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Dudely Posturing: Riley-Spike

Looking at the characters Riley and Spike, it soon becomes apparent that they're actually warped mirrors of each other. This is alluded to in Into the Woods and As You Were. However, they also have a fascinating interpersonal dynamic that centers around power and resentment.

This meta piece is primarily about Riley (Yeah, yeah. I know people are skipping past already). For Spike's part, he obviously is hostile towards Riley as part of the Initiative. Later, Riley will also be a source of jealousy for Spike. Riley has Buffy. Spike doesn't.

Far more interesting (to me) is Riley's side in this dynamic.

Riley was raised in a black and white world. Humans good. Demons bad. This is explored in depth in S4's Goodbye, Iowa and New Moon Rising. The gray areas, the ambiguity, the judgment calls aren't Riley's strong point. And his rigid worldview is challenged and partially shattered through various events in S4.

Worldviews aren't overturned in six easy steps, however. Riley learns to be more flexible with the gray areas. In New Moon Rising he becomes a traitor to his group for Oz's sake. But Oz is still human most of the time. And most importantly, Riley knew Oz first as a human. This makes it easier for Riley to accept the demon part.

At the end of the episode, though, Buffy tells Riley about her larger-than-life love affair with Angel, a vampire. This and Riley's reaction, along with subsequent events in The Yoko Factor, will form the basis for Riley's treatment of Spike. It also plays a large part in Riley visiting vamp whores and the resultant Buffy/Riley break up, but that's outside the bounds of this meta.

Let's set the scene for how things start out in S5, which is when the Riley-Spike dynamic heats up.

1. Riley's not a soldier anymore.

A huge part of his identity is gone. What's more, it was an aspect that granted him a great deal of power, both over "civilians" and HSTs. Now, the primary power he has over HSTs comes from his relationship with Buffy, who slays as her duty. This brings us to our next point.

2. He senses that Buffy has a thing for vampires.

Whether this is actually true or not is besides the point (so don't bring it up). Riley believes it to be true and this belief greatly affects his actions.

He thinks Angel has some sort of power over Buffy (and this is then confirmed to him by the events with Dracula). In Into the Woods Riley says, "I wanted to know why Dracula and Angel have so much power over you." What's more, Riley's already feeling insecure about his lack of power, especially in relation to Buffy and vampires. The thought that vamps, who he's still not a fan of, have power over his girlfriend just compounds the issue. And this leads to our final point.

3. Riley's still a bigot towards vamps.

Yes, you can argue that it's justified, but that's besides the point. This is an exploration of Riley's character, not a scathing bout of character-bashing so please don't get defensive on Riley's behalf.

S4 taught Riley to loosen up his ideals in some areas. Specifically, with demons that he'd previously known and had identified as human. He has been given no reason to feel the same way towards vampires.

Okay, so scene established.

We get a perfect display of everything that's described above in the Riley-Spike scene of Buffy vs. Dracula. Riley goes to Spike for information on Dracula. Spike, as expected, is less than helpful. And to make things worse, Spike patronizes Riley by telling him to go home and curl up with Buffy. "You're out of your depth on this one, boy." Spike's outright challenging Riley's macho dudeliness, which Riley's already feeling insecure about. For Spike's part, this type of lashing out is the only way he can assert his own power in his chipped state. He can't fight physically, but he can wound with words. With these comments, he's attempting to position himself above Riley in the pecking order.

So queue the male posturing. Riley informs Spike that, while Buffy doesn't want to kill Spike because Spike has helped in the past, Riley has no such qualms. After that, we get a typical manly stare down with Riley taking advantage of his much larger size and the fact that...wait...Spike can't fight back!

Yep, that's right. Spike's all chipped up. He literally can't hurt Riley directly. While Riley is trying to deal with the loss of his power over vampires, Spike is one of the only vampires that he does have almost absolute power over. And that can be a rush for a guy in a crisis. It reaffirms his machoness. What's more, it's an affirmation of dominance over a being that he feels holds a lot of power over his girlfriend.

This intimidation by Riley has many different effects. To Riley, it puts Spike in his place when Spike tries to throw Riley off-guard. It also gives Riley that warm fuzzy "I am a Man" feeling to be able to successfully overpower a vampire.

This kick-starts the dynamic we'll see at play through the rest of the season.

Out of My Mind is significant for many reasons. One, it's the final nail in the coffin for Riley's superhuman strength. He tries to hold onto it till the very end, but he ends up having to go through the surgery to save his life. In doing so, he becomes a "normal" guy. This will just heighten his insecurities. He's convinced this isn't enough for Buffy. Once he's Joe Normal, his worst fear is that Buffy will "give in" to the influence vamps have over her and discard Riley for someone stronger, a vampire. This is made worse by the fact that Riley has said the magic "I love you" to Buffy and she has yet to say it in return. Riley's not clear on Buffy's feelings for him, and so he assumes the worst.

Additionally, OOMM clues Spike and the audience in to Spike's romantic obsession with Buffy. Riley will soon pick up on this and begin to see Spike as a threat. But Spike's a threat that Riley still has control over because, again, Spike can't fight back directly.

Shadow gives us our first taste of this. Riley discovers Spike in Buffy's room, sniffing her sweater. And while Spike puts on an thoroughly unconvincing act about it being a "predator thing", Riley's not dumb. He can connect the dots. So he manhandles Spike down the stairs and almost out the door when Spike decides to poke the bear by hinting that Buffy has a thing for him as evidenced by the fact that Buffy hasn't de-invited him yet. And, to add insult to injury, Spike brags about Buffy taking him out for drinks and staying out with him all night (Spike cleverly hides the context there to make it appear like a date, just to goad Riley). As usual, Spike can't just leave it at that. He has to taunt the bear beyond all reason.

"What do you got, a piercing glance? 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."

This plays into almost every one of Riley's insecurities at the moment (Spike is the master at perceiving others' weaknesses, after all).

Riley's response? A bit of torture by sunlight. Just to "prove" his darkness.

Then the last shoe drops when Spike lets out that he knows about Buffy's mom being in the hospital. He knows before Riley knows. He's leaving the unspoken subtext that Buffy digs him, not Riley because she'll confide in him where she won't do so with Riley.

It doesn't matter that what Spike's saying is ridiculous and obviously skewed. Given Riley's massive insecurities and biases, it doesn't take much to buy into it. Or to just act on the emotions it evokes. He lets Spike go (because Spike is a popular cast member and, therefore, cannot be killed until the series finale). But his almost-sadistic lashing out shows how he regards vampires as not-human, a threat, and a challenge to his masculinity and worthiness as Buffy's boyfriend.

Things only get worse in Listening to Fear when Riley walks into Buffy's house prepared to save the day only to find the day already saved...by Buffy and Spike, who are "caught" hand-in-hand after having partnered up to kill the demon. To Riley, this is showing him to be ineffective as a partner for Buffy. And it's his worst nightmare come true to see Spike being an adequate Slaying partner in his place. It's what he fears will happen with what he perceives as Buffy's strange attraction to vampires. Add onto it Spike's gleeful gloating, and you have a very irked Riley.

Everything builds up to Into the Woods, where Spike blows the whistle on Riley's recent activities.

Riley takes it as it is: an act of jealousy on Spike's part to get Riley out of the way. And Riley retaliates in kind by stabbing Spike through the heart with a plastic wood-grain stake.

Not something that Riley would ever do to a human. But Riley doesn't regard Spike as human in the least. Vampires are still just demons to him, and this allows him to use and abuse them at will. It allows him to use the vamp whores to "explore" Buffy's world, and it allows him to take out his frustration on Spike.

It's interesting that Riley's primary motivation in this scene is to warn Spike to stay away from Buffy. "Stay away from her. Or we'll do this for real next time."

Riley sees it as almost an inevitability that Buffy will get together with an available vampire. He thought so in The Yoko Factor when he jumped the gun and assumed that Buffy had slept with Angel. And he thought so in Buffy vs Dracula when he showed mass insecurity about Dracula's power over Buffy. Spike is just another example of a vampire who's after Buffy and who Riley thinks Buffy is vulnerable to. Given Spike's chipped status, Riley has the ability to keep putting him in his place through force. And he does so.

Spike, of course, just plays right into this fear. "The girl needs some monster in her man, and that's not in your nature...no matter how low you try to go."

