There are a lot of reasons I don’t like addiction plots.
Some are a consequence of growing up in the 1980s, when every sitcom had a Very Special Episode dedicated to the topic—generally addressed to people who, like me, weren’t considering it in the first place, and were meant to go, “Of course I won’t do drugs!”… but just as often made people like—well, a friend I’ll spare the name of—say, “And this is where I light up!” For good or ill, it was an absolute cultural obsession. I was young, and I was perfectly happy with “Just Say No” as a philosophy, and sometimes, if the leads were crush-able, I’d find these screeds acceptable entertainment. They had a very predictable pattern: Either one of our leads or someone they were close to (often a Very Special Guest Star) would be talked into taking that first pill, snort, or hit, and then, in the space of 20 minutes (or 45 for a drama), they would spiral all the way down to rock bottom, realize they needed help, and in the next episode, everything would be, more or less, back to normal. In the case of Special Guest Stars, sometimes they got help and were never mentioned again, and sometimes—shockingly—they died, and were never mentioned again. Sometimes, rock-bottom would be a major consequence for the show (like when a drunk driver killed Nicole on Fame… she did not rise from the dead to sing a song about it, either; that was actually one of the better ones, as it was a near-stranger who did it and we were just dealing with the aftermath), but mostly, the episode was hyped during sweeps, submitted for awards season, and then forgotten about.
I’m not sure when I developed a full-on allergy to this (for a while, I was even trying to write one, as I recall, so it couldn’t have been long-standing), but at some point before I finished college, I developed a full-on cringe-response to it the first time it started nosing around—Oh, my dear God, not another one!
It wasn’t that I’d changed my opinions about drug use. I am not now and never was especially sympathetic (I know, I know; I’m supposed to be), and I don’t have an issue with the general idea that this is a bad thing to do. It’s just the dramatization of it that started to make my teeth itch.
There were also personal reasons, which I won’t get into very deeply. Suffice it to say that my lack of sympathy has roots in life experience with drunks, though it’s nothing particularly dramatic. And maybe that’s part of it—the overblown drama of people getting killed or beaten or murdered… sure, it happens. But the day-to-day bullshit levels of non-melodrama (except that, when drunk, it was all melodrama for them) weren’t dramatic or interesting or award-winning. They were just exhausting and embarrassing, and after a while, my response to seeing it on screen became exhaustion and embarrassment, and the melodrama levels made it feel like it was being told by a drunk.
Which is just short of five hundred words of me saying that there was no way I was going to enjoy a full season of a loved character being “addicted” to magic.
I’m going to try and steer clear of that personal reaction here, but of course, it’s why I fault-spot this maybe more than the rest of the arcs in the season. It’s easy to ignore faults when you like something, but next to impossible to ignore them when you don’t.
What I’m going to do here is try to stick to the things that are actual faults, not to my allergic reaction to the plot in general, because I believe the faults are legitimate ones, not matters of taste, things that made an already insecure season spiral out of control more than once. I hope I’ll be able to keep the two strictly separate, though I can’t speak to whether or not they’d be as noticeable if I didn’t already dislike it. Most of these faults fall into two categories:
1. On-the-nose equivalence
2. The mangled metaphor
For the record, if you don’t watch Buffy but are, for whatever reason, reading these essays, a brief recap of the season 6 plot of Willow Rosenberg, the resident witch among the Scoobies.
