(Actually, there is some Classics stuff in this episode. The Voyager episode... not so much).
‘Restless’ was one of three gimmick episodes in the vastly underrated fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I didn’t get into Buffy until season 4 was on BBC 2, so I have a fondness for it anyway, and I really like its lighter tone. I think long-running shows need a balance of dark and light and, if they’re going to tip a bit far one way or the other, I’d rather they favoured the light side, on the whole. I also think it does a pretty good job of looking at the scaryness that is going to uni for the first time, and I was sad that the university was so completely dropped from the later seasons (I think its good to have a mix of characters, so Buffy dropping out to join Xander and Anya in the real world was OK, but Willow and Tara seemed to almost give up on it as well).
When SFX ranked every episode of Buffy from best to worst, both the best and the worst were in season 4 – ‘Hush’ (best) and ‘Beer Bad’ (worst). I disagree with them on both counts (for best I’d have gone for ‘Becoming Part 2, with ‘The Gift’ in second place, and for worst, a tie between ‘Hell’s Bells’ and ‘Seeing Red’, both of which I refuse to watch) but it shows the mixed reactions season 4 tends to provoke. Unusually, it’s the gimmicky episodes that tend to draw the highest praise – ‘Hush’, with much reduced dialogue, ‘Superstar’ is an alternate universe episode which is quite well thought of, and ‘Restless’, an episode almost entirely made up of dream sequences with which Whedon chose to round out the season, in place of the usual massive climactic fight (shifted here to the penultimate episode). And it’s brilliant, because it’s unusual, intriguing and, most importantly, very funny as well.
‘Restless’ opens with our heroes coming back to Buffy’s mother’s house for some R&R following their latest victory over evil (I always wondered just what they do after these things). Xander’s idea of a relaxing movie is Apocalypse Now, and they all fall asleep in front of it.
The first dream we see is Willow’s. And – yay! – it opens with an actual Classics reference! Willow and Tara are in Tara’s room, and Willow is painting Tara’s naked back with Greek poetry. The poetry she is writing is Sappho’s 'Hymn to Aphrodite' (Fragment 1 of Sappho’s works – Willow is soon going to run out of space if she wants to copy the whole works). Sappho is one of the absolutely miniscule number of pre-Christian female writers whose work has survived (in fragments; the other reasonably well known woman, also a poet, is Sulpicia) and is the most famous, known for her love poetry addressed to women (hence ‘Sapphic’, and ‘lesbian’ is derived from the island of Lesbos, where she lived). Aphrodite is the goddess of love, so this is a particularly appropriate poem for Willow and Tara, beautifully rendered in capital letters, the way ancient Greek is preserved on papyrus fragments (before it is edited into something much easier to read!). Willow explains how safe she feels with Tara, but she is soon on the move, taking part in a bizarre production of Death of a Salesmen. Whedon has gone on record as saying that everything in ‘Restless’ is symbolic of something, except for the fabulous Cheese Man (‘I wear the cheese. It does not wear me’). On the DVD commentary, he explains the significance of the red theatre curtains, which are very Freudian. To be honest, I hadn’t noticed that before, and now that I know, it just looks crude and a bit icky – less subtle than Austin Powers eating a sausage. I prefer the Sappho.
You can actually read the Greek - it's very cool
If anyone can tell me what Harmony’s milkmaid outfit symbolises, I’d be very grateful!
Everyone keeps telling Willow to take her costume off, and she is confused, until Buffy rips off her season 4 hippy chick bright clothes and reveals her season 1 ‘softer side of Sears’ outfit (what is Sears? What is it’s softer side? Why do American’s find this so funny??!!) complete with season 1 longer, darker hair (which Anya refers to as 'a Greek tragedy'), in a classroom from the dearly departed Sunnydale High School. The symbolism here is pretty darned obvious (Willow is afraid everyone, especially Tara, will see through her cool new costume to the geek within). It does contain Xander’s classic allusion to the magic=sex metaphor that’s been running through the whole season though – ‘Sometimes I think about two woman doing a spell, and then I go do a spell by myself’.
