I recently started watching Buffy The Vampire Slayer because I was all out of episodes of Doctor Who and I was giving myself permission to take a break from trying to solve the problems of the world and abstain from everything that was causing me anxiety. Before this month my only exposure to the show had been the pilot, which I didn’t like, so I resolved to give it a fair shake, having learned over the years that abysmal pilots sometimes yielded phenomenal shows. Fast forward to two nights ago, when I watched the finales of the remaining two seasons to keep myself from simply powering through them, as I had done with the previous five.
I’ve been lightly blogging my way through, occasionally providing commentary when the spirit moved me. Someone on the Internet wanted to know why I hated Riley Finn so much, Buffy Summers’ boyfriend in seasons four and five, so I thought I’d delve into it while the topic is still fresh on my mind.
This started when I posted a screenshot of Riley telling Dawn that “Summers women are tough” with the following message of distaste for the character:
Riley, I don’t yet know how you exit the picture, but I am going to savor your eventual departure like a fat piece of saltwater taffy or a lewd book one finds under someone else’s bed.
I hate you so much Riley. You are like a beige demon, forged in the fires of Mount Unremarkable. I hate you more than Angel.*
That line about the Summers women is from the episode “Shadow,” part of a reassuring pep talk Riley gives to Dawn at a carousel as she recounts implanted memories about her family moving to Sunnydale. These memories remind the viewer that she’s a new part of the family but also show that she has some stock in the mythology of the Summers women, that she is one, that she belongs. Partly, this scene is really beautiful because it stitches you closer to the character, the way the episode “Family” did for Tara, making her a part of the show and a part of the Scoobies.
But the ugly part of this scene is Riley making promises he cannot deliver. Even if it was exactly the right thing to say at that moment and he cannot possibly be reproached for leading with solace rather than with hard reality, what Riley is doing isn’t for her, it is for him. His conception of himself as the one that can save everyone and be the hero is much different than Buffy’s, because she’s paid a higher price for it and she’s had to do it alone. Riley shows up to every fight with a lie in his blood, the lie that if he ever found himself against the ropes he’d still be a hero. For all of their bluster The Initiative engages evil at a distance, with cages and darts and volts, which allows them to imagine they can study these creatures without ever seeing them. They refuse to understand the logic of the prisoners that they wield as weapons. For this reason it is sort of beautiful that the thing that destroys them is bred from within, made from a refusal to understand the forces they are seeking to tame and at least 17% Boy Scouts by volume.
They die because they think they know everything there is to know and Riley only survives because he hitches his star to Buffy, who doesn’t know what she’s doing and acknowledges it. The season five finale “The Gift” starts with a really simple gesture, a single slaying of a single vampire to protect one random dude. As happened a lot in the early seasons, the dude provides a way for Joss Whedon to display his Feminist bona fides by being an NPC mouthpiece, by acting as the voice of SEXISM which allows Buffy to jump through the hoops and prove she’s a righteous badass warrior chick who doesn’t need his gender bullshit, which is an important thing to do but represents a sort of diminished victory.
I was telling Jessica a few weeks ago when we were talking about an episode of Star Trek that seeing a professional woman being taken as an unquestioned authority was odd for me. The episode in question was the pilot episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Sally Kellerman guest stars as psychiatrist Dr. Elizabeth Dehner who, along with one of the crew members, is given godlike powers (which include ESP and Palpatine-esque electricity bolts.) Perhaps the most amazing part about the episode is the fact that no one questions her professional authority. She’s subject to sexism, yes, when the aforementioned crewman calls her a “refrigerator” for having a comeback for him and there is a squirm-inducing scene where she remarks that “Professional women do tend to overcompensate,” meaning they tend to stand up for themselves in order to be taken seriously. But at the climax of the episode Captain Kirk appeals to her, not as a woman (saving us the old “look inside your purse and see if there’s any compassion in there” routine) but as a professional. He tells her she’s seen the evil that is in men’s hearts, that she knows what people are capable of, and she saves his life.
Most modern television shows display their enlightenment by unleashing paper sexists at their heroine and allowing us to take the clobbering of these shadows as a triumph over sexism. Which, in the unscripted world, is too often not a douchebag saying “You can’t cuz you’re a girl” but is instead someone internalizing that belief and using their power to punish you for it. This scenario creates a false image in the culture of “What Sexism Looks Like” which men use to calibrate their understanding of misogyny. Which means anything less blatant than THAT is just the moaning of people who can’t compete AND once the show has labeled itself NOT SEXIST, it is free to deal in subtler, more insidious forms of sexism.
But Whedon shows us yet another dude who, faced with having been saved by a woman, tells her “You’re just a girl.” And instead of flexing the muscles we know she has, or taking him apart, she smiles and says “That’s what I keep saying.” She shrugs him off and turns it into a private joke, something he’ll always be denied the privilege of understanding. She’ll save you from the night terribles but she’s not going to stick around to justify or explain herself. But we know what she means, or at least we can guess at part of what she’s getting at.
Buffy is consistently called upon to do more than she can imagine possible, without running away or leaving anyone behind. But she does it while reminding you that she’s not prepared, that she doesn’t know she’ll win, but that she’s going to try anyway. The Initiative is completely different. They stack the odds in their favor, they have strength in numbers, none of them have to make any harder choices than anyone else because they work as a unit. In a thousand different ways Buffy’s world is more difficult than theirs, where even her weakest ally has to withstand everything hell provides and trust that their protector is coming for them. Zapping humanoids with electricity, capping the vampires’ teeth with behavior modification chips, keeping the knockout gun at hand — all of these things doom them because they forget something Buffy is NEVER allowed to forget, that sometimes it’s just you and someone you love and the worse thing you’ve ever faced and if you aren’t prepared for that you aren’t prepared for the sanitized version. Because if you get comfortable you won’t survive it.
The thing that I cannot stand about Riley is that he doesn’t understand his place in the Slayer’s life, and refuses to accept that he’s not the center of it. The story has to be about Riley Finn’s triumph, guest-starring Buffy Summers as the one who does the wetwork. He cannot handle an auxiliary role. To quote myself:
Riley could have looked at the situation and said “You know what? I’m going to sit down and be The Book Guy, the guy who reads about demons for my girlfriend so she’s got all the information she needs.” Or “Hey, it sucks my power was unsustainable, but I’m going to learn how to craft badass weapons, yeah! I’ll be The Weapons Guy” or even “Nobody ever vanquished the forces of evil with muscles spasms, I’m going to make sure my favorite lady stays hydrated. Just call me The Electrolytes Guy!”
But no. He decided his most valuable contribution to the Scoobies was to resent Buffy for his shortcomings and insecurities, consort with the undead, and then try to make her feel bad about herself instead of owning up to what he had done.
The loss of his unnaturally inflated power isn’t a tragedy, any more that it is a tragedy that her lieutenant, Willow, isn’t as physically strong as she is. He wants the power Buffy possesses without having paid the price for it, without considering the massive responsibility it entails. He wants the wide swath Willow cuts through people who hurt those she loves without the terrible things she must do and take into herself to earn them. He wants to show up and say “Hey. I’m a dude, my jaw’s pretty square, let’s save the world.” Every other character has dealt with the fact that they are not Buffy; he never does.
*To forestall questions: I hated Angel because his romantic tête-à-têtes with Buffy were boring. I can think of better, more complicated reasons, but that’s the one that tipped the scale of fictional character acrimony and made me wish that he’d fall down “the staircase of a thousand stakes.”