Knowledge, Power and Disaster in Buffyverse, Pt. 3 – Giles

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Above, Giles explains the problem with computers in I, Robot…You, Jane, S1E8. .gif by flowerdrop

Key figure and arguably the anchor of early season Buffy, Rupert Giles (Buffy’s Watcher), we learn was a curator at “a British museum or The British Museum”. (Willow, BtVS S1E1) Giles learned that he was to become a Watcher at the age of ten, from his father and mother, who were also Watchers.

His early years required intensive duty to scholastics which eventually led him to a rebellious period when he and his peers delved beyond their studies, exploring the dark and black arts. They utilized books and materials they had little ability to wield or control let alone understand. Giles often cautions Willow, and serves as a direct warning to all, not to reach beyond their means where learning is concerned, especially in the learning of magics. (Fred later serves as a direct warning/example of the danger of intensive scholastics… another entry will cover that.)

Due to his years delving into the black arts, which function in the show as a drug Giles (known then as ‘Ripper”) and his peers tried to control a demon named Eyeghon, who eventually hunts down the entire group, save Ethan Rayne and Giles, and murders each one. This speckled history of Giles’ is revealed in the episode “The Dark Age,” (S2E8).

In this episode Giles’ history directly compromises the most important people in his life: Jenny Calendar and Buffy. Jenny ends up being possessed by Eyeghon (and thus Buffy ends up beating her to a pulp, working out some subconscious father-figure/jealousy issues in the meantime), while Buffy gets held captive by Ethan Rayne who tries to deflect Eyeghon’s attention from himself by offering up Buffy.

The metaphor of knowledge as a drug is therefore laid out early. If school & scholastics are the beer and wine of the education world (with the ability to get one buzzed or even drunk on knowledge/power), magic is the Meth. Magic is the Heroin of knowledge. Magic is a way to utilize learning immediately in a way that can impact the user’s immediate environment. In light of this, each character can then be viewed through this facet.

Willow is clearly cut out to be an addict, with her drive and obsession for all knowledge. Giles was a recreational user who let it get the better of him. Cordelia is content with “beer & wine,” Xander has no appetite whatsoever, and Buffy has a natural aptitude but no time to capitalize on it because she is a Slayer.

At the library (and later at the magic shop), we know Giles tries to keep the most powerful books where the others will not be able to easily access them. We also know Willow quickly begins to ignore this boundary, sneaking the books she wants to read or see. Early on Buffy is in support of Willow, especially when it will benefit her, thinking her behavior is harmless like when Willow proposes they access the books for history regarding Angel. This is one of the first times we see the addict/co-dependent relationship between Buffy and Willow start to shape itself. (Willow’s addiction and the co-dependence of the Scoobies will be addressed in another essay.)

Giles’ cautions to Willow are from a place of experience, and he is never okay with Willow’s behavior, despite seeing from time to time that her considerable, eventual power is sometimes their only hope. Giles’ attempt to use magic for entertainment as an adolescent creates an unshakable problem that follows him well into adulthood and harms what he loves best. Despite seeing this first hand, Willow does not cease to reach for power and knowledge she does not have. Being the smartest student in school and having the best grades does not satisfy her in any way, it causes her to want more. Where Giles tried to utilize knowledge/magic for recreation, Willow becomes an addict to the Nth; falsely believing she can achieve some sort of mastery where Giles failed due to, as she perceives, his ineptitude.

What we know of Giles is that he comes to rest somewhere in the middle where knowledge is concerned. He knows from experience that he must self-discipline and recognize when something is too far out of his realm. If a job is too big, rather than plow ahead and attempt something dangerous, he will generally contact someone with the right abilities or resources for the job. In converse fashion, Willow will always try everything on her own, even when she is well out of her depth. The “fix” she gets when she is able to apply herself successfully is more than enough for her to eat her failures, and the failures  serve to create deeper craving for her to have more successes.

“Life is like an onion, which one peels crying.” -French Proverb

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Image: Stephen Mooney – “Angel : Not Fade Away” Comic Book – Issue 2

It is appropriate that this blog should finally take concrete form beginning with the consideration of the character Wesley Wyndham Pryce, as his story and development have concerned me for years. To that end, it has now niggled at me enough that this long overdue blog has been created.

I started watching Buffy regularly in season 3. I had seen one episode prior, trying to get into it; season 2 episode 4’s “Inca Mummy Girl.” In retrospect, I can see precisely why that episode didn’t stick. It’s largely a one-off and to this day, aside from the Willow/Oz storyline taking shape, it falls to the bottom of my consideration. It also focuses primarily upon Xander, a character I have always struggled with.

