BUFFY vs. DRACULA
Written by: Marti Noxon
Directed by: Marti Noxon
A Power Rooted in Darkness
In the season 4 finale, “Restless”,
the climax is a confrontation between Buffy and the primal slayer for whom Tara
Tara: “I have
no speech. No name. I live in the action of death, the
blood cry, the penetrating wound. I am destruction. Absolute ... alone.”
Buffy: “I am
Tara: “The Slayer does not walk in this world.”
And later the primal slayer says:
friends! Just the kill. We ... are
The change from first to third person
singular and then to first person plural seems very deliberate.
The first slayer is not only describing herself.
She is identifying Buffy with herself.
In effect she is saying to her successor that they are the same and that
what makes them the same is the obsession with the kill.
For them death and destruction is the very core of their being.
And it is this that makes the teaser for the first episode of season 5 so
intriguing. Buffy is alone in bed
with Riley. He is sleeping
peacefully but she isn’t. She is
not only wide awake but seems
tense, almost uncomfortable. So she
sneaks out of her bed in the middle of the night and hunts for and finds a
vampire and after a frenetic battle kills him.
Then visibly more relaxed and comfortable she return to bed, the source
of her frustration gone and snuggles up to Riley.
Throughout seasons 1 and 2 the constant
theme was Buffy’s longing to be normal and especially to have a normal
relationship. Here in this moment
we see that things are not after all quite so simple.
Buffy was just where she said she wanted to be but it wasn’t enough.
She wanted, she needed more. She
needed to kill. And in this we see
a reflection of what the first slayer was telling her.
She does live in the action of death, the blood cry.
And she does so alone. She
quite deliberately left Riley behind and went on the hunt on her own.
And for this theme the symbolism of the next scene is very interesting.
It starts with a bright, sunlit day and the Scoobies having a picnic
beside the sea. Nothing could be
more normal. Except even here
Buffy’s competitiveness, her need to prove her strength still shows itself as
she knocks Reilly over and as he says slays the football.
But this scene of normalcy is brought to an abrupt end by a darkening sky
and a thunderstorm, heralding the arrival of Dracula. For it is through Dracula and the way his arrival affects
Buffy that the writers try to bring
out the idea of the darkness within her.
Their first encounter proceeds in a low
enough key with the confrontation in the graveyard.
Buffy has just described her nightly patrols in the following terms:
It’s a total drag”
But she certainly seems to be enjoying
herself as she fights and kills an obviously powerful vampire.
And Dracula is impressed:
“Very impressive hunt. Such power. “
was no hunt. That was just another day on the job.”
But the following is the most interesting
Dracula: “Why else would I come here? For the sun? I came to meet the renowned ... killer. “
Buffy: “Yeah, I prefer the term slayer. You know, killer just sounds so... “
Buffy: “Like I ... paint clowns or something. I'm the good guy, remember?”
“Perhaps, but your power is rooted in darkness. You must feel it.”
The reference to the painting of clowns is I think intended to relate to John Wayne Gacy, a notorious serial killer and the difference in terminology is indeed a striking one. “Slayer” has all the connotations of an office hallowed by age and by the justice of the cause – a noble warrior acting in defense of the innocent. That is the essence of the job; killing vampires is merely a necessary part of it. “Killer” is by comparison indeed a naked term. Here killing is the job and it defines the holder.
Count Famous Arrives
The interesting thing is that, having
chosen to introduce the theme in a very obvious way the writers then choose to
examine it in a more indirect manner. And
the major clue comes when Willow explains Dracula’s purpose:
modus operandi is different from other vampires. He will kill just to feed, but
he'd rather have a connection with his victims. And he has all of these mental
powers to draw them in.”
Or, as Giles later observes:
“Um ... Just
be aware that he, he tends to form a relationship with his prey. It's not enough
for him to take her. She must want to be taken. She must ... burn for him.”
It was obvious from the start that for
Buffy Dracula wasn’t just another vampire.
She was clearly flattered by the fact that he had come to Sunnydale to
Buffy: “I told you he'd heard of me, right? I mean, can you believe that? Count Famous heard of me.”
couldn't believe it the first twenty times you told us, but it's starting to
sink in now.”
And certainly using Dracula’s fame as a
way of explaining Buffy’s interest in him works very well.
Less successful was the suggesting that Dracula’s physical qualities
helped attract Buffy, especially the attempted comparison between her attraction
to Angel. It isn’t just the fact
that Buffy is no longer the impressionable schoolgirl that first fell in love
with a mysterious vampire and now has the scars (literal and metaphorical) to
prove it. It is the fact that with
all due respect to the actor concerned was sadly lacking in the charisma stakes.
Even physically he seemed ill-suited being too thin and with too
skull-lie a face. Creepy he was;
commanding, no. It strikes me as an
admission of failure when characters B and C have to keep on saying how
charismatic and sexy character A is rather than just leaving the actor playing
character A to show it. So there was absolutely no conviction at all in the way
we were invited to believe that Buffy might be taken in by him.
But that was hardly the worst of the episode’s problems.
The idea of a Buffy as a killer was always
there in the background. After all
that was what she did. But the
killing was always kept within strict boundaries.
Buffy did not want to be a slayer and was often forced reluctantly to do
so. It was for her a duty.
The rule against never killing something with a soul and the rigid way
Buffy stuck to it mean that her violence was always controlled and used for a
“good” purpose. We were therefore encouraged to approve of it and to believe
that it was only employed because there was no other way. Certainly we never had occasion to question its basic
morality. But the ideas we see here
open up an interesting question.
Can violence really be controlled? Is
it not inherently “dark” and corrupting because it gives us a sense of power
and satisfaction? If you can
through violence control the fates of many and if the very act of killing
produces a rush within you, do you not develop a psychological need for those
sensations. Does the purpose of the
killing mark a real objective difference or is the justification for violence
becoming essentially subjective and therefore capable of change?
But this is a theme that calls for some
subtlety. If someone as decent and
as strong minded as Buffy can be led into darkness by the power within it will
not be through presenting her with clear choices between good and bad.
It will be through showing how her perceptions of the world are
affected by her killer instincts, allowing her to be led astray by her
desire to do the right thing. And
this is the one thing we did not get in “Buffy vs Dracula”.
The idea that there was a darkness within was very well introduced.
With a slight shift in emphasis we were able to look at the things Buffy
had been doing all along through new eyes and seeing the darkness within.
And that depiction of Buffy as a natural born killer did carry the ring
of truth about it. She does take to
violence very easily, she is very
good at what she does and she does have the air of someone who is not only
confident in herself but actually enjoys it.
So, for example when she first meets Dracula we have the following
Buffy: “Care to step up for some overtime?”
Dracula: “We're not going to fight. “
you *know* what a slayer is?”
But, as we have already seen Buffy’s
inner darkness is explored through the way she reacts to Dracula. And the essential message is that he had power over her
because part of her wants to be like him – a soulless killer. But this is basic, even crude stuff. We know nothing about Buffy that would lead us to suspect she
might give into such temptation. The
mere possession of the instinct to kill is not enough to explain how someone
could turn their back on all they believe, especially since the writers have
spent four years showing us how strong that belief is. If the purpose was to
look at Buffy herself, then Dracula’s arrival should simply have acted as a
catalyst for changes in her own psyche to show how the existing balance between
the darkness and the opposing forces that kept it in check might become
unbalanced. And through that
process we understand more about Buffy and the darkness within her.
But we look in vain for this. Indeed
the writers themselves show no understanding in this episode of how that
instinct could turn someone like Buffy towards the dark.
The mere fact that they had to invoke mind control as a way of making her
reaction to Dracula even half-way plausible show they recognize the inherent
absurdity of suggesting that the killer instinct within Buffy would be enough to
make her want to abandon any sense of right and wrong.
From the scene where Dracula entered her bedroom in the form of the mist
to the scene where she finally broke his “mind-control” I was actually
convinced she was faking it and was simply waiting impatiently for her to say
“fooled you”. That is how
interesting and plausible I thought the writers treatment of this theme was.
And as a result from Dracula’s entrance to the end
we learn nothing new about Buffy.
The climactic moment of this whole episode should have been in the following exchange:
Buffy: “Looks like. “
Dracula: “Come here. Come to me. “
Dracula: “What is this? “
true nature. You want a taste?”
Here we should have seen the resolution of a war within Buffy between that part of her that simply wanted to kill and that part of her that was genuinely moral. But this moment is so anti-climactic because there is nothing in this episode to indicate how and why Buffy felt herself torn. She wasn’t quite herself for reasons we don’t understand and are never explained and now she is herself again for reasons which are equally obscure.
The Slayer is Alone
A I have already noted, apart from being
an engine of destruction, there was
one other thing that the first slayer was very insistent upon – that she was
alone. And the focus for this theme
is, I think, intended to be Giles’ imminent departure.
His rationale for going back to England is remarkably similar to the
first slayer’s view:
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.”
But in a scene near the end, Buffy does
come to him for help:
“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. I need you to be my Watcher again.”
And to some extent we also see in this
episode how the Scoobies do play an important role in Buffy’s life. It’s not only Willow being “research girl”.
