Joss Whedon’s Best Heel Turns

As Joss Whedon expands his body of work, certain favored tropes emerge, including a fondness for heart-breaking betrayals and defections as characters switch sides or reveal previously-unknown allegiances. In professional wrestling, a dramatic switch of character allegiance is referred to as a “turn”. Because the good guy characters are Faces and the bad guys are Heels, what a Star Wars fan would call “going dark side” a WWE fan would call a Heel Turn.

Whether or not use of the device is a detriment or merely a function of writing style is up to personal interpretation, but either way, there is no arguing that Joss loves a Heel Turn. Here are his five best and an honorable mention.

Warning: major spoilers throughout.

Honorable Mention: nearly every character on Angel

Cast pic, Angel season 3
What a sweet group. You’ll want to strangle every one of them at least once before this is over.

In order for a Turn to properly resonate, there must be clearly-defined sides, the more morally divergent; the better. In Angel’s world, the camps are not so clearly divided, resulting in shades of grey and little black and white. A Turn (either Heel or Face) is only shocking and enraging if it is unexpected… but in Angel, loyalties are always in question. At some point new betrayals are less a surprise and more, to paraphrase Buffy Summers, just another Tuesday.

Even if we eliminate all examples of non-voluntary betrayal, such as with Fred/Illyria, no Angel fan can deny the show is rife with traitorous decisions made in full awareness, as well as side-switching and deals made with dubious intentions. Cordelia seduces Conner and gives birth to Jasmine as a result. Conner hunts demons alongside the team until he throws Angel into the harbor in a box. Angel reverts to Angelus. (Again.) Gunn agrees to go to Wolfram & Hart’s White Room and gains their legal knowledge… then has to keep making new deals to retain it. The entire team even joins Wolfram & Hart at the end of season four.

So while Angel is filled with Turns, the show as a whole gets the Honorable Mention slot because loyalty is such a fluid concept to the characters.

5. Jayne Cobb, Firefly

Mal and Jayne; "Ariel"
“Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!”

Expectations are also the primary reason Jayne shows up at number five. Jayne is introduced to the viewers as a member of Mal’s crew, but as soon as we meet him, we know he’s a mercenary and not inclined to be more loyal than his paycheck warrants. As the episodes progress, we become fond of Jayne (or his one-liners, at any rate) and hope he remains part of the crew, but it is always a tentative hope.

When Jayne finally does try (unsuccessfully) to betray the rest of the Serenity crew in the episode “Ariel,” Mal catches him immediately. In the ensuing discussion — held over mics while Jayne is trapped on the outside of the ship as it leaves the atmosphere – Jayne admits his traitorous acts and asks Mal not to tell the others. This deathbed plea, as it were, is due to Jayne’s regret. Although Mal realizes immediately that their plan went awry because of Jayne’s betrayal, Simon doesn’t. Simon calls Jayne their hero, and even though he’s facing death, Jayne wants to remain a hero in Simon’s mind.

Jayne’s desire to not disappoint Simon is why Mal forgives Jayne and brings him back onto the ship. In truth, the episode plays equally as well as a Face Turn; after this, we trust Jayne far more than we did, rather than less. Having gotten the “inevitable” betrayal out of the way, Jayne is much more committed to rest the crew. For a while.

4. Grant Ward, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Skye and Grant Ward
“I’m not a Nazi.”
“Yes. You are. […] You always had that Hitler Youth look to you, so it’s really not all that surprising.”

When Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. first aired, fans were lukewarm to the team’s main muscle, Agent Grant Ward. Whether due to actor Brett Dalton’s acting choices or skill, the direction he was given, or other factors, for the majority of the first season, Ward consistently comes across wooden and flat as a character. He is meant to appear – by conscious choice, it would later be revealed – as an order-obeying company man with little in the way of personality. Ward is not there to make friends, but to work. (For Hydra.)

In the season one finale, it becomes clear Ward’s life as a Hydra sleeper agent has been difficult. Agent John Garrett, who recruited Ward to Hydra, repeatedly refers to Ward’s natural empathy as a weakness, and cautions Ward not to become attached to any of the agents with whom he will be working over his career in S.H.I.E.L.D. This edict, in place from the very beginning, keeps Ward isolated from potential friends and allows Garrett to retain his hold. Season one’s conclusion strongly suggests Ward would have become a different person if he’d been raised in a less abusive environment, and once he comes under Garrett’s care (“care” being here a euphemism for intentional, directed abuse) he has little chance. Ward could have been a genuinely good guy, but the implication is that by the time he encountered anyone who could have helped him reach that potential, it was too late.

To the audience, however, Ward is a Face from the first episode – a superspy who stops at nothing to get the job done, and the job is saving the world. Simply put, for most of season one, Grant Ward is a hero. The viewer trusts Ward and his solid, leading-man jaw, and so does his team. While wooden and somewhat lacking in personality, no one doubts that he’s a good guy right up until he proves he’s actually loyal to Hydra.

The internet is left to debate whether “traitor” is a more interesting personality than “possibly a robot.” Either way, it’s fun watching Agent May kick his ass.

3. Boyd Langton, Dollhouse

Boyd Langton and Echo, Dollhouse
“Do you trust me?”
“With my life.”

If subverted expectations are the sign of a good Turn, then Boyd Langton is one of the best. Whether role-playing as Echo’s handler or serving as the head of Dollhouse security, Langton is one of Echo’s most outspoken defenders as she strives to achieve integration and self-agency. Acting as the House’s moral compass, he continually questions the decisions of Rossum Corporation, the medical research firm which owns and runs the Dollhouse. He also raises many ethical and theological objections to the “doll” technology.

All of which turns out to be a deception, since Langton is, in fact, the head of Rossum Corporation and personally responsible for all the harm done by their technology and odious ethics. His reveal as the Big Bad after two seasons of appearing to be Echo’s protector and father figure is a gut-wrenching hit even by the standards of the thematically-dark Dollhouse.

Langton’s Turn is devastating to the characters, but short-lived since the show was cancelled after a truncated second season. In the season two episode “The Hollow Men,” Topher manages to remotely wipe Langton, turning him into a blank-slate doll. Langton is then strapped with explosives and enters the main corporate headquarters, killing himself and destroying the organization in the series finale.

2. Angelus, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

Angelus behind bars
”Since Angel lost his soul, he’s regained his sense of whimsy.”

In the Buffy: TVS DVD commentaries and interviews, Joss discusses his intention to subvert classic horror tropes when he created Buffy. She is the blonde cheerleader who, instead of being victimized monster-bait, emerges victorious from the dark, creepy alley. For that reason alone, he didn’t want to repeat the cliché of having bad things happen to his blonde teenager just because she had sex with her boyfriend.

At the same time, Buffy: TVS was also envisioned as the horrors of high school turned up to an eleven (and given fangs). The real-life horror of lost virginity is the partner who never calls again, who turns into an unfeeling monster. The natural progression of that story to supernatural horror is the return of Angelus.

Part of the reason Angelus is so appealing as a character is that like Brett Dalton, actor David Boraneas is better when he’s bad. Angel with his Gypsy-curse-given-soul is mopey and perpetually stuck in a purgatory of guilt; not an easy role to play. Angelus, freed from the curse by one moment of true happiness, has no conscience and no limits. Boraneas could be far more expressive with Angelus; it allowed him to open up and brought more charisma to the screen.

As Angel, Vampire With a Soul, he could be Buffy’s boyfriend and be allies with the Scoobies, if not friends. As Angelus, he stalks Buffy obsessively, threatens those she cares about, kills Jenny Calendar, and then artfully arranges Jenny’s body in Giles’s bed. He even, as Giles says in “Revelations”, “…tortured me for hours, for pleasure.”

This particular Heel Turn ranks so high on the list because it affects so much canon that comes after. For the rest of the series, the shadow of Angelus hangs over Sunnydale. Angel re-emerges, but the specter of Angelus’s possible return haunts all Angel’s personal interactions and relationships. Even after he leaves for Los Angeles (and his own spin-off show), the harm Angelus did to Buffy and the Scoobies continues to be felt. In many ways, it is a loss of innocence for all of them.

1. Willow Rosenberg, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

Willow with black eyes
“This goes beyond anything I’ve ever done. It’s a total loss of control, and not in a nice, wholesome, ‘my girlfriend has a pierced tongue’ kinda way.”

Both in the context of the show and on a meta-level outside it, Willow Rosenberg is a deeply-loved character of the Buffy mythos. For season after season, Willow is moral compass, compassionate friend, and stalwart defender of humanity. The only character to appear in every episode besides the titular Buffy, Willow is an integral part of the good guy team.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Willow Rosenberg. She bears a lot of labels during her arc — she is a nerd, a geek, Jewish, a witch, and is part of one of the earliest lesbian couples ever depicted on television. The fanbase she inspired was vocal and devoted, and for good reason: Willow is a hero, but one who reminds many viewers of themselves.

