[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Stephen DeKnight | Director: James A. Contner | Aired: 02/05/2002]
What we have here is an episode that takes the last four episodes, sheds them of all their bad material, but retains their admirable qualities. Then, it adds an intellectually and emotionally powerful wallop on top. This episode represents quite possibly Buffy‘s finest example of intensely complex psychological development. This thing is dense with content, superb writing, thought-provoking character actions, and emotion and is one of my favorite Buffy episodes in its entire run. Also, due to its near complete focus on character over its sparse plot, its the type of episode I watch TV for.
As I just mentioned, the plot of “Dead Things” is actually quite bare, and it works in the episode’s favor. I also, of course, love the continuity with “Doublemeat Palace” [6×12]’s ‘paralysis’ metaphor, which I’ll get into a bit later. The basic idea of the plot has the Trio being able to make any woman they want their sex slave, but their plan goes awry when Warren’s ex-girlfriend Katrina (from “I Was Made to Love You” [5×15] ) awakens from the spell early. The rest of the episode and plot are completely driven by complex characters and how they react to this situation. It’s where the characters intersect where things get particularly messed up for everyone.
“Dead Things” starts off with an intriguing conversation pouring out Buffy and Spike. What’s so intriguing about it is its casual nature, which is something that really never happened before — at least not out of her. Buffy’s starting to get really attached to Spike, and not just sexually. Spike postures, “Do you even like me?” Buffy responds genuinely, “sometimes.” Spike is continuing to show signs that, although currently content with what he’s getting, he still wants more than just physicality from her. Spike asks her if she trusts him. Although her response is “never,” we’re quickly shown to be unsure if that’s really the truth.
This comes into question when we observe Buffy rubbing her wrists then hiding them when talking with Tara. This is not only a symbolic connection with “After Life” [6×03] , but is also indicative of the fact that she likely let Spike actually use the handcuffs on her. It’s worth noting that it’s only now — after her most recent, particularly risquee, encounter — that she decides to investigate why Spike’s chip won’t work on her. She wants confirmation that she came back wrong so she she can continue to indulge in her behavior without feeling so guilty and dirty about it. I feel the need to quote her from “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] : “This isn’t real. I just want to feel.”
After missing out on valuable time with Dawn due to her recent frequent absences from home life, Buffy retreats to the familiar balcony of sadness to ponder her life. Intriguing to note is the connection between “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19] and “Dead Things:” Buffy’s need to forgive herself is a major theme of both episodes.
It’s here where Spike tries to pull Buffy even closer to him, and further away from her friends. Is this a nice thing for him to do? No! But Spike is a soulless being who, despite feelings to the contrary, is still out for himself in the end. He wants Buffy to be even closer to him and genuinely believes that she wants to let go of her old life completely. Spike later admits (in “Normal Again” [6×17] ) that he had it wrong here. While he thinks he’s pushing her to let go of all her inner turmoil, all he’s really doing is putting Buffy in more.
Spike works his hands up Buffy’s leg and starts feeling her. Buffy tells him “don’t,” to which Spike says “stop me.” This moment has raised quite a bit of debate amongst people. The way I look at it is that Spike is not being good at all here and is taking advantage of the situation Buffy is in. However, I think Spike genuinely feels that Buffy wants this. The fact of the matter is that Buffy is physically stronger than Spike and can stop him at any moment. If Buffy really didn’t want Spike’s advances on her, she’d definitely put up more of a fight than the faint nos and “don’t” she’s been putting out there. Buffy’s clearly getting some sort of satisfaction out of this relationship, whether or not it’s healthy for her.
So, I don’t feel Spike’s taking advantage of her sexually here, but I do think he’s taking advantage of her mentally. He reinforces this by telling her not to close her eyes — to enjoy what she’s doing so close to her friends. This entire situation is incredibly complex and holds no easy answers. Spike’s in the wrong here but his intentions are very much not to hurt Buffy, despite how he’s blind to the fact he is hurting her. At this point he feels Buffy desires his world and that she’ll be much happier if she just fully gives in, sans guilt, being with him.
The focus on Buffy’s face during this very intimate scene is telling. We get a varied range of mixed expressions from her: pleasure, worry, pain, sorrow, gratification, and resignation. Right before Spike goes in, Buffy’s face displays her sadness in continuing to give in — a sadness she finally lets out to Tara at the end of the episode. The word to describe this state is paralysis, which was the theme of “Doublemeat Palace” [6×12] and a wonderful setup to some of the issues tackled here.
