Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Seeing is Believing in Season Seven
Seeing is believing. I was blind but now I see.
The physical sensation of seeing has a long established association with knowledge, faith and understanding. The literary relationship between physical sight and metaphorical sight – clear vision, understanding, or even faith – is complex and difficult to untangle. In the Bible, God bestows visions on some of His followers, helping them to ‘see’ and understand his spiritual truths. One of Christ’s disciples, Thomas, will forever be remembered as ‘Doubting’ because he failed to believe in Christ’s resurrection without tangible proof; he needed to see Christ’s wounds in order to believe. Moving forwards in time, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, Gloucester cannot ‘see’ with any clarity until he is literally blinded by the villains of the piece.
This long-standing literary relationship between sight, understanding, and faith is artfully explored in season seven of Joss Whedon’s groundbreaking series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although this final season received mixed reviews from critics and fans, the handling of ‘sight’ as a theme in this season must surely be one of the most admirable elements of Buffy as a whole. In a world on the brink of an(other) apocalypse, the scriptwriters continually test the boundaries between literal and metaphorical sight, creating uncertainty and forcing both characters and audience to question what is ‘seen’ and what is ‘known’. The theme is introduced in the very first episode. Lessons opens with the evocatively blinded Bringers chasing and murdering a Potential Slayer, and then treats the viewer to a particularly squeamish scene: an undead student shoving a pencil in their own eye back in Sunnydale High. These are small hints to the audience that they should pay attention: the concept of ‘seeing’ will be instrumental to the story arc of this final season.
This article will explore the theme of sight with regard to the three main characters of the programme: Willow, Xander and Buffy. I will suggest that sight, understanding and faith are consciously intermingled throughout their various storylines, culminating in the explosive finale, Chosen.
Willow: Invisibility and Transformation
In episode three of season seven, a concept explored in seasons one and six of Buffy (Out of Mind Out of Sight, Gone) is revived with added complexity: invisibility. Willow, fearing the kind of welcome she might receive back in Sunnydale – the last time she was in town she flayed someone alive and nearly destroyed the world, after all – inadvertently casts a spell which disrupts the boundaries between ‘seen’ and ‘unseen’. This is not only one of the most touching episodes of the season, it also hints at the effect Willow’s subconscious has on her magic, something which will come back to haunt her later in the season and which she must learn to control. Because of her anxiety, Willow’s subconscious casts a spell so that Buffy, Xander and Dawn can no longer see her and she, in turn, can’t see them either. She is so afraid about what will happen when they’re all together again that she magically delays the moment.
This episode hints at future themes – faith and trust – explored through the vehicle of sight. It is suggested by the writers that Willow’s fears are not completely unfounded: when Xander and Buffy discover a flayed body in the construction yard, they do (incorrectly) consider the possibility that the perpetrator might be Willow. And although Willow rematerializes at the end of the episode, and is poignantly and visually reunited with her friends, the writers are careful to emphasise that their metaphorical sight – trust and understanding – will take longer to return.
The Killer in Me reveals that Willow also has a long way to go before she can trust herself. In this episode Willow’s subconscious acts against her again. Her old friend and witch Amy casts a hex on her, jealous of Willow’s power and the fact that, even though she murdered someone, she still occupies a privileged position in the Scooby gang. As a consequence, when Willow kisses her new love interest Kennedy, her subconscious engages the hex and she starts to transform into Warren, the man who killed her ex-girlfriend Tara and who Willow tortured and flayed alive. At first the transformation is simply physical – Willow is still essentially herself, but looks like Warren. But as the episode progresses, elements of Warren’s personality start to take over, as Willow’s own feelings of guilt about Tara increase. The boundary between the two individuals starts to break internally as well as externally.
Ultimately, this episode has a happy ending: Kennedy realises that magic is ‘sort of like a fairytale’, kisses Willow and changes her back. Nevertheless, the unresolved issues lurking under the surface will be pivotal to the rest of the season. When Willow first transforms into Warren, the others, including girlfriend Kennedy, are slow to trust her word and believe that Willow really is trapped inside Warren’s body. Their faith in their own eyesight, rather than in Willow herself, betrays them.
Even in the penultimate episode, Willow remains afraid of her powers. She worries that the others will ‘see’ her for what she really is (Bad Willow) if she starts doing magic again. She doesn’t want to lose sight of herself, as she did in the previous season and, more recently, in The Killer in Me. In order to cast a spell granting all potentials Slayer strength in the finale, Willow must learn to trust herself and to see herself clearly. Kennedy does just that: she sees Willow surrounded by white light; a force for good, not evil.
Xander: ‘So you’re the one who sees everything?’
One of the most shocking and devastating moments in season seven of Buffy is when Caleb, agent of the First, graphically gouges out Xander’s eye. Although fans retrospectively breathe a sigh of relief that one of the best-loved characters in the programme didn’t end up getting killed (as some initial script proposals suggested) this is still a terrible moment for viewers and characters alike. What makes it so successful dramatically, however, is that shocking and devastating it may be but unexpected it is not – at least, not entirely. Throughout the season and leading up to this moment the writers repeatedly emphasise the relationship between Xander and sight. From season one onwards, Xander struggles with his perceived role on the sidelines – a particularly good example is The Zeppo in season three, which is largely told from Xander’s perspective and reveals his insecurities about his passive role in the fight against evil. But in this final season we witness Xander coming to terms with his position in the Scoobies, and, more than that, actually valuing it. He is the one, he finally recognises, who ‘sees’.
The best example of Xander’s gradual enlightenment surfaces in the episode Potential. The Scoobies learn that there is another potential Slayer somewhere in Sunnydale. When Willow casts a spell to locate the new arrival it appears to lead them straight to Buffy’s sister, Dawn. This, of course, turns out to be yet another visual misdirection, a lesson in not necessarily trusting what we think we see. We discover at the end of the episode that, after blasting through Dawn’s body, the spell located its intended recipient, her fellow Sunnydale High student Amanda. In the aftermath of this scenario, Dawn feels marginalised and excluded from Buffy’s merry band of potential warriors; it is only Xander, with his words of wisdom, who sees this, and can comfort her. His speech, legendary amongst fans of the show, is worth quoting in full:
‘Seven years, Dawn. Working with the slayer. Seeing my friends get more and more powerful…And I’m the guy who fixes the windows…I saw what you did last night…You thought you were all special. Miss Sunnydale 2003. And the minute you found out you weren’t, you handed the crown to Amanda without a moment’s pause. You gave her your power…They’ll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn’t chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody’s watching me. I saw you last night. I see you working here today. You’re not special. You’re extraordinary’.
‘But I know. I see’, Xander tells Dawn, stressing the synonymous relationship between sight and knowledge. He also inadvertently reveals that he only possesses his own powers – sight and understanding –because of (not despite) his position on the sidelines. This, of course, amps up the dramatic irony when Caleb gouges out his eye, referencing back to Xander’s speech in Potential: ‘So you’re the one who sees everything? Let’s see what we can’t do about that.’ By making his moving speech, Xander (ironically) has put himself in the spotlight and as a result he receives the unwanted and violent attention of the First. Xander’s own moment in the spotlight this season, therefore, involves him partially losing his sight.
Xander’s role in portraying the theme of sight does not end here. In the very next episode, Empty Places, there is a significant correlation between Xander’s sight and his beliefs. Xander’s faith in Buffy falters because, along with his eye, he temporarily loses sight of her heart. In Dirty Girls, before he is blinded, Xander makes another memorable speech to the potential slayers, who are questioning Buffy’s judgement. ‘I’ve seen her heart’ he tells them, ‘you gotta trust her. She’s earned it’. Yet after he loses the sight in his left eye, Xander echoes the doubts he so recently dismissed in the others. When Buffy suggests that she and the others return to fight Caleb, Xander is uncharacteristically cold: ‘I’m trying to see your point here Buff’ he tells her, ‘but I guess it must be a little to my left’.
The One: Buffy’s Judgement and her Visions
Unlike Gloucester in King Lear, Xander does not suddenly ‘see’ more clearly without his left eye; his faith and understanding are temporarily hampered in correlation with his actual eyesight. This allows for a significant plot development to take place in Empty Places, via a scene bemoaned by many Buffy enthusiasts. Reeling from the events in the vineyard, the Potentials and Buffy’s friends lose faith in her when she proposes a second attack on Caleb. They vote to eject her from leadership – and her own house. This confrontation has echoes of previous arguments between the Scoobies in seasons three (Dead Man’s Party) and four (The Yoko Factor). However, the writers push the concept much further in Empty Places, and the scene becomes all the more unsettling. For a moment, three episodes from the season finale, it looks as though the eponymous protagonist of the entire programme might actually be sidelined. Spike’s shock at what has happened to Buffy when he returns in Touched mirrors our own. The viewer expects Xander to stand up for Buffy in this scene as he always does, to deliver a speech like the one in Dirty Girls (where he told the young Slayers to ‘trust’ Buffy) thus getting the plot and the programme back on track. But he doesn’t, and without Xander’s vote of confidence, the gang falls apart.
