E-mail: kindkit64 AT yahoo DOT com
Spoilers: All of BtVS, plus "Damaged," from S5 of Angel.
Author's Notes: Thanks to glossing, for encouragement and feedback as I was drafting this.
I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.
T. S. Eliot, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
Onscreen, the world is ending. A grieving woman, with terrible powers fuelled by magic and rage, is destroying herself, her friends, and everything around her as she seeks revenge. And Buffy, outmatched, can do nothing. "There's no one in the world who has the power to stop me now," Willow says, and it seems like simple truth.
But in the doorway, there's a man. Aging, clearly tired, resolved. "I'd like to test that theory," he says.
And we know that everything, somehow, is going to be all right.
I didn't start watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer until very late in its run, with the summer reruns of season six. So the first I saw of Giles was his almost miraculous arrival at the end of "Two to Go." It's one of every Giles fan's favorite scenes: Giles is powerful, commanding, frankly glamorous. He's the hero.
It's a wonderful moment, and it's not at all characteristic of Giles. Giles is never the hero, never the center of our attention. He's never the fighter pilot he once dreamed of being, routing the enemy in battle; he's the man back at Bletchley Park decrypting enemy intelligence so that the fighter pilot can do his job.1
What happens after Giles' great "Two to Go" entrance, as the story continues in "Grave," is much more true to Giles' role in the Buffyverse. He defeats Willow not with brute magical power but with a plan, and with the willingness to sacrifice whatever is necessary, including his own life, to make that plan work.
Giles is not the hero. He's the Watcher, the mentor and advisor, the mind, the wise man. In "Primeval," when the scoobies become one mystical being to combat Adam, Giles is "Sophus," and the card depicts him as an old man with a lamp.2 He guides; he lights the way.
Wisdom, traditionally, is associated with age. Although Giles is hardly the white-bearded old man depicted on the card, he's a generation older than Buffy and her friends. Old enough, that is, to be their father, although Giles himself seems uncomfortable in the paternal role. (He'd rather, as he tells Buffy in "Life Serial," be seen as a "rakish uncle.") During the high school years, and even beyond, Giles is the only real adult in the group, and the qualities he contributes are adult qualities--intellect, responsibility, a reasonable accommodation to authority, and a readiness to do difficult and even terrible things for the greater good.
Giles' intelligence needs no proving. Calling him "intelligent," though, is something of an oversimplification. Intelligence is simply raw ability; Giles has the sort of knowledge that comes only from years of training and study. Above all else, Giles is a scholar. His whole life has been spent with books, with research and translation; his true homes are the library, the archive, and the museum.3 For fun, he cross-references; in a crisis, his first instinct is to consult his books. (The kids even make bets on how long he can go without doing so.) Research is vital to Buffy's survival, and the show features countless scenes of everyone poring over huge old tomes, but Giles' scholarly inclinations go beyond mere necessity. They also make him something of a joke to the scoobies, who respond to him as students often do to teachers, with bare, uncomprehending tolerance for someone so obsessed with minutia. Giles' education, one important sign and consequence of his adulthood, marks him as the ultimate geek, an outsider even in a group that's already geeky and marginal.
We first see Giles, in "Welcome to the Hellmouth," standing in the almost-unpopulated library, dressed in an old-fashioned tweed suit and glasses. It's a sharp contrast to the rest of the high school, which bustles with teenagers in fashionable clothes, and which seems nearly devoid of adults. The library is a serious, grown-up space. It's formal and demanding. Unlike Principal Flutie, Giles doesn't even pretend that Buffy might use his first name; he introduces himself as "Mr. Giles." He's a highly traditional figure of authority, and, as such, separate from the rest of Buffy's world. Giles speaks for that most despised of all virtues, duty. Despite Buffy's refusals and her understandable desire for a normal life, he pushes her to accept her duty as a Slayer. And she does, although less because of Giles' encouragement than because of her own protective instincts.
Giles' commitment to responsibility and authority, especially in the early seasons, can verge on tyrannical. He demands, again and again, that Buffy sacrifice her own pleasure and happiness for the sake of her calling. (Buffy, of course, often ignores him or finds a way to have both, but that doesn't stop Giles from insisting.) At these moments, it can be difficult to like Giles. What redeems him, what makes him more than a pompous, two-dimensional bully (as Wesley Wyndam-Pryce was in BtVS season three4), is that Giles makes the same sacrifices in his own life. Like Buffy, he had no choice about his calling; like Buffy, his personal and romantic feelings takes second place. During Giles' dream in "Restless," he symbolically abandons the chance of marriage and children when he walks past the weeping Olivia and her empty baby carriage. Giles seems to have very little personal life. Apart from Jenny and Olivia, we never once, in the entire run of BtVS, see him with a friend.5
In any case, despite Giles' attempts to assert control over Buffy, he's never really authoritarian. As strict as he tries to be with Buffy early on, he's never as strict as the Watchers' Council would demand. Kendra, who was trained the way Slayers usually are, was allowed no family, no friends, no dating, perhaps not even any possessions (at the end of "What's My Line," we learn that she only has one shirt). Not only does Giles let Buffy keep her life, almost from the beginning he encourages her to think and plan independently, and he even tends to follow Buffy's judgment in Slayer matters. Both Kendra and Wesley are amazed that Buffy doesn't simply follow Giles' orders.
Giles doesn't expect Buffy's blind obedience, and for his own part, he doesn't offer such obedience to those in authority over him. Much of the time, he seems to despise the Watchers' Council (they "don't know much of anything," he says in "Grave"), and he tells Quentin Travers that the cruciamentum is "an archaic exercise in cruelty." Of course, he does cooperate with the cruciamentum by drugging Buffy, but in the end he helps her and loses his job on account of it. His reliance on his own judgment over Council tradition is echoed later in season three, when Buffy herself leaves the Council. Significantly, Buffy's decision is figured as a step towards adulthood; she describes it as "graduation."
Giles is no tyrant, but he's also not a radical. When the Council can be useful, as in season five's quest for information about Glory, he's willing to cooperate with it, and he gladly accepts his reappointment at the end of "Checkpoint." Structures of authority, Giles recognizes, have their uses. The destruction of the Council during season seven causes Giles enormous distress, and post-"Chosen" he takes on the responsibility of re-forming (and also reforming6) it, which he would surely not do if he considered it a useless or innately harmful organization.
Giles' cautious acknowledgement of authority is perhaps informed by his own rebellious days. At twenty-one, he ran away from his destiny and befriended Ethan Rayne and other experimenters in dark magic. Ethan, when we meet him in "Halloween," insists that this was Giles' true self, and that the "snivelling, tweed-clad guardian of the Slayer and her friends" is a mere façade. Giles' response--beating Ethan viciously and with evident enjoyment--doesn't exactly resolve the question. Yet Giles' "electric Kool-Aid funky Satan groove"7 took up only a brief period in an otherwise responsible life, and it's not clear that Giles was ever lawless as Ethan is lawless. The Ripper that we see in "Band Candy" is an aggressive, arrogant thug, but he's still a demon-fighter; Eyghon, speaking through Jenny Calendar, describes Giles' youthful attempt at darkness as a pathetic failure. "You're like a woman, Ripper," Eyghon says. "You cry at every funeral. You never had the strength for me." Even at his worst, it seems Giles felt and accepted responsibility. After Randall's death, Giles returned to the Watchers; given that history, it's not surprising that he believes in the necessity of both self-restraint and external rules. Neither tyrant nor rebel, Giles takes the position that all his adult qualities--caution, patience, self-questioning, reason, pragmatism--imply: he's a moderate.
Giles' sense of responsibility, for Buffy and the world, also gives him a certain moral realism. The Slayer's calling is not something he sees as glorious. The words he uses to describe it are words of obligation ("duty," "responsibility") rather than words of glorification (such as the one that occurs far too often in later seasons of Angel:The Series, "champion"). Giles' moral universe does not divide neatly into exalted, infallible heroes and contemptible villains. At the end of "Lie to Me," he subjects such a dichotomous worldview to gentle mockery: "Yes, it's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, er, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and everybody lives happily ever after." Finding the world hard and morality confusing is, he tells Buffy, part of growing up.
Although Giles never wavers in his fundamental conviction (that vampires and demons must be stopped), he sees and understands the grayness of moral distinctions, the inadequacy of absolutes, perhaps better than any other character. Monsters, he knows, are not always monsters. He accepts (reluctantly) Buffy's relationship with Angel, even after Jenny Calendar's murder and his own torture, and in "Phases," he reminds the group that a werewolf is "still a human being." Conversely, human life is not automatically sacred for Giles, a position that gives important nuance to the fundamental imperative of Jossverse morality—slay the monster, save the person. Giles is able to perform the most agonizing moral calculation, balancing one life against many. He considers, and insists that Buffy consider, killing Dawn to prevent Glory from breaking down the dimensional walls; he kills Ben to prevent Glory from re-emerging; in "Lies My Parents Told Me," he attempts to kill Spike, whom he believes to be a risk to the whole group. In that case, he sacrifices even his relationship with Buffy (it's not clear if she ever forgives him) to what he sees as his larger obligations.
Responsibility, pragmatism, necessary ruthlessness--these aren't heroic virtues. Heroism, especially in the Jossverse, is essentially adolescent: it means idealism, grand gestures, stubborn and quixotic bravery in the face of impossible odds. Jossverse heroes are like Hamlet, all soliloquies and swordsmanship. And Giles, to return to my opening epigraph, is not Hamlet.
Nor, however, is he a mere "attendant lord," supernumerary and useless. And he's not Polonius, the pompous, wittering old man, either. Giles, I think, is the Horatio of the Jossverse--steadfast, rational, unheroic, the only friend who both supports Hamlet and tries to temper his self-destructive determination to take a hero's revenge. Like Horatio, Giles is the voice of (sometimes unheeded) reason, the bearer of stoic and unostentatious virtues, a stable center in the midst of "woe [and] wonder."8
A Note In Closing: Because I wanted focus and brevity, I've inevitably had to leave many aspects of Giles' character out of this essay. Further discussion on other facets of Giles--his melancholy, his sarcasm, his sexiness, his guitar-god ambitions, his strange taste in interior décor, his tendency to drink too much, his fondness for the smell of books--would be lovely and extremely welcome.
1 Bletchley Park was the headquarters of British codebreaking operations during the Second World War.
2 "Sophus," which Willow translates as "mind," seems to be a made-up word. The closest Latin equivalent is "sophos," which means "wise man" and is derived from sophia, wisdom.
3 Giles, we're told, was a curator "at some British Museum. Or maybe the British Museum." ("Welcome to the Hellmouth"). This, however, may just be a cover story to explain his presence in the Sunnydale library; it's uncertain whether Giles' responsibilities as a Watcher would've left time for a separate career.
4 Obviously Wesley eventually develops far beyond this, a process that starts towards the end of his time on BtVS.
5 I wouldn't count either Ethan or Joyce as Giles' friend. Ethan used to be a friend, and perhaps more, but now Giles can barely tolerate him; Joyce might have become a friend, but the events of "Band Candy" seem to have precluded it.
6 The scene at the end of "Damage," in which Andrew and a group of Slayers take Dana, the psychotic Slayer, from Angel's team suggests that Slayers are treated more respectfully by the new Council.
7 As Xander puts it in "Beer Bad."
8 William Shakespeare, Hamlet 5.2.345.