Later on at night, we see Buffy walking up to Spike’s crypt where they end up feeling each other’s presence from opposite sides of a stone door. This is not only their most romantic moment to date (likely ever), but it’s also massively symbolic of the divide that exists between them. Buffy’s able to resist herself from actually entering the crypt, and almost thankfully gets distracted by several time-distorting demons. What I particularly like about these demons is that they’re merely a quick catalyst to move the characters’ development forward. The whole idea that they have the ability to displace time, or, as Anya puts it, create a “localized temperal disturbance,” works so well because it’s just so wonderfully symbolic of Buffy’s state of mind: fractured.
In the midst of the time wonkiness caused by the demons, Buffy takes an unintentional swipe at what appears to be Katrina (although it’s really Jonathan using a magic glamour). I feel the reason why Jonathan’s Katrina swap works is because we’re already hinted to the Trio’s plan from the start. I commend the writers for not playing cheap games with the audience here. The intent is to keep pushing Buffy into a corner and then see what she’ll do. This event is devastating to her. Instead of “waking up” from her rut, she pulls an internal “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] on us and wants to hide in her own shell, effectively abandoning her life and its associated troubles as it’s all become way too much for her. Buffy uses her apparent accidental killing of Katrina as a loosely legitimate excuse to turn herself into the police.
On the surface this appears to simply be another method of disappearing and being free of her life, which is what “Gone” [6×11] introduced us to. Here, though, Buffy isn’t simply looking to be free of her life, but also to wallow in her sadness and the feeling that she should be punished for her actions with Spike. The only place she could get away with doing that would be in prison, where she has no one — no friends — to help her (as they will later in the season). This development sets up her actions to come in “Normal Again” [6×17] . I’ll talk about this more in a moment.
First I have to think about Buffy’s disturbing dream sequence. I have a few ideas of what it all means, so I guess I’ll just go frame by frame and say what I think is going on. It begins with Spike in her bed saying “It’s alright, love. It’ll be our little secret.” This seems to simply be a reiteration of Spike’s attempt to get Buffy to stay in the dark with him, which prove his comments during their balcony sex are definitely causing her pain and conflict.
The next dream flash leads us to Buffy having sex with Spike in his crypt with her on top, in sexual ecstasy, and him in handcuffs. Buffy looks very animalistic here, which connects us with Spike’s comment at the beginning of the episode: “I’ve never been with such an animal.” Although Buffy proclaims that she’s not an animal, the dream here proves to herself (and us) that she’s certainly been acting like an animal at times — acting on impulse alone.
We then see Katrina, out in the woods, lying on the ground and also wearing handcuffs. Buffy asks her, “do you trust me?” The fact that both Spike and Katrina have handcuffs on them is very important, as it connects Buffy’s disgust with her animalistic impulses overriding her duty as the Slayer (and as a sister and a friend). Spike is supposed to be her enemy, but that’s all been turned upside down in her mind — instead of killing the handcuffed “criminal,” she’s secretly boning him. Katrina, on the other hand, should be able to trust Buffy, but is also in handcuffs.
Now we quickly see Spike on top of Buffy going at it, but then quickly flash to Buffy hitting Katrina, thereby firming the connection in Buffy’s mind between her selfish actions with Spike leading to the lapse of her duty to protect the innocent from harm. This all comes together to the root point when we see Buffy staking Spike, while nakedly on top of him, but instead of killing Spike she kills Katrina. I think Buffy’s guilt here is that she feels the sexual escapades with Spike have caused her to disregard her calling as the Slayer. Instead of protecting the innocent, she’s killing them. This is why she wakes up with the desire to turn herself into the police — she feels she deserves to be put away for her actions. This, along with the fact that turning herself in would be a way to seemingly escape the burdens of her life. I also think that part of this imagery is tied to her subconcious knowledge that she’s also treating Spike poorly. In essence, she’s all messed up inside over what’s right, what’s wrong, and what her moral code even is anymore.
The final image we see in the dream is of Katrina’s eyes opening, but it’s not Katrina anymore (as can be seen by the foggy eyes). This is clearly representative of the fact that the “Katrina” Buffy hit and is feeling guilt about was not really Katrina. Buffy’s slayer instincts are still working underneath all her confusion. This is why the moment Buffy hears that the victim’s name was Katrina, she instinctively knew the death wasn’t her fault. What a great dream sequence!
