“Tough Love,” written by Rebecca Rand Kirshner
With Joyce gone and the weight of the Dawn on her shoulders, Buffy has conceded to the inevitable: she has to drop out of university. “Tough Love” opens as she’s expressing her regret over this turn of events to her poetry professor.
She’s not the only one racking up personal losses. Ben has been missing for two weeks, and his supervisor at the hospital seems to consider this a firing offence. Which: fair enough. He is a doctor, after all.
Ben only gets a moment to savor that sense of having been cheated of his dreams before Glory takes him over again. He fights the transformation, but fails. The Goddess is back and, she says, she is hungry.
Later in the episode, we’ll see Buffy indulge a similar moment of bitterness, that feeling that her life has been eaten by her sister’s needs. It’s something she and Ben share, even if they don’t know it.
In the earlier portion of this season we were obliged to wonder how Ben fit into the S5 villain landscape. Even after we knew he was tied to Glory, there was a certain amount of ambiguity about who he was. Was he a good guy? A bad guy? He got that Queller demon to kill all the brain-sucked victims of Glory, after all. Euthanizing the mentally ill is not a pursuit for the cuddly at heart. But now that we understand how thoroughly doomed he is, the question arises: why didn’t he throw himself on Buffy’s mercy as soon as the scabby gang told him she was the Slayer? He has as much to gain as they if Glory fails.
In a world where Ben was more cleverly written still, we might wonder if his attempt to date Buffy had something to do with getting her on his side.
The real answer to this question, I suppose, is that he was afraid Buffy would kill him. That would sort out the problem of Her Scrumptiousness pretty handily.
Speaking of Glory, she’s luxuriating in the miracle that is bubble bath technology, while blindfolded members of her scabby entourage wait on her hand and foot. She complains about them having brought her a “pulseless, impure, follically-fried vampire”—a rather delightful description of Spike—when what she wanted was the Key. She’s realized that whatever data they may have gathered in their Scooby-stalking last week, it’s up to her to do the actual thinking. She tells them to spill everything they saw and overheard.
Bailing on school is one thing when you’re a college sophomore, and entirely another when you’re fourteen. Instead of charmingly apologizing to poetry professors, Dawn’s in trouble for skipping classes and ignoring her homework. The principal has summoned both Summers girls to her office for some tough talk, and soon enough she kicks Dawn out of the conference. Few of us probably need the later explicit revelation that she’s telling Buffy to shape up or face losing custody of her sister.
Fleeing this happy scene, we zoom over to The Magic Box. Anya is bravely trying to bring up the mood by telling everyone she is embracing patriotism, especially the part of patriotism that intersects with good old American money-making values. Dawn and Buffy arrive, and Buffy tells Giles about her Dawn troubles. She begs him to be bad cop. Seriously: begs.
“I may be a grownup, but you’re her only real family now,” Giles tells her. “She needs you to do this.”
It’s completely believable that a woman who has gone toe to toe with giant snakes and other fiends from the Whedonverse’s many pits would nevertheless be terrified of this kind of responsibility. But Buffy tries to rise to the occasion, coming down hard on Dawn about her homework. Willow gets in the way and suffers some collateral damage as a result.
By now, Glory has decided she knows who the Key is. She is, perhaps fortunately for the continued existence of the universe, incorrect. She thinks it’s Tara, you see.
Tara is, of course, with her beloved, who is trying to process her defensiveness over the cranky exchange with Buffy. Willow feels excluded from the dead moms club, and once again is succumbing to a terror of failing at being Buffy’s BFF. The conversation takes a dangerous drift, though: Tara mentions how Willow’s increasing witchy power is frightening. This segues handily into “don’t you trust me?”
At the beginning of this scene, Willow was trying to avoid a disagreement. But soon Tara’s the one trying to wiggle out of the conversation. Instead it gets worse: they dig into whether Willow’s just playing at being a lesbian, and will eventually go back to boinking boys. Ouch, ouch!
There’s unpleasantness at Chez Slay, too, where Buffy is trying to organize Dawn. Dawn, understandably, is kicking back. I’m not real, she argues, so why would I need an education? Buffy tells her what the principal said: Key or no Key, if big sis can’t make Dawn finish ninth grade, they’ll be fending off Glory with a social worker and foster parents in the mix.
