Why Seeing Red Is The Worst Episode of Buffy: Defending Spike Part 1

1. Sex and Violence in Spuffy

Even when they were enemies, Spike and Buffy’s relationship was characterized by the interplay between sex and violence.  Their first fight in School Hard was peppered with sexual double-entendres.  His rather nasty mockery of her relationship with Parker when he has the Gem of Amara in Harsh Light of Day at least demonstrates where his mind is while fighting her.  And in perhaps my favorite episode, Fool for Love, the sensuality in their sparring is so thinly disguised it seems almost impossible to believe that even Buffy can remain in denial.  Yet despite this eroticism, Spike never actually initiates sex through violence; that is Buffy’s modus operandi.   Yes, once his chip stops functioning with her, he is willing to hit Buffy in other situations, but these hits are not intended as a prelude to sex—and frankly, he would have to work really hard to get even with her hits to his nose at this point.  It is also implied that their sexual activities are rough.  However, these activities are consensual, not forced, and it would be difficult to qualify them as genuine violence.  They might be kinky, but they are not terribly out of the ordinary even for purely human couples.

I also find it interesting that whenever their fights start to get personal for Buffy, Spike has a tendency to take blows rather than give them.  There’s a fascinating sort of parallelism between the sparring scene in Fool for Love and the beating Buffy gives him in Dead Things.  Both take place in empty alleys.  Both start out as fights between equals.  And in both, Spike ultimately stops fighting and responds to Buffy’s emotional upheaval by inviting (even daring) her to hit him.  One could write off these scenes as evidence of Spike’s masochism.  Yet while he clearly does enjoy getting smacked around by the Slayer, he also enjoys fighting back.  More importantly, his attitude in Fool for Love shifts from one of naughty but lighthearted suggestion to something more serious.  And the whole of the Dead Things incident was serious, not playful.  If it is masochism, then it is one based as much on an emotional need as a sexual one.  Spike repeatedly demonstrates throughout the series that in moments of intensity, he would rather submit to a Slayer-thrashing than fight back.  Thus, forcing himself upon Buffy in Seeing Red is a complete role reversal for him.

2. Motives and Spike’s Personality

That Spike ordinarily prefers to meet his opponents as an equal or even an inferior underscores my second point about his personality.  A lot of ink has been spilled about the differences between Spike and Angelus in their soulless states.  Angelus is essentially the Mr. Hyde to Angel’s Dr. Jekyll.  He is calculating and cruel and revels in both dominating people and in breaking them down completely.  He takes sadistic pleasure in the destruction of a human being.  Rape seems entirely within Angelus’ inclinations.  Spike, on the other hand, is fire to Angelus’ ice.  He is more wild than calculating.  His evil usually consists in amoral apathy regarding the destruction his recklessness can cause.  He has committed more calculated acts of cruelty, but generally only for pragmatic purposes or to please Drusilla.  His own natural preferences are for a good fight against an opponent who might actually kill him.  Thus, he craves the rush of danger that comes with fighting Slayers.

We are not given information regarding Spike’s sexual history outside of Drusilla and Harmony, so we cannot be absolutely certain whether or not he has committed rapes in the past.  Nor can we simply assume that because he is evil, he must have committed every crime imaginable.  What we can do is speculate about his past crimes based on what we know of his character, taking into consideration that personality seems to matter in the types of evil to which a soulless vampire is inclined.  In most cases, rape is far less about sexual need than it is about dominance and bullying the weaker party.  Personally, I rather doubt that this type of rape ever constituted a significant part of his previous violent lifestyle.  It is not that he would disapprove of it, being a creature of darkness.  It’s just that dominating the weak does not seem to be his thing.  On the other hand, there is a type of rape that would be a bit more plausible for Spike.  Warfare is unfortunately often accompanied by the ravaging of women in sacked cities and towns.  As much as I might prefer to assume that even this type of rape lay outside of Spike’s interest in his days as Big Bad, I can see someone making a reasonable case that he might have done something like this in moments of extreme bloodlust.  And these rapes are just as horrible, just as traumatic for the women (and sometimes men) who experience them as the more conventional dominance-rapes.  Any such crimes in his past deserve to be condemned.

Yet even if we assume the worst and say that Spike has committed either one or both of these kinds of rape at some point in his past, the idea that he would do either to Buffy frankly defies everything else we know about his character.  As I have already mentioned, I do not think that dominance-rape is something that would have given Spike much pleasure even with ordinary women.  And Buffy is not an ordinary woman, but a Slayer.  Even in his days as Big Bad, Spike sought out Slayers because he viewed them as worthy opponents.  He respects them far too much to try to break them in this way.  There would be no glory in it.  In fact, he had so much respect for Nikki Wood that he did not even drink her blood.  This respect is also why I do not believe that he would ever commit the second type of rape against a Slayer either.  The whole point of bloodlust-rapes is that the victims are not real to the perpetrators.  They are unknown and nameless women, dehumanized by their association with the enemy.  Slayers could never be nameless in Spike’s eyes, even in his days as a Big Bad who had not yet fallen in love with one. This becomes more significant because Spike does fall in love with Buffy.  

