With the season rapidly drawing to a close, this episode attempts to pull all of the various character arcs together while advancing the main arc. This more or less works, but in the process, it becomes clear that the writers were trying very hard to get the Adam plot thread to make sense. With the Big Bad of the season somewhat undermined by a lack of real forethought, the character arcs are the only saving grace of the fourth season.
The title certainly points to the return of Oz, but more so to Willow’s new direction in life. This completes the process that began with Oz’s departure in the first place, and thus gives this episode an immediate connection to the season’s theme of self-discovery. Willow realizes just how important Tara has become to her, and while that’s been growing all along, it takes Oz coming back to force her into taking the last step.
Of course, Willow’s not the only one discovering her true self in this episode. Riley more or less completes his journey from Mr. Initiative to Slayer-Junkie, something that changes his life forever. Clearly, like Willow, he realizes that his love is stronger than past loyalties that no longer hold the same meaning they once did. Buffy, at least for the rest of the season, responds to Riley’s gesture with apparent love of her own.
That’s what makes this an interesting point in the narrative. This is effectively where Willow’s character grows, adding to the long-term arc that began when she discovered that Tara could expand her understanding of magic. From a certain perspective, this apparently simple and lovely decision is actually rather complex, in terms of Willow’s psychology. She loves Tara, without a doubt, but her desire to wield more powerful magic is also a strong motivator.
Riley’s motivations are somewhat more pure (again, from a certain point of view), and yet it doesn’t turn out nearly as well. Where this is an important next step in Willow’s character evolution, Riley’s character arc is all but over shortly after his decision to go rogue. This is an example of something that the writers in the later seasons could rarely do effectively. Characters created to fit into a season/character arc for a very specific purpose were simply not viable once that arc was complete.
Tara and Riley are both examples of this, though Riley is the more obvious one. Riley was a strong character until the fifth season. At that point, his character is aimless. He’s there just long enough to serve a minor purpose in the fifth season’s theme. Tara, on the other hand, was created to fill in the space created by Oz’s departure, with the eventual intention to trigger Willow’s descent into darkness upon her death. When Tara’s death was postponed for a season (it was originally meant to happen at the end of the fifth, not the sixth), her character went nowhere for a very long time. (Similar issues would emerge for Dawn.)
The point is that this episode marks an important stage in the beginning of Tara’s purpose in the narrative, but the beginning of the end of Riley’s purpose. Both are important in the evolution of the main characters involved with them. Buffy, for instance, comes to the conclusion that Riley deserves to be told the truth about her past, and that’s an indication of her choice. It’s also another sign of her growing isolation, since she’s investing more of herself in Riley (or rather, what Riley represents in her life).
Joss made an interesting comment about Willow at this stage in her character evolution. In essence, as much as Willow later states that she’s gay and demonstrably so, that may not be the most accurate way of looking at it. Willow doesn’t come to some sudden awareness of her true lesbian persona. Rather, she becomes attracted to Tara independent of the gender issue. (That’s why the magic question comes up so clearly; without the magic connection, would Willow have found Tara so compelling?)
Tara’s character is still a work in progress, and in a lot of ways, she would never be more than a subset of Willow. But there’s an evolution of the character that’s evident in this episode. In her earliest appearances, Tara was entrenched in the pseudo-goth look, as if trying very hard to look frumpy and unattractive. As her relationship with Willow has grown, her look has softened. This process continues throughout her time on the series.
In terms of an exit, Oz left well before he was meant to go. There’s a lot of reason to believe that this plot element of the season would have played out regardless of when Oz left. That version of the story might have been a little more satisfying. As it stands, Oz is more of a plot device than a character with a particular purpose. His appearance is more about Willow than any personal growth of his own.
There’s some movement on the Adam front, but it’s largely confined to vague pronouncements of a plan and the preparations thereof. The intentional seeding of the Initiative with lots and lots of demons is a clever move, but Adam’s plan seems borne more of the need to give him a reason to stage the big battle in “Primeval” than a logical concept (and the rest of the season bears this out).
The real purpose of Adam and the end of the season is to evolve Buffy’s search for self-identity (what it means to be “Buffy”) into a search for the origins of her Chosen legacy (what it means to be “The Slayer”). This two-season arc builds on the basics established in the second and third seasons, where Buffy came to understand what it is about her world that is a strength and a weakness, all in one. But knowing that isn’t the same as coming to terms with it, and just as this season demonstrated that Buffy has a hard time defining herself, it all comes back to how much of her psychology is passed down by her Chosen destiny.
Putting that aside for the actual final episodes, this is more about the relationships and how they are ripe for manipulation. Buffy may be trying not to wig, but she is, and it’s not hard to figure out. More to the point, Willow is obviously worried about being ostracized by her friends. Xander has been on the outside looking in since the beginning of the season, his pains and fears largely unrecognized. Giles feels less like a mentor than the guy with the convenient apartment.
At least, that’s where the writers are clearly going, since all of that (and more) comes into play in the next episode. But watching this episode brings up a recurring point. When Willow needs support, everyone is there for her, even if they don’t know all the reasons why she’s upset. The whole gang is involved in the process of helping Oz and Riley. The gang might be together less than before, but there’s hardly the degree of isolation within the group that the writers want to claim.
So does the return of Oz work? In terms of pushing Buffy and Willow into decisions about their relationships, certainly. In terms of Oz and giving him a proper sendoff…not so much. There’s also a running commentary on “bigotry” against demons in general, which seems rather ironic, given how clearly defined those differences were for Buffy and the others during the earlier seasons. Whatever the case, this is a good episode that helps to pull together a number of plot threads important to the resolution of the fourth season.