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Thread: Article: Willow Rosenberg, Addiction and the Illusion of Control

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    Default Article: Willow Rosenberg, Addiction and the Illusion of Control

    https://www.syfy.com/syfywire/willow...ion-of-control

    SYFY Wire Article:

    In Buffy the Vampire Slayer's hotly contested Season 6, our blessed witch Willow Rosenberg develops a problem with abusing magic. At first, she uses her powers to do seemingly inconsequential things but later uses them to erase her girlfriend Tara's memory of a fight they had, robbing Tara of her autonomy and ultimately ending their relationship for a time. By the end of the season, of course, she is fully overtaken by a dark kind of grief and rage that seeks grisly ends.

    This seasonal arc is often referred to as Willow's magic addiction. As a cut-and-dry addiction story, it fails. But as a depiction of just one aspect of what it's attempting to portray, of the bursts of behavior often elemental of pain, trauma, mental illness, and, yes, addiction, it is deeply relatable.

    While the show clearly saw the storyline as a metaphor for drug addiction, down to Rack's den and Willow's withdrawal symptoms, it fell victim to the same tropes often seen in portraying mental health issues and addiction in a television show as a temporary arc rather than a fully fleshed-out aspect of the character. At its core, mental illness cannot be a narrative arc because it has no obvious beginning or end and the idea that it does in film and television has serious implications for how mental illness is viewed within society. It's why people think these are things a person can simply overcome or "get over," rather than a chronic illness that requires constant work. The concept is damned further in Season 7 when Willow and Giles work toward Willow's development of a healthy relationship with magic, which is not something most addicts are able to form with their drug of choice and the notion that such moderate use is possible is one that can be lethal.

    But while it was a perhaps imperfect addiction metaphor, when you examine Willow's magic abuse as just one depiction of loss of control, of unbearable pain and the efforts a person will go to not to feel that pain anymore things that are elements of mental illness and addiction it rings true. What Willow went through wasn't the whole story; it's a realistic piece of a larger, often lifelong tale.

    dark-willow
    "It took me away from myself. I was free."

    I was diagnosed with major depression and generalized anxiety disorder with panic attacks in my late 20s, but I've felt these things in me as long as I can rememberm this sense of dread, worthlessness, terror about the world around me, and a quiet anger at all of it and toward everything I can't but desperately want to fix and control. And while I've not personally struggled with addiction, I spent 15 years as a passenger in the addiction of another person and I've seen moments of abuse in myself, be it food, alcohol or whatever minor things can grant me some momentary semblance of control over the world around me, or at the very least a brief respite from the very real pain I feel. And I've watched as the person I loved most in the world did the same with drugs and alcohol to far more destructive ends. While our stories, however inter-woven, were different, there were pieces that were the same. We did the things we did acted out, screamed, used, lost ourselves in the swirling vortex of emotion to the detriment of work and relationships because we didn't know how else to navigate an existence that felt out of control. And that is where Willow's storyline succeeds. There is an urgency in the character, a need to make things better, to repair what is broken in ways that will only damage them further. There is no logic in being lost a healthy conversation about what's going on feels impossible. So you grasp and grope for something to fix it, either not understanding or outright ignoring the fact that your hands, your brain, your entire self are not at this moment capable of putting it all back together.

    And when Willow finally finds a sense of peace and she and Tara are reunited, Tara dies at the hands of Warren Mears, launching Willow into impossible grief and rage. When those feelings take over, there is no longer Willow as we know her the pain is too prominent. And for those of us who've experienced that kind of anger, that kind of loss, we get it. When the feelings are so big, they take over. You become that anger, that loss. And it takes a long time to get it back.

    The issue with this narrative is that when it does come back, it's not permanent. To deal with chronic mental illness and addiction is to relapse and revert, and to struggle often every day. Our recovery is not relegated to minor mentions in episodic B-plots as needed, but very real parts of our lives and personalities that shape the entire way we navigate our existence. Sometimes, it doesn't go away. There is no cure. But there is learning to live with what we have. And that takes more than a few episodes in England with Giles.

    In a bottle, Buffy's depiction of Willow's finite addiction to magic is a failure. But when the bottle breaks, when you look at Season 6 as just one mile marker of a long, unyielding journey, it feels real and relatable. That's something we all deserve to see onscreen. And we deserve a show that does it correctly.

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    I would contest the idea that the Willow arc deals with mental illness. The fact that she starts to arrange things to her own liking is not a symptom that she is mentally ill - it's a natural progression of her character over several seasons. Willow has always depended on magic which severely retarded her growth as a person. Because she could feel powerful and solve problems easily she never needed to develop the skills necessary to actually deal with her problems. During the early season I see no issues of depression or anxiety beyond the natural response to living on the hellmouth. At worse I see insecurity, a tendency toward people pleasing and a need to fix things but when she needs to she is able to use her anger and confront people. I would say that addiction in Willow's case was symptomatic of a long term immaturity and an immediate crisis.

    Rage is not a mental illness. It's a reaction to watching the person you love murdered in front of you. PTSD is a condition brought on by trauma which can definitely affect brain chemistry. Your brain is an interactive organ - it changes as your life changes and you make choices. But PTSD can be treated. The person will never return to who they were, but it's possible to build a healthy life. I think that this is far closer to what Willow experiences. The message that mental illness can be shrugged off isn't valid because mental illness was never her issue. Escapism isn't a mental illness. Unhealthy coping patterns are not a mental illness.

    It cheapens the challenges to building a viable life when every difficulty is medicalized, and labelled as mental illness.
    Bottom line is, even if you see them coming, you're not ready for the big moments...The big moments are gonna come, you can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are.

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    I think there is some validity to the notion that Willow was mentally ill, at least in the last few S6 episodes. Her behavior in the Dark Willow arc is not normal for a sane person, not even one who's going through grief. Lots of people feel grief/rage, but that doesn't drive them to try to kill their loved ones and destroy the universe. At least, not most of them.

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    Well, yeah - but most people aren't on a supernatural tv drama. Most people can break up with someone without sending them to hell - or keep from destroying a house when they finally have sex. It's a thing.

    The problem is that sanity is a pretty elastic term. Mentally ill and insane are completely different things. Insanity can be temporary. It's basically a societal concept, not a medical one. Mental illness is an umbrella term like auto immune disorder, or cancer - but abnormal behavior is generally actually in the realm of normal.
    Bottom line is, even if you see them coming, you're not ready for the big moments...The big moments are gonna come, you can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are.

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    Is 'grief' catagorised as some sort of situational depression? I've probably not phrased that well, but if you are grieving, in today's world, is that seen as depression and would a doctor prescribe anti-depressants for that?

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    Grief can cause situational depression - and in some cases medication could be useful. I think in Willow's case - in a real world scenario - she would probably be sedated before she hurt herself or someone else.
    Bottom line is, even if you see them coming, you're not ready for the big moments...The big moments are gonna come, you can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are.

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    I have never really thought about Willow`s addiction as being an addiction to magic. I always thought she the problem wasn`t the magic at all (which she later used without having issues) but the power. Imho Willow got addicted to power or better to say, she got corrupted by power. I know that there were some analogies in season 6 like the herbal stuff and the water drinking, that seemed to refer to an addiction like a drug addiction. But frankly, those weren`t that heavy that they made me change my mind and maybe Willow`s friends just made the wrong diagnosis.

    I don`t know, if I am completely missing something, but to me the power-corruption would make so much more sense compared to the addiction to magic and. Am i maybe missing something here?

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    Willow uses magic to medicate her anxiety, fix the things she can't deal with and compensate for her perceived short-comings. She does get addicted, but the addiction is not the main issue in itself. The biggest problems are her self esteem, her lack of impulse control and poor moral awareness.

    I don't see what this article is on about. Willow struggles with the same stuff over and over again. Her problems in S6 has tons of precedence and when she comes back from England she is heavily marked by the events of S7.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bespangled
    Well, yeah - but most people aren't on a supernatural tv drama. Most people can break up with someone without sending them to hell - or keep from destroying a house when they finally have sex. It's a thing.
    Willow trying to destroy the world isn't really comparable to Buffy sending Angel to hell or her and Spike crashing the house down. Those things made sense in the show's mythology: Buffy lives in a world where hell dimensions exist so it's "realistic" that she had to send Angel to hell, Buffy and Spike are superpowered beings so it's "realistic" they are strong enough to bring the house down (although the fact that they were in the middle of intercourse while falling from such a high distance should have resulted in some rather complicated internal injuries, don't you think? ). Willow attempting to commit genocide, however, only makes sense if she had some serious mental health issues that had been brewing for a very long time.

