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Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Initiative

[Updated April 30, 2013]

The Initiative is the seventh episode of S4, and by now we know that the seventh episode is a very important one. The previous 3 such episodes were Angel, Lie to Me, and Revelations. Each of those addressed the most important issues of their respective seasons, so we should be on the alert for something of equal significance here.

The most important line of dialogue in The Initiative occurs near the end. Riley told Prof. Walsh that “The implant works. Hostile 17 can't harm any living creature, in any way, without intense neurological pain.” There’s a metaphor here which it’s critical to understand in order to follow what’s going on with Spike and with the Initiative itself. Writer Doug Petrie tells us in a phrase: “we 'Clockwork Oranged' Spike”.

A Clockwork Orange is one of the most important novels of the 20th Century (and a fine movie by Stanley Kubrick, even if the book’s author, Anthony Burgess, hated it) and lots of people read it in high school or college. If you haven’t read it, I didn’t say that to make anyone feel bad, I’m just noting why the writers used it here. I’ll summarize the plot because it’s very important to understand it. For reasons I don’t need to go into now, but will later, there are two versions of the novel, one published in England (the original) and one in America. I’m giving you the American version, again for reasons I won’t go into now but will later.

The short version is that Alex is a teenage sociopath who loves brutal violence and engages in it whenever he gets the opportunity. After a series of horrific rapes and murders, he’s arrested for murder and taken to prison. There the prison authorities force him to undergo a form of behavior modification therapy in which he’s conditioned to be nauseated by violence. The prison chaplain accuses the authorities of stripping Alex of his free will, but the authorities continue with the treatment anyway. After a while they consider him “cured” and release him. He’s helpless when released because he can’t fight back when anyone abuses him, and he has lots of enemies who proceed to do just that. Eventually his conditioning wears off and he begins the cycle of violence again.

So, the idea with Spike is that now he’s been given an “implant” (a chip, as we’ll soon learn) and can’t harm anyone without suffering “intense neurological pain”. This is a form of operant conditioning, the topic Willow asked Riley if Prof. Walsh would cover in The Freshman. I hope the comparisons to Alex are pretty obvious at this point, and the question is what will be the consequence of this behavior modification “therapy”. Burgess wrote A Clockwork Orange to explore the moral issues involved in behavior modification, which he strongly opposed. The fact that the Initiative is engaged in behavioral modification therefore might be a clue that it’s not a force for good.

Wait a minute, though. There’s a serious difference between behavioral modification on human beings (even one as depraved as Alex) and behavioral modification on a vampire. Whether vampires actually have free will is iffy. Because they lack a soul, they don’t really understand all the ramifications of their actions. This makes them fundamentally evil in a way that most humans (maybe all humans) are not.

Before I go further into that discussion, though, there’s another, related metaphor going on here as well. The Initiative got its inspiration from the English TV show The Prisoner. If you’ve never seen it, writer Doug Petrie describes it as a “very creepy, very existential” show. The plot involves a former secret service man who is held captive and referred to only as “Number 6” (hence the references in the episode to Spike as “Hostile 17”). Wikipedia describes the show as featuring “themes includ[ing] … identity theft, mind control, … and various forms of social indoctrination. …. A major theme of the show is individualism versus collectivism.”

These issues are very similar to those raised by A Clockwork Orange. Alex’s behavior modification was seen by the chaplain as a form of identity theft. In Living Conditions and Beer Bad we saw identity theft take the form of depriving someone of an essential part of their character (either the soul or the superego). The prison officials took the opposite approach in Alex’s case, because they added a conditioned reflex. Either way, the original person has been changed into something different. 

Other themes from The Prisoner also appeared in A Clockwork Orange. The mind control theme is obvious in both. The behavior modification naturally served as a form of social indoctrination for Alex, and that brings me to the next point.

Now let me throw in yet a third related theme from the philosophical tradition. The Initiative as we see it is what’s called a panopticon (h/t manwitch). That’s a combination of two Greek words meaning “sees all”. The concept and the term were invented by the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham in the late 1700s. Bentham’s basic idea was that a prison should be constructed so that the prisoners could be watched at all times by a watchman who remained unseen. Before Bentham, they really didn’t have prisons in the sense of a long-term place to hold criminals after conviction of a crime. Most crimes were punished physically, either by execution (all felonies were, by definition, death penalty cases) or by methods such as whipping or the stocks for misdemeanors. Prisons existed to hold the accused prior to trial, not to punish them afterwards.

