Cultural Catchup Project: “Into the Woods,” Caught in the Weeds (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Into the Woods,” Caught in the Weeds

August 2nd, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

As the Slayer, Buffy has always had to balance various parts of her life: with great power comes great responsibility, and so there were times when her friends and her studies suffered as a result of the time she had to spend patrolling and keeping Sunnydale from falling into the abyss.

However, in previous seasons the consequences of an imbalanced life were fairly minimal: it created tension between friends which could be smoothed over without much difficulty, and it led to conflicts with principals which were ultimately inconsequential – even Season Four, as Buffy graduated to the college life, it still seemed as if the challenge of balancing her various commitments (to slaying, to the Initiative, to school work) was still pretty easy to overcome (especially when you consider that they went most of the season without exploring her distance from her mother).

But in the fifth season’s absence of an omnipresent story arc – with Glory sitting on the bench for extended periods, biding her time before making her next move – the series has delved further into decidedly human drama: after it becomes clear that Joyce’s condition is not related to Dawn’s arrival (except that the tumour gave her the ability to see Dawn for what she was), Buffy’s life becomes infinitely more complicated, and so she starts to let that balance fade. And while ignoring her studies is something the show cares little about, and ignoring Spike’s advances is not a particularly challenging thing for Buffy to do, ignoring Riley’s descent into a dark place is a consequence she had not prepared for.

It is, however, a consequence which I’ve been preparing for since the season began: while “Family” established that Tara is part of this family, and “Triangle” went out of its way to answer any lingering doubts about Anya’s connection with the group, “Into the Woods” seems like it should pick up on the season’s gradual argument that there is no worse outlet for Riley Finn’s psychological struggles than his efforts to make Buffy feel for him as she felt for Angel.

Unfortunately, all “Into the Woods” proves is that Marti Noxon might as well face that she’s addicted to love, to the detriment of Riley’s swan song.

There’s a pretty simple three-act structure to the final three episodes of Marc Blucas’ run in the series (or, at least, his run in the opening credits): “Shadow” confirms that he is feeling left out of Buffy’s life and shows his desire to feel something in his altercation with the vampire at the bar, “Listening to Fear” introduces the military as an outlet for his current lack of direction, while “Into the Woods” reveals his extra-curricular activities with vampires to Buffy and offers the military as a convenient exit strategy. What makes Riley’s exit possible is that it is never the focus of the earlier episodes: because Joyce’s tumour is where the real drama lies, Riley’s struggles rightfully remain on the sidelines, building on his sense of isolation which has been around since the premiere. It has been extremely subtle throughout the season, and that kept it from seeming too melodramatic, and also kept it from distracting from the weight of Joyce’s condition.

“Shadow” is a strong episode emotionally, even if the rather awful effects on the Cobra keep the episode from living up to its full potential – the idea of seeing shadows, whether it’s Riley becoming uncertain in his relationship with Buffy or Joyce realizing that Dawn is more shadow than reality, is nicely integrated into the episode, and the drama surrounding Joyce’s condition is nicely transitioned into how it impacts Riley (who learned of her hospital visit after Spike did). Yes, the snake was a terrible piece of effects work when it mattered most (the final scene of Buffy taking out her frustrations on it was far too comical to be meaningful), but the idea that Buffy is closing herself off from Riley is nicely built into the dramatic action of the episode. “Listening to Fear” is effective in a similar fashion: Riley separates himself from the group by bringing in the military, which creates a meaningful explication of his growing distance from Buffy without actually making it the central issue of the episode. Riley’s struggles remained in the background all season, and that allowed us to witness the gradual growing apart which would happen as Buffy deals with her mother’s condition, Dawn’s arrival, and the threat of Glory all at once.

It’s what I like about the fifth season, the sense of the pieces falling into place over time as opposed to being shaken loose by dramatic moments, which is why I found “Into the Woods” to be a touch – okay, more than a touch – too melodramatic. Nothing that Buffy and Riley were saying in their climatic confrontation felt like it was new information, as we figured out all of it in the previous episodes. While I thought Sarah Michelle Gellar and Marc Blucas did a fine job in those scenes, as each character poured their heart out, it felt false for there to be ultimatums and huge outpourings of emotion when to this point they had been drifting apart in a much more subtle fashion. There should have been a sense of catharsis, where their argument makes them each aware of what they’ve been doing, but it didn’t seem as if Marti Noxon’s script captured any of that side of the equation: instead, it was built around sweeping declarations of emotion and the overdramatic conclusion as Xander convinces Buffy to go after Riley just as he flies off in a helicopter presuming she had chosen to let go. It takes what, for me, was a logical turn of events considering Riley’s struggles following the end of the Initiative and turns it a tragedy.

Riley’s arc on the series has not been a simple one. Riley is a normal guy at the end of the day, but during his time with the Initiative their drugs gave him strength which placed him in a position similar to the Slayer, creating the sense that he was (like Angel before him) someone who could relate with Buffy’s responsibility. When the Initiative fell apart, and Riley became merely “normal” again, it created a gap between them which Buffy chose to ignore (which is a problem) and Riley chose to fill with his heroic antics with grenades and eventually with his dangerous behaviour with the vampires (which, I’d argue, is a bigger problem). Their relationship didn’t fall apart because Buffy didn’t act sooner, it fell apart because Riley is going through something which goes beyond Buffy, Sunnydale, and even the Initiative. Perhaps in a perfect world Buffy would have seen the signs of Riley’s struggles earlier, and she could have tried to do something to help him find his footing in life, but I would tend to believe that said something would also result in his departure. It is not Buffy’s responsibility to fix Riley or their relationship when it was decidedly a two-way street, and while his fall was facilitated by Buffy taking him for granted I think that the series nicely captured why she was otherwise preoccupied (and otherwise focused on staying strong on her own, as she has always done) during those moments.

Which is why I find Xander’s speech so patronizing, so one-sided in order to manufacture that sweeping emotional conclusion of Buffy running to greet the helicopter she’ll never catch. I think it’s convenient to suggest that Riley was the “once in a lifetime” sort of guy, as that seems to ignore that Buffy was not the sole cause of his collapse, and more importantly ignores the fact that I honestly don’t believe we’ve ever seen the “real” Riley Finn. Sure, there are enough bits and pieces of Riley’s personality that we can construct the ideal guy who Xander portrays not unlike how Walsh constructed Adam, and there is no question that Riley gave more to the relationship than Buffy did towards the end, but I think that the episode as a whole reduces their relationship to broad emotional strokes when it was considerably more complex than that. Xander’s speech is the worst example of this: while Brendon and Gellar are again really strong in the scene, and it is certainly true that Buffy shouldn’t let this be her last interaction with Riley, the idea that it should be done out of love and not concern is blind romanticism at its very worst.

It takes all of the control away from the viewer in terms of interpreting this situation. To this point, this season has been highly dependent on audience interaction, with Dawn’s arrival asking the viewer to question what they’re seeing and try to piece together various clues (and, eventually, joining those few characters who know the truth before Dawn does). The subtlety of Riley and Buffy’s struggles was another element which encouraged us to read into the situation for ourselves, and yet “Into the Woods” feels like it forces us to think about their relationship in only one way. In a perfect world, we could have heard Xander’s opinion and felt it was tied to his character, but instead it felt like Noxon writing her way towards the heartbreaking ending more than a character intervening in his friend’s life. It was as if there was no room in the episode for us to question Xander’s interpretation, and there’s a determinism in that which feels at odds with the subtle ways in which this story had been handled to this point.

There is something poetic about that moment where the weight of the world is lifted off your shoulders and you realize that you’ve left behind something you valued before – just as Joyce is out of the woods, Buffy discovers that she can’t get out of the woods herself considering the state of her relationship. However, rather than the state of her relationship speaking for itself based on the successful development throughout the season, it becomes reduced to emotional speeches and romanticized images of their past, failing to take into account how complex their relationship has actually been over the past season. I’m not sad to see Riley go, as I think that this was the right time for them to part, but the episode’s posturing in regards to their “once in a lifetime” love couldn’t help but leave a bad taste in my mouth – it’s one thing to be frustrated by the direction a series chooses to go in, but it’s another to be frustrated that they’re heading in the right direction but choose to jump out the window instead of using the door.

Cultural Observations

  • I may have issues with Xander’s speech, but I think the idea that it would strengthen his love for Anya makes perfect sense: that something so emotionally honest would come out of something so emotionally false is a bit strange, but alas.
  • Speaking of Anya, I’ll deal with “Triangle” here, as it doesn’t fit in with my future posting schedule. It’s a fun episode: I like the angry troll ex-boyfriend, Anya coming into conflict with the gang due to her difficult personality was something that had to be dealt with, and as I didn’t want to see Buffy sobbing her way through the episode the quasi-comic treatment of her lovesickness was a smart strategy from Espenson. Throw in a nice transition in the Spike/Buffy phase, and you’ve got a nice comeback for the show.
  • As someone who didn’t mind Riley, I can only imagine how those who hated Riley felt about “Into the Woods” – it’s one thing to feel like the series mangles a logical exit, but it’s another to be told that the way you’ve been treating Riley (as a temporary convenience after Angel’s departure) is something to be ashamed of.
  • Will probably offer some broad thoughts on Disc Four before tackling “The Body” on its own, although there’s no real timeline on that (although I’ve watched through “Crush”).
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91 Comments

Filed under Cultural Catchup Project

91 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: “Into the Woods,” Caught in the Weeds (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. Witnessaria

    Very good analysis of Buffy and Riley’s relationship. I have always come down more on Buffy’s side of this equation than Riley’s, and have felt she took too much responsibility for the situation in the end. She was Riley’s great first love; he was not hers, not with that degree of intensity. And while I can accept he would feel sidelined and upset by it, I think if he could have looked at things with more maturity, he would have realized how much Buffy was dealing with and cut her some slack.

