The Enduring Cult of Spike: on Nostalgia and Popular Culture Staples
There are simultaneous advantages and disadvantages to watching revered shows after the cultural moment has passed.
The indescribable feeling of togetherness that comes from having shared something deeply meaningful is priceless. Future generations won’t, for example, understand the collective thrill of waiting for every new Harry Potter book, in the same way that I will never know what it was like to witness the sensation surrounding Star Wars’ initial premiere in 1977. Future generations will never know the delicious excitement over new Sherlock seasons, or watch the alarming Twilight contagion that unfurled like a tidal wave in 2005; the turn of the century; the birth of Youtube; the realization that, for better or for worse, Britney Spears was going to change the way music was made going forward.
Even when these things are not necessarily positive, they are always a sight to behold, and that is what is lost for those who aren’t part of it. It’s not that it isn’t fun, or just as engaging: it’s just that, when one is late to the party, the fun is had a bit more solitarily. Another disadvantage of this instance is that in many cases, people become intimidated by the hype that has trailed behind a cult show: to the point where disappointment is almost always an expectation. Hence, one prefers to stay away from it altogether.
At the same time, this retrospective distance from the aforementioned hype is the very thing that becomes an advantage, in terms of objectivity. Nostalgia is a powerful agent in the way many pop culture staples are perceived: as a ’90s kid, I myself have often been a victim of it. I’ve rewatched shows and movies I had adored, and while some have stood the test of time — looking at you, Lion King, Lizzie McGuire, Nightmare Before Christmas —, I’ve been stunned by how disturbing or downright terrible others are. The show Goosebumps still warms my heart but is, in hindsight, not nearly as terrifying as I had imagined. One Tree Hill, time and again, validated my penchant for melodrama, and filled my playlists with timeless music; but in retrospect, it often made arguable statements about relationships. Thumbelina, a film I had adored as a child, appalled me as a young adult, with its campy illustration of dated gender roles. And these are only a few examples.
They say you should not to meet your heroes, lest you be disappointed by them: they should have said not to re-visit them, because sometimes that is even worse. I don’t love these fundamental staples of my childhood any less: they are like coming home each time, like touching upon golden-tinged memories of when I didn’t know better.
But this hindsight grants clarity, and clarity often leads to reopening certain worm cans that, by degrees, are uncomfortable, and at worse, can be problematic. Nostalgia aids in the creation of certain myths: it’s why we have declarations about the “good old days”, it’s why we constantly obsess over Friends. It’s why it is easy to dismiss that nothing is perfect, nor has it ever been. On a smaller, less dramatic scale, it’s the reason why we accept the flaws of a cult show, book or movie, the way we would an erring child, even when we suspect that they may have not have aged well.
It’s in this state of mind that I endeavored, in the last three years, to watch classic shows I had never gotten around to seeing, for various reasons: I was too young, it was inaccessible, I simply couldn’t be bothered. I stumbled upon some amazing titles (what have I been missing out on all these years!), and some not-so-amazing ones (this is what I’ve been missing out on all these years?). And then there were those in between, like Gilmore Girls, that brought out all manners of complex, powerful and impassioned feelings in me — but that’s a story for another day.
Among those was a seminal series that took me on a whirlwind I couldn’t have predicted. Although Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the quintessential show of the ’90s, I somehow missed it while it aired. While I was indeed interested in the Sci-Fi and supernatural, it was mainly through books that I channeled it. By the time I decided to give the show a chance, it was ending, and I had moved on to other genre iterations — some including Whedon’s own creations (R.I.P. Firefly).
Still, its impact on popular culture was not lost on me. I knew, of course I knew, that Buffy had revolutionized television and the way episodes are written. It spearheaded many breakthroughs some shows either didn’t dare approach, or did so clumsily: it tackled queer representation, upended the “damsel in distress” trope, galvanized the way teenage issues were addressed. It not only managed to make a beautiful Valley girl-esque cheerleader seem profound: it actually made her likable.
And while it did not go in all the way on all its topics, and in some cases was slightly off the mark (where are the fleshed-out minorities? what’s with Xander’s casual entitlement?), I was time and again surprised, by how much I thoroughly enjoyed it all. I more than enjoyed it, in fact: Sunnydale became my home, a mashup of Hogwarts’ magnetism, Stars Hollow’s charm (with occasional dashes of Pawnee’s absurdity); its inhabitants became my family, even when they frustrated me, even when I didn’t like them. Above all, I grew to love the show’s titular character like my very own sister, in all her contradictions and uncertainties. She was the warrior-like figure I needed, especially during the political debacle of 2016, the figure of strength in a world that, increasingly and with less inhibition, treated girls like second-class citizens: a reminder that being a woman is often messy, often painful, but always worth it in the end.
