Confidence. Control. Sex and sexuality. Drug addiction. Healing. Throughout Buffy, magic is a metaphor or tool for various different things. It changes as the show goes on, reflecting the character arc of the magic user; in most cases, this is Willow Rosenberg. Starting off as a shy, nerdy schoolgirl, Willow blossoms into one of the most powerful people in the Buffyverse. She builds herself up as a force to be reckoned with by consistently practising magic from Season 2 onwards, consolidating herself as an extremely skilled witch.
A lesser-acknowledged magic user in Buffy, however, is Rupert Giles. As we discover in S2E8 ‘The Dark Age’, Giles dabbled heavily in dark magic during his time at university. Even after this, he often participates in spells to help Buffy, and intervenes with advice for Willow or other users of magic in the group. Since Giles’ primary occupation is Buffy’s Watcher (and librarian for the first three seasons), his experience with magic is usually put on the back burner. As opposed to Willow, he doesn’t consider himself a witch either. Despite this, magic is actually an integral part of Giles’ character. It also influences his interactions with Willow, particularly in the later seasons.
Accumulation of Power
For the first season of Buffy, Willow’s role in the Scooby gang is primarily as the computer whiz, and Giles’ is Buffy’s Watcher. Neither of them are affiliated with magic. Their purposes are as helpers, their contributions centred around research skills. Both characters are academically gifted bookworms, so they often work together in researching whichever supernatural creature they’re dealing with.
Jenny Calendar, the computer science teacher at Sunnydale High, is a techno-pagan who gets involved with helping the Scoobies as well due to her magic knowledge. She works closely with Willow since they’re both good with technology, and forms a romantic relationship with Giles. After Jenny is killed by Angelus in S2E17 ‘Passion’, Willow starts her journey as a magic user. In S2E19 ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’, she makes scapulars, little pouches for the gang to wear around their necks for protection against evil. Soon after, in the Season 2 finale, Willow conducts her first spell. She eventually finds Jenny’s floppy disk containing a backlog of magic spells including the Ritual of Restoration—this is the curse that was originally used to ensoul Angelus. Despite her lack of experience with magic, Willow completes the spell in ‘Becoming, Part Two’, succeeding in restoring Angel’s soul.
Earlier in Season 2, Xander enlists Amy’s help with putting a love spell on Cordelia, which backfires and affects every woman in Sunnydale except Cordelia. Upon discovering what he’s done, Giles gets angry with Xander, saying, “I cannot believe that you are fool enough to do something like this! […] Do you have any idea how serious this is?” His reprimanding teaches Xander a valuable lesson not to mess with magic if he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Similarly, when Willow mentions the restoration spell to Giles in ‘Becoming, Part One’, he shows concern and warns her about the spell, saying, “Channeling such potent magicks through yourself, it could open a door that you may not be able to close.” Each time one of the group practises magic, Giles emphasises the dangers. He also assists Willow when she attempts the spell the first time, but isn’t present when she completes it.
While Buffy is in L.A. in between Season 2 and 3, Willow continues to practise magic. Although her spells are still very much amateur, she mentions an attempt to communicate with the spirit world; she claims it’s “like being pulled apart inside” and that she “really freaked out”. Throughout Season 3, Willow becomes more experimental with magic. She joins a coven with Amy Madison and Michael Czajak in ‘Gingerbread’ and ‘comes out’ to her mother as a witch—the conversation echoes that of a teenager coming out to their parent as gay, as Willow’s mother claims her witchcraft is a “cry for discipline” and attention, and that she’s “acting out”. This gay analogy is perhaps foreshadowing of the interplay between sexuality and magic for Willow in Season 4.
Willow also resorts to the black arts to keep her hormones in check (to paraphrase Xander) in ‘Lovers Walk’. She and Xander have been cheating on their respective partners with each other, so she decides to cast an anti-love spell to remove their mutual attraction. Instead of dealing with her feelings and putting the effort into not acting on them, Willow turns to magic to do the work for her. This is a recurring theme in how she copes with lack of control. Even worse is the fact that she lies to Xander about the spell, telling him “it’s just chemistry stuff, an experiment”. Using magic to control others is something that will crop up again with Willow.