The series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” spawned “Angel” the series, and Wesley is one of the three (arguably four if Spike is included) characters that managed to live on both shows for an extended period. He is also the character that portrays the strengths of Whedon as a character writer, arguably to the greatest degree.

Joss Whedon began illuminating the gaping hole that existed in entertainment writing when BtVS debuted in 1997. From the series start, Whedon began psychologically aging his characters based on their experiences and the situations and individuals they encountered, in a way that no other TV series had until then (and arguably hasn’t since). Whedon’s characters age in a hyper-real way despite their metaphorical, fantastic experiences, exactly as do we in our own lives. Whedon’s characters are slowly (and sometimes not slowly based on the severity of circumstances) shaped by the life that happens to them, and the life they make happen based on decisions to act, or not.

When Wesley first joins BtVS in season 3, he is little more than a sort of human C3PO, prone to pompous formality and public embarrassment due to false-pride. He is a flawed character for many reasons and is mildly rejected by both the Scoobies and the viewers. Wesley is at first merely tolerated by all, save Cordelia Chase, which serves as a commentary unto itself. Personally, I can remember when Wesley first appeared. At that time I assumed he would only remain for a few episodes, quickly going the way of Gwendolyn Post.

But Wesley becomes the raw nerves in the body of work Whedon creates throughout both shows. The eventual tragedy of Wesley as a character cannot be overstated. While Angel clings to an idea of redemption and Buffy hopes against hope for a “normal” life, Wesley’s deepest want is the love that makes one whole, a brand of love that is about having someone to give love to, which he nearly obtains, very briefly.

Once Wesley made the jump to Angel the series, it was slowly revealed that Wesley’s inflated pride and arrogance thinly blanket a deep self-loathing and terrible emotional scarring. Wesley undergoes a number of attempts at personal reinvention, trying desperately to find where he “fits” and always wanting to be someone other than himself. He is a character that represents all of us in our formative 20’s, but to an Nth degree.

And Whedon wisely knows the only way humans lose their affectation and pretense is through public humiliation and mistake, which we very painfully watch Wesley enact more than once. The Wesley we meet first in BtVS’s ‘Bad Girls’ is so drastically far from the Wesley known in “Angel: After the Fall” (canonical graphic novels), but at no time is that tremendous change unbelievable, due to Whedon’s instinct to psychologically reveal and age characters. Wesley’s attempts at new identity all fail, save the genuine destruction and regrowth that happen naturally after tremendous mistake, broken trusts, and harmed relationships. The Wesley that eventually evolves is one that has happened as a result, not the one he has mindfully crafted. Wesley is a constant, striking reminder that life will have its way with us, not the other way around.

In nearly every way, the most tragic stories through both shows belong to Fred and Wesley. With no character other than Fred does Whedon go through the pains of destroying her very soul from existence, within a language and universe that is so centered around the state of one’s soul, and where even the irredeemable have a long-shot at getting their soul back. And with no character other than Wesley does Whedon force a truly hopeless world upon. Wesley never has much, loses everything, gains something extremely precious to him, and almost immediately loses it in the most painful way. Wesley’s joy is a flash in the pan and then it is gone, reminding us that we as humans inherently deserve nothing, and are not owed anything.

Many generic, modern, pop-cultural minds need to simplify Buffy and Buffyverse as little more than a story about a blonde girl who (impossibly) has great power, and her subsequent adventures. But anyone that has done any remotely real thinking about it (especially in light of Whedon’s other offerings, Dollhouse, Firefly & Serenity, The Cabin in the Woods, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog and others) knows that at Whedon’s core is constant, obsessive contemplation of the human tragedy and the portrayal of it, often through farce. Whedon always aims to make an audience forget that what they are watching is as painful as the very worst moments of life itself; he makes a meal of broken glass taste like dinner at Julia Child’s house. In the character of Wesley though, Whedon lets the glass shred our throats and cut our guts, all the way down.

From his early, awkward, embarassing moments, to his final seconds in Angel the series of asking to be lied to (despite being unable to buy the lie for even a moment), Wesley is a painful character to witness because we are reminded that sometimes things always get worse for people that we feel don’t deserve it. Natural justice does not often exist. Sometimes the best we can hope for in life are peppered moments of friendly distraction, fleeting moments of distant hope, and the near-relief of lying to ourselves.