Thursday, July 3, 2014

Buffy Rewatch: The Riley Problem

Season 4 continues with "The Initiative", "Pangs", and "Something Blue".

"Say. Don't ya just love a picnic?"

We need to talk about Riley.

No, this is not going to be a long-winded defense of the character, and no, it's not going to be a condemnation of him, either. Looking back at the character, almost 15 years later, we know that Riley will only be around for another season, Regardless, Riley's a bit of a dud - but I think I see what the writers were going for.

After Angel left, it was going to be difficult (impossible?) for the writers to come up with a character that fans would accept as a love interest for Buffy. On paper, Riley should be a perfect match for Buffy: smart, a fighter, knowledgeable about supernatural activity. But sadly, I'm not sure if it's the writers' fault or if it's Marc Blucas's fault (probably both?) but Riley's just too dull for Buffy.

And here's where my hindsight interpretation of Riley gets a little generous (and this is based on memory, not on rewatching the rest of Riley's arc): he's the good guy that Buffy SHOULD be in love with, but isn't. (A couple of seasons down the road, Spike becomes Riley's opposite: the bad guy Buffy shouldn't be drawn to, but is.) Riley cares far more deeply about her than she does about him. Not that she doesn't like him; she just doesn't love him. Like I said, this is a generous interpretation of a character who actually used the sentence "I've never courted someone like Buffy before."

In "The Initiative", lots of key stories in season 4 get rolling. We find out who the secretive military guys are (like Riley!), that Professor Walsh is more than just a psychology professor, and that Spike now has a chip in his brain to keep him from attacking people. To keep Spike around, of course they had to neuter him, and he still gets his share of good dialogue, and his journey over the next four seasons is an interesting one, so it's all worth it. There are good things in "The Initiative" (I like the flare gun bit at the end), but it's definitely more of a get-the-ball-rolling episode.

"Pangs" has issues. The discovery of the lost Mission is really strained - it was under about a foot of sand? That Xander was shovelling? That no one discovered while they were planning the new anthropology building? - but parts of the episode work well. The screwball dialogue as Buffy plans Thanksgiving dinner while trying to figure out what's going on is mostly good. And Spike's line about what happens when vampires don't get to feed ("Living skeletons, mate. Like famine pictures from those dusty countries, only not half as funny.") is an all-time classic. And the political awakening about the wrongs done to native Americans is one that MANY university freshmen go through, so I liked that. The episode is problematic, but ultimately rewarding.

"Something Blue" was less great than I remembered. Amy's cameo is still brilliant, and I adore all of the Buffy/Spike stuff. But the rest of the episode didn't do a lot for me. But the Buffy/Spike stuff is so great it almost makes the episode's shortcomings irrelevant. And it's fun to look back on this episode 15 years later, and see it as the writers planting a seed and/or testing the waters re a potential Buffy/Spike relationship. Gellar and Marsters have such great chemistry, and here it's played for laughs. While planning their wedding, under the influence of Willow's accidental spell:

BUFFY: Honey, we have to talk about invitations. Do you want to be "William the Bloody" or, like just "Spike"? 'Cause either way it's gonna look majorly weird.
SPIKE: Whereas the name "Buffy" gives it that touch of classic elegance.
BUFFY: What's wrong with Buffy?
GILES: Such a good question.

Big laughs, I tell you. Big laughs.

"The Initiative": B-
"Pangs": B
"Something Blue": A-

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