Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 6, Episode 19: Seeing Red
Written by Steven S. DeKnight; Directed by Michael Gershman
Sorry, guys. This one’s going to be an essay.
This is the episode where Buffy died for me. Seriously, I could take Dawn the kleptomaniac, I could take the Doublemeat Palace, I could even just about tolerate crack whore Willow, but this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Watching Seeing Red for the first time was the moment at which it suddenly occurred to me just how much I was being manipulated. It got to a point where I actually started laughing at what I was seeing. The writers had overshot with their message of pain and suffering so much that they’d turned what, with a little restraint, could have been an effective story about the perils of growing up, into an absolute farce of epic proportions.
There are two nails in this particular coffin. One is the dead lesbian lying in a pool of lesbian blood at the foot of the Evil Bed of Lesbian Lust just after having sinful lesbian sex with another lesbian, whose eyes flash red as she turns into an evil lesbian killing machine (see, I’m trying to make a point here). The other is Spike the Redeemed Vampire turning into Spike the Rapist because the writers suddenly remembered “Hey, soulless vampire - got to be evil! Quick! Make him do an evil thing because, you know, all those times we portrayed Spike as a sympathetic, selfless hero - guess what? You weren’t meant to like him. Because he’s not good - he just wants to get into Buffy’s pants.”
There are several problems with this, and they all stem from the fact that the writers have proven themselves completely incapable of portraying Spike in anything approaching a consistent manner. The attempted rape, presumbably, is meant to remind us that he is, deep down, still an evil, soulless monster. Okay, but why then is he in “human” face throughout the attack? (Which, before anyone asks, was, in my opinion, an excellent move. It firmly establishes rape as a crime committed by human beings rather than mythical monsters. The only problem is that it contradicts everything that follows.)
The writers then send him on a quest to get his soul back, presumably because they want to show that a soulless creature can never be redeemed. Okay, so then you negate two and a half years’ worth of character development. But fair enough: let’s assume it’s true and that, deep down, Spike really is evil, and that getting his soul back will turn him into a completely different person. Okay, but then why does his personality not change one jot after he regains his soul (see Season 7)?
More crucially, why is Buffy, the stronger of the two, allowed to abuse Spike and not have to pay for her crimes? Please note that the issue here is not to try and excuse Spike’s actions, but rather to ask why Buffy should be excused from doing exactly the same thing. The impression given here is that domestic violence can only ever be something that men do to women. What it all comes down to is that Buffy is the victim because she’s the girl, and Spike is the villain because he’s the guy. Which, for a supposedly feminist show, is jaw-droppingly misogynist. (Domestic Abuse and Gender Role Reversal in Season 6: My Letter to Mutant Enemy by Kristen Smirnov is a great article, by the way, and one from which I cribbed a number of the points made above.)
Having discussed the whimsies of Spike the Rapist, let’s move on to Tara the Dead Lesbian. If you don’t know what the Dead/Evil Lesbian Cliché is, I strongly suggest you read this FAQ compiled by Stephen Booth. It overstates the case on a few occasions, and there are a couple of points that I strongly disagree with, but it’s an invaluable read anyway. The crux of the matter is that, in TV (and indeed the arts in general), lesbians always ended up either dead, or murderers, or indeed dead murderers. I do think that things are improving in this regard - I think Channel 4’s Sugar Rush is a great series, and hey, even Holby City of all shows managed to give its sole lesbian character a happy exit recently, that didn’t involve her killing anyone or dying (on the contrary, it involved her getting a girlfriend and going off to medical school) - but for a long time fans had thought that Buffy was going to be the light at the end of the tunnel for gay women.
My point here, though, is not to debate the wrongs of the cliché (the FAQ does a pretty good job of that on its own), but rather to discuss Tara’s death and Willow’s campaign of murderous revenge as a piece of piss-poor storytelling. Watching Seeing Red again, it’s jaw-dropping how blatantly Tara’s death is telegraphed, and I can’t imagine anyone being particularly surprised when she popped her clogs. This is, after all, a Joss Whedon show, which should have warning signs lighting up in neon whenever anyone suddenly gets happy - especially in a season in which no-one has been allowed to be happy. Willow and Tara spend at least half the episode in bed together, professing their undying love and doing all sorts of naughty things, and putting Amber Benson in the opening title sequence for just this episode should have been a dead giveaway (and a rather nasty trick too). But hey, this is Season 6, so it can only end in tears. (I’ll give them credit, though, for pushing the boundaries of American television with this episode. Okay, so it’s not the “naked lesbian sex scene” Marti Noxon was busy bragging about before it aired, and a scene of implied fellatio was apparently cut, but it is two women, nude, in bed together, on American network TV. Good god, wonders will never cease!)
And end it does, despite the fact that the trajectory of the bullet that kills Tara being physically impossible. And once again I have to wonder why the writers were so fixated on having Tara dying in the bedroom. Surely it would have been more logical to just put her in the garden. Unless her dying right in front of the bed in which she’d just had sex had some sort of significance… But I digress. If killing Tara so Willow could go on a murderous rampage was the only way to inject some life into this turgid season, then, well, perhaps this just wasn’t a story worth telling. I find it more than a little stomach-churning that Whedon thought sacrificing a beloved character (and someone who served as a message of hope to a minority desperate for some positive portrayal in the media) was a suitable exchange for a mediocre three-episode finale to a tedious and monotonous season. But hey, maybe that’s why he went from having three shows on the air to none in the space of two years. Either way, he overestimated his audience’s willingness to swallow whatever shit he fed them.
On a message board, one fan once said that Willow without Tara is pointless. I think that’s true: Willow without Tara is a shell of her former self, as is Xander without Anya, the show without Giles… The show never recovers from this episode, and from hereon in, everything else seems hollow.
Overall rating: 3/10.
Next time: Villains.