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Meta: Spike's soulquest

1st June 2007 (15:51)
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It seems to have become a habit of mine to post meta here inspired by discussion over at elisi 's journal - in this case, it's thoughts about Spike's soulquest at the end of season 6. This is an adapted version of something I originally wrote on atbvs about a year ago.

The question is, why did Spike go on the quest to Africa? The "correct" answer - supported by comments made by Joss and the writers, not to mention Spike's own words in season 7, and on season 5 of Angel - is that he wanted his soul back all along. All that talk about the chip was deliberately misleading, leading up to what Joss called "a little something I invented called a 'plot twist'". Unfortunately, the fake-out was so good (not even James Marsters knew the real story during filming...) that the twist seems to come too much out of the blue for many people. There just seems to be nothing in Spike's dialogue leading up to the last scene in 'Grave' that would support the idea that he really did go for his soul.

What I'm going to do here, therefore, is to analyse in detail Spike's words, especially during the scene in his crypt with Clem during 'Seeing Red' when he decided to go on the quest to Africa. I'm going to try to show that despite all his talk about the chip, this wasn't really what lay behind that decision; it was only the catalyst.

We start with Spike re-living his attack on Buffy over and over again, and acting distressed and angry. Important to note: he's not angry at Buffy for stopping him raping her, as certain people have occasionally claimed (on the basis, presumably, that he was so angry at her that he decided to get the chip out to "teach her a lesson"). Otherwise he'd be re-living her kicking him away and telling him to back off, wouldn't he? No. He's shocked at what he did; he's angry at himself.

SPIKE: What have I done? 

Now, I'm not going to claim that he's all surprised and shocked at the revelation that he's a (potential) rapist; he's certainly already well aware of that. Hello, vampire? In fact his next comment confirms it: 

SPIKE: Why didn't I do it? What has she done to me? 

No, I think Spike is shocked at the discovery that he is capable of hurting Buffy, when he swore he'd never ever do that. ("I don't hurt you") When I say 'hurting' we're talking about emotional pain, of course - physical pain is no big deal to a Slayer and a vampire, especially given their past history with each other. He went to her to apologise, perhaps even to get back together with her... and ended up doing the one thing that will almost guarantee she'll never give him another chance. No wonder he's horrified and angry at himself; he's blown it with her. And yes, that's a selfish, even an evil motivation... 

...but there's the other part of it. When she kicked him away, he stopped. The old Spike wouldn't have done that... we saw in 'Fool For Love' that when a Slayer kicks him down he shouts in exultation and jumps right back into the fight. Not this time, though... he looked horror-stricken at his own actions, and slunk off in guilt and shame. Remorse is really not a feeling that vampires are accustomed to, and it can't be very pleasant to experience for the first time. Not to mention confusing.

CLEM: Oh. The Slayer, huh? Gosh. She break up with you again?
SPIKE: We were never together. Not really. She wouldn't lower herself that far. [...] Why do I feel this way?
CLEM: Love's a funny thing.
SPIKE: Is that what this is?

He's feeling emotions that are totally unfamiliar to him. (Well, maybe not totally, but you can forget a lot in 120 years of slaughter.) He's searching for an explanation. He's also finally admitting some unpalatable truths about himself and about Buffy - that she really didn't love him, that he did misjudge their relationship completely. And yes, he's angry at himself but also angry with her - "she wouldn't lower herself" to be with him is hardly complimentary. 

And now he starts talking about the chip. Which, to be sure, is the start of the misdirection. But let's see what he actually says:

SPIKE: I can feel it. Squirming inside my head.
CLEM: Love?
SPIKE: The chip. Little Jiminy Cricket, gnawing bits and chunks. [...] Everything used to be so clear. Slayer. Vampire. Vampire kills Slayer, sucks her dry, picks his teeth with her bones. That's how it's always been. I've tasted the life of two Slayers. But with Buffy... This isn't the way it's supposed to be. It's the chip. Steel and wires and silicon. It won't let me be a monster. And I can't be a man. I'm nothing.

