“Buffy vs. Dracula”
July 16th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
“Buffy vs. Dracula” is both a thematic companion for and a definite departure from the series’ past. The last two premieres have featured Buffy facing questions about her identity (in “Anne” and “The Freshman”), and her altercation with Dracula is built around similar questions; however, whereas it seemed as if Buffy was struggling to stay afloat amidst the world changing around her at the start of the third and fourth seasons, here she seems to be struggling within, gaining new perspectives on her power and its control over her actions and desires. In that sense, the episode represents a clear continuation, and evolution of numerous elements at play within the fourth season, especially within the First Slayer’s appearance in “Restless.”
However, at the same time, “Buffy vs. Dracula” is also a tad bit silly. I won’t go so gar as to say that it is cheesy, but there’s a clear disconnect between the Dracula who takes part in Buffy’s story and that character’s influence on the rest of the episode. While the core idea of Dracula’s involvement is well executed by Marti Noxon (the first writer to take on a premiere other than Whedon), the rest of the episode relies on comic scenarios which are not so much unwelcome as they are incongruous with the episode’s central function. While it isn’t a departure for the series to engage with comedy, the way it is deployed in the episode rather lazily fills in the gaps between the dramatic scenes, failing to integrate the two parts of the episode successfully and truly live up to its potential, potential which nonetheless remains clear based on the strength of the eponymous comparison.
I understand that Buffy is a funny show, and that the comedy is an important part of its identity, but there are moments in “Buffy vs. Dracula” where I think the humour is taken too far. This isn’t to say that all of the humour is too broad, but rather that the way it was placed in the episode seemed to be incongruous with the episode’s intentions. There were a lot of act-outs which relied on humour, and the way the climax (Buffy’s numerous stakings of Dracula) fell back onto comedy created a gulf between Buffy’s emotional plea with Giles and the earlier discussion with Dracula. My point isn’t that I didn’t find those moments funny, but rather that where they were placed in the episode created a sense that we were oscillating between dramatic and comic without any real rhyme or reason.
I think part of the issue might be the fact that Dracula himself wasn’t funny in the least: while the show was having fun with Dracula’s position within popular culture, Dracula wasn’t laughing, and in some ways he wasn’t even relevant to those stories considering that his real interest was in Buffy and not any other member of the group. Ultimately, I think the show was right to treat this subject matter with a light touch, especially considering how many depictions of Dracula there have been: the show has to put its own stamp on the character, and so much of the time is spent on the characters reacting to Dracula as opposed to on Dracula himself. In that sense, the show is able to sort of adapt the Dracula character into the series’ aesthetic, turning him into a “Monster of the Week,” albeit one which presents itself in a new fashion as a result of the pre-existing information (or misinformation, as the case may be).
However, I think that there’s a huge “wink” inherent to this process that rears its head a few too many times. In particular, I felt like Xander as Dracula’s daytime eyes never amounted to anything more than broad comedy, and Giles being sidetracked by the Three Sisters seemed more like Noxon playing around with Stoker’s novel than using it for any particular purpose. At the same time as Dracula’s relationship with Buffy become more complex and interesting, I felt like the story happening around their altercation got more and more silly. I like the idea of starting with the wink, but the show sort of keeps winking over and over again, and I felt as if the stakes never escalated in the episode as a whole even as they escalated for Buffy. When Riley and Giles enter the mansion, I sense no fear or uncertainty, as the creepy and unnerving side of the story was so isolated within Buffy’s experience that everyone else was taking part in a different show entirely.
And yet, if we were to focus on only the Buffy story, I think the episode was a really evocative use of the image of Dracula as King among his kind to offer a reflection on the Slayer and her position within humanity. Picking up where “Restless” left off – Dracula quotes Dream Tara, even – the episode specifically asks whether or not Buffy really understands the origins of her power. I like the detail Spike raises, in that Dracula has in some ways been worse to vampires than he has to the humans he hunts and kills: his celebrity, his elevation above everyone else, made all other vampires more vulnerable, shifting the balance of their kind. His power was not used to help every vampire, but was rather used to hasten his ascent to a position of power, and as the First Slayer pointed out in “Restless” Buffy is doing it wrong: even more than when she worked for the Watcher’s Council, Buffy is doing what she does for the good of humankind, a selfless act which Dracula argues is at odds with the depths of her power, not to mention her reliance on human assistance and companionship (which even Kendra, quite recently, was not allowed to be involved with). As Buffy starts hunting for the sake of hunting, no longer simply patrolling to keep people safe, you see how she could easily head down that road, ignoring the Spider-Man doctrine of super powers in favour of something a bit less altruistic.
While I have some issues with the winking earlier in the episode, I thought the connection between Buffy and Dracula was really well handled, connecting the two characters in ways which speak to the similarities between their powers; that they have so much in common makes for a really intriguing battle, which is perhaps why I found everything around it so much less satisfying. As Buffy’s story became more serious, escalating from a staredown in the cemetery to the dream bite, it didn’t seem like the rest of the episode was similarly evolving, which meant that I became very intensely interested in learning more about Buffy’s connection only to discover that the episode was still sort of stuck in comic mode half the time. It’s the same problem that I have with the ending, really: while Buffy’s moment explaining her need for a Watcher now, more than ever, to Giles is a really nice bit of setup for the season to come, the final moment sort of takes away from that (although in that case it’s obviously very purposeful, and so I’m reserving judgment). The episode has many effective moments, but I feel like every one is followed by a comic beat, or something which veers into a different direction, and thus lacks those sustained moments of reflection which I think are valuable early in a season.
I’m going to save discussion of that final scene for when I talk about “Real Me” as well as the rest of Disc One, but I do want to note that the episodes which follow do a nice job of making the humorous parts of this episode resonate, so it’s not as if I consider them a waste of time. However, I do sort of feel that there was dramatic potential left untapped in this story, and that there could have been ways to wink at the audience in regards to the Dracula story without turning over so much of the episode to stories which feel like they are part of a completely different narrative. There were opportunities to bring Xander’s hypnosis into a more dramatic place, or to use Giles’ involvement to speak to his plans to leave Buffy behind, and yet both ended up lost in comic stories which ended up meandering rather than purposeful. I like what I’ve seen in terms of how Xander’s experience has become part of his character’s collective experience, but I think that the premiere would have been stronger if things had been a bit tighter outside of the central story arc.
- I’ll admit right now that my knowledge and experience with Dracula is pretty slim, so I’m sure others have more definitive takes on the way the episode approaches and utilizes Stoker’s novel and the like.
- I’ll talk about this a bit more when we get to “Real Me” and “The Replacement,” but I find that “Buffy vs. Dracula” has a lot of trouble finding a natural place for Riley and Tara – both feel like they’re playing sidekick to their significant others in the premiere, and I don’t think that Noxon really gives them a voice of their own in the episode. As noted, this comes out a bit in the next few episodes, but I had a lot of concerns about Riley’s relevance as a character after his non-role in this episode.
- Of the comic runners surrounding Dracula, Anya’s was the most successful for me: it’s a small beat, but the notion of the two having been an item nicely plays into the character’s tendency to overshare, and nicely breaks down Dracula without taking over the episode at the same time.
- Rudolf Martin didn’t really stand out as Dracula, which I think was part of the problem: while his relatively generic presence (relying more on tricks than on personality) does deconstruct certain portrayals of Dracula, it meant that there wasn’t much life to the role. However, he stepped up in the final confrontation, and that’s all that was truly important.