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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

"The meaning of Buffy" - an essay on relationships in Buffy

Monday 22 March 2010, by Webmaster

Anyone who has watched more than a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer quickly figures out that this television program isn’t really about a gorgeous young woman who kills blood-sucking monsters. Sure, most of the episodes contain pivotal scenes of vampire staking or demon decapitation—but they’re not what the show is about. In fact, at its core, Buffy isn’t even about any of the obvious metaphors that the whole mythology (heroic champion of the innocent battling monsters) might suggest, such as high school as a living hell, or the eternal battle of Good and Evil.

From the very first episode of the series to the final story, on the most consistent, fundamental level, Buffy has been about relationships—how to create them, and how to sustain them once you have them. Not just any relationship, either, but the kind that is strong enough and deep enough to provide answers to life’s ultimate questions (why am I here? where am I headed? what does it all mean?).

The opening scenes of “Welcome to the Hellmouth” (1-1) establish dramatic themes and plot patterns that reverberate throughout the rest of the series. When Buffy Summers arrives in Sunnydale, the last thing she’s thinking about is vampire slaying. Buffy has one and only one subject uppermost in her mind: her relationships with the people around her.

The first example we’re shown is the mother-daughter relationship. Although we clearly see their affection for one another, there’s a lot of strain between Buffy and her mother Joyce because of Buffy’s past behavior and because of the fact that she must keep secret a critical area of her life—her activities as the Slayer. Her need to resort to secrets and deceptions underlies another of the recurring themes of the show: the isolation of the individual.

Once the basic parameters of the Buffy-Joyce interaction are established, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” (1-1) moves on to show Buffy exploring another kind of relationship: friendship with her peers. Much of this first episode is devoted to Buffy’s efforts to determine her place in the social structure of Sunnydale High. Who will be her friends and allies, who will be her enemies, and how can she tell the difference?

The creation and development of relationships is not restricted to the first episode of Buffy, or the first few episodes, or the first season. In every episode, no matter what else is happening in that specific story, relationship issues are never far from the surface.

This quest for meaningful relationships lies at the core of the phenomenon that is Buffy. With that as the heart and soul of this remarkable television series, is there one relationship that stands out from all the rest? One exemplary pairing of characters that represents the ideal to which all the others aspire? One couple who embodies the answer to the question of the meaning of life in the Buffy universe?

Let’s examine the likely suspects.

We’ve already touched on the mother-daughter relationship. Buffy and Joyce interact in mostly healthy, supportive ways, but in the vast majority of episodes, Buffy has to deceive her mom about crucially important events in her life. This forms an insurmountable barrier between them, made up of lack of communication, mistrust, and outright lies. Given the circumstances, they have a remarkable relationship, but it remains fundamentally flawed. Even after Joyce eventually learns that her daughter is endowed with supernatural powers and involved in a never-ending battle to protect the world from Evil, the tension between them never completely goes away. Joyce and Buffy each yearn to protect the other from danger and unhappiness, and this clash of priorities cannot be resolved. Their fears and doubts put them at odds with one another for the rest of Joyce’s life. Buffy loves her mom, but she—and therefore we, the audience—can’t find complete comfort or a fundamental meaning of existence within the context of that relationship.

What about the father-daughter relationship? Buffy seems to feel affection for her father, but he’s completely disconnected from her daily life. For all practical purposes, as far as the series is concerned, they don’t have a relationship. Instead, Buffy has Giles. At the beginning, Buffy fights the whole idea of being part of a Slayer-Watcher team, but strong bonds of mutual reliance, trust, and affection soon begin to grow between them. Buffy learns that even when other aspects of her life are a shambles, she can rely on Giles. He is her moral compass, a rock of certainty, a dependable touchstone in the often confusing and conflicting labyrinth of dreams and responsibilities, wishful thinking and harsh reality that Buffy has to negotiate week after week.

From one perspective—that of the Watchers’ Council—there is no question whatsoever that the entire meaning of Buffy’s existence is defined by and fulfilled in her partnership with Giles. After all, she is the Slayer, and nothing can be more important than her ongoing quest to successfully save the world from destruction. By that argument, the next most important person in the world has to be her Watcher. First, he is the brains to her brawn, providing the factual information and strategic advice she needs in order to win her battles. Second, he possesses a degree of maturity and wisdom that enable him to guide Buffy when the ethics of a situation are unclear and facts alone aren’t enough to determine the best course of action. Third, Giles provides essential emotional support, reassuring Buffy when she has doubts, encouraging her to face her fears and triumph over despair.

Yet, in spite of all these logical reasons that Buffy’s relationship with Giles should be the philosophical center and emotional heart and soul of the show, it never pretended to hold that position. As mentor, advisor, and friend, Giles played an important role in many of the stories. But the true meaning of Buffy cannot be found in the Slayer-Watcher relationship.

There is no doubt that Buffy and Giles feel deep affection for one another, but the instances in which they openly express or share emotional closeness are fleeting. Giles is a father figure, but only a figure, not the real thing, which automatically puts him at a disadvantage in his interactions with Buffy. Because he isn’t really Buffy’s father, they cannot achieve and maintain the depth of intimacy that is the ideal in family relationships. Because he is not one of her peers, they can’t share the emotional closeness that is possible in a relationship of equals.

Could Giles and Buffy become equals? After all, over the course of the series, Buffy has turned eighteen and met all the criteria that normally identify a fully mature, independent adult—going to college, running a household (after Joyce’s death), becoming part of the staff at Sunnydale High. Some fans love imagining that a mature, romantic relationship could develop between Buffy and Giles (or has already happened, hidden in subtext and “between the lines” of the aired episodes). For most people, though, the possibility is too awkward to contemplate for long. Too many episodes, especially in the first three seasons of the show, emphasized the high-school environment and the recurring theme of Buffy’s childhood innocence in conflict with the demands of her responsibilities as Slayer. To put Giles, with his status as parental stand-in and undeniable authority figure, in a romantic relationship with Buffy smacks uncomfortably of incest.

Whether you find such speculations intriguing, disturbing, or incomprehensible, they’re also outside the scope of the present discussion. Exploring all the “might have beens” in the series opens up far too many variables. If we stay strictly within the boundaries of events and character interactions presented in the episodes as broadcast, it’s clear that Giles and Buffy interacted sometimes as father and daughter, sometimes as mentor and student; no matter their precise roles, their attempts at mutual understanding were often awkward and imperfect.

The shining example of a healthy, successful relationship in the Buffy universe has to be sought elsewhere.

Throughout the series, Buffy’s strongest relationships are with her peers. Most are fellow students, including Willow, Xander, Cordelia, Oz, Tara, and Riley. Other characters are not literally Buffy’s peers— they aren’t exactly her age or facing the same social circumstances— but still have to be considered peers in a broader sense. These include her sister, Dawn; her true love, Angel; troubled Faith; sometime-demon Anya; and, in later seasons, the unbelievably confused and confusing Spike.

One word can sum up Buffy’s relationships with each of these people and, just as important, their relationships with one another and Giles: complex. Early in the series, Buffy loved Angel, Xander loved Buffy, Willow loved Xander, and Cordelia loved . . . well, Cordelia. Everybody hated Spike, except for Dru, who loved him—that is, until she was distracted by Angelus, and eventually demonstrated that she was too self-involved to really love anyone. The farther the series progressed, the more complicated and contradictory the relationships among all of the characters became. The ever-changing nature of these relationships makes for utterly fascinating storytelling, but far from satisfying lives for the characters themselves. Whatever they think they know about the person standing next to them one week may be irrelevant, or dead wrong, the next. The ignorant, cruel, completely self-absorbed Cordelia of the early episodes evolves into a helpful member of the Scooby gang and, eventually, Xander’s affectionate girlfriend. Angel changes, quite literally, from romantic hero to despicable monster and back again. Even a despised enemy like Spike becomes a valued ally under the right circumstances and by the climax of the series finale, “Chosen (7-22),” a true champion. Early in the seventh season, relationships among Buffy and her friends are so thoroughly convoluted that Nancy in “Beneath You” (7-2) is justified in asking, “Is there anyone here who hasn’t slept together?”

Sometimes an unlikely, transient relationship is played for comic effect, as when Joyce and Giles succumb to their inner teens in “Band Candy” (3-6). In “Tabula Rasa” (6-8), the idea of Giles and Spike as father and son was absurd and perfect at the same time, but other of the humorously scrambled relationships in that story had a poignant undertone, such as Xander assuming he belonged with lifelong friend Willow, or Anya and Giles struggling to understand the nature of their connection. An interesting aspect of this episode is which of the real relationships made themselves felt despite the power of Willow’s spell of forgetfulness. Note that Buffy and Dawn quickly realized they were sisters, Spike made an emotional connection with Buffy, and Tara and Willow were inexorably drawn together.

A common thread runs through almost all of the character relationships in the Buffy universe: eventually, on one level or another, they fail. All the way back in the first season, at the end of “I Robot, You Jane” (1-8), Buffy and Xander try to make Willow feel better for having fallen in love with the demon Moloch, disguised as cyber pen pal Malcolm. They joke and laugh about Xander having loved the praying-mantis teacher and Buffy loving a vampire. Buffy says, “Face it, none of us are ever going to have a healthy, normal relationship,” and Xander replies, “We’re doomed.” At that, their amusement fades, and the episode ends with all of them looking distinctly worried. With good reason: as future stories prove, one initially promising relationship after another is destined to go down in defeat.

The love between Buffy and Angel is the first of what becomes a depressing pattern of interpersonal relationship failures. Buffy and Angel may be soul mates, deeply, passionately, and sincerely in love with one another, but time and again any hope of meaningful, lasting happiness is sabotaged by their inability to communicate fully with one another. They are weeks into their relationship before Buffy learns that Angel is a vampire, and he continues to keep most of the details of his past secret from her for the rest of their time together. Their favorite method for coping with uncomfortable subjects is to not talk about them. This makes it easier for Buffy to concentrate on her feelings for Angel the man, and avoid thinking about Angelus the demon, but it doesn’t help at all when it comes to building a foundation for a lasting relationship.

Lack of communication damages Angel’s and Buffy’s relationships— as a couple and as individuals—with all of the other characters, too. Buffy hesitates to describe the true depth of her feelings for Angel, or the reasons she trusts him, to Giles or any of her friends, leaving them to conclude that any of her decisions regarding Angel are clouded by adolescent passion and therefore not to be trusted. Jenny Calendar fails to share her suspicions about the gypsy curse and its possible consequences with Giles or Buffy, which leads to the loss of Angel’s soul and the resurrection of Angelus. After Angel’s soul is restored and he survives banishment to Hell to return to Sunnydale once more, his ability to communicate with the Scoobies is even more severely restricted than before. They can’t distinguish between Angel and Angelus, and for the most part don’t even make an effort to try. Without their trust and forgiveness, Angel can’t form meaningful relationships with Buffy’s companions.

Some of the factors that stand in the way of Buffy and Angel finding happiness together are outside their control. Angel can’t stop being a two-centuries-old vampire, and Buffy can’t stop being the Slayer. Ultimately, however, their relationship fails because of the choices they make. Each wants what’s best for the other, but wanting something and being able to imagine a way to achieve it are two very different things. Buffy, with the innocence of youth and the desperation of someone deeply in love, seems willing to try to fit Angel into her life, but Angel sees only the risks involved. The Mayor sums up Angel’s dilemma for him in “Choices” (3-19), when he says, “What kind of a life can you offer her? I don’t see a lot of Sunday picnics in the offing. I see skulking in the shadows, hiding from the sun. She’s a blossoming young girl and you want to keep her from the life she should have until it has passed her by. My God! I think that’s a little selfish. Is that what you came back from Hell for? Is that your greater purpose?”

The final episode of season seven, “Chosen,” offered the possibility that Buffy and Angel’s relationship could change for the better, someday. As Buffy says, “In the midst of all this insanity, a couple of things are actually starting to make sense . . . I’m not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I’m going to turn out to be . . . Maybe one day I’ll turn around and realize I’m ready . . . That’ll be then. When I’m done.”

However, with the end of the series, such speculation is mere wishful thinking. During the seven seasons of the show, without the ability to conceive any hope for the future, Angel’s relationship with Buffy is doomed.

All of these elements—failure to communicate, lack of trust, inability to envision or create a viable future—disrupt the course of true love for couple after couple. Buffy and Riley are constantly hiding from one another, first literally, then emotionally. Oz can’t maintain his relationship with Willow because he can’t trust himself. Anya has no trouble at all expressing her true feelings, but Xander does, to the point that he doesn’t even admit them to himself until the day of their wedding, when it’s far too late. Giles and Buffy, for all their ties of duty and affection, and for all of their good intentions (Giles only wants what’s best for Buffy), reach a point of such fundamental disagreement on how (or whether) their relationship needs to change that they can’t even live on the same continent any more. Even after Giles returns to Sunnydale in “Bring on the Night” (7-10), he remains a mostly peripheral figure in Buffy’s life. He and Buffy barely connect or communicate, a major factor in his decision to have Spike killed in “Lies My Parents Told Me” (7-17). Although they take the first steps toward reconciliation during “Chosen” (7-22), the details and stability of their new understanding are unclear.

There is only one exception to this pattern of relationships that fail: Willow and Tara.

On the surface, Willow and Tara face many of the same obstacles that we’ve seen before. But there are strong indications, from the earliest phases of their friendship, that Willow and Tara’s relationship is different from any other explored in the show.

For the other characters, secrets and deceptions tend to take on a life of their own, with one lie leading to another until dishonesty becomes a habit and misunderstandings inevitable. When the truth is finally, reluctantly revealed, resentment and anger block attempts to repair the damage that’s been done and move on to a new stage in the relationship. Buffy and Riley, for example, never fully come to terms with one another’s mission in life. Even when their relationship is at its most mutually supportive, they don’t seem to completely understand one another. Riley can’t seem to come to grips with the reality of magic; Buffy can’t understand how he can be so focused on “killing monsters” and miss the larger, more complex issues that are often at stake. As for Buffy and Spike, she’s so ashamed of their relationship that she spends most of the sixth season unwilling to admit to her friends, Spike, or herself that it even exists. Xander and Anya keep whole lists of secrets from one another, as revealed in their song-and-dance number in the sixth season’s “Once More, With Feeling” (6-7). When Xander commits what Anya perceives as the ultimate betrayal— abandoning her at the altar in “Hell’s Bells” (6-16) —she can’t forgive him, and the relationship, like so many before it, fails.

Not so for Willow and Tara. Their relationship breaks all the previously established rules. From their first encounter, at the Wiccan meeting in “Hush” (4-10), Tara offers unqualified, unselfish support to Willow. In that episode, Tara takes the risk of sharing her true self— her magical skills—with Willow without any sign of hesitation or doubt. And Willow accepts her offer to combine their power and work together with similar, unquestioning trust. The early stage of secret-keeping and deception, a guarantee of lasting trauma as far as all the other characters are concerned, barely happens between Willow and Tara. Although Willow demonstrates a measure of circumspection during her earliest conversations with Tara—admitting that she has some other friends she hangs out with, but not going into detail—Tara accepts her discretion as perfectly normal. What matters most to her is that Willow be comfortable in their friendship.

By the time of “Who Are You?” (4-16, six episodes after “Hush”), it’s clear that Willow shares everything with Tara, and has told her all about Buffy and the Scooby gang. She hasn’t told them about Tara yet, but not out of shame or fear or uncertainty: she’s just so happy to be Tara’s friend that she wants to savor the feeling in privacy for a while. When Willow finally does get a chance to introduce Tara to Buffy later in the same episode, it’s a completely relaxed, positive experience (even though, early in the story, Faith disguised as Buffy was horrible to Tara). When Willow and Tara’s friendship deepens and they become lovers, Buffy initially is a little freaked (“New Moon Rising,” 4-19), but she quickly gets over the surprise. As she reassures Riley later, speaking as much about herself as about his reaction to Willow having dated Oz: “You found out that Willow was in kind of an unconventional relationship, and it gave you a momentary wiggins. It happens.” From that point on, Tara gradually becomes a respected part of the Scooby gang.

Tara does keep one secret from Willow for a time but, instead of driving a wedge between them, its revelation draws them even closer to one another. In the fifth-season episode “Family” (5-6), Tara’s father, brother, and cousin arrive in Sunnydale and try to convince Tara to come home with them. Her father insists—and Tara grew up believing—that she has magic abilities because she is part demon, a curse theoretically passed down through the female side of their family. Tara reluctantly prepares to abandon the life she’s built for herself in Sunnydale, rather than risk having Willow and her friends learn her “dark secret.” However, before she is whisked away by her relatives, Spike proves there is no demon in her, and cleverly guesses the truth: “It’s just a family legend, am I right? Just a bit of spin to keep the ladies in line?” The Scoobies prevent Tara’s father from taking her away; when he challenges their right to interfere, Buffy’s response is short and to the point: “We’re family.” Their support mirrors Willow’s unconditional acceptance. Instead of feeling threatened or betrayed by the fact that Tara concealed an important part of her background, Willow understands and sympathizes with her fears, and states her admiration that, despite everything, Tara has overcome her difficulties to become the warm, open-hearted woman Willow loves.

This brings us to a crucial question. Why does the Willow-Tara pairing succeed when all other relationships in the Buffyverse fail? Part of the credit must go to Willow. Of all the members of the Scooby gang, she seems the most sympathetic and supportive of her friends and the least prone to holding a grudge. When she does make a mis-take—as in “Something Blue” (4-9), where her inadvertent curses of her friends start her down the path to becoming a vengeance demon— she recognizes it, apologizes sincerely, and does what she can to make amends. Still, all of Willow’s sterling qualities can’t sustain her relationship with Oz. There has to be another factor at work—and that factor is Tara.

In her early appearances, Tara didn’t make a strong impression on most people (either the other characters, or the audience watching the show). She was shy and self-effacing. Under the least bit of social pressure, she blushed and stuttered and ducked her head as if she were not only afraid to speak up for herself, but convinced before she started that it wouldn’t do any good to try. To outside observers, she seemed to be no more than an appendage to Willow—a friend and, later, lover who made Willow happy, and a moderately talented magic user who could help the more powerful Willow realize her full potential. But that was all.

Such surface impressions, however, don’t do justice to Tara’s true personality. Beneath the shy, quiet exterior lay untapped reserves of moral courage and emotional strength. In her first episode, “Hush” (4-10), she braved the dark, silent campus and the threat of capture by The Gentlemen to bring Willow information that might enable them to break the spell of silence that had crippled the town. In “Who Are You?” (4-16), she provided the knowledge Willow needed to search for Buffy’s essence, and an anchor to guide Willow back when her search was complete. In “New Moon Rising” (4-19), Tara was prepared to stand aside and let Oz resume his place as most significant person in Willow’s life, if that was what would make Willow happy. Again and again, as the series progressed, Tara consistently acted with Willow’s welfare uppermost in her mind.

This doesn’t mean that Tara and Willow’s relationship was completely lacking in conflict or challenges. However, although they occasionally disagreed with or disappointed one another, they both knew how to give and accept apologies. Most important of all, they knew how to forgive.

Willow’s addiction to magic in the sixth season strained her relationship with Tara to the breaking point. By the end of “Tabula Rasa” (6-8), when Tara moves out of the Summers house and, for all practical purposes, out of Willow’s life, it looks as if they’ve been defeated by the Sunnydale Curse: too many lies culminating in an unforgivable betrayal.

But then something unprecedented happens. Instead of resenting the fact that Tara left her (or simply retreating into self-pity as she does after Oz’s departure in “Wild at Heart”), Willow soon takes responsibility for the damage she did to their relationship, and resolves to set things right. After reaching the low point of allowing her thirst for magic to endanger Dawn’s life (“Wrecked,” 6-10), she finally accepts the advice Tara gave her in “Tabula Rasa” (6-8), and gives up magic entirely, and then sticks to her resolve even when events in such episodes as “Older and Far Away” (6-14) and “Normal Again” (6-17) tempt her to regret her decision. Tara’s reaction to Willow’s efforts are most significant of all. Although she left Willow for entirely justifiable reasons—Willow lied to her and manipulated her perceptions and memories—she doesn’t abandon her completely. Even though she has been betrayed in the most personal ways possible, Tara acknowledges the betrayal, accepts it . . . and moves on. Her anger and disappointment don’t prevent her from continuing to love Willow. Tara’s inner strength, patience, and commitment give Willow the time she needs to regain her self-control and self-esteem. By the time of “Entropy,” (618), Willow has done her best to overcome her magic addiction and make amends for the harm she has caused, and at that point Tara is willing to not only support her but also forgive her and build their relationship anew. Together, they learn from their mistakes. Together they are stronger, happier, better people than they ever could be separately.

After Tara’s death in “Seeing Red” (6-19), Willow forgets what she had learned, for a while. But not forever. Xander can’t take Tara’s place, but he can force Willow to remember what she had learned with Tara. In the end, the fact that Willow and Tara’s relationship was cut short by Warren’s careless cruelty doesn’t change the fundamental nature of that relationship, or its ultimate success.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t about killing monsters. Buffy is about the search for meaning in life. Again and again, that meaning is found in reliable, balanced, loving partnerships between individuals. Saving the world is all well and good, but any accomplishment is hollow without someone to share it with at the end of the day. All of the characters have stumbled in and out of relationships, some lasting longer than others, with friends, family, and lovers—all, with one exception, have failed. Some of the relationships, admittedly, weren’t given the chance to achieve their full potential. Giles and Jenny Calendar, for instance, showed signs in “Becoming, Part 1” (6-21) of being on the brink of achieving a level of trust, communication, and forgiveness that might have overcome their initially rocky start. In season seven, Willow begins a romance with Kennedy, one of the potential Slayers, but it lacks the depth and intensity of her relationship with Tara. Granted, in the final episodes, little time is available for developing personal relationships. However, that doesn’t entirely excuse the essential shallowness of Willow’s and Kennedy’s interactions. Perhaps, given time, they could become equal partners in a rich and complex relationship. Kennedy finds Willow attractive. Willow, who struggles with indecision and selfdoubt throughout the crisis with the First, relies on Kennedy for strength and support. If there is anything more to their love, we’re never given the opportunity to see it.

But we don’t have to rely on what ifs or might have beens to find our model for ultimate meaning in Buffy. Tara and Willow showed all of us—their friends and the audience—how to achieve the highest standards of love. Honesty. Communication. Acceptance. Encouragement. Support. Commitment. Conviction. Forgiveness. Determination to never give up.

And that is what Buffy is all about.