Created by Joss Whedon
Oh yes, there will be spoilers. And if you’ve seen the show, feel free to skip the first section.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer follows a group of friends (the Scoobie Gang) as they fight demons and navigate the challenges of young adulthood. Buffy Summers is a “Chosen One” type, and every season involves her fighting a “Big Bad” antagonist who threatens her world with apocalypse. Since twenty-two episodes is way too many for a single story arc–shorter seasons are one thing that I think HBO/Netflix/the British have actually gotten right–there are plenty of one-off, “monster-of-the-week” episodes, and in the earlier seasons especially these are often meant to symbolize problems that teenagers and twenty-somethings have. Typical examples: Willow, Buffy’s computer nerd friend, meets a boy on the internet who turns out to be a demon; Xander joins the swim team only to find that their recent success comes from exposing themselves to (Soviet-made, if I recall correctly) chemicals that make them better swimmers but eventually turn them into fish monsters; Buffy’s awful college roommate actually turns out to be a demon. These are metaphors for, respectively: the potential for meeting creepers on the internet, seemingly a huge moral panic from the 90’s; steroids; and the difficulties of the transition to college and living with strangers.
Later, the show moves away from after school special issues, and begins to explore key themes without needing to insert a monster as a stand-in for each problem. The fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons explore relationships, family, and the transition to adulthood, without being tied down by any particular formula. Personally, I feel like the show grew with the characters; as the characters aged, they took on more responsibilities, and the show set its sights higher, as well. I know there are a lot of people who disagree with that, and I can respect that opinion. Perhaps it’s because I’m only now watching the show at age twenty-five, or maybe people want different things in TV shows now. Maybe it defies explanation; it just is what it is.
That’s my broader experience with seasons one through five. Let’s get into how season five ends and how season six begins.
Dawn Summers, Buffy’s previously non-existent sister, is magically inserted into the show in the fifth season. There are plot reasons for this but they’re unimportant; it’s really just a way for the show to explore the idea of family. Buffy struggles with the idea of accepting Dawn as her sister, and they’re both forced to cope when their mom, Joyce, dies. Looking for clarity, Buffy ventures into the desert, where she’s told by the first Slayer, “Death is your gift.” Season five ends with Buffy sacrificing herself for her sister, using her own death to give Dawn the gift of life. So yea, Buffy’s dead.
It’s not like she hasn’t died before, but my understanding is that the writers weren’t quite sure whether the show would come back or not. It seems to me that they were writing the show as if it was ending, and Buffy’s death has an air of finality to it. Plus, other characters’ storylines are tied off nicely: Xander proposes to Anya; Tara regains her sanity (it’d been lost), presumably clearing the way for her romance with Willow to continue indefinitely; Buffy’s sacrifice allows Dawn to live.
Moving to season six, it seems like the show had an “Oh God, what have we done?” moment. A happy show isn’t interesting, so Buffy immediately sets to work undoing everything that happened in the previous season. For starters, Willow brings Buffy back from the dead, which really pisses Buffy off, because she was in a place where “there was no pain.” The show obviously had to bring Buffy back, so I can forgive them that, but they also broke up Xander and Anya for basically no reason. Willow emotionally abuses and rapes Tara, and gets addicted to magic. They break up, get back together, Tara dies, and Willow goes on a magic rampage to avenge her death. (Way more on this later.) Buffy and Spike start doing sex, but they never really develop a romance. The whole season goes in a pretty bleak direction.
Everything comes together in “Once More, With Feeling.” This episode, towards the start of the season, kind of crystallizes what season six is about. The characters are forced to sing about their problems, and end up revealing their anxieties to each other and the audience. Buffy finally tells Willow that she resents her for disturbing her peace, setting up her struggle against the desire to leave this reality, through death or other means. The retro pastiche duet between Xander and Anya provides some groundwork for their later problems. More importantly, however, this is when the relationship between Willow and Tara is pushed to the brink.
