Season 5, Episode 10: “Into the Woods”
Written and directed by Marti Noxon
By now, everyone has been waiting forever for Joyce to get out of surgery, so let’s cut to the hospital waiting room for the good news, shall we? The procedure was a complete success! Everything’s going to be okay! Joyce will live forever! Hurrah!
Everyone’s happy except the doctor, who gets a rib-crushing Slayer special of a hug as his much-deserved reward. (And also, probably, hundreds of dollars per hour.)
With the vigil over and the outcome promising, the gang splits up, everyone heading to their respective homes to catch up on the things they’ve been missing, like sleep and regular meals and possibly a little zoning out in front of the tube. Sex, too: Dawn spends the night at Xander’s so BuffRiley can get a little quality couple time together.
At first glance, the couple time is working out beautifully. Everything does indeed seem dialed up for romance at Chez Slay. Buffy and Riley are all a-cuddle, and if she says a few things to fuel his still-raging insecurities, it doesn’t stop the two of them from getting horizontal.
Outside the bubble, Spike’s lurking himself into a well-clad bag of festering jealousy. Like Dawn, he’s all too aware of what’s going on in there, and he can’t deal. Even though it’s obvious he knows better, he hangs around for so long that Riley starts feeling unneeded by his sleeping beloved. When he sneaks out—in that same way Buffy used to, when she was slipping off to go hunting—Spike duly follows him to a vampire club that should, by rights, be called the Sucking Hole.
Next day, Buffy and Joyce are celebrating their imminent escape from the medical system by trying on wigs in the hospital. They are both so incredibly relieved that Joyce is going to be okay. (Forever!)
“Shouldn’t you also be spending time with Riley?” Joyce asks. Buffy, clueless, replies she can see him anytime.
Which is true! With Spike’s help, she can not only see him anytime but anywhere, and can even follow him to his seedy dive, where as we all know it turns out he’s getting nommed by a female vampire in the most distasteful fashion possible (at least, possible between two consenting adults still wearing their underwear).
Nobody but Spike is happy about this revelation. More to the point—and rather to Spike’s surprise—nobody’s falling gratefully into his arms, either. Oh, Spikey, you silly silly being.
As the love of his life staggers away, a shaken Riley goes home to regroup and finds his apartment infested with soldiers. He’s grumpy about it, but nevertheless is cajoled into listening a recruitment pitch from Major Ellis and Graham. Rejoin the army! Fly to exotic distant lands and risk your life killing evil things. Tempting, no?
Buffy, needless to say, is freaking out. Rather than confiding in her friends, she asks about the whole paying to be fed upon thing, and then expresses a general desire to kill everyone involved on the supply side. Giles mentions that there’s consent in play and suggests that there are other entities, like Glory, who may be in more immediate need of killing. The phrase ‘less ambiguous evil’ is deployed. This goes over with Buffy like the proverbial pregnant pole vaulter.
(It’s also just about the only mention, this week, of the bigger story building over the course of season five.)
This is, in fact, one of those episodes where just about everyone who gets a minute of screen time uses it to be cranky. Willow and Anya, for example, get into some serious sniping at each other. And Riley—whose beef is more understandable—heads off to the crypt and fake-stakes Spike.
Why is there such a thing as a fake stake?
Somehow this bit of violence and revenge leads to Spike and Riley having a heart to heart about their love problems. This is not much good for either of them. “You’re not the long-haul guy,” Spike tells Riley. We all know it’s true. TV abhors a happy relationship.
In time, we circle back to the magic store where XandAnya are hanging out and Buffy is killing the danger room. Finally Riley shows up, too. By now Xander, having been half in the know anyway, has pretty much guessed the general parameters of what’s wrong. He and Anya bail to leave them to fight it out.
They do. Riley tells Buffy a whole buncha self-serving truth about his sucky habit. And then he tells her about his exciting new job opportunity. She basically hears “1) I’m sorry I hurt you; 2) it’s your fault 3) I’m leaving,” and is appalled. Go figure.
As she’s wandering through Sunnydale processing this brain-whirling turn of events, the vamp pimp, whose name is apparently Whip, turns up with nine of his buddies to throw themselves on her stake. This is bad planning on his part, and it gets the entire gang the pointy end of the Slayer’s “I’ve been training really hard for months!” regime.
I’d forgotten about this fight, and I’m happy to have seen it again. The nine vamps are so completely outclassed! My memory of how this season went was that meeting Dracula sparked Buffy’s extra-shiny study regime, but that all fell under a bus after Joyce became ill. But this is a delicious bit of continuity, a line thrown back to those weeks of dedication. Okay, these guys are hardly the Order of Taraka, but Buffy barely breaks a sweat here! We can see the obvious dividends from all that practicing and it is truly amazing.
Sadly, this is not the episode where we get to enjoy Buffy on a thoroughly justified killing spree, so the fighting, and Buffy’s subsequent spearing of Riley’s paid succubus, are over all too soon. Xander shows, dragging our attention back to the seamy break-up in progress by trying to do some damage control.
On reviewing this episode, I was surprised at how much of its contents I found true to life, especially in terms of the timing. Both Riley and Spike have been in wait mode while Joyce was ill. They sit on their issues until the crisis has seemed to pass, and then hit the object of their affection—indecently fast—with their piles of messy love-inspired emotional crap. Man, that happens! Because tension builds, right? And even a saint—neither man is a saint, mind you—can only hold it in so long.
Or possibly it’s just that there’s never enough downtime to really let you recover from having to hold everything together while your parent’s having brain surgery, so the big stupid next thing always seems to come indecently fast.
Anyway, this sudden post-Joyce explosion struck a strangely believable chord.
I have also been extremely interested in seeing the Buffy/Xander scene near the end of this episode, where he essentially tells her to swallow her pride. (Okay, that and a whole lot of other stuff.) The extra interest came because I’d recently seen—as many of you may have—the Mary Sue article by Natasha Simons called “Reconsidering the Feminism of Joss Whedon.” In it, she talks about this particular scene and Xander generally.
If I were to really boil down what Simons says about this particular BuffXander heart to heart, it’s that it’s unfair to Buffy in a manifestly sexist way. That Xander’s castigating Buffy for being a bad girlfriend and picking on Riley. That instead, Xander ought to be cheering her on for having told Iowa to take his ultimatum and stick it where the vamps don’t sparkle.
In a sense I’m on board with the “unfair” part of the equation. A close friend, given this situation, is usually better off listening and supporting. Riley behaved badly, and he offered a thoroughly whiny self-justification. He did basically dump his bad choices on Buffy’s lap: you made me do this, you were distant, nyah, nyah and btw, I’m taking a job in South America.
But. Xander understands better than Buffy what’s going on with Riley. He thinks she wants to stay with him. And there’s no time. Under the circumstances, “swallow your pride and make a decision” is probably the kindest and most loving advice anyone could possibly offer.
And contrast it with Xander’s “Kick his ass” declaration in the lead-up to Angel’s death. In S2, withholding the news that Willow was trying the curse meant Xander deprived Buffy of the opportunity to save her love life. Now, three years later, he’s at least telling her to figure out what she wants and go after it.
In “Into the Woods,” Xander’s not saying a BuffRiley reconciliation would be anything but one of those slow, dreadful, figuring-it-out relationship marathons. The chopper conveniently leaving at midnight may be the stuff of fiction, but the “sometimes the wronged party has to make a decision before they’re ready to forgive” bit? Again, pretty true to life.
Which raises the question of how much realism the audience for a show like BtVS wants. Because me, I often come to my genre TV looking for the fluffy and improbable. Up with “School Hard!” Down with hospital vigils and cheaty boyfriends.
(I am in agreement with Simons about Xander’s belittling of Anya and Cordelia—the individual insults were often funny, but it never made me comfortable and I don’t think it makes him look good. Anyway, it’s an interesting article, packed with spoilers for most of the Whedon shows. If you want to discuss it with each other, please do read it instead of agreeing or disagreeing with my oversimplification.)
The upshot is that Riley goes. I’ve said before that I think having this kind of a long-running steady boy, with a pulse, was a good experience for Buffy. But Spike’s right. We all know Iowa wasn’t the long-haul guy, even if Buffy did run her heart out trying to catch him there at the end.
The episode ends with Xander taking a small but crucial step. Over the course of the episode both Willow and Buffy have taken shots at him for not really caring about Anya. So he takes his own advice, heading home and taking the time to tell Anya in no uncertain terms, that he loves her.
Then we get a few shots of Buffy and Riley being all mopetastic and newly single before the credits roll.
A.M. Dellamonica has kaboodles of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales.