Before we get into the top entry on this list, let’s review this month’s rules: This is a list of characters who should not be liked, not as people, but as characters, for writing gaffe reasons that are insulting, insensitive, or just plain clumsy, and yet for one reason or another, they find a place in my heart.
(Click the links for Favorite Fictional Character That I Shouldn’t Like #2, #3, #4, and #5)
It’s especially important to note this week that my affection in no way cancels out those gaffes.
This week also gets one of these:
****Spoiler Alert Through Season Seven****
And, jeebus, I guess one of these:
Okay. *Warmup stretches.*
If you know the show, it should be pretty obvious where I'm going with this. If not...
Why I shouldn't like him:
All right, slightly more explanation required, I guess. After all, I've got no qualms liking an unforgivable bastard of a character, as a character, if that's the intent. Fiction needs its great villains. There's nothing wrong with that.
The problem here is that's not what you're seeing above. Or at least, it's not supposed to be.
Here's the short version of Spike's storyline:
We're introduced to him in season two as our new big villain, when he displaces the far more boring vampire boss before him, and he's one hell of a memorable bad guy. As in, scary sadistic son of a bitch.
In season four, he gets abducted by a shady government organization that implants an experimental chip in his brain to make him incapable of physically harming humans. He joins up tenuously with the heroes for protection, and for the opportunity to indulge his lust for violence, since the chip leaves him able to fight other demons, which is pretty much how Buffy's "Scooby Gang" spends a dull Wednesday night. They reluctantly accept him as much-needed backup muscle for when Buffy's hands are full, and as an informant on the demon underworld.
Spike slowly develops a genuine attachment to some of the good guys and earns the trust of most of them, to the degree that he's routinely left on bodyguard duty for Buffy's little sister, the show's go-to McGuffin and damsel in seasons 5-7.
Spike and Buffy have a tempestuous sexual relationship, during which Spike repeatedly professes his love and asks to make them official, while Buffy... well, if a skilled team of writers accepted a million dollar bet that they couldn't create fictional, hypothetical proof of the possibility that a situation could theoretically exist in which it might be remotely fair to call a woman a "tease," the result would look a hell of a lot like season six Buffy.
She says no, then yes, then no, then yes. She uses him, and then refuses to acknowledge him when he tries to talk to her about it, and then uses him, and then calls him worthless, and then uses him again.
When Buffy tries to break it off for good, Spike tries to rape her. (His brain chip doesn't apply to her, because magic).
That's not open to interpretation, by the way. This isn’t me calling out a scene for being badly presented. It’s not a Jaime-and-Cersei-Lannister case of something coming across onscreen differently from the way it might, possibly, arguably have been intended (not that that isn’t bad enough).
I refuse to spend any longer than I already have sifting through eroticized YouTube music videos looking for an unaltered clip of the scene to share with the strong-stomached, but if you want to hunt it down for yourself, the episode title is “Seeing Red.”
Suffice it to say, it's meticulously unambiguous. A point is even specifically made that Spike only stops because Buffy manages to hurt him enough to make him, not because of any spontaneous epiphany on his part.
Anyway, Buffy fights him off, cries for about a minute, and then gets up and carries on with her life pretty much as if nothing happened, going so far as to suggest keeping him as her sister’s guard, while Spike slinks off to wallow in guilt, embarks on a quest to win his soul back (Buffy vampires lose their souls in their transformation), comes back harrowed and cured of his violent urges, reconnects with Buffy on a purer, more emotional level than their physical affair, pulls himself together inspired by her faith in him, yadda yadda....
Do I need to spend words on what's wrong with this picture?
It's a rape plotline revolving around how goddamn hard this is on the perpetrator. How tragic a victim he is in all this, how sorry we should feel for him, how all he needs is for a good woman to love him, and he can change. One little soul-quest, easy as that.
It's also dripping with the implication that no doesn't really mean no, because in all their encounters before "Seeing Red," when Spike tells Buffy that she doesn't mean what she says, the narrative allows him to be right.
It's a story about a woman we're supposed to admire and respect as a symbol of strength, falling in love (for all intents and purposes, quibble all you want about what qualifies as love) with a man who tried to rape her, and we the audience are asked to agree.
If there's a trope in fiction that can piss me off harder than this, I don't ever want to know what it is.
Social justice aside, I'm also going to call plain old clumsiness on this whole plotline.
