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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.


  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.

  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.

  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.

    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.

  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.

    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.

  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.

  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.

    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.

  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...

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

  8. Completely agree with you on this Mark!

    Back then I could see the writers were pulling on all the strings available and imaginable but I still felt for Buffy, a lot. With this rewatch, I'm horrified!! I need to vent! They could have introduced the last scene at the end of Dead things and it would have been perfect and beautiful and would have made so much more sense.

    Here it just doesn't. And it's painful that the "wake-up" call didn't come from Giles leaving, Dawn aching, Willow messing with her life or Buffy realising that she can't turn to darkness, no it has to come from Riley being back and apparently being happy with his life!! And on top of that, it seems that Buffy's awakening stems mostly from a felling of shame for being seen with Spike. What kind of message is that?

    I have therefore decided that this is not what the episode is trying to tell us. I have decided that the writers actually want to show us that this is NOT a good decision to leave Spike at that stage. And to try to base my decision on something, let's go back to what you said about how Dawn is also crucial for this season's message. In season 5, if Buffy had to protect Dawn as a child, as the image of her innocence, then I guess here Dawn as a teenager represents rebellion. I'm not sure if 'rebellion' helps against depression but certainly when you feel you are stuck in your life and that you are bored about it, I can see how finding the teenager/rebel in you can help in freeing you from constraints (not responsibilities mind you). And so, to come back to the point I'm trying to make, it was not lost on me how in 'All the way' the other vampire said to Spike that he was a rebel for not respecting the Halloween rule, and how Spike answered while killing it:
    "I'm a rebel. You're an idiot".

    In the previous episode Older And Far Away, they can't get out of the house, and Buffy puns on not being able to come out on her relationship with Spike to Tara. Here at the beginning of this episode, Spike tells her:
    "maybe the time is right ... for you to come outside."

    All of this to demonstrate that now that the "you belong to the darkness" mess was dealt with in Dead things, now her relationship with Spike (not that it would become perfectly healthy) but certainly could become healthier, THAT's when she leaves him. And even if what she says at the end is what she had needed to say for a long time, I think that in that point in time it was a mistake and she is leaving him for the wrong reasons.

    1. Your suggestion to have Buffy tell Spike she's leaving at the end of Dead Things makes all kinds of plot sense. I do love that final scene with Buffy and Tara as a way of closing that episode, but having Buffy leave Spike does follow naturally from it.

  9. Mark, I think you’ve put some kind of whammy on me where I can’t see Riley without thinking of the plot of “Of Human Bondage,” so here’s an attempt to twist this episode around to try to make it work for me.

    From the beginning, Riley has been the good solider (citizen/cog in the wheel of society), who accepts his place and his orders and never questions things. Through his involvement with Buffy and the Scoobies (and the failure/success of Maggie Walsh’s 314 Project), that changed. He took out his chip; he tried to make his own way in life. But it was too hard, and Buffy didn’t offer him enough of a mission in life (not that it was her job to do so!) and he couldn’t find one on his own, so he took off. He went back to the military and stopped questioning (the regression you discuss in your post). He then got married, not just found a new girlfriend, which I think is significant — "the simplest pattern, that in which a man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect." (Like you say, Riley appears to fit the idealized image of what we’re all “supposed” to be from the 1950s, an era remembered for social conformity.) Riley only has two more boxes to check off on that list, and Buffy even jokingly asks him about children.

    So what’s the metaphorical point in bringing him back (if you squint real hard)? I feel like Buffy’s quest for an authentic life has been much, much harder than Riley’s, but she’s stuck with it. Then he comes back and he’s having this seemingly great, simple, straightforward demon-hunting and wife-getting life. Buffy’s life sucks. She’s depressed and tired and it would be so easy to give up on finding her authentic life. Would a more Rileyesque life have been better for her? Maybe we should even want that for her?