Buffy then wakes up determined to turn herself into the police, but stops by Dawn’s room to explain herself first. A bit earlier we see Buffy has genuine sadness when Dawn would rather be with a friend’s mom than herself, which seems to cause her to have a brief realization that their connection has really diminished. Although she hates the disconnect, she can’t seem to bring herself to proactively fix it either. This is the very definition of a rut. Thankfully, though, Dawn later proves that she still very much cares about Buffy.
Dawn shows us this by proving that she’s not completely oblivious to what’s going on around her when she hears that Buffy wants to indulge in another form of disappearance. While Dawn may be right when tells Buffy, “You didn’t want to come back. I know that. You were happier where you were. You want to go away again,” she’s dead wrong when she emotionally claims that Buffy can’t stand to be around her. Dawn’s being very short-sided here and clearly doesn’t have the emotional and intellectual maturity yet to grasp what is happening around her. Instead of proactively trying to help Buffy in her situation, we instead see Dawn take this “it’s all about me” attitude most of the time. This is something that I can hardly blame of a girl Dawn’s age, especially considering what she’s gone through, and I feel it makes for an interesting dynamic for Buffy to deal with when going through all this.
Buffy calls turning herself into the police the “right thing to do.” What’s really going on here is that, instead of investigating what happened further and really thinking about what she should do about the situation, she panics over it and instead chooses to selfishly, yet with genuine sorrowful emotion, capitalize on this opportunity to — as Dawn put it — “go away.” Furthermore, Buffy wants to turn herself in not just for the girl she thinks she killed, but for punishment of her recent actions with Spike. The problem with all this, though, is that Spike’s not fooled one bit and tries to stop her.
When Spike gets in the way, Buffy’s conflicted feelings start to really come out into the open. Buffy is disgusted with everything about herself right now. A bit of dialogue I found amusing and also enlightening is the simplicity of when Spike tells Buffy he loves her, once again. Buffy responds, incorrectly, with “no, you don’t.” Spike admits, “you think I haven’t tried not to?” Buffy then whacks him across the street and responds, “try harder.” It’s amazing just how much is conveyed in those few lines and that one hard punch.
Spike tries to then bring up the ‘tip the scales’ argument, but he clearly doesn’t comprehend the morality of the situation. Buffy responds with one area Spike’s moral compass can’t comprehend: “That’s all it is to you, isn’t it? Just another body! … You can’t understand why this is killing me, can you?” Her statement here is intriguing in more ways than one. First is that she’s truly right: he can’t understand her inner conflict because he’s without a soul and essentially couldn’t care less about anyone not related to his wants. Second is that Buffy’s subtly emoting the reality of this relationship: it’s deadening, or killing — a term used by Buffy in “As You Were” [6×15] right before she really breaks it off with him — her soul.
It’s interesting that when Buffy starts beating him, he fights back a bit. But the more Buffy digs inside herself and takes it out on Spike, the more Spike lowers his defenses and realizes Buffy needs an outlet for her emotions, so he allows it to be him: “Come on, that’s it, put it on me. Put it all on me. That’s my girl.” That last comment, though, about being his girl, shocks Buffy into a rage in which she pummels him brutally and repeatedly until his face is barely recognizable. While doing this she yells out all kinds of horrible insults to Spike that, in reality, she feels about herself. The key quote: “I am not your girl! 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!” The parallels to what Faith went through in “Who Are You?” [4×16] are striking, although still uniquely different.
Spike’s comment, “you always hurt the one you love,” resonates and shocks through Buffy like it resonates through the entire series. In this one comment we, in quick fashion, are reminded of her history with Angel. Remember that her very first intimate encounter lead to her lover becoming the murderer and torturer of her friends. During that time period Buffy felt like it was her fault for setting Angelus loose and that she felt she didn’t deserve forgiveness for it. The thematic ties with “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19] are really relevant, evident, and strong here. This entire scene is a critical moment in the season where Buffy really lets all her anger and disgust pour out — and all onto Spike’s face.
While Spike did everything he could to stop Buffy from walking right into possible prison, she goes anyway. Fortunately, Buffy connects the dots of the accident to Warren, and her anger, duty, and determination to find him thankfully supercede any current personal issues. The facts of the situation that are sitting in front of her are too overwhelming to ignore, as much as she’d love to just forget about her disastrous current life.
