So I want to talk about magic and Willow, the period where she goes from competent to powerful and why, and how it gets her lost.
Willow’s role throughout the show changes more frequently than any other character* and as such it gets her into some trouble. Granted, Willow’s got her personality traits that play into this: recklessness (like Xander though, this is not always a fault), manipulative, controlling, but also bravery, intelligence, loyalty, and strength. But her traits are not the only root to her problems. Yes, they’re huge factors, but others come into play as well. It’s the mix of the two that cause her downfall.
In particular I’m thinking about the character development and action in Season 5 that leads to Season 6.
Throughout the early half of Season 5, we see Willow’s skills develop as a witch. No longer is she struggling to float a pencil or get soupy potions. Right at the get go of the season, she effortlessly makes fire (while she hasn’t mastered it yet - see her comment about balancing the elements and the following immediate rainstorm) she’s obviously improved greatly. But, her attitude about magic isn’t yet out of control here. She doesn’t take cavalier attitudes (except as could be interpreted in “Shadow” when Willow appears interested to help Joyce through magic.)
She does no overly powerful spells - either with Tara or by herself - nothing on a different level from what we’ve already seen her do (Angelus’ resouling spell aside, which is a whole other bag of beans) until the second half of the season. We do, however, get an inkling of Willow’s changing attitudes in regards to witchcraft when she pulls out the book for Dawn on resurrection spells following Joyce’s death. Though not fully formulated at this point, it hints that she’s willing to use magics to alter life to ease one’s pain. This is the moment that sends warning bells ringing in Tara’s ears and she confronts Willow about it in Tough Love. Getting defensive (but not unjustly so), Wilow manipulates the argument from use of her magics to questions about her sexuality and dedication to Tara, both of which I think she knows are ridiculous and don’t hold any weight. It’s an entirely weird argument, I don’t think Tara doubts Willow’s love for her at all and neither does Willow about Tara’s. Nor, do I believe, Willow was acting that recklessly in use of magics, though her attitude towards it is something that’s obviously rightfully foreshadowed and “Forever” is where that starts.
What I think Tara is concerned about (but wasn’t really expressed well on the show) is that Willow has gotten extremely powerful in just a few short years. I mean, c’mon, her first successful spell was resouling a freaking vampire. Magical practitioners who train for years couldn’t do that. It foreshadows her power. But right now, mid-S5, Will’s not quite there yet. In a bit we’ll take a closer look at the specific moments where we get from Willow who concentrates to start a fire to a Willow who can summon things from the air, raise the dead, etc;
I’ve already talked about Tough Love and Willow’s reactions somewhat in this post, so I don’t want to repeat too much of that. Instead I wanted to move forward from that, into Willow’s deliberate choices afterwards.
The first time we see Willow’s eyes go black is at the end of Tough Love when she goes after Glory. It’s…not a smart move. But Willow also knows this. She’s smart, she knows going up against a God is foolhardy, but it’s not about winning the fight. It’s about making one. It’s about releasing all of her own pain and anger onto someone else, which is something Willow does on multiple occasions. (See this interesting meta about the Buffy/Willow == internal/external dynamics) Here, Willow is reckless because she can, because she’s hurting, because no one needs her. Tara’s gone, Buffy and Giles are still the leaders of the pack and no one’s counting on her.
When Willow runs to the Magic Shop and tears apart the shelves looking for the dark magic books, she’s not messing around. She knows exactly what she’s doing. As we know, she’s very smart. This moment I think echoes into the climax of S6, when on her rampage Willow says to Buffy, “I’m not coming back.” I think this is that first moment. This is when it happens. There’s no hesitation in her movements when she takes the axe and smashes open the book, not even a flicker in her eye. Right here, Willow expects to not come back from what she’s about to do. This moment and the one in S6 are effectively one and the same. It was her magics that failed to save Tara in time - not getting there fast enough, not being able to remember the words (or needing to remember the words at all), before Glory left Tara blank and empty on the bench. That dreadful sense of helplessness fuels Willow from that moment until the end of the series. And knowing she had the power to change that, that she didn’thave to be helpless is what changes from here on out.
But Buffy does save her from Glory in time. And from there, the choices seem easier- easier to justify, easier to make- because from now on Willow isn’t reckless. She turns to the same dark magics and ups the power, ups the risk, ups the danger, because the entire world and her friends are counting on her.
And in the next two episodes, “Spiral” and “Weight of the World”, everything changes.
This is when Willow pushes herself because she realizes she has to. Because if she doesn’t, everything will literally fall apart and be destroyed. The lines are much easier to recognize when they’re life and death, when the choice is to do black magic to put up a barrier against a god or die. Willow’s shown to be willing to put herself in harm’s way for the greater good - pushing herself with the teleportation spell in 5.13 despite headaches and nosebleeds, and using whatever means necessary to protect and help them all later on, even if it’s dark magics.
In 5.20 “Spiral”, after the gang barely makes it to the abandoned building, they’re immediately attacked. As flaming arrows come flying into the walls, all Buffy does is shout “Willow!” and she erects a barrier for protection. No questions asked. It needs to be done. Her eyes are black. And when Glory tries to leave, Willow delves back into the dark magics again and thickens the barrier.
In 5.21 “Weight of the World”, Willow steps up and leads. She does so calmly and decisively, giving jobs to everyone, coming up with a plan. She gets them to save themselves and then she’ll save Buffy because that’s what Willow does. It’s in S5 that Willow proves she’s not a sidekick. She’s a peer.
