During its seven-season run (1997-2004), Buffy the Vampire Slayer was constantly pushing the envelope. Network politics be damned, creator Joss Whedon was not above shaking things up: “Censors. Don’t love ’em.” Seasons one through five originally ran on the WB, during which time there were a lot of restrictions by which to abide. However, a show that worked primarily on the level of metaphor was able to get around a lot of things and have fun doing it. Those first seasons still got to deal with issues related to dating, parents, and abuse. Things became a little touch and go in 2000 when the series began to develop a lesbian relationship. Whedon admits some things had to be cut and kissing was not allowed, but he was dead-set on moving forward with the story-arc anyways. For seasons six and seven the series moved to UPN, where Whedon was essentially given carte-blanche. It comes as no surprise then that these seasons dealt with a variety of heavier topics and darker subject matter. Not to mention a number of heated sex scenes; even Willow and Tara got to spice things up.
Ultimately, Whedon’s desire not to shy away from controversy made for seven years’ worth of compelling TV. Buffy the Vampire Slayer entertained, enthralled, and taught us a lot about life. Today, network TV is littered with sex, drugs, and violence and viewers gobble it up. But it’s important to reflect on the history of TV censorship and progression and to pay tribute to the predecessors, like Buffy, that set the stage for anything to happen next.
15. Willow Becomes a Full-Fledged Addict – Wrecked
Throughout season six, Willow’s dependence on magic had been becoming increasingly worrisome, and as a result, Tara had left her. In “Wrecked”, Willow and Amy hit the town and Willow uses magic as an escape from her own sadness. This quickly progresses into a heavy-handed analogy between magic and drugs. Amy eventually takes Willow to a magic dealer in a space clearly fashioned after a drug-den. She learns that the price of Rack’s magic is to let him “taste” her, and when he does so he delivers the oh-so-disgusting line, “you taste like strawberries.” Willow is then given a hallucination-infused magic trip and later cries in the shower. Still, the next night she finds herself in dire need for another fix. The episode ends with her hitting rock bottom, causing a car wreck, and tearfully begging Buffy to help her overcome her addiction. Though the episode has been criticized for suddenly making too literal a metaphor and having Willow act out of character, it does hit some perfect emotional cues.
14. The Final Battle Claims Two Beloved Characters – Chosen
In the series finale, the end of the world has finally arrived, and anything can happen. All of season seven is spent preparing for a final showdown that will inevitably claim lives, but none are as shocking as the unlikely heroes, Anya and Spike. Both had been long-time romantic partners of main characters, although the relationships had become complicated by this point. Though Anya and Xander have ended things, she is still a very significant member of the team. During the battle, she is slashed to death in one swift moment and her body is never recovered. It has made a list of the most undignified deaths in Sci-Fi TV history. Meanwhile, Spike gets the most honorable death there is: self-sacrifice. Finally proving himself to be the hero Buffy knew he could be, Spike goes down in a blaze of glory. A sad but proud Buffy holds his hand. She finally says “I love you,” and he thanks her for saying it.
13. Xander Tries To Force Himself On Buffy – The Pack
In the early seasons, Xander holds quite a torch for Buffy. Despite being a hormonal teenage boy with a penchant for passive aggressiveness, he handles this crush relatively well. For the most part, he just pines over her behind her back and is rude to other guys that take an interest in her. However, he remains a good friend who displays a sincere desire for her to be happy. In the episode “The Pack”, Xander and a group of other students are somehow possessed by hyenas and take on predatory characteristics. This does not bode well for his unresolved (and unrequited) feelings for Buffy. In a disturbing scene, Xander insists that Buffy must have feelings for him and tries to force himself on her. At first, she tries to reason with him, afraid to use Slayer force. Eventually, he leaves her no choice. Once his self is restored, Xander is so ashamed that he pretends not to recall the ordeal, and Buffy never tells him about it.
12. Buffy Has A One Night Stand – The Harsh Light Of Day
“The Harsh Light of Day” is an episode all about sex, sex, sex. In it, we have three bedroom pairings that all play out differently. Anya decides she would like to have sex with Xander in order to stop thinking about it. Spike gives into carnal pleasures with Harmony, despite having a real dislike for her. And Parker, a random Sunnydale U student, seduces Buffy. All three of the women awake the next day feeling less good than they intended. Sarah Michelle Gellar is said to have taken issue with her character jumping into the sack with some new guy, but the episode is very much about how hormones trick people into making bad choices. Buffy is later devastated by the realization that Parker isn’t really into her and there are several echoes to her first time, in which she awoke to find Angel had turned into a literal monster. The metaphor is on replay here, and Buffy is crushed.
