In this essay, Erma Petrova argues that, whereas the first seasons of Buffy focused on external threats that sought to corrupt the order of the world, the later seasons shifted the threat towards the internal – the result being that the show’s main characters embraced a side of themselves that was also evil, irrational, or dangerous. The Slayer is the one who must maintain the difference between good and evil and makes sure that good doesn’t become evil. At the same time, she is the most ambiguous one, the one who is ready to cut all ties with family and friends and kill people she loves, if necessary. The requirement that she know exactly which side she must stay on (regardless of where those she loves are) gives her the responsibility to keep the other “other” at all costs even at the cost of becoming an “other” herself. Paradoxically, she protects the line that separates good from evil by crossing it and by becoming more and more “other.”
While the first seasons of Buffy are structured around an external threat seeking to corrupt the order of the world, later the source of the threat becomes increasingly internal, and the characters must embrace a side of themselves which is evil, irrational, or dangerous. When Giles kills an arguably innocent Ben, he does not suffer the moral ambiguity that Willow encounters when she kills a guilty Warren. Willow has to deal with an evil internal to her in a way Giles does not, and this apparent discrepancy is the result of a general evolution of the series, rather than a double standard.
The murder f Ben is comparable to the murder of Warren, even though Ben is mostly innocent and Warren is mostly guilty. They are both human, and their deaths are necessary to stop further evil. Even though Ben cohabits the same body with the hell god Glory, he, as an independent being, is innocent of Glory’s actions, as the Scoobies uniformly agree: “What about Ben? He can be killed, right? I mean, I know he’s an innocent, but, you know, not, like ‘Dawn’ innocent. We could kill… a regular guy… (no we couldn’t) God.” Even the script directions (“no we couldn’t”) suggest that the way Xander delivers these lines should emphasize the moral impossibility of killing Ben as a way of stopping Glory. Being Glory is to Ben what being the Key is to Dawn: it could make him “other” but it cannot make him either good or bad on Glory’s behalf. It is true that Ben is guilty of other things — he summons the demon who kills (or merely finishes off) Glory’s brain sucked victims; and, in “Listening to Fear,” there is even a real chance that Joyce might get killed because of him (an event which Buffy prevents from happening).
It is also true that Ben betrays Dawn and humanity in general by selling his soul to Glory and agreeing to help her in exchange for his life (or, rather, his immortality). But the Scooby gang doesn’t know about any of these things and, even though Dawn obviously knows that Ben is a weak and, by virtue of the circumstances, treacherous human being because of his weakness, Giles certainly has no knowledge of any of Ben’s immoral actions when he kills him. Giles is acting on the assumption that Ben is completely innocent but powerless to stop Glory, should she ever wish to return for purposes of payback. Giles realizes that something needs to be done and that whoever does it will be incurring feelings of guilt — otherwise he would have left Buffy to do it. By saving her from the act of murder, Giles acknowledges the moral ambiguity of the act itself, the (apparent) innocence of Ben, and the inevitability of guilt for whoever happens to do what, in Giles’ view, has to be done. (Similarly, he would have killed Dawn, if he had to). But, we notice, feelings of guilt never come, and the ambiguity of this act never surfaces (script directions describe Giles during/after the murder this way: “Giles’ expression never changes”). Giles objectifies the evil — it is not in him, but he is merely the carrier, the means for an act which must be done, one way or another.
In contrast, when Willow kills Warren, a situation uncannily similar (i.e., a Scooby killing a human) results in entirely different moral consequences. Warren also, presumably, deserves to be killed, and, one way or another, somebody will have to do it. But the series makes sure we understand that there are restrictions to who can do it and that Willow is not morally eligible for it. In the case of Ben, anyone could be allowed to kill him (if we agree that he has to be killed), and the only requirement is that the “killer” is in fact physically capable of doing it and ready to take the responsibility for the act (similarly, when Giles realizes that Dawn may have to be killed, he knows that he cannot physically do it (because either Glory or Buffy would stop him), so he appeals to Buffy to see what has to be done). In the case of Warren, on the other hand, even though Willow is more than willing to take the responsibility and to perform the act (with great creativity), this is not enough anymore.
