You learn her source, and we’ll introduce her to her insect reflection. Um… that, that was funny… if you um, if you studied Taglarin mythic rights… and are a complete dork.
Before we get into talking about “Family,” can we just take a second to observe how unrelentingly lovely Amber Benson is? It remains a mystery to this day how nasty the uproar over her inclusion on the show was, with its accompanying complaints about how “plain” and “fat” she was. I mean, just look at this photo. Fandom can just be the worst.
“Family” is the first and only episode in the Buffy canon to focus exclusively on Tara. We learn her last name, a bit about her past, and meet three members of her messed up family — including Amy Adams, when she was still slumming it on TV — all of which serves to move her from “Willow’s shy girlfriend” to accepted member of the Scooby Gang. We need this grounding to make us care about Tara, because very quickly she’s going to become the designated victim in the group. That’s a nasty bit of manipulation as these things go. Everything that makes Tara pretty wonderful — her gentleness, her kindness, her empathy — are the same reasons we react so badly to seeing her tormented at the hands of Glory or Warren (and Willow, when it comes down to it).
“Family” also serves as a proxy explanation of Buffy’s sudden and fierce protection of Dawn after the revelations of last week’s “No Place Like Home.” Except for a scene between Giles and Buffy at the very beginning of the episode, very little time is dedicated to following up on Dawn’s identity, but that doesn’t mean the show isn’t commenting on it. Everything that happens, the specific reactions of the gang and their emphasis on their found family all serves as important background to the development of this season, and the events of “The Gift.”
Given the uncertainty over Joyce’s health (and Dawn’s safety), Buffy is moving out of the Sunnydale U dorms and back home. While the Scoobies help in their usual unhelpful ways, Tara makes an ill-considered joke routed in Talgarian mythic rites which goes over like the proverbial lead balloon. Tara’s never felt like one of the group and the joke is meant to encapsulate this. She tries, but the others haven’t really made any effort to get to know her, much less understand where she’s coming from. Riley has a jovial All-American thing going on, which is easy to embrace. Anya doesn’t really care if the others like her and bounces along in her own Anya-sized space. Tara is different. She’s shy. We learn that she comes from an abusive and controlling background, and that for all over her life she’s been told she’s worthless and evil. She feels her outsiderness quite acutely.
That makes it an interesting question why Buffy’s subconscious picked Tara as her guide during the dreams in “Restless.” The two of them had barely interacted up until that point. Clearly from this episode we know the dream sequence didn’t make Buffy seek out her friendship. But Tara becomes an important guiding figure later on. Maybe Buffy’s instincts knew she was important before Buffy herself did?
But in the here and now, the Scoobies can’t even remember they promised to go to the surprise birthday party Willow is throwing for her at the Bronze. Buffy and Xander complain about her oddness and their lack of connection, and how little they know about her, saying they don’t know what to get the a practicing witch for her birthday while sitting in the middle of The Magic Box. The Scoobies can be kind of insular jerks when it comes to it.
Unexpectedly, Tara’s family shows up in honor of her birthday. Though it’s never explicitly stated where they come from, their vague accents and certain retrogressive attitudes implies a bit of hickness in Tara’s background. There’s definite allusions to the Bible Belt being thrown out in the way her family talks to her. It’s not spelled out, but there’s an instant impression that Tara is in school on an earned scholarship, picking a school that would put her as far as she could get from her hometown. Nothing about her father suggests he’d be the kind of guy to pay for a fancy out of state college. Frankly, he wouldn’t pay for college at all. As Cousin Beth points out, Tara should be at home cooking and cleaning and caring for her brother and father. (We’ll find out later on that Tara’s mother is dead.)
Tara’s father announces he’s come to take her home before things get out of control. “Things” being Tara’s alleged demon heritage, which both gives her her magical abilities and makes her evil. Luckily, he knows how to control this evil, and it’s by keeping her tied to the hearth. Instantly, we’ve been given the reason Tara purposefully botched Willow’s demon-seeking spell back in “Superstar,” a gesture that’s been left completely unexplained until now. Even with all her mystical studies, Tara believes that she really has demon blood, even as she protests that it doesn’t make her evil. She’s desperate to stay in Sunnydale with Willow.
After Cousin Beth shows up to give the “two” in a one-two punch of guilt from her family, Tara becomes despondent. Her family keeps hammering home the idea that her “demonness” will eventually manifest and make the gang turn away from her. So backed into a corner, Tara recklessly casts a spell over the group to blind them to her demon-side. Of course, it doesn’t go exactly as she intended, since it blinds them to all demons.
Given that Buffy is, by vocation, a demon killer, obviously this goes badly, quickly. Glory has cajoled some local Lei-ach demons into killing Buffy for her. We get our first clue into Glory’s identity in this exchange, as she says her name is a “holy name” — something that will bear out as true when The Council comes to town.
Oh god, please don’t tell me I was fighting a vampire slayer! How unbelievably common. If I had friends and they heard about this…
The Lei-ach demons show up to slaughter everyone at The Magic Box after Tara’s spell has taken effect. Buffy’s impressive and growing skills as a Slayer means she can sense their presence even if she can’t see it — but that doesn’t mean she can slay them. Intervention from Spike — also invisible — keeps Buffy from getting killed, and Tara shows up in time to end the curse so Buffy can curb stomp some demons. Then her family shows up, since that’s what happens in the Buffyverse, and Tara’s secret is revealed to the gang.
Understandably, Buffy is pretty put out that she almost got killed. Tara doesn’t know Buffy well enough to understand her bitchy, judgy face doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been kicked out of the gang, and basically slinks like a kicked dog back to her family. But she hasn’t been kicked out of the gang! Buffy’s not going to let one pesky curse doom another woman to a life under oppressive patriarchal rule — let’s not forget that her overthrowing coded-male oppression of women is an important theme in this series — and she refuses to let Tara go. If Tara’s family wants her, they can go through the Slayer and the rest of the Scoobies. Because being blood kin doesn’t make a family, and that’s what the Scoobies are.
Tara’s father is furious, and keeps harping on the demon part of Tara’s background, even if he can’t exactly name what kind of demon it is. In fact, he has very little to back up this family legend. The word “demon” was fear enough. The group is fairly accepting of this. Demons they can handle, if they’re the right kind of demons. If anyone in the group had taken two seconds to put together the fact that they could see Tara while they were under the curse but not Spike or Lei-ach gang, they’d have gotten to the truth of the matter faster. But it’s always-insightful Spike who susses out the lie. Tara’s not a demon. Her father has just told her that to control her. Spike confirms it with a headache inducing punch to Tara’s nose.
And that spells the end of Tara’s family’s control over her. They slink off to wherever one-episode characters return to, and Tara gets a lovely birthday party at the Bronze. Which is an awful nice way to end her sole moment in the spotlight.