So we arrive at the ugliest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's Dead Things that pretty much encapsulates the sixth season, with a ton of ideas being thrown at us all at once and only some of them sticking. Like so many of these episodes, it's the Spike and Buffy relationship that is most problematic, as well as the most fascinating thing on offer. Here we have confirmation that it's somewhat mutually abusive, with both parties manipulating the other and both being unhappy with the results. It's troubling, and there are several moments here that are plain uncomfortable to watch.
The episode opens with Buffy and Spike having their first post-coital conversation, and while they still don't understand what they're doing together, there's a flirtatious banter to their dialogue which showcases the real connection between them. But, being something so new and jarring for Buffy, she quickly becomes distressed by the entire thing. Like every other time they've slept together, she leaves feeling disgusted with herself. Not only because it's Spike, but because it's a whole new sexual wheelhouse that she's never experienced before, far removed from the romantic ideals of sex that she had with Angel and Riley, or even the traditional college 'bad sex' with Parker. Being with Spike is something dirty and irrational, and she can't wrap her head around it.
And that's all good. But where the story begins to unravel is when both Buffy and Spike display behavior which, personally, I find a little gross. The much-maligned 'balcony sex' scene, which Sarah Michelle Gellar herself hated, casts Spike as a huge creep, someone predatory and sinister -- like a molester of sorts -- as he fills Buffy's head with masochistic thoughts and gropes her in public. It feels entirely out-of-character, and I neither like nor particularly believe this latest incarnation of the character.
Similarly contrived is Buffy's end-of-episode smackdown of Spike, where she screams about how soulless and dead he is and pummels him in the face until he's bruised and battered. It's an overly violent and disturbing scene, something that comes off as yet another plot development that feels engineered to create a reaction, rather than something that stays true to the characters we've watched for the last five years.
It's not the only story in Dead Things that feels icky. The Trio's scheme to essentially rape women via a brainwashing device is reprehensibly gross, Warren disturbed and horrifying as he beats his ex-girlfriend to death, and Andrew and Jonathan just as sleazy with their 'little boy' fantasies. Sure, Jonathan appears guilty at the end, but it's a story that pushes him into territory that he just can't come back from. Their story is all about weak-minded boys with no understanding of human emotion and the difference between right and wrong, but throwing it into an already ugly episode felt gratuitous.
One wonderful moment is that final scene, with Buffy falling to pieces in Tara's lap. It's by far the show's greatest ever use of Tara (who is rapidly becoming the one character this season that isn't obnoxious, problematic or invisible), and spoke volumes about Buffy's mindset. Before Tara's revelation, Buffy was using her zombified state as an excuse for engaging in sex with Spike -- "I can do those things because there's something physically and mentally wrong with me". Discovering that there actually isn't anything wrong with her suddenly throws her for a loop, forcing her to face up to her own ill-treatment of Spike, her lack of self-respect when it comes to how Spike treats her, as well as the fact that she's clearly doing things that she thinks are wrong. It's a beautifully acted scene, and probably the highlight of late season six.
Dead Things is ugly and uncomfortable, but it's arguably the first season six episode that can provoke intense discussion on a moral level. It's by no means a total success, with the Katrina cover-up and subsequent guilt trip feeling half-baked with a cop-out ending, but the performances are strong and the imagery ridiculously powerful. This is as dark as it gets, and it's admirable that the show is exploring subject matter like abuse and early-twenties dysfunction at all. Sure, most of it isn't as well-realized as it could have been, but I'd rather have the show experimenting with things like this rather than sitting back and repeating the same stories over and over again. B+
Guest stars Danny Strong (Jonathan Levinson); Adam Busch (Warren Meers); Tom Lenk (Andrew Wells); Amelinda Embry (Katrina Silber); Amber Benson (Tara Maclay)
Writer Steven S. DeKnight Director James A. Contner