Willow and Xander are the classic victims of time, the should-have-been-but-never-quite-were couple of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS). Their relationship is built on a foundation of deep knowledge and understanding of the other, the products of an almost lifelong friendship.
In this essay, I will be looking at canonical evidence of the Willow/Xander romance, and also the plausible arguments for the validity of a Willow/Xander relationship derivate of; and slightly diverging from, the canon of BtVS.
“Every Christmas, we watch Charlie Brown together, and I do the Snoopy dance.”
The characters and the Buffyverse; how they fit
I’ll begin with a look at the characters themselves. A short look – I know how verbose I get – and one that focuses mostly on the surface of the two as we meet them in the first episode. My character descriptions will continue to flesh out as we move chronologically through this baby. I hope.
Willow and Xander are sixteen years old when we first meet them in Welcome to the Hellmouth. Right off the bat, they are presented to us as close friends, with a common friend in Jesse (deceased.)
Xander is the surprisingly sensitive joker, relegated to a “dork” status within the school heirachy (his status there ensuring he won’t even win the Class Clown award at his Senior Prom - The Prom, 3x20.) He’s quick-witted, verbally gifted and a little needy, and being called an idiot “actually kinda turns him on.”
Willow can be categorised here as the “nerdy” type (though she is much more than that, pelase accept this oversimplification so I can get to the good stuff!). She’s a quiet and nervous girl who finds rental shoes sexy. Yet her intelligence, hopeful nature and her desire to help is revealed soon enough, when we see her interact with Xander and she becomes immediately less reserved.
Their greater society, immediately, is that of Sunnydale High School and then Sunnydale itself. Both are places that appear as normal and as face-value-surface-acceptable as they can be, typical in every way. Except, oh yeah, Sunnydale is actually built on a Mouth of Hell and the portal to the Hellmouth is right under the school itself.
Yet normalcy prevails, and the high school has its heirachy like any other. This ensures that the individuality and quirks of our two are not appreciated and are outsiders, of a sort. This gives them an environment in which they can not only accept and befriend Buffy, but also one that has created a dependency and need for the other; a sense of belonging and comfort. This is a theme that will continue through their friendship.
“It just means you’d rather be with someone you hate…Than be with me”
Seasons One and Two; unrequited love and growing attraction
Willow and Xander’s history is established right from episode one of the series, Welcome to the Hellmouth, as is the nature of their friendship. Consider this excerpt from the episode:
Buffy: Oh, are you guys going out?
Willow: No, we're just friends. We used to go out, but we broke up.
Buffy: How come?
Willow: He stole my Barbie. Oh, we were five.
And there, in a nutshell, is everything we need to know about Willow and Xander and their dynamics. They've known each other forever, they're friends, and Will has it bad.
Willow and Xander meet Buffy the same day and though they both befriend her, Xander falls quite heavily for her and Willow gets pushed into the uncomplaining-best-friend role, though her crush is at times quite evident (to everyone, it seems, but Xander himself.)
In The Pack, Hyena-Spirit-Possessed Xander comes into play and it's Willow, and her "hyper-aware" (Buffy to Willow of Xander; in The Pack) understanding of Xander that identifies the possession. Later in the episode, this animalistic manifestation possessing Xander's mind and body attempts to exploit Willow's fondness for him; and it is she who de-possessed Xander clings to tightly and does his best to apologise to ("No one messes with my Willow"), despite his stance that he doesn't remember his possession when he, in fact, does.
In I Robot, You Jane, we meet Jealous-Xander, which we're going to see a lot more of as the seasons pass. There's slight recognition on Xander's behalf at being "belle of the ball" (Buffy, to Xander) in Willow's eyes, and as soon as he isn't, he immediately becomes jealous, protective and possessive. He even manages to get Buffy all paranoid right along with him. A vague sense of future romance for Willow and Xander? Possibly, and that's what's so fun about subtext.
In Prophecy Girl, Xander finally summons the courage to ask Buffy out, and when she turns him down, he asks Willow in her place. However, it's not Willow's "idea of hijinks" to be with Xander while he wishes he was with Buffy, and she's not afraid to tell him so. This adds spine and backbone to Willow's adoration, and it's admirable. This is a glimpse at deeper, serious undercurrents - Willow won't settle for pity or replacements. The uncomfortable understanding here leads to a very standout point in When She Was Bad, the s2 opener that in my mind is perfectly bittersweet, and indicative of the Willow/Xander 'ship.
Yes, I'm talking about the famed "almost-kiss" ("You just look so tasty"). Willow and Xander, through ice-cream, find themselves physically close and the moment becomes decidely serious as Xander begins to lean in to kiss Willow, but he hesitates and and they're attacked by a vampire.
Moment lost. (No matter how much Willow tried to recreate it.) This becomes Willow and Xander's theme - moments of realisation, achingly beautiful moments of 'almost', moments ultimately uncapturable.
There are several instances in s2 that again relegate Willow to Xander's background: Buffy's return from vacation, a fling with Incan Mummy Ampata, and another fling,with Cordelia Chase. Unbeknowst to Willow, however, she is also being noticed at random moments (from Inca Mummy Girl through to What's My Line?) by Oz, and it is evident from the begining that he is interested in her.
It's in the two-parters Surprise and Innocence that a precarious resolution between Willow and Xander is reached. In Surprise, Willow accepts a date with Oz; though at this stage the steps are tentative, this marks what could be the beginning of her letting go of her feelings for Xander.
For me, though, that moment's actually in Innocence, when Xander's secret romance with Cordelia is discovered by Willow. Broken and clearly distraught, she gives Xander the most honest and clear-cut declaration of her feelings for him when he tells her that he and Cordelia were just kissing, and that it didn't "mean that much," to which she replies that:
The truth and sadness is evident here, and it's here that timing fails our two once more. Willow has to, essentially, deal with losing her first love; and it's not until this event that Willow can let go of Xander enough to date Oz, and Xander can make his relationship with Cordelia public.
We arrive at the end of s2 with both Willow and Xander in established relationships with Oz and Cordelia, respectively. It must be noted that both our kids are often irrationally jealous of their best friends' significant other, and you don't have to look much further than the episode Phases for that. Further, it should be noted that while Willow's jealousy seems to decrease (she even develops a friendship with Cordelia); Xander's jealousy increases.
This could, of course, be chalked up to another I Robot, You Jane, however it is not quite the case. Consider Willow and Xander's exchange in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, when Willow is under the effects of Xander's love spell gone awry:
Willow: Is it Oz? He's sweet, but...He's not you.
Here, Xander is actually expressing an opinion of Willow that equates to more than friendship. Compare this, especially, with Xander's earlier remark in Inca Mummy Girl:
Also in Bewitced, Bothered and Bewildered, Buffy reminds us of Willow's lingering feelings for Xander, telling him that "she loved you before you invoked te great Roofie spirit."
So what we're now seeing is hints of romantic tendencies between the two (in a more reciprocral fashion) and it's in the s2 finale that we're greeted with solid proof - and more on the 'victims of time' theory. Willow's been left comatose and Xander is by her bedside and, in his grief, "didn't even think" to call Willow's boyfriend Oz and let him know. Certainly, he was preocuppied with the thought of losing Willow. Also, this:
And there we have the confession, the love it took Xander nearly losing her - to another guy and to death - to admit, and for a moment it seems as though he's said the magic words and Willow does wake up, only to call for Oz (and it's my interpretation that she calls for Oz because she believes he's the only person that could be confessing love to her). Xander, though he is obviously hurt and still shocked by the entire ordeal, says nothing, choosing to look after Willow's happiness.
So, we end s2 with Xander having confessed his to love for Willow and yet still dating Cordelia, as he believes Willow to be disinterested. And we have Willow, still with feelings for Xandr, yet dating Oz and unaware of Xander's feelings for her.
“When I look at you, it’s like I’m seeing you for the first time”
Season Three and the affair
Now, I don't mean to belittle either the Xander/Cordelia or the Willow/Oz relationship, as I'm actually a fan of them both, and I see them s quite genuinely filled with affection. However, the lingering emotion between Willow and Xander is just about to take center stage.
Homecoming. Willow and Xander are trying on outfits for their first major dance. They talk about their relationships. They compliment each other. Xander teaches Willow how to dance. And oh yeah, they kiss.
