The nature of forgiveness in Buffy-verse is complicated to say the least. Angel gets a whole spinoff dedicated to him trying to atone for his actions, but one reason I have issues with Angel is because the nature of forgiveness is very much an absent thing in Angel. Angel embraces this existentialist belief that goes along the lines of “If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do” and he never forgives himself for his past actions nor do the members of his team forgive other members for their actions easily.
In Buffy, people are judged as good or bad by whether or not they have a soul. Unfortunately, most of the members of what the fandom calls “The Scooby Gang” are forgiven for their actions without the need of penance or atonement. And yet the nature of forgiveness is a lot more prevalent in Buffy even if some characters are forgiven too easily. Of course, some fans have yet to forgive the characters because they got off too easily and it says a lot about the show that whether or not these characters deserve forgiveness is still being debated to this day.
The best example of how forgiveness applies to Buffy is shown in Seasons 6 and 7, specifically Willow’s story arc and the entire Spike/Buffy arc throughout Seasons 6 and 7.
Willow Rosenberg started out as the shy, adorable nerdy girl but developed confidence in herself through practicing magic. However, that confidence turned into arrogance and a dependence on magic in Season 6. It got to the point that her desire for control and the high that she got from magic ruined her relationship with Tara. In “Smashed,” she hangs out with a witch named Amy who enables her addiction and makes it even worse in the following episode “Wrecked.”
Incidentally, “Smashed” and “Wrecked” are also the episodes where Buffy begins her affair with Spike. To say that their relationship from this point on is a beautiful disaster of epic proportions is an understatement. But honestly, if loving them is wrong, I don’t wanna be right! The nature of the Spuffy relationship is complicated at best and outright abusive at worst, on both sides. On the one hand, you could argue that Buffy needed Spike because she’s suffered major abandonment issues, has major depression from returning from the dead, and sees Spike as the only one who understands her needs, but won’t put their relationship out in the open because of what her friends may think. On the other hand, Spike told Buffy that she “came back wrong” and told her that she belonged in the dark with him, and letting her use him because he’s “love’s bitch.”
Some interpret the relationship as a metaphor for self harm, which is most obviously seen in “Dead Things,” in which Buffy beats Spike up to a pulp and says “There is nothing good or clean in you. You are dead inside. You can’t feel anything real.” She tells him that he doesn’t have a soul and that she can never be his girl, but what she says about being dead inside and not being able to feel anything applies more to herself. In my honest opinion, the relationship between Spike and Buffy was complicated and awful during Season 6 and I will at least say that the show goes out of its way to try and convince the audience of the wrongness of both of their actions.
The two story arcs eventually come to a head in what I feel is the most divisive episode in the entire fandom. Just thinking of this episode honestly breaks my heart into a million pieces. Like St. Thomas Aquinas, I judge evil as having a lack of good and my least favorite Buffy episodes are ranked by how little “good” they have in them. “Seeing Red” comes really close to topping the list, if not for “Empty Places” which completely lacks any good moments whatsoever.
There are two moments in “Seeing Red” that break my heart. The one that divides the fandom is the infamous bathroom scene in which Spike attempts to rape Buffy and Buffy fights him off, telling him “Ask me why I could never love you.”
I hate this scene. But it’s not for the obvious attempted rape like you would think. It’s why that scene was written and the aftermath of this scene in the fandom. Buffy had every right to fight back, choosing to not harm herself or hate herself the way she did before. Spike also immediately realized the wrongness of what he did and leaves.
The reason I bring this particular scene up is because it reminds me of Saint Maria Goretti who also fought for her life when Alessandro attempted to rape her and ended up killing her instead. Too many people pay too much attention to the fact that Maria refused to give her virginity over to Alessandro and forget that she made an effort in fighting for her life. When I attended the veneration of her relics, the priest giving the homily pointed out that Alessandro left the room after stabbing her nine times and and rendering her unconscious. Maria regained consciousness and dragged herself to the door to open the latch and scream for help. Unfortunately, Alessandro heard her opening the latch and proceeded to stab her five more times. The damage that Maria suffered from these stab wounds would be what killed her, even after surgeons tried to fix the damages.
One scene from “Seeing Red” also involves the death of an innocent woman, except the cause of death is honestly implausible and impossible by rule of simple physics. I’m talking, of course, of Tara Maclay.
Tara Maclay should not have died the way she did. But that is a complaint for another blog post. Tara’s death would lead to Willow’s dark side becoming unleashed.
In the season finale “Grave,” both Buffy and Willow finally begin to start healing. In this episode, Buffy and Dawn end up falling into a large underground grave, facing off against an army of undead things. Buffy panics, but it’s not until she sees Dawn fighting that she gains the will to fight again.
Meanwhile, Xander faces off against Willow, who is on the brink of destroying the world, driven by the dark magics she is channeling and the rage and grief she has over Tara’s death.
This is where the power of forgiveness starts showing. Xander is able to get to Willow to stop her rampage not by fighting her, but by telling her how much he loves her, even when she’s in her Dark Willow state. The “broken crayon” speech is one of my favorite Xander moments because Willow finally comes face to face with unconditional love that she doesn’t want to receive. And yet Xander’s willingness to get hurt if it means helping Willow get back to normal leads Willow to break down and cry.
Buffy and Willow have finally begun to heal from the hurt that’s inside of them. But the episode doesn’t end with a sigh of relief.
When I was watching these episodes for the first time, I wondered where Spike was. There were scenes that show him going through a lot of trials and battles and most of the audience, including me, assumed he was trying to get the chip out of his head. Instead…
Spike is given his soul back. Dear God, I did NOT see that coming and I was spoiled about the fact that Spike got ensouled sometime between Seasons 6 and 7. I honestly assumed he would be cursed with it. But to go through trials in order to regain his moral compass back?! How can you not see the parallels between that and the Sacrament of Penance?!
When Spike returns in Season 7, Buffy finds him in a chapel on a cemetery, dealing with the burden of his past actions. When Buffy realizes that he has his soul, she asks him why.
He replies, “Why does a man do what he mustn’t? For her. To be hers. To be the kind of man who would nev— (looks away) to be a kind of man.”
He approaches the cross at the front of the chapel and embraces it as he says “She shall look on him with forgiveness, and everybody will forgive and love. He will be loved. So everything’s OK, right? Can—can we rest now? Buffy…can we rest?”
Spike literally embraces his cross so that he can be worthy of Buffy’s love again. I seriously can’t even.
The reason why “Seeing Red” isn’t my #1 least favorite episode is because good things surprisingly came out of it. For one thing, James Marsters decided to put in his contract that he would never do a rape scene in anything he’s in after that episode, which is majorly amazing considering he always chooses to play the bad guy. It’s still a difficult thing for him to talk about to this day. It also led to Spike seeking atonement for his actions. Eventually, Buffy forgives him in what is, in my honest opinion, my favorite Spuffy moment in the entire show: the scene from “Touched” where Buffy tells Spike to stay with her in the abandoned house and they fall asleep in each other’s arms.
What I really hate about the scene is that a good chunk of the fandom sees what Spike did as unforgivable. Willow eventually learns to forgive herself in Season 7 and she’s still a beloved character. Xander is easily forgiven for his actions even though he never got to atone for them. Angel is easily forgiven in spite of the fact that he let the majority of the lawyers of Wolfram and Hart be murdered by Darla and Drusilla. Why is it that Spike isn’t forgiven in the eyes of his haters?
Honestly, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t hate Spike. There are things that I hate that I can’t rationalize or give a good explanation for. I’m just saying that if we can’t forgive fictional characters for their actions and believe that they have atoned for their wrongdoings, how can we forgive people who do those things in real life?
It’s very telling that the most hated villain in all of Buffy isn’t Spike or Angelus or Glory or the Mayor or the Master. The most hated villains in Buffy are Warren Mears and The First Evil. The First Evil is hated mostly because it’s all talk and no action. But Warren? Warren is a human being. He isn’t a vampire or a hell god or a human who chose to become a demon. He is the most real villain of the entire season. He should have been easily taken care of, but Buffy and the Scoobies were too drenched in depression to deal with him properly. The reason Warren gets hated is because even though he’s a human, he murders his girlfriend, accidentally kills Tara, and shoots Buffy in cold blood, all without a single ounce of remorse.
We tend to treat people who do the things Warren did in a similar way. We hate them without giving them a chance for mercy or forgiveness. And believe me, I hate certain characters on Buffy and other shows to the point that I kill them in fanfictions. But here’s the thing, I can draw the line between fiction and reality. My friend Ian Miller says “I think if you care enough about a fictional character to defend them, you should care enough about a fictional character to treat them like a real person. If you act as yourself, you’re removing that distance, and thus the motives are functionally identical to if they were real.” Whenever I kill off characters in fiction, I do so with emotional distance.
I still feel anger towards Warren for killing Tara and for Riley and Angelus because they represent the pain that tormented me. But last night, I chose to forgive those who hurt me. And it was an amazing, wonderful experience. I may never see those who’ve hurt me nor will I ever know if they are truly sorry, but I feel like I’ve moved on past the pain and feel released from the power that my enemies have had over me. I don’t know if it’ll be safe to be in the same room with them, but I know that right now, I can think about them without feeling any hurt. So hopefully, I can learn to forgive the characters I hate as well and give them a different karmic retribution that doesn’t end with them being tortured. I also hope that those who hate Spike for whatever reasons can learn to forgive him as well.
Besides that, Spike and Buffy are now having a happy mature relationship in the Season 10 comics, so in the immortal immature words of Nelson Muntz from The Simpsons: