“Into the Woods,” Caught in the Weeds
August 2nd, 2010
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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.
- 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”).