At the beginning of this semester one of my students suggested that I might like the TV show, Lucifer. I had mentioned in class that I had recently finished watching the Originals and so was looking for something else to watch. Needless to say, I was very quickly hooked on Lucifer once I started the series. (There may have been a few nights where I watched more hours of TV than hours slept…) What I noticed very quickly in watching the show was that it is at root a conversion narrative, and a particular type of conversion narrative that I had seen in several shows before. I would call this the “Big Bad” conversion trope—with a nod here to Buffy, of course.
Before I explain what I mean by that, however, I want to note a few things about the meaning of conversion. When I talk about conversion with my students—mostly to set them up to read Book VIII of Augustine’s Confessions—I always start them off with a few definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary. At its most basic, conversion is a “change in character, nature, form, or function,” but I think the theological definition is more relevant here—in spite of many of the shows I will discuss not being explicit about the existence of God. Theological conversion is “the turning of sinners to God” or “a spiritual change from sinfulness, ungodliness, or worldliness to love of God and pursuit of holiness.” We see this definition reflected, for example, in Jeanne Guyon’s A Short and Easy Method of Prayer, where she wrote, “Conversion is nothing more than turning from the world in order to return to God. Conversion is only half perfect, albeit good and valuable for salvation, when it is simply turning from sin to grace. To be complete, there must be a turning away from the outside and a turning inward” (XI.1). Guyon describes conversion here as turning from the world to God, which echoes the Oxford English Dictionary’s theological definition of the term. But, she identifies two ways of doing this. First is turning away from sin to grace and second is turning inward to focus on our internal relationship with God.
All of the “Big Bad” conversion narratives I am going to discuss show at least a conversion in Guyon’s first sense, turning from sin—especially in the sense of selfishness and pride—toward grace, holiness, and, importantly, a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the good of others and to save the world… a lot. In this post, I will be looking at the following conversions: Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Crowley from Supernatural, Klaus from the Vampire Diaries and the Originals, and finally Lucifer from, well, Lucifer. These are not the only examples of this trope, of course. Now, given that I will be discussing these characters over the course of the TV shows they are from: major spoiler alert for this whole post.
The primary theme of the trope of the Big Bad conversion narrative is the idea of humanization: each of the characters—especially given that they are all supernatural beings of one sort or another—becomes more human in their process of conversion. But, of course, there are variations on this theme given each of the characters’, and TV shows’, particular circumstances. And there are, of course, other examples that one could include here (but I won’t address), such as Killian Jones/Captain Hook from Once Upon a Time and basically every character at one point or another in the Vampire Diaries.
Spike / Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I want to begin with Spike because his conversion incorporates so many of traditional Christian theologies of conversion. In thinking about conversions, I also rely on Carolyn Barros’s article, “Figura, Persona, Dynamis: Autobiography and Change.” In this article she doesn’t use the language of conversion explicitly—talking instead about how autobiographies are about transformation—but when applied to spiritual autobiographies, the transformation is a form of conversion. Barros proposes three rhetorical perspectives for analyzing the transformation that occurs: persona, figura, and dynamis. The persona is the subject of the autobiography, recognizing of course that this is a constructed self, not the person themselves. And, in autobiographies, there is at minimum the before persona and the after persona, but there can be multiple personae, or stages in the transformation.
I think Spike is actually a really good example of this because he has multiple personae, some of which I think are constructed by him to hide his true self. Now just a note, but in my analysis here I am limiting myself to the original series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, so I’m not so worried about Spike as a character in the final season of Angel or in the comics. I’m also not dealing with the flashbacks of his life in the series, though his transformation from the lovesick poet to a vampire might be considered his first two personae. We first meet Spike in the season two episode “School Hard,” where Giles identifies him as having faced two slayers and killed them both. So when Spike is introduced in the series, it is in the persona of the Slayer of Slayers.*
The beginning of Spike’s transformation then occurs in season four after he is captured by the Initiative and they put a chip in his brain that prevents him from harming humans. During this time his persona is still very much a vampire, but his inability to harm humans leads him to start helping the Scooby gang fight monsters—which he can still hurt. When discussing the theme of humanization with by friend Lauren Ginsberg, she commented about this stage, “My take has always been that he developed lots of human qualities through hanging with the Scoobies but that they were selfish human qualities only aimed at self-gratification.” I most definitely wouldn’t call him “good” at this point, but he is also no longer the Big Bad of the Slayer of Slayers either—so I propose a “pro-Scooby vampire” as his persona in seasons four through six. Or, as Buffy describes it in the season seven episode, “First Date,” “When Spike had that chip, it was like having him in a muzzle. It was wrong.”
