Follow along in Bite Me! on pp. 259-262.
And if you’re also watching Angel, this week’s episodes are
2.12 Blood Money
Follow along in Once Bitten on pp. 169-175.
Well, this week we say goodbye to Riley and find out what Glory really is. I have to say, though, despite my sympathy to Riley on this rewatch, it doesn’t change that I never really saw any chemistry between the two characters, so something in “Into the Woods” has always fallen a little flat for me. Riley’s absolutely right when he tells her that he’ll always come second to her slaying and that he’s just become convenient (I adored that scene between the two of them, and thought it was powerful, brilliant writing and wonderful acting, more than I’ve ever noticed before). But when Xander tells her the same thing, and then says to go after him if she really, truly, honestly believes that he could be the one – and she DOES – I’ve never really bought it. She knows they’re right, and it’s like she runs after Riley out of some misplaced sympathy. (And I remember looking to the heavens at the end of this episode the first time I saw it, while whispering “thankyouthankyouthankyou.” The followup scene where Xander goes to Anya is lovely. We’ve never really seen a single scene where she seems caring or he treats her as anything other than a sexy joke, but when Xander sees Buffy about to lose Riley, he realizes how lucky he really is.
“Triangle” is an episode has always irked me (Willow is truly annoying and a bit of a bully in the beginning, and I don’t like not loving Willow!) but for some reason I liked it a lot more this time around. I particularly liked the ending, where like the mother of the baby that King Solomon threatens to cut in half, Anya steps up and refuses to let the troll (played by that guy who used to be the aide on ER) hurt him, and offers herself up instead. That moment happened because of Xander’s declaration in the previous episode.
“Checkpoint” has always been a great sequel to “Helpless,” resolving what the Watcher’s Council does to Buffy and Giles in that episode and putting the power back in Buffy’s hands. It’s a very important turn in her character. Buffy’s no longer the “one girl in all the world,” but the one WOMAN. She thought her life was tough in high school, but that was nothing compared to how complicated it’s become… and will continue to be. It’s also the episode where Buffy brings Joyce and Dawn to Spike’s lair (and he and Joyce discuss “Passions”) which is a turn in Buffy and Spike’s relationship that I love.
First up for this week’s guest hosts is Bryan Curry, with his first contribution to the Rewatch. Bryan contacted me after I went public with the Rewatch and he asked if he could join in. Bryan is the co-host of the Hellmouth Podcast (Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and Investigating Angel podcast (Angel The Series). Both podcasts are an episode-by-episode review of the series, an indepth discussion of the characters, themes, plot devices and brief episode recaps. The podcasts attempt to take Buffy and Angel and show them to you in a completely new and different way. You may be amazed at what you missed the first time you saw Buffy The Vampire Slayer or Angel.
Take it away, Bryan!
Into The Woods
“Into The Woods” is an examination of the Buffy/Riley relationship that began back in season 4. After the crushing dissolution of her relationship with Angel, Buffy has decided that the best path is forward and seeks to move on with her life and not look back. While I don’t think any part of that plan involved a new long-term relationship… enter Riley Finn. I find myself to be in the minority often times when in discussions about Riley; I am a big Riley fan and often argue that Riley was probably the best suited man for Buffy in terms of a romantic relationship.
Riley’s character, no pun intended, seems as though he was made in a laboratory and was engineered by the writers to be a negative or inverse image of Angel. In every way that Angel was mysterious, dangerous, tragic and brooding; Riley is upfront, charismatic, the all-American corn fed boy from Iowa. He was an experiment into what would happen if Buffy found a lasting relationship with a nice, ‘normal’ guy. Normal by Sunnydale standards anyway.
I always felt that this was Buffy’s best opportunity for being content. I use to say that Riley was Buffy’s best chance at love and happiness but I have come to learn that contentment and happiness, while not mutually exclusive, can be defined separately.
Riley provides Buffy with comfort and stability, while it is something that Buffy has longed for and probably what she loves most about Riley; it is not what she craves. Buffy craves passion, messy love and a love that elicits that feeling of desperation when she isn’t with the one she cares about. Buffy doesn’t feel this way about Riley, whether that is because she has shut herself off from him and kept him at a distance, or whether it is because Riley is too straight and narrow to elicit that type of reaction is something we could debate indefinitely.