More especially Riley and the others find out what is wrong with her and
rally round to help by taking some of the load off her hands and trying to
protect her from Dracula. And eventually, just as Buffy turns her back on the darkness
so too she embraces her friends and thus completes the repudiation of the first
The problem here is that, in the end, the Scoobies do seem peripheral characters. Willow’s role is more exposition than anything else. Xander is a positive liability. Despite Riley’s efforts Buffy is still served up to Dracula on a plate and it is only because of her own “recovery” from thrall that she saves the day. Even the plea made to Giles at the end rings hollow because while the need to know more about the source of the slayer’s powers is supposed to be the reason for keeping him in Sunnydale this is the last we hear of it. Indeed this episode seems to represent the closing of a door on the whole idea. The theme explored in “Buffy vs Dracula” represents something of a new departure for BUFFY as a series. The mythology has always played a secondary part – it was a means to an end. The end itself was to explore the growing pains of the teenage girl as she grew into adulthood. The mythology was intended to create the framework in which the writers could develop metaphors for those growing pains. But the powers of a slayer, the source of those powers and what that means for Buffy they do not fit easily into this concept. Instead the mythology of the series becomes the focal point of the exploration. And perhaps that is why, although it is a gem of an idea, it never really worked out on BUFFY . Perhaps it did represent too much of a departure from its basic mission statement. Moreover, perhaps, as conceived, it came just too close to the basic concept for ANGEL as a series. I don’t know. But the way that the idea was brought out right at the beginning of the fifth season and then unceremoniously dropped did suggest someone decided it wasn’t going to work.
The real problem here is that the writers
essentially fell between two stools. The
storyline of “Buffy vs Dracula”
is a pastiche of the Bram Stoker novel “Dracula”: the sudden storm heralding
the arrival of the count on a foreign shore;
the castle on the hill; the vampire who sleeps in a coffin; Xander as the
insect-eating Renfield and Buffy in thrall to Dracula. All are familiar elements
of the traditional story. So too is
the vampire who can turn himself into a bat or a wolf or a cloud of mist and who
will not stay dead. But this is
where we come to the first problem. There
are significant differences between the vampire mythology of the Buffyverse and
that of Dracula. None of
Dracula’s powers have ever been associated with the vampires we are used too.
Indeed in WTTHM BUFFY made a joke out of the idea that vampires could fly
and in the ANGEL episode “Parting Gifts”
Angel even tried to debunk the myth that vampires slept in coffins.
Dracula’s intrusion into BUFFY does therefore jar more than a little.
Worse still is the attempt to explain away the special powers:
Riley: “But he's not just a regular vampire. I mean, he has special powers, right?”
“Nothing but showy gypsy stuff. What's it to you, anyway?”
A vampire with those powers would indeed
be a far more deadly threat than any Buffy had ever faced and certainly the
reference to “showy gypsy tricks” explains nothing.
But here we see the misjudgement at the heart of this episode.
Time and time again we see the writers send up the Dracula myth.
Sometimes they do this very well. I
loved the Xander riff on the Sesame Street Count:
three -- three victims. Mwa ha ha!”
And indeed NB’s Renfield impersonation was terrifically entertaining. So too was Giles and the vampire vixens he tried so hard to escape from. But you cannot simultaneously make a joke out of the Count and all his doings and expect us to believe in him as a charismatic killer who can subvert Buffy’s will. Indeed the character carries no threat at all. Let’s just take the last scene. The implications of a vampire who cannot be killed are enormous. But here it is treated like a joke. Buffy stakes him once. He reforms and she stakes him again saying:
And then when he begins to reforms she
And this apparently is enough. You cannot take an episode that treats its Big Bad in this
The other problem with the attempt to write a pastiche of the Dracula story is that the plot becomes painfully predictable. The attempt by Dracula to seduce and subvert Buffy was a nice way of using the Bram Stoker story but it could only have had one ending. As I have already suggested my only surprise was that Buffy hadn’t apparently been faking it all along. But that didn’t really matter. When you know for a fact what is coming there is no tension. In fact where the only point of interest is precisely when Buffy was going to set the Count on his ear the longer the denouement is delayed the more the audience becomes impatient for it.
6.5/10 (C): This was not an auspicious start to season 5. As an episode it had two strengths. First of all at its heart was a really good idea, something that should have made both Buffy and us think about what it means to be s slayer. But the really disappointing thing was that the writers had nothing very insightful or intelligent to say about it. One is therefore left to ask what was the point of the episode, especially since the idea was essentially dropped afterwards. Its second strength was that the episode did work as a pastiche of “Dracula”. Anyone who knew the book or the films of the book could play “spot the reference” and there were in particular some fun scenes involving Xander, Giles and Willow/Tara. The bad news was that this fatally undermined any pretension the writers had to explore some dark issues and the plot was so painfully predictable that I couldn’t wait for the episode to end.