    But I think you’ll find many people believe Buffy treated Riley poorly, and they believe the same things about why as his character did. I think I agree with your statement that the episode seems to leave only Xander’s interpretation as the valid one, but the viewers have still managed to contemplate other possibilities and viewpoints, so it becomes a point of contention and discussion. Now I wonder if that’s because of the way it was presented. I had always assumed it was due to the way many people perceive Buffy.

    I do think that the episode did end with less subtlety than what had been happening previously, but I do think it was an emotionally true series of moments, even though I think some of the emotions were misguided, if that makes sense. It seemed like a realistic way for the characters to think and act, even if I thought some were wrong in their thinking. But I’ve only ever thought about it in terms of the storyline, not in terms of how the episode is structured to bring it about and whether it truly is asking us to believe one side is right and the other is wrong. I’ll be interested to read what other people think about that.

    Thanks for the review. It seemed absolutely free of insane troll logic. 😉

    • Mel

      I am one of those who think buffy did treat riley poorly (Xander is totally right when he tells Buffy she expected Riley to be there when its convenient), but I definitely don’t think she’s the only one at fault in their breakup (its not like Riley ever tried to say “hey, I’m feeling like this, we need to address these issues before they get bigger” and the fact that he was feeling that way wasn’t because Buffy ever saw him as too weak–although I think Spike is right when he tells Riley she needs some monster in her man, its not the strength issue at all (which he-spike- addresses later if I recall)) whoa, nested parentheticals.

      I tend to take the end of the ep purely on emotion, and its very effective, but because I watch predominantly for story, I’ve never considered how its such a puppetmaster sort of thing on Noxon’s part. I think I want to watch it again with Myles’ comments and yours in mind, to see if it tugs quite as effectively.

      And Myles, a lot of fans hate Marti in part due to this very lack of subtlety (another big part is Joss set her as showrunner when he went to deal with firefly, and the chilly reception of a large chunk of the season 6 arc is blamed on that a lot) I’m not a hater, but she’s definitely not my favorite non-Joss Buffy writer (Espenson wins that honor)

      • Susan

        Marti Noxon gets a lot of leeway from me, since she cemented my abiding love for Willow. She wrote the scene that ends with this line: “I said ‘date.'”

    • Yeah, I think Myles is letting Buffy off the hook too much here (which is understandable, she is our hero). Buffy took Riley for granted, plain and simple. And sure, he wasn’t the great love of her life, all broody and torturey like Angel was, but I think that’s the point. Blucas may not have been everyone’s favorite, but I think most people can agree that Riley was good for Buffy (if not good for drama, in the end). He was normal and solid and loved Buffy to a ridiculous degree, and that made her think of him as safe.

      I also think the turn in the Buffy/Riley relationship, and this episode as a whole, are meant to show us something about Buffy (not just lament the passing of this “great” relationship). This whole season we see her taking on all this responsibility by herself. She is increasingly alone as she fights out what it means to be the Slayer, what it means to take on responsibility of her family as her mother gets sick, the responsibility of being the only one to protect Dawn, who can defeat Glory. Riley was backseat in all of that, when he should have been right there beside her the whole way, but that never once occurred to her. I think that was mostly what Xander’s speech was all about. Buffy has a hard time letting people in (and this is something we won’t be done with, either).

    • Mel: I agree that Riley was also to blame. I just don’t think we should put all the responsibility on his shoulders.

  2. Jason

    “emotional speeches and romanticized images of their past, failing to take into account how complex their relationship has actually been over the past season.”

    I agree with the first half of this statement, though I found it more enjoyable than you did. I don’t think the second half is correct. Xander (Via Noxon) was making the complex situation so simple to make something (the only thing that matter at that particular juncture) clear. He basically articulates, “Hey if don’t want him and if he’s not worth fighting for then let him go, but if you can admit you’ve closed yourself off from him and find that that to be wrong, and you want him to stay because you love him, then that’s all that matters.” This speaks volumes about Buffy’s psyche, not to mention her combative and obstinate personality, which is why I like it and don’t find it to be the bad brand of reductive.

    • I certainly don’t begrudge you your enjoyment, but two things on this front:

      1) I think that Xander’s sudden insight into Buffy’s psyche is too convenient – it’s not clear why he’s so concerned about this, and him being placed in that role felt arbitrary to me.

      2) I think I would be fine if Xander had simply laid it out like that for Buffy, but my issue was with the idea of Riley as a “once in a lifetime” guy and the fact that he seems to get there by placing all of the blame on Buffy’s shoulders. Just a few episodes ago he seemed resentful of Riley, and yet now he’s leaving a lot unsaid in regards to the complexity of their relationship. While you’re correct that his ultimate purpose is not quite so problematic, in that she does need to be faced with that particular scenario, I think how Noxon gets there goes beyond simplification to the point of rewriting their relationship to make the blatant romanticism plausible.

      • C

        I’m not sure it’s really a sudden insight, we’ve seen earlier in the season Riley confide his doubts about Buffy’s commitment to him to Xander.

        And of all the Scoobies, Xander is clearly the character who understands Riley the most, given his long standing position as the group’s “normal guy.”

        I also don’t think Xander’s speech is implying that Riley is Buffy’s one true love – he’s merely allowing her to entertain the idea that maybe she didn’t give the relationship the chance it deserved.

        I’m actually not a huge fan of this episode either, and while Riley’s not exactly my favorite character I always felt people were a little too eager to pile on him and let Buffy off the hook. They both screwed up here, and while Riley seems willing to admit that during their final confrontation, Buffy isn’t until Xander gets through to her.

      • diane

        Spot-on review, Myles. You’ve nailed exactly why I dislike “Into the Woods” so much.

        While Xander does come on way too strong here, he does have some history of being manipulative. Also, these kids are barely out of high school, so the “once in a lifetime” trope isn’t entirely out of place. Xander certainly hasn’t had a second great love yet (I don’t think that he and Cordy ever got that intense), so I can excuse his perspective.

        On the other hand, I do wish that Buffy had just told him to stuff it. Buffy chasing Riley wasn’t just overly dramatic; it ruins the episode. She does need to react in some way to loosing Riley, but this was the worst possible writers’ choice. Setting the vamp nest on fire was much more in character.

        Riley has been on a long day’s journey into night ever since Goodbye Iowa. Everything he depended on to structure his life has been stripped away, and there is no way his relationship with Buffy could replace that. But I can certainly see him blaming it all on Buffy; emotional maturity hasn’t been his strong suit, either.

        However, Buffy knows better than to take Riley’s tantrum at face value, and she almost pulled it off. Until Marti Noxon pulled her puppet strings. I’m usually not one to trash Marti Noxon, but this episode ending is cringe-worthy.

        • Arienna

          Well, don’t know if what I wrote zapped your way, or if it was simply zapped. In case the former, I won’t try to recreate. Simply said that I’ve just discovered Buffy in this last year, and this blog in the last couple days. Completely agree w/your assessment here (tho I’m years late to the party) and like much you pointing out that Riley had lost his structure and entire self-definition w the demise of the Initiative. Too easy to transfer all of that energy onto Buffy and expect her to pick up his slack. And whether she does need some “monster” in her man (tho I think this was simply Spike finding Riley’ s deepest fear and pushing the stake in), what Buffy DOES need/want is an equal, and unfortunately Riley was now too lost to be that. His dabbling into the vampire world reminded me of Billy in ‘Lie to Me’. And we saw how that turned out. Buffy is developmentally way beyond where Riley is. I do think Marti Noxon blew his exit line (and Xander (ie Nick Brendon) probably just needed something to DO and some face time w Buffy). His hastily tacked on speech (“full of sound and fury… “) is the kind of outburst one tactfully forgets and never mentions again.

          I’m guessing you’ve moved on from here long since, but thanks for the useful input. Your words live on.

  3. Banyan

    Can I admit to a little thrill of delight about the surgical take down of Marti Noxon in this review? I know I’m not the only Buffy fan who has detected a tendency by Noxon towards bombast and sweeping monologues about “what it all means”. This was fine early in the series, where occasional episodes of heightened emotion, but is a major reason I find the latter seasons when she was the showrunner a slog in comparison.

  4. Aeryl

    For me, it comes down to whether you trust Xander as a reliable narrator in this instance, and I don’t. Xander is still somewhat hung up over Buffy’s preference for the beastly types, and I think so that Buffy continues to meet Xander’s standards, she must succeed with a “normal guy” even if he can now acknowledge that guy won’t be him.

    By the way this huge double standard with him(Hello, who’s he dating? Someone with a body count that puts Angelus and William the Bloody to shame?) annoys the ever living crap out of me,. I love that scene, where Xander talks to her, but seriously I tune out Xander’s voice, and just watch Buffy’s expression. She has this rapturous look, and I just imagine her not really listening to Xander, while she reaches her own understanding of their relationship. Then she comes back just as he’s asking her if she’s ready, and that’s what she is responding too.