The fact of the matter is that Riley sees that Buffy’s feelings for him are a pale, shallow, non-reflection of his feelings for her. He cannot understand how Angel, someone from her past, can still hold such sway over her and decides to venture into the darkness that Buffy seems to inhabit and try and figure it out on his own. What begins as a casual experiment becomes an addiction. Riley pays vampires to feed on him. What he finds so attractive is the need, the feeling he gets from a vampire who feeds on him. That longing to devour him whole physically and metaphorically is precisely what he is missing in his relationship with Buffy.
In retrospect, it is possible to see how this relationship was doomed to failure from the beginning. We find that Riley’s desire is to be Buffy’s protector, her support and her greatest desire. As the slayer, the chosen one who stands for the power, strength and independence of the ‘feminine’ he is asking for that which above all else Buffy cannot give. In effect, to be the girl that Riley wants her to be, Buffy would have to cease to be Buffy.
When it is revealed to Buffy what Riley has been up to she reacts violently and from her perspective there is perhaps no greater betrayal than what she finds Riley in the midst of. Buffy puts her life in jeopardy, daily; to protect people from the very evil Riley has walked right into. In season 1 Nightmares we saw that Buffy’s nightmare was something that Riley has sought out. It would have been crushing to find out that Riley had been cheating on Buffy, but to find that he had been cheating on her with the one thing that she had been pre-destined to fight is a betrayal above and beyond.
I think that in truth Riley was glad to get caught because it forced the two of them to face the problems in their relationship. Riley has been given an opportunity to return to the military and fight demons with Graham, what he is looking for from Buffy is a plea for him to stay. Even if Buffy had not caught Riley with a vampire, I am not sure that this is something that she could have given him.
So we see that in the final moments as Riley prepares to leave, Xander confronts Buffy. His role in this moment is to bring perspective and uncomfortable truth to what we have witnessed in Buffy and Riley’s relationship over the past year. Riley was convenient, he was comfortable; he was there when Buffy wanted him, and gone when she didn’t. Xander cautions Buffy that because she has been shut off, it is possible that she is missing out on a once in a lifetime kind of love.
Xander: If he’s not the guy, if what he needs from you just isn’t there, let him go. Break his heart, and make it a clean break. But if you really think you can love this guy… I’m talking scary, messy, no-emotions-barred need… if you’re ready for that, then think about what you’re about to lose.
Buffy loses; she arrives too late to stop Riley from leaving with the military. For people like me it is a sad moment, elsewhere in the Whedonverse there are choruses of cheers from the people who couldn’t wait for Riley to be out of the picture. One thing we all have in common is an understanding that despite whether or not Riley was good for Buffy, their relationship was not ‘ideal’ for Buffy in the sense that her definition of happiness, her type of love is not something that Riley could ever give her and the same could be said for Riley.
In the aftermath of Riley’s departure we are faced with another, even more complicated, relationship that is experiencing its own turmoil. The relationship triangle involving Xander and the two prominent women in his life Willow and Anya. The nature of the conflict in this relationship is the apparent dislike between Willow and Anya, which began back in Season 3. As the two of them bicker and argue they each try to force Xander to choose sides, preferably their own.
Xander becomes frustrated that he is constantly being forced to choose between his girlfriend and his best friend. The two women are constantly frustrated, each feeling justified in their arguments and feeling as though if Xander takes sides with the other it is simply a result of the relationship between the two and could never be based on the merits of the argument itself.
This is the structure of this self-perpetuating argument between these three that in this episode is going to have destructive consequences.
Giles has gone to see the Watcher’s Council and see if they have any information or resources that might prove useful with regards to Glory. Willow is taking the opportunity to raid the magic shop and try some spells, her justification being that it could aid Buffy in her Slayer duties. Willow and Anya argue about how Willow is abusing Giles’ absence and each tries to draw Xander into the argument once again to choose sides. His frustration boils over and he leaves them to solve this on their own. Their continued fighting leads to a fumbling of the spell and Olaf is released from his mystical prison and begins to wreak havoc on Sunnydale.
In a fun and interesting turn of events, Willow and Anya are forced to work together to try and track down Olaf and reverse the spell before anyone gets hurt. As we watch these hijinks unfold we get uncommonly honest communication between Willow and Anya. Their relationship problems don’t stem from a genuine dislike of each other; rather, it is based in mutual feelings of protection for Xander. Willow is concerned that at some point, should the relationship go bad, that Anya will inflict horrible vengeance of the human or demonic kind on Xander and she fears for him. Anya’s biggest concern is losing Xander and she feel s threatened by the relationship between Willow and Xander. She is worried that at some point Willow realize that she still loves Xander and will break-up Xander and Anya just like she did Cordelia. Once the cards are laid upon the table the two of them are able to ‘work things out’ to put it crudely.
Xander emerges from this situation in a much happier triangle in which, the fighting has mostly stopped, and all it cost him was a severe beating and thousands of dollars in damage to the city of Sunnydale.
One interesting aspect of this episode is the glimpses that we catch of how Buffy is dealing with the departure of Riley. In spite of the brave face that she puts on for the rest of the Scoobies, when it appears that Anya and Xander’s relationship is faltering under the mounting pressure she reacts very emotionally with crying and a determination to prevent their relationship from following down the path of her own. Obviously, the impact of Riley’s departure is having a profound impact on Buffy whether she may consciously realize it or not. I think it is a nice way to handle this situation. I don’t think it would be believable to watch Buffy crying and moping over Riley. A reaction similar to what she went through when Angel left would not be true to the nature of their relationship. This was a nice way to show that she does feel a sense of loss without overplaying it.
Probably the most attractive episode in this grouping for me is Checkpoint. Every time I watch this episode, I have vivid memories of the first time that I watched it. The uncertainty, suspense, desperation followed by the determination, confidence all culminating in one of the biggest fist-pump moments of the series immediately followed by one of the biggest jaw dropping moments.
From a relationship perspective, this episode illustrates a few of the relationships in Buffy’s life and how they are influenced by power. Glory, the Knights of Byzantium, the Watcher’s Council, all three relationships in this episode are presented as people make demands and try to intimidate Buffy. They arrive brash and full of bravado, demanding information, cooperation and describing horrific consequences if Buffy refuses to submit.
Glory is waiting for Buffy in her own home at one point. Glory is looking for the key, it is one of the most suspenseful moments of season 5. Buffy, Dawn and Glory are all in the Summers’ living room arguing about the location of the key. Glory not knowing that the key is standing there in her presence describes for Buffy all the ways that she will punish her, her family and friends if she does not give her the key. In the midst of all of Glory’s threats, there is one thing that strikes Buffy… Glory has yet to actually do anything.
On her return to the Magic Box, the knights of Byzantium intercept Buffy. They have come to Sunnydale to kill Buffy. She has had no previous interactions with the knights, never even heard of them before now. They are after her because of what she knows, and what she has, i.e. the key.
Finally we have the Watcher’s Council. It is easy to hate the Watcher’s Council because they are in fact worse than Glory in my opinion. The Council has come to Sunnydale to put Buffy and her friends through a series of tests. The bait is that they have some information about Glory that might help Buffy protect Dawn. The hook is Giles and their ability to destroy his life on a moments notice. Just like Glory, the Council wants something from Buffy and they arrive brash and full of bravado, demanding information, cooperation and describing horrific consequences if Buffy refuses to submit, sound familiar?
The Council’s actions are so much more reprehensible than Glory’s. Glory wants the key; the fact that Buffy has information about the key is inconsequential in terms of Buffy’s identity. Glory’s threats about killing Buffy’s friends and family are terrifying, but it is nothing personal, Glory needs the key and Buffy is an obstacle in her way. With the Council, it is entirely personal. Their threats are meant not as a means to an end but to inflict personal pain on Buffy. They are willing to withhold vital information that could spell the end of the world over a grudge between the Watcher’s Council and the Slayer. In truth, there is no question in the Council’s mind about whether Buffy’s abilities are sufficient to handle the information they have about Glory, they are abusing their position to try and manipulate not only Buffy, but her friends as well.
