This two-part conclusion to the initiative/Adam plot is rather akin to a party in which 500 people were invited including the President and the Pope - thousands of dollars lavishly spent in pulling out all the stops...and where four people actually show up, all of whom are wearing superhero costumes and engaged in a giant nerdy slap-fight over who gets the first jello shot. The decor was fabulous, but...who really cares?
The full plot summaries can be found here and here courtesy of BUffyGuide.com.
Let's rattle off the many elements to this story that should have made it a phenomenally impactful conclusion to the 4th season uber-bad.
- The writers correctly diagnosed a number of understandable points of insecurity amongst Buffy's cohorts and used Spike to draw them out in an attempt to divorce Buffy from the one thing that makes her special compared to other slayers - her loving, supportive friends.
- The gang appears to split up, but then come together to forge a plan based on that very distinction - Buffy has friends...and will need their life force to defeat a big bad. That symbolism is not lost on me.
- The big bad actually does have an interesting motivation (on a purely logical level). His desire to craft a master race echoes the dangerous impulse in Maggie Walsh to create a perfect soldier (the impulse that created Adam)...the same impulse that leads modern psychology down scary paths sometimes...the same impulse that led to the Holocaust...should have been interesting if Adam had gotten more screen time.
- The writers begin to ask the question - why does Buffy have such a hold on Spike? That question will be very important later on. In point of fact, Spike's twisted obsession for Buffy will eventually drive him to restore his own soul at great personal cost, speaking to the power of loving role models to combat the evil within all of us.
- The friends reconcile way too easily and discover Spike's treachery in the first five minutes of part two. The break-up feels very contrived as a result. I have to say that the writers didn't do a very good job building the tension in the group prior to this episode...the elements were there but the romantic stuff wasn't well written and its effects on the group just didn't seem to get enough attention.
- For some reason, the production team decided that a voice-over speech was the best way to end such a potent episode. "For this reason, the initiative was considered a failure and funding ceased..." What the heck was THAT?? Really...the closed-door meeting voice-over is the best way to end such an emotionally draining experience for the Slayerettes is to spend the last two minutes of screen time looking at empty rooms full of bodies and listening to an unrelated voice-over?
- What's worse, when it comes down to it, this script feels like an unfair slap in the face of the US military command structure. This has been building throughout the course of the 4th season...it seems to me that Joss Whedon's libertarian instincts have left him genuinely hating the entire concept of a military hierarchy and a chain of command within government institutions. Here, it comes off as some kind of unfair claim that the military is out there conducting experiments on people and all of this is being kept a secret. There's a crucial difference between respecting the military and being concerned about the lack of oversight in top-secret programs (as was demonstrated in Stargate SG-1's landmark two-parter "Heroes") and genuinely despising the mere presence of the military, as seems to happen here.
The style elements in this episode feel clumsy and mismatched, and the personal storyline is rushed to conclusion out of necessity.
Despite all of that, there's no reason to fault the acting too severely. I'd have been willing to go higher since the bickering and emotional drama amogst the slayerettes was well performed, but Leonard Gates (Forrest), Marc Blucas, and Lindsay Crouse (Maggie Walsh zombie) really failed to sell me on what they were doing here and I will renew my objection to the decision to have George Hertzberg (Adam) play the supervillain so blandly. There's a difference between cold and logical evil (which can be compelling and scary as hell) and flat and uninteresting monotone speechifying...which kills the moment. Spike reacts to Adam's speech with awe while the audience is yawning and wondering whether they should turn it to TBS for Scrubs reruns.
I've already said my piece regarding this show's portrayal of the normal operating procedures of our armed forces and those who command them. I share Whedon's concern for the dangers that can arise when secret programs have no oversight and no accountability, but this doesn't feel like a piece about the need for as much transparency as is possible without endangering national security. This feels like a piece arguing that the way in which soldiers are created and commanded is inherently dangerous. I'd give that a hearty thumbs down.