Thus revealed, the creature buried its nose in the tire-tilled soil...
April 18, 2004
Re: Buffy/Angel and Free Will
Category: Serious … TV, Film, & DVDs

So Tina over at has recently written a blog entry addressing the depiction of vampires in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel". She writes:

It is repeatedly said in the show that vampires (and other demons) do NOT possess free will. Why is that? Well, it seems to be due to thier intrinsically evil natures. That is, humans have free will because they have a soul, which gives them a conscience: so they have something within them that pulls them towards the good; there is some motivation in them, intrinsically, to do the right thing. Vampires do not have this: there is nothing in them that motivates them to do what is right...

Yet, while the characters recognize that vampires don't have free will, they nonetheless seem to hold them morally responsible for their actions. Buffy has no problem killing creatures that simply cannot help doing what they do. But she will never kill a human being, on the grounds that they do have a soul (i.e., free will). This seems rather mysterious to me: so you willingly kill those that had no freedom to anything but evil, but will not kill those that freely do evil.

So being something of a Buffy "expert", I wrote up a comment to post over there. And then it ended up being so lengthy that I figured I'd just post it as a blog entry. Be warned, I'm kinda exhausted (it's past 5 AM...), so it's probably not the best example of my work, but it should make sense. So Tina, this one's for you. 🙂

First of all, vampires do have free will, and are capable of good deeds. In addition to Spike (before he got his soul back), Harmony is another vampire who, despite not having a soul, restrains herself from evil deeds. In one episode of "Angel" (Disharmony; "Angel" 2:17), she spent time with Cordelia and refrained from eating her -- despite being really hungry -- because Cordelia had been her best friend in life. (She later turned against Cordy, but that's beside the point -- she was good for a while.) Presently, as Angel's secretary, Harmony only drinks animal blood and does not take human victims (though you could argue that this is a self-preservation thing; Angel would kill her if she went back to eating people). So vampires are capable of doing good deeds, or at least keeping a lid on their evil desires. As Harmony complained to Fred once over drinks, she doesn't have a soul, so it's harder for her to be good. And most vampires lack the proper motivation to try. Perhaps they lack the intrinsic moral impulse that comes with a soul, but then again, given that Harmony didn't eat Cordelia (and given the fact that vampires are capable of love, as we'll see in a moment), perhaps they get a little of that, too.

Spike, too, as Tina notes, was capable of good deeds. Geoff (see Tina's comments) attributes the soulless Spike's virtues to selfishness, suggesting that he only performed virtuous acts in order to get Buffy to love him. Perhaps there is some truth to this, but I also think that he truly loved Buffy and acted out of love for her. For example, if all he cared about was Buffy's sexual healin', he wouldn't have put his life on the line in so many battles -- after all, what good would Buffy's affection do him if he didn't survive? And when Buffy and (her sister) Dawn's mother died, Spike stepped up to help Dawn perform a spell to bring her back (Forever; "BtVS" 5:17). During the course of this, Dawn said, "I know why you're helping me," and suggested that Spike was only motivated by the thought of Buffy thanking him for helping to bring back her mom. Spike responded that he didn't want Buffy to know about it at all -- that he just didn't like to see the Summers women suffer. Earlier in the episode, when he left flowers for Buffy's mom at the house, and Xander commented, "The guy thinks he can put on a big show and con Buffy into being his sex monkey!" Willow pointed out that he hadn't left a card. And in the months following Buffy's death, Spike looked after Dawn. Why do that, when Buffy's dead and gone, if not out of genuine affection for her and her sister?

If you watch the end of the final episode of Season 5 (The Gift; "BtVS" 5:22), you'll see that Spike cries harder than anyone over Buffy's demise. And following his attempt to rape Buffy towards the end of Season 6, Spike set off in search of a soul -- he sincerely regretted his action, not just because it endangered his chances with Buffy, but because he hurt Buffy -- and he genuinely loved Buffy. I think we've shown that.

