A lot has been written over the years on Willow's rise and fall - much of it by me. :-) If her story had ended on Kingman's Bluff in 'Grave', it would have been a tragedy in the classic sense. Her greatest virtues - her urge to help people, her hunger for knowledge - turned into fatal flaws that brought about her downfall.
But her story didn't end there. This essay is about what Willow did next.
The Will to power - Willow, magic and power after Season 6
"Every elevation of Man brings with it the overcoming of narrower interpretations; every strengthening and increase of power opens up new perspectives, and means believing in new horizons."
- Friedrich Nietzsche, 'The Will to Power'
"I just wanna learn stuff."
- Willow Rosenberg, 'Ted'
So what did Willow learn from her descent into darkness at the end of Season 6? What lessons did she learn?
The first and most important is that she can't NOT use magic. She can't just give it up. She tried that in Season 6, urged on by her friends who thought it was the best solution - and it blew up in their faces. Perhaps the best comparison, ironically enough, is with Oz when he returned to Sunnydale in 'New Moon Rising'. The beast was still there inside him, but he thought he had it under control, that he would never let it out again. His willpower lasted right up until he found himself in a stressful emotional situation - and then he immediately turned into a werewolf and tried to kill Tara.
WILLOW: It was my fault. I upset you.
OZ: So we're safe then, 'cause you'll never do that again.
Any attempt by Willow to restrain herself from using magic from sheer willpower seems equally doomed to eventual failure, unless she somehow develops superhuman powers of patience and calm. The alternative - as Giles makes clear to her - is to learn how to use her magic responsibly and with knowledge.
"This isn't a hobby, or an addiction. It's inside you now, this magic. You're responsible for it."
Unfortunately for Willow, just as she was starting to learn about "energy and Gaia and root systems" she was forced to return to Sunnydale and do battle with The First. Her lessons were incomplete - "She didn't finish being not evil?!" as Dawn so eloquently puts it. Worse still, it seems to me that The First was deliberately sabotaging her spells (in 'Bring On The Night', specifically)... and with them, her self-confidence.
By Season 6 magic had become the lynchpin of Willow's identity. It was what made her special; it was why Tara fell in love with her; it was the reason she could be Buffy's partner in the fight against Evil rather than just the nerdy wallflower of a sidekick she'd been before. When she discovered that magic could turn against her, make her its slave, something fundamental broke inside Willow. You've only got to compare her choice of clothing in Season 6 with her wardrobe in Season 7 to see that...
Once she's removed from the nurturing atmosphere of the coven in England, Willow again and again expresses self-doubt and self-hatred. She's so worried by what she might be capable of that she keeps herself completely bottled up, unwilling to let her guard down for a moment. In fact, there's this conversation in 'Touched':
KENNEDY: Bad stuff like unrestrained moaning and screaming with joy?
WILLOW: Well, yeah. Sort of. Yeah, with the unrestrained of it. I've been in a place where I kinda should be restrained. I've been controlling myself and if I get out of control... if I let myself go, I could just... go.
KENNEDY: You're worried you're going to turn into Big Bad Willow.
Read that again and consider the meaning. As of 'Touched', it sounds like Willow hasn't even let herself have an orgasm since 'Seeing Red' a whole year earlier, because she's so scared of losing control...
Incidentally, given the explicit connection between magic and sex the show has been known to make, and the whole life-energy versus death mystic thing, you could probably make a case that Willow's disconnection from the Earth's lifeforce was a reason why her magic kept going dark in Season 7, and after she finally slept with Kennedy, she was able to turn all white-haired Goddess instead....
For most of the early part of the season Buffy put up with her best friend's self-doubt and hesitation, and tried to be supportive. But as her own feelings of despair and desperation grew, she became increasingly impatient with Willow's inability to help - the "Wicca who won't-a." This culminates in 'Get It Done', when Buffy quite deliberately forces Willow's hand. She dives through the portal, and both of them know that only Willow will be able to bring her back - and even then only if she pushes herself to the limit magically.
"You want to surprise the enemy? Surprise yourselves. Force yourselves to do what can't be done or else we're not an army. Just a bunch of girls waiting to be picked off and buried."
The lesson here - other than the complete trust Buffy clearly still has in Willow - is that you have to use the power you've got. Retreating into yourself may not be as dangerous to the world as turning black-haired and trying to blow it up, but it's still a failure. "All that is necessary for the triumph of Evil is that good men (and women) do nothing".
So, Willow needs to learn again to take risks and be confident in her ability to recover from mistakes. She can probably take some lessons in this from her new girlfriend, who is nothing if not resilient - Kennedy's reaction to any setback is to bounce back and look for another option. Of course, the side-effect that Willow now has a gorgeous young woman who clearly thinks she's the most wonderful thing ever doesn't exactly hurt her still-fragile self-confidence.
