Lately I’ve been re-watching Season 6 of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer on my tablet. Previously, I’ve re-watched Seasons 1-5 and Season 7, some episodes many times, but I’ve tended to skip Season 6 even though I like re-watching the shows in order.
Despite being a rabid Buffy fan, I never liked Season 6 as much as the other years. That wasn’t because Season 6 focused on dark issues faced by Buffy and her friends. I love it when characters confront the dark side.
I did find Buffy’s sexual relationship with Spike shocking, but in a good way. Buffy always had a stressful life — taking on the responsibility of saving the world at 15 is a hell of a burden — and in season 6 she is also coping with being dragged back into the messy real world and confronting major adult responsibilities. Transgressive sex is a reasonable reaction.
Nor did I object to Willow’s ventures into the dark side of magic. That set up not just the powerful ending for Season 6, but the amazing series finale in Season 7.
It was the equating of Willow’s struggle with magic to drug addiction that bothered me. And still bothers me.
Part of the reason I don’t like it is that much of the view of drug use and abuse is not particularly accurate. A recent New York Times piece on the research by Dr. Carl Hart discusses the idea that drugs are not as irresistible as they’ve been painted:
“Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. “And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.”
In Season 6, Willow mirrors the popular caricature. She’s blissed out, she has withdrawal symptoms, and she lies to her friends. The lying is relevant to the plot, but the other parts detract from the core story. Because what Willow is really struggling with is not addiction to the pleasure she gets from magic, but how to handle her incredible power.
I’m not just rewriting the story because I’d like it better another way. I think the drug metaphor detracts from the power story, which is a crucial part of both the ending of Season 6 and the series outcome in Season 7.
Willow, a very bright young woman with a lot of insecurities, is a very powerful witch. She has worked hard to develop her skills, with minimal guidance. Buffy had to confront the same problem when coming into her superhero skills, but Buffy had guidance from Giles. Faith had much less guidance; her struggles with her slayer power in earlier seasons foreshadow Willow’s issues in Season 6.
In both cases, we have young women realizing just how much power they have. Neither has been raised to know how to handle power. The story of a “good girl” trying to get a handle on her power is much more interesting than any equation of magic overuse with drug addiction, particularly in a world in which powerful women are still seen as a joke.
And power does always have a dark side. I suspect abuse of power — whether strong or petty — is much more common than abuse of drugs.
I’m going to finish out my re-watch, because the ending of Season 6 is something to behold. And because Buffy, the Vampire Slayer really is great television. Joss Whedon is a master of serial storytelling; each episode is part of both a season and the series, but works on its own.
But even good works often have flaws. Over the seven years of Buffy, I have trouble with the drug metaphors and a few weak episodes. Given how great the series is, that’s not much to complain about.