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Thursday, November 15, 2012

As You Were

[Updated May 2, 2013]

Anyone who’s so obsessive as to rank all 144 BtVS episodes (ahem) will, necessarily, have one which finishes dead last at No. 144. For me, that episode is As You Were, one of only 2 episodes I actually dislike (the other is Dead Man’s Party). I’ll summarize the reasons why without even mentioning the “Mary Sue” nature of Mrs. Finn or the addiction dialogue.


The demon(s). The dialogue is hopelessly contradictory within the space of 10 lines: the demons are “rare” and “nearly extinct”, but they’re “breeders”: “As soon as we put one Suvolte down, a dozen take its place. … One turns into ten, ten becomes a hundred.” In which case they pretty obviously aren’t “rare”. That’s why Buffy could refer to them as “tribbles”, creatures which multiplied faster than the bunnies in Tabula Rasa. Nor is it very plausible that Riley would forget to tell Buffy not to kill the demon.
Spike’s purported international arms dealing makes no sense, particularly when sprung out of the blue in this episode with no lead-in. Among other problems, how can Spike be a demon arms dealer when he's a social outcast hated by all other demons and doesn't even have a telephone line (he used a pay phone to call Buffy in Smashed)?
Nor is Spike noted for his competence: “He-he's too incompetent.” Notwithstanding Todd’s reference to Machiavelli in the teaser, Spike doesn’t exactly fit the image. As recently as Dead Things he couldn’t even weight a body properly, and he has a long history of bollocksing up plans beginning from his first appearance in School Hard. Perhaps the “arms dealing” plot is satirical, but that’s not obvious and satire usually makes a relevant point.
Riley ex machina (h/t Exegy). This episode reinforces my view that the writers, particularly Doug Petrie, had a very different attitude towards Riley than the fans, and misjudged their reaction to him. Does anyone really believe that it’s Riley, rather than Angel, who would have the impact on Buffy we see in this episode?
Sam told Buffy how “ripped up inside” Riley was about Buffy: “The only thing that could ... help Riley work it out was time. Lots of time. Took him a year to get over you.” This is sloppy. Riley left 14 months ago and has been married for 4 months – so long ago that he implausibly forgot to mention it. Assuming a month or two of “courtship” (his word in The Initiative), he was over Buffy in 6-8 months max.
Riley's “pep talk” to Buffy in AYW brought to mind Xander's similar speech in The Freshman. Both came when Buffy was down, confused and ineffective (was it just me or were her initial attempts to fight the Suvolte demon very unSlayer-like?). Xander's speech worked for me, Riley's didn't. Why?
Xander, whatever his faults, worships Buffy. He has from the beginning. He is the most ordinary of the characters. By ordinary, I mean he's not an image, he's a person with flaws. His recognition of those flaws is both endearing (sometimes) and the reason why we accept his hero worship; people who don't recognize their own flaws generally worship only themselves. Buffy could respond to him because she and we could see Xander’s devotion.

Riley, in contrast, comes across here as a stereotype. He's the child from Seventh Heaven or Ozzie and Harriet. Too good to be true. I think of him as an image from the 50s of what we were all "supposed" to be. His character has completely regressed – it’s as if the events of Goodbye Iowa through Into the Woods never happened, and it’s doubtful that regression means progress. The episode title even implies this.

When this Riley delivers his speech to Buffy, there is no sense of hero worship in it because we can't believe this Riley sees Buffy as a hero. This Riley sees himself in the heroic image. When delivered from this background, his speech is condescending. Not "I admire you", but "You're better than this", an attitude he made clear in his earlier comments like "He's evil or had you forgotten that?" and "It doesn't really touch you". Buffy reacted not because she felt his sincerity but because she felt his reproach.
And he never asked about her mother.
The only way to read the episode as anything more than a writer’s misjudgment, it seems to me, is to interpret the episode as a Buffy fantasy. That is, we’d see it as her daydream about something that might happen to take her away from a life she hates. I see two problems with such an interpretation. First, there’s an episode coming up which uses this idea, albeit in a very different way. Second, and more important, this theory runs aground on the point I made above – it’s just not realistic that Buffy’s fantasy would include Riley rather than Angel.
If we are supposed to see it as a daydream, it doesn’t really get Buffy anywhere except to break up with Spike. That could be seen as progress, particularly since she did it with respect. OTOH, as I’ve argued before, I think the sex with Spike is a symptom, not a cause, of Buffy’s problems this season.
On the subject of Spike, I think it’s important that Buffy referred to him as William in the scene at the end. She was apologizing to the human being, not to the monster: “I'm using you. … I'm just ... being weak, and selfish... and it's killing me. … I'm sorry ... William.”
William became a monster because one woman rejected him and another came along to affirm that monster. Now a woman has rejected the monster while affirming the human. William/Spike’s life has come full circle.
Buffy’s apology raises an interesting issue about the nature of moral wrong. In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson made the following argument against slavery:

The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism....Our children see this, and learn to imitate it....The parent storms, the child looks on, catches the lineaments of wrath, puts on the same airs in the circle of smaller slaves, gives a loose to his worst of passions, and thus nursed, educated, and daily exercised in tyranny, cannot but be stamped by it with odious peculiarities. The man must be a prodigy who can retain his manners and morals undepraved by such circumstances.

I've always thought this a clever tactical argument. The only people who could, in practice, eliminate slavery in Virginia in 1783 were the slaveholders. Jefferson showed that it was in their interest to do so: by abusing their slaves, they were killing themselves.

This is, if I'm not mistaken, the very effect Buffy attributes to herself. But consider the case of slavery. Do we really think slavery a moral wrong because of its effect on the slaveholder? And if not, how does this affect your view of Buffy and the conclusion of AYW?
Trivia note: (1) The title is a military command which means to disregard the previous order and return the situation before it was issued. (2) Spike’s role as arms dealer, including the name “The Doctor”, was loosely based on the story of Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. I’m no fan of the magic/drugs metaphor, but I suspect this episode could have succeeded – or at least fit better with the season themes – if they had stayed with the drug dealer model. (3) Todd’s reference to the “glass ceiling” is to the way in which women are unable to rise in a corporate hierarchy. (4) Todd mentioned that he and Buffy don’t work at “Burger World”, which is where Beavis and Butthead work. (5) Dawn brought Willow an “Arnold Palmer”, which is iced tea and lemonade. (6) Todd used the word “zeitgeist”, which means “spirit of the time”. (7) The scene where Riley shouts about the wild bear was taken from the movie Men in Black. (8) Buffy’s “mazel tov” to Riley is a Yiddish expression meaning literally “good luck” and in context “congratulations”. (9) Xander referred to Riley as “love taker, heartbreaker”, which is the title of a song by Pat Benatar. (10) Spike called Riley a “tin soldier”, referring to the children’s toys. (11) Xander mentioned Nick Fury from the Avengers. Ten years later… (12) Riley’s mention of “bug hunts” is possibly a reference to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers.

11 comments:

  1. Let the fanwanking begin:

    Maybe Spike really was just holding them for a friend? The "doctor" had a minion who played poker, Spike owed him some kittens so he helped him out a little...

    I've also seen the rationale that this was what Spike was referring to with the line, "I can get money."


    Also Riley is a good choice if you want to poke Buffy's "I'm not a normal girl" sore spot. I doubt she's devastatingly in love with him, but she is insecure about her humanity right now. She might believe Riley left her for not being human enough for him, thus the emotional effect?


    Also I love that last exchange between Buffy and Spike before they are caught by Riley.

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  2. SPOILER!!!!

    This can't be intentional, as Xander's made hundreds of comic references since the beginning of the show, but the Fury one is funny to me because of the eyepatch.

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  3. I've never liked this episode because everyone seemed to be behaving grossly out of character (especially the whole Spike The Arms Dealer nonsense), and you've perfectly articulated the rest of its flaws.

    Also? "And he never asked about her mother." THANKS FOR BREAKING MY HEART AGAIN, MARK.

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    1. Sorry, but Riley's failure to do that always struck me as the most amazingly insensitive thing ever, and I had to point it out.

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  4. I heard a theory (not sure if this is a common theory or anything) that "The Doctor" is actually Sam, not Spike.

