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Monday, December 3, 2012

Villains

[Updated May 2, 2013]

“Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles…”
I think Villains is an excellent episode, but it presents us with some difficult ethical issues. I’ll hold off on those for a bit and start with my metaphorical reading of the episode because I think it’s crucial to Buffy’s journey in S6.


The whole point of Seeing Red was to send Willow into the murderous rage we see here in Villains. But the show isn’t about Willow, it’s about Buffy, so I’m inclined to read the story as metaphor (surprise!). Willow’s rage at Warren – a murderer, yes, but also an attempted rapist – can be seen metaphorically as the outward expression of Buffy’s repressed rage at Warren, but also at Spike.
Willow’s rage also reflects her own storyline, of course. It’s not just Tara’s murder. Magic allows Willow to express the anger she feels at having to bear a lifetime of unjustified pain (“the softer side of Sears”) and the inability to put a stop to it. Again, though, we might see this as an allegory of Buffy’s own struggle to be the Slayer and the pain she has felt all season at being pulled back from heaven.
In my reading, there’s another aspect to the metaphor and the explosion of rage by Buffy’s metaphorical spirit serves as an essential step in Buffy’s own progress. I’ll complete the thought in my discussion of the finale.
On another metaphorical point, Xander says that he’s had the blood of his friends on his hands. That’s an odd way to put it; the phrase usually implies some culpability. Is he reconsidering his participation in resurrecting Buffy because he now sees the price?
Now to the ethical issues. The first involves Buffy’s decision to let Dawn stay with Spike. It’s hard to imagine that any sentient woman would entrust her kid sister with someone who just attempted to rape her. We might say that Buffy wasn’t trusting Spike, she was trusting the chip. But that can’t be the explanation. A purely evil Spike could simply arrange for someone else to harm Dawn, just as he tried to do to Buffy and the SG with Adam in S4. Buffy knows that he won’t do that, which means that she knows that Spike can restrain himself. This complication is fascinating in its interplay with the soul canon and Spike’s “Clockwork Orange” journey, but it adds to my doubts about the artistic choices in Seeing Red.
I mentioned Spike, but I’m not going to discuss his actions here. The dialogue is still ambiguous about what he’s asking from the Cave Demon, but we’ll know soon enough and I’ll talk about it then.
Since Wrecked, the show has used the magic/drugs metaphor to represent Willow’s struggle for self-control. Here, in the beautiful, brilliant image in the Magic Box, we see her “overdose” by taking in the contents of the dark magic books. She then uses that power to seek out and kill Warren. Put aside the issue of whether Warren “deserved” his fate; I’ll get to that below. The second ethical issue is this: does the fact that she was “under the influence” (at least metaphorically) excuse her conduct in killing Warren?
I’ve seen many people argue that it does. Buffy herself suggests that the power itself is exercising agency rather than Willow: “And now she's messing with forces that want to hurt her. All of us.” The story line, however, doesn’t support Buffy’s attempt to defend her friend. Willow left Tara’s body cold and alone in the house before she absorbed the dark magics. The first thing Willow did after absorbing them was heal Buffy. If she were under the thrall of dark forces, that’s hardly something they would command her to do. No, that was still Willow, exercising moral agency. Even at the end we saw flashes of Willow:
“WILLOW: The pain will be unbearable, but you won't be able to move. Bullet usually travels faster than this, of course. But the dying? It'll seem like it takes forever.
She pauses, as if affected by her own words, looking at the little wound on Warren's chest. Warren just grunts and squeezes his eyes shut in pain.
WILLOW: Something, isn't it? (pensively) One tiny piece of metal destroys everything. (Warren groaning loudly) It ripped her insides out ... took her light away. From me. From the world.
Now she looks Warren in the eye again, re-focusing.”