11. Willow Commits Murder – Villains
There is a saying that violence is seductive. This is the idea that on some base level, humans are prone to violence; some more than others. Although violence is the nature of the Slayer, Buffy resists the idea that there is anything dark inside of her. This gets complicated over the years, especially as she realizes that she does, in fact, find something attractive about violence. However, through all of the chaos and death, one fact holds true for Buffy and her friends – they do not kill people. This all changes in the episode “Villains”. In the aftermath of Tara’s death, Willow is overwhelmed by vengeance and lets herself be completely overtaken by dark magic. She hunts Tara’s killer down and brutally ends him, without hesitation or remorse.
10. Buffy Dies – The Gift
In a show all about protecting the innocent, self-sacrifice is the ultimate honor that can be bestowed upon any character. In the season five finale, Buffy sacrifices herself in place of her sister, to close a portal to Hell. The scene holds heavy emotional impact, as she recalls a dream in which the First Slayer says to her, “death is your gift.” She comforts Dawn, saying “this is the work I have to do,” and tells Dawn to tell her friends that she is okay; that she has figured it out. Her final words are heard over shots of her friends discovering her body, and the episode ends on a tombstone marked with her name and the tagline, She Saved the World, A Lot. Whedon has admitted that most of season six had been planned by this point, and during the break, he promised fans her return would not be handled lightly. In season six, being brought back proves to be far more devastating than dying.
9. Willow Comes Out (And Chooses Tara) – New Moon Rising
In New Moon Rising, we finally have Willow openly state that her relationship with Tara is romantic. This had been building in subtext (due in large part to sensors and the network) over a few episodes, but when Oz returns for a second chance, everyone is forced to face the truth head on.
There was something about Willow saying it out loud that set the public off. Whedon addressed the homophobia and backlash immediately, stating: “For real: how Fu**ing disappointed was I in the American public after Tuesday night?… But of course there were just as many voices raised in support of the arc as against, which was swell.” He added, “And the fact is, stirring up controversy is sort of fun.” The arc of exploring sexuality is something the show was headed towards for a while, and Seth Green (Oz) leaving the show made Willow a perfect candidate. Alyson Hannigan (Willow) reported being relieved that it was all out in the open after this episode. She told Cult Times, “It’s official. We’re in luurrvvve.”
8. Spike and Buffy Have Hate-Sex – Smashed
If buildings don’t crumble around you while you have sex, you might not be fuelled by a confusing mixture of hatred, anger, and desire. But that is definitely NOT a problem for Spike and Buffy. During a violent altercation between the two, Buffy suddenly kisses him. They proceed to have sex and continue to smash each other into walls and floors as they do so. This marks the start of a half-season long sex spree that does not exactly qualify as rational… or tame.
Buffy often shows up at Spike’s crypt for her fix, but these two also go at it in the alley behind her workplace, on her front lawn, and at The Bronze. This is all presented as Buffy being self-destructive due to her own depression, so the fact that they leave a wake of physical destruction behind them makes sense. It isn’t until the following season that the two form a proper emotional romance.
7. Buffy Loses Her Virginity (Angel Turns Evil) – Surprise / Innocence
In season 2, “Innocence” featured the show’s first of many sex scenes. In the previous episode, Buffy spends the night in the hideout with Angel and gives into the sexual desire that has been building between them for some time. This is notably Buffy’s first time, and it happens off-screen. Afterwards, while Buffy sleeps in his arms, Angel gasps and runs out into the rain. He has lost his soul and has returned to his natural evil state, Angelus – effectively breaking the hearts of teenage girls everywhere. In “Innocence”, we see the love-making as a series of flashes in Buffy’s memory. Whedon had been embarrassed to ask the actors to perform the heavy breathing, so he and his sound editor created it instead. Although Whedon was never a fan of the Buffy/Angel love story, he has stated this is his favorite episode. It marks a significant loss of innocence and plays out the fear that after having sex with a guy, he might become a monster.
6. Dawn Appears – Buffy vs Dracula / Real Me
Dawn is a universally hated TV character, so it doesn’t help that her first appearance in the series was entirely unexplained. In the last few seconds of season five episode one, Dawn is shown to be in Buffy’s room and is referred to as her little sister. Up until this point, Buffy has been an only child. In the following episode, the writers fully insert Dawn into Buffy’s life and the other characters treat her as though she has always existed. There are hints that something is not quite right, but her existence is not fully explained for several episodes. Either way, she was here to stay – and fans did not like it. Responding to complaints that Dawn is too whiny in season six, Whedon has said, “I scratched my head. I was like, ‘Excuse me, she’s been abandoned by about six parental figures. The girl has huge issues.'” He wanted to expand her character but knew audiences would not be interested.
5. Joyce Dies – The Body
The devastation of the episode “The Body” is two-fold. On the one hand, we are losing a character and Buffy is losing a mother. It’s a shock. On the other hand, the way in which the death is presented is uncomfortably realistic and forces viewers to confront their own fear of or experience with great loss. On the DVD commentary, Whedon discusses this openly. He says, “I wanted to be very specific about what it felt like the moment you discover…you’ve lost someone.” To do this, the episode uses no background music and minimizes editing. Whedon adds that it offers an “almost obscene physicality – a little more physicality than we necessarily want or are used to because death is a physical thing… I didn’t want time cuts that let you out of the moment.” To heighten the emotion, various characters are shown handling the shock in various ways. In a series about monsters and magic, the episode carries a stark realistic quality that is difficult to shake off.
4. The Gang Has To Stop A School Shooting – Earshot
1999’s “Earshot” is widely regarded as one of the most controversial TV episodes of all time because it deals with the topics of school shootings and teen suicide. In it, Buffy gains the ability to read minds and overhears a plot to kill all the students. After a frantic search for the culprit, Buffy finds Jonathan in the clocktower with a rifle. He explains that he intends to kill himself, and no one else. Buffy is able to talk Jonathan out of suicide by pointing out that everyone feels alone in high school. Meanwhile, the gang figures out that an angry lunch lady had been planning to poison all the students. Although there was no actual school shooting, the topic was directly addressed, so its air date was pushed back out of respect for the Columbine shooting. Until this point, Jonathan had been a background character but went on to have a very big role in season six.
3. Spike Tries To Force Himself On Buffy – Seeing Red
In “Seeing Red”, a heartbroken Spike tries to get Buffy back, but what begins as a passionate expression of feelings quickly digresses into him trying to force himself on her.
Like, “The Body,” the scene is presented with uncomfortable realism. Palpable is both Spike’s pain and Buffy’s disbelief. He begs her to feel something for him again, and she begs him to stop, before finally kicking him across the room. James Marsters (Spike) explained that the scene was meant to be about someone in love being unable to let go, and thinking sex will fix things. Moreover, within the context of their relationship thus far, there has been a conflation of sex and violence and it seems that Spike may not see how this is different. Controversially, the viewer is given the opportunity to sympathize with Spike here. But Buffy’s victimization is not downplayed either. When he snaps out of it, Spike is horrified by the realization of what he’s actually tried to do. The shame of the event is not something he easily overcomes.
2. Willow and Tara Get Sexy, And Tragedy Strikes – Seeing Red
The LGBTQ community and its supporters were recently mortified to find that the first sex scene between Lexa and Clarke on The 100 was directly followed by Lexa being killed by a stray bullet that was intended for someone else. This sparked the “Lexa Deserved Better” campaign, and the public was quick to point out the correlation between Lexa and Tara. In “Seeing Red”, after nearly three seasons of only implied intimacy between Willow and Tara, they are shown naked in bed – marking a broadcast TV first. Throughout the episode, we keep returning to the bedroom, where the two have stayed put in a haze of romantic bliss. But all that comes to a devastating halt when just after dressing, a stray bullet meant for Buffy comes through the window and strikes Tara down. It was a sudden and miserable end to a beautiful character and remains a key example referenced when people discuss Bury Your Gays and Dead Lesbian Syndrome today.
1. BTVS Airs First Full Lesbian Sex Scene In Network TV History – Touched
There was a lot of hype surrounding the release of the episode “Touched” (season 7). People were anxious to see whether the lesbian sex scene would really make it to air – and it did. The scene was constructed around four couples, all looking for comfort in the final hours before the upcoming end-of-the-world showdown that would also end the series. As a result, the scene plays out as a montage over a romantic song and cuts extensively between Faith and Robin, Anya and Xander, Buffy and Spike (who are actually cuddling, rather than having sex), and Willow and Kennedy. The relationship between Willow and Kennedy is still relatively new but has been shown to be more physical than her coupling with Tara. Willow is still hesitant to go all the way, fearing losing control will not be healthy for her as she is still recovering from abusing magics. But as it turns out, letting go is just what she needs.
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