I’ve wanted to write this article for a few years now, but I always chicken out at the last minute. Not this time, I’m going to write it, and I’m going to post it.
When I first watched Buffy, I felt instantly kindred to Riley and it was only years later that I found out a majority of the Buffy fan base doesn’t share that opinion. In fact, there’s quite a lot of Riley hate out there.
So, I wanted to take a minute to explain my feelings. I want to make it clear that I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind and I’m definitely not here to say I’m right. I just want to add my two cents into the evolving conversation about Riley Finn’s character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Spoilers through Season 5
Times of Hurt
When Riley breaks it off with Buffy, the only thing I don’t agree with was giving her an ultimatum, but I agree and understand with everything else he says that night.
One of the things he mentions during their fight/conversation is that he was hurt when he found out about Joyce’s hospitalization second hand.
Riley: You keep me at a distance Buffy. You didn’t even call me when your mom went into the hospital.
Buffy: I’m sorry. You know, I’m sorry I couldn’t take care of you when I thought my mother was dying!
Riley: It’s about me taking care of you. It’s about letting me in so you don’t have to be on top of things all the time.
I’ve always sympathized greatly with this. Even during that part of the season, when he shows up at the hospital having just found out from Spike, Buffy doesn’t even question it. Until that moment she didn’t remember Riley, didn’t think to call him or lean on him for support. When he appeared, it was just like ‘Oh yeah, of course he showed up.’
I watched the show without spoilers and that moment broke my heart for Riley. In times of deepest hurt we reach out to those around us that are our true friends and family and in this moment Riley learned that wasn’t him.
Wanting to be There
A long time ago my then best friend told me, almost in passing, that she’d nearly cut herself last night, but had worked through it with other people in her life.
I was cut to my core. I had leaned on her for years. Called her in the middle of the night to help me through similar kinds of struggles. Nights when I thought if I were alone, I would never wake up. Nights that were darker on the inside then the sky outside.
But in her hour of need. In her hour of hurt and pain, she didn’t need me. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad she had other people in her life she could depend on. I don’t want to be, nor should be, someone’s only tie to the world.
Still, I wish I was among those she trusted to help her through the pain. I wish I could have been there to love her and stay up with her all night as she had for me. In the end though she didn’t need me as I had her.
This might seem selfish, and I agree it is, but it’s also human. Someone I love was going through a difficult time, and they didn’t want my help. We remained friends, yes, but that moment always stung a bit when I revisited it in my memoires.
Needing to be Needed
When I was in a very dark mental place, whispers of ‘I’m not good enough’ ‘I’m 23 and haven’t even kissed a guy’ ‘My body is hideous’ ‘There’s something wrong with me’ ‘I should just end it now’ pulled me into dreamless sleep night after night. I was in the midst of fighting massive suicidal depression along with combating the physical ailment of Ulcerative Colitis.
I had no job, went to school online, lived in the bathroom due to my illness, and only had one friend who lived an hour away and rarely saw.
I was isolated to the extreme and constantly found myself mentally screaming to the sky, ‘Please someone see me. See that I matter, tell me I’m needed in this world.’
Then I met someone who told me all those things. I still remember our second date. I was shaking and told him, almost verbatim, all my insecurities. He took my hand and told me he saw me.
Three weeks later I wasn’t a virgin anymore. One more week later and I didn’t have a boyfriend anymore either. I don’t regret what I did. . . not most days anyways.
Because for a minute there I felt needed. Yes, he could have had sex with any other girl, lots of fish in the sea and all that, but for one month he chose me. If I had been in a different mental state at the time maybe I would have made different decisions, but I wasn’t. I needed to be needed and for a brief time he gave me that.
Which is why I understand Riley’s seduction to the vamp nest. He knows it’s meaningless, he knows it’s not the right decision, but he also knows that on some level they need him. And the feeling of needing to be needed is very powerful and can convince a person to do things they might not otherwise.
Buffy: Fine! Tell me about your whores! Tell me what on earth they were giving you that I can’t.
Riley: They needed me.
Buffy: They needed your money. It wasn’t about you.
Riley: No. On some basic level, it was about me. My blood, my body.
For me these two mental states and situations happened years apart from each other and I honestly can’t imagine what I would have done if they had collided into the same dramatic year or couple of months.
Unlike the other Scoobies significant others (Tara as a student at UC Sunnydale and studying witchcraft and Anya in finding a place in the world by working at the Magic Box) Riley’s only purpose is to be with Buffy. He has no job, no friends of his own, no life outside of who he is with Buffy.
As Graham put it, “You used to have a mission, and now you’re what, the mission’s boyfriend?”
This isn’t a healthy position for anyone to be in, to live solely for another. So, when the military shows up on his doorstep practically begging him and saying over and over again ‘we need you,’ why shouldn’t he go?
I wish the ultimatum hadn’t happened. I wish Riley had given Buffy more time to think about it so she could have come to the same conclusion. Maybe she could have replied with something like, “You’re right I don’t need you. So, you should go somewhere you are needed.”
I asked around once about why there’s so much Riley hate and misogyny was brought up as a reason. I was shocked, I’d never seen that in him. During Passion of the Nerd’s review of season four they opened my eyes to some of the instances where it shows up in Riley. Things I’d never really given much weight to, but I’m glad it was pointed out.
For me, the important pieces aren’t about Riley’s bruised ego over his number of vampire kills or with her totally dominating him during their sparring sessions, but the fact that he chooses to stay with Buffy regardless.
I once read a quote, and I wish I could find the source, but it said, “The first thought we have is what society’s trained us to think. The second is what we choose to think.”
I think this is true. I’ve had many instances where my knee-jerk thought is something polarizing, something I’ve been trained to think. When this happens, I force myself to take a step back and remind myself of what I truly believe, not what society has taught me to believe.
Riley does this too, plus he even admits it, which is really brave. (Notice, that I was not brave enough to name what any of my knee-jerk thoughts were.)
Buffy: That’s what this is really about, isn’t it? You can’t handle the fact that I’m stronger than you.
Riley: It’s hard sometimes, yeah. But that’s not it.
Riley does feel the demasculinization that’s been drilled into him by society and then chooses to ignore it. Instead he says Buffy is amazing and I don’t need to be “the big strong man.” I don’t want to rescue her, I just want to feel desired by her.
I have a feeling many may disagree with me and that’s alright. I welcome disagreement and would love to read your thoughts on his character if you’d like to share. I’m excited to watch TPN’s season five review and find out if I change, preserve, or addendum my feelings about Riley Finn.