In the previous episode, we see a minor fight between Willow and Tara, who began dating following Tara’s introduction in the fourth season. Tara indicates that Willow might be abusing magic, and Willow’s response is to deny everything, then perform a spell that makes Tara forget about the fight. “Once More, With Feeling” opens with Tara waking up in Willow’s room and finding a flower under her pillow, a flower that Willow had used for her spell. Tara sees it as a gift from Willow, a symbol of their love. She smiles.
Tara’s song in the episode, “Under Your Spell,” is a ridiculously pornographic and unsubtle love ballad that ends with Willow going down on Tara, who sings about how much she loves Willow and how good Willow makes her feel. Without the magic rape flower incident, the song’s title would just be a joke, because witches. The irony is, of course, that Willow actually does have Tara under her spell, at least this one time. The sex that they have in this episode is a direct result of Tara having forgotten what happened the night before, due to Willow’s mental manipulation. Later in the episode, Dawn asks Tara if they’re doing better. “You never fight,” she says. Tara realizes what happened and eventually breaks up with Willow, though not specifically for the rape.
Um, what’s up with that, Willow?
So, Willow raped Tara. It’s really fucked up. It’s especially fucked up because the show never acknowledges what actually happened.
This isn’t the only rape or sexual assault this season. A later episode contains a scene wherein Spike attempts to seduce Buffy, violently. They’d been doing it all season pretty much, and their sex was always violent and sometimes one of them would resist, but they always consented before anything really happened. In this one scene, though, Spike continues to assault Buffy, even after she hurts herself resisting. He eventually stops, realizes his mistake with horror, and leaves Sunnydale for the season.
It’s interesting to note the commonalities between the Spike and Willow assaults, but perhaps a more apt comparison lies elsewhere. The head Big Bad, a douchebag named Warren, bullies two of his friends into becoming supervillains with him. The Trio, as they’re known, wreak havoc around town, using a variety of magical and/or technological methods. One scheme involves using mind control to get girls to sleep with them. Warren runs into his ex-girlfriend, Katrina, and uses magic to control her mind and make her his sex slave. She snaps out of it before anything happens and tries to run away. Warren kills her.
This is where it became impossible for me to swallow the idea that Willow’s actions weren’t rape. I don’t know how a viewer can ignore the obvious parallel between the actions of Willow and those of Warren, given their placement just a few episodes apart. “Under Your Spell” would’ve been just as apt if sung by Katrina to Warren. Maybe the writers didn’t mean to turn Willow into a rapist, but it’s hard for me to see anything else. Just looking at her actions towards Tara, you might be able to overlook the rape. But a few episodes later, the show makes its point of view clear: mind control is a violation on par with and leading to sexual assault. When Katrina snaps out of it, she correctly accuses Warren and his friends of attempted gang rape, and the audience is completely on board; this is the scene that establishes Warren as an evil character deserving of our hatred.
So when Willow rapes Tara, is she not just as bad as Warren?
I’ve got a theory.
I couldn’t really put my finger on it for a while, but something about Willow’s relationship with Tara was just off, right from the start. It didn’t really bother me in the fourth season, but towards the end of season five I thought I had it figured out, and season six just built on that. Let’s talk it out.
Tara is and has always been a weak character because she wasn’t really written as a character. She’s a prop, a prop for Willow to explore parts of herself that were disconnected from the rest of the Scoobies. Willow was always differentiated from them by her academic ability and success, and going to college widens that gap. She’s not going through a series of jobs like Xander, and she doesn’t have all the Buffy stuff to deal with. She needs to have her own life, and Tara is the show’s tool for exploring it.
Tara represents Willow’s discoveries about herself, notably that she’s a powerful witch and a lesbian. But Tara never really becomes her own character. She’s an extension of Willow, because the show needed a way to explore Willow’s identity outside of the group. Unfortunately, this means that Tara is conceived entirely as a slave to Willow’s purpose, and this is reflected in her characterization and her actions. The show comments on this pretty explicitly, with Willow telling Tara that she likes having her “all to myself.”
Let’s look at how they interact. They seem to rarely fight–although I kind of question that now, knowing that at least one fight was essentially disappeared from memory. Tara doesn’t have a life outside of Willow: no friends, no family. She doesn’t even have opinions outside of Willow. There’s one scene towards the end of season five in which Tara literally says Willow’s words for her; she acts as a mouthpiece for Willow, who smiles approvingly.
