The revelation in 8.10 that Buffy has been financing her Slayer army through less than ethical means is certainly a shocking one. She's supposed to be the hero, isn't she? The moral one, the one who knows right from wrong and always strives to do the good deed?
Yes. Yes she is, which is why this character development is such a powerful one. I don't know where Buffy is heading, but she appears to be going there in a handbasket. However, while I was surprised by the plot twist, I can see where it comes from. I can see how it fits into the overall Season 8 meta-arc... and I can see plenty of clues in Buffy's early character that hint how she could have ended up here. This essay will attempt to explain why, by looking at Buffy's ethical views throughout the series.
Buffy was a bankrobber,
But she never hurt nobody.
She just loved to live that way,
And she loved to steal your money.
The first point to make, though, is the contrast between Willow and Buffy in this scene. It was already foreshadowed in the previous issue (#8) where the two were discussing the morality of using lethal force against humans. Willow treated it as a serious question, whereas Buffy first tried to dismiss it with a glib comment, then when challenged confessed to not knowing the right thing to do. Here with the bank robbery, Buffy is likewise unwilling to acknowledge the seriousness of what she's done. She comes up with excuses ("It's all insured"), tries to argue that it was a good deed really (Some of it was plundered Nazi loot, apparently), and eagerly seizes on the distraction of Willow having done "a bad thing" too to escape from her friend's lecture.
Of course, what Willow appears to be guilty of is getting naked with a demon - something Buffy herself has done often enough - and unless there are other circumstances we've not been told about, the only person with reasonable grounds to be upset at this is Kennedy. Note that we cut straight from the revelation of Willow's hot girl-on-snake-demon action to Dawn confessing she slept with her boyfriend's roommate: I suspect this is not a coincidental juxtaposition. And in the next scene Willow says "I was never naughty here", implying that she considers her prevous behaviour to be, well, "naughty". (And perhaps implying that she's been naughty in some other places, just not this one...)However, the fact remains that Willow's unwise actions could only hurt one person: her girlfriend. Buffy's actions could have untold consequences. beer_good_foamy has explored one of them here: an innocent bystander could have been killed if something went wrong. The shareholders of the bank and the insurance company will suffer loss of profits: the insurance company's premiums will increase. And Buffy's loyal followers are now guilty of a serious crime: she's their role model and mentor, and she's dragged them down with her.
The irony here is that in the early seasons, it was Willow who was glib about committing crimes: who thought that it was glamorous and exciting to be wicked, and that the end justified the means. (I've written more about her morality here.) In 'Flooded', she was using much the same argument that Buffy was using to justify killing humans in 'No Future For You':
"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.'"
And of course, there's this from 'Triangle':
"I'm just taking stuff and not paying for it. In what twisted dictionary is that stealing?"
However, Willow has received a serious wake-up call on the dangers of situational ethics. She's now much more thoughtful and alive to the consequences and morality of her actions. Not necessarily perfect, of course - she's lied to Buffy, she's presumably lied to Kennedy - but she's got a much better handle on things than her friend. How did this change?
Well, the first thing to point out is that Buffy has never been whiter than white. What's practically the first thing we learn about her? That she set fire to her old school's gymnasium. That's arson, criminal damage, reckless endangerment: if there'd been any human survivors in there as well as the vampires, she'd have been looking at a murder charge. And all through the early seasons, Buffy engages in a steady stream of petty crimes.
The example that springs to mind first is in 'Anne'. Buffy breaks into a bloodbank. She goes through confidential patient records. When challenged, she rips a telephone off the wall. Relatively minor offences, true: but still criminal. And the fact that it turned out to be an evil bloodbank is only a justification if you believe that the end justifies the means, and that it's acceptable to commit crimes if it helps you to fight evil. Hmm.
Then, of course, we have Faith, and her seduction of Buffy into the pleasures of wanting, taking and having. When the two of them break into the sporting goods store, there's no doubt that Buffy finds the experience of robbery a thrilling one: she's getting it. She's less happy about the consequences, of course. Being arrested is horrifying for her. However, it's not particularly clear whether she's feeling guilty because she knows she's done wrong, or just ashamed because everybody will find out she's a crook - not to mention the practical consequences, like jail. However, when Faith suggests they compound their crimes by committing a serious assault on two police officers and escaping custody, she's willing to cooperate. As Faith says, "We can't save the world in jail". The end justifies the means once more.
