[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Marti Noxon | Director: David Solomon | Aired: 09/26/2000]
And so S5 begins! This is an often disliked episode and after looking at it closely I still cannot figure out why. It’s got its problems, just like all the season openers, but it’s certainly not without meaning and merit. There’s a ton of incredibly juicy material at work here which works side-by-side a lot of sharp humor. I like this episode, a lot. The reason behind that position has a lot more to do with how the episode works as a wonderful setup to the season, and even the series as a whole, than it does with the plot at work: Dracula. While I didn’t dislike Dracula’s appearance, I do feel it’s both unnecessary and a bit overplayed. However, what’s more important to me is that we see the major issues of the season for each character subtly and intelligently touched upon right here.
The episode starts with a completely awesome teaser that actually says a lot in of itself. Before I get into that I’d like to briefly mention how utterly cool Buffy’s fight with the vampire is here. I love the way this was shot: she’s running in the graveyard, leaps off a tombstone, and pulls some wicked moves on the vamp that smoothly transitions into a flip and a staking. I’ve always loved how Buffy’s fighting style has changed and improved as the seasons went by. In conjunction with this is a new music score for the fighting, which is a very refreshing change after S4. This, more or less, changes each season as well to my pleasure.
Anyway, Buffy can’t sleep because she has an urge to be out killing vampires. This is something that’s always been in her, and was talked about in some detail when Faith was around in S3 (see “Consequences” [3×15] ), but her encounter with the First Slayer in “Restless” [4×22] seems to have brought out this aspect of her even more. Now she seems to have a hunger for it. The appearance of Dracula really goes to solidify the focus of the narrative. He knows about the root of the Slayer’s power, that it is similar to that which vampires possess. We find out the exact nature of the Slayer’s power in “Get it Done” [7×15] .
As the episode moves on, the connection between Dracula and Angel is made several times. The most prominent, though, is in the creepy scene where Dracula wafts into Buffy’s bedroom and has the freedom to do whatever he wants to her. He’s right there and she can’t repel him because his mind control powers are tapping into her primal fascination of him. This is when Dracula sees the scar left by Angel when he bit her to save himself in “Graduation Day Pt. 2” [3×22] and gets ever more hungered for her. Although I must say, with what Buffy is wearing in her bed, I’d be hard-pressed to find any guy that didn’t get hungered over her, undead or not!
Dracula tells her that Angel was “Unworthy. He let you go. But the embrace … his bite … you remember.” She tells him very unconvingly, “no,” and he replies, “Do not fight. I can feel your hunger.” Now, obviously he’s pulling some mojo on her, but I have no doubt that Dracula isn’t lying when he claims she has a kind of hunger for what they’re doing. To me, though, that’s one of the many reasons I find Buffy so utterly fascinating. She’s a very good person but she’s got unnatural darkness built into her that she’s always fighting. It’s to Buffy’s credit that that darkness almost never prominently seeps out to the surface. Dracula’s not the only one with insight into the Slayer’s mind, Spike is too, maybe even more so, which is something we get to deliciously discover in “Fool for Love” [5×07] .
Towards the end of the episode, when Buffy is at Dracula’s castle, we really get some forward progress for Buffy. First of all, I’d like to briefly mention something I found interesting. Buffy tells Dracula, “what happened last night. It wont happen again.” Dracula replies, “stop me. Stake me.” I feel the need to make a connection between Dracula and Buffy’s sexual relationship with Spike during S6. In “Dead Things” [6×13] we even hear Buffy say “don’t” to Spike making a sexual move on her, and he says “stop me.” The dialogue is not only remarkably similar, but some of the underlying themes being touched on line up as well. Through the darker part of her nature, Dracula is able to do things to Buffy she’d normally never let herself do. But there’s something within her that Dracula could tap into and metaphorically feed off of. In S6, Buffy finds herself so depressed and out-of-touch with the world that she allows herself to indulge in this side of herself. I think in both situations she ends up going to a similar place, but the big difference is that Dracula uses mind control to bring it out of her here, while in S6 it’s her own depression that gets her to the same place.
This experience with Dracula has really opened her eyes up to what she’s been experiencing but ignoring over the summer: the ‘hunting.’ It gives a clear indication that she acknowledges there’s a lot about her Slayer heritage that she has no clue about, and that it is important she starts learning. It’s really the end scene between Buffy and Giles, though, that beautifully sets up the rest of the season. It makes complete sense that this realisation she has come to would motivate her to ask Giles for help in exploration of her Slayer heritage and in beginning training again. Buffy’s not only touching here but it also makes sense for the character. I love that afterwards Giles decides to stay in Sunnydale without any words at all, because Buffy gave him exactly what he wanted: being needed.
Now, very greedily grabbing this opportunity for paragraph fluency, I’m going to move onto Giles, who immediately gets his issues that were built-up over the entire fourth season directly addressed. In S4 Giles was very lost and couldn’t decide what he wanted to do with his life now that Buffy seemed to be coming into her own and didn’t rely as heavily on him anymore. Giles very much wants to be needed, and until Buffy offers that to him at the end of the episode, he figures it’s best that he goes back to England and try to make a life for himself. I love how Giles explains to Willow that “it’s become quite obvious that Buffy doesn’t need me. I-I don’t say that in a self-pitying way, I’m, I’m quite proud, actually.” When Buffy does express that need, he looks positively happy in a way that reminds me of his response to her return back in “Dead Man’s Party” [3×02] . This is a man who will always be there for Buffy when she needs him, unlike her real father. This is a notion that was really touched on in “Restless” [4×22] and intelligently followed up on here.
All of the issues surrounding Buffy this season affect Riley tremendously as well. Right from the beginning we can see Riley getting a bit jealous of Dracula, once again showing how insecure he is in his relationship with Buffy. While amusing, his bit about the “dark penetrating eyes” turns out to be revealing of these insecurities. Riley even voices that he’s not surprised there would be some transference of primal feelings Buffy had from Angel to Dracula. In “New Moon Rising” [4×19] Buffy discloses a lot about her romance with Angel. I say good for her that she was open about it. It’s obvious that Riley didn’t like what he heard and is having trouble getting over it.
Another character thread that gets briefly touched on is how lost and out of place Riley is. When trying to get information about Dracula from Spike, Spike says “You can take the boy out of the Initiative, but you can’t take the Initiative out of the boy.” Purpose. This is something that Riley needs and doesn’t have. Like Giles, he also wants to feel needed by Buffy as well, but in a very different way. Spike also says, “Tough talk cowboy,” which seems to be in direct reference to Riley’s costume in Willow’s dream during “Restless” [4×22] . This chat between Riley and Spike not only illuminates Riley’s problems, but it also highlights Spike’s growing frustrations. Riley tells Spike that he doesn’t have a problem with killing him. Spike tries to defend himself but quickly realizes he’s helpless and everyone knows it. This frustrates him beyond belief here, because he has to back down from Riley of all people. This issue continues to grow and finally amounts to something for Spike in “Out of My Mind” [5×04] .
Xander doesn’t get left out of the mix of development either. Last season we saw him in a pretty pathetic state, stuck in his drunken parents’ basement getting crap job after crap job. So when he gets used and abused here by Dracula and then steps up and says, “######! You know what? I’m sick of this crap. I’m sick of being the guy who eats insects and gets the funny syphilis. As of this moment, it’s over. I’m finished being everybody’s butt-monkey!,” I’m standing up there with him. Good for you Xander! This is forward progress that is not forgotten but immediately seized upon and taken much further in “The Replacement” [5×03] .
Since I’ve touched on the many, many wonderful aspects of this episode that seem to be conveniently overlooked by its critics, I will now address the plot and where it does, admittedly, falter in places. While I found much of Dracula’s dialogue interesting, it is unfortunately also very slow and quite a bit overdone at times. Most of his scenes just drag on too long. By the time Buffy unclearly snaps out of Dracula’s ‘thrall’ and starts kicking his ###, I found myself somewhat relieved. Additionally, the Scooby meetings on Dracula wore thin quickly. When the second meeting began I was ready for the plot to get moving. Even though Dracula was creepy in the bedroom scene, I didn’t really find him scary or a real threat at all.
It feels a little bit convenient that both Anya and Spike know Dracula (thankfully their comments didn’t lead to his defeat), although I did find Spike amusing when going off about how Dracula got popular which in result caused the public to gain knowledge of how to kill vampires. Another thing that bugged me a bit was that the ending is a bit too ‘TV’ for my taste. Riley and Giles meet up with Buffy right after she’s won, they all have a funny chat, and then walk out happy. Way too scripted. All these flaws bring the episode down a level, but otherwise I feel this is still really good stuff.
Overall, I felt the plot serviced the characters rather than the other way around. Plus, this episode is really funny, in the good way. These are ultimately the reasons why I really like this episode and consider it a pretty solid season opener, flaws included. Before I conclude here, let me just say how awesome I think Dawn’s introduction at the very end of this episode is. The first time I saw it I was completely shocked and even thought I’d missed an episode. It made me want to rewatch this one again. Joyce’s comment about how it will be lonely again without Buffy around the house proved that Whedon had something interesting in store. Thankfully, he did.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Scene at the beach. How often do we get to see the gang out like this? This is fun and wonderful to watch with everyone happy.
+ Seeing Buffy and Joyce eating dinner together. Really good to see.
+ Willow spazzing out to Xander about Giles’ secret. Reminds me of her doing the same thing with Buffy in “Revelations” [3×07] .
+ Xander hiding behind Buffy when he finds out Dracula’s actually there.
+ Tara getting a little worried that Willow thought Dracula was sexy.
+ Willow over-trying to make Giles feel useful in their Dracula meetings.
+ Anya talks a lot and then Xander stuffs her in the closet.
+ Buffy thinking she can resist the mind control stuff if she tries hard enough. This doesn’t work at first and she begins to panic a bit.
+ Buffy staking Dracula again and then telling him “I’m standing right here!”
– When Buffy sucks on Dracula’s blood, it’s unclear why she snaps out of his thrall.
* Giles expressing his wish to get his life back in England. This resurfaces in S6 when he actually does move back to England permanently.
* Buffy overpowers Riley again (the football). This is something that obviously affects Riley as we find out more and more throughout the season. Additionally, Riley can tell that Buffy is intrigued by Dracula. Buffy’s attraction to vampires is something that Riley has never understood and will try to in the first half of this season.
* Willow’s use of magic for small stuff (lighting the barbeque) hints at much carnage to come. Her line “I think I just figured out why we’re the sidekicks” is told in jest, but in reality I think has a much deeper meaning. In “Two to Go” [6×21] we hear Willow say, “Come on! This is a huge deal for me! Six years as a side man. Now I get to be the Slayer.”
* Xander’s uselessness and abuse. This is addressed very early this season with “The Replacement” [5×03].