Although Dawn’s still distressed, Buffy is, for the moment, back with her friends again. At the Magic Box we see Buffy repeat Spike’s words, “you always hurt the one you love.” Many people took this as meaning Buffy was admitting that she loves Spike. I don’t see it that way. Going back to what I was talking about before, this comment speaks to Buffy’s history as much as it does the present. I genuinely don’t think Buffy loves Spike right now. I know she’s confused about what her own feelings are and actually isn’t even sure if she does or doesn’t, but future S6 episodes prove she really doesn’t love him at this point. With that said, there’s no denying that she has come to greatly care about him. This is something that had its first seedling planted back in “Intervention” [5×18] . This realization is why Buffy taking her anger out on Spike is as shocking to us as it is to her — it shocks her into understanding that she does need to treat him like a real person. Soul or not, she has a relationship with him and he loves her in the only way he can. The part of Spike that is still human deserves recognizition.
All these important realizations lead to the final scene of the episode, which is potent, powerful, sorrowful, and emotionally gripping. It’s also intellectually and ethically complex. Tara answers Buffy’s question from the beginning of the episode, but it’s the one answer she really didn’t want to hear: Buffy did not come back from the dead “wrong.” This means that everything she’s been trying to ignore, push off, or escape responsibility for are extremely real. All the questionable things she’s done aren’t by some altered being, they’re all from her and now she has absolutely no scapegoat to hide with. Buffy, herself, says it all: “There has to be [something wrong with me]! This just can’t be me, it isn’t me. Why do I feel like this? Why do I let Spike do those things to me? … He’s everything I hate. He’s everything that I’m supposed to be against. But the only time that I ever feel anything is when … Why can’t I stop? Why do I keep letting him in?”
How about a huge shout-out to Tara in this episode! Tara is lovely, supportive, and totally there for Buffy. The end of the episode really gives them a bond they never had before. I’m particularly impressed that Tara takes the challenging road by telling Buffy it’s alright if she really does love Spike, even pointing out “he’s done a lot of good. And he does love you.”
Buffy’s response is pure honesty here — she’s not hiding anything from Tara and she’s not holding anything back. Buffy admits that she’s using Spike for her own selfish impulses and desires, saying she’s “Using him? What’s okay about that?” Tara does her best here to console an emotionally shattered Buffy by saying “it’s not that simple.” At this point it just doesn’t help though. Buffy opens herself up to the hard painful truth and takes the burden in confessing, in sob, “It is! It’s wrong. I’m wrong. Tell me that I’m wrong, please… Please don’t forgive me, please…”
Buffy doesn’t want to be forgiven here because if she was, it would validate what she feels, and largely is, very morally gray behavior. In this powerful final moment, Buffy wants to accept her wrongness and take real responsibility for her actions. It’s a stunning first step to her recovery, but she’s in no way out of the woods yet. In fact, living with this knowledge and continuing to accept her actions day by day will be a struggle of its own. This will come to a boiling point in “Normal Again” [6×17] , where her epiphany will finally be reached.
So, now that I’ve discussed Buffy’s development, I’m going to wrap up the review by discussing the major development the Trio gets. The opening sillyness of the Trio is a nice constrast to where the episode is headed. I also appreciate seeing Jonathan’s growing frustration with the group. By the episode’s end, he’s going to quickly become very scared. The Trio’s plan here is to “make any woman we want our willing sex slave.” The tone in which this plan is portrayed is quite superficial, even jovial, almost as if we’re actually watching one of those cheesy old-style supervillain movies where everything is so black and white you can’t take it seriously.
What’s scary here is that it actually somewhat coaxes me (along with Andrew and Jonathan) into treating what’s happening on screen in a non-chalant manner. This casual setup is what makes the reality of the situation later hit much harder than it would have otherwise. The Trio’s attempts to be cheesy supervillains turn out not to produce fantasy for them, but near-rape and then murder, thrusting them and the audience into the world of reality at lightning-quick speed.
Before using their device, Warren ends up pathetically attempting to hook up with Katrina again. It’s interesting that he tries to get back together with her before using the cerebral dampener. It just goes to show that, while overall despicable, Warren does have a tiny shred of decency in him at this point. Somewhere buried very deep in there is an extremely misguided decent guy, one which will be completely lost the moment he kills Katrina.
Although dressing Katrina in the maid outfit is a tad over-the-top, it really works symbolically and reflects directly on Warren. Warren has just turned Katrina into the very thing he ran away from: the AprilBot from “I Was Made to Love You” [5×15] . This robs him of the very reason why he ditched the bot: Katrina’s life and personality. This is very, very sad to see. Warren’s insulting his own memory of her even further when he points out to the group what he likes about her. But right now she’s nothing more than an emotionless automaton. Hell, she’s even more emotionless than the AprilBot. Warren orders hypno-Katrina to validate him several times by having her say she was wrong and that she loves him. The parallels to the AprilBot keep flooding in, which really constitutes excellent development and continuity.