Many have criticised the writers for this plot development, claiming it is out of character for Xander, Willow and Dawn to oust Buffy in this way. Whilst these arguments are valid, the writers, it seems, deliberately subordinate characterization in order to prioritise the central theme of the final season: sight, belief and understanding. Throughout season seven of Buffy, Buffy’s strength and leadership are questioned in an unprecedented way. This is largely due to the injection of new blood – the Potentials – who repeatedly scrutinise Buffy’s ‘old way’ (as Giles terms it) with their new, younger eyes. They need constant convincing that Buffy is someone who can protect them and help them defeat the First. Thus, in Showtime, Buffy is forced to create a spectacle inspired by Mad Max’s Thunderdome in order to prove to her new charges that she is strong enough to defeat the Übervamp, and therefore protect them all. Willow, Xander, Giles, Dawn, Anya – they’ve all seen Buffy in action for many years, but these new characters need to learn to trust their new leader. They need to see it with their own eyes.
For a time, this visual testimony satisfies the girls. Yet, as it turns out, their doubt is only temporarily quelled; throughout the second half of the season the girls’ doubt in Buffy grows and even spreads to those characters who have always seen her heart and followed her faithfully. It is not just Buffy’s strength, judgement and decisions that are being examined here; these have all been tested before, albeit not quite so seriously. It is Buffy’s status as ‘the chosen one’ that is ultimately put on trial. The whole premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is contained in its authoritative blurb, overheard at the beginning of all the season one episodes: ‘she alone will wield the strength’; ‘one girl in all the world’; ‘chosen.’ Despite the introduction of Kendra and Faith in the earlier seasons, Buffy’s position in the Slayer hierarchy is never questioned outright. Yet, in Empty Places, Buffy’s status as chosen one is explicitly challenged. ‘Isn’t Faith a Slayer, too?’ Rona, one of the Potentials asks, and in this moment the very foundations of Buffy quiver and shake, threatening to fall apart completely. There is another Slayer. They can decide to have her as their Leader instead. They do.
For the discerning viewer, however, the language used in this scene makes it clear that the girls’ decision will prove to be destructive. Faith says that she isn’t willing to follow Buffy back to the vineyard without ‘proof’, claiming that she doesn’t want to ‘play the odds’; ‘we don’t know […] for sure’ that the plan will work, Giles interjects. Dawn, in a surprisingly biblical move, even offers Buffy a Judas kiss before asking her to leave, a symbol echoed in Spike’s angry words of Touched: ‘You sad, sad, ungrateful traitors’. What has been lost in this scene is the characters’ faith in Buffy and, ultimately, they will be ‘punished’ for this lack of faith. In the following episode, Faith leads them into a trap, which results in a number of fatalities and casualties; at exactly the same time, Buffy follows her instincts and goes back to the vineyard. Her hunch is vindicated; in returning she manages to reclaim ownership of a powerful scythe, which will prove instrumental in defeating the First and preventing an apocalypse. ‘I think we got punished’ Amanda says twice, in the aftermath of the episode’s events. Although Buffy disagrees with her, it certainly does seem as if these girls were ‘punished’, for not putting their trust in a woman who died to save the world (twice). Xander, his friends, and the Potentials become the proverbial doubting Thomases in this season. They need visible ‘proof’ that Buffy’s is the right woman to lead them; only Spike, the demon-with-a-soul, has an unshakeable faith in her that requires no visual evidence.
To cement the relationship between faith and the sensation of sight in this story arc, the viewer is convinced of Buffy’s status as ‘the one’ through the medium of sight. First, Buffy is granted literal visions, which help her to understand the gravity of the situation they are facing (she ‘sees’ the army of Übervamps) and ultimately help her to come up with her winning solution in Chosen (her visions of the original Slayer and the men who ‘decided’ that there would be only ‘one’ woman to fight the demons and vampires). Faith is never granted such second sight. On a more abstract and poignant level, Buffy is the one who ‘sees’ the potential – of Willow, of the scythe and, ultimately, of the aptly-named Potentials. It is Buffy’s vision to divide her own power between all the Slayers, it is she who ‘sees’ that Willow will succeed, despite her self-doubt and her complex history with black magic. Significantly and somewhat ironically, it is because Buffy is the ‘one’ that she is able to see the possibility of having ‘many’ instead.
There are a number of sight-related moments in season seven which this article, unfortunately, didn’t have time to explore in any great depth. The First’s ability to appear as dead loved ones, for example, or the disembodied demon eye which Anya and Giles visit for information. But it is clear that sight, understanding, and faith are central to the plot development of season seven, and help to make its conclusion in Chosen even more dynamic and affecting. Through the exploration of these concepts Buffy the Vampire Slayer pushes the boundaries once again in testing the viewer, as it depicts our heroine being tested herself on-screen. Do we share the doubts of Xander, Willow, Giles and Dawn? Do we wonder if Faith could do a better job? If so, we, like the characters themselves are shamed for our doubt in a woman who has bested every test thrown at her over seven seasons. If we are in any doubt, Spike’s passionate words should, once and for all, convince us: ‘I’ve seen your strength, and your kindness, I’ve seen the best and the worst of you and I understand with perfect clarity exactly what you are. You are a hell of a woman. You’re the one, Buffy’.
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