They do have one significant fight prior to the one that Willow makes Tara forget. (Transcript here, with commentary. Read it or don’t; I think it’s far too charitable towards their relationship. But I couldn’t find a clean transcript, nor could I find the video.) Following Joyce’s death, Tara begins to say that Willow can’t fully understand what Buffy and Dawn are going through. Willow is immediately irritated, and the disagreement escalates into a full-on fight, with Willow getting angrier and angrier. Tara is visibly and vocally afraid of Willow in this scene:
“In just a few… I mean, it frightens me how powerful you’re getting.”
She’s talking about Willow’s ever-increasing magical abilities, but I think she’s more afraid of upsetting Willow, which is exactly what’s happening in this scene. Willow puts words in Tara’s mouth and then gets angry at her for saying them.
“It’s not that. I’m worried, sometimes. You’re changing so much, so fast. I don’t know where you’re heading.”
“Where I’m heading?”
“I’m saying everything wrong.”
“No, I think you’re being pretty clear. This isn’t about the witch thing. It’s about the other changes in my life.”
Willow is accusing Tara of… something? Thinking that Willow’s a fake lesbian? Tara’s trying to express how terrified she is by the prospect of Willow leaving. Willow seizes the opportunity to make that fear real. She escalates the argument, puts words in Tara’s mouth, and dips out, leaving a distraught Tara behind.
“I’m really sorry that I didn’t establish my lesbo street cred before I got into this relationship. You’re the only woman I’ve ever fallen in love with, so how on Earth could you ever take me seriously?”
“Have fun at the fair.”
Look, I’m not saying that they’re an imperfect couple because they have a fight. Everybody fights. But that’s not what’s happening here. Throughout Tara’s existence on Buffy, she’s been defined by Willow. Tara doesn’t exist outside of her. Willow dominates their relationship, and she maintains her dominance any way she can. She keeps Tara to herself, only reluctantly introducing her to the other Scoobies. Even when Tara does hang out with them, it’s only acceptable to Willow because Tara acts as an extension of herself. And in this scene, which begins with Tara saying that there’s something maybe Willow doesn’t understand, Willow sees this as a threat to her dominance in the relationship.
Tara isn’t allowed to understand anything better than Willow, and if she does, she sure as hell can’t express it, to Willow or anyone else. It’s this scene that brought me to my season six epiphany: Willow is a bully and a manipulator. She strikes me as someone who will always think of herself as the underdog because she had a rough time fitting in with kids she went to high school with. And if you’re the underdog, it’s impossible to be the bully. Tara is Willow’s first chance to completely dominate a relationship, romantic or otherwise. She takes advantage. So by season five, Willow is a bully who uses the explicit threat of leaving, as well as the implicit threat of physical pain, to control her girlfriend. Using literal mind control to get what she wants isn’t that much different from using all her power to manipulate a weak-willed person. The magic flower incident is certainly bad, but Dark Willow existed before season six.
Willow has been ‘dark’ for the entirety of the show.
I’ll admit, I was never a huge fan of Willow. Her early storylines were kind of lame, including the aforementioned internet-dating robot-demon thing. Her romance with Tara never really did it for me, and that’s probably because I’d heard and seen such gushing praise for them, even before I had seen an episode of the show. But I never really gave Willow or her storylines much thought beyond, “Ugh, is this a Willow episode?”
That’s really changed for me. I look back at the first three seasons, knowing what I know now, and I see a totally different character. Rather than the cute, nerdy, nice, charming girl that she was presented as, I see a bully from day one. She just doesn’t have anyone to bully yet. Her best friends, Buffy and Xander, are also her only friends. Who is she going to manipulate? Buffy’s pretty good at dealing with bullies, and certainly wouldn’t tolerate her best friend being one. As for Xander, Willow’s got an unrequited crush on him, so she never gains the upper hand in that relationship.
