“As You Were” is one deft piece of storytelling. Not an exceptionally good episode or even an exceptionally good story, but a clever one. Much like in Angel’s second season, the writers have been painting our protagonist into a progressively darker corner. It’s been entertaining to watch her fall but it’s also been getting harder to see how she’ll get back to the Buffy we love without some sort of narrative cheat. “Epiphany” was a huge success for Angel but not only has Buffy already slept with her unhealthy love interest, that trick’s been done. BtVS’s solution isn’t quite as brilliant, but it’s still a good one. By tying Buffy’s redemption to Riley’s the series is able to get away with the easy answer that people can and do get better. That’s not nearly as profound as Angel’s life lesson, but this episode’s still able to make it feel satisfying, and that’s impressive.
As readers should be aware, I’m a fan of Riley Finn. As a beau for Buffy, not so much, but as an interesting addition to the cast, definitely. That’s why his departure, necessary and entertaining as it was, left a bit of a sour taste. It certainly made sense, given where the character was, but it’s very rare for us to see a good guy depart Sunnydale worse off than when he arrived and I got the impression we were abandoning Riley’s story in the middle. Now he’s back, and it’s satisfying to know that’s he’s happy and healthy.
Buffy’s initial reaction to her ex’s reappearance is to feel even greater shame at her current situation and, on the surface, it really does feel like adding insult to injury. Since their breakup, Riley’s clearly demonstrated that he’s better off without her while it would appear that she’s far worse off without him. But appearances can be deceiving. While Buffy and Riley are in very different places right now, their respective low points are strikingly similar. When we last saw Riley her was suffering through a severe identity crisis, trapped in an unhealthy relationship, and having sex with vampires.
Details about Riley’s recovery are scant. We learn that all still wasn’t well after his chopper ride but that after some time and some love and support he was able to get himself into a better place. This isn’t a complete whitewash. Riley’s experiences have left him scarred and he seems to smile a bit less than he used to, but he more closely resembles the man Buffy fell for, the man he really is, than the one who left her. We don’t need to know precisely how he came back to himself in order to accept that he did.
When Riley tells Buffy where she is right now doesn’t change who she really is, he’s living proof. We don’t need a detailed explanation of how she’s going to be Buffy again, we (and she) just need to have faith that it’s possible. “Believe in yourself” is a rather trite solution to the problems Buffy’s faced this season, but it works because of the way this episode frames it. Buffy doesn’t need to see the whole path ahead in order to take the first step. She begins by ending the unhealthy relationship she’s in and, for the moment at least, it really is that simple.
Some might object to my characterize Buffy/Spike and Riley/Buffy, but I think it’s fair. For Riley’s part, his relationship with Buffy was unhealthy in the sense that he wasn’t getting what he needed and didn’t have the balls to end it.
I’ve focused on the positive aspects of this episode for Buffy but, from Spike’s perspective, it’s anything but. His anguished “You know what I am!” can’t help but elicit our sympathy.
I’ve gotta say, the rest of the Scoobies kinds got short shrift this episode. Probably the most significant weakness of the season is the prolonged absence of the group dynamic we once knew and loved.