I know I’m going to ruffle the feathers of a few Buffy snobs when I choose to write about an episode in Season 4 that is not “Hush,” but this series is called “My Favorite Patrols,” not “The Objectively Best Patrols,” so sit down.
This season is one of the best of the series. The transition from a high school setting to a college one doesn’t always work with a hitherto static cast of characters — especially in a show that relies so much on comedy — but in Buffy‘s case the Scoobies’ graduation probably saved the show from stagnation. The characters had long since outgrown the storytelling confines of primary education, and freeing them up to larger portions of the real world allowed them to grow and morph in delightful, disappointing, and even terrifying ways.
But what really sets this season apart, what makes it first in my affections, is a finale that makes absolutely no sense in context with pretty much the rest of the series. It marks a change from traditional season setups, where the finales are usually reserved for the height of action and drama. Instead, “Restless” serves as something of a debrief, space for the characters to relax from the last episode’s hijinks and for the writers to set up major themes to come in Season 5. (Game of Thrones has, notably, picked up on this format.)
“Restless” takes place after Buffy and company have defeated Adam, the Frankensteiny cyborg whose menace overshadowed the latter half of the season. Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles recover from a marathon of violence by watching Apocalypse Now at Buffy’s house. Despite claiming that they’re still “too wired” from a spell performed in the previous episode that essentially merged all their energies into Buffy’s Adam-dispatching body, the four promptly fall asleep as soon as Xander pops the VCR (ah, quaint) into the deck.
We transition into Willow’s dream first. She’s painting Greek words (Sappho, apparently) onto Tara’s naked back in her dorm, while their adopted kitten plays with a ball of red yarn. They speak in the language of dreams, in disjointed streams of sometimes metaphor, sometimes pure nonsense.
Willow walks to the window, which is obscured by heavy, red curtains — not unlike those of a theatre stage. She parts the curtains to reveal a wild, desert landscape out the window. “It’s so bright,” Willow says, a hint of nervousness in her voice. “And there’s something out there.” We cut to a jumpy, disconcerting sequence of an unidentifiable creature creeping through the brush, and then cut back to a slow-motion shot of the adorable kitten walking towards the camera. Ominous music plays throughout both of these shots, and we wonder, “What does this kitten signify? Why doesn’t she have a name yet?!?!”
Willow then relives a series of high school anxieties: she arrives to what she thinks is her first-ever drama class, only to learn that they’re about to perform a play in front of everyone she ever knows. Buffy remarks that her “costume” is perfect, though she’s wearing normal clothes. Later, she reads a book report in front of her classmates, who snigger and roll their eyes at her, calling her “tragic.” This is where the creature from the desert attacks Willow, and we see enough of it to learn that it’s human, though wild and savage. It feasts on her neck, draining the life force from her. When we cut to the sleeping figure of the real Willow, we see that she’s gasping and choking.
Xander’s dreams are equally obvious in relation to the character’s current (and past) anxieties. There’s a Mrs. Robinson-esque encounter with Buffy’s mother, a panel of men in lab coats and military gear surveying him while he tries to go to the bathroom, and an ice cream truck that he co-owns with Anya, where he tells her his life feels directionless and where he indulges in some voyeuristic enjoyment of Willow’s sexuality.
There are other, less obvious but much more enjoyable scenes, like when he comes out of his house to find Buffy sitting in a sandbox while Giles and Spike, both in tweed, swing on a child’s swing set. (“Come on, put your back into it!” Giles calls, chipperly. “A Watcher scoffs at gravity!”)
In this dream, no matter where Xander turns, he always seems to end up back in his basement, where there’s an ominous scratching and pounding at the door upstairs. After a strange detour through a recreation of Apocalypse Now, Xander is once again in the basement. His father, who has been the source of the knocking and banging upstairs, comes down to verbally abuse him and then tear out his heart. Back in the waking world, Xander shows the same signs of distress as Willow.
