Willow's Problem: It's Not About the Power
Much has been said this season about the "magic addiction" story arc Willow has been going through. Much of what has been said has been negative, with comments generally accusing the arc of being unrealistic, badly written, out of character, and so on. Many people believe that the "magic addiction" is a plot device that was introduced as a last-minute substitute for another, more interesting story that was being set up but was mysteriously abandoned.
Unless Joss Whedon decides to write a tell-all behind-the-scenes book someday, we will never know if this other story ever really existed, or if it was really more interesting than the story we've seen. It's easy to imagine that such a hypothetical story would be more interesting, of course, because we don't have it in front of us to answer the question one way or another. It is grass that will always be greener because we can never get to the other side of the fence.
Personally, I would like to challenge the notion that such a hypothetical abandoned story ever existed. I believe that the magic addiction story we're being told now is the one Joss Whedon always planned to tell, and in fact it's the story he's been setting up for quite some time.
Let's look at the facts:
1) The physical effects of Willow's magic
Most complaints I've seen point toward "Wrecked" as the episode where the magic addiction story "suddenly" replaced the hypothetical other story. All of a sudden, the complaints say, Willow's problem ceases to be about her temptation by the power of magic and starts being a thinly-disguised "After School Special" on the subject of drug abuse.
I'll admit that "Wrecked" lays on the physical affectations rather heavily, but it's not the first time Buffy has claimed that magic has physical side-effects. As early as Season 2, Willow said she felt something go through her when she re-cursed Angel, and she would sometimes feel weak or faint after casting a spell. When she started doing more powerful spells, she would get nosebleeds or headaches.
Nor was "Wrecked" the first time Buffy suggested that magic could have a euphoric effect. As early as "The Dark Age," Giles claimed that summoning Eyghon produced "an extraordinary high." In "Goodbye, Iowa," Willow and Tara talk glowingly about the spells they had done the night before. Tara confessed that she had been thinking about one of them "all day." The physical effects of the spell the girls did to contact the nether realms in "Who Are You" are self- evident.
(Yes, I realize that Buffy was at this point using magic as a way to get around the WB's limitations on the way the lesbian relationship between Willow and Tara could be portrayed. However, one interpretation of that period in the relationship - the one I adhere to and wrote about in my fanfic series Reflections In Transit - holds that the spells were in fact spells, and not just sex in disguise. In this interpretation, it was the physical effects of those spells which provided a sense of intimacy where the Willow/Tara relationship could grow until Willow was willing to admit to herself that she was gay.)
So when we see magic having a physical effect on Willow in "Wrecked," it could be said that what's shown is a bit over-the-top - but it's not something we haven't seen before.
2) Why would Willow go to someone like Rack?
Another complaint about "Wrecked" is that it's out of character for Willow - who had always used magic to accomplish something in the past - to go to a "magic crack house" and do spells with Rack just to get high. Why would Willow do something like that?
Fortunately, we have Willow herself to explain it for us. At the end of "Wrecked" she says, "It just, it took me away from myself. I felt so... free." A few lines back in that same scene, she asks, "If you could be plain old Willow, or Super Willow? Who would you want to be?" The implication here is that both her visits to Rack and her exploits as "Super Willow" have the same effect - They take Willow away from herself. That's an important thing to remember as we consider:
3) The psychological factors that drive Willow
Willow's dream in "Restless" sums up her greatest fear and her biggest motivator. She's terrified that underneath it all, she's still the same little nerd-girl whose mother dresses her in clothes from the softer side of Sears. Her efforts to escape her nerd- self started before she ever began practicing magic. Oz was important to her not simply because they loved each other, but also because Oz was a musician, and associating with a musician made Willow feel "cool." In "Doomed" after Percy called her a nerd, Willow's response was, "I haven't been a nerd for a very long time. Hello, dating a musician!" which was immediately followed by a crestfallen "Or... I was..."
Magic made Willow feel special. It made her feel like more than just the little nerd-girl. It made her feel confident enough for her to tell Buffy "I'm not your sidekick!" in "Fear, Itself." It made Willow feel like Super Willow. Again going back to the end of "Wrecked," we find that Willow doesn't even believe Tara would love her "plain old Willow" self.
The other factor that drives Willow is her craving for affection and approval. What we've seen of her parents makes it pretty clear that they ignore her most of the time. The one time we saw Willow's mother, she couldn't remember the name of Willow's best friend and hadn't realized that Willow had changed her hairstyle several months earlier. The lack of attention helped create the little nerd-girl in the first place, as young Willow tried to be perfect so she could gain her parents' love.
4) Power-hungry, or affection-starved?
Many of the complaints I've seen about how Buffy supposedly abandoned the original story of Willow's magic addiction claim that this hypothetical story dealt with Willow being seduced by the power of the dark magic she was channeling. Willow is power-hungry, so this theory goes, and the dark powers were offering the power she wanted.
There's only one problem with this theory, and that's the fact that Willow isn't power-hungry. She has never been about power. When Buffy called her the strongest member of the group in "The Gift," Willow shied away from the claim. Yes, she does have a history of taking charge in the midst of crisis (as in "Halloween," "The Dark Age," and "The Weight of the World"), but she has never tried to keep control after the crisis has passed. Willow's craving is for affection and attention, not for power.
Consider Willow's actions during the summer after "The Gift." Willow was unanimously made "the boss of the group." Xander even made her a little sign that said "Boss Of Us." What did she do? Did she try to use her spells to make herself a bigger and better monster-fighter than Buffy ever was? Did she ever perfect the Ball Of Sunshine spell? Did she try to convince anyone that they didn't need to worry about Buffy because she was more powerful? No. Instead, she concentrated her energies on trying to bring Buffy back. Buffy, who had seen the real Willow beneath the softer-side-of-Sears clothing. Buffy, who had given her affection and attention when no one else did. That's what Willow wanted back.
Consider Willow's argument with Giles in "Flooded." Much is made of this scene, because many consider Willow's boasting and threatening at the end of it to be a sign of how power-hungry she is. But what does Willow really want out of the conversation? Again, she tells us herself. "I thought you'd be impressed or something," she tells Giles, and then later says, "I brought Buffy back into this world, and maybe the word you should be looking for is congratulations." She was expecting affection from Giles, a father- figure, and instead she got a reprimand. That's what touched off her anger, not a lust to be more powerful.
Lastly, consider the two forgetting spells. They both happened in situations where Willow's actions had caused love to be withdrawn from her. In the case of the first spell, it was the argument she was having with Tara. In the case of the second spell, it was the first spell (in Tara's case) and the fact that Buffy was upset over being pulled from heaven. Willow wasn't trying to control Tara. She wasn't trying to control Buffy. If she was, she would probably have cast a spell similar to Warren's Cerebral Dampener. Instead, she was trying to remove the memories that were blocking the love she craved. It's still inexcusable, but it's a very different act from what we would expect of someone who was power-hungry.
5) Where will it end?
Supposedly, this hypothetical story that is said to have been abandoned in "Wrecked" was to end with Willow becoming the Big Bad, or at least turning into "Dark Willow" as her lust for power tempted her into the shadows. The only problem with that ending is that it's out of touch with who Willow is and who Willow has always been. Evil needs an agenda, whether it's to suck the world into Hell or open the dimensions in order to go home or avoid the responsibility of the adult world. Willow's agenda has always been to seek approval and affection. Big Bads don't get either of those things.
Magic power is a poor substitute for the love of people like Buffy and Tara. That's what we saw in "Wrecked." What did she do with all the power she possessed? She took Tara's clothes, animated them and then curled up in the lap of her creation. It was quite literally a hollow substitute for the person whose love she really wanted. What did she do later, when she couldn't handle Dawn's talk of how Tara was getting on with her life? She sought out Rack, who could take her away from herself and the emptiness she felt. But embracing the magical power in that way only leads to destruction, as we soon saw.
The logical outcome for this storyline is for Willow to discover that she doesn't need magic to be special or lovable. That's the path she has been on since "Wrecked." It's not going to be easy. There will be temptations from fellow addicts like Amy, or from people acting as co-dependent enablers, like Xander and Anya. In the end, though, I believe Willow will triumph and once again find the love she wants. Joss Whedon is a brilliant writer, but he still follows the rules of classical narrative. Now that he's taken Willow down to the depths, he must bring her back to the heights again. Now that she has asked "Can I be loved without magic?" he must show her that she can.
(Plus there's the rather mundane but still significant fact that Alyson Hannigan is now the second-biggest "name" in the cast, and Joss Whedon is not about to do something stupid like turn her character evil and then get rid of her.)
This is the path Willow is on. It's the path she has always been on. Willow has grown and evolved dramatically over the years, but she hasn't changed. She is still Willow. She will continue to be Willow, on this path and the paths to come.