Girls in Capes

Women, men & minorities in geek culture and pop culture

Legitimate Pain: A Love Story


Willow making with the magics

Willow is my favorite character for a number of reasons.  Her development as a character is amazing over the seven seasons and she had a lot of conflicts both internal and external that made her fascinating.  This particularly extends to the development of Willow’s sexuality, a really important aspect of the show.

Before LGBTQ entered the mainstream consciousness, Buffy was breaking down the doors of convention by introducing sexuality not just between heterosexual couples but also in the form of bisexuality and discovery of what love actually means.

Warning: Major, major spoilers for the entire series, as I’ve spanned all seven seasons to discuss Willow’s relationships.

Daniel “Oz” Osbourne

Oz first saw Willow when his band performed at The Bronze, the better_eskimo(only) nightclub in Sunnydale.  The high school was holding an event to celebrate different cultures and Willow, going for accuracy, dressed up as an Eskimo while most of the other girls wore derivatives of the cultures they were representing.  Leaning over to his bandmate in the middle of a song, Oz asked “Who is that girl?”

Thus began the nearly-vomit-inducingly cute and later heart-wrenching relationship of Oz and Willow.  What makes it so great for the show is that it brings in a really important aspect that each of the characters on the show deal with: the awakenings of sexuality and the personal growth throughout high school and into college.


Willow and Oz in high school

Willow and Oz fight demons together as a part of the Scooby Gang while she begins to learn witchcraft and he deals with his “furry little problem.”  Oz was Willow’s first significant other and her first experience with not just lust but also deep love.  They get through Willow cheating, though it’s difficult (more on Willow’s cheating in the next section).

Regaining trust, Willow tried to have sex with Oz while they’re on the mend to prove that she loves him but he stops her.  This is one of the best things about Oz: he’s probably the most mature of the Scoobies and he wants to do what’s best for the relationship, not just to make Willow feel less guilty or to make himself feel better. The first time they do have sex is before Graduation, when the mayor tries to bring the Apocalypse to Sunnydale at the high school graduation.  It’s Willow’s first and they make love because they’re both terrified and not sure if they’re going to make it out of the battle.

As it turns out, his furry little problem is what eventually breaks up the couple.  During their first year in college, another werewolf named Veruca shows up in town hell-bent on getting Oz.  She tells Oz that they can be free as wolves, that it’s not bad and he doesn’t need to be locked up in a cell, where he’d been staying every full moon.  Oz and Veruca end up sleeping together in the cell, and Willow finds them together the next morning.

Willow wants to work things out with Oz but he discovers that he needs to learn more his other side.  In this respect, Oz is such a great character because while he’s not exactly a Chatty Cathy, he says what he means and he doesn’t lie about his intentions.  This is a parallel to Buffy’s broken love story with Angel, who leaves for LA at the end of Season 3 with the implication that it’s for Buffy’s own good.  In both cases, neither woman has a say in whether or not their boyfriends leave, but Oz is transparent in his intentions: it’s for the good of both of them, but it’s ultimately to make himself better.

Oz returns later (“New Moon Rising”) after he learns to control the wolf.  In my favorite episode, “Something Blue,” it shows just how much Willow goes through not just in her romantic relationships but also with her friends.  They don’t want to deal with her in pain over Oz, despite Buffy having gone through the same thing the year before.  When Oz does return, Willow has made progress moving on from him in a surprising direction.  Despite him coming back for her, they’ve missed their moment.  Willow tells him that she’ll always love him, but that they’ve both changed and she’s moved on.  It’s a really beautiful moment of first love and the loss of something that meant so much.

Bonus Oz Points: He repeated a year of high school, possibly to stay with Willow, and also because he’s just a really chill guy and school didn’t matter that  much to him.

Alexander “Xander” Harris

Willow and Xander had known each other their entire lives.  They’re best friends and poor Willow had been pining after him for an undetermined period of time.  She finally finds Oz and they begin their beautiful love story when she and Xander have unsettling hormonal urges towards one another in Season 3.  Both entangled in relationships, they secretly make out in the library and before Homecoming.

Their secret tryst is an expression of their own sexual desires morphing with their love for each other.  They’re not in love, but they’ve been friends for so long and they’re at a stage where they don’t yet know how to express this type of love.  This is one of the most painful but real situations in the early Buffy seasons because neither know how to deal with what they’re feeling, especially since they are in love with other people.

The secret relationship comes to a violent end when Willow and Xander are kidnapped by Spike, who has returned to Sunnydale to force Willow to do a love spell for him.  Xander’s girlfriend Cordelia and Oz come to rescue them and catch Willow and Xander kissing, having been scared half to death by Spike.  Cordelia runs and falls through the crumbling stairs of the warehouse they’re being kept in and gets impaled.  Xander and Cordelia break up while Oz and Willow start to work through it.


Xander and Willow’s relationship goes back to friendship, but no less love.  As they grow through high school, they both mature in different ways. (It can be argued that Xander will mentally always be a fifteen-year-old boy).  Xander begins working and Willow goes to college with Buffy.

It’s not until Willow experiences loss and extraordinarily deep grief, releasing herself to dark magic, that Xander’s role in her life is fully realized by the audience.  In her powerful state, no one can really do anything to bring her down.  She tries to bring about an Apocalypse and Xander goes after her against all logic.  He seems by far the least capable of having an effect on her:  he has no magical abilities like Giles and he certainly is not as strong as Buffy, but he goes after his best friend anyway.  By the power of his love for her he manages to talk her down from the proverbial ledge and bring Willow back to herself with the story about the yellow crayon.

This is by far a shining moment for Xander, but it’s also possibly the greatest show of love between the two.  No matter what their confusing romantic relations in the past, by Season 6 they have grown into adults who care about each other and want to give their love and support where they can.

Tara Maclay

Where Oz was her first love, Tara was The One.

omwf_willow_taraWillow became friends with Tara through a Wicca group when she got to college.  Though the group was not exactly what Willow had hoped, Tara also knew how to perform real magic and sought out Willow.  They grew closer by practicing magic together, Tara coming into the fold of the Scooby Gang.  Oz’s return in “New Moon Rising” brings the relationship of Willow and Tara to a turning point – they either are or they aren’t.

What is so great about Tara and Willow is that it introduced pansexuality to the show.  Up to this point all other relationships were heterosexual, though there was foreshadowing to Willow’s sexuality in Season 3 (“Doppelgangland”) in which a version of Willow is transported from another dimension.

Besides sexuality, the idea of falling in love with a person without regard to their gender is something very lightly touched on in “New Moon Rising.”  At the end of the episode Willow goes to Tara’s room and Tara tells Willow that she should be with the one she loves, having heard about her history with Oz.  Willow tells her “I am.”  This is the beginning of the relationship that at first is kept quiet.

Their relationship covers a lot of issues not just between a couple, but also how people in relationships deal with outside issues.  They face the abusive family that Tara escaped from, Willow’s addiction to magic, and the grief from the deaths of  friends.

best_first_kissTara is with Willow when both Joyce and Buffy die.  One of the most beautiful moments in their relationship takes place when they’re getting ready for Joyce’s funeral in Season 5 when Willow can’t figure out what to wear.  There’s a joke in the Buffy fandom that the clothes are atrocious, especially Willow’s.  She tore through her belongings, looking for something appropriate for the funeral of someone who she has a lot of love and respect for, and she can’t find anything that’s “grown-up” enough.  Tara keeps her grounded in that scene.

It’s one of my absolute favorites because, unless I missed something, it’s the first time that the audience ever sees Tara and Willow kiss.  It’s a moment of love and support, and I think it was a really important way to represent their relationship.  Instead of making their relationship hyper-sexual, the relationship was represented in the same ways heterosexual relationships were.

In a lot of ways the relationship was normalized as a part of the universe in which they existed.  There were moments that Tara and Willow shared in public spaces like the Bronze where they would not necessarily have been completely accepted, and it’s never broached as more than a joke here and there about Willow being gay.  When Willow comes out to Buffy and Xander they wig a bit because of her lack of indication, but it’s never really approached as a problem.

