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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Buffy v. Dracula

[Updated May 1, 2013]

It obviously helps, in watching Buffy v. Dracula, if you’re familiar with the Dracula story, beginning with Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, because this episode contains a great many references to its various versions over the years. I’ll note the ones which aren’t explained (more or less) in the episode.


Xander becomes Dracula’s servant like the character Renfield in Stoker’s novel and later works. Xander’s actions after coming under Dracula’s thrall generally follow those of Renfield. We can also see, very roughly, Riley as Jonathan Harker, Giles as perhaps Van Helsing, and Buffy as Mina Murray. The plot of the episode is consistent with the book and movies, though with necessary adaptations.
In the novel, Dracula serves as a metaphor for unrestrained sexual desire. The book was written in the Victorian Age, so that was the supposed temptation for young women. That’s where the biting = sex metaphor took hold, and we see this focus throughout the episode.
However, sex isn’t really the same issue today that it was in the late 1800s, so the key point had to be changed. What Dracula offers Buffy here (in addition to sex) is knowledge. Knowledge about herself. The episode brings up a point which will become increasingly important over the remaining 3 seasons, namely what it means to be the Slayer. Being the Slayer is indispensably necessary to Buffy’s journey to adulthood. It’s that which allows her to slay the demons which are metaphors for the challenges we face in life.
That doesn’t mean that being the Slayer is an unalloyed good, however. As we’ve seen repeatedly in S1-4, and as I’ve mentioned along the way, being the Slayer imposes severe personal costs on Buffy. If you think about it, there’s something inherently problematic in using one part of “you” to challenge (or “slay”) other parts. Necessary, yes, but not without consequences.
As with so many things, we saw this issue foreshadowed in Restless. Adam questioned whether Buffy is, as she might say, of the good:
OTHER GUY (unnamed, but the same actor who played Adam): Aggression is a natural human tendency. (Looks at Buffy) Though you and me come by it another way.
BUFFY: We're not demons.
OTHER GUY (Adam): Is that a fact?

Now, in the episode which directly follows this, we see Buffy lying restless (intended) in bed next to Riley. When she leaves him to go out and hunt – a bit like Spike, really – Dracula poses a direct challenge to her:

BUFFY: Do you know what a Slayer is?
DRACULA: Do you?...
DRACULA: I came to meet the renowned ... killer.
BUFFY: Yeah, I prefer the term slayer. You know, killer just sounds so...
DRACULA: Naked?
BUFFY: Like I ... paint clowns or something. I'm the good guy, remember?
DRACULA: Perhaps, but your power is rooted in darkness. You must feel it.
 

Remember that Riley called her “killer” in her dream in Restless. Then later,
DRACULA: No, you are different. Kindred….
DRACULA: …I have yearned for you. (Sits on the bed next to her) For a creature whose darkness rivals my own….
DRACULA: All those years fighting us. Your power so near to our own...

Then he tempts her with the same words Tara used in Buffy’s dream in Restless (the fact that they’re the same will be more obvious if you’re watching on DVD than it was to those of us who had to wait 4 months between the two episodes):
DRACULA: (whispering) You think you know ... what you are ... what's to come. You haven't even begun.
Buffy looks at his arm, at his face. Takes his hand in both of hers and puts her mouth on the bloody wrist.
DRACULA: Find it. The darkness. Find your true nature.

I’ll talk more about Drac’s claim later on. For now you might want to think about whether his claim that Buffy is “kindred” is true and, if so, what that might mean in light of him using Tara’s words. He is the bad guy, after all.
For the moment, it’s Buffy’s reaction I want to focus on. At the end of the episode Buffy rejects Drac’s offer to join him in darkness:
BUFFY: You know, I really think the thrall has gone out of our relationship. But I want to thank you for opening up my eyes a little.
DRACULA: What is this?
BUFFY: My true nature.

Using the Slayer power is good; completely giving in to it is not. I’m speculating a bit here, but Joss is a known fan of Westerns, especially those of John Ford. Dracula’s challenge to Buffy reminds me of the great John Ford film The Searchers. The film provokes the question: at what point do I become what it is I fight? I think Joss may have drawn on it – The Searchers certainly inspired his show Firefly – for this episode (see trivia note 5 for more). Here’s an edited summary of the plot from Wikipedia, my emphasis added:

“The year is 1868. Ethan Edwards returns from the Civil War, in which he fought for the Confederacy, to the home of his brother Aaron in rural northern Texas. Despite hints and supposition that Ethan has been up to no good, the movie's early scenes never explicitly frame Ethan for wrongdoing. … Shortly after his arrival, a Comanche raid leaves his brother and sister-in-law Martha, his nephew, Ben, all dead, and his two nieces, Lucy and Debbie, abducted, and the family homestead burned down.

