5.5 No Place Like Home
Follow along in Bite Me! on pp. 252-255.
If you’re watching Angel, this week’s episodes are:
2.5 Dear Boy
2.6 Guise Will Be Guise
(Week 30?! Wow.) This week’s episodes actually work well together. Last season the gang was split up in ways they had never dealt with before – Giles was no longer a librarian; Willow and Buffy were at university (with Willow in her element and Buffy feeling lost and disconnected); Xander had to move into a construction job; Cordelia and Angel were gone. But as they had to reposition themselves within each other’s lives, they not only realized they still needed each other (shown concretely in their defeat of Adam by working together, and metaphorically throughout the season), but they also began to change their priorities. In short, they began to grow up. Willow discovered a new love with Tara, and said goodbye to Oz. Buffy realized Angel had a new life in L.A., and through Riley and the Initiative and a new spirituality discovered at the end of the season, became keen to learn more about where she came from.
Season 5 is where the characters take what they learned about themselves in season 4 and move forward, rather than being stuck the way they were for much of S4. Giles decided he was no longer needed in Sunnydale, but found a new purpose in season 5. Spike begins to fall in love with Buffy in this week’s episodes (making “Spuffy” shippers everywhere squee very loudly). And then there’s that whole new sister thing.
So in the episodes we watched this week, the characters begin to discover a new sense of where they are in their lives and in each other’s lives. Riley, poor put-upon Riley, is the one who feel like he doesn’t actually belong. I’ve never liked Riley, which is obviously no secret around here, but I found when I began watching in season 4 this time around that I immediately felt sorry for him, and the episodes we watch this week encapsulate why. While he can still be annoying – Jane Espenson’s dry wit in “The Replacement” just fell flat when coming out of Riley’s mouth – the moment he opens up to Xander at the end of that episode and sadly, yet directly, tells him that Buffy doesn’t love him really changes him. I don’t want Buffy with him any more than I ever did, but I feel badly about his misery. That said, there’s something about the scene in “Out of My Mind” where Buffy tells Riley that she’s never been closer to anyone, that she’s never opened up to anyone the way she has to him, that is entirely disingenuous. Unless the majority of their relationship has been kept from us (or her phrase “opening up” had a sexual meaning and wasn’t referring to conversations), it just falls flat. But it doesn’t change the sadness in Riley that, where everyone else is finding their new place within the group, his place is out of it.
Spike, on the other hand, for the first time actually wants to be a part of the Scoobs, although this longing is largely against his will. In “No Place Like Home” he begins milling around Buffy’s haunts – Spike telling Buffy what he’s doing in five words or less. “Out for a walk. Bitch.” remains one of my favourite moments of the entire season – and where she doesn’t yet realize what he’s up to, watching him pine after the person he hates the most is very funny to watch. But don’t worry, Joss won’t let you down. He’ll soon bring the pain on that one, too.
(And on a totally unrelated side note, this week also brings Giles in the wizard hat. Part of me has been waiting the entire rewatch for the Giles in the wizard hat scene. I think it's that oddly serene look on his face and the face he just stands there in his full wizard nerdly glory. Perfect. It's right up there with Fiesta Giles at Halloween, pulling the little string in the Frankenstein monster doll.)
Family, as Tanya Cochran will beautifully outline in her commentary below, is about how the family we make is more important than the one we’re born into. “Family” was never a huge favourite of mine, but I know other fans absolutely love it. I don’t dislike it, it just felt a little preachier than I like my Buffy to be. But I never fail to feel my breath catch with that last image of Tara and Willow floating above the dance floor. Where Riley feels like he’s not part of the gang, and he might be right, Tara’s paranoia that everyone will hate her when they find out who she really is, is entirely misplaced, an evil seed planted there by a vindictive family. And, I mean, AMY ADAMS! (I’d entirely forgotten she was in this episode!) A future Oscar nominee right here on Buffy. Not to mention Herc from Friday Night Lights playing Tara’s brother (he also had a quick appearance on Lost as Jerry, the dude in 1970s Dharmaville who gets caught dancing with Rosie in the security station).
