Fandom: Buffy: the Vampire Slayer
Spoilers: Through "Chosen"
Note: I used Buffy vs. Angel for transcripts.
Buffy: Let's face it: none of us are ever gonna have a happy, normal relationship.
Xander: We're doomed. -- "I Robot, You Jane"
The Earth is Doomed: The Core Four
Willow: More vampires?
Giles: Not just vampires. The next threat we face may be something quite different.
Buffy: I can hardly wait!
Giles: We're at the center of a mystical convergence here. We may, in fact, stand between the Earth and its total destruction.
Buffy: Well, I gotta look on the bright side. Maybe I can still get kicked out of school!
Xander: Oh, yeah, that's a plan. 'Cause lots of schools aren't on Hellmouths.
Willow: Maybe you could blow something up. They're really strict about that.
Buffy: I was thinking of a more subtle approach, y'know, like excessive not studying.
Giles: The Earth is doomed! -- "Welcome to the Hellmouth"
Writing about a foursome is hard, almost three times as hard as writing about a threesome. The key to thinking about romantic groupings of many people is that there isn't just one relationship involved -- in this case, there are 11 (Buffy/Giles, Buffy/Xander, Buffy/Willow, Giles/Xander, Giles/Willow, Willow/Xander, Buffy/Giles/Willow, Buffy/Giles/Xander, Buffy/Willow/Xander, Giles/Willow/Xander, and the ultimate combination of Buffy/Giles/Willow/Xander). When thinking about the Core Four dynamics, all the sets of interactions need to be examined. Sometimes, the four of them work together as equal partners in accomplishing tasks, each one providing his or her own unique skills and strengths. But more often, the relationships are more complicated.
Let's work through them together, looking at the elements that combine to make the Core Four the ultimate love story of Buffy: the Vampire Slayer.
I. The Individuals
a. Buffy Summers.
At age sixteen, Buffy is told she is a vampire slayer, one girl chosen by unseen powers to be gifted with strength and speed to fight vampires and blah, blah, we've heard it. Buffy uses the resources granted her as the Slayer and her own humor, strength, and unique problem solving style to be one of the best Slayers the world has ever seen. She is determined to be unlike any Slayer before her and maintain a social life, complete with boyfriends and school dances, despite the burden of her calling.
In the seven seasons of the show that chronicle her life and deaths, Buffy struggles to come to terms with her identity as a Slayer and to balance the conflicting obligations of schoolwork, Slaying, friendships, romance, a dying mother, a teenaged sister, and ultimately earning a living. She always stands alone from her friends, aware that despite the assistance and love they give her, only she is the Slayer, and she must ultimately rely on herself in the heat of battle.
Every member of the Core loses something to the Hellmouth, but Buffy loses more than anyone. When Angel turns evil on her seventeenth birthday, in the episode appropriately titled "Innocence," Buffy's childhood is gone forever. As a young woman, she is forced to make the difficult decision to send Angel to hell, and at the end of S3, Angel forces Buffy to realize that duty, not love, will be the driving force in the rest of her life.
Buffy's life is a constant struggle to balance these two forces. She's at her best when she's surrounded by friends who keep her grounded, when she's able to reach out to the darkness and strength of her calling and rely on her friends to bring her back whole and unharmed. She needs her friends, is dead without them, but ultimately she stands alone against the forces of evil.
b. Rupert Giles.
Like Buffy, Giles has known from a young age that he is bound by a sacred duty. Giles is a Watcher, and his job, duty, and calling is to teach and train the Slayer, to provide her with the knowledge and wisdom of the Watchers' Council when she faces her demons. Giles is an unconventional Watcher, fired in S3 because of his unseemly love for his Slayer, which prevents him from risking her life. His struggle throughout the show is to balance his duty to the Slayer, his love for Buffy, and his desire to live his own life.
Giles's past is filled with dark magic; his present often seems lonely. He loses one girlfriend to Angelus, and another who is unnerved by the truth of his existence, constantly crossing the border from ordinary life into the darkness that lurks at its edges.
