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StephenT [userpic]

Pride, not ethics - Willow's sense of morality in S6

7th December 2006 (13:47)
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I recently wrote a couple of drabbles for [info]open_on_sunday which compared Willow in S4/S5 to her in a similar situation in mid-S6, around the time between 'Tabula Rasa' and 'Wrecked'. Part of my idea was that even at her lowest ebb, Willow would avoid using magic to cheat in an exam. [info]beer_good_foamy replied with some very insightful comments on Willow's sense of ethics, and since a fanfic community probably isn't the best place for extended meta discussions, I thought I'd give a fuller reply here.

To quote a snippet from his comment (for the full post see the "mid-S6" link above):
Willow, not completely unlike Wesley, wants good consequences. She has a very strong view of what is right and what is wrong (I'm sure one could argue that her mother is partially responsible for that) but those rights and wrongs are more situations than actions; she wants everything to BE the way it should be, but she will do just about anything to make it so, including black magic.

I think this is a very good analysis - for Willow, the end justifies the means. And the quicker the better: she's always been fond of the single dramatic gesture to solve problems, and this must help explain the appeal of magic to her. You can imagine her growing up as the quiet, passive but compassionate girl sitting in the corner, observing (and suffering) all the acts of cruelty and selfishness children are capable of, and feeling helpless to do anything about it... and suddenly she develops the power to set anything right with just a word. No wonder it goes to her head.

The complete opposite of Angel, of course, who learns that it's not your intentions and ultimate dreams that make a difference, but what you actually do, this day and every day. The fact that Willow eventually screws up so badly suggests that in the Jossverse at least, Angel's got the right idea...

For Willow, though, I think it's more than just the ends that justify the means - it's the person carrying out the action too. She seems to have a rather simplistic division of the world into good and evil, and anything the good guys do is, by definition, good.

"Oh, there are others in the world who can do what you did. You just don't want to meet them."
"Okay, probably not - but they're bad guys. I am not a bad guy. I brought Buffy back to the world and maybe the word you should be looking for is 'congratulations.'"
(from 'Flooded')

It's the same viewpoint that lets her hack into other people's computer systems and read their confidential records; she knows she's a good person and won't do anything bad with the information, so surely there's nothing wrong with what she does?

"I'm just taking stuff and not paying for it. In what twisted dictionary is that stealing?" (from 'Triangle')

Of course, Willow's selective view of morality applies mostly to herself. In the early seasons she's excited by the idea of 'being naughty', 'being a rebel', and she also sometimes shows a vengeful streak, especially towards Cordelia and Harmony; but this is mostly just cute, not sinister. It's pretty clear to everybody - including her friends - that she's too fundamentally soft-hearted and nice to want to seriously hurt anyone.  (Of course, once she acquires her dark magical powers all these 'cute' character traits reappear in a very different light). However, she also applies her distinctive morality to Buffy - she's very loyal to her friends, after all, and her first reaction is always to excuse their behaviour, whatever they did. (Non-friends, of course - such as Faith - don't get this break.)

"And it is my fault. I've been a bad friend. I got so caught up in my own stuff."
"You're the Slayer, Buffy. Your stuff is pretty crucial."
(from 'Primeval').

Part of this, I'm sure, comes from Willow's exceptional intelligence. She's very, very good at working things out and finding the correct answer: and I'm sure she got used to being right while everybody else was still struggling with the problem. So instead of waiting around for the people around her to decide to do what she's already seen is the best course of action, she just goes ahead and does it anyway.

Finally, there's also the fact that she's - not lazy exactly, but not interested in going the long way round. I think this exchange from 'Get It Done Touched' summarises this nicely:

"There's an old conjuration that the ancient Turks used to communicate with the dying -"
"Oh, yeah. I think I've read a translation of that. "
"There's a translation? Oh, great! I'm reading like two words of Turkish a night when I could be..."


Dawn plunges in with an English-Turkish dictionary; Willow looks for the translation. And while she's too nice to show it, I'm sure she felt a little bit smug at using her brains to find the easy way to learn the spell. Just as back in high school, she was impressed by Giles' level of knowledge, not appreciating that he stays up all night to acquire it. It's not that she's afraid of hard work: she loves it, but only if it's something that interests her. If she can, she'll skip straight past the difficult or boring parts: it's all a part of her quick intelligence. And once she acquires the ability, she sees magic as an even better tool to achieve the same ends.

Consequences? They don't really bother her. She's always figured out a way to overcome her problems before, so surely she always will...

