“Something, isn’t it? One tiny piece of metal destroys everything. It ripped her insides out… It took her light away. From me. From the world.”
— Willow, “Villains”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is about death. It is about losing loved ones and struggling to carry on. It is about finding happiness, or some semblance of it, and having it snatched from you. That might seem pretty obvious. After all, this is a show where vampires, demons, and other assorted bugaboos kill and are killed on a weekly basis. Its body count is unparalleled on TV (unless you count its spin-off, Angel).
I’m not sure, though, that the show itself came to terms with death until its fifth season, when Buffy’s mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland), died of an aneurysm. That episode, “The Body,” is possibly the finest hour of television I’ve seen, bar none. It concentrates on the aftermath of Joyce’s death, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) finding the body and going into shock, of her friends failing to cope with it in various ways. It is an incredibly moving episode, one that finally admits that you don’t walk away from death unscathed. It also shows that, for all the group’s slaying experience, they really weren’t prepared for death when it stole a loved one.
Oh sure, Joss Whedon and company had been tweaking the whole tormented life-of-the-Slayer thing, and even raised it into sharp definition by playing Buffy against Faith (Eliza Dushku), a second Slayer who got a literal sexual thrill out of the hunt. But until Joyce’s death, they only rarely dealt with the raw impact of death, as when a newly demonic Angel (David Boreanaz) kills Giles’ (Anthony Head) new girlfriend, Jenny (Robia LaMorte). But that pain passed pretty quickly, in the show’s memory. The effects of Joyce’s death have lingered.
Why does that matter now? Because as horrific and numbing as Joyce’s death was to Buffy, during the last season, an even greater seismic shock rocked the characters and caused more controversy among viewers than anything else the show has done. Tara is dead.
As the past season wound to a close, the increasingly-annoying-and-increasingly-evil geek Warren (Adam Busch) fired a gun at Buffy. He hit Buffy, but he also accidentally hit Tara (Amber Benson), and killed her. All we see of the shot hitting Tara is Willow (Alyson Hannigan) being splashed with her blood. It’s a shocking moment. Tara and Willow had just reconciled after months of hardship, and were taking a breather from days of marathon makeup sex.
This, of course, sent Willow on an unparalleled course of vengeance, in which flaying Warren alive and incinerating him was her idea of just getting started. The two-hour finale was a non-stop knot of tension that found Willow going head-to-head with everyone in the Scooby Gang (and kicking every square inch of their collective asses, to paraphrase Dark Willow) until Xander (Nicolas Brendan), of all people, kept her from destroying the world.
The controversy over Tara’s death and Willow’s reaction has been amazing. Whedon has been accused of misogyny and homophobia because he killed Tara, and that his subdued portrayals of the gay couple’s sexuality didn’t mirror the swingin’ heterosexual sex that dominated several seasons of the show. Todd Ramlow, in an article on this site, contends that Whedon’s answer to the problem of presenting Tara and Willow was to “code lesbianism as witchcraft, and specifically, lesbian sex as spell-casting.”
I think that’s a fundamental misreading of what was happening. The portrayal of Willow and Tara’s relationship was in keeping with their personalities. Since Buffy started, the show has had fun with Willow’s wallflower tendencies (“leather-clad ghost Willow” and “evil Vampire Willow from another dimension” come to mind). Historically, she simply hasn’t been prone to overt displays of sexuality; when she was dating bandmember/werewolf Oz (Seth Green), we never saw them making the beast with two backs atop an amplifier at The Bronze. In fact, Willow’s tentative steps into sexuality and her “first time” were very tender moments, especially compared with Buffy’s full-on passion with Angel.
Willow’s relationship with Tara followed the same course. Extremely tentative, it bore the telltale signs of a friendship that was growing into something more. As both Tara and Willow were witches, Whedon used scenes where they collaborated on spells to mirror their growing affection towards each other. Some of those scenes were downright erotic, which is probably why some folks feel like Whedon was ciphering an equation that read: lesbianism = witchcraft. Spell-casting might have been the bridge that allowed these two to come together, and Whedon might have played the magic angle (a kissing Willow and Tara floating above the dancers at The Bronze, etc.) a touch too heavily at times, but there’s nothing in the show to suggest that lesbianism is a gateway to witchcraft, or vice versa. At least initially, Whedon used scenes of magic to get past potentially troubling and overt representations of lesbian awakening, but by the time Willow became addicted, the landscape had become markedly more complex. Her lesbian identity was always a liberation; the same couldn’t be said for her witchcraft.
