Because it comes right after the astonishing OMWF, and because the proverbial shit is about to hit the proverbial fan in the following two episodes, it’s easy to overlook just how good Tabula Rasa is. I’d say it’s Rebecca Rand Kirshner’s best work, and it’s the last episode of S6 before the controversy begins.
The episode opens with 2 moments of insight: Buffy’s that she’s not actually duty-bound to save Spike’s life; and Willow’s that “I was so selfish”. Both insights are lost by the end of the episode, and that’s a real sign of how S6 will go, somewhat like the Magic Box sequence in Life Serial.
One reason why the episode is so well-constructed is that we don’t just see the characters’ innate personalities once they lose their memories. No, we see them as they see themselves. This is most noticeable with Spike and Buffy – Buffy sees herself as a superhero, Spike sees himself as on a path to redemption – but it’s true of the rest as well. Whether those are accurate or beneficial self-images is another thing entirely.
Note the way the couples interact once they lose their memories. Lots of inferences to draw there, some of which I’ll leave alone in order to avoid spoilers. Though they aren’t a couple, per se, Buffy connected immediately with Dawn. Dawn may feel stifled, as I mentioned in my previous post, but Buffy still sees her as an integral part of her life.
Willow’s path recreates the one she has taken in life: first attracted to Xander, then recognizing that she’s “kinda gay”. Tara hangs back as if she’s unsure, but the attraction is there before the spell breaks.
“Joan” and “Randy” behave much like Buffy and Spike have been. Spike has an exalted image of himself: “I must be a noble vampire. (Buffy looks dubious) A good guy. On a mission of redemption. … I'm a hero really. I mean, to be cast such an ugly lot in life and then to rise above it. To seek out better, nobler things. It's inspirational, isn't it? And the two of us... (gestures from Buffy to himself) natural enemies, thrown together to stand against the forces of darkness. Utter trust. No thought of me biting you, no thought of you staking me.” Buffy’s pretty skeptical and doesn’t seem all that interested, but she doesn’t try to slay him and she is kissing him again at the end.
I’ll leave any other discussion of relationships with a cryptic reference to the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze.
There’s a parallel being drawn between Giles and Tara, but with an important distinction. Both see themselves as enablers and follow through on their determination to leave partly for that reason, but in Tara’s case she has the additional justification of needing to leave for her own safety and self-respect, given how Willow has treated her. Willow has come a long way since she was an insecure girl mooning over Xander, but she’s back crying in the bathroom just as she was in Enemies. And as was true in Something Blue, Willow didn’t really cast the forget spells to make the other people feel better, she did them to make herself feel better.
It’s worth considering just what it is that Willow is doing wrong. In All the Way, Tara told her that she was “doing too much magic”. I can think of a few possible meanings for this. One is that Willow is using magic unnecessarily, like the decorations in All the Way. Another is that magic is like a pool of water and Willow is drawing too much out of the pool. A third might be that using magic too often increases the risk of unforeseen consequences to oneself or to others – see Spike’s comment in After Life, but also my discussion in that post questioning the accuracy of his view. Tara implies it’s the third possibility she has in mind when she says “It's not good for you, Willow. And it's not what magic is for.”
I can see how Tara might use that third argument in an effort to persuade Willow, but I don’t think it really gets at the crux of Willow’s problem. In fact, the whole “too much magic” notion seems problematic to me. In my view, the problem is not “too much magic” but something much more obvious: abuse of power. Willow is using her magic to force others to conform to her own desires. Tara told her flat out how selfish she was: “you're helping yourself now, fixing things to your liking. Including me.”
We might wonder why Tara stayed with Willow even as long as she did. If Willow had erased my memory, I wouldn’t have needed a second example. The answer, I think, aside from the fact that Tara really does love Willow, is that Tara knows that she herself did something pretty bad in Family. Her spell there was purely selfish, like Willow’s here, but it affected more than one person and actually put them in physical danger. Willow’s first “forget” spell didn’t affect others nor did it put anyone in danger, but her second one did both. Tara learned from her mistake. Willow not only repeated hers, she made it worse. Much worse.
It’s not clear that Tara’s departure will help Willow stop her downward spiral. It may very well have the opposite impact, just as Giles’s harsh words did in Flooded. The problem is that at this point it isn’t about Willow, it’s about Tara’s own safety. For more on Tara, see the comments. Spoilers, of course.
I think it’s worth asking questions about Giles. Yes, Buffy is avoiding adulthood with him around. Yes, Giles has felt increasingly superfluous since the beginning of S4 (he also tried telling Buffy to handle things on her own in The Freshman). But at the end of Life Serial Giles said he wanted to be seen as a “rakish uncle”, and he behaves rather uncle-ish here rather than fatherly. He’s convinced himself that his departure will be good for Buffy, but those of us watching can’t help wondering if it’s what Giles thinks he needs. It’s clear and understandable that he doesn’t want to be the disciplinarian, but there is lots of middle ground between that and leaving town.
Xander, consistent with his “nothing to see here” line in OMWF, decides not to worry about Buffy’s return (“Me like Buffy. Buffy's alive, so, me glad.”). He then leaves the room when Tara and Willow fight. In the past he’s never hesitated to call out his friends when he thinks they’re wrong (and sometimes when they aren’t). Now he’s deliberately shielding himself from discomfort.
Xander laughed when his memories returned because he remembered King Ralph. What did Buffy remember? Being ripped out of heaven. In a very real sense, she had to live through that all over again. Thanks Willow.
I happen to like Joss’s taste in music, but I think the ending of TR works incredibly well even for those who don’t. I also think it’s a real tribute to AH’s acting that we actually feel sorry for her as she sits and cries, even though Willow has no one to blame but herself.
Trivia notes: (1) The title is Latin for “blank slate”. (2) There are lots of references to Restless in TR. The loan shark, aside from being a visual pun, refers to Xander’s dream in Restless: “XANDER: You gotta have something. (Looks at Buffy) Gotta be always movin' forward. BUFFY: (like a proud little kid) Like a shark. XANDER: Like a shark with feet and ... much less fins. SPIKE: (like a proud little kid) And on land!” (3) Spike’s suit is the same one he wore in Restless. (4) Spike’s request for asylum is a pun: he wants to be protected, Xander interprets his suit as showing that Spike has lost his mind. (5) Allen Funt was the host of the TV show Candid Camera. (6) The memory loss bears some resemblance to the Star Trek:TNG episode Conundrum. (7) Giles referred to Spike as “like a son to me” in Xander’s dream in Restless. (8) Buffy’s choice of the name “Joan” suggests Joan of Arc. Martyr complex much? (9) Spike’s suspicion that Giles is “bound to have some classic midlife-crisis transport” may remind you of Buffy’s conversation with Giles in Real Me: “BUFFY: Giles, are you breaking up with your car? GILES: Well, it did seduce me, all red and sporty! BUFFY: Little two-door tramp.” (10) Tara’s suggestion that it’s Halloween may refer to the episode of that title. (11) Spike’s claim to “help the helpless” refers to the slogan of Angel Investigations in Angel the Series. (12) The scene where Giles fights the skeleton is a tribute to the Ray Harryhausen film, Jason and the Argonauts. (13) Willow’s “I think I’m kinda gay” line is what she said in Doppelgangland about VampWillow. (14) Xander remembered seeing King Ralph, which was a 1991 movie. (15) Spike’s “from dust to dust” when he slayed the two vampires echoes the funeral service from the Book of Common Prayer (Anglican). (16) Anthony Stewart Head told Joss before S6 that he wanted to spend more time with his family in England. That’s the real world explanation for why Giles left, though obviously we need to treat it as part of the storyline. There are, by the way, terms which differentiate between real world explanations and in-story ones. The former are called Doylist, the latter are Watsonian. For the background, see here.