But look at what happens when she’s given just a tiny amount of power. In the season two episode “Passion”, after Ms. Calendar asks Willow to run her computer science class for a day, Willow’s initial show of panic (“What if there’s a fire drill? What if there’s a fire?”) quickly turns into glee (“Will I have the power to assign detention? Or make ’em run laps?”) at the prospect of exercising authority over her peers. A few episodes later, in “Go Fish”, she delights in questioning Jonathan, promising to “crack him like an egg.” In both cases, when confronted with responsibility, she shows an initial panic followed by a smug confidence that makes one wonder if “innocent Willow” is just an act.
Neither of those incidents comes to much–at least not on screen, though we can judge for ourselves whether they foreshadow the bully that Willow becomes. More concerning is the behavior that Willow shows when she first starts dating Oz. Their relationship works for a while, until she cheats on Oz with Xander, who’s dating Cordelia at the time. I had basically forgotten about this, but looking back on it, this might be Willow’s first time getting off on actually hurting someone. Getting off in the sense that she enjoys it, and in the sense that she’s never punished for it. Sure, Oz kind of breaks it off with her, but it doesn’t stick. They get back together like two episodes later, and even when they do finally break up, he returns and practically begs her to take him back, though by this point she’s already found Tara.
The important thing: Willow never experiences any negative consequences for her actions. Not for cheating on Oz, and not for raping and abusing Tara. Not even with her magic addiction, besides getting slapped by Dawn for bringing her to what’s essentially a drug den. Willow’s smart: she’s learned from her relationship with Oz that if she waits for her transgression to blow over, while looking sad and pathetic enough, she will never suffer long-term consequences from her negative actions. Other people will, but not Willow. Whether or not you buy into the idea that Willow raped Tara, look back on the scene where they get back together. Here’s Tara, who shows up in Willow’s room shortly after they have coffee as friends:
“There’s just so much to work through. Trust has to be built again on both sides. You have to learn if – if we’re even the same people we were. If you can fit in each others lives. It’s a long and important process, and can we just skip it? C-Can you just be kissing me now?”
Yea, that’s it. Tara begs Willow to take her back, pointing out what they should be talking about only to immediately ignore it. Willow, who may have been sweating a bit at the prospect of not being forgiven for the first time in her life, smiles and embraces Tara.
Reaction from Dawn?
It’s obvious that the show, like Dawn, doesn’t see Willow as a villain, as the writers refuse to punish Willow for her actions. It boggles my mind, and the only explanation that I can come up with is that the writers are fucking with us. They’re challenging us, wondering how far they can push her before we stop seeing her as the underdog. Cheating? Addiction? Child endangerment? Rape? Murder? Check check check check check. Still the underdog.
I’m not sure I really believe that the show’s challenging the audience to see Willow as a villain, but I don’t know how else to interpret Buffy‘s refusal to hold Willow accountable for her actions. In a way, I can’t blame fans for loving Willow and Tara, because the show is presented in such a way that you’re supposed to love them. The show just has to be clever enough that you focus on that, instead of seeing Willow as a disgusting character.
Time to re-evaluate Willow and Tara.
I don’t get my jollies destroying things people love, unless your favorite show is The Walking Dead. I’m not writing this in an attempt to make Buffy fans feel bad about themselves. I’m writing this because it distresses me that the Willow-Tara romance is seen as some beautiful thing by so many people. It’s become iconic, and it seems like nobody’s saying, “Wait a minute, what’s really going on in this relationship?” If you think I’m exaggerating, go try to find anything negative about them on the internet. (In researching this article, I did Youtube searches for ‘willow tara argument’ and ‘willow tara fight’. I got a wall of Willow-Tara fan videos set to every sappy love song you can think of. That’s why I don’t have videos for any of my examples; Buffy fandom apparently doesn’t believe they should exist.) Sure, there’s the odd person on a message board, but mostly they get shouted down. One of the few real responses I saw: “Wow, I never thought of that. I still ❤ Willow though.”
What the fuck?
This is not a healthy relationship. It’s not an early, positive depiction of lesbians on TV, and Tara is not a strong character. Willow controls her emotionally for her own purposes, and never lets Tara interact with the other Scoobies as herself. She’s always an extension of Willow. If you moved Tara to another show, any other show, people would rightly call her what she is: a victim of emotional and physical abuse.
