[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Douglas Petrie | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 11/16/1999]
This is a solid episode which really manages to get the seasonal arc moving. We’re introduced to the Initiative, we discover Spike can’t harm any living creature anymore, we find out Riley and Walsh are both heavily involved with the initiative, and we see Riley making his first romantic moves on Buffy. The title, “The Initiative,” means two different things. There’s the obvious (the military group), but Riley is also taking the romantic ‘initiative’ with Buffy. Much of the episode is centered around introducing us to both of these threads. It’s also interesting to note that while Buffy does initiate contact with Riley, she really isn’t a large part of the episode. The focus is really on Riley and Spike’s attempts of connecting with Buffy, in their own unique ways.
There are a lot of abrupt scene changes that really work perfectly here. The first is when the Initiative boys are talking about how hot Buffy is. Forrest says, “I bet a lot of guys would like to get their hands on her.” The scene then quickly changes to Spike on the ground saying, “Slayer… I’ll kill you. Not so tough. I… Kill slayer.” Another instance is when Spike, trapped in the Initiative, overhears that the Slayer is likely somehow related to why he’s trapped there. He assumes that the Slayer is responsible and says “I always worried what would happen when that bitch got some funding. She’s wised up a bit. Fine! I’ll take her apart. I don’t care how brilliant she is.” Then the scene abruptly cuts to Buffy in class having a really hard time with her ballpoint pen. Yet another instance of this happening is when Riley admits his attraction to Buffy and tells his friends, “Well, I guess I’m gonna go see a girl.” The scene quickly changes back to Spike who, while trying to escape, tells the labcoats, “Sorry, can’t stay. Got to go see a girl.”
Riley and Spike are both after the same thing here: Buffy. Riley wants to establish a relationship with her while Spike, at least on the outside, wants to kill her (he is also subconciously in love with her, see Foreshadowing section). I’m going to focus on Riley and the Initiative first, though, which both come across as frequently hammy. Riley’s “I guess I like her” speech is an example of this. He really does rub off as so nice that there’s got to be something wrong with him. However, when he punches Parker out for saying that Buffy is too whiney (which is shamefully what a lot of the BtVS community thinks of her too), I can’t help but love the guy for it. His attempts at gaining information on Buffy are also very well-intended.
Riley and Spike both go looking for Buffy in her dorm and find Willow there instead. At first Riley doesn’t win Willow over in their very interesting conversation. She says, “Why should I trust you?” He replies, “Just sort of hoping you’d think I have an honest face.” She uses recent experiences (Parker, and to a lesser extent, Oz) to shoot him down: “I’ve seen honest faces before. They usually come attached to liars.” He is sympathetic and says, “I appreciate you wanting to protect your friend. I guess, uh, she kind of brings that out in people.” Riley, of course, observed Buffy stick up for Willow when Professor Walsh was overly cruel to her. Before he leaves the room Willow begins to feel like her pain is robbing Buffy a chance to meet someone new, and that that isn’t fair to her. So she opens up a bit and gives Riley a bone. She says, “She likes cheese … She has a stuffed piggy named Mr. Gordo, loves ice capades without the irony.” Cheese rules all.
Later on at the party Willow helps Riley approach Buffy, but all he can think of is to offer her some cheese. This doesn’t go over too well and ends with Buffy running off with a very poorly dressed Xander. At the end of the episode, when Riley gets another shot, he makes some progress by asking, “Did Willow tell you I like cheese?” Buffy calls him peculiar, which is what Riley called her earlier and he says “I can live with that.” I sure know that if a pretty girl walked up to me offering cheese that I’d be pretty happy. So I’m very pleased that cheese won the day in this situation.
The Initiative, what Riley is a part of, gets a solid introduction here, even if it comes off as very hammy for a secret military group. I love their big hanger bay and the Initiative theme song. It’s also fun to see that Professor Walsh is the one running the show. She’s actually a pretty fascinating character, which makes me wonder why she got killed off so quickly. More on that when the time comes though. The fight scene towards the end also worked for me. I enjoyed the complete chaos of it, what with Willow trying to crawl away, Riley saving her, Spike trying to escape, and Buffy firing a flare gun and laying the hurt on the military boys. The commandos should have been far more beaten up by Buffy than they were though. I only wish that this arc would have been developed sooner than six episodes from now.
A lot of stuff is going on with Spike here as well. He now has the chip in his head and begins the process of learning what that means for him. The chip comes off as pretty inconsistent in this episode though. He’s able to lay several blows on various people without his head exploding in pain. The only time we outright see him have problems is when he tries to bite people. This is changed in the following episodes. Anyway, this was a really smart move by the writers. This gives him an excuse to be a regular on the show and allows his character to be developed in new areas. A scene in particular which I adore is when he violently attacks Willow in her dorm (even though he is looking for Buffy). This is very brutal and feels very much like a rape scene. After the break, though, we see that Spike can’t bite her. A brutal scenes now turns into an impotence parody and the two of them pull it off hilariously. Spike even points out that back in “Lover’s Walk” [3×08] when Willow was wearing the pink lilac sweater he wanted to bite her. Willow tries to be kind and tells him, “You know, this doesn’t make you any less terrifying.” Spike amusingly replies, “Don’t patronize me.” The truth of the matter is that Spike isn’t terrifying anymore. It will be a little while (“Doomed” [4×11] ) until he finds out that he has other ways of inflicting damage.
Xander and Giles get some fun bonding time again. Boy these two are really at a really pathetic place right now. Early on we see them doing research alone together. Xander’s so bored that he, in jest, suggests they summon a demon and “kick its ass.” The writers also firmly establish that Xander’s military skill is completely gone. I’m personally happy about this, because there really needs to be someone in the group who has no special knowledge or skills. He claims he still has good hand-to-hand skills and then later has a slap fight with Harmony. This moment has to constitute a new low point for his character’s ego. Wow was that both pathetic and hilarious.
To finish up here I’ll say that this is a strong episode which covers a lot of important ground. Some of it came across as a bit hammy and lightweight for the main arc of the season, but fun was definitely had. When pitted against the arc-initiator episodes from other seasons we can see that this one definitely lacks the same intensity and punch (i.e. “Revelations” [3×07] and “No Place Like Home” [5×05] ). It’s certainly a solid start, though, which leaves me interested for more.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Riley ignoring his friends’ sexually aggressive attitudes.
+ Xander perking up when hearing Buffy’s comment about putting something ‘slutty’ on.
+ The re-use of the same vamp which got caught back in “The Freshman” [4×01] .
+ Spike throwing the other vamp into the commandos to be staked. “New plan, you go that way.”
+ Willow trying to conceal Buffy’s weapons from Riley, but he just bends down and pushes them under without looking.
+ Harmony putting up a unicorn poster in her cave.
+ Buffy and Riley’s fun outdoor night chat. They both hear a girl scream and run away.
+ Professor Walsh is the one who designed Spike’s chip.
* Harmony giving Spike a huge sigh when hearing him go off about killing the Slayer again. She says, “Spikey. Let’s leave the slayer alone. You know she’ll only slap you around, and I can do that.” The fact of the matter is, Spike is already obsessed with the Slayer. Like Drusilla says in a flashback during “Fool for Love” [5×07], “I can still see her floating all around you, laughing. Why? Why won’t you push her away? … You’re all covered with her. I look at you…all I see is the Slayer.” This flashback takes place sometime during the latter parts of S3, not too before what’s happening right now. His subconcious love for her is already starting to seep to the surface, but right now he’s interpreting it as a passion to kill her and won’t quite realise that it’s love until “Out of My Mind” [5×04]. His ‘obsession’ with her begins here though.