For all of their apparent differences, Willow Rosenberg and Pete Campbell are ambitious Second Bananas who want to be more than Second Bananas and thus, are fun twisty Favorite Supporting Character entry. I know I'm doing something similar to CJ Cregg vs. Don Draper- pointing out a key similarity between a female character that I find (mostly) good and a male character that I enjoy as an anti-hero. I promise, later essays will have different angles! I also lapsed into Willow/Don comparison at the end- as one does...
For any folks new to my journal, I'm comparing Willow to Pete but I adore both characters and I think a lot of Willow as a person. Fine if you disagree- but be aware that this isn't a hatefest.
However, essentially, Willow's and Pete's stories really ARE of how does a fiercely ambitious, talented person cope with constantly being the second fiddle to the lead character. Willow and Pete have both by turns tried to emulate their leading character in Buffy and Don, betrayed them, aided them at great cost to themselves, resented them, and loved them. It's just the proportions are totally off- Pete is much more likely to betray Don while Willow is much more likely to aid Buffy at all costs to herself. Willow truly and generously loves Buffy; Pete....well, Don/Pete slash makes sense to me!
One of things that strikes me is how much Vincent Kartheiser and Alyson Hannigan play these parts with so much quirky energy. IMO, Willow and Pete are the most giffable characters on their shows. Examples?
It's an adroit representation of all of the pent up energy and vivacity that a Second Banana has and gets stored up and repressed when the Second Banana is forced into living a life that doesn't overshadow the Lead Character.
Pete restrains himself at pitch meetings while Don does the talking and visibly seethes the whole way through because he's most definitely not the STAH. Probably Pete got to feel like the star the night before when he was wining and dining and whoring the client in question, but when the business of selling the pitch to the client REALLY begins, Pete gets a burst of cold water every morning on who the real attraction is. When Pete tries to interject in a meeting, you know it's going to be hilarious and Pete will be bursting in his chair to talk and capture the spotlight away from Don's spiel.
Willow has a similar dynamic. The camera focuses in on Buffy. At pretty much every Scooby meeting or fight, most Scoobies' eyes are trained on Buffy or maybe Giles. Willow doesn't resent this quite like Pete. Willow and Pete both intellectually understand that there's a reason why Buffy and Don are the stah. Pete has trouble emotionally accepting it because he has no love for Don while Willow does accept a lot of it because she has big love for Buffy. Yet in Pete's defense, Pete has a pragmatic acceptance that Don is the boss that causes Pete to control himself and just act as a sidekick to Don in pitch meetings. However, Willow so tied into the emotional push-pull between Buffy and so expectant and she and Buffy be leading lady partners in all thingsing at straight through to little-old ladyhood cheating at Bingo and forgetting to take their pills, that Willow is arguably more unpredictable on sticking to script than Pete.
One of the most quintessentially Willow-scenes is the scene in Revelations where Buffy is epic-battling with Lagos and the camera actually catches Willow pretty much living out the whole battle with her awesome face from every cheer to cringe. There are a number of instances where Buffy will be discussing her life and case and Willow will just burst out with the off-topic in her head from "He's a clean clown!" to "Not a lot of Warrens. Except Warren Beauty and ooh, President Warren Harding!" or Willow comedically tries to act like she's on everyone else's page even though she'd not ("Yes, I"m thinking about mummies!") indicating that there's a big ball of weird </tm> up in Willow's ahead aside from the focus of any given scene. Ultimately, Willow and Pete are frequently set aside from the group and certainly from Buffy/Don because they're so clearly thinking about their own stuff but their stuff doesn't dominate the agenda, in part, because they're the supporting characters.
