5.2 Real Me
5.3 The Replacement
Follow along in Bite Me!, pp. 246-251.
If you’re watching Angel, this week begins the excellent season 2:
2.2 Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?
2.3 First Impressions
Follow along in Once Bitten, pp. 151-158.
So… um… what’s up with Buffy having a sister?! Did I MISS something?
I’ve actually really been looking forward to this week, just to relive the WTF?! reactions we all had when this episode originally aired (and no, to answer a question that I’m asked all the time when people are watching for the first time, there wasn’t a mistake, the DVD didn’t leave an episode off, and you haven’t missed anything… just keep watching).
I’m a big season 5 fan. So where I went into season 4 defending the amazing standalones but letting you know it was my least favourite, I have no such qualms with this season. It includes two of Joss Whedon’s best episodes, and the one that I consider his masterpiece – yes, even putting it above the musical. The rewatchers know the one I mean, and I can’t wait for the new viewers to get to it.
But for now, we have the first three episodes, which are more comic than dramatic (don’t worry, the tone of the season will change muchly). I’m a very big fan of “Buffy vs. Dracula,” even though I know it’s a very disliked episode among fans. Many people I know love it, so it’s not a “Beer Bad” by any means, but considering how few of the season premieres I like, this might be my favourite of all of them. How can one NOT love an episode with bug-eating Xander?:
“Like that’s enough to stop the Dark Master . . . bator.”
“I think you’re drawing a lot of crazy conclusions about the Unholy Prince . . . bator.”
“Real Me” introduces that annoying little sister, Dawn. Oh, Dawnie. Some Buffy fans have a certain fondness for her, even if half the time we want to throw her off a cliff or lock her in a closet or throw her into a vampire lair and let them take care of her. (No? Just me?) She’ll grate on you, for sure, and you’ll find yourself yelling, “Shut UP Dawn!!” so many times you’ll lose count, but... okay, I know I was working towards saying something positive here, but my hatred of Dawn took over. Oh, right... seeing her on the rewatch actually didn’t trigger my gag reflex, but instead my affection for her. Maybe I'm being soft. After all, the rewatch made me rethink my assessment of Joyce (and for a minute I thought I was starting to like Riley and then "Where the Wild Things Are" happened and, well, there was that old gag reflex again).
“The Replacement” isn’t the best episode, but it’s still really fun, and so many people have emailed me over the years to ask how they did the special effects on that episode, but there was no CGI… that’s Nicholas Brendon’s twin brother Kelly! It certainly helps to have a cast member with an identical twin who is ALSO an actor, and it’s fun that they incorporated it in some way. And OMG the Snoopy Dance!!!!!!! I can’t describe the decibel level of the squeeee I emitted the first time I saw that. ;)
But enough from me, now on to our two guests this week! First up, to give us an excellent context for “Buffy vs. Dracula” within its literary and filmic precedents is Stacey Abbott! I’ve been working with Stacey on her upcoming anthology, TV Goes to Hell: The Unofficial Road Map to Supernatural and she’s been an absolute pleasure, so I’m so glad to have her with us here (again) on the rewatch! Take it away, Stacey!
While Buffy is a series that is immersed in popular culture, its references to other vampire texts come few and far between. There is an occasional reference to Anne Rice – “I’ve fought more than a couple of pimply overweight vamps who called themselves Lestat”— and in “Parting Gifts” (Angel 1.10) Angel claims that Frank Langella’s was the only performance of a vampire he ever really believed, referring to the 1979 John Badham adaptation of Dracula (which says so much about Angel). Beyond that there is little acknowledgement of centuries’ worth of vampire literature, films and television, that is until “Buffy vs Dracula” and then the references come fast and furious. The first time I saw this episode I was disappointed. I found Rudolph Martin’s performance as the Count to be somewhat underwhelming to say the least. Dracula is now such an iconic figure that you need actors of great presence to play this role – Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Gary Oldman (Ok Angel – even Frank Langella) – these are the actors you remember (who really remembers that Gerard Butler got his start as Dracula in Dracula 2000 or Gary Purcell pre-dated Prison Break with a performance of Dracula in Blade Trinity?). Martin’s performance seemed hollow, and overly indebted to all the Dracula’s who had come before him. But upon repeat viewing, I came to realise that this was the point.
Dracula, born at the end of the 19th Century in Bram Stoker’s novel and then reincarnated into film and television more times than almost any other literary figure (second only to Sherlock Holmes) is such an iconic figure of the 20th Century that he has become the sum of his parts: long dark hair, pale skin, long cape and, as Buffy says, “dark penetrating eyes and lilty accent.” Upon meeting him, Xander immediately recognises him for Dracula (or at the very least a Dracula-wannabe) because of his cape (“look whose caught a case of Dark Prince envy”) and accent (“no we we’re not going to leabe you and where did you get that accent? Sesame Street? One two three victims. AhAhAh!”). His performance is there to remind us of the legacy of Stoker’s novel and its impact upon our understanding of vampire mythology. That is why he is allowed to break the show’s own vampire rules by having Dracula be able to transform into bats, mist, and wolves – dismissed by Spike as “nothing but gypsy stuff”—not to mention affecting the weather (yes it is Dracula’s arrival that makes it rain at the beginning and not Willow) and making a castle appear in town. In many ways this episode is one of the best adaptations of Stoker’s novel, interpreted through the lens of a century’s worth of adaptations. Martin’s Dracula is composite of Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman, and the Count from Sesame Street. The episode contains numerous moments right out of Stoker’s novel and yet they also contain within them echoes of later vampire texts. For instance, Dracula is delivered to his castle in Sunnydale in a dirt-filled box by two un-witting truck drivers just like Dracula is similarly delivered to Carfax Abbey in the book. But the modern-day truck drivers are reminiscent of the drivers who deliver the vampire Mr. Barlow to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot in the TV adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1979). This allusion is reinforced when Dracula literally busts out of the box to kill them, calling to mind the frightening image of Barlow’s shattered crate which confirms his arrival in the small town.
Xander’s wonderfully comic performance as Dracula’s bug-eating sidekick is an outstanding allusion to Dwight Frye’s classic performance of Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula, with a touch of Arte Johnson from Love at First Bite (1979) thrown in for good measure. While Dracula’s brides have appeared in countless films about Dracula (including Browning’s Dracula 1931, Hammer Studios’ Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula 2000, and Van Helsing 2004), the seduction of Giles by the brides is a conscious allusion, through its music and visual style, to Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula in which Keannu Reeves is seduced by the brides. Finally, Dracula’s invasion of Buffy’s home is both a reference to the novel and more recent vampire films. In the novel Dracula gains access to the heroine Mina by using the mad Renfield to let him into the asylum where she is staying so that he can hypnotise and seduce her, placing her under his control like Buffy. In Dracula, the attack on Mina is a means for Dracula to assert his power over the other men by showing that their women are vulnerable. But the fact that it is Buffy’s Mom who puts her in peril in “Buffy vs Dracula”, contains within it echoes of the pre-Buffy teen film Fright Night (1985), in which hero Charlie Brewster’s equally single Mom invites a tall dark stranger into the house, putting Charlie in danger of the vampire. In these teen dramas, lonely mothers are targets for manipulative men.
So what is the significance of these allusions? Is it just a chance to dust off their vampire trivia and infuse the text with all that has been withheld before? Partly? But also it is about the confrontation between these two icons of popular vampire fiction one born at the end of the 19th Century but which informed the 20th Century conception of the vampire, and one born at the end of the 20th Century but which so far has proven itself to be one of the defining texts for the 21st Century vampire genre. Buffy is fast becoming as influential to the genre as Dracula (and while it is still comparatively young the fact that we are still talking about it supports this argument). In this episode Buffy faces the genre’s past in order to prepare for its future. She knows what has come before, she’s seen Dracula’s movies and so she knows how to defeat him. What she doesn’t fully know yet, as pointed out by Dracula, is the true nature of her own power. It takes one icon to put another icon on her path to self-discovery. This path will take Buffy on her darkest journey so far and one of my favourite seasons – “you think you know who you are? What is to come? You’ve only just begun.” Enjoy.
Thank you, Stacey! And for the next episode, it’s always my pleasure to introduce the wonderful Cynthea Masson. (Spoilers have been whited out: if you see a space and you're a rewatcher, highlight it with your mouse and you'll see the hidden words beneath.)
Maybe “Beer Bad” (4.5) caused me to have a chemical reaction or something because I’ve never dissed Buffy in the past as much as I have of late. Perhaps the fact that I am now on my umpteenth (really it could even be the 20th-something) time through the series accounts for my grumpiness about parts of it. Just this morning I silently cursed a Season Six shot of Buffy’s house, which featured the street number 1313 on both the house and the sidewalk even though the Summers live at number 1630. (I assume 1313 is the number of the actual house of which Nikki Stafford spoke so fondly in her post of May 20, 2011.) Still I will state for the record before the most recent rant on which I’m about to embark that Buffy remains my favourite television show of all time (with Angel a close second, if not a tie for first). And Season Five is one of the two I claim as my favourite seasons of the series (the other being Season Six). That said, let me clarify that I have never, ever, ever liked Dawn. Never. Not even in the comics.
Rewatching “Real Me” (5.2) helped me to recognize that my dislike of Dawn may well originate with the manner in which Dawn is introduced to us; she is simply too annoying from day one—cloyingly annoying in a way that I think she need not have been (or even should not have been) if the show’s intention was for Dawn to garner sympathy from the viewer as an essential component of Season Five’s emotionally driven plot arc. Of all the things that happen to Dawn in Season Five that could elicit sympathy (none of which I’ll mention here for fear of spoilers), not one of them made me feel sorry for her—no, not even that one. Through the entirety of “Real Me” (and, indeed, through the entirety of Season Five), I just wished she’d go away. (Michelle Trachtenberg certainly had her work cut out for her having to play such an exasperating character each week—a remarkable feat worthy of slayer status!) If only Dawn had been introduced in a different manner, if only she had done something to help me like her in “Real Me” or to understand why any of the Scoobies like her, I would have readily asserted that the idea of Dawn—the story of a mystically fabricated sister whom Buffy comes to love absolutely—was one of the best plot devices of the series.
So, what went wrong in “Real Me”?
Dawn interrupts. I suppose that’s the point of her. But she interrupts just as Buffy is in the midst of honing her slayer-strength meditation skills and just as Giles is imparting his astute Watcher wisdom. And if they’d just been allowed to continue rather than being disrupted by Dawn acting like a four-year-old brat who doesn’t know the difference between a set of mystical crystals and the game of Jenga (even though she has apparently spent fourteen years living with the Slayer), Buffy might have paid attention to Giles’ sage (indeed, prophetic) advice: “There is nothing but you. You are the center.” Do you hear that, Buffy? That annoying sister of yours is not supposed to be here! “And within you is the core of your being of what you are. Find it.” Buffy, find your gift! (“Death is your gift.”) Okay, so it might not be the sort of gift the average person discovers at the core of one’s being, but you are the Slayer after all. “Let the world fall away. Fall away. Fall away....” Spoiler much? Well, first-time viewers will just have to wait for the season finale to read more into Giles’ words of wisdom.
Even Dawn’s opening disruption could have been forgiven—chalk it up to regrettable clumsiness of the non-slaying Summer’s girl—but she is unredeemable through the entire episode. A sister of the Slayer, a resident of Sunnydale, a teenager with vampire acquaintances (not to mention the former Vengeance demon and practising witches with whom she hangs out) would not, could not have been sheltered from the pantheon of demons and other supernatural paraphernalia that are part and parcel of life in Sunnydale. Dawn may be new to us, but she is supposed to be Buffy’s fourteen-year-old sister. Fourteen!
Why then does she not have more Hellmouth street smarts? Why can she not remain with the gang after Willow trips over the dead body of Mr. Bogarty in the magic shop? Along with many others, I am willing to suspend my disbelief for a multitude of elements in this show, but I am not willing to believe that a sister of the Slayer could be so immeasurably ignorant of the very substance of Buffy’s day-to-day life that she has never even seen a corpse, reanimated or otherwise. Even worse, what fourteen-year-old would get chocolate ice-cream all over her face in front of an older guy on whom she has a crush? What sister of a vampire slayer would invite a vampire (of the soulless, chip-free variety) into the house? Simply put, Dawn exhibits no maturity or logic and, therefore, no credibility.
Of course, such a lack of credibility may be intentional. Perhaps we are meant to gather from Dawn’s grating ways that she, in fact, does not belong in Sunnydale. Perhaps we are meant to expect her to be discovered as a fraud and ousted. But if we are meant to recognize (along with the occasional mentally unstable passerby) that Dawn doesn’t belong here, then why doesn’t Buffy or anyone else see the “real” Dawn? After all, Buffy recognized that super-Jonathan wasn’t real in “Superstar” (4.17), and Tara recognized that fake-Buffy wasn’t real in “Who Are You” (4.16), so why does Dawn’s unreality remain concealed in “Real Me”? Buffy finds Dawn annoying, but she neither questions nor challenges the fact of her existence. Like it or not, Buffy accepts this interloper as a sister. Dawn is here to stay despite her maddening ways. And, to quote Buffy’s complaint to Riley about kid sister Dawn, “that’s what bugs.”