However, when Faith kills Allan Finch, Buffy discovers a line that she cannot cross. She can justify committing vandalism, theft, burglary and assault, but murder is a step too far. From this point, not killing humans becomes one of the touchstones of her morality: arguably, because it helps her draw a distinct line between herself and Faith, and thus salve her conscience. She's the Good Slayer because she doesn't kill people: she's clinging to that distinction even into season 7 when Faith is redeemed (and treating Buffy much better than the way Buffy treats her). It's eroding a little in season 8 under the pressure of circumstances, but still appears to be intact so far.
In the later seasons, Buffy is perhaps a little less casual about her criminal tendencies - although when she's temporarily released from the burdens of Slayerness in 'Gone', she embarks on a one-woman invisible crimewave rampaging through central Sunnydale. Petty crimes of course: stealing an electric car, harrassing a social worker. She's free from responsibility and willing to indulge herself.
However, late-season Buffy struggles even more with the ethics of what she does: and with her increasing determination to do whatever it takes to defeat her opponents. In season 5, she refused to kill Dawn in order to save the world: in season 7, she admits that faced with the same choice, she would make a different decision.
GILES: Ah, yes, but things are different, aren't they? After what you've been through, faced with the same choice now, you'd let her die.
BUFFY: If I had to...to save the world. Yes.
('Lies My Parents Told Me')
Buffy is becoming increasingly desperate, increasingly ruthless. She does what she must, whatever the personal cost. She makes it clear that this includes setting aside her personal feelings, if she has to: so why not include setting aside the law? After all:
"At some point, someone has to draw the line, and that is always going to be me. You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end the Slayer is always cut off. There's no mystical guidebook. No all-knowing council. Human rules don't apply. There's only me. I am the law." (Buffy, 'Selfless')
Now, some people argue that Buffy has everything neatly compartmentalised. There are human laws to deal with human problems and human crimes; and then there are demons, where she is the sole authority. She certainly talks that way at the end of season 6 when discussing how to deal with Warren's crimes and Willow's vengeance. However, I don't think it's that simple. Buffy's circumstances, her responsibiilities and her sense of duty are all pushing her towards the belief that she alone can decide on what's ethical and what isn't when fighting against evil. She has nobody else to guide her; no longer a trusted Giles to offer counsel and guidance at every turn. Nobody else has the knowledge or experience to make the decisions she has to make.
"My friends, my boyfriends. I feel like I'm not worthy of their love. 'Cause even though they love me, it doesn't mean anything 'cause their opinions don't matter. They don't know. They haven't been through what I've been through. They're not the Slayer. I am." (Buffy, 'Conversations With Dead People')
And now we move into Season 8. Buffy now has a devoted, loyal army of superpowered girls vying to obey her every command. She has power; not just her own personal abilities anymore, but the kind of power that makes governments sit up and take notice. And yet she's still alone. She is, as many people have pointed out, isolated; living in a remote Scottish castle, with no normal people around except for Xander (Dawn doesn't even count; she's a giant now). Whom can she confide in? Whose advice can she request? Who can tell her when she's being an idiot? There are still candidates, but for whatever reason they're either avoiding her (Willow, Dawn, Giles) or apparently either too trusting or too complicit in her unethical activities (Xander).
And while she's personally in a better situation than in season 7 - she has the respect of her followers, she's apparently happy enough most of the time, even if she does have the occasional fit of mopeyness - the situation she faces is even more desperate. To quote her own assessment of affairs:
"The demons are after us, the humans are after us, this whole 'Twilight' thing is looking very creepy and hey, Faith tried to kill me again! My grip on reality is not that grippy. I'm protective of it." (Buffy, 'Anywhere But Here')She feels beleagured and surrounded by enemies. She's got nobody to turn to. But she is who she is: she very rarely gives up. She does whatever is necessary to win. If that means committing a crime: well, it wouldn't be the first time she's done that. As aycheb has shown in her review of 8.10, Buffy definitely has a guilty conscience about what she did: she's ashamed to admit it even to Willow, even as she tries to justify it to herself by arguing that nobody got hurt and "It's only money." But in the final analysis, Buffy thinks she's at war: and in war, the end justifies the means.
It's about power. Who's got it... who knows how to use it.