And there it is, the moment that has, essentially, been building since day one, but most notably When She Was Bad, has finally occured. At the worst possible time. Again, their timing fails them (see why this is my theme?) and their romantic involvement is, essentially, an affair (or "illicit smoochies", as Buffy later tags it.)
Their affair is short lived (spanning Homecoming through to Lover's Walk), though it's passionate and sweet. Xander tells Willow it's like he's seeing her "for the first time", and Willow finally has the chance to say the things she's obviously been thinking for some time now, like her observation in Homecoming:
Plus, they play footsie under the table in full view of their friends. And hey, that's hot.
Their dynamics as a couple, eve a hidden and technically wrong one, are quite sweet. It's overwhelmingly comfortable shades of lust. The two understand each other, and their friendship is a solid base for their affair. Or, as Xander says in Lover's Walk
The affair, however, ends in that same episode when they are caught (or, uh, rescued) by Oz and Cordelia. Willow and Xander make the choice to try and re-establish their relationships with Oz and Cordelia, perhaps more out of guilt and obligation than the stronger emotion. Cordelia breaks up with Xander, though, and Oz and Willow eventually reconcile in Amends. Another window of time lost for Willow and Xander.
In Doppelgangland Willow's vampire-double (see the section on the Wishverse below) meets Xander at the Bronze. Vamp-Willow is frankly sensual, and she speaks and acts incredibly suggestively toward him who leaps away with the cry of "Hands! Hands in new places!" but there is certainly a smile in his protestations and suggestion of lingering emotion still between Xander and Willow.
This lingering emotion (sick of that phrase yet?) isn't only from Xander, though. The strongest case in point is in the episode Consequences, when it's revealed that Xander slept with Faith, and it'sWillow that cries, locked in the bathroom, for lost chances.
“You couldn’t have figured that out in tenth grade?”
Seasons Four and Five; established roles and testing bonds
It’s plausible, definitely to justify a Willow/Xander relationship at many points so far, but it comes quite a lot more difficult from early season four. This time, when Oz leaves Willow and the relationship is over (preventing an avenue for Willow and Xander to be together), Xander has just begun dating Anya. Another stroke of bad timing for our pair. (Noticing the pattern, too?)
It’s in this time that Willow meets Tara and falls in love with her. Xander becomes increasingly involved with Anya. The two friends who have experienced moments of both distance (The Yoko Factor, Fear, Itself) and closeness (Wild at Heart, Restless) since leaving high school, and possibilities of reviving their ‘fluke’-based physical relationship seems to get lost in the complexities of their current relationships.
However, despite the distance that may exist in seasons 4 – 6, both are still a constant in each other’s lives, occasionally still expressing jealousy over their lost closeness (Willow particularly during season four and early season five has some fantastic moments of jealousy toward Anya.)
The episode Triangle is a good example of these jealousies, possessive tendencies, and the sort-of-resolved issues between Willow and Xander. (Also, there was that big-ass troll, Olaf. He was awesome.)
There does seem to be a tentative sense of acceptance that two don’t “belong” to each other in this episode. Willow and Anya reach a level of tolerance (and heated understanding), and Xander acknowledges how much both women mean to him and the impossibility to give either up. Consider this exchange (‘cause it says it better than I can):
Willow: Anya, it's what you do. You spent what, a thousand years hurting men? You got your "thousand years of hurting men" gold watch.
Anya: I was a demon then, and, and I don't even have any powers now! Is this the spell?
Willow: Only if you want him to double in size, and grow extra arms, which ... let's not. A-and by the way, you weren't a demon when you turned Olaf into Lord of the Hammers. You managed that. Also, there's ... other ways to hurt Xander.
Anya: I don't do magic now. You're the one with that kind of power. In fact, D'Hoffryn offered you my old job. You're closer to being a vengeance demon than I am, maybe Xander should be afraid of you.
Willow: Xander's my best friend!
Anya: Oh, and you don't want anyone else to have him. I know what broke up him and Cordelia, you know. It was you! And your lips!
Willow: No it was not! Well, yes it was so, but ... that was a long time ago. Do you think I'd do that again?
Anya: Why not?
Willow: Well, hello, gay now.
Anya: But you're always doing everything you can to, to point out how much I'm an outsider. You've known him since you were squalling infants together. You'll always know him better than I do. You could sweep in and, and poison his mind against me.