All of these relationships experience a reversal in this episode once Buffy realizes that all of the bravado exhibited by these different groups do not come from a position of power but rather a lack of said power. Once Buffy realizes that she is the one in control of each of these situations she’s able to clearly see the appropriate path forward. With Joyce and Dawn, she brings them to the only one capable of keeping them safe, Spike. With the Council, she arrives at the Magic Box with her own list of demands in one of the most empowering scenes in season 5 and the series as a whole, Buffy lays out exactly how things are going to happen as she speaks to Quentin Travers because “I think he’s understanding me.” Scoobies, myself included, all over the world are cheering and pumping their fists in the air in that moment. This marks then end of Buffy’s fear and cowering before the Council and although their interactions are sparse the Council will maintain a modicum of respect for the Slayer from here on out. This revelation is also going to be very empowering for Buffy through the rest of this season and is going to enable her to handle some tough decisions that are coming up. One of the things for me that defines Buffy as a hero is that even after she realizes how her power places her in a position of great influence and leverage; Buffy doesn’t exploit this fact. There are times when Buffy says we are doing it my way because I am the Slayer; but it is never from a place of malice or corruption. I think the ability to have that power, weild it but not let it corrupt you is heroic in and of itself.
In a way that only Joss Whedon can, just when we feel that the ship has been righted and things are progressing forward, we get a gut check before we have even had a chance to catch our breath.
Buffy: Just tell me what kind of demon I'm fighting.
Quentin Travers: Well, that's the thing, you see. Glory isn't a demon.
Buffy: What is she?
Quentin Travers: She's a god.
Thanks, Bryan! Next up is the always-brilliant Lorna Jowett (author of Sex and the Slayer), who last contributed during the I in Team/Goodbye Iowa/This Year’s Girl Week.
Last time I commented for the Rewatch, I said that Buffy and the team had some finding out to do about the Slayer. In this season, events force Buffy to think hard about who she is, and how being Buffy Summers and being the Slayer each affects the other. “Into the Woods” and “Checkpoint” demonstrate that ordinary life is just as important as Slaying and Buffy has to shoulder the burden of family responsibility while Joyce’s illness is diagnosed and treated, take a long hard look at her relationship with Riley (“Into the Woods”), and rediscover her confidence and her sense of self (as Buffy and as the Slayer) in “Checkpoint.”
I confess that when I first watched “Into the Woods” I leaped off the sofa and punched the air shouting YES!! as Riley flew off in the helicopter. (And I’m sure I wasn’t alone). But the episode has some serious moments between Riley and Buffy that equal the emotional family interactions we see. It’s notable that immediately after the opening shot shows us Buffy, Dawn and Riley waiting in the hospital, we see that Giles, Xander and Willow are there too – the Summers family is reinforced by the Scooby family. The pressure about Joyce’s operation is relieved very quickly at the opening of the episode but while Joyce, as Buffy says to Riley, might be “out of the woods” they, and we, are just going into them, as the title promises. I don’t want to get sidetracked into a long discussion of individual episodes here, and I’ve written about Riley in Sex and the Slayer, so I’ll try and pick out a few significant things about “Into the Woods” before moving on.
Spike’s complex feelings for Buffy are a key motivation here in his decision to follow Riley and to tell Buffy about her boyfriend going to get “suck jobs” from vampires (another genius phrase from Whedon and Co), and his selfishness masquerading as altruism maintains the edge of creepy stalker in his obsession. This continues to play out across the following two episodes and beyond. On the other hand, that Spike and Riley actually manage to have a constructive conversation about their feelings for Buffy is testament to Spike’s capacity for connecting with a huge range of different characters. (He does this again in “Checkpoint” in one of my favourite moments where he and Joyce discuss the latest happenings on Passions, a fictional soap opera to rival Twin Peaks’ Invitation to Love). Spike demonstrates the monster in the man and the man in the monster, often almost simultaneously.
While Spike and Riley’s heart-to-heart is rather unexpected, Buffy and Xander’s talk on the same topic shouldn’t be a surprise, but again the writers and actors offers far more than we anticipated. Xander, the Heart of the Scoobies, stands up for Riley and dares to tell Buffy that she is as much at fault in the failure of her relationship as Riley is. It might be a bit of a stretch to imagine Xander and Riley ever being best pals, and most viewers probably welcome the fact that Riley might finally be leaving, yet this conversation with Buffy is still heart wrenching, perhaps because Buffy finally admits that maybe Riley and Xander are right about her holding back emotionally. More growing up. Xander’s description, “scary, messy, no-emotions-barred need,” is of an adult relationship and the pay-off where he goes straight to Anya and tells her how much he loves her brings a lump to my throat every time. It perfectly balances Buffy’s despair as Riley leaves and segues into “Triangle,” which explores the way Xander and Anya’s relationship causes problems for his friendship with Willow, and for the Scoobies more generally.