    Like you said, Spike being an arms dealer makes no sense, but more than that, he doesn't even act consistent with that role. There's no reason that he would call himself "The Doctor", and when Riley calls him that he has no reaction to the name. If he was the Doctor, being called that should have told him his whole plan was about to be blown, but the way he responds is like he doesn't even realize that the name is significant. Even when he finally tells Riley to stop calling him that, its not like he's protesting his innocence, saying "I'm not the Doctor!", it's more like he's just getting annoyed with Riley calling him a nickname that makes no sense.

    There's also the fact that he had no idea how to handle the demon eggs. Not exactly the behavior of someone targeting this specific kind of demon for its potential as a weapon. How could he be a credible dealer for foreign governments if he couldn't even keep the merchandise stable for a few days?

    Sam, on the other hand, has extensive knowledge of these demons and experience tracking them and locating their eggs. She was separated from Riley for some amount of time before the episode and Riley says she "caught up faster than I would have thought possible". Could be she made an excuse to separate herself from him, came to Sunnydale ahead of him to find the eggs instead of doing whatever she told Riley she was doing, then met up with him once she was finished. She also mentions that she was doing medical work with the Peace Corps, so she would have more reason than Spike to take the name "The Doctor".

    Spike says he was holding the eggs for a friend. Rather than this just being an incredibly bad lie, I think Sam paid Spike to hold on to the eggs for a while. Keeps them hidden, protected from others looking to take them, and the vampire holding the eggs is an easy fall guy if Riley does manage to track them down. She might not necessarily have knows Spike's relationship to Riley, he could have just been one of the few demons in town taking cash for shady work.

    It's not a lot to go on, but our only two possible suspects for the Doctor in this episode are Spike and Sam, and Spike being the doctor makes absolutely no sense.

    Also, I find this episode a lot more bearable if Sam is really a sociopath playing everyone rather than an incredibly annoying Mary Sue.

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    1. Makes more sense than the actual plot.

      I keep wanting to believe that there's some satire here that I don't get. But I don't get it.

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  5. Since Starship Troopers, the Verehoeven version, is partly about objectified other, I think we can maybe tie that in to your point about Buffy/Spike and slavery. I do think, to be fair to Buffy, that there are genuine moral reasons not to be involved with Spike at all -- his, you know, still being soulless and semi-unrepentant. I do think, too, that she *has* to break it off with him for her own well-being, and she can't really tell Spike that it's for his own good, because he would just say that he doesn't care.

    I agree that this episode portrays Riley as very two-dimensional, and the plot doesn't work. That said, I don't find the Buffy of it too incredible. As Rachel said, Riley is a representative of the 'normal life' that Buffy has left behind, and of a successful period on her life. Being tempted to switch from Spike to Angel wouldn't work, because Angel and Spike are part of the same system -- Riley is a fantasy of being able to return to being just a girl. And she *was* happy when she was with Riley, not so much because Riley is the awesomest, but because things have gotten progressively worse for her since his departure. Riley offers Buffy a chance to retreat to a different kind of life (to become as she was) -- where the demarcation between good and evil was sharper (hence why, I think, Riley is so flat) -- but that can't work; still, because she has an impulse, she recognizes that she *does* want out of the life as she's currently living it. She knew that before, but having it reinforced makes a difference. So the Buffy throughline of the episode works for me, ultimately.

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  6. I'm in the middle of a marathon of reading the shooting scripts and then your posts. I'm really enjoying it.

    Just a little piece of trivia you didn't mention: Nick and Nora Fury also refers to Nick and Nora Charles from the Thin Man movies.

    I love the theory that Sam is The Doctor.

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    1. Sounds like fun.

      I wondered about the Thin Man connection. Thanks.

      Sam as The Doctor makes as much sense as anything else in this episode.

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  7. Sam as Mary Sue didn't bother me here, because we only see her in a few scenes in this one episode, and from Buffy's perspectives. As far as Buffy's concerned from their few, limited encounters, Sam is Mary Sue. If she was around for an entire season, Mary Sue would be a problem.

    I kept waiting, once Riley and Sam and Buffy entered the house, for Riley to say "where's Joyce?" or something to that effect. Surely the writers wouldn't miss a chance at such a great payoff...

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    1. Riley's failure to mention Joyce is really astonishing. I can't imagine how anyone could write the episode and not do so.

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