In the fourteenth episode of the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Riley begins to have a breakdown over his own life unraveling. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
You know, sometimes I just have to sit back and appreciate what this show has done in three and a half seasons. I came into this expecting some sort of teen drama that was fluffy and campy and largely forgettable. I didn’t expect any serialized narratives. I didn’t expect to tear up once. I didn’t expect how fucked up this all would be. (And, you know, it is campy in a way, but that’s part of its appeal.) It’s hard to express that to people who have never seen the show, though. The opening credits don’t make Buffy appear to be a very serious show, and neither does much of the witty dialogue. WHICH I LOVE, FYI. So I’m at this point in the show where people who haven’t watched it will ask if I like it, and then I just grab the sides of my face and start screeching about HOW YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND and YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW GOOD IT IS and THERE ARE SOME OF THE MOST FUCKED UP PLOTS IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD ON THIS SHOW and then the other person is staring at me as if possums are pouring out of my mouth and then they are turning away and hey where are you going i am totally normal and rational come back
It’s just that Buffy continually seems to enjoy breaking the hearts of EVERY CHARACTER ON THE SHOW EVER. Without a doubt, if something good is happening, it’s going to be ruined every single time. I might get tired of this in the future, but for now, the writing in episodes like “Goodbye Iowa” doesn’t make me question why the writers are so bent on destroying things. I think the fact that this is more about Riley’s journey than anyone else’s is what impresses me so much. He’s not quite a main character yet, but the focus on him gives this episode an energy that might not otherwise be here.
What we witness is the rapid deterioration of Riley’s mental health over the course of “Goodbye Iowa,” one only made worse by the lack chemicals he’s been taking unknowingly for years. Riley is normally a very reasonable, calm guy, so I knew something was wrong when he flipped out on Buffy for hiding Spike this whole time. (Seriously, how the hell do you explain why Spike is around to anyone? For real, THAT’S GOING TO BE REALLY FUN. Oh, see, he’s tried to kill me numerous times, and we don’t actually like each other, and he’s basically useless because of what you did to him, but we all house him at various times because we both pity him and enjoy torturing him. That okay with you?) This wasn’t like him. It was understandable, though, because he’d just found out that Professor Walsh may have tried to kill Buffy for some bizarre reason. I think that would be enough to make anyone question everything around him.
And it’s at this point that we learn the true threat of Adam, the Frankenstein-like creation of Maggie Walsh. My brain instantly went to Jubal Early from the finale of Firefly. There’s a lot of similarity between the two villains, especially in the way that they operate in a world that’s entirely meaningless to him. Unlike Early, though, Adam has very little understanding of the world, so his behavior is more of an exploration of it than anything else. That exploration involves something that might be one of the most disturbing off-screen plot twists in the whole series: Adam got to study and know a little boy better by mutilating him. Yeah, that whole line at the end about him discovering the boy was beautiful inside? I WILL NEVER GET OVER THIS. But it almost feels like Whedon and company were working out ideas for Early, to bring a villain into the fold that was utterly detached from any sort of moral system we were familiar. That doesn’t mean Early or Adam don’t have morals at all; they’re just drastically different. They both seek out this unique brand of nihilist existentialism, though it’s pretty early in Adam’s characterization, so I could be wrong about this. Either way, that’s what makes them so unsettling. You can’t just say they’re evil and be done with it; they’re far too layered for that sort of reading.
Even though this episode is largely serious, I adore how much humor Marti Noxon puts in the story. I mean, there’s a slumber party in Xander’s basement and Giles and Anya bicker about their irritating sleeping habits, and I just love every second of it. And then Buffy complains about the fucked up physics of those Wile E. Coyote cartoons and I fall deeply in irrevocable love with her because I USED TO DO THIS ALL THE TIME. I got so bad that my mother refused to let me watch them because I would talk about how unrealistic gravity was. This is my childhood. Can you possibly understand how much I love Hermione now? YOU SHOULD KNOW BY NOW.
But that sense of humor doesn’t really appear after this. Riley finds out that Professor Walsh is dead, and the unraveling begins. Forrest doesn’t help things at all, as he’s quick to blame Buffy. (Really, dude? Really??? Buffy did it and not the billion horrific creatures being kept in your facility? Also, your face is super attractive, so please stop doing things to make me want to hate you.) We also get a scene between Willow and Tara, which initially starts out with more sexual tension than an episode of Sherlock, and then gets REALLY FUCKING CONFUSING when Tara sabotages Willow’s spell because why??? No, seriously, why? Why are you doing that? It doesn’t make any sense! Maybe she’s worried that Willow is just using her for spells? Perhaps she just wants to keep Willow around? I like that I’m already able to figure out how secure Tara is, and I’m pretty sure it’s because she’s gay and doesn’t know if Willow likes her in that way. How do I know this? Allow me to point you towards my entire history with boys ever. I know that look like I know my own address.
And thenâ€¦ oh, Riley. I was happy to see Willy again because he’s such a funny character, but yeah. Pretty sure this scene with Riley has traumatized me in a way that I’ll never look at Willy’s Bar the same? It’s clear that whatever is tormenting is becoming increasingly physical. He’s sweating, shaking, and scratching his hand so badly he’s drawn blood. When he pulls a gun on some innocent demon? Yeah, fucked up. It’s such an awful scene to watch because I feel so terribly for Riley, yet I’m equally terrified of his capacity for doing something he’ll later regret. Even after Buffy gets him to Xander’s place, I knew he wouldn’t stay there too long. He was so desperate to figure out what was going on that he’d do anything to find the truth.
That’s really what this story is about. Riley even vocalizes it: he had a set of things that were so certain and true, and now none of them are dependable anymore. The rug’s been pulled out from under him, and the lack of drugs just make his terror even worse. This man has no idea what his life means anymore.
Hell, even in that sense, there’s a fascinating parallel between Riley and Adam. When there’s finally a big confrontation in room 314 between Adam and Riley, Buffy, and Dr. Angleman, we learn just how similar these two characters are. Even if Riley is a human, he’s been made by Professor Walsh. Through drugs and a rigid structure to his life, she’s turned him into exactly what she wants him to be. She ignores what he wants by making his desires her desires. All that motherly love had such a horrific twist to it, and I can genuinely relate to how painful this revelation can be. I know that’s one of the reasons I ran away from home. I came to realize that my own mother was controlling and manipulating me in a way that ignored any of my own desires or my own agency. I was being shaped into what she wanted, and when I grasped how pervasive this was, it terrified me. I felt betrayed.Â
I still can’t figure out what Adam’s “purpose” might be. Why did Professor Walsh create him? It’s clear that she (and those she indoctrinated) believe that demons are always a threat, that there’s no way to reason or cohabitate with them at all. Is Adam just going to be an extension of that? Oh god, what the hell is he going to do next? What a brilliant Big Bad, for the record, but what the fuck. On top of that, we also have Spike’s depressing turn to deal with too. The demons in Willy’s Bar beat the crap out of him because of rumors that he might be hunting demons now. It makes me sad because what the hell can Spike even do anymore? If he faces death for going after demons, and he can’t attack anyone else, what’s his purpose in life?
I can’t imagine a more haunting and touching end to a Buffy episode. (“Lovers Walk” comes close, though.) That image of Riley clutching Buffy’s scarf, the one constant in his life, just destroys me. Here’s a man who has lost everything in his life, who is utterly alone in the world, and he’s found just one last thing to hold on to.
Hold me. My heart hurts.
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