The defining conflict of the relationship was Willow’s addiction to magic.  In Season 6 it finally tears them apart when Willow resorts to magic to make Tara forget an argument.  Since the argument had been about Willow using too much magic, it set them on a precarious edge that was going to make or break them.  In the episode “Tabula Rasa,” Tara sets an ultimatum: give up magic for a week or she’s gone.  Trying to cheat the system, Willow casts a spell that goes wrong, making the Scooby Gang forget who they were, causing a number of problems until Xander accidentally breaks the spell at the end of the episode.

I explain it to people like this: “‘Tabula Rasa’ is really funny until all of sudden it isn’t and there’s Michelle Branch and it’s sad.”  After the spell is broken so is Tara’s trust, and she moves out to the tune of “Goodbye to You” by Michelle Branch.

What makes the show so cool is that it deals with issues like addiction in a way that isn’t condescending or pushy, but in terms of what’s at stake.  The relationship between Tara and Willow is undeniably beautiful, and then Willow begins to slide into magic as a means to fix problems rather than working them out.  At the beginning of “Tabula Rasa” Tara says to Willow, “You don’t want to fight, you don’t fight… you’ve been fixing everything to your liking, including me.”


Bored now.

They make up eventually, in a way, and Willow agreed to give up magic in order to start fixing their relationship.  Right as they start getting their lives back on track together, Warren, a member of the Trio, comes after Buffy to get revenge at the end of “Seeing Red.”  He shoots Buffy and keeps firing as he runs from her yard, shooting up at the house.  A bullet went through the window and hit Tara.  Possibly the second most painful death in the series, it triggers a violent reaction in Willow, causing her to allow the dark magic take over.  She’s bent on vengeance and gets it in a very bad way, killing Warren in one of the more gruesome images that have been on Buffy.

The concept of Dark Willow is one that is brought to question by a lot of commentators on Buffy.  I’ve read before that it’s a bad way to represent lesbians because it showed that she became incredibly irrational after her lover died. However, the relationship was normalized in the universe of the show, so Dark Willow represented the relapse of an addict after a traumatic event.  Willow loved Tara more than anything.  When she spoke about it after Xander talked her down from her evil Apocalypse plan, her own insecurities were pushed away when she was with Tara.  Without Tara, she was afraid that she would be just Willow again, the same girl that was nearly invisible in high school.  Her magic and her love for Tara were the things that defined her, and when she loses them both she is left adrift, trying to figure out what’s left for her.

Side Note: Soul-Smasher Joss Whedon finally put Amber Benson (Tara) on the opening credits in the episode “Seeing Red” – just in time to kill her off.


When the Potential Slayers start invading the Summers house in Season 7, along comes Kennedy, one of the most hated characters in the Buffy universe (seriously, people like a number of Big Bads more than they like Kennedy – she ranks with Riley on the Most Hated list).  She’s the do-gooder version of Faith, but infinitely less cool (and I’m almost positive jailbait).

And somehow Willow is interested in her.  What Kennedy does for Willow is that she helps her learn how to accept the death of Tara and move on in a healthy way.  When Willow returns in Season 7 she still carries the memory of Tara and in the episode “The Killer in Me,” Willow’s outward appearance transforms into Warren.  She subconsciously worries that she’s forgetting Tara by seeing Kennedy and has inadvertently turned herself into Warren.  She works through her guilt with Kennedy and discovers how to keep the memory of someone alive while moving on and being happy in life.  Kennedy also encouraged Willow to use her magic to her advantage in a positive way.  Willow is the one that unleashes the Slayer powers to all of the Potentials, not just in Sunnydale but in the entire world.  Kennedy is the one that helped her get to that point in a safe way and for that I can appreciate her role in Willow’s life.

So that concludes Willow’s love life.

Willow had a lot of ups and downs in her love life, but they all helped shape who she was.  She has experienced a lot of legitimate pain in her life and by looking at her relationships we see that it had a hand in how she evolved.

Christina Casano is a TV & Film Writer for Girls in Capes and studies theatre and mass communication at Miami University. She specializes in Buffy the Vammpire Slayer.


About cmrcasano

Twenty-something theatre artist based in Chicago.

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