Mad Men beautifully interrogates the value of loyalty in Don/Pete. Pete was a disloyal thorn in Don's side for the whole first season and the show painted Pete as a villain partly because of that. Over S2-4, Pete starts behaving loyally to Don. However with every incident of Pete being loyal to Don (albeit with Pete's own naked self-interest involved), the audience is encouraged to be increasingly doubtful if this loyalty is the right thing. Pete violated Duck's confidence in him by alerting Don to the merger with the Brits at the end of S2. This was painted as straightforwardly good. Pete joined Don's new agency at the end of S3 and participated in the scheme to steal as many clients and office supplies on their last day before the company was sold to McCann. SCDP's caper and Pete's participation was mostly painted as good and adventurous.
However when Pete broke off a potential contract with a huge defense contractor that could have brought in millions to SCDP to protect Don's dirty desertion secret, the show actively queries whether this is right. Yes, Don is the rainmaker, the cash cow- but Pete abetted Don's crimes, lied to his fellow partners, deprived the firm of a multi-million dollar contract just when they needed it the most with Lucky Strike walking away, and Pete weakly laid down and took Roger's abuse about losing the contract all to protect Don. Then when Pete immediately agreed to put up a cash contribution at the end of S4 for the flailing SCDP, Trudy rather righteously berated Pete for giving up their family's nest egg to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic of his flailing agency. Similarly, Pete's refusal to leave SCDP for better offers at more established agencies is challenged by Trudy's father.
In fact, Pete's hyper-loyalty in S2-4 sets up his fall in S5-6. Over S2-4, Don and Trudy rewarded Pete for his increasing loyalty to them in different ways professionally and personally which re-activated Pete's childhood entitlement into radioactive confidence as an adult. However, Pete's loyalty to Don also led to Pete to more actively try to emulate Don as everything that Pete should be. In S5, Pete brazenly cheated on with Trudy with all types of women in both the 'burbs and the city, actively belittled and humiliated Roger Sterling and Lane Pryce and sought fights with them, pushed Joan to sell sex with her to get Jaguar like a "grimy little pimp", and basically undid any of his previous gestures of improvement in S2-4 because Pete's twisted loyalty to Don settled on Pete decided to *become* Don.
By contrast, BtVS pretty much settles on the need for absolute, pretty unquestioning loyalty to Buffy. All supporting characters' personalities and moral codes are primarily assessed on whether they're nice enough to Buffy and follow Buffy around enough. It's not Mad Men by any means. BtVS is the most solo protagonist privilege show that I've ever adored.
BtVS questions whether Willow is loyal enough to Buffy frequently. Whether Willow is behaving openly loyal or disloyal, Willow pretty much always struggles to emulate Buffy. Given that, the show indicates that Willow is most loyal to Buffy when she occupies a middle zone of internalizing and acting out Buffy's values of heroism and grrrrl!power but always in accordance with Buffy's judgment and not in such a way that would overshadow Buffy or aim to replace Buffy. When Willow hyper-emulates Buffy to the point of uppitiness like giving herself slayer-strength to be a slayer that can fight with Buffy or when Willow hyper-emulates Buffy by engaging in a physical fight with Glory in Tough Love, Willow is being disloyal according to the reactions of the characters. Obviously, Willow starting a fist fight with Buffy in Two To Go is disloyal by any metric. However, Buffy righteously reacts like Willow steps over the line by giving herself slayer strength and calling herself a slayer because Willow has "no idea what a slayer is". Willow's attack on Glory in Tough Love is a lot like Giles's attack on Angelus but the show rather purposefully included a scene where Buffy gave Willow a specific instruction to stand down and Willow insisted that maybe she could take Glory if Buffy couldn't to introduce an angle that Willow stepped above "her place" and that introduces an another level of malice that Giles didn't have even though Giles was the one trying to kill *Angel* and Willow was the one trying to kill just a hellgod who never dated Buffy or fought for good.
However, BtVS's etiquette on how a supporting character gets painted nicely is a deeply complicated thing. When Willow didn't internalize enough Buffyness to do magic on demand in S7 defend Buffy to everyone, starting with Kennedy, in Empty Places, the show indicted Willow for not having enough loyalty by reneging on playing a fully Buffy-role. As always, I LOVE YOU WILLOW EVEN IF YOUR SHOW DOESN'T!!!
