Mirrored Men: The Juxtaposition of Riley and Spike from `The Initiative' through `As You Were.'
It will come as no surprise to many of you to hear that of all the characters in the Jossyverse, Spike is my all time favourite. Thus it may come as a shock to discover that I don't hate Riley, it certainly did to me. For years I was firmly in the `giant hall monitor' camp, reinforced by what I believed was the weakest episode of season six `As You Were.' All this until I sat down and rewatched seasons four and five and that was when I had an epiphany. Yes, Riley was supposed to be Buffy's romantic interest, that was, ostensibly, the reason for his inclusion on the show. But what he actually does is lay the groundwork for Spike's relationship with Buffy and his subsequent redemption. Yes, you heard me. Without Riley there would have been no Spuffy, no soul and no glorious sacrifice in `Chosen.' How could I continue to hate him after that?
Let me explain.
It all starts here where we have, perhaps, the most overt example of scene mirroring between the two characters, during their respective attempts at getting `closer' to Buffy.
Willow is lying on her bed and there's a knock at the door. She says `come in' and Riley enters.
They talk; Riley acknowledging that Willow is depressed about something. Willow attempts to move Buffy's bag of weapons as Riley says he knows nothing about Buffy and confides that he needs Willow's help. Willow mentions the party at Lowell House, saying `she dragging me to this party,' expressing her unwillingness to attend. Riley ignores that being more interested in the opportunity to see Buffy socially.
Willow is lying on her bed and there's a knock at the door. She says `come in' and Spike enters.
They talk, Willow mentioning their past history with the love spell. Spike offers her the choice between death and becoming a vampire and then attacks her. The chip prevents any real damage being done and the next time we see them they are chatting, almost amiably, comforting and reassuring each other about their respective abilities as biter and bitee.
The tenor of the two scenes is, of course, completely different but the similarities are too great to be ignored. Both the males are searching for Buffy and are using Willow to get to her, neither has any interest in Willow personally. Both `abuse' Willow in their own way, Riley by ignoring her obvious pain and Spike physically/psychologically.
Willow's then makes a comment to Riley that can, in retrospect, describe equally Buffy's relationships with both he and Spike, as well as her own with Oz. "You like Buffy, she likes you. You spend time together, feelings grow deeper, and one day, without even realizing it, you find you're in love. Time stops, And it feels like the whole world's made for you two, and you two alone, until the day one of you leaves and rips the still-beating heart from the other, who's now a broken, hollow, mockery of the human condition."
However fascinating the similarities are in themselves, it is the differences for me that really mark them out. Spike, as a vampire, only knows Buffy in her capacity as the Slayer yet he has no problems tracking her down in the real world of the college campus, illustrating that, in actual fact, he knows her very well. Riley, the Initiative soldier, ignores the large bag of weapons and anything else that could give him clues to who exactly Buffy is, being far too absorbed in the protection of his undercover identity as a post-grad.
Then we have the post-bite pep talk. Unlike Riley, who, although redeeming himself slightly at the party later, effectively ignores Willow's pain, Spike attempts to offer words of comfort. Strange considering he went to the dorm to kill her best friend. It isn't easy to get around the violence of Spike's attempted murder of Willow and yet I find myself wondering which is worse. Ignoring someone's pain or inflicting pain.
I would argue that by `introducing' these two characters in such a similar fashion during the same episode, the viewer is being encouraged to acknowledge the connectedness between them. Spike knows Buffy, she had nothing to hide from him, there is no need for her to conceal her identity. As he says much later (Touched) "I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You are a hell of a woman." Riley does not know her, cannot understand her and feels distanced from her however hard Buffy tries to let him in, possibly because he does not know himself. Unlike Spike, whose assault on Willow illustrates exactly who he is, a vampire, a killer. Between Buffy and Spike there are no secrets.
Thus the battle lines are drawn. Secrecy versus honesty; compassion versus disregard. It's interesting that the vampire ends up on the human side of the scales.
There is little in this episode to further the argument, except perhaps through relative presence and absence. Thanksgiving is a time for family. Riley leaves, Spike arrives - this could be considered significant.
Riley also describes his home as a "Grant Wood painting," an artist who, it could be argued, illustrated the American frontier from the viewpoint of the incomer. Buffy, of course, finds herself faced with the results of that westward expansion, the Chumash vengeance spirit, and it is left to Spike to point out the reality of those events. "You won. All right? You came in and you killed them and you took their land. That's what conquering nations do. It's what Caesar did, and he's not going around saying, "I came, I conquered, I felt really bad about it." The history of the world isn't people making friends. You had better weapons, and you massacred them. End of story."
Again we have a counterpoint between violent honesty and passive occlusion.
In passing Buffy says something which for me foreshadows much of what is to come. Echoing Xander's words from `The Pack' (You like your men dangerous), she says, "And the thing is, I like my evil like I like my men-- evil."
Apart from being wonderful fun this episode tells us much about the expectations and commitment levels of our main protagonists.