Comments

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 14:03 (UTC)
Willow - playing god by bogwitch

Excellent look at Willow. Going straight to my memories! :)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 14:47 (UTC)

Thanks!

Incidentally, do you have an appropriate icon for every conceivable subject or character? :)

Posted by: Mrs Darcy (elisi)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 14:52 (UTC)

Posted by: petzipellepingo (petzipellepingo)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 15:18 (UTC)

I think this is a very good analysis - for Willow, the end justifies the means. And the quicker the better: she's always been fond of the single dramatic gesture to solve problems, and this must help explain the appeal of magic to her. You can imagine her growing up as the quiet, passive but compassionate girl sitting in the corner, observing (and suffering) all the acts of cruelty and selfishness children are capable of, and feeling helpless to do anything about it... and suddenly she develops the power to set anything right with just a word. No wonder it goes to her head.
Nods. And that's exactly what breaks up Willow and Tara and Willow just can't understand how a little harmless magic could possible be a bad thing; especially when she only uses it for good. The thought of doing it "the hard way" simply stops occurring to her and she forgets that sometimes "the hard way" is the best way for you mentally.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 17:02 (UTC)

The thought of doing it "the hard way" simply stops occurring to her

Assuming she ever believed in that, of course... it's just that until late season 5 her ability to circumvent the 'tedious' (but necessary) stuff lacked behind her desire. It makes me think that much of what the Coven taught her in between seasons 6 and 7 must have been exercises in patience and self-discipline...

Posted by: Tamara (ladycat713)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 20:12 (UTC)

For intance the Hard way after she's caught doing memory spells on Tara would be to keep her promise to not do magic (for a week I think) yet as soon as people are out the door she does magic to get dressed first then proceeds to do a memory spell on Tara and Buffy (which accidentaly works on all of them) instead of going through the trouble of controlling herself for a week . When it comes to controlling herself her willpower is like wet tissue paper- it's broken immediately.

And the problem with seeing the actions as good or bad depending on the person is a major Scooby weakness. After all , nobody said anything to Xander after all the deaths he caused by summoning the demon or the act that Dawn was kidnapped because of him. Any other human they would at least yell at them and any demon who did that they woul slay.

Posted by: Linda (spikeverse)
Posted at: 12th January 2007 18:28 (UTC)

I just found this essay from a top 5 rec.

And yeah to the scooby weakness. Not only did Xander summon the demon, he kept his mouth shut about it the whole time they were researching it and people were dying.

And Buffy is guilty of attemted murder of Faith. But she doesn't have to be forgiven. It's not even seen as wrong. But if she had been caught, she would be in prison now.

To me, and many others, the cliquish and judgmental attitudes of the main characters made them increasingly unlikeable characters in the later seasons. I wonder if it ever occured to the writers that they were doing that.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 13th January 2007 00:28 (UTC)

Posted by: Linda (spikeverse)
Posted at: 13th January 2007 01:31 (UTC)

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 20:57 (UTC)

Excellent summary, glad I inspired this and I agree with pretty much everything. A few comments:

she also sometimes shows a vengeful streak, especially towards Cordelia and Harmony; but this is mostly just cute, not sinister.

You mention pride both in the drabble and in your headline here, but I think it's an aspect of Willow that can never be overstated; her wallflower status ("the quiet, passive but compassionate girl sitting in the corner" indeed), which seems to have been almost as bad in her own home as in school, has made her fiercely possessive of the things she does have and does know how to do. It's a very consistent character trait - we see it the first time in "I, Robot... You Jane" when she snaps at Buffy the second Buffy suggests that maybe Malcolm isn't all he says he is; now that she FINALLY has a boyfriend, no one's going to take that away from her. It's that same trait that later gets transferred to her use of magic, where she spends a lot of time - starting way back in "Becoming" and on until "Wrecked" - claiming that she can handle it, that she just wants to help, that she can do this, that she's one of the good guys, and refuses to take it to heart when something goes wrong. Even to the point of having what, for her, qualifies as a "horrible" fight with Tara in "Tough Love". Note that when Tara starts criticizing her use of magic, Willow quickly - and probably not even consciously - spins it into a very different subject so she won't have to respond to Tara's original point.

Part of this, I'm sure, comes from Willow's exceptional intelligence. She's very, very good at working things out and finding the correct answer: and I'm sure she got used to being right while everybody else was still struggling with the problem.

Exactly, and hanging out with Xander, who never was the most confident person in the brains department, certainly helps confirm that she's always right. Which means that where others learns things gradually, Willow usually does so by epiphanies - it takes something extreme for her to realize that things are not as she thought they were. There's the scene in "Prophecy Girl", for instance...
I'm trying to think how to say it... to explain it so you understand. I'm *not* okay. I knew those guys. I go to that room every day. And when I walked in there, it... it wasn't our world anymore. They made it theirs. And they had fun. What are we gonna do?

Buffy obviously has a lot of influence on Willow during s1; Buffy has *power*, something Willow never had over anything or anyone save computers and Xander. From s2, she starts to make a conscious effort to get some power of her own - for all the right reasons, mind.

I wish there was more we could do. ("What's My Line")

BUFFY: Oh, Will, you're supposed to use your powers for good!
WILLOW: I just wanna learn stuff. ("Ted")


Problem is that she models herself on Buffy - to the point of becoming arrogant or even furious when it's pointed out that she's just not as powerful as Buffy.

I'm not your sidekick! (...) *Buffy* didn't find the stairs, no sir! ("Fear, Itself")

But she's a very different person, she doesn't have a destiny, and she doesn't have a Giles (or any Big Bads) to give her the occasional reality check. As she gets more powerful, she never learns responsibility. It takes the most horrible of epiphanies - Tara's death and all that follows - for her to do that. This is part of the reason I love the Dark Willow arc; it's the... or perhaps I should say *a* logical conclusion of where Willow has been going from day 1, and as different as she is, at her core she still has Willow's sensibilities, motivations and weaknesses.

Come on! This is a huge deal for me! Six years as a sideman, now *I* get to be the Slayer. ("Two To Go")

(That is also one of the reasons the magic-as-drugs metaphor in mid-s6 seems so silly to me; it would have worked just as well, even better, if they had stuck to the established character arc and made it about power rather than addiction.)

(cont. -> )

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 20:58 (UTC)

Angel, of course, who learns that it's not your intentions and ultimate dreams that make a difference, but what you actually do, this day and every day. The fact that Willow eventually screws up so badly suggests that in the Jossverse at least, Angel's got the right idea...

Oh, absolutely. I'm in the middle of a re-watch of s4, and it struck me that the very last thing Maggie Walsh says is that Riley will understand why she had Buffy killed:
Once she's gone, Riley will come around. He'll understand. It's for the greater good. He'll see that. And if he doesn't . . . Well, first things first. Remove the complication and when she least expects it...
...you'll get killed by your own creation. "It's for the greater good" is never a valid excuse in the Whedonverse; viz the whole Jasmine arc on Angel, or hell, ALL of Firefly. The only major "good" characters who consistently act according to the "ends justify the means" principle are Willow and Wesley (remember how he was willing to sacrifice Willow in "Choices"?) and both get smacked down HARD by karma.

Remember what was Willow's weakest spot in "Restless"? Not to be exposed as a lesbian, or to have her magic fail - but for everyone to see what she still on some level sees herself as: the shy, mumbling girl who'd seen the softer side of Sears. She spends six seasons running from that, until she hits bottom and emerges a much more humble - some might say broken - person.

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. ("Lessons")


End rant. :-) This is what happens when I read something at work and spend 4 hours mulling it over before I reply...

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 22:52 (UTC)

Posted by: tessarin (tessarin)
Posted at: 11th December 2006 12:57 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 12th December 2006 00:20 (UTC)

Posted by: tessarin (tessarin)
Posted at: 12th December 2006 09:40 (UTC)

Posted by: zanthinegirl (zanthinegirl)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 21:08 (UTC)
Willow

Here on a rec from elisi. What an interesting essay-- I think you've nailed Willow. It's exactly why Willow never could figure out why the others were so upset with her; very astute!

I'm actually not convinced that Willow had learned the right lesson by season 7. She was afraid of using her magical power but as you point out, that was never the real problem. Willow needed to learn to let people live their own lives and make their own mistakes...

I do occasionally wonder what kind of people the scoobies would have matured into. It's easy to forget how young they were!

Really food for thought!

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 23:04 (UTC)

Thanks for reading!

She was afraid of using her magical power but as you point out, that was never the real problem. Willow needed to learn to let people live their own lives and make their own mistakes...

Well, I'd argue that her real fear in S7 that she now knew what she was capable of, and was terrified that using magic would turn her back into the kind of person that uses others for her own benefit. That's what she tried to warn Kennedy about in 'Get It Done', and indeed what she did do to her.