    But anyways, just because he makes a good speech, and that Buffy seems to buy it, doesn’t necessarily mean he’s correct in what he’s reading, and spouting off about.

    I’ll also say this, I love Xander. I have Xander shaped friends, who think Xander thoughts, and say Xander things. But that still doesn’t mean he gets any slack here, cuz while I’m glad that moment lead him to something deeper with Anya, in the long run, I think he gives Buffy some bad advice here.

  5. Shambleau

    I completely disagree that we were given no room to interpret Xander’s speech as tied to his character, although admittedly it mostly came from remembering events in previous episodes. The same subtle development that you admired in other aspects of Season 5 had been going on in Xander’s growing identification with Riley. Their friendship had been gradually warming up anyway, but Riley’s declaration that Buffy didn’t love him was shown as striking a deep chord in Xander. For him, you don’t think there was resonance in a normal guy being rejected by Buffy, again? Xander may not have wanted to join the army, but from his army halloween costume to his comic-book reading habits, guys like Riley were his ideal of cool, as the Fool For Love graveyard scene hammered home. He knew the significance, to Riley, of what Riley had given up to be with Buffy. Is it any wonder that Xander saw that as making Riley a one-in-a-million guy, one who’d given his all for Buffy? The blind romantic reductionism you see as being forced on you by Noxon’s script, I see as coming from Xander’s necessarily restricted view of their relationship and his own need for it to work out.

    I also don’t think the episode was saying that treating Riley as a convenience, by Buffy or by the audience was something to be ashamed of. Buffy had gotten a lot out of it, and that had been shown previously. Xander goes at the end of the episode from treating Anya as a convenience to something deeper. However, it wasn’t portrayed as moving from a shameful relationship to a good one. Xander just takes his own advice. There was potential for a far richer relationship if he’d just open himself up to it, which was his opinion of Buffy and Riley’s relationship also. To me, the episode is mourning the possibilty of a true connection between Buffy and Riley rather than saying that Riley was her one true love.

    I think that’s shown by the less than tragic treatment that Buffy’s grieving is given in Triangle, which I don’t see as Espenson applying some kind of corrective to Noxon’s script. The idea that individual writers are totally responsible for their script flies in the face of everything that the writers have said about how the show is written. The main events of the season’s arc have been set up by Joss, they’ve been filled in after long discussions among all the writers for each individual episode, where the act beats and highlights have been decided and the general outline decided upon. Only then does an individual writer, or two, or three, get the script, which, when finished, would be checked over by Joss, and sometimes even rewritten by him. Noxon’s take on the Buffy/Riley relationship is not some romanticization which Joss was powerless to prevent, in other words, and it’s a simplification to suggest otherwise.

    • For me, I think my issue is that the script leaves us to fill in the blanks with Xander, and I don’t think there’s enough evidence to really make this a meaningful story for him. Rather than two storylines converging, it seems as if Xander emerges from the woodwork and suddenly expresses an opinion that feels as if it is being translated for Xander rather than expressed BY Xander. For me, there’s a difference between the two, and I definitely felt that it was the former rather than the latter.

      As for the idea that this is a key episode for Xander, I think it’s a stretch. In fact, I really didn’t feel as if he was actually treating Anya as a convenience in the past – he may not have expressed his love for her in such plain terms, but I felt that “Hush” did a nice job of dealing with very similar issues in a far less hyper-emotional fashion.

      • Denita

        While I don’t see this as a key episode for Xander either, I have to agree with Shambleau about Xander’s growing identification with Riley. It was there, even if it was only shown in small moments that are all too easily overlooked.

  6. greg

    Unfortunately, I’ve also always seen Riley’s departure as almost Zeppo-like in its melodramaticossiveness. It doesn’t really tell us anything about Riley, but it does offer some insight into Xander. (another slipup, though; Riley never tells Buffy when he’s leaving; he just says “tonight”. how she knows it’s at Midnight is never explained.) Was “you make me feel like a man” to Anya later really as romantic as it was presumably intended, though? I always have a “huh” moment when he says that.

    (there’s also an issue with ‘Triangle’ you should keep in mind. in the original shooting script the last act had Giles coming back in time to see the Magic Box being damaged in the fight and there was some extra backstory regarding how Anya’s ex’s Hammer was won in battle from a Troll God. this got ditched before shooting but, unfortunately, someone forgot and it’s referenced in a later episode. oops. if you’re only aware of what actually aired, it doesn’t make any sense.) (also oops; how did Anya’s ex speak such good English? and how many hours did he spend wandering back and forth along Sunnydale’s one and only street?)

  7. Susan

    I am one who is usually ready to defend Noxon–her “Queen of Pain” status often, IMO, works to the series’ advantage. Not here, though. I loathe this episode, except that it finally marks the end of Buffy and Riley.

    I don’t dislike Riley–he’s a good guy and looks nice, though unnaturally naked, with his shirt off–but I have little patience for the relationship. And I have little patience for Riley’s passive-aggressive, boo-hoo, why-won’t-you-see-how-great-I-am-for-you crap.

    Here’s the deal: Xander’s wrong. Riley is NOT great for Buffy. He IS the rebound guy. Buffy might be great for Riley, but Buffy needs someone who understands her mission and that the mission is what matters, who understands how he fits into that mission, who understands that loving Buffy usually means coming in second–or third, or fourth. Even Angel took a back seat occasionally. Moreover, she needs someone who can–literally as well as figuratively–take a punch. A hard one. Even from her very own fist.

    But most of all, Buffy needs someone who understands that she doesn’t *need* ANYONE.

    So it bugs the hell out of me that Noxon writes this ep as though we’re supposed to take Riley’s side. Buffy is right: excuse her for making her mother’s brain tumor more of a priority than her boyfriend.

    What Xander says to Anya is sweet and lovely and just right. What he says to Buffy is yet one more example of why he’s like the brother that you love only because he’s your brother and you don’t have a choice.

    IMO. 🙂

    • Denita

      Riley is NOT great for Buffy.

      Going to disagree with that. Yes, he was, if only for a little while. Riley made her feel safe, made her feel normal and that’s something she desperately needed after what she’d been through with Angel. Riley made Buffy *happy*, even if that happiness was short-lived. And that’s something that can’t really be said for either of her other lovers.

    • AO

      VERY well said Susan. I agreed with practically everything that you wrote (as a straight guy, you lost me with the bit about his looks 😉 ).

      But most of all, Buffy needs someone who understands that she doesn’t *need* ANYONE.

      And I especially wish that more often people would mention this. I want Buffy to be strong and self-confident, I want her to appreciate her friends and loved ones and their support, but I never want her to need anyone, especially a man.

      • I agree AO, about Buffy, but that revelation has to be earned. Riley was an important step to come to that realization, as we’ll soon find out in upcoming episodes. I agree with Denita above: Riley was good for her at this point in her life and growth as a person. Looking at the whole, it’s an important step.

        • Susan

          “Riley made her feel safe, made her feel normal and that’s something she desperately needed after what she’d been through with Angel.”

          “Riley was good for her at this point in her life and growth as a person. Looking at the whole, it’s an important step.”

          I’ll agree to both of these statements. But that’s what the “rebound guy” does. Neither of these statements suggest that Riley himself and what he might offer her as a long-time life partner is right for Buffy.

        • Mel

          I don’t think it does have to be earned–why should Buffy, or anyone need to need someone? (this may be bitterness at society’s insistence at coupling, but seriously-I’m a better friend, better daughter, better person, when I am not in a relationship, because my needing that other person gets in the way of everything else, and I know I am not the only person in the world who thinks this about themselves.) Needing someone can be awesome, but why should it be the default?

          • What I mean is that it has to be earned because Buffy *does* feel like she needs to be with someone — we see that right from the start. You can blame it on society or whatever, but this is something the character has always wanted and feels connected to. So it has to be earned that Buffy would *learn* that she doesn’t need a guy in her life to be content with herself; learning about herself will likely make any relationship down the road likely more successful anyway, if she decides that’s what she wants then. This is what (GENERIC SPOILER) 5×15 explores, the self exploration afterwards tackles, and then 7×22 summarizes.

          • Mel

            apparently I can’t reply to your comment, Mikejer, so hopefully you’ll get to see this. but I don’t think that bit in 7×22 shows that she’s decided that at all–without quoting specific lines, it seems to me that that conversation is about accepting that she can’t have that right now but may in the future, rather than she doesn’t need it.

          • *SPOILERS*
            Mel, I feel that the speech in 7×22 really does speak to this. It’s precisely about Buffy verbalizing that she’s not done growing/finding herself yet and isn’t ready/doesn’t need a guy in her life, in a ‘relationship’ capacity, right now, but that maybe someday she’ll be ready to share in that way and give of herself equally with a full awareness of her strengths and faults. It’s not about “can’t have” (as she definitely *could have* if she wanted it) but rather is directly tied to the self-exploration she began in 5×15. That scene in 7×22 is simply summarizing what she’s learned to date and acts as a final reminder of this self awareness before the show sails off.

