I have known for some time that while I can still appreciate many of the same things which I enjoyed in my younger years, it is often in very different ways and for very different reasons. Like the Calvin and Hobbes comic: entertaining for the kids and for the parents at the same time, as each takes something very different from the same few pictures and words. Still, as much as my perspective has changed on why I enjoy something, exactly what I enjoy has, with a few exceptions, remained the same.
Thus, I was actually shocked when I realized that there was something in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my most favorite and most re-watched series of my life, which I suddenly appreciated so much more than I ever had before.
I refer to the character of Tara Maclay.
Portrayed by Amber Benson for the fourth, fifth, and sixth seasons of the show, Tara started off as a recurring guest star, then a major supporting character, and finally a central cast member. She was a witch of moderate power and skill, the girlfriend of fellow witch Willow Rosenberg, and a steadfast, beloved friend. She suffered her share of pain and then some but was easy to take for granted – especially when she was finally included in the opening credits – until her untimely demise at the murderous hands of Warren Mears, who accidentally shot her in the enraged frenzy during which he also shot and quite nearly murdered the lead character herself, Buffy Summers. The loss drove Willow so mad with her own grief that she dove headfirst into the darkest arts without ever intending to come back, just so she could end the cretins she held responsible for her beloved’s death. She wounded a god, committed gruesome murder, attacked her dearest friends, and nearly burnt the world to a crisp, all for a pain so overwhelming she actually tried not to feel it. For Tara.
I always thought I understood Willow’s grief and rage for the woman she loved, but, in complete honesty, I had never really understood what was so great about Tara herself. Not as a teenager, at least. When I first saw her on the show, she seemed like little more than an add-on to Willow. Heck, in the midst of such a loud, colorful cast, she even seemed dull and boring. She was a bit of the background that was brought out to stand just a little shy of front and center stage. That was not mended by the little distance that always seemed to be there, between her and the rest of the cast, like she was just close enough to be close but not as close as the rest of them. Thus, having dismissed her in my youth, it was easy to keep doing so even as I matured.
And then, at last, as I was watching some Buffy and Angel again, I finally noticed that, out of the entire cast, Tara is the one who I would say is the most well put together, the most mature, stable, and reasonable of them all. She never goes crazy, never goes evil, never drowns everyone in her drama, which I have come to value more and more as I have aged. She is, in her way, every bit as amazing as all the rest, and arguably even more so. She just isn’t particularly loud about it, is all, which made it easy for me to overlook at first.
To start with, Tara was told her entire life that the women in her family, most definitely including her, have a bit of demon within them. Her entire family has this whole schtick about it, and since demons as they understand them are inherently evil, that means the women need their men to control them, to take charge and run their lives and how dare any of them display something like independence. That was, in due time, revealed to not only be illogical and incomplete, but also an outright lie, a bit of spin turned into a family legend so the abusive, controlling menfolk could keep their women in line.
Small wonder Tara starts off seeming so awkward, unsure, and quiet! It’s amazing she ever got the nerve to speak and do anything at all, with all that weighing down on her for as long as she could remember.
Yet there was always a strength to her, a cleverness and courage that belied her timidity. She displayed that when she went off to college, leaving her home and kin behind. Her keen eye showed her that Willow was a real witch, and when things went wrong under mystical influence, she actively tried to help. When she and Willow were both in danger, she kept a relatively calm, level head – as much as one can when one is justifiably afraid – and she stepped up to join her power with Willow’s in a clinch moment.
Tara was also extremely selfless even from the start. People are in trouble? She wants to help. Her friends are investigating a murder scene, leaving Dawn out in the cold? She steps out to stay with her, watching over her and cheering her up at the same time. Willow’s old boyfriend comes back for her? She is automatically ready to stand aside, no matter her own heartbreak, so Willow can be happy.
There are exactly two times I can think of where Tara was more selfish, where she actually made a mistake. Both times are tied to what her old family put her through, telling her she was a demon all her life.
The first is when Willow needs her help trying to find some demons with a spell, and Tara, wanting to remain anonymous in her supposed demonhood, sabotages the spell, holding back her part of it. There were technically lives at stake, but only in the loosest sense. It wasn’t directly urgent, and Tara simply acted to try and protect herself from something she feared: losing her friends.
The second time, also, was when she tried to hide her supposed demonic nature by casting a spell to keep her friends from noticing it. That was particularly dangerous since, as the premise behind the spell was flawed, it didn’t hide anything about her at all, but it did hide every other demonic creature from them, which almost got them killed. However, it was still an honest mistake, made because those who should have protected her were her lifelong jailers instead. She rectified it immediately when she realized what she’d done. She made no excuses, told no lies, and was ready to face judgment and lose everything she truly held dear.
Two times. In three seasons. Not a one of the other lead characters can claim anything so saintly as that!
As the series progressed, Tara lost a great deal of that shy timidity which was the result of her family’s severe mistreatment. However, unlike Willow, who also was once shy, timid, and quiet, she retained her sense of caution and remained a voice of reason against Willow’s increasingly wild, selfish, and erratic shenanigans. And though she was gentle, she was never weak. Indeed, when Willow’s reliance on magic grew to addictive proportions, Tara’s will absolutely matched and even surpassed Willow’s. When Willow tried to take the easy way out of a fight, by erasing it from Tara’s memory, Tara had every possible moral high ground, but she never once pronounced judgment on Willow. She loved Willow enough to fight her, but she never put herself above Willow. That is an amazing balance to strike, especially given the personal, intimate nature of what Willow did to her.
Yet even when she and Willow were broken up, and she was at that much greater a distance from the gang in general, she was still there to support them all as best she could. She still saved their lives, watched over Dawn, and was Buffy’s only confidante and protector as the slayer was corrupted by her toxic relationship with Spike. On which note, she kept Buffy’s confidence, not gabbing about it to anyone. To top it all off, she was ready to forgive Willow as it became clear that the worst had passed and she was strong in her sobriety. By that time, she had long since shed the fears which had once controlled her, so she didn’t take Willow back out of some weakness or dependency. Tara took Willow back simply because it was the one thing they both wanted the most to be happy.
In summary: Tara was a constant support to those around her, never going crazy and never, at any point, being evil. She grew immensely to become a power in her own right, and never needed the spotlight for it. She was almost always right in her choices, and provided much-needed reason and restraint even as she faced danger of all sorts right alongside her friends. She was clever, brave, selfless, thoughtful, protective, and as unyielding as mountains. She was calm, not caught up in her own drama. She once wanted nothing more than to hide, but quickly became willing to stand even against the woman she loved for said woman’s sake. And she was quick, though not too quick, to forgive in a spirit of true love.
In short: Tara Maclay was a truly amazing woman and an amazing character, and I have a new appreciation for her both in her own right and in relation to the crazy crew which surrounded her.