Monday, 4 September 2017

‘No You Don’t Get It, I Don’t Care’ - Faith, Identity and Choice in Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer



First up in Sheffield Gothic's Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Three posts is Claire Healey exploring identity and choice through Faith. If you want to share this (or other) posts, or if you want to get involved with the conversation, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.  

Our choices define us. Every minute of every day, we are make hundreds of little choices; do I eat the cookie or not eat the cookie? Do I start work or do I browse Facebook for another 10 minutes? These choices stack, build on each other until one day you step back and see you have made a pretty satisfactory life for yourself, or, more worryingly, you wake up one day to find you’ve become Harmony.

The theme of choice runs through the marrow of Buffy. In Season two episode seven ‘Lie to Me’, Buffy’s old school friend Ford appears on the scene. Despite looking like Mr Teen Dream 1998, a tumour is liquefying Ford’s gray matter and within a matter of weeks he will be dead. His plan; get himself vamped and live forever. In exchange for a roomful of innocent people, of course. Ford says he has no choice. Buffy disagrees. ‘You have a choice. You don’t have a good choice but you have a choice’. This could be the thesis for Buffy as a whole: how does a person navigate the tough decisions that take you from child to an adult, an adult aware of all the harshness and complexities of life and still come out intact on the other side? 

For the most part, I think that Buffy does an excellent job of handling this transition. Then again, of course she does, she is a hero. But what happens if the choices you make are not so good? What if your choices are fuelled by pain, rage, desperation and feeling of inadequacies so profound you can even acknowledge them to yourself? Enter Faith. 

(Faith)
Faith Lehane (yes, she does have a last name) is one of the show’s dark reflections of Buffy, her own personal walking-talking mad women in the attic and is arguably Series 3’s main Big Bad (yeah, there’s the Mayor, he wants to end the world, yadda, yadda, but on a metaphorically level the series is about facing your inner demons, not overcoming the petty democracy of local government). Like all the most compelling villains, Faith didn’t start off evil. She enters the season alone and hunted, fleeing the monster that killed her Watcher and dealing with the feelings of guilt that she wasn’t able to prevent it. Things go from bad to worse when whilst out on patrol one night, Faith, mid-hunt and without self-control to reign in her bloodlust, accidentally stakes a human, killing him. Buffy is horrified and wants to go to the police. Faith dumps the body and tries to pretend it didn’t happen. In doing so she becomes a primer in how not to deal with trauma. 

From the get go, Faith accepts no responsibility whatsoever what she has done. Her first instinct is to flee. She doesn’t want to tell anyone what’s happened, believing that if they keep quiet about it the problem will simply go away. When that becomes untenable, she tries to force the blame onto Buffy. She pushes people away, assaulting and nearly killing Xander when he offers to be there for her, as though she was trying to torch any and all bridges that might lead her back to having to deal with what she has done.  Mentally she justifies her actions, protesting that in the great battle between good and evil the death of this one man is merely collateral damage. Slayers are warriors, fundamentally different then the people they protect, and the normal moral rules do not apply to them. Faith opts for blanket denial: if nothing bad actually happened then she can’t possibly feel bad about it. She refuses to have feelings. 

(The Two Slayers: Buffy (left) and Faith (right))
By choosing not to see her actions as wrong Faith has chosen an identity. She is now a person for whom murder does not bother. She is invested in that persona – she has to be. The glib veneer that Faith has projected since arriving hardens into something much darker. It’s not that she is blithe and carefree, she literally does not care. To do anything otherwise than to commit to it 100% would mean accepting the consequences of her actions and feeling the feels that go along with it. The stakes for are too high. For this point on every action she takes must align with this world view or risk emotional devastation.

Looked at this way, as a strategy for self-preservation, Faith’s actions make a lot of sense. Betraying her friends, turning her back on her calling, working for the mayor; all are fuel for this protective identity. Each time she makes a decision through the filter of this persona, she seeks to confirm that she is X type of person, who does X type of things. It makes the next terrible act easier. A certain type of logical dictates that the choices she makes must become more extreme and outrageous. In ‘Choices’ (S3, E19), Faith murders a man she had no direct instructions to kill, shooting him from a distance with a hunting bow and hacking off his arm to claim the box chained to it. Even the vampire with her looks disgusted. It’s like she is trying to horrify herself, to prove that the initial murder didn’t matter by deliberately doing things that are much worse.

(Faith, chained)
The sad part is that Faith is given a way out. Both Buffy and Angel repeatedly extend her the hand of friendship, offering to stand by her and give her support. Several times, Faith seems to be on the brink of reaching out and sharing what is eating her up inside, especially when talking to Angel, someone who understands what it’s like to take a life and live with the consequences. But she backs off. Faith cannot accept these offers, or even register these options as genuine possibilities – her identity has gotten in the way. 

This perhaps is the true tragedy of Faith. At some point between running away from her guilt and trying something, anything to relieve her pain, she loses her ability to choose. From a free-thinking young woman who question the judgement of authority figures (poor Wesley, he didn’t have a prayer), she becomes a follower, accepting the Mayor's instructions absolutely. She calls him ‘Sir’. He barks at her to leave with him, she meekly follows behind. When a geologist stumbles across some information that may potentially give clues to his diabolical schemes, the Mayor dispatches Faith to ‘Deal with it’. Realising what is about to happen, the geologist asks Faith, ‘Why?’ Her response: ‘Boss wants you dead’. She has given up responsibility for the decisions in her life; Faith is simply following orders.

Faith believes that the Mayor’s Ascension in is a done deal, an element out of mortals control. In believing this she taking away the choice of everybody else; they are all in the same situation as her - doomed. By aiding and abetting a literal end of the world, Faith is trying to stop the concept of choice altogether. For choices to have meaning they need to be able to effect change in the world; for that to happen the world needs to continue, it needs to have a future for these changes to take effect in. No future = no choice. What is heart-breaking is how ill-thought through this belief is. Faith is anxious that the Mayor will still need her after the Ascension; but why would a Giant Snake creature need one puny human after the apocalypse? Such is the depths of Faith’s suffering that she is willing to burn the world down around her to keep her from thinking about what she’s become. 

(Faith and Mayor Wilkins)
When we give away our ability to choose, to operate with some agency in our own lives, however small, we lose part of our humanity. We become objects for the world to act upon. Faith becomes the Mayor’s deadly tool. She accepts this identity as who she really is and it provides her with a shield deflecting any criticism the world may throw at her. But it doesn’t bring her happiness. In adopting this persona she becomes more friendless and alone that she has ever been before (people don’t emotionally invest in objects – you don’t throw birthday parties for a fork) and sacrifices meaningful connections for the dubious comfort of believing she doesn’t really need them. By pretending they don’t exist, she throws away her chance at healing her wounded feelings. 

In the process Faith becomes something truly monstrous. The Mayor is the traditional, evil-for-the-pure-giddy-thrill-of-it brand of morally despicable hijinks that we have come to expect from our supernatural badduns. But Faith’s is a recognisable, empathetic evil, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I kind of a villain. If we’d done things differently in our lives, maybe it would be us who end up in Faith’s emotional headspace; alone, desperate and divided from those around us by our own sense who and what we are. 

Your choices are what you become. So make good ones. 


Claire Healey is a long-time Buffy obsessive and lover of all things dark, moody, and eye-liner-y. It has also been said that her incredible Halloween craft skills are akin to witchcraft. 

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