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Monday, June 4, 2012

Doomed

[Updated April 30, 2013]

Doomed may seem like an odd episode to feature an apocalypse. It’s not a season finale, which we might expect. It isn’t played as farce like The Zeppo. What makes the situation apocalyptic is metaphorical: Buffy’s fear of starting a new relationship, particularly one that might be similar to her relationship with Angel. She was happy to date Riley when she thought he was a “corn-fed Iowa boy”. The idea that she’s about to hook up with another professional demon hunter is deeply worrying to her for two reasons: (1) It may say something about the men she’s attracted to; and (2) Riley’s been concealing some pretty important facts.
Riley was quick to point out that she hasn’t been fully forthcoming either, but what happened next was crucial. Buffy immediately told him who she was, namely, “Slayer, The”. Riley, in contrast, wouldn’t tell her about himself, leaving her to provide him with an all-too-accurate description. The relationship can’t succeed if she’s disclosing her identity and he’s not.


That was all in the teaser. Later Riley tried to argue her out of her decision on the ground that someone may have “done you wrong” in the past but that he won’t. The flaw in this argument is that she has no reason to trust his promise since she found out he’s been hiding such important facts from her and still won’t tell her the whole truth.
From Buffy’s perspective, this whole situation has all too many similarities to her relationship with Angel. Angel first appeared to her as a mystery guy who gave her helpful information. He neglected to mention the insignificant fact that, oh yeah, he’s a vampire. She fell for him, yes, but it wasn’t until she felt she could trust him that she committed. “I love you. I just don’t know if I can trust you.” (Lie to Me.)
These similarities, I think, explain why Buffy saw the potential for “pain, death, apocalypse”. There’s a risk that she’s about to repeat the mistakes she made in high school. There are multiple references to “being back in high school” by Willow, Buffy and Spike throughout the episode. Buffy felt as if she was doomed to repeat high school; that’s the metaphor. Her trip back to the school allows her to face the demons which her high school experience generated and which are metaphorically blocking her from entering into a new relationship.
When Doomed first aired, the scene in which Buffy jumped into the Hellmouth after the Vahrall demon really bothered me – she obviously violated the laws of physics. Doomed is one of the episodes I had in mind in my discussion of “realism” in the Introduction. The key to the scene is not the physics, it’s the emotional truth that Riley was willing to stay with her and pull her out of the depths of despair into which she had plunged. Riley earned her trust by helping bring her back from the Hellmouth, just as Angel earned it by his actions in The Dark Age.
Buffy really does like Riley, so we don’t see much about Xander, her metaphorical heart in Doomed. Her reluctance to enter a relationship with Riley is instead reflected in Willow, her metaphorical spirit. Willow’s uncertainty at the party demonstrates that she still lacks confidence in who she is. She was thrown by Percy’s question about Oz and got upset that Percy called her a nerd and a geek. Her recent sense of herself is very tied up with dating Oz – “hello, dating a guitarist” – but his departure has left her so unsure about herself that Percy’s comments made her feel “like I was back in high school”.
In this context, Spike’s description of Xander and Willow as losers who simply get in Buffy’s way both plays into the metaphorical insecurities of Buffy and Willow and will have important repercussions later on:
Spike: “*Buffy* fights the forces of evil.  You’re her groupies.  She’d do just as well without you – better I’d wager, since she wouldn’t have to go about saving your hides all the time.”
Xander:  “That is so not true!  We’re part of the team.  She needs us.”
Spike:  “Or you’re just the same tenth grade losers you’ve always been, and she’s too much of a softy to cut you loose.”

I guess this is as good a place as any to talk about Riley. To say he wasn’t popular with fans is an understatement. Most saw him as boring, very few, if any, thought Marc Blucas had any chemistry with SMG, and many disliked the idea of Buffy moving on from Angel. I don’t dislike Riley, but I’m not a particular fan of his character. This episode pretty much sums up why: at the end, when Riley talked about blowing his cover, he said it’s “the end of the world”. That one phrase demonstrates just how distant his life experience is from Buffy’s, who really does face the plural of apocalypse and who has to account for that in her life.
We can read Riley’s enthusiasm in the face of his ignorance about demons as all too typical of graduate students (maybe of college grads generally). They have an unjustified self-confidence and excitement about confronting the challenges of the world, but they don’t really know what that world is like – compare Riley’s glee about the earthquake with Buffy’s reaction. In the metaphor of the show, Buffy has grown up much more than Riley because she’s faced those problems. What we’re told of his home life in Iowa plays off a stereotype of someone who’s been sheltered. The only way he could describe Buffy as “self-involved” – a line that still grates on me – is that he knows nothing of the challenges she faces.
Riley also evinced a “boys with toys” attitude consistent with his over-enthusiasm. Buffy hung a lantern on this with her reference to playing Donkey Kong when Riley showed up with his pheromone reader. This also ties back in to Doug Petrie’s comment that one theme of the season was the contrast between science and magic. The twin, intercut scenes of the Initiative and of Buffy as they prepare to find the demons makes this point pretty obvious:
“Cut to the gang researching at Giles.
Giles:  “A Vahrall demon.”
Willow looking over at his book:  “Eew!”
Xander:  “I second that revulsion.”
Giles:  “Yes. ‘Slick like gold and girt in moonlight, father of portents and brother to blight’.”
Buffy reading over his shoulder:  “Limbs with talons, eyes like knives, bane to the blameless, thief of lives.”
Cut to Riley debriefing his patrol team:  “Three meters [10 feet] tall, approximately 100 –120 kilograms [220-264 pounds], based on my visual analysis.”
Graham:  “Special hazards?”
Riley:  “Unknown.  Probably nothing we haven’t handled before.  There is no pattern we can discern yet, so we got to assume that it is on a basic kill-crush-destroy.”
Cut to Buffy:  “This thing isn’t digging up the bones of a child for fun.”
Xander:  “Well, a demon’s got some pretty hilarious ideas about fun.”
Willow:  “Bones of a child though.  I saw that!  (Pulls a book over to her and flips pages)  An ancient ritual – uses the blood of a man, the bones of a child and – something called the Word of Valios?  I-It’s all part of the sacrifice – the sacrifice of three.”
Buffy:  “Let me guess – ends the world.”
Willow:  “Well, yeah, - I-it’s not big with the details, though.  It doesn’t say how the world ends or what the ritual entails exactly.”
Xander:  “The sacrifice of three... – Three people are going to die?”
Buffy:  “No, they won’t.  Because claw boy is not getting all of his ingredients.  We have to find that third one, the Word of Valios, keep him from getting it.”
Willow:  “If he doesn’t already have it.  I mean, who knows where he’s been?”
Cut to Riley:  “Here is one for the good guys: this thing has a pheromone signature a mile wide.  Agent Gates has been working with the detection system the lab’s developing.”
Forrest gets up:  “Can’t tell where it’s going, but I’ve got a bead on where it’s been.  (Stands next to Riley)  Residual traces showing up in populated areas.  The thing’s not shy.”
Riley:  “We’re going out in civies, day clothes only guys.  Weapons stowed in packs, keep ‘em out of sight til nightfall.  Remember this isn’t a capture, it’s a kill.”
Forrest as the meeting breaks up:  “Get your quadrant assignment from me.  We’ll blanket the town.”
Cut to Buffy:  “I’ll check the magic shop.  See if they’ve heard of a book called the Word of Valios.  (Puts on her coat)  Willow, Xander, how about the book archives at the museum?”

Riley’s view of the demons and his reaction to them stem from his social indoctrination, one of the themes of S4. He’s been trained to see the world in a given way and he’s not (yet, at least) capable of achieving a deeper understanding. For all the technology the Initiative can bring to bear, it can’t actually stop the Vahrall demons or even find them because it doesn’t understand them. Riley just assumed that the demons were instinctual animals on a “crush-kill-destroy” spree, while Buffy took the time to acquire actual knowledge of their goal. The seemingly hard-nosed, pragmatic attitude of the Initiative in fact represents a superficial understanding of the world. This was prefigured in the teaser when Buffy described Riley’s “secret” to him while he had never heard of the Slayer.
The ending of Doomed provides two twists on the Clockwork Orange story. One is that Spike, who’s having his own identity crisis, can hurt other demons, a fact which he celebrates hilariously while Willow and Xander sit and stare. That’s consistent with the basic idea of his conditioning because the chip causes pain when he tries to do evil but he can still get pleasure from fighting it. The other is his realization that words alone can hurt Xander and Willow without triggering his chip. That allows free rein to his worse instincts. These contradictory impulses will play an increasing role in the future.
Trivia notes: (1) This dialogue – Giles: Now in the meantime, I’ve got a few theories about our mysterious commando friends.” Buffy:  “Oh. - Really?” – is possibly a play on Riley’s name (Oh Really/Oh Riley).  Note that Buffy otherwise failed to tell Giles about Riley’s connection to the commandos. (2) When Forrest suggested that the Slayer was a thrash metal band, that’s because there really is such a band by that name. (3) Forrest’s description of Buffy as “she’s cool, she’s hot, she is tepid, she’s all temperature Buffy” referenced old commercials for the detergent Cheer. (4) When Riley said his duties were “not just a job”, Buffy responded “It’s an adventure….” That’s a reference to the slogan used in commercials for the US Army: “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” (5) When Xander said “I second that revulsion”, he was playing off the song by Smokey Robinson “I Second That Emotion”. (6) Riley’s description of the demon as “kill-crush-destroy” quoted the Lost in Space episode “Revolt of the Androids”. (7) The shooting script for Doomed had Willow stepping on the cheerleading trophy which contained Catherine Madison (Witch). We'd then see the eyes of the statue glaring angrily at Willow. Sadly, they cut the scene, but the statue can still be seen in the debris at the school. (h/t Anonymous). (8) I see the following dialogue as an extended double entendre:
Cut to a stake clamped to the edge of a table.  Camera pans up to reveal Spike standing on a chair before it his arms spread wide.
Spike:  “Good bye, Dru.  See you in hell.”
He lets himself fall forward just as Willow and Xander walk in.  He turns in the air to look at them and misses the stake, smashing the table.
Willow:  “What are you doing?”
Spike picks himself up:  “Bloody rot.  Can’t a person knock?”
Willow:  “What were you doing?”
Xander:  “You were trying to stake yourself!”
Spike:  “Fag off!
Willow:  “It’s ooky.  We know him, we can’t just let him poof himself!”
 

Spike’s behavior and reaction suggest the scene can be read as a metaphor for masturbation. The stake, of course, is a phallic symbol, as we just saw in the lecture scene in Hush. Interpreting his behavior as masturbation is consistent with the references to him as “impotent” by Xander here and by Giles in Something Blue, and Buffy’s “flaccid” in Something Blue. Remember also the scene in The Initiative, in which Spike’s inability to bite Willow was played metaphorically as the inability to perform sexually. Asking someone why they didn’t knock is a cliché for interrupted sex scenes in television and movies. Then too, “fag” is derogatory American slang for a gay man, just as “poof” is British slang for one.

4 comments:

  1. I saw this episode as a nice callback to "Prophecy Girl."

    In "Prophecy Girl," Giles told Buffy that she would face the master and she would die. She said no at first, but then accepted the challenge and went down there. Angel and Xander got her out.

    Here, Buffy told Giles the apocalypse was coming. He said no at first, but then agreed. Here, Riley got her out.

    In Prophecy Girl, Willow and Cordelia discovered the bodies in the school. Here, only Willow did. Buffy's normal girl shadow-self is gone, as evidenced by being the one to insist to Giles that they were doomed, and not vice versa.

    I think this simply just shows how far they have come, but also how far they have left to go in revisiting their high school fears.

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    1. Yeah, there's definitely a theme here of not being doomed to repeat high school. That's played out in the apocalypse, as you describe, but also in Willow's encounter with Percy, Spike's cruel comments to Xander and Willow, and in other ways.

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  2. How does the initiative, in all their depths of knowledge and resources, not know what or who the Slayer is? This might be nit-picky, but this doesn't feel all that plausible to me. Am I wrong in thinking this?

    I also am not an early fan of Riley. I'll admit that I don't know too much about him at this point, but your comment about him not being well-liked doesn't bode well for my attitude towards him. He strikes me as one of those individuals who has....a superiority complex? That's probably not the right description...someone always needs to be in control of things, needs them to be orderly.

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    1. The failure of the Initiative to recognize the Slayer stems, I think, from the science v. magic contrast I mentioned in my post on The Initiative (and will discuss again). They're so focused on technology and their project (you'll find out about that very soon) that they don't really understand the world of magic around them.

      I infer from your comment that you're watching for the first time, so I won't say any more about Riley yet. There's plenty to come on that score.

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