This is an excerpt from ‘Never Kill a Boy on a First Date: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Fanzine’. Buy a copy for only £2.00 here.
Spoiler warning for seasons 4 and 5 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer!
Riley is the worst – bland, uninteresting, safe, and a shitty, entitled boyfriend. His story arc throughout seasons 4 and 5 can be summed up as follows: he and Buffy fall in love; shortly afterwards The Initiative collapses leaving Riley adrift without the organisation that previously gave his life structure/meaning. He is still a powerful non-superpowered fighter, but is no match for Buffy. Buffy focuses her energy on strengthening her slayer power and abilities, and her mother’s brain tumour as well as the usual saving-the-world puts some distance between her and Riley. He starts to frequent vampire brothels where female vampires feed on him. When Buffy confronts him, he argues that Buffy continually kept him at a distance and though he loved her, he couldn’t stay with her anymore if she didn’t give him a reason to. After giving her an ultimatum, Riley waits for Buffy to stop him, but Buffy arrives too late, and so he disappears to rejoin The Initiative.
There’s a thread of an interesting story there, namely: how does it feel for a non-powered mortal human to be dating a legendary superpowered warrior woman, whose peers include vampires, ex-demons, and witches, and whose current foe is an actual God? Riley has probably spent most of his life being A Big Deal, and I think it’s significant that he’s from Iowa, one of the more traditional, conservative states. He’s probably had very limited experience of physically strong female role models, and his status as an army recruit has probably elevated him in his home community as a hero and a macho tough guy.
I think this aspect could’ve been explored in an interesting way, and especially that contrast of an archetypal macho man being less of a formidable threat to the forces of evil than his pretty young girlfriend – imagine how fascinating and innovative it would’ve been to watch Riley navigate these new ideas around gender, power, and hierarchy with a woman he adores, in a group of people who regularly save the world – how he could relate his new experiences to all the cultural ideas he’d been raised with. There are so many fucked-up power dynamics within our understanding of gender, and watching a somewhat conservative white guy being forced to deconstruct these ideas would’ve been fascinating.
Instead, they chose to focus on the superficial aspects of the story – Riley feeling useless because Buffy doesn’t “need” him, feeling jealous about her ex Angel, feeling as though she neglects him on occasions when she’s too busy SAVING THE WORLD.
It’s important to note that Riley isn’t physically weak – only that he is weaker than his girlfriend. He is still a physically strong human and a fairly skilled fighter, second in the pecking order behind Buffy (not including Spike who at this point was still only an occasional ally) – and still that isn’t enough for him. He acts out when he feels physically inferior to Buffy, behaving in increasingly reckless and emotionally distant ways, as though he’s trying to prove something to himself about his masculinity. In a culture where successful manhood is defined by violence, status and aggression, Riley chooses to perpetuate these ideas instead of challenge them – and when he can’t handle it anymore, he leaves (notably, back into the arms of the male-dominated Initiative, where he’s A Big Deal again). Xander, for all his failings (and there are MANY), at least sucks it up despite being useless as a non-powered, not-particularly-strong and not-particularly-smart human.
Upon rewatching it, Buffy never once struck me as neglecting Riley. She is entirely loving with him, values his place in her life, and they have an intimate relationship, and sometimes Buffy gets insecure about not being “normal enough” for Riley – she doesn’t want him to leave her. Sometimes Buffy forgets to tell him important things (like when Joyce was hospitalised), and yeah I get how that would hurt Riley if he was already feeling insecure, but that’s his problem, not hers. It’s entirely understandable that with her mother’s illness, her newly-discovered sister’s status as a mystical key, and her new foe, the Actual God Glorificus, she might sometimes forget to send her boyfriend a text!