The final persona of his transformation occurs in season seven as a vampire with a soul. But this is also where his transformation is especially interesting to me as a theologian. This begins in the season finale of season six (where, as I noted in my previous Buffy post there is a lot of Christian imagery, including a beautify rendition of the “Prayer of St. Francis” by Sarah McLachlan) when the activities of the Scooby gang trying to prevent or—in the case of Willow—cause the apocalypse are interjected with Spike going through a series of physical tests to “get what I need to take care of the Slayer.” The whole bit is set up to make you think he asked for his chip to be removed so he can return to his persona as the Slayer of Slayers. As he says, “Make me what I was. So Buffy can get what she deserves.” But instead of removing the chip, the demon Spike went to see very painfully returns his soul. So, “what he was” refers not to his persona as the Slayer of Slayers, but to “what he was” before he lost his soul on becoming a vampire.
Now, as Buffy fans already know, Spike struggles with the presence of his soul, making him hear voices that remind him of all the evil he did. As he says to Buffy in episode two of season seven, “And now everybody’s in here, talking. Everything I did, everyone I… and him… and it… the other. The thing beneath… beneath you. It’s here, too. Everybody. They all just tell me go. Go… to hell.” This idea appears frequently in Christian theologies of conversion. For example, in Augustine’s Confessions he recognizes the need to acknowledge one’s own sins in order to be converted. When he first gets involved with Manichaeism, for example, he explains that “my sin was the more incurable for my conviction that I was not a sinner” (V.10.18). Then the first step in his conversion in Book VIII comes through a “self-abhorrence” of his sin (VIII.7.17). The agony he then suffers in the garden parallels some of Spike’s struggles to come to grips with his own soul.
A similar sequence of conversion appears in Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermon on the topic. He identifies the first step in conversion as God’s word leading to the recognition of sins. This word of the Lord “opens the book of the conscience, passes in review the wretched sequence of life” (§3). Bernard of Clairvaux identifies this as occurring because of a divine voice that we cannot stop ourselves from hearing and that causes “violent suffering and a very just cause for grief” (§4). To return to Spike again, we have a parallel in that he is hearing voices that are reminding him of all the evil he has done, voices that he cannot ignore—though he tries—, and that are causing him immense mental anguish, so much so that the physical pain he gets when draping himself over a cross is preferable. This suffering is an important step in the Christian idea of conversion as a form of penance. As Bernard of Clairvaux explains, “if you struggle on in groanings of penance—for this is mercy’s first step—then you will arrive at mercy” (§29).
For Bernard of Clairvaux, the end result of the process of conversion is one who has given up his or her self-centered interests in favor of the needs of others. He says, “The heavenly Father calls pure of heart those who do not look to their own interests but those of Jesus Christ, those who do not seek their own advantage, but that of many” (§32). He warns his listeners against ambition and seeking honor and glory in the world. The converted soul—the peacemaker—“is always ready to repay good for evil and to help the man who hurts him” (§31). Thus, there is an element of loving all, even one’s enemies, in this description. Now, I don’t know about loving the major enemies, since the Big Bad of season seven is the First Evil, but Spike does end up working alongside a lot of people who continued to hate him throughout season seven, and even try to kill him as Robin Wood does in revenge for his mother’s death. And, of course his final sacrifice of himself to save the world shows him not seeking his own advantage, but that of many. Thus, his final persona of a vampire with a soul includes characteristics such as self-sacrifice, empathy, and compassion which were not possible without his soul (and thanks to Lauren for her input in this analysis).
So to return to Barros’s rhetorical tools for analyzing transformations, the figura that most fits Spike’s transformation—and that of many of the other examples I have—is the aforementioned theme of humanization. The figura is “a metaphor that encapsulates, implicitly and potentially, the mode and ground of the transformation that an autobiography describes (‘mode’ here suggesting type of transformation; ‘ground’ implying its bases, locus, limits)” (Barros, p. 9). When I talk about this concept in class—in relation mostly to Augustine’s Confessions—I encourage students to think about how they would describe Augustine’s conversion. The figura is not just a device applied by the reader to the text, nor a structure envisioned by the author, but a metaphorical way of describing the transformation based on ideas found in the text. When I texted Lauren to ask if she thought the idea of humanization was an apt metaphor for what happens to Spike, she agreed and brought up additional examples from within the show. For example, Anya is a vengeance demon when we first meet her, who becomes literally human but, throughout the series, struggles with human emotions like empathy and compassion. Even in the series finale, as the Scooby gang is putting their plan together, Anya quips—in relation to the potential slayers—, “Let’s go assemble the cannon fodder,” with Xander then reminding her, “That’s not what we’re calling them, sweetie.” In the end, however, she also sacrifices herself while saving another.
Barros’s third rhetorical tool is the dynamis and this refers to the cause of the transformation. For Spike, we can identify a couple causes in each stage of his conversion experience, most notably the chip that prevents him from harming humans, but ultimately it is the relationships he forms with the Scoobies, and especially Buffy, that are the driving forces in his transformation. In the beginning of season seven, Spike admits to Buffy that it was his love for her that led him to seek out his soul. When she asks him why in episode two, he replies, “Buffy, shame on you. Why does a man do what he mustn’t? For her. To be hers. To be the kind of man who would nev— To be a kind of man. And she shall look on him with forgiveness and everybody will forgive and love… and he will be loved.” And this idea of love as the driving force in Spike’s transformation fits well with his overall character. In the finale of season two he aligns himself with Buffy to defeat Angelus so he can get his love, Drusilla, back and on his first return to Sunnydale, in season three, he admits, “I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”
Lucifer / Lucifer
Now, part of the reason I identify this as a trope is that we see the same elements of the “Big Bad” conversion repeating themselves in these other TV shows, and even relying on a similar dynamis and figura, that is, each one of our “Big Bads” is humanized to the point of sacrificing themselves (or their wants) for the good of the world and the moving forces in each transformation can be found in their relationships. I’ll start with Lucifer because that is the show that inspired this post in the first place. When we meet Lucifer at the beginning of the series I would say his persona is the “punisher of humans,” but of course it’s a bit more complicated than that. As Tom Ellis explains in this interview about the show, he has rejected this job to take a sabbatical on earth and part of what he gets upset about is how people blame him for their evil deeds. He insists that his job is not to cause evil deeds, but to punish them. For example, in episode six of the first season, “Favorite Son,” he says, “[God] shunned me. He vilified me. He made me a torturer! Can you even begin to fathom what it was like? Eons spent providing a place for dead mortals to punish themselves? I mean, why do they blame me for all their little failings? As if I’d spent my days sitting on their shoulder, forcing them to commit acts they’d otherwise find repulsive. ‘Oh, the Devil made me do it.’ I have never made any one of them do anything.”
Just like with Spike, the dynamis of Lucifer’s conversion is his relationships with humans and especially his love for Chloe. We again see a slow process of transformation, from caring only about the humans he has relationships with before broadening it to others. What occurs to him in the process of conversion is also reflected in the supernatural aspects of his appearance—that is, his wings and his ability to manifest, or not, his devil face.
In the end, it’s his relationships that help him learn how to care about other people. Just like Spike (and Anya) he gains a capacity for empathy and compassion, ultimately transforming him into his new persona of a “healer of humans.” His role is to help the people who are stuck in their personal hell loops to find the way out to heaven (so, as a side note, there is a very C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce type of afterlife going on here). In the series finale he describes the process of his transformation, explaining, “For millennia, I was down here, stuck in my own hell loop of sorts, thinking I deserved to be in charge of people’s punishment. And then even when I left, I found myself in a cycle of selfishness and violence, debauchery, sex… Yeah, I mean, clearly it wasn’t all bad, but the point is that with the right guidance and the right help, I was able to change, to grow.” So, like Spike, with help from the relationships he had with humans, Lucifer was able to transform. And, although he doesn’t give up his life, he does sacrifice his wants—to live with Chloe and their child—to help heal the souls in hell. (And, on another side note: what do people think about free will in the show? Like, does Lucifer have free will or did everything that happens ultimately unfold according to God’s plan?)
