Bad boys bad boys

In writing up "Doppelgangland," I mentioned "Something Blue" as another instance of Buffy characters saying things about themselves which they clearly want to believe are true which are not, in fact, actually true.

"Something Blue" is a season four (i.e. the college season) episode. In story terms, it is a couple of episodes after Oz cheated on Willow with hot, evil, werewolf chick Veruca, then took off into the wild yonder to seek some method of coping with being a werewolf. It is one episode after vampire Spike turned up at Giles’ place, having been chipified by the secret government conspiracy known as The Initiative, which is kind of like if The X-Files were told from the point of view of the secret government conspiracy. This chip causes Spike intense pain if he tries to hurt a human being in any way, even sockin’ ’em on the jaw, and even if they deserve it. It is one episode (or so) after Riley Finn, cornfed Iowa boy and secret Initiative member, has begun actively courting Buffy.

So, that’s the setup. The pre-credits teaser has a scene where Riley invites Buffy on a picnic after telling her that he thinks she’s intriguingly mysterious, then a scene where Buffy talks to Willow about this.

(Note: the opening scene also has Riley helping to hang a banner for the "Sunnydale Lesbian Alliance," which prompted Paul to remark, when we saw this in its initial broadcast, "Willow’s going to be a lesbian!" I still have no idea what made him so sure about this, and he can’t explain it either.)

In the Buffy-Willow scene, Willow asks some basic things — do you like him? Is there a spark? Is he nice? And Buffy responds in the affirmative. He’s nice, he cares, he’s attractive, she likes him, she likes being around him. But. She feels like something’s missing.

"Riley seems so solid. Like he wouldn’t cause me heartache. I know I have to get away from that ‘bad boy’ thing. But I can’t help thinking — isn’t that where the fire comes from? Can a nice, safe relationship be that intense? I know it’s nuts, but part of me believes that real love and passion have to go hand in hand with pain and fighting."

I just wanted to talk for a moment about why Buffy is wrong here. Completely wrong. Wrong about bad boys, wrong about nice guys, and wrong about why relationships have pain. She’s so wrong you could write a relationship advice book just about why she’s wrong.

Love does not come from pain. Pain comes from love. It is because you CARE that other people have the power to hurt you, because they MATTER that they have the power to let you down, and because you TRUST them that they can betray you. Sure, you can date losers who are almost guaranteed never to do anything OTHER than let you down, but that’s not what Buffy is talking about here. She’s setting up a false dichotomy between "bad boys" who are exciting and dangerous and "nice guys" who are reliable and perhaps a little dull.

But that’s all inverted. What makes Riley SEEM a little dull (to her) is that she doesn’t feel the intense passion for him. Not yet. Probably not ever, given the way season five Riley becomes convinced that she doesn’t love him and passive-aggressively breaks up the relationship by fooling around with vampire hookers.

It’s not unreasonable for Buffy to start dating someone she is attracted to, but doesn’t yet feel intense passion for. Heck, most successful long-term relationships probably start out that way. But her belief that it has something to do with "nice guys" vs. "bad boys"? Bogus. Not only does the pain come from the passion, not the other way around, but when it comes to romantic betrayals, "nice guys" are just as guilty as everyone else. There are plenty of examples just within the Buffyverse — Oz isn’t a bad boy, but look what he just did to Willow. And Xander is a nice guy by most measures — he’s certainly no bad boy — but that doesn’t stop him from leaving Anya at the altar a couple of seasons from now. And even the extreme emotional angst that Buffy experiences with Angel isn’t actually because he’s a bad boy — it’s because she and Angel are perfect for each other, and deeply in love, but a mystical quirk prevents them from ever being able to be happy together.

(Er, well, SHE can be happy, I suppose.)

And Spike, who will emerge as this episode’s contrasting bad boy example? He’s bad, sure, and he’s also evil, but romantically he’s puppy-dog faithful. In spite of the awesome leather coat, he’s really not much a heartbreaker — much more of a breakee.

The key male archetypes in operation here are the Nice Guy, the Bad Boy, and the Jerk. First, I would like to dispense with the Nice Guy.

"Women don’t want to date nice guys." It’s one of those persistent bits of cultural stupid, like "Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger" or "The ends justify the means." The notion that women don’t want to date nice guys tells you nothing about women. What it tells you is that most guys tend to think of themselves as nice guys. Especially guys without dates.

What makes a guy "nice" anyway? Abusers often come across as nice guys at first, it’s a well-known abuser tactic. (And they probably actually think of themselves as nice guys, really, if you asked them about it.) In this case "nice" means "solicitous, concerned, romantic, committed." You know, the kind of guy who will send a dozen roses to your workplace on your one month dating anniversary. Of course, there are genuine nice guys who will do this sort of thing too. All it tells you is that maybe "nice" doesn’t tell you so much about a person.

It’s become a joke that any serial killer, when you ask their neighbors and co-workers about them, will say "I really didn’t know him, but he seemed nice." In this case, "nice" means "not *obviously* an evil weirdo."

