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

Objection #6: The scene forces the audience to ignore Buffy’s culpability and accept her perspective on their relationship.

In their mid-season interviews, the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer tried to explain the messiness of the “Spuffy” relationship as a mutual problem, with both parties bringing out the worst in each other.  To some extent this is true, and I have already discussed some of Spike’s mistakes with Buffy, such as the attempt to pull her into darkness and the one-night stand with Anya.  I have tried to demonstrate that while neither of these actions was moral, both were relatively understandable and at least partially mitigated by circumstances.  Regardless, prior to Seeing Red, Spike’s contributions to the “badness” of their relationship actually paled next to Buffy’s own inexcusable treatment of him.  If the soul signified a moral compass in the way so often claimed, then clearly the bulk of the responsibility for the disastrous parts of their relationship falls pretty heavily upon her shoulders.  

I love Buffy Summers dearly, but over the course of one half-season she has committed nearly every known sin of domestic abuse against her vampire lover.  While it is not my intention to use this portion of the essay to bash the hero of the series, it is important to take a hard look at her actions before jumping to conclusions about what happened in Seeing Red.  Since I have already addressed her issues with consent, I will now turn to her other relationship crimes.

1) Buffy shuts down Spike’s attempts to communicate.

When Spike and Buffy shared their kiss in Once More With Feeling, his very sensible reaction in the next episode is to try to talk to her about what that kiss meant.  However, in a complete inversion of stereotypical “bad boyfriend” behavior, Buffy refuses to acknowledge that it might mean anything at all.  She maintains this stance throughout their relationship, first accusing him of being “fixated” on a couple of kisses, then taking off after almost every sexual encounter.  One would think that someone who had been treated in a not-dissimilar way by Parker in an earlier season might hesitate to do so to another, but apparently not.  Moreover, her lack of communication extends to moral issues as well as relationship ones.  When Spike attempts to understand her distress about Katrina’s death, he makes the frankly shocking suggestion that she explain her moral perspective to him, going above and beyond anything expected of an amoral vampire.  Buffy responds by punching him.  There endeth the moral lesson.

 

2) When she does communicate, she becomes verbally abusive.

Even in Seasons Four and Five, Buffy can be fairly harsh towards Spike.  “Pig” is her favorite nickname for her fallen enemy, and she expresses her disgust with him frequently.[4]  This is mostly forgivable in Season Four, when Spike is still fully evil, and in part of Season Five, when he continues to make serious mistakes in his pursuit of her.  (Her belittling of his attempts at moral improvement in Season Five are a little harder to justify.)  However, by the time they begin their relationship in Season Six, Spike has endured torture for Buffy, fought alongside her against Glory, protected Dawn, continued to fight with the Scoobies after the Slayer’s death, demonstrated more consideration of Buffy’s feelings post-resurrection than any of her friends, and saved her life in Once More With Feeling.  In any reasonable relationship, these actions should have earned him at least a modicum of respect. Instead, after she has sex with him Buffy threatens to kill Spike if he dares reveal their relationship to the Scoobies.  Imagine what we would say if a man threatened to kill his girlfriend for telling someone else about their affair.  Moreover, she comes up with even more pejorative terms for him: “evil soulless thing,” “empty,” “dead inside,” and “unclean.”

Audiences are meant to understand that Buffy’s comments are evidence of how much pain she is in after having been ripped out of heaven.  It is often pointed out that they reflect how she sees herself, now filled with shame and self-loathing at what she has become.  Spike is serving as one of the many “shadow selves” that mirror Buffy’s internal state on the show.  I understand this point.  I really do.  What has happened to Buffy is terrible and I genuinely feel sorry for her.  And it is unfortunately true that people who are suffering can often project their feelings onto others.  However, any good moralist or psychologist should be able to tell Buffy that her behavior cannot be excused by her own pain the way the show seems to suggest it should.  Her comments may be about herself, but they are still directed towards Spike, still capable of hurting him.  Even though some of the terms she bandies about are technically true (Spike still sees himself as “evil,” he does not have a soul at this point, and vampires are “dead” in a certain sense), this does not change the fact that she uses them in a cutting way.

3) Buffy is also physically abusive.

Like her verbal abuse of him, Buffy’s physical violence against Spike (not counting mutual fights here) begins in Seasons Four and Five, but is easily forgivable because he is still completely or mostly evil during the bulk of those seasons.  However, the ease with which she resorts to her fists in Season Six becomes truly disturbing, culminating in the painful scene in Dead Things in which Buffy beats the vampire to a pulp.  In an example of his selflessness (which will be explored further in another essay), Spike refuses to hit back, accepting her abuse and even encouraging her to “put it all” on him.  While this arguably demonstrates nobility on his part, it does not excuse the fact that Buffy takes advantage of his willingness to accept the beating, as well as his vampiric ability to withstand it in a way that would have been impossible for any of her human friends.  Moreover, the “she was ripped out of heaven and is really punishing herself” argument does not work any more for the physical abuse than it does for the verbal abuse.

For comparison, let us look at a moment from Season Seven that might be taken as a parallel to the Dead Things beating.  In Help, Spike aids Buffy in rescuing a visionary young woman from several high school boys who have kidnapped her and attempted to offer her to a demon they are trying to raise.  Spike beats up the human ringleader, letting the chip punish him as he does so.  On the surface, the two scenes are very similar, and Spike clearly hates himself as much as Buffy did in Dead Things.  However, the differences between the scenes are even more important.  Spike had merely been trying to save Buffy in the earlier episode; the boy he punches in Help poses an immediate threat. The chip in Spike’s head makes him feel equal or even greater pain than what he delivers to the high school jock. The vampire owns up to his guilt, telling the boy, “I am a bad man.”  Finally, Spike’s beating does not threaten the boy’s life.

When Buffy beat Spike up in Dead Things, she metaphorically punished herself, but she was not actually subjected to any physical pain. She was clearly projecting her pain outward, telling Spike that there is “nothing good or clean in you.” Her thrashing left Spike incapable of standing in an alley that would have been exposed to sunlight in a matter of hours, and she was never shown returning to check on him.   After everything he has done for her, he was put in a potentially fatal situation simply because the woman he loves so much cruelly abandoned him in a garbage-filled alley like he was just another piece of trash.

4) Buffy is emotionally abusive.

One of the worst aspects of Buffy’s treatment of Spike is how she exploits his unrequited love for her.  She knows perfectly well that their kisses, their sex mean the world to the vampire, but repeatedly insists that she does not love him.  In fact, after their first sexual encounter, she viciously tells him “You’re just convenient.”  This cutting remark is merely the first in a long line of candid statements about how little he matters to her.  That Spike is desperate enough to crave even a relationship of this sort with his Slayer does not make her actions any more justifiable; it just makes his position all the more pitiable.  It does not even matter much whether Buffy is being sincere in her flippancy or if she is in denial about her real feelings.  Her behavior is damaging either way.

Moreover, while she seems keen at certain points to hear how much he loves and wants her, she often insists that his love for her is not real but rather an obsession.  This is of course utter hogwash, as any half-observant person could tell.  Enduring Glory’s torture was real.  Watching over Dawn was real.  Fighting with the Scoobies was real.  The tenderness with which he cared for Buffy after her resurrection was real.  Saving her life when the song demon showed up was real.  Enduring her beating was real.  Spike’s love for Buffy is as real as any man’s could be and only the Scoobies are blind enough to deny it.  Yet Buffy dismisses his love as merely being “real for you” in Entropy, and even the writers seem keen to have us believe that all his actions have somehow been selfishly motivated.  What exactly did he stand to gain when Buffy was dead, pray tell?

At any rate, Buffy’s combined insistence that she does not love him and that his love for her is just an obsession would be more than enough to drive a less patient man to distraction.  Luckily for her, Spike has already been schooled in romantic patience by a century of serving as Drusilla’s plaything.  The vampiress also toyed with William the Bloody’s heart, and one has to wonder just how much Buffy knows about their relationship.  Even if she does not know how frequently Drusilla manipulated him, she does at least know from Becoming, Part II that his former lover was unfaithful.  Thus, intentional or not, Buffy is also exploiting the fact that Spike has never had a healthy or affirming relationship with a woman with which he can compare Buffy’s treatment of him.

5) Buffy keeps Spike her “dirty little secret.”

In my opinion, keeping her relationship with Spike a secret is actually the most disgraceful thing Buffy does to the vampire, even worse than her physical abuse.  Ironically, it does actually fit within the chivalric trope that I believe underlines Spike’s character.  Geoffrey de Charny’s Book of Chivalry recommends that men-at-arms be willing to keep their relationship with a worthy lady a secret.  However, the purpose of this secrecy was to protect the lady in question from the very serious repercussions that could follow the loss of her honor in the fourteenth century.  Buffy is not risking any danger beyond embarrassment; her refusal to admit the affair to her closest friends is less because of what she is doing than who she is doing.  She is ashamed to have let herself be touched by an ostensibly soulless creature and never bothers to hide from him that she finds his “cold comfort” degrading, even as she accepts it.

Just in case it is not painful enough for him to have to deal with such an attitude from his lover, Buffy’s silence also encourages the rest of the Scoobies to continue to treat Spike with disdain, despite the help he had given them over the summer.  This dismissal culminates in the showdown of Entropy, when Xander and Buffy race to confront their rejected lovers after having witnessed Spike and Anya seeking solace in each other’s arms.  Instead of behaving rationally, Xander immediately lays into Anya in a tirade full of self-righteous indignation.  Note that Xander does not criticize his jilted fiancée so much for having a one-night stand as he does for letting Spike touch her.  Spike, having already accepted a beating and near-staking at the human boy’s hands, is forced to listen to him slut-shame the woman he just spent the evening with for letting herself be “defiled” by his touch.  In case the scene is not humiliating enough, Buffy sits quietly through the fight, never once raising a word in Spike or Anya’s defense.  Granted, she takes the situation more calmly than her friend, but even she cannot resist her own bitter dig (“Didn’t take long, did it?”) at the lover she had supposedly wanted to move on with his unlife.  It is only when the vampire finally stands up for himself (“It was good enough for Buffy…”) that she ever acknowledges the relationship to Xander.  If he had not done so, would Xander ever found out that Buffy the Perfect had also found “cold comfort” in Spike’s oh-so-defiling arms?

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