"I'm not your sidekick!"
Updated: Jan 20, 2020
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the woman (and the show) are some of my favorite things in life, not to mention an important part of creating the person I am today. Angel, the brooding love interest of Buffy, has always been my favorite of her complicated relationships. So, upon starting a rewatch of the spinoff TV series, Angel, I was reminded of someone else I adore: Doyle. Doyle is a human/demon hybrid that has visions of people in danger which strengthens Angel’s ability to help on the long road to redemption. Sadly, Doyle doesn’t live to see the end of season one of Angel, but his wit and fumbling charm always stand out to me. He reminds us of the secondary characters in these shows; the forgotten souls who stand in the shadows of their great heroes. These are the sidekicks.
As per Janice Kersh’s article on “Seven most common types of sidekicks in movies and television”, you can have a variety of sidekicks, from the Rebel who thinks that rules are meant to be broken and is there to disrupt the narrative to the Jester, who is the comic relief and is loyal though maybe a little clumsy. There is also the Lover, Explorer, and Magician, all there to enhance the world we are watching with colorful characters and create the archetypes of sidekicks we have grown to love and cherish. They can be a mixture of a few or strongly coded to one archetype, but either way, they are interesting and worthwhile characters, some we fall in love with, some we despise.
But, even just using the term “sidekick” can degrade their importance: it reduces them to just the plucky side character and makes us forget how incredibly important they are to our heroes. In “The Importance of Sidekicks in the Hero's Journey” by Joseph Campbell, he states that the sidekicks, or “assistants”, play a critical part in the hero’s journey by providing:
“... a specific set of skills to the journey that aids the traveler through this challenging and soul-searching time.
·Complementary or specialized skills – Assistants often have a unique specialization in a given area that provides aid during the adventure.
·Belief in the goal - Sidekicks are not passive watchers of events but often have an equal passion for a successful outcome.
·A different perspective - Companions can provide unique insight and can offer up tools or advice that propel the hero through a challenge.
·Encouragement – Real change is hard and is fraught with multiple setbacks. Sidekicks can inspire when the mind of the traveler grows weary or discouraged.”
Our main characters can be mysterious, depressed, plagued, and preoccupied with their roles as heroes. They can be a bit of a downer at times. Our sidekicks can lighten the mood or provide much-needed insight into a troubling situation. In the heartwarming and wonderful article “Samwise, Robin, Donkey and Watson: Why We Love Sidekicks” by Dr. Thalia R. Goldstein Ph.D, she states that “Unlike the brooding hero, the plucky princess, the captain of the ship, the sidekick’s job is rarely to have a life and agency of his or her own. Instead, the sidekick is there to provide comedic relief, to support the hero’s journey, and to occasionally learn a lesson as the audience’s surrogate.” She talks about how the sidekick doesn’t have the fate of the world on their shoulders or the constant pressure of doing what’s best for the greater good. They can become fully realized characters of their own without the same “social demands” that are placed upon the hero. Their main function is to support the hero in the movie or show, therefore making the sidekick's stories more “streamlined” and “simple”, and even perhaps more relatable to the viewer.
Dr. Goldstein Ph.D also mentions the comic relief that we receive from sidekicks, like Xander (Buffy), Wash (Firefly), and Doyle (Angel), where they can “allow us to see humor in dangerous situations, to be more observational than action-bound, and to be ok with that.” They can be proactive instead of reactive, which can so often be the case with the heroes. The heroes are there to push along the narrative and create the action, while our sidekicks are there to lend a helping hand. They can become the eyes, and sometimes the heart, of the team. This can be witnessed during a moving interaction between Xander and Dawn in the season seven episode “Potential” of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:
They'll never know how tough it is, Dawnie, to be the one who isn't chosen. To live so near to the spotlight and never step in it. But I know. I see more than anybody realizes because nobody's watching me. I saw you last night. I see you working here today. You're not special. You're extraordinary.
Maybe that's your power.
Maybe it is... Maybe I should get a cape.”
In "Side by Side: The Role of the Sidekick” by Ron Buchanan, he goes into detail about the role of the sidekick and their importance to the world of the hero. He talks not only about some of the important characteristics of a sidekick (like trust, loyalty, and sacrifice), but also of an interesting element that I didn’t even think of: the relationship between the hero and sidekick is one where the sidekick elevates the hero and makes them a more palpable character. He states that “a key element of the sidekick-hero(ine) relationship, therefore, is the sidekick's role in aiding the reader's acceptance of the main character. All too often, the hero(ine) is a cold, distant, aloof personality with idiosyncrasies that distance the individual from the audience.” Our heroes aren’t always likable. They can make terrible decisions, be impulsive, and selfish. As much as I adore Angel, his personality pales in comparison to that of Cordelia or Fred, making him a cold, distant, and aloof character that is challenging to relate to. The sidekick can make the hero accessible to the viewer, their negative traits more acceptable and show their humanity. If we didn’t have Tara, who is a very warm, approachable, understanding and nonjudgemental person, to listen to Buffy when she finally admitted to her sexual relationship with Spike, what would she have done? Who could she have turned to?
Another aspect of the sidekick is that sometimes they must bring the hero back into the realm of reality, and we see this in Buffy season five in the episode called “The Weight of the World”. Dawn has been kidnapped (keynapped?) by Glory and Buffy has fallen into a catatonic state. Willow must use her witchy powers to go into Buffy’s mind and bring her back into the real world, back to where she can save Dawn. Willow was the only one powerful enough to break through the trance and get Buffy back into the game.
Sidekicks are crucial to the success of our heroes and personally I think they can be vastly more interesting, complex characters, with more diverse and devastating character arcs, compared to our heroes. Case in point, Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Wesley Wyndam-Pryce, in Angel. Both characters had humble, nerdy beginnings in Buffy with Willow being the science/math/computer geek of the Scoobies and Wesley being the stuffy, unliked new Watcher for both Buffy and Faith. As Willow leaves her old tech self behind to develop her witchcraft abilities, she becomes a powerful ally for Buffy. Her confidence strengthens and she becomes a full-fledged witch by season five. Wesley leaves Buffy after season three to become the “rogue demon hunter” in Angel season one, filling the role of our dearly departed Doyle. With his Watcher training and the desire to be part of a team, he joins Angel Investigations.
Both characters take a turn into darkness, becoming less comedic, and more intriguing. Willow becomes addicted to the power that magic provides to her, and Wesley leaves his cowardice behind and turns into a dangerous and sometimes ruthless, leader. Wesley betrays his friends and is almost killed by Angel. He also falls prey to alcoholism in later seasons, further darkening his path. Willow’s addiction to magic almost kills her and Dawn, damaging her relationship with Buffy. Wesley’s relationship with Angel is obviously tarnished by his actions though, however, for both characters, they resolve their issues with the heroes by the end of the shows run.
These story arcs show us that even our precious and adored sidekicks can fall from grace and show us that humanity is flawed and complex, and our relationships nuanced. But they also show that forgiveness and teamwork can potentially save the world. Sometimes our sidekicks sacrifice their own comfort in order to do what’s right.
In reference to Ron Buchanan’s article, he states that:
“In truth, on a higher level we need our sidekicks probably more than we need our heroes. The hero(ine) would parallel Plato's "ideal" while the sidekick would parallel Aristotle's "reality." Hamlet, Holmes, Morse, Quixote, Xena—these individuals promote high ideals for which all human beings should strive, and they illustrate the "rewards" of following these ideals—justice, truth, success, admiration --- BUT few persons embody the dominant traits these hero(ine)s typify; more often we reflect their weaknesses for vengeance, for addiction, or for misplaced ambition. The sidekick becomes a lesser model of the hero(ine), one which we can emulate more readily while still hoping that we might attain the ideal. By modeling the actions and traits the audience should emulate, the sidekick becomes a living secular parable.”
In season five of Buffy, the episode “Fear, Itself” has the Scoobies attending a Halloween party at one of the fraternity houses. Unfortunately, the dimwitted frat boys have unleashed a demon named Gachnar. Once discovering that the building has turned into a real house of horrors, Buffy takes charge of the situation and asks Xander, Oz, and Willow to stay behind, stating how she doesn’t want anyone to get hurt. Willow claims she can do a spell to help and essentially protect herself. When Buffy tries to deny this act of “defiance” from her friend and ally, Willow exasperatedly says “I’m not your sidekick!” and storms off. Willow is coded as a sidekick but that is OK because she is just one of the multiple examples of the sidekick gaining their independence, agency and will to become their own person.
Our sidekicks are the advisors, companions, and sometimes more to our heroes; they create a balance between the moral good and the common good, the powerful and the everyday. They are willing to fight alongside our hero, despite what they may suffer and have to sacrifice for it. The hero will always have a mystique, an aura of impenetrableness, and an outstanding reputation. But our sidekicks are the ones we connect with deeply, the ones whose deaths hit us the hardest and the ones that are often forgotten about.
This is for Doyle, Cordelia, Fred, Gunn, Wesley, Oz, Xander, Willow, Tara, Anya, and Giles - we see you and we love you.