Jayne Nelson argues that Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s human boyfriend wasn’t just an annoying stopgap between two vampires
Case for the prosecution: Your Honour, we present to you Riley Finn from Buffy The Vampire Slayer . In a show with an ensemble cast that gelled together like, uh, gel, Finn stood out like a very tall sore thumb. He was there for one reason and one reason only: to provide Buffy with a love interest after she broke up with Angel. Other than that, he was pointless. Useless. A waste of space. Not so much the “life of Riley” as the “non-life of Riley”. Try to defend him! Go on! You can’t. The big galoot was a non-entity from start to finish! And so the prosecution rests its case.
Case for the defence: Hmm, the prosecution sounds rather bitter and twisted if you ask us, M’lud. Do we sense a personal vendetta here? After all, it’s easy to hate Riley Finn based on two very fundamental personal biases:
1 Your OTP (one true pairing) was Angel and Buffy, and so anyone else showing an interest in our plucky little vampire slayer – or worse, anyone she shows interest in who isn’t Angel – is worthy of hatred.
2 You fancy Buffy and don’t want anyone sweeping her off her feet because you fantasise about doing it yourself.
Honestly, M’lud, how can you take any anti-Riley objections seriously when they’re so petty? This isn’t anything to do with the character himself – it’s to do with jealousy, pure and simple!
Prosecution: The defence would be wise not to call us “jealous”, seeing as actually we were rooting for Buffy and Spike to get it together and we don’t fancy Buffy at all, thank you very much. Harrumph.
Defence: Point conceded. In that case, what we have here is the third personal bias:
3 Change is bad! We fear change! We feeeeear it!
Let’s lay out the evidence. After three years of a show set firmly within the confines of a high school and focusing on the relationship between Buffy and Angel, suddenly the school was a burnt-out wreck, Buffy was at college and Angel had skipped off to Los Angeles to run a detective agency. So much change all at once? No wonder some people had a kneejerk response to the different format: dislike. And Riley Finn just so happened to wander into this new environment and set his sights on Buffy – a cardinal sin! The guy never stood a chance with an audience that biased.
Prosecution: If you’re saying that we’re so shallow that we can’t handle change, you’re wrong. We were more than happy to take on board Willow and Oz splitting up, for example, and the introduction of Tara. This isn’t about the Buffy arc-plot – this is about Riley Finn being unnecessary!
Defence: Aha, but you see, he was necessary. The writers had to create him in order to flesh out Buffy’s character. She’d just split up with Angel, her all-consuming, endless, passionate, pre-destined, never-to-be-repeated true love. That’s quite a lot to get over, isn’t it? In real life Buffy would probably have fallen into a spiral of self-misery and spent most of season four being emo and moaning “Whyyyyyy can’t I have my Edward... sorry, Angel. Whyyyy?”
But no! The writers weren’t going to do that to their heroine. What she needed was a solid, handsome, 100%-NOT-DEAD hunk to sweep her off her feet. She needed to understand what a real relationship was about, not one that was so bizarre she couldn’t even sleep with her partner in case he went to his happy place and spent the next few months wearing leather trousers and ripping the heads off all her friends. She needed an all-American jock from an ordinary place like Iowa in order to experience an honest, real romance.
Defence: But you forget what the show was about! Joss Whedon wanted to explore all the things that make young life hell, and he’d been doing a grand job so far. Where’s the drama in leaving Buffy single? She still had things to learn! That’s why she slept with that idiot Parker just after starting college – it was to show her (and, by extension, us) what the real world of dating is like. This is a girl who can strategise and fight, snap a vampire’s neck in the blink of an eye and save the world, but she can’t spot a loser until after they’ve done the dirty and he’s bragging about it to all his friends. Then along comes a dependable, decent guy like Riley (who, incidentally, defends Buffy’s honour by punching Parker’s lights out) to prove that not all men are bastards.
Prosecution: Except that Riley was actually a highly-trained supersoldier for a secret government Initiative. He lied to her from the get-go – how does that make him “decent”?
Defence: Hey, she lied to him, too. She didn’t slip the fact that she was a Slayer into the pillow talk for ages. Secrets were a matter of necessity in both their lives, but eventually they both came clean. Later, when it became helpful to have someone else on her side to fight the bad guys, Riley stepped up and they became a team. In its own way, that was kind of romantic!
Prosecution: Ah yes, the whole “Initiative” thing. It always seemed to us that Riley was made part of the Initiative just to make him seem more interesting.
Defence: And you’re implying it didn’t work? Pish! Of course it worked! The Initiative was a fascinating idea – again, it was a way of bringing the “real world” into Buffy’s life. Let’s face it, if vampires and demons really were running around our planet, don’t you think there would be a government agency set up to investigate them? It makes perfect sense! And having Buffy rubbing shoulders (and, er, other things) with the military was genius. How else do the writers show that she’s the Chosen One and a true kick-ass heroine except by showing how she could outfight a bunch of trained (male) troops?
And Riley’s position in that regime was an intriguing one. He’d been tampered with to make him stronger and faster, which meant that by the end of season four, he was technically as much of a monster as the things Buffy hunted. Someone who’d been the “anti-Angel” through most of that year suddenly flipped over into being something she was more familiar with, and yet they stayed together because he went back to being normal.
Let’s not forget, too, that he proved how much he loved her by ripping his own chest open. Kudos! And, ewwww...
Prosecution: M’lud, we’d like to leave season four behind here and mention the other thing we hate about Riley Finn – the fact that in the fifth season, he started frequenting icky bars and allowing female vampires to drink his blood. Not only is this gross, it’s also a hugely unlikeable character trait. You can’t defend that, surely?
Defence: To be fair to Riley, the writers spent a lot of time showing how he was gradually sidelined by Buffy until he felt worthless and directionless. In a straight drama he’d probably have become an alcoholic; because this is a supernatural drama, he turned to something darker and edgier involving vamps. It’s just the way the show worked.
Prosecution: And that’s your defence of his actions?
Defence: It’s not a defence. But before you go all high-and-mighty and “how could he?”, please remember that Buffy and Spike went on to have a relationship. Spike . The serial killer, the vampire without a soul at this point, and the guy who’d been trying to kill Buffy for years. She’s hardly a paragon of virtue herself, is she?
Prosecution: Okay, we’ll give you that. But we raise one final point, M’lud: Marc Blucas. He couldn’t act.
Defence: Oh, piffle. Now you’re just desperate; he did a great job with the material he was given. Remember his adorable first line, “I forgot my manners in all the concussion – I’m Riley”? He delivered it so well, and firmly kept up that level of charm and affability. And hey, you think he can’t act? Check out the work he’s done since! The guy’s been working steadily and has popped up in everything from House to the Tom Cruise blockbuster Knight & Day . He’s more than just a pretty face, we’ll have you know.
Most of all, Riley was more than just Buffy’s boyfriend: he was an important step in making her grow up and face the world – the real world, not just the supernatural one she faced every day. Therefore, in our opinion, Riley Finn more than deserves another chance.