Xander’s own dream has more of this delightful male obsession, as the camera swoops away from Willow and Tara’s first implied kiss to focus on Xander’s stunned face. I’m glad their first onscreen kiss wasn’t here though – much as I dislike ‘The Body’ (too depressing), their kiss there is much more touching and natural.
Xander’s dream follows Willow’s as Willow is attacked by a mysterious, savage figure. Sex is pretty prominent feature in Xander’s dream (surprise surprise) as it opens with Joyce trying to seduce him before moving to a playground where Giles and Spike are playing on the swings and Buffy is in the sandpit. Giles says Spike, rather amusingly dressed in tweed, is like a son to him and that he is training him to be a Watcher. Xander says he was into that for a while, but has moved on to other things, and he goes to join Anya in the ice cream van he has been working in – which is where Willow and Tara show up. The best bits of Xander’s dream are yet to come though, as first he finds Giles and Anya, on the UC Sunnydale campus, speaking French which he can’t understand (but which gives me an opportunity to practise, excellent) and then wanders into his own personal Apocalypse Now, with Snyder as Colonel Kurtz (which all made a lot more sense once I had seen Apocalypse Now). Xander’s dream is mostly about questioning where he’s going, since he (along with Anya) is not in college, as the girls are, and ending up back in the basement, where he is attacked by the savage figure.
Whedon explains in the commentary that the dreams are supposed to get creepier as they get along. I’m not sure if this is what he was referring to, but the beginning of Giles’ dream, with Buffy, and a watch, and Giles saying something very odd about women and men, is definitely creepy. Luckily Spike turns up pretty quickly, doing some hilarious poses for a group of photographers and admirers. Then it get even better – the undoubted highlight of the episode (apart from the Cheese Man) is ‘The Exposition Song’, in which Giles explains that their spell in the previous episode has angered a primal force, and adds a final line asking Xander to please not bleed on his couch, as he’s just had it steam-cleaned. As the savage figure scalps him (in a shot that looks just like Sylar’s MO from the much later Heroes), he realises who it is – the First Slayer, who ‘never had a Watcher’.
The First Slayer, complete with spooky skull-effect make-up
Finally, we get to Buffy’s dream, much of which foreshadows the arrival of Dawn at the beginning of the next season (not that we all knew that at the time). As Buffy wanders though the dream (they all wander from set to set, taking advantage of the layout of the main Buffy sets at the studio), she sees her mother living in the walls (which is definitely creepy) and Riley and Adam planning world domination via the medium of coffee makers that think (which is hilarious). Eventually Buffy ends up in the desert, where she fights the First Slayer, first with weird prose poetry (‘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’) and then with, you know, fists. Eventually, Buffy just gets fed up and decides to wake up, and somehow, everyone is safe.
(Pedantic whinge of the day: the spell in question names the four of them as four parts: Spiritus=Spirit, Animus=Heart, Sophus=Mind, Manus=Hand. Oh. Dear. For starters, ‘sophus’ is Latinised Greek, while the rest are Latin, and Buffy apparently incants a spell in Sumerian. ‘Sophos’ is Greek for wisdom, not mind. ‘Animus’ is a Latin word referring to the logical, rational part of the soul (as opposed to ‘anima’, the emotional part of the soul) and it can also mean ‘heart’. ‘Spiritus’ is closer, meaning breath of life or spirit, and ‘manus’ as hand is fine.)
I love ‘Restless’ I think its weird and wonderful. It was also a lot of fun, the first time round, watching it again after seeing season 5 and seeing what elements foreshadowed elements of that season.
The dreams in ‘Restless’ are all, of course, symbolic – no message dreams here. Although Whedon goes to a lot of effort to make them really bizarre, like real dreams, and includes the Cheese Man to ensure there is at least one random element, the level of symbolism in these dreams marks them out as being purely literary. They’re like puzzles for the viewer to figure out (some of which, I confess, I have yet to figure out myself – others are more obvious). ‘Restless’ is a very self-conscious piece of writing. Even leaving aside the fact that these are all dreams, and the science-fiction aspect of the concept, these are still not the sort of dreams a person might really have, even if they look more like them than a lot of fictional dreams do. They are also, since the show is technically in the horror genre, relatively creepy. This all contrasts strongly with the use of dreams in the more ‘science’-oriented Voyager – of which, more later...