As said, Willow isn’t the only character whose arc gets delightful closure this season. The same is true of Spike and his newfound soul. The show wastes no time showing us the aftermath of his restored humanity and it’s not pretty. The instant comparison viewers will want to make is to Angel, but it doesn’t really work. When we first meet Angel, he has been souled for a long time and has long since come to terms with it. He’s still racked with guilt (a character trait that never really goes away) but he treats the guilt as part and parcel with the curse the gypsies put on him and is more than comfortable living with it. Spike, on the other hand, sought out his soul. He wanted it, and once he gets it—based on the rules of the Whedon universe—he gets the “lingering conscience” that comes with it. Whereas Angel lives off a steady drip of guilt constantly flowing through his veins, Spike receives an instant defibrillator’s worth of guilt and turmoil. The weight of it almost breaks him. And while the character himself remains a bit polarizing among fans, for my money he’s one of the most fascinating characters in the whole Whedonverse.
Here’s what’s amazing about Spike:
Take away his soul and he’s capable of terrible evil. Yes. That much is demonstrated repeatedly both during the series and especially in flashbacks. On the other hand, even without his soul, we see that Spike is equally as capable of kindness, warmth, humor, and even mercy. We see all that in the years before he regains his soul, an action which he only undertakes because he feels guilt over his attempted rape of Buffy, and because, in his own words in the second episode of season seven, he wanted to be the kind of man who would never do that.
Now contrast that with Angel, who does nothing but remorseless, merciless evil when he’s without his soul, and who only got his soul put back in him because of a curse, and who actively worked to prevent Jenny from restoring it in season two’s “Passion.” Angel is presented as a Jekyll and Hyde character and, if anything, there are hints that Angel (the good side) is perfectly capable of stooping to the kind of evil that Angelus committed (we see that in season two of his show when he allows vampires to kill several members of Wolfram & Hart). Spike, on the other hand, is not a dual-identity character; he’s a single entity that moves between different polar extremes on his own personal spectrum. That’s why he’s such an incredible character. He has depth and layers that no other vampire on either show ever demonstrated.
The attempted rape is, let’s be honest, such a black mark on his character that even talking about it in casual terms feels sleazy. It’s certainly not easy to discuss it within the context of redemption, but the show demands it so let’s give it that consideration. In the Whedonverse, the soul is more than just a conscience. As already discussed, Spike demonstrates a conscience before he gains back his soul. Furthermore, it’s not fair to say the soul in the Whedonverse is what gives people the ability to know right from wrong because, as we’ve seen, vampires know they’re doing wrong, they just don’t care, and even souled-people will do wrong and feel nothing about it. It’s no coincidence, I think, that in the same episode (“Seeing Red”) that features Spike trying to rape Buffy (reminding those of us who maybe had forgotten that he is still a soulless half-demon), the “ordinary human” Warren also attempts to murder Buffy and inadvertently kills Tara. Even earlier in the season he clubs a girl in the back of the head and kills her (and then proceeds to try to cover it up). These are the actions of a souled-human and they are just as despicable as those committed by Spike or Angelus. Joss is telling us that the soul is not what makes a person good, nor is it just the conscience that tells people the difference between right and wrong.
So what is it, then?
I think the soul in the Whedonverse is what gives a person lingering, compounding feelings of guilt as a result of their bad actions. A vampire-like Spike might feel bad about a wrong he did: He demonstrates that in “Seeing Red” when he leaves Sunnydale to make things right. Furthermore, having a soul is stated in canon as the reason why Angel is so constantly burdened with guilt and why Spike is so instantly overwhelmed with it. Putting it together, I think not having a soul in the Whedonverse means you might (but not necessarily) feel bad or remorse/guilt over a misdeed but the feeling doesn’t linger; it fades like a passing thought because it takes “humanity” to feel genuine (persistent, nagging) guilt over those misdeeds, and the more misdeeds you do that are not rectified, the more that guilt weighs on you, with every crime becoming a rock you add to the pile you’re forced to carry. Being a vampire means sometimes you feel the weight of one rock, one crime, one heinous act but, in time, you just toss the rock down and go about your business without a care in the world. Spike, had he not set himself on a mission to change, might’ve found the feeling of guilt he had, immediately following the attempted rape, fade to a distant memory. Instead, knowing that about himself, and knowing he didn’t want that, he went on a quest to gain the missing thing that would restore his humanity; the thing that would make him suffer the lingering sting of guilt and, as a result, give him the motivation to be a decent person possessing “humanity.”
Spike’s arc ends perfectly this season, with him well and truly getting to play the hero and save the day, but it never would have happened had the show not allowed him to go on the journey it did, from the evil bad guy in season two to chaotic neutral in season four to sympathetic anti-hero in season five, to a mirror/conduit for all of Buffy’s worst impulses in season six, to, finally, a decent person who, at first is overwhelmed by all the wrong he did, and then decides to do something good for a change, not to undo the bad, but simply because it finally feels right to do it.
What an amazingly written and performed character he was.