In the tenth episode of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m not sure how much more of this I can stand. HELP MY HEART. If you’re intrigued, then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
I’ve used fiction to understand my own life for a long, long time. Being raised in a strict Christian household without access to pretty much anything in the outside world meant that I latched on to what I did have very easily. It’s why I loved Star Wars so much. I identified with Luke because I, too, felt so detached from what everyone else seemed to get to experience. I identified with Scully from The X-Files because I felt like an outsider for being nerdy and smart. Sometimes, I became irrationally attached to characters in Goosebumps books. LOOK AT THAT FUCKING AWFUL SENTENCE. So that is a big reason why I’m so willing to talk about such personal things in a public space. This is why I read fiction. I want to understand the world more, and I think fiction has helped me do that more than most things.
I don’t know that “Into the Woods” has necessarily helped me understand anything that I didn’t already know. But like “New Moon Rising” or “Family,” I wish I had this episode all the way back in 2006 when I had an experience with my first boyfriend that’s eerily similar to what Buffy goes through in this story. First of all, let me just say this: the second Buffy said that she was “out of the woods,” I groaned loudly because YOU JUST FUCKED UP. Look at the episode title, Buffy! DON’T DO THAT. Secondly, I also need to state that there is something beautiful about switching between Buffy and Angel in the way that I am. The very unique sense of symmetry these stories have is something I have never experienced in my entire life. Given what happened at the end of “The Trial,” there’s a poetry to Riley and Buffy separating at the end of “Into The Woods” as well. Both of these shows are on fire, and I find myself feeling giddy and ecstatic to return to each set of characters as I switch from show to show.
Also, I love Anya. Also, Tara disappeared again. Whoops! Also, major lack of Willow lately. Also, Giles’s hair was rather disheveled most of this episode. Also, my god, I love Buffy so much.
I don’t know how I never made the connection before, but it’s super obvious to me now that the show was trying to make some sort of commentary on drug use and how a couple copes with that reality. It’s not the best metaphor the show has given us, but there were quite a few specific details that reminded me of my own experience with dating an addict. I haven’t really discussed it much because LET’S BE HONEST. IT’S NOT FUN. In fact, I’m pretty sure the writers of this episode just sat in a room, gradually curling into the fetal position as they wrote this script, until the only word they could say was AWWWKKKKWWAAARRRDD. Holy shit, this might be the most uncomfortable episode of Buffy’s entire run.
Anyway, I was once a teenage alcoholic (THAT WAS A FUN TIME IN MY LIFE), but I decided to be sober and claim straight edge as a way to escape some fairly destructive tendencies of mine. Being straight edge carries a lot of social baggage because edge kids can be notoriously horrific to anyone who chooses not to be sober, so I had committed myself to not being that kind of person as much as I could. But I admit that finally getting my first boyfriend was a bit of a challenge because he drank and smoke a lot. And it wasn’t that I cared that he did it; it was the sheer volume of it that made me wonder how I was going to cope with this. It wasn’t until about four months into our relationship that he started doing cocaine, and he didn’t hide his usage at all. I accepted that it was his choice, and I was satisfied that he only did it with friends and in safe environments.
At first, that is. He was an addict, and that meant his sense of control disappeared not long after that. It’s important that I admit that at this point, I was head over heels for this asshole. It wasn’t love; I was infatuated with the idea of what we could be. He was handsome, and he generally treated me all right, but I’d never had someone give me any sort of attention in a romantic sense, so I foolishly thought we were in love. When money started disappearing from my wallet, I blamed it on the shitty locks at the gym. When my boyfriend would disappear for an entire night, I thought it was because he had an overflowing social life, and I conceded that I didn’t want to smother him. I accommodated him, never knowing what I was actually doing. When his face started changing and his body began to lean down, I blamed it on his work and school schedule. I took care of him in the interim, any chance I got, convinced I was being the best partner I could be to him. I bought him things, took him out to dinners, gave him massages, paid his rent if his hours weren’t enough to cover his basic bills, and I devoted myself to his every whim and need. I believed I was being a good person. I believed that this was how relationships were supposed to work. I was basically a baby, okay, SHUT UP.
I got the call from his best friend. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Can you come get him? I don’t have a car.” Pause. “I know you don’t either, but he’ll listen to you. Can you help?” I took an address down, and all I knew was that my boyfriend was really drunk, possibly passed out at someone’s house in West Hollywood. I knew he was a heavy drinker, and I didn’t mind helping him out when he got too drunk, but I was so terrified of losing my first boyfriend that I refused to engage with the idea that I was enabling someone’s self-destruction. I was more concerned with coming off as a close-minded asshole that I couldn’t even see what was happening.
But that didn’t last long, and as I boarded a 304 bus off of Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood, I had a feeling that this particular episode would be worse than the others. My boyfriend’s friend sounded so desperate, and that scared me. How bad was he?
Let me just say that watching Buffy enter that house with Spike was a surreal moment for me. It really was one of those rare moments where a fictional narrative seems to have been pulled directly from your own memory. I walked into a house in West Hollywood that, from the outside, seemed to be so far out of my league that I was sure that I was being pranked. It was huge with a nicely kept lawn, which is rare enough in that part of town where all the houses are sandwiched between condos and apartment complexes. The door was unlocked, and when I opened it, the instant stench of sweat and urine knocked me back so hard that I had to step out and take a deep breath. There were bodies all over the floor. I couldn’t even tell if half of them were living. A few people moaned and squirmed about on the carpet. I don’t know what color the carpet used to be; it was now stained by so many things, and none of them looked pleasant. There clearly used to be paintings or portraits on the wall, as I could see the outlines they left behind while the rest of the house began to fill with filth. Oh god, the smell. I don’t know that I could ever describe it properly because it was one of those scents that was so unique that there’s nothing to compare it to. (LOL WHAT IS WRITING. I basically just told y’all in a story that you just had to be there. WHATEVER. I’m an asshole.)
I remember calling out my boyfriend’s name, and hearing some sort of muffled response in a room off to the left of me, and I found him at a table covered in things I didn’t even understand. I think what was so striking about this experience was how fake it seemed. Like, I didn’t think drug houses like this existed outside of television, and when I came upon the spoons, needles, and empty liquor bottles on the table in front of my boyfriend, I had this very brief moment of pure panic and disbelief. Like, for real, this isn’t really happening, right? People don’t actually do this, and this is not something that I’ve gotten myself involved in, is it?
Unfortunately, it was, and it was the beginning of a very rapid spiral downwards for my very first relationship. I was being used to fuel someone’s drug habit, and I am bizarrely thankful that I got dumped when I did, despite how traumatic it was for me. I didn’t even get to see the worst of this man’s descent into addiction. I hear that he’s since cleaned up his act and has been sober for nearly five years, but I lost contact with him and all his friends about three years ago. Hell, in all honesty, I hadn’t even thought about him in months, but in that very moment when Buffy is led inside that house, it all came back. And quickly. I was shocked at how vibrant the memory was for me, how easy it was for me to smell that scent in that room, to see all the details of the room, to remember how freaked out I was as I dragged my boyfriend out of that house. I even remembered taking him home on a Metro bus at 11pm on a Thursday from West Hollywood to his place off of Vine in Hollywood, holding his hand and telling him I’d be there for him as the whole bus stared at me, knowing that the man next to me wasn’t just drunk. I had to wipe his nose a couple times because it was slowly bleeding, and when it came time for us to get off on his stop, he fought me for a few seconds before briefly recognizing my face and conceding the battle for enough time to allow me to carry him out the back door.
