Retro Recap: Buffy the Vampire Slayer S4.E22 — “Restless” (Part 1)

I walk. I talk. I shop. I sneeze. I’m gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There’s trees in the desert since you moved out, and I don’t sleep on a bed of bones.

The gang all asleep on chairs and couches

And so, friends, we come to the end of season 4. Usually, the season would be over already. The Big Bad is vanquished. Our Scoobies are victorious. They’ve sounded their victory cheer. But 4 was special, on a lot of levels. It was the first year where Whedon was relatively sure that the show would be renewed, so there was freedom to push experimental episodes (“Hush,” “Superstar,” “Restless”) and crossovers, but also where the last episode of the season didn’t have to serve as a potential series finale. So we see a shake-up in the Buffy formula. The boss fight is pushed to the penultimate episode, and the finale predicts storylines and character development where the full payoff sometimes doesn’t come for years. This is Whedon at some of his long game best.

Due to the juicy and extensive symbolism we have to work with in “Restless,” this week’s recap will appear in two parts. Part two will run next week.

Dreams serve an important function within the Buffyverse. They’re never toss-aways, never a monster of the week episode — if a dream is featured, it is either prophetic (almost every one of Buffy’s dreams) or it pushes the narrative forward. If there’s a dream, sit up and pay close attention. Something important is going to be imparted, even if it takes a couple of seasons to realize what exactly it was. We’ve already seen episodes based almost entirely around a dreamscape; “Restless” is another entry to that list.

After the defeat of Adam in “Primeval,” the gang returns to Buffy’s house to unwind. We get to say hello to Joyce, who we haven’t seen since Faith terrorized her, and we realize that Buffy hasn’t even introduced her mother to her boyfriend yet. Stupid Riley has been called away to debrief the government on the whole Frankenstein weapon debacle and Joyce is going to bed, so it’s just the Scoobies sitting down to a relaxing viewing of Apocalypse Now. (Xander got to pick the film.) They have a stack of movies, a pile of popcorn and a bunch of extra adrenaline after their joining spell, so of course they all fall asleep immediately. And here’s where we get to the meat of the matter.

The dreams the foursome experience are rich in symbolism and, in Buffy’s case, prophetic. They also pick up the tattered remains of The Yoko Factor issues, the ones the characters solved superficially with a group hug-out in The Initiative’s elevator shaft, and here provide the backdrop of insecurities and fears that the First Slayer stalks them through. Willow’s insecurity in her sexuality and identity, wrapped up in a metaphor of performance, play acting, pretending. Xander’s terror of being left behind, as everywhere he attempts to go in his dream brings him right back to his basement apartment. Giles, whose intelligence and place in the group is challenged by his “children” growing up and not needing his guidance any longer. And Buffy, with all the burdens of being The One, the inheritor of a primal force that demands loyalty to a tradition of silence, death, and isolation.

Willow:

Tara with a poem written in Greek on her naked back

Throughout the year, Willow’s deepening involvement with Wicca has served as a metaphor for her sexuality and relationship with Tara. Willow is comfortable with the metaphor — she’s happy and proud of her increasing magical abilities — but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest she’s not so comfortable with her lesbianism. It’s not so insignificant that her dream picks up in Tara’s room, where their relationship began because she was too uncomfortable to bring Tara to her own dorm room, where they would inevitably encounter Buffy. The room is dark, serene, almost womb-like. Willow paints a Sappho poem in Greek on Tara’s naked back while they discuss Miss Kitty’s lack of name. (You can view the text of the poem here.)

Miss Kitty is aggressively clawing at a ball of yarn — her black and white coloring is shot against a golden backdrop. This will be a repeated motif, with the warrior mask and rags of the First Slayer (black and white) contrasting with the wide shots of the desert (gold). Tara is concerned that Miss Kitty hasn’t revealed her name — names are important, knowing someone’s name gives you power over them in plenty of magical/mythological systems. Kitty hasn’t revealed her name to them yet, perhaps because Willow is not ready to name this part of her dream self.

Black cat against a gold background

Willow is due to go to her drama class — though she’s always feared performing in front of an audience, the significance of Willow attending a class based on hiding one’s true self isn’t minor. Willow draws back the curtain in the room, flooding it with “the harsh light of day” illuminating what was once safe and secret and giving us our first glimpse of The First Slayer in the strange desert that seems to have replaced the Sunnydale campus.

Willow shows up at the theater to find everyone already in costume and preparing to put on a production of Death of A Salesman. Riley is a cowboy. Harmony is a milkmaid. Buffy is a flapper. Willow is in her regular, season 4 hipster clothes, but everyone thinks she’s still in costume. As she fumbling tries to protest this is really her, Buffy remarks that Willow is already “in character,” suggesting that this self this “new Willow” has put forth this season is a performance. And as Giles points out in his weird pre-play speech, acting is lying and hiding: “Remember, acting isn’t about behaving. It’s about hiding. The audience wants to find you, they want to strip you naked and eat you alive so HIDE.” Willow’s family is in the front row (looking pissed) as is everyone she knows, so she better lie convincingly. If Willow is to “come out” onstage, it will be in front of an audience that is already predisposed to hate her.

Giles giving a speech to people in costume - "In just a few moments, that curtain is going to open on our very first production. Everyone Willow's ever met is in that audience, including all of us."

Confused, Willow wanders into the red curtains that separate the backstage from the audience and encounters Tara again. There’s not a lot of subtly in this symbolism — Willow encounters her female lover while surrounded by long red curtains, it’s both a womb and sexual metaphor. But Tara isn’t just her lover here, she is also her guide and part of Willow’s unconsciousness. Tellingly, as Tara and Willow stand in this highly sexualized space that exists between backstage (hiding) and onstage (out), Tara says, “If they find out, you’ll be punished. I can’t help you with that.” Willow doesn’t get a chance to choose to move forward or backwards. The safety and privacy of their conversation is interrupted by the thrusting of a knife through the curtains, and I’m pretty sure Freud has a lot to say about what just happened there.

From here, Willow is chased back to what looks like Sunnydale High School, where Buffy wants to know why Willow is “still in costume” and strips her down to the outfit Willow was wearing in “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” while Oz and Tara flirt in a class bored by Willow’s presence. She’s left exposed as the geeky, shy nerd everyone thought she was in high school, unloved, unwanted, and ignored. When the First Slayer finally attacks, she “kills” Willow by sucking her soul — the “spirit” part of the joining spell.

Willow stands at the front of a classroom

An additional note, while most of Xander’s, Willow’s, and Giles’s dreams are character studies, there are a couple of prophetic pieces throughout. One of them is Tara’s comment to Willow, “You don’t know everything about me” seems to predict the revelations of the season 5 episode “Family.”

Xander:

In many ways, Xander’s sequence is the easiest to understand, but it showcases some of the most interesting visual moments of the episode. Xander’s fear of being left behind has been hit on by several episodes this season.

His part of the episode begins back in Buffy’s living room, where the gang is watching a fake version of Apocalypse Now. The army references are heavy in this section and that shouldn’t be a surprise; Xander’s moment as “Army Guy” back in season one remains his biggest contribution to the group’s competency. Almost every plot he figures significantly in is somehow related back to the one time, three years ago, he was a soldier for a couple of hours (stealing the rocket launcher to defeat The Judge, infiltrating The Initiative, heading the attack on Graduation Day).

Xander on the green screen with Giles

Xander notices Willow convulsing on the couch (from the First Slayer attack), which indicates that the group hasn’t fully disengaged from their Enjoying. They are, asleep, a literal collective unconsciousness. There’s bleed over from their dreams, though none of them seem fully aware of it – when Xander asks what’s wrong with Willow, Buffy replies she’s “a big faker,” another link to the liar/performance/phony fears in Willow’s dream.

Onscreen, our fake solider walks and walks in front of green screened forest without getting anywhere. All the action takes place where we can’t see it, we just rely on the soldier’s cries of terror to understand that important things are taking place without his involvement — a not-so-subtle summary of what Xander feels his role is in the group. He walks and walks without getting anywhere, while others take on the important roles and he gets left behind. After Xander protests that the movie (life) gets better, Giles helpfully suggests it’s the journey that is important. At which point, Xander stands up and walks off ostensibly to find a bathroom — starting his own journey.

Joyce in a red nightgown

There is temptation first, in the form of Joyce in a seductive, red nightgown. There are some sexual undercurrents to their discussion, with Xander noticeably intrigued, but when Joyce actually invites him into her room, it’s to “rest,” to stay still. The bed, unmade, looks suspiciously like the rumpled fold out couch in Xander’s basement “apartment.” For now, he declines, wanting to “find” the bathroom.

After finding the bathroom full of Initiative scientists and soldiers ready to analyze the contents of his bladder, Xander finds himself at one of Sunnydale’s parks, where a childlike Buffy plays in a sandbox and Giles and Spike swing together. Prophetic point in Xander’s dream: Spike is wearing the same suit he’ll have on during the events of season 6’s “Tabula Rasa,” in which he believes himself to be Randy Giles, son of Rupert Giles. In the dream, Giles says Spike is “like a son” to him and is training him to be a Watcher.

Xander asks Buffy if she should be playing in the sandbox, which becomes the desert that repeatedly shows up in all the dreams. She replies that she can handle it and calls him her “Big Brother.” The moment lingers longer than it would in a regular television scene; in a lot of regards, this symbolizes what Xander desires, a family to be connected to, to be thought of as important and needed.

And then the viewpoint changes. We’re still with Xander, but he’s in his terrible ice cream truck dead end job, looking out at Xander talking to Buffy — the distance between truck and sandbox seems deceptively far.

Tara and Willow smiling seductively

In the truck, aside from Anya, who is thinking about taking up vengeance again, we find very tarted up versions of Willow and Tara, posing seductively in the back of the ice cream truck. While we watch Xander’s disbelieving face, we hear the sounds of the girls making out in exaggerated, lip smacking detail. Earlier, in Willow’s dream, her Xander said, “Sometimes I think about two women doing a spell… and then I do a spell by myself.” And we have the fulfillment of that masturbatory fantasy here — they even invite him to join them in the back of the truck, something Anya is totally ok with.

But when Xander follows them, the trail leads right back to his basement apartment. There’s scratching and banging at the door at the top of the stairs — that door leads back into Xander’s dysfunctional family home. As he says, “It is not the way out.”

When he leaves through the backdoor, he finds himself in the halls of UC Sunnydale. The interior is brightly lit in green — the view to the courtyard outside is in bright orange. The First Slayer is stalking him through the crowd, something Xander is only half glimpsing, so he’s happy to find Giles in the hallway, munching on a teacher’s apple. Giles knows what’s going on, he can tell Xander how to save himself, but when he opens his mouth, everything is dubbed over in French, like a foreign “artsy” movie. Xander’s never felt that he was as smart as the rest of the gang. When push comes to shove and his life is on the line, he can’t even understand what he needs to do.

GILES: [in English] The others have all gone ahead. Now listen carefully. Your life may depend on what I am about to tell you. You need to get to [switch to French] the house where we’re all sleeping. All your friends are there having a wonderful time and getting on with their lives. The creature can’t hurt you there.

XANDER: What? Go Where? I don’t understand.

GILES: [still dubbed in French] Oh for God’s sake, this is no time for your idiotic games!

The crowd drags Xander off, depositing him inside Apocalypse Now, with Principal Snyder playing Marlon Brando. Xander’s back in his army fatigues, and trying to justify his existence to Snyder. But as Snyder says, Xander is nothing but a “whipping boy, raised by mongrels, and set on a sacrificial stone.” Tara and Willow aren’t waiting for him. Joyce isn’t waiting for him. Buffy doesn’t need him to protect her against the monster in the desert. They are all “ahead” of him, and he’s just dead weight.

Xander in the basement, looking up the stairs

Xander flees the jungle, finds himself in Giles’s apartment where everyone ignores him, passes through Buffy and Willow’s dorm room, and finds himself again in the basement, with the monster at the top of the stairs. He’s paralyzed at the bottom landing when the figure finally breaks through — but it’s his father, listing all the ways in which Xander is a disappointment to his family. His father’s approach is threatening, truly frightening, and it seems apparent that Xander’s home life was much worse than he ever let on. But when his dad gets close, he turns into the First Slayer, who rips out Xander’s heart. Willow was the spirit. Xander was the heart.

Two down.

 

Next week: “Restless, Part 2”

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1 Comment Retro Recap: Buffy the Vampire Slayer S4.E22 — “Restless” (Part 1)

  1. Avatar of LenaLena

    The theme of naming (Miss Kitty, then later the stuff with Riley in Buffy’s dream) was always especially interesting to me in this episode, I’m glad you touched on that. This is my personal #1 favorite Buffy episode! (Though I always have to say it definitely has its share of problematic stuff, incl. huuuuge amounts of racism.) Looking forward to part 2.

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