In any universe, physical or fictional, there are opposing forces. Call them energy and entropy if you want to get your science geek on. Call them good and evil if you want to be Judgy McJudgerson. But one of the most fundamental ways of looking at the opposing forces in the universe is by thinking of them as order and chaos.
Ethan Rayne is chaos personified.
What’s more, while Buffy is still young in her Slayer life, he’s a force that’s equal and opposite to her Watcher, Rupert Giles.
Imagine a rogue Watcher, one that knows the secrets of the order, one who’s not afraid to meddle with the order of things. One who embraces chaos both for its own sake, and because he genuinely believes it’s a purer, more natural state for the world and the universe to be in. That’s Ethan Rayne.
He’s a kind of energetic nihilist, quite willing to make complex plans and see them through, while embracing chaos, seeking knowledge, and harnessing power.
The most annoying thing about Ethan from Buffy’s perspective of course is his very ordinariness. Vampires? Dust ’em, no problem. Demons? Have an extra bowl of Wheaties and get to work. Even a god like Glorificus – admittedly, that’s a tough day at the office and might technically involve having to die, but a Slayer’s gotta do what a Slayer’s gotta do.
Ethan Rayne is a human.
Whatever powerful chaos mojo he can bring, whatever dark forces he can conjure, Ethan himself is as human as any of the other stupid people in the world. As human as Maggie Walsh, busily building her monster, Adam, under the classrooms of UC Sunnydale. Human as The Trio, who actually take the life of one of the Scooby Gang not with chaos magic but a gun.
When you have stupid, powerful humans to deal with, the Slayer is almost no good, because to kill a human is murder in exactly the same way as vampires drinking their blood is murder.
Besides, Ethan Rayne is someone from Giles’ history. In a very real sense, his presence in Sunnydale is Giles’ responsibility…
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
That was never more true than when Rupert Giles met Ethan Rayne in England in the 1970s. The two were part of a group, including Deirdre Page, Philip Henry, Thomas Sutcliffe, and Randall. They tried out small magics – nothing too dramatic or dangerous. It was fun – after all the 1970s in England were spectacularly dreary; how else do we explain glam rock?
The group had their magical glam rock fun, until Rupert and Ethan discovered the opportunity to go deeper. They discovered a demon named Eyghon the Sleepwalker.
What could go wrong with a sleepwalking demon. Right?
Ask Randall. Having tattooed themselves with the ever-so-fetching Mark of Eyghon, the group would take turns to fall asleep and be possessed by Eyghon.
They say that rough play is all good fun till someone loses an eye.
Messing around with Eyghon the Sleepwalker is all good fun until you try to exorcise him. Randall, his host at the time of the exorcism, was killed.
The death sent Rupert and Ethan careering off in different directions. Rupert would eventually reach the Watchers’ Council, looking for ways to confront and control demons as and where he found them. Ethan…
Ethan went the other way. Driven by a similar impulse – to confront and control demons – he read further and further, going deeper into the dark arts. Somewhere in his researches, control stopped being Ethan Rayne’s concern.
The more he read of demons, the more he became convinced that chaos – the unravelling of order, of meaning, of the little sandcastles of ambition humanity made on the seashore of oblivion – was all that was true. Chaos became Ethan’s guiding principle.
It guided him to Sunnydale.
Now, sure, Sunnydale’s a Hellmouth – great place for some chaos magic, but it’s also (ironically, given his addiction to chaos) no accident that Ethan chooses to pitch up in the town where his old pal Rupert “Ripper” Giles has made his home.
Ethan’s first bit of chaos mischief in Sunnydale takes place at Halloween, in the episode Halloween (Se, E6). Traditionally, Halloween is the night when vampires and demons can be guaranteed to be tucked up in their crypts rather than stalking abroad.
Ethan decides to make the most of the opportunity by using a Janus statue to cast a mass enchantment, making people believe that whatever their Halloween costume represents is what they are. Cue chaos – especially as Buffy is wearing period costume, and so believes she’s a fainting, terrified lady of old, in need of a strong protector.
Giles finds Ethan, beats him up and breaks the Janus statue, ending the enchantment. But Ethan’s always been quick on his heels and escapes.
The next time he surfaces, he has a more serious agenda. Just two episodes later in The Dark Age (S2, E8), Ethan comes looking for Rupert, because Eyghon, the fun-lovin’ fella who got Randall killed, is back, and is using the tattoos of his mark as a beacon to locate and kill the other members of their former mini-cult.
Because he’s never content to walk a straight line when a crooked one is available, Ethan concocts a plan to throw Eyghon off his (and Rupert’s) scent by capturing the Slayer and tattooing her with Eyghon’s mark, having removed his own tattoo with acid.
Weirdly enough, his plan works, and Eyghon picks a fight with the Slayer and her Scooby Gang.
Annnnd then there’s one less demon in the world.
Ethan, naturally, escapes. He’s getting really good at it.
After that, he really does lie low for a while.
Over the course of the next year, Mayor Richard Wilkins – the one who intends ultimately to turn himself into a demon – comes to power.
Aiming to curry favor with any and all local demons and acolytes, the mayor not only allows a grand sacrifice to the snake-demon Lurconis – that usually takes place with difficulty and in secret once every 30 years – to go ahead, but does the mayor’s job and facilitates an easier sacrifice than ever before.
Lurconis likes some fresh babies on waking up from a 30-year nap, and the mayor outsources the job of occupying all of Sunnydale’s adults while babies are stolen from the local hospital to his henchman, Mr Trick.
Mr Trick likewise outsources the gig to Sunnydale’s secret chaos warlock –none other than Ethan Rayne.
Ethan’s plan involves supplying enchanted Milkbar chocolate bars to all the adults in the city. The chocolate regresses the moral core of the adults to those of nihilistic, hedonistic teenagers, making them focus on the joys of sex and drugs and rock and roll, leaving the hospital open for the theft of babies.
The plan is foiled by the Scooby Gang, and again, Ethan manages to escape the consequences of his plan – as does Mr Trick.
Another year passes with no more mischief from Ethan, until, in Season 4, Episode 12, A New Man, Giles finds him, and the two drink and discuss the rise of the Initiative. Even Ethan Rayne, lover of chaos, is concerned about the Initiative, which he says is throwing the balance between universal forces out of whack with its research and its long-term plans.
When Giles wakes up the next morning, he looks and sounds like a Fyarl demon – and Ethan explains to Buffy and the gang that the Fyarl demon has killed Giles.
The evil joy of the plan is that even if the Scooby Gang don’t kill this manipulated Giles, there’s every chance that the longer he stays in demon-form, the more he will forget the man he was and go into the life of the demon.
This time though, once his plans are foiled, Ethan doesn’t escape – he is imprisoned by the Initiative.
While that marks the end of Ethan Rayne’s story in on-screen Buffy, he resurfaces in the Season 8 comic-books, first in Buffy’s dreams, and then, having been shot in the head by General Voll, a member of the Twilight Group, as a corpse in the Drextalcorp Recycling Technologies military installation.
He later appears reanimated by Eyghon and takes his place among an army of zombies, until the demon controlling them is killed by Angel. It is a somewhat ignominious end for a character with the dash and twinkle of Ethan Rayne, but one so random and ultimately chaotic, he would probably approve.
Ethan Rayne has a handful of talents and traits that make him suited to the life he chose.
He is adept at black magic and is obviously able to apply himself to both the tome-learning and the practical application of his knowledge in order to achieve results. His success in summoning demons and casting long-range, multi-subject enchantments proves he has what it takes to be an impressive sorcerer.
As is often the way with practitioners of the dark arts, he has a distinct theatricality, which shows itself in his plans. Turning people into the true representations of their Halloween costumes, enchanting chocolate to reduce adults to the hormone-swathed teenagers they once were, even turning a beloved member of the Scooby Gang into a demon, so he becomes the enemy within.
These are all very much Batman villain plans – theatrical and grandiose, though never without a certain twisted humor. In a sense, Ethan’s theatricality is perfectly fitted to the ‘Scooby Gang’ tone of Buffy’s friends and apocalypse-foilers.
Grandiosity And Sadism
Theatricality of planning allows Ethan Rayne a certain flair. His grandiosity and sadism – which come through especially when he recalls his youth and the potential that he and “Ripper” Giles had back them – is often what makes him come unstuck. As he says himself, ““I’ve got to learn to just do the damage and leave town. It’s the stay-‘n-gloat that gets me every time.”
In fact, the ‘stay-‘n’-gloat is frequently what turns Ethan from the potential force of world domination he could be into the local chaos warlock who can be hired out by the likes of the mayor for a little distracting mischief.
While he regards Buffy as more or less just the latest inconvenience in his life, or occasionally a useful shield behind which he can hide, Ethan is to Giles what Professor Moriarty is to Sherlock Holmes.
They are equals who took opposite paths, but more than anyone else in Sunnydale, Ethan can puncture the grown-up pomposity of Rupert Giles and remind him of his wilder youth. That can be a weapon both in terms of undermining Giles’ sense of self, and fracturing the Scooby Gang’s opinion of him.
While Ethan is prone to the stay-‘n-gloat, three out of four times when his path crosses that of Buffy, Giles, and the Scooby Gang in on-screen Buffy, he picks exactly the right moment to cut and run, escaping from the consequences of his actions when his plans deflate like a souffle in a sock drawer.
Ethan Rayne is male and is only ever vaguely described as ‘middle-aged.’ Like Rupert Giles, his old friend and occasional nemesis, he looks almost ageless, as though you could drop him into any era and he would pass for a native.
In some respects, Ethan Rayne looks like the uncle you hope never turns up to Thanksgiving. Slight of build, with dark brown hair and a lined forehead that belies his mischievous nature, he wears a range of “Uncle” outfits like dark corduroy trousers and semi-casual shirts. His face is more angular than rounded, more like the nib of a disapproving fountain pen.
Originally, he had a rare identifying tattoo, the mark of Eyghon, though he subsequently burned that off his skin with acid.
Because it’s more dramatic than going to a laser clinic, that’s why.
Ethan looks like the phrase “studied casualness” grew legs and started worshipping chaos. His energy rarely manages to match up to his relaxed hair and open shirts though, and his wiry gait looks like it constantly has a few thousand bolts running through it.
Ethan’s powers lie not so much in himself as in his ability to harness power from others.
- As a believer in the power of chaos, he was able to activate a Janus statue to cast a long-range, multi-subject enchantment at Halloween.
- He also handled a mass enchantment of objects and their effects, to make chocolate that turned adults into carefree, vaguely amoral teenagers again.
- Able to see his way around problems, he could both summon power from Eyghon, to the point where the demon possessed him for a while, and work out the way to distract the demon when it became clear he was too dangerous a partner to keep around.
Ethan is not really a ‘relationship’ kind of sociopath. Being addicted to the path of chaos does not make for good boyfriend material.
His main relationship in on-screen Buffy is with Rupert Giles, and while the show only ever refers to them as ‘friends,’ there has been speculation even from high-level executives on the show that back in the day, there may have been a physical relationship between Rupert and Ethan, potentially stretching back as far as their school days.
There is also some intimation that all the members of the miniature cult of Eyghon, each of whom got the tattoo of the demon’s mark that would later threaten to catch up with them all, were also polyamorously adventurous within the group.
Again though, by the time the miniature cult of Eyghon becomes an issue in Sunnydale, there are much more serious concerns than who did what to whom, and who liked it.
You could make a case for there being a relationship of sorts between Ethan and Eyghon, but if so, it would be a very mismatched one, as both parties were much more sadistic than masochistic, and both were highly egotistical, so it would never have worked in the long term.
Ethan Rayne makes four signature appearances in the seven years of on-screen Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
- Season 2, Episode 6 – Halloween, where he makes people believe they are whatever their Halloween costumes depict, through the use of a Janus statue.
- Season 2, Episode 8 – The Dark Age, where he escapes the vengeance of the demon Eyghon by tattooing Buffy with the demon’s mark to attract its attention to the Slayer, rather than to himself, and forces a conflict in which Buffy has to fight for her life.
- Season 3, Episode 6 – Band Candy, where he uses chocolate to regress Sunnydale’s adults to a carefree state of teenager nihilism, so that babies can be taken from the hospital as a sacrifice to the snake-demon Lucornis.
- Season 4, Episode 12 – A New Man, in which Ethan puts an enchantment on Giles to make him look and sound like a Fyarl demon on Buffy’s 19th birthday.
Ethan is also featured in Issues #3 and #4 of the Extended Universe “Season 8” comic books, comprising Parts 1 and 2 of The Long Way Home, in which Buffy is trapped in a nightmare of Ethan.
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