So vampires, despite their wicked natures, love. This was a special case of soulless vampire/Slayer love, but it's also worth noting that vampires often exhibit love for each other as well. When the Judge -- a demon who can burn the "humanity" out of a being with but a touch -- is resurrected, he disgustedly remarks that Spike and Drusilla (his sire and lover at the time) reek of humanity, as they share affection for each other (Surprise; "BtVS" 2:13). So if we accept that loving is an act/deed, and that it is good, then vampires are certainly capable of performing good deeds.

And then we have Angel, who was pretty much the most vicious vampire there was until he got his soul back. Yet he feels immensely guilty about what he did -- but why would he, if he lacked free will in those days? But here it's important to note that the shows have been inconsistent with respect to Angelus (i.e. soulless Angel) and (soulful) Angel. Sometimes it's as if Angelus was simply Angel sans moral inhibitions, whereas at other times (like when Angel battles Angelus in his mind) it's as if Angelus is a bona fide second personality. My take, however, is that it's a Jekyll/Hyde sort of deal. Contrary to the popular retellings of the story, in Stevenson's novel, it's noted several times, by Jekyll's own admission, that Hyde is Jekyll -- they don't only share the same body, but the same mind and ultimate personality as well. It's just that when Jekyll is Hyde, he's more likely to give into his evil desires -- though he probably could restrain himself. When he is Jekyll, he refers to Hyde as "him" instead of "me" -- not because they're two separate identities, but because by his own admission, he can hardly bear to admit that he, himself, was really the one to trample that poor child in the street. Among other brutal deeds.

So vampires can be held accountable for their actions, though perhaps less so than humans. But in any case, that's not why Buffy kills them.

Simply put, Buffy kills them because she has to in order to protect innocent people. It's like how we would deal with a vicious animal that attacked and ate one or more human beings -- we don't hold the animal morally responsible for its actions, but we kill it nonetheless. Vicious dogs are put to sleep, an alligator that makes a meal of a little girl is hunted down and shot, etc. It'd be nice if there were a prison reform program for vampires, but they operate outside human laws and Buffy just doesn't have the kind of funding to build her own vampire jail. It's not the same with humans. They can go to jail, they can change, they can turn their lives around, etc. (And even when they can't, so to speak -- like Ben, who wasn't himself evil, but shared a body with Hellgod Glory -- Buffy has a hard time taking human lives in order to protect others. Though it is worth noting that she did kill some of the Knights of Byzantium, who set out to kill Dawn in Spiral, "BtVS" 5:20.) Vampires can change, but you can pretty much bet that they won't. And when they're running around eating people, Buffy doesn't have time to weigh the morality of her actions -- she's gotta stake fast and get to the next one before it drains some helpless kid dry.

And we don't see a whole lot of blaming of the vampires on these shows -- generally they just get staked and that's that. In fact, in a number of cases -- usually when the person doing the staking knew the vampire before it turned -- they actually apologize to the vampire before killing it. For example, when Angel came to stake Penn (whom Angel had sired, back in his evil days), he apologized for turning him into a vampire and for what he was about to do (Somnambulist; "Angel" 1:11). Before Gunn staked his sister, he apologized for doing so, and for allowing her to get "vamped" (War Zone; "Angel" 1:20). And so on. Sure, there's guilt here for other things, and they're not just apologizing for killing them, but there's certainly little blame. Tina rightly notes that Giles went after Angel for vengeance (Passion; "BtVS" 2:17 -- one of my favorite episodes!), but remember, Giles was whacked out on grief and wasn't thinking too clearly. And even so, blame is different from anger. For example, if a bear eats a toddler, many people would be angry at the bear. They'd shoot it multiple times and sneer at its carcass. They'd claim that they'd avenged the toddler's death. They'd do so knowing full well that the bear couldn't be held morally accountable for the action.

So to close, the heroes of Buffy and Angel view themselves as protectors, not punishers. They kill vampires not because they blame them, and not because they view it as an act of justice, but because if they didn't kill the vampires the vampires would kill humans. Probably. Maybe not, but they generally don't take chances on that one.

Quoth Buffy, "If I have to kill demons because it makes the world a better place, then I kill demons. But it's not a gift to anybody." (Intervention; "BtVS" 5:18)

So that's that. Comments? Go for it. 🙂

-posted by Wes | 6:26 am | Comments (0)
No Comments »
Leave a Reply...