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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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