At the start of ‘Doppelgangland’, Willow is using telekinesis to make a pencil float. She tells Buffy it’s all about “emotional control” which she evidently hasn’t got the hang of yet, since a mere mention of Faith makes the pencil spin out of control. However, when Willow is being held hostage in the Mayor’s office in ‘Choices’, she manages to stake a vamp with a pencil using telekinesis. This shows great improvement in only three episodes. Willow also ends up helping Anya with a spell back in ‘Doppelgangland’ as a rebellion against her being perceived as “old reliable”. Her relationship to magic is therefore tied with her growing self-confidence and assertion.
Giles isn’t really present for Willow’s spells during this time, but there is a moment in ‘Enemies’ that lets us know he’s keeping tabs on her. Making reference to an important text, Willow says she found it in the top drawer of Giles’ book cabinet. The drawer supposedly contains “magic secrets Giles doesn’t think [she’s] ready for”; not only does this tell us that Giles is gatekeeping certain magic from Willow to look out for her, but also that she has noticed and rebelled against this. Really, she’s broken his trust by breaking into his secret cabinet. Since they’re busy dealing with the Mayor’s ascension, Giles doesn’t follow this up. Up to this point in the show, he’s either pretty detached from Willow using magic, or protective of her.
Then, Season 4 brings significant development for Willow, along with a new metaphor for magic. Since the season is focused on university, friends, and relationships as opposed to home and family, Giles isn’t as present in the group’s antics. Most of Willow’s spells and conversations about spells, therefore, take place away from Giles.
In S4E4 ‘Fear, Itself’, Willow confesses to Buffy that she feels like she’s plateaued with magic. The next level, she explains, is “a little scary”, since it gets close to “primal forces”. Rather than reassuring her that she can do it, Buffy responds, “Well, no one’s pushing. You know, if it’s too much don’t do it.” Oz joins the conversation and also admits he’s worried about Willow performing more intense magic. He claims he’ll support her no matter her decision, and his concern is coming from a place of relatability considering his werewolfism, but the conversation hints that both Buffy and Oz lack trust in Willow’s talent and even hinder her development. Later in the episode, the group has an argument inside the Halloween frat house which includes Buffy directly insulting Willow’s spellcasting ability after she suggests a guidance spell. Soon after, Oz also rejects her insistence on doing the spell. He starts to turn into a werewolf and runs off instead of dealing with it alongside Willow; her shouting “Oz, don’t leave me!” is foreshadowing of their breakup in two episodes to come. Willow attempts to conduct the guidance spell to find Oz and other people, but it goes wrong—another example of how Oz doesn’t aid her development as a witch.
Sure enough, in ‘Wild at Heart’, Oz cheats on Willow with a fellow werewolf and leaves her. In response to finding out about the affair, Willow turns to magic, much like in ‘Lovers Walk’. It’s a pretty intense spell that she begins: “Let Oz and Veruca’s deceitful hearts be broken. […] Let them find no love or solace. Let them find no peace as well.” However, looking at the picture of Oz she’s using as part of the spell, Willow hesitates and finds she can’t go through with it. Although this really reveals Willow’s heartbreak and love for Oz, Veruca interprets it as weakness, saying to her, “Can’t say I’m surprised you didn’t go through with your little hex. You don’t have the teeth.” Willow is constantly underestimated in both personality and magic ability.
‘Something Blue’ is another key episode in how Willow turns to magic to cope with her negative feelings. Still not over Oz, she decides to conduct a ‘my will be done’ spell to heal her heart. Instead of doing the emotional work and going through her pain, as everyone must, she tries to erase it and skip the suffering with a spell. Due to her low mood, she forgets to do a truth spell for Giles in the episode, so he comes to visit her to check up on her out of concern. On finding out that she attempted a ‘my will be done’ spell, Giles tells her, “I don’t think it’s wise for you to be doing that alone right now. Your energy’s too unfocused.” He suggests taking a break from spells without supervision; again, Giles is genuinely trying to protect Willow and those around her by giving her sound advice. Sadly, Willow interprets this as punishment and their conversation spirals into an argument. Giles doesn’t make many attempts to mentor Willow in using magic, but to be fair to him, when he does he’s met with resistance.
The most nurturing and helpful figure in helping Willow to grow as a witch is Tara Maclay. They meet in S4E10 ‘Hush’; in order to protect themselves from the Gentlemen, they hold hands to join their magic together and telekinetically move a vending machine to block the door. Right from the start, Tara emphasises how powerful and special Willow is in her magic ability. Together, they practise many spells, fusing their power to develop their talent as a unit. Magic is therefore used as a tool to explore Willow’s sexuality as she realises her attraction to women through Tara.
During their early relationship, magic is also used as a metaphor for sex. For example, in ‘Who Are You?’, Willow and Tara perform a spell that involves a big “O” floating above them as Willow lies back with a look of ecstasy on her face, panting and sweating. It’s a very thinly veiled sex scene and is also intercut with an actual sex scene between Buffy (technically Faith) and Riley, which highlights the intention.
For the rest of the season, Tara makes Willow stronger and more confident. She always encourages her magic talents and power, forming a solid bond of trust between them. Because of this development, Willow can then lead the enjoining spell to defeat Adam in ‘Primeval’. Giles identifies the spell in one of his books, inspired by an off-the-cuff remark by Xander, but Willow takes the lead when actually performing it. Tara is absent for the spell, but Giles is there and joins forces with Willow in a way that is successful for all involved. It’s a shame that Giles and Tara never really join forces or interact all that much throughout the show, since they both have experience with using magic and are both great mentor figures for Willow. Usually it’s either/or for them when it comes to interacting with Willow.
Season 5 sees a more magically-confident Willow. In the season opener, ‘Buffy vs Dracula’, she ignites a fire with a quick gesture and a couple of words. Sure, it’s implied that she starts a storm from it by not balancing the elements properly, but she’s becoming more assured in her abilities. Throughout Season 5, Willow practises more and more powerful spells that are successful more times than not—a significant improvement from Season 4. In S5E13 ‘Blood Ties’, Willow and Tara perform a teleportation spell on Glory to remove her from the fight, protecting Dawn and the others. Willow takes on the brunt of the spell, so the strain of it causes her to collapse and have a nosebleed. She complains about headaches as a result of repeating the spell off-screen in the next episode, and Tara shows concern for her, telling her to stop practising it.
The biggest display of Willow’s power in Season 5 is after Tara is mind-sucked by Glory. Filled with vengeance and pain, she charges head-on into Glory’s headquarters alone, all guns blazing. Her eyes are black as she floats in, using magic to freeze Glory in place, blast her with lightning, smash mirrors and aim the shards of glass at her, throw knives, and summon a snake to trap her leg. Despite Glory’s strength and invulnerability, Willow manages to keep her at bay about as much as Buffy can, and saves them both by freezing her in place again as they leave. It seems this is the first time Buffy truly comprehends Willow’s power, and after this point she doesn’t undermine her like she used to.
In the Season 5 finale ‘The Gift’, Willow strikes first in the final battle with Glory by performing a spell on her and Tara. It results in restoring Tara’s mind and simultaneously weakening Glory, which is crucial in her defeat. The spell is so powerful it means Willow can’t contribute to the rest of the battle, but without her, it’s possible Glory wouldn’t have been vanquished. On the other side of the battle, Giles’ role is very different. He uses brute strength to murder Ben so that Glory will never return. A contrast is made here between Willow’s hands-off approach in fighting via magic and Giles’ hands-on kill.
Again, Giles is usually absent in Willow’s spellcasting during Season 5. She develops of her own accord, and with Tara’s encouragement. However, when Giles is there, it’s often to oversee a spell. He takes more of a back seat at this point, as he does with general Watcher activities too. As opposed to in Season 4, Giles now knows Willow is capable enough to hold her own with magic…