          • Mel

            **vagueish spoilers**

            I’d say that you are making my point unwittingly. I agree with what you are saying Buffy is saying, but I guess we see the importance in different things–you see it as “I’m not in the *right place for that* right now” and I’m seeing it as “I’m not in the right place for that *right now*” so she’s learned she doesn’t need a man now, but obviously expects to eventually.

          • Aeryl

            **Spoilers**

            See, Mel, I see her as saying that she does realize she doesn’t need anybody, that she’d *like* to have somebody, and that at the same time, she realizes she’s not capable of that yet either.

  8. Derek

    Hey Myles, long time reader, first time commenter, Great Job with the reviews, extremely well written and it’s always cool to see a fresh perspective on the series.

    I’m glad you mentioned how subtly season 5 sets things up, as it is one of my favorite features of the season. It wasn’t till the season finale that I realized just HOW much had been carefully set up in the background, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Keep up the good work!

  9. Denita

    I didn’t care much for the way Riley was written out, so “Into the Woods” isn’t a favorite episode by any means. But my favorite scene in this episode is the one you dislike the most; I loved the “once in a lifetime” line.

  10. rosengje

    I actually quite enjoyed this episode (and not entirely because I knew Riley was on his way out), up until the very end. Xander’s speech to Buffy, in which he basically told her and the viewers how we felt, left a bad taste in my mouth, and I *loathe* the idea of Buffy dramatically running after Riley’s helicopter. To me, it erased the subtlety the writers had recently been writing into Riley’s character, notably his disclosure to Xander that he knew Buffy didn’t really love him. I liked the idea that the show acknowledged that even if Buffy did care about Riley and genuinely felt committed to their relationship, it wasn’t a forever thing. That ambiguity allowed the audience to make its own value judgments on how Buffy and Riley treated each other, including thinking that Buffy did take Riley for granted to some degree. To all of a sudden throw that aside for the sake of Xander’s sweeping declarations about love really bothered me,

    And I am totally with everyone that thinks Xander’s motivations there were muddled. Way too much identification with Riley.

    • rosengje

      Also: one of the reasons I so hated the Buffy vs. helicopter departure scene was that I feel like Buffy should have been at least self aware enough to know that she didn’t really love Riley in that way. I think I would have preferred to see the episode with her quietly grieving the loss rather than the grand spectacle.

      • AO

        Great post! I agree with many of your points, but especially this one. By this point in the show I just couldn’t believe that Buffy honestly thought that she still loved Riley. I concur that “her quietly grieving the loss “ would have made for a much more satisfying conclusion to this storyline.

      • See, I never took Buffy running after the helicopter as her declaring undying love for Riley. I took it as simply meaning she was willing to give it a chance with the newfound understanding of their respective flaws.

        • mothergunn

          Uhg, I always hate her running after the chopper. Really, Buffy? Are we going to be an awful female stereotype? She doesn’t need Riley. He doesn’t understand what she is at all. I’m never sorry to see Riley go.

          • Tyler

            I don’t think Buffy’s running after the chopper makes her “an awful female stereotype.” It’s her making a choice. She might not *need* Riley, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t *want* him. Whatever we might think of Riley, Buffy’s allowed to come to her own conclusions about him, and their relationship. If, in the end, she decides that Riley offers something she’d like, and then she pursues it (by yes, running after him), then how is that anything other than empowering? And if we want to substitute our judgment about “who’s right for Buffy” for hers, then how would we be any better than Xander?

      • diane

        Quietly grieving? Oh, yeah. This is a real loss for Buffy, no matter the circumstances of Riley’s leaving.

        I’m not Buffy, so I can’t completely assess whether she loved him. My guess is that she did, not in the melodramatic way she loved Angel, but that this quieter love was what she wanted and needed.

        On the other hand, Riley wasn’t capable of giving her that any more. Since Goodbye Iowa, and especially since Buffy v. Dracula, he’s become more and more needy, and wanted to “be everything” for Buffy, all the time, in all circumstances. Clingy, in a word. And that would be the death of any relationship with Buffy.

        With the crisis of Joyce’s illness, what Riley really should have been able to give Buffy is to just be there for her, when and in whatever way she asked of him. Instead, he needed Buffy to be there for him, and I think that’s the real root of the “she doesn’t love me” idea. This was a doomed relationship at this point. I just wish the writers had handled it without Xander turning into such a jerk.

        • Mel

          I don’t think that with Joyce’s illness Riley needed Buffy to “be there for him” so much as he wanted, maybe needed, her to need him in a way she didn’t. and he couldn’t deal with that.

          • Susan

            Yep. He’s needy about being needed. Well, then, don’t date a Slayer, bud.

          • Eldritch

            I thought the great strength of Buffy was that she had a support group, that she needed their friendship and support on an emotional level. In the above several posts, are you guys saying that she doesn’t need them on an emotional level? Are they and Riley just employees? Rather than strong, wouldn’t that make Buffy cold and robotic?

            I realize many fans never liked Riley and are glad to see him leave for any reason. Is that what’s going on here? A loving couple are supposed to need one another, aren’t they? Should Buffy not have needed Angel? Or was she just using him too?

            On a personal level, I felt excluded from my own immediately family on occasion. I was never told about my mother’s hospitalization for a mastectomy. I learned about it on her death certificate. It’s not an experience that makes you feel wanted, needed, or close, so I empathize with Riley’s not being told of a major family event, such as Buffy’s mom’s hospitalization.

            Riley was right when he told Xander Buffy didn’t love him. I agree that made him just a convenience. He should have left sooner because of the hollow way she was using him, but I can understand that it’s hard to walk away from someone you love.

          • Susan

            I think it depends on how we define “need.” Is Buffy’s life–and Buffy herself–better, fuller, richer with people around her? Definitely. So in a way she does need these connections (there’s a connection here with the main theme of AtS).

            But the world comes first. All of her relationships are going to come in behind her destiny (let’s not get into an argument about that statement yet–suffice it to say that I recognize its complications). In the end, Buffy always fights alone; it’s always going to be her. And in that way, she needs no one, must rely on herself only.

            Her destiny defines her. She often fights against that, and more often fights against those who refuse to recognize it, but she understands that it’s true.

          • Anna

            Well put Eldritch. I see nothing wrong with needing someone, or wanting to be needed, in and of the themselves, there’s a difference between needing and neediness.
            And Buffy *does* need people. Did you not see The Wish? Without the people around her, she wouldn’t have survived the first season.

          • Gill

            Exactly – he is incapable of coming to terms with Buffy, not merely as an equal but significantly superior to him physically. He’s happy to have a woman as his equal, but not beyond. When Buffy does things for herself that he’d like to do for her, he feels rejected. That’s never going to work.

  11. AO

    Thanks for another great review Myles!

    I’m a bit surprised that there haven’t been more comments about Riley’s actions in “Shadow” & “Listening to Fear”. I’ve seen several people who found it impossible to sympathize with him after his actions during those Episodes. Though to some extent I can understand (though not condone) what he did with the vampire hookers (more on that later).

    “As someone who didn’t mind Riley, I can only imagine how those who hated Riley felt about “Into the Woods” – it’s one thing to feel like the series mangles a logical exit, but it’s another to be told that the way you’ve been treating Riley (as a temporary convenience after Angel’s departure) is something to be ashamed of.”

    Speaking as someone who hated Riley, that really wasn’t what I focused on in the Episode.

    The most significant point, by far, was that he Left! Finally? That for which I so long had dreamt of? As the final scenes played out I was on the edge of my seat, fervently wishing that what seemed to be happening would actually be what was happening. As the Episode ended there was tremendous singing, celebrating and rejoicing. All else was a minor concern.

    But it’s true that I didn’t care for the speech, and would agree that it didn’t seem organic, but if it was necessary for the greater good (of getting rid of Riley) then I could live with it. This is unfortunately one of several speeches/actions that Xander takes through the show that cause me to dislike his character by the time that S7 concludes. While he’s generally a light-hearted guy, Xander has a few instances in which he is quite judgemental, and I think that I disagree with him every time.

    And perhaps it’s easier for me to avoid being overly bothered by the speech because I do reject it’s argument. As was well-covered, I quite disagreed with the idea that they were perfect for each other back in Season 4, and so didn’t place much stock in the arguments made here.

    Despite my lack of objectivity when it comes to Riley, I actually do appreciate some of his story leading into “Into The Woods”. I appreciate that he realized that he wasn’t meeting all of Buffy’s needs, and that he tried to open his mind and see some things from (what he thought to be) her perspective. We as the viewers know that the appeal of her relationship with Angel wasn’t in the fact the he bit her, but that seemed to be where Riley assumed that at least some of the appeal lay, and I’m glad that at the end he was trying something. It may have even caused me to hate him just a bit less.

    • Denita

      The most significant point, by far, was that he Left! Finally? That for which I so long had dreamt of? As the final scenes played out I was on the edge of my seat, fervently wishing that what seemed to be happening would actually be what was happening. As the Episode ended there was tremendous singing, celebrating and rejoicing. All else was a minor concern.

      That’s exactly how I felt when Angel left at the end of the S3 finale.

  12. tjbw

    Man, I am having so much trouble writing a cohesive response. Even writing a statement declaring my inability to write a cohesive response is giving me fits! So pardon the free flow technique.

    The point that I have been trying to make is that Buffy and Riley’s actions and reactions remind me of being in love with love, except they are breaking up, so they are sad over breaking up because they are BREAKING UP, not because THEY are breaking up. It’s like someone who is sorry because they got caught and not for the action itself.

