the thing I hate most about Willow's character arc
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Nov. 13th, 2013 | 05:55 pm
BTVS Season 6: Goddamnit Willow
There’s been a lot of Willow (BtVS) on my dash lately and since what I see on the internet pretty much determines what I think about on a minute-to-minute basis, there has also been a lot of Willow on my mind lately. Specifically Willow/Tara, because when I think about Willow these days I generally think about Tara, because they were the actual first canon lesbian ship I ever saw on TV.
I’m a human being, and arguably even one with a heart and feelings. Therefore, I crumbled into a pile of feels the first time and every subsequent time I heard Tara say the words “Can’t you just be kissing me right now?” But that whole season 6 Willow arc makes me more and more uncomfortable the older I get. Personally, I like season 6, but pretty much for the sole reason that it makes me weep like a baby every other episode and I can sometimes confuse tears with quality. But the Willow arc is just really poorly done to the point of being almost dangerous.
Here lies my disclaimer: This gets pretty anti-Willow. And as a result, anti-Willow/Tara. And anti-BtVS in that I am critical of some writing decisions. Proceed with caution.
I liked Willow. I liked that she started as a victim, but found her own power and built a place for herself in a pretty terrifying world. She was a whiny nerd, but she was brave to a fault. I liked her. And I like her again in season 7 when they remember how to write her. But season 6 Willow is not a good person.
Because the real issue, the story they began to tell, was of an addiction to power and privilege. Willow was more powerful than everybody, so she did want she wanted. And she could do want she wanted easily using magic, so she leaned heavily on that. Magic was just a crutch for the real issue. Her “addiction” to magic was actually more similar to person’s “addiction” to using their smartphone than to the drug addiction the show eventually turned it into in an effort to make Willow more forgiveable (“The magic made me do it!”)
The events leading up to Tara’s breaking up with Willow were not about a dependency on magic so much as an addiction to getting her own way. Willow’s offenses were not about magic, they were about consent.
Not irrelevant to the conversation is that Willow is well aware that Tara has a history of having her power taken away from her, first by her family and then again by Glory. Villains, all of them. But Willow is a good guy, right? But then they have a fight. Willow is using too much magic (I guess this argument is the jumping off point into the whole “magic is a drug” rabbit hole, but at this stage it was just a tool.) Specifically, Tara took issue with Willow’s wanting to shift an entire bar full of people into an alternate dimension just to see if Dawn was there, which seems like a fairly reasonably objection. Worth noting, this fight ends with Tara asking Willow if she’d prefer Tara to just “keep my mouth shut?” and Willow responds that it would “be a good start.” So she finds a way to make Tara “keep her mouth shut.” Like, have you ever had somebody do something that upsets you terribly, and then have that person apologize with “Sorry we got into a fight”? Basically they are saying they don’t want you to be mad at them but they are unwilling to take any responsibility or to reconsider their actions. That is pretty much what Willow does when she erases Tara’s memory, except she doesn’t even leave Tara with the ability to stay mad and stand up for herself. She completely removes Tara’s agency. Then, when Tara finds out and explicitly tells Willow that this was a “violation” and was not at all okay, Willow goes ahead and does it again.
Make no mistake: this is why they broke up. Willow repeatedly denied Tara her ability to give educated consent to anything. Willow was using too much magic, sure, but Tara didn’t break up with her over using magic to do the dishes. She broke up with her for using magic to control her mind. Ten episodes later, Warren uses a mind control device on Katrina to make her “love” him, and effectively seals his fate as an irredeemable character.
The next arc is just so stupid and on-the-nose and completely loses the script. Suddenly, Willow is actually straight-up “addicted to magic”. Like, going to a dealer to get high on magic. Actually. Like, what show were the writers watching? This was never how magic worked on this show. The whole thing is just shot through with holes. Magic is not a drug, it is a tool. Most of Willow’s spells were useful, but some were unnecessarily dangerous, and sometimes there was just no reason to use magic when you could just use a computer. Risk versus reward. You don’t quit power saws cold turkey, but maybe you don’t need one to slice your pizza, you know? And then they encourage her to use computers instead of magic, which is so off base because her problem in the first place was being power-hungry. Encouraging her to become a hacker won’t make her less power-hungry, it will just make her less… washed. And even if we can pretend that we never saw an episode of this show prior to All The Way and suspend disbelief that magic is indeed a drug, the Willow/Tara thing still doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. If magic is a drug, Tara isn’t a second-hand victim of Willow’s “using”, she’s a person that Willow actively dosed. She’s Zoey Bartlet to Willow’s Jean Paul. Was anybody in the entire world rooting for those two crazy kids to get back together?
And the result of that arc is that whole time, everybody is just like “The magic, the magic, the magic!” And they only ever ask her about the magic, and blame her for the magic, and eventually forgive her for the magic. Including Tara. And nobody ever mentions the fact that “Under Your Spell” happened when Tara was unable to give informed consent, and Willow was completely aware of that fact.
With that in mind, the entire Dark Willow thing loses any romance it ever had, because it just winds up reading like the world’s worst temper tantrum. The universe took away her favorite toy, so she’s gonna smash its Barbie Dream Earth to smithereens. It’s gross.