In S4, Giles is lost and groundless, no longer Buffy's official Watcher. At the beginning of S5, he plans to leave, but realizes Buffy needs him and stays, buying the local magic shop and once again earning a living. In S6 he does go to England, leaving Buffy to fend for herself against the darkness. He struggles throughout the years to be a good Watcher, to help Buffy without coddling her, to love her without stifling her, to challenge her without breaking her. At the same time, he searches for his own identity, one not entirely dependent on his role in Buffy's or the other Scoobies' lives. He is a librarian and a guitarist, a lover of books and music, an Englishman in America, a Watcher, a former Watcher, and a Watcher restored. He lies and kills and comforts, and wields a sword till the end.
c. Willow Rosenberg.
I have detailed Willow's arc here, in my Fred/Willow essay, but a few points should be elaborated. Willow grows from a shy computer nerd to a powerful witch; her struggle in the show is to carve a new identity for herself while retaining her innocence. She must discover the proper role of magic in her life, neither hobby nor addiction but a part of her. This knowledge his hard-won; she unleashes her inner evil nihilist at the end of S6 and murders a man, an event she never really comes to terms with.
Willow's relationships with Buffy and with the Hellmouth energies are problematic. She's gained so much from her friendship with Buffy, living a life she never had before, with true, close friends who love her and respect her. The energies of the Hellmouth nurture her innate magical talent and allow her ample opportunity to use her newfound skills. The confidence she gains thereby wins her lovers, first Oz, then Tara, and finally Kennedy, who to greater or lesser extent are compelled by her magical gifts. But she loses her innocence, loses her lovers. Oz is a werewolf and leaves because he can't control his own darkness; Tara is killed by a human firing a gun, but it is the energies of the Hellmouth that bring evil to Sunnydale in all forms.
Willow needs to learn to use her magic wisely and safely, to fight evil, not cause it. She needs to learn the confidence that will allow her to be a powerful witch, but she cannot become too arrogant or give into the temptation to pride that is always alluring for her. In "Chosen," she taps into a source of deep power, but we don't know how the experience changed her.
d. Xander Harris.
Xander isn't a Slayer or a witch, a werewolf or a vampire or even a Watcher. He is a boy who grows up in front of us, learning maturity and gaining the wisdom that allows him to watch while others fight their battles. He also learns the role he'll play himself in the group's battles. He makes a lot of mistakes. He loves deeply. He loses everything.
Xander is a kid on a skateboard who reads comic books, a high school graduate by the skin of his teeth, a skilled carpenter who's finally moves out of his parents' basement. He loves Anya deeply and can say all the right things, but he leaves her at the alter because he's afraid of repeating his father's mistakes. He still loves her, but he knows he's failed miserably. He wins Willow back from the brink of destruction. He loses an eye. Anya dies.
Xander finds himself at the beginning of S5, realizing that he has a talent and a calling unrelated to slaying, that he has a love life unrelated to Buffy, that his identity is no longer bound by the role of smart alack he used in high school. His road to adulthood is a rocky and a real one, but he makes it all the same, with perhaps more of his self intact than either Willow or Buffy will retain by the end of the series.
Xander loses things and people, gains maturity and bitterness. His talent his watching; his gift is love. In "Potential," he tells Dawn how to survive as the ordinary man out; in "Grave" his love for Willow saves the world. His life is ordinary but he makes it extraordinary by the choices he makes. Sometimes they're even the right ones.
II. The Couples. (I've included links to previous ship_manifesto essays where they're available.)
a. Buffy/Giles and Willow/Xander.
(Willow/Xander by velvetandlace and Buffy/Giles by jedi_penguin)
Willow and Xander have a short-lived fling in S3, but their relationship stretches back to the age of five and lasts forever. Willow loves Xander for the first three seasons of the show, and retains a sense of proprietary jealousy when he falls in love with Anya. Willow is Xander's best friend, the person he wants to be with at the end of the world. As they grow up, their love becomes a constant both of them rely on. Willow is the best man at Xander's wedding, the closest friend he has, and when Xander saves Willow at the end of S6, he is the only one who knows her well enough and loves her dearly enough to talk her down.