As if using a rape attempt for the purpose of motivating Spike to go get a soul weren't a terrible enough idea, it’s followed up with a season cliffhanger fake-out in which we're supposed to believe that he’s actually questing for a way to get rid of the chip. There’s lots of militantly cryptic wording about making sure "the bitch gets what she deserves," which serves the triple purpose of killing any sympathy Spike might have left at this point, if there were any, making absolutely no sense with the penitent headspace the larger storyline insists that he's in at this point, and failing as a fakeout for anyone with even a Saturday morning cartoon level of attunement to forced-cryptic phrasing.
And then there’s the ill-defined nature of what a “soul” is supposed to be. Buffy's had a vampire-with-a-soul boyfriend before.
There was plenty of drama in the early seasons revolving around Angel losing his soul and getting it back, and it was always played as two people, the soul and the demon, fighting over one body. Angel, the soul, is a white knight through and through and controls the body when present. Angelus, the demon, is a stone cold psycho. It's night and day. It's not a character with issues, but two characters.
Yes, this dynamic was slowly retconned over time so that characters who got vampirized later on could retain some of their personality, something about the demon that inhabits the victim's body latching onto the most evil tendencies already present and unleashing them, but it's never explained in any solid, satisfactory way, so based on the closest thing we have to a defined set of rules, the show spends five seasons letting us get to know and, against all odds, like the demon that inhabits Spike's body, and then it tries to clinch that liking by handing the reins over to the human soul who, according to those rules, should be regarded as a separate person.
Everything about Spike’s plotline and his relationship with Buffy before the rape attempt gives the appearance of building toward the conclusion that Spike already has a soul for all intents and purposes, if not a human one. It hints that the black-and-white view that most of the Scoobies have of demons versus humans is overly simplistic and unfair. It seems to be leading toward some kind of pivotal epiphany on Buffy's part that will snap her out of the rampaging self-pity fest she's been stuck in all through season six and back to some semblance of the noble, fun-loving, irreverent hero we all know and love.
Nope! Instead we're told that Buffy and her less tolerant Scoobies were right about calling Spike inferior all this time, and that he does need this ill-defined magic bullet of a soul in order to be good enough to be one of them, no matter how much he might try and mean well without it.
And no, no great revelations for Buffy, because after what Spike does, the story has the no-win choice between addressing how awful Buffy’s been, at the peril of implying that it could in any way justify Spike's actions, making this plotline even more offensive and insensitive than it already is, or letting her entire arc of unlikeability off the hook with an unsatisfying fizzle. To its very small credit, it goes with the latter.
Why I Love Him Anyway:
This is the part where all the guys in the audience roll their eyes and loudly wonder why women always fall for the obviously bad guys, and no denying, that's totally part of Spike’s appeal. I could put in my two cents on why that appeal exists at all, but, well, I tried going into it, and it nearly doubled the length of this leviathan of an article, so that's going to have to wait for a more general post of its own.
This one's about what's special about Spike, not general, and there’s a lot of special. His story is like an expertly woven, fine silk tapestry that just happens to be a depiction of a giant middle finger. If you can manage to ignore the big picture, the details are breathtaking.
I went into watching Buffy with the spoiler hanging over me that Spike was going to be a main love interest, and I wanted so much for it to be a lie. No matter how much I liked watching him as a villain or how good their chemistry was, there was just no way Buffy could fall for Spike, this predatory monster who terrorizes her friends and makes jokes that aren't jokes about kidnapping and torturing his ex-girlfriend for leaving him, without it being an insult to her character. I was convinced that no amount of progress could ever make me accept them.
And with the downright artful patience of countless tiny moments, the show did what I would have called the impossible. It made me feel for them as a pair.
There's the moment when Spike finds Buffy crying after her mother's brain tumor is found and sits with her, just sits, wordlessly, helplessly, the only way someone who cares can when a hurt is beyond expression.
There’s the perfectly subtle moment when Willow's temporarily insane girlfriend, Tara, accidentally burns Spike by opening a window to the daylight, and instead of lashing out with his usual defensiveness, Spike brushes off Willow's apologies with honest grace, because before Buffy, he spent the better part of his undeath loving an insane person as well and knows exactly what it's like.
There's the slowly unwinding backstory, which unlike the tragic pasts of so many badboy characters that exist solely as love interests, actually feels like a living, continuing part of who he is.
Spike's someone who's spent his whole life being put down and written off. When he was finally offered approval by a vampire woman, he threw himself, quite literally body and soul, into crafting himself into what he had to be in order to keep that approval, which, in her case, was the flashy killing machine he is when we meet him. And when even she rejects him, he clings desperately to the power that persona gave him, which slips, little by little, as he finds himself questioning whether that was ever what he wanted to be.
Nothing about his backstory excuses the inexcusable things he does, of course, but it does make him believable and relatably vulnerable, and more compelling than any quantity of abstract, detached sympathy points could make him, to a degree where he can carry a story independent of his relationship to our heroine, which is an impressive feat for either a villain or a love interest.
After the long, slow build of this, comes their big, defining moment.
Spike gets captured by the villain of season five, an actual evil god, and refuses under torture to give up the location of Buffy's sister. We've seen him do good things and go to crazy lengths in his attempts to impress Buffy before, but this he does with no expectation of surviving to collect any kind of thank you.
Sorry, Angel, you're not special. If that's not proof of a soul, what is?
Once Buffy and Spike’s relationship, such as it is, actually begins, I'm sold. I'm Team Spike. If anything, I'm rooting for him to find the self-respect to stop taking Buffy's abuse and walk out, if she can't snap out of her own issues enough to treat him like an equal.
But Buffy’s got plenty of reason to have issues, and if anyone ever had a lot to atone for, it's Spike, so the fact that she has so much to apologize to him for in their early relationship feels like it might be just enough to put them on even footing. There’s a sense that they might be two very messed up people who might ultimately be able to find some happiness in each other if they’ll just talk out their problems.
Right about here is where I hit the five stages of grieving.
Denial: This isn't happening. It's a dream sequence. One of them is about to wake up.
Anger: I defended you, you monster!
Bargaining: Okay, I got suckered. I forgot who he was. I can be annoyed that his redemption plotline went a little too far with demonstrating his capacity for selflessness if this was going to be the ultimate point, but maybe the plotline is salvageable. Maybe I had this smack in the face coming for buying in, and-
Wait, it's not finished? You're going to do it again? You're sending him on another, shorter, clumsier redemption arc after you just pulled off the near-impossible task of redeeming him once? No. Not cool.
Okay, so maybe the whole Buffy and Spike plotline I've gotten invested in is unsalvageable, but I can still keep my overall love and respect for the show, right? I mean, it’s Buffy! It's a female-led superhero show before that was even a hot issue! It’s created by the incomparable Joss Whedon! It's got a groundbreaking lesbian romance! Surely this is an isolated misstep. Right...?
Wait, hold up.
Here are all the Buffy characters I can think of who are known rapists:
Spike: Tries and fails to rape Buffy, sexually threatens Willow on multiple occasions, later confirmed as having been an active serial rapist in his villain days.
Veruca: Takes advantage of Oz in his werewolf form, knowing he’s temporarily incapable of human-level decision-making.
Faith: Tries to rape and nearly kills Xander, successfully rapes Riley by appearing to him in Buffy’s body (rape by fraud).
Jonathan: Alters the universe to make himself universally beloved and admired, has sex with multiple thereby brainwashed women. These events are not undone or even forgotten when the universe is reset.
Willow: Erases Tara’s memory of the fact that they’re having a fight, leading to sex between them that Tara would not have consented to at the time if she’d had access her full mental faculties.
Warren: Mind controls his ex-girlfriend into sex and then kills her when she recovers and tries to escape.
There's every chance I've missed some, and this is only counting literal rape, not any of the sci-fi and supernatural rape allegories that come up on the show all the time without involving literal sex acts.
And now, here's how many of those characters fight on the side of the heroes in the final confrontation with evil:
Yeah, the show's obsession with redemption, to the point of belittling the importance of the victims' experiences and even implying that they owe their attackers forgiveness and understanding, was always a pervasive theme. It just takes that gut-turningly brutal Spike and Buffy scene to take it to a place too real to ignore.
So, have I made it through sadness into acceptance yet?
Well, I accept that I'll never be able to rationalize a defense for this plotline, and I accept that I'll never give up loving the many pieces of the show that are smart, emotionally powerful, and even socially revolutionary. I can't even give up loving the parts of Spike as a character and Spike and Buffy's relationship that are awesomely effective, before and, yes, even occasionally after the episode that makes them indefensible.
Has the cognitive dissonance caused by this contradiction obsessed me to a Poe-esque degree that ultimately drove me to plan an entire month of blogging around working up to cracking it open and poking its insides with a stick?
... Why do you ask?
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