OUT OF MY MIND
Written by: Rebecca Rand Kirschner
Directed by: David Grossman
Out of My Mind
I like to see an episode
exploring a single theme or idea through the medium of two different plots.
Not only does this add a pleasing sense of unity to the program.
The contrasts or comparisons between the way the different plots treat
the same theme or idea is usually very enlightening.
Here we see several different characters who may be described as out of
their mind. Joyce for example, just
before she collapses, experiences a moment of clarity in which she asks Dawn:
“Who are you?”
But the two individuals who
really are out of their mind and around whom the two plots in this episode
revolve are Riley and Spike.
Buffy and Riley
In “The Replacement” we
began to see Riley’s insecurities about his relationship with Buffy and at the
end of that episode he sums up for Xander his understanding of the relationship
he has with her:
I'm well aware of how lucky I am. Like, lottery lucky. Buffy's like nobody else
in the world. When I'm with her it's like ... it's like I'm split in two. Half
of me is just ... on fire, going crazy if I'm not touching her. The other half
... is so still and peaceful ... just perfectly content. Just knows: this is the
one. But she doesn't love me.”
And that conversation serves
as the lead into this episode’s principal focus – how those insecurities are
From the start his physical
strength and stamina and the way he is revelling in both are stressed.
In the teaser he is out hunting on his own and bumps into Buffy almost by
Riley: Buffy, what are you doing here?
Buffy: My job?
Well, I just thought you were in the north sector.
When a vampire then attacks
it is Riley who kicks his legs out from under him and throws him aside, then
punches and stakes him. Buffy can see he needs no help.
Later in the new Training
Room he seems keen for a workout with Buffy and after that we find the two after
they have been engaged in a yet more strenuous form of exercise:
Buffy: Mm, that was relaxing.
Riley: You, uh ... wanna relax some more?
Buffy: Again? Right away again?
Riley: Maybe you're too tired.
Again it is Riley who seems
anxious for the exercise. Why the
need to assert his strength? Then
we have the strange tachycardia first detected quite accidentally by Dawn:
I have never in all my years of medicine let a patient with tachycardia this
severe leave a hospital.
You said you couldn't keep me.
Doctor: Legally, no, I can't force you to do a thing. But with that pulse, believe me, I'd get on my knees and beg you if I thought I could change your mind.
Riley’s condition is
described by Graham in the following terms:
overload and a bunch of stuff that sounds even worse than that, and all it means
is he's way stronger than he oughta be and feeling no pain. His heart can't take
it. We've been at him for weeks about it.”
The puzzle is Riley’s
attitude to his own condition. First
he denies that it is a problem at all:
Buffy: What's going on? What are you doing? What if you have a heart attack?
Riley: Listen to me. Calm down.
Buffy: *Me* calm down? I'm not the one with a pulse of a hundred and fifty.
Riley: My heart's different than yours, Buffy. It works differently now, but it's okay.
Buffy: But you're still a human, Riley. You could still have a heart attack.
I'm a human who was used as a lab rat for months.
Then, to Graham, he seems to
accept there is a problem but professes not to trust the Government to solve it:
Graham: What's goin' on, man? You gotta get this taken care of immediately. We gotta get you into an operating room.
Very convincing. Makes me completely wanna put myself under government control.
It is only later that the
real trouble is disclosed. And here
I think that I can do no better than to reproduce the crucial exchange between
Buffy and Riley:
Buffy: What's happening to you?
Riley: I go back ... let the government get whimsical with my innards again ... They could do anything that. Best-case scenario, they turn me into Joe Normal, just...just another guy.
Buffy: And that's not enough for you?
It's not enough for *you*.
Up until now there seemed no obvious connection between Riley’s sheer physicality with Buffy, his need to help with the slaying, to match her in training and in other “exercises” and his unwillingness to confront his own health problems. Now they fitted together. In “The Replacement” he had said that she didn’t love him; here he seems to indicate why.
”Loving you is the scariest thing I've ever done”.
