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Transmutation: A Character Study - Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)





Joss Whedon has given television viewers a bevy of memorable characters. One of the most interesting was Spike, a character who came onto the scene in season two as a fun, season long nemesis for Buffy.

Spike fit right in with the quirk of the show with two simple goals: add Buffy to his Slayer trophy count and heal the love of his life, Drusilla. Spike escaped season 2 in one piece but returned, briefly, in season 3 to kidnap Willow I an effort to force her to cast a spell to make Drusilla love him again. How did this ruthless villain end the series as a hero willing to sacrifice himself to save the world?

In preparing for this article I ended up re-watching episodes in a slightly odd order. I first went looking for the episodes where he fell for Buffy. (It took a while for it to occur to me to go to the IMDB page on Spike and look at the list of episodes he appeared in.)

When I found that scene I was a little startled. After losing yet another skirmish with Buffy, Spike dreams of Buffy storming into his crypt to kill him. Their argument turns into a kiss and a declaration of love that was so unexpected it startled Spike. I thought I’d skipped too many episodes. There seemed to be a complete lack of set up for this turn of events.

As I re-watched other episodes I realized, there was plenty of set up for this turn. That set up is a huge part of what made Spike’s journey from entertaining TV villain, to guy whose heart I wanted to rip out and finally, to hero believable.

It started with Spike’s return in season four. It didn’t take too long for him to run into the Initiative. The Initiative brought science to the supernatural and implanted a chip in Spike’s brain that would cause him immense pain if he tried to hurt humans. He’d been, essentially, neutered.

This allowed Spike to get closer to The Slayer and her friends; the Scooby Gang. It didn’t just give Spike the opportunity to get involved in the Slayer stories, it also allowed the character dynamics to change.

The familial relationship between Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles to expanded to include Spike as the annoying cousin that wouldn’t go away.

It didn’t make him a good guy, but when he realized that he could hurt demons, he was able to insert himself in some of Buffy’s battles against evil. He fought on the side of good but only so long as he got something out of it (usually money).

In season five, Spike has the “nightmare” I referred to earlier. I still can’t point to specific scenes and say ‘there, Spike’s feelings toward Buffy are changing’, but there are plenty of examples of Spike’s obsessive personality and the fact that that personality could turn dangerous. The most telling episode was Spike’s origin story.

Before he became a vampire Spike was the laughingstock of his peers and the young woman, Cecily Addams, he pines for considers him beneath her. These are puzzle pieces from numerous stalking tales. I think Cecily was very lucky Spike was turned that night because this situation has all the hallmarks of a many deadly stalker stories.

In fact Spike is stalking Buffy. He even has a shrine built to her, which she sees the same day she finds out he’s in love with her. He tries to convince her that what he’s feeling is real love, but she doesn’t (can’t) believe him.

After all, he is a soulless vampire that’s been killing for centuries. Buffy’s rejection is a bit harsher than Cecily’s. So Spike does what any sane well-adjusted person would do. He orders himself a Buffy sex-bot.

Just when we’re certain that Spike is a twisted freak merely obsessed with Buffy, he allows himself to be tortured rather than reveal the fact that Buffy’s younger sister Dawn was The Key that an evil God was searching for. It doesn’t woo Buffy but it does earn Spike some trust. Spike has finally become part of the Scooby Gang.

This unwillingness to betray Buffy is one of many reasons that it became difficult to describe Spike as simply a villain. Spike had become one of the most intriguing characters in television for me.

After Buffy’s death, at the end of season 5, Spike finds himself fighting with the Scooby Gang and making a deeper connection with Dawn.

When Willow brings Buffy back from the dead it leaves Buffy in a damaged emotional state. She’s been pulled from Heaven. In an effort to escape her pain she begins sleeping with Spike.

Buffy finally begins to get back to herself and calls it off with Spike. He doesn’t handle it well. His attempt to rape Buffy was unexpected but not totally out of character. We’ve seen rejection turn to this type of violence with obsessive personalities in other fiction and far too frequently in the real world.

His abusive side was on display when he briefly dated Harmony. While his attack on Buffy made sense for the audience, it was a shock for Spike. It was enough to send him on the quest to regain his soul.

There are a lot of evil men who are not demons. They have souls. Warren, the creator of the sexbot, who, among other things killed Willow’s girlfriend, was a human with a soul. Therefore, getting his soul back isn’t enough to make Spike a hero.

The newly en-souled Spike begins season 7 ashamed of trying to rape Buffy. However, he is wise enough to realize that a simple apology isn’t enough. It never occurred to him, when he went after his soul that he would hate himself for the things he’s done. He must pay penance for his sins.

It’s the struggle to put all of the pieces back together and make himself worthy of Buffy’s love that drives him. Spike is finally able to accept that she will never love him the way he loves her, but he still wants to be the kind of man she could love.

There’s still one other element required to make Spike a hero. Choice. Until this point the chip is still in play. Spike doesn’t have to face the possibility of losing control and killing because the chip will stop him. A leashed hero isn’t a hero.

When Spike’s chip starts to malfunction, Buffy gets the government to remove it. But Spike is still leashed by The First, the villain for season 7. The First gains control of Spike’s mind. It makes Spike kill and Spike is unaware of these actions. Spike still has no choice.

Principal Wood, one of Buffy’s new allies, turns out to be the son of the Slayer Spike killed in the 70s. Wood figures out what the trigger is that The First uses to activate Spike. He uses this information to force a scenario in which Spike will try to kill him.

The end result of Wood’s attack is that the trigger is no longer effective. Spike is finally able to make a choice and he chooses not to kill Principal Wood. With that choice Spike finally completes his journey.

Spike chooses to fight that final battle Buffy and when offered the option, he chooses to sacrifice himself to save the world.

When I volunteered for this article I didn’t really realize the depth of the work the writers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer put into building this character. I had never really considered why this particular transmutation worked so well. Looking back my respect for that writing team and for James Marsters work.

I hope you enjoyed the article. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments. I look forward to them. Please check in next week when the next article is posted.



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