I’m not generally bothered by fictional representations of violence. I think this is just upsetting to me because of the gap between who Willow is and who she’s perceived to be, by the audience and the show itself. I can only assume that Buffy fans take their cues from the show, so I can’t really blame them for only seeing a love story when they first saw Willow’s arc. The show wants you to believe that Willow and Tara have a beautiful relationship, and that’s how it tells the story.
This might seem like a weird comparison, but I think of it a bit like Black Swan. In Darren Aronofsky’s film, Natalie Portman is a young ballerina who’s slowly losing her mind and succumbing to delusions, but neither she nor the audience sees it that way. Instead, we see a world that’s making less and less sense, a mom that can’t let her daughter go, and rivals that are out to get her. From her perspective, and the perspective the movie gives us, she’s a sane heroine in an insane world.
You need two more examples, I can tell. Remember Training Day? Unless you were watching with that friend who spoils everything (you know who you are), you probably didn’t know that Zel was the bad guy. His bad deeds are interspersed with a few good ones, and he’s got just enough charisma that even after he murders a friend in cold blood, you can still buy him being a force for good. An anti-hero, sure, but you can trick yourself into believing for most of the movie that he’s not the villain.
30 Rock. There’s this scene at the end of one episode, in which Liz explains how easily people are manipulated by TV:
The point is, we’re easily misled by this stuff, and that’s often the intention of the artist. I’m not saying Buffy viewers are stupid. I’m saying that a part of what makes fiction great is that it can manipulate us so easily. The first time I read Catch-22, I thought it was the funniest shit ever. The second time? Super depressing. There’s nothing wrong with being able to read something two different ways. It’s actually a good thing.
That being said, I do think it’s strange that Willow and Tara are still so beloved by hardcore Buffy fans who should know better. Presumably, these people have seen the show more than once, and yet their thoughts on the Willow and Tara thing don’t go beyond making fan videos to celebrate their love. I think the Buffy community needs to think a little bit more critically about this stuff.
Alright, enough of that. When did Buffy become Game of Thrones?
Leaving Willow aside for a moment, the whole season struck me as incredibly nihilistic, in the sense that characters rarely got justice. There’s a storyline in which Dawn, a 16-year-old, is constantly stealing shit, even from the Magic Shop, run by Scoobie Gang member Anya. When she’s caught, there’s some sort of talking-to, but what’s the next thing we hear about it? Dawn and Buffy are walking around town together, pointing out stores that Dawn’s stolen from and laughing about it. Is there a lesson learned? I’m not saying she has to go to jail, or that good things can’t happen to bad people or vice versa, but does the show really say anything about Dawn’s problem?
I stopped watching Game of Thrones, partially because of all the rape and torture in season three, but mostly because it’s so nihilistic. Nobody is in control of their own destiny in any meaningful way; in fact, any attempt to control one’s own fate generally results in a quicker death. I think I understand the message: We don’t always get what we deserve. In fact, we rarely get what we deserve.
I see a place for that, but it’s just not what I believe. I believe that we can make incremental movement towards widespread justice for individuals, which is impossible in a universe that rejects the concept of individual justice. That’s why Game of Thrones bothers me. It can be entertaining as shit, but I don’t believe that a world without individual justice can exist. When the creator, the God of a fictional universe, is bragging about how much he enjoys killing off beloved characters, I’m compelled to reject the premise of that universe.
But to me, this season of Buffy was worse than that. Game of Thrones may not believe in individual justice, but it generally provides reasons for things that happen. Ned Stark probably didn’t deserve his fate, but there were reasons for what happened to him. From what I remember, Aidan Gillen was in love with his wife, or something. (Incidentally, I don’t view Gillen’s other famous show The Wire as nihilistic, since it contains several instances of character agency, even if they’re rare. Namond comes to mind as a positive example, Stringer as the inverse of that.)