Buffy and Giles have a complicated relationship, discussed briefly above in my section on Giles. He is a teacher and mentor in the first few seasons, a keeper of knowledge and dispenser of advice. He is a father figure when her biological father runs off to Italy, and Quentin Travers accuses Giles of having "a father's love for the child." Buffy's reliance on Giles becomes less total when she goes off to college and forges a new identity, meets a new boyfriend, makes new friends. Giles wants his Slayer to be independent, but with his own role so uncertain, he feels a sense of loss. When Buffy returns to Giles at the beginning of S5 and asks him to be her Watcher again, their relationship becomes strong once again, as Giles helps her through the new problems of adulthood. They search together for a deeper understanding of Slayerhood. After Buffy's death, their relationship weakens, and Giles tries once more to force Buffy into independence. Their relationship is a constant give and take of independence and interdependence, as both of them try to make sense of the Watcher-Slayer dynamic.
The two pairs confront each other in S1, as Buffy and Giles already have a special bond because of the secret knowledge they share. Willow and Xander share something too -- at least ten years of friendship. The strangers with secrets and the curious residents meet in the library, and Willow and Xander, both fascinated by Buffy, work their way into the secret, become part of the group in the know. Buffy and Giles want to keep Willow and Xander away from the fighting, but Willow and Xander won't be deterred. Their presence in the group seems like a liability at first to Buffy and Giles, who are used to working and fighting alone, but they provide humanity, friendship, enthusiasm. Giles and Buffy are a team, but it's Xander and Willow who make the team into a group, a four-person friendship, the Scooby Gang.
In later years, the pairings become a study in heroes and guides. Giles is Buffy's Watcher and her mentor, and he is the one who guides her through her journey in "Intervention," who knows more about her nature than anyone else. Xander never has any formal role in Willow's life, and knows less about magic than anyone, but his humanity at the end of S6 calls out to hers and saves her. Giles and Xander are the steady, stable human presences that recall Buffy and Willow to their own humanity.
b. Buffy/Willow and Giles/Xander.
(Giles/Xander by stoptocheer)
There is no Buffy/Willow manifesto, and I don't want to go into too much detail, since I have a lot of ground to cover, but I'll give it my best shot. Willow and Buffy become almost instant friends when Buffy offers Willow kindness, something she's never received from the popular girls. Buffy's take-no-prisoners attitude and carpe diem philosophy aren't always the best idea, but her presence in Willow's life gives her self-confidence and teaches her to rely on herself to make friends and foster romance. Buffy and Willow are each others' confidantes, the biggest supporters of each others' love lives, the best friend either of them will ever have. They are each others' comfort, holding each other after breakups and deaths, listening to each others' tears and worries.
As they grow up and apart, there are some things Willow and Buffy can't understand about each other. Buffy's never been in love with a girl; Willow's never lost a mother. But the love they have, the friendship they've built, the long years of companionship and the shared tragedies, enable them to care for each other even when they don't understand. At their weakest, in the middle of S6, Buffy doesn't see Willow's addiction; Willow doesn't see Buffy's depression. Too wrapped up in their own tragedies, they lose sight of their friendship, and end the season in a painful battle, lashing out with anger and power. But as the new season begins, Buffy is able to forgive Willow, and sits with her quietly while Willow meditates, growing new skin.
Giles and Xander have a troubled relationship, and though they care for each other, they often are awkward when expressing those emotions. They only share one easy hug in seven years, in shared relief at Joyce's successful surgery. But Giles and Xander have a lot in common, and can appreciate each other's insight and humor. Giles is the only one who laughs at Xander's joke in "Phases," and Xander relies on Giles to be the book man. As stoptocheer points out, both men share a practical approach to problem solving, the ability to make hard decisions, and a disdain for pointless ritual or unnecessary learning. They have both made mistakes, both summoned demons and caused disasters. And as I mentioned above, both of them spend a lot of time looking out for the women they love.
The best juxtaposition of these two relationships takes place in S4, when Willow and Buffy go off to college together, eager to start a new life, and Giles and Xander remain in the same place they've always been. Xander lives in his childhood home; Giles stays in his flat. Both of them have lovers this season, but Giles can't fit Olivia into his life of duty towards the Slayer, and Xander is only just beginning to figure out how to be Anya's boyfriend. Xander goes through a series of odd jobs and Giles is unemployed; while Willow and Buffy room together, Giles and Xander try to figure out what to do with their lives. Buffy and Willow are really the show's protagonists, and Xander and Giles often get less intense story-lines and screentime. Willow and Buffy live a life of high adventure; Giles and Xander make human decisions and mistakes. Willow and Buffy provide balance and comfort for each other; Giles is Xander's straight man and his role model, someone struggling with the same problems he is.
c. Buffy/Xander and Willow/Giles
(Buffy/Xander by butterfly and Giles/Willow by gywnnega)
Buffy and Xander are friends above all else. Xander, like Giles, is a grounding force is Buffy's life. If Willow gives her comfort and Giles gives her knowledge, Xander gives her hard wisdom. He knows that she needs to kill Angel and lies to her to keep her in the killing mood; he knows she loves Riley and tells her to find him and tell him that she does, not to let him escape. He sees Spike try to rape her, and his hatred of vampires intensifies on her behalf. He holds grudges longer and looks out for Buffy more passionately and with less training than anyone else. He is an advocate on her behalf and knows both her strengths and her humanity. He sees her as Buffy, not the Slayer, and he is the force of normality in a supernatural world. Buffy is Xander's hero, and he is her advisor. He inspires her and loves her, the friend she turns to when the rest of the world is far away and scary.
Willow has a crush on Giles sometime during her high school years; she keeps a picture of him in her locker and is an eager research assistant. As she grows older and more powerful, their relationship becomes strained. Giles never tutors Willow in magic, and when she surpasses him in skill, the friendship they share becomes marred by arguments over Willow's continual abuse of magic. At the end of S6, they have a fight in the Magic Box, and Willow almost kills Giles. The next season begins with Willow in England with Giles, learning to control her magic and trying to come to terms with what she did. Willow and Giles are both magically inclined; both have made grave mistakes and caused deaths because of their careless abuse of magic. As a high school student, Willow looks up to Giles and thinks she has a lot to learn from him; Giles admires Willow's innocence and is frightened by her magic. As both of them grow older, their relationship becomes more complicated, but they are trying to the end to figure out how to make their talents and skills complement each other, working together as Watcher and witch to assist Buffy in the final battle.
Xander's crush on Buffy and Willow's crush on Giles both date back to S1; in this sense, they are the crushes of high school, as Willow and Xander each find a hero to emulate. Buffy and Giles arrive to Sunnydale as newcomers; as I mentioned before, Xander and Willow are fascinated by them. As the four come to know each other better, the hero worship becomes friendship. Willow recognizes Giles's faults, and Xander learns of Buffy's imperfections, especially (as far as he's concerned) when it comes to her choice in romantic partners. For Buffy and Giles, Xander and Willow are the people they've sworn to protect, the lifelong citizens of the town they've come to defend. Their innocence is a tangible reminder of the worthiness of the task they do, as well as a reminder of their own humanity. Buffy's friendships with both Willow and Xander keep her human, grounded in everyday social activities. Giles's friendships with the young people keep him young and get him out of the library.
In her essay, butterfly mentions the beginning of S7 as a time when we see Buffy and Xander acting as a family, taking care of Dawn and patrolling together. Willow and Giles are also together at the beginning of this season; these duos are the ones they fall back on at a time when everything has fallen apart, their default position, which brings them comfort and gets their lives back on track.
III. The Trios.
a. Giles/Willow/Xander + Buffy.
Buffy is a hero, and Buffy stands alone. Her war against the vampires is the force that keeps the other Scoobies together and her always separate. Especially during the early years, their research centers on figuring out how she can use her trademark solution (violence, a solid plan) to destroy demons. When they are left alone without Buffy, as they often are, Giles, Willow, and Xander are at a loss. During their summers alone, they clean up Buffy's messes, as they do in the summer after S1, or search for Buffy, as they do after S2, or grieve Buffy and attempt to get by without her, as they do after S5. But none of these is quite satisfactory. Buffy is central, not just because of her mystical role as the Slayer they gather to assist, but because of the strength of her personality. She draws Willow and Xander, at least, because she is pretty and blonde and looks like she could be popular, but is friendly to both of them, funny and peppy and just strange enough to pique their curiosity.
Without her, Willow, Xander, and Giles feel her absence keenly. Yet even when she's present, the three of them know they are outside of something ancient and mystical. They can never understand her relationships with vampires or with Faith, and no book-learning in the world will teach them what it means to bear the burden she does. The three of them bond in their role as sidekicks, but they are more than that. Their role is vital; as I've mentioned many times before, they keep her human. They are the reason Buffy doesn't follow Faith to the dark side, the reason Buffy finds to live again in S6. Xander revives her the first time she dies, and Willow revives her the second time; as her friends grow more powerful, they can assist her in more tangible ways. But their love for her is the most vital tool she has for staying alive.
b. Buffy/Willow/Xander + Giles.
The three younger members of the Core share obvious things that Giles doesn't. Especially in the early years, we see them playing games like Anywhere But Here, watching incomprensable movies, hanging at the Bronze, doing all the teenage stuff that Giles isn't interested in. They can understand each other on a level Giles can't, even in the very literal way that they share syntax and vocabulary. As a threesome, they work well, clearly best friends with a built-in love triangle that seems to demand the only logical resolution (and you know you've been in fandom too long when an OT3 is the logical solution to a love triangle.)
But they need Giles. Giles isn't a parent and doesn't often exercise his authority -- when he does, the Scoobies often ignore him. But his presence keeps them together, keeps them functioning as adults. He is the visible reminder of duty and responsibility, the functional reminder that there is work to be done and that joking about orientation can wait till after the apocalypse. It's not without reason that Willow, Buffy, and Xander make their worst mistakes (almost destroying the world, a dangerous relationship with a vampire, and leaving Anya at the alter) when Giles isn't present in their lives. Before he leaves, he has a few, short conversations with them, reminding them of how dangerous the real world is, but without him there giving them the hairy eyeball, their lives quickly deteriorate, and their friendships end up in tatters.
Giles's library, apartment, and magic shop are the physical gathering points for the Scoobies; Buffy's mission draws them together, but Giles's spaces are their headquarters. His values, embodied by the places he watches over, become central to their mission. The library is full of books, his house of music and more books, his shop of magical supplies and even more books. A different Watcher, a different leader, would fill his space with other tools. When they move into Buffy's house in S7, their motives and their strategies change because they are no longer under Giles's roof.
c. Buffy/Giles/Xander + Willow.
Willow gives the other Scoobies hope. Without her, they are functional; Giles and Buffy could probably keep Sunnydale's vampire problem under control without any outside help, and Xander is a competent assistant. But Willow's presence makes their lives brighter, keeps them all away from the constant threat of bleak despair. There are two times in canon that I can think of when we see the other three without Willow for substantial periods of time: one is of course the end of S6, when the other three together can barely contain Willow's rage, and the other is "Doppelgangland."
The image of Xander, Buffy, and Giles sitting on the stairs and mourning Willow is really emblematic of this portion of the relationship. "She was truly the best of all of us," says Giles. Regardless of how true this is, it is true in their minds, and in their hearts. Willow's innocence, her cuteness, her shyness, her babble and her humor, her naiveté -- these are what her friends see when they look at her. She's not the one who understands them best, perhaps -- her shocked surprise at Buffy's affair with Spike, her anger at Xander after he sleeps with Faith -- but she loves them all deeply and shows that love so clearly. She is the most affectionate Scooby, and it's fitting that the scene in "Doppelgangland" ends with Buffy and Xander, then Giles, welcoming her back with hugs that surprise her in their intensity, with the fierceness of their love for her.
d. Buffy/Giles/Willow + Xander.