However my griping aside, I do see glimmers where Willow is ultimately validated for NOT slavishly following everything Buffy says even if it takes seasons to bear out. Loyalty (like lunchtime) BE DAMNED! Willow pretty much went ahead and studied Ted's robot parts even though Buffy said Willow wasn't using her powers for good.....and then Willow used her hard-won and self-taught robot knowledge to save everyone during The Gift and over the summer by repairing and re-programming the Buffybot. Buffy sniffed that Willow's witchcraft hobby sucks because Willow merely knows that some spells work great with an ear in the mix in Pangs and discouraged Willow from pursuing magic in Fear, Itself....and then, less than a year later in The Gift, Buffy (who Willow recently dragged out of a coma with magic) asked Willow for whatever help because Willow is Buffy's big gun. In fact, Willow did have a bit of a point in Tough Love that Willow could cause Glory pain and Buffy couldn't. Willow wasn't talking out of her ass that she's got powers to take Glory that Buffy doesn't have.
IMO, Mad Men kind of solidly lands on the fact that loyalty to Don is hardly a selling point when it comes from Pete's desire to emulate Don because the world certainly does not need more Don Drapers. One is more than enough. BtVS lands on the fact that emulating Buffy is good because Buffy's legacy SHOULD be empowering women (and even men) to have some of Buffy's positive virtues but Buffy must remain the protaganist at all times and not merely irrelevant, but Buffy must remain the benevolent, crucial influence in Willow's and all other major characters in Buffy's life. Willow can't outgrow that. In some ways, relentless Willow-partisan that I am, I almost agree because part of adoring the Buffy/Willow friendship is loving the positive influence that Buffy has on Willow. However, another part of me would like for the writers to break the mold and have Buffy have more of an equal partnership with Willow and Xander.
However to tie together Willow's and Pete's off-beat quirkiness and their series-long quest to stay on the right side of emulating their Commander in Buffy and Don, Willow comes out way ahead of Pete. One of the main points of Mad Men is that there was really only way to be a successful, affluent and fully functional member of society in the mid-century. Certainly a man was required to work full-time at a white collar job in the city to provide for his wife and children in the suburbs. The advertising world in particular requires that its "Mad Men" wine, dine and whore their clients. Having affairs or at least, giving up the appearance of not being too beholden to one's wife is how a Mad Men proves his masculinity to his peers.
Willow emulates Buffy's heroism, confidence and some of her alpha girl stances/puns. IMO, Willow also partly turns to melodramatic or self-abnegating/showily martyr reactions to trauma because Buffy modeled that as the way to signal true pain which is the way to capture center stage in the Whedonverse. However, the awesome part of living in the 1990s and in BtVS's girl power world is that Willow used some of her broader-learned traits from Buffy to carve out a life very different from Buffy's. Willow used her confidence to come out as a lesbian and embark on a relationship with Tara. Willow is a witch, not a slayer or slayer wannabe. When Buffy made Willow over in Halloween, Willow didn't use her new sartorial dress-confidence to dress like Buffy but to instead, dress as Willow would want to (and frequently, ONLY as Willow would EVER want to LOL). Pete can't do that or more accurately, Pete doesn't think he can do that. Don was the 1960s model of the uniform culture on how to be an affluent, respected white collar Boss in New York. If Pete emulates Don, Pete needs the mistresses, the wifey and kids in the suburbs, the domineering stance at work over his employees, the cut-throat approach to business, etc.
The tragic part is that Pete is a multi-dimensional man. IMO, Pete does have a rather selfish core. However, Pete gave indications that he plays his 1960s model man part but yearns for something else. When Trudy went away over the summer, the first thing that Pete did was watch cartoons while sloppily eating cereal like a child- unencumbered with having to act like a Dikeman sophisticate in front of Trudy. Pete and Peggy bonded over the kinky fetish of him being a hunter in the woods and her cooking his kill in front of him. And yet, Pete wrote a short story from the point of the view of a hunted bear. Pete wanted to go after the Negro market to sell them televisions, opposed the Sterling family carrying on with the wedding on Kennedy's assassination and stayed home in protest, wanted to open their agency to Japanese-owned Honda, opposed the Vietnam War and can pretty much be counted on now to take a more liberal stance on broader issues than anyone would expect Pete to given how to he conducts his daily life. Pete rigorously pursues the model of being a 1960s man because it's the one way to be successful in his world and man, does Pete want success with his whole heart.
However, Willow also wants success with her whole heart- and she found a bunch of different ways to achieve that. Maybe Willow doesn't always know that she's found success and to what extent- but she DOES know that she has a variety of avenues to be successful and she keeps searching for more. In part, that's because of the more open-minded world that Willow lives in. Some of it is also Willow. The hippies, civil rights activists, feminists, etc. of the 1960s were all looking at different avenues of being successful right next to Pete. It's like Pete has the inclinations to be different from the 1960s model man but he doesn't have the bravery to follow through. Meanwhile, Willow's got tons of bravery to spare so Willow follows through on satiating her ambition in every quirky, out-of-body weird, deviant way that she can within reason (or more accurately, often within reason and sometimes out of reason but then she'll straighten herself out on seeing negative consequences emerge because she's strayed too far from the path).
The rest of the world does define success as going to a top university and making a lot of money. Willow, marching to the beat of her own drummer, decided to define success as staying on a hellmouth to fight evil even if it means that she's going to have to be Monster-bait. Friends and lowers of Willow have defined magical success or success through conventionality or success through following Buffy differently from Willow in a number of changing ways. However, Willow does her own thing. One of my favorite Xander-quotes on Willow? "Fly free little bird, you defy category".
In this regard, I’ve compared Willow to Don Draper in the past because both have tremendous ability to shift personas and to become someone else to sate their ambition for…more. Pete doesn’t have that talent. Pete is well-schooled at being the phony account man- able to put on a happy face to entertain a client for a trip to the Big Apple. However, he doesn’t have Creative Director Don's vision and creativity. Pete doesn't have powerful witch/accomplished scientist Willow's mastery of illusions while knowing the reality of the world. Thus, Pete can only be phony- but he can't become someone else.
At the end of last season, Pete had a huge epiphany that he’s a total incompetent amateur compared to Don and Bob Benson at adopting a fake persona and making it a big success and Pete deeply resents Don and Bob for that but Pete also fears their talent enough to know that he can’t destroy them because he can’t fake it like they can. Actually, even Don is something of an amateur compared to Willow in adopting personas to serve him. Don strove to lose his backwoods hick persona and graduated through army grunt to used car salesman to fur salesman to Sterling Cooper employee and moved up the ranks in that company. While Don had his accomplishments since being Sterling Cooper’s creative director, he hasn’t changed his life so dramatically for the better since then. Don tries to keep himself fresh through his revolving door of the different types of ideal, sexy mistresses and wives that a James Bond-corporate type would have. Beantick!Barbie, Slutty!Student, Grace Kelly Wife, cross between Bridgette Bardot and Audrey Hepburn Wife, a coterie of serious career women from Rachel to Faye.
However the more cutting edge the mod 1960s girlfriend or party, the more Don reveals himself as a total square. Given Don's handsome looks and money, he gets away with a "Hip to be a square" persona among certain people (not so much the few teenagers that Don interacted with like Anna's niece who turned his come-on down). However, Don *is* a square in the late 1960s and he's dangerously in one of the most youth and image obsessed industries in the world. Don doesn’t get the Rolling Stones; he turned off Revolver in the middle of Tomorrow Never Knows because he didn't.get.it. Other men at SCDP like Rizzo and Ginsbergy and Harry Crane or even older and more staid Ted Chaugh changed their clothes to meld with late ‘60s fashion. Absent maybe an occasionally more colorful sportcoat, Don still dresses like it’s the early 1960s and IMO, pretty much always will. He just can’t deal when his past comes up on him. When Betty found out about Don’s secret drawer or when Don thought the cops were following him to his apartment, Don turned into a trembling, sweating, nervous wreck who didn’t have the motor skills to provide himself his badly needed a drink and ciggie. S6 does tell a story that Don can’t continue to out-running himself- he’s lost the magic touch as lying to be someone else and IMO, it will feel into his projected scary fall down the metaphorical skyscraper of life from the credits.
