Celebrating Buffy the Vampire Slayer & One Of The Best Character Arcs Ever On Television

Monkeys Fighting Robots has been celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the show that made Joss Whedon a geek celebrity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in March of 1997 as a midseason replacement with only 13 episodes, a small budget, and plenty of desperation from a fledgling UPN network. Season one of Buffy is fun, monster-of-the-week action with a side of teenage love; even if one of the teenagers is a century-and-a-half old.

Buffy survived season one and went on to six more, full seasons. Buffy became Whedon’s first real hit and allowed him to spin off the show into Angel, another hit, though not to the degree of Buffy. Along the way, Buffy’s seven seasons introduced a range of characters, and the show’s greatest achievement is the brilliance with which it evolved characters. I could focus this piece on any number of characters from the show.

Buffy starts the series as a somewhat dim and shallow girl who wants nothing to do with her destiny. By season seven, Sarah Michelle Gellar’s vampire slayer grew into a woman and leader. Along the way, some brilliant moments become turning points for the character.

Angel, of course, is another character whose torment and transformation is fantastic to watch. Early on, Angel is cocky, and aloof, keeping his distance while trying to help the slayer. But love and loss from his past and present, force the hand of the character. By the end of David Boreanz’s run on Angel, the vampire with a soul has fully accepted being a superhero.

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Xander, Willow, Faith, Giles, even secondary characters like Andrew, all have fantastic arcs throughout the show. Those arcs are a hallmark of Whedon’s best writing. It shines for seven seasons on Buffy.

One of the most complex arcs on the show is that of Spike, the (other) vampire with a soul (eventually). Spike’s voyage from failed, empathic poet to a murderous monster to throw away villain to hero is a fantastic journey through televised fiction. Of course, things didn’t happen in that order.


Buffy Season Two: Spike Arrives

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The character of Spike first appeared as a secondary villain who would push Angel to become Angelus, the vampire’s evil alter ego of sorts. In the episode, “What’s My Line, Part 2” Spike dies. Originally, this was the end of the character. Drusilla, Spike’s psychic vampire girlfriend, and Angel were then to be the villains for the rest of the season. However, James Masters’ portrayal of Spike was popular among fans. Spike was saved, albeit in a wheelchair for the next few episodes, and the journey of the character began.

Spike’s introduction established many things that that would be explored in later episodes. Spike’s attachment to Drusilla and envy of Angel, play into his motivations throughout the show. In fact, it’s Spike’s devotion to women and “mommy issues” that causes so much turmoil in his life.

Buffy Season Three: Classic Anti-Hero

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Spike returned in the season three episode “Lover’s Walk.” Spike returns to have a fledgling witch, Willow, cast a love spell on Spike’s longtime love and sire, Drusilla. Again, while being an evil jerk, Spike’s just looking for love. At this point, even though the character was only meant for guest appearances, Spike is presented as an anti-Buffy. Both characters just want a normal life. Of course, Spike wants a few other things along the way, mostly things that aren’t his. But love is at the core of their motivations. Loneliness drives them, albeit in different directions.

Spike was only meant as a guest star, but Marsters’ popularity and chemistry with the cast made him a regular. Whedon conceived of the “chip” storyline that would incorporate Spike into the Scooby Gang. His role? As the guy who reminds everyone, they’re idiots. For the rest of Season Three, and his run on Buffy, Spike proved to be the classic anti-hero.

Buffy Season Four: Neutered Beast

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The voice of reason, even if it came with severe sarcasm, was a perfect fit for the character. And though I might argue that the chip storyline went on a little too long, it proved to be a masterful way to build a complex character out of a once throwaway villain.

Spike was introduced as a chaos-loving, self-centered, murderer. Spike’s proficiency at killing allowed him the distinction of having killed not one, but two, Slayers in the past. Something Angel had never even done. But in Season Four, a high-tech government group known as “The Initiative” featured as the “big bad.” The Initiative implanted a chip in Spike’s brain, keeping this murderous animal from being able to harm humans.

Marsters’ portrayal of Spike as he learns his new limits is flawless. Spike becomes an animal, locked away in his body. Eventually, Spike learns that though he can’t harm humans, he can still hurt other monsters. What more perfect an outlet for a character going through this sort of personal turmoil than through physical violence. It’s the last method humans have for expressing their feelings. Words would not help Spike, even if he once desired nothing more than to write poetry.

