Well, that was grim. Off the top of my head, “Passion” and “Helpless” are the only Buffy episodes (thus far) to go to the kind of dark places that “Dead Things” takes us, and it does it without the aid of killing or terrorizing someone we care about. The Trio has been one of Buffy’s most entertaining villains since their first appearance, but their ability to bring the story to such a dark place indicates there’s more to them than empty amusement. There’s actually very little new here (people die all the time in Sunnydale) but highlighting the impact they have on our characters is enough to illustrate how horrifying they are.
The Trio are certainly the most amusing of Buffy’s villains but, when you think about it, nearly all her Bads (big and small) serve to keep the show from becoming too grim. The advantage of battling monsters rather than people is that monsters don’t need complex motivations to drink blood, rend flesh, and unleash WMDs. That’s not a bad thing as it’s what allows Buffy to be Buffy and not Breaking Bad. Violence only works as a metaphor when its perpetrators aren’t emotionally scarred and its victims don’t kick up too much of a fuss. The Trio would seem to embody this, their schemes being the most bloodless of any Buffy villain; all zany hijinks and no one gets hurt.
The cerebral dampener is a device right up the Trio’s alley; all the delicious babes they want without without any of the perils of real social interaction. The women they’re targeting aren’t people, they’re objects (“go for the bazoombas”), items to be selected with all the glee of a kid in a candy store. There’s nothing particularly dark about this stage because the Trio, or a least two thirds of it, is so thoroughly juvenile. We don’t need to consider the real consequences of their actions because they don’t. Yes, it’s wrong, but wrong in the childish sense, not a rape one. Oh, wait…
Then shit gets real. Katrina’s correct in calling rape “rape;” the cerebral dampener’s just a mystical roofie. Jonathan and Andrew at least have enough of a moral compass to realize the truth when confronted with it, though not, unfortunately, enough to help her escape from Warren. People die on Buffy all the time. Considering the vampiric connection between sex violence, they also get raped all the time. What if all the victims shouted “rape!” as they fled from their attackers? What if those attackers, horrified at the realization of what they’d done, broke down afterwards? It’s a chilling moment for characters we’d come to like, despite their “villainy.”
The point here is that the shit has always been real, we’ve just been able to ignore it because characters haven’t reacted to it in a human way. Drawing on the series’ fantastic elements at this point only enhances rather than dulls the horror of what’s happened as Warren suggests summoning something to eat the body. It’s not coincidence that Warren’s the one recover first, or that his first suggestion firmly anchors this murder in Buffy’s universe. He’s the one who tried to kill Buffy, even though that’s not what supervillains do. He also deliberately selected Katrina, a woman whose far more than an unknown object to him. Warren has always known that this shit is real, and so he’s prepared to deal with it.
Warren’s plan is a masterstroke of meta-storytelling as the Trio pile on the illusions in order to cover their tracks. The demons used to disorient Buffy are known solely for their power to distort reality and their presence helps shift Katrina from being the Trio’s real victim to Buffy’s fake one. Where are they while this unfolds? Back to watching events through a screen. Their efforts aren’t just about covering their tracks and eliminating Buffy, it’s they’re about returning their world to the status quo. The boys are back to playing pretend by the end but, as Jonathan’s demeanor indicates, they’re having a harder time convincing themselves.
Had I wanted to double the length of this post, I could’ve talked about Buffy herself entering new, dark territory. Again, there’s nothing all that new here (she’s been sleeping with Spike for a while) but her reaction let’s us know just how much it’s hurting her. From the beatdown on Spike to the breakdown with Tara (stellar performance by SMG, BTW), we see Buffy’s who’s severely damaged.
One of the best choices of season six is the fact that there’s nothing “wrong” with Buffy. There’s no mystical excuse for how she’s been behaving; it’s all on her and she needs to deal with it.
Dawn’s got a right to be pissed, Buffy has given up. The Slayer we know would certainly feel guilty, she may even have turned herself in but she also would’ve asked who those demons were and what they wanted. And, for that matter, what was that girl doing in the cemetery at night? So, Dawn’s right. If only she weren’t also annoying. It’s a problem that could easily have been solved if Dawn had asked these questions and only gotten pissed when Buffy refused to listen. As it stands, she gets pissed without even trying to help her sister. Not the most endearing of attitudes.