Thus in the next episode, the togetherness of the Summers women (both daughters teasing their mother; Dawn awkwardly encouraging Buffy to talk about her split with Riley) is set against tensions among the Scoobies, with both Xander and then Tara made uncomfortable by Willow and Anya’s squabbling. As anyone who knows me or who’s read Sex and the Slayer can probably tell, Anya’s one of my favourite Buffy characters and I enjoy how her alien perspective persists despite criticism from others, lasting throughout her character’s time on the show. “Triangle” starts to explore who Anya was alongside who she is now, sketching in more backstory. “Triangle” can de dismissed as a lightweight one-off but nevertheless it ties into ongoing themes in the season, it serves the function of comic relief, and some of its revelations about Anya’s past are revisited much more seriously as the seasons unfold. (I’ll even be back to discuss some of these in another few months). Plus, who wouldn’t want to see a large drunken troll rampage through The Bronze?
If “Into the Woods” is mostly serious emotion, and “Triangle” is farcical comedy, “Checkpoint” combines both. It also features the season’s Big Bad more consistently – welcome back, Glorificus! Glory’s hedonism, love of luxury and hyperfemininity make it tempting to dismiss her as trivial and silly but we can’t. She’s the most powerful Big Bad to date and “Checkpoint” tells us just how powerful: she’s a god. (NB not a goddess, a god; see also Illyria in Angel season 5). And once again Whedon and Co manage to create fabulous supporting characters - or am I the only one with a soft spot for “dear, bumpy minion” Jinx?
Anyway, back on track. “Checkpoint” brings together several of the themes that have been brewing in the previous two episodes and the season so far. Since Joyce’s illness, the Summers’ residence has become a rather different place than the happy home it (mostly) used to be: at the end of “Into the Woods” Buffy comes back to a dark, apparently empty house and in the opener to “Checkpoint” she hurries around tidying up before the Scoobies sit down for their meeting about the Watcher’s Council visit. Growing up again: now Buffy has to take responsibility for making the house a home if she wants it to be one. Her fears about Dawn are also foregrounded here. Buffy refuses to tell the Council that Dawn is the Key, worries that Dawn herself will find out (as she inevitably does), and far worse, that Glory herself will discover it (also inevitable). Both are combined when Buffy arrives home to find Glory in the house waiting for her. How many Big Bads have invaded the Summers’ house? The home in contemporary horror, whether film, TV or fiction, is a dubious haven, open to invasion and penetration of all kinds and we’ve seen the house under attack on Buffy before. But that Glory enters it so easily speaks volumes about her power and about the intimacy of her threat, not just to the Slayer but to Buffy and her family.
The whole scenario with the return of Quentin Travers, the Watcher’s Council “review” and its outcome is immensely satisfying, for all kinds of reasons. Whedon scholars love the line “I wrote my thesis on you,” the death of the practice dummy in the test fight is pure slapstick, and Giles’ line to Travers’ hench-Watchers, “You all stand around and look sombre – Good job!” makes me snigger every time (not least because it shows his adoption of some Americanisms in contrast to the Watchers’ precise and stuffy British English). There are many more classic moments and I bet you all have your own favourites. But the real beauty of the episode is the way it neatly folds together Buffy’s insecurities about her family and her calling, real life and life as the Chosen One. Dawn’s frustration at being left out of the loop by her big sister means that she risks talking with Glory, the Council threatens to deport Giles, Buffy experiences patronising male attitudes both in the university classroom and at “work” from Travers – all speaking to real life rather than just to fantasy. The very pervasiveness of situations that demonstrate how powerless she is to change anything allows Buffy to recognise that in some things she is powerful. Then, typically, the uplifting surge of positive affirmation is cut off at the knees by Travers’ revelation before fade to black and the end credits: Glory is a god. Her power overshadows the journey to the end of this season (spoiler): (and resonates beyond it). The real world also continues to overwhelm Buffy periodically for the rest of season 5: at this point, she’s hardly begun to understand how hard life is.
Thank you, Lorna!
5.13 Blood Ties
5.15 I Was Made to Love You
Our guest hosts will be Tanya Cochran and Kristen Romanelli. And if you're following along with Angel, watch:
2.13 Happy Anniversary
2.14 The Thin Dead Line
See you next week!