Buffy is a romantic (Wind Beneath My Wings anyone?). She desires the white picket fence and 2.5 kids and will do anything to get them. Including being with someone who is totally inappropriate for her. In this case Spike.
Spike is also a romantic, going down on one knee to propose and giving Buffy a ring. He also shows a remarkable level of commitment to the relationship, considering he is a vampire, agreeing to help the Scoobies and calling Giles his father-in-law. An interesting insight into just how much Spike is prepared to change his nature for the woman he loves.
Riley again is a romantic, dreaming of picnics in the park and long drives but he isn't ready to face the commitment of marriage, as shown by his reaction to seeing Buffy looking at wedding dresses.
Hush through Restless
These episodes continue the themes started in the previous ones, though the emphasis shifts somewhat onto reinforcing Riley as the good guy. The scales tip in Riley's favour. As he becomes more honest and starts to realise exactly what the Initiative is up to, Spike becomes more devious and works with Adam.
Having said that the similarities are still there and are periodically pointed out. `Doomed' and `A New Man' show both men to be demon hunters and `Goodbye Iowa' forces the point home even further with Buffy's comment about Riley applying equally to Spike. "There's no way he can be. Everything he's ever believed in has been taken away or . . . He's alone. He has nothing to hold on to." `Primeval' shows they both have chips and at the end of the day, though for very different reasons, they end up fighting on the same side.
Buffy vs Dracula
At the end of season four we were left in little doubt that Riley was a good guy and Spike was a traitorous good for nothing. Buffy's dream of a `normal' life, complete with white picket fence and 2.5 kids, with Riley finally seemed to be a possibility.
However, the beginning of season five sees a sea change in the representation of these characters. We are immediately shown that all is not well between Buffy and Riley, certainly not in the bedroom. If that hunting scene at the beginning of the episode is not a metaphor for sexual frustration I don't know what is.
But that isn't all. Over the years Buffy often condemns herself for her `remarkable self involvement', this episode shows she is not alone and that Riley surpasses her in that regard. His major concern when Dracula's bite is revealed on Buffy's neck is not that she has been hurt but what the bite means to their relationship, how it effects him. Spike, on the other hand, seems genuinely concerned for Buffy's well being.
We also see the first of four face-downs between our two protagonists. Riley wins, but I would argue, at the cost of coming over as a bully, thus relinquishing some of his `good guy' status.
Out of My Mind through Into the Woods.
Starting here and for the next seven episodes I want to draw a graph, so deliberately does the character development of Spike and Riley mirror each other.
By the end of `Out of My Mind' Riley is `human' again and Spike finally admits to being in love with Buffy. Both characters move towards the human end of the equation.
In `No Place Like Home' we have the similarities redrawn, both get the brush off from Buffy; Riley for being weak and kittenish and Spike for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Our protagonists go from having a definite role (Riley - sidekick, Spike - enemy) to being functionless in Buffy's world.
`Family' gives us the same dynamic as Pangs. When the stand-off with Tara's father happens, Spike is present and Riley isn't, he's at a demon bar talking to a vampire. Spike now moves towards the human end of the scale and Riley towards the demon.
The following episode, `Fool for Love,' takes that metaphor further as Spike is revealed to be a far more sympathetic and human character than previously suggested and Riley becomes the violent, foolhardy loner.
As Joyce becomes sicker and Buffy retreats into herself, the two men's rivalry grows. In `Shadow' they face-off again and this time the result is a draw. Spike ends up thrown out of the house but Riley gets his first clue that Spike's intentions may be less than honourable. In yet another iteration of what it is Buffy wants in her men, Spike says, "Face it, white bread. Buffy's got a type, and you're not it. She likes us dangerous, rough, occasionally bumpy in the forehead region. Not that she doesn't like you ... but sorry Charlie, you're just not dark enough."
It is a low blow. One that hits home in Riley's insecurities and sends him running back to the bar and the vampire's bite leaving Buffy to cope alone at the hospital. Now, granted this statement from Spike is cruel and calculated to do maximum damage but I find it difficult to argue that it isn't also true. If there is one feature that marks Spike's character out over the years it is his brutal honesty. Admittedly it is often used sparingly and for his own gain but it is real, added to this is the fact that we have now heard three characters saying almost the exact same thing. Xander (The Pack), Buffy (Pangs) and Spike (Shadow). Unless the writers are being incredibly careless here they are trying to tell us something, possibly something Buffy does not consciously know herself.
`Listening to Fear' brings the crisis into sharp focus for the viewer. The moment when Riley enters the house and sees Buffy and Spike together constitutes the passing of the baton. Riley, desperate for meaning in his life, returns to the Initiative emotionally if not physically. Spike usurps his position as the Slayer's sidekick, physically if not emotionally.
And that crisis comes to a head in `Into the Woods,' as Riley's misdemeanours are revealed and he loses Buffy completely. It is no coincidence that it is Spike that takes Buffy to the suck house. In reality any of the characters could have discovered Riley's secret but the almost symbiotic relationship between these two dictated it had to be Spike. Only through pitting them against each other in this way could the viewer be shown how far Riley had sunk - he disgusted Spike - and how much Spike had grown - he really did do it for Buffy's own good (not that he didn't enjoy it.)
The exchange of roles continues during the face-off in the crypt as Riley acknowledges Spike's feelings for Buffy, and Spike commiserates with his rival about the end of his relationship. Spike wins this encounter hands down, there is nothing Riley can say to answer Spike's statement that, "The girl needs some monster in her man ... and that's not in your nature...no matter how low you try to go."
Buffy is still unable to face that facet of her personality and chases her dream of normality, literally, pursuing Riley across town only to arrive in time to see him leaving.
Triangle through Older and Far Away
It is difficult to compare two characters when one is missing from the show, so all we can do at this point is say that up until Smashed we see Spike become increasingly human, reaching a zenith in `After Life' and `Tabula Rasa'. In the latter we are really left to question just who Spike is. Without memories of the chip or his love for Buffy, his vampiric nature should have been in the ascendancy and yet we see someone more like William than Spike.
That is not to say Spike is `good', there are too many lapses to argue for that - getting Buffy so drunk she throws up and abandoning her to the loan shark are two that immediately spring to mind. Despite the progress he makes Spike is still one hundred percent vampire, the monster that Buffy craves.
Neither am I an advocate for Spike and Buffy's relationship, I'm not. Neither of them behaved well and it was doomed from the get go. They say that those who live by the sword, die by the sword. The same sort of thing could be said about their ill-fated relationship. It started in violence and darkness and ended the same way.
However that is not what we're discussing and is only relevant in as much as between `Smashed' and `Older and Far Away,' Spike shows an increasing tendency towards being demonic again. Personally I would argue that Buffy pushes him there by rewarding his bad behaviour, others may think differently. Whatever, the point remains, whether through concealing a body or by suggesting he eat her date, Spike slides almost imperceptibly further and further away from the difficult path to redemption he seemed fixed on before he slept with Buffy.
As You Were
We now have our protagonists back together and Spike's words from `Into the Woods' come back to haunt them both. "Sometimes I envy you so much it chokes me. And sometimes I think I got the better deal. To be that close to her and not have her. To be all alone even when you're holding her." At the time Spike was talking about Riley's relationship with Buffy but of course it also describes his, something which has become painfully clear during season six.
The method and nature of Riley's return to Sunnydale place him firmly into the category of cipher. If, before he left, Riley was the promise of the `American dream,' he is the personification of it when he reappears. Married to someone who could give the Buffybot a run for her money in the perky stakes he is successful and happy. In other words, everything Buffy isn't.
Riley's visual appearance in this episode echoes Spike's with a new scar and all black clothing, serving to reiterate, for any who may have forgotten, the close connection between the two. Because, as it had to be Spike who revealed Riley's weakness, thus it had to be Riley who discovered Spike's, bringing the characters full circle. Just as it fell to Spike in `Shadow' and `Into the Woods' to highlight Riley's too human nature, it falls to Riley to point out what Buffy had forgotten, that Spike is, "deadly ... amoral ... (and) opportunistic," in other words, a monster. Buffy sides with Riley and Spike loses this final face-off with his rival.
In conclusion, we have seen how these characters, superficially so different, undergo character development that simultaneously echo and mirror each other. Spike rises into humanity emotionally and Riley falls into it physically. Riley regresses into darkness as Spike climbs towards the light, until right before the end when the lines are suddenly redrawn leaving Spike firmly on the wrong side.
These profound changes would have remained largely unnoticed without the juxtaposition of the two characters, for who can you compare a failing psyche to but a monster, and burgeoning empathy and compassion must have its equal in fresh faced masculinity.
By demonstrating the similarities between Spike and Riley so clearly and over such a length of time, the writers allowed the viewer to empathise with Spike to such a degree that his relationship with Buffy became believable. We were shown as Spike rose to take Riley's place as Buffy's trusty sidekick at the end of season five. `Crush' aside, Spike became the stalwart figure Riley had been before he left, protecting her friends and family and ending up in a position of trust. Thus Spike's acceptance into Buffy's bed in season six did not come as such a shock; instead it became more of a confused but natural progression.
In fact the shock came when Riley suddenly (possibly too suddenly for the Spike lovers in the audience) reappeared on the scene and it became painfully obvious to everyone, especially Buffy, that Spike was not Riley at all and what he was offering was not a dream but a nightmare. Faced with that revelation Buffy was left with no choice but to accept that liking a little monster in her man was very different from a little man in her monster and her relationship with Spike had to end.
The final score as of `As you were'? Game, set and match: Riley Finn.
NB. In my opinion, the "assface" comment and abdication of responsibility for Spike to Buffy in `Killer in Me', effectively completes the transfer of roles and is probably the closest Riley would ever come to giving the couple his blessing.