That’s where the parallel ends, though, between myself and Buffy. Buffy resorts to anger, perhaps even irrationally so, to cope with her discovery. The only reason I say irrational isn’t to discount or dismiss what she’s feeling. At the end of the day, Riley is most certainly in the wrong here. Even if Buffy made him feel inadequate, he should have broken things off or made a more forced effort to communicate this to her rather than essentially cheat on her. So yeah, NO SYMPATHY THERE. But Xander (OH XANDER I LOVE YOU SO MUCH IN THIS EPISODE) has to pull Buffy back to get her to look at what she’s doing to herself in the process. However, a lot happens before this moment arrives.
First of all (and rightly so), Spike has to realize that his plan to get Buffy to like him IS ONE OF THE WORST PLANS TO GET BUFFY TO LIKE HIM EVER. I mean, for real, what did he think was going to happen? That Buffy would turn to him and suddenly say, “Oh, Spike, you’re so noble for what you’ve done! Let us consummate your Nice Guy brilliance right here in this pseudo-crack den, you big strong man, you!” Actually, he probably expected that to happen. You should stop. Still, I do admit that I enjoyed his talk with Riley, and there’s something I can see in his role as a hopeless romantic that I’m sympathetic to. It sucks to be in love with someone who doesn’t return the feeling. HELLO, MY FIRST BOYFRIEND, YOU WERE A DICK THOUGH.
Secondly, even more so than any of the past two episodes, this episode demonstrates Riley’s complete lack of perspective. While I’m still glad that Xander helped Buffy to realize that perhaps she didn’t really want Riley to disappear from her life, good god, girl, I think this will ultimately work in your favor. Your mother nearly died, your sister is not really your sister and is some bizarre key to something, and some mysterious woman named Glory is trying to kill you every other week. Riley wants attention. I mean, yes, I’m being reductive to make a point, but holy shit, dude, shut the fuck up. Yes, I swear, your concerns are totally valid, and Buffy should address them, but your timing is utter shit. Seriously!
And I think that’s why Buffy reacts so violently to Riley’s actions. He deserves anger and scorn, but Buffy could have easily turned to self-destruction if it weren’t for Xander. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Buffy staking seven vampires in less than thirty seconds because holy god that was amazing. But when she kills the eighth vampire, it suddenly stopped being amazing and became unbelievably disturbing. What was the point of going after that last vampire? Personal satisfaction? I imagine so. Did it make her feel genuinely better, or was she so concerned with her rage that she was losing perspective herself?
I’m reminded that out of all the Scoobies, Xander is repeatedly the one person who is always there for Buffy. It’s really cool to think about how much he’s grown since he used to have a crush on her, and his sense of friendship was based on the hope of scoring with Buffy. That’s not even a thought in his life anymore, so he comes to Buffy out of genuine concern. What I liked about his confrontation was that it was about Buffy wanting to reconcile on her own terms. It’s up to her whether she wants to forgive Riley or not, and that’s absolutely her decision. Even on a personal level, I appreciate that, given that I struggled with forgiving my ex after everything he put me through. I ultimately haven’t, but that’s because our relationship ended without any closure, and to this day, I have no idea if he even knows what he did to me. That’s my choice, and I’ll hold on to a grudge as long as I like. Thank you very much. But Buffy, with Xander’s help, knows that Riley is worth it in the end, and she makes the choice to keep him in her life.
It really wasn’t all that surprising that Riley left anyway, that Buffy barely missed out on her opportunity. Their relationship felt complete anyway, and the show has been gradually moving towards ending Riley’s story for a while now. It felt right, as heartbreaking as it was to see Buffy standing hopelessly in that field, because they’d run their course as a couple. I don’t know where else their story could go. I do love, then, that this isn’t like “Lovers Walk.” As one relationship crumbles, we cut to see Xander affirming his love for Anya, and then I’m S O B B I N G in a coffee shop and no one understands me. Oh god, Anya and Xander are so perfect for one another.
One final point: Nick Chinlund plays the most horrifying villain in The X-Files history, and when he appeared on screen, I yelped and nearly threw my laptop across the room. NOPE. NOPE.