Spike’s sense of respect for Buffy is even greater than it would be for other Slayers.  Even in the confused beginning days of their relationship, when his realization that he loves her is still mixed with his past hatred, he demonstrates no desire to break her.  Take Fool for Love.  When Buffy rejects him, Spike goes for a gun and tries to shoot her.  It’s brutal, wrong, and evil, but it is also quick.  He wants to kill her, not make her suffer.  This cannot be credited to the chip, because Angelus would absolutely have found a way to break Buffy in spite of it.  Then, when Spike arrives at Buffy’s back patio, he cannot go through with the shooting, stopped by the sight of her emotional suffering.  When he ties her up in Crush, he can only bring himself to threaten Buffy.  When her safety is actually endangered, however, he releases her.  Even the BuffyBot can be interpreted as an attempt—however misguided—to respect her wishes and leave the Slayer alone.  Personally, I find it highly revealing that he actually arms the robot with a stake, and his scenes with it indicate that he prefers to think of Buffy as unwilling to kill him rather than incapable of doing so. Regardless, Spike never demonstrates a desire to brutalize his Slayer, either as an enemy or as a lover.

At any rate, the onscreen assault does not play as either dominance-rape or bloodlust-rape.  Rather, it seems more desperate than angry.  While Spike being desperate to win the love of a woman giving him the cold shoulder does fit his character, there are a host of other issues that accompany this interpretation.  For one, the suggestion that a man might sincerely love a woman he sexually assaults does not bear out in real life, and it is dangerous to make such a suggestion even about a fictional character.  The only way around this problem is to accept Buffy’s insistence that his feelings are not genuine, but as I will point out repeatedly in this essay, we have seen plenty of proof since Intervention that his love for her is quite real.

The other major problem with desperation-rape is that in context of their Season Six relationship it can be interpreted as an abuse victim (and, as I will argue later, I firmly believe that he deserves to be considered as such) finally lashing out against his abuser.  While it is true that abuse victims do sometimes snap, this is an extraordinarily complex issue.  I doubt it could ever be treated properly in a supernatural show like Buffy without the risk of confusing viewers, especially if it concerns a vampire who is supposedly evil by nature. Victims of domestic violence are frequently told by their abusers that they are evil or sinful and deserve the mistreatment.  I have personally encountered individuals in abusive relationships who insisted that they were the ones at fault, even when they were afraid to be around their significant other. By having Buffy continually insist that Spike is incapable of changing his stripes throughout her abuse of him, then legitimating her claim through the attempted rape, the writers have essentially sent the message that sometimes abuse victims really are bad and deserve to be battered.  That particular suggestion is just as problematic as blaming rape victims for what happens to them.

Perhaps the writers assumed that the supernatural qualities of these two characters would prevent anyone from walking away with such harmful real-world messages.  In an earlier season that might well have been the case.  After all, a vampire and a Slayer hardly constitute a conventional couple, and most real romantic relationships do not start out as mortal enmity.  Season Six, however, is all about real-world problems, from nerdy villains to paying bills and holding jobs to depression and the story arcs centering around the Scooby Gang’s own character flaws.  The season’s romantic relationships are no exception, from the trust issues between Tara and Willow to the spectacular blow-up of Xander and Anya’s happily-ever-after dreams.  It is disingenuous to encourage viewers to read the season’s themes as commentary on real life and not expect them to extend that principle to topics as serious as abuse and rape.


3. Spike’s Character Arc

As previously mentioned, Spike makes a lot mistakes in early Season Five that temporarily justify treating his feelings as an obsession rather than real love, much like the one Angelus displayed in the second half of Season Two.  By the opening of Season Six, however, Spike has undergone a profound transformation in the way in which he approaches Buffy, Dawn, and even the other Scoobies.  To be clear, I do not believe that he has completely converted to the cause of goodness by this point.  He still makes mistakes and has setbacks over the course of Season Six, but these are of a different nature than the ones he committed in early Season Five, and only a few of them can be considered unambiguously evil.

Take for instance the ridiculous plot with the demon eggs in As You Were.  It is implied that Spike is the “Doctor” responsible for selling the eggs to arms dealers who are willing to drop them on innocent populations.  However, Spike never actually admits to being the Doctor, and the evidence is merely circumstantial.  In the past, Spike would’ve been one to brag about his misdeeds. Moreover, the idea of Spike running something as grand as a smuggling operation is frankly so unbelievably out of character that most fans just ignore it.  Messing in things way over his head?  Likely.  Hiding the eggs for a poker buddy?  Believable.  Doing a one-shot deal for some extra cash?  Sure.  But a professional smuggler to arms dealers, complete with a pseudonym?  As Spike would say: “Bollocks.”

Likewise, Spike’s attempt to hide Katrina’s body in Dead Things is a morally questionable action, but far less so than much of his earlier lifestyle.  He did not kill the girl himself, and though Buffy believes she has killed her, Spike is ultimately trying to protect the woman he loves from making a massive mistake.  His actions may be objectionable, but his intentions are loving.  In fact, even if Buffy had been correct in her assessment of the situation, I still think trying to stop her from turning herself into the police would be the sensible thing to do.  After all, it was clearly an accident and not the sort of case that the ordinary human legal system is competent to judge.  Of course, Spike’s nonchalance about the girl’s death is still disturbing, and his comment that one death does not “tip the scale” indicates that he still does not grasp the moral problem intuitively.  However, even these comments are mitigated by the fact that he seems open to listening to Buffy’s reasoning.

