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Monday, August 13, 2012

Into The Woods

[Updated May 1, 2013]

The title of Into the Woods is ironic, of course. The success of Joyce’s operation means that she’s now “out of the woods”, but Riley left to join a commando operation in the jungles of Central America. Buffy’s distress at his departure means that she’s not yet out of the woods emotionally.

I have a take on the events of ItW that’s fairly cynical, particularly with respect to Xander’s dialogues with Buffy and Anya. In order to explain my position on those, I need first to explain how I see Riley and Buffy. Here’s the way I said it 10 years ago and I still see it pretty much the same way:

“The principal complaint Riley had about Buffy was that he loved her more than (he felt) she loved him. His feelings towards her were more intense than (he felt) hers were towards him. I would emphasize 2 points about this:

1. By saying this, Riley seems to be adopting the Spike theory of love ("Love isn't brains, children, it's blood boiling...."). [Edit to add: Riley even asks Buffy to hit him, just as Spike did in Fool For Love: “You're the Slayer. Do something about it. Hit me. Come on. One good swing. You know you want to.” h/t Anonymous] I thought there was general agreement that this was an immature notion of love. If this is Riley's standard, he's just as wrong as Spike.

2. This is a cheap shot by Riley. He can know the intensity of his own feelings, but he has no way to judge the intensity of Buffy's.

We, the audience, can't see inside either one of them. I personally didn't see Riley show any great passion towards Buffy (as distinct from what he said). In fact, by sleeping with Faith/Buffy he showed a lack of passion -- he engaged with the body rather than the person.

Nor did I see any diminution of passion in Buffy. What I did see was that she was overloaded with stress brought on by her obligations to Dawn and her mother's illness. To me, Riley's insistence that she engage emotionally with him on these counts was pure selfishness on his part. It gets back to whether his view of love is mature or not -- a mature view allows one's partner to engage emotionally somewhere else when the need arises. The immature Spike view says "me, me, me".

Riley never could accept his diminished role after the destruction of the Initiative. He kept intruding into Buffy's space in order to satisfy his own ego, then blamed her for shutting him out. He didn't know how to deal with a woman strong enough to handle pressure without his manly support.”

The one change I’d make in this today is that I now think Riley was right on one point – Buffy doesn’t love him, at least not the way she loved Angel. We could get into long debates about whether that intensity of love is good (see Spike in Lover’s Walk) or bad (see Mr. Platt in Beauty and the Beasts). Bottom line is, the passion wasn’t there on Buffy’s side.

In no way, shape, or form does this mean that I think Buffy is somehow at “fault”. Words like “fault” and “blame” don’t belong in the discussion when it comes to whether or how much you love someone. As Xander put it in Prophecy Girl, “you either feel a thing or you don’t”. As was true then, Buffy doesn’t, at least not in the sense Riley wants/needs.

Nor is Riley “wrong” to love Buffy more than she loves him, assuming he does. No, he is at fault, but not for that reason. His faults are three: he hasn’t really been able to accept that he’s not Buffy’s equal when it comes to Slaying; he didn’t try to talk to Buffy about his concerns at a time when that might have helped, instead waiting until now to deliver an ultimatum; and he behaved stupidly, recklessly in the meantime. The problem is not that Riley went to the vamp trulls; that’s merely a symptom. The problem is with Riley’s attitudes and expectations, which I’ve been discussing in the posts on the previous episodes. It wasn’t Buffy’s job to find him a new goal in life beyond being the mission’s boyfriend. That was his job, and his failure to do so led ultimately to the break.

One more point before I get to Xander’s advice to Buffy. As I see it, Xander, no doubt with good intentions, succeeded in making her feel guilty, feel that she had failed by “not being there” for Riley. For the moment it doesn’t matter if he’s right in his claim that she “shut down”. I’m just saying that I interpret what he says and how she reacts as a guilt trip. Consider, in particular, these lines:

I think you mean convenient. I think you took it for granted that he was gonna show up when you wanted him to, and take off when you didn't.

You shut down, Buffy. And you've been treating Riley like the rebound guy. When he's the one that comes along once in a lifetime.

The other reason I describe it as a “guilt trip” is that Xander gave his speech to Buffy, not Riley. He had chances to talk to Riley but he never did. In a relationship, both parties have it within their ability to resolve the issues. By the simple fact of raising the issue only with Buffy, Xander put this responsibility exclusively on her.

We could see Xander’s advice in metaphorical terms – Xander as her metaphorical heart – which would imply that Buffy is guilt-tripping herself about Riley. Let me explore whether that’s deserved or not by treating the issue as a straightforward one of plot and character. The answer there will tell us if she deserves the guilt, whether self-imposed or placed on her by Xander.

Now let’s take a look at what he told her. Two of his arguments stand out. First, there’s Xander’s whole “he’s the one” claim. I have no doubt Xander was sincere when he said this. Notwithstanding the problems in the Buffy/Riley relationship which I’ve mentioned, I think that Xander honestly believes that Buffy should love Riley as “the one that comes along once in a lifetime”. Xander loves Buffy, and has ever since he first laid eyes on her. He knows she doesn’t love him that way, but deep inside he thinks she would if only he were good enough. Xander sees Riley as a “better Xander”, one without the flaws Xander knows he has. That’s possibly true: I see Xander’s character as the mid-point on a spectrum which runs Jonathan – Xander – Riley. If Buffy did love Riley as Xander says she should, that would vindicate Xander’s hatred of Angel and confirm that Buffy deserves to be on the pedestal where Xander places her.

Very few viewers, however, would agree that Riley was Buffy’s ideal beau. While Riley did have a few supporters, I think it fair to say that the majority of viewers at the time would have said that Angel would be much better for Buffy than Riley was. That was true when ItW first aired and I’ve seen nothing since to indicate that it’s changed. Deep inside, Buffy knows this. She knows that she has never told Riley that she loves him, despite 2 clear opportunities (The Yoko Factor and The Replacement) and a third chance in Out Of My Mind. She did tell Angel that she loved him.

Here’s the way my friend shadowkat phrased it: “Nice speech. Were you fooled? Yep. So was I. But it always nagged at me. Why? Because when I was Buffy’s age, I did the same dumb thing – I got desperate, I got scared, I decided that if I lost this guy, there would never be another one which meant I’d have to be alone, forever. And that would be bad. Buffy doesn’t run after Riley, because he’s the long-haul guy or because she loves him. Buffy runs after Riley – because she is afraid of being alone. Her mother’s sick. Her sister’s not real. This is the only normal guy that she liked who’s ever taken an interest in her. What if there’s no one else? Can she really afford to be picky? She didn’t hear what Xander said.”

Buffy has always had a great deal of insecurity about her relationships with men. Hardly surprising, given what has happened to her. In addition, she was very emotional when Xander spoke to her because Riley himself had just laid a guilt trip on her. Add to this her complete trust in Xander (she owes him her life, after all), and it's clear that she was very susceptible to what Xander said.

And what did Xander say? He reinforced what Riley had said: that she had shut down; that Riley was a "once in a lifetime guy"; that if she (not Riley, she) “really [thought]
you can love this guy – I’m talking scary, messy no-emotions-barred need", that is, the Spike version of love, she needed to "beg" Riley to stay. This speech went far beyond telling Buffy to search her heart. It told her what to find there.

Buffy ran to the helicopter because Xander told her to. She came back, naturally, feeling even more insecure than before about her relations with men. And Riley never once looked out the window.

Second, Xander says she should have seen it coming:

“XANDER: No? Good, so you and Riley *aren't* imploding? (Buffy turns to face him in surprise) It doesn't take a genius. What I can't figure out is how you never saw it coming. BUFFY: What? Who told you? XANDER: Nobody told me anything, Buffy. It was right in front of my Xander face. The guy would do anything for you.”

This is astonishingly unfair; part of it is a flat lie. Xander had the clues, no doubt, but the incidents happened with only him as a witness: Riley expressly told Xander “but she doesn’t love me” at the end of The Replacement; the look on Riley’s face when he learned Buffy had gone to stop Glory in Shadow. It was right in front of his Xander face, yes, but that doesn’t mean it should have been obvious to Buffy (and note that Xander himself never bothered to tell her). By telling her that she should have picked up on clues she never saw, Xander is putting guilt on Buffy that she doesn’t deserve – Riley is the one at fault for not communicating his feelings to Buffy more directly (he’s a psych grad student, after all).

In addition, there was so much Xander didn't know and didn’t bother to find out. He didn't know that Riley had slept with Faith in WAY. He didn't know about the vamp trulls. He didn’t witness Riley's ultimatum to Buffy earlier in ItW. He didn’t know about Riley’s insecurity and emotional neediness in the face of Buffy trying to deal with her mom and sister. He didn’t know about Dawn. Because he lacked this critical information, he had no business judging Buffy's behavior towards Riley or her feelings about him. He was manipulating her; with the best of intentions, but manipulating nonetheless.

In the emotion of the moment, Buffy believes Xander. She trusts him, as she should. But Xander’s wrong. He always hated Angel and that colors his judgment, biasing it in favor of Riley. The irony of his speech is that Xander increases Buffy’s pain at Riley’s departure by making her feel guilty when it’s not at all clear that she should; by making her believe that the loss was greater than it was; and by getting her to race after Riley and fail to arrive on time, thereby exacerbating her guilt.

All the relief from the success of her mother’s operation was undone by Riley’s departure and Xander’s guilt trip.

I’ve framed the discussion above fairly strongly, so I thought it would be interesting to reproduce a (heavily edited) thread from AtPO in October/November 2005. I edited for brevity and cut out most of my own comments because I incorporated them above:

Sunshine: “I read [Xander’s words] as suggesting to Buffy that she put aside the shock of seeing Riley with the vamp girl (not sure of the proper terminology here) and ask herself if she really has feelings for Riley. I think this is sound advice - do not make life altering decisions in the passion of the moment. That doesn't seem so outrageous so I must be missing something. As far as Riley, he wasn't a favorite character of mine but I think Buffy did in fact hold back her feelings with him and did push him away. …Maybe she should have pushed him away, maybe he wasn't the right guy for her but I saw one of those circles of misunderstanding and hurt that are often so hard to break. I see Xander as saying "Don't pile hurt upon hurt, don't react out shock and pain, consider what you have and what you want, and act accordingly".


"do not make life altering decisions in the passion of the moment."

This is Buffy's position towards Riley. Riley forces, f-o-r-c-e-s, a grossly unfair ultimatum on her: Forgive my whore chasing ("whore chasing" was the term you were looking for) immediately, in fact, don't just forgive my whore-mongering quest for suck jobs behind your back while your mother was on deaths door, but acknowledge your responsibility for my actions.

In the context of what is actually happening between Riley and Buffy, Xander’s intervention on Buffy is almost perfectly defined as a "petulant self-righteous sanctimonious lecture."

Sunshine: “I do believe Buffy bears some responsibility for the state of Buffy/Riley relations. In my experience, very few relationship implosions are the fault of just one of the participants. … I think Buffy did hold back and he sensed this lack of commitment. He acted inappropriately and she certainly would have been justified in telling him to get lost, but is this really what Buffy wanted? … I belief that finding that right person is so damn difficult that when you do have a candidate, do not toss this person aside without considering exactly what you have and what you will lose…. I think we are prone to making rash decisions, especially in the heat of the moment. Sometimes, one person has to overlook the hurt and say “I forego my justified counter-attack and I forgive you. What we have is worth fighting for.”. If this is what Xander is suggesting, then I agree with him.”

Sophist (me): “Xander approaches her while she's in a state of serious emotional distress and (obviously) not thinking all that clearly.

He then says, in order, the following (minor editing): [Quote of Xander’s whole speech]

I see this sequence not as one which lays before Buffy a free and open opportunity to examine her feelings, but an intimidation process in which Xander tells her the "right" answer and only then says she should decide:

1. He puts the onus on her instead of Riley.
2. He tells her she should have seen it coming.
3. He makes no response to Riley's betrayal.
4. He insists that it's her decision (when actually it's just as much Riley's).
5. He tells her to beg Riley to stay.
6. He tells her she treated Riley badly.
7. He tells her Riley is the one in a lifetime.
8. He tells her that she should "decide" if she can love Riley.

If that's not emotional abuse, I don't know what is. Buffy was emotionally vulnerable, yet Xander made no effort to find out why, he just started off telling her she was in the wrong wrt Riley. After reiterating that it was her fault, he tells her Riley is "the one". Only then does he offer her the "choice" of begging Riley to stay.”