"The Zeppo" is the episode that best epitomizes this part of the relationship. Because of the point of view, we don't really see how the three others function without Xander, though we do see, in a sense, how Xander functions in their lives. He doesn't have a clearly defined role the way the other three do, but he manages to do his part and not just through sheer luck. Xander has a strong moral code that survives seven years of living in a place where the usual rules sometimes just don't apply; he often gets in over his head -- see, for instance, the very first episode -- but he gets himself out of his messes. He knows when to turn to his friends for help, and by the end of the show, he's the kind of person they want around when a crazed robot attacks.
Xander's skills are practical; he keeps the house together during the last season, and he keeps the group together, again in his own way, by being a calm center for them. He has his own problems this season and the previous one, but he still has the time and compassion and energy to do all he can for Willow and Buffy.
We rarely see Willow and Giles and Buffy together without Xander, although in fandom this is perhaps the second most common of the threesomes, after Buffy/Willow/Xander. Because Xander's relationship with Giles is less obvious than either of the girls', because he is less vocal in expressing his need for Giles's concern and watchfulness, writing the other three together is an obvious route. But without Xander, they're three warriors and three friends, maybe even three lovers, but they aren't the Scooby gang; they aren't the Core Four. And the Core Four, as has been shown repeatedly through the seasons, maintains a special kind of power and friendship that they share with no one else.
IV. The Core Four.
Their relationship is always complex and often confused. They abandon each other for other lovers and other interests, for girlfriends and boyfriends and little sisters and for England. They fight; they yell; they misunderstand each other. They're jealous; they feel left out. They throw each other parties and give each other presents, know all the same stories and have fought the same demons for seven long, painful years. They've lost lovers to the Hellmouth and devoted the best years of their lives to fighting evil. They make sacrifices for each other and for the Cause, sleep in each other's houses, lie about sleeping in each other's houses, and without fail, once a year, they save the world together.
The clearest example of their shared power comes at the end of S4. The preceding season has very clearly reflected the tensions in their group due to new interests and new opportunities. Willow and Buffy have left Xander behind when they went off to college; Buffy seems not to need Giles anymore, and Buffy has just learned that Willow is dating a girl. Adam uses Spike to break the four of them up, and Spike accomplishes this easily.
But then they realize they've been lied to, and discover a spell they can do to harness the power of the first Slayer, using the skills and talents they all have. We've just learned from Willow/Tara what doing spells together means, and the spell the Core Four does is powerful and dangerous, and links them together for the shared dream in the season finale. The four of them are linked by more than just the work they do; three of them have grown up together, with Giles watching and guiding them. They've all lost so much; as they look over the ruins of Sunnydale, every one of them has lost a lover to the Hellmouth. The experience they shared in Sunnydale is too powerful and too tragic to leave them untouched; they will never find anyone else who knows them as well or loves them as unconditionally as they love each other.
BUFFY: So... what do you guys want to do tomorrow?
WILLOW: Nothing strenuous.
XANDER: Well, mini-golf is always the first thing that comes to mind.
GILES: I think we can do better than that.
BUFFY: I was thinking about shopping -- as per usual.
WILLOW: Theres an Agnes B in the new mall!
XANDER: Good. I could use a few items.
GILES: Aren't we going to discuss this? Save the world and go to the mall?
BUFFY: I'm having a wicked shoe craving.
XANDER: Aren't you on the patch?
WILLOW: Those never work.
GILES: And here I am, invisible to the eye, not having any say...
XANDER: See, I need a new look. It’s this whole eye patch thing.
BUFFY: Oh! You could go with the full black secret agent look.
WILLOW: Or the puffy shirt, pirate-slash-poet feel. Sensitive yet manly...
XANDER: Now you're getting a little renaissance fair on me.
BUFFY: It's a fine line.
GILES: The earth is definitely doomed. -- "Chosen"
I've already gone over 5000 words and haven't even gotten to the smut yet, so luckily, this will be a short section (because, as far as I know, there's almost nothing out there.)
Let Us Never Speak of This Again by trkkr47 (NC-17)
Whiskey Worse by Alex Wert (NC-17)
untitle for buffyverse1000 by sadbhyl
Spirit, Heart, Mind, Hand, the official fanlisting for the relationship among the four.