Mayor Wilkins is easily my favourite villain in the Buffyverse, and not just because he’s quirky and funny and they get to say cute things about him being a germophobe, and attacking him with hummus. He’s the founder of Sunnydale, everyone’s favourite small-town Hellmouth. He had big plans, big dreams…maybe if the Ascension had worked out the way he planned, he would have turned into a giant snake and been just the right size to take on the rest of the world once he outgrew the small pond of his own Hellmouth. With a lesser actor, maybe that’s all he would have been. But Harry Groener (who has been in everything under the sun, but I particularly like to remember him from The West Wing and the original Broadway cast of Cats) makes him a real “person” for want of a better term, and complicated, and that’s what makes him the fantastic character he is.
The germophobe thing is on the quirky and cute list, sure. And when we first meet Mayor Wilkins, in “Homecoming”, slightly freaking his aide-de-camp Allan (Jack Plotnick) out over the state of how clean Allan’s hands are, we can have a laugh over this tall-glass-of-milk politician and his obsessive-compulsive, white-bread ways. Mayor Wilkins’s control freak tendencies don’t just cover personal hygiene, though. This is a guy who wants what he wants when he wants it…though when it’s not an Ascension year, perhaps he’s a little bit more mellow? He doesn’t give off a black hat vibe to Buffy, to Faith, to anyone, and this all works in his favour.
“I keep my campaign promises.”
He says this as we get our first glimpse of the man behind the curtain, a closet full of totems, shrunken heads, and all sorts of occult paraphernalia not usually expected to be seen in a politician’s office. In “Gingerbread”, when Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland) and the mothers of Sunnydale went on a vendetta against all things occult, I always wondered what the Mayor would have done if the Scoobies hadn’t broken the whammy that had gotten MOO (Mothers Opposing the Occult) all up in arms. MOO’s whole mission statement was to take Sunnydale back from the monsters, and he knew he was one of them, and the rest, as far as he was concerned, worked for him. Would he have eventually intervened?
Sunnydale is Mayor Wilkins’s sandbox. He built it, and he’s the biggest bad with the best toys. If you are coming to play in his sandbox, you better believe the Mayor knows about you, and is keeping an eye on you. Any “colourful characters” come to town, they’re going to play on his team. It never even crosses his mind that they wouldn’t want to, or that he isn’t the biggest bad around.
I think this is what leads to Mayor Wilkins’s ultimate downfall…the hubris that comes from 100+ years of being the biggest fish (well, snake) in a very small Hellmouth. He speaks to and acts with everyone as if he was the benevolent patriarch, because that’s how he sees himself. Even when it’s patently untrue, as with Angel (David Boreanaz), who is at least twice his age. We never get an age on Mr Trick (K. Todd Freeman), but he’s another vampire who doesn’t seem to like it much when Mayor Wilkins talks down to him. Mr Trick recognizes Mayor Wilkins as the man in charge and doesn’t mind being his right hand, but I think that relationship was doomed from the start.
Mr Trick was from a different time and different school of thought, and committed sins against his employer like showing initiative. The Mayor doesn’t care if it’s ultimately in his own best interest—if you’re on the Mayor’s payroll, you don’t do things without the Mayor’s permission. The Hundred Days begin (that’s the period leading up to the Ascension), he becomes impervious, and then after the Ascension, he’ll be on a higher plane—will that mean he will leave Sunnydale behind him? Is Sunnydale the nest he will Ascend out of? Like Faith says, we’re a little unclear on that.
I wonder if the germophobe thing is a side effect of his having lived so long, and having watched so many things decay. He says he learned cleanliness at his mother’s knee, but we also know he watched his beloved wife Edna Mae die of old age while he stayed young and vital. That’s enough to instill a fear of entropy into anyone, I would imagine. I don’t think germs would do him any actual harm at this point, since for most of the time we are acquainted with the Mayor, he is invulnerable—one would assume that means he’s safe from things like the common cold as well. Before the 100 Days? Don’t know…there’s different kinds of immortality, and each has its quirks (we’ve all seen Death Becomes Her, right? These people really have to take care of their bodies).
It’s impossible to talk about Mayor Wilkins without talking about his personal Slayer and surrogate daughter, Faith Lehane (Eliza Dushku). When Faith shows up on the Mayor’s doorstep with Mr Trick’s dust on her hands, she’s already started down her dark path. She’s taken a human life (the aforementioned aide-de-camp Allan Finch), and while it was an accident, she’s not allowing herself to feel remorse for it, or take responsibility. Rather, she presents herself to Mayor Wilkins as a replacement for Mr Trick, and thus one of the best relationships in the entire show is born.
Say what you want about Mayor Wilkins, but apart from the whole evil thing, he’s a pretty great dad. He’s certainly the best parent Faith has ever had. Not only does he put her on his payroll, he sets her up in a swanky new apartment. She’s prepared to accept him as a sugar daddy (suggesting that she’s had those before?), but no, he’s not interested in her that way. He’s still wearing his wedding ring, even though his Edna Mae is long gone. He tells her that he’s a family man, though he never mentions having had kids of his own.
We know he’s posed as his own son and grandson to explain his immortality, but actual progeny? None in all that time, perhaps explaining why he attaches to Faith so strongly. That’s a lot of years of frustrated saved-up dad-ness, and you don’t get the idea that he’s adopted any of his other henchman the way he’s adopted her.
In between taking her for miniature golf and buying her expensive antique knives (and unlike Mr Trick, when Faith shows initiative and makes a demon dead without permission, Mayor Dad thinks it’s great), Mayor Wilkins encourages Faith to be her best self…albeit, her best evil self. That’s the thing about him, he really believes that he’s doing what is best for the town (I guess his plan is to Ascend and be this benevolent god-king who eats his subjects, but they love and fear him anyway?), and what is best for Faith.
He also seems to be the first person in her life to set boundaries with her. When he gifts her with the knife but expects her to do an errand for him, she’s got a snarky comeback. He’s firm with her—doesn’t raise his voice, doesn’t snark back, but reminds her that he expects better behavior from her, that this isn’t a free ride. She’s immediately contrite, and when she opens her present, his response—“There. That look on your face is my reward.”
Considering Faith’s upbringing, no actual father to speak of, and a mother who was “busy enjoying the drinking and passing out parts of life”, no wonder she clung to the Mayor like a life raft, and even after her own redemption, had trouble giving the idea of him up. Even as their relationship grows and gets more and more solid, Faith is still Faith…her biggest worry with the Ascension is that his success will mean he won’t need her anymore. Deep down, she’s afraid that even to him, her only value is as a henchman. But no. He tells her himself, and I believe he means it, that the Ascension isn’t just his day anymore, it’s hers too. And when he talks to her, he uses words like “powerful” to describe her to herself. It’s hard not to admire a dad like that.
That scene in “Choices” where they meet to exchange Willow for the box of mystical spiders is probably my favourite Mayor Wilkins bit. He drops a whole ton of truth napalm on Buffy and Angel, and every single person in the room knows how right he is, even though their varying levels of denial are strong (Buffy’s especially). Angel hears a reprise of pretty much the exact same song from Joyce the next day, which is what prompts him to break up with Buffy for her own good.
“You’re immortal, she’s not. I married my Edna Mae in ought-three and I was with her right until the end. Not a pretty picture. Wrinkled and senile and cursing me for my youth. Wasn’t our happiest time. And let’s not forget the fact that any moment of true happiness will turn you evil. I mean, come on. What kind of life can you offer her? She’s a blossoming young girl and you want to keep her from the life she should have had until it has passed her by. My god! I think that’s a little selfish. Is that what you came back from Hell for? Is that your greater purpose?”
While we’re comparing Mayor Wilkins to other parental figures, we’ve got to do the obligatory holding him up next to Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) thing too. Yes yes, Giles is Good Dad, of course he is. But, I do feel that it bears mentioning that Giles’s surrogate kids (all of them) spend a great deal of time ignoring him, and Giles spends a great deal of time cleaning his glasses and rolling his eyes. I’m not trying to make less of Giles, who could be (and has been) the subject of many an article praising his own dad-ness, and how he’s been there for Buffy and the rest. And it’s true, he has (in my own life, I am constantly explaining the difference in vibe between “mom” and “den mom”, and I think that’s some of what’s at work here).
But I watch the “little firecracker” scene, when the Mayor accidentally refers to Faith the same way her mother used to do (I’m guessing one of the few fond memories she has of her mother), and I see that look of unabashed fatherly pride on his face when Faith talks about her youthful antics, and it’s a moment of paternal love-fest I really don’t see much on the other side. It’s different, of course—for one thing, the boundaries between Giles and the Scoobies are different than Faith and the Mayor. Giles works and fights alongside Buffy etc, which makes him peer-ish as well as parental, bringing all sorts of generational comedy.