    But then Riley reminds her, at the end, of the price of this black-and-white lifestyle, when he offers to “take out” Spike. She is shocked (“How can you ask me…?”). The Initiative always reduced demons to nothing but bad guys. There was no gray area even for someone like Oz; it was shoot first and then perform creepy experiments later. Riley, who’s turned his back on authenticity, can reduce Spike to nothing but a bad guy again. (Not that he doesn’t have some legitimate beefs! But, remember, he couldn’t/didn’t kill Spike in “Into the Woods.”) In a meta way, the episode itself reduces Spike to nothing but a bad guy.

    But Buffy, though aware that Spike’s no angel (ha! didn’t even plan that!), refuses to do that. She rejects Riley’s offer and very clearly states that she’s sleeping with Spike (as if Riley could have missed that!). And Riley’s condescending pep talk does seem to make her reproach herself — not so much for sleeping with the demon but for using the man.

    To me, that’s why she uses “William” in that ending scene. Spike’s not just a dead thing, it’s not black and white, and she’s not going to take the escape that “makes things simpler … for a little while” anymore. The Finns, while an attractive package, shouldn’t be seen as a model for Buffy. Their life offers simplicity — an escape from the tough questions. (Instead of rebuilding her infirmary with the Peace Corps, Sam left for firefights.) But we’ve already learned the cool gadgets and firepower come with a lot of ethical and moral ickiness.

    Now, of course, it’s very hard to see this point in the episode, but then again, it’s very hard in life to get off the prescribed course and choose your own path. :)

    1. Now, to be more serious, I agree with you that the writers messed up by forgetting they made Riley so unlikeable in Season 5, so the episode doesn’t really work. And like Dead Man’s Party, this episode goes out of its way to be mean to Buffy, so I totally get the dislike.

      I hated how they set it up when Riley saw Buffy and Spike in “bed” together, in a way that seemed to give Riley the moral high ground. Of all the characters on the show, he has the very least right to reproach her for seeking out a vampire to feel something. As he said in “Into the Woods”: “They made me feel something. … It wasn't real. I know. It was just physical. But the fact that I craved it, that I kept going back... Even if it was fleeting — they made me feel like they had such hunger for me...” That all sounds pretty similar to Buffy in S6!

      And as a final note, I wish there wasn’t that line of dialogue where Spike says he’s holding the eggs for a friend, because otherwise I think there would have been a good case to be made that Riley planted the eggs in Spike’s crypt.

    2. I think that's just about perfect as a description of Riley's path. It's the logical consequence of his regression which I note in the essay, and I should have followed that through to your conclusion. Nice.

      And yeah, the episode doesn't really get there and as a result doesn't really work.

      By the way, I incorporated some of your comments into the latest revision of the book (mentioned on the main page), and I'll probably add something about this to the next one. I appreciate it.

    3. Oh, wow, thank you! I love your work and I've gotten so much out of it.

  10. I see this episode as a fantasy like you mention above. However as a more, perhaps nostalgic fantasy. It's less about Riley himself or her relationship with him, but more his association with the person that she believes she used to be - before she came back. I don't believe she was ever really consciously pining for Riley, but instead pining for her former self, the version of herself which wasn't 'wrong'. By the end of the episode, through this encounter with Riley she realizes and can finally validate, Tara's claims in Dead Things, that she did not come back wrong.The title of episode is realized at the end, as Buffy returns to the version of herself that she used to be, that she most identifies with. Which corresponds with the military definition of As You Were, 'returning to a previous position'. By ending things with Spike, she finally rejects the 'wrong' version of her self, as he is the manifestation of this self.

    1. That's a great explanation, the best I've seen for this episode. Thanks.

  11. This is a few years old so I'm doubt you see this but here goes.
    I agree it's bad writing. More down to Doug Petries man crush on the Riley character. Listen to the Directors commentaries with Riley in them. Pretty much every second sentence is how cool Riley is. Add in writer anger to fans rejecting the character, you have this episode.

    1. I see all the comments -- I get notified when a new one appears.

      Yeah, some of the writers thought Riley was the greatest. I suspect they had a vision of him in their heads that simply didn't appear on the screen. It just confirms that interpretations of a TV show can't rely on the writers alone, but need to account for the entire production.