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In the realm of iconic television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer stands as a groundbreaking masterpiece that redefined the boundaries of the fantasy genre. Among its array of unforgettable characters, Tara Maclay holds a special place in the hearts of fans.
Introduced as a shy and enigmatic witch, Tara quickly became an essential member of the Scooby Gang, adding depth and diversity to the show's narrative. However, despite her endearing persona, her story really is a tale of tragedy and her death marks the breaking point for Willow and her addiction to “the magicks”.
Exploring the backstory of Tara Maclay unveils the impact of her character on the show's legacy and the broader significance of her portrayal in the realm of popular culture.
Tara’s Strict Upbringing
You may remember meeting Tara’s rude and abusive family in the Season 5 Episode “Family”. In her early life, Tara’s family environment was far from nurturing, with her father and brother, Donald "Donny" Maclay, subjecting her to psychological abuse. Isolated and with few friends, Tara's life took a tumultuous turn when her father revealed a disturbing belief – that she was part demon, a trait supposedly inherent in the women of their lineage, which would manifest on her 20th birthday.
A profound loss struck her life at the age of 17 when her mother passed away, leading Tara to embark on a rebellious phase, filled with lies to her father and nights spent away from home. Tara embraced her true identity and courageously came out as a lesbian before even starting her freshman year in college.
Despite the toxic atmosphere at home, Tara fearlessly honed her skills in the mystical arts, though she kept this passion concealed from her father's watchful eyes.
Tara's reserved and timid demeanour reflected the way Willow used to be in her earlier years - the shy and “nerdy” Willow we see in Season One. While Willow's romantic involvement with Oz had sparked her personal growth and transformation, it was through her connection with Tara that she further honed her magical abilities. Simultaneously, Tara's association with Willow encouraged her to break out of her shell, fostering a newfound sense of self-assurance and confidence. Their bond not only deepened their romantic relationship but also acted as a catalyst for their individual development as powerful witches and individuals.
During her time as a member of the Wicca group Daughters of Gaea at UC Sunnydale, Tara Maclay encountered Willow, who shared her passion for practising witchcraft. Dissatisfied with the Wicca group's lack of genuine witches, Tara became intrigued when she discovered Willow's actual spellcasting abilities.
When the demonic Gentlemen struck the town in the episode “Hush”, stealing the voices of everyone in Sunnydale, Tara saw an opportunity to seek help from Willow, believing they could potentially restore everyone's speech with her knowledge of sound and vocalisation spells. However, her journey to Willow's dorm at Stevenson Hall turned dangerous as the Gentlemen and their minions chased her. Fortunately, Willow came to Tara's rescue, and together, they harnessed their telekinetic powers to block a door with a vending machine, uniting their strengths as witches in a crucial moment.
A few episodes later, Willow and Tara embraced their romantic relationship openly and told the rest of the Scooby Gang. Together, they also adopted a pet kitten named Miss Kitty Fantastico.
Tara The Scooby
As the episodes/months passed, Tara seamlessly integrated into the close-knit Scooby Gang and became an integral part of Buffy's circle of friends. Her expertise in magic played a crucial role, and she frequently collaborated with Willow, casting spells like the revoke invitation ritual to de-invite vampires such as Dracula, Harmony, and Spike.
Tara took on the responsibility of looking after Buffy's younger sister, Dawn Summers, who held both admiration and affection for Tara, just like she did for Willow. As their bond deepened, Tara's presence became a comforting and cherished constant in the lives of those around her.
When the first Slayer, Sineya, launched a psychic assault on Buffy, Xander, Willow, and Giles through their dreams in Restless, Tara appeared in Willow's dream and was the conduit for the first Slayer in Buffy's.
When Buffy's mother Joyce Summers passed, Tara helped and sympathised with Buffy, having experienced the pain of losing her own mother.
The Break Up
After her breakup with Willow, Tara continued to maintain a close bond with Dawn, and she became the trusted confidant for Buffy when she revealed her affair with Spike. In a pivotal moment of support, Tara guided Buffy through the complexities of her feelings, helping her come to terms with her humanity after her resurrection. She provided valuable insight, reassuring Buffy that despite Spike's ability to harm her without triggering the chip, she remained human, with her emotions and vulnerabilities intact.
Tragedy struck on May 7th 2002 when a stray bullet intended for Buffy pierced Tara's heart, causing her untimely death. In her final moments, Tara's blood splattered onto Willow's top as she uttered her last words, "Your shirt?" before collapsing to the floor, lifeless. The devastating loss consumed Willow with grief and an overwhelming sense of rage. Desperate to bring Tara back, she called upon Osiris to perform a resurrection, only to face rejection. Osiris cited that Tara's death was caused by a non-magical human, making her passing beyond the reach of demonic or supernatural intervention.
Throughout her life, Tara's interests spanned riding horses, and she had an aversion to the Internet due to the frustration caused by poor spelling. Her knowledge of Latin was considerable, and she possessed a deep understanding of obscure rites and rituals that few other witches or watchers were familiar with, such as the Taglarin mythic rites.
Tara exhibited a rare and exceptional power - the ability to read auras. This gift allowed her to perceive individuals for who they truly were, sense when something was amiss with someone, and even detect the use of mental powers. Her keen observation proved vital when she realised that Faith's spirit was trapped in Buffy's body, leading her to play a central role in sending Willow to the "nether-world" to discover how to reverse the body switch.
Despite her gentle nature, Tara displayed bravery when it mattered most. She made her first and only demon kill by striking down a demon attempting to harm Willow. This act of valour showcased her unwavering determination to protect those she loved, underscoring the depth of her character and the impact she had on the lives of her friends and the Scooby Gang.
Casting Amber Benson
Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, initially envisioned Tara as a "new Willow," contemplating casting someone physically similar to Alyson Hannigan, “smaller and less womanly” (strange phrasing from Whedon…) like Amber Benson. However, Marti Noxon recognised the vulnerability in Benson's portrayal during her audition for Tara, leading to her eventual casting.
Despite appearing in more episodes than other regular characters like Oz and Riley, Benson was typically credited as a guest on the show. This was due to the contractual arrangements, as actors like Seth Green and Marc Blucas had contracts specifying their regular status, making them readily available for any episode. In contrast, Benson's contract was per-episode, similar to Kristine Sutherland and Eliza Dushku, which excluded her from being featured in the main credits.
The only time Benson received billing in the opening credits was for the heart-wrenching episode "Seeing Red," where Tara met her tragic end, making it the shortest tenure of any main character on either "Buffy" or "Angel." This decision was intentional on Whedon's part, as he had always planned to kill off a character listed as a regular in their first appearance as such.
In the episode Conversations with Dead People, there was an original plan for the First Evil to appear as Tara, tormenting Willow instead of Cassie. However, Benson declined this opportunity due to the responsibility she felt as an actor, considering the impact her portrayal could have on viewers, some of whom had reached out to her with personal stories of how her character saved them from harm. She believed that, as an actor, she had a social commentary to consider, and taking on a potentially evil role conflicted with that responsibility.
Interestingly, Whedon revealed that he had planned to bring Tara back from the dead in the seventh season. Buffy would have acquired a reality-altering wish, allowing her to do anything she desired. At the end of the episode, Buffy would have surprised Willow by showing off a pair of shoes, jokingly making it seem like she used the wish for such a trivial purpose. However, as the camera panned, Tara would have appeared behind Willow, revealing that she had indeed been brought back to life!
“'Look at these shoes I got!' and Willow's, like, 'What?' 'I got these really awesome shoes. I wanted them, and now I have them!' and Willow's like 'You... used... the wish... for shoes?' and Buffy says 'Of course not, you idiot,' and walks out of the room and Willow turns around and Tara's standing behind her."
Benson shed light on her decision not to return to the show: "In this world, people can say one thing, and things don't always turn out as promised. I can't predict Joss's intentions completely. My primary concern was to avoid causing any more pain to the fans after everything that had happened. When a character has such a significant social impact, you feel a responsibility to treat them with utmost respect. Joss may have had good intentions, but personally and professionally, I felt it wasn't the right choice. Besides, I was deeply engrossed in other projects and had moved on from Buffy at that point."
In 2022, Benson further explained that she was assured she would be brought back without being killed off again, but she harboured doubts about Whedon's follow-through, having heard of other actors who were asked to return with similar promises only to be killed off later.
Tara Maclay's character on Buffy the Vampire Slayer remains a testament to the power of representation and storytelling in television. Her portrayal as a strong yet vulnerable LGBTQ+ character challenged norms and opened up conversations about acceptance, love, and loss.
As a testament to her enduring popularity, Tara has been immortalised in various Buffy the Vampire Slayer action figures, including "New Moon Rising Tara," "Hush Tara," "Triangle Tara," and "Together Forever Willow & Tara." Additionally, she has been commemorated with a bust and an ornament, a testament to the show‘s dedicated fan base.
Tara's journey from a hesitant outsider to a crucial part of the Scooby Gang highlighted the importance of embracing diversity and celebrating individuality. Tara had a huge impact in the media and she leaves a lasting legacy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer for audiences worldwide. Tara Maclay's tragic yet empowering arc will forever be cherished, as it continues to inspire future generations of viewers.
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