Past, Present, And Future

During the season four episode “Fool For Love” we get our first glimpse at William the Bloody, the man Spike was before becoming a vampire. William didn’t earn his macabre nickname by being violent or some blood-covered meat packer. William was a poet and a “bloody” awful one at that. Spike was an artist at heart, and the ridicule he received for his poetry forced him into the arms of Drusilla who turned him into a vampire. Now, with the power to kill anyone who mocks him or otherwise pisses him off, Spike would become a murderous beast. For centuries, Spike fed his violent, revenge-fueled instincts, until the chip took it all away in an instant.

The Chip forced Spike to change, whether he liked it or not. At first, he didn’t. Spike suffers from the chip, trying to figure out ways to regain what he’d lost. But it forced the character to evaluate his former enemies, see them in a new light, and see a potential in himself to once again become the good-natured soul he was centuries before.

Buffy Season Five: Love And Hate

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Spike would remain as a member of the Scooby Gang for the remainder of the show. As a surrogate replacement for the wisecracking Cordelia, Spike proved so good, that Whedon used him for that same duty again in Angel. During Season Five, the chip had taken its toll on Spike, and while he wasn’t yet a “good guy” he was learning to be one. Spike was also dealing with human feelings again after the chip suppressed his demonic instincts. Spike found that he was becoming attracted to Buffy during Season Five and made advance after advance only to be turned down. By the end of the season, though rejected, Spike’s turn to the good side is fully underway. And the tragedy of his character is so perfectly phrased when he tells Buffy “I know that I’m a monster, but you treat me like a man” (“The Gift”).

Buffy Season Six: Man vs. Monster

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William the Bloody, Spike in his pre-vampire life, was a momma’s boy who found little luck in love. In fact, in one moment, a woman who’d caught William’s eye said to him “You’re beneath me.” Later, in another moment where he professed his love to Buffy, the slayer would echo the sentiment, crushing Spike. This moment, sent the handcuffed beast spiraling back to the same anger that birthed a monster so many years before. Spike’s goal now was fully focused on regaining his evil mojo so that he could once again exact revenge for ridicule. At the end of a tumultuous season, Spike heads off to visit a demon which has his original human soul. In the closing moments of the season, we see that Spike is winning a fight for his soul only to find out that it’s just the first of many.

Season Six featured a controversial episode titled, “Seeing Red” in which Spike attempts to rape Buffy. The pair had a passionate love affair throughout the season, but Buffy ended it.  Spike, however, was a man torn apart from centuries of turmoil. The twisted choreography of the rape scene, every edit designed to inflict the duality of the moment. Buffy, the victim, emotionally wracked and struggling to free herself. Spike, a being caught between man and monster, his twisted version of reality overriding his rationality. In the end, Buffy stops Spike before things got rated-R wrong.

For Spike, he’d hit rock bottom like a meteor slamming into the earth. Fans may hate the moment; it’s certainly not an easy one to swallow. But from a narrative point of view, it perfectly sets up the redemption ride that would be the rest of Spike’s story. In his struggle of Man vs. Monster, Spike lost.

Buffy Season Seven: Redemption of the Anti-Hero

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At the start of Season Seven, Spike is living beneath the newly built high school. A combination of the rising power of The First, the final “big bad” and a new soul are driving the already tormented vampire mad. In the second episode, “Beneath You,” Spike says, “”For her. To be hers. To be the kind of man who would never… to be a kind of man… and she shall look on him with forgiveness, and everybody will forgive and love, and he will be loved.” After this, Spike throws himself on a cross, burning on it as punishment. Buffy forgives Spike, but it would still be a while before Spike would be whole again.

Spike’s character arc started as a meek, wannabe poet in the 19th century. The poet, rejected and disrespected by the women around him was turned into a monster by a woman. With new found power, the poet became a prolific killer, but always with the intention of proving himself to a woman — Drusilla. Later, the monster would be forced to face his inhumanity, rediscover his humanity, and become a hero, first for another woman — Buffy — then finally for himself. The poet met a heroic crescendo on Buffy, sacrificing himself in the season finale. Using an amulet, Spike channeled sunlight that destroyed the army of the First Evil, but also incinerated Spike.

Spike would later appear on Angel and continue to develop. But Spike’s dynamic character arc on Buffy ended with an incredible bang. From meek to a monster, to hero, it’s no wonder Whedon calls Spike his “most developed character.”

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Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.
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