But as Buffy’s outside family becomes more stable, her “biological” one begins to fall apart. She discovers that Dawn isn’t actually her sister, a fact that is devastating, despite the half-joking wish that Dawn would just disappear. To Buffy, Dawn has always been there. It would be like you discovering your sibling didn’t actually exist and had been recently planted in your life, despite the lifetime of memories in your head. And while she’d like to think Dawn is a supernatural force that is hurting her mother, what is afflicting Joyce appears to be an old-fashioned real medical problem. When it comes to vampires, monsters, and Big Bads, no one can slay them like Buffy. But her house has been invaded by something she can’t fight, and for the first time, she is utterly helpless.
This week I’m pleased to welcome back Tanya Cochran, who was last here in season 3, discussing Doppelgangland, Enemies, and Earshot. Take it away, Tanya!
A few weeks ago, my sister Cynthia arrived at the airport for an early morning flight. As she stood in the security line, she glanced over her shoulder and caught a glimpse of someone she thought looked familiar. She glanced again. The man grinned and stepped in line behind her. The conversation went something like this:
Cynthia: Are you who I think you are?
Man: I don’t know. Who do you think I am?
Cynthia: Well, if you’re who I think you are, my sister’s gonna freak out.
Man: Well, if your sister’s a Buffy fan, she’s gonna freak out.
Thus, a pleasant encounter with actor Marc Blucas, Buffy’s Riley Finn, followed. When my sister asked if he’d give her an autograph for me, he didn’t hesitate. And he didn’t just jot his name down; he took the time to personalize: “Tanya—Rumor has it . . . you’re a pretty serious Buffy fan—which probably means you hate me.” When Cynthia called me and read the whole message, I laughed at the first part because it’s true that many fans of the series don’t like Riley—at least, don’t like Riley with Buffy. As I rewatched “Out of My Mind,” “No Place Like Home,” and “Family,” however, Blucas’s comment kept nagging at me, eventually pushing me to think more deeply than ever before about what this week’s episodes (and the Buffyverse as a whole) teach us about who and what defines family.
“Out of My Mind,” as you know, follows two central storylines: Riley’s failing heart and Spike’s pesky chip (Joyce’s loss of consciousness is important too). The character that brings the two together is the doctor who can fix Riley and whom Spike hopes can fix him as well—which is why Spike and Harmony kidnap him. There are, as always, lots of great lines of dialogue I wish I had time to mention, but in the interest of time, space, and bits for you yourselves to discuss later, I will cut right to the part I admire the most, the part I think relates to who and what defines family.
If you’re watching on DVD, the scene selection feature allows you to choose “What A Girl Wants,” which begins at 27:53. Of course, the titling of the scene is itself significant. What does Buffy want? On the surface, she wants to find and convince Riley to see the doctor. The other Scoobies are also out looking. Riley has made himself scarce, avoiding the inevitable—avoiding Buffy and telling her the truth of what he feels. He can’t hide forever, though. Buffy finally discovers him in the abandoned Initiative caves, his knuckles bleeding from punching the jagged walls:
Buffy: This stops now. I’m taking you to the doctor.
Riley: The one from the government, you mean? Like the ones who did this to me in the first place?
Buffy: He’s the only one that understands what’s wrong with you. He’s the only one that can help.
Riley: What’s wrong with me? I’m more powerful than I’ve ever been, Buffy. Most people would kill to feel this way.
Buffy: Yeah, and this feeling is going to kill you. Riley, your body was not built for this kind of strength. . . .
Riley: I go back . . . let the government get whimsical with my innards again . . . They could do anything that— Best-case scenario: they turn me into Joe Normal. Just . . . just another guy.
Buffy: And that’s not enough for you?
Riley: It’s not enough for you. . . . Your last boyfriend wasn’t exactly a civilian.
Buffy: So that’s what this is about? You’re going to die, all over some macho pissing contest.
Riley: It’s not about him. It’s about us. You’re getting stronger every day, more powerful. I can’t touch you. Every day, you’re just . . . a little further out of my reach.
Buffy: You wanna touch me? I’m right here. I’m not the one running away.
Riley: Not yet.
Buffy: So you have this all figured out? I’m bailing because you’re not in the super club.
Riley: It’s human nature.
Buffy: Don’t Psych 101 me. Not now. Not after everything that . . . Nobody has ever known me the way you do. Nobody. I’ve opened up to you in ways that I’ve never opened up to . . . God, you’re just sitting back there thinking that none of this means anything to me.
Riley: I never said that.
Buffy: Because it obviously doesn’t mean anything to you. Do you really think so little of me—
Buffy: No! No. Do you think that I spent the last year with you because you had super powers? If that’s what I wanted, then I’d be dating Spike. Riley, I need you. I need you with me . . . and I need you healthy. But if you wanna throw it all away because you don’t trust me, then . . . then I’m still gonna make you go to that doctor.
There are obviously many layers to this exchange—double meanings, foreshadowings, and more. I want us to consider only one layer, one reading.
What does Buffy want? I think Riley and Buffy are very likely talking less about their romantic relationship and more about Riley’s place in the Scooby Gang—in the family. Also, there are hints of deeply embedded assumptions about masculinity and femininity. For example, I see a man uncomfortable with loss of power and unaccustomed to the likelihood that he will have to ask for help in the near future, that he won’t be able to do as much by or for himself. I see a man afraid of relinquishing the filter through which he sees himself as protector and provider. I see a man who even after a year of dating and working alongside Buffy still doesn’t comprehend how the Scooby family works and doesn’t understand that he’s needed by that family, and he’s needed not just for what he can do but for who he is. It’s difficult for me to fault Riley for not “getting it,” though. After all, he once thought of the Initiative as family, and look how that institution (dys)functioned! 
One of the many reasons I believe this scene from “Out of My Mind” focuses on family and not just romance is because of an idea Reid Locklin proposes in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Domestic Church: Revisioning Family and the Common Good.” Locklin argues that (a) family and community are not necessarily exclusive of one another and (b) “the writers and producers of [Buffy] . . . used it as a venue to develop an alternative vision of the North American family, a vision that clearly refuses to sever family from the common good” (par. 2 ). In Televised Morality: The Case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gregory Stevenson helps us understand Locklin even better by suggesting that “what makes a family of value on Buffy is the ethic that binds it together. A family (whether traditional or created) is a community, and the same ethic that guides a successful community (sacrifice, mutual dependence, loyalty, etc.) is the primary determinant of a successful family” (151).
In this episode’s “What A Girl Wants” scene, Buffy provides very convincing evidence that the Scooby family and the common good coexist: “Riley, I need you. I need you with me . . . and I need you healthy. But if you wanna throw it all away because you don’t trust me, then . . . then I’m still gonna make you go to that doctor.” Essentially, Buffy tells Riley that even if he doesn’t understand how much she and the gang love and need him—for who he is—she will still make sure that he survives. In other words, his survival benefits not only the Scoobies but also the world. Even if they weren’t to make it as a couple, Buffy wants Riley to exist—for the common good. As the result of the Rewatch, I have been persuaded to say something I never thought I’d say (though I never hated him): the world of Buffy is better place with Riley Finn in it. In “Out of My Mind,” what Riley must see for himself is that very fact. If he cannot bring himself to trust Buffy and the others completely, continue to sacrifice for the good of all, and remain loyal to the gang, he won’t ever be an authentic member of the family. By his choice.
As convincing as Buffy is (Riley agrees to let the doctor fix his heart), her own ideas about family take a serious blow in “No Place Like Home” when she comes to realize that Dawn is not her sister but a mass of energy molded into human form. Dawn doesn’t know this, however. She is, according to the dying monk who explains the history of the Key, ignorant and innocent. Feelings of being violated (imagine discovering that your own memories are not authentic, that they have been invented and implanted in your mind) at first seem to overwhelm Buffy. But the idea of family and the common continue to prevail. The final scene of this episode moves me deeply: Buffy sitting on Dawn’s bed, asking for Dawn’s forgiveness, and running her fingers through Dawn’s hair. Buffy knows what she has to do. “Real” sister or not, Dawn must be protected—as family—for Buffy’s own good and the good of the entire world.
That “Family” comes on the heels of “No Place Like Home” seems to me intentional on Whedon’s part, especially now, after rewatching the series several times. Dawn and Tara share many feelings about not fitting into the Scooby Gang, about not being useful, about not being loved and accepted—ultimately, about not being family. It takes an extraordinary threat to change Buffy’s perspective about Dawn, and it takes a mundane (but no less real or powerful) threat to change some of the Scoobies’ perspectives about Tara.
You know the story, because it’s not only Tara’s story. It’s the story of an imbalance and misuse of power, an imbalance and misuse that favors men over and sometimes instead of women. And the theme of family and the common good are inextricable from this attention paid to patriarchy. According to Candace Havens, Whedon highlights one of the series “mission statements” in “Family”: “Your family can be difficult and cruel, . . . but you have the power to create your own family. Your new family can be more important, more real, than the family you are born into” (74). Though we know that Whedon avoids making the “very special episode,” he himself says of “Family” that it is “as much of a didactic message show as I’ve ever done” (qtd. in Havens 75). Unlike the American television after-school specials of my teen years, however, Whedon doesn’t wag a finger at us about the typical topics (sex, drugs, and rock and roll). Instead, he preaches about family:
When we created the show, they said, “Do you want [Buffy’s] family?” and I said, “Well, mom and whatnot, but basically she has a family. Her father is Giles, her sister is Willow, and it’s already in place.” I had some things go on in my life that made me say, “I really want to get this message out, that it’s not about blood.” Tara was the perfect vehicle for that. (qtd. in Havens 75)
So when Tara’s father, brother, and cousin come to take her home, using what Spike calls “a bit of spin to keep the ladies in line,” Buffy and the others finally make a decision about who Tara is to them, clearing up any doubt Tara has been harboring about whether or not she’s an authentic member of the Scooby Gang, the family. Tara’s father insists that being “blood kin” trumps the loose bonds of friendship. Because of what she now knows about Dawn, more than ever before Buffy knows otherwise. 
Here’s what I love most about the final confrontation with Tara’s kin: the face-off represents a decision rather than a negotiation. Sometimes, negotiations are useful, even required. But not when it comes to the value of a human being. Jes Battis reminds us that when Buffy declares, “We’re family,” she points us to “the motif of surrogacy and choice that weaves its way throughout the [entire] show” (17, emphasis added). Family, more than any other theme, is the grand and, therefore, unifying narrative of the series: “It is the sense of belonging that these exiles achieve, and the omega-power that not only infuses, but makes possible, their efforts to push back apocalypse” (18).
Being someone who has herself created a chosen family, I find these episodes especially moving and, yes, didactic or teach-y in the best of ways. I think that’s why Marc Blucas’s comment about hating him because of hating Riley really bothers me. I know, Riley is just a character on a TV show. Yet Buffy obviously influences our lives. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having these Rewatch conversations. So it matters that Blucas continues to feel a transferred sense of dislike from fans. Maybe I’m making too much out of a simple autograph, a note that was meant to be humorous. For me, though, it’s not funny. Rather, it’s a reminder of Whedon’s “mission statement” about choosing (or not choosing) family, the common good, and lasting bonds: it’s all about power—the power of choice. 
 Locklin and Stevenson both remind us that not all families—blood and/or chosen—are created equal. For instance, the vampires Angelus, Drusilla, Darla, and Spike are also referred to as family (par. 6; 151). See also Locklin, pars. 16-21, for a discussion of some of the flaws in the Scooby family; after all, no family is perfect.
 If you’re really interested in the idea of choice in Whedon’s works, I highly recommend K. Dale Koontz’s Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008).
Havens, Candace. Joss Whedon: The Genius Behind Buffy. Dallas: Benbella, 2003. Print.
Locklin, Reid B. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Domestic Church: Revisioning Family and the Common Good.” Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies 2.2 (Sept. 2002): n. pag. Web. 12 July 2011.
Stevenson, Gregory. Televised Morality: The Case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Lanham, MD: Hamilton, 2003. Print.
Thank you, Tanya!
Next week: The themes from this week deepen and darken as we move further into the season, the first episode of which is in my top three favourites of season 5.
5.7 Fool for Love
5.9 Listening to Fear
Our guest host will be Rhonda Wilcox, the “Mother of Buffy Studies,” so you are in for a treat!
And just a quick heads up for the Angel followers (and those NOT watching Angel), “Fool for Love” is an episode that has its mirror episode, with similar events told from a different perspective, over on Angel in “Darla.”
2.8 The Shroud of Rahmon
2.9 The Trial