First, he's still expressing his confusion at the emotions filling his head... and blaming the chip. Because, after all, what else is there to blame? What else has changed in his world? But compare Spike's feelings here to how he was in seasons 4 and 5, when he also raged against the chip.

From 'The Yoko Factor':
ADAM: You feel smothered. Trapped like an animal, pure in its ferocity, unable to actualize the urges within... Clinging to one truth like a flame struggling to burn within an enclosed glass... That a beast this powerful cannot be contained. Inevitably it will break free and savage the land again... I will make you whole again. Make you savage.

From 'Crush':
DRUSILLA: I don't believe in science. All those bits and molecules no one's ever seen. I trust eyes and heart alone. And do you know what mine are singing out now? You're a killer. Born to slash and bash and bleed like beautiful poetry. No little tinkertoy ever could stop you from flowing. [...] I can see it. Little bit of plastic spiderwebbing out nasty blue shocks - and every one, is a lie. Electricity lies, Spike. It tells you you're not a bad dog. But you are. You're my bad dog and you bite.

Back then it was all so clear: Spike's primal killer instincts were merely restrained by the chip. (Although it's significant that both those speeches were by other people trying to manipulate Spike, not his own words). Now, though, he's not complaining about being unable to rampage and kill, which is a fairly simple problem. Instead, he's torn by unfamiliar emotions and problems he can't see an answer to. The problem is not that he can't hurt Buffy (and anyway, he clearly can hurt her): he's complaining that hurting her makes him feel bad.
So what can he do? 

It won't let me be a monster. And I can't be a man.

That's the crucial line. And the key to it is this: the chip won't let Spike be a monster... but he doesn't want to be a monster. Not anymore. Not now that he's seen how easily he can turn on Buffy, hurt her, drive her away. 

But if he doesn't want to be a monster, how can he be a man? It's impossible. Buffy might have treated him like one, on the good days ('The Gift') but he knows, now more than ever, that it's only ever a pretence. A façade. 


CLEM: Hey. Come on now, Mr. Negative. You never know what's just around the corner. Things change.
SPIKE: They do... If you make them.

In that moment, he had his epiphany. He remembered the legend about the cave in Africa and the demon that could restore souls (or grant wishes, whatever...). He realised that he *could* become a man; that instead of being either a demon or a leashed demon, he could become something more. 

SPIKE: She thinks she knows me. She thinks she knows who I am. What I'm capable of. She has no idea. I wasn't always this way. It won't be easy, but I can be like I was. Before they castrated me. Before... Then she'll see who I really am. 

More misdirection, perhaps. But notice the *two* 'before's... "Before they castrated me" and then a second 'before'... before what? "Before I lost my soul", perhaps? 

Some people think that this is just Spike's Mwah-ha-ha speech: he's going to get himself turned back into the old unchipped Spike so he can rampage and be evil and hurt the people Buffy loves. (Remember, he already can hurt Buffy herself; the chip doesn't work on her.) 

However, we should consider that Buffy knows full well what unchipped Spike was like, and what he was capable of. That wouldn't surprise her. Souled Spike - William - certainly would, however... But the irony is, of course, that Spike doesn't really know what having the soul will do to him either. I doubt he thinks it'll turn him back into an ineffectual Victorian dilletante... I'm sure he's self-confident enough to think that the essentials of the personality he constructed for himself will remain. Except he'll have a soul. And, presumably, not be Evil any more (or at least have the option). And he'll be complete, a man again, able to face Buffy as an equal. No longer a monster. 

So why does Spike keep going on about the chip? (Other than, y'know, to fool the audience). Because he blames it for getting him into this situation in the first place. Before the chip, everything was black and white, and Buffy was just another Slayer to kill or be killed by. After the chip, Spike spent enough time in Buffy's company to fall in love with her. Which has brought all kinds of emotional torment to his life, so of course he's pretty angry about it.. But the chip is old news. He's had two years to get used to it. His motivation now is to solve his problem with Buffy. 

Why does Spike go for his soul? Not self-preservation: he certainly doesn't give the slightest indication that he's just looking for an excuse for Buffy not to stake him. There is some evidence that he wants to make himself worthy of her, so she will no longer consider him 'beneath her'... and that's backed up by his comments in the next two episodes about "giving the bitch what she deserves."  (Amusingly, One Bit Shy once suggested that he actually did think the soul would turn him back into William the simpering mummy's boy, and that this would serve Buffy right for complaining about his soullessness. It's a nice idea, but like I said above, i think Spike's ego is large enough to think he'd survive the process with his personality intact.)

Mostly, though, I think it's more self-centred. The soulquest is the only way left for him to resolve the fundamental question of who he really is.  He's horrified at the monster: so he will rediscover the man. Or die trying.


Posted by: The One Who Isn't Chosen (gabrielleabelle)
Posted at: 31st August 2008 23:16 (UTC)
willow lessons

And yay for another really late comment (Hey, I'm new to LJ. I have an excuse). Again, haven't read the other comments cause they were all made over a year ago so there's not much point jumping into any of those discussions. I'll read them after I comment.

Honestly, I was confused after watching the end of season 6 and seeing all the controversy regarding this. It never even occurred to me that Spike wanted the chip out. I know that they were trying for a misdirect (And were a bit too successful at it, unfortunately), but I guess I just didn't buy Spike going all the way to Africa to get his chip out. Didn't compute.

I love your analysis, and I can't disagree with any of it. I think Spike, at that time, was going through such turmoil. He'd been chipped for years and had adapted to a "neutered" life. On top of that, he was consciously trying to be with Buffy in any way possible. He'd begun to define himself in terms of how she saw him which, by that point, wasn't very complimentary.

I think that, yes, Spike went to get a soul for himself. I think he also was still trying to find a way for Buffy to love him. In his mind, she'd loved a vampire before (Angel). The only difference between him and Angel was that Angel had a soul. Ergo, Spike getting a soul could win her over. Not the brightest of conclusions, but it's probably the best Spike could do in a soulless state.

So I think there's a lot that goes into his motivations there, some more noble than others (I think a vampire feeling remorse and seeking a way to better himself is very noble, personally). Fantastic post, really.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 2nd September 2008 16:10 (UTC)

Thanks! It's always nice when something I wrote generates more interest, even if it's a year later...

I agree that Spiuke's motives for wanting his soul back were complex and multi-stranded, and "impressing Buffy" and "being a man she could love" were part of it. "Getting Buffy to forgive him" probably even more important. But to be honest, I think the main reason was more personal to Spike, and more 'about him'.

It was a moment of Existential angst. Spike no longer recognised his place in the world, didn't know who he was, didn't know what meaning his life had. "It won't let me be a monster. And I can't be a man." But then he realised that he could be a man again - if he got his soul back.

"I tried to find it, of course. The spark. The missing... the piece that fit. That would make me fit."

Posted by: red_satin_doll (red_satin_doll)
Posted at: 16th September 2012 17:10 (UTC)

I've already commented upthread that I agree with this meta very much, but to this as well (pretty much all your comments in this thread.) One of the things that made the show interesting to me (watching it the first time this year) was the evolution of the show - from simple "subversion of horror genres" to something far more complex and character-based. I wouldn't have been interested in it if it had stayed at the level of S1 the entire time. The differences between Angel and Spike are a part of this; Angel in S1 was rather simple, and the whole soul/no-soul thing seemed fairly black and white; with Spike they had an opportunity to really explore the implications of their own universe, as they did with bringing Buffy back to life (twice) and exploring her depression, etc - even if they oftentimes flubbed the execution.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 16th September 2012 21:45 (UTC)

The way I think of it, after a certain point (maybe season 3 or 4 or so) the characters had enough issues and problems going on in their lives that you could base the plot around the characters instead of vice-versa.

They'd picked up enough momentum that they didn't need the horror parodies or monsters-of-the-week any more.

Posted by: red_satin_doll (red_satin_doll)
Posted at: 18th September 2012 20:57 (UTC)

Quite so, and the show became richer for it. (I don't understand the "The show should have ended at Graduation Day/S3" folks. I'll agree to disagree, but we wouldn't still be writing and thinking about the show they way we do ten years on if it had.)

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