I just don’t know. I don’t doubt that Willow loved Tara. But she abused her. Repeatedly and terribly, and in exactly the way Tara was most vulnerable. For me, this ship is sunk. And I’m pretty sad about it.
I’ve had a similar journey. The older I get, the more uncomfortable I’ve become with how Willow and Tara ended - not because Tara died (though don’t get me started on how much that still hurts) but because of their reconciliation.
I’ve grown to love S6 because of the deep and serious issues it gets to- how it peeled away our heroes, getting at the deepest things they hide from themselves and each other, until there’s almost nothing left. It’s brutal and gutwrenching to watch, but also really good storytelling because here’s the thing - none of it comes out of the blue. All of the serious issues Buffy, Xander, and Willow go through are things that have either been hinted at or blantantly expressed throughout the first five seasons. I’m totally on board with the Willow character development throughout the series save for two things: her abuse of Tara and the latter half of S7 when she’s complicant in kicking Buffy out of her own house. (Xander too, I mean, in what world would that have EVER ever happened? None.) And also don’t get me wrong, Willow is still one of my favorite characters. I love her to pieces precisely because she is this complex, deep character filled with fascinating contradictions and opposites, but mostly because even after everything she still chooses to do good. Willow, unlike the other Scoobies has essentially unlimited possibilities and choice, yet she doesn’t give up. Willow’s story is all about learning her lessons the hard way, how she overcomes them, and lets them define her in the best possible ways.
Magic-as-addiction was a shitshow. It’s not an appropriate metaphor, not just because it was dealt with horribly and sends the worst possible messages about addition , but because it was completely made up. It went against everything the writers ever done before, never how it worked on the show. “Magic is not a drug, its a tool.” Exactly. And that’s where they screwed up Willow, because it really absolved her of the bulk of the responsibility of her actions. It’s not that she was manipulative and abusive, no, it was all because she was “addicted to magic”. Wrong-O.
What bothers me most about S6 isn’t at the end when Willow ‘becomes’ evil, it’s earlier when she violates Tara. It’s completely sickening. The worst part is the fact that Willow “is well aware that Tara has a history of having her power taken away from her, first by her family and then again by Glory.” She’s aware of how Tara’s family abused her and how Glory violated her - and Willow turns around and does the exact same thing. It’s nauseating and by far the worst transgression she ever made on the show, far more than her vengeful rage at the end of the season.
And the worst part is, I don’t think it had to go like that. I’m right on board with the storytelling decisions made at the end of S6. All of Dark Willow had been so wonderfully built up since S1, and Tara’s unfortunate death as the catalyst is appropriate. But I don’t think the addiction plotline was the way to go, and I certainly don’t think Willow needed to become abusive toward Tara for it to get there. Because remember, it isn’t even Tara leaving her that gets Will to realize her mistakes. It’s hurting Dawn. If Tara leaving isn’t the catalyst, then what was the point of writing in the abuse? Tara could have still left over Willow’s over- and inappropriate use of magic. Even if she had stayed, Tara’s death would have still catapulted Willow into Dark Willow - we’ve seen what Willow’s vengeful behavior looks like after Tara comes to harm, and when she goes after Glory in ‘Tough Love’, it was not only while her and Tara were still together, but after their first fight. The reconciliation at the end of ‘Entropy’, makes it all the more bitter, but no less utterly tragic and unfair.
What I’ve come to realize as I get older is that I’m not sure if Tara should have reconciled with Willow. I’m not sure Willow’s actions could ever be forgiven. Understood and acknowledged? Sure. Willow’s cruel, unspeakable actions to Tara just make me ill. I don’t understand how people find so much joy in “Under Your Spell”, because knowing under what conditions it happens ruins any happiness I can derive from the song or other scenes. Willow’s smile as she leans over Tara in bed morphs into a sickening smirk and I have to turn away.
What’s unfortunate is that few fanfics deal appropriately with the issue, let alone repair it. And I’m not sure it can be repaired. It gets so much more difficult and complicated over time. I have a harder and harder time deriving joy and entertainment at fics that do have a reconciled Willow and Tara either pre- or post-‘Seeing Red’, and it’s really a shame. My feelings are so very torn and while I ship Willow and Tara with a fierce love and deep passion, and while the ship isn't sunk for me, it’s become increasingly problematic and difficult to deal with.
And what really hurts the most is that it didn’t have to be that way.
Getting past Dark Willow is a lot easier than getting past Abusive Willow.
Dark Willow was a deliberate choice to go down an unforgiving and self-destructive road that Willow never wanted to return from. But Abusive Willow should have known better. She still did terrible, unforgivable wrong to the person she loved the most. Willow became an abuser, to a person she’d known to have been abused on multiple occasions - not just by Gods and monsters, but by people she was supposed to love and trust, people who were supposed to protect her. And at that first memory spell (I’d even argue that moment at the club, “That’d be a good start”) she became worse than Glory, worse than the Maclays.
And for that, I don’t know if Willow can be forgiven.