After the funeral, a group led by Captain Clayton goes in search of the raiding party. When they discover the location of the encampment, Ethan wants to attack immediately, before daylight. Clayton points out to Ethan that the Comanche generally kill their hostages at the first notice of a raid, which is something that Ethan already knows. This is the first sign that Ethan is willing not to bring the girls back alive. …

One of the group, Brad Jorgensen, also Lucy's fiancé, says that someone will have to kill him to make him stop looking for Lucy. Aaron's adopted son, Martin Pawley, who is 1⁄8 Cherokee, feels the same way, and with the two of them, Ethan continues to pursue the Comanche. The three of them find where the main trail goes one way and four horses take off to the right, into a tight canyon pass. Ethan tells them that he will follow the small trail and that the two of them should stay on the main trail. When Ethan returns he is distracted and seemingly upset, but doesn't say anything. He also seems to have lost his Confederate Army long coat. Later Brad is out on scout duty on foot and returns to Ethan and Martin saying that he has found the Comanche camp, and has seen Lucy. At this point Ethan tells Brad and Martin that it wasn't Lucy, that he had already found the murdered body of Lucy in the canyon. He had wrapped her body in his coat, and buried her with his bare hands. Brad, enraged, mounts his horse and charges into the encampment alone, dying in a fruitless, suicidal attempt to avenge Lucy.

Ethan and Martin lose the trail when the winter blizzards come. … Ethan and Martin continue to search for Debbie, a search that goes on for five years. During that time, she grows into adolescence and is taken as mate by Scar, the chief of the Nawyecka band of Comanche. Scar is presented as the cultural mirror image of Ethan. He hates whites every bit as much as Ethan hates Indians. Once Ethan realizes that Debbie has been mated to Scar, he undergoes a change. He no longer wants to rescue Debbie; he wants her dead, believing that a white woman being a Comanche's "squaw" is worse than death. Martin follows in hopes of stopping Ethan from killing the girl. When Ethan and Martin are alone with Debbie the first time, Ethan draws his pistol to murder his niece but Martin shields her with his own body. Ethan fires the pistol to kill Martin in order to get a clear shot at Debbie but his aim is ruined when he is struck by an Indian's arrow just as he pulls the trigger. Ethan and Martin have to run for cover and Debbie escapes execution by her uncle.
Eventually Ethan, Martin, and the Texas Rangers find Debbie again…. Martin kills Scar and Ethan scalps the dead chief. Martin tries to prevent Ethan from killing Debbie, but it is Ethan himself who realizes how close he has come to destroying the last link to his family and how, in the act of scalping Scar, he himself has become what he hated so much. Instead of killing Debbie, he lifts her in his arms just as he did when she was a child. Ethan brings Debbie to the safety of friends and then walks away. The film, which opened with a near-identical shot of another doorway, slowly revealing the film's landscape, finishes with a reversal: the film's players enter the darkness within the doorway, and the door closes, just before the end title, leaving Ethan isolated outside where he turns and wanders away into the wilderness.”

Ethan’s fate is what Buffy seems to fear in her conversation with Giles after she dispatched Dracula. My friend Rahael from AtPO described it perfectly: “Buffy fears that she is more monstrous than anything she slays.” That’s the theme of the season.
Here’s Marti Noxon describing the episode on the DVD commentary:
“Thematically, what we were going for was that Dracula represents a kind of dark side that Buffy feels she has in her. …

The scene in which Dracula makes Buffy bite him continues to explore the theme we had explored in season four, which was how much of her power comes from inside her that is a killer. And we went as far as to have her actually take blood from Dracula because, in a way, we were saying it’s already there.

This is the side of the Slayer she has to make peace with. Either she’s gonna go all the way and embrace the darkness or she’s going to find a way to live with it.

Those are constant themes in our show, which is about how you deal with power, and how you deal with your own darker impulses without becoming self-destructive or destructive to other people.”