“Like, I had this friend once, who really liked this girl, and ... he got all worried that maybe she didn't like him back... and maybe that made him act like a total jerk. Maybe Riley reminds me of that friend.”
the relationship between Buffy and Riley or the way that it has hit the rocks
it’s hard to see the writers saying anything worthwhile of general
application. Of course at one level
we can see Riley’s inability to cope with Buffy as the slayer as an expression
of the difficulty one partner (especially a man) can have in coping with the
power and success of the other. But
to say that A fears B cannot love him if she is more successful than he is
surely a gross oversimplification, especially shorn of its social context.
In what is surely intended to be the central confrontation between Buffy
and Riley (only part of which I have quoted) Riley is left without an
explanation for his behavior that made any sense at all, even from his point of
view. His anxiety about losing his
“super powers” is a mixture of irrational jealousy and insecurity. Buffy for her part says that her love doesn’t depend on how
powerful Riley is. A comparison on
the one hand between a highly simplistic stupidity on the one hand and trite
platitudes on the other hardly provides much food for thought.
If the writers did intend to try to examine this particular phenomenon
they made an abysmal attempt at it. That
is why I think this was only ever intended to be a story about two individuals
rather than an exploration of a complex social phenomenon.
We are therefore firmly in soap opera territory here.
Abraham Lincoln was once asked what he thought of a particular book and
is reported to have replied along the lines that “those who like that sort of
thing will like that sort of thing”. And
that certainly sums up my feelings about that fact.
I understand that there are many people who do enjoy and appreciate soap
opera with its focus on personal relationships, their triumphs and disasters.
I don’t. Soap opera type
stories are commonplace. BUFFY’s
unique selling point is it’s use of the supernatural to explore ideas.
Graham sums up my feeling about these type of storylines only too well
when he challenges Riley:
used to have a mission, and now you're what? The mission's boyfriend? Mission's
For me the mission is the
important thing. The romance is
simply an unwelcome distraction. So
an episode that concentrated so heavily on the Riley/Buffy romance was, I will
confess, something of a penance for me. But
over and above this personal preference there is a lot to criticize here.
First of all the set up is so
completely artificial that it lacks any credibility.
In “Goodbye Iowa” Riley started getting withdrawal symptoms because
he was no longer taking a cocktail of drugs.
He recovered because he was kept in a military hospital.
We must assume that he completed “cold turkey” there because
self-evidently he could not have been taking the same cocktail of drugs once he
had left the Initiative. His
tachycardia is therefore due to something else, presumably physical because it
can be cured by an operation. What
this might be is left very vague. This
is the first we have heard of his heart problems.
Indeed this is the first we have seen any dangerous side effects of this
nature. Graham and the others are apparently cured.
They have been worried about Riley for weeks.
Why weeks? Wouldn’t they
have been worried about this from the moment they found out what had been done
to Riley? Why wait until now to
contact him? This is especially
true when the doctors are apparently saying that it may already be too late to
save Riley. Then when he does
suffer an apparently massive heart attack the “operation” (whatever it
involves) leaves him cured but now normal and healthy.
To describe this as idiot plotting is to be kind.
When writers have to produce these sort of nonsensical developments to
set up character exploration, it ruins the whole point of the exercise.
Next, I have already referred
to the fact that Riley is left without rational explanation for his behavior.
Can you sympathize with someone
who acts like he does for no good reason?
There is no real basis on which Riley can connect Buffy’s increasing
strength with her inability to love him. So
how can you understand his attachment to his own strength as a way of cementing
their relationship? And if you
cannot at least understand why Riley thought that way you cannot wish him well.
Instead he becomes annoying.
When the whole focus of an episode is a stupid and annoying piece of behavior that is set up by some unbelievable plot contortions then you had better believe the episode is in trouble.
Buffy and Spike
Of course Riley isn’t the
only one who is confused about his relationship with Buffy.
So is Spike. Throughout this
episode, Buffy’s attitude towards Spike remains fairly constant. It is one essentially of contempt, exemplified by two
moments. First of all when she,
Riley and Spike come together in the teaser and Spike starts to push her
... I just saw you taste your own nose blood, you know what? I'm too grossed out
to hear anything you have to say. Go home.”
Then, when she goes to enlist
his help in the search for Riley we have the following exchange:
Spike: “Oh, dear, is the enormous hall monitor sick? Tell me, is he gonna die?” [Buffy slaps him across the face.]
“Hey. I'm just saying, if it's really that important to you, I think I'll get
half now.” [Buffy tears the notes in half, slams one half against Spike's
chest and leaves].
Spike for his part seems to
return the contempt with hatred. He
is (excusing the overblown language) going to:
in the slayer's blood. Gonna dive in it. Swim in it.”
He even tries to carry out
his threats when he thinks the chip has been removed and he is again free to
kill. But having failed in this, at the very end, when we think we
see a fatal confrontation between them, it turns into a dream (or is it a
nightmare) for Spike where he and Buffy become lovers.
The odd thing was that this
moment for me actually worked very well. Spike
had spent so much of the previous hour talking about Buffy that it quickly
became obvious that she was always in his mind.
It is often said that the opposite of love is not hatred but indifference
and Buffy’s capacity to arouse strong emotion in Spike may be easily
understood. She was, in Harmony’s
words, “totally his arch-nemesis” and it’s hard not to see respect in his
description of her:
not the type to give up, either. She'll hunt you down, day and night, till
you're too tired and too hungry to run any more. And then? [grabs a handful of
dust] Then... [dusting off his hands] that is you.”
Indeed near the end we had
what for a proud creature like Spike a very significant moment.
He almost breaks down in rage and frustration:
“She follows me, you know, tracks me down. I'm her pet project. Drive Spike
round the bend. Makes every day a fresh bout of torture.”
“You don't understand. I can't get rid of her. She's everywhere. She's
haunting me, Harmony! This ... has got to end.”
This makes the final scene
when Spike offers his bare chest to an enraged Buffy seem all the more
realistic. So the shock value of what happens next is also all the
greater. Moreover because we can
believe in Spike’s growing obsession with his arch nemesis his schizophrenic
attitude towards her is also entirely believable. At one level he is emotionally attracted to her, at another
he hates her.
But while, I personally have
no trouble with the notion that Spike was developing an obsession with her, the
precise nature of that obsession is, for me important.
In particular that obsession must remain consistent with my understanding
of Spike’s nature as a demon and I may return to the topic as this storyline
develops. But much more troubling
for me at the moment is the way
that the writers present Buffy’s view of Spike.
As we have seen she held him in contempt. This was partly because he was a vampire and they had
“gross” tastes (for example blood). It
was also in part an ethical judgment. He
was concerned only for himself and refused to help anyone else unless there was
something in it for him. But these
differences are not the stuff of which “mortal enemies” are made.
Buffy’s attitude to Spike is much the same as her attitude would be to
Willie or any slightly shady human living at the edges of society.
There is no recognition here as to what Spike has done in the past, no
mention of the fact that he is a mass murderer or that, even with the chip, he
tried to get Buffy and the others killed. You
might think that this would weigh more heavily with the slayer than the fact
that he drinks his nose blood or likes money.
And in spite of the fact that Spike tried very hard to rid himself of the
chip and could have ended up costing Riley his life, in the real world (as
opposed to Spike’s fantasy life) there is no indication that Buffy has changed
her mind about staking him. Indeed
it is interesting to see how Spike’s threats to Buffy and his attempt to free
himself of the chip are treated by the writers.
He doesn’t make a very good fist of trying to kill the vampire in the
teaser. When he utters his first
threat against Buffy he falls into an open grave.
When Buffy says she knows he is up to something nasty we see him engaged
in 20 questions with Harmony. Indeed
the fact that Harmony is involved in the attempt to remove the chip makes the
whole thing more of a joke than something really serious.
It is almost as of the writers were trying to have it both ways –
present Buffy and Spike as enemies but at the same time portraying Spike as
someone who is not that dangerous.
Of course at this stage it is impossible to predict where the writers intend to go with this. But “Out of My Mind” bears all the hallmarks of a set up for a major shift in the way that Buffy and Spike relate to one another. We have the deliberate trailing of the mutual hostility but the downplaying of the real nature of the gulf between the slayer and the neutered monster. Then through Spike’s eyes this hostility is turned on its head to become some form of sexual attraction. This is nor incompatible with the hostility but obviously puts it in a completely different light. We can only wait to see where the writers go with this one but the fact that they seem to have tried to airbrush his past, downplayed his dangerousness and above all shown no interest in the difference between the moral differences between the demon within him and humans does not fill me with any great hope.