At the end of Season 5, Buffy gave her life to save the world. Willow, convinced that she is in a hell dimension and needs rescuing, does an extremely dark spell (involving a sacrificed fawn) to bring her back to life. In fact, Buffy was yanked out of heaven, but Willow doesn’t know it. The spell initially creates a new demon that needs to be defeated, but mainly, Willow sees it as a big success, and resents it when Giles returns from England and calls her a “rank, arrogant amateur” and compares her success to managing to jump off a cliff without dying. She angrily tells him that he’s right, those were very powerful magics, and maybe he should be more careful not to piss her off. For the next few episodes, she’s reveling in her power, using magic when it’s not necessary, but not doing so maliciously. Her girlfriend Tara calls her on this, and they have an argument about it, after which she uses a spell to alter Tara’s memory. Tara is understandably not happy when she finds out about it in “Once More, With Feeling,” and in the following episode, “Tabula Rasa,” leaves Willow over it, causing Willow to go into the same kind of grief-spiral she went into after Oz left in Season 4, and eventually to her re-awakening her high school friend Amy, who’s been trapped as a rat, and who leads her toward Rack, a warlock who deals dark magic. Willow starts using this magic and getting high from it, ultimately leading to a car crash (because, of course it does) in which Buffy’s sister, Dawn, is mildly injured. This is—at the time—Willow’s rock-bottom, and she swears off magic, going into a kind of recovery program. Then, after they reconcile, Tara is shot, sending Willow into a rage spiral that sees her absorbing all the dark magics and using them to try and destroy the world, until Xander convinces her to come down by reminding her that she is still loved.
The rule I’ll use here is that, whatever path I take, it must end with the confrontation on the cliff with Xander, after Willow has gone off the deep end. I just don’t want to get there with the Very Special Episodes that led the way.
Before I get to my two problem categories, there is a third category that is problematic for a lot of people—the death of Tara, referred to as fridging, or as invoking the “angry lesbian” trope. I don’t know about the latter. I don’t know that the effect would have been substantially different if Tara had been Terence, or if Oz had stuck around to take the bullet. (In fact, when Oz left, she also misused magic to cover her pain.) But I get that it’s an issue. Fridging—killing off a character to inspire another to action—is harder to argue with in a technical sense, since by general definition, there’s no arguing with it. It’s exactly what happened. I’m not sure I have any real problem with it, except that yes, it’s a common trope. As I mentioned in the essay on Career of Evil, in regards to the rape as back story trope, it’s overused to the point of being frustrating to a frequent viewer, but no single use of it is necessarily bad. I’m not sure what, short of the death of a loved one, would cause a good character to completely snap. That’s why it’s used, both in fiction and, unfortunately, in real life—it’s a psychological truism: A sudden, painful loss is one of the few things that will completely change someone’s outlook enough to create that kind of radical break from past behavior, the sort of thing that ends up breaking the moral compass, possibly permanently. The only other option would be making Willow herself a victim of Warren, and that would lead to a different but equally problematic reading. The truth is, if you’re going to turn one of your main heroes evil—and that seemed to be the goal—there’s no way to do it that’s not going to be frustrating. Either it’s one of those problematic tropes of someone getting victimized or killed, or it’s going to seem petty.
There’s the possibility of it being someone else. I can imagine a scenario in which it was Giles—they’d fought at the beginning of the season, and Tara was largely taking his part while he was gone, telling Willow when she was misusing magic. Willow always admired Giles, and the season could have been spent developing their conflict and eventual reconciliation, only to have him shot, with Tara taking the magical lead for the final episodes. Unfortunately Anthony Head wasn’t available for most of the season to develop a plot like that. Xander had his own things going on (more in his essay), and obviously they couldn’t kill Buffy again. Bringing Oz back for the season to do this might have been interesting, but is a whole different can of worms.
So I’m going to let that be, with the proviso that I agree, it’s a problem.
I’m not going to say that there’s no establishment of magic as a drug allegory—we saw it in “The Dark Age,” with Giles, Willow’s closest analog. And we’d seen people misuse it, like Catherine Madison in “Witch.” Willow herself tended to reach for magic to “correct” things before season 6. It’s not completely out of the blue that she’d turn to genuinely dark arts.
But “The Dark Age” was practically in the Dark Ages before this season aired, and, simply by virtue of its distance from the show’s present—the whole back story was in foggy flashbacks—it didn’t come across quite as…
Well, Tolkien once famously said, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence." By this, I don’t think he meant a general sort of applicability, or even metaphor, but the sort of one-to-one correlation—this equals that—that we see in season 6 of Buffy, with Willow’s magic addiction. Or, as Giles said back in “Ted,” “The subtext is rapidly becoming text.”