Klaus / The Vampire Diaries & The Originals
The next example of the Big Bad conversion narrative is Klaus from the Vampire Diaries and then the Originals. There are a lot of twists and turns in Klaus’s story, so I may have to simplify a bit in the interest of space. Klaus is first introduced in season two of the Vampire Diaries as the Big Bad of that season because he wants to sacrifice Elena in order to regain his werewolf powers. Klaus’s persona here is as the original werewolf-vampire hybrid and ultimately portrayed as evil and selfish—he wants to regain his werewolf side so he can create an army of werewolf-vampire hybrids. But the dynamis that starts his conversion is his falling in love with Caroline who started the series as a human and then turned into a vampire. This shifts his persona slightly from being the evil original hybrid to being a (sometime) ally to the group in Mystic Falls. This is the beginning of his transformation that allows him to start caring for other people. Now, granted, he had his family (always and forever), but their dysfunction and selfishness over the years prevent them from really being the causes of or motives for his conversion.
I would argue that the second dynamis in Klaus’s process of transformation is another type of love, that for his daughter, Hope. Here we have a slight variation on the main theme because both Spike and Lucifer have romantic loves as their main dynamis. Klaus, on the other hand, is really transformed by his becoming a father and it is in the later seasons of the Originals that some of the dysfunction of the Mikaelson family is mitigated as they join together to protect Hope. And, although one could argue that Klaus’s final sacrifice at the end of the Originals is primarily motivated by his love for Hope, secondarily it too is a sacrifice—like those of Spike and Lucifer—to save the world. In the final seasons of the Originals, the Mikaelsons are working together to protect the world from the dark magic of the Hollow. Klaus has the magic of the Hollow siphoned from Hope into himself and then he (alongside his brother Elijah) sacrifices himself to destroy the Hollow.
Thus, again with Klaus we see a conversion that in the end, leads the former Big Bad to sacrifice themselves to save the world. For Klaus, too, the figura of humanization fits his conversion. In fact, Caroline says as much in season four, episode thirteen of the Vampire Diaries. In one scene, Klaus has bitten Caroline and—werewolf and hybrid venom being poisonous to vampires—she needs his blood—the blood of a hybrid—to live. As she is dying, she and Klaus discuss his motives for this act and Klaus comments that “maybe it’s because I’m pure evil and I can’t help myself.” Caroline counters, “No. It’s because you’re hurt. Which means that there is a part of you that is human.” Given all the other human-to-supernatural-and-back transformations in the Vampire Diaries mythology, the idea of humanization motivated by love fits. As Caroline observes, “I know that you’re in love with me and anybody capable of love is capable of being saved.”
Crowley / Supernatural
Now, I’ve saved by fourth example, Crowley from Supernatural, for last because his represents a major variation on the Big Bad conversion trope. Namely, where all the other examples we’ve discussed are motivated—in whole or in part—by romantic love, we don’t see that in Crowley. When we first meet Crowley in season five he has achieved the position as “King of the Crossroads” among the demons in hell. At this point, he aligns himself with the Winchesters against Lucifer. This demon represents his initial persona and he explains to Sam and Dean that his primary motive is “survival.” His helping the Winchesters at this point in the series has some parallels to Spike’s aiding Buffy against Angelus—namely, their motives are primarily self-centered and they do not really care about what happens to anyone else. By the end of season five he takes over as King of Hell and continues to help Sam and Dean from time to time against other Big Bads—and also work against them from time to time.
In terms of the dynamis of Crowley’s conversion, I found it a bit more difficult to identify something more specific than his general overall relationship with Sam and Dean. Two moments in the series stand out however as significant points in his overall transformation. The first takes place at the end of season eight where Sam is undergoing trials to seal all demons in hell. The final trial is to cure a demon, restoring his humanity by injecting him with human blood. Although they do not finish the trials, Crowley ends up addicted to the human blood because of how it makes him feel and although that addiction eventually ends, I think that can be identified as the start of his humanization. Like with other examples I’ve discussed, this figura of humanization fits Crowley and the Supernatural mythology. Before he is caught by the Winchesters in season eight, episode twenty-three, for example, he comments, “You know why I always defeat you? It’s your humanity. It’s a built-in handicap. You always put emotion ahead of good, old-fashioned common sense.” Of course, his transformation under the influence of human blood is shown in season nine when he saves his son from death and his friendship with Dean—as a demon—in season ten.