Willow’s fall from Buffy’s steadfast friend to being the nightmare of The Trio broke the hearts of characters and fans alike, and caused much debate and outrage in online forums. The change in Willow’s character could be partly attributed to the corrupting effects of her magic; additionally the constant danger and pressing into moral grey areas (such as bringing Buffy back from the dead) take their toll. In the end, it is Willow’s grief over losing her partner, Tara, that drives her over the edge, and she consciously makes the decision to Heel Turn in order to get revenge via dark magic. As a direct result, Dark!Willow is the Big Bad of season six, and she very nearly destroys the world.

One of the most powerful and terrifying villains of the Buffy saga began her story six seasons earlier wearing knee socks, and we loved her. That love makes it hard to accept the Turn, but is also the reason it resonates so powerfully.

Willow is genuinely a hero – a true Face – and while there are mitigating circumstances, she chooses the path which leads to her Heel Turn. The consequences are horrific and long-reaching inside the show’s canon, and were shocking and agonizing for fans to watch. For these reasons, Willow Rosenberg is Joss Whedon’s best Heel Turn.

So far.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I freakin LOVE Jayne!

  2. Agent Ward should be redeemed for the simply fact he is not a real villian he is a tool. His love for skye is what can help him become redeemed.

    • Sarai Walston

      I hope he isn’t. I like the new, manipulative, dark Ward. He’s more interesting, more layered. Plus, we all need a good bad guy and he has the chops for it.

    • Kozlowski

      Ward is his own character, and the way he was introduced to us is very different from Angel for example. Angel was a good guy who turned bad due to forces outside of his control. It’s easy to redeem him because (when he has his soul) he feels remorse for his past actions and sincerely tries to be a better man. His guilt makes him sympathetic, and it’s such a huge part of his character right from the beginning. Ward, however, is starkly different from Angel. Ward not only deceived the characters in the show, but us as well. That’s why I think his story is so much more compelling, because we, as viewers, feel just as betrayed as the characters in the show. We were sure we knew who he was, but he’s broken our trust. Not to mention that even though he’s been bad from the beginning, and he supposedly loves Skye now, he is still acting like a villain. His love for Skye does not overcome whatever obligation he holds to Garrett. He’s not trying to be the better man, he’s just following orders, and that inspires little sympathy from viewers. The only redemption I can see for him at this point would be to sacrifice himself in the not-too-distant future. He’s betrayed everyone far too much at this point, and he’s not a character anyone would want to keep around. I think it’d be really stupid if they turned around and trusted him again after all this. He’s not missing a soul, he’s not an evil vampire, he’s just a guy who, despite loving Skye, continues to do evil things.

    • Ward should never be able to be redeemed.He’s a cold blooded murderer and a puppy killer. I spit on Ward.

    • The redeem him is the easy option, I think. Thus far, this is a show that hasn’t taken a lot of chances in their storytelling. While having Ward turn out to be HYDRA does demonstrate taking a chance, they need to fully commit to it and be willing to go all the way with him.

    • Monique

      Have to admit – I’m not a fan of redeeming Ward. If he can honestly believe that he loves Skye while handcuffing her to a railing for others to torture, then he’s broken. If, as someone suggests in the comments, he sacrifices himself to save them, that’ll be more grace than he deserves.

    • Agreed. Ward could double turn and as I watched the conclusion of this season, I hoped he would!

  3. The hero of Canton, the man they call Jayne

    • gann mcewen

      All hail the hero of canton! The greatest tv man-ape mercenary to ever strap on a “cunning hat” and take the ‘verse by storm!

  4. Robert Cobb

    Ever since Dollhouse got canceled it suddenly got good. Coincidence? Bad case of “network says” ruining the show? Or is it maybe that shows who have a clear finish line actually go forward, while shows without clear cut path to the end get lost in pointless plots (e.g. Heroes, Lost 3rd season)

    • You are not wrong, sir. I really think having an ending in sight really places a story into perspective for the writers. Rather than constantly having to think “OK, I know that we’re establishing X in this season, so what will we do (next year) for Y season?” They can throw caution to the wind, and write a true ending.

      Take a hint, Supernatural. Quit while you’re ahead.

      • Monique

        I have to say that if we want SPN to quit while it’s ahead, then we need a time machine. 🙂

  5. Noel Page

    Oh, yeah, Willow was a badass alright…I even wrote a story where she continues in her evil vein and corrupts Dawn to darkness. I call her Darth Hera after the jealous and spiteful Queen of the Greek Gods. Willow/Hera draws unimaginable power from her hate and fury, and so she can haunt my nightmares any time!

  6. Erik Dredd

    How in the world can you have the Willow turn ahead of the Angel turn?!? Angel becoming Angelus is one of the great turns in all of fiction! So cold and calculating, stocking Buffy, he becomes, quite literally, a soulless monster. His killing of Jenny Calendar is so brutal and shocking it is in many ways still the standard bearer for shocking deaths on TV. His turn being anything but number one is amazing to me!

    For that matter, Langton should be ahead of the Willow turn too! The Willow turn was shocking and her “Bored Now” remains a touchstone moment, but Langton was one of the few “good guys” on Dollhouse and when he went Heel… much bigger than Willow getting black hair and veiny for an episode or two.

    My final problem with the list: where is Faith? Why is she omitted? Seems like she should be on this list and Jayne should be punted off it entirely! Her turn is 10x what his is. My order would be Angel, Langton, Faith, Ward, and finally Willow with Jayne nowhere to be found.

    All of the above being said… Love the article! Exactly the kind of thing my friends and I sit around and debate/argue about!!!

    • Yes the Angelus turn was amazing. But it was something we also knew could and probably would happen, especially the second we saw him have sex with Buffy. 6 seasons in of Willow being little miss sweetheart, however, nobody saw that shit coming.

  7. Helen Parshall

    I absolutely love this piece- and the idea of a heel turn. I’ve never heard that terminology before. Excellent article!

  8. Good article! I agree with almost everything, except that Ward’s cover wasn’t *that* dull, and also

    “Even if we eliminate all examples of non-voluntary betrayal, such as with Fred/Illyria, no Angel fan can deny the show is rife with traitorous decisions made in full awareness, as well as side-switching and deals made with dubious intentions. Cordelia seduces Conner and gives birth to Jasmine as a result.”

    Cordelia was already possessed by Jasmine when she seduced Connor (which is spelled with an O before the R in his case, BTW), so that’s also non-voluntary betrayal.

  9. Does anyone recall Urkon, from Joss’ future slayer comic series Fray? He was Melaka Fray’s quasi-watcher and constant companion and ally, and I thought his Turn was particularly subtle and tightly crafted and unexpected. It also set up future stories (as yet untold) with Fray operating even more independently and with some added skepticism (to an already self-motivated, cynical character.)
    And if we’re going to include comics (why not?) his sot-of-Turn with Emma Frost in Astonishing X-Men was certainly powerful and well done, psychologically speaking (dismantling Scott provided some powerful panels indeed.)

    • Monique

      I should have included Joss’s comic runs; I considered the characters in his movies, I just didn’t find any I wanted on the list. It’s just been so long since I’ve read the comics I didn’t consider it. Urkon would have been a good inclusion.

  10. Faith?!?
    ’nuff said.

    on Agents of SHIELD, the team’s “main muscle” is Melinda May.
    I would have thought that was one issue that we had nailed down,
    so to speak.

    • Monique

      Honestly, I was thinking of Faith as being a member of the Angel cast, so I crossed her off with all of them. But she was on Buffy first, so it’s a valid argument.

      I’ll hold my ground on Ward/May, however – she was just there to drive the bus. Just ask her. 🙂

  11. i just discovered firefly and i am amazed of how human and not stereotypical the caracters are, Jayne is the best exaple , he is not just a criminal , htis is evident from the moment he asked reynols if taking andavantage of his ‘fans’ so right, that makes him believable and real. Man whedon can writte so well. TO BAD PEOPLE AT FOX ARE APARRENTLY UNABLE TO!!

  12. Shantelle

    Firefly its kinda like chuck in space .. action/comedy … and Adam is awesome as Jayne.

  13. Though I guess he is included in the cast of Angel, I can’t help but feel Spike needs a specific honorable mention. He more than heel turns; he balances the line like a tight rope. If anything Spike’s character even deconstructs the idea of what it means to heel turn, and that’s what makes him so fascinating. And that love is the motivation for muddying the difference between good and evil is brilliant.

  14. Jemarc Axinto

    I stopped watching “Agents of SHIELD” because the show dragged on too much for me, but mayhaps I should go back. This heel turn intrigues me.

    • Monique

      There’s a lot of moving parts in the construction of the SHIELD show — Marvel’s contracts, integration into the movie-verse, homages to the comics — and I think it took longer than expected for the momentum to kick in. I felt it dragged as well. But the second half of the season definitely picked up. If you are a fan of Whedon’s work in general, it’s worth catching up on.

  15. I found Spike’s redemption to be much more compelling than Angel’s, mostly because he earned it himself instead of having it thrust upon him.

  16. Yoko Fonseca

    Thanks reddit for bringing me here:

    Jayne! Despite his questionable morals, you can’t help but like him.

  17. i been rewatchin buffy and angel on netflix i realy want them to do atleast another season i no its been years but i dont like the way it ended the hole show was on how angel and buffy couldnt be togeather i think in the end they shoulda had them finioly bein able to have a relationship

    • Lancaster

      I want a Buffy movie..I’m so totally in love with spike and in the 7th season when he told Buffy how much she meant to him, I realized he truly loved Buffy more than angel did. I hate joss Whedon for killing spike and after all spike did for Buffy, he and Buffy should’ve gotten back together!!! makes me so mad

      • Monique

        lomic & Lancaster – I don’t know if this will satiate the craving, but there are comics that follow Buffy and the Scoobie Gang after the television series ends. They’re written by Whedon and other people associated with the shows — including actors/actresses — and are considered canon.

  18. One nice bit that Boraneas adds to his performance as Angelus is to move very lightly, as opposed to his move-as-if-the-weight-of-the-world-is-on-his-shoulders as Angel.

  19. Promthanius

    Oh my gosh, I love this. Your writing is so easy to read and that is refreshing. I love your subject choice too. I’m currently watching Firefly for the first time (I’m all fantasy-genre, late scifi bloomer) and I love it. I totally agree with your points though. Love what you said about Willow though. She always bothered me and I was just waiting for her to turn. I loved her so much but just knew it would happen.
    Great writing!

  20. Great article! I really need watch more Whedon. I’ve only seen his standalone work (Cabin in the Woods, Avengers) but I seem to be missing out on a lot. I really liked your description of Willow’s heel turn, fascinating stuff.

    • Monique

      If you enjoyed Cabin in the Woods, you should definitely check out Buffy. It has a similar mix of horror, comedy, mythology, interesting characters, snappy dialogue, and trope subversion that Joss uses in Cabin.

  21. Mary Awad

    This is such a cool article. The whole ongoing metaphor is just really interesting and keeps the whole thing engaging. Great job~

  22. PerkAlert

    Excellent list and great topic!! Also, I REALLY liked your line about how Angelus was a “loss of innocence” for all of the Sunnydale characters. I think that just highlights how much of a GENIUS Joss Whedon is at manipulating themes and motifs.

  23. i think willow is one of the most powerful witch, along with the Charmed ones.

  24. Mikhail

    I really like the article and the micor-examinations of each series.

    But I’ll be honest that I’m not sure that it is entirely correct to attribute all the Heel Turns under discussion here solely to Whedon. For one thing, it overlooks the fact that each show had multiple writers and Whedon didn’t write all of the key Turn episodes. For another, it gives the impression that Whedon was the sole show runner on every series, which isn’t true. He wasn’t even that involved on Angel until the beginning of Season 5. Previously, the show had been run by David Greenwalt and later Jeffrey Bell, I believe.

    In addition, I think the technique has been overused and wasn’t always successful, especially in the case of Boyd Langton and Cordelia Chase. Langton’s “reveal” in particular made absolutely no sense in the story and really seemed more of a contrivance to provide the show with a final villain with a familiar face, rather than introduce a brand new character – “conservation of detail” and all.

  25. I’m a big fan of some of Joss Whedon’s work, and definitely think the best ‘heel-turns’ were Angel/ Angelus and Willow at the end of season six. I had’nt come across this turn before, it definitely fits with Buffy and Angel as shows, thanks,for introducing this.

  26. Katie Brown

    Great Article! It made me want to re-watch all of Joss Whedon’s shows again.

  27. I love the reference to WWE. Every turn I see on TV I think of wrestlers turning bad or “heel”.

  28. This was a good article even though I have really only seen two of the shows mentioned in their entirety: Buffy and Angle. Being a wrestling fan I also appreciate its reference.

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