In any event, from the standpoint of the law Buffy’s “the magic made her do it” excuse is wrong and must be wrong. The legal system doesn’t recognize any such “under the influence” defense in the circumstances we see here. Let’s analogize it to a real world situation. Suppose you go out and get high on PCP in order to generate the courage to murder someone, and then use your drugged state as a defense. The law can’t accept this defense – you intended to use the drug to aid you in the crime, just as Willow here intended the magic to help her kill Warren. Her intent to kill came before the “drug”, and that’s key to the issue of murder. Thus, the magic/drugs metaphor has yet another dubious consequence – blurring Willow’s guilt – even though it should not.
Now, did Warren “deserve” to die (putting aside for the moment the nature of his death)? Xander and Dawn express the view of many that he deserves death. Buffy disagrees, and she states what has been her code all along (since at least Gingerbread): “Being a Slayer doesn't give me a license to kill. Warren's human. … [T]he human world has its own rules for dealing with people like him.” By going after Warren, Willow is violating not just the legal rules which apply to all of us in the real world – we don’t allow vengeance by private parties – but the code Buffy lives by in her world.
I think it’s important to understand the reason behind Buffy’s code. It’s not arbitrary at all. She has always made a distinction between the souled and the unsouled. The difference is critical: the former can be redeemed. Buffy’s “license to kill” can only work if those she slays are irredeemable. Horrible as Warren was, Willow acted the part of a vengeance demon when she tracked him down. Buffy didn’t want to “let Willow destroy herself” by killing Warren, but she got there too late to accomplish her goal.
“Bored now” is probably the most well-known phrase from the entire series. It’s hard to convey the chill I got when I heard Willow say those words. What followed gets my vote as the most shocking scene ever shown on network television. I’ll let DEN describe his reaction: “The fact that Warren has no chance at all in his confrontation with Willow is even more disturbing. In most "vengeance stories" the moral ambiguities are blurred by making the avenger fight against heavy odds, or by creating a showdown with at least the structure of a fair fight. But Dark Willow uses her power to torture Warren in a fashion our culture reserves for the worst villains. … And for what? On the other side or in the next incarnation, will not Tara shrink from what Willow has become? It has been well said: "if you seek revenge, first dig two graves."
 
“Alas, poor Willow. I knew her dear viewer: a woman of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy…. and now, how abhorred in my imagination she is! My gorge rises at it.”
Trivia notes: (1) Willow invoked Osiris to bring Tara back to life. That was the god she invoked to resurrect Buffy in Bargaining. (2) The fact that Tara died “by natural order” was a distinction made in Bargaining between Joyce’s death and Buffy’s. (3) Jonathan sarcastically referred to Andrew as “Dragnet” after the TV show of that name. (4) Jonathan didn’t want to become a “butt monkey”, a slang term meaning someone who is dominated by everyone around them. (5) Andrew said Sunnydale was “like Mayberry”, a phrase used by Mr. Trick in Faith, Hope & Trick, and referring to the TV sitcom The Andy Griffith Show. (6) Andrew and Jonathan mentioned 3 movies starring Mathew Broderick: War Games, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Producers. (7) The scene of Willow sucking the magic out of the books was pre-figured in Smashed when she used magic to take information out of her computer. (Drew Greenberg, Smashed commentary) (8) Some viewers thought that Buffy flat lined in the hospital. In fact, that was just the disruption to the equipment caused by Willow’s magic, similar to the way the lights blew out in the Magic Box when she walked in. Buffy came close to dying, no doubt, but this wasn’t a third death. (9) Warren said he came “bearing dead presidents”, a slang phrase for bills of various denominations. (10) Warren called Rack “Nostradamus”, a prophet. (11) Xander suggested that Willow had gotten “the makeover of the damned”, referring to the movie Queen of the Damned. (12) Xander also called Willow “Puppet Master”, referring to the film of that title.  (13) Xander described Willow as “off the wagon”, a slang phrase meaning that Willow has started “drinking” again. (14) Clem offered Dawn some “Country Time”, a brand name of lemonade. (15) Willow said that Buffy was Warren’s “Big O”, a slang phrase meaning he got off on trying to kill her. (16) “Bored now” was said by VampWillow in The Wish and Doppelgangland. (17) Willow’s story here takes its inspiration from the Dark Phoenix story in X-Men comics. (18) The fact that Amber Benson and Adam Busch were a couple for years (see trivia notes to IWMTLY) is notably ironic.

12 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Sorry, I deleted the above comment because I didn't think the SPOILERS flag was noticeable enough, since the spoilers are in the first sentence.


    SPOILERS
    One of the reasons I think Villains works so well is that Willow hasn't been "dosed" yet by Rack or Giles. It's easy to read around the magic/drugs metaphor. Actually, it might be the easiest point in this season to read the addiction interpretation as a mistake made by the characters instead of the writers.

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    1. I've always felt that way, that the characters went wrong with the addiction metaphor because it allowed to gloss over the real problems.

      They were too genre savvy about their own lives.

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  3. "In any event, from the standpoint of the law Buffy is wrong and must be wrong"

    Did you mean Willow?

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    1. No, I meant Buffy. That sentence was following up on this from before the quote: "Buffy herself suggests that the power itself is exercising agency rather than Willow: “And now she's messing with forces that want to hurt her. All of us.” The story line, however, doesn’t support Buffy’s attempt to defend her friend."

      I think the gap created by the quote from Willow makes that unclear. I'll try to clarify it.

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  4. Some of my favorite moments on the show are the recurring discussions about morality, justice, and vengeance that come up time and time again throughout the 7 seasons. They never feel repetitive and it's a testament to the show (writing, acting, directing) that they've created these well-developed, strong characters who bounce off each other really fascinatingly in each discussion, especially when put up against Buffy's unwavering moral code.

    Yet I recently started to wonder about Buffy's premeditated murder (or attempted murder, though that's besides the point) of Faith in Graduation Day Part I. I understand that these are very different circumstances - Warren can be restrained in jail, Faith could not, Faith's blood could save Angel, Tara is already dead, Faith is a Slayer and Warren is a human - but Faith is ALSO a human. There are nuances to look at but the fact that Buffy went to kill Faith in large part to seek vengeance on behalf of her loved one may invalidate some of her argument here. Or, I suppose that's my question - does it invalidate some part of that unwavering moral code? I used to accept her decision because I felt like it was within Buffy's jurisdiction to take care of a rogue slayer, but it's the intent that I'm starting to feel a bit uncomfortable about.

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    1. I've always treated Faith's case as within Buffy's jurisdiction. I see her as similar to Mrs. Post. Both were humans whose transgressions were on the occult or mystical side. In the case of Mrs. Post, she attempted to access supernatural power. Faith used her existing supernatural power in the service of The Mayor, but also used a mystical poison to try to kill Angel.

      I think most of the cases in which Buffy kills (or allows to be killed) a human fall into this general category (The Pack is another example). It's a fine line.

      Metaphorically, of course, Buffy has to take out Faith in some way in order to control her dark side.

      FWIW, I think it's fascinating to speculate on the consequences if Buffy had actually killed Faith. Another Slayer would have arisen. How would she react to Buffy when she found out? I think Joss could have done a lot with that.

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    2. I agree with basically everything you said, I just still feel like it was vengeance by a private party. Plus it turns out that Faith IS redeemable. But the circumstances surrounding the whole situation make it very ambiguous.

      Never thought about the possibilities of a new Slayer! That would've been really interesting. Then again, a S4 without "Who Are You"? It's one of my favorite episodes.

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    3. I pretty much agree here. Yes, there was an element of private vengeance: "As justice goes, it's not un-poetic, don't you think?" But then there's Buffy's look of horror when she realizes what she's done. The whole situation is supposed to be complicated, and it is.

      And yeah, Faith was redeemable. Not without a lot of pain by others, but she was. Still Buffy had tried before and Faith made a choice, as Willow tells her in Choices.

      Good point about WAY; I wouldn't want to miss that either. Still, it would be very interesting to explore the reaction of a new-called Slayer when she learned that her predecssor was killed by one of the good guys.

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  5. The concluding altered passage from Hamlet gave me chills. Phenomenal. If anyone were to have quoted Hamlet at the end of Villains, I'd think Spike or Giles...
    "We few, we happy few/"
    "We band of buggered."
    ...but they are nowhere to be found.

    Thoughts? I'll bet on Dawn.

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    1. I think Dawn's the only good bet at this point. Spike definitely could have said it had he been there.

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