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Some thought on "Villains" [Repost]

WillowFromBuffy

To be or not to evil.
Joined
May 11, 2019
Messages
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Some warning before we start
I like Willow and I like season 6. Considering how controversial this series of episodes are, I thought it was a good idea to just put that out there.

Some thoughts on the title
This episode is curiously called “Villains.” We are not explicitly told who these villains are. This is not one of those episodes where the title appears in the episode. None of the characters uses the word villain.

There is quite a bit of discussion about who the so-called big bad of season 6 is. I always found life to be an unsatisfactory answer, because BtVS has always been about the hardships of life. Saying that season 6 is about life feels like a cop-out. It is too vague. Then again, what is Buffy's main problem in season 6? It is all the little things—the little things who by themselves are too small to really be much of a thing—all those little things we colloquially refers to as life—life dragging us down, making us incapable of dealing with the big things.

I see Joss as an absurdist. The Buffyverse is chaotic and unfair. It takes a tough person to make it. Heaven is the opposite of that. It does not really feel like a place at all. Buffy describes it as a wonderful, serine state where even the pains of being a fleshy body living in harsh materiality is gone. To me, that has always felt like a horrible place for Buffy to end up—Buffy the fighter, Buffy the survivor, lounging in some immaterial opium den in the sky.

So, I do think it makes sense to say that life is indeed the big bad—not life itself but “life” in quotation marks. The resolution to the season comes in “Grave,” when Buffy accepts life and promises Dawn that they now both will have the strength to deal with “life.”

But who are the villains? Warren is a villain. He may be the villain of this episode. But he is not the big bad, because he is not Buffy's main antagonist. He is certainly antagonistic, but he is not the main thing keeping Buffy from achieving her goal of reconnecting with life. Warren is certainly relevant to the seasons exploration of consent and regard for other people, but he is not the cause of Buffy's ennui.

Spike is a villain. He has recently assaulted Buffy, making it clear to them both that he is every bit the monster he always has been. But I don't think Spike is the big bad of the season, even if he comes close. This season, Buffy shows us the dangers of rejecting life and disassociating ourself from our own bodies and experiences. Spike is her opposite in this regard. His engagement with life is extreme and reckless and shows little regard for others. Spike gives Buffy many useful lesson through the season, but he represents a different kind of danger.

Willow adopts her villainous Dark Willow-persona this episode, and then she tortures and kills a man in cold revenge, declaring that she will also kill his two friends, before she vanishes in a puff of smoke. But Willow certainly is not the big bad of the season, even if she will later try to bring on the apocalypse, which is the end-goal of any self-respecting big bad. In this episode, she brings Buffy back to life for the second time this season. The goal of the season is for Buffy to accept life, which is what Willow has been trying to get her to do.

It may have been better if they added a question mark after villains, though that may have been to much on the nose. I think the title is pointing to the fact that it can be hard to distinguish between those who are villains and those who are not. Is Willow a villain or is she a hero fighting villains? Is Warren a villain, even when he begs for his life? Are Andrew and Jonathan villains, by association with Warren or through their own actions?

Villain is a dehumanising title. A hero is justified to slay every villain in their way. No one cries for the faceless stormtroopers who die when Luke from Star Wars blow up the Death Star. They were on the side of villainy. They had it coming.

Some random thoughts on the episode
The episode does feature a bittersweet reunion of three core Scoobies, who haven't been acting as a team much this season. Of course, it ends up being short lived, but it is still nice seeing everyone in the same car. It is important to note that Willow's first act after absorbing the dark power is to save Buffy. I have often wondered, though, as to why she would bring Xander and Buffy along to hunt Warren. I suspect that she (consciously or not) wanted to provoke the confrontation that happens after Willow destroys the Warren!Bot. It seems like Willow is quite happy to let them see her flay the real Warren. Maybe she is hoping they will save her or maybe she just wants her to share her pain. I dunno. It may simply be that she is instinctively drawn to her friends and she wants them to be there as her world ends.

The Buffyverse loves to do scenes that mirror past scenes. Warren at the demon bar is very similar to the vampire with the Hanson shirt going to the demon biker bar in “Bargaining.” The scene suggests that Sunnydale would be overrun by demons again if Willow had not gone dark and saved Buffy.

The opening scene with Willow covered in Tara's blood gestures back to the scene from “Bargaining,” where Willow kills the fawn. Both times Willow wears white and is covered in the blood of an innocent. The episode where Willow brings back Buffy is called “Bargaining,” but if all that Willow pays for Buffy is the fawn she kills, then that sounds like too good a bargain perhaps. The similarities between this scene suggest that the universe took Tara in payment for Willow's transgressive magic.

Dawn stays with Tara's body, whereas Willow leaves her behind as soon as she is resigned to her death. Over the coarse of these last three episodes, Willow will become more and more unwilling to talk about Tara. From the next episode on, she will threaten violence upon everyone who mentions her name. I do not talked a lot about Dawn in the following, but Dawn is a very important character in this season, and up until the point of Tara's death, Dawn and Tara have both often served as authorial voices, but now we see Buffy start to reclaim that role.

Why will Osiris not resurrect Tara?
According to the smoky visage Willow speaks to, Tara's death is a “human death, by human means.” Now, why does this matter? My theory is that this points to the dual nature of the Buffyverse. First, there is what you would call the real world. Second, you have the magical and fantastical elements that are added to this world—the supernatural creatures and phenomena that do not exist in our real world. The show is able to use these fantastical elements to create stories that we as viewers are able to relate to our everyday experience. This is possible, because the fantastical are literal manifestation of our abstract fears and desires. Paradoxically, the more unreal the show becomes, the more real it can often feel.

The process of transforming inner demons into literal demons can be messy. Angel is not simply a symbol of Buffy's sexual angst, he is a creature of flesh and blood and every bit as dynamic and multifaceted as the other characters on the show. Because of this messiness, there is quite a bit of overlap between the mundane and the magical, and I think this is important. If things were too neatly delineated, it would feel artificial and forced. However, the show still maintains certain boundaries. The magical and the mundane do not mix completely. Certain characters belongs more to one dimension than the other.

The magical elements are very important to how BtVS works as a text. BtVS is a didactic show. It wants us to think about stuff, and it often uses the magical to present its various hypotheses to us. Therefore, the main purpose of the magical is to tell a story. The mundane elements are there to give the show a relatable grounding, keeping it from floating away into full allegory.

Let us use the episode “Passion” as an example (I promise I will return to “Villains” soon :p). The episode starts and ends with a narration from Angel, who argues that “without passion, we'd be truly dead.” The episode is an exploration of love and grief. It asks us to contemplate if love is worth the cost of loss. The story is told mainly through the fantastical battle between the Scoobies and the vampires. However, there is a scene that is completely free of any magical elements, namely the scene between Joyce and Buffy in Buffy's bedroom. Joyce's discourse is completely at odds with that of the larger narrative. She makes no mention of passion, love or grief. All she cares about are practicalities, such as safety and unintended pregnancy. The scene does not tell a story. It doesn't have a moral. It is merely a mimetic representation of a typical conversation between a young girl and her mother.

Joyce's motherly pragmatism feels jarring and almost vulgar in the context of the surrounding drama, but the Buffyverse would be poorer without scenes like this. Life is about actualities. The magical elements of BtVS allow it to tell interesting stories, but it is important that the magic is not used to obliterate the facts of life. Therefore, there is a boundary … between fantasy and realism … between the magic and the mundane … and between allegory and mimesis.

Buffy's deaths in “Prophecy Girl” and “The Gift” are symbolic deaths. Her sacrifices are there to teach us lessons on morality. Her deaths are also transformative. They are not endings/full stops/periods. However, Joyce's death is a representation of an actual death. There is no meaning to her death. It is simply a representation of how death occurs in real life. That is why she cannot be brought back in “Forever.” Xander is so frustrated by the meaninglessness of Joyce's death that he starts looking for an enemy, which would allow him to contextualise Joyce's death, but the story denies him this comfort. Willow even offers to play the part of villain, so that Xander can contextualise Joyce's death within the framework of a battle between good and evil.

