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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

For the Love of Riley

Monday 12 September 2011, by Webmaster

Riley. Just two syllables, but concatenate them in that particular order, and you’ll cause a rash among a surprisingly large number of the more civil of Buffy aficionados. Among the less civil, you’ll be the proud recipient of linguistic eruptions of a particular and unenviable nature, although if you’re into safety, you can cover your momentary lack of taste by tacking on a different last name, and then turning the subject of conversation to either Angel or Spike.

And why shouldn’t people complain? Let me get to that in a moment.

First, let’s look at the introduction of Riley Finn.

One, he appeared in the meandering and directionless fourth season. While many episodes of note—well, one at least (“Hush,” 4-10)—made their debut in season four, possibly the worst of the Buffy episodes to date also called it home (“Beer Bad,” 4-9). His initial introduction—as the target for a large number of falling books—went without a hitch, as did saving Willow’s life, and he sealed the “all good” vignettes with a direct punch to the loathsome mouth of Parker, a boy who slept with Buffy and dumped her after his one-sided one-night stand.

How could it have gone wrong from there?

Well, actually, it goes wrong from way, way back.

The Scoobies were misfits. They managed to be cute without projecting cute (Alyson Hannigan. Sarah Michelle Gellar. Need I say more?); Alyson Hannigan was the nerd’s nerd, Nicholas Brendan’s Xander was the witty pop-culture guru who couldn’t get a date with something that wasn’t trying to eat him or his friends, and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy, although beautiful, was considered too weird for words. The Scoobies were misfits.

People seemed to identify with that.

Hell, I did.

Self-confidence changed the Scoobies slowly but surely—it does that in real life too. Saving the world a few dozen times or more tends to make the little things in life less and less important. But this growing self-confidence is problematic because it conflicts with the major theme of the first three years of the show: that horror is a metaphor for life, especially among outsiders, underdogs, and people who go unheard in the halls of comfortable authority. Buffy, Xander, Willow, Oz, and even Cordelia survived all of this at a point when Joss Whedon’s metaphor had just hit the shoals with the benefit of a dim and shaky lighthouse of dubious intent. Sort of like this metaphor just did.

Riley Finn was parachuted into the archetypal Buffy landscape when he very clearly had no such outsider archetype to anchor himself to.

On top of that, he was delivered into the arms of Buffy, a woman who had just lost the Love of Her Life. The end of season two—the death of Angel—marked the coming of age of the Slayer. It’s hard to die in the line of duty, and she did that so perfectly in “Prophecy Girl” (1-12) it broke my heart to watch her take that final step.

But as much as that moved me, “Becoming: Part Two” (2-22) was the true heart-stomper, because if Buffy could kill in the line of duty, she stood on the precipice of a much, much more difficult act: to kill someone who you are so certain—especially at eighteen—is the love of your life. It’s possibly the most dramatic and moving season end I’ve ever seen.

Nothing that Riley Finn could offer her could come close to that because, for one, he wasn’t attempting to destroy the entire world.

Any growth that could come out of the relationship with someone like Riley is a quiet growth.

David Boreanaz should have stayed dead, and would have if it weren’t for his following in television land. The sacrifice of Buffy’s love for him was an act of duty, and the certainty of its necessity, along with the pain of the loss, would have meant so much more in the context of a permanent death. But hell, if Marvel could bring back Jean Grey, writers can do anything.

So, for no reason whatsoever—certainly none that was given an onscreen explanation in anything but a cursory and ill-conceived way—Angel was unceremoniously dumped back in the lap of our heroine, a loose end that was handled with less grace than even television dictated.

And because of this, he lingers like shadow in the myth of Buffy. People even now want them to get back together because they feel that they’re fated for each other. I suppose killing a person does that.

I’ll confess up front that it was the episode “Angel” (1-7) that first drew me to Buffy. I was sick as a dog, and I caught the last twenty minutes of that episode. Being a fan of Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, and a host of other similar tales, it intrigued me. But it was the next episode I watched that sold me on the series: “When She Was Bad” (2-1). This showed that fear and reaction—to death, admittedly something pretty severe—could change the character; that in the Whedon universe, experience counted. Angel figured prominently in both. I thought SMG was fabulous; I thought DB was worthy of Babylon 5. (I’ll get hate mail for that, if it’s taken in the proper context, but I digress again.)

SMG carried the weight of their on-screen romance; she projected vulnerability and confused desire in a pitch-perfect way.

I believed in their doomed-from-the-start romance. Isn’t that almost the point of it? We almost always believe most intensely in the earliest of our romances, those relationships that are built on air and hope and insecurity and the inability to actually see what we are because we haven’t become it yet.

It’s the time of life when we confuse love and longing, and believe that they’re the same thing. Joss Whedon, fashioning his darkly comedic drama from those early years, brought back this emotional intensity with his gifted cast. Angel was the boyfriend that you sleep with only to discover the morning after that he’s really a jerk. And you want desperately to somehow get an explanation that will make him not be that jerk.

High-school Love.

But Joss didn’t stay a high-school student forever.

And neither did I.

What cured me of high-school intensity was experience. I’m not a great believer in pain. I’m not in favor of self-inflicted wounds, although in other ways I’m not terribly militaristic.

Spike is, sadly, another High-school Boyfriend.

All that snide, clever sniping? All that posturing, all that heavy coolness that someone like Spike exudes? Those are high-school things. Attractive, yes, because at that time, and in that place, they speak of power—of those things that aren’t our parents or our brothers. Rebellion is always attractive.

But in the end, the little things whittle away at the core of emotional belief, embittering love—which is often fragile in the early stages. Posturing almost by its very nature excludes the type of vulnerability, the type of risk, that honesty requires.

And it’s my belief that without it, there is no lasting relationship.

Riley Finn, as introduced, was the antithesis of Angel. Fair, where Angel was dark, directed where Angel was directionless, and focused where Angel was scrambling to redefine himself. Riley was the “nice” boy. The boy next door.

Big crime, that.

Riley Finn was—until the experiments of the Professor came to light— normal. And nice. The type of person who no doubt belonged to a Boy Scout troop, possibly even leading it. The type of guy who gets straight As, not because he’s a quirky, insecure genius, but because he works at it. The boy who doesn’t get wildly drunk, doesn’t experiment with drugs, doesn’t spend his adolescence experimenting on the fringes of a law he doesn’t care for because he doesn’t feel like being told what to do.

He is also the type of person who helps old ladies and blind people across the street because they need help and he happens to be standing there. He holds the doors open without drawing enormous attention to himself. He’s just . . . nice.

Why is that word such a cultural epithet?

Why does it seem to lurk in collusion with normal to form an equation that says boring in the minds of so many people?

What the writers chose to do with Riley in season five was the antithesis of what he was presented to be in season four—and it was perhaps the only thing that was done that made him more palatable, barely, to the legion of people who hated him. I understood Riley’s insecurity; I understood the writer’s manipulation behind his character change.

But even in this, there was some important truth: Riley grew to understand that you cannot define yourself by love alone. It puts the weight of the relationship on the shoulders of a single person—and it takes it outside of the realm of adult interaction. He had no life, after the initiative was gone; he had—as Graham pointed out—no Mission. He was dating his mission, and in the end, that wasn’t enough.

It took him a while to figure this out. Sometimes that happens.

But I was upset when he left—not for his sake, and not for mine, but for what it says in general about our tolerance for television drama. Buffy was no longer a high-school girl. Riley was not a high-school relationship. In many ways, with his understanding, his lack of ego, the lack of baggage that he brought to Buffy, he was the type of person that exists in, and for, the long haul.

And Buffy was not allowed to grow into that. The metaphor that guided the early show failed here. She went from Angel, the HSB, to Spike, the HSB, and Riley, who treated her with respect up until the doubts and insecurities overwhelmed him, was given short shrift and shorter understanding. He deserved so much better.

Was he off whoring with vampires? Yes, maybe; he was trying to understand what it was in Buffy that was so compelled by the darkness and the need. But compare this to, say, killing everyone in sight for the sheer fun of it—all arguments of soul or no soul aside—and I think he still comes out on top. Because in the end, he’s still dedicated to saving the world. He’s not lost in the insecurities and the clinging of the strictly emotional life: he’s moved on, found his place, found his calling. Did he come to Buffy to rub her face in it? No. He came because he trusted her, respected her ability, and needed help in something that he considered a mutual goal.

Of the three boyfriends to date, Riley Finn is the one most worthy of respect.

Let me offer a quote from Patricia McKillip’s excellent Forgotten Beasts of Eld, not just to be literarily pretentious, but because it’s so true: “I am a child because I did not care what either of you did, only that I loved you.”

A child’s love is undiscerning. Adult love is not. Unconditional love is something that every child wants—and often unreasonably so. Most adolescents want it as well, although they call it something different. They want to be special. They want to feel special. And if someone who can’t give the time of day to anyone without kicking their shins somehow doesn’t kick yours, you often do feel more valuable. The idea that they’ll one day be kicking your shins when the novelty wears off is counter-romantic, and doesn’t bear thinking about. So it’s often either unacknowledged or unconsidered.

Riley Finn was the type of person whom you could go home to at the end of the day. Where Angel was willing to let Buffy face the Harvest alone after their very first meeting, Riley would not.

Riley tried to communicate. He tried to talk. He tried to figure out a way to make things better. He was willing to compromise.

Live with Angel? Mr. pouty? Arg. Live with Spike, Mr. I Know What You Like, Come Live In The Depths Of Self-indulgent Despair With Me Because You Don’t Deserve Any Better? Arg. Live with someone who respects you and treats you well and is decent enough to help other people, gosh, even strangers, and also has a job? Boring.

I gnash my teeth.

Whether or not this makes good television is not the nature of this discussion, although perhaps it should be; let me get to that now.

I think that more people would have accepted Riley with less open hostility had there not been so much visible sex. Tara and Willow, for obvious reasons, were handled with so much more class and subtlety; much was left to our imagination, and perhaps, conservatives that we often are, this appealed to us. The very little left to our imaginations in the Buffy/Riley bedfests were probably mandated by television censors.

Riley, outsider, pushed aside the Scooby siblings, splintering the group onscreen, and arguably depriving some of the cohort of their screen time. This is entirely realistic, but again, breeds hostility.

James Marsters once said in a interview that to get screen time you either had to be kissing Buffy or kicking her butt. Riley was chosen as the kisser—but the screen time shared was Buffy’s; he didn’t diminish what others had, because he had become the focus of her life at that time.

When Spike took his place, this was considered interesting, daring, innovative, dark. That there were whole episodes with very little of the rest of the Scoobies was hardly decried at all.

But Riley was an outsider. He was normal. He was well-adjusted. He was Mr. Clean. All the little endearing neuroses that defined Willow or Xander, or even the laconic Oz, were missing, as was the more comedic, over-the-top venom of Cordelia.

It occurs to me that I’ve implied that teenagers all loved Angel and Spike, and that older people liked Riley—and this is just plain wrong. There were quiet teenagers who did like Riley quite a bit, and vocal adults who hated the very sight of him. Experience strikes and changes us at different times and with different imperatives.

Would you rather fantasize about Spike? Probably.

But what I liked best about Buffy is her struggle to find and hold a moral compass in a world that had so much danger and so little belief for her. I liked best that fact that the early seasons of the show did not verge into the angst and the soap opera of so much television drama. Look at “Prophecy Girl” (1-12), one of my all-time favorite episodes. In it, Buffy is finally forced to acknowledge Xander’s huge crush, and her rejection is short, honest, and uncomfortable; his graceless acceptance of it is also short, honest, and uncomfortable. Whedon’s humor was evident throughout—and a clear signal that the humor came from pain. But everything about that situation was believable, and none of it was self-indulgent.

Spuffy—as Spike/Buffy are often called—changed all that.

Riley Finn didn’t. And had the writers carried through, above the thunder and din of unhappy fandom, I think it would have made a stronger statement and offered a stronger vision for the inevitable change from the rebel who fights just beneath the radar of authority to the woman who must become it if she’s to survive.

Riley, you’re missed.