Willow’s descent into a magic junkie had very few erotic undertones (the only obvious one was where fellow witch Amy takes her to see Rack [Jeff Kober], a pusher who specializes in magic fixes). Rack is into “little girls,” it’s later revealed, and Willow’s first rush of bought magic is undoubtedly sexual. Overall, though, her reliance on magic to manage daily life — to wash dishes, turn on lights — are free of sexuality. It’s like any junkie’s increasing dependence on the crutch of choice. Even as Willow and Tara’s relationship became known to the rest of the group, it remained a fairly private affair. Stolen kisses, furtive holding-of-hands, post-coital snuggling in bed. Admittedly, it paled in comparison to Buffy’s passionate coupling with Angel, her repeated bedding of Riley (Marc Blucas), or her dark and compulsive trysts with Spike (James Marsters) — and we all know how well these relationships turned out. Buffy, as the show’s focal point, has naturally enjoyed the most on-screen sex, but those scenes rarely exemplify mental health.
Apart from Anya (Emma Caulfield) and Xander (or Cordelia [Charisma Carpenter] and Xander), whose sex lives were portrayed mainly for laughs, Willow and Tara were the very picture of sexual normalcy. And, apart from Joyce’s death, they hold a monopoly on the show’s most heartbreaking moments. It’s impossible to forget Willow’s anguish as she nursed an addled Tara, her sanity taken by a voracious Glory (Clare Kramer), Tara’s breakup with Willow, or, most recently, their reunion. At that point, when Tara haltingly asked Willow if they couldn’t just skip the awkward parts and get right to the kissing, it seemed like everything was perfect. Willow was off the magic and her emotional lynchpin, Tara, was back. And then, Tara died.
Willow tried to bring her back, failed, then embraced dark magic, absorbing magic books and viciously draining Rack of his energy. She was the most powerful witch in the Western Hemisphere, and unstoppable in her quest for vengeance. Her every action following Tara’s death was fueled by grief. She reacted in the same way that many of us would have (straight or gay), except that she had a pipeline to the dark powers at her disposal.
Willow’s torment was free of any links between magic and lesbianism — quite simply, Willow had lost the love of her life. While she was with Tara, Willow blossomed both as a lover and as a witch, but the two paths were always running parallel — not intertwined — and they eventually diverged. It was Tara who tried to talk Willow out of relying on magic, it was Tara who broke up with Willow because of her magical abuses, and it was Willow’s ditching of magic that brought Tara back into her life.
True, it’s unfair that Willow and Tara suffered like they did, but is any character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer free of grief? Giles lost Jenny, and later exiled himself to England for the good of his surrogate daughter, Buffy. Buffy had to say goodbye to Angel. Buffy lost her mother. Buffy died. Buffy worked at the Double Meat Palace. Things got so bad for Buffy that she briefly preferred an alternate reality in which she was insane. Anya and Xander’s engagement dissolved at the altar. Spike has been reduced to a neutered version of himself, his love for Buffy culminating in an attempted rape and a mystical quest for revenge that’s taken a really wild twist. Who hasn’t suffered to insane degrees on Buffy?
Willow and Tara were treated like anyone else on the show — they tried to live their lives and got smacked around by fate in the process. Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that, as everyone else on Buffy seems to be drifting aimlessly, Willow and Tara were the last characters who still seemed rooted in something tangible. Now that’s gone. To think of Willow and Tara only in terms of their lesbianism is to do a disservice to lovers who were fully realized, regardless of their gender or orientation.
Proposing that Willow’s magic addiction is somehow a punishment for being a lesbian, or that Willow and Tara were degraded simply because the complexities of “real life” assailed them, is to ignore seasons worth of episodes that argue the exact opposite. Attaching veils of nonexistent symbolism and sexual politics obscures what the couple really was, right up until the end: the very model of healthy stability in the Buffy universe. But nothing good can remain in Sunnydale. As Whedon himself put it in a post to Buffy fans: “Willow’s story was not about being gay. It was about weakness, addiction, loss… the way life hits you in the gut right when you think you’re back on your feet. The course of true love never did run smooth, not on my show.”
Willow had gotten back on track, she was clean, her lover was back, and then her lover was gone. In the end, Willow and Tara were not treated any differently than anyone else, and that’s the way it should have been, the way it always was. One of the refreshing things about Whedon’s treatment of the couple was that Willow and Tara’s lesbianism was largely a non-issue, free of impassioned speeches or “very special episodes” about discrimination. It simply was.
The sixth season of Buffy ended with pure, uncut sorrow. For one night, Willow became pure vengeance, and it had nothing to do with magic addiction, and it had nothing to do with lesbianism. She was never going to have Tara again, and someone was going to pay. It was a hell of a finish. Whatever the seventh season brings, it will include mourning. Willow will mourn the evil she’s done, she will mourn her weakness, and she will mourn Tara. So will we.