Finn Mac Cool: “What it comes down to is the importance of compromise in making a relationship work. For Buffy and Riley, they could never have a functioning relationship as long as both stubbornly clung to how they thought the relationship should be. Now one can argue that Riley should have been the one to compromise, that he was in no position to demand anything of Buffy. The funny thing is that your feelings don't always listen to your sense of right and wrong. In order for Riley to have a reason to stay without Buffy compromising was if Riley could accept her vision of a "dependable" relationship. From all we saw of Riley throughout Season 5, it looks as though he's not capable of that. …

That leaves the onus of the decision squarely on Buffy's shoulders. If Riley can't change, then Buffy's options are either to change for him or let him go. When Xander first runs into Buffy, she doesn't seem to be considering the option of change, going so far as to say she doesn't have a choice in the matter. Now I would hold nothing against Buffy if that were the case; if that were the truth of her feelings, then she and Riley broke up because, ultimately, their views on love were simply incompatible. Xander's little speech, however, puts Buffy's refusal of an emotionally open but vulnerable relationship in the context of "won't" not "can't." Xander admits it's not fair that Buffy has to make this choice, but, just like with right and wrong, that really doesn't factor into it. “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." Xander basically described the intense yet painful sort of relationship that Buffy had with Angel and that Riley hoped to have with her, and says that, if she is still capable of that kind of love, then she has to consider the consequences of not changing; he acknowledges that she might not be capable of loving Riley the way he wants, but it clearly seems that he was right to bring up the other possibility, as Buffy comes to the conclusion that she can go for the deep sort of passion with Riley.”

Finn Mac Cool: “Upon looking at it, the Buffy/Riley relationship was a lot like a gender-reversed version of an archetypal tale: woman falls in love with man; woman marries man; woman gives up a promising career to be with man; woman finds herself with little life beyond caring for the house, her children, and her husband; man spends most of his time at work or out with friends, reserving little attention for her; woman then either lives the rest of her life unfulfilled, cheats on husband, and/or leaves him. Riley gave up his military career in order to be with Buffy, finding that, now that he's a mere mortal dating a superhero, he's expected to stay out of the big, apocalyptic matters Buffy deals with, whereas, in his old life, he would have rushed right in. Riley feels he's not getting the attention or respect from Buffy he needs, so he cheats on her with someone who can give him attention, and finally threatens to leave unless Buffy (Riley's metaphorical husband) agrees to change how their relationship functions. I don't know about you, but I usually feel sympathy for the woman in the archetypal story described above, so I naturally find myself sympathizing with Riley when put in a similar situation. He wanted to be with Buffy, but he couldn't base his life around one person if she wasn't willing to include him in her life more.”

Manwitch: “Look, when someone cheats on their partner, betrays their trust, and I think it’s fair to say what Riley was doing with the Vamp fits in this category, they can plan on sleeping on the couch that night. If, having been caught, their response is to go on a five year vacation, then they have no interest in continuing the relationship regardless of what they say. If they do want the relationship to continue, they are willing to surrender what may or may not be their last chance at rejoining the military in favor of working on the relationship. You can't work on the relationship if you’re not together. Riley's ultimatum is ipso facto a declaration that he is done with the relationship. Nothing Buffy can say will change that. She knows it, which is why she doesn't say it. See, if their relationship was going well, Buffy would not tell Riley to stay. She would give him self-determination. So for him to pretend that this decision, that he has clearly already made and which is only his to make, actually depends on her is just an incredibly disingenuous way of trying yet again to knuckle her under.

Riley did not leave the military for Buffy. His awareness of Buffy and Buffy's values and the way Buffy fought for the right vs. the way the military did may have played into his decision. But there was no "Buffy I love you I'm leaving the military." Nor did she ever put that on him. Buffy never discouraged him from participating in the fight. She asked him not to go alone after she herself had just nearly been killed. That's not out of line.

If you watch the episodes again and try not to hear whatever Riley or Xander says as gospel truth, you might see that they are sooooo wroonngggggg. You will notice that Buffy forgives her attempted murder by Riley's boss, she forgives Riley's attack on Willow and other moments when commando interference threatened willow's life. She forgives numerous unjustifiable moments of abuse from Riley, including a gun pointed in her face. She forgives his sleeping with her arch enemy. Through all of this, she loves him, does the down and dirty with him, gets him the help he needs, busts him out of prison, and asks him, repeatedly, to be of integral help in the fight. She has to go fight Adam, but stops to save Riley first and lets him know that she needs his help.

Later, when Buffy's sister is the key and her mom is ill, Buffy asks Riley to watch Dawn and to not make Buffy cry. Riley is incapable of doing this. He wants to blather on about his masculinity, which, again if you watch all the episodes of their relationship, is of primary concern to Riley throughout. He is the man. …

I just don't see how people believe Riley's complaint that Buffy disengaged from him. If the writer's meant that, I think they blew it. When you have an arguably feminist show with an arguably strong female character, you can't suddenly throw in traditional relationship power dynamics and expect them to be taken at face value. Buffy had been there for Riley through his many times of need, she had been very forgiving of his MANY shortcomings, and she had told him reasonably specifically in her times of stress what she needed from him.

