It’s not about him. It’s about us. You’re getting stronger every day, more powerful. I can’t touch you. Every day, you’re just… a little further out of my reach.
“Out of My Mind” is a little workhorse of an episode, not as flashy as some of the other season 5 entries, but a solid entry in the canon. Its main concern is the growing rift in the Riley-Buffy relationship, but that often gets overshadowed by the second half’s Spike distraction, and the concluding nightmare. More so than any of the other season, these season 5 episodes lead directly into each other, with the theme of each determined by the concluding notes of the previous.
Last week, at the end of “The Replacement,” there’s a heartbreaking little exchange between Xander and Riley, in which the later admits how much he loves Buffy, but that he knows she doesn’t love him. Immediately after Riley avoids man-crying — you can kind of see his jaw twitching — Buffy enters the scene, glowing and happy, and kisses Riley. You couldn’t tell she doesn’t love him by looking at them, for sure.
But that’s where we are here in “Out of My Mind.” Riley’s so afraid of losing Buffy that he’s inserting himself into places where he used to belong instead of accepting that his circumstances have changed. He shows up on patrol, attacking vampires that Buffy already had under control, making sure that she sees how strong and manly he is. Did I mention he’s strong and manly? He is very strong and manly. Buffy’s attempt at hiding how much this concerns her is undermined by Spike — also on his own demon killing mission — who has always been very adept at spotting truths no one wants to admit to.
Later, when Buffy sees the training room that Giles and Xander have built for her — something that obviously touches her, since Giles outfitted this especially for her journey before he even finished building his own store — Riley is quick to horn in on the moment, trying to engage Buffy in some sparing when she was having a, you know, a moment. There’s something very eager-dog-sad about Riley’s behavior. I don’t want to feel bad for Riley because he’s ugh-Riley, but his desperation to please and connect is so uncomfortable.
It’s worth nothing that all of Riley’s attempts to “connect” with Buffy are completely physical. His attempt to spar with her. His hunting. Their very vigorous love making. It’s obvious that the Slayer side of Buffy overwhelms all of her other traits in the way he views her. Which begs the question — if the demon from last week had succeeded in separating out normal-Buffy and Slayer-Buffy, would Riley still have loved normal-Buffy? Maybe he would have, since he could find himself on more familiar footing, the more powerful ex-soldier with a petite ex-cheerleader girlfriend. Instead, he’s the less powerful one, the “woman” (see his uncomfortable joke in bed, after Buffy says she has the strength of ten men), and he can’t quite let go of it.
Have you ever had one of those internal dialogs with yourself where you predict how both sides of a conversation with a friend will go, and you get angry about your imaginary fight, but the next time you see the person you’ve sort of forgotten you didn’t actually have a fight with them, but you’re all pissed off about it anyway? Riley’s doing this with Buffy. He’s struggling so much with his own identity and his feelings of worthlessness after losing his defining “thing” — monster fighting super commando — that he’s already decided that Buffy sees him this way, and he’s predicted out how she’s going to leave him, because she can’t possibly love someone weaker than she is. Because in Riley’s eyes, weaker means less than. Never mind that Buffy loves plenty of “regular” people — Giles, Joyce, and Xander to name a couple — and has dated plenty of regular guys. Riley’s living in a future where she’s already dumped him.
Late in the episode, Riley more or less admits to this. We’ve discovered that the unusual energy Riley’s been displaying is an unspecified and dangerous side-effect of the experiments Maggie was doing on him. Buffy asks the Initiative for help. Instead of going with them and keeping his heart from exploding, like a reasonable person, Riley hides from them. There’s the completely logical “why should I trust the government after everything it did to me” part of this decision, but let’s not ignore that the other part of it was Riley’s fear of losing what little power he still has left. And when that goes, he thinks Buffy will too. It’s interesting to note Buffy’s reaction. Previously, I had sort of assumed that what Riley says in these two episodes are true — Buffy doesn’t really love him, she just thinks she does. But I’ve completely come around on it. Buffy is entirely capable of loving people who aren’t dark (at least at this point in the series, I think she loses this ability as the show progresses). She’s not lying to him. She loves Riley, and she won’t stop loving him just because he’s a mortal. But she might stop loving him if he won’t stop pushing her away.
Riley gets his “thing” fixed after some distractions involving Spike kidnapping his doctor and trying to force him to remove the chip in Spike’s brain. There’s a humorous fight. Harmony is involved. Spike doesn’t get his chip taken out. We never find out what Riley’s “thing” is, but it looks like it required some surgery around the site where Riley pulled his chip from. Buffy has to leave him at the university hospital (in the care of the Initiative, which seems a bit tone deaf) to go check on her ill mother. Graham takes advantage of his alone time with Riley to really hammer at his former friend’s insecurities.
Graham: It’s a good thing Buffy found you when she did, ’cause you were about to detonate big-time. Always said she’s pretty impressive.
Riley: You know, she really is.
Graham: But you know you don’t belong here, right? This town? I mean, you’re nothin’ here.
Riley: Hey. What are you saying?
Graham: Come on, man. You know it’s true. There’s nothing for you here.
Riley: There’s her.
Graham: Okay, right, there’s her. And? You used to have a mission, and now you’re what? The mission’s boyfriend? Mission’s true love? You belong with us.
Speaking of closing scenes leading into big emotional plot points in coming episodes, Spike has a nightmare/fantasy of Buffy coming to kill him in retaliation for the whole doctor kidnapping thing that culminates in Spike ripping his shirt off and admitting he’s in love with Buffy. Have a fan handy for when you watch this one because, oh my, the vapors!
- One of my favorite moments in the episode is how insulted Spike looks when Buffy says she’s grossed out by watching him taste his own nose blood. His “It’s blood! It’s what I do!” comes off so wounded.
- Harmony takes up smoking because that’s what villains do, but she’s smoking Lady Slims.
- This is our first introduction to Ben of Ben-and-Glory fame as the intern assisting on Joyce’s case.
- Right before Joyce passes out, she looks right at Dawn and asks, ‘Who are you?” They’re teasing out the Dawn thing in excruciating dips and drabs.