Does it help that I only watched the Buffy cannon over the summer of 2012? No, I’m qualifying myself as a adolescent of the 90′s either way. So be it, we’re still going to talk about the contrasting romantic ideals of Angel, Spike, and Riley.
We meet Angel first, a vampire with a soul. Enter the smoldering good looks, aching glances, and a ill-fated love. Angel loves Buffy so perfectly that intimacy brings him a moment of such exquisite happiness that his soul gets sucked out of his body. Shenanigans ensue, and Angel spends the rest of the series loving Buffy from afar. He never quite lets her go, but he doesn’t stick with her either. Instead, he shows up just often enough to reminder of the perfect love that might have been had he not found the comfort of her charms sufficient to make him evil.
Then we have Spike who is charmingly, unironically devoted to a crazy vampire. Somewhere along the line, he transfers his affection to Buffy. Meanwhile, enter Riley.
Riley is an all American good old boy. A stand-up guy who provides Buffy with a reasonably straight-forward romantic experience. She likes him, he likes her, all is well. Until the fact that Buffy doesn’t actually need him starts to undermine the relationship. Since he can’t have all of her, he’ll take none of her and run off to pursue the life he led before her: a military badass.
Now, let’s get back to Spike. Spike never does the right thing. He starts off with the best of intentions, or at least the best intentions he has, and gets it wrong every time. He can’t have Buffy, so he gets himself a Buffy-bot. He pushes things too far. He pursues, gets knocked down, shows up again, tries to excise her… but he always shows up again. No matter how wrong he gets it, he operates on a pretty simple foundation. He doesn’t love her for what she does for him – he frequently is on the receiving end of her boot. It isn’t about wanting to be saved – redemption has no value for him; it simply isn’t about what he wants from her. The quote says it best:
When I say, “I love you,” it’s not because I want you or because I can’t have you. It has nothing to do with me. I love what you are, what you do, how you try. I’ve seen your kindness and your strength. I’ve seen the best and the worst of you. And I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are.
Spike is unequivocally messed up. I’m not holding him up as a model candidate for romantic bliss. I’d rather my boyfriends not leave bruises, thanks. But out of the three? Oh, I’m sticking with Spike. He’s the most flawed, he also sees Buffy the most clearly.
Angel is looking at a paragon of perfection when he sees Buffy. Let’s also tell the truth here – Angel is also about how deep and tragic his doomed love makes him. It isn’t her, it’s his ideas about her. Angel likes being broody and sulky. It’s about the story he tells himself about how big his sacrifice is and what kind of a loss he’s suffered.
Riley, poor loveable Riley… It’s still about him. About what he needs, what he wants, his need for reassurance.
Buffy gives Spike so little to hope for, but he keeps showing up. He doesn’t give a sh!t about his image. Sod reveling in being miserable. Buffy’s company makes him happy so he does what he can to be happy.
Yeah, I’m not interested in the tortured, smoldering man who is drowning in existential angst. I’m okay without the dude who wants me to confirm something about himself. As screwy as he was, Spike’s motivations were the simplest: I see you, good and bad, and I still think you’re awesome. Because your awesomeness makes me irrationally happy, I want to stand as close to your awesomeness as I can. Not much else mattered to Spike. Not his ego, not rejection, not what other people thought. He felt how he felt and he gave Buffy the choice of what to do with it. He didn’t decide for her. Fine, he tried to persuade her in some unhealthy ways. Fair enough. But it wasn’t Angel deciding he knew best what was good for her. It wasn’t Riley throwing around ultimatums.
Spike lived the hardest possible expression of love: showing up again when you’ve been wrong. Every. Damn. Day. You want romance? Forget the flowers. Show up.