So, by the end of Season 7 Willow knows that she has to continue to learn about magic and her own limits - that neither trying to abjure it through sheer willpower nor retreating into herself and refusing to engage with the world at all are viable options. The Slayer Empowerment spell she casts gives her physical proof that powerful magic need not involve turning dark. In a passage that was trimmed in the broadcast version of 'End of Days', she and Giles discuss it:
GILES: Willow... you know there's a way to do it without endangering yourself. Drawing positive power from the earth, the power that connects everything...
WILLOW: I know. And when I was in England I got it. But here... I can't do it.
But when she had to, she did. And after the end of 'Chosen', what would she choose to do next? I think the answer is obvious: learn more about her power.
"The measure of the desire for knowledge depends upon the measure to which the will to power grows in a species: a species grasps a certain amount of reality in order to become master of it, in order to press it into service."
- Friedrich Nietzsche, 'The Will to Power'
Power is often thought of in terms of domination and control - not least by Nietzsche's sister who posthumously edited his book. But in fact, the most important power is over ourselves. Power to act; power to influence our surroundings. Without power, we can only be slaves - to our own instincts and emotions, to our environment, to other people. That's why the Slayer Empowerment spell at the end of 'Chosen' can be read as a metaphor for liberation: giving people the strength to break their own chains. Equally, without the knowledge to use and apply it properly, sheer power is worse than useless. And so, Willow sets out to seek greater knowledge and power between seasons 7 and 8.
So far, we don't know the full story about what she did during that time - but have plenty of little details that can be put together into a more complete picture. We know she went on a "six-month mystical walkabout", during which time she could not be contacted by Buffy and Xander. Kennedy's death is almost certainly a part of this (of course, I have my own ideas on what happened there).
At some point she made contact with the five mystical elemental spirits she sought sanctuary with in 'The Long Way Home'. At another time, she became a student of Saga Vasuki, the mysterious snake goddess we saw in 'Anywhere But Here' and again in 'Wolves At The Gate'. In the Angel episode 'Shells', Giles tells Angel that Willow has gone to Tibet, and is currently on the astral plane.
The impression I get is that Willow has been moving from one tutor to another, studying with them and seeking to learn her limits and strengths. My guess is that she started with the Coven in England, and progressed from there once they'd taught her all they knew. I also suspect that Giles took an active part in the process, at least at the start. He was offering her support and practical advice in 'End of Days', and he knew that she was on the astral plane in 'Shells'. More indirectly, he and Willow are still clearly on good terms in Season 8, unlike the rift that has developed between him and Buffy - they both have each others' number programmed into their mobiles, for instance, and Giles doesn't seem surprised to get a call from Willow in 'No Future For You'.
So what has Willow learned from this succession of tutors? The powers she's demonstrated so far in Season 8 seem like greatly enhanced versions of what she already had. In 'Same Time, Same Place' she was able to heal herself from being flayed by Gnarl, but it took all her strength; in 'The Long Way Home' she can heal her own lobotomy and then go on to heal a base-full of mortally wounded soldiers before her strength gives out. She was shown flying in 'Tough Love' and 'Two To Go', but in Season 8 she does it casually and all the time - although it seems like the power is new enough that she's still excited about it, as her comment to Buffy in 'Anywhere But Here' shows. ("We're flying!" "You're flying. I'm dangling.")
In fact, the biggest change seems to be not her powers, but her confidence. She's no longer afraid to use magic; not afraid that her own powers will turn against her. That's a huge change from Season 7. Some people have argued, in fact, that she's reverting back to her bad old Season 6 ways. That's possible, of course, but it's not the impression I'm getting. Willow now knows, to the core of her being, that the magic can be dangerous; but she also learned from her best friend that not using the power you have can be equally dangerous.
She's learning how to follow a middle path; discovering exactly what her limits are, and just how near to them she can safely tread:
DAWN: "Are you evil again?"
WILLOW: "It'll fade."
Of course, we've still got a big mystery: who is Saga Vasuki, what has she taught Willow - and what price did she demand? Is Willow running away from what Saga Vasuki demanded of her, or what the goddess revealed to her of Willow's own true self?
"Companions the Creator seeks, not corpses, not herds and believers. Fellow creators the Creator seeks - those who write new values on new tablets. Companions the Creator seeks, and fellow harvesters; for everything about Her is ripe for the harvest."
- Friedrich Nietzsche, 'Thus Spoke Zarathustra'
*Resists the temptation to write '(Datalinks)' after the Nietzsche quote attributions.*
*Wonders how many people will get that reference <g>*