I'm also of the opinion that Kennedy was the perfect partner for Willow at this stage in her life: while Willow and Tara were practically joined at the hip, Kennedy seemed much more the sort to go and do her own thing, lead her own life - but still come back and share it with Willow, because she loved her. Which I think would teach Willow a few valuable lessons about trust and her own self-worth...

Posted by: lusciousxander (lusciousxander)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 21:09 (UTC)
Always Best Friends

(Non-friends, of course - such as Faith - don't get this break.)

I think Faith is different because she took Willow's best friends from her, Buffy started to ignore Willow to spend time with Faith, Xander lost his verginity to Faith, who later tried to kill him.

Willow is usually nice and sympathatic to everybody, not only her friends, for example, she was very sweet to Spike, the only one of the core four who was nice to him.

I love your essay, goes to my memories right away. Great thoughts!

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 7th December 2006 23:11 (UTC)

Thanks for the comments. :)

Willow is usually nice and sympathatic to everybody, not only her friends

I'd say it's more that she avoids confrontation where she can: the classic example is her encounter with Harmony when they were signing each others' yearbooks. ("Oh, I'm gonna miss her..." "Don't you hate her?" "With a fiery vengeance.") She may smile and act nice, but she's got a long memory...

Posted by: yourlibrarian (yourlibrarian)
Posted at: 8th December 2006 01:27 (UTC)
HannukahWillow-eyesthatslay

Interesting essay and discussion on her development (and I enjoyed the drabbles too.)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 8th December 2006 10:53 (UTC)

Thanks!

Posted by: none of the above (frogfarm)
Posted at: 8th December 2006 16:28 (UTC)
willow wesley fetal pigs

[editor] Turkish translation dialogue from "Touched", not "Get It Done" [/editor]

Thanks for the drabbles and further explication. I've got five years worth of post-Chosen Willow ahead of me, and stuff like this *really* helps, both in the little details and the big picture.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 8th December 2006 21:50 (UTC)

Thanks for the heads-up; that'll teach me not to go by memory instead of checking things properly. And glad I could help: perhaps my next essay should be '10 reasons why Willow/Faith is just inevitable and right'? :)

Posted by: none of the above (frogfarm)
Posted at: 9th December 2006 00:55 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 9th December 2006 14:04 (UTC)

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 9th December 2006 00:05 (UTC)

if this were the discussion about Willow's sexuality rather than her morality, I could counter the usual argument that she "suddenly changed" in S4 by pointing out the huge crush on Buffy she obviously had right from S1 episode 1... ;)

...and I'd be forced to agree that Willow's hatred of Faith smacks a great deal of repressed naughty-sweaty-feelings she doesn't know how to deal with. :)

She's like this cleavagy slutbomb walking around going “Ooh, check me out, I'm wicked cool, I'm five by five.” ("This Year's Girl")

Yeah, Buffy remains a huge influence on Willow throughout the series - but I think even if Buffy had stayed in LA and hadn't come back in s3, Willow would have continued down much the same path (if less spectacularly). The seeds have already been planted. The university thing does come on the heels of another of her epiphanies:

Actually, this isn't about you. Although I'm fond, don't get me wrong, of you. The other night, you know, being captured and all, facing off with Faith. Things just, kind of, got clear. I mean, you've been fighting evil here for three years, and I've helped some, and now we're supposed to decide what we want to do with our lives. And I just realized that that's what I want to do. Fight evil, help people. I mean, I-I think it's worth doing. And I don't think you do it because you have to. It's a good fight, Buffy, and I want in. (...) And, besides, I have a shot at being a bad ass Wiccan, and what better place to learn? ("Choices")

There it is again; she wants to be a good guy. To do so, she must have power. The power isn't in Oxford or even Oxnard; it's right here in Sunnydale. That she gets to hang out with Buffy is a huge bonus, obviously, but she's definitely in it for herself too.

Destinyist!

Hehe, point taken. OK, let me put it this way: she doesn't have her destiny spelt out to her in thousands-of-years-old parchments, inescapable prophecies and a huge secret organisation telling her what her life should be. (I promise to check out that three-parter you posted, it sounds interesting... I haven't read anything by Joseph Campbell AFAIR, so that's why I never read it in the first place.)

She and her friends decided that magic was a drug, and so Willow's behavour wasn't her fault - she was just a victim of addiction. All her irresponsibility, hidden resentment and love of fixing people's problems by a grand gesture weren't addressed, weren't dealt with - until it was (almost) too late. 'Wrecked' wasn't the end of Willow's arc: it was a deliberate misdirect.

Good point. Hadn't really thought of it that way. But even if the Rack-and-Amy-stealing-spices storyline can be jimmied into Willow's arc, I *still* say it's way overdone. They play the drug metaphor on the same level here as they do the rape metaphor in "Reptile Boy"... and that's NOT a good sign. I guess it's not so much the story itself I have a problem with as the obviousness of it. (I should perhaps point out that I love season 6 and will defend it to the Grave... but as with any Buffy season, it has its less fantastic episodes.)

Here's an interesting aside on s6 and Willow's morality: is Dark Willow evil in the strictest sense? There is definitely method to her madness. She doesn't kill or even hurt indiscriminately - note that she puts the cops to sleep without touching them. She only goes after those responsible for Tara's death, and then those responsible for Tara being in that spot to begin with (Dawn, Buffy, Giles) and finally herself. When she does decide to destroy the world, it's to stop everyone else hurting as much as she herself is - to quote Monty Python, what is murder but an extroverted suicide? Even at her worst, does she still see herself as the good guy?

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 9th December 2006 14:27 (UTC)

I promise to check out that three-parter you posted, it sounds interesting... I haven't read anything by Joseph Campbell AFAIR, so that's why I never read it in the first place.

Heh. I've not read that much by him either to be honest; it's more that the Hero's Journey is something I've kept on hearing about for years, so I finally looked it up and then saw how it could be applied to Buffy... and then also to Willow and Spike.

But even if the Rack-and-Amy-stealing-spices storyline can be jimmied into Willow's arc, I *still* say it's way overdone.

*shrug* Fair enough. I never had a problem with it personally, but maybe I don't watch enough other TV shows to realise it was a cliché (which certainly seems to be the complaint of most US fans).

is Dark Willow evil in the strictest sense?

I'd say yes, by the end. I think she spirals out of control. In 'Villains', she's willing to take time out from chasing Warren to save Buffy's life; but by 'Two To Go' she's happy to kill her and Xander if they get in her way, and even takes pleasure in beating her down; and in 'Grave' she's conjuring monsters specifically to kill Buffy. If the definition of evil is "treating people as things" (per Terry Pratchett) I think she crosses the line when she's trying to use the big truck to crush the car J&A are in without caring her friends are in it too.

True, she probably doesn't think of herself as being evil at the time: but that kind of self-conscious "Bwah-ha-ha I'm Eeevol!!!I!!one!" attitude seems to be reserved mainly for vampires. A better comparison for Willow would be Holtz, who also saw himself as righteous but ended up committing atrocities in the name of his cause. Willow certainly acknowledges that her actions were evil afterwards, in S7 and Angel S4.

And it's a quirk of mine, but I personally try and avoid using Dark Willow (or Darth Rosenberg) as a name, because it implies she's a different person to regular Willow. I think it's pretty clear she's not: it's just all the negative traits she had all along now are emerging under the influence of the dark magic.

Posted by: jlbarnett (jlbarnett)
Posted at: 28th April 2008 17:45 (UTC)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 29th April 2008 19:58 (UTC)

Posted by: jlbarnett (jlbarnett)
Posted at: 29th April 2008 21:02 (UTC)

Posted by: none of the above (frogfarm)
Posted at: 9th December 2006 00:51 (UTC)

..and I'd be forced to agree that Willow's hatred of Faith smacks a great deal of repressed naughty-sweaty-feelings she doesn't know how to deal with.

OH GOD YES

Even at her worst, does she still see herself as the good guy?

OH GOD YES

pardon me for not coming up with anything more intelligent, ive had a headache for over 24 hours now...cant spend ALL my time sleeping, so i keep succumbing to LJ for brief periods.

Posted by: Linda (spikeverse)
Posted at: 12th January 2007 18:44 (UTC)

I just found your essay from a rec in Top5.

Very interesting. I think one could be done for each of the Scoobies.

Posted by: jlbarnett (jlbarnett)
Posted at: 28th April 2008 17:42 (UTC)

Consequences? They don't really bother her. She's always figured out a way to overcome her problems before, so surely she always will...

What I hate is that's become a bad thing. In my eyes Buffy had always been about that, and the consequences were either justified or ignored. They were doing it the better way than the old guard.

Using a rocket launcher to take out the Judge instead of risking themselves to try to hack it to bits. Never mind that they were firing a military grade weapon in a mall, they were being smart about it.

Using computers to translate texts.

Fighting Adam with an enjoining spell.

All that stuff was better than the old way. And in season 7 it was back to being better than the old way.

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