She needs a different kind of authority, the authority of not having chosen this solution. If the murder had been forced on her as the only way to protect Tara (and in time to protect her), then Willow would have had the right to take a life. In the case of Ben, Giles is aware of the fact that there is no one else to kill him (the police are not capable to grasping the danger he represents, and Buffy is not ready to take the responsibility). In the case of Warren, there are multiple options for killing and/or arresting the “bad guy,” and Willow is not in a situation (e.g., self-defense) which compels her to do it herself. We are shown that, if other options are available, one should not take the responsibility for violence oneself. And the series presents us more and more often with situations where other options are in fact available, which places on the shoulders of the characters the responsibility not to choose them; e.g., Willow has the option to kill or not to kill Warren; Buffy, in her dream vision of the mental hospital in “Normal Again,” has the option to kill or not kill her friends (both options seem acceptable to her), and even Spike, who can hardly be said to have any choice at all in the matter, somehow manages to discover more than one option (soul or not soul).
Multiple options in themselves are initially seen as a good thing: while “The Gift” begins with the grim prospect of Buffy either killing Dawn or destroying humanity, the gang works together to find another solution, and by the end of the episode new options have been found, foreshadowing both the availability of multiple choices without a right answer (both killing Dawn to save humanity and letting humanity be destroyed by not killing Dawn can seem like the right choice), and the self destructive solutions which all of the characters will eventually choose in season six (beginning with Buffy giving up her life at the very end of season five — an option that was not the preferred or even foreseen result of the search for new options, options which everyone was desperate to find).
While the series doesn’t really give us any choice in Giles’ murder of Ben, it increasingly centres on the complexity of situations where a choice is waiting to be made, and it is not immediately clear which course of action is the right one. In the case of Willow, it is conceivable to say that the action she chooses (killing Warren) is the right one, but there is something wrong about her being the one to choose it, or about this murder being a matter of choice at all. There is a sense in which the murder could only be justified if there weren’t any other options to choose from. (If the Slayer kills demons, it’s because no one else can; we could even say that the Slayer is the name for not having any other choice but to kill, which is what upgrades the killing to “slaying”; a Slayer would not be possible in a world where the normal human authorities are capable of doing her job.)
After working so hard to increase the number of options available to them, the characters still end up choosing the most self destructive one. The expansion of the range of available choices puts the emphasis on the character who has to choose. We don’t know what the character will do. The good is not That Which Buffy Chooses, and the bad is not always that which Buffy fights. It is no longer the case that the character will necessarily choose the right action: the moment the right action becomes a matter of choice, it is no longer something that “always” happens.
The measure of good and evil in Buffy is choice. We cannot say that Giles is evil when he kills Ben, because he doesn’t seem to have any choice about it. Choice is the difference between Buffy’s attitude toward Dawn when we first meet Dawn (Joyce has to force Buffy to take care of her sister: "Buffy? If you’re going out, why don’t you take you sister with you?” [“Buffy vs. Dracula”]), and Buffy warning everyone that she will take care of Dawn no matter what (“I’ll kill anyone who comes near Dawn” [“The Gift”]). In any other hero narrative, Buffy would have been faced with a situation where she must save Dawn at all costs, and her heroism would come from her determination to do what she has to do (cf. Giles and Ben); in other words, she would have no choice but to save Dawn.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, however, this is not enough to make a “good guy,” and the heroine is in fact faced with the opposite situation: she does not have a choice but to kill Dawn in order to save the world, but, even though she is not given any other options, somehow she manages to choose an other option. In other words, while the standard hero does what he must, Buffy does what seems the right thing to do even if this is not available as an option at all and all the options are “wrong”: