Sometimes, Buffy episodes are nonsensical dream sequences with repeat appearances from an unexplained Cheese Man. Sometimes they are thinly veiled metaphors for teen hormones wherein the spirit of a hyena demon infects a gang of high school boys, who proceed to eat their principal alive. Other times, though, the show does away with humor and absurdity altogether, and takes 45 minutes to talk about difficult, painful, important issues. “Seeing Red” is one of these episodes. Depression, toxic masculinity and gun violence are the main plot drivers. Victimhood, grief and recovery are their outcomes.
The episode begins with Willow and Tara cuddling in bed. They’ve just made up after a painful separation, and are lolling with perfect familiarity and renewed excitement. Their conversation soon turns, as many do in this show, to Buffy’s sex life. In the previous episode, Anya and Spike did the horizontal mambo in a moment of drunken commiseration. When Buffy and Xander discovered and confronted them, Buffy’s secret came out: she’d been having hate sex with Spike all season.
Willow’s initial disgust at the thought of Spuffy (official fan lingo) gives way to compassion. “She probably needs someone to talk to,” she says, absentmindedly running her fingers along Tara’s legs. Xander, on the other hand, is unreasonably angry. Buffy tries to talk to him about it, but he’s unreceptive.
“Anya’s just hurting,” Buffy says. “She’s hurting and she did this really stupid thing.” It’s unclear whether she’s still talking about just Anya.
“With your boyfriend,” Xander retorts. He says he can understand why Anya would sleep with Spike, but that Buffy is a different story entirely. He shakes his head, all hypocrisy and condescension. (Xander is your most-problematic of faves.)
“You have no idea how hard it is just being here,” Buffy snaps. She’s fighting back tears at this point. When she died at the end of Season 5, Buffy didn’t go to a hell dimension as her friends thought, but to a place that for all intents and purposes could be called heaven. So being brought back to Earth was a special kind of torture. (“There was no pain, no fear, no doubt — till they pulled me out of heaven,” she sings at the end of “Once More, With Feeling.”) Everything hurts, everything is hard, and Buffy feels constantly out of place with her friends — a vulnerability that Spike often manipulates to get her to sleep with him again.
Xander’s unwillingness (or, more charitably, his inability) to empathize with Buffy’s struggle will be familiar to people who suffer from depression or severe anxiety. Buffy’s been laboring under the weight of an invisible illness all season. For the first time, she’s in the midst of a struggle that she can’t win with a stake or well-aimed punch. Her role as leader and Chosen One doesn’t exactly leave her a lot of time to seek a therapist, nor have her friends showed any sign that they would be understanding, or able, to help. Buffy’s only source of solace has been Spike, who helps her work through her depression as much as he exploits it.
But Spike’s infatuation with Buffy is no different from the obsessive, violent pursuits of his past. When Buffy is drawing a bath after a particularly rough patrol, Spike confronts her — initially to apologize for sleeping with Anya, but then to persuade Buffy to admit to a love she does not feel. Their argument turns a into a physical struggle as he tries to initiate intimate contact. He grabs her wrists, knocks her down to the floor, wrestles her into facing him. “Let go,” he pleads. “Let yourself love me.”
It’s a sickening scene to watch. Buffy’s frustration grows to panic as she realizes she can’t fight him off, that he might actually rape her. She cries and yells and pleads with him to stop. “I’m gonna make you feel it,” he snarls, tearing open her robe. Blessedly, Buffy gets a good hold. She kicks him to the wall and scrambles away. The impact seems to bring Spike to his senses, and he shakes in horror at what he’s just done, what he was about to do.
“Buffy, my god, I didn’t — ”
“Because I stopped you!” she says.
Spike goes home, steeped in guilt, unable to shake the image of attacking Buffy from his mind. While we don’t see it play out in this episode, this guilt drives him to leave town in search of a spirit that can restore him to his former, fully evil self. Human relationships and feelings have complicated a life that Spike is otherwise accustomed to living in absolutes: absolute evil, absolute struggle, absolute power.
Buffy, on the other hand, understands the pain and complexity that comes with living on the periphery of humanity. Throughout the season, she’s been drawn to Spike in equal measure for his darkness and the widening cracks of light he betrays. Another development we don’t see until next episode is Buffy deciding to leave Dawn with Spike while she goes out on a dangerous mission. She can’t trust Spike when it comes to respecting her wishes or her body, but she knows she can still trust him to look after her younger sister. There are conflicting, coexisting parts of Spike that Buffy (and the viewer) admires and loathes, likes and fears. These can’t be reconciled any more than they can be separated, and it’s by rooting through this muck without pontification or hopeful platitudes that the writers honor Buffy’s victimization — and allow her character a chance at recovery.
Although Spike’s attempted sexual assault is so brutal, it isn’t even the primary violence of the episode. That honor goes to Warren, the most mundane and snivelly villain to be pitted against the Scoobies in the entire series. Warren is a supernatural dilettante and an engineering whiz, but what he is most of all is an asshole. A geeky, snivelly asshole who takes his residual teen angst out, in deadly ways, on women. (I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Nice Guys™ can be fatal to women. That has already proven true in Warren’s case: he strangled an ex-girlfriend a few episodes ago, to get back at her for leaving him. Untimely death, that’ll show her.)
For Warren’s evil scheme of the week, he’s acquired a pair of mystical orbs that imbue the possessor with superhuman strength and invincibility. For the most part, Warren is bent on taking down the Slayer, but this quest is often distracted by his insatiable need to be an asshole. Case in point: As soon as he gets his paws on the magical orbs, Warren’s first stop is a bar, where he uses their power to act like a douchebag towards men and a lecherous creep towards women.
While he’s inflicting this creepiness on one woman in particular, her boyfriend comes over to intercept. “Get lost, shrimp,” the considerably taller guy says. But Warren grabs his arm.
“Franky? Oh my god, is that you?” Warren apes glee at catching up with an old classmate. “It’s Warren! Remember Warren? Gym class, fifth period, you and your jock buddies used to give me such a hard time?” Recognition slowly dawns on the tall guy’s face. “But hey,” Warren says, “no hard feelings. I mean, I know you were just fooling around. Like I’m gonna be, with your girl, in about five minutes.” (Cut to the girl in question, who is icked out.)
Warren’s “revenge of the nerd who’s actually a raging misogynist” trope is nearly as in-your-face as the fact that his idea of the ultimate weapon is a pair of rock-hard balls. Towards the end of the episode, Warren terrorizes an ambulance by lifting it off the ground with one hand. “I can’t wait to get my hands on his orbs,” says sidekick Andrew, more than a little homosexually. With the orbs, Warren feels empowered not to take over the government or rob a bank, but to hit on women and intimidate men. When Buffy, a woman, destroys the orbs and kicks his ass, indignation and humiliation color his anger. Warren no longer wants to destroy her simply because she’s a powerful adversary: it’s personal, now.
So Warren suits up in the way of uncreative, untalented, angry men. He gets a gun. He comes to Buffy’s back yard, asks if she thought she could just get away with that, and shoots at her. He starts running away almost instantly, but continues to fire. He gets Buffy in the shoulder, and shoots wildly into the room where Willow and Tara are currently standing. The stray bullet goes straight through Tara’s heart. She comments on the blood that’s just appeared on Willow’s shirt before she falls to the floor. (This may have been the first fatality of Dead Lesbian Syndrome, a trope that continues to mar LGBTQ representation on screen to this day.)
Buffy and her friends have an arsenal of occult and supernatural tools at their disposal, but they can’t stop bullets, nor can they cure men of the corruptive, entitled sentiments that patriarchy and rape culture instill.
“Seeing Red” confronts the Scoobies with flavors of violence they don’t typically have to face. Much like Season 2’s “Passion,” the episode deals with a menace that is highly gendered and exists in the corners of the world untouched by vampires. Spike’s obsession very nearly resulted in Buffy’s rape, an eventuality only avoided due to her super Slayer strength. Warren’s bitterness now has two women’s bodies in its wake. And the use of a handgun deafens, for a moment, all other conflicts. Guns kill. They kill quickly and thoroughly. And when they end up in the wrong hands (thanks to shitty policy, this is not an “if”), they kill the undeserving and the beloved.
Want more Buffy: The Vampire Slayer content? Check out the other reviews in this series: