villains is described in The Buffy Formula, which contains major spoilers for this and future seasons.) We were set up to think Buffy’s opponents were the mysterious Initiative commandoes and “evil bitch monster of death” professor Walsh. Now it turns out there’s something much worse than either.
Themes of season four include friendships, relationships, insider/outsider status—teams, in other words. In seasons 1-3, Buffy and her friends have formed a strong bond, but college is testing those connections in various ways. In 4.4 “Fear Itself,” the Scoobies revealed their individual concerns about their connections with each other. “Pangs” reflected on the history of race and cultural competitions, and showed former team-member Angel literally on the outside looking in, even while he still fought to help Buffy. Giles has been at loose ends without a regular job or any regular duties as Buffy’s Watcher, culminating in his literal demonization and near-slaying in 4.12 “A New Man.” The Initiative’s chip in Spike’s head makes him ineffective as a vampire, but hasn’t changed his fundamentally evil perspective, although discovering that he can kill demons makes him willing to cooperate with the Scoobies, when it suits him. Anya, former vengeance demon, still doesn’t know exactly how to “play the game” of being human, as revealed by her part in the three-handed poker scene that opens 4.13 “The I in Team.” Meanwhile, Xander and Willow muse on Buffy’s preoccupation with her “spanking new boyfriend,” and his Initiative associates.
Let me state at this point that though season four is not my favorite, I volunteered for these episodes because I’ve come to appreciate Riley more since I first watched this season when it originally aired in 1999-2000. In “Goodbye Iowa,” Anya says, “You know, you really should get yourself a boring boyfriend….
BUFFY: That was the idea. Riley was supposed to be Mr. Joe Guy. We were gonna do dumb things like hold hands through the daisies going "tra la la."
WILLOW: Poor Buffy. Your life resists all things average.
I’m sure Team Angel and Team Spike will shout me down, but Buffy does deserve a “boring” “Mr. Joe Guy” boyfriend who’s also willing to stand up to her in a fight (physical or verbal), makes love without reservations or losing his soul, and wants to join her in fighting evil—a real partner. Riley so could have been the guy, as we’ll see in a few scenes. Who could have anticipated—oh, right—Joss Whedon is writing this show.
Back to the episode: the Scoobies still don’t know “what exactly are [the commandoes] up to,” but we see Buffy discovering that she’s not alone in fighting demons, and Riley sure that everyone loves her as much as he does (they don’t), while Willow, Buffy’s best friend, is not getting any satisfaction (“Everyone’s getting spanked but me”). Note the erotic tone & framing of Riley & Buffy’s exchange: “You don’t have to do this …I mean, if you’d rather wait” “I’m ready, I want to”—and he initiates her into--the Initiative.
Spike tells Giles “we’re through”—that always works well.
Weapons training is old-hat for Buffy, even if these are high-tech weapons. And she’s issued a pager. Buffy’s comment, “I’ve been thinking about getting one of these,” seems odd, since she had a pager in season one, as evidenced in the oft-quoted line, “If the apocalypse comes, beep me!” (1.4 “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date”), but the role of technology in Sunnydale is vexed. With very few exceptions, only villains use high-tech communication devices. The Scoobies are restricted to land-lines.
Willow & Tara’s friendship is developing. Tara, despite her shyness, is clearly more involved already than Willow, offering her a family heirloom crystal as a present. Willow is just pleased to have a friend who shares her interest in magic—but the “magic as eros/intimacy” metaphor is quite clear. If you’re not getting it now, you certainly will by the end of the season, in Xander’s “Restless” dream.
In one of many scenes of dramatic irony in these episodes, Walsh and Angleman assess Buffy as “unpredictable” and “an unnecessary risk” as they review the progress of mystery experiment 314.
Xander introduces Anya to capitalism with his nutrition bar sales venture. By season six, she will be capitalism’s biggest fan and an ambitious entrepreneur herself.
