“Dead Things,” by Steven S. DeKnight
“Dead Things” opens with another morsel of quirky BtVS misdirection: we hear something that might, possibly, be fighting. Soon enough, we realize that it’s actually the sweet sound of two special someones getting their Spuff on. Energetically. When they’re done, they converse about crypt decor until Spike finds himself feeling a little weird about the casual, chatty mood Buffy seems to be in.
He ends up asking if Buffy even likes him, and getting a “Sometimes,” in response. It’s not overnice, but at least it’s honest. It also continues the Spike-as-Girl, Buffy-as-Boy gender dynamic you’ve all been discussing, these past few weeks. He’s looking for emotional connection and she throws him the barest dry hint of a bone.
Meanwhile, and speaking of misdirection, our season six decoy villains are on the lam. The Trio is working to settle into a new lair in the wake of Willow’s having located their old one. Perhaps it’s desperation that has made them creative, but the three of them are also merging their various superskill sets. Up until now, it’s mostly been Jonathan does a spell or Andrew summons a monster or Warren builds a weapon. Now, instead, they’re mixing it up, working on a cerebral dampener whose ingredients include gadgetry, a summoned-monster-gland and a little magic.
It works. Warren declares that thanks to their shiny new thingy, any woman they desire will become their willing sex slave. He says he knows just where to start, and we’re meant to think he means Buffy.
But no. Warren isn’t quite that dumb. (He’s, like, 0.5% less dumb than that.) Anyway, Buffy is too busy to sex slave, as she’s over at Doublemeat Palace, handing out burgers and waiting on Tara. As the two briefly take in the misery of her menial day job, we learn that Tara thinks Buffy called her to talk about some magical misbehavior of Willow’s.
In fact, Buffy wants to know why Spike can hit her. She can’t very well ask her BFF, can she? She wants to know if the spell that brought her back did, as he asserts, bring her back “wrong.” Tara very sweetly assures her that this can’t be true, but when Buffy presses her for evidence or facts, or anything more than her opinion, she agrees to double-check.
Speaking of things that are wrong-so-very-wrong, the Trio is working on its first official abduction of an unwilling woman. Jonathan and Andrew think they’re shopping for a random victim, which is squicky enough. Warren, as usual, has an additional plan he hasn’t mentioned. There’s always something with this guy: he’s like one of those allegedly free apps that doesn’t work very well unless you buy into something extra for $3.99.
This time, the real plan involves enslaving his former girlfriend, Katrina. Oh, Warren. The best thing we can say about you is that you have a long attention span.
Warren does try talking to Katrina first, to see if there’s any chance they can work out their issues. She responds with a completely reasonable level of “Get the hell away from me, you total pervy creep.” Needless to say, he zaps her.
Like that, she goes from “You’re sick,” to “I love you, Master.”
Buffy arrives home to find her friends and sister practicing dance moves. She is briefly concerned that Sweet has returned for another rousing adventure in hellmouth musical theater. But no—it’s just prep for the XandAnya wedding reception. Dawn heads off for a sleepover, snarking about how she couldn’t possibly have known Buffy was home and available to spend time with her. Despite obvious hurt over this, Buffy opts to go with her friends to drown some sorrows at the Bronze.
By now the Trio has dressed Katrina in a French maid outfit, and they’re openly gloating over their plan to screw her. Warren takes her into the back room, and there the spell wears off.
The scene that follows is deeply discomfiting. It’s an eye-opener for Andrew and Jonathan, who allegedly haven’t considered that what they’re up to is rape until Katrina bellows the word at the top of her assertive and outraged lungs.
“Who, us?” seems to be their attitude.
I want to be especially disappointed in Jonathan, for whom I have a soft spot. But that’s the point, really. We’re meant to be uncomfortable. Jonathan’s had his likable moments. He’s someone we’ve known for years. Sure, he may have his flaws. They may even be, arguably, pretty big personality deficits. But that’s Jonathan for you. He’s not a creep.
Except, gosh, he actually kind of is! Remember he was on board for the proposed peeping Trio outing in “Gone?” And what about the twins in “Superstar?”
This doesn’t make him an effective predator. A skirmish follows. Katrina gets in good licks on both of the Junior Two—go you, girl!—but before she can escape, Warren kills her.
The murder throws the Trio into convulsions of panic, recrimination and remorse and, above all, OMG, what do we do now? Andrew and Jonathan suggest turning themselves in. Warren vetoes this, moving them on to disgusting suggestions for getting rid of the body, like finding a demon big enough to eat it.
Then Warren decides to bring Buffy into the mix.
I bet the bunch of us could come up with forty kazillion better ways to cover up a homicide in Sunnydale than “Make the Slayer think she did it.” I’d start, at the top of the list, with “fake a vamp attack.” Granted, that also would get the Slayer involved. So... cerebral dampen someone into putting the corpse in their trunk and driving the heck to L.A.? Or... isn’t there a desert conveniently close to town, with a hungry mystic kitty in it? I bet he’s tired of lizards and magic kibble.
Over at the Bronze and all unawares, the gang is cutting loose on the dance floor. Somehow Buffy ends up on the bad girl walkway* above them, with Spike, having sex yet again while he tells her this is, essentially, inevitable. His argument is that she, like him, is a creature of darkness.
*That walkway is seeing a lot of naughty behavior lately. Willow and Amy were working their destructive magic tricks from up there, a few episodes earlier.
Next day, Willow is headed to the Magic Box and she runs into Tara, who is dutifully embarking on Buffy Wrongness Research. Willow reveals that she’s been spell-free for over a month. It’s an awkward convo, but Tara’s glad for her. A certain amount of WillTara healing is definitely underway.
And Buffy’s in the graveyard, pondering what Spike has said. She ends