Something I find interesting in 5.21 is the scene with Anya before Willow goes into Buffy’s mind. Here, Anya expresses true concern at what Willow’s about to do. Not because it’s the wrong thing to do but because it’s dangerous and she’s worried for Buffy and Willow’s safety. It’s a solemn transaction, one where Anya is uncharacteristically soft and gentle and it’s because she’s afraid. It was a too-short moment that hinted at a potential friendship that never happened on the show.
The spell Willow does to reach Buffy isn’t dark - her eyes never change color, the main indicator of dark magics on the show. It is, however, powerful and rather unknown. Willow hacks spells the way she hacked computers. (e.g.; the teleportation spell in 5.13 “Still working out the kinks.”) It’s not an established spell, and not an insignificant one either. Time and time again in S5 alone, Giles remarks at Willow’s abilities at doing spells far beyond her level. He does so in 5.13 when Willow does the teleportation spell on Glory and again in 5.21 when she psychically reaches Buffy, “Its extraordinarily advanced.” Unlike the last advanced spell she tried - only 8 episodes ago - Willow suffers no physical repercussions. No nosebleeds, no headaches.
I’m going to skip ahead here - Buffy comes out of the coma, blah blah, Willow restores Tara’s mind, yay yay, Dawn bleeds, sad sad, Buffy beats Glory, yay yay, but Buffy dies, sad sad, Buffy’s alive again (again), yay yay - and now it’s Season 6.
From the moment Willow steps up in “Spiral”, she holds onto that control for a while, give or take three months. Buffy’s return after her coma is short lived because by the end of the day, she’s dead. But when Buffy comes back for real, Willow’s no longer in charge again. She’s lost her control, the one she sacrificed so much of herself to achieve. So what does Willow do? She makes bad choices, ones that might have been clearer to make or not not make with need, with reason. But the need for Willow’s power and Willow’s control diminishes once Buffy comes back and Willow doesn’t know how to relinquish the control she does have. She has no guide for this. Her desire to help overpowers her sense of whats right and wrong and so the lines blur. For Willow, like Giles, (remember Eyghon?), it started out by the ends justifying the means. But in the end, the means end up controlling and blinding her. The magic is conflated into her emotional issues - her need for love, for purpose, for control, etc;
What’s interesting to think about here is that Willow’s greatest fear was not having control of the magics- S3’s “Fear, Itself” taught us that. Not only was she afraid of losing control, but also that she’d be useless to help. Weak. When Buffy calls Willow out for only being 50/50 in the magic department, she gets angry. “I’m not your sidekick!” Willow doesn’t want to be the damsel in distress. She wants to help. The rest of the episode taunts her for not being able to do the magics needed to help them. Her helpful firefly lights attack her and drive her away, literally taunting her.
Willow is good because she understands her place. She’s not Buffy’s sidekick, but she stands by her side. But when Buffy’s gone, when Willow has to take Buffy’s place and take over her responsibilities, she does so without complaint, without expecting anything in return. That was the choice she made back at the end of S3 in Choices. Willow made her choice. But when Buffy comes back in S6, Willow doesn’t understand exactly what new role she’s supposed to resume. It’s not the same one as before - she’s much more capable and strong than she was before, magically speaking.
That’s where it really starts to unravel. Where her attitude about magic becomes completely cavalier, the lines having broken down and grown more confusing over the course of a few months. Don’t get me wrong, the potential for Willow’s descent into darkness was always there - she’d been manipulative in other ways beforehand - but we can see how it’s not always so simple. How if things had been different, Willow might not ever have made the choices she did, or she might have recognized them sooner, or a million other things. Willow’s not right. But the blame doesn’t lay solely with her either.
Giles should have recognized the road Willow was walking down. He’d headed down there himself. Despite watching her immense growth, he never intervenes or tires to guide her at all, until it’s too late. Until she’s already a “rank, arrogant amateur”. Giles was a Watcher and he wasn’t Watching. He ignored. Giles was afraid. Giles was a coward. Giles should have helped.
Buffy needed and Buffy got. But Buffy never stopped to look at what it was doing to Willow. (Buffy was also kinda dead and seriously, legitimately depressed so we can cut her some slack for her inaction, but understanding doesn’t entirely excuse the behavior either.)
Xander should have seen. That’s what he does best. He knows his Willow. And yet he didn’t see what was happening.
Tara was afraid. Tara loved. Probably too much. Tara knew better. She tried, but not hard enough. (Raised as a witch with respect and balance towards magic and yet we never saw her try to slow things down) But, Tara also recognized what was happening long before anyone else. Tara knows her Willow. And Tara was strong enough to not let Willow abuse her anymore and so she leaves. That alone was action in the face of seasons long inaction. It ultimately wasn’t enough though, because no one saw and peeled back the issues under it all and that’s when it all explodes at the end of S6 because Willow was never forced to confront herself and her issues. (Note: she should have. That’s what all the magic development lead to but instead the writers buried it under “magic = addicting” which was an awful and useless metaphor, completely detracts from the real issues, and takes an entirely different perspective in S7 so wtf was the point?)
So moral of the story is there’s a lot going on that gets Willow from having enough power to floating pencils to ending the world and Willow isn’t alone in all of it, though she was often treated as such. She looses her way in small steps, because Buffy needed a Big Gun so she became one. There was no one to lead, so she did. And after building up to all that, the boundaries are all different and everything changes again on her. She doesn’t know how to go back. She can’t go back. And so she stumbles messily forward and gets lost on the way.
*Spike admittedly also has many different roles when it comes to the Scoobies, but he was never - and would never consider himself- one of them. that much is clearly established. so while his role changes, his relationship, for the most part, to them does not. this is not the case with Willow.