Into the Woods

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.


  1. UGH, I’d completely forgotten the line about Dracula.

    On the whole, I didn’t hate it as much as you, but it certainly isn’t my favorite episode. The part I disliked most was Buffy running for the helicopter, and just missing it. Actually, I honestly liked the episode better when I thought that Riley saw her, and left anyway, because he realized that things had gone too far to work out. Unfortunately, dialog later in the show establishes that he didn’t see her. I hate it because the implication is that if she’d just come running 15 seconds earlier, they could have worked everything out. Which strikes me as absurd.

    1. Author

      Yes, I would have to say that the implication that they could somehow have worked things out if she had just managed to run a leetle bit faster is yet another annoyance of this episode. In some ways I think it’s just the usual Whedon “maximum pain” dictum, but this particular episode didn’t earn it.

  2. Choose monkey!

    Well said, mcjulie. I hated that episode, but didn’t put too much thought into why, since I pretty much hate 1) all Riley episodes and 2) all episodes where Xander is “right.”

    1. Author

      Because Xander is never right, unless he’s apologizing for something that he was previously wrong about.

      I don’t hate all Riley episodes. But I do hate a lot of them, which is a shame, because I don’t hate the character.

  3. I agree that this whole episode made me cringe, the helicopter scene especially, and the Dracula line – of which I think your analysis is spot on – the worst. Because that line undercuts the notion what happened between Dracula and Buffy was rape at all on yet another level, at the same time it’s doing what you said.


    1. Author

      It’s such a creepy line, but nothing in the episode acknowledges how creepy it is. I think that’s why it bothered me so much. It’s like the show is letting him get away with being a creep.

  4. Discovering this just now – all I can say is YES to every line of this article. You’ve encapsulated why I hate this episode – and whatever good stuff there may have been in it, I’ve forgotten it because of how horrible it is at the end. (And I don’t like Buffy staking the female vamp in the back, which is just not a fair fight in any way, and not in Buffy’s character at ALL IMO.) I was completely team Buffy in that arguement with Riley – and I liked his character in S4, I actually did. And I think they genuinely loved each other – they were never destined for marriage, etc but they could have come to a point where they realized they weren’t compatible, ended things but agreed to stay friends. Of course that isn’t Joss or TV in general (go for the maximum pain and drama); but having Xander come in and scold her (basically a twist on his old slut-shaming tactics IMO, and who is he to tell Buffy what to do? I think part of it was the selfish motivation that he liked Riley personally, liked having a guy friend around who had also been a soldier and could serve as a sort of alter-ego through whom Xander lived vicariously, as a soldier and a Buffy’s lover…I think I went on too long with that bit.)

    And the thing that makes it hateful is that Buffy goes along with their judgements, and later blames herself (“I drove Riley away” in Intervention – she was dealing with her mother’s illness and he was pushing her to be something she wasn’t, to be more “communicative” when that isn’t her style); which is typical Buffy (she blames herself for Hank leaving, she blames herself for Angel loosing his soul, for her mom dying etc); but then the show seems to support that notion of herself.

    And the idea is drummed in again in As You Were (the only thing worth saving from that ep for me is her apology to Spike at the end as she breaks off the relationship.)

    1. Author

      The muddy handling of some of these themes is one of my Season 5 turnoffs — why I just can’t put it up there as a contender for favorite the way many people do. I can justify some of it by pointing out that the characters aren’t always right about stuff — for example, I think Xander is really talking about himself in most of that speech — but sometimes the show is better at pointing out that we can’t necessarily take character dialog at face value.

      1. Agreed (my mind tends to just shut out all of Season 5 prior to the Body, to be honest, which probably isn’t a good thing). Whereas in S6 we mostly understand that everyone in it is an “unreliable narrator”, and that the narratives/stories they’ve built for themselves are wrong or misguided (Buffy seeing herself as “coming back wrong”, The Trio envisioning themselves as superheros, Willow’s vision of her actions regarding Tara as entirely beneficient, etc.) The ep that calls back to S5 and Riley is the one that most pointedly goes against this by assuming that Buffy’s self-image (and self-hate) are entirely justified in that shiny Hollywood image of Riley and Sam going up to the helicopter (and Buffy STILL having to apologize to him, rather than the other way around. grrrr….)

        Once Riley is out of the picture however, the season procedes at a clip and the interrelationships of the various women in it, the relative domesticity compared to previous seasons (Joyce was hardly seen in S4), is something I find interesting and even fascinating.

        If I had to choose a favorite season though – probably 6 just in terms of how it hits me personally (depression). Although every season has its good and bad (and as you say with 5, the seasons that tend to be praised as “the best” ones in fandom usually require us to forget all the awkward bumps and mediocre episodes along the way.)

        1. Author

          usually require us to forget all the awkward bumps and mediocre episodes along the way.

          Heh. Well, I’m pretty sure that all great art requires at least a little forgiveness for the areas where it strays from perfection — in part because all of us will pinpoint those areas a little differently.

          And I think we’ll all be more or less forgiving depending on how much we like what else is going on. I am with you in holding Season 6 to be a personal favorite, and it’s certainly not because it’s more flawless than Season 5.

          However, I do think it’s the most interesting and thoughtful pop culture examination of depression pretty much since Hamlet. And that carries me through the bumpier areas quite well. But I know it doesn’t work for everyone.

          1. Heh. Well, I’m pretty sure that all great art requires at least a little forgiveness for the areas where it strays from perfection — in part because all of us will pinpoint those areas a little differently.

            That’s absolutely true, and one of the things I love about the show. (And what makes S2-3 less interesting for me; better entertainment? Absolutely. But not as engaging for me. I don’t think or identify with the earlier seasons as much for a number of reasons, “less flawed” being one of them.

        2. Author

          my mind tends to just shut out all of Season 5 prior to the Body, to be honest

          Oh, and I kinda do the same thing! When was doing the Season 5 polls I kept being surprised when another episode I came up that I really liked.

          1. I’m also really good at messing up timelines – I saw the entire thing in three weeks and stuff gets compressed in my memory. (A lot of events in S2 have to occur in a certain way with the Angelus storyline, but even there I forget a lot that are not the more emotional highpoints.)

            And I’ll also transfer eps from one season to another inadvertently, mostly in the earlier seasons. My brain STILL tells me that Inca Mummy Girl was a S1 ep, not S2 – so I’ll just go with that. It’s certainly the same sort of tone, but I guess that’s partly because the Angelus storyline just takes the season into an entirely different place tonally from whatever came before. (Except perhaps for PG.)

          2. Author

            Several of the monster-of-the-week episodes from early in season 2 feel very much like season 1, it’s true.

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