The Giles-Arc Part Two: Ask Me About My Slayer Agenda

In the final week of our Buffy Blog Series, this week looking at Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Seven, we have the second and concluding part of Ash Darrow’s exploration of Sunnydales’ favourite librarian, discussing Giles’ progression from Watcher to Slayer ally. You can read part one of Ash’s Giles blogs here, and as always if you want to share your thoughts on Giles, or any of the posts in this series, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

Season Seven is an interesting choice to cap off a discussion about Giles. While it is the end of the televised series, it doesn’t have much to do with Giles. In both a narrative and physical sense. Actor Anthony Head, who plays Giles in the series, spends most of the Season Seven off-camera. Giles is either in England rehabilitating Willow or taking a back seat to the Season’s focus on Buffy, Spike, and Willow. Unlike the first season, where Giles figures centrally in every episode, the last season renders Giles a minor character. This relative absence has an inverse effect on Giles’ character growth. Like negative space in a painting, Season Seven uses the absence of Giles to complete his arch.

(Giles on horseback)

The first shot of our favourite librarian that our mortal eyes are treated to is of Giles, sporting a duster, riding horseback around the English countryside. This evokes both the wandering, American cowboy and the questing knight of Arthurian legend: both figures of men made wise through experience. Giles has come a long way in the course of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He has been a stammering librarian, a punk-rocking teen, an independent businessman, a Watcher, a warlock, and a demon, and Season Seven rounds this journey out with Giles as an ally.

Before discussing how Season Seven achieves this with Giles’ character, I wanted to take a moment to unravel what I mean when I say ally. More than just a comrade-in-arms, though that is apt, I specifically mean ‘ally’ in the modern, political sense—i.e. ‘feminist ally.’ In her article ‘“Check My What?” On Privilege and What We Can do About It,’ Andrea Rubenstein gives a thorough introduction to being an ally of any marginalized group. Rubenstein lists several key aspects of being an ally: ‘respect that it is not about you,’ ‘it’s OK to make mistakes,’ and ‘call others of your group on their crap’ among them. Given the nature of Buffy, I’ll be specifically looking at Giles as a feminist ally—though there are certainly other allies within the show’s text. 

(Giles mentoring Willow in Sunny England)

Giles spends the early parts of this season rehabilitating Willow after her transformation into the murderous Dark Willow; reprising a part of his role as a mentor. I say ‘part of his role’ because we are left unsure what Giles actually does for Willow’s Wiccan rehab. Willow comments that the coven is ‘Afraid… They all are’ (‘Lessons’) and in the context of the conversation with Giles this suggests that his role is less the mentor figure helping Willow to heal, and more the social bridge, managing the contact between Willow and the coven. It’s worth noting the subtle irony of an episode entitled ‘Lessons,’ featuring the show’s educator-figure not giving a ‘lesson.’ This critical minimization of ‘Giles as mentor’ establishes the events of this season not being ‘about’ Giles.

As part of an intentional gag, or subplot, on the part of the show’s creators, after Giles’ return to the United States he spends five episodes not physically interacting with anything. After a few episodes, and some misinformation suggesting Giles had died, the Scooby Gang comes to suspect that Giles is actually the shape-shifting big bad of this season, the First. Giles’ inability to physically interact with the world underlines his distance from the action in this season and stresses how this conflict is no longer ‘about’ him. Giles even takes a back seat in the mentoring of the Potentials—the young women who could become Slayers—leaving most of the training to Buffy and Spike. While Giles takes to the intentional role of ally like tweed to an occult, British librarian, episode 17 of Season Seven provides space for Giles to ‘make mistakes.’

(Evil Giles?)

The 17th episode, ‘Lies My Parents Told Me,’ deals mostly with Robin and Spike’s conflict. The name of the episode is a nod to Spike, Robin, and their conflicts with their respective mothers. However, the episode name also speaks to Giles’ relationship with Buffy. For the entire show, Giles has functioned as a pseudo-parent for Buffy. Similar to the events of ‘Helpless,’ Giles mistakes his privilege for authority and attempts to circumvent Buffy’s decision making. Giles and Robin concoct a plan to assassinate Spike and to do that they must distract Buffy. Robin suggests Giles can distract her saying Buffy would listen to her Watcher, wouldn’t she? Buffy does, at first, but once she realizes that Giles is deceiving her, she heads off to save Spike. After one of the show’s best handled scenes with Spike, Giles and Buffy share a quick conversation.

The final scene of ‘Lies My Parents Told Me’ fully encapsulates Giles making a mistake as an ally to the Slayer and handling it appropriately. Giles attempts to talk with Buffy after going behind her back. Buffy has none of this and says ‘I think you’ve taught me everything I need to know.’ Rubenstein, writing on making mistakes as an ally says ‘if you’re confronted about your behaviour, use what your confronter says to change your mind, don’t try to change theirs.’ Rather than rebutting Buffy or attempting to seize the conversation, Giles accepts the denouncement and remains silent; his pained expression signalling understanding. The final scene of this episode is a door closing on Giles. Giles is physically blocked from continuing the conversation and left behind with the conversation, to contemplate, while Buffy quickly continues on. While a great deal of reflection and understanding is foundational to being an ally, and Giles’ strength, action is required. 

‘Lies My Parents Told Me’

In the final episode of the show, ‘Chosen,’ the ultimate Big Bad battle against the First has the extended Scooby-family mobilized and unlike the other dozen-or-so apocalypses in seasons past, this one is for keeps. Also, this isn’t Giles’ fight. He is a valuable warrior in the end, but so is Xander. While the Zeppo never had a grand role to play, Giles comes to the realization that his was somewhat artificial. The Watchers and his position therein is one built upon an arbitrary mediation of the Slayer’s powers. As Buffy says ‘In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined’ (‘Chosen’). The apparently timeless order of one Slayer and a council of Watchers is the original mediation of female autonomy for the creation of male privilege. It’s not until halfway through the final season that Giles fully understand this.  As mentioned earlier, the subdued use of Giles in the final season has the odd effect of rounding out his character better than any amount of screen time ever could. In her article, Rubenstein writes that ‘Privilege is perpetuated in part by the silence of people when one of their own group does something questionable.’ While Giles does not vocally oppose the Watchers, his actions help bring about an end to their ‘thousands of years’ of rule.

In ‘Chosen’ Buffy and Willow realize the only way to defeat the First is a dangerous spell that will remove the Watcher’s ban on multiple Slayers and awaken each Potential as a Slayer in her own right. Giles accepts this and ‘calls out’ the Watchers ‘on their crap’ by backing up Buffy’s plan. Rather than ‘speaking out’ against the Watchers verbally, he accepts Buffy’s orders—a telling reversal of roles—and fights off the First’s minions while Willow works her spell. This is the most Ripper thing Giles ever does. Open insurrection to aid the dismantling of systemic oppression via propagande par le fait is the pure synthesis of Giles and Ripper. Giles takes a more direct approach to ‘calling out others of his group.’

(Giles and the Scooby Gang at the end of ‘Chosen’)

In the end, Giles’ relative absence from the final season and his minor role in the final battle are the matured response of Ripper made manifest. That frustration and Sid-Vicious-energy distilled through decades of friendship with Buffy and the must of old books builds up to Giles as ally rather than mentor. The final act of our ‘sexy fuddy-duddy’ is to have Buffy’s back as she faced her final battle. Rubenstein stresses that ‘all relationships… are partnerships.’ By the end of Buffythe Vampire Slayer Giles has come to learn this is true: both in his relationship with Buffy and his relationship with his own past, Ripper.

Ash Darrow is a recent graduate from National University where he received his Master’s in Gothic Studies. His current research explores Gothic and Games Studies, and he hopes to reverse Giles’ journey by travelling across the pond to the UK in order to continue his Gothic studies (a journey which is in no way related Ash’s own summoning of Eyghon, which definitely did not happen, and has nothing to do with the Mark of Eyghon either, which Ash definitely does not have a tattoo of).