“Sometimes I envy you so much it chokes me. And sometimes I think I got the better deal. To be that close to her and not have her. To be all alone even when you’re holding her. “
I’ve been looking forward to “Into the Woods” since we started season 4 because, as I’ve previously stated, Riley is the worst. But a terrible thing happened during my rewatch of this episode; I kinda felt for the dude. Not, ‘I forgive you for being an unconscionable and selfish prat, who comes off as a pouty baby because his girlfriend is kinda preoccupied with her mother’s potential fatal illness’ feeling, but a ‘yes, it must suck to realize you love your girlfriend in a different way than she loves you’ way.
“Into the Woods” picks up where last week’s episode left off, re-watching Joyce being wheeled into surgery. We know that all is not well in the Buffy-Riley relationship, but this scene reinforces that – Riley is wearing a heavy turtleneck and longsleeves to Buffy’s tanktop (to hide his bite marks), as they sit together waiting for the surgeon they aren’t looking at each other or holding hands, when the surgeon does come out, Buffy steps to the front and Riley slides back, regulated to a supporting role alongside Dawn.
Since this is the break-up episode, the show is really trying to ram empathy-for-Riley down our throats. When Buffy and Riley finally get some alone time, Riley observes that Buffy never cried. But of course she did – twice onscreen that we saw, once with Spike in “Fool for Love” and again in “Listening to Fear” (where she was also Spike-adjacent). But never with Riley, which makes his blandly handsome face crumble while Buffy remains oblivious to his pain. Hey, viewer, why is Buffy such an oblivious bitch? At least that’s the way we’re supposed to feel.
It’s entirely possible that their relationship would have stayed this way if Riley’s hand was not forced by two separate incidents. One, the military guys who Riley called in to track the alien last week are still in town and ask him to accompany their unit on a mission to South America. Two, Spike, in his aimless plan to win Buffy’s affections, takes her to the vampire flophouse Riley’s been frequenting, where she catches him mid suck (no euphemism!) with a vamp.
To pay Spike back, Riley storms into his crypt the next day and stakes him with a synthetic wood stake, which is painful but dust-free. After Riley works out his aggression, the two have an uncomfortable chat about what it’s like to love a girl like Buffy:
RILEY: You actually think you’ve got a shot with her?
SPIKE: No, I don’t. Fella’s gotta try, though. Gotta do what he can.
RILEY: If you touched her… you know I’d kill you for real.
SPIKE: I had this chip outta my head, I’da killed you long ago. Ain’t love grand?
I can’t fully convey how much I love this moment between the two of them. It’s earnest and painful, and also incredibly honest. Ain’t love grand?
Riley takes out his anger on Spike. Buffy, on the other hand, misdirects her feelings towards the vamps Riley was frequenting. She insists that the Scooby Gang come with her to destroy the nest even after both Anya and Giles insist that the people who use the flophouses are willing participants. This far into her Slaying career Buffy usually has a more nuanced outlook towards the underworld – see her tolerance of chipped-Spike, an admitted murderer – but her humiliation and anger completely blinds her. The first nest has been abandoned, so Buffy burns the place to the ground.
Eventually, Riley forces a confrontation at the Magic Box. To the writer’s credit, the ensuing fight raises a lot of the complaints we’ve voiced about Riley over the course of the season – he’s obviously resentful of Buffy’s strength, he can’t handle being a sidekick, he’s jealous of her ex-boyfriends, and he’s completely at fault for the whole cheating-with-vampires thing. But they also point out some ugly truths about our girl, Buffy – she can be myopic, she can be cold, and she’s obviously got some emotional damage that keeps her from completely trusting or relying on her loved ones. It’s understandable, right? She’s literally had the weight of the world on her shoulders, and if she had stumbled, if she was wrong, if she was weak, everyone and everything in the world could literally be destroyed.
But that’s what and who she is, and Riley isn’t equipped to accept that.
Riley tells her he’s been invited on a mission and he’s leaving that night, unless she tells him to stay. And then he leaves. (That’s a total dick power play, Riley.)
On her way home, the vamps from the flophouse jump her. Buffy kills all of them, even the one who wasn’t attacking her and trying to run away – who happened to be the woman Riley was caught with. It’s one of the coldest things Buffy does over the course of the entire show.
Xander witnesses the fight and confronts her about what her damage is – and then he lectures her about, basically, what a cold bitch she’s been to Riley. The righteous, shaming speech he gives her is so rage inducing I suggest fast-forwarding past the scene so that you don’t punch your tv right in his smug face. He says one thing that is dead on though:
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.
So Buffy runs -to the helicopter she has no way of knowing where it landed, to a deadline of midnight Riley never actually told her was looming, but, whatever. It’s super more dramatic this way. Because she’s running but she’s too late, and he’s already flying away and can’t see her calling to him, and she’s lost the guy she thinks she loves.
Why are all these goddamn men saying what Buffy needs? Riley, Spike, Xander – they all assume to understand her, wave off her actual feelings, and get angry at her when she doesn’t agree.
This week’s script was unusually on the nose, dialog wise. At one point Buffy says, “mom’s out of the woods”, which, you know, refers to the title of the episode. Later, all the Army dialog concerning Riley makes heavy use of the words “need” and “want” because we, the viewers, must understand why All-American Riley starts visiting prostitutes vampires. See, Buffy didn’t need him enough and Riley likes to feel needed. Buffy dismissively says that she can see Riley any time, to make her sound flippant and uninvested – except that this scene takes place in Joyce’s hospital recovery room, which just points out exactly how much Buffy’s got on her plate at the moment. Riley can’t pull emotional second string for a couple of weeks?
The exact inverse to Xander’s creepy speech to Buffy is the really amazing one he offers to Anya later that same evening. I give Xander a lot of shit in these recaps (deservedly so!) but this is one moment he gets right:
I’ve gotta say something…’Cause … I don’t think I’ve made it clear. I’m in love with you. Powerfully, painfully in love. The things you do … the way you think … the way you move … I get excited every time I’m about to see you. You make me feel like I’ve never felt before in my life. Like a man. (Pause. He shrugs uneasily) I just thought you might wanna know.