    When two people end a romantic relationship, there is “supposed” to be yelling, and tears, and ultimatums, and sweeping music, so Buffy and Riley have all of these things. It’s “normal”. It’s the way it’s “supposed” to be.

    This is the way that I’ve always felt about the Buffy/Riley relationship: it is an experiment in normality, both in their togetherness and in their apartness. Normal from the rooter to the tooter.

    As for Xander, ‘Into the Woods’ marks the point where my utter lack of love and respect for the character blossoms. It isn’t until a particular moment in S7 that any positive feelings for him return, and now I love him in S8. But here in S5 he is all kinds of WRONG for convincing Buffy to go after Riley.

    And I don’t agree that his speech is a mouth piece for Noxon. I have always felt that we were meant to disagree with every word that comes out of his mouth.

    “You think you know what’s to come, what you are. You haven’t even begun.”

    Xander is NOT the Slayer, yet some how, some way he is all knowing about the decisions the Slayer should make? No, that he should make for her? And why does she listen to him?!

    Oh yeah, NORMALITY. She wants to be as she is “supposed” to be. But why is it that she thinks that Xander knows what that means? Well, because she hasn’t even begun learning FOR HERSELF what normality means.

    • Interesting that you didn’t like Xander much later in the series, because I actually couldn’t stand him in the early seasons (although I appreciated the character’s perspective nonetheless). It’s in S4 when I start to like the guy. Sure he makes mistakes and has a lot to learn, like all the characters do, but his actions in the later seasons feel a lot less overall selfish than they did early in the series. His motives seem to be coming from a better place later on, imo.

      • mothergunn

        I have strange, mixed feelings about Xander. Overall I like him and can definitely relate to him in many situations, especially his season 4/5 struggles when he’s trying to figure out who he is (something I still struggle with). And sometimes he can be a real toolbox. Like when he tries to tell Buffy how to deal with her relationships (and he does it over, and over…). In a show that so values female independence, it annoys me to a great degree that something like this is happening and no one is saying anything about it. I feel like if Willow knew the things he said with regards to Buffy’s bfs, she would be very cross with him.

        *SPOILER*
        Like, in the ep about Anya in s7. Xander seems to have a hard time applying what he says about others’ relationships to himself. Get out of jail free card, indeed.

        • Aeryl

          In a show that so values female independence, it annoys me to a great degree that something like this is happening and no one is saying anything about it.

          See, to me, this is what makes the show so believable, because this shit happens everyday in women’s lives, and no one says anything about it. We struggle for independence against the opinions of our fathers, brothers, guy friends, boyfriends, husbands, everyday. And rarely is it talked about.

          Maybe some feel that the writers should have taken this opportunity to make it be different, than how it is in everyday life, but the suspension of disbelief only goes so far! ;D

        • Mel

          The way I can reconcile adoring Xander (and I do adore him, from “Willow, you are so very much the person I wanted to see” to 7×22, is that I remind myself of two things. 1. he’s a character. fictional. not real. other people make him say and do things to serve their own purposes (which of course is the outside the story thing)
          2. Xander’s a person. he screws up. Sometimes more than/worse than other times. I do the same thing, and manage to still be lovable to my family and friends. and as pathetic as this might sound, the Scoobies are my friends. my fictional friends whose every move I am totally familiar with, but that helps me not expect my non-fictional friends to follow my mental script of life.

          I am revealing way too much of myself to the internet commenting on this post.

  13. jarppu

    “Which is why I find Xander’s speech so patronizing, so one-sided in order to manufacture that sweeping emotional conclusion

    Well said, Myles. Although unlike many Buffy fans, I blame the writers for that stupid speech and not Xander himself. It was just so poor writing. And apparently you didn’t have a problem with ‘Triangle’ manufacturing a conflict between Willow and Anya just for the sake of comedy. I mean Willow is acting so out of character being such a bitch towards Anya. And as you pointed out Buffy’s over-the-top crying was done simply for comedy. You might have a problem having using characters to manufacture an emotional conclusion, but I also have a problem them manufacturing comedy in expense of character integrity. These are just two more episodes where the character work has gone to crap in season 5.

    “[…]the subtle ways in which this story had been handled to this point.”

    Well ‘Out of My Mind’ wasn’t all that subtle handling the Riley situation. That episode pretty spelled it out for us that Riley was going to leave to join the military again as Buffy ignores him and doesn’t need him. It wasn’t as melodramatic as ‘Into to Woods’, but it certainly didn’t leave any doubt as to what was going to happen in the future with Riley.

    So Myles you didn’t have a problem with the storyline of Riley getting sucked by vampires in order understand Buffy? To quote myself: “…it was a hard to believe that any person would do that let alone Riley. I mean he goes there to ‘understand’ Buffy. So getting sucked by vampires makes him understand Buffy? What kind of insulting logic is that?! That storyline was a complete character assasination for Riley (making the few Buffy fans, who didn’t yet hate him, revile him too).”

    • jarppu

      Plus I thought the Riley-vampires storyline was a very clunkily handled metaphor about prostitution. With lines like “Buffy they needed me! – No they needed your blood!” could be all too easily translated to “Buffy they wanted me -No they wanted your money!”. Buffy even refers to the vampires as “whores”. This show was good at using metaphors for adolescent issues but for more adult themes such as prostitution they just seem too silly and over the top. I would have preferred a more down to earth approach (which season 6 does).

    • Tom

      I’d argue that Willow has shown great impatience with Anya for two seasons now. And if you think about their entire history, there’s even more backstory. But the dirty looks and impatient grimaces have been there for a long while.

      • jarppu

        They never before or after this episode argued with each other. In fact they barely even spoke to each other besides in this episode. And they are really going at it in this episode with Anya accusing of Willow of possibly stealing his boyfriend and Willow complaining about Anya not being human enough. We’ve never seen any indication of this level of confrontation between them. Or after, for that matter. It was simply manufactured for this one episode for the sake of comedy. Comedy, which I didn’t find that funny either.

        • henry

          There has actually been signs of Willows dislike for Anya dating all the way back to season 4.
          Willow clearly hasn’t cared about in the past seasons. She has put up with her, becouse Anya is dating her best friend. And all that tension comes out in ‘Triangle’.

          And I just love Triangle as an episode. The couplings in this ep. are diffrerent then normal and quite fun (Buffy/Tara, Spike/Xander, Willow/Anya). A needed comic episode before things turn dark..er.

        • I think Henry has it right on this one. There has been a subtle but very real tension brewing between Willow and Anya for a while now. One of the most recent scenes that pops in my mind is in “No Place Like Home” when they’re both wrapping purchases: Willow’s gift wrapping is terrible, Anya snatches it making a lightly snide comment, and Willow gives her a mean look. No they haven’t outright argued before, but there’s very clearly been a frustration between them. The one aspect of “Triangle” I find completely successful is that it actually addresses these feelings, and in humorous fashion.

        • Tom

          No, seriously, go back through all previous Anya-Willow interactions and watch Willow’s facial expressions. It has always been there, waiting for an opportunity to explode.

          And “never before” have they argued? They were doing that all the way back in Doppelgangland.

          • Susan

            I agree–you can go all the way back to S3 to see evidence of Willow’s strong dislike of Anya. The conflict between them brewed for years before coming to a head in “Triangle.”

  14. Karen

    Myles, your analysis of Riley’s arc in S5 is insightful, and imo accurate. Whatever Riley was or wasn’t in S4 he isn’t Family, and isn’t part of Buffy’s long term journey. From a story perspective, sliding him out of the series is necessary, and handled very well. I think there are a few riley fans who dislike the metaphor of Riley being Vamp bait, but it works for me. Buffy is a VAMPIRE slayer. It is vampires Riley needs to understand, needs to relate to. He says he wants to feel needed, but providing this particular need is a rather specific slap in Buffy’s face. Is he suggesting that, for all her slayer power, she can’t protect him from the vampires?

    I agree that Noxon’s writing is heavy-handed where it should be ambiguous in allowing the viewer to interpret the collapse of the relationship, but there’s also an *out* by looking at Xander’s speech from his character’s development. I’m a viewer who takes Buffy’s side and really disliked Xander’s speech. I keep wishing, that at its end, that Buffy would reject Riley and it’s Xander who rushes off to the helicopter to try to convince Riley to give it another chance. I think Xander was overly invested in the success of the relationship. As much as I love “Scoobie Xander” there are elements of his personality that irk me to no end. It’s organic, and natural, and will become even more fleshed out…but the bottom line is that Xander still doesn’t really understand Buffy the Slayer. He wants her to be Valley Girl Buffy, and maybe still fantasizes about Girlfriend Buffy. There is a Xander-Riley dynamic that *speaks* to Xander’s character. Imo, he sees Riley as a much better boyfriend than Angel because Xander wants Buffy to be normal. In fact, I don’t think it’s fanwanking to suggest that on some level he approves of Riley because, if Riley can make it with Buffy, than maybe he can too.

    I haven’t read everyone’s comments, so some of this may be redundant. 😉

    • Denita

      In fact, I don’t think it’s fanwanking to suggest that on some level he approves of Riley because, if Riley can make it with Buffy, than maybe he can too.

      I totally agree with that.

