In Restless, Joss Whedon explores the fears and inner traumas of Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles; pulling them all together in an ambitious, existential, David Lynch-inspired masterpiece of hints and foreshadowing of the future, as well as a story that speaks volumes about where the four characters are at, both emotionally and physically, at this point in time.
Divided into four self-contained acts, we are thrown into the psyches of our four leads, and the only fair way to critique them all is to analyze their meaning. We open with Willow's dream, an elaborate horror story in which she's late for a school play and doesn't know her lines. The tone veered from sucker punch horror to absurd comedy ("Your whole family's in the front row and they look really angry!"), but followed through on a theme of identity, which is understandably something Willow has explored this season. Numerous characters reference her 'costume', and the awkward nerd that's buried beneath. The 'costume' could also be referring to her sexuality, but in general it's a commentary on her evolution over the years. At the same time, Oz is a permanent fixture in her mind ("I've been here forever"), despite Will being in love with somebody else.
Xander's dream is both silly and horny, as well as meaningful and enlightening. He fantasizes over Joyce, is intrigued by Willow and Tara's lesbian relationship, and reduces many of his friends to one-note caricatures (Anya: ex-demon; Giles: know-it-all). But there's also that real sense that he's stuck in a rut, going nowhere fast. He watches from afar as he works in an ice cream truck, and feels shut out when even Spike appears to have evolved into something far more noble and interesting. At the same time, he can't understand the mythology, Giles speaking literally in French when he tries to explain what is happening. Like Willow's dream, there's still that absurd streak (notably the blurring between his dreams and the movie he's watching in reality), but the tone is far darker than act one.
Giles' psyche is filled with regret and longing. He feels as if he's missed out on a life of his own, his relationship with Olivia having fell apart and Buffy 'growing up too soon'. Buffy is child-like and vulnerable here, while Xander and Willow both drown out his singing, implying that his new hobby hasn't garnered the attention he'd assumed it would have. But in the end, whatever his regrets, his subconscious feels compelled to solve the mystery, and it's hinted that Giles knows his place in the story.
Buffy's dream is the most notable in implying that something is coming. Without going into spoilers for next year, it's primarily evident that major events are right around the corner. Buffy has upset the slayer lineage, she feels drawn to the bed in her old bedroom (the one Faith helped her make), and is alerted once again to Faith's '7-3-0' reprise in Graduation Day. Meanwhile, her personal life has been shaken up. She acknowledges how she has ignored her mother this past year, while she suddenly sees Riley in a whole different light. It's also interesting that Tara is depicted as a conduit of sorts here, relaying information from alternate worlds and times, perhaps because of her own power and identification with the magical world.
In the end, the First Slayer protests that each slayer must walk alone, and the spell last week tarnished that lonesome power. It's what the show has always been about, the disparity between Buffy as a warrior and Buffy as a normal young woman. Her human emotion has been her greatest weakness, as well as the source of her power. It's a theme that'll continue to run throughout the remainder of the series.
It's important to mention that Whedon directs this episode with a gorgeous, cinematic flourish, and it's no surprise that he has segued into features in recent years. There are so many great ideas at work here, from the black-and-white Spike scenes to the jittery blue-screen in the ice cream truck to the inverted colors when Buffy covers her face in mud. I'm especially a fan of the slow pan across Joyce while her dialogue plays over her in voiceover. It's such a surreal, dream-like effect, and totally haunting. Additionally, I also loved how characters literally crawl from one set to another, finally a great use of the fact that all the Sunnydale sets were piled on top of one another in reality.
Restless is a masterpiece, continuing this season's unusual recurring theme of insanely powerful standalone hours surrounded by underwhelming arc plots. As a viewer, it helps to be aware of the themes of the series and the characters (it's also worth re-visiting after you've watched the whole series), but on its own it's still an absorbing and visually beautiful series classic. A+
Guest stars Kristine Sutherland (Joyce Summers); Amber Benson (Tara Maclay); Mercedes McNab (Harmony Kendall); David Wells (Cheese Man); Michael Harney (Mr. Harris); George Hertzberg (Adam); Emma Caulfield (Anya); Seth Green (Oz); Armin Shimerman (Principal Snyder)
Writer Joss Whedon Director Joss Whedon