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Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dead Things

[Updated May 2, 2013]

Dead Things epitomizes S6 for me. If a darker, more disturbing episode has ever been shown on American network TV, I’m certainly unaware of it. From the infamous “Bronze beta” scene (see trivia note 8) to Katrina bringing the nerds up short with her rape accusation to her murder to the haunting chords and matching lyrics of Bush while Buffy and Spike sense each other’s presence to the nightmare time distortions to Buffy beating Spike to her breakdown with Tara, the episode is one *intense* emotional ride.
I think it’s bloody brilliant. For me, this episode is one of the highlights of S6 – indeed, one of the 10 or so best episodes in the show’s history – and it highlights for me why S6, though it may deserve criticism at times, was one of the most daring and innovative seasons of television ever produced. Some of those highlights:

First, there’s an important continuity note, namely that time distortion was Warren’s “test” of Buffy in Life Serial, and here Warren’s the one who thinks up the plan for taking advantage of the time-distorting demons. For me, the spell is an allegory for Buffy’s sense of disorientation in her life, the “wrongness” that she confesses to Tara.
I’ve previously noted that Spike’s “you belong in the dark with me” attitude likewise mirrors his behavior in Life Serial. In Dead Things he actually repeats those words as a prelude to sex with Buffy in the Bronze: “SPIKE: (O.S.) You see ... you try to be with them... but you always end up in the dark ... (whispering in her ear) ...with me. … That's not your world. You belong in the shadows... with me.”
The basic ambiguity about Spike’s nature remains, though – he also fought by her side and helped her kill 3 demons. More important, he took the beating in the alley for her sake.
Second, we now see that the Trio’s immaturity isn’t very funny after all. It may have all seemed like a juvenile game, even the attempt to see naked women in Gone, but Katrina’s blunt accusation of rape puts a new light on all that they’ve done to date. For most viewers, including me, her accusation came as a shock because we’d allowed ourselves to get sucked in by the childish nature of the Trio until now. In particular, we see Warren revealed not as a geek, but as a psychopath. I think the writers did a terrific job on this. Yes, he was creepy in IWMTLY, and yes, we had doubts about him in Flooded and outright suspicions in Gone. Now he’s crossed a line, and in his own words (Smashed) he’s not coming back from that. They built this slowly enough to make his descent not just believable, but almost inevitable.
Third, I thought Steven DeKnight was very subtle in the way Tara and Willow seem to talk about Buffy when we know they’re really talking about each other. Similarly subtle, note that Spike is warm and comfortable in his crypt, while Buffy seems cold and isolated outside. I see this as a metaphor for their relationship, even their current view of their respective lives. Speaking of metaphors, being under the rug in the teaser seems like a pretty obvious one too.
There was a lot of debate at the time about Buffy’s decision to turn herself in. Karen argued in comments that Spike was right and that Buffy should not go to the police: “She is wrong to do so, and Dawn is right to see it as an escape. Faith and Spike are both wrong in trying to articulate an "eye for an eye" balance as the REASON, but they are NOT wrong in recognizing that conventional justice will not serve. Buffy does need to submit to authority, maybe the Watcher's Council, or maybe her own judgment, adult judgment, with this as a burden on her. It's exactly like Angel's burden. He can't erase his past, but must recognize consequences and atone for it with his future actions. Acting the martyr does not really represent acceptance of consequences, and the police are not at all able to 'judge' Buffy in any way. I'd even argue that part of the emotional challenge of growing up is recognizing that sometimes one must bear the burden of one's guilt and act as one's own judge, and move forward.”
Whatever side you take, it’s consistent with her behavior in Ted. In my view, Buffy’s instinctive reaction was correct, though an argument could be made that the Watcher’s Council, rather than the police, would have been appropriate. She seems never to have considered calling Giles; at the very least he could have reminded her of what he told her in Consequences:
Giles: The Slayer is on the front line of a nightly war. Now, it's, it's tragic, but accidents have happened.
Buffy: W-what do you do?
Giles: Well, the Council investigates, um, metes out punishment if punishment is due. But I... I have no plans to involve them.”