    • Susan

      Karen, your read of Xander is right on, imo. Every time he does something that makes me want to hit him with a heavy, blunt object (a statue of Oofdar, perhaps?), it’s motivated by his boneheaded insistence that Buffy conform to his image of her.

      In his investment in Riley the Regular, he’s all transfery.

      • Tom

        Yes, absolutely. Not just his image of her, his image of her with him. Increasingly fictional though that always-unlikely notion is.

    • Gill

      I don’t think it’s fanwanking to suggest that on some level he approves of Riley because, if Riley can make it with Buffy, than maybe he can too.

      Pretty much my feeling about it. Riley is the Soldier Boy Xander wanted to be back in Halloween, not to mention Buffy’s boyfriend, ditto. And he’s the only male companion Xander feels he can engage with, so he feels the need from that POV too. Remember “I miss Oz”?

  15. S Pacific

    Triangle has my favorite Spike funny ever. When Olaf wants to find babies to eat. Spike (To Xander): “What do you think, the hospital?”

  16. Tom

    Some good thoughts here. But I’d like to add to and quibble with some.

    If you go back to season four, you’ll see the seeds of the Buffy-Riley breakup already planted and growing. Really, almost everything after the marathon sex session is downhill for the couple.

    The confrontation in “Into the Woods” can sometimes seem like it comes out of the blue in its intensity and finality, even though it’s been well set up, because it’s out of the blue for Buffy. But the thing is: no, it’s not. Go back to last season. Buffy kept a lot of things from Riley (Oz, for example, or Spike), while he kept nothing from her, once the secret of the Initiative was out. Did she tell Riley the things he’d want and need to know about Angel? No. And as it turned out, that was a crushing blow…probably the crushing blow.

    When, post Angel’s billowy arrival in Sunnydale, have you seen Buffy and Riley happy and comfortable for more than a microscene? You haven’t. It seems like they must have been, but if you look for that happiness and comfort, you’ll find it’s not there. Remember that Buffy and Riley never got to have the heart-to-heart conversation about Angel…his chip activated, and he left. Events intruded in which there was no opportunity to go back to this conversation. And the next thing that we see is Buffy’s semi-enthrallment with Dracula, which — for Riley — represents all his unresolved fears about Angel.

    The fact is, Buffy trusts Riley. And it’s possible that she loved him, after a fashion, in that little time between “Hush” and Faith’s arrival. But that time passed, and it passed last season. She may show all the trappings of loving him, she may in fact believe that she loves him, but her actions show otherwise.

    One reason, which the series has taken some pains to highlight, is that he has always been a passive character. It seems odd to say about the gung ho guy that’s always leading and charging, always there where he’s needed, always (until very recently) enthusiastic. But he has been a character to which things happen rather than instigating them: the Initiative ran his conscious life, the drugs created his abilities, Maggie Walsh created his destiny, Faith had her way with him, he couldn’t even slow Angel down much, Adam physically controlled him (though within that storyline was the one moment of true personal initiative…no pun intended…that we see until his departure), he was powerless to pry Buffy from Dracula, withdrawal almost got him killed, he can’t actually get to Buffy from an emotional standpoint, and he’s been manipulated by Spike. The military — which will provide a new layer of structure and external motivation — must seem awfully appealing right now.

    But a passive character doesn’t fit into Buffy’s world. We’ve got one totally passive character (Dawn) and another who has been in a passive role (Joyce), and there’s no story room for a third. And remember that her current world derives that fateful choice the gang made all the way back in “The Harvest” to take their own initiative in battling back the forces of darkness. They all chose to do this, actively or osmotically, and whether powerful or not, intelligent or not, they continue to attempt to forge their own destinies. Riley never did that. And that was one major reason he wasn’t going to work out.

    There’s another. Buffy relies on her friends, she relies on her Watcher, she relies on her mother. Except that her friends have their own lives and responsibilities that are no longer limited to Buffy and her fight, her Watcher is now much more like an occasional mentor and information source, and her mother has been a burden rather than a source of stability. She now lacks the high school/college structure to her life, and is in a caretaker role for Dawn…parenting long before she had ever considered doing such a thing (if she ever had). There’s not even an Angel, who was the older/wiser source of comfort (pre-“Surprise”) as much as he was her First Love.

    So where’s her support? Where’s her foundation? Riley loves her and supports her for his part, but from a position of somewhat fawning adoration, not as a partnership of equals (or superiors, which is what Giles, Joyce, and Angel represented). He’s by all external views solid, but only within the parameters she sets for him. As always, he’s the passive character, waiting on her lead. The support he actually provided was her belief that he would always be there, not actual support in the way someone like Giles has provided it.

    Season four showed us the foundation of her friends crumbling, then reassembling. But you yourself noted that the resolution seemed awfully quick and easy. What if it wasn’t a resolution, just a redefinition? They’re all on a different footing now. And on that new surface, Riley hasn’t been able to find his place. So now, the dominoes that hold up the floor are falling. Joyce. Riley. The added weight of Dawn. The inexplicable weight of Glory. Buffy is taking on the burdens and the responsibilities, and it’s getting to her. She can’t be emotionally available because to do so embraces her vulnerability in this moment, a vulnerability which she doesn’t wish to admit, but which is increasing as she becomes the group’s center of gravity. She is no longer, as “Primeval” would have it, just “the hand.” That spell pointed the way forward, via “Restless” and “Buffy vs. Dracula”: she’s now something more. Something greater and more whole. She started the season searching, and it doesn’t appear that she likes what she’s found. And the burden is getting to her. It’s already destroyed her relationship with Riley. And has she changed, other than being sad about it? Has anything changed? The burden’s still there.

    Editorially, I’ve always disliked what they did to Riley this season. I may have liked him more than some, but in the process of writing him away from Buffy, they made him into an unlikable character, rather than just a sympathetic/pathetic one, which is (I think) what they should have done. They could still have ended up in the same place, but by the time we get to “Into the Woods,” Riley’s as much whining as he is voicing a legitimate complaint. That, I think, was a disservice to an already thankless character (the rebound guy) that had been handled much better up to somewhere shy of the end of season 4. I think Blucas did his best, but the material started to get kinda silly by the end.

    And regarding Xander’s speech, I think you’ve got it all wrong (though I see that I’m not the only one to say this). The speech isn’t about Riley at all. It’s about Xander. Riley’s “the guy” because, unlike Angel and so many other potential suitors, he’s human. He’s normal. He’s Xander, idealized. Willow and Tara are witches, Dawn’s supernatural, Giles is all-knowledgeable and has skills of his own, Anya’s an ex-demon with certain abilities, and Xander’s still just Xander. More confident, more capable, but no more than he was from day one. Once the Initiative and the associated powers have been stripped away, Riley’s the same. Just a guy. Just a normal guy. Xander idealizes him and the Buffy-Riley relationship because it stands in for the relationship he wanted (and may still want, though we don’t see signs of it anymore) but couldn’t have, because he couldn’t compete with the intrigue of a vampire with a soul. The speech is about 10% about Xander realizing some things about himself (vis-à-vis Anya) and 90% about what could have been between Buffy and Xander.

  17. Moira

    When I first watched this, I remember crying and being so caught up in the emotion of it during the episode (even feeling guilty, myself, for not having appreciated Riley more)…and then afterward, sort of wondering how I had been tricked into thinking that. I really enjoyed your analysis. Helps me to get a better grip on my own understanding of it too.

  18. Rachael

    I agree with the comments above that the speech is all about Xander. What bothers me is that Buffy seems to have a major revelation regarding her feelings for Riley, and decides to chase after the helicopter.

    This only works if the reason that she let Riley go was because she was upset with him about the vampire whores and the fight, but it seems to be clear to the viewers that when Riley announced to Xander at the beginning of the season that he knew that Buffy didn’t love him, that he was speaking the truth, and the actions of Buffy not *needing* Riley echoed this truth. So, with Buffy suddenly chasing the helicopter, we are jarred out of what we believe to be true, and are lead into a feeling of distrust towards the writing staff. It is a similar feeling I get when Buffy has her ‘comical breakdown’ in Triangle. It is trite and takes us out of the episode. I like the point that Myles makes, that the comedic element of this is needed to avoid an angsty Buffy, but it was, not unlike ‘Into The Woods’ a little too unsubtle.

    Thanks to the commentator who pointed out the reference to the Troll God’s hammer in the original shooting script of ‘Triangle’. You can’t imagine the amount of arguments and discussions I have been involved in about this.

    • Aeryl

      What you’ve never come to believe some friends well-meant but ill advised revelations about your relationships? To a bad end?

      Maybe I’m the only one, but I’ve followed bad advice, and I’ve given bad advice to friends, so I can’t really fault Buffy(or the writers) for this. With all the crap she’s going through, Xander does look like he might have some shit figured out.

      Like Buffy’s reaction to Parker, I totally get this, having been there myself, so while I can say that it wouldn’t have worked out if Buffy had caught the helicopter, I can see why she’d still want to try.

      • Rachael

        When I say “all about Xander’, I mean that he is having a realisation about his own relationship and trying to project it onto Buffy and Riley’s. I don’t think that the text (especially in Season 5) once points towards B&R as having a relationship that is headed towards anything but disaster. Xander, not knowing what we, the audience, see, is being a great friend to Buffy, trying deperately to help her save her relationship. I see that. I applaud that. What I can’t applaud though is Noxon’s version of Buffy running after the helicopter. Buffy knew that she had let Riley go, she in some way knew why. And so did we.