Bentham was one of many reformers who wanted to move away from this system, particularly the number of executions. In his view, the prisoners could be reformed – made into proper subjects of the King – if held in the proper sort of prison. In Bentham’s view, the prisoners could never misbehave because they were always under observation and the authorities could intervene to prevent or punish misbehavior. (Those who’ve seen Joss’s show Dollhouse may recognize the concept from that show.) This would eventually train them to behave properly. The connection to the behavior modification strategy of A Clockwork Orange should be obvious.

This is where The Initiative gets very clever indeed. Spike’s chip acts as an internal panopticon (h/t manwitch). It’s constantly monitoring his behavior, preventing him from ever harming another living creature. Extrapolating backward, we could say much the same for Alex’s behavioral conditioning in A Clockwork Orange.

Is this a good thing? Well, on the one hand an extremely dangerous vampire is now controlled and can’t harm people any more. That seems like a pretty big factor on the plus side. On the other hand, the chip could be seen to diminish Spike’s essential nature in some way; we could easily say that the chip has robbed Spike of his identity. It deprives him of the power of choice, forcing him to be “normal” (well, not really normal, but you get the idea). The chaplain at the prison objected to the modification of Alex, a pretty close real world comparison to Spike, considering it as a violation of something very basic to human beings. Then again, Spike’s not human.

I’ll give you one possible clue to Joss’s attitude by quoting Doug Petrie:

Also we had a big argument - not really an argument, but a discussion - about how heroic Spike should be. And I was dead wrong, because I was saying Spike was going to escape from [the Initiative] later in the episode, and I thought, "Well, this is hard to do because it makes him seem heroic." And Jane Espenson at the time was saying "No, no, he should seem heroic!" and I was like, "No, Spike's the villain, he shouldn't seem heroic." And Joss Whedon came in and said "Newsflash: he's heroic in this scene. He's gigantically heroic. He's James Bond escaping from Blofeld."

Infer from this what you will. Before you jump to any conclusions, I’ll add that there are multiple ways to interpret Joss’s instruction here, one being that Spike’s escape foreshadows events later in the season. Which it does.

I raise these issues not to decide them, but to think about; I’ll have much more to say about the idea of the panopticon when we get to Goodbye Iowa. In my view, Joss is taking these three themes – identity, mind control, and social indoctrination – from A Clockwork Orange, The Prisoner, and Bentham, and is using them to raise basic questions about human identity and the extent to which we should be able to construct our own identity as part of our existential project. Such questions are closely related to Buffy’s journey in S4, as I’ll explain in my post on Goodbye Iowa.

Speaking of season themes…. I’m going to let Doug Petrie explain one of the seasonal themes at this point: “We're also trying to point out this guy [the commando] is just a guy. It's not part of Buffy's world. She turns down the assignment of going to look for this guy because it's not supernatural. And that really sets up the whole season; these guys are just human beings delving in the supernatural world. And that's not part of Buffy's world and not part of Buffy's responsibility. And that's the tension throughout the season…. Season 4 is all about Science versus Magic.”

As I interpret this, the words “science” and “magic” stand more generally for things coded masculine and feminine. Thus, “science” is rational, hard-headed, military. In contrast, “magic” is natural, organic, mysterious. Please don’t confuse these characteristics with individual persons. A woman can have “scientific” or “masculine” qualities, just as a man can have “magic” or “feminine” ones; we all tend have some of each. It will help you keep the ideas straight if you think of the traditional stereotypes of these qualities and how they were associated with gender. (In addition, “magic” will be used metaphorically in another, related way in S4 and S5 which I can’t discuss yet because of spoilers.)

If you recall, I mentioned in my post on WTTH/The Harvest that the very first thing we see on the show is Darla and the boy breaking into the science room at the high school. I suggested that there was a metaphor there, namely the intrusion of the bewitched world into our rational, scientific one. Season 4 is, in part, an expansion of that.