Andrew and Jonathan are completely blinded by the reality of the situation with Katrina. There’s a disturbing mix of emotions running through the two of them here: innocence, naivete, virginity, and the lack of a solid moral center. Jonathan’s always been an abused nice guy, but as has been proven by the events of “Earshot” [3×18] and “Superstar” [4×17] , he’s got some serious issues and doesn’t always know when he’s crossing a moral line. That genuine lack of realization can be used for great evil, which he almost blindly commits here.
Katrina’s anger of what’s been made out of her is palpable. Of particular interest is Jonathan and Andrew’s reaction to hearing that she was Warren’s ex-girlfriend. Andrew’s response to this sums it up perfectly: “Dude, that is messed up!” Katrina then perfectly sums up the Trio up until this point: “Oh, you think? You bunch of little boys, playing at being men. Well, this is not some fantasy, it’s not a game, you freaks! It’s rape!” This is the point when the reality of the situation finally comes crashing down on them, leaving them in remorseful shock.
Everything changes in an instant when Warren murders Katrina. All the sudden the Trio’s in entirely new territory as villains. They’re not cheesy annoying faux supervillains anymore. The reaction of everyone involved is important: Andrew’s in shock, Jonathan’s scared and enraged, and Warren quickly takes full dominance of the group by wrapping both of them in with his murder. When he turns his head quickly to Jonathan and yells “listen!,” Jonathan isn’t the only one creeped out. This is the first time Warren has ever been truly scary. The abrupt contrast to the goofiness of earlier episodes is what makes this moment work so well.
At the end of the episode they find out they’re going to get away with the murder. Andrew seems excited and borderline thrilled, but Jonathan doesn’t look so convinced. I think he’s just going along with Warren because he’s scared of what will happen to him if he doesn’t — Warren might go after him next.
Wow! “Dead Things” is an incredibly ambitious episode that ends on an admission of sorrowful guilt, but thankfully offers absolutely no reprieve, easy solutions, or light at the end of the tunnel. It’s true to the troubles of real life in a way few TV shows are capable of providing. The episode ends in an emotional mess that’s been spilled all over the floor and can only be cleaned up with a lot of gradual hard work and, most importantly, time (see “Something Blue” [4×09] for a lighter, but relevant, perspective on this). This is one of the most intellectually and emotionally gripping episodes of television I’ve ever witnessed due to its uncompromising ability to show the righteous hero largely in the wrong, the evil soulless demon largely in the right, and an utterly messy, complicated, and gripping conclusion that leaves aboslutely no hope in sight. We care about everything that’s happening, too, because we know and love the characters and the episode is completely built off of fabulous continuity. If I had to sum up this episode in a couple words, I’d proclaim “unbelievably superb!”
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ After setting up the cerebral dampener, Warren says “I know just where to start.” At first I thought he was referring to Buffy, but it turns out to be Katrina. Nice little misdirect there.
+ Nice to see the Doublemeat Palace make another appearance. Yes, I know I’m the only one who feels this way. :p
+ Tara assuming there’s something wrong with Willow again, not Buffy.
+ Andrew and Jonathan’s utterly pathetic attempt at holding Katrina back.
+ The warm glance between Tara and Xander when passing by in front of the Magic Box.
+ The Willow/Tara scene is important in that it shows both of them still very much love each other.
+ Is Willow wearing the same coat she’s wearing at the end of the season? When Tara says she’s glad Willow’s doing better, Willow’s reaction isn’t one of assurance.
+ Excellent use of music in the graveyard scene in which Buffy approaches Spike’s crypt.
+ The screaming girl provoking a prompt “thank you” from Buffy to the power(s) above.
+ David Lynch reference! I’ve been watching too much Twin Peaks lately. 🙂
+ Jonathan’s very clear dissatisfaction at his part in convincing Buffy she accidentally killed Katrina.
+ The little touch of how everyone carefully avoids the use of the word ‘heaven’ to describe where Buffy was during death, in fear of further hurting her.
* Buffy wanting to turn herself in to escape the shittiness of her life here drives her actions in “Normal Again” [6×17]. This just proves that her mental state does not improve after “Dead Things.” In fact, she’s left more confused than she’s ever been before over what’s right, what’s wrong, and where (if anywhere) she fits in either scheme.