The Best TV Couple of the Past 30 Years, Play-in Round: Buffy and Angel vs. Buffy and Spike vs. Tara and Willow

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Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding our annual pop-culture bracket. In 2015, we battled it out for the best high-school TV show; this year, we're determining the greatest couple on television in the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be charged with picking the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on October 14. Today's play-in round will decide which Buffy the Vampire Slayer couple will make it into the bracket. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture's Facebook page to vote on which show you think should advance.

Sometimes finding love is more difficult than preventing the next apocalypse. No show has made this clearer than Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Think of how many times Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) saved the world throughout the show’s seven seasons, and think about how many times her romantic relationships have gone horribly, horribly wrong. The members of her Scooby Gang have also felt the pain of a broken heart, have loved and lost even as they fought (and sometimes fucked) demons. Still, when things are going right, love can feel like the sweetest spell, the most benevolent kind of sorcery.

In this play-in match of the TV Couple Scuffle, we look at three of the strongest, most earth-shattering relationships from the series. Sorry, Anya and Xander, you had wonderful chemistry and a gift for musical comedy, but it wasn’t meant to be. Sorry, Riley Finn, you were always a garbage suitor for Buffy, with the charisma of a loaf of bread. Sorry, most of all, to Rupert Giles and Joyce Summers — we caught only a mere glimpse of what Buffy’s Watcher and her mom could have been, but it was enough to know that Rupert had sex “like a stevedore.” You are what fanfiction is made for. May you live and love and thrive in some wonderful parallel world.

Here, we’ll be considering Buffy and Angel, Buffy and Spike, and Tara and Willow — the winner of this round will go on to compete against The Office’s Pam and Jim.

Buffy and Angel
The fundamental problem with vampires as romantic leads in high-school TV series is that no teenager should ever date a man who’s centuries older than she is, no matter how hot or how brooding he is. And there’s no denying that Angel (David Boreanaz) is hot, hot enough to warrant his own spinoff show. He represents the teenage ideal of what a boyfriend should be: He’s strong and protective and tender, yet mysterious and a little dangerous. Tall? Check. Dark? Check. Handsome? Check. But just think about it: If he weren’t enormously attractive, he’d mostly just be a big old stalkery creep who had no business hanging around with teenagers. In other words, if your age is in the triple digits, you probably shouldn’t be slow dancing at any senior proms.

If the first couple of seasons of Buffy tended to be heavy on metaphor, then maybe the most in-your-face petty high-school trope is the one where Angel turned into a monster right after Buffy slept with him for the first time. You can play it like one moment of pure happiness was enough to ruin Angel and turn him back into the serial killer that he’d once been, or you can consider what Angel did to Buffy the most intense form of ghosting.

Eventually, Buffy sends Angel to hell in order to save the world, which is kind of like the extreme version of deleting your ex’s number from your phone and blocking him on social media. But then, even more insultingly, he returns, but only occasionally, so there’s no chance for a clean break. Angel keeps hanging on just enough to stay in the picture, but with the constant reminder that he and Buffy can never sleep together again. Ladies, here’s some common sense: If you have to remain celibate with the love of your life, it’s time to find another love of your life. The end.

Buffy and Spike
Spike (James Marsters), at least, owns his creepiness — he doesn’t run from it; he enjoys it. His unabashed nastiness is fun and enticing. In fact, my favorite couple on Buffy might just be season-two-era Spike and Drusilla simply because they had so much fun being bad together. The romance of the Sid and Nancy of vampires was never meant to endure, but they sure did look chic while it lasted.

Buffy and Spike have an errant kiss or two that certainly helped build up the tension, but when they consummated their relationship in season six, the show became sexier and racier than ever before. Their visceral love-hate chemistry reached Sam-and-Diane levels, but it was more dangerous (they were quite literally trying to kill each other before they first had earth-shattering sex) and therefore way kinkier. I don’t want to make broad assumptions, but I imagine that most sex that takes place in a crypt is kinky. After so much heartache and so much metaphor, both Buffy and the viewers are finally rewarded with some good, naughty intrigue.

But season six doesn’t end there. Let’s reward Buffy-Spike extra points for adding eroticism to the show, but not ignore the fact that later in the season Spike attempts to rape Buffy. This is one of those places where I can’t remember how I felt when I first saw it. Was I shocked? Perversely titillated, even? Maybe. But looking back on the episode within the context of today’s headlines, it seems more and more unforgivable. Loving one’s rapist is an old soap-opera trope (and Game of Thrones plot device) that doesn’t hold up today. Buffy deserved better.

Tara and Willow
While sex got too real with Spike and Buffy, Tara (Amber Benson) and Willow’s (Alyson Hannigan) relationship is oppressively chaste onscreen. The WB was too prudish to even show a lesbian kiss on television in the early days of their courtship in season four. Thank goodness for fanfiction and comic books for allowing us to imagine Tara and Willow’s most intimate moments off-camera.

But even with network restrictions, Tara and Willow’s chemistry is palpable. When they hold hands to cast a spell, there is magic in the air that has nothing to do with witchcraft. They’re compatible. They have their challenges (Willow’s penchant for going too deep into dark arts is a sometimes-too-glaring metaphor for substance addiction), but overall they make each other happy. They also have the benefit of the doubt because we never get to see Tara and Willow fall out of love — their romance will always have a “What if?” quality. The fatal shooting of Tara in season six is one of the most tragic moments on television both because Tara had just started to really feel like one of the Scooby Gang, and also because her future with Willow seemed so bright.

Revisiting the show, I feel sad for my younger self, who was taught to believe that Buffy’s romances were what love is — that you have to literally and figuratively fight for a person’s soul before they can truly love you, that love is a constant struggle between darkness and light. Angel and Spike both work well for fantasies, but Tara and Willow had something real. Even though portraying lesbian romance on network television was difficult in the year 2000 — and it’s still not easy — Tara and Willow’s personal relationship was easy. It turns out that their life together was doomed, but it didn’t have to be. Minus the pesky murder, Tara and Willow are worthy of #RelationshipGoals. We are left with the promise that their love would have continued to flourish. Witch love forever.

WINNER: TARA AND WILLOW