[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Rebecca Rand Kirshner | Director: David Grossman | Aired: 05/01/2001]
A slow pace and an occasional bit of odd directing are the only things holding “Tough Love” back a bit. Otherwise, it’s an episode filled with both small and huge character moments (which is likely part of why the pace is slow). Its title has some meaning that shows the tough situations of love and sacrifice for both Willow and Buffy. Tara gets badly hurt causing Willow to finally show us her full capacity for damage as a witch and Dawn is pouting over her situation as the Key, not understanding the full seriousness of the events around her. This episode was badly needed as it further the plot significantly as well as focusing on important character issues.
We begin by seeing Buffy dropping out of university to take care of Dawn and deal with Glory. This is a very somber scene as it represents Buffy losing yet another tie to normal life–the things, as Spike claimed in “Fool for Love” [5×07] , that tie her this this world. We’re building up to a massive emotional breakdown, which does happen in “Spiral” [5×20] . With that said, though, I feel that college never suited Buffy very well. Really, what’s she going to gain from it right now? At least she was able to put in a full year and some change before dropping out. I definitely applaud Buffy for trying to juggle that job with school–personally, I don’t think I could do it. She tells her instructor, and later Willow, that she hopes to enroll again next semester, “When I’m more myself again.” We see her try in “Life Serial” [6×05] and fail to fit back in. Buffy is never the same again after her mom’s death. I’ll talk about this change a lot more extensively once we get into the grim sixth season.
There’s two major things to take note of in this episode. The Buffy/Dawn interaction and the Willow/Tara interaction. I’ll begin with Buffy and Dawn, who are coping but very visibly struggling to make it work without their mom. Dawn is skipping out on school and secretly stealing things which, after partially exposed by one of Dawn’s teachers, puts Buffy’s guardianship ability immediately on the spot and in question. In light of this information, Buffy has a private conversation with Giles. The result of this conversation is that Dawn isn’t the only one who needs to grow up–Buffy does too as she’s Dawn’s only real family now.
Giles tells her to be strict with Dawn and to get her to attend school because the consequences of not would be disasterous. We can see Buffy try with all her will to get Giles to be the parent, but he knows it must be direct family. It’s interesting to note that this is the issue that causes Giles to leave Sunnydale in S6, thereby forcing Buffy to become an adult and deal with Dawn herself. It sucks that she’s been very prematurely put on the spot in raising Dawn, but she’s gotta do it or she loses the very person she’s fighting Glory to protect. No one else but Giles seems to know that Buffy can lose custody of Dawn, so they aren’t nearly as understanding of Buffy’s situation.
Buffy takes the advice from Giles and tries her best to get Dawn to listen, but instead Dawn just has a fit about how nothing in her life matters because she’s not even a real person. Desparate, Buffy reveals to Dawn the nature of their situation which does scares her a bit. The pained reactions from Buffy while trying to fold some towels, a routine activity to help keep her mind off these thoughts, shows that she’s really scared about it too. They just have a really ###### situation and it hurts me watch them struggling so much. Unfortunately, that’s just how life can be at times.
The other traumatic situation going on in this episode involves Willow and Tara. This has been an extremely happy, stable couple for almost a year now but there’s still problems that surface here. It begins when Willow shows her frustration with everyone telling her that she “can’t really know” what it’s like to lose a mother and that her experiences and opinion don’t matter. These concerns expose a deeper concern that she’s behind everyone around her in life experiences. Tara rebuttles that Willow is doing plenty well and brings up witchcraft as an example of her doing too well, even going as far as saying she’s frightened by how quickly Willow’s power has grown. In addition to this, Tara mentions she’s worried Willow might go back to “boys town” because of how her personality is changing around her magic use. This is a valid concern as we can see how far Willow goes with magic next season, but here it sparks a fight.
With Tara alone and Willow probably regretting storming out on her, Glory takes advantage of mistaken identity and brain sucks poor Tara (remember how worried Tara sounded when she first found out Glory could do that? “She’s a brain sucker?”). When Willow finds out what happened she lies to Buffy about not going after Glory in a furious firestorm. Completely to character, Spike wonderfully points out, just as he did back in “Something Blue” [4×09] during another magic incident, that Willow is in no way “over it” and is going to do something about it. This is a fantastic little piece of character continuity. But the real story is Willow… all Willow, and wow can she put on a show! Three years of careful development for this moment: finally getting to see her unleash her full, chilling wrath. Words cannot expres how satisfying this is to finally see and proves to not only be the highlight of this episode, but a highlight of this highlight filled season.
Glory finally gets really worked up because of Willow’s attack and chases right after them, catching them at the university on a cliffhanger ending that gets picked up at the beginning of “Spiral” [5×20] . Quite the ending! Although I must admit I was a bit annoyed that Tara only started drooling over Dawn right when Glory appears. However, the rest of that final scene is fantastic, with both Buffy and Willow coming to an understanding of their respective responsibilities. Willow says, “It’s okay. I can do this. I’m gonna take care of her. Even if she never… she’s my girl.” Buffy’s experience with Dawn allows her to accurately respond, “I understand.” Willow recognizes this experience and says, “I know you do.” Very sweet and another display of great writing.
Overall I think this is an excellent episode that is slightly dragged down by a slow pace, which is forgiveable due to the amount of attention the characters get. Normally this would have gotten an 85, but Willow’s awesome magical outburst on Glory boosted it up a notch. Glory finds out Dawn’s the Key, Tara gets brain-sucked, Willow becomes Darth Rosenberg for a brief moment, and the season finale is set in motion. In the end? Great stuff!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Ben trying to make excuses for getting fired. The doctor’s response to his pleas is fun and, unknown to him, actually true.
+ Glory’s entire bubble bath is very amusing.
+ Anya’s speech about patiotism and capitalism. After knowing more of her past relationship with communism (“Selfless” [7×05] ) this is even more funny.
+ Xander continuously cheering Buffy up during these hard times. Xander is very lovable this season.
+ Giles bringing out a little of ol’ Ripper to get Glory’s minion to talk.
+ It’s about time Glory found Dawn. Thankfully it at least doesn’t happen in the season finale.
– Dawn’s weeping in the caves is way overly melodramatic.