        • Tom

          I don’t think she ran after the helicopter because she was suddenly, post-Xander’s-pep-talk, committed to a future with Riley. If she catches him in time, what’s changed? They still have trust issues. More importantly, he’s still right about one thing: she’s not available to him. There are good and bad reasons for that, some of them are his fault and some of them are hers, but him staying for a few more episodes doesn’t change that irreconcilable truth. BtVS has already done the “doomed relationship hangs on a little too long” thing in season 3, where at least it made sense in a high school/first love setting; no need to repeat it here, and in fact no resonance in doing so.

          I think she ran after the helicopter because she was desperately trying to stop a support system she’d {relied on/taken for granted} from disappearing. Just as I don’t think Xander’s speech was really about Riley, but was instead about Xander, I think that Buffy’s pursuit of the helicopter wasn’t about Riley, but was about Buffy. It’s all of a part with her clinging to anything that makes sense in her increasingly turvy-topsy world, and in fact the very next episode makes this (overtly) explicit.

          Riley was safe. Riley was steady. All the things he said that didn’t, for him, equate with love and need (and he was right) were exactly what Buffy wanted from him. The part of Xander’s speech where he’s talking about unfiltered love and such isn’t convincing her that it’s what she and Riley have, it’s pushing an already-weakened psyche towards neediness. She wants Mr. Steady, Mr. True Corn-fed Iowa Boy. She doesn’t want to be in love with him, and isn’t, whether she once was or not. Were he to stay, or to come back, and be Mr. Steady once again, that’s still all it would be. Were she not so needy and increasingly desperate at escalating circumstances that persist in being outside her control, she’d see that.

          I don’t much enjoy the episode, I do dislike being told (rather than shown) the big internal conflict via Xander’s speech (though I think of all the roughly-similar speeches he gives, it’s one of the better ones), and I do blame Noxon for this and much else, but I’ll give “Into the Woods” this much slack: it was dealt a bad hand by the season(-plus)-long setup. A more sympathetic Riley, trying and failing to overcome a structural defect in their relationship and coequal to Buffy in emotional authority, would have vastly improved this entire storyline.

          Alas, we didn’t get that. I noted that an 0ver-lingering relationship was something we’d already seen, in season 3. Unfortunately, while they avoided that problem here (though I suppose the dedicated Riley-haters would disagree), they borrowed something else from that problematic denouement: decreasingly equal characters. In season 2, the highlight of the Buffy-Angel period, they trade momentary dominance but are equal contributors to their relationship and their fate. In season 3, Angel grows more and more submissive to that fate, and to Buffy as a result. It left them with fewer and fewer interesting things to do with Angel (unless a new character could send him somewhere interesting, e.g. Faith) and the Buffy-Angel relationship, other than play out the beats (e.g. “The Prom”). They repeated that error with Riley: once they’d decided to sideline him emotionally, they had to sideline him structurally. He was still in the episodes, but nothing he did mattered; we couldn’t be moved to care about it, because the story didn’t care about him. He had been written into insignificance and submission. No matter his arguments at the end — and I think that, vampire-dalliances aside, there were some solid, worthwhile points in there — we’re almost forced to think less of him and his defense due to the way the story has positioned him.

          And there, again, is why I think the helicopter chase is not about Riley. He’d long since ceased to have any real agency within the show’s narrative. “Into the Woods” has plenty of flaws, but missing that long-prepared dissolution isn’t one of them: such a big moment pretty much can’t be about Riley, because the show doesn’t care about Riley any more. It has to be about someone else. That someone is Buffy, and the fact that it directly feeds into her ongoing character arc is further evidence of same.

  19. Susan

    Just a quick post about a comment I hear occasionally and have come across a few times in this blog. Yes, of course we’re talking about fictional characters who have been written to do and say the things they do and say. I’m going to dare to make the assertion that we all recognize that we’re not talking about real people.

    But that is so beside the point, and kinda irritating. The reason that we’re still avidly discussing shows that have been off the air (first run, anyway) for seven and six years, respectively–and the reason many of us have watched both entire series 10 and 20 times (and counting)–is that we identify so strongly with the characters, in one way or another. We watched them grow and evolve, we watched their relationships with each other change. They are fiction, but we know them, and we are deeply attached.

    The genius of these shows is that the relationships among the characters is so real and fully realized that we are drawn into their world.

    I watch over and over because I like hanging out with these people. By this time, I doubt that there is any surprise to be had in the stories or the characters, no nuance I have not grasped. And I think I enjoy them all the more for their familiarity. The funny stuff is funny ahead of time because I know it’s coming, the sad stuff is sadder. And I know when to mute Xander because he’s going to say something that pisses me off.

    Too bad my real brother doesn’t have a mute button.

    • Mel

      I can’t speak to anyone else who said as much, but I made the comment to explain why I don’t hate the character for making mistakes, which is something that people tend to overlook (like the people who don’t like Mad Men because Don’s a jerk) Since we both say similar things (that we like spending time with these characters) I don’t think that anyone here is unaware that the characters are fictional, but because we all identify with and feel for them that the fact that they don’t have power to change things gets ignored. So reminding myself of that helps me not react to characters I like doing something I don’t as a friend’s betrayal.

      • Mel, I just wanted to point out that I can’t stand Don (and find Mad Men a very cold show in general) not because he makes mistakes, but because (1) he’s never been a very likable, well-intentioned person and (2) because he makes the same mistakes over and over again and rarely learns from them. On Buffy we’ve got inherently *likable* characters that, yes, make mistakes but eventually learn from their them and grow.

        With that said, I actually agree with your point about not hating a character purely because they make mistakes. 🙂

  20. fivexfive

    Oh man, I love, love, LOVE it when you describe my feelings for an episode. What did I ever do without you?

  21. Gill

    I’m so glad you reacted that way to Xander’s speech. He was wrong in so many ways – he really does wish he could be a patriarch, I think. And I don’t see it as just Marti – a part of Xander has always wanted to be Riley – the true incarnation of the Soldier Boy Xander played way back in Hallowe’en. Buffy’s rejection of Riley is like a rejection of True Manliness to Xander (as you say yourself, the ideal guy who Xander portrays), not to mention a rejection of the possibility of a Normal, Human Boyfriend. That speech is as much about himself as it is about Riley. Your point: the idea that it should be done out of love and not concern is blind romanticism at its very worst. perhaps misses the point that it is Xander‘s “blind romanticism” at work here, temporarily catching Buffy up in the flow and incidentally giving Blucas a good send-off.

    Buffy ran because of Xander’s speech but also because she didn’t want it to finish like that. I agree with your point: There should have been a sense of catharsis, where their argument makes them each aware of what they’ve been doing,, but reflection isn’t really Buffy’s thing.

    Throw in a nice transition in the Spike/Buffy phase, Lots of those in this season, warming the hearts of Spuffy fans as much as the disappearance of the hated Riley. I never actively hated him at the time, as many who held that Angel was the only possible partner for Buffy did (there was even a website called “Die, Riley, Die!”!) but he was so obviously wrong for Buffy because he just couldn’t cope with her strength and, above all, her autonomy. Spike, however, is just so much more fun. Looking forward to your thoughts on Crush and beyond.

  22. Tausif Khan

    “Unfortunately, all “Into the Woods” proves is that Marti Noxon might as well face that she’s addicted to love, to the detriment of Riley’s swan song.”

    Myles I feel this is an over generalization. First, just because Noxon is credited with the script does not mean she is a hundred percent responsible for the script. Joss revealed at comic con this year that he told Blucas when Blucas was leaving the show and that Caufield would become a regular. Furthermore, if you listen to the writers commentaries all of them say that their scripts are rewritten by Whedon to fit his voice(Sepinwall has said the same about Matt Weiner for Mad Men and Weiner confirmed it himself in an interview he recently did for Fresh Air(http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128770109) Weiner said that writers on staff are good when they mimicking the show runners voice and scripts are significantly rewritten if they aren’t.). The Buffy writers reveal mostly that the best lines are usually written by Joss (“Don’t you love me anymore” said by Willow to Oz to induce heartbreak was written by Joss in a Marti Noxon script. This line changes the final dynamic between the two and the interpretation of the scene).

    Second you do not know who has input on the script. “Conversations with Dead People” A script credited to Jane Espenson & Drew Goddard was revealed by Espenson on the episode commentary to have been written by 4 people (the two mentioned before and Joss and Marti each took a section the script themselves and wrote it). So blame should be given to staff or show creator not a single writer, as the show creator/writing staff are the editing mechanism after a single writer is given 8 days to crank out an episode script.

    Third, Riley was written out because he wasn’t working within the dynamic of the show. Fans did not respond well to Blucas. A show with already low ratings (by network standards) could not afford to have a weak link. There was pressure for him to be written out. So there are economic decisions to be made which could interfere with story arcs. Whedon and Seth Green had talked before season 4 about Oz’s involvement so they were able to plan his departure and arc. We don’t know how abrupt Blucas’ departure was.

    Bottom line I think it is unfair to blame a single writer for any decision made in script because you don’t know the decision process. It would be interesting to see if you (as a critic) could parse a script and find out different writer’s voices in a script.

    • Rachael

      I am not sure that I read Myles’ comments as blaming any writer for the decision for Riley to leave, I think that he was questioning the manner that this played out in ‘Into the Woods’. The over-dramatical, emotion-wraught scenes between Riley and Buffy are typical of Marti Noxon’s writing (who has been dubbed on the commentaries by other writers as the ‘relationship writer’). As pointed out, Buffy and Riley’s relationship had been circling the drain all season, and it was not a surprise that they would break-up, and it wan’t a surprise that this would be an emotional break-up, what rang untrue were the protestations of Riley being dubbed as Buffy’s “once in a lifetime” guy. This is NOT how he had been portrayed, and I believe that Myles is arguing that Xander’s speech especially rang false to him given the evidence presented to the viewers over the past few episodes.
      I could be wrong, but that is how I read the article above.

      • Tausif Khan

        Rachel I don’t have a problem with Myles’ argument. I completely agree with his assessment of Xander and the role that he is playing of translator. I was put off by this as well while watching the series. What I am more interested in is the decision making process. In analyzing television we are interested in the decision making process of the characters how they feel what they think and the consequences of their actions. I feel that this is a reflection of who is writing the script and who is writing the lines. Therefore I am also interested in the writing process of how a writer makes a decision in the script. What I am concerned with in my comment above is all of the decisions that go into writing a script: What pressure was the writer under? What unforeseen circumstances was the writer presented with? How much of the decision making power to making changes to the script is in the hand of the individual writer (as opposed to higher executives shower runners network execs). I don’t see the final script as a reflection of the work of Marti Noxon alone but also of the rest of the writing staff and WB execs with network notes. These are the things I wanted addressed. Therefore I feel just finding out who was credited for writing the episode is not enough. As I mentioned earlier Marti Noxon was credited with writing the episode where Oz left the show (essentially a break up episode but we don’t know if it is a break up episode but an emotional episode nonetheless.) Joss wrote the most heartbreaking and emotional line which Noxon said fans comment all the time about. This line shapes the arc of the relationship and the tone for how Oz leaves. Without looking going deeper on the decision making process one would attribute the entire work to Noxon just because she is credited with writing the script. I just want to say that because of this we can not just blindly blame or credit someone because they are officially credited with writing the episode.

  23. Bob Kat

    Seems evwerything’s been said abotu Xander’s speech and about the ultimate Buffy-Riley incomaptibility, and Willow’s dislike of Anya .
    I *will* takes sides on Buffy’s running after Riley. He has been sort of a support system for her which she’s having (some) second thoughts about losing.
    As to buffy not having a chocie to elt ehrself need anybody, yes but. The simple fact is, she went out of her way to avoid telling Riley about, and perhaps getting soem support from him, re Joyce’s illness. Not lettign somoenone be there for you when they *can be* is a killer in relationships.
    Riley’s response was a bad one but, well, there has to be *some* thrill to getting bit, depsite the pain and fear. What buffy had with Angel was complex and didn’;t boil down to this, but this was *one* thing riley could explore. With Sandy.
    Howebver, his decision to contiue seekign it out afterwards, was to give in to an addiction. Buffy was (mostly) right on how wrong he was.
    As to Buffy’s crying in “Triangle,” totally believeable. She had to feel some sadness abotu losing Riley, and she certainly wasn’t letting it out. MEanwhile she had (as hurt people do+) fixated on Xander and Anya. So, her “waterworks” was primed to go off.
    (+ I can testify to this; my marriage broke up around this time and I became obsessed with Willow and Tara.)

    PS Anyone as queasy as I over that greasy base-coat make-up used on Sarah’s legs in some of the scenes. Sure, in this universe it helps her show up on camera in the dark. But within the Buffyverse, if Buffy “shines” like that imagine the state of the sheets after she sleeps *on* them, or Riley’s legs after she sleeps *with* him. Eww.

  24. lyvvie

    Wow, another good review Myles and also some great comments on this thread.

    I’m not sure I can say much which hasn’t already been said and I’m sure I couldn’t articulate it as well anyway. ‘Into The Woods’ is an episode which baffles me as I can pretty much see all points of view, even if they’re conflicting, which I’m sure is what the writers wanted.

    I think what I dislike the most is the timing issue. I’m not sure if it’s just bad structuring or intentionally created so that the tension builds to the big Buffy/Riley confrontation, but I really dislike the ultimatum part of Riley’s speech, which leads to my problem with Xander’s speech as well. Over the course of a day Buffy finds out her boyfriend has been ‘cheating’ on her, that he thinks she doesn’t love him and that he’s leaving unless she stops him. And then Xander finds all this out in the course of a few seconds and instead of comforting her continues with his speech (a very human thing to do I suppose, especially if he’s been mulling the confrontation over for a while in his head). The ultimatum makes Riley into a jerk in a way which none of his past actions have so far, IMO. Even if Buffy does love Riley (I’m undecided) there is no way she can sort her feelings out that quickly. And Xander’s first instinct being to lecture rather than comfort Buffy is very unhelpful.

    I’ve no problem with Marti, I love S6.. but her episodes are never my favourites. I’m not a fan of the Big Melodramatic Scene which she seems to feature quite regularly. She does have a couple of episodes that really work for me (even including those scenes), one which has already happened (S2’s I Only Have Eyes For You) and one which is coming up soon.

    Just a quite note on ‘Listening To Fear’. For me this is an under-appreciated episode. The monster is really scary, one of Buffy’s scariest (probably due to the vulnerable position Joyce is in when being attacked). We also get Dawn showing some courage, the gang hanging out in a library again, Buffy breaking down and a fun cameo from Spike.

    • Bob Kat

      And “Listening To Fear” shows that Ben just isn’t one of the good guys and never can be.

    • Aeryl

      I love Listening to Fear too.

      As bad as it may be, I can’t help but giggle at the scene where Joyce is arguing with the Queller on her ceiling.

      “I wish that someone had bothered to tell me that there would be tennis being played. I just didn’t know. Those eyes! Those eyes; they’re like gasoline puddles! Tell me. Tell me because I need to know, why, why are you staring at me like that?

      Does someone know you’re here, because they should have told you that at the gate, you’re not supposed to be here! I need to rest now. I don’t like the way you’re staring at me! Did they tell you that at the gate? Stop staring at me, I don’t like it!

      I’m bad.

      And that scene where Buffy breaks down at the sink gets me everytime.

    • andi

      hey i just rewatched that episode too.

      i also appreciated the balance of things in this episode and the subtlety with which several key elements were introduced. (riley’s fast-growing ties with the military, ben is not “all good”, joyce learns of dawn, subtle but hilarious humor from the scoobies “yes, i’m sure it frisked away like a little lamb”.)

      another thing i noticed, and might be my interpretation…. in the scene near the end, where joyce reveals to buffy what she learned about dawn, that almost seemed like a ‘passing the torch’ scene. joyce’s dialogue, and the way it was delivered, all seemed to suggest a child-like innocence, and buffy seemed to take on the role of head of household, explaining to joyce the harsh realities of life and comforting her.
      if you notice at the beginning of the “into the woods”, when the doctor tells buffy the operation was a success, the camera is angled down at buffy, reverting her to a child (for a moment), her eyes wide and innocent.

      i think that “listening to fear” was a pivotal moment for buffy, as she truly began to assume the role of primary caretaker. her breakdown in the kitchen (which is quite hard to watch) is done in the safety of loneliness, where no one can see that she is still a scared little girl, and at the moment dawn screams for her, it’s all thrown out the window, adult-buffy must take over. poor buffy, i just wanna reach in and hug her in most of season five.

  25. Pingback: Cultural Catchup Project: “Forever” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) « Cultural Learnings

  26. andi

    i actually just rewatched this episode and i really enjoyed your review myles. i always remember, from my initial viewing years back, that the phrase “once in a lifetime was a definite cringe moment for me, and your review reminded me why. sure, their relationship didn’t have the “fire” that buffy/angel had, but one has to remember that during that relationship, buffy was a muuuch younger, immature, and naive individual. though def. not “once in a lifetime”, buffy’s relationship with riley was much more adult and complex, and it was occurring in a much more adult and complex time in buffy’s life.

    that said, i thought the episode was well handled UNTIL the moment riley gives her an ultimatum. i thought the dialogue/events until that point were definitely within character and story-to-date (riley explaining his reasons for being bit, his need to understand buffy, the distance he felt, buffy letting herself be taken care of, AND also buffy upset at what he did, buffy refusing to take any blame for it because of everything she was dealing with, etc) – again, i thought the training room scene was good UNTIL the ultimatum, because at that point i see where myles’ coming from…. at that point it becomes about sweeping emotions and “once in a lifetime” love – it becomes a teenage romance, “a la buffy/angel,” when in reality it is a complicated adult relationship, one that cannot be fixed so simply.

    i am also glad that riley departed, because i do agree it was correct timing – and it furthered buffy’s individual season/series storyline – and it would have happened whether buffy had realized things earlier. i didnt mind xander’s speech as much IF it had been given less importance within the episode, treated as solely his opinion, not the eye opening realization of “once in a lifetime” love!!!! argghhh i hate that phrase!! lol.

    alas, in summation, thank you myles for another great review.
    hope you get back on the buffy horse soon.

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