The problem in “Villains” is that Willow is not happy about this. She seeks to obliterate the boundary completely. She is not willing to confine her magic to the Scooby work. When Willow screams at the godly visage, I see it almost as Willow rebelling against the text itself. Her question, “How is this natural?” is a favourite of mine. The phenomenal world does not to conform to any notion we may have naturalness. It is absurd, and harsh, and cruel, and yaddi daddi dah... Things are not the way they ought to be, is what I am trying to say :p

I want to move on to Warren and the Trio. The Trio see themselves as being at the bottom of the food chain. Therefore, they use magic and fantastical technology to assert themselves in the world. However, their magic is quite ineffectual and harmless. The freeze ray does not kill the security guard, as it would have done if a person had become literally frozen. Katrina breaks free of the cerebral dampener at the last moment. My point is, none of their gadgets are able to create lasting effects on the world. Their plans are merely symbolic play. When Warren kills Katrina, he does not do it with magic or with a laser gun. He kills her by bludgeoning her head with a wine bottle. This illustrates how boy-ish games can turn into serious crimes. When Katrina accuses the Trio of attempting to rape her, her words break the spell sortaspeak and moves us from the fantastical world of harmless Revenge-of-the-Nerds-shenanigans and into the harsh reality of sexual violence.

Similarly, in “Seeing Red,” Warren's magic testicle balls fail to help him defeat Buffy, but when he picks up a gun, he is able to inflict real and lasting damage upon the world.

When Willow transforms herself into Dark Willow, she is suddenly able to fully breach the boundary between the magical and the actual. By now, it is too late to save Tara, but she is able to magically undo the damage Warren's gun did to Buffy and resuscitate her after she has flat-lined. People often seem to overlook that Buffy is clinically dead when Willow enters her room at the hospital, making this Buffy's third death, not counting “Nightmares” and “The Wish.” However, this is a much realer death, outside the world of magic and allegory and symbolic phoenix-like transformation. It is a death magic has no place undoing.

When Warren learns that Buffy is alive, he runs to Rack and stacks up on magical gadgets, none of which proves to be more than minor inconveniences for Willow. Warren then tries cutting Willow with an axe. But, even if Warren could successfully kill Katrina and Tara (and almost Buffy) with ordinary objects, Willow rises to her feet and informs him that “axe's not gonna cut it.”

This tells us that the rules have changed. Willow's power is now practically boundless, and she rules the mundane world just as easily as the magical one. Willow then does what the Trio could not do, which is to kill a person purely through magic. She has no need for bottles, guns or axes. She has broken through.

Empowerment in existentialist hell
Is Buffy an empowering show? On the one hand, it is. Buffy has super powers and she punches people she does not like on the nose. On the other hand, Buffy seems to time and again push the idea that we need to accept our powerlessness. The world is infinitely more powerful than we are, and if we cannot accept this fact, we may loose our moral high ground. This is a tough pill to swallow for some people (and by some people, I mean me!). However, I think this is a very interesting facet to the Buffyverse. It is not a power fantasy. It stands by its often quite dogmatic and un-bend-y didacticism.

I bet most viewers are with Dawn. We want Warren to die and it is what we truly mean. There is something deeply self-denying about being a slayer/champion. To be a champion is to accept and to abide. To be a champion means to be in conflict with both our inner and outer worlds. A champion tries vainly to impose an impossible ideal that neither reflects our imperfect nature nor the absurdity of the world.

The flip side is that not being a champion can be just as damaging to the self. As Buffy says: “We can't control the universe. If we were supposed to ... then the magic wouldn't change Willow the way it does.” The champion may be in conflict with herself and the world but so is Willow, only even more so.

Tara is the centre of Willow's existence. Throughout the season, Willow has lost many of the things she treasures, such as the control of her super-Willow magic, the respect of her friends, etc. She is at a low point in her life. This makes Tara all the more important. Tara becomes the light at the end of the tunnel as Willow struggles to get back on her feet. But when Tara dies, Willow immediately abandons her. She suppresses her grief with anger. Therefore, without the puritanical ethics of champion- and slayerism, Willow is even less herself.

In “Consequences,” Angel tells Faith about being a god. To “kill without remorse” is absolute power. However, this god is really just a slave to the world and to herself. The world is a storm and we are just pebbles being thrown about, so keeping one's integrity is an almost impossible task. But those who strive to be champions are able to stand somehow apart from all of this, and this way they are able to keep more of themselves in the end.

Who is Dark Willow?
This is a complicated question. Firstly, there are more than one. I think there are three Dark Willows, each with her own distinct personality and goals. If you want to include the comics, you also have Dark Willow in Quor'Toth and the Madwoman in Fray's time, both of which have little in common with the three permutations of Dark Willow on the show. As I am only discussing “Villains,” I will mostly keep my discussion to the Dark Willow we see in this episode, though I may make some comments on how she differs from her later permutations. I don't know if the reviewers of the next two episode will find this distinction useful. I leave that up to them.

I want to start by discussing Willow's original alter ego, namely Vampire Willow. Vampire Willow is easier to identify than Dark Willow. In “Doppelgangland,” we see a conflict between two female archetypes, namely the whore (represented by Vampire Willow) and the Madonna (represented by regular Willow). The conflict is resolved when Willow decides to integrate these two extremes into each other and build a new identity, trying to embrace the best qualities of both. This is important, because while Vampire Willow is selfish and amoral, she is also assertive and sexually confident. These are important qualities in a repressive society run by people like Snyder and Percy.

Now, how closely is Dark Willow related to Vampire Willow? Not very close at all, except that they are both dangerous when they are bored. Vampire Willow is a hedonist, while Dark Willow feels more like a cold avatar of vengeance. Dark Willow seems to adopt some of Vampire Willow's playful sadism after she drains Rack, but in “Villains,” Willow is almost completely emotionless.

To explore how Willow turns into Dark Willow, I want to look at some similarities between Willow and Carrie from the movie and book of the same name, focusing on the movie, because the movie is a classic and I haven't read the book.

After S1, Willow's hair inexplicably turns red, which signifies her transformation from a scared, bookish nerd into the amazingly complex and complex-ly amazing witch. This transformation is like an awakening, which is triggered by her friendship with Buffy, whose identity as a slayer is another symbol of awakening and maturity. Carrie starts with Carrie getting her first period at an uncommonly high age. The reason for this lateness is that Carrie's puritan mother has actively besought God to delay it.

Who else has a puritan mother? Willow does. Sheila may be an intellectual and she may not necessarily be deeply religious, but she is a puritan in her own way. Willow's parents keep her from watching such awful things as the Christian Peanuts and the patriarchal Mr Rodgers Show. We know that Willow and Amy used to bound over their strict mothers, stuffing themselves with brownies in proud rebellion. Willow's upbringing has lead to a split in her personality. On the on hand, she is obsessed with following rules, while on the other hand, she takes supreme pleasure in breaking them.

In “Gingerbread,” there is an argument between Willow and Sheila that is very similar to the argument in Carrie. Shelia contextualises Willow's attempts at self actualisation within a discourse of repressive pscyho-babble, while Carrie's mother does the same with Christian puritanism. Willow and Carrie both want their mothers to see them as they are, as individual young women trying to figure themselves out. Carrie's mother accuses Carrie of being under the influence of the devil, while in “Gingerbread” it is Willow who declares herself to be a servant of the prince of darkness. Sheila then repeats Carrie's mother's exact line: “Though shall not suffer a witch to live.”

In Carrie, Carrie is asked to the prom by the cutest and most charming boy in class. As Carrie suspects, the boy only asks her because the boy's girlfriend feels bad about having bullied Carrie. Carrie is terrified that her suspicions will turn true and that everyone will suddenly turn on her. When Carrie leaves for the prom, her mother puts word to this fear as she shouts, “They will all laugh at you.” Of course, that is exactly what happens, even if the boy had no part in it.

Throughout the show, Willow mentions her fear that she is unlovable and that everyone who loves her now will eventually figure out this fact and leave her. This fear is made concrete in her dream in “Restless,” where she dreams that she will be symbolically stripped and mocked by all her friends, including her past and current lover. Willow and Carrie both see themselves as intrinsically unlovable. Only super-Willow, the pagan hipster, is worthy of love, but she is just a frail construction that may fall apart at any moment.

The end of “Seeing Red” is the moment Willow sees the world turn on her. Carrie is covered in pig's blood, meant to symbolise menstruation, but with a wide web of other connotations. Willow, also dressed in white, is smeared with Tara's blood. Red is Willow's colour. The walls of Willow's dreamland safe-space and the sheets she and Tara made love in were red. Now all that redness is pouring out.

When Willow leaves the Summers house, her cold, inexpressive manner is quite similar to Carrie leaving the high school gym on the lookout for John Travolta. Carrie and Willow disappear within themselves as they transform into avatars of vengeance. Warren and Travolta have already won. Carrie and Willow only seek to even the score, and once they have killed their enemies, they are going to self-implode.

It is hard to know how to classify Willow and Carrie. Are they heroes or monsters? Are they the villains of their stories? As I have made clear, I find it difficult to fully accept the harsh tenets of champion-ism. There is something empowering in Willow and Carrie. They are victims who refuse to be victimised. However, they are just fantasies and therefore not real solutions, which is why the fictional world they inhabit demonise them. If we were to idolize Willow and Carrie, how do we take their example into the real world? Do we chop up everyone who is mean to us?

Some thoughts on the death of Tara as a gay character
There is a history in fiction for characters who are either gay or more often implied gay ending up dead. Many of these characters are very similar. They tend to have fascination with and envy of the central character. They are sexually ambiguous. They represent a destabilising force in the life of the central character and the wider fictional world. Often, they can be quite selfish and mean. It is often unclear whether the text is problematising the character herself or if society is the problem. A repressive society may need someone to destabilize it. However, this cliché is incredibly common and even in the texts that are sympathetic, the gay (or more often ambiguously gay) character is invariably portrayed as dangerous and disruptive to their environment.

BtVS has three characters that I believe clearly falls within this tradition—Vampire Willow, Faith and Ethan Rayne. They each have a straight victim (for lack of a better term) whom they enact their destabilising power upon. These are respectively Willow, Buffy and Giles. Vampire Willow is the only one who dies, though Willow herself does not want to kill her. Buffy tries to kill Faith, but she survives and re-emerges as a more muted and less dangerous character. Ethan is locked away in a military prison.

A little tangent concerning Giles and Ethan: Tara's story connects gay-ness with demon-ness. Previously, we've met Larry who talks about his sexuality in a manner that makes Xander believe he is a lycanthrope. Ethan and Giles were in a group that experimented with sex and altered mental states. There was only a single woman in the group. In “A New Man,” Ethan turns Giles into a demon after a drunken night. Later, Giles must wear one of Ethan's embarrassingly flamboyant shirt. Strangely, we've never seen Ethan wear a shirt like the one Giles wears. Ethan only wears plain shirts in regular colours.

Tara stands in stark contrast to all these characters. Tara, in season 6 especially, is purely a stabilising force. And even if she was killed by a violent misogynist, her death is not a consequence of who she is. Warren does not even intend to kill her. Her death is just a random result of his cruel and thoughtless behaviour.

It may be that the writers did not see the true value of Tara and that the decision to kill off one of TV's few gay characters was terribly misguided, but I think people have been too quick to place her death within a tradition where she does not really belong. I think there are many other character in the Buffyverse who are problematic, though, such as the ones mentioned, as well as Andrew and Lorne. But Tara is a heroic character, whose heroism (except for one axing) did not lay in violence.

Tara versus Willow
Tara's greatest fear is that she is monstrous. In S4's “Goodbye Iowa,” we learn that Tara has a secret. The secret is that Tara fears she will soon complete her transformation into a demon. As a demon, Tara will loose her ability to make moral judgments and choices. Homosexuality stands in conflict with traditional values, morals and categories. Gay people are alien to this framework, and they will therefore sometimes find themselves demon-ized. In the Buffyverse, this becomes a little more literal than normal.

Even before Tara becomes fully accepted into the Scoobies, Tara is very concerned with creating a social environment that is accommodating and nurturing. She expresses a lot of worry and concern for Dawn in seasons 5 and 6. She tells Willow in “After Life” that their bedroom is a safe space were she is free to express herself, which is how Willow sees Tara's bedroom in her dream in “Restless.”

Tara also has a lot of compassion for Buffy both in “Intervention” and “Dead Things.” She does not want Buffy to experience the same kind of demonization that she herself did, and so she is the one who tells Buffy that she did not come back wrong, and that there is nothing demonic about her.

Willow's fear is different. Willow's greatest fear is that she is an insignificant nerd whom no-one would bother to care about. No one has ever accused Willow of being a demon. Willow is a good girl, who flosses, excels in school and obeys the rules. What Willow is told is that she is boring and insignificant. The Cordettes do so explicitly, while Willow's parents, Xander and everyone else does it by ignoring her.

Both Willow and Tara are looking for love and acceptance, but the way they do this is different. Tara would never have gone the route of Dark Willow, as that would have confirmed her father's judgement of her. It is really hard for Willow to give up magic, because Willow believes that people will stop caring about her the moment she stops being useful and impressive.

Willow's fear is succinctly summarised in this exchange between her and Buffy in “Wrecked”:

Willow: It was. But I mean, if you could be, you know, plain old Willow or super Willow, who would you be? I guess you don't actually have an option on the whole super thing.

Buffy: Will, there's nothing wrong with you. You don't need magic to be special.

Willow: Don't I? I mean, Buffy, who was I? Just... some girl. Tara didn't even know that girl.

Buffy: You are more than some girl. And Tara wants you to stop. She loves you.

Willow: We don't know that.

It is significant that Willow mention that Buffy has no choice to be special or about “the whole super thing.” In Willow's view, Buffy has always been special, even though we as viewers know that Buffy has had to grow into this role.

Willow can only be special and lovable by adopting the faux persona of super-Willow, which is represented by the costume that Buffy rips off in Willow's “Restless” dream, causing all her friends and her two lovers to mock and deride her.

But Willow follows Buffy's advice, and it turns out that Tara does indeed love her. But a mere day after Willow learns this, Tara dies from Warren's bullet. Willow then has the choice to remain plain old Willow, grieve Tara and live the rest of her life without super powers …. or … she can turn herself into a super-being that nobody (not even the gods) will be able to ignore.

Some thoughts on Buffy
Earlier I said that Buffy's short death in this episode is not transformative. That is not quite true. Buffy's death is not as allegorical and magical as her two previous deaths, but it does teach her a valuable lesson.

Buffy spends the summer in Heaven, separated from her body, which decomposes back on Earth. Being thrown back into herself proves to be a shock. Buffy struggles the entire season with depression. Worst is the feeling at she came back wrong. She feels unfamiliar in her own skin and among her old friends. She is disconnected from herself and from the world.

Spike is very much in tune with his own body and his id, so Buffy seeks solace with him. However, sleeping with Spike only alienates Buffy even more from herself, as she does not recognise herself in the person she is becoming.

In “Seeing Red,” Buffy suffers two attacks against her body. The first comes from Spike, the second from Warren. At the risk of being crude, you could say that Spike fails to penetrate, while Warren succeeds

These attacks fill Buffy with terror. Throughout the season, she has been reckless with her body. She broke a house with Spike in “Smashed.” She gave up control of her body to Spike in “Dead Thing,” when she let him cuff her. She rejoiced when she was turned invisible in “Gone,” finding near non-corporeality freeing rather than terrifying. Now she has come very close to first being raped and then being killed. It reminds her that the body is precious, and that in order to live in the world, we must accept that we are temporal creatures of flesh.

When Buffy wakes up, she finds her whole world in disarray. Tara is dead, Willow is on a vendetta, Anya is a demon, Dawn is yet again traumatised and Xander feels helpless and useless after all his recent mistakes. Knowing that she stands to permanently lose everything she cares about, Buffy rises to the challenge.

Buffy does not lose herself to the moment. She sympathises with Willow, but she reminds her that they don't support vendettas against humans. It is this integrity that separates a champion from others.
 
Anyanka Bunny Slayer
Anyanka Bunny Slayer
5,274 words. 😨

Ethan Reigns

Scooby
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Sineya
I read the whole thing. As a Rossum Corporation test subject might say, "Did I fall asleep?" I liked the comparison between Carrie and Willow and their respective mothers.
 
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