WILLOW: I deserve a lot worse. I killed people, Giles.
GILES: I've not forgotten.
WILLOW: When you brought me here, I thought it was to kill me or to lock me in some mystical dungeon for all eternity or--with the torture. Instead, you go all Dumbledore on me. I'm learning about magic. All about energy and Gaia and root systems.
GILES: Do you want to be punished?
WILLOW: I wanna be Willow.
GILES: You are. In the end, we all are who we are, no matter how much we may appear to have changed.
[BtVS 7001, Lessons]
At the start of the final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Willow has moved to the periphery; her immersion in magic at the end of season six following Tara's death locates her outside the inner circle of her friends and surrogate family. From that point onwards, she keeps moving away, until a physical separation is achieved and she travels to England with Giles, separated from Buffy and Xander not only by the magic inside her, but by a continent and an ocean. Even her return to Sunnydale is fraught with separation when her insecurity and fear render her invisible, untouchable, and unheard by those from whom grief, pain and magick had done so earlier. These events constitute a powerful representation of what Willow has always been – separate, changing, fluid, uncertain, evolving. While this essay does not aim to cover every aspect of Willow's character in great detail, it does attempt to answer, through examination of the tension between stability and mutability of character, the question, what does it mean to be Willow.
Who is Willow? She's Buffy's best friend, she's Xander's best friend; she's Oz's girlfriend, then she's Tara's girlfriend, and the last we hear of her, Kennedy's girlfriend; she's a nerd, a hacker, a witch, a lesbian, an addict, a force of magic, a source of information, a recovering addict, and in the end, probably the most powerful person to leave Sunnydale. Some of these roles she fulfills simultaneously, some she fills successively, and some not only at the same time, but in such a way that the roles flow together and are linked and she cannot just be the one thing, but all three or more and the qualities become linked. A definition, description, and full explication with examples of all these different roles might give some sense of who Willow is – but only in respect to each of those roles. A better sense of 'Willow-ness' comes from the fluidity between those roles, in the spaces between them where Willow is none of these things and all of them at once, and at the edge of the circle that circumscribes Buffy. Jes Battis, in her article " 'She's Not All Grown Yet': Willow as Hybrid/Hero," states that Willow is "free, and thus, completely dislocated, bewildered, and confused" and that "no identity satisfies her, no power can ever truly embody her, and after losing herself in 'dark' magic, no amount of atonement can erase the memory of what she inflicted on others through word and deed" (Battis, 38). This freedom and inability to locate herself in some stable place like Buffy, Giles, and Xander do also grants Willow a sense of fluidity. While the above quote from Battis appears to put a negative slant on this quality, both this article and the one by Battis point out that Willow's ability to transgress boundaries and move freely from role to role places her on a path to becoming, rather than simply being.
The first role Willow plays is that of an information source. Like Giles, she is able to access knowledge that Buffy and Xander cannot, and by the end of season two, when she takes over Jenny Calendar's class, the fact that she has knowledge and ability far superior to her peers is clear. Her intelligence separates her from the rest of the students in the high school and as a 'nerd' she is already on the fringe of normality; her friendship from Buffy pushes Willow further towards the edge, and within her own social circle, her intelligence places her on the edges again. Compared to Buffy and Xander, Willow is the smart one, or the one who does her homework, or who can (nominally) step into the role of teacher; compared to Giles, she can access knowledge through technology or analyze knowledge gained from books and further employ it through the use of technology. Yet, calling her the person who knows things or the person who knows where to find things does not effectively describe Willow or touch on that something that makes her Willow - the thing that's present in her smile, or the enthusiasm exhibited for her work in school or in helping Buffy. The space created by her intelligence that allows her move from one aspect of it to another, and to do so easily, does approach something closer to 'Willow-ness.' This slide from nerd to computer geek to occult researcher happens on the fringe Willow's social circle, and can take place because she has not found some stable place at its center. Her Willow-ness exists in that space, unnamed, indefinable, yet omnipresent and without it she might have been slotted as simply the nerd, hacker, or witch.
This same ineluctable quality that exists in the liminal space in which Willow moves allows her to make the transition from nerd and computer geek to witch. An intellectual ability and curiosity originally informs her interest in witchcraft - she's the only one who can figure out what was on Jenny Calendar's disk than contained the spell to re-ensoul Angel. As she makes the transition to this role, it becomes clear that not only is she the only who can figure out the contents of the disk, but she's also the only one who can perform the spell. Once again, she is placed on the edge of the inner circle, having been granted the ability to do something her peers cannot. She moves around them, possessed of a power they do not have and cannot fully understand.
Later, this ability she has to practice magic becomes an inextricable part of her. Willow does not just use magic or do spells; she is the magic. Defining her as a witch is just as much an essentialization as calling her a hacker. Willow is not just a witch; she exists in that strange space where she's Willow, and Willow means somebody who can practice magic, somebody who is so full of the magic that it flows through her as freely as blood and air, somebody who is connected to all other things that have blood flowing through them and air touching them. The magic becomes the part of Willow that is not defined by her relationship with somebody else, be that Buffy, Xander, Oz or Tara, though all of them touch and are touched by that magic inside her. They can label her friend, girlfriend, or witch just as easily as they could nerd, and this inscribing tries to fix her in some stable place. She's all of those things, and at the same time, she's none of them. Willow, in moving from identifying herself as a nerd to as a Wicca to any of the other number of roles she will try to label herself with, is looking for that 'Willow-ness' herself. It already exists inside her, but she, too, is looking for some sort of name to put to it. She wants to 'be Willow,' and in order to get there she has to go through a process of 'becoming Willow.' That process of becoming, for Willow, has to take place on the boundaries of the world in which in she lives. She has never been in the stable center of that circle and moving toward it would not lead her from becoming to being. Her intellectual ability kept her from the locus of the group in high school; her magical ability drew her further away from it until her total absorption of magic brought her to absolute edge of that circle.
At that farthest edge, after having lost two lovers, brought back her best friend from the afterlife, killed people and tried to destroy the world because she could not bear the amount of grief and unhappiness it held, is where Willow exists, separated physically, emotionally, and in all other ways from the locus. (And the locus, since the first episode of the series, has been Buffy; it does not matter than she had known Xander longer, Buffy becomes the center that Willow yearns toward.) She is still Willow; she still has that quality that makes her Willow no matter how many roles she slips between. There exists some stability inside herself, even when she occupies the solitary space that allows her a fluidity of identity, seen in her talents, abilities and even sexuality. As season seven progresses, Willow's struggle to deal with the magic she holds inside of her, how it has affected her past (especially Tara's death) and how it will affect her future is the struggle of becoming Willow. The light that radiates from her when she performs the spell in 'Chosen' is another step on that path toward becoming.
The last thing the audience hears concerning Willow is Angel's request for her to assist him in 'Shells' to help restore Fred. Angel, who has access to all the resources of Wolfram & Hart, recognizes the power that Willow possesses. This power and how she deals with it, incorporates it into her life and into the circle she can build around herself, is the driving force that will lead Willow from becoming to being.
All dialogue taken from the Buffy Dialogue Database, http://vrya.net/bdb/index.php
Battis, Jes. "'She’s Not All Grown Yet': Willow As Hybrid/Hero in Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies 8 (2003). 28 Nov. 2004 <http://www.slayage.tv/essays/slayage8/battis.htm>.
Ramlow, Todd R. "'I Killed Tara': Desire and Death on Buffy." Pop Matters 4 June 2002. 1 Jan. 2005 <http://www.popmatters.com/tv/reviews/b/buffy-the-vampire-slayer2.shtml>.
---. "Ceci n'est pas une lesbianne." Pop Matters 18 June 2002. 1 Jan. 2005 <http://www.popmatters.com/tv/reviews/b/buffy-the-vampire-slayer4.shtml>.
Winslade, J. Lawton. "Teen Witches, Wiccans, and 'Wanna-Blessed-Be’s': Pop-Culture Magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies 1 (2001). 1 Jan. 2005 <http://www.slayage.tv/essays/slayage1/winslade.htm>.
Zacharek, Stephanie. "Willow, Destroyer of Worlds." Salon.com 22 May 2002. 28 Nov. 2004 <http://archive.salon.com/ent/tv/feature/2002/05/22/buffy/>.