Now let’s move on to the obvious possible romance. Viewers watching the first time through weren’t entirely sure, until now, that Riley was being set up for Buffy. A lot of his early interaction came with Willow, and it was plausible to think that they might be a couple after Oz left. This episode negates that possibility.

Riley seems quite normal, and we’re obviously supposed to like him after he punched out Parker and was so thoughtful to Willow at the party. At the same time, though, he’s involved with the Initiative and, depending on your view of the conditioning and the experiments, that may be an issue.

In The Freshman, Buffy told Willow that “Giles said I have to be secret-identity gal again.” Now we learn that Riley has a secret identity too. This not-so-coincidental fact suits the seasonal theme of creating one’s own identity, and I’ll have more discussion as events develop. One question you might ask now is whether it’s morally proper to “court” someone while concealing a major part of who you are, and at what point there might be a duty of disclosure. I’ll have more to say about Riley’s identity when we get to Goodbye Iowa.

To this day I can’t quite figure out how the show managed to turn a rape/murder metaphor into one of the funniest scenes in the whole series, but it did. AH and JM are just fantastic.

Trivia notes: (1) Doug Petrie’s DVD commentary tells us that the big white balloons we see in the Initiative are an allusion to The Prisoner. (2) The vampire we see next door to Spike was the one from Sunday’s gang captured at the end of The Freshman. (3) Only now that Oz has gone do we hear his full name: when Willow mentions “Daniel Osborne” to Riley. (4) The phrase “semper fi”, used by Xander, is an abbreviation of the Marine Corps motto, Semper Fidelis (always faithful). (4) We learned that “Mr. Gordo” was the name of Buffy’s stuffed pig in What’s My Line 1. The same episode and Helpless gave us Buffy’s love of ice skating. (5) When Willow got depressed at hearing the Dingoes song at the party, we got this dialogue: “Riley: …Associations? Willow: Big. Riley: Bad?”. The obvious third word would be “wolf”, as in Big Bad Wolf. It’s an allusion to Oz. (6) The dorm list Spike uses to find Buffy’s room contains the real names of many of the Buffy crew. (7) The scene where Riley and Forrest take the elevator to the Initiative was taken from the movie True Lies. (8) Willow suggested that Spike wanted her to do a spell because that’s what he wanted when she last saw him in Lover’s Walk. (9) The fight scene in the corridor was an homage to The Matrix.


  1. At least three people who watch "Revenge" are BtVS fans so we think it's a hoot that the Conspiracy is called The Initiative.

    And at least three BtVS fans are also Blakes7 fans so seeing Gan's "Limiter" chip turn up in Spike's head gave us a warm fuzzy feeling. (Whedon is on record as liking B7.) Just as the arc from B7 S4 turned up in "Serenity"....

    As for felonies, what about transportation? And, btw, prisons are called "penitentiaries" because you're supposed to have time to brood about your sins and repent.

    1. Yep, transportation was available for some. Given the alternatives, people were willing to choose Georgia over the gallows. :)

      I believe it was the Quakers -- who were the others chiefly responsible for the move to prisons as a form of punishment -- who gave us "penitentiary".

  2. I'm finally caught up! (In case you didn't notice the comments I've peppered throughout your essays, which are soooooo good. I wish the whole world read them. You totally voice a lot of the things I believe about Buffy that I never fully realized since I'm not very well-read.)

    As for one of the funniest scenes of the whole series, I love how the effects of the implant are used as a metaphor for impotence. Maybe that's what makes it funny. Rape is scary, but attempted rape that is thwarted because of the rapist's failings? Karmic justice.

    I never noticed the similarity to True Lies before. Eliza Dushku was in that!

    1. Welcome! And thanks -- I did see your other comments and appreciate them.

  3. Whedon does seem to have a thing for free-thinking people struggling against mind control by powerful monolithic entities (Watchers' Council, the Initiative, Wolfram & Hart, the Alliance, Rossum). I would think that real events such as MKULTRA inform some of these stories too.

    Now that you mention the panopticon, I recognize variations on that design in all of Whedon's shows.

    1. I suspect this tells us how Joss sees the world.