Even if she had called Giles, her decision probably wouldn’t have changed. Whether the WC is right in this is a separate issue, but compare their view to Faith’s (below) and you can see that if Buffy rejected the one she pretty much has to reject the other.
Buffy believes she’s being responsible by turning herself in, and so she is in a way. That said, while Dawn’s reaction seems consistent to me as that of someone who’s immature and thinking more of herself, there’s an element of truth in what she tells Buffy:
DAWN: (almost crying) You don't want to be here with me. You didn't want to come back. I know that. You were happier where you were. (crying) You want to go away again.
BUFFY: Dawn...
DAWN: Then go! You're not really here anyway.

Certainly Buffy is quick to blame herself, in part no doubt because she feels so wrong and even corrupt at the core at this point in her life, and this is another way for her to give up. As AtPO poster Alcibiades put it, “She was beating Spike up because he stood between herself and her greatest desire -- to lose herself back into powerlessness, lack of responsibility and spiritual and emotional exhaustion.”
Dead Things emphasizes the similarity to Bad Girls in the way Spike disposes of the body and his arguments to Buffy. Both parallel the actions and arguments of Faith in Bad Girls and Consequences:
“BUFFY: I'll show them.
SPIKE: (coolly) Show them what?
BUFFY: (very angry) What ... did you do?!
SPIKE: (firmly) What I had to. I went back and I took care of it. It doesn't matter now. No one will ever find her.”
“Faith:  (faces Buffy) Okay, this is the last time we're gonna have this conversation, and we're not even having it now, you understand me? There *is* no body. I took it, weighted it, and dumped it. The body doesn't exist.” 

“BUFFY: (tearful) A girl is dead because of me.
SPIKE: And how many people are alive because of you? How many have you saved? One dead girl doesn't tip the scale.”
“Faith:  (steps closer) Buffy, I'm not gonna *see* anything. I missed the mark last night and I'm sorry about the guy. I really am! But it happens! Anyway, how many people do you think we've saved by now, thousands? And didn't you stop the world from ending? Because in my book, that puts you and me in the plus column.”
I doubt we’re supposed to think that Faith was right all along. By repeating Faith’s arguments after he asked her to trust him to “sort this out”, Spike’s amorality stands revealed in a way that Buffy can’t deny. Her reaction – beating him to a pulp – reflects not just her distaste at Spike’s ethical blindness, but her own self-loathing for associating with someone who thinks that way. Buffy is really beating herself, even as Spike bears the brunt. Again the parallel is to Faith, this time to the beating scene in Who Are You:
BUFFY: You don't ... have a soul! There is nothing good or clean in you. You are dead inside! You can't feel anything real! I could never ... be your girl!
Faith (in Buffy’s body): You're nothing. [Punch. Punch.] Disgusting. [Punch. Punch.]
[“Buffy” grabs “Faith's” hair with both hands and bangs her head.] Murderous bitch. [Bang. Bang...] You're nothing. [Bang. Bang...] [Switches back to punches] You're [“Buffy” is now crying.] disgusting.

The fact that Buffy could abuse Spike like that is strong evidence to me that she doesn’t love him. Their relationship has always incorporated an element of violence, but never has it reached a point like this. The fact that he does love her, so much that he willingly lies back and takes the beating for her sake, means that she’s wrong either way: she shouldn’t love him because he’s evil, as confirmed by his amoral arguments in the alley; if she doesn’t love him, then she’s abusing him (not that he’s an innocent on that score either), as I think she realized after the beating. The beating itself is the outward manifestation of her emotional abuse of him previously (“you’re …convenient”). 

It wasn’t just the look of horror on her face as she left him bloody, her dream foretold it. In her dream, Spike and Katrina trade places; Buffy handcuffs Spike and stakes him/Katrina, drawing a clear parallel of guilt. It’s her subconscious understanding that she’s responsible for the way she’s treating Spike. She wants to be punished – that’s part of her motivation for going to the police – but Tara offers her only compassion and the hard truth that Spike truly does love her. I think she never really admitted that to herself before. Buffy’s breakdown in the face of Tara’s compassion demonstrates that punishment would have been easier for her to accept than despair. That’s what makes her tears and her plea not to be forgiven so heartbreaking.
Trivia note: (1) Remember Joyce pulling out the handcuffs in Band Candy? Like mother, like daughter, I guess. (2) Buffy mentioned New Kids on the Block, a boy band from the 80s and early 90s. (3) The record album Jonathan pulled out was “Frampton Comes Alive”. (4) Jonathan used the idiom “on the lam”, which means hiding from the police. (5) Andrew’s “bazoombas” is a slang term for breasts. (6) Anya and Xander describe Buffy as looking “pounded”, which is a pun. It means “tired or worn out”, but it’s also a slang term for sex. (7) Warren’s suggestion that they solve their problem with “one big stone” refers to the idiom “killing two birds with one stone”. (7) Buffy mentioned Soul Train, which was a musical variety show which ran from 1971-2006. (8) I need to explain the internet description of the balcony sex scene as the “Bronze Beta” scene. When the series moved off the WB network, they had to change the website because The Bronze was owned by the WB. The new site got the name “Bronze Beta”. The “joke” in the expression comes from the fact that the angle of intercourse in the sex scene suggests anal sex. (9) Willow mentioned The Brekenkrieg Grimoire. That means “Broken War Magic Book”. (10) Buffy’s conversation with Dawn describes in metaphor the critical issue of the season. Keep it in mind when we get to the finale. (11) When Buffy said that “time went all David Lynch” she was referring to the American movie director who is famous for surrealist movies.


  1. Anonymous commented on your OMWF post pointing us towards this article:

    about Buffy predicting geek misogyny.

    It's impressive that the trio's story arch is so relevant to today's world. Had the episode been written today, there might have been references to the reddit creepshot controversy in Gone. The trio mentions a desire to become invisible (similar to the fierce protection of anonymity on reddit) so that they could sneak into a women's spa. A line about taking pictures there and posting them would have naturally fit in.

    also note the camera use in Entropy and how quickly Warren connected spying on people against their will with pornography.

    It's particularly satisfying to me when Warren becomes unambiguously evil. I get frustrated by sympathy for the smart/superior white male outcast character pretty quickly. I'm glad Buffy decided to take on this issue, because it's nice to see it finally (well, for me watching in 2007) taken seriously.

    As for Spike and Buffy, I was pretty convinced in her breakdown with Tara that Buffy did not really love Spike. But then compare with her repetition of the phrase, "You always hurt the one you love" in reference to Warren and Katrina. This could be an acknowledgement that Spike was correct in claiming she loved him in the alley. On the other hand, Warren certainly didn't show much evidence of love for Katrina. Perhaps in Buffy equating her feelings for Spike with Warren's feelings for Katrina, she is admitting she doesn't have any real love for Spike.

    Personally, I think Buffy isn't very self aware of how she feels for Spike. Comparing herself with Warren is indicative of her fear that actually loving Spike will be destructive. Every step she takes toward him is wrought with anxiety like "this can never work, this is so wrong." Sometimes she likes to "roll around" in that anxiety, in the wrongness of it. But I don't think she ever really abandons that anxiety long enough to examine how she feels clearly.

    Especially her line in SR "(it consumes) until nothing is left. Love like that doesn't last." What experience does she have with love like that? I see it as a reference to her experience with Angel, that she fears if she falls in love with Spike, or takes their relationship seriously at all, it will end in them consuming each other until nothing is left. Similar to her insecurities in season 2 that she "destroyed the one thing she loved in a moment of blind passion."

  2. It's both interesting and sad that Buffy anticipated something like the violentacrez situation. There are definitely some similarities there.

    "Personally, I think Buffy isn't very self aware of how she feels for Spike."

    Agreed. She's a classic case of having feelings that are intense but variable.