Understanding what her power means – that is, understanding herself – may help her avoid Ethan’s fate:
BUFFY: (after a moment, softly) You haven't been my Watcher for a while. (Giles stops pouring) I haven't been training ... and I haven't really needed to come to you for help.
GILES: (sadly) I agree. (sets down the teapot)
BUFFY: (gestures helplessly, gets up to pace) And then this whole thing with Dracula ... it made me face up to some stuff. (Giles looks concerned) Ever since we did that spell where we called on the First Slayer ... I've been going out a lot. (Giles looks surprised) Every night.
GILES: Patrolling?
BUFFY: Hunting. That's ... what Dracula called it. (pacing) And he was right. He understood my power better than I do. He saw darkness in it.
Shot of Giles looking very concerned.
BUFFY: (sits down again) I need to know more. About where I come from, about the other slayers. I mean, maybe ... maybe if I could learn to control this thing, I could be stronger, I could be better. But ... I'm scared. I know it's gonna be hard. And I can't do it ... without you. I need your help. (pause) I need you to be my Watcher again.
If you’re watching for the first time, the ending must be a WTF moment. Trust me, it was for all of us. You can’t say you weren’t warned, though. Two prophetic dreams foretold it. In the opening dream in This Year’s Girl, Faith told Buffy “Little sis coming. I know. So much to do before she gets here.” Then, in Restless, when Buffy left Tara to look for her friends, Tara called after her, “Be back before dawn.” We won’t learn it until the next episode, but her name is Dawn.

Trivia notes: (1) Buffy’s “witch-fu” is a play on kung-fu, which actually refers “to any study, learning, or practice that requires patience, energy, and time to complete”. (2) Dracula arrives in a storm at night, just as he does in the novel. (3) Willow calls herself the “computer whisperer”, playing on the movie and book The Horse Whisperer. (4) Lestat, whom Buffy mentions to Dracula, is the lead character in a series of novels by Anne Rice (who was herself mentioned in the S2 episode School Hard). (5) When Buffy tells Dracula that calling her a killer makes it sounds like she “paints clowns”, that’s a reference to mass murderer John Wayne Gacy. John Wayne was the star of The Searchers, and I’m inclined to see the reference to his namesake as supporting my speculation. A later episode in S5 will also be based on a John Ford Western starring John Wayne. In addition, there is the fact that Spike refers to Riley as “cowboy” – it can’t be a reference to Riley’s role as “cowboy guy” in Willow’s dream in Restless because Spike had no way to know of that. It seems like Joss or writer Marti Noxon just had westerns on the brain. (6) Xander’s reference to Sesame Street is to the puppet Count von Count, who is modeled after Dracula. (7) Vlad the Impaler, the historical source for the Dracula legend, was a Prince of Wallachia (Romania) in the late 1400s. (8) Buffy has been bitten twice in the same place, once by the Master and once by Angel. It’s the scar there which Dracula sees. However, the dialogue seems to refer only to Angel. (9) The three sisters Giles encounters are the brides of Dracula. (10) Xander got the funny syphilis in Pangs.

11 comments:

  1. Well of course Joss had westerns on the brain...he was probably already planting the mental seeds for Firefly! :)

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    1. I suspect that's true, though Firefly debuted 2 years after BvD. Maybe thinking about Buffy in this context led him there. Or maybe it was the other way around.

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  2. I realize this ain't the ruttin' Town Hall so I'll keep the Firefly discussion brief:
    Not only is there a formula where "young woman with supernatural powers = hippie-dippy Nature name" (Willow, Dawn...River) but one direction Firefly could have gone in (with more episodes, sob!) would be Red River (unforgiving older man, young man who admires him, woman who is neither a virgin nor a respectable wife).

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    1. That would have been a potentially great episode. And I'll bet Joss thought of it.

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  3. Excited for your discussion of S05 - my favorite season. Correct me if I'm wrong, but was it part-way through Noel's discussion of S05 that you joined the fray over at AVC?

    In any case, I once again really enjoyed the write-up here. I think BvD gets overlooked a lot because of some of its . . . cornier? . . . aspects. But having just watched it again recently, it really does a fabulous job of setting up the season. And watching it/reading your write-up so shortly after Primeval/Restless, it becomes clear how much thought has gone into the show's change in direction post-S04 (or even beginning late S04) to really starting to explore the dark flip side of life as a Slayer that this episode (and Restless) both heavily allude to.

    To prattle on a bit longer, I think one of the problems of S04 is that they really hadn't worked out how to move beyond the high-school-as-hell metaphor that they had so finely tuned by the end of S03, or even the "growing up is hell" aspect of that metaphor. I don't know when in the creative process they decided to really start to investigate the slayer/killer dichotomy and the darkness that gives birth to it (and not to say that it doesn't have roots in the earlier seasons), but regardless of what one thinks of the later seasons (especially 6 & 7), the creative team really handles that aspect of the show phenomenally well over the final three seasons. IMO.

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    1. S5 is possibly my favorite too, though on a given day I might say S2 or S7 (!), depending on my mood and which I've watched more recently.