What happened in season six that makes any sense, morally or rationally? As I said before, I really think that the writers, panicking, rushed to undo everything that had happened in the previous season. Anya and Xander, whose biggest relationship problem heretofore had been that Anya was a weirdo, suddenly get antsy about their wedding, culminating in Xander leaving her at the altar. Giles finally goes home to England and actually stays there, which he’d been threatening to do pretty regularly. Dawn is stealing things, presumably because she’s not getting enough attention at home, although the reasons are explored neither before nor after she’s caught. Willow and Tara get back together, only for Warren to accidentally kill Tara in the next episode. With a gun. I think Tara had to die, but not for karmic reasons, and not even to set up the inevitable ‘Dark Willow’ storyline that the season had so obviously been leading up to; for me, Tara had to die because of everything that she, Willow, and the show had left unsaid about Willow’s betrayal. A gun though? A bullet meant for Buffy?
I think the only person who still has any semblance of agency in the story is Buffy herself. She struggles with the knowledge that she was better off dead, and resents her friends for dragging her back into the world. She returns home to a pile of bills, a rebellious teenage sister that she’s gotta take care of, and a group of friends that have turned into the biggest dicks in the world. She knows she can’t be the Slayer, and go to college, and make money, and spend time with Dawn, so she withdraws from school and takes a job at a fast food restaurant. With the exception of the whole Slayer thing, it seems like a pretty real depiction of life to me. Buffy may be a great friend and sister, but that doesn’t mean she always gets what she wants. The show lets her make choices, including the all-important decision she eventually makes not to kill herself.
I was actually a little nervous as the season began about Buffy’s strong wish to be dead again. In the previous season, following the loss of her mother, she balks when she’s told that death is her gift, and rejects the premise. “Death is not a gift. My mother just died, I know this. If I have to kill demons because it makes the world a better place, then I kill demons. But it is not a gift to anybody.” Damn right. The season five finale reveals that Buffy’s sacrifice is the gift of life for Dawn. Death can only be a gift when it means life for another.
This is turned on its head in season six. Willow brought Buffy back mostly for selfish reasons, so I can understand Buffy’s initial reluctance to thank her. But for half the season, she seems to be leaning towards wishing she was dead. Her songs in “Once More With Feeling” reflect this; “Going Through the Motions” and “Walk Through the Fire” have Buffy singing about her waning interest in the Slayer vocation. In “Something to Sing About”, she makes her distaste for life clear to all:
Life’s a song you don’t get to rehearse
And every single verse
Can make it that much worse
Still my friends don’t know why I ignore
The million things or more
I should be dancing for
All the joy life sends
Family and friends
All the twists and bends
Knowing that it ends
Well that depends
On if they let you go
On if they know enough to know
That when you’ve bowed
You leave the crowd
At the end of the song, she tells her friends that her life is hell, and begins dancing furiously, an action that we all understand will lead to her death. She’s on the verge of combustion when Spike grabs her, singing, “Life’s not a song, life isn’t bliss, life is just this, it’s living.” Buffy lives, but only through outside intervention. Later in the season, however, she will have to make a choice, and nobody will be there to ensure that she makes the right one.
In “Normal Again”, Buffy is attacked by a demon who causes her to shift between the reality of the show and an alternate scenario, in which all the Slayer stuff is a delusion. She’s in a mental institution, her parents are there, and the doctors try to convince her to remain in that reality. Throughout the episode, she doesn’t know what she believes, but appears to decide that she prefers to take a chance on the institution. Once she’s actually forced to hurt her friends in order to get there, however, she decides that she values them over what she sees as a better chance for happiness, and rejects the alternate reality.
Thus, even with a lot of nihilistic tendencies in the series, I think they get the big one right: Buffy rejects suicide, and embraces life. She knows what life will be, at least in the near future. It’ll be a lot of bills, working crappy jobs, taking care of Dawn and protecting all the Scoobies- it’s not going to be bliss, as Spike pointed out. But she recognizes that it’s better than the alternative. Forgetting every questionable choice in season six, I think Buffy’s decision and ability to keep herself alive are powerful statements by the show: we can make the right choice, and sometimes we might even be rewarded for it.
Long story short, good season. Definitely different from anything previously done on Buffy, in ways both good and bad. Season six had a lot of interesting ideas, and though I didn’t always agree with what I felt the show was trying to say, I thoroughly enjoyed almost every episode.