Tara heads off to a multicultural fair, feeling all sad and trying to get past the fight. This conveniently removes her from any locale where a “Holy Crap, Glory’s En Route!” alarm might go off. In time, Willow mopes her way over to the magic store to tell Giles what happened. He tells her that the quarrel’s over and that, from it, she might draw the conclusion that she and Tara can have the occasional argument without ending their relationship.
It is his lot, this week, to be the Fount of Adult Wisdom. Buffy may have bought all the responsibility for guiding Dawn into grownuphood, but Joyce’s death has simultaneously cemented her Watcher’s position as responsible adult for all the others: Xander, Tara, Willow, Anya and Buffy herself are all, for various reasons, essentially parentless.
That’s one heavy load, I say.
At least he accumulates some good karma in the process, and he spends it catching one of Glory’s minions, more or less by accident. There’s some pre-interrogation snarling between them. Then, when the camera and the girls have their backs turned, something not so accidental happens to Scabby. Instead of buttoning his lip, he offers Giles the scoop on what’s going on. Which is: “We’re watching the Slayer’s people while Glory fetches the Key.”
For a second they think Glory knows about Dawn. Then they realize he means Tara.
And, indeed, Glory has turned up at the cultural fair and is entertaining herself by smooshing Tara’s hand. She has a leetle taste of her blood and realizes Tara, like Spike, falls into the greater set of things that are not her Key. Glory tries bullying the truth out of her, but Tara has more intestinal fortitude than Scabby. So Glory mind-sucks her instead. Willow arrives too late to help.
This turn of events brings the Scoobies back to the hospital, officially their least favorite place since the Hellmouth got blasted off the face of the Sunnydale High School library. Doctors (not including Ben) help clean Tara up and treat her arm. They also rule that she has to spend the night in the psych ward.
Dawn doesn’t get to attend this particular medical outing; she’s left in the crypt with Spike and his fabulous collction of week-old, psychedelic bruises. In his battered state, he’s something of a poster child for the concept of “Seriously, Dawnie, nobody can protect you from Glory.”
But Spike does his best to jolly her up. Unfortunately, he goes with this gambit: “Maybe Glory doesn’t want to kill you. Maybe it’s something . . .”
“Worse?” Dawn has figured out that she is responsible, in an indirect way, for everything that has happened to him and now to Tara. She worries that this makes her evil, or at best not good.
This exchange between the two of them is lovely and, while it’s not funny, it is imbued with that little bit of Spike humor that makes this character so genuinely likeable. Peculiar sweetness is absolutely the theme of this relationship with Dawn in S6 of BtVS.
But this is Willow goes berserk week, isn’t it? A creepy prelude to rages to come? So let’s look in on her. Once she realizes she can’t spend the night with Tara, she switches over into unslakeable thirst for revenge mode. Buffy tells her she can’t go after Glory, because it’s an ill-advised idea that will get her extremely killed. But in a way it’s Dawn all over again: Buffy lays down the law sort of half-heartedly, hoping to be obeyed but without demonstrating any follow-through. The Scoobies leave Willow alone just when they shouldn’t. Surprise, surprise, she makes straight for the scary books. Darkest magick ahoy!
(It might be time, Giles, to move the scary books. Practically the only people who haven’t gotten into them at this point are characters not appearing in this season, like Jonathan and Faith and Willy from the bar.)
With the help of the books Willow discovers her inner scary veiny self, and then she heads off to Glory’s. Interestingly, she is the first one to cause the god some physical distress. Then the tide turns and Glory begins mopping the floor with her. By now, though, Spike has convinced Buffy that assuming Willow won’t do something dumb is, well, let’s go with deeply not of the smart.
(Spike’s heartfelt: “I’d do it,” is his second thoroughly golden moment in this episode. I give “I’m not good, and I’m all right,” to Dawn, the edge here.)
Buffy rushes off to save Willow. They escape, just barely, and next we see our two best friends caring for their beloved girls. It’s a moment of connection for them: instead of being the person who can’t understand what Buffy’s going through, Willow has become the other one who knows, the other Scooby with a needy dependent.
This would be a lovely moment to end on if Dawn weren’t endangered and Tara weren’t injured and TV-crazy, but Glory’s done with lovely. She huffs and puffs and blows down the apartment wall. Tara gets agitated and sees through Dawn’s disguise. “Oooh, shiny!”
And just like that, Glory really, truly, finally knows where her damned Key is. No more checking under the fridge or eliminating the Scoobies one by one. We are moving into the endgame.
Next: On the Lam!
A.M. Dellamonica has tons of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales.