I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
There are many beloved episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “Hush,” the silent episode; “Once More With Feeling,” the musical episode; “Beer Bad”* the episode where beer turns people into literal Neanderthals. But the scene that’s stuck with me the most is from an unloved episode that’s the culmination of a notoriously unlovable plotline: the one that gives the coup de grâce to the chemistry-free relationship between Buffy and super soldier Riley Finn.
“Into the Woods” begins with Buffy discovering that Riley has been paying female vampires to suck his blood, a plot development so embarrassing that, in fact let’s hurry past this and never mention it again. Scenes ensue in which characters tediously theorize about what made Buffy and Riley’s relationship so bad that he was driven to the thing we’re not mentioning. Primarily, Buffy’s assumed to still be hung up on her old flame Angel, who was tragically spun off into his own series at the end of season three. As vampire sidekick Spike tells Riley, “You’re not the long-haul guy. The girl needs some monster in her man.” In his confrontation with Buffy, Riley gives her an ultimatum: Unless she swears to change, he’s departing that very night for a secret government demon-hunting mission in Belize, “deep undercover, no contacts with civilians.”
Meanwhile, the viewer knows the real reason their relationship is doomed is that fans found Riley boring, lame, and about as sexy as hold music. He was the human incarnation of “nice, but.” Plus, shortly after his plotline appeared, it began to meander erratically — and not to fun places either. In all these respects, Riley is uncannily like a dud boyfriend in real life. Not a horrible, abusive boyfriend, just the kind who seems good on paper, but being with him is like being in a meandering subplot of a TV show’s fifth season. You may like all the same things, but when he talks about them it’s mysteriously irritating. He may be ridiculously good-looking, but when you have sex, you can almost hear a voice saying, “Your call is important to us, so please stay on the line.” There is no buzz he cannot kill: Even when he’s not there, you end up tediously theorizing with friends about what makes the relationship so bad. When he finally leaves you (somehow you will never beat him to the punch), it will mostly be a relief.
And yet, in 90 percent of these cases, you try to stop him from leaving. This is because there’s a voice in your head that tells you that the only reason you don’t appreciate this perfect man is that you’re immature and neurotic, and you better step up because this is your last chance at love. In “Into the Woods,” this voice is personified by Buffy’s friend Xander, who tells her, “You’ve been treating him like the rebound guy, when he’s the one who comes along once in a lifetime … if you’re ready for real love, think about what you’re about to lose.”
Now for the moment that’s engraved on my heart. Moved by Xander’s pep talk, Buffy sprints off to catch Riley before she loses him forever. Cue several scenes of Buffy photogenically sprinting, intercut with scenes of Riley photogenically waiting for Buffy, then photogenically giving up and turning to climb into a government helicopter. It’s the time-honored rom-com trope in which the protagonist races to the airport to catch a boyfriend/girlfriend and tell them, “I have magically overcome my commitment issues and now I realize you are the One.”
What happens next is an inspiration to everyone who’s ever been in a shitty relationship. Riley ducks into the whirring helicopter. There he sits gazing moodily into space as Buffy comes pelting into the shot. She stands just out of reach of the whirring helicopter blades, waving her arms and screaming his name. She’s ready for real love! He is the One! But — uh oh! — Riley can’t hear her over the helicopter noise. And the helicopter … just … flies away.
In that moment, every wooden moment of the episode is redeemed. Yes, the whole thing felt weirdly forced — like a bad relationship. Yes, it made you keep wanting to turn it off from profound embarrassment — like a bad relationship. The weird mediocrity of the episode is what makes the fuck this ending so cathartic.
Because — and this is why that scene has remained clear in my mind long after the guy I first saw it with is forgotten — this is how all bad relationships should end. No ugly crying and makeup sex. No reliving the worst scenes and arguing about whose fault they were. No getting back together and breaking up again. Just: helicopter. Credits. No contact with civilians.
It’s fine if (as Riley does) the boyfriend returns for a guest appearance in the next season, when you’ve had time to really not miss him. But, at the point of breakup, there should be a branch of government that flies your ex to a secret location in Belize, and leaves you to get over it alone.
*This article has been updated with the correct name of the episode.