[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Marti Noxon | Director: Marti Noxon | Aired: 12/19/2000]
“Into the Woods” is an excellent episode which provides some well needed commentary on Buffy as an individual up to this point. It accomplishes this task by focusing completely on her relationship with Riley, which of course ends here. We can see that both people in this relationship are at fault to some extent and that there are no easy answers for Buffy. In the end, Riley puts her in an incredibly unfair and difficult position, yet it accomplishes what it needed to, with the timely assistance of Xander, by forcing Buffy to make a choice with her heart, now: let Riley go or get over there and tell him you’re willing to really take this relationship to a whole new place. Alas, it’s too late and Buffy enters the beginning of a really rough period of her life.
The beginning of the end of Buffy’s Slayer-like happy years gets into gear here. The theme of all this is touched on very early in the episode when Riley hears that Buffy did actually cry over the situation with her mom’s illness, yet alone. It’s obvious here that there is a lot Riley really just doesn’t ‘get’ about Buffy. The way she shows her emotions is an example of something that eludes him. Even so, soon after this Buffy and Riley share their most genuinely romantic scene in their entire relationship, which is very pleasant to watch.
It’s obvious Buffy enjoyed her evening with Riley, in all ways, but her whole demeanor with him is that of a casual nature–that this is just a casual relationship for her. Riley wants it to be more, but for some reason won’t ever tell her that’s what he wants out of it–to take it to the next step that he’s been assuming for so long she’s been at. I believe that he can see that she’s not ready for something more serious at this time and I think he’s acting out as a way to deny this truth to himself. Of course, he had it right when he talked to Xander in “The Replacement” [5×03] . The simple fact is that Buffy is not in love with him. Buffy does treat him like a convenience rather than an equal partner, even later saying, “I can see him [Riley] any time.”
The thing is, I just don’t blame Buffy for not being ready for a deeper relationship at her age. It’s Riley’s fault it took him so long to realize he wants more than Buffy’s ready to give. This is what has lead Riley to run off and do some genuinely dumb things like, oh, willingly getting suck jobs from vampire girls. I’ve always understood Riley’s behavior, but that doesn’t excuse him when he goes too far in expressing his denial. Buffy’s reaction to seeing Riley like this later is spot on: unable to utter a word, just “uh…” When she gets home we see some wonderful expressions: pain, sickness, and hurt.
With Riley’s secret now exposed, no thanks to Spike, he charges off to Spike’s crypt to vent his anger at him. This leads to a great, great chat between the two of them that really sets up the whole Spike/Buffy relationship to come. I particularly love it when Riley asks Spike “You actually think you’ve got a shot with her?” and he immediately replies, “No, I don’t. Fella’s gotta try, though. Gotta do what he can.” Spike goes on to tell Riley that he’s not the “long haul guy.” However, I think Spike is wrong here. All Riley seems to want is to be the long haul guy. Regardless of my knowledge of future episodes, I always got the feeling off Riley that he wants to be married, have kids, and barbeque on the back porch. It’s the fact that Buffy can’t have this life at this time that ruins the relationship from Riley’s perspective. Although Spike is somewhat correct when he says Buffy needs some monster in her man, I don’t think it’s that simple. She doesn’t need it but rather she’s just attracted to it. Spike is dead on in pointing out that that’s not in Riley’s nature. Spike says maybe he got the better deal when he tells Riley, “to be that close to her, and not have her…” But then he understandably quickly reconsiders that position.
Later on Riley confronts Buffy in the training room over everything that’s happened. He claims that when this vamp ‘thing’ started it was an immature game (yep), and that he wanted to even the score with the Dracula issue. He asks the question, “why do Dracula and Angel have so much power over you?” While I feel Riley overstates their alleged powerful aura, he does have a good reason to ask why those creatures excite her. I’m sure some of it has to do with her nature as a slayer, but some of it is just that she still has a bit of a thing for the darker parts of those characters’ personalities. Although, most of the Dracula thing was pure mind control, so I think Riley’s placing too much emphasis on that encounter.
At least Riley admits all of this vamp mess is his fault, because it is. Buffy poses the important question, “what could those whores give you that I couldn’t” and Riley replies, “they needed me.” Interesting. Riley desperately wants to be needed, and the fact of the matter is that he’s not in Buffy’s world. He really should have gotten a job. Imagine how “needed” he’d have been with a steady income after Buffy’s mom had died. I like how Riley also admits to Buffy that it’s hard having a girlfriend that’s much stronger than him. Buffy essentially says that this is who she is, somewhat out of necessity because of the slayer issue, but she seems pretty unwilling to admit that her slayer complex makes it difficult to have a really mutual, deep relationship. This is the moment Riley realizes that it’s over, and he announces the military deal to her. The ultimatum he gives her is extremely unfair, but I get at what he’s trying to do here. Riley then wants Buffy to hit him as a sign that she has any kind of strong emotions over him, but she just walks out. This is a pretty immature response from Riley though. The only time Buffy ever hit Angel when they were together was when he was either evil or dying.
After an extremely cool fight sequence outside where Buffy just tears apart a big group of vamps, Xander confronts Buffy on the touchy subject at hand as she tries to flee from him, wanting to deal with her emotions alone again. After he sees Buffy’s expression and pause earlier on after mentioning getting Riley, we know that he knows exactly what’s going in that relationship. He says, “it’s right in front of my Xander-face.” Buffy says she thought Riley was “dependable”–the normal guy. Xander replies with fitting amusement, “what is he, State Farm?” Xander nails it when he says, “You got burned with Angel … and you shut down. And you’ve been treating Riley like the rebound guy.” There’s just no way she can deny this truth and she doesn’t try to.
While I think Xander overstates Riley’s virtues when he says, “he’s the one that comes once in a lifetime,” Riley does have positive qualities and is a really nice man. What Xander says from this point on says it all: “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.” As I’ve pointed out before, Buffy thinks of Riley just as a boyfriend and not a really serious relationship (think possibly marriage and children). Riley’s always wanted a serious relationship with her and was incorrect in assuming she was on the same page as him all this time. But Xander here essentially asks, do you want a serious relationship with this guy? Can you open yourself up emotionally again like you did with Angel? Buffy’s response is that yes, she does want to give this a real try. But, alas, it’s just too late and there endeth Buffy and Riley. 😦
To tie up some loose ends I’m going to briefly touch on Spike and Xander. First off, I really enjoyed seeing Spike’s selfish attempt to ‘help’ Buffy out by giving away Riley’s little secret. He is so happy that he got Riley caught but comes to quickly reconsider that feeling when he sees its effect on Buffy. I noticed Spike showing an expression of surprise when he sees Riley first leave Buffy’s house in the middle of the night. I know what Spike must be thinking: “why in the world would he be leaving Buffy’s bed for anything!?” I also want to point out Xander’s, quite frankly, stunning speech to Anya after he gives advice to Buffy on her relationship with Riley. It is just… amazing beyond words. Great character development doesn’t even begin to describe it! I’m reminded of how expertly this was done in “New Moon Rising” [4×19] , where one character’s experience effects the views of another in a profound way. Excellent.
Well, that’s about it for this one. “Into the Woods” proves to be a captivating episode about relationships, love, and committment. A lot of important development came from the lessons learned here. I thouroghly enjoyed this one from both the analytical and fun factor standpoints. Great stuff!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Buffy continuing to stroke Dawn’s hair, almost like she can’t help it.
+ The tension-filled opening scene at the hospital, especially with Buffy’s fiddling with her hands.
+ Giles and Xander stopping just before hugging each other at the good news on Joyce’s recovery.
+ Buffy reacting surprisingly cool when she wakes up to find Spike standing over her bed!
+ The multi-named banner for all the different holidays.
+ Riley staking Spike with a plastic wood grain stake. Very shocking moment first time you see it.
+ The song that plays as Buffy’s running to Riley at the end. Overly dramatic? Maybe. But I found it really moving.
* Willow and Anya’s angry bantor is continued here and becomes the focus of the next episode, “Triangle” [5×11].