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Monday, October 22, 2012

Tabula Rasa

[Updated May 2, 2013]

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 instead of 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.


  1. TR is one of my favorite episodes...and not just because I love the closing montage, including the Michelle Branch song. I think that after the swirling, high energy madness of OMWF, this is the necessary morning after. And it's so well-crafted.

  2. The characters seem to have a blind spot about Willow abusing her power, and instead express growing discomfort with her "using too much magic." Do you think this serves a purpose? To me, it seemed confuse the point about what Willow's problem was.

    1. I suspect we're going to have a lively debate about this when we get to Wrecked, so I'll hold off on a full answer till then. I basically agree with you about the mis-diagnosis and confusion; whether it serves a purpose is less certain.

  3. I think part of the reason Tara delays in leaving Willow, in addition to the Family moment, is that the shock of Buffy’s resurrection makes her uncertain whether this is the time to make any moves, including self-protective ones. And to Tara, I think that Willow’s descent is linked pretty closely to her dabbling in increasingly dark magicks to do the resurrection, which Tara was willing to support against her instincts, so there is maybe some (unjustified) guilt in there as well.

    There’s a poster on Buffyforums named Dipstick (she also goes by sunclouds33 on LJ) who has a series of interesting criticisms of Tara that I’ve been mulling over lately. In particular, Dipstick points out that Tara’s criticisms of Willow’s magic use in season five and early season six seem strange. Why is making a big light in Out of My Mind a cause for concern? Why does it “frighten” her how powerful Willow is getting? Why are the party decorations so bad? I think because we know that Willow is frightening in late s5 and s6, it’s easy to think that Tara’s concern in Tough Love is entirely reasonable; but Tara doesn’t know about the near-cursing in Wild at Heart or the disaster in Something Blue, nor does she officially know about (though she might suspect) Willow giving Dawn the book in Forever (which besides, is not a display of power). Furthermore, Willow is accumulating power for a very good reason: Glory. It’s not really something I’d thought about before she brought it up, and I think there are different ways of looking at it. This is relevant here because while Willow is absolutely in the wrong in this argument, the pattern of Tara being against Willow’s having a lot of power without necessarily distinguishing between proper use and abuse of power began before this episode.

    My suspicion is that Tara doesn’t really have the language to articulate why abuse of power is wrong and scary, and to some extent falls back on both the ingrained fear of power that her father and brother and cousin pushed on her; and has an understanding of Wicca as a religion from her mother, which emphasizes that magic is for certain things and those things only. This, coupled with a (correct) instinct that Willow’s reliance on magic for her identity makes her unstable, leads to a more generalized fear of the Willow + magic combination when it’s not in specific contexts of slaying or private moments. In Forever, Willow’s argument to Dawn is practical, Tara’s is moral—but it’s also in a sense religious (witches take an oath). Tara’s moral position against resurrections is, I think, a coherent one, but “witches took an oath” is not a real argument to support it, in a series in which institutional morality is regularly called into question. So, it’s possible that Tara’s views of magic, which seem to indicate that accumulating too much power without it being in the context of either a mother-daughter or a peer relationship, and using that power openly in non-life-threatening situations, is wrong and leads naturally to abuse of power, is meant to be the authorial voice. It is even probable. But I think I demur because I don’t think that magic has to be pigeonholed into those rules; I think some magic is probably more likely to cause catastrophe than others, but ultimately power is power and it’s neither good nor bad in and of itself, but in how it’s used. Tara’s arguments are not really convincing to Willow because Willow is used to rules being arbitrary—she used to believe that the old rules made sense, but then discovered that maybe they don’t, and is now pretty sure that no rules make sense.

    1. SPOILER

      Insofar as the episode foreshadows the season’s end—Willow + magic combination spells doom for the gang at the magic box, Xander breaks the spell in a very human way (with his foot, here)—it’s really important to note that as misguided and evil as Willow’s actions are, the primary motivation here is Willow’s compulsion to erase her own overwhelming feelings of *guilt*, as well as her inability to face the fact that her attempts to erase her bad behaviour are only making them worse. It’s something that the last run of episodes don’t make too explicit, but guilt over both the resurrection and how she treated Tara underlie much of her rampage, and I think this episode helps clue into that.

    2. To reply to both of your comments here...

      I'd never considered Dipstick's argument before, but I like it. Metaphorically, Buffy needed the full power of heart and spirit to defeat Glory. Thus, we see Willow accumulating power throughout S5 and Xander at his very noblest with Anya at the end of Into the Woods and in The Gift.

      Tara never sees herself as having much power (several examples of this in various episodes), and therefore doesn't trust it. There's something to be said on both sides, as you say. If S5 emphasizes the need for power, S6 flips the equation and shows us the opposite. Some might say that it's like a hammer -- hold it too close and there's control but no power; hold it at the end and it's all power, no control. :) Tara's instinctively looking for that balance, but can't really articulate why. And Willow won't agree to anything without a good rationale.

      On your spoiler point, I agree that Willow is helping herself, regardless of whether she justifies it as helping others. I see the final episodes a bit more metaphorically, as I'll explain, but within the story your point seems right.

    3. Spoilers

      I think that's a good point about the hammer. Season five and season six are interesting mirrors of each other in a lot of ways (with season seven as, hopefully, some sort of balance). I think Tara, like Giles with Buffy in some ways, is maybe a little afraid of Willow's power. In some ways, Willow needs to not have Tara policing her, both because she should be able to police herself without needing someone else to do it, and because some of (not all!) Tara's policing is maybe not entirely fair. But, ultimately, Tara is right in Tabula Rasa that Willow has gone way over whatever line you can argue for.

      On the spoiler point, my more specific point was how much Willow is motivated by guilt (and I think that her attack on Warren, especially, is about projection). Part of the reason she justifies everything as being for other people is that she doesn't feel she has a right to do anything for herself. Of course, this goes haywire because her actions, justified in her mind by what she thinks other people need, are much worse.

      The reason I think guilt is a major factor, in addition to some lines in the Warren scene, is Willow's emphasis on having brought Buffy back from the grave, and how she thinks this was a bad thing to do that needs to be undone. It's something she doesn't bring up between TR and Two to Go, but (like the "spat" with Giles from Flooded, which also isn't explicitly mentioned between Flooded and Grave) seems to have been on her mind all year, contributing to her self-loathing (and, relatedly and less attractively, resentment of Buffy as the source of that guilt). I look forward to reading the metaphorical take (definitely, Willow as Buffy's spirit going dark has a lot of appeal there -- and makes sense as the last trial for her to overcome this year).

    4. For me, all of S5-7 can be summed up in one line from Buffy in Checkpoint, the episode which (in my reading) confirmed that Buffy was ready to be an adult: "It's about power."

      Yes, exactly. And I think Joss is using the remainder of the series to explore just what that means: how power is necessary, but how it's problematic as well; and what are the implications of the fact that some people have power while others don't?


    I find Dipstick’s argument interesting, although I don’t entirely agree with the logic: in NMR, Tara says that she always knew that Willow would return to Oz if he came back, and in Family, Willow says that she has trusted Tara more than anyone that she has ever known; from these two statements, I think we can assume that Willow has told her about the almost-cursing of Veruca and the spell-gone-wrong in SB because. I also think she knows about the book in Forever because of Willow’s defensiveness when Tara discovers its absence. That said, I think that we can still question Tara’s questioning here, because while she may have a stronger basis for her discomfort with Willow’s use of magic at times, she does not always articulate it clearly—or at necessarily appropriate points. Moreover, I think we tend to avoid questioning Tara in general—both because, as you suggest, what happens to Willow, but also because of what happens to Tara herself: the horror of her death, her complete innocence, seems to put her beyond question. And even more than that, she has an aura of maturity, despite the spell in Family—perhaps it is the sense that her mother’s death forced her to grow up too quickly—that I think makes us trust her, or want to.

    Beyond that, I like your reading here a great deal, especially your take on Willow and guilt, about which I’ll have more to say in my posts on Smashed and Wrecked, so I’ll cut things short here—

    Save for a last thought: yes, it is All About Power—but that means it is also All About Desire… Interestingly, Buffy has too little this season (having so much sex with Spike does not mean that she has desire, just that she desires desire, which is a short definition of depression), while Willow has too much, none of which she can focus, all of which she will channel into guilt and self-loathing (which of course are Buffy’s primary emotions, as a depressive).

  5. Although the funny moments in this episode are mixed with some very sad/disturbing ones, this is one of my favorites.

    I especially appreciate the imagery when Buffy gets her memory back - going from "I’m Joan the---" to remembering what she’s been through while getting repeatedly kicked in the gut always gets to me (not as much as the closing montage, of course...)

    The post-Tabula Rasa episodes are the most difficult for me to re-watch, and while I can watch most any episode from the previous five seasons on a given day, I have a hard time getting through S6. This is somewhat odd because I began watching the show during S6. My thoughts on this season are VERY disjointed, so please bear with me. I’m also in a bit of a food coma following Easter dinner, so I may make even less sense than intended. ;) SPOILERS follow.

    I've noted that many viewers see S6 as a dark mirror to S5. Personally, I see it as a much darker companion piece to S3 (my personal favorite and which I've watched more than all the others). The events of season 3, to me, are like a small-scale version of what's to come in S6 -- very much like the events of high school are a precursor to what's to come in the "real world."

    In both seasons 3 and 6 (with the events of 6 having much deeper ramifications and occurring on a much more dramatic scale):

  6. 1. Two major characters are resurrected from hell (presumably) and are unsure why they have been brought back, and where they fit in/what to do with themselves when they return.
    2. Willow's first attempt at using magic to control her own feelings with less than stellar results occurs in S3. We all know where that will lead in S6. She makes some self-doubt clear in S3 when she expresses jealousy of Faith, and refers to it again in S6 with comments to Tara at the Bronze and to Buffy in Two to Go.
    3. Vamp Willow ... Dark Willow
    4. Xander breaks a girlfriend’s, then a fiancee’s, heart. Anya the vengeance demon first appeared after the S3 heartbreak; she returns to her former self after the S6 heartbreak.
    5. In S3 Giles is “replaced” by Wesley – Cordy, Wes, and Mrs. Post all make comments regarding his usefulness or lack thereof. He’s been coming to terms with how he fits in with the group post-high school, and finally takes leave in S6.
    6. In S3, characters openly acknowledge Giles’ role as surrogate father. He also hurts her deeply (Helpless). S6: “wish I could play the father…” and he hurts her even more deeply by leaving at the worst possible time.
    7. Spike’s behavior and attitude regarding love in Lovers Walk very much precedes his behavior in S6 – obsessive, selfish, impatient.
    8. A shadow slayer comes to town in S3. In S6, Buffy must deal with a much darker version of herself than she knew existed. Also worth noting- both Faith and S6 Buffy use sex as a means to feel something (power, control, passion, whatever).
    9. Buffy is affected by demon spells, with frightening side effects that lead her to become very isolated from the Scoobies (Earshot, Normal Again).
    10. Xander meddles in Buffy's relationships with both Angel and Spike. However, he is "key guy" in the Grad. Day 2 plan, and key guy with Will on the hilltop.
    11. The explosion at the high school signifies the end of that era and the beginning of the passage into adulthood. The events in Grave signify an acceptance of what adulthood entails.
    12. Finally: Communication.
    In S3, Buffy fails to communicate Angel’s return to her friends. She fails to communicate how depressed she felt post-Becoming, what she did during her absence, and her disappointment in her friends’ seeming lack of support. In S6, she hides the relationship with Spike, tries to hide where she was before the events of Bargaining, and fails to communicate her disappointment in how they’ve treated her.
    Generally, though, and after they’ve all accepted (to varying degrees) Angel’s return, to gang in S3 is firing on all cylinders, working as a cohesive unit – hand in hand - to defeat the mayor.
    I see the biggest problem in S6 to be a failure to communicate (both between characters and between writers/audience). There is Xander’s handling of his marital fears and anxieties. There are several missed opportunities for Buffy and Willow to talk openly, and the after effects of these missed opportunities have significant consequences (see Smashed). There is the epic failure to acknowledge that Willow’s problem isn’t “abusing the magicks,” but with abusing the power said magicks imbue her with. No one wants to acknowledge Buffy’s depression, just as no one wants to acknowledge the root causes of Willow’s problems with magic. By the time Willow goes completely dark, the Scoobies are a mess, “walk[ing] alone in fear” – where do they go from here?

    I hope this makes sense. It’s probably been posited before, but I always catch myself finding these incredibly dark similarities to S3 when I’m watching 6.


  7. Very interesting comparison. Shadowkat and I once agreed on her lj that S3 had lots of similarities to S7 (or vice versa, if you prefer). Between the 2 of us, we came up with a dozen or more plot and thematic parallels.

    I suspect this means that Joss liked to explore issues from several different angles and that we see that reflected in the different seasons.