StephenT (stormwreath) wrote,

(Meta) "Tell me how to make it better." - Willow, Faith and repentance

This is my contribution to the July essay metathon on buffyversemeta   It looks at the question of repentance in the Buffyverse, looking specifically at the characters of Willow and Faith and asking whether, and if so how - they repented of the evil actions they committed.

Author: stormwreath
Summary: Humans Gone Bad - Faith and Willow. How do they repent for their murderous actions?
Spoilers: BtVS seasons 1-8, Angel seasons 1-4
Word Count: 3,827
Notes: Original suggestion from bakatulip


"Tell me how to make it better." - Willow, Faith and Repentance

It may be Buffy's sacred destiny to stand against "the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness", but the show has never been short of human villains – from Catherine Madison in episode 1.03 to her daughter in episode 8.04, by way of the Zookeeper, Ethan Rayne, Mayor Wilkins, Maggie Walsh, Warren Meers and many more. None of them however, struck closer to home – either with Buffy herself or the audience – than her battles against two people who were, at one time, her closest friends: Faith and Willow.

"I've lost battles - but nobody else ever made me a victim." - Buffy, A1.19 'Sanctuary'

Betrayal hurts. It also poses a challenge. Is redemption possible? Can a character who has committed evil acts turn around and seek forgiveness – and if so, should they be given it? Can we accept them back once they have strayed?… and by 'we' I mean not only the characters on the show, but the audience.

Being Evil

"'E-V-I-L': Results one through ten out of nine hundred thousand, five hundred, seventeen." - Computer search engine, B7.10 'Bring on the Night'. But whatever search engine Buffy may have been using there, Google gives three orders of magnitude more hits:

Evil manifests on the show in several different ways. Sometimes it seems to be treated as little more than a badge of allegiance, like the black and white hats in Westerns: pick a side. "Is he evil? The last one was evil."  At other times evil is simply human and mundane: a matter of enjoying inflicting cruelty for its own sake, or – to use Terry Pratchett's definition – the habit of treating people as things. At the other extreme, evil is often depicted as an active presence, a living entity, a supernatural force that pervades the world:

"I feel good, Xander. I feel strong. I'm connected, man. To everything. I can hear the worms in the earth." - Jesse, B1.02 'The Harvest'

"It feels okay. Strong, and I feel like I'm connected to a powerful all-consuming evil that's gonna suck the world into fiery oblivion." - Holden, B7.07 'Conversations with Dead People'

"Beyond sin, beyond death... I am the thing the darkness fears. You will never see me, but I am everywhere. Every being, every thought, every drop of hate -" - The First, B3.10 'Amends'

However, Faith's descent into evil isn't marked by her connection to any powerful cosmic force, but by her deepening isolation and despair: the choices she makes and their consequences, and the friends she turns into enemies. The picture is similar for Willow – if not so clear, because the dark magic she uses is frequently characterised as self-willed and in control of her. Even so, it was her deliberate decision to accept its help in the first place in order to wreak vengeance. And even when Willow is claiming that she no longer exists - "Honey, I am the magics", "Willow doesn't live here any more" - her every action is motivated by the very human resentments and frustrations she has built up over the last six (or 21) years. Ironically it is only when she receives the antidote to evil - the "true essence of Magic" from Giles - that her words closely echo those of the newly-raised vampires Holden and Jesse:

"No mortal person has ever had this much power. Ever. I actually feel it surging through every cell of my body...Every molecule... Like I'm connected to everything... It feels like... I can feel...everyone." - Willow, B6.22 'Grave'

When Evil is an external supernatural force, then renouncing it can also involve (or require) supernatural intervention. Both Angel and Spike repent for their sins as vampires by receiving souls. Faith doesn't have that option – she already has a soul, and her crimes are the sort any human could commit given the opportunity. At first, it seems that Willow has it easier. If she becomes "evil" because she uses dark magic, then surely giving up the magic will make her non-evil again? Well, no, not really. That's the mistake she fell into in mid-season 6: and to be fair, Tara and Buffy made the same mistake, because it's easier for all concerned to blame supernatural evil instead of looking at Willow's own personality flaws. Magic presents a huge temptation to commit immoral acts, and Willow is vulnerable because she's always believed that because she's well-meaning then whatever she does is for the best. Even so, it's still a conscious choice; in 'Villains' Willow doesn't just use whatever magic she needs to track down Warren: she deliberately gives herself over to it completely, soaks it up until she's thoroughly steeped in it. Overcoming the evil magic she's absorbed is, therefore, only the first step; she still must address the flaws that drove her to use it in the first place. For both Willow and Faith, therefore, repentance must come through human processes. There's no supernatural quick fix.



