Beloved geek television creator Joss Whedon is well known for his propensity for long romantic arcs in his television stories. But Whedon seems to favor a very specific kind of romantic relationship: the complicated, often destructive one.
Complicated is probably underselling it, though. In every one of Joss Whedon's projects, the central romantic relationship is really deeply messed up. His romantic leads use each other, delude themselves, and often end up in tragedy. But through all of the complexity, these twisted relationships end up feeling more real than any simple rom-com example ever would.
Of course, that extends to sexuality in the context of these relationships. Whedon likes to put his characters into weird sexual situations as well. Sex tends to have unexpected consequences in reality as well as fiction, but in Joss Whedon's world, those unintended consequences are often unimaginable or even disturbing.
Here are a few of the best examples of Joss Whedon's propensity for weird, convoluted romances. (Spoilers for Dollhouse, Buffy, Dr. Horrible, and Firefly!)
Buffy and Angel
In a lot of ways, the Buffy-Angel relationship is Joss Whedon's prototype for messed up relationships. For starters, their story is essentially a supernatural Romeo and Juliet. In a dangerous and deadly way, Buffy and Angel are very much star-crossed lovers. Buffy's sole task is to kill vampires, and Angel is... well, a vampire.
Of course, things are more complex than that; Angel is not just a vampire, but a vampire with a soul. This is what draws Buffy to him. He's got a troubled past and a dark edge, but deep inside, he's essentially as human as her.
And then we get our first very Whedonesque sexual experience with a twist. When Angel and Buffy finally go at it, it is precisely this act of love that causes Angel to lose his soul and revert to the demon he once was. Buffy's feelings for him go from complex to downright wrong (and very dangerous) in a matter of moments.
It's a sophisticated metaphor for the terrible versions of themselves people sometimes become after sex. But it's also a quintessentially Joss Whedon touch: when the couple is at their happiest, things take a turn for the darkest.
Buffy and Spike
And let's not forget Buffy's even more mixed up relationship with Spike. She is repulsed by him for a very long time, seeing him as a symbol of the destructive nature and blood lust inside of herself.
But in Joss Whedon's mind, this man as symbol of self-loathing may as well be a symbol of self-loving; Buffy embarks on a twisted, self-destructive romantic fascination with Spike. The sex scenes between these two always feel a little dirty and more than a little self-destructive on both ends.
And that's not even counting the feather in the demented cap that is Spike and Buffy's relationship: Spike tries to rape Buffy in an attempt to prove to her that she really does love him. It's a strange, dark, twisted scene, but what makes it even more twisted is that this attempted rape really is the first step on the road that eventually leads to Spike's transformation into someone Buffy does love.
This arc is also steeped in metaphor. The two of them, at their darkest moments, turn to each other, and they even help each other become the people they want to be, but not before they help tear each other down to the saddest, most broken people they can be.
Captain Malcolm and Inara
Interestingly, the relationship between Malcolm Reynolds and Inara Serra is probably the most normal of Whedon's leading romantic stories, despite the fact that the two never get beyond meaningful glances and playful flirtation.
From the get-go, Malcolm disapproves of Inara's profession. She's a "companion," which, in the world of Firefly, is a specially trained, deeply spiritual individual who creates meaningful sexual and emotional bonds with their clients. Captain Mal disdainfully refers to this as "whoring."
In fact, the Captain makes it clear over and over that he doesn't respect her profession. But he makes clear, after famously punching out another man who calls her a whore, that he does respect her. In fact, his disapproval of Inara probably stems mostly from jealousy.
I imagine that if "Firefly" had continued, Joss Whedon would have leveraged this hot-and-cold romance into a much more destructive story-line. Whedon and crew have indicated that Inara was on the path to dying if the show had continued, which shouldn't surprise anyone... anything remotely romantically stable isn't destined to last in the Whedonverse.
Dr. Horrible and Penny
While Dr. Horrible remains pretty light throughout its three parts, it does offer us a pretty twisted little romantic storyline.
Billy is a meek man, but his alter ego, Dr. Horrible, seems to count impressing the cute laundry buddy Penny as one of his main goals as a world-dominator. Billy seems to think that he, as Billy, will never impress her, but Dr. Horrible certainly will.
In the end, though, when Dr. Horrible makes his big debut, he accidentally contributes pretty directly to Penny's death. With her last breaths, Penny reaches out to Billy, not Dr. Horrible, and calls instead for the Doctor's nemesis.
It is at this moment that Dr. Horrible realizes that he never had a chance with Penny, that the only way he could connect with her was as Billy. But Billy is gone now, replaced by the villain he thought he needed to become.
In Joss Whedon's hands, a sci-fi musical blog with rom-com elements still ends up a pretty dark romantic tragedy.
Pretty Much Everyone On Dollhouse
Finally, in Whedon's most recent creation, pretty much every romantic relationship has it's twisted, destructive side. For starters, the first real romantic relationship we get is the one between FBI agent Paul Ballard and his neighbor Mellie.
Just when we see Ballard getting comfortable with this woman, Whedon hits us with the revelation that she was only there to spy on him, that the personality that loves him was concocted to do just that and nothing more. The woman he loved is just a shadow in an empty room.
Needless to say, this distorts Ballard's relationship with her. Soon after the revelation, Ballard, frustrated by the fabricated nature of Mellie's love, has some angry sex with her, then runs out on her. She's devastated, yet Ballard knows it's only because she's programmed to be devastated. His relationship with her is a symbol of the depravity he's fighting in trying to shut down the Dollhouse.
But Dollhouse doesn't stop its experimental romantic stories there. The show asks what would happen when the shadows start to linger in the empty room. Could the unimprinted dolls start to develop romantic interests, despite their supposed lack of personality or libido?
The poster-children for this concept are Victor and Sierra. These two gravitate towards each other in their unimprinted state, and they also seem to feel a residual pull towards each other in some of their imprinted states.
By far the most dark and twisted relationship on Dollhouse, though, is that between Sierra and her original handler. Her handler, on multiple occasions, took advantage of the preternatural trust programmed into the otherwise blank Sierra to take advantage of her innocence and rape her.
It's one of the most twisted sexual events Whedon has yet crafted, and it further proves his fascination with strange, unconventional, or even downright disturbingly messed up romantic relationships.
What Does It All Mean?
It's clear that Joss Whedon loves complicated romantic and sexual relationships. Both love and lust are unabashedly large motivating factors for his characters, and this provides a springboard for the most interesting story-lines on his shows.
But it also makes what can sometimes be fanciful and unbelievable circumstances seem much more real. When we see a "happily ever after" story, we sometimes think, ok, but for how long can someone be so uncomplicatedly happy? Joss Whedon's stories provide us with some answers to that question.
More to the point, Whedon uses supernatural and science fictional elements to take complex, realistic romantic and sexual tension and inflate them to near mythic proportion. At the risk of going too far with the Whedon love, it's the kind of thing that Shakespeare so excelled at. In his works, gods and ghosts often became the engines for deeply affecting tragedy, helping his stories bridge the gap between intimate realism and giant mythology.
Whedon's stories do the same thing for his fans. We know life isn't simple, that there's something disingenuous about a television show that portrays all romantic stories as cut from the same simple cloth. Whedon offers us all the intricacies of our own romantic and sexual development writ large. It's the kind of thing that appeals very strongly to a select audience and will hopefully someday get the wider appreciation it deserves.