Often the role of those who lurk in the shadows is overlooked by those who grab the limelight with their obvious displays of heroism or gallantry. While heroes are often the people who receive the praise and become the focal point for saving the day, a hero is often made up of more than just their individual selves. In many cases there are key people who support or critically contribute to the actions of the hero in question.
Take for instance the role of Tara in Buffy. There is of course no doubt that Buffy is the star and the hero of the hour, the day and the year. Contrast her role with the initial introduction of Tara and you could be forgiven for dismissing Tara as unimportant and unnecessary. With her sideway glances, avoidance of eye contact and wish to avoid conflict, she would not be considered instantly memorable. However just as in real life, the importance of supporting characters should not be judged too quickly.
Aside from her physical presence Tara is drawn to Willow for many reasons. Willow is deeply spiritual, displays a commitment to the true essence of witchcraft, is not afraid to challenge other people, and is fiercely protective of those she cares about. The relationship between the two takes some time to develop and is not helped by Willow’s initial desire to keep her burgeoning relationship with Tara separate from her other friends. With her introverted personality Tara does not object to what amounts to a relationship under wraps. However it soon becomes clear that in keeping Tara at a distance from the rest of her life Willow is denying something in herself.
As their relationship grows so do their magical abilities, with Tara at times providing additional power and strength to assist Willow with the casting of different spells. While Tara is a talented witch in her own right, it is clear that Willow is tremendously gifted, quickly surpassing Tara’s level of expertise. It is in this area of magical performance that one of Tara’s critical roles becomes apparent. While Willow is easily seduced by power and is willing to stop at nothing to achieve her desired end result, Tara displays much more caution. She acts as a balance against the brashness and at times dangerous eagerness of Willow, at times resorting to deliberately sabotaging Willow’s spells to help ensure she doesn’t grow too fast too soon. As a relative newcomer to the magical arena Willow lacks the appropriate amount of respect for the overarching balance between good and evil. Coming from a line of witches, this knowledge is inherently understood by Tara. Willow believes that magic can cure all and there is no need for restraint, whereas Tara knows that excessive use of magic can be unethical and over-exposure to the associated power can be dangerous.
It may take some time but Tara is eventually accepted as a member of the Buffy Summers evil fighting family and becomes a critical team member even though she is not often recognised in that capacity. In a show that is filled with monsters, mutants, vampires and freakishly powered fighters, Tara provides the necessary antidote of feminine humanity. While Xander is generally only reliant on his human abilities to fight evil, Tara can call on both her human abilities and her magical powers. One of her real powers lies in offering support, providing care to those who are often being overlooked (for example Buffy’s sister Dawn) and highlighting that those fighting for good should not always resort to the use of darker arts, or if they do they should at least prepare for the unpleasant consequences. While Willow is herself human she often neglects to take note of her own humanity and it is this element which Tara supplies.
Unfortunately the relationship between Willow and Tara reaches an impasse. It is Willow’s blatant disregard of ethical boundaries when it comes to her magic that eventually causes the breakdown of her and Tara’s relationship. After making a promise to avoid spells for a period of time, Willow quickly succumbs to the lure of the power and resorts to using magic against Tara to help keep her addiction secret. Unfortunately Tara discovers the truth about Willow and is left feeling hurt and betrayed.
The pair does manage to reunite after enough time passes to heal wounds and after Willow learns to manage her magic addiction. While this reunion brings Willow’s world unimagined peace, happiness and contentment, tragically this time is shortlived. With Tara’s accidental death by gunshot, Willow’s world is violently torn apart. The balancing element of her life has been ripped away and she skews heavily to the side of the power, its darkness and destructiveness. It is in death that Tara’s role as the human element of Willow’s supernatural strength is shown to full effect. With her death Willow descends to desperate new lows and no longer has the capacity to access her humanity, or the full range of her human emotions.
After spending so long in the shadows Tara becomes the centre of a tragic drama, which leaves one of the more obvious heroes of Buffy, the character of Willow, with her heart, soul and mind broken. So what is the lesson to be learnt here? Sometimes the less obvious characters are heroes in their own right and it is only once they are gone that their value is truly recognised. With the passing of Tara one would hope that the importance of those in the shadows would never be forgotten again.
I originally wrote this article for Pop Culture Heroines.