I can’t cover every Buffy bad guy in this post, and I won’t try. There are approximately a bajillion villains, including, at one point or another, every single good guy in the whole freaking show.
So we can’t rate all of them, although that would be fun. For the sake of brevity, we will be focusing on the Big Bads from each season. You may have noticed that all of the seasons (with the exceptions of Season 1 and Season 7) have two different Big Bads: an expected one and a “twist” that puts a personal spin on things. The combination as well as the overall value will be factored in here. Let’s start with the crap:
7. Adam/The Initiative
It’s almost too easy to put this in last place. Aside from “Hush” and “Who Are You” there is hardly a single good thing about Season 4. Riley Finn, losing Oz, Riley Finn, Giles being irrelevant, neutered Spike, Riley Finn and Riley Finn are some major problems, but mostly it suffers from a relevant bad guy. The Initiative starts out as the villain in question. It’s a shady organization that reeks of government conspiracy that plays Frankenstein with demon body parts and inexplicably monitors its own soldiers’ bedrooms.
While it’s kind of interesting to imagine how the government would deal with a world of demons, mostly this breaks the line that the show was riding between camp and fantasy. It’s fantastical to believe in a world where demons are everywhere and no one notices. It’s camp to acknowledge that people are being oblivious to something so obvious. It’s neither to suddenly involve the freaking CIA. The idea kind of falls short, because once the Initiative is shut down, the government goes back to pretending demons don’t exist, and we go back to the old format.
And then there’s Adam, the true Big Bad, who has no bearing on Buffy’s life at all. They hardly ever interact, he reveals nothing about important characters, and he looks like he’s covered in tapioca pudding.
There’s no build-up with Adam either. He’s introduced with potential for some really fucked up Oedipal shit, but the first thing he does is murder Maggie Walsh and spend the rest of the season in the sewers. Not interesting, not relevant, and I don’t care if you’re referencing Mary Shelley. This didn’t belong.
6. The Master I’m not really sure why the Master is so low on this list. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with him.
The Master is just the typical vampire villain. Creepy, gothic, inhuman and bat-like. He’s there to create the standard so that Joss could then break the rules and have fun with the tropes. But that doesn’t make the Master any more interesting. There’s no history to delve into, no humanity to explore. He kills minions who fail, he puts stake in the prophecy, he lisps over those fake fangs, yada yada yada. Let’s face it, we all skip this season anyway except for the episode “Angel.”
5. The Trio/Dark Willow Let me start this one out by saying that I’m pretty torn on my stance when it comes to Dark Willow. On one hand, I like to see actors and characters given the chance to expand and to break out from their traditional roles. Joss is great at not letting anyone stagnate. That said, I think he was a bit off with this one.
The only point of making a character go bad is to show a compelling and even sympathetic reason for them doing so. So the writers killed Tara. And that felt like a cheap shot. It felt like they did it so they could let Willow go crazy. Willow had a great, subtle arc, going from a geeky spaz with no self-esteem to a brilliant, talented witch who was coming to terms with her sexuality. Then suddenly she was a soulless lightning wizard out to murder her friends. And the world.
The problem is that Willow already went crazy over Tara in Season 5, but in a believable way. It showed her power, recklessness, poor judgment and vindictive side without taking away her humanity. Season 6 took away the audience’s ability to empathize with her.
Which reminds of the most forgettable bad guy in this series, along the same theme.
The Trio also attempted to remind the audience that demons are not the only sources of evil in the world. Human beings are evil all the time, for profit or glory or because they’re rapist dickbags. The Trio was a brave attempt at showing that. And I can certainly see why they went with Warren, who created sex slaves, lied to his girlfriend about it and always tried to get out of blame. But Jonathan? Really? Didn’t Buffy save him from suicide, causing him to recognize her contributions and choose to award her at prom in one of the sweetest scenes in the whole show?
Even apart from all that, it’s insulting how Buffy could fight a god in the previous season and fail so miserably against three nerds. Pathetic.
4. The First I like the First. I do. A nameless, faceless nonentity that is the root of all evil and can take on the form of any dead person? That’s just brilliant.
This was a great bad guy to go out on. It was desperate, it was heroic, and it created the most brilliant series finale I’ve ever seen. The bad guy was rooted in mythology and tradition and deep, primal fear, so of course Buffy had to take all of that history and completely fuck with it in order to beat the baddy. That was awesome. The only reason it’s low on the list is that it’s straightforward. And if I can’t deconstruct it, it’s going to be a middle list entry.
3. Glory/Ben I’m going to talk about this bad guy theoretically, because if I allowed my prejudice against Clare Kramer’s acting abilities to get the better of me, she would be in last place.
That said, though, the Glory/Ben dynamic is actually pretty cool. They represent, in their own way, Buffy. Glory is the Slayer side of Buffy.
She’s beautiful, blonde, petulant, and unnaturally strong. Everything she has she’s been given. She didn’t work for it and she certainly takes it for granted. She wants what she wants, and she’s frustrated when she can’t have it. Ben, on the other hand, represents the human side of Buffy. He wants to be something (a doctor), and although he’s working really hard to achieve that, he’s hindered by the side of himself that he never wanted. It keeps him from living his life.