    I kind of have a hard time holding Willow accountable for her actions in Season 6. It's not just because I think a lot of it was poorly-written and out-of-character but because the text itself seems to portray Willow's magic as something that is beyond her control in-story, especially in Season 7. There are many instances in Season 7 where we see Willow going black-eyed and evil whether she wants to or not, i.e. "Selfless" where she goes black-eyed and lashes out on the girl she saves in the frat room. Her magic issues work much better as a metaphor for mental illness rather than drug addiction (although the two are one and the same). Giles says in "Lessons": "This isn't a hobby or an addiction. It's inside you now, this magic. You're responsible for it.", which seems to establish magic as a part of Willow that she must learn to control. Succumbing to it can cause her to lose herself and self-destruct entirely (Season 6), while learning to conquer it can bring out her best self (Season 7). Sounds a lot like a personal dealing with mental illness, based on my experiences. It's not unbelievable that years of dabbling in heavy magicks that require tons of mental energy and concentration on her part would start to affect Willow's brain process, resulting in her rather unstable S6 characterization.
    Last edited by Andrew S.; 17-10-18 at 07:52 AM.

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    I recently did a rewatch of Season 5 & 6 and I must admit that there *is* a noticeable change in how Willow is written starting with Season 6 that doesn't feel entirely organic from where we left her in Season 5. Not only that, but the sudden shift in how others (mainly Tara) perceive her magic use dramatically changes without really establishing why. I think this essentially boils down to the sudden and mostly unestablished mythology switch in Season 6 where magic suddenly becomes an addictive "drug." It has never been portrayed this way before which is why Tara suddenly giving Willow a hard time about using magic despite never raising any concerns about this before, feels really odd.

    And, look, let's be honest, that's what happened, guys. We can try and spin it into Willow really being addicted to the power and we can certainly say that's what motivated her to become such a proficient and powerful witch. And that's all true. But Season 6 absolutely says that magic is addictive and compares it to a drug and it's not remotely subtle about it. In Gone Buffy says that to witches "candles are like bongs" and calls Willow's herbs "magic weed" which Dorris mistakes for cannibas, in As You Were Sam tells the story about the jungle Shamans who became addicted to magic and Willow refers to herself as an "addict", in Two to Go Willow calls herself a "junkie", and in Grave Willow asks Giles who his "supplier" is and alludes to her "head rush." And then of course there's Wrecked, which features junkie Amy breaking into the Summer's home for "kitchen spices", Willow going to Rack's 'magic' den to get high, the stereotypical junkies in Rack's waiting room, and Willow suffering from actual physical withdrawals when she quits cold turkey.

    We can try and say that Willow's addiction is rooted in her craving power but magic itself is absolutely depicted as an addictive substance that the human body will - literally - suffer withdrawals from if Willow deprives herself of it. And whilst Willow's own personal history may account for why Willow latches onto that power ("I was just some girl") it does not explain why Amy transforms into a blatant addict over night (her portrayal in Wrecked is extremely OOC) or the Shamans that Sam refers to.

    There *is* absolutely groundwork established in Seasons 1-5 that Willow may use magic to try and fix things to her liking (Lovers Walk & Something Blue come to mind) and that Willow has real fears that she'll always just be "some girl" (Restless). There's also foreshadowing that when Willow is heartbroken or terribly wronged in some way that she may turn to dark magic as a way of getting revenge (Wild at Heart) or imbue herself with dark magic to seek vengeance on someone who dares hurt Tara (Tough Love). But Season 6 exaggerates these character flaws or traits to a rather ridiculous degree when Willow starts trying to mind-wipe everybody willy nilly, especially after Tara just made it clear how much it hurt her which would usually result in Willow flagellating instead of simply repeating the same mistake again. And Willow's sudden and rather inexplicable reliance on magic for even the most mundane tasks (getting dressed, researching on her computer, looking for Dawn at The Bronze etc) has no real basis in anything established in Season 1-5. Her sudden shift in behaviour is simply down to the fact that writers have now decided that magic is an addictive drug and thus Willow is now an addict who behaves "like addicts do."

    It makes for some fairly surreal and awkward moments such as Giles glaring at Willow disapprovingly for suggesting she could do a Locator Spell to track down who sent the demon in Flooded. This would have actually been a smart idea that would have exposed The Trio straight away and would have saved them all (Willow in particular) a lot of future grief. But characters suddenly have to act against their own self-interests because the text has decided that Willow is addicted to magic (a mere 4 episodes after The Gift where Willow was being encouraged to use her magic as Buffy's Big Gun). Likewise, the same Tara who was gleefully watching Willow float items around The Magic Box in Triangle is now disapproving of Willow creating party decorations for Xander and Anya's engagement party because any frivolous use of magic is now deemed inappropriate and an abuse of power. And I can't even blame Giles and Tara because it is now text that magic is an addictive substance and therefore they are acting accordingly based on this new and random mythology of the Buffyverse. However, it is terribly unfair that Willow gets thrown under the bus for doing things she had often done in Season 1-5 before the writers decided candles were bongs.

    And then, just as suddenly as magic was equated to drugs and Willow was labelled an "addict" and a "junkie", Season 7 backtracks in it's very first episode and has Giles declare that magic "isn't an addiction or a hobby" and suddenly we're meant to forget all about junkie Amy, magic crack dens, and Willow going through physical withdrawals, and go right back to Willow being encouraged to use magic. And I suspect this is done purely on the basis of the negative reception they received to the unsubtle "magic is drugs!" storyline and because the writers had said what they wanted to say and "magic is drugs!" was now simply inconvenient. So whilst I definitely *do* think you could have told a convincing storyline about Willow going dark (which according to Whedon was imagined ever since Becoming II and which the series had been slowly building up to) I agree with Andrew S that Season 6 botched a lot of it with the unnecessary drug metaphor and having Willow act pretty OOC at times. In Two To Go Buffy even claims that Willow has an "addictive personality" which is based on absolutely nothing prior to Season 6 and even then, since when would her addiction to magic (an addictive substance) translate to her now being addicted to *murdering* people because she's "just tasted blood." I mean, c'mon? Really?
    Last edited by vampmogs; 17-10-18 at 12:44 PM.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Andrew S. View Post
    Willow trying to destroy the world isn't really comparable to Buffy sending Angel to hell or her and Spike crashing the house down. Those things made sense in the show's mythology: Buffy lives in a world where hell dimensions exist so it's "realistic" that she had to send Angel to hell, Buffy and Spike are superpowered beings so it's "realistic" they are strong enough to bring the house down (although the fact that they were in the middle of intercourse while falling from such a high distance should have resulted in some rather complicated internal injuries, don't you think? ). Willow attempting to commit genocide, however, only makes sense if she had some serious mental health issues that had been brewing for a very long time.

    I kind of have a hard time holding Willow accountable for her actions in Season 6. It's not just because I think a lot of it was poorly-written and out-of-character but because the text itself seems to portray Willow's magic as something that is beyond her control in-story, especially in Season 7. There are many instances in Season 7 where we see Willow going black-eyed and evil whether she wants to or not, i.e. "Selfless" where she goes black-eyed and lashes out on the girl she saves in the frat room. Her magic issues work much better as a metaphor for mental illness rather than drug addiction (although the two are one and the same). Giles says in "Lessons": "This isn't a hobby or an addiction. It's inside you now, this magic. You're responsible for it.", which seems to establish magic as a part of Willow that she must learn to control. Succumbing to it can cause her to lose herself and self-destruct entirely (Season 6), while learning to conquer it can bring out her best self (Season 7). Sounds a lot like a personal dealing with mental illness, based on my experiences. It's not unbelievable that years of dabbling in heavy magicks that require tons of mental energy and concentration on her part would start to affect Willow's brain process, resulting in her rather unstable S6 characterization.
    I agree with all of this and vampmogs post below. I've also tried to fanwank/interpret that Willow's heavy use of magic resulted in chemical imbalances/rewiring of her brain akin to mental illness. S7 basically makes that canon- so past that point, I don't even think I'm fanwanking. However, it's unclear if S7 argues that Willow became mentally unbalanced because of ingesting the Magic Box books and Giles infecting her with the world's pain or it's part of a larger arc of Willow getting deeper and deeper into magic and consequently becoming less and less stable so she can't even control herself on an average spell or mission.

    It is tempting to say magic was chemically impacting Willow's personality into S6 because as you said, a number of her eeeeevil S6 acts do not feel like a logical outgrowth of her baseline personality. I can completely buy Willow's baseline personality dictating her actions in the resurrection or a desperate attempt to mindwipe to stop Tara from breaking up with her and ease Buffy's pain or killing Warren. Episodes like Forever or Lover's Walk or Something Blue set groundwork there. However, bullshit like Willow trying to shifting every non-15 year old girl into an alternate dimension to find Dawn or her Magic Box craziness with Amy or wiping Tara's mind over a petty fight or going on a murderous rampage against all of her friends and then, the world does not feel in character at all.

    There's certainly an artistry to having such a seeming good character go bad by dint of their own slipping morals. So, I can see why even non-Willow-bashing fans want to say all of these eeeevil acts are authentic to Willow's baseline personality. However artistry aside, the writers didn't do the work to get Willow there. And they didn't do the work to charge Willow with full moral culpability in S7. So, why not just say that S6 Willow is Willow but her long-time exposure to magic without any controls or boundaries rewired her brain to severely compromise her judgment to explain away the cray-cray.

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