The Bad Boy is the polar opposite of the Nice Guy. He’s the guy who will take you to the cemetery on the back of his motorcycle on your first date, the guy who won’t get you flowers because it doesn’t occur to him that you’d like that sort of thing anyway, the guy who, if he ever gets caught committing a crime, everyone will nod their heads sagely and say they saw it coming.

But really, "bad" and "nice" in this context are mostly about social persona. The bad boy can be a crazy psycho criminal, or a rebel with a heart of gold. The nice guy can be good all the way through, heroic *and* the sort of guy your mother would like you to bring home, or he can be a well-dressed, clean-cut, nicely-mannered (under most circumstances) neo-Nazi. There are different ways of being evil. There are also different ways of being a jerk, and bad boys and nice guys can both be jerks. In fact, I believe the bad boy is *no more likely* than the nice guy to be a jerk.

(Side note: real-life men are very rarely pure nice guy or pure bad boy, and all men are *sometimes* jerks.)

(Other side note: I think this is why people can say "women only want to date bad boys, not nice guys," and people just nod their heads, because most guys *are* a bit of both, so if that guy over there is dating the woman you’re interested in, hey presto! He’s a bad boy. Not nice like *you* are.)

Reflect on Parker Abrams, the jerk Buffy sleeps with early on in season four. He seems like a nice guy, doesn’t he? She certainly thinks he’s a nice guy when she meets him. But he turns out to be a jerk of the lowest order — interested only in the act of sexual conquest, and cynically, almost sociopathically dismissive of the humanity of the women he conquers.

The only other guy in the series who’s that big of a jerk is soulless Angel, who goes from being a perfect heart-of-gold bad boy to being not only evil, but also a jerk whose main goal in life is to make Buffy feel bad about herself *before* he kills her.

Anyway, I believe Buffy is conflating the bad boy and the jerk here — assuming that a nice guy cannot also be a jerk — in spite of very recent evidence to the contrary. Why is she doing this?

Maybe it’s because she thinks she wants to date Riley Finn, but has vague misgivings, and she is trying to talk herself out of her misgivings. Or, maybe it’s because she really does like bad boys.

Cue credits.

The next scene has Spike — chained in Giles’ bathtub — being interrogated by Buffy about the people who chipified him, the "commandos." During this scene Giles is fairly emotionally neutral, but Buffy and Spike cannot resist needling each other. She offers him a mug of microwaved blood, which he sips through a straw, and she makes a point of being obviously disgusted. Spike wonders out loud why she’s so "dainty" all of a sudden, "I assume you’ve done this for Angel."

At mention of Angel, Buffy pulls the mug away and threatens that he will get no more blood until he tells them something useful. He wonders how long he’ll live after he tells them what they want to know. Giles is quick to be reassuring, saying they have no intention of killing him when he is "impotent." Spike objects. Giles observes this might have been a poor choice of words, but Buffy responds by upping the sexual overtones with an arch suggestion they use the word "flaccid" instead. When Spike reacts to this, she mocks him aggressively, "Giles, help, he’s gonna SCOLD me!" Then, she makes a big show of TEASING him with her neck.

Especially in light of what happens later, it feels an awful lot like the early scenes of a romantic comedy, when the two people destined to end up together can’t stand each other.

Giles and Buffy observe that they think Willow is "coping better with Oz’s departure." Spike responds with, "Are you people blind? She’s hangin’ on by a thread," thus fulfilling his traditional series role as oracular speaker of obvious-yet-ignored truths.

The next scene has Buffy and Riley on their picnic and having a quasi-sexual conversation about driving. Riley can’t believe she doesn’t drive and talks about how a really good experience in a car could change everything for her. It’s a nice scene, especially as a contrast to her quasi-sexual teasing of Spike. This is part of how the episode establishes the groundwork of the Buffy-Spike-Riley romantic triangle (which will continue throughout the series, even though it won’t become explicit until season five).

Season four is particularly interested in the contrast between male and female power, and both cars and guns are used to symbolize masculine power. Essentially, Riley is telling her that she will enjoy surrendering to masculine power if she just experiences it properly, and she is clearly intrigued by the idea. But it also establishes part of why their relationship eventually falters. Riley represents a worldview where he will be dominant — not because he’s domineering, but because it’s defined by *his* comfort and expertise, not *hers*.

Willow shows up to mope about how apples always turn brown. Then, next scene everyone is at The Bronze and Willow is dancing with someone who’s face we never see, but the hands look female, so maybe it’s actually laying some Willow-dates-girls groundwork. This is followed by everyone flipping out when they see she has a beer. Which, she is sort of hiding, probably because she’s only 18 or 19 and California has a 21 drinking age.

Their moralistic reaction sets the stage for the next few scenes — where Willow becomes increasingly enraged about how all anybody can give her is platitudes about working through the pain, and even her best friends don’t want to hear her complain anymore, and DAMMIT! That’s not good enough!

So she casts a spell.

In the middle of the night.

In the dorm bathroom.

This gives the spell a furtive, masturbatory quality, which I think really works, especially as a setup for how magic will function as a sexual metaphor in her relationship with Tara. The spell is for her "will to be done." There is an impressive light show indicating some kind of mystical power is invoked, but when she tries the spell out, it doesn’t seem to work. She looks in a mirror and says "it is my will that my heart be healed" and nothing happens.