The meeting at the Bronze was supposed to be “just the Scooby core”—insiders only. Willow, having told Tara not to come, clearly resents Buffy’s casual introduction of her new “backup” buddies, Riley and the Initiative. But Buffy’s persistent questions at the Initiative briefing that follows spotlight her as “The ‘I’ in Team.” She is used to being the “chosen one,” and has never obeyed an order without knowing why. In addition, the Initiative scientists’ view of demons as pure, unmotivated destructive beings contrasts with Buffy’s approach, learned from Giles, of seeing them as creatures who, while opposing humanity, are similar to us in having meaningful thought and motivations.
The conflict that follows is intercut to recall the connection between violence and sex noted by Faith (“Isn't it crazy how slayin' just always makes you hungry and horny?” (3.3 “Faith, Hope, and Trick”). In season 3, all Buffy could think about in response to this was how Angel lost his soul, now she can indulge in sex without consequences—or so it seems, until the audience is made aware that Riley’s bed is under surveillance by Professor Walsh. “Raise your hand if—ew!” (You may not believe it, but I have a Ph.D.)
I admit that I like how Spike’s “no time for layabouts!” line segues to Buffy laying about & waking up in Riley’s bed—alone again?—no, Riley’s there all right. They discuss his military training, he doesn’t ask questions, she does. And to remind us they’re being monitored, as soon as Buffy asks about 314, the phone rings.
Riley’s world of black-and-white, unquestioned certainties begins falling apart when he sees his mentor Maggie Walsh lying to him about Buffy’s death. Buffy rejoins her team, telling the Scoobies, “It’s not safe for any of us.”
Buffy has told Maggie, “You really don’t know what a Slayer is.” Maggie, musing on her plans for 314, says Buffy “has no idea who she’s dealing with.” And STAB by a monster who calls her “Mommy.” Now we really have no idea who we’re dealing with!
4.14 “Goodbye Iowa,” then, is mostly about Riley’s certain world crumbling to bits. The teaser picks up with Buffy telling the Scoobies how Maggie tried to get her killed. Spike says she has “tragic taste in men” and tries to implicate Riley. That won’t fly, but returns to the theme of questioning loyalties: who can you trust? When Riley finds them, he’s sure that Maggie made a mistake, until he sees “Hostile 17” (Spike), and his world cracks again.
Adam’s encounter with the boy, as someone, probably more than one, has commented (sorry, I’m working fast & haven’t time to look it up), is an homage to the classic Frankenstein movie scene of the monster meeting a little girl; this time, the results are pure horror, but thankfully off-screen, since it was 8 PM on WB in 1999, not HBO (don’t get me started).
Comedy in Xander’s basement culminates in Buffy’s inspirational speech, ending with, “That probably would have sounded more commanding if I wasn't wearing my yummy sushi pajamas.” There’s still a sense of irony about this kind of thing here in season 4; in season 7, Buffy’s inspirational speeches will lose ironic self-awareness and become less amusing.
Riley’s last anchor goes when he discovers that Walsh is dead. Forrest implicates Buffy (playing Spike’s role of setting the two against each other). There’s conflict between Riley’s team now and the chain of command, as Angleman tells them to stay put, but Riley insists they hunt the demon he’s sure is responsible. In this scene, Riley is already starting to scratch at his right hand, the first physical symptom of withdrawal from his super-drug-“vitamin” withdrawal. Resisting orders is probably another symptom, along with growing paranoia.
The first time I watched this episode I found Tara’s sabotage of the Thespia demon-finding spell fairly baffling. The obvious conclusion was that Tara might be a demon herself, or have some reason for wanting something demonic to remain hidden. Not until season five and “Family” would we learn that Tara only believes she’s demonic, thanks to her family’s abusive mythology.