The biggest single problem
with the plot of this episode is the painfully slow pace at which it crawls
along. The teaser embodies a very nice idea. As we have seen the focus of this episode is the way that
both Riley and Spike relate to Buffy. So
bringing them all together at the start to establish the baselines worked very
well. We could see the tensions and
preoccupations that would come to dominate the storyline being laid out.
But it is too drawn out and for the next fifteen minutes nothing happens.
Act 1, for example, starts
with a completely pointless conversation between Willow and Buffy which is
notable only for the awful stilted dialogue.
This is immediately followed by an extended and almost equally
meaningless visit to the Magic Shop. The
episode doesn’t begin to move until Joyce collapses and we are then (in a
somewhat forced way) introduced to Riley tachycardia.
But even then there are pointless or even just overlong scenes in which
nothing happens to advance either theme or plot.
For example the scenes at the Summers’ house after Joyce is released,
Spike and Harmony’s 20 questions or the “fiat lux” scene between Willow
and Tara. It is actually sobering
to think how little actually happens in this episode.
The action might have been compressed into twenty minutes and the program
might have been all the better for it.
And what action there was
cannot be described as especially tightly plotted.
There were some good things. I
like for example the way that Riley first denies he has a problem, then claims
that he doesn’t rust the government to solve it and only at the end admits the
truth. When you are trying to
understand the motivations of a character the fact that their own
rationalizations cannot be taken at their face value and that you have to
continually dig deeper is not only inherently more interesting
but also far more realistic. The
way Buffy got the Initiative involved was a very neat touch. And indeed the re-introduction of the Initiative in this
context was in theory at least a very good idea.
It could act as a focal point for both Riley’s distress and the means
of ending it and Spike’s very different distress and the means of ending that.
The central idea of having Spike (and his desire to have the chip removed
so that he could show Buffy who is boss) as the principal obstacle to saving
Riley because both needed the same Initiative doctor was in theory a good one.
Unfortunately the execution of this idea shows the gap that all too often
can open up between theory and practice.
I have already dealt with the
implausible set up and resolution for Riley’s illness.
Here, in brief form, are some of the other problems.
When Riley fled from Graham and the others why would he go to the
Initiative Caves of all places? Isn't
that precisely where the government would go looking for him? Secondly,
when Buffy went to Spike it was ostensibly to get him to help her find Riley.
But then when she went looking for him on her own it became all too
obvious that this was just a poor excuse to let Spike know that there was an
Initiative doctor waiting to be kidnapped.
Which leads to the question how did Spike know where the Initiative
doctor was? And when he kidnapped him how did Buffy and Riley still
manage to find them? None of this
is credible. But the final problem
is Buffy’s reaction to Spike’s treachery.
When she finds out about it she promises:
I get my hands on Spike, I'm gonna rip his head off.”
And why wouldn’t she? Except she doesn’t. We only see a vengeful slayer in Spike’s fevered dreams. As I have already said what works about that scene is that, Buffy wanting vengeance on Spike seems so natural. So then why didn’t she actually turn up and kill him?
D (6/10): This was bad. Not just sub-par but actually bad. First of all I had no interest in the subject matter and, as this is my review, I make no apologies for marking the episode down on this score alone. But there was worse. The whole episode depended upon the credibility of Riley’s medical problems and the need to solve them urgently. For the reasons I have already given (and which I do not mean to repeat here) this aspect of the episode was so obviously contrived that it had no credibility. Moreover the fact that the central character in the episode exhibited an obvious and wholly inexplicable stupidity throughout left us without any interest in or sympathy for his plight. And as the whole point was surely to make us care about what happens to him that is an obvious drawback. The sub-plot involving Spike was not quite as disappointing and it did contain some very interesting elements. As I have already said there are, for me, some worrying straws in the wind but it is far too early to guess where the writers are going with this storyline yet so I am not going to rush to judgment here. But above all the slow pace and repeated plotting problems of the episode mean that it is really without much in the way of redeeming qualities.