It's almost funny that Spike's so keyed in to exactly what's going on with Riley and how to push his buttons while Buffy, the girlfriend, is completely oblivious. To Riley, Spike is the problem. Spike represents the seductive vibeness of all vampires that tempts Buffy away from Riley. Spike's just the one vampire that Riley can assert physical dominance over, even while Spike is trying to subvert that through verbal manipulations.

It's at this point where the two guys actually start to mirror each other. Spike's line, "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. Feeling her, feeling her beneath you. Surrounding you. The scent...No, you got the better deal."

It's what Riley has then, and it's what Spike will get in S6. And it's what Riley will return to in As You Were (an episode not covered in this meta because I haven't hit it in my rewatch).

This whole long meta can best be summed up by positing that Spike is the representation of just about everything that Riley fears in the Buffy/Riley relationship. And Spike encourages this fear in an attempt to gain a bit of power back in his chipped state. So Spike's tattling on Riley to Buffy can be seen as the inevitable outcome of all of Riley's insecurities and reservations breaking apart the relationship. The fact that Riley truly believes that Buffy needs some monster in her man, and this belief drives him absolutely insane to try to measure up in some way.

And just as Buffy's completely oblivious to Spike's romantic obsession, she's also oblivious to Riley's inner turmoil over this until the last minute possible.

But that starts creeping into the Buffy/Riley break-up which, while an important peripheral aspect of the Riley-Spike dynamic, is not the point of this meta. Though I have no doubt people will see fit to comment on it anyway. :)

Anyway, to bring this around and wrap it all up, Riley-Spike is a dynamic that pretty much perfectly displays the two characters. It shows off Spike's perceptiveness, his willingness to manipulate and goad people in order to get a bit of his own back. And it highlights Riley's weaknesses, which he's more than happy to put all on Spike. That makes it interesting to me.

Not sure if it interests anybody else, but hey. That's what happens when you write a Riley-centric meta. :)


Sep. 25th, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
I think Sam is proof that Riley is okay with strong women as long as they're not stronger than him.

But isn't her being his boss makes her stronger than him? I think Riley/Sam supports Riley's desire for an equal relationship, both being human-strong.

Riley didn't have a problem with Buffy being a slayer when he was supernatural strong as well, when he lost that, things went downhill for him.

Obviously, it's coupled with his own unhappiness at being "the mission's boyfriend". There's several issues colliding all at once there.

Sep. 25th, 2009 02:17 am (UTC)
But isn't her being his boss makes her stronger than him?

Not really. It means she has authority over him, much like Maggie Walsh did. But machismo is linked to physical strength, and it's safe to say that Sam, at most, was Riley's equal in that regard.

And, again, I agree that Riley is fine with an equal relationship. However, there is a problem when his being the physically weaker one in a relationship causes such a huge bout of insecurity that he eventually starts taking it out on Spike and visiting vamp whores. That indicates that Riley was feeling very emasculated by the imbalance between himself and Buffy and was lashing out.
Sep. 25th, 2009 02:29 am (UTC)
Can I use the word "machismo" in a future fic? Please! Please!

You have a point about Walsh. I still think the problem isn't about Buffy being stronger, it's about Riley being weaker. I mean, if Riley were gay, I can't see him being okay with his male partner being stronger than him. So, you're right, it is about machismo.
Sep. 25th, 2009 02:37 am (UTC)
lol. Well, "machismo" isn't my word, so it's free for anybody to use. :)

And I do see the distinction between Buffy being stronger and Riley being weaker, but I think that, practically, it leads to the same place. If Riley has a problem being the weaker partner, then the flipside is that he has a problem with Buffy's strength, and it's not misleading to state it as such.
Sep. 25th, 2009 02:39 am (UTC)
Is it ever actually stated that Sam is Riley's boss? I have the impression that Riley was her superior officer rather than the other way around (or possibly that she was some kind of civilian contractor not in the direct line of command) but it's been a long time since I watched the episode.
Sep. 25th, 2009 08:22 am (UTC)
Haven't watched it in ages myself. I guess they both aren't each other's bosses. lol

BUFFY: He's your boss, too?
SAM: (smirking) Oh, he wishes.


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