Everyone loves that moment in “Graduation Day Part 1” when Giles snatches up a sword and runs the Mayor right through the chest. I love it too. It’s a moment of bare-faced honesty, for both of them, I think. The genial dad-veneer drops for a moment, and both men show their teeth (even Giles—no tea-drinking, tweed-wearing, mild-mannered Brit here, in this moment, he is pure id). Mayor Wilkins shows up in the library, no henchmen or backup of any kind, essentially to taunt his adversaries. “That’s one spunky little girl you’ve raised. I’m gonna eat her.” That’s what gets him the business end of the sword and Giles’s temper.
And with the second half of that sentence, a cloud passes over Groener’s face (you know how the scariest thing about Gus Fring was the way Giancarlo Esposito could take his face from Jolly May-I-Help-You Restaurant Guy to that terrifying thousand-yard dead-eyed stare Terminator face of his in about half a second? Like that), and you glimpse the man who is going to turn into a demonic god-king and eat the entire town. You believe him. And a nanosecond later, he flips back into Mister Sunny Patriarch, managing to be patronizing even to Giles. “Violent outburst like that, in front of the children. You know, Mr Giles, they look to you to see how to behave.”
Speaking of the Mayor’s teeth, he really shows them in the hospital with Angel, when Faith has been injured. At this point, he’s ready to do away with Buffy with his own hands, even if smothering her would get them all icky with her saliva in the process. Angel stops him, and when it’s just the two of them together, the Mayor is for once on his own with a peer.
Angel is in fact more than twice the Mayor’s age, for all that the Mayor still can’t stop calling him “young man”, but being the patriarch is his particular power thing, and now the gloves can really come off. The gentle language goes out the window, and he’s much more free with the threats. I always find it telling when he refers to her as “my Faith”…Buffy tried to destroy her, but his belief—his faith in her never wavers, even posthumously. But I’ll get to that.
When he’s giving his pre-Ascension directions to his vampire troops right before the graduation ceremony, I also have to draw attention to his orders for quick deaths, and his statement of, “Let’s watch the swearing.” Sure, it’s there as one of his cute, quirky, comedic lines. Still, when you consider some of the things that other big bads have done (Angelus, for example, or Spike), things that involved rape and drawn-out torture, a bad guy who wants to attain his goal via quick deaths is a little refreshing. And you know that he worked really hard on his speech, and he genuinely thinks he’s got words of wisdom to impart.
(Funny sidebar—at my daughter’s back-to-school night one year, the principal was making what was turning out to be a wicked long speech. You know how you don’t mean to say things out loud, and yet? My daughter’s teacher heard me say, “ascend, already”. Thank goodness I lucked into a nerdy teacher that year. He choked back a giggle, and we were instant buddies after that.)
Back to Faith. In the middle of everything, getting ready for his Ascension, the thing he had been planning for over a century, he still looked out for her. He never lost faith, so to speak. He found the time to record a tape for her, and arrange to leave her the magic doohickey to do the body swap with Buffy, should she ever wake up. He was right about her waking up. He was right about a lot of things.
Fast forward to Season 7. In “Touched”, Faith has turned over a new leaf and is fighting for the white hats against The First Evil, who, among other things, can take the form of any deceased person. When it appears to her, naturally it takes the form of Mayor Wilkins. And even as the biggest, baddest, First Evil That Ever Evilled, he’s still supporting her, giving her legitimate advice on how to be a better leader. Appearing as the Mayor to Faith is like it having appeared as Joyce to Dawn, speaking what could easily be unpleasant truths about Buffy (“you can’t trust her, she won’t choose you”, etc), based on past precedence. When you want to sow seeds of doubt, you appear as the person your mark trusts the most.
We still never found out where Mayor Wilkins hid the moon pies in his office, or why Meg was his favourite character in Little Women. We know he had an Irish setter named Rusty, but we’re not sure if his claim to have actually skinned cats was hyperbole. And we’ll never know what post-Ascension Sunnydale would have looked like, had the Mayor been successful with his plans. He’s very into the idea of having a place in the world, and what that place is. Yes, he turned into a giant snake and planned to eat a town. Yes, he’s evil. Still, as far as government officials go…I’ve seen worse.