Riley’s withdrawal/breakdown continues as he follows Buffy to Willy’s bar. Hard to believe the Initiative never found it, or maybe they did, and Riley just can’t figure out why the Slayer would be here. He’s not thinking clearly, of course. By the time she gets him back to Xander’s, his certainties are gone: “Maybe I’m the bad guy…” Buffy gets to be the caregiver, for a change.
Anya’s concern about Xander’s connection with Buffy—“No Xander! Not in a boyfriend way, or a lead him to a certain death way!”—will be a recurring theme. Once Anya has made up her mind, she doesn’t change easily. However, the idea that Buffy and Xander are sufficiently disguised by a bun & glasses, a labcoat and clipboard, and a military vest is just ridiculous. Nevermind, I’m sufficiently amused by Xander’s adulation for the Initiative installation: “I totally get it. Can I have sex with Riley too?” and then, to reinstate his het-cred, he tries to hide by making out with Buffy. Cute.
Spike’s anti-demon skills have their consequences; he has left the Scooby “team,” and now finds that he is unacceptable to demons as well.
Adam reveals himself in the Initiative, a demon/man/machine cyborg who “knows what I am, but not who I am.” That’ll teach the scientists the perils of materialism, I suppose. He says Maggie was also Riley’s “mother,” making them “brothers” for whom she had a plan. If you weren’t completely freaked out when Adam called Maggie “Mommy” as he stabbed her at the end of “The ‘I’ in Team,” you might have recalled Riley’s team being paged in the Bronze, and Riley telling them, “Mother needs us.” Yikes. Turns out it wasn’t just a military code!
Nevertheless, Riley insists he has choices, but Adam’s attack effectively removes them. Buffy and Riley are separated, “Everything he’s ever believed in has been taken away…he has nothing to hold on to.” Cut to Riley in the military hospital, clutching Buffy’s scarf, still wrapped around his scratched hand (unrealistic, but let it go). Compare this with the exchange between Angelus and Buffy in 2.22 “Becoming, Part 2”:
ANGELUS: Now that's everything, huh? No weapons... No friends... No hope. Take all that away... and what's left?
For the moment, at least, Buffy is Riley’s only weapon, friend, hope. And some people say there’s no religion in the Buffyverse! Also, I have to hand it to Riley for trying really hard to do what’s right—with all the cards stacked against him. His super-strength, even if no match for Buffy, is artificial. His admired mentor was a liar who, despite her mixed motives, used him as an experimental guinea-pig. His demon-fighting girlfriend also hangs out with demons—how? The more I think about it, the more I admire him. For now, at least.
4.15 “This Year’s Girl” really is the first half of a two-parter, and it’s really unfair to have one person tackle part one while someone else finishes up, especially when they get my favorite scene(s). However, one challenge of this episode is maintaining narrative threads of the newly revealed big-bad Adam threat, while tying up a loose end from season 3, rogue slayer Faith in a coma. We saw the Slayer’s prophetic dreams fairly regularly in previous seasons, and but Buffy hasn’t been dreaming much in season 4. We haven’t seen Faith’s slayer-dreams since she and Buffy dreamed together in 3.22 “Graduation Day, Part 2,” but apparently Faith has been dreaming about Buffy, her nemesis. She says Buffy has forgotten her (forgetting will be a recurring theme in this episode) “with little six coming…so much to do before she gets here.” We can read Faith as Buffy’s sister; we can also see this line as a foreshadowing of Dawn. In Faith’s dreams, season three’s villainous Mayor is a warm, nurturing father-figure, whose snake-demon nature is harmless as a garter snake, while Buffy stabs her repeatedly.
The insider/outsider themes of “The ‘I’ in Team” reappear as no one notices Xander getting zapped by the Initiative weapon he’s trying to repair—just as he feared in “Fear Itself.” Willow wears a really hideous hat throughout most of the episode—why? Forrest tells Riley the Initiative is a “family,” but Riley is no longer willing to be part of it. Faith, the outsider, gets most of the information she needs about the Scoobies by eavesdropping through Giles’s window—as both the Chumash spirit and Angel do in “Pangs.” Buffy is willing to give Faith the benefit of doubt, but when they meet, Faith starts the fight—note that Faith and Buffy are dressed very similarly in this scene; in fact, Buffy is wearing the black leather usually associated with Faith.