Willow’s magic use isn’t like an addict succumbing to temptation. She literally gets intoxicated, goes to see an illegal dealer, declares her powerlessness over it, keeps secret stashes after going “cold turkey,” and calls herself a junkie. She falls out of a car, weeping drunkenly, after an accident. She goes on bad trips, and breaks her promises to quit. If this were any more on the nose, it would be pince-nez.
The show has done on-the-nose metaphors before—Angel losing his soul after sex with Buffy, causing him to become a different guy than the one she fell in love with, could have been just this bad, but the writers in season 2 knew better. Instead of turning one episode after another into Buffy as an abused girlfriend, they turned it into a meditation on good and evil, love and obsession, shame and forgiveness. The big moments happened, as Whistler put it in “Becoming,” but the real story, the real character growth, was what they did afterward. There was a one-off in the early part of the season, “Beauty and the Beasts,” that did, in fact, hit these tropes, and it’s one of the weakest in the season. Another one-off with this degree of subtlety was “Go Fish” (monster-making steroids to explain why school jocks are such dickheads). Why they felt the need to use this model for an entire season of a main character’s arc is utterly beyond me.
The second problem is the much bigger one: The mangled metaphor.
Yes, “The Dark Age” had shown magic as a drug, but since then, the metaphor had changed. Because of network rules, they made magic into the stand-in for Willow and Tara’s romantic relationship. Instead of kisses and caresses, there were pretty spells with flower petals. Instead of more intimate scenes, there were more powerful spells and travels into the netherworld. It was their shared power, their femininity, and their sexuality. It had been used that way for two seasons, and before that, Willow—while somewhat irresponsible at times—had magic tagged as her symbol of growing power, which finally blossomed when she met Tara, and became something useful and beautiful, instead of just bumbling around. As opposed to Giles and his friends with their intrusive masculine use of the demon-summoning spell, it became a balanced examination of feminine power.
Then, suddenly, it was crack or heroin, and Tara was begging her to stop using it, and she couldn’t because she was addicted and…
What were they thinking with this? Where was the oversight? Did no one in the writers’ room stand up and say, “We’ve just declared the show’s only consistently positive sexual relationship TO BE AN OPIATE”?
You might be able to slowly change the meaning of a symbol over time, but you cannot carefully set up a metaphor over the amount of time they spent on this one and then ignore it. You just… it’s not a rule imposed from outside. It’s not a rhyme scheme in a sonnet, or even a rule like who goes first when a fire truck, an ambulance, a police care, and a hearse all show up at a four-way stop, which might conceivably have consequences, but is mostly theoretical. When you set up the rules of a fictional world, they constrain you, not because a meanie said they had to, but because you’ve set up the way the world works. Every episode constrains you a little bit more, because you’ve got a little more information. If you’ve created a world where gravity is a thing, then if you throw a rock into the air, you better get out of the way before it falls back down on you. And if you create a metaphor where magic is the outward manifestation of female sexuality, then you are stuck with that metaphor and its implications, even when it’s inconvenient. It even looks like they knew it, with Willow “retaliating” against Tara by doing magic with Amy, a kind of rebound romance… but then… “Wrecked.” “Smashed.”
I can’t even with this level of ineptitude in handling a metaphor, especially from a show that made its reputation by its good handling of metaphor!
So… how do we get to the yellow crayon scene? (Right, this is “If I Were Queen,” not Fern’s pet peeves on parade.)
So, we start the season off with “Bargaining,” mostly unchanged. I wouldn’t count it as an absolute favorite of mine, but it’s solid way to bring Buffy back from the dead, which was obviously necessary in a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But make a bigger deal between Tara and Willow about the nature of the spell. If they wanted to break the metaphor (because now they were free not to use a symbolic language about the romance), this was when it should have started to happen… when Willow used that power to sacrifice the fawn. It probably wouldn’t be good for Tara to interfere at that exact moment—it would break momentum—but as the season went on, she should have looked into exactly what Willow would have had to do to work the spell. It’s not like she wasn’t an experienced witch who should have had her suspicions. Instead of Tara turning into the addict’s wife, nagging about every beer because “You’re drinking too much,” she could have been concerned with the sorts of magic Willow was doing. Don’t sweat the decorations for the party, for God’s sake; that was just stupid. And when she decides to look for Dawn by shifting everyone else into an alternate dimension for a minute, instead of yelling that she shouldn’t have used magic, she could very easily have said that it wasn’t what they were about to use magic that way, to affect innocent people without their consent. “That’s not who we are!” Slowly, over the course of several episodes, Willow’s misuse of the power between them would change the nature of the metaphor back to Willow’s need to control (which was in its metaphor basket before, so it’s there to be picked up).
That would put it in the realm of a moral choice that Willow is making, one that acknowledges that she is betraying Tara, not just disobeying her concerned commands. That would make it even more heinous when Willow tries to wipe her memory, and have the added benefit of getting rid of some of the more egregious allegory. We should also see Willow coming up with increasingly bizarre justifications, instead of going to see drug dealers.
I’d also dip back into earlier season memories to try and set the stage for the finale. For instance, I wouldn’t want to change that cool scene where Willow drinks up the book, but it would have been less out of left field if we’d had a reminder that magic could be “uploaded” from books as it was in “I Robot, You Jane.” It wouldn’t need to be a big reminder (no one wants to think too closely about IR,YJ), but maybe the Moloch book is still around the shop somewhere as a curiosity, and it could be mentioned in passing, even as a joke. I don’t know if that would fix any problems, but I think it would have been a nice tie. But since the yellow crayon scene is not ultimately about Willow’s magic, but about the loving friendship that she and Xander had, I think—and I’ll get into this more deeply later—that they needed to start reminding people of the depth of that friendship most of the way through the season.
I’d try to get some contrast between Willow, as the Scoobies’ primary spellcaster, and Jonathan, as the Trio’s. (Again, more in the Trio essay.) Both of them have a history of misusing magic, and there’s a good parallel there. I might have devoted an episode to it; I’ll think on what it might have been before I get to that essay, but again—misuse, not addiction. Poor choices, not non-choices.
In place of the “Baby, please don’t give up on me, I swear I can quit!” sorts of scenes, I’d let Willow’s native intelligence come out in a nasty way, increasingly justifying her own positions and denigrating Tara’s, even as the audience knows that Tara is right. The metaphor is still in place with the magic as a sign of their relationship, but now, it’s that itself that’s tottering. It snaps as it did in “Tabula Rasa,” when Willow wipes Tara’s memory (that’s one of those awesome Buffy 6 episodes that I wouldn’t touch), but instead of spending the season with the secondary on-the-nose divorce metaphor with Dawn (that was unearned), they could have dealt more with each other, maybe even with Tara blocking some of Willow’s worst behaviors. Do bring Amy back—it was good to finally de-rat her, now that Willow was more powerful than Amy ever was—but not as a magic addict who tries to steal Willow’s stash, dose her, and take her to the dealer. Just as someone else who had misused it—and been the victim of misuse. Maybe it would even have been more interesting if Amy had not led Willow astray, but been horrified that Willow is now using magic like Catherine did, instead of the better way that she had been learning when Amy first became a rat.
Also, Willow in this season is, in terms of archetype, a werewolf. Gosh, I wonder if there was anyone else who might have made an appearance to address that at some point. Even if not in the flesh, again, as a mention. Or another werewolf that makes the subject come up. Oz warned her early in Season 4 that getting close to magics might be a bit like lycanthropy. Why not deal with that directly?
This is long, and I’m still not really getting a bead on the right way, I think because a lot can be done with characters I haven’t really addressed yet. Willow is the core of the season; I think everyone’s plot will eventually come into hers.
But I’ll leave this essay here. I may actually go through the season and figure out which episodes I’d entirely ditch, and maybe come up with some suggested episodes to replace them.
Oh, Lord. I’ve just doomed myself to a super-close re-watch of Season 6. Next thing you know, I’ll decide to re-do Angel 4, and then what? Will I become a Connor-Cordy shipper?
ETA: Looking more into solid possibilities in Part 2.