Buffy and Ben both have the option of doing the right thing or the easy thing, and it centers around Dawn. They can give in to Glory’s style of winning and let Dawn die, which would save their lives. Ben chooses to side with Glory instead of letting Dawn go. He gives up his humanity, eventually merging into a Ben/Glory hybrid. At that point he loses his identity, and with it his goodness.
Buffy’s fight is not really with Glory. It’s not really about using her brain over her brawn (although that happens, if we give all the credit to Anya.) Buffy’s battle is whether or not to let Dawn die or to sacrifice herself. She chooses to die. Her nigh-invincibility and heroic strength are not her greatest power and she does not allow them to take over. Death doesn’t win. She makes it her bitch. It’s also interesting to note that she doesn’t kill Ben, which also could have solved her problems, because she doesn’t use her powers to kill humans.
2. The Mayor/Faith As mentioned previously, the best villains tell you something interesting about your hero. They are a foil or a shadow projection, or just a nice contrast. Season 3 blurred the lines between the good guys and the bad, and made an entire season more about fathers and daughters than about good guys and bad.
The Mayor is an interesting bad guy to me because of the ways he can be so human. Unlike the Master, he doesn’t punish failure in his subordinates with death. He forgives Alan with a mild admonishment and he hires Faith because he likes her initiative. He’s cheerful, germophobic and doesn’t like swearing. Apart from creating an actual personality for him, this also serves to make his dark moments fantastically creepy, because it comes out of nowhere out of this family values pastor-bator.
Then we have Faith, whose very name is a drawling irony. Faith is figuratively and (at times) literally Buffy’s darker self. She represents what Buffy might become. The show does a great job at showing their similarities even while it underscores their differences. Aside from the visual contrast, Faith relies entirely on impulse over planning, reckless strength over protecting others, and skanky leather pants over skanky ’90s mini-skirts.
All of Buffy’s potential problems are just embraced and exaggerated in Faith. But the biggest difference is that Buffy has friends and Faith has no one. That leads us to the most important part of this season.
Faith barely had a mom and no father is ever mentioned. Buffy’s father slowly abandons her over the course of the series. Giles serves as Buffy’s surrogate, The Mayor as Faith’s. Both men want to achieve a higher purpose (being a Watcher and becoming a giant snake, respectively), but lose their shit when their ward is threatened. Giles violates the Council rules for Buffy’s sake and is fired. The Mayor destroys a hospital room after Faith’s coma.
Both girls feign independence but worship their daddy figures and, by rote, the causes that those daddy figures support. It’s a sad testament to the way that people search for meaning in other people, and the way that we adopt ideology. Buffy relies on Giles and he steers her right. Faith relies on the Mayor and it gets her skewered. The two girls made different choices, but a lot of it is about the people around us, and how they shape those choices. Buffy found trust in the right people and Faith didn’t. It doesn’t make them different, it just makes Faith a tragic character and Buffy a useless whiner.
This is the greatest Big Bad of all time and I’ll tell you why: because the whole season is about sex and autonomy.
Spike and Angel are actually each other’s foils, which is kind of cool. They swap roles very easily. They “date” the same two women (Drusilla and Buffy), they’re both named William (“Liam” being the Irish version of the name) and both have a thing for underage girls. The season starts with Spike’s phenomenally creepy voyeurism of Buffy in the club, and is later followed by a line about liking “veal” when he’s eating a victim. Ew.
Spike’s blatantly sexual view of Buffy is set against Angel and Buffy’s relationship, which becomes increasingly erotic as the season goes on. It’s a nice, subtle way of drawing to attention to the ickier side of the romance, and showing that there’s not necessarily a huge difference between the two men.
Then we have the way the two villains swap places when it comes to humanity. Spike starts out typically villainous, but shows himself to be a patient and tender lover with Drusilla. Alternately, Angel starts out a lovesick puppy and warps into a completely twisted sadist. The question of humanity in vampires is now a nuanced one. Some of them show more compassion and love than others. Spike is not a very evil villain, even when he’s soulless. He doesn’t want the world to end. He teams up with Buffy to stop it, so that he can live, eat, smoke and be with Dru. Angelus, on the other hand, wants to send the whole world to hell.
Spike exists to show that Angelus is not typical, even for a vampire. The show likes to say “No, Angel is great, it’s Angelus that’s evil!” But it’s also saying that there’s something particularly bad about Angel, and that could just as easily have something to do with his human side as his vampire one. This feeds a very natural, human fear. It makes you feel that everyone, even the most loyal, loving people, have a dark, twisted side that could come out at any time. There might come a day when your lover says “Haha, just kidding, I wasn’t really into you!” and you’ll never see it coming.
The show is not saying not to trust people. It’s not even saying not to be vulnerable with someone you love. But if Buffy had allowed herself to identify solely with her relationship with Angel, he would have had complete power over her. His switch to evil taught her autonomy. “You need friends to stay true!” is the theme of Season 3, but Season 2 says you better be prepared for everyone to suddenly treat you like you’re Mickey Smith.
The minor themes of choosing duty over love, making compromises when you need to and choosing The Right Thing over selfish motives all pale in comparison to the one major theme: autonomy. Without your hot boyfriend or your cool friends, what about you is worthwhile? When someone takes away your weapons, your friends, and your hope, what do you have left?
Or, as Joss Whedon himself more succinctly put it: “Always remember to be yourself. Unless you suck.”