Willow: You're insane! I am not gonna take him away and I am not gonna hurt him.
Anya: Well, I’m not either!
and, from the Xander perspective:
Xander: No. You are one crazy troll, I ... I'm not choosing between my girlfriend and my best friend. That's insane troll logic.
Anya: Go Xander. I love you.
Olaf: Good for you. You are a loyal man.
Olaf: Now. Choose!
Anya: Olaf, no!
Xander: I'm not choosing.
Pretty definitive, isn't it? Triangle essentially sets up the Willow/Xander dynamic for further exploration in the next season.
Of course, I can't go past the sweet nostalgia of The Gift. Xander remarks (fairly offhandedly) in response to an idea by Anya that "smart chicks are so hot." Willow's reply is a cute recognition of the pair's past and their comfort with each other currently, when she replies with "You couldn't have figured that out in tenth grade?"
So, as the fifth season ends, we have Xander and Willow, firmly friends, and both deeply involved in incredibly complex and uncoventional relationships; yet both still relying on their oldest, strongest friendships with each other to get through the confusion, and in the case above, impending apocolypse.
“About half as much as I love you”
Season Six; breakdowns and comfort
It's definitely in s6 that the most emotional distance between the characters is explored, but it's also in this season that the lasting bond between Willow and Xander is reaffirmed and proven to still be incredibly powerful. In episodes such as Hells Bells, Normal Again, and Entropy, when the two's relationships are falling apart, they naturally turn to each other for validation and comfort first. When Xander leaves town after leaving Anya at the altar, it's Willow who stays at home, hoping to hear from him and know he's okay.When Willow's relationship with Tara fails, it's Xander who notices the source (Willow's magic addiction and manipulation), and brings it to the attention of Buffy.
So there's distance and a lot of it is self-imposed, while Willow explores dark magics and Xander quietly freaks out about a wedding he's not ready for, but if you're not sure that Willow and Xander actually care about each other anymore, consider this touching moment from Hells Bells:
Xander: All growed up.
Willow: It's a good thing I realised I was gay, otherwise, you, me, formal wear...Do you know how much I love you?"
Xander: About half as much as I love you.
It's interesting to note that in a moment of reconnection and affection, they're comfortable enough with each other and their pasts to reference their past "indiscretions" - the so-theorised formal-wear induced "clothes fluke" that was their s3 affair. There's no hiding of what they were, and who they are now. Just perfect acceptance.
The most obvious reaffirmation of their bond takes place in Grave, the s6 finale, when it is Xander's unconditional love - and only his love - that can save grief-magic-fueled-Dark-Willow from complete destruction (of herself, and the world.) Xander lays down his life and future at Willow's feet, armed with only his love for her and the certainty that that is where he belongs. His unwavering belief in Willow and their friendship - their past, everything they've ever shared - is the only thing with enough strength to reach Willow. In what I find one of the most moving scenes in the series, she stops her rampage, collapsing in the arms of the only person she's always loved; and had love her in return.
I am not in any way suggesting a romantic nature to Willow's catharsis in Grave; nor am I trying to discount the Willow/Tara, Xander/Anya relationships by suggesting the end of Grave could herald a romantic happy ending for the two. I merely am trying (hopefully suceeding) to speak of a deep, powerful love that could only exist through the lives Willow and Xander have shared together and the very nature of the people they are, and who they are together.
“Figuring out how to control your magic seems a lot like hammering a nail.”
Season Seven; New beginnings and tentative steps toward change
In Same Time, Same Place, Willow returns to Sunnydale after spending the summer in England, attempting to heal and control her magic. Unfortunately, her return goes less than well (the friends are unable to see each other) and it happens to coincide with the Scoobies discovering a victim that appears to have been flayed. It’s only Xander that manages to keep unwavering trust and belief that Willow wasn’t behind it.
It’s Xander, in Help, that comforts Willow and takes her, supportive, to visit Tara’s grave. And in Empty Places, it’s Willow that sits with injured Xander in hospital when Buffy can’t (or won’t.)
Even after everything that has stood to damage the bond Willow and Xander share, they are still the only two that continue to be there for each other, with unequivocal support and belief in what the other can do and be.
Whether there is any romantic chemistry left as well as these things in season seven is debateable (Willow even says, affectionately, to Xander in Help: "I'm over you now, sweetie"); Xander’s continual feelings for Anya and Willow’s involvement with Kennedy would probably dictate otherwise, but it is safe to say both characters have reached a new level of comfort in their friendship, and have probably recognised that their time for being together has passed them by.
“You assume because I’m here, she’s here.”
Post-Chosen and beyond; arguments and plausibility within fandom
Or has it? Many Post-Chosen Willow/Xander fics address the possibility of, in the future, a return to their only constants – the comfortably stable, deep love they find in each other.
Of course, it’s important to address certain issues here: Xander’s grief for Anya; Kennedy; the direction (or lack of) in their post-Sunnydale lives; and of course, Willow’s sexuality. It can be quite plausible that she would be involved with Xander, especially if you consider the perspectives presented and suggested in the Wishverse and Tabula Rasa, discussed below, but if it’s not addressed the fic can often feel glaringly empty.
It is also important to consider that their lives are completely changed now in a Post-Chosen world.
Certainly, the established Willow and Xander bond may finally find its footing and its right time and place to flourish after the destruction of Sunnydale; when the environment dictating the nature of their lives is removed, and the group dynamic is entirely altered. The sense of a clean slate can really mean a return to the beginnings, the familiar, the comfortable, and what’s more familiar and comfortable than Willow and Xander together?
“We did wake up all snuggly-wuggly”
The Wishverse, Tabula Rasa, and other distortions of the Buffyverse
In The Wish, and later re-visited in Doppelgangland, we meet vestiges of Sunnydale if Buffy had never arrived. We also, then, meet Willow and Xander’s fates, had she not entered their lives. They’re vampires, and also very much a couple.
If we look a little at psychoanalysis here, vampires have moved beyond the society and human world and as such, they are not bound by rules, morals, or social graces. They want, and they receive. Their lusts and desires can be theirs to keep and easy to attain.
And here we have Willow and Xander, very much desiring – and having – each other. This can strongly make the case that, were they not bound by other ties (group dynamics, other interests, other people), if they could find a time and place within their environment to make their own, that they would be involved.
Doppelgangland is known for displaying Willow’s homosexual tendencies, as Vamp-Willow (who is open, sensual and sexual) showers attention, affection, and intimacy on several females, prompting Willow herself to utter:
So while this sets up Willow to have a plausible relationship with Tara; at the same time, it’s suggesting deeper levels to Willow’s sexuality – what you have to remember here is that the first person vampire-Willow turns to physically in Doppelgangland is Xander, and it is only after that she knows that he’s alive (read: unavailable) that she turns her attentions elsewhere.
Also interesting to consider here is the season six episode Tabula Rasa, in which Willow casts a spell that goes awry and causes the Scoobies to lose their memories, thus altering the reality and perception of the characters.
When re-constructing identities, the first theory Willow has is that Xander is her boyfriend and they do attempt to act the part in the first half of the episode, though a very sweet natural chemistry with Tara soon wins out over the idea. It’s something to think about, that even with memories removed, their romantic thoughts tend to go to each other.
It’s interesting to note that Willow’s ambivalence in identifying herself and her mirror in Doppelgangland is repeated right when Willow’s identity and perception is altered, again in this episode:
This ambivalence and ambiguity (“kinda”) in her self-identification lends strongly to the theory that Willow’s sexuality is not as cut-and-dried as she has proclaimed it to be. Willow has always used labels, and rashly so, in an attempt to understand herself and those around her. She feels that her actions and those of others must be justifiable somehow, and preferably easily, so she is quick to pigeonhole. It can, then, be considered that Willow has fallen in love with Tara and feels the need to rationalise it; i.e, coming out as gay. However, her vampire-self doesn’t feel the need for these boundaries and definitions, and continues to pile on the major kink-subtext with “puppy” Angel and the steamy lust of her relationship with vampire-Xander, all the while with an attraction to women.
While I’m not out to belittle the Willow and Tara relationship (as I adore it) or to make overt claims about Willow’s true sexuality, I do want to point out that different interpretations and feasibility for different perceptions do exist, and right from canon, to portray Willow as bisexual, or simply liberal-minded by way of relationships. These points become especially pertinent when you’re looking to justify a post-Chosen, or even a post-Season Four Willow/Xander relationship.
“Sometimes I have this fantasy that Xander's just gonna grab me and kiss me right on the lips.”
Meta; why I love these two
As for why I am here, writing about Willow/Xander? Well, I suppose I could delve right back into my media studies roots and claim the modernity critique of fandom by citing my involvement in the pairing as a case of ‘fandom as compensation’, drawing upon it as a simulacrum for my para-social interaction and overidentification. But that leaves out pretty much everything except my own neuroses, so let’s try a different track.
Willow and Xander are the embodiment of honesty, and for a long time they also stand as a symbol of normalcy and reality upon which to contrast the supernatural overtones of Buffy’s lifestyle and the show as a whole. As such, their relationship – in any form – is a vehicle to remind us of, and relate to, our own reality and the nature of interpersonal relationships. It feels real. It’s a common situation. I overidentify with Willow/Xander on a lot of levels. Actually, all of my love life can be tossed in there allegorically with the dynamics between those two. And it’s that element of understanding that makes me fiercely protective of them. (Plus, they’re both way hot. That doesn’t hurt.) I’ve been Willow. I’ve been Xander. I’ve had the unrequited love, the sexuality confusion, the best friend I love unconditionally. To me, from my own background, Willow and Xander just make sense.
There’s the overwhelming sensation that they are for always, whether as friends or otherwise, and it’s potrayed so honestly and movingly. They are testament that attraction and lust does not have to end a friendship, and their bittersweet pasts and future intertwine so much that they are irrevocably part of each other’s lives. And that kind of power can’t be ignored.
“I'm not as hyperaware of him as, oh, say, for example, you.”
“Justification and exploration of texts”
It’s here that I should bring up the notion of audience interpretation and textual analysis, as it’s a very large theoretical framework for the existence and justification of much of what’s called subtext, and if these notions didn’t exist, fandom such as it is today wouldn’t stand.
There are three levels of reading and understanding a text (‘text’ being “anything that can be read” like a sign, television show, book, film, even a bus timetable, but in this particular situation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)
The first is considered the most common, and that’s the preferred or dominant reading. This is the particular meaning that the author has coded into the plots and subtext, and it’s usually a commonly held interpretation.
However, it’s also the least important.
The second is the one most important to this essay, and that’s the negotiated reading. Here, the viewer (as an individual audience and not part of a mass) makes their own textual interpretation based on the subtext and codes they find within the text. This is where different people’s cultural maps become important. According to Baudrillard’s theory of habitus, we were all predisposed to understand certain events in certain ways, and this is absolutely critical in the worlds of fandom and fanfiction. I can, then, see Xander’s reaction to Vampire-Willow’s suggestion as one that carries more weight than just lust and ‘falling back on old habits’, and it is a valid reading for me based on my own understanding of the text and culture as a whole, as right here is the validation for those moments viewers can pick up on and interpret in a different way as the author intended – because it is still right, still acceptable.
(Oh, the third is the resisted reading, which pretty much sees it as the opposite of the dominant/preferred reading, but that’s less pertinent to the essay here.)
As Hartley (1992, pp105) states “audiences are not just constructs, they are invisible fictions.” This shows the importance of fandom in audience and receptive theory – there is no such definitive meaning and understanding of texts, so there is no definitive meaning and understanding of audience, and this is why fanfic and personal interpretation is so important.
And this is why I love Willow and Xander, that their relationship covers all these levels. There’s the canonical evidence, there’s the implicit history (which has, in some instances become explicitly stated and therefore brought into canon), and there’s the subtext, which, hey, with these two? You can kick up your heels and have a veritable subtextual party, if you wish. I certainly won’t stop you.
“A lot of teens post some pretty angsty poetry on the web. I mean, I even posted a melodramatic love poem or two back in the day.”
Links; sites and recs
I maintain Solace, which appears to be the only Willow/Xander-centric archive online.
There's the LJ community willowxander; and I’ve been informed of yet another: devotedtoyou
The Willow/Xander Ficathon Masterlist has only just passed deadline a few days ago, so there's a wealth of new W/X fic there.
This rec list was compiled by moireach and it's a good port of call. Best, even.