Other than reminding us of Willow & Tara’s developing relationship (Willow takes off the wretched hat, maybe to impress Tara?), this scene mainly reminds us of Faith’s catchphrase, “Five by five.”
Other people who forget or have been forgotten, besides Faith-in-a-coma:
Joyce, who hasn’t been seen since 4.4 “Fear Itself,” when she altered Buffy’s Little Red Riding Hood costume.
Spike, who tells Giles and Xander “Can't any one of your damn little Scooby club at least try to remember that I hate you all? Just because I can't do the damage myself doesn't stop me from aiming a loose cannon your way.” According to writer Doug Petrie’s commentary, there was already a large contingent of Spike fans who wanted to see the Buffy/Spike scenario of “Something Blue” written into series reality.
The Watchers’ Council, rejected by Giles and Buffy in season 3, have been secretly watching Faith all along, and now they’re back: “Hello, Rupert.”
At the end of the episode-concluding Buffy/Faith fight, Buffy looks way too pleased about Faith’s defeat—Buffy is not a smirker—and of course, when she pronounces herself to be “five by five,” after stomping the Mayor’s infernal device, we know something’s up.
Thank you, Elizabeth!
Next up is Lorna Jowett. I also met her at Slayage in 2008, and had been reading her work on Buffy before the conference so I was already aware of her. She was a keynote at Slayage in 2010 (an address I sadly missed, not only because I would have loved to have heard what she had to say, but HOW she said it in that amazing Scottish brogue of hers). Lorna is a Senior Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Northampton, UK, where she teaches some of her favourite things, including horror, science fiction, and television, sometimes all at once. Her book, Sex and the Slayer: A Gender Studies Primer for the Buffy Fan, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2005, and she is on the editorial board of Slayage: the Journal of the Whedon Studies Association. Recent and forthcoming publications include work on shows such as Angel, Pushing Daisies, Heroes, The Shield and Supernatural. She is currently co-writing with Stacey Abbott a book on TV Horror.
These episodes are memorable for several reasons, among them Buffy’s Yummy Sushi pyjamas, the return of Willy, and Anya on spanking. Plus, if you love to hate Riley, sit back and watch him suffer as events prove that he’s not as bright as he should be for a graduate teaching assistant.
I agree with Nikki’s comments at the start of this season: it seems more episodic than serial compared with other seasons, partly because it’s a transition for the show and the characters. There is a season arc here, though, and personally I love season 4 because of the Initiative, which helps structure the arc. As these episodes fall around the mid-point they are important to the overall structure of the season. All three add twists to the ongoing story of Initiative; they also offer new revelations (we discover that Professor Walsh is evil) only to provide twists on those too (no sooner is her evil confirmed than she is killed by Adam). Admittedly, the Faith two-parter (concluding in next week’s “Who Are You?”) functions as a self-contained story, apparently interrupting the ongoing arc, but it also contains narrative and thematic information vital to the season and to the ongoing series narrative.
Characters, too, are developed throughout these episodes and we see Willow and Tara’s relationship establishing itself and evolving at the same time as Buffy and Riley have sex and then face serious challenges to their relationship. Xander makes yet another attempt at gainful employment, while a chipped Spike has to remind everyone he’s still bad. In contrast, Giles seems to be recovering a sense of self following his crisis in “A New Man.” Throughout this season the post-High School teens are uncertain as they seek to establish new versions of themselves (“the big girl on campus thing’s really working for you,” Faith comments snidely to Buffy in “This Year’s Girl”). Adults Giles and Joyce have to adapt to new relationships with more independent young people. Body swap episodes like “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You?” literalise the fluidity of identity that is always apparent in Buffy. Adam, the closest the season gets to a Big Bad, is himself a literal assemblage of parts and he seeks, sometimes at tedious length, to find out who he is. At the conclusion of “The I in Team” Buffy tells Professor Walsh, “you really don’t know what a Slayer is,” but it gradually becomes apparent that she, the Scoobies, and the audience also have more to find out about the Slayer.
These episodes (and this season) address thematic areas found elsewhere in the show, such as teamwork and leadership. The militarised and hierarchical Initiative is contrasted with the personal interactions of the Scooby Gang, and Riley’s initially unquestioning obedience sets Buffy’s more autonomous approach in high relief. On gaining access to the Initiative, Buffy is “the I in team” of the episode’s title and soon realises that questions are “an Initiative faux pas, yes?” Her involvement with both Riley and the Initiative causes tension with the Scoobies, highlighted when she brings Riley and his team along to The Bronze for a Scoobies-only night out. Similarly, Riley’s involvement with Buffy irritates Forrest and his confrontations with Riley escalate across all three episodes and beyond, their spats oscillating between frat boy fall-outs and military insubordination. (Still, when the military take the ailing Riley at the close of “Goodbye Iowa”, Forrest says, “we take care of our own,” a line and an attitude that finds an uncanny echo in Angel’s “Damage”). Although Walsh fills the traditionally male roles of ruthless scientist and authoritarian leader, her “mothering” of Adam (and Riley) complicates this, and her rivalry with Buffy for Riley’s attention also refigures her as a jealous woman. Her desire to get rid of Buffy leads to a rift with Riley even before Walsh sets Buffy up to be killed, and her “son” Adam’s first act is to murder his creator. The tensions apparent in the Scooby Gang and the Initiative are increasingly exploited by Adam, who manipulates these weaknesses in the lead up to the season finale.
The activities of the Scoobies are consistently contrasted with the coldly clinical operations of the Initiative: one scene has Walsh describing the “the HST containment area,” then cuts to Willow and Tara talking spells (“The I in Team”). But distinctions between science and magic are not clear-cut. After all, underneath the technobabble, the Initiative is researching demons. Adam the “kinematically redundant biomechanical demonoid” (“Goodbye Iowa”) embodies several binary oppositions surrounding science. He is a product of both science and the demon world, and he engages in both (violent and bloody) action and reflection. Adam epitomises the masculinised technology and science of the Initiative and he uses invasive methods to further his knowledge, as when Buffy concludes that he is “studying biology” by dissecting his victims. At the end of the season his exaggerated masculinity and evil genius megalomania is pitted against the feminised, collective power of the Slayer and the Scoobies.
Both the treatment of science and the representation of different models of teamwork and leadership combine in one the show’s favourite issues: the “grey area” of morality that Riley confesses so daunts him (in “This Year’s Girl”). Buffy tells him that distinguishing right from wrong yourself is “a choice” and when he responds, “You make it sound so simple,” we know that, on this show, it never will be. The switch to Faith’s perspective in “This Year’s Girl” and the involvement of the Council, hinted at here and elaborated on later, uncover the dark side of both institutions and more personal identities, negotiate the Slayer’s dark side.
When Buffy and Riley have sex for the first time (“The I in Team”) the way their lovemaking is spliced into the fight with the Polgara demon, both shot in slow motion, reminds us of Faith’s previous comment that slaying makes her “hungry and horny” (“Faith, Hope and Trick”). The editing visually parallels sex and violence in a disturbing fashion. As a “feminist” action horror melodrama Buffy consistently explores conjunctions of sex and violence, already seen in various vampire characters, as well as in Faith. Now this touches Buffy directly and both her tangled relationship with Spike and the creation of the Slayer line are foreshadowed here.
Next week: The second half of the Faith two-parter, and a couple of episodes that are not my favourites, but many other fans adore them, so I hope you do, too!
4.16 Who Are You?
4.18 Where the Wild Things Are