      Yes, it was S5 when I started making comments at AV Club. There'll be some overlap here, but I'm going to try to write much more here, especially on S5.

      Doug Petrie talks about the "Slayer as killer" idea as early as the Faith arc, but I think they dropped that in S4. In my read, that makes sense because what it really suggests is the problems of adulthood. Those are, obviously, much more prominent in S5-7 (as I'll discuss).

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  4. Now I feel bad because I just like the episode because its funny. ;D

    But, in line with the analysis above, it's no mistake that in this episode, Buffy starts rocking Faith's leather pants.

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  5. I have some comments on Restless that I wrote in some word document somewhere and then lost, so, expect those (maybe) soon.

    I love the The Searchers comparison.

    (SPOILERS)

    Is the other John Ford movie Stagecoach for Spiral?

    I like the idea of Buffy's story mirroring Ethan Edwards'. So -- Debbie, whom his honour code tells him he must kill, but whom he opts to save instead, parallels Dawn, no, Buffy's last real relation, whom Giles insists she must kill to save the world, but whom she saves instead. Buffy is not as hard as Ethan is and doesn't recognize herself as *wanting* to kill Dawn -- but I guess we could say that her calm, casual killing in her mind in Weight of the World is rather close to what Ethan would have done had he not come to his senses at the last minute.

    So the famous shot of Ethan standing outside the doorway, that his bringing Debbie back to civilization requires (in part) his being exempt from it -- parallels Buffy's death and extremely difficult resurrection, right? Perhaps we could say that season six is Buffy's "Ethan in the desert" phase -- but unlike Ethan, she can come back to civilization eventually. I'm not sure how much John Ford fanfic there is in the world, and whether anyone's written Ethan/Scar, though (to parallel Buffy/Spike)....

    But anyway, I know more about John Ford than I do about Bram Stoker, so I won't comment much on

    Incidentally, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series by Alan Moore, which gets referenced by Andrew in season seven (Showtime maybe?), stars Mina Murray as a currently good ageless vampire who does all sorts of hero-y stuff. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the writers were familiar with it, since it later gets referenced, and I think it makes sense as a model for Buffy who passes through the darkness and forges strength from it, in s5-6. Though I'd have to check the dates....

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    1. I hate it when I write a bunch of stuff and then it gets lost. Sympathies. BTW, and tangentially related to Restless because that's where we talked about her, norwie has promised me further thoughts on Willow.

      MAJOR SPOILERS FOR S5

      Yes, Spiral is based on Stagecoach and that's the one I had in mind.

      I think Buffy's journey differs slightly from Ethan's, so the comparison isn't 1:1. Partly that's due to the metaphor played by Glory. That allows Buffy to recognize her potential descent before she's as far gone as Ethan was. When Buffy saves Dawn, therefore, she saves herself much earlier in the process than Ethan does when he saves Debbie.

      The ending of The Searchers is, for me, hard to map to Buffy. Had BtVS ended with The Gift, then the parallel would be pretty good. We never see what happens to Ethan after the movie ends, so I can't say whether he has a long struggle to come back or never makes it.

      Also, my read of Buffy's dive from the tower is much more optimistic than Ethan's fate seems to be. I might say that she's leaving the others behind, but in The Searchers it's more a case that Ethan's been left behind. Buffy's gone ahead, Ethan has to catch up.

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  6. I've just put up a few things I'd scrawled down and never gotten around to posting... I also have somewhere notes on identity and other issues in Restless and Primeval that I'll try to find or reconstitute... Apologies for the delay—projects small and large, general spaciness...

    I remember Marti Noxon saying that they saw Dracula as a kind of rock star, the David Bowie of vampires—but the problem to me is that they ended up with camp, a camp that they were then not fully willing to embrace... hence the unbalance of the episode: it does not seem to know what it wants to be, veers wildly between seriousness and camp and back again. That said, it does do a terrific job of setting up the season, imbalance or no.

    My only other comments here are to appreciate your work on Joss' use of the Westerns canon, which I don't know terribly well (not that I disdain them—I've just tended towards other movies)... I look forward to more of the same from you, William B, and the others here. I also appreciated and agreed with Aaron's comment about the problems with S4 and the shift in focus of the series over all. And yes, this is my favorite season—though on a given day I could be moved to name 2, 6, or 3...

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    1. I didn't realize growing up that having a mother who was a HUGE John Wayne fan would come in handy for these essays. :)

      I think that's an insightful point about the way Dracula came across. BvD is one of 2 season openers that Joss did not write, and I wonder if he could have fixed that.

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