By season twelve, I would argue that everything that has happened to him because of his frenemy relationship with the Winchesters has taken a toll. He tells Sam and Dean in the last episode of season twelve, “You know, I’ve been focused for so long on keeping my job [as King of Hell]. Never realized I hate it. All those whining demons, the endless moan of damned souls, the paperwork! I mean, who wants that?” So, he allies himself with the Winchesters once more against Lucifer, promising to seal the gates of hell behind him. (It is interesting that the first and last times that Crowley works with the Winchesters are both against Lucifer, but I digress.) The plan changes when Lucifer’s unborn son accidently opens a rift into another world and Crowley draws on his history of witchcraft (as a “son of witch, actually”) to come up with a spell to seal the rift with Lucifer inside. Of course the spell needs the sacrifice of a life to complete it and—without warning or discussion—Crowley kills himself in order to complete it. Crowley’s persona at the end here is still a demon but, I would argue, a demon who has been humanized enough from his relationship with the Winchesters that he has become fatigued by the virtually eternal life of the demon and so was willing to sacrifice himself to save the world. As he says earlier in the episode, “Well, whenever there’s a world-ending crisis at hand, I know where to place my bets. It’s on you, you big, beautiful, lumbering piles of flannel.” Where his first assistance that he gives the Winchesters was about self-preservation, by season twelve he is willing to save the world at a cost to himself.
To sum up, I’ve seen in these characters four instances of what I’ve called the “Big Bad” conversion trope. In each example, their conversion is best described by the idea of humanization. While their specific personae are different, each one converts from self-centeredness to concern for others that extends to the whole world. And in each case, the dynamis or cause of their conversion is tied to their relationships—especially those formed with human characters.
And, having written this, I have an urge to re-binge all these shows. Any other recommendations for me? Do you see this “Big Bad” conversion occurring in any other shows?
*This title for Spike is not canon but is used widely in fanon and articles. Thanks to James Marsters News on Twitter (@jamie_marsters) for this clarification.
- Augustine. The Confessions, trans. by Maria Boulding. New City Press, 2001.
- Barros, Carolyn A. “Figura, Persona, Dynamis: Autobiography and Change.” Biography 15, no. 1 (1992): 1–28.
- Bernard of Clairvaux. “On Conversion, a Sermon to Clerics.” In Sermons on Conversion, trans. by Marie-Bernard Saïd, 9–79. The Cistercian Fathers Series 25. Cistercian Publications, 1981.
- Guyon, Jeanne. Jeanne Guyon: Selected Writings, trans. & ed. by Dianne Guenin-Lelle & Ronney Mourad. The Classics of Western Spirituality. Paulist Press, 2012.
Note: The image for this post is from the lucifer.fandom.com website.
I notice all your examples of conversion characters are male.
Could you do a follow-up post with female characters?
I was recently watching a video about redemption arcs / redemptive characters, which I argue are similar to conversion narratives. And are maybe the secular phrasing for conversion arcs? Considering how some people have issues with the word conversion, given a history of forced & unfaithful conversions?
The author of the video made a point to emphasize how a majority of redemptive characters are male.
I wonder why this is, & what it means for how we treat female characters? (i.e., hold them to a higher standard.)
To my experience, thinking off the top of my head, I think as a culture it’s easier for us to “write off” female characters & let them die without changing.
Or worse, let them live, but twist the narrative so they not really bad (often such characters help the heroes, & often die. )
I am a writer, & something I’ve done in response, yet also by accident, is take female characters who do irredeemable, atrocious acts, & I have the main character forgive them.
And sometimes the character redeems herself, atones & turns, and sometimes she remains the same.
And they live.
Do you have any ideas for female characters that fit this humanization via relationships model? Many of the female characters in the Vampire Diaries have mini conversions, but none of them start out as the “Big Bad,” making their conversions less dramatic. The only possible examples that I can think of that might fit the model that I’ve outlined here is Mazikeen in Lucifer or maybe the Evil Queen/Regina from Once Upon a Time.