Later, though — when she’s not paying attention — when she becomes angry — she will say things like "You don’t see anything!" to Giles, her eyes flash silver for a moment, and then he starts to go blind. Or, when she’s upset that Buffy abandons her to go recapture Spike, she utters a sarcastic (and childish) "Why doesn’t she just *marry* him?"

Hilarity ensues.

Really, hilarity ensues.

Buffy and Spike spend most of the rest of the episode thinking they are engaged. This results in a bunch of scenes that play out like a satire on typical romantic comedies — you know, Father of the Bride, only if the groom were a bloodthirsty vampire and the bride a vampire slayer.

There are a few ways to interpret the working/not working aspect of Willow’s spell. One is that there was simply a time delay, so that it started working later than she expected. Another is that the spell went wrong and is working exactly the opposite of the way it’s intended — like the spell in the season two episode "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," where a spell that was intended to make Cordelia crazy in love with Xander instead affects every female in Sunnydale *except* Cordelia. So, instead of working her actual *will* it picks up on the things she says without willing them to happen.

Or, it might be working exactly as intended. When Willow says that she wants healing, it has a plaintive, hesitant, shy quality — a very Willow quality. Sure, she wants it, but does she *will* it? Her remarks later, the ones the spell picks up on, are delivered in strongly emotional moments of anger and despair.

One of the things that will eventually become clear, in the overall story arc of Willow’s magic use and abuse, is the way her magical dark side ties into a lifetime of suppressed anger. Just a couple of episodes ago, we saw her *almost* magically curse Oz and Veruca, only to have second thoughts, let the power go, and become vulnerable Willow again. Her raw magical power will grow significantly twice — at the end of season five and at the end of season six — in both cases driven by vengeance, and a heedlessness that sends her right to the darkest, most dangerous, most powerful magic she can find.

In this episode, she is summoned by D’Hoffryn, the leader of the vengeance demons of the type Anya used to be. He is impressed with the suffering she has inflicted, and offers her a job. She unsurprisingly declines, opting to release the spell instead, now that she knows the havoc it is wreaking.

Buffy and Spike are smooching when the spell releases, and both of them have a visceral disgust reaction that seems a tad exaggerated. "Lips!" Buffy cries out, making a full-body retching motion and spitting sounds. "Lips of Spike!"

In the next scene, she pronounces herself "over the whole bad boy thing" and ready to commit to proto-dating Riley.

Hilarity ensues.


  1. So she casts a spell.

    In the middle of the night.

    In the dorm bathroom.

    This gives the spell a furtive, masturbatory quality, which I think really works, especially as a setup for how magic will function as a sexual metaphor in her relationship with Tara. The spell is for her “will to be done.”

    And here I was wondering if I was just making that up in my head and seeing “more than was there”. Glad it’s not just me!

    NIce observations about the bad guy/good guy/ jerk. I thought she and Riley could have had a very comfortable, loving relationship had the writers not decided to turn him into a jerk in S5. (I’ve already read your review of Into the Woods.)

    1. Author

      I thought she and Riley could have had a very comfortable, loving relationship had the writers not decided to turn him into a jerk in S5

      It’s possible! But I’ve always seen Buffy’s relationship with Riley as very similar to a college relationship of my own — I was dating a guy who was, on paper, perfect in every way. And he was a genuinely nice guy! For a few months we were practically ready to propose to each other. But then he said the “I love you” words… and I could not say them back. I just couldn’t. I thought it was too soon. I didn’t think it meant never.

      But then… after a while… without there being anything, strictly speaking, wrong… we started to kind of… drift.

      I found myself really drawn to this male friend who I thought was nice, but a weirdo, and he made some really questionable life choices. Still…

      Anyway, long story short, the friend and I have been married for fifteen years. (Whoa, how is that even possible?) So, I am very sympathetic to this idea that you can know the relationship isn’t quite right, without being able to point to any big thing that’s wrong. And I saw Buffy and Riley both struggling with that.

      Oddly, this is a scenario that I see dramatized very seldom.

      1. Good point – and I rather wish they had followed through with that…Riley and Buffy just drifting apart, but of course BtVS being what it is, and Joss being who he is, that couldn’t happen. At least then I could have continued liking Riley!

        The other thing being, I think Riley was having a really hard time (if I remember correctly) struggling to adjust not only to his rejection of The Initiative but Maggie’s betrayal – loosing a surrogate family and surrogate parent figure in a very short time, in addition to a certain amount of superstrength? So he definitely had issues and I don’t fault him for needing to deal with that – but he also had his real family in Iowa (who he tells us he is close to and visits every Thanksgiving. It would have been interesting if that Norman Rockwell fantasy he paints for Buffy is exactly that – a fantasy – but nothing in the text supports that); and he ends up going back to the government; so he has sources of support that Buffy doesn’t (her dad is Nowhere Man, her mother is dying, Giles is ambivalent about his role in her life and has made attempts to separate himself from her at least since The Freshman; she has no job, only her small circle of friends.)

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