Giles’s dreams are next, and center predictably on his anxieties around Buffy. (She drags him through a carnival, clad in overalls, and he scolds her technique as she lobs dodgeballs at a carny dressed as a vampire.) As Giles is very clever, his subconscious picks up on two key truths: one, that his fatherly desire to protect Buffy at all costs may in fact be hindering her growth as the slayer, and two, that a primeval dream beast is going to be attacking Buffy next. He relates this second revelation to us in song, serenading Xander and Willow from the stage of the Bronze:
I’ve got to warn Buffy.
There’s every chance she might be next.
And Xander, help Willow.
And try not to bleed on my couch,
I’ve just had it steam cleaned.
Xander and Willow hold up lighters as they flip through ancient books, Xander’s enormous chest wound from where he recently had his heart ripped out oozing appreciably.
When Giles is distracted by a cord and follows it backstage, the monster is waiting. He figures out what — or who — it is, just in time for it to leap down from the ceiling and attack. Giles insists that he can cripple it with his intellect, that it underestimates him because “of course, you never had a Watcher.” Blood drips into his eyes as the monster, what we now know to be an ancient Slayer, cuts into his head.
Buffy’s dream doesn’t get to be as dreamlike as the previous three: the viewer has figured the game out at this point, and through some magical shared consciousness, Buffy knows that her friends are in danger and that she’s here to save them, not parse Jungian symbols. Also, there’s the added bonus of Tara following her around, serving as a sort of ambassador for the First Slayer and saying a bunch of creepy things
Early on, Buffy asks Tara what’s going on. “You think you know what’s to come what you are you haven’t even begun,” Tara says. Creepy. Buffy leaves to find her friends, and Tara says, “Be back before dawn.” This is one of the more overt instances of foreshadowing in the dream, hinting at the appearance of Buffy’s inexplicable sister, Dawn, at the beginning of the next season. This scene is followed immediately by Buffy finding her mother living in the walls of UC Sunnydale, where she’s just made lemonade and is learning to play mah-jongg.
The brilliance of this episode is how faithfully it follows dream logic. Some scenes and bits of dialogue carry immense weight, either portending an upcoming doom or linking characters to past versions of themselves and their anxieties. Other scenes are simply bizarre, the unconscious mind finding a way to pass the time.
Aside from the few disparate clues about Dawn’s appearance in the next season, the dreams in this episode don’t tell us more than what we already know: Willow is insecure about her identity as a lesbian and as a witch, Xander is insecure about his value to his friends (and generally immature), Giles frets about Buffy a lot, and Buffy wants to live for more than just killing evil. But the dream format allows the show creators — and the viewers — to explore these inner conflicts beyond the confines of linear story development and sensical dialogue. This is a difficult pace to maintain, though. When you have only 45 minutes to tell a complete story (and to introduce major themes for the next 22 episodes), you want every scene and conversation to pack meaning.
Perhaps it’s Whedon showing off, then, when he pairs almost every portentous moment with one of meaningless entertainment. After Willow first spots the First Slayer, we get a drawn-out shot of her kitten. Giles gives a half-serious, half-comedic musical performance at the Bronze, then follows the microphone cord backstage for no logical reason that we can see — it’s merely the path the dream takes. When Buffy finally faces off with the First Slayer at the end of the dream, she is briefly interrupted by the inexplicable Cheese Man, who has appeared with some arrangement of Kraft Singles on hand in every character’s dream.
“Restless” is an exercise in anti-storytelling. It presents the viewer with critical information, but disjointed, obfuscated and even ametaphoric ways. We aren’t meant to make sense of the majority of the episode, nor are the characters: their motives and actions are largely not their own. In such a character-driven show, this choice of setting could have grown stale quickly, or the writers could have fallen into the trap of saturating every scene with premonitory double meaning. But at this point, they have the network and their fanbase by the balls, and we get this strange, delirious anticlimax of a finale as a result.
If you, too, are overcome with Buffy nostalgia, check out the other posts in this series: