I’m sure this title makes no sense to those souls who have never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which aired on TV from 1996 to 2003. In fact, the names of the two most important male characters would seem to indicate that Spike, whose name sounds like a street tough, is the villain, and Angel, whose name sounds, well, angelic, is the hero.
Well, that’s partly true. Angel, the reformed vampire with a soul, is the hero and romantic lead, a tortured Heathcliffesque character who broods about his evil past. And Spike? Well, “reform” is not a word one thinks of in connection to Spike. But he is definitely my favorite and, in my very informal survey, Spike, the vampire who goes from evil to good and back again—and is frequently both at the same time—is by far the more popular. Spike, in fact, became one of the most popular characters on the show and a cult favorite.
Why is this? Shouldn’t Angel, the brooding vamp who will lose his soul if he experiences true happiness, be the most popular? Spike, after all, is evil. Even when he becomes, well, not good exactly, but less evil, and attains his heart’s desire—Buffy—he remains a bad boy. Is he popular because he is the bad boy, the antihero? Partly. Is it because of the appeal of James Marsters and those killer cheekbones? Again, partly. But for me his appeal is more nuanced than that.
The Buffy world begins in high school and, to some degree, that dynamic continues throughout the show. Buffy is the prom queen and Angel is king. Cordelia serves as the envious, less popular girl, wanting to take Buffy’s place. In fact, they compete for the title of homecoming queen in the larger high school world. Spike fills the same role as foil to Angel. Certainly Spike plays the role of second banana when he is a member of Angel’s vamp group.
But as the show moves forward, Spike evolves into a more complicated character. As early as 1998, Spike, still an evil force, allies himself with Buffy to save the world. Angel, who has lost his soul with the consummation of his love for Buffy, is trying to raise a demon to destroy everything. Spike’s flash of altruism is explained by his self-interest; he doesn’t want the world destroyed. And his very unexpected truce with the Slayer foreshadows his future, as a semi-regular member of the Gang. And a character who is capable of great evil and great good.
He never becomes a replacement for Angel, even when David Boreanz (who plays Angel) leaves the show. Spike becomes the romantic lead and, arguably, the most important male character in the Buffy world. But he is not the prom king. No one in the gang, not even Buffy, ever trusts him completely, and with good reason. Spike does what he wants. He wants to be good but he enjoys being a bad boy too much. He may be fighting an evil vampire one second and making a deal with a demon the next. He is always himself.
Look at the relationships the romantic leads have with Buffy. Angel’s love for her almost costs him his soul. And Riley turns to the vampire junkies, because they need something from him; Buffy doesn’t. Spike tries to change, over and over, but doesn’t succeed. Although his love for Buffy endures, he remains Spike, flawed and fascinating.
He never really fits in, not with anyone. He is an outsider, even in his own time. In flashbacks, we see William in a Victorian drawing room, writing really terrible poetry to the fashionable and beautiful object of his desire. Ridiculed, he flees. Drusilla (Juliet Landau) seduces him with the promise of love and acceptance. He is easy pickings.
Transformed to a vampire, he becomes part of Angel’s coven, and for the first time, he becomes part of something. He has his own little family and is too scary to be mocked. Recalling his experiences with Angel and Drusilla during the Russian Revolution, Spike tells Buffy that it was the best time of his life. His wistful regret for a happy time that has passed really resonated with me. He is never really happy again.
Angel, on the other hand, never worries about fitting in. Why should he? He is always the leader. As a vampire, he has a rep as the baddest of the bad, with no pity or remorse. But when he reforms, he reforms all the way, becoming, to my way of thinking, a little self-righteous. He strides through the episodes like Cotton Mather in a leather coat. Yet, when he loses his soul, he becomes über evil. There are no gray areas with Angel.
Spike is a mosaic of gray. He certainly never achieves Angel’s almost arrogant level of self-confidence. In fact Spike remains always insecure, a feeling he covers with a flippant swagger. He wants someone to love him, first Drusilla and then Buffy, but never succeeds in attaining the relationship he wants. He wants to fit in but he just can’t manage it. Not and stay who he is. He wants to be good but only sometimes and not yet. Totally understandable.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a multi-layered show with many strands that explain its popularity and its following even now. And Spike is certainly a big part of it. He is villain, hero, and antihero all at once. In the final episode, Angel expects to save the world by sacrificing his life. After all, he is the hero and the good vampire. But it is Spike, the very flawed character whose journey we have shared, who is chosen. And that feels right.
Eleanor Kuhns is the 2011 winner of the Mystery Writers of America/Minotaur Books First Crime Novel Competition. A career librarian, her second novel, Death of a Dyer, will be out in 2013. She lives in New York.