Sometimes, the hype is justified.
Miraculously, while I got the general gist of some key elements of the show, I had, up to the point where I decided to take the plunge, managed to avoid major spoilers. I didn’t completely have a blank slate however, when it came to certain details. The most salient example was the fans’ fixation on the love interests of the characters, namely Buffy’s. Angel and Buffy continue to fascinate, after all this time, and I have read numerous thinkpieces on the toxic nature of Riley and Buffy’s romance.
But there’s another trend I was quick to pick up on, even back when I wasn’t a fan: the undying cult of Spike. To this day, he is spoken of more favorably that almost any of the characters of the show, and it’s not hard to see why. Spike was the snarky answer to Buffy’s sometimes saccharine displays of morality, the perfect foil to Angel’s broody expressions of tortured love.
It didn’t take me long to understand his popularity: Spikes’s arrival in Season Two propelled the show’s potential, from “run-of-the-mill supernatural series with theatrical baddie” to “seriously good show, with engaging villains to boot”. Along with Drusilla (my personal favorite), he was Whedon’s opportunity to push his own boundaries, and do away with restraint.
In the earlier seasons, Spike was the poster boy for that bad influence your parents warned you about. As an almost shameless rip-off of Billy Idol, he chain-smoked, drank, gambled, had no conscience, killed with willful abandon. He was ee-vil.
And while this initially made him seem one-note, it is also what made him so easy to like. Spike was not as proper or as serious as Angel. He wasn’t as sensitive or as secretive as Riley. In truth, whatever their differences, I always thought that the two men were woefully similar, in a sense: although Buffy and Riley were on equal footing and he didn’t underestimate her strength (until Riley got insecure, that is), and although Angel’s steadiness became comforting in the long run, especially in later seasons, both of them were boring.
Spike, on other hand was so unpredictable that by the time Whedon began to give him more depth and prepare the grounds for his romance with Buffy, the other two didn’t stand a chance. He became more than exciting: he was irresistible at last.
Buffy and Spike defied the “love triangle” trope, or at the very least challenged it. It is built upon the dichotomy between chaste love and carnal desire, and while Angel definitely fell into the first category, Spike didn’t completely fulfill the second role. Buffy and Spike certainly had a physical chemistry, but their emotional bond, I am tempted to say, surpassed the one she had with Angel. Spike was perceptive, in ways that even Buffy’s closest friends were not. He noticed and understood the inherent turmoil she had a tendency to conceal from others. He knew her best, in short.
His virtues certainly didn’t end there: he was brave — some would say reckless —, never flinching from a fight once he had decided to join the fray.
His dry sarcasm was hilarious. I found myself laughing more times than I can count, even when the situation wasn’t necessarily funny, because of what rolled off his forked tongue.
He was nice to Dawn when no one else was, and conversely, he was indifferent to those who didn’t interest him, imparting no judgment or punitive action (his attitude toward the controversial Faith, for example, was as open-minded as could have been).
He was loyal in a dogged, intense way, and when he loved, he loved hard (Drusilla, and all that mess). Every single time Buffy came to him for help, he obliged, even if he protested all the way.
But most importantly: for the longest time, Spike never pretended to be a better person than he was. He didn’t claim to be perfect, nor did he claim to have had a condonable past. He came as he was, and to call him hypocritical would have felt cheap. The same cannot always be said about Angel, or Riley.
But but but.
Spike was also cruel and emotionally abusive. He began his tenure on the show as a villain, and some of the things he did during those initial periods are hard to overlook. Remember that time in Season Three when he kidnapped Willow and forced her to work her magic for him? Remember the disgusting way he treated Harmony and took advantage of her naivety? Remember when he had literal Human Garbage Warren make a subservient robot version of Buffy who couldn’t say “no” to him? I certainly do.
Never mind that Spike tried to kill Buffy many times before they eventually fall for each other. It’s his attitude with her after he fell in love that irked me — if you want to call it love, that is.
Unpopular opinion: I often struggled to believe in Spike and Buffy’s romance, not when terms like “rebound”, “dysfunction” and “friends with benefits” came more easily to mind. The softening of his character, and Buffy’s increasingly troubled nature never once fooled me into thinking that what they had was genuine. If anything, I finished the show with the conviction that none of Buffy’s boyfriends were ideal, nor were they the sort that would lead to long-term happiness.
But in Spike’s particular case, the toxicity of their bond is undeniable. Season Six is dedicated to their secret affair, which is meant to come across as decadent, titillating. Instead, seeing Spike’s enthusiasm with the violent nature of their encounters, and seeing Buffy hate herself so much for engaging with him left an acrid taste in my mouth. If this was supposed to be fun, I wasn’t laughing anymore.
I’ve come to realize that Spike is the Jess Mariano of the show, the questionable character people will gladly make allowances for because he is often more interesting than the others. But even if I had watched Buffy as a teenager with my own questionable and immature opinions, I would like to think that I would have found Spike awful, ultimately. I, however, got into the show with the full weight of my experiences as a young adult behind me, and from this angle, things don’t look so good for Spike.
His obsession with Buffy was creepy. His “no means yes” attitude was disturbing. His entitlement was terrifying.
Time after time, Spike’s skewed attitude toward women was put on full display: he was, at his core, a Nice Guy who didn’t even bother with calling himself that. A Nice Guy who went straight to “you owe me”, because he had fought alongside Buffy et al, because he had protected her secrets from her enemies, because he decided to get his soul back for her.
A show supposedly dedicated to female empowerment is considerably depreciated when the relationship at its crux, the relationship lauded by fans for years is the very example of what empowerment is not. I was baffled by Buffy’s continued allowances for Spike’s behavior. It eerily sounded like someone making excuses for returning to their abusive partner. I was baffled by the show’s attempt to bargain with viewers in the last season, using Spike’s mental instability as a pretext to offset the inexcusable.
Oh, and did I fail to mention that time when Spike tried to rape Buffy?
I’m still not sure whether that scene was gratuitous or not: what I do know is that it was so absolutely harrowing that I, for one moment, forgot what show I was watching. It tapped into the most primal part of anyone who knows how traumatic sexual assault is. What almost happened to Buffy was one of the worst things that could happen to anyone, because we all know how many instances of violation occur with those we trust the most.
How is this any less disgusting than what Human Trash Can Warren does in “Dead Things”, when he attempts to rape his ex-girlfriend, and ends up accidentally killing her? How is this better than when anyone uses emotional imbalance and being drunk to excuse assault? I was starting to be over Spike, for all the previously mentioned reasons, but that moment nailed the metaphorical coffin, and I have not looked back since.
I more than acknowledge that no show is perfect. The most interesting ones are not, in fact. I wrote at length about my fascination with complicated characters, and I tend to look for them in every art form I come across. Additionally, showrunners have the absolute liberty to do what they want: it’s their show, after all.
But we, as the audience, certainly have the agency to criticize, to disagree, and to hold the things we love to certain standards. It’s one thing for shows to get into controversial themes, and to make light of certain subjects. Many have done it, and then some: it’s what makes raunchy comedies so entertaining, and it’s the reason why horror films work. It’s what makes psychological thrillers so, well, thrilling.
But it’s entirely different when those things do not get confronted. Controversy sparks intelligent discussion when it is shown, and also commented upon by the creators. When Idris Elba’s John Luther acts in dangerous, violent ways, but is put in situations that test his moral fiber, the payoff is delicious. When Joffrey eats dirt in Game of Thrones, all the havoc he wreaked is finally paid back. When Tony Stonem from Skins gets hit by a bus at the end of Series One, it’s the writers telling viewers that he has finally gotten his due.
In that sense, Spike gets off way, way too easy. Not only does Whedon absolve him (his sacrifice at the end of Season Seven elevates him to a martyr-like status), he makes the characters acquit him too. I didn’t even like Anya, but the fact that he gets to go out in an almost saint-like fashion, while she gets so carelessly axed is absolutely ridiculous. After all these years, how is Spike still getting a pass?
I understand that fans who grew up with the series instantly liked the character. But now, with retrospect, how do they not feel weird about him? How is it not conflicting, when he is an example of toxic masculinity at its finest; when there are so much better examples of amazing romances in popular culture?
I temper myself by once again acknowledging that my relationship with Buffy is a belated one. I can’t completely claim to know how I would have reacted to Spike, had I known him as a rosy-eyed child, or as a petulant teen with vague notions about love. I myself idolized certain popular characters, only to realize much later that they were actually the worst.
Furthermore, I wonder whether many of those who still harbor fondness for Spike haven’t re-watched the show since, and have thus forgotten some key elements: I have also been in the situation where details got lost in the midst of time.
But I find it hard to fathom what those who frequently revisit the Buffyverse tell themselves, when they praise Buffy and Spike as the Ultimate. I wonder how Joss Whedon himself, an advocate of the couple doesn’t feel some sort of cognitive dissonance, considering that he’s the one who created Spike, in all his imperfection.
I am not speaking from a sentimental place, and as I previously mentioned, this is simultaneously advantageous and disadvantageous: it’s easier for me to be harder on the show, because I do not feel conflicted about years’ worth of fond memories. My disappointments, when they come, are never going to be as great as that of those who’ve been devoted to Buffy for nearly twenty years.
So in the end, I still try to be indulgent, the way I would want indulgence when my own darlings are being killed.