Magic corrupts. Well, the real saying is “power corrupts”, but in many fantasy settings, having magic is the same as having power, so for our purposes, magic corrupts. Indeed, where would a fantasy villain be without awesome magical powers? And as villains are some of my favorite characters, this is a topic that has fascinated me for ages. Magic + amoral people is a surefire way to make me interested in a story.
Buffy was one of my first fandoms, and I loved it. I also loved Willow Rosenberg, a Jewish witch who’s openly queer and unapologetic about her nerdiness, a great deal. Willow spends most of the series as Buffy’s best friend, constantly ready to help save the day with her powers. Unfortunately for Willow, things take a turn for the worst in Season 6. We learn that magic is addictive, and her powers start controlling her more than she controls them. As Willow loses herself to her magic, she turns to villainy, leaving her at odds with Buffy and the rest of her friends.
Willow relies on magic to do everything—chores, closing or opening curtains, speeding up loading screens on computers, and even less innocuous things, such as erasing an argument from her lover’s memory. Being so dependent on magic, she’s incapable of handling problems without it, no matter how minor, and refuses to admit for a good long time that she needs any kind of help. Without magic, Willow feels she has no control over her own life—in high school she was the nerdy, insecure girl people picked on, and magic initially gave her an escape from that and a sense of power. Eventually, we learn that she’s addicted to her magic. She needs to cast spells to feel complete and craves the power running through her. As it gets worse and worse, we see her literally get high on magic, and afterward crave it the way an addict would crave drugs.
During one such incident, she accidentally summons a demon and nearly gets Buffy’s sister Dawn killed because of it. Later on, she attempts to erase another disagreement from people’s memories and instead winds up giving all the main characters a horrible case of amnesia. This also results in them almost dying. Due to Willow’s own actions, her girlfriend Tara leaves her, she loses the trust of her friends, and later hits her lowest point. Trying to stop using magic gives her withdrawal. The first full day she goes without using a single spell, her body shakes, she gets dehydrated, and little everyday annoyances that everyone else deals with all the time are emotionally and physically draining. By the time the day ends, we see her sitting next to Buffy, quiet, exhausted, and somewhat defeated. Although this is a low point for her, it’s also a moment of progress, since we in the audience know how hard that day was.
I found this a rather unique take on magic, since it stands in stark contrast to so many other stories where magic is an outlet from problems, not the cause of them. Disney uses magic to allow its protagonists to escape abuse. Harry Potter gets to go away to a world that accepts and adores him, leaving his shitty non-magical relatives behind in the process. Eragon finds a dragon egg and goes on the adventure of a lifetime. And in Charmed, we learn that magic is an innate part of who someone is and that living without magic can be unfulfilling. But what Buffy told us is that magic can be dangerous and bad for a person’s health. It is an unstable force, and if someone doesn’t know what they’re doing, they can easily get someone else, or themselves, killed.
Season 6 of Buffy was dull and plodding from time to time and certainly not the show’s best season, but Willow’s struggles were real and relateable. Her characterization changes for the worse, however, when Tara dies. Just hours after rekindling their relationship, a stray bullet kills Tara, and Willow, enraged, turns to magic to seek revenge on Tara’s killers. Arguably, Willow’s murder spree would not have happened if not for her addiction—dealing with the trauma of losing a loved one would make also dealing with an addiction much, much harder, after all—but even while she’d been self-destructing, Willow had never been
violent. She endangers her friends and causes damage, but it was never her intention. Her motivations are always self-centered, to be sure, but the danger is secondary. She still believes she can help people. For instance, Willow erases people’s memories because it benefits her, but she convinces herself that not remembering bad things is best for everyone.
Her murder spree, therefore, is somewhat out of character. While it’s certainly possible her characterization could have left her at a point to make it believable, the writing never actually gets there. What’s more, partway through the season finale, Willow stops worrying about revenge on Tara’s killers and instead tries to end the world. Arguably, this upped the stakes, but it took a situation that was still personal despite the failings in the writing and made it impersonal and therefore less interesting. Like, Willow’s evil now. What do evil people do? They end the world. Addiction and loss of a loved one? What addiction and dead lover?
One of the reasons why I never particularly enjoyed characters like Voldemort and Galbatorix was how impersonal their stories are. Yes, they’re villains, but their motives should still be understandable, and while the possibility is there, they’re never fully developed. This was not the case with Willow, and that’s why the ending to Season 6 is so awful. We had a unique take on magic that was certainly relateable to anyone struggling with an addiction and the story spent a whole season detailing Willow’s struggles. Killing Tara and using that as a catalyst to have Willow end the world felt cheap and tacked on. Ultimately, Willow is only saved through the support of her friends—Xander confronts her and tells he will always love her for being his friend. This admittance provides Willow the crutch she needs to start the road to recovery all over again. The whole next season, we see Willow go through what is essentially magical rehab. She can never get rid of her powers at this point, but she has to learn to better control them and never lose that control.
However, this is also a problem that apparently only Willow goes through in the whole world of Buffy. We meet numerous other witches throughout the show, and although many of them also rely on magic just as much as Willow does, they are not presented in the same light. They are not addicts struggling to better themselves, they’re just bad people. If magic is addictive, why didn’t they also show the same symptoms as Willow, and why is Willow presented as someone who needs help while they are presented as people who need to be stopped? Furthermore, Willow is a queer character. Thankfully, she’s not the only queer witch we meet—Tara uses magic on occasion as well, but has a much healthier relationship to her powers—so the story doesn’t inadvertently tell us that queer people are simply more susceptible to addiction. That said, Tara’s death is still tied into Willow’s descent into evil, so while the story doesn’t relate Willow’s queerness to her addiction, it does relate it to her villainy. She literally tortures and flays a person alive.
Willow’s story was unique and while maybe not fun to watch, it was compelling. And it gave us a character on a popular show struggling with an addiction. Buffy didn’t sugarcoat her problems. It let her know that she had to try to improve herself, but it also let us know that addiction, whether magical or not, is a battle that can’t often be handled alone. The ending to this was disappointing to say the least, but the setup was great, and I find myself wishing that other magical villains, even the other ones on Buffy, were given the same care and attention that Buffy gave Willow.