Can the acclaimed television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer teach us something about scientific skepticism when the stakes are high?
Willow Rosenberg was a core character of the show and appeared in all episodes from the very first to the very last one. Starting off as a shy and nerdy girl with poor self-esteem, she made a massive transformation as the show progressed.
Willow became a complicated and multifaceted character that combined high-level analytic ability, a struggle with balancing great magical powers to fight evil with the ever-present risk of letting it go out of hand and turning evil herself. Throughout the show she met and fell in love with Tara and they became one of the first female couples on American television.
Who is Dark Willow?
Tara was truly the light in Willow’s life, but their relationship was cut short when Tara was killed by a stray bullet fired from season six villain Warren Mears. With the death of her loved one, Willow let go of all inhibitions, allowed herself to become filled with fury and rage and completely gave into her dark magic addiction. She went to the magic shop and absorbed all of the dark magical knowledge from the books there, turning her hair jet black and the. She sought out Warren and two others who she felt was responsible for the death of her girlfriend. After managing to flay Warren alive, Buffy and her friends tries to protect the two remaining, fearing that Willow has gone fully batshit.
From a skeptical context, Dark Willow might be taken to symbolize a family or friend who has fallen to the dark side of quackery and pseudoscience. Someone who has been through difficult trauma and was vulnerable enough to be exploited by unscrupulous charlatans such as alleged psychics, astrologers or alt med proponents. She is not truly evil like some other villains of the show and sometimes you need to stand up to a friend and save them from a horrible fate.
The Buffy Protocol
Back at the magic shop, Buffy confronts Dark Willow and try to reason her out of it. Telling Dark Willow that it is not too late to turn back. Dark Willow refuses to listen and they start fighting. Buffy was initially able to hold her own against Dark Willow, but Willow used magic to give herself extreme strength. Dark Willow reveals that she is glad that she has gone from being a pathetic sidekick to becoming the real slayer. Buffy retorts that a killer is not a slayer. After a brief fight with fists and kicks, Dark Willow launches black lightning against Buffy knocking her out.
Buffy can probably be seen as the professional and confrontational debunker. Things have gone too far and Buffy has to step in. Buffy fights with words and with pure awesome strength. She is able to hold her own for a while, but the mindless and unreasonable nature of Dark Willow is unchanged and finally overpowers Buffy with a dirty trick. Buffy did help to force Dark Willow to spend a lot of her ‘mystical energies’, but in this case, brute force was not enough.
The Giles Protocol
The episode ends with their mentor Giles appearing from behind and sending his own spell to knock Dark Willow to the floor. True to character, he responds to Dark Willow’s claim that no one has the power to stop her by saying that he would “like to test that theory”. Now, Giles does not innately have the ability to do magic. In fact, he is a Watcher. A sort of scholar and mentor to young slayers that they can rely on. When he was away, he has been given powers by a coven to save Willow from herself.
Dark Willow is both surprised and appalled that Giles uses “borrowed magics” and they fight each other with both words and magic. Giles insists that he is here to help her before it is too late and is able to put her in a state of stasis for a time. However, Dark Willow breaks up and they continue fighting. Giles is running out of his powers and Dark Willow becomes even more nihilistic about the world and how it does not mean anything. After Giles asks Dark Willow what Tara would say if she saw what Dark Willow was doing, Dark Willow tells Giles that he can ask her himself. Dark Willow gets the upper-hand and makes Giles powerless by taking his powers.
Giles might symbolize the intellectual, thoughtful, careful and emphatic teacher and friend. Unlike the Buffy archetype, he does not go in with fists and kicks, but more planned and precise objections while making sure to tap into the emotional side of things. Although Giles often appears unfazed and cold, there is a deep sense of empathy and love underneath his strict exterior. However, Giles was not enough to stop Dark Willow, although he, like Buffy, helped to drain her of power during an extended period of time.
The Xander Protocol
After absorbing the last remaining magical powers from Giles, Dark Willow gets a massive head rush and appears like she just has taken a massive overdose on ‘magical energies’. Her vision is blurred and she is out of breath. However, Giles has one last ace up his sleeve. When Dark Willow absorbed his powers, she became able to feel everyone and their emotions and pain as well. The only way she can stop this is to make all suffering end. Her plan is to awaken a satanic temple from the underground and destroy the world.
While Dark Willow channels her ‘magical energies’ towards the temple, her long-time friend Xander walks into her beam and interrupts it. She tells him to get lost, but he refuses. She fires black magic against him that throws him up into the air and lands him some distance away. Although Xander does not have any special powers like Buffy or Willow, he refuses to relent. He says he knows he cannot stop her, but since they have been best friends their whole life, there is nowhere else that he would want to be when the world ends. Dark Willow condescendingly dismisses his pathetic appeal to emotion, but Xander responds with a silly joke. He explains that he understands that she is going to do something extraordinary evil, but that he, despite this, “still wants to hang”. He retells some of their childhood memories and how he loves her no matter what.
He knows that his love is unrequited and he does not care. He tells her that if she wants to kill the world, she has to start with him. He tells her he loves her and she tortures him. She tells him to shut up and tries to fry him with lighting, but her powers has run out. She is confused. She tries to punch him but to no avail. She starts to cry and collapse to the ground in his arms. She turns back to regular Willow with red hair and without he veins. The impending crisis has been averted. Xander is a great example of a close friend or family member. He has no arguments, no punches, no kicks and no weapons. He just has unconditional love.
There is a lot of merit to being supportive to family members and friends who have gotten stuck or exploited by pseudoscience activists and charlatans. At the end of the day, it might be the only thing that can be done. There are also examples of how this kind of social support managed to change the minds of even deeply ingrained people like the former Stormfront heir Derek Black. In the case of Dark Willow, Xander could probably not have managed what he did had Buffy and Giles not helped to exhaust her powers. It is unclear if there is really one approach that consistently outperform all others, but we know they work at least some of the time. Right now, we need to use several of these methods to make progress against quacks, cranks and charlatans. Many families and perhaps our future as societies depends on it.
The Dark Willow trilogy appears in 06×20 Villains, 06×21 Two to Go and 06×22 Grave of the show Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The credit for the image goes to the Mutant Enemy Productions and it is being used under the fair use exemption.