Before we can look at whether and how Willow and Faith repent for their actions, it's probably best if we define our terms. Repentance is normally thought of as a religious concept, found in all three major Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – alike. Secular morality, on the other hand, tends to focus more on deterrence, punishment and resetting the balance. Repentance is more or less optional, although enlightened systems of justice see it as an essential part of rehabilitating a criminal back into a decent citizen. Many religions, on the other hand, place a high value on individuals repenting of their sins and seeking forgiveness. So what is required for this?

The dictionary definition of repent is: "to regret, sorrow for, or wish to have been otherwise, what one has done or left undone; to change from past evil." (Chambers 20th Century Dictionary.) It derives from the Latin paenitere, to regret or feel sorry for. Repentance therefore has two elements, emotional and intellectual: feeling unhappiness at your past actions, and understanding that what you did was wrong. This requires honesty; which is problematic because both Faith and Willow are prone to denial and excuse-making. Faith doesn't want to admit weakness to anyone:

"Look at you, Faith. Less than twenty-four hours ago, you killed a man. And now it's all zip-a-dee-doo-dah?" – Buffy, B3.15 'Consequences'

and Willow finds it hard to admit to herself that she's ever in the wrong:

"Oh, we need to get you a nice companion rat that you can love ... play with ... and grow attached to, until one day they leave you for no good reason…" – Willow, B6.09 'Smashed'.

However, the concept also includes additional overtones. All three Abrahamic religions emphasise that part of the definition which in the dictionary is put second: change. Indeed, the words in both Hebrew and Arabic which are used in place of "repent" – teshuvah in Judaism, tawbah in Islam – mean "to return" or "to go back". The idea here is that you turn away from your previous sins, and return to the way of life God expects of you. Likewise, the Catholic Encyclopaedia describes repentance as "heartfelt sorrow with the firm purpose of sinning no more". It is thus an active concept. It is not enough merely to regret what you did, you must also commit yourself to not doing it again. True repentance looks forward to the future, not merely back to the past; it's an ongoing act of will.

In addition, many ethical systems link the idea of restitution to repentance. It's not enough to regret your action: you also must seek to undo it as far as possible, or offer compensation if that's impossible. This may be considered as a necessary element of repentance, alternatively the understanding may be that anyone who truly regrets their actions would just naturally want to make them better again. The catch is that for truly evil acts it's not merely a case of "Eat a cookie, ease my pain" (Willow, B4.09 'Something Blue'); how do you compensate people for killing them or trying to end their world? This can doom an attempt at repentance if the former evildoer believes there is no hope for them and no way they can be forgiven: they can give way to despair and reject any attempt to offer a helping hand (something Faith was repeatedly guilty of in later S3, until Angel – a worse murderer than she ever could be, given his longer lifespan – finally connected with her).

Some religions also include an element of purification. If you have committed sins, you are ritually unclean; this may be a danger to you, or even to other people you encounter. Cleansing rituals form a significant part of many religions, and compare also the Catholic rite of being shriven by a priest before you can receive absolution. Sin leaves a physical or moral taint, and when this is removed the person can be considered reborn. This ritual can be psychologically important as it allows people to make a break with the past and accept the person once more. There is no direct example of such purification on the show, but certain events do seem to partake of the same nature. For example, a symbolic punishment that matches the original crime – something Willow has to suffer not once but twice, in B7.03 'Same Time Same Place' and B8.04 ' The Long Way Home' – or a voluntary submission to judgement and punishment as Faith does in A1.19 'Sanctuary'. Linked to this may be a scene of absolution and forgiveness where other characters are shown accepting their friend back into the fold through a symbolic act – such as Buffy linking hands with Willow on her bed in B7.03 'Same Time Same Place', or entrusting the lives of the Potentials to Faith in B7.19 'Empty Places'.

Finally, there seems to be an innate human desire to see people punished for their sins. Some religions formalise this with the institutionalisation of penance; a form of punishment (above and beyond making restitution) that you must voluntarily undergo before you can be forgiven. Other religions reject this idea, at least in theory, saying that faith and repentance are all that's necessary, and forgiveness is for God alone to grant. Many people, even nominal believers in a religion, often find this hard to swallow – believing that some crimes are too horrible ever to be forgivable, and that no punishment can be enough.  (The classic question here being "Could even Hitler go to Heaven, if he truly repented his sins in his dying moment?")

There is a real difference in people's attitudes here – which is well illustrated in A1.19 'Sanctuary' when Angel is ready to forgive Faith and help her move on, but Buffy is insisting that she must be punished for what she did (and compare also Xander's lack of forgiveness for Angel after season 2). Vengeance and an eye for an eye are enduring beliefs even today. This is a meta-problem for a TV show too, since while some viewers may be ready to accept a formerly-evil character's honest repentance, others in the audience cannot see past their crimes and would see an apparent lack of punishment as a betrayal of morality.


Faith and Willow

With these definitions in mind, the question now is did Faith and Willow truly repent?

It seems clear that the most basic element of repentance – regret for their actions – was a big motivating factor for them both, even when they were still on their rampages. That reflects a basic concept of the Buffyverse: that people with souls still have a conscience and a moral compass, however limited or damaged it may be. At first, though, both women seek to shut out their emotional distress by denying their feelings and constructing new identities for themselves in which – they hope – they will no longer have to suffer guilt.

In Faith's case this is quite literal: stealing Buffy's body in B4.15 'This Year's Girl' may initially have been a way to escape the consequences of her earlier crimes, but by the end of the following episode Faith is so disgusted by what she learns of herself and her former life as compared to Buffy's that she tries to become Buffy entirely. When confronted by her own old body she lashes out at it with furious violence. When taking on a new identity fails, her next recourse is self-destruction. She embarks on an increasingly reckless career of violence and picking fights in LA, drawing attention to herself despite being wanted for murder. After accepting the contract from Wolfram and Hart to kill Angel, it soon becomes clear that her real motive is to force him to kill her – something that is made explicit in the final scene. In short, Faith believes that she deserves death.

"You're nothing! You're disgusting! A useless, murderous bitch! You're nothing!!" – Faith, B4.16 'Who Are You?'

As for Willow, her remorse at the end of B6.10 'Wrecked' is real enough, and she does recognise it was her own fault that she endangered Dawn and drove Tara away. However, there's still an element of denial as she seeks to cast herself as a victim of "magic addiction", rather than addressing the deeper character issues behind why she abused her powers in the first place. She tries to stop using spells at all – just as Oz decided to try to stop turning into a wolf at all. But by the end of B4.19 'New Moon Rising' he'd recognised the futility of such an absolute denial of his inner nature ("So we're safe then, 'cause you'll never do that again."). By B7.01 'Lessons' Willow has come to the same conclusion as Oz did, with help from Giles and the Coven; but en route to that decision she murdered two people, tried to kill Buffy, Dawn and Giles, and came within a crayonsbreadth of incinerating another six billion people. Of course, that last action also speaks to a certain self-destructive streak. Just as Faith cannot quite bring herself to commit suicide but wants Angel to kill her, Willow seeks her own destruction by making a funeral pyre of the entire world. And when she's persuaded not to do that, she just spends the next dozen or so episodes moping around and looking miserable until Kennedy comes along to shake her out of it…

If the first stage of repentance is regret, then the next is a commitment to change. For Faith, voluntarily accepting her prison sentence is a big part of that, but more important is her determination to control her violent impulses. From A2.01 'Judgement':

"Bad day.  One of the girls in the yard tried to build a rep by throwing down with me.  She had low self esteem, and a home-made knife, so.." "Oh. Is she – you know – alive?"
"She lives to tell the tale.  Took the knife away – and I can't say much for the wrist it came in."
"So you didn't kill her."
"I really wanted to.  Took a big beating from the guards, too."
"Earned worse.  Guys like us kind of got it coming."

In A4.13 'Salvage', Faith faces another prison yard fight, but by this time it seems she's conquered her urge to kill; she first tries to calm Deb down by words, then when that fails disables her with a short if brutal display of strength and immediately steps away – no sign here of the girl who in B3.03 'Faith, Hope and Trick' pounded away on a helpless vampire while shouting abuse and ignoring everything else around her. Even more significantly, she is horrified by Wesley's ruthlessness in torturing the girl in the demon bar in A4.14 'Release'; and when she arrives in Sunnydale to find Buffy apparently working alongside vampires in B7.18 'Dirty Girls', it's no wonder she feels she's fallen through into a mirror universe where she's "the Good Slayer now".

Like Faith, Willow voluntarily submits to punishment – even though at first she suspects this might mean her death or permanent imprisonment – and then to rehabilitation. From B7.01 'Lessons':

"When you brought me here, I thought it was to kill me or to lock me in some mystical dungeon for all eternity or—with the torture. Instead, you go all Dumbledore on me. I'm learning about magic. All about energy and Gaia and root systems."

Later in the same scene, there's another significant moment where she tries to reclaim her old identity. Compare and contrast, from B6.22 'Grave' and B7.01 'Lessons':

" Willow doesn't live here anymore."
"I still want to hang. You're Willow."
"Don't call me that."
"Do you want to be punished?"
"I wanna be Willow."

For the best part of season 7, Willow is reluctant to use magic at all – although the fact that The First proves itself capable of twisting any magic used against it is another reason behind her reluctance. However, there is evidence that Willow is willing to shoulder the responsibility for her own actions instead of just blaming "the magic", most noticeably in B7.15 'Get It Done' when she confesses sadly to Kennedy that draining her of power is "How it works. It's how I work."

