Feeling Like a Tool

Demons and the Working Girl on “Buffy”

One of the greatest things about being a TV character is that they don’t have to have jobs. At least, they don’t have to have the kind of jobs we have, where we spend more time staring at spreadsheets than saving the day and attempts at witty banter with our boss could get us fired. Leave it to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to give us a major TV character dealing with recognizable service-industry work in all of its brain-numbing detail. The episode, “Doublemeat Palace,” written by Jane Espenson, may not be on anyone’s list of the 10 best Buffy episodes, but it is the one hour of television to most explicitly examine the contrast between work and real life.

“Buffy” had set forth the problem of money and work early in its sixth season, which included “Doublemeat Palace.” With Buffy’s mother deceased and her father out of the picture, she was the sole support for herself and her teenage sister, Dawn. She had already learned in an earlier episode that her mother’s insurance money was gone, but her Watcher and mentor, Giles, solved the immediate problem by giving her a check to cover the cost of housing repairs and living expenses. The larger question still lingered, though, and her financial woes led Buffy to try on different careers, including construction and retail work (partially through demonic complications — which often served as metaphors for the vagaries of life on Buffy). She failed at both, construction because of resentment to her super-strength from the manly-men and retail because it bored her). In “Doublemeat Palace,” Buffy went to work in fast food.

The episode’s first scene includes a discussion of work, ending with a character saying that “Workers are the tools that shape America!” Enter Buffy in a striped uniform with a cow-shaped hat. As the camera pans over her, she responds, “I was kinda feeling like a tool and now I know why.”

Buffy’s first day at work begins with a training video straddling the line between familiar employee training (the smiling workers who assure Buffy that they, like her, are a part of the Doublemeat Palace experience) and the grotesque (it’s kept offscreen, but the suggestion is the film includes graphic footage of the slaughterhouse where the meat is processed). As the film ends, a horrified Buffy meets her humorless manager, Manny. (“It’s not a joke, it’s just my name,” he tells her in a monotone.) In the Doublemeat’s employee changing room, Buffy is distressed to discover that her new locker is full of a former employee’s clothes — her six years as the Slayer tell her that abandoned possessions in a Hellmouth town are rarely a good sign. Manny, bored, tells her to keep what she wants and toss the rest. To him, the Doublemeat employees are interchangeable cogs in the fast food machine. Then, in a scene that will strike fear into the heart of any wage drone, he instructs her to watch other employees as role models. “They’re lifers … like me,” he says. “You put in the work and 10 years from now, you’ll be where I am, I promise you.” Buffy looks suitably less than thrilled at that image as Manny punches her in on the clock.

In her first few minutes on the job while working the cash register, Buffy attempts to joke around with her co-worker, the ambitious Gary. “You’re funny,” he says. “You should stop that.” When Buffy asks why, Gary quotes Manny to her: “Levity is a time-thief that picks the pocket of the company.” With that pearl of wisdom, Buffy finds herself struggling to unlock the mysteries of the cash register, focusing on just getting through the day.

The cash register isn’t the only mystery Buffy believes she’s found in the Doublemeat Palace. When her friends come to visit, Buffy tells them that she thinks that something’s not right in the store because the manager is “all, like, mysterious and scary. And there’s this secret ingredient, and the people that work here are strange. They sort of stare into space, plus they disappear.”

Her friends who have worked are unmoved. Xander, who spent over a year after high school working in subsistence-level jobs (including ice cream vending and pizza delivery) before finding his niche in construction, tells her, “It’s fast food. I have swum in these murky waters, my friend. There is assorted creepiness, there is staring, there is the enthusiastic not-showing-up-at-all. I think you’re seeing demons where there’s just life.” Buffy’s Sunnydale is a town where demons have always been the cause of odd and hellish behavior, but the show steps out of its conceit here. The demon haunting the Doublemeat Palace is the soul-crushing work itself.

