This season five episode where Buffy and Riley split up gets props for having the same name as a Stephen Sondheim musical, but otherwise it’s one of my least favorites in the entire series. There’s something deeply unpleasant and icky about it. (And I say this as one of the fans who likes the scene in season six where Buffy and Spike beat the hell out of each other and then have sex for the first time.)
The plot: after having sex with Buffy, Riley sneaks out of their bed to go get bit by vampire hookers. Spike, who has recently become conscious of his enormous crush on Buffy, is moping creepily outside her window, sees Riley do this, and follows him. The next night, when Riley does it again, Spike shows up in Buffy’s bedroom to lead her to the bite brothel. Meanwhile, Riley has gotten an offer to get his old job back — not like the Initiative with its creepy experiments, just plain old-fashioned Army-sponsored demon-hunting, but the catch is that the plane leaves at midnight that very night. Riley and Buffy have a fight where he tells her that he is getting on the plane unless she “gives him a reason to stay.” Then Xander gives Buffy a lecture that makes her feel bad about herself for being angry at Riley, so she goes running after his plane (helicopter, actually) and gets there just in time to watch it take off.
Before I really dig into why this episode bugs me so much, I will mention a few things I do like about it. I like the scene where Anya gets ridiculously excited about the possibility of seeing a movie about monkeys playing ice hockey. (“Go monkey! Choose monkey!”)
I like the sordid sleaziness of the bite brothel, which seems like the perfect degrading combination of whorehouse, crackhouse and underground fight club, and also seems like the kind of thing they would totally have in Sunnydale.
I like the scene where Riley goes to be all angry and self-righteous at Spike, even giving him a non-lethal staking with an artificial imitation wood-free product, then his anger just evaporates and he gives up, sitting down to share an improbable moment of male bonding with Spike.
I like the scene where Buffy takes out almost a dozen vampires from the bite brothel who are mad at her for burning it down. I especially like the moment where she uses this big wooden pole thing to off three vamps almost simultaneously. I also like the moment where it looks like she’s going to spare the vamp girl she saw biting Riley, but it turns out she just wanted to watch her run away for a few moments before throwing the pole like a javelin and staking her from a distance.
Here’s what I don’t like. All the guys act like jerks, and the story sort of lets them get away with acting like jerks. First jerk: Spike. Now, Spike is still technically evil, so the fact that he’s a creepy stalker maybe isn’t so surprising. But then, when he just barges into her room to tell her that he’s got something he needs to show her — there is nothing about that scene that makes me believe for a moment that Buffy would take him up on it. He comes creepily into her room and then acts like a creep. Also, Buffy doesn’t even seem to react to the fact that Riley is gone — is she used to him disappearing from bed in the middle of the night?
Anyway, she seems to be upset by this creepy bit of behavior not because it’s a creepy thing for anybody to do (which it is), but only because it’s Spike doing it.
Second jerk: Riley. And not because he’s fooling around with vampire hookers. This is clearly a cry for help on his part, a strange secret vice he uses to express his despair, a messed-up self-destructive way of telling Buffy that he’s not happy in the relationship, which somehow he can’t bring himself to
tell her directly. So, that’s not the part that makes him a jerk.
The part that makes him a jerk is how he acts when he gets caught. He’s a jerk to Spike, but at least there he realizes he’s in the wrong and gives up. Then he’s a jerk to Buffy — taking no responsibility for his actions, not apologizing, and implying that it’s really all her fault for not “letting him in” enough. And somehow, even though it’s supremely obvious to anyone that Riley is one hundred percent in the wrong here, the way the scene plays out — with her sharp and angry, and him sort of pleading and earnest — makes it seem way too much like it really is all Buffy’s fault. Also, her accusations seem off the mark — she’s angry because he could have gotten himself killed, she’s angry because he’s giving her an “ultimatum,” but she’s never angry at him because HE WAS CHEATING ON HER. REPEATEDLY. WITH PROFESSIONALS.
During this scene Riley also makes an excessively creepy statement that the vampire hookers thing started “to even the score after you let Dracula bite you.” Not only is this a stupid, childish, weasel thing to say, but, given that Dracula used metaphysical hypnosis so she wasn’t exactly a consenting victim, and given the way vampire feeding is used as a sexual metaphor on Buffy, he is telling her something uncomfortably close to “you know that time you let yourself get raped? That really made me jealous. So I started going to prostitutes.”
And then Xander gets to be, in his own way, the biggest jerk of all. Xander acts like a jerk a lot, but usually the events of the show, or the other characters, call him on it. But not this time. He gives Buffy a big jerky lecture, a scolding really, about what a great guy Riley is and how he’d do anything for her and she’s been totally taking him for granted and guys like Riley come around maybe once in a lifetime and she’d be a fool for letting him go because of her childish dislike of ultimatums, but hey! If she really doesn’t think she could ever appreciate this completely wonderful man the way he deserves to be appreciated, then she should just let him go. And instead of telling Xander to stuff it, or pointing out that Riley was the one cheating on her, she takes Xander’s scolding at face value and goes off running at slayer-speed to try to catch up with Riley before his helicopter leaves.
Another unpleasant thing about this episode is the almost complete absence of Willow. Not just because I like Willow — it’s because Willow might have contributed a perspective both saner and more supportive of Buffy’s point of view. Nothing in the episode validates Buffy’s extremely legitimate anger, and nothing except Buffy’s anger seems to acknowledge just how deeply messed up
Riley’s cry for help even was.