On a whim, I looked up the ‘Riley Finn’ tag, because I was hoping to see if maybe I could find some fic for him (I admit it, Riley/Xander is one of my favorite slash pairings, and it’s so frustrating to hardly ever find fic of it, since Xander is mostly paired up with Angel or Spike, and I can’t see him getting involved with vampires EVER). Instead, I wind up going through pages of hatred for him. PAGES.
The reasons, when given boil down to him either being boring or him being misogynistic.
Was I watching the same show as these people?
I like Riley. I think that he’s an interesting character who got shoved off the show for the simple fact that he wasn’t Angel and he wasn’t Spike. It’s probably the one place the rabid shipper gangs for Buffy/Angel and Buffy/Spike agree - hate Riley Finn. And, okay, I’ll admit that as time has gone on, part of why I cling so much to the fact that I like Riley probably has something to do with the way that people treat him. “You hate this character? LET ME LOVE THEM EVEN MORE!”
I digress. Riley is an interesting character to me. He comes to the show believing in a black and white worldview - human good, monster bad. He’s involved with the military for the same reason so many do - he sees the good that it can do, the good it’s capable of, and wants to be a part of that. He then meets Buffy and is drawn into the morally grey and complex world that she and the Scoobies live in. Suddenly, everything that he’s ever known, ever believed in, is something that he has to question. He loses the woman who was a surrogate mother figure to him, and then learns that she was using and abusing him. He sees all of the things behind the curtain and takes a stand against it, doing what’s right, not what he’s told.
And then, in Season Five, he’s lost his purpose. He obviously doesn’t fit in with the Scooby Gang - the only one of them he seriously interacts with beyond Buffy is Xander (which is at the root of my love of them together, as it gives both of them a friend who they can relate to - Xander has only Oz and Riley as his guy friends in pretty much the entire series). He’s been reduced down to being Buffy’s boyfriend. “The mission’s boyfriend.” And then she goes through everything with her mother and she pulls away from him and, when he attempts to get closer to her, she just pushes him further away.
This would be where the people who call him misogynistic come in, saying that he wants her to be weak. Well, yeah, okay, that’s true - in the same sense that Tara tells Willow in Season Six that their bedroom is where she can be weak. ‘Weak’ in this context means that she can slip off the mask and share her burdens. He wants her to be willing to open up to him, to let him in and see her at her worst, not just her best, to be there to hold her hand and tell her it’ll be okay. To let down her walls and love him, not just enjoy him. But she wouldn’t let him in past her defenses. It wasn’t Buffy the Slayer pushing him away. It was Buffy the Person, Buffy the Human.
One of the most telling things about the Buffy/Riley relationship is the opening scene of ‘Buffy Vs. Dracula.’ They’re in bed, he’s asleep, she’s awake, she goes to kill something, and comes back. She wanted Riley to be there and be her boyfriend when she wanted him to be, and then pushed him away when she didn’t. He’s asleep, clearly in no position to know what she’s doing, and when she comes back, he embraces her automatically, as if she’d never left. He expects her to be there, in bed, with him, all night, and she slips out to kill vampires. Yeah, she’s the Slayer, but we see her on patrol all the time, it’s clearly a nightly thing, and she has to sleep sometime - Slayer no sleepy means vampires no eaty. She chooses to leave him to go do something ‘more important.’
No question about it, Riley was her rebound from Angel, and it was doomed to failure from the start because no matter what she said, she never really loved him, at least not in the way that a girlfriend should love her boyfriend. Riley loved her, but she more loved what he represented - the normal guy. But Spike was right in that she likes her men with some darkness, not because she ‘loves the bad boys,’ but probably because she found herself swimming in the inky morally grey world, and anyone purely morally white or black would never survive the depths she goes to.
Not that Riley was innocent in their breakup, because, yeah, going to the vampires and letting them feed on him was him being stupid and petty and just getting back at her, and I won’t argue that he had a few issues about Buffy’s physical strength easily trumping his (though I think it’s pretty natural for a guy built like Riley and in the military to have some issues about someone built like Buffy and being a ‘civilian,’ (re: outside what he sees as the legitimate chain of command) being able to toss him over her shoulder like he’s a lighter than a pillow, but whatever), and yeah, when your mother is going through a serious medical crisis, your significant other’s obviously not going to be your first priority, but Buffy’s responsibility in the relationship’s self-destruction is generally glossed over by people, and I think she really does carry the lion’s share for it. Because she didn’t pay attention to Riley except when she wanted him around, she didn’t see the warning signs that something was wrong with him, ignoring the signs that there was something that she wasn’t giving him that he needed. When she wanted him around, he had the time to get the mask of ‘good boyfriend’ back in place.
It seems to me that Riley’s biggest flaw as far as the fandom is concerned is that he is not Angel or Spike. That or he’s connected to the Initiative arc, which wasn’t well received. I do wonder sometimes if, had he not been with Buffy at all, he would have just left at the end of Season Four, because he had no unique offering to the Scooby gang. His whole purpose in Season Five was ‘be Buffy’s boyfriend,’ which he seemed to be dealing with, though I have to think that there was trouble brewing with that, but then she wouldn’t even let him be her boyfriend. Once her mother started having medical problems, she basically just wanted him to be a person-shaped pillow, something that she could curl up with when she wanted, leave alone when she didn’t, and expect him to be right there when she came back.
Riley even says it in their confrontation in ‘Into The Woods’ - the vampires he went to needed him, needed something that he offered. Buffy had pushed him away, routinely didn’t want him around unless it was on her terms. That’s not how relationships are supposed to work. You don’t just have your partner there when it’s convenient or when you want. They’re supposed to be there, good and bad times. They can see you at your worst and love you anyway. It’s a give and take, and she wasn’t giving. Buffy wouldn’t let him see the worst.
Love isn’t easy. It’s dirty and messy, and you get hurt by letting someone in that far. But the risk is what makes the pay off so worth it. And Buffy didn’t want love. She wanted easy. I understand why she’d want it after the torturous relationship with Angel where she fought, she shagged, and loved til it made her quiver, but it wasn’t fair to Riley.
And you’ll note that I spent the majority of this post meant to be about Riley as a character talking about the Buffy/Riley relationship - that’s because he was written as a member of the Initiative or Buffy’s boyfriend, not as a separate autonomous character. That’s ultimately the biggest flaw of Riley, that he wasn’t written as his own person, just an extension of these other things. I understand how this can lead to Riley being considering boring, because the Initiative or Buffy were the source of his characterization, but why does that lead to hate? Why can’t that lead to disappointment that more wasn’t done with him or a wealth of fic and head!canons that give him his individuality? Nope, it’s all hate, which is a shame, because I really don’t think he deserves the hate and disdain that he gets.