Xander is the least likely of Buffy’s friends to express this point of view, which makes it even more gripping that he does. Alone among the group, he has stumbled through other possibilities before chancing into a job — carpentry — that he enjoys and where he excels, without making a big deal out of it. (Xander is the one character on the show who doesn’t have any special powers; he knows that work is going to be a reality for him.) Giles has revealed in quieter moments that he was never especially keen on going into the family Watcher trade. As a young man, he rebelled by exploring black magic. While he has grown to enjoy the work and genuinely loves Buffy, his first obligation as a Watcher is one of duty. The other character who works, Anya, is attached to her job (managing a magic shop) through her love of money, which the writers usually play as comedic.

As Buffy trudges through her next day at the Doublemeat, Gary has disappeared, but no one seems to care. Buffy masters the grill and watches the French fry oil bubble. The episode is resolutely interested in the tiny indignities of fast food work — grease in one’s ears (a co-worker tells Buffy that he had to go to a doctor to get his ears cleaned out) and the lingering smell of fat. As Buffy notes, “I try to do the simplest thing in the world, an ordinary job in a well-lit place and I end up right back where I started, blood and death and funky smells.”

Eventually, a genuine horror invades these mundane ones: Buffy finds a finger by the meat grinder. Manny is unmoved, but it’s all the evidence that Buffy (by now desperate and a bit unhinged by the drudgery of the job) needs to decide that the Doublemeat secret ingredient is human flesh. She runs through the dining room. “It’s people! The Doublemeat Medley is people!” she tells customers. “The beefy layer is definitely people! Probably not the chickeny part! But who knows! WHO KNOWS?!” Charlton Heston in Soylent Green had nothing on Buffy.

Unsurprisingly, this — and a display of slayer strength — gets Buffy fired. She calls an emergency meeting of her friends to investigate the severed thumb and then heads back to the Doublemeat Palace to poke around.

After she’s gone, her sister Dawn and Xander talk about the balance of destiny and the world. “ I just mean, Buffy’s never gonna be a lawyer. Or a doctor. Anything big,” Dawn says.

“She’s the Slayer. She saves the whole world. That’s way bigger,” Xander responds, but it doesn’t satisfy Dawn.

“But it means she’s gonna have, like, crap jobs her whole life, right?” she asks, and Xander does not argue.

A viewer might reasonably wonder if Dawn and Xander are right, given that Buffy has had two years of college and is attractive, articulate and not yet 21. Even if saving the world always comes first, there are plenty of jobs with flexible hours that don’t involve spending eight hours a day bent over a grease pit. But to Espenson — and the characters — Buffy’s fate is sealed: she will make burgers by day, slay vampires by night. Buffy’s status as the vampire slayer becomes a metaphor for that which keeps someone from realizing their dreams, be it a lack of money or early parenthood or simple lack of talent.

The episode’s actual demon is defeated — I’ll spare you the particulars, involving that meat grinder and a snakey demonic appendage spouting from an old woman’s head — and, in the last scene, Buffy finds herself back at the Doublemeat Palace. The demon has killed Manny, and Buffy has come back to return her uniform to the new manager, a sympathetic-looking woman named Lorraine. Almost as an afterthought, she asks Lorraine whether the chain’s signature “Doublemeat Medley” really is made of processed vegetables, something her friends discovered while researching the demon. Instantly, Lorraine’s tone changes: This girl knows something important. “The Doublemeat reputation is built on a foundation of meat. You can’t spread this around,” she says.

Recognizing the power she holds, Buffy asks for her job back. Lorraine agrees and points to her own 10-year pin, identical to the one Manny was wearing in the beginning of the episode. “See this? I want you shooting for this from here on out,” she says.

This should be a moment of triumph for Buffy. She has a secure job for as long as she wants it and has managed to defeat a demon along the way.

Instead, it is one of the saddest real-life moments in the series. Buffy repeats, “Here on out,” and the tone in her voice says it all. Dawn and Xander are right: her destiny as the vampire slayer means that a normal job is just as far out of her reach as a normal life. When she retakes her crappy job, her dreams have died.