Knowledge, Power and Disaster in Buffyverse, Pt. 3 – Giles

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Above, Giles explains the problem with computers in I, Robot…You, Jane, S1E8. .gif by flowerdrop

Key figure and arguably the anchor of early season Buffy, Rupert Giles (Buffy’s Watcher), we learn was a curator at “a British museum or The British Museum”. (Willow, BtVS S1E1) Giles learned that he was to become a Watcher at the age of ten, from his father and mother, who were also Watchers.

His early years required intensive duty to scholastics which eventually led him to a rebellious period when he and his peers delved beyond their studies, exploring the dark and black arts. They utilized books and materials they had little ability to wield or control let alone understand. Giles often cautions Willow, and serves as a direct warning to all, not to reach beyond their means where learning is concerned, especially in the learning of magics. (Fred later serves as a direct warning/example of the danger of intensive scholastics… another entry will cover that.)

Due to his years delving into the black arts, which function in the show as a drug Giles (known then as ‘Ripper”) and his peers tried to control a demon named Eyeghon, who eventually hunts down the entire group, save Ethan Rayne and Giles, and murders each one. This speckled history of Giles’ is revealed in the episode “The Dark Age,” (S2E8).

In this episode Giles’ history directly compromises the most important people in his life: Jenny Calendar and Buffy. Jenny ends up being possessed by Eyeghon (and thus Buffy ends up beating her to a pulp, working out some subconscious father-figure/jealousy issues in the meantime), while Buffy gets held captive by Ethan Rayne who tries to deflect Eyeghon’s attention from himself by offering up Buffy.

The metaphor of knowledge as a drug is therefore laid out early. If school & scholastics are the beer and wine of the education world (with the ability to get one buzzed or even drunk on knowledge/power), magic is the Meth. Magic is the Heroin of knowledge. Magic is a way to utilize learning immediately in a way that can impact the user’s immediate environment. In light of this, each character can then be viewed through this facet.

Willow is clearly cut out to be an addict, with her drive and obsession for all knowledge. Giles was a recreational user who let it get the better of him. Cordelia is content with “beer & wine,” Xander has no appetite whatsoever, and Buffy has a natural aptitude but no time to capitalize on it because she is a Slayer.

At the library (and later at the magic shop), we know Giles tries to keep the most powerful books where the others will not be able to easily access them. We also know Willow quickly begins to ignore this boundary, sneaking the books she wants to read or see. Early on Buffy is in support of Willow, especially when it will benefit her, thinking her behavior is harmless like when Willow proposes they access the books for history regarding Angel. This is one of the first times we see the addict/co-dependent relationship between Buffy and Willow start to shape itself. (Willow’s addiction and the co-dependence of the Scoobies will be addressed in another essay.)

Giles’ cautions to Willow are from a place of experience, and he is never okay with Willow’s behavior, despite seeing from time to time that her considerable, eventual power is sometimes their only hope. Giles’ attempt to use magic for entertainment as an adolescent creates an unshakable problem that follows him well into adulthood and harms what he loves best. Despite seeing this first hand, Willow does not cease to reach for power and knowledge she does not have. Being the smartest student in school and having the best grades does not satisfy her in any way, it causes her to want more. Where Giles tried to utilize knowledge/magic for recreation, Willow becomes an addict to the Nth; falsely believing she can achieve some sort of mastery where Giles failed due to, as she perceives, his ineptitude.

What we know of Giles is that he comes to rest somewhere in the middle where knowledge is concerned. He knows from experience that he must self-discipline and recognize when something is too far out of his realm. If a job is too big, rather than plow ahead and attempt something dangerous, he will generally contact someone with the right abilities or resources for the job. In converse fashion, Willow will always try everything on her own, even when she is well out of her depth. The “fix” she gets when she is able to apply herself successfully is more than enough for her to eat her failures, and the failures  serve to create deeper craving for her to have more successes.

Loren: “Power does traditionally corrupt… You get high up enough, and well… the people? They do start to look like ants.” Part 1

Watching through BtVS and Angel, it’s apparent that among the many well-considered and highly developed themes Joss Whedon is keen to explore, that of knowledge (and the human relationship to knowledge), is paramount.

From the least-educated character of Xander, and arguably Buffy, and possibly Gunn,  to the most-highly educated: Professor Walsh, Fred (Winifred Burkle), and Giles, Whedon uses every character as an opportunity to contribute dialogue regarding the tenuous line one must walk in the pursuit of knowledge.

Before exploring individual instances where knowledge becomes a problem or a weapon (often, most readily used against the self), it is important to talk about the contrast Whedon proposes to one’s scholastic learning and pursuit of knowledge and that is: the matter of “heart.”

The character of Xander is often cited as the “heart” of the Scooby gang. In S4E21 “Primeval,” Xander becomes the heart of a spell that unites Giles, Buffy, Willow, and Xander. The “heart” is a role traditionally attributed to female characters in culture and movies. This concept opens a can of worms about Xander and his masculinity, and what that means in terms of both the show and Whedon’s message, i.e. What’s wrong with being the heart? What’s wrong with men donning traditionally “feminine” roles? Why are these roles perceived as weaker than? Why does Xander struggle in his role? etc.

Through the years, Xander never seeks to learn or develop skills, yet he continually protests about being the most vulnerable and unskilled member of the group. He does not learn martial arts, study lore or magic, or even train with Giles to learn basic defense and weapons skills. He subscribes to his own inferiority, never more than when Willow and Buffy head off to college while he (sulkily) takes a blue-collar track.

Additionally, we know Xander is a terrible student in school. His grades are often mocked by himself and he is continually cheered on by Willow to apply himself and study. Xander has no natural skill for school and never pushes himself to learn much of anything. The knowledge that Xander gains is based on his peer group; to be a Scooby, Xander must do research and log “field hours.” Thus, through his peer group, Xander’s education becomes one of emotion, which he sadly takes no pride in or ownership of. He is not proud to be the “heart”. He sees it as a unecessary role in the group, while Whedon presents it as vital. Often, Xander is the only glue keeping the team together, especially in later seasons. In many ways Xander’s battles occur emotionally, but that too is something he has little confidence in and does not relish.

On the other hand, Buffy has natural aptitude for school. Despite her continual struggles to balance her responsibilities, for Buffy, school always loses out to slaying and social life. Buffy’s grades are traditionally a mess, as is her participation and effort. It’s only when the gang get their SAT scores back that we become certain that Buffy has a natural penchant for learning and school. Willow (looking at Buffy’s SAT scores): “Buffy!” You kicked ass!”. We also know that Buffy gets accepted to some stellar schools such as Northwestern. Her SAT scores are good enough for highly respected colleges to look past her shoddy transcripts and problematic record of behavior.

But Buffy never challenges herself scholastically (until she enters college) and she never has to. She was able to dial it in the whole time, which is a surprise even to her. Once Buffy enters college, it becomes quickly apparent that slaying and school will no longer be a balance she can fudge enough to succeed. She tries well enough at first, but once her mother becomes ill and dies (admit it, you just flashed to the image of Joyce’s body on the couch. Ouch, every time), there is no way Buffy can juggle school any longer. She must become mother to herself and her sister, and slaying and the need for income both trump Buffy’s scholastics. In effect, life has happened to Buffy, spoiling her plans and illuminating that education is a gift to be valued, one that one often must make tremendous sacrifices to pursue.

Knowledge of Charles Gunn’s education is based highly on conjecture. In his own words, we know he is from “the streets,” where he runs a gang of young adults and teenagers that clean up vampires from their distressed neighborhoods of origin. Like all characters in Buffyverse, Gunn is a stereotype, one that often becomes uncomfortable because with him, the issue of stereotype and race is raised, but, that is the topic for another essay.

Gunn takes pride in his roots and often flaunts his street smarts and common sense which often manifest as jadedness based on years living in a virtual war zone. As viewers, we imagine that Gunn’s hardships in life regularly trumped the luxury of scholastics and school and his countenance, language, and bearing support this theory. He is regularly identified as the “muscle” of Angel Investigations, becoming a worthy fighter and brawler alongside Angel.

When Angel Investigations takes over the LA branch of the evil Wolfram and Hart Law Firm, Gunn almost immediately makes and takes a deal to have his brain supernaturally   and surgically enhanced to gain comprehensive knowledge of the law and business (and Gilbert & Sullivan musicals). He becomes an uber-lawyer, an elite brain, but through unnatural means. For Gunn, it is literally a short-cut education at any cost, as the price of his unnatural knowledge ends up leading directly to the death of Fred.

While Gunn knows a price will be required for his gain (but not what that price is specifically), he does not hesitate for a moment, elucidating that those who have necessarily gone without education due to socio-economics, circumstance, and access  will sometimes pay nearly any price to obtain it and have a chance to better themselves and their lot.

Next up… Part 2: The trouble with big brains…