The Best Friend
With all the negative Willow posts on the boards this year, I thought it might be interesting to re-examine what Willow's role is in Buffy Universe and compare that role to other similar characters in fiction and mass media. If Xander falls into the side-kick role then Willow is the "best friend".
What is the function of the "best friend" in a narrative work?
The best friend not to be confused with the side-kick, is often the hero's confidante and contrasted with the hero or heroine in appearance, fashion, skills, actions, desires, etc. Everything the hero is - the best friend is the opposite of, except of course in two important areas: if the hero is a man, the best friend is a man. If it's a heroine, then the best friend is a woman. And of course the "best friend" like the hero/heroine is NOT evil, they strive to do good as well, even if they often are not as successful as the heroine is at accomplishing this task.
Why the best friend should be the same gender? The reason for this - is to visually contrast the two characters. The best friend will often start below the heroine in some fashion, and this is best displayed if they are the same gender, it also helps that there's no romantic attraction, although in the case of both Xena: Warrior Princess (the romantic attraction between Gabrielle and Xena) and in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Willow's discovery that she's gay in later seasons) this may not always be the case.
The best friend contrasted with the sidekick: In Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Btvs) the side-kick is Xander. In Xena Warrior Princess (Xena) - it was Joxer. The side-kick is often the comic relief, the person who clumsily aids the hero, but and a huge but here - if a "best-friend" character is in the show, the side-kick will rarely be the hero's confidante, oh the heroine/hero will occasionally confide in the sidekick, but never entirely - partly due to the fact that side-kick has a crush on the hero themselves - so is unlikely to be much help in the romantic department. (Side-kick can also be one of heroine's closest friends, but does not act in the same role as the best friend in the narrative structure of the work.) Examples include the female reporter character in Smallville, who has a crush on Clark Kent, and is jealous of Clark's love interest. Joxer in the Xena series, who starts out with a crush on Xena and gradually forms one on Xena's best friend - Gabrielle. When the side-kick and the hero/heroine are of the same gender or there is no sexual tension on either side, then you can have a combination of Side-Kick/Best Friend, which is the case with Batman and Robin. But this is rare with a six character cast. In Star Trek - Spock was Kirk's best friend, the one Kirk often confided in and discussed problems with, but he wasn't really a side-kick.
The Best Friend -is the person the heroine confides their romantic woes to, whose shoulder they'll often cry on, and often acts as a mirror for their mistakes. The best friend may even be a case of the old adage "but for the grace of god go I" in that whatever happens to the heroine the opposite happens to the best friend. Their behavior and paths are often the polar opposites of each other. Example: Lex Luther in Smallville, has money, a horrible relationship with his father, and almost no friends - Clark has several friends, a warm loving relationship with his father, and little money. In Btvs: Willow is introduced as the wallflower, the girl no one sees, the intellectual, she who spends all her time with books, while Buffy barely reads, prefers athletic pursuits, and everyone notices her. Buffy isn't afraid to flaunt her body, Willow, by comparison, seeks to hide hers. In the unseen pilot, Willow was played by a heavyset actress. Hannigan who was later cast in the role of Willow, is dressed in frumpy, oddly colored clothes and made to look geeky in contrast to Buffy's trend-setting leather jackets, Jackie O coats, short skirts and sex-appeal. Also Buffy is all about athletics and high kicks and physicality while Willow is completely mental, relying one her brains and often not even noticing what she's wearing. (EX: Willow to Buffy in Wild at Heart (S4 Btvs)"Why didn't you tell me I looked like a Christmas Tree in this shirt?", Buffy responds: "I thought that was what you were going for.")
In ordinary fictional works - we often have the heroine in the failed marriage rushing to her best friend's door, or the hero calling his best friend for advice. In Gothic genre's the best friend is either the individual who gets killed instead of the hero/heroine or becomes seduced to the dark path or is the Judas Isacariot/Benedict Arnold character. In Martin Sorcese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ or Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar - Judas is depicted as Christ's best friend and betrayer. Judas takes the opposite path from Christ and ends up in a hell of his own making, selling his soul, while Christ sacrifices himself for the world and goes into heaven. A combination of envy, hero-worship, sympathy, and love all wrapped up in one. Benedict Arnold in some fictional renderings of George Washington's biography is depicted as Washington's close friend and betrayer. While Washington becomes the First President of the US, Benedict Arnold goes into exile. In The Gothic novels such as Dracula, Mina Harker's best friend and confidant, Lucy, is turned into a vampire by Dracula. ( A vampire who feeds on small children.) Mina just barely escapes Lucy's fate - but through Lucy sees what may have been. In Smallville - Clark Kent gets to become Superman and Lex Luther gets to become well Lex Luther - the evil genius who tries to destroy the world. And in Btvs, Buffy gets to become the chosen one who sacrifices herself so the world can live and Willow becomes DarkWillow, the witch who tries to destroy the world so she can end its suffering. (More on that contrast later.)