Willow isn’t perfect as personas- but she is better at them than Don and WAY better than Pete. Or more accurately, Don’s problem is that he only really reached for one version of conventional success that he attained in S1 and since then, he’s just been living off of that persona to sate his ambitions for more fun- more business success, more mistresses, more drugs and benders, etc. Meanwhile, Willow’s problem is that her ambition is so big that she reaches for more and more different personas to sate her ambition for everything. Willow won’t settle for just sex or money- but Willow instead wants tremendous power, the key to the universe’s secrets AND along with all of this Eve-like power and knowledge to also genuinely be a good person who is doing the right thing but who feels as little pain and emotional ambiguity as possible in pursuing that goal. Since S6, Willow’s accepted that pain and emotional turbulence are part of life- but Willow continued through S8-9 to constantly minimize the emotional costs relative to her desired benefits by seeking more power and knowledge. And Willow likes getting to be someone else and she's tickled by lies and fire shows. However, Willow also loves honesty and has deep roots with her long-time friends including Xander who she met as a squalling infant. Put it this way, Don and certainly Pete have trouble achieving their pedestrian pissant shallow goals; Willow has a mixture of successes and troubles achieving her godlike, deep, contradictory goals.
Unlike Don, Willow didn’t reach her zenith of conventional success in early S4 and stopped there to just enjoy being sociable and academically at the top of college with just enough magical power to entertain herself and remove any zits and stake a random vampire with a pencil. Rather instead, Willow embraced *unconventional* success from that point on. She used her confidence which partly came from dating a cool guy to summon the confidence to come out and date Tara. She worked on getting more power. Obviously, Willow crashed and burned in S6. I’ve written (elsewhere) about what I find objectionable and OOC on that arc. However in keeping with the coherence of this meta, Willow’s insistence on an early and late S6 persona based on tremendous magical power is a failing proposition as it her insistence on a mid-S6 persona based on no magic use.
However, we’ll see where the comics go but the comics do show Willow using her abilities to craft personas based on her magical use as a mixed bag- BIG professional successes (every big spell that went well, restoring magic to the earth), some near professional failures where Willow’s lies to retain her persona could have exploded everyone (lying about the Seed, her caginess about Saga), some moral and professional failures (cheating on Kennedy) and some personal successes (generally her interpersonal treatment of Buffy and her attempts to move on from magic at the start of S9). However, it is an interesting reaction to S7 where Willow didn't really have much of a persona- she was pretty nakedly angsty and worried and thus, got little done until Chosen. As opposed to Orpheus, where Wilow had a persona big time and managed to bring Angel back and directly confront and beat back Cordevilia all before any of the AtS gang ever pulled that off. S8 almost acts like Willow *had* to come up with a persona to do more than she did in S7.
Either way, within that mixed bag, it’s clear that Willow aimed big with her S8 persona. She re-invented what it’s like to be a mega-powerful witch and certainly convinced the Wiccans in Buffy’s army and the slayers and Kennedy of her power and confidence even when Willow wasn’t even that sure of herself. Willow convinced Saga and the Embodiment of Magic, both well-schooled in manipulation and illusions, of her worth for their gifts and wisdom. Of course, Willow’s canny and controlled behavior to make herself interesting to Saga sexually and magically is a lot of more resonant of all of the acting that Willow can do than her milquetoast reward from the Embodiment of Magic in the far inferior comic.
Ha! And I thought my Don/CJ essay meandered! I didn't even know from meander and "where the point?". The end.
- Favorite Characters Day 2: Willow Rosenberg, Pete Campbell and the Angst of the Ambitious Accomplice