Despite this, it's clear that Willow is still capable of reverting to her late-season-6 self in moments of crisis. Even using defensive magic to protect an innocent human in B7.05 'Selfless' calls forth the darkness in her, which D'Hoffryn is able to sense all the way through the dimensional barriers to Arashmaharr. Equally in B8.03 'The Long Way Home' when Amy's most powerful spell gets through to her she reacts with anger – "She just really pissed me off" – and goes into a full-on black-haired, black-eyed and veiny rage. However the effects are temporary, and afterwards Willow just shrugs them off: telling D'Hoffryn "That's not me anymore" and Dawn "It'll fade." The jury is still out over whether this means Willow is still fatally flawed and refusing to admit it, or whether she's reached an enlightened state of acceptance, knowing her faults but also seeing them in context set against the basic core goodness of her true self. (Willow as Bodhisattva might make a good subject for another essay once we've seen where the rest of Season 8 takes her…).

Another potentially worrying sign is that she is still somewhat conflicted on her killing of Warren. In B7.13 'The Killer In Me' she is embarrassed and ashamed to be seen as Warren, and determined to sort out the problem herself because she feels guilty over killing him – but at the same time, part of her feels justified about it too:

"Do you understand what he did? What I could do? I killed him for a reason."

However, to be fair she's not actually saying here that she thinks killing him was a good thing – rather, she worries that after turning into him she will start performing the same sorts of actions that provoked her to kill Warren in the first place. (A justified fear, as by the end of the episode she is buying a gun and coming to shoot Kennedy.) For that matter, even though Buffy tries to stop her killing Warren back in 'Villains', in the final analysis she doesn't shed any tears over his death – it's only when it comes to killing the relatively blameless Andrew and Jonathan that she draws the line that Willow mustn't cross. In other words, even Buffy sees justice in Willow's reason for killing.

As for making restitution, as we've already discussed this is difficult for both women due to the nature of their sins. Mind you, in the Buffyverse some of those who die that deserve life actually can be given it back; but this is generally presented as being an unwise move. However, both Willow and Faith do eventually find a way: by agreeing to employ the abilities they misused in the service of good again.

Both of them initially sought to hide away from the world, avoid using their powers and go straight (in the criminal, not the sexual sense… at least in Willow's case. We can only speculate about Faith…). Willow wanted to stay at the Coven in Devon, learning about root systems and Gaia and avoiding the use of any major magics. Faith was literally locked away, enjoying the three squares, weight room and movie every third Sunday – and telling Wesley, when he came for her help, that she'd only make things worse if she were out of prison. However, both women were persuaded that they were needed. Faith, as we've seen, by Wesley and above all by the news that Angel, her own benefactor, was in trouble; Willow, by her vision of the Hellmouth opening, Giles persuading her to go back to Sunnydale, and ultimately by Buffy's challenging of her in B7.15 'Get It Done' to use her magic to help them.


As I see it, it's in this way that both women find the path to true repentance. Not just by regretting their past evils, but by putting them firmly behind them and moving on. The hardest thing in this world may be to live in it; but as Dawn reminded Buffy in B6.07 'Once More With Feeling', the only alternative to living in the world is being dead, literally or figuratively.  This is a dangerous road to walk, however. It's dangerous for them, because by returning to the behaviour that once led them astray, they risk the same happening again. Everyone who isn't Kennedy clearly recognises that for Willow in 'Get It Done':

Kennedy: "Worst thing that happens is you go brunette."
Willow: "That's not the worst thing that can happen."
Anya: "She's right. And you know we have a choice. We can risk Willow's life and the rest of our lives to get Buffy back, or we leave her out there."

…while in 'Empty Places' Buffy is (ironically) terrified that Faith will revert to her old irresponsible self and lead the Potentials into danger – or, worse, into underage drinking and public dancing.

There's a danger for the audience, too. Viewers can watch a character who did wrong sit about angsting about it and beating themselves up, and feel satisfaction that they are repenting. However, if the writers then show the character moving on with her life and, especially, going back to certain old patterns of behaviour, some fans can resent that. They see backsliding, a character who obviously didn't feel sorry enough about what she did – or worse, someone whose sins will be artificially forgiven because of fan pressure on the writers to bring back a popular character.

However, it seems to me that this isn't the message the show wants to give. Life goes on, and there are always consequences. Refusing to act at all is just as culpable as acting wrongly, because every moment is a new start.

"It doesn't matter where we come from, what we've done or suffered, or even if we make a difference. We live as though the world was what it should be, to show it what it can be." – Angel, A4.01 'Deep Down'


Tags: buffy, meta
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