But the best friend's fate is not always a tragic one. In some cases the best friend has it easier than the heroine, while the heroine is unlucky in love, the best friend has long-lasting relationships. Or while the heroine is put in the position of saving everyone, the best friend plays the damsel. Willow in Seasons 1-2 often is placed in the position of damsel, whom Buffy must save. In Seasons 3-6 - Willow has the long-lasting, sweet relationships, while Buffy's love life is filled with conflict and angst.
In Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Willow fulfills the function of "best friend" - the writers deliberately contrast and/or parallel Willow's path with Buffy's, using her to either place greater emphasis on Buffy's woes or on Buffy's privileges. It is also through Willow, as is often the case with the best friend, that Buffy comes to realizations about herself and her own journey.
As the heroine's best friend, Willow also serves as a guidepost for the audience. The majority of the audience can't really identify with the Buffys of the world - we aren't popular, we aren't athletic, we don't consider ourselves pretty, the guys don't fall over themselves for our attention, we aren't the hero or the Homecoming queens - so the writers give us a sort of placeholder in the best friend to identify with. Through Willow, we, the audience, are vicariously Buffy's best friend. It is to Btvs' credit that Willow has not become a Mary Sue and that she fulfills the other functions of best friend as detailed in the sections below.
In conclusion, Best Friends can function as damsel, rival, foil, nemesis, or just represent another angel of the hero. Towards the beginning of the series, before her friendship with Buffy truly develops, Willow functions as a damsel (explained in Part I). Once the friendship develops and the series moves forward, Willow begins to take on other roles as the best friend in the narrative structure, such as confidant and rival. (See Part II). Then finally, this being a gothic horror series, she moves into the category of nemesis, Willow's choices are sharply contrasted with Buffy's. (See Part III) Through these stages the best friend can often teach the heroine things about herself. Instead of turning Buffy evil - you turn the "best friend" evil briefly. Instead of making Buffy explore a sexual relationship with the side-kick or a close childhood friend she always had a crush on and experience the negative repercussions of that choice, Willow does. This way, you protect your heroine from a negative image. Willow takes it on instead. Through the best friend, you can often depict the paths the hero shouldn't take, what the hero shouldn't do and the struggle going on within the hero. You can also do the opposite, through the best friend - you can show the path that the hero should have taken and how a stable relationship may have worked for the hero.
I. Willow as the damsel
In Season 1 Btvs - Willow is the damsel. She is the reason that Buffy fights her fight and more importantly, she gives us, the audience, an initial reason to identify with and like Buffy. In Welcome to the Hellmouth, Buffy is fighting her calling. She wants to go back to what she was prior to becoming the slayer. The cheerleader, Miss Popularity, who was surrounded by friends and knew the right clothes to wear, and the right things to say, basically the carbon copy of Cordelia Chase and other "popular" girls depicted in the television series Popular, Clueless, etc. But she meets Willow, the antithesis of everything she used to be. Willow wears the wrong clothes, has the wrong hair, says the wrong things, is attempting to be invisible but stands out, and no guy in his right mind wants her when Cordy or Buffy is in the room. Buffy first meets Willow outside the library, Cordelia has just asked if Willow's look is the "softer side of Sears". Instead of echoing Cordy's criticism, Buffy befriends Willow, asks Willow if she can help her catch up in her classes and where the Library is so she can get books. Cordelia criticizes Buffy for her friendship with Willow - stating, "hate to disrupt your downward mobility." Willow offers to fix things by disappearing, but Buffy turns her down, asking to be Willow's friend. Buffy's first act is to give up popularity by befriending the underdog.
Throughout Welcome to The Hellmouth, Buffy is resisting her calling as slayer. No one can convince her to embrace it, not Giles and not Angel. Willow does. When Giles attempts to convince her that she has no choice, it is Willow that convinces her to actually pursue it. Willow - who has gotten herself in danger due to Buffy's encouragement, Buffy told Willow moments before "to seize the day" with the first guy who flirted with her. To flirt back. Unfortunately that guy turns out to be a vampire. And Buffy is forced to embrace her calling to save Willow. This scene is echoed in the final episode of Season 1, Prophecy Girl, where once again Buffy is questioning her calling and refuses to be the slayer in the prophecy, turns down both Giles and Angel. It is Willow who changes her mind. Buffy's all prepared to nix the whole thing, when Willow calls her and tells her about her traumatic experience finding the bodies in the student lounge. While comforting Willow, Buffy realizes her calling, that she alone can stop the vampires and that she can't run away. Willow is too weak to fight them, but Buffy can fight for them both.
II. Willow's romantic rivalry with Buffy, contrast in love-lifes
A. Xander/Willow/Buffy Love Triangle - the Best Friend's Crush
The Best Friend often has a crush on the side-kick who in turn has a crush on the heroine. Through Willow - the writers explore what it's like to be attracted to a boy and not have him interested in you. They can't do it believably with the heroine, so they do it with the best friend. The Best Friend will often have the polar opposite path from the heroine's - if it will serve in some way to emphasize a thematic point about the heroine's journey. Buffy, being the heroine, indirectly chastises and rejects Xander for not returning Willow's feelings. The fact Xander has feelings for Buffy, makes her rejection of him ironic and fitting.
In Witch when Xander works up the courage to discuss his feelings with Buffy, she tells him before he can get a word out, that he's like one of the girls to her. Just two scenes prior to this, Xander had told poor Willow that she's just like one of the guys.
Later in The Pack, when Xander crushes Willow, telling her that she means zip to him, Buffy rejects him, letting him know what an ass he is for treating Willow in this manner. Part of the reason, Buffy never goes for Xander in High School - may very well be her close friendship with Willow. But from a writing perspective - I think it is used as a contrast, Willow gets to have the unrequited crush and when it finally comes to a climax in Lover's Walk, Season 3, Willow pays the price for it, but not as powerful a price as Xander, who is punished for not seeing Willow until now. Buffy learns from Willow's experience, not to engage in sex with friends or even go there. Something she conveys to Faith much later in Bad Girls, when Faith asks if she's ever "done it" with Xander. Buffy states quite clearly -" no, I've found that doesn't work well with friends". In Lover's Walk - Xander/Willow's brief make out scene costs Xander - Cordelia and Willow almost loses OZ.
B. Angelus Season 2 story arc - with Willow/Xander and Buffy
Another parallel of Willow and Buffy's love lives is seen in Surprise/Innocence, Season 2. When Buffy is betrayed by Angel's comment that she's no good in bed and not worth the trouble, a comment that had resulted from Angel's loss of his soul, Willow is similarly betrayed by Xander's kissing and making out with Cordelia, Willow's nemesis. Willow's betrayal is far lighter than Buffy's.. Willow's love-life in this instance is used to emphasize the pain of Buffy's. Willow is also used as the damsel in the scene. Ironically - Willow ends up in Angelus' clutches because of her argument with Xander over Cordelia. But it is Xander who stops Angelus' with a cross, placing Willow between the two men - Angelus who is intent on "biting her" - a symbol of sexual penetration and the other, Xander, holding up a "cross" a symbol of chastity. Buffy comes in at the last minute and is the one who is kissed by Angelus in the scene, as well as the one who lost her virginity with horrible results - while Willow maintains her innocence, neither kissed nor penetrated.
It's telling that it is Willow who tells Buffy to seize the day with Angel in Surprise, and Willow who is amongst the first to reap the consequences of Buffy's actions. And it is Willow that Buffy confides to about it. Later, when Angelus kills Jenny in Passion - it is Willow who is standing by the phone sobbing, while Buffy sits on the floor, pained. It is Willow who ends up reaping the consequences of Jenny's death - taking over Jenny's classes at the school and Jenny's role in the gang as techno-wizard. Just as it is Willow's pets (the goldfish) that Angelus kills to get at Buffy. Willow in all three cases is sort of held up as a mirror to Buffy. Each hit Angelus makes is reflected on Willow's face, and seen in Willow's spirit. Buffy's desire to restore Angel's soul, and not kill him, is reflected through Willow's determination in the Becoming arc, while Buffy is physically shown attempting to kill Angelus. Taking this a step further - in Becoming Part II - Willow is the one in the hospital, demonstrating metaphorically Buffy's weakened spirit and sick heart. When Willow regains consciousness - Buffy makes a truce with Spike. When Willow figures out how to do the spell and restores Angel's soul, Buffy defeats Angelus.
C. Willow's Stable Relationships & Emotional Reactions to Lost Loves
In seasons 2-5, the writers provide Willow with the more stable less angst filled relationships. When Willow's relationships do end - Willow's reactions are usually the polar opposite from Buffy's.
1. Willow/OZ vs. Buffy/Angel
In contrast to the Buffy/Angel relationship - Willow/OZ is almost smooth sailing. OZ like Angel - has a monster inside him. We don't learn about OZ's monster until right after Angel's loss of his soul. OZ is a perfect contrast to Angel. Just as Oz/Willow is a perfect contrast to Angel/Buffy. Oz/Willow demonstrates how B/A should have conducted themselves. The moral mirror so to speak.
When Willow wants to make out with OZ in Innocence, OZ puts her off stating how empty it would be, she'd just be doing it to make Xander jealous. He would rather wait, he wants to take things slow, get to know her first. Contrast this with Angel, who not only kisses Buffy in Angel Season 1 turning into a vampire immediately afterwards, but a year later, sleeps with her in a fit of passion and literally loses his soul. When OZ eventually sleeps with Willow in Season 3, after two full years, it is a sweet, warm, experience and both remain the same afterwards, (Graduation Day Part I).
Phases - the episode after Innocence, reported in the TV guide at the time as An American Werewolf in Sunnydale, we see the monstrous side of OZ. Unlike Angel's monster - OZ is relatively harmless and can be knocked out by Willow with a dart gun. OZ's transformation like Liam/Angel's is caused by a bite. Oz's monster is also one that in gothic literature has sexual connotations. His monster also devours it's prey and almost kills Willow. The difference is unlike Angel - when OZ turns into a werewolf, he is pure animal. Not evil per se and not necessarily a killer. Also unlike Angelus - OZ can be safely contained, his transformation is limited to a period of the month or to his own unstable emotions.
Angel turns into Angelus after Buffy and Angel copulate in Surprise. OZ turns into a werewolf as Willow and OZ are contemplating taking their relationship to the next level. Throughout Phases - Willow asks OZ if he would like to seriously date her. She confides in Buffy and Cordelia about how OZ doesn't appear to be sexually interested in her. When she confides this to Cordelia, OZ literally smashes into the Bronze in his werewolf form. Meanwhile OZ's friends keep asking him if he's done it yet with Willow and make wolfish comments regarding their relationship. When Willow finally confronts OZ, he is attempting to chain himself up because he is afraid of what happens when he becomes the wolf. Willow's confrontation interrupts him and almost gets her killed. It is Willow who eventually sedates OZ with the dart gun, just as it is Willow, in later episodes, who keeps him caged.
In contrast, Angelus freely kills people in the episode. Buffy's friend Theresa is killed by Angelus not OZ, although she initially suspects the werewolf. She discovers the truth when Theresa becomes a vampire. Another thing both monsters have in common - they can turn someone else into a monster as well. Except that when you become a vampire - you must die first. Werewolves just need to be bitten. Of the two - the vampire remains the most lethal. Angelus - can't be contained and by the end of the season, while OZ sits lovingly next Willow's bedside helping her conduct a spell, Buffy is forced to send her lover to hell.
When Buffy loses Angel - she goes literally to hell, running away from Sunnydale to LA. Falling into a hell dimension with a bunch of run-aways and fighting her way out of it. (Anne, S3) Returning to accusations from her friends and family and finally reuniting with Angel, only to have him choose to leave her at the end of Season 3, because it is best for them both and if he stays, he fears he'll only destroy her. Compare this to Willow and OZ, in Season 4, Wild at Heart, Btvs, OZ betrays Willow by sleeping with Veruca in his wolf form, kills/devours Veruca and almost hurts Willow. Buffy stops him. And OZ takes off to parts unknown. OZ leaves town partially to protect Willow and partially to find himself, just like Angel leaves - partially to protect Buffy and partially to find his own path. (Graduation Day Part II, S3) Neither man is willing to re-enter his girlfriend's life without having first tamed the monster within.
Willow's reaction to OZ's departure is the polar opposite of Buffy's. Buffy leaves town when Angel is killed. She retreats from herself and everyone else. Willow does the opposite, she unleashes and vents her emotions. Buffy inadvertently sends herself to hell.(Anne) Willow inadvertently sends everyone else. (Something Blue). As Buffy states to Giles in Wild at Heart, I just hope Willow doesn't go to hell like I did. Willow doesn't, she does the opposite. Showing how the alternative - unleashing our pain on others is no more effective than internalizing or running away from it. Willow's hellish reaction is played for laughs (Something Blue) while Buffy's is played for drama (Anne/Dead Man's Party). Buffy's internalized pain is shown through the metaphor of the zombies or as Xander states - you can't just bury things Buffy, they have a way of rising up and attacking you. Willow's externalized pain is shown through the metaphor of her magic, when the spell she casts to wipe away her pain only unleashes it on everyone else. The audience justifiably finds Buffy's trauma more moving and more sympathetic, while we rage at Willow's. Yet both reactions, while exaggerated, are realistic ones. And at the end of both Something Blue and Dead Man's Party - it is Willow and Buffy who apologize to each other and share an understanding.
At the end of the year - when OZ and Angel do, briefly return, both women have found someone who doesn't have a monster inside that needs to be tamed. Willow has moved on to Tara, while Buffy has moved on to Riley. Tara and Riley are the polar opposites to OZ and Angel. Neither has a "true" monster inside. They just have imaginary ones - Riley's chip implanted by a woman he trusts like a mother and Tara whose "family" has implanted the idea in her mind that she's a demon.
OZ comes back to Sunnydale - thinking his monster is tamed, but moment he gets around Tara - it comes out, to the extent he can barely handle being in close proximity to either Tara or Willow without literally becoming the wolf he detests. When Angel returns in Yoko Factor - he similarly shows his bestial side, fighting Riley, and getting into a brief argument with Buffy. Both Angel and OZ leave town again - going back to their new lives, leaving Buffy and Willow with their new loves.
2. Willow/Tara vs. Buffy/Dawn
Get your heads out of the gutter: I'm not discussing the sexual relationships here. In Season 5 DVD commentary, the writers state that the love story of season 5 is Buffy's love for her sister, Dawn. Throughout the season, especially towards the end, we see Willow taking care of Tara, defending her, protecting her, healing her. At one point in Tough Love: Willow tells Buffy that "Tara's my girl" to which Buffy responds, by stroking Dawn's hair, "I get that." Willow - "I know you do." In the middle of Tough Love, after a hell-god, named Glory, has mind-sucked Tara, Dawn convinces Buffy that Willow would go after Glory by comparing what happened to Tara to what Glory might do to Dawn.
Tara like Dawn wonders at one point if she's human. In Family Tara puts the gang in danger by casting a spell to hide herself. Buffy casts a spell in The Real Me, which reveals that Dawn isn't really her sister. Tara is proven to be human, while Dawn is proven to be a key made human. Willow is seen forgiving and accepting Tara even though she put everyone in danger. "She just made a mistake," Willow states, "we all make mistakes." Buffy similarly accepts Dawn, even though she has within her the ability to destroy the universe. "She is a part of me, innocent, human."
Willow is also seen throughout the season as defending Dawn's mistakes and spastic actions to Buffy. While Tara identifies with Buffy's struggle to be Dawn's mother. In The Body - Willow like Dawn struggles with what to do. Dawn doesn't believe the death is real. Willow keeps hunting the right clothing. Tara, out of all the gang, identifies with Buffy and tells her that her mother also died. Later in Tough Love, Tara again identifies with Buffy, and states that being responsible for a sibling, for someone else is hard. Willow identifies with Dawn, who she feels is being either neglected or harshly criticized. It's not until Willow and Tara's roles are flipped at the end of Tough Love, where Willow is placed in the role of mother and caregiver and Tara in the Dawn role - that Willow suddenly understands Buffy's predicament and through her the audience as well.
In The Gift - Willow tells Buffy that although she knows it's selfish, she can't help but put the regaining of Tara's mental capacity first. Buffy reassures her, stating that is what she should do. In fact Buffy's purpose to save Dawn no matter what in the Gift echoes Willow's purpose to save Tara, by putting Dawn's welfare first, above everyone else's including her own. As Willow sacrifices herself to take Tara's mind back from Glory. Buffy sacrifices herself for Dawn. In Willow's case, she survives, the energy flows through her without destroying her and it is spiritual or "mental energy" symbolizing Willow's strength. Buffy's gift is purely physical, her fight with Glory is physical and her rescue of Dawn and the world is the sacrifice of her body, her blood in exchange for Dawn's - a greater price than Willow's. Through Willow's sacrifice for Tara, Buffy sees what she must do for Dawn.
Another contrast - Tara's death brings out the worst in Willow - she delves into dark magic both times that Tara is robbed from her: first in Tough Love, when she goes after Glory, then a year later in Villains when she goes after Warren. Buffy retreats inside herself when she thinks she killed Dawn in Spiral. When Dawn is in danger both in the Gift and Once More With Feeling - Buffy sacrifices herself. Willow unleashes and throws the fire at everyone else while Buffy internalizes and throws herself into the fire.
III. Flipping the Best Friend or best friend as nemesis, the dark path, alternate choices
Numerous fans were dismayed by Willow's actions in Season 6, Btvs. They felt the writers choice to flip the character of Willow to the dark side was both out of character and a poor decision plot-wise. But, if you look at Willow's function in the overall narrative arc - the decision was inevitable and necessary to emphasize issues going on with Buffy. They couldn't entirely flip Buffy to the dark side, Buffy's the hero, remember? So they flipped the character that parallels Buffy's journey, whose relationships and choices are often the exact opposite of Buffy's, Buffy's best friend, Buffy's spirit: Willow. In horror and gothic genres the best friend is often the character who is tragically flipped to the dark side.
In Bram Stoker's Dracula - the heroine, Mina Harker's, best friend Lucy is the one Dracula turns into a vampire. Through Lucy, Mina sees what she could become if she gives into Dracula. In Btvs, Willow is changed through grief and vengeance and pride into Dark Willow, a raging sorceress bent on destroying the world. (Grave) Buffy who goes through a similar amount of grief back in Season 5, becomes Christ-like, a savior bent on saving the world. (The Gift)
Even their purposes and speeches are contrasted. Willow states in Grave - that the world is suffering, how can any one bear it, she must put an end to all of it. Save the poor souls from the pain. Put them out of their misery. Buffy in contrast, states in the Gift - that the hardest thing in life is to live. But it is also incredibly important. Even with all the pain and suffering, the love we have for each other makes it worth it. The fight is worth it. Buffy ironically releases herself from the pain and by doing so saves the world. She stops living so her sister can continue to live. Willow on the other hand, wishes to kill the world with her pain, freeing both the world and herself from the pain of life. Buffy just releases herself. Ironic. Since it is Willow who pulls Buffy back to life, not once but twice, and forces Buffy to handle the pain and ultimately joy of living. The first time Willow does this is in Weight of The World, when she enters Buffy's head and pulls her out of her catatonia. The second time is in Bargaining, when she literally pulls Buffy out of the Grave. Ironically at the end of Season 6 - Willow literally sends Buffy back to her Grave, forcing Buffy to fight her own way out of it, to decide to face the pain of life and continue the struggle, to save the world by living as opposed to dying. To see life as a beautiful thing as opposed to a hell. Through her dark magic and desire to destroy the world, Willow in Grave demonstrates to Buffy how dying or the destruction of either yourself or those around you is not the way to end pain or save others, all it does is make things worse. (See Bargaining S6 - where the gang is struggling to keep the balance in Buffy's absence. The biker demons in Bargaining, invade Sunnydale because Buffy is dead, making the town a hell on earth.) Willow also demonstrates to Buffy by killing Warren - that seeking vengeance on others does not relieve grief or pain. It just takes you down to their level. (Villains, Season 6) If Season 6 is truly the dark night of Buffy's soul, what better way to bring it to a head then have Buffy's best friend and the caretaker of her spirit, Willow, give into her darkest impulses?
Through Willow - Buffy sees the consequences of an addiction to power. Sees how power can change a person. Corrupt them. It is Willow who tells Buffy what a slayer truly is about - the power. It is Willow who shows Buffy the consequences of taking out your pain and suffering on others and forces Buffy to acknowledge her own monstrous behavior last season. In Two to Go - Willow calls Buffy's bluff, tells her friend that she's no better than Willow, that she used a vampire to feel, that she tried to kill her friends, that she just wants to be dead. Willow literally rubs Buffy's face in it - by giving into the temptation to let the power and grief wipe out everything, Willow shows Buffy the path she should not take.
Also it is Willow who makes Buffy question her own calling in Villains. Being the slayer does not give me a license to kill, Buffy states. Willow believes it should. We kill those who are dangers to us. By taking Willow's actions to the extreme, the writers demonstrate what could happen if Buffy gives into the dark side of her own nature.
IV. Willow, the witch, the intellect vs. Buffy the slayer, the athlete
The contrast between Willow and Buffy's powers and skills has been the source of many posts, most of which have been pretty negative on Willow. What many posters seem to forget is Willow's purpose in the story. Buffy is the heroine. Willow is the "best friend". The best friend often envies the hero's skills and abilities. The best friend will often appear to be taking short cuts or not appear to be working as hard as the heroine to become powerful. The best friend's attempts at saving the world - will not be as heroic and often have disastrous consequences. The best friend's faults will be emphasized over the hero's and will often appear to be the one tempted to do evil. Example: Ionalus in Hercules is tempted to become the Hero, but everything he does has horrific results. Same with Gabrielle in Xena, who in her attempt to save the world, she is seduced by Darhawk and has an evil child. The best friend is not allowed to take the hero's place in the story. When she tries to - she becomes the villain, the hero's nemesis.
<i>Willow's intellectual acumen and studies to become a witch compared to Buffy's fighting skills and studies to be a slayer</i>:
Of the two - Willow actually is seen working far harder on her studies than Buffy is and by herself. Willow unlike Buffy has no mentor willing to aid her in her endeavors. Her father ignores her. Giles fondly pats her on the head or tells her how great she is. But not once in the series does Giles appear to be mentoring Willow. Buffy on the other hand seems to be under Giles' constant supervision. Buffy would love to give up her calling, but Giles keeps pulling her back, keeps telling her to train. Also Buffy's mother, Joyce, notably gives Buffy emotional support in Season 3 and 5. Willow's mother barely seems to acknowledge Willow's existence. (In Gingerbread S3: Willow to Buffy: "At least your mother takes an interest in your extra-curricular activities." And as if to prove Willow's point, Willow's mother's comment on her hair: "Did you do something to your hair?" Willow: "I cut it three months ago.")
In Choices - Buffy realizes she has to stay in Sunnydale, has to fight evil. Willow chooses to stay in Sunnydale, chooses to continue to study witchcraft - in order to use her powers to help Buffy in her fight. And it is Willow who tells Buffy that she doesn't have to fight evil - but chooses to do it. Just as it is Willow in Reptile Boy who tells Giles that he is expecting too much from Buffy and should back off. And it is Willow who makes sure Buffy graduates from high school and learns her studies.
Buffy and Willow complement each other - where Willow lacks in athletic prowess (not everyone is coordinated enough to become a black belt in Tae Kwon Duo) Buffy lacks in the ability to research information or understand complex intellectual concepts such as physics, magic, etc (not everyone is a "brain" or "nerd" either). Willow stays in school. Buffy leaves to take care of her sister and physically fight the big evil. Willow tutors students, Buffy considers being a cheerleader. One is not necessarily better than the other nor has one done more work than the other. They both work on what their talents/gifts are.
In Becoming - Willow is shown coming into her own finally as a witch just as Buffy has to make the most difficult choice in her career as a slayer. Willow grants Angelus the gift of life while Buffy grants him death. Willow curses him with remorse as Buffy sends him to hell.
Willow prior to Becoming II is the one who discovers an alternate way of stopping Angelus, one that does not involve Buffy killing him. She locates Jenny Calendar's spell which will curse Angelus with a soul. She is also the one who defends Buffy's choice to re-ensoul Angel to Xander and encourages Xander to pass on to Buffy this final hope. Xander in the role of side-kick, who has his own romantic feelings for Buffy and Willow, refuses to pass on this hope and to support Willow's choice to re-ensoul Angel. By letting Buffy believe her "best friend" would tell her to kick her lover's ass, Xander reaps the punishment he deserves - Buffy's retreat from Sunnydale in Becoming and her comments in Selfless. If he passed on Willow's message of hope - Buffy may not have left.
The side-kick will often challenge the hero's choices, while the best friend normally supports them, almost unconditionally. The best friend aids the hero, empowers them emotionally and spiritually. Willow does this via her witchcraft on numerous occasions - including Becoming, Choices, The Gift, Weight of The World, Showtime, and Primeval. The symbolism of Willow grabbing Tara's hand in HUSH to keep the Gentleman from entering their hiding place - also represents how Willow helps Buffy. Whenever Buffy needs an additional wallop of strength she stretches her hand out to Willow. Or as we see in Same Time Same Place, S7 - whenever Willow needs strength, Buffy stretches her hand out to Willow.
It is Willow who supports Buffy when Giles, Xander, and Faith turn against her for hiding Angel from them in Revelations. And Willow is the one who brings Buffy literally back to life in Bargaining. Willow also heals Buffy of the poison in Normal Again. It is Willow's significant other, Tara, who comforts Buffy during Dead Things and informs Buffy that there is nothing wrong with her. The Best Friend provides the spiritual support. When the best friend removes that support - the heroine is weakened. When Willow goes wonky at the end of S6 in Two - to -Go and Grave, Buffy is rendered powerless to stop her. Literally finding herself back in the grave at the end of the season, Buffy has to fight dirt monsters - externally fighting the same war Willow is fighting internally within herself. The reason Buffy cannot be the one to defeat Willow in Grave - is that Willow is in a way Buffy's spirit, her strength, it must be the mentor and side-kick who convince the best friend to not destroy the world, not the heroine. In Dracula - it is Jonathan Harker and Von Helsing who release Lucy from her fate - not Mina, who merely learns from it.
V. Where is Willow going? (Spoilers to KIM, S7 Btvs)
Since what happens to Willow often reflects in some way Buffy's internal journey, I predict that Willow will not be the one who goes dark this season, who gives into her power. Buffy most likely will. But unlike Willow of Season 6, Buffy won't go all the way…she will face her own monster and through the example of her best friend - come out of that confrontation intact. She may even be able to do what her best friend has not been able to do- give up the power.
Willow, as Buffy's best friend, represents Buffy's spiritual heart. Buffy's relationship with Willow over the years demonstrates Buffy's compassion and ability to choose less violent ways to solve problems. Willow will often be the one who finds the compassionate way of dealing with a problem. In seasons 1-5, Willow pushes for non-violent methods. It's when Willow becomes violent and stops being compassionate that Buffy starts to lose track. This first happens in Season 5, in Tough Love, when Willow stops listening to her heart and gives into the power to attack Glory. Later in Season 6, she drifts even further, giving in more and more often to the power. Likewise in Season 6, Buffy stops listening to her spirit, and gives into her dark impulses. When Willow is finally reached by Xander on the bluff, Buffy is finally able to come out of her depression and see the beauty of the world around her. When Willow returns from England - it is Buffy who grants Willow her strength. And in Selfless - when Buffy believes the only solution is to kill Anya, it is Willow who comes up with the alternative.
In Killer In Me, S7, when Willow recreates Warren's act with Kennedy - it is Warren's violence against Buffy that she recreates not the stray bullet through the window. It is the violence of Warren's anger at Buffy and through Warren her own at both Buffy and herself for letting it happen, for causing Tara's death. Buffy turns a spiritual corner - because Buffy, whether she acknowledges it or not, took some blame on herself for Warren's attack. Just as she partially blames herself for Spike. The reason Buffy and Willow's stories are paralleled in Killer In Me - is that both women are forced to come to terms with the person who hurt them most last season and why. For Buffy - it's Spike's ability to hurt her that she correlates with her behavior last year and the attempted rape. The chip regulates his ability to hurt her and others. The chip that is currently killing him. Last year she let the fact that the chip no longer worked on her - give her an excuse - she jumped to the same conclusion Spike did - she let the killer in her take over with him and as a result unleashed the killer in him. Willow never took her magic or what she did with it to Tara very seriously. She believed her magic was just an addiction. When Warren accidentally kills Tara - this corresponds to Willow's assertions that she accidentally erased everyone's memories in Tabula Rasa, she accidentally hurt Dawn in Wrecked. It was just an accident she claims. So when Warren claims he accidentally hurt Tara - Willow goes bonkers. But something else is also going on here, a correlation between Willow's guilt and Buffy's. Willow could save Buffy - not once but twice, in Villains by removing the bullet and in Bargaining by bringing her back from the grave. Willow could not save Tara, either by resurrecting her or by removing the bullet. Buffy can live, but Tara can't. Why? This fact must on some level bother both women. Warren feels the same rage - why does Buffy always win, why does Buffy live. It's Buffy's fault, his ex-lover Katrina died and left him. In the back yard - Willow accuses Kennedy, a potential slayer who could be a placeholder for Buffy, of killing Tara, of causing Tara's death. And it is the Buffy stand-in, Kennedy, who frees Willow from her rage, by kissing her - an act of compassion and forgiveness and finally acceptance. Buffy meanwhile is faced with the choice of releasing Spike from pain - the removal of the chip, the question being will she release the killer in him or by believing in him and removing the chip - grant him the same release Kennedy symbolically grants Willow?
In conclusion - the best friend, in this case Willow, is a mirror to the heroine's journey. Through their actions and pains, we get another picture of the hero's choices. Often the best friend's choices complement the hero's, they re-emphasize the hero's pain and grief. Through Willow - we see what would happen if Buffy gave into her dark impulses. Through Willow - we see the difference between forgiveness and vengeance. We also see how Buffy can draw strength from her spirit and how it can lead her astray. Of all the characters in Btvs, Willow is possibly the most important to Buffy's journey, it is through Willow that we often identify with and may even judge Buffy's path.
Thanks for reading. Not sure how much sense this made. Hopefully just a little food for thought. Feedback welcome as always!