Another example of Spike’s evil inclinations in Season Six is his attempt to pull Buffy into darkness, an effort that places him in the role of a tempter.  Yet even this apparent seduction towards the darkness can be interpreted more generously.  It is a classic example of Spike trying to do the right thing the wrong way.  Unlike most of her friends, Spike actively tried, for the bulk of the season, to help Buffy deal with her depression at being alive again. Of course, telling a woman who has just had heaven ripped away from her that she is actually a creature of darkness like himself is hardly the best approach.  But since Spike sees nothing wrong with being a creature of darkness, he cannot be fully faulted for this failure in understanding.  Truthfully, Buffy can be a little self-righteous and would probably be more at peace if she accepted her own imperfection—which is not the same thing as embracing inner darkness, but Spike has never been taught that distinction.  Of course, it also does not help that Buffy and the Scoobies (who are chock-full of their own darkness at this point) keep insisting that he cannot change his stripes.  He has been given the impression that the only way he can have a relationship with Buffy is if she meets him where he is rather than him rising above his moral failings to be worthy of her.

The only unambiguously evil action Spike takes in Season Six is his attack on a nameless woman in an alley when he thinks his chip has stopped working in Smashed.  However, even in this moment there is a significant difference between Spike from Season Two and how Spike acts in this particular episode.  After having been the Scoobies’ whipping boy for several years, it probably is not all that surprising that Spike is excited about getting his “stones” back.  Just as he is about to perform his Big Bad Moment of Evil, though, he discovers that he has to give himself a pep talk before attacking!  This shocking little scene illustrates perfectly both just how far Spike has come and how far he still has to travel back into the light.  Obviously, the fact that he wants to kill the woman is a sign that he is still a long way from full redemption, but he would have had no qualms about draining her in Seasons Two through Four.  More relevant to his actions in Seeing Red is the fact that this woman is not Buffy.  Thus, while the scene does prove that a chipless Spike would still be a threat to the bulk of the Sunnydale population at this point, it does not demonstrate that he is still a danger to the humans he cares about personally.  When it comes to hurting his Slayer, Spike is all talk and some weak punches here and there.

The last big mistake that Spike makes in his relationship with Buffy prior to Seeing Red is his one-night stand with Anya in Entropy.  However, while I do consider this a terrible decision, I am not sure it qualifies as being more wrong than what Buffy has been doing with him for the past several months.  Looked at through Catholic eyes, the encounter is just as illicit as most of the other sexual relationships on the show.  And while it is true that both parties admit they do not actually love each other in Entropy, Buffy has been swearing up and down for the past half-season that she does not love Spike, so there is not a massive difference on those grounds either.

Looked at through secular eyes, both Xander and Buffy have turned their backs on their respective relationships and no longer have any real claim to the fidelity of their jilted lovers.  Buffy has openly told Spike to move on.  Of course, none of these facts make what happens between the two couples any less painful.  Except Spike and Anya were not deliberately trying to hurt their lovers with their actions.  Anya may have started out trying to get back at Xander, but by the time the two finish their bottle of whiskey, she has clearly lost interest in pursuing vengeance.  And Spike only came to find some way to dull the pain.  The only attempt he had made to get back at Buffy since being dumped was showing up with a date for Xander’s wedding in Hell’s Bells, and that was so half-hearted that it actually turned into a genuinely sweet moment.  Ultimately, Spike and Anya’s encounter at The Magic Box is about two lonely and rejected people seeking solace in each other’s arms.  Neither of them were aware that their lovers found a camera feed that gave them a front-row ticket to the whole sorry show.

Thus, when all Spike’s major sins in Season Six are tallied, it becomes clear that he has come a long way from his behavior in earlier seasons.  Until Seeing Red, every bad decision he makes is either ambiguous, unsuccessful, pitiable, or the result of combining good intentions with bad judgment.  If we had seen more crimes like the attempt to kill the woman in Smashed, and if many of these crimes were actually aimed at Buffy or the Scoobies, the attempted rape scene in late Season Six might have made a bit more sense, especially after Buffy’s harsh treatment of him.  But the Alley Woman Incident was only one unsuccessful and abortive confrontation that might plausibly have ended with Spike being unable to drain the woman anyway, given how much effort went into psyching himself up for the attack.  Clearly, Spike has already left gunshot, abduction, and sexbot territory long behind.  

What is truly remarkable about his Season Six behavior is not how much evil still holds sway over him but how much moral progress he has been able to make in spite of the best efforts of the Scoobies to undermine his attempts to be good.  He has made all these changes without any encouragement from Buffy or her friends, in the face of their unapologetic scorn.  Imagine how much closer to redemption he might have been by this point in the series if the Scoobies had actually bothered to give him some direction and validation!

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