Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while at its most core element is about a girl fighting vampires, featured a wide variety of supernatural elements throughout the course of the show. One of these elements is magic, and more specifically witchcraft. Witchcraft has appeared in several different forms, from evil to neutral to self-destructive to pure good tied into the feminist nature of the show.
This somewhat changes in the later episode “I, Robot… You, Jane”, also in the first season. When Jenny Calendar reveals that she knows about the supernatural world, Giles asks her if she’s a witch, which she denies because she’s not that powerful, instead referring to herself as a technopagan. She uses her knowledge of magic and technology to help bind the demon Moloch, and Buffy is able to kill him afterward. An implication of the episode is that if Jenny were a witch she would have been more powerful but still would have helped Giles and the others, making witchcraft more of a dangerous tool that can be used for good or evil depending on the nature of the witch.
In the second season it is revealed that Jenny Calendar is in fact Janna of the Kalderash, the gypsies who cursed Angelus with his soul. While it certainly made the world better by giving the Scourge of Europe a conscience, their motives were based purely in vengeance as they wanted him to suffer an eternity for his crime of killing a beloved member of the Kalderash. This gypsy magic comes from a bad place, but Jenny turns it around by reproducing the same magic for the purpose of restoring Angel’s soul because he is a good guy. Angelus kills her before she can do anything, but Willow taps into something powerful and is able to perform the magic properly.
By the third season Willow is an increasingly powerful witch who uses her magic for the good of the group. Magic has evolved well past the Halloween look, and is more like chemistry with smelly ingredients and a bit of special effects magic. The whole show is more convoluted and deals in moral shades of grey, leaving the witchcraft-is-evil theme behind in the dust.
Xander: “It could be witches! Some evil witches…” (Willow and Tara glare) “…which is ridiculous, ‘cause witches – they were persecuted. Wicca good, and love the earth, and woman power, and I’ll be over here…”
–Episode “Once More, With Feeling”
–Episode “Once More, With Feeling”
In the fourth season, Willow’s magic becomes more associated with the Wiccan religion (or Joss’s version of it) and femininity. Her magic, though she may lose control of it, is mostly good and serves the forces of good. When she begins her relationship with Tara, the magic they practice together serves as a metaphor for the intimacy of their relationship at a time when Mutant Enemy couldn’t get the okay to properly depict a sexually active lesbian relationship. Tara’s magic is connected to the earth and femininity, making witchcraft a part of the feminist nature of the show.
Then in the fifth season and into the sixth season, Willow starts abusing witchcraft. Her extreme power makes her lose sight of her responsibility to use this power wisely. Though she has no Uncle Ben as in the case of Spider-Man, she has a Tara and a Giles to try to get through to her that with great power comes great responsibility; unfortunately, she ignores them both. Her use of magic to control people loses its connection to Wicca, becoming instead something dark (aesthetically as well as metaphorically). Magic eventually becomes associated with narcotic addiction, not just Amy and Rack’s brand, but all magic including Wiccan magic. Tara uses magic responsibly, in that she doesn’t control people, and she is able to command magic without succumbing to addiction.
At Tara’s death, Willow goes off the deep end and becomes a dark masculine figure as she uses her power for revenge. Keeping in line with Joss’s feminist themes, Willow’s evil power is entirely different looking from her Wiccan power, while Giles fights her with all the power of a Devon witch coven. Giles is sent as a sacrifice, his role to tempt Willow into absorbing his borrowed power, which connects her empathetically to all the people of the world. Willow’s still off the deep end, and she tries to end everyone’s pain by ending the world, connecting her power with a satanic temple, until Xander shows up and talks her down. The instant she lets go of her vengeance, she loses her dark masculine appearance and reverts back to her light feminine appearance.
In the seventh season, Willow is in a tenuous state of recovery from her Darth Rosenberg days, technically on the side of good but liable to tip over to the dark side with a little nudging. She makes use of the good Wiccan magic, as well as some of the darker sort unassociated with Wicca. Her final act of magic in the series is tied into the feminist message of the last episode “Chosen”, where she rewrites the evil Watcher’s Council magic intended to keep the Slayer under their control and instead lets the potential Slayers access their power. During this process, her hair turns white as a contrast to her black hair of Darth Rosenberg period, and afterward Kennedy calls her a “goddess”. Her once evilness is shed, to be replaced with a good powerful magic associated with feminine liberation.
In conclusion, the subject of witchcraft is depicted in several ways throughout the course of the show. I suspect the early depiction of witchcraft as entirely evil is a result of the writers not having a solid idea of where they wanted to take the show. This and some aspects of the Buffyverse vampire mythology as depicted in the first season lead me to believe that some parts of the first season are incongruous with the whole of the show, even as they are ostensibly Buffy canon. Whatever the case, it is true that the depiction of witchcraft changed with the evolution of the show.