Riley's response to that is to cheat on her, give her an ultimatum, and claim that she's pushing him away and people believe him?!?!”

Ok, enough about Riley, I need to get back to Xander and his speech to Anya. Again starting with metaphor, Xander was delivering the speech Buffy felt, after Xander’s prodding, that she should have given to Riley. But since the reality of her relationship with Riley doesn’t match the guilt she felt, we should look closely at the Xander/Anya relationship to see if his deeds to date match what he told Anya.
From the metaphor I’ve used repeatedly in these posts, Xander is Buffy’s heart. Her inner uncertainties about Riley over the past year have been reflected in Xander’s treatment of Anya, with Anya loving Xander more intensely just as Riley (says he) loved Buffy. At no time before this episode had Xander treated Anya as if he was “powerfully, painfully” in love with her. I think it fair to say that he treated Anya much worse than Buffy treated Riley. He frequently corrected her to her face and belittled her to his friends. Let me give some examples:
Anya: (indignantly) Xander.  You haven't been paying any attention to me, tonight.  Just peddling those processed food snacks.  I don't know why.
Xander: (around mouthful) Well, let me put it in a way you'll understand.  Sell bars.  Make money.  Take Anya nice places.  Buy pretty things. (The I in Team)
XANDER: My girlfriend. Mistress of the learning plateau. (Where The Wild Things Are)
WILLOW: How many kids?
XANDER: I dunno, a whole herd of them. And some parents to boot. (Buffy glances at him, then looks past him and smiles) It was kind of embarrassing, which, welcome to life with Anya. (Where The Wild Things Are)
XANDER: An, you can help by making this a quiet time. (New Moon Rising)
XANDER: (to Anya) An, we talked about the employee-employer vocabulary no-nos. That was number five. (Shadow)

This is not the behavior of someone “painfully, powerfully” in love. In light of these comments, it’s not surprising that Willow expressed skepticism that he loved Anya (The Replacement), nor that Buffy called him on it here when he was telling her how much she should love Riley. As a result, I see Xander’s speech to Anya much the same way I see his advice to Buffy – perhaps with good intentions, but more likely to create greater heartache.
One final point about Buffy’s behavior here as it reflects on her and on Riley’s staking of Sandy. The vamp “whorehouse” offered for pay the same thing Riley got from Sandy in return for a few drinks. I think we’re supposed to be disturbed by Buffy’s reaction to learning that such places exist. It’s not just her determination to shut it down when there were greater evils she could deal with, it was her anger in setting the place on fire. More to the point, it was her decision to slay the female vamp who ran at the end of the fight in the alley. As Xander tells her, “you’re acting like a crazy person.” (Note the mention of “crazy” yet again.) Xander’s wrong a lot, but he’s right about this.

Now, obviously, these were vampires and Buffy always has a plausible reason to slay them. The problem here is that she acted out of anger at Riley, not out of any real sense of duty. It’s morally problematic. And that brings us back to Riley staking Sandy. Any moral qualms we felt (and should feel) at Buffy staking the last vamp apply with extra force to Riley’s situation in Shadow. After all, he either solicited Sandy to bite him or he consented; Buffy did nothing of the sort. I see Buffy’s reaction here as a post hoc commentary on Riley.
Trivia notes: (1) The failure of Buffy and Riley to communicate was signaled from the very beginning of their relationship in Hush. (2) Dawn played the game of Life with Anya in Real Me. (3) The movie Anya wanted to see about a chimp playing hockey was Most Valuable Primate. (4) The part of Giles’s banner that was blocked by his head reads “Gurnenthar’s Ascendance”. I have no idea who or what Gurnenthar is; it’s probably just made up. (5) Riley’s demand that Buffy hit him reminds me of Spike’s reaction to Dru in Lover’s Walk: “She didn't even care enough to cut off my head or set me on fire.”


  1. Love, love, LOVE this essay. Not only do I really appreciate how you break down Riley's actions and Xander's speeches, but your opinions of them and pretty much the series as a whole expressed here make me just really like you as a person. I've never been a Riley hater, but the way he left was definitely awful, and it's great that you don't let him off the hook for it. Which is, in my opinion, what saying Buffy has responsibility for this means.