    I also agree with your point about Buffy's statement in SR. To be clear, I don't think that rules out the feelings that Buffy has for Angel. I just think it means that she now recognizes that passion alone doesn't make a relationship. Spike's view is the same in SR as it was in Lover's Walk, but in my view we were supposed to see him as wrong then and wrong now.


      Wonderful write up, again—

      I also love this episode: it is one of my favorites, for all the reasons you describe, hard as I find it to watch—but then, that is one of the things that makes it so brilliant...

      I do not have much to add—

      I do think Buffy has Angel in mind in SR—but I do not think that she sees her passion for Spike as the same as her passionate love for Angel. She was in love with Angel, and I do not think that she is in love with Spike.

      That said, I do think she feels for him, feels a species of affection and care that she cannot describe and would not want to admit to—for it is too close to a kind of love—not romantic, and not love itself, but approaching a kind of love. And this makes the realization that he loves her—something that, I agree, she has not been willing to face until now—even harder to take, because she cannot dismiss it as coming from a soulless thing: her heart feels him to be more than that, no matter what her head says.

      Even more, admitting that Spike loves her and, even more, that she might feel anything for him both bring her perilously close to feeling, and everything in her being currently militates against feelings of all kinds—safe self-loathing and guilt, of course. That is what depression is, of course: a buttress against feeling, a barrier between her and the welter of emotions—anger, primarily, but also unspeakable pain, resentment—that emerged with her from the grave. So to feel for Spike, of all people...


      There would be more to say, but I have been putting my time into the relational identity post, which is finally up. Apologies for burying it under Primeval, where no one is probably going to read it, but it makes the most sense there, as you'll see. This is only the first step, as the articulation of relational identity only begins there... My plan, way back when, had been to write up posts for the finales of each of the next seasons, but I think I'll skip S5 and try to bundle everything I was going to say there into the finale of S6, if I can get it ready in time (I need an essay by Levinas—I do not have all my books here, so I had to recall it from the library, and someone is being reluctant... ). It will pick up on the comments on ethics, which are especially important in the S5 finale, and go on, I hope, to more about ethics and power (S6).

    2. Thank you. I agree with all of your spoilery points, but especially with the last paragraph.

      I've seen your comments on Primeval, which are terrific, and I'll respond there.

  3. Hi Mark~ I agree this is one of the best Buffy episodes, and one of the reasons S6 is strong and powerful, if disturbing. I agree with you and Rachel, especially on two key issues: the segue from the Trio into true evil, and Buffy's lack of self awareness regarding her emotions - with Spike in particular, but also in general.

    IMO, one of the true horrors of evil is that it is often mundane, ordinary, not really "Big Baddish" and epic, but petty and small...even so with horrendous consequences. The Trio always reminded me of the character Weston in C.S. Lewis' Christian adventure Perelandra. Weston is a geek scientist too, who can appear intelligent or immature. He uses intelligence as a tool, and discards it for mindless torture if it suits his purpose. I've always admired S6 for its portrayal of that kind of evil.


    Sure we have Dark Willow as the Big Bad. But in fact (ignoring her own self determined actions) what sets her in motion is more mundane evil - a random, stray bullet.

    I agree I also really like how Katrina becomes sort of like a Truthsayer, the voice of 'mundane' morality - the Trio are contemplating rape. They have made CHOICES. It's the flip side of Angel's famous quote. All that matters is what we (choose) to do.

    And Buffy. No, she doesn't love Spike. She is using him, and she realizes it now. I do think, at this point, however Spike loves Buffy as best as a vampire can love. He's not entirely selfless about it, but he's experiencing more and more humanity through his relationship with her. Notice it's Spike who notices they are having an actual conversation. We keep getting mixed messages from the writers, whether intentional or not. For me, the scene at the door of the crypt is very romantic, where both sense something in the other (that's needed and good?)and both also sense the inherent dysfunction. Spike says she needs to come to the dark side because that's where he is, and he hasn't yet realized he's moved away from that place. So, he's still a work in progress. But in this relationship, he's the one with more emotion invested, who cares more about the relationship as a whole rather than the sex alone.

    I also agree with his conclusion that Buffy should not turn herself in to the police. She is wrong to do so, and Dawn is right to see it as an escape. Faith and Spike are both wrong in trying to articulate an "eye for an eye" balance as the REASON, but they are NOT wrong in recognizing that conventional justice will not serve. Buffy does need to submit to authority, maybe the Watcher's Council, or maybe her own judgment, adult judgment, with this as a burden on her. It's exactly like Angel's burden. He can't erase his past, but must recognize consequences and atone for it with his future actions . Acting the martyr does not really represent acceptance of consequences, and the police are not at all able to 'judge' Buffy in any way. I'd even argue that part of the emotional challenge of growing up is recognizing that sometimes one must bear the burden of one's guilt and act as one's own judge, and move forward.

    1. The Weston comparison is a good one, as is Dr. Horrible, though he's even more sympathetic than Warren.

      Your final paragraph is an excellent argument against turning herself in. Thanks.

  4. Really good comment for an excellent episode!

    Just one parallel I'd like to add (which leads to me disagreeing on one little thing), namely what happens to Dawn in All the way. As you say, everything is about Buffy so then Dawn's situation is quite telling: there's a clear attraction and affection between her and her date/vampire. He is quite cute with her. They discussed about how she steals after he himself stole a purse and more importantly, after she discovered that he is a vampire she isn't that frightened and almost seems to agree with him turning her. She is saved only by Giles' arrival. (Then she does save herself by dusting him.)

    It's quite telling that Buffy never calls on Spike when he says she belongs to darkness with him; she is truly contemplating the idea as Dawn was. I don't think that Buffy has for a second forgotten that Spike is 'an evil on leash' (we did; not her).

    So far Buffy has learnt that she doesn't want to die, that she can't take the slayer away but that her jobs bore her and in this episode she learns that she might be depressed, but she is not Faith, and even less so a potential vampire. She still has her own moral codes and obligations to abide for.

    A good but difficult reminder that there is no escape on her long path to not being depressed.

    A side note: troubling that she blames on Spike what he 'does to her' when from what we have seen on the screen she has initiated things between them and they keep on having that conversation on how Spike is amazed by how Buffy can be wild. I'm not too sure I understand what the writers are trying to tell us here.

  5. I have never really been able to bring myself to like this episode that much despite a lot of the praise it garners by some Buffy critics. While there is a lot to appreciate it doesn't really come together on the whole for me.

    The part I like the most is definitely the Trio dark turn. The whole thing was an effective eye-opening experience for them as the darkness of their actions was laid bare particularly in the silent aftermath of Katrina's death. Was effective for the viewer as well since you kind of get caught up in the goofy antics. This was definitely needed by this point in the season as by Gone they were starting to get rather lame. Wish Warren had kept his scratch mark for the rest of the season though, would have made a cool villain scar.

    I think my big problem with this one is that it borrows from so much of the "Buffy feels responsible for murder"/Faith stuff but doesn't really do enough to not feel like a rip-off. This is the third time now where Buffy feels guilt for murder and either is not actually responsible and/or is told to not be too concerned for the guilt. What people may point to as parallels with the past with the "scales" and the beating someone up while beating yourself I kind of view as being a rip-off of previous things the show has done. Maybe it does enough different for you but given how minimal the plot is on this one anyway I could have used a bit more fresh material to avoid the similarities, or at the very least have someone bring up the past to at least acknowledge the parallels they're making.

    I also got to say I'm not a fan of the song they use in the crypt scene. It just feels really out of place with the rest of the show for whatever reason. I also feel like the the time distortion and dream sequence just feel like they're there to make things needlessly confusing and artsy, implying added depth when not a whole lot exists.

    While I can agree that it's one of the stronger episodes in this portion of the season (which admittedly isn't saying that much) as MikeJer said it still doesn't do enough for me to stand out as some masterwork and it sure as hell isn't going to touch my Top 10 anytime soon but to each their own.