  2. Beautiful, beautiful analysis—

    As I think my comments below have made clear, I agree with you on all the major points, so just a few comments and one quesry:

    The quesry first: does Buffy really tell Riley all about Angel in NMR? My memory is that she leaves out what Xander, in tYF, will call his trigger, a detail Xander then applies, to Buffy’s chagrin (she pronounces him, if I recall correctly “the deadest man in Deadonia” and reproaches him for this during the fight).

    Some comments:

    I agree that Buffy does not love Riley as he does her, as she did Angel; a sign of this comes in the scene of Riley leaving their bed in ItW, for it parallels the opening scene of the season, when Buffy does the same. But while the latter scene singifies, to me, that Buffy’s passion for her calling is bccoming greater than her passion for Riley (or for anyone save Dawn, who will appear at the end of the episode), the former signifies that Riley is now putting a cheap fulfillment of his passion above his love for Buffy, which is very different—the parallel at once points to the different levels of their affections but still indicts Riley for how he deals with that fact.

    On this re-watch, I found myself struck by Spike’s face after he and Buffy leave the vamp whore house: rather than being pleased with his revelation of Riley’s perfidy, as we would expect, he is genuinely concerned and upset that he has hurt her. This strikes me as significant: once again he feels with her, for her, beyond his appetitive desire. Of course he made the revelation out of pure selfish jealousy,* but seeing its effect on Buffy creates a different affect in him, one that lingers the next day, as we can tell from the look on his face when Riley finds him drinking.


    *Of course, by Triangle, Spike is back to selfish self-justifications and concerns, but that does not change the fact that he has shifted again, however small the distance—

    1. Oops! Your query is correct: I forgot the part about the trigger. I'll fix that.

      Your point about the parallel scenes is also good.

      Spike's reaction is interesting. He seems to react a bit like Anya, only more so. Neither really understands humanity all that well, so they try but are then puzzled or upset when actual people don't respond as they expect. We get more of that from both of them in Triangle.

  3. Very interesting essay, per usual. Until these comments and the review and comments about this arc on the AV Club made me rethink things, I had always accepted that it was largely Buffy's lack of emotional commitment that was a main problem (especially since this emotional isolation is a recurring issue the writers brought up season after season). Combine that with Riley's identity crisis festering since at least Goodbye Iowa, his departure always seemed unsurprising and made him somewhat sympathetic to me.

    Xander's sanctimonious speech on the other hand has bugged me since day 1 and I think your analysis is spot on!

  4. There's a revival of Sondheim's "Into the Woods" playing in NYC right now, and I'm sure that somewhere chez Whedon is a t-shirt that says "Steve Sondheim is my master now" so I'm sure that there's a parallel to be drawn with the musical, which adds a made-up "fairy tale" to a collection of Radical Interpretations of the Text of traditional fairy tales.

    Lyrics excerpt:
    Witches can be right.
    Giants can be good.
    You decide what's right.
    You decide what's good.

    I think that looking at BtVS and AtS as a whole, there's a movement from, well, demonizing demons to a more fact-based analysis. Hey, they decertified class slayage!

  5. I see this sequence not as one which lays before Buffy a free and open opportunity to examine her feelings, but an intimidation process in which Xander tells her the "right" answer and only then says she should decide...If that's not emotional abuse, I don't know what is. Buffy was emotionally vulnerable, yet Xander made no effort to find out why, he just started off telling her she was in the wrong

    Mark thank you for writing this essay; your thoughts are spot-on IMO. (I first read and enjoyed your write-ups for BtVS at the ATV Club, btw.) Riley and Xander's (and by extension, the writers') treatment of Buffy in this episode is a sore spot for me. Buffy giving in to an ultimatum, and running after the helicopter after being scolded by Xander to BEG? This was for me a "Buffy wouldn't do that!" moment and inspires all manner of rage-y emotions in me, feminist and otherwise.

    Something I haven't seen commented on before, unless I failed to see it (I'm very new to Buffy fandom): when I watched Xander's speech to Buffy the first (and only) time 3-4 months ago, I suspected that he was also motivated by self-interest/self-centeredness in telling her to "beg" Riley to stay. Xander clearly likes Riley right off the bat and latches onto him as
    1)a guy-friend;after Oz leaves the show, Xander makes remarks at times about wishing there were another guy to hang with amoung the SG who would understand his guy references,
    2) an alter-ego; Xander fantasizes about being and occasionally gets to play at one due to soldier memories inserted by the spell in Halloween (S2), although we never see him do anything about it (we never see Xander work out, or train to use weapons, use the workout room in the Magic Shop, etc) except fantasize.
    3) a surrogate for Xander's romantic fantasies for Buffy (again, fantasies that have no possibility coming to fruition.) Of course Riley is entirely human like himself, not vamp or demon, and more to the point NOT Angel.

    And I had liked Riley in S4; he seemed good for Buffy and she genuinely appreciated what he provided (relative normalcy, stability, kindness, etc) to the point that she put the nail on the coffin in her relationship with Angel and made clear to him (The Yoko Factor?) that she had moved on. know a lot of people have put a huge stock in the fact that she didn't tell Riley to his face that she loved him, but that's Buffy - she doesn't say that word easily, if at all. She demonstrates love through her actions (which is again a more "yang" or stereotypically masculine mode.)

    I think it's significant that the first time Riley says "I love you", it's not actually to Buffy; he's speaking to Faith-in-Buffy while they are having sex. (Faith is inarguably raping Riley and violating Buffy's body in this scene, but that's another topic.) The reason I find this important is that even in the act of lovemaking, which he and Buffy have done many times before, and looking at her face-to-face, he cannot tell that this is not really Buffy, suggesting that he doesn't genuinely know or "see" her; like Xander and Angel before him, he sees what he wants to see in her, despite his good intentions.

    (I tried signing in to this w/ my LifeJournal rather than google account, and have no idea why I can't under LJ, but I'm new to it.)

    1. First of all, thanks.

      I haven't tried signing in from lj because I set this up using my Google account. I'll give it a shot and see if I can do it.

      Now to Xander. In terms of his self-interest, I've seen it suggested that his speech to Buffy was actually his own last-ditch effort to find out if he really had a chance with her. That is, if she'd rejected his plea for Riley, Xander might have seen himself as still a possibility. Only when Buffy raced after Riley did Xander go give the speech to Anya.

      That's one of those theories which can't be either proved or disproved. I don't see the evidence for it, and even I don't think quite so badly of Xander, but it's theoretically possible.

      I do think all of your suggestions about why Xander favored Riley are probably true. In particular, your 3rd item fits right in with my spectrum theory of Riley as a better Xander.

      I agree that Riley's interaction with Faith is important. However, it's most important to us as viewers because within the show nobody knows this except the two of them. I still think Riley does love Buffy more than she loves him, but one could argue that this is as much a case of him trying to fit some romantic ideal as a case of actual love.

  6. one could argue that this is as much a case of him trying to fit some romantic ideal as a case of actual love.

    I think that's very true, and they are both guilty of it. In S4, he seems to appreciate her mystery and wants to get to know more; she appreciates his stability and trustworthiness (and, they enjoy lovemaking together, which somehow gets overlooked in fandom IMO.)

    It's understandable that that changes in S5; they are both processing loss and trauma, which is when relationships in the real world often flounder and fail, or become stronger. And also in the real world, people let down their initial courting "costumes" once they are in relationship and old patterns, habits, training, etc kick in. But the whole thing was handled in a really needlessly ugly manner that was abusive IMO to Buffy and if not OOC for Riley, then it was a too-sudden shift (and I still can't reconcile the guy cheating on and lying to Buffy with the decent man in S4, but maybe that's my own blind spot.)

    I've seen it suggested that his speech to Buffy was actually his own last-ditch effort to find out if he really had a chance with her. That is, if she'd rejected his plea for Riley, Xander might have seen himself as still a possibility. Only when Buffy raced after Riley did Xander go give the speech to Anya.

    I've entirely forgotten the speech to Anya and don't recall the substance of it (and don't care to rewatch it, honestly), but I agree with you that that theory is a bridge too far. But then again, I suppose the pleasure of this show is that so much of it is open to interpretation.

  7. Fabulous write-up, lots to mull over.

    First I'll say that I actually agree with a lot of Xander's points. I don't agree with the fact that he's scolding her for distancing herself - Xander has never truly understood that aspect of both Buffy and the Slayer - but Buffy did often just expect Riley to be the dependable guy who showed up when needed. I also agree with the "Who cares if it's fair?" Inconvenient timing and decisions you don't want to or feel you shouldn't be responsible for is just a part of life. Was it fair when Angel left Buffy for her own good, because he knew he could never give her what she needed? No, it wasn't, but he did it anyway. When I first watched this and I heard Xander say "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," I actually thought for a moment that she was running after the helicopter to give Riley some much-needed closure, to provide that "clean break." Honestly, I would've found that a lot more believable and compelling. I like Riley and what his character provided for the show, but like Spike says for all of us, we know he's not the "long haul guy," so I don't see why Buffy would run after him to - on some level - prove something to herself and Xander. It would've been very cool and mature - and an interesting mislead - if we thought that Buffy was running to beg and instead gets to send him off properly.

    That's an interesting comparison in trivia note 5. Riley asking Buffy to hit him actually reminds me of another Spike moment, though, in Fool for Love: "You're the Slayer. Do something about it. Hit me. Come on. One good swing...Give it me good, Buffy." In both cases the men are asking Buffy to prove that she cares, to show that they're capable of making her lash out and externalize the emotions she deals with on her own. They want to feel something from her and connect to her, though obviously for different reasons.

    Okay, last small point. Going back to the scene in the training room between Buffy and Riley, one thing I really love about Buffy is that in these vulnerable situations she isn't the Slayer, she really is "just a girl" (quote from The Gift, but that's not really a spoiler). When Riley won't let go of her arm she doesn't push him away, instead she tells him, "Get your hand off of me." When he asks her to hit him, she doesn't. It makes me think of their interaction in the beginning of Doomed, when she's obviously not impressed when he describes her in terms on "your speed, your strength," and instead jokes about her astrological sign and adds, "also passionate, artistic and inquisitive." Through words and subtle actions she's always demanding to be treated like a normal girl/person.

    1. Excellent points. I particularly like your suggestion of why Buffy was running to the helicopter. That would have been a great scene. And good catch on Spike demanding to be hit in FFL.

      I agree with your final point too. Buffy is remarkably mature in a very difficult conversation.

  8. You've mentioned that Xander has a tendency to put Buffy on a pedestal, at least til Entropy, and MikeJer from Critically Touched would seem to agree and yet having digested this interpretation over the years I'm not sure I can really agree.

    I mean when you put someone on a pedestal you generally view them as being an ideal human being (see A Single Man Tear song from Supernatural for something that encapsulates that feeling). But Xander has constantly screwed with Buffy on numerous occasions about the situations regarding Angel and Riley so I'm not sure what makes the whole what happened in Entropy that much different in regards to having Xander view her as less than ideal.

    I guess we could go with your metaphor route and say that Buffy's heart needed was blind to her own problems up til that point but I don't know.

    1. If MikeJer and I agree, it must be true. :)

      I interpret the phrase "put on a pedestal" to mean that someone thinks you should be ideal. Then, when you inevitably fail to be perfect in their eyes, that person judges you more harshly than s/he would some ordinary person who makes the same mistake. That's what I mean when I say Xander tends to put Buffy on a pedestal.

  9. Thank you for this! I totally agree with your perspective on Buffy, Riley and Xander.

    I couldn't help but see this episode as coming full circle on the plot of "On Human Bondage," which I've never read but which you examined so effectively in your post on "The Freshman," where we first met Riley. After a painful "coming of age," Riley decides to remove his chip and start building an authentic life. Only it's way too hard to figure out his place in the world without the strictures he's used to. In the end, he returns to the simplest pattern -- the military, which tells him where to go and what to do and gives him a mission.

    1. Damn that's a great point and now I'm mad I didn't think of it. :)

    2. You know, based on your analysis of S4, one could argue that this was the meanest possible way to be written off this particular show – no authentic life for Riley! (Which is fitting, given the meaning of "life of Riley" in the sense of an easy and comfortable life...) Anyway, I'm allowing that to take some of the sting out of Buffy's race for the helicopter.

    3. Heh. True enough on both counts.

  10. I’m not convinced I want to comment straight after Erica’s excellent comment, or that I know where I stand with all the fantastic comments everyone else has made. But I had a few little thoughts, so here goes...

    1. When Buffy sees Riley getting bit, I see that as an extra level of betrayal for her. To Buffy, Riley is supposed to be sensible Joe regular guy, so to see him doing something so far removed from that is a betrayal of what he’s supposed to be, to her
    2. When Buffy is talking to her Mom in the hospital, she says that Riley will probably comes over later for study. And when Spike shows up in her room, she expects him to be Riley. This means that Riley has chosen to spend the evening with a vampire instead of being with Buffy-yet another level of betrayal
    3. In terms of Riley asking Buffy to hit him, this reminded me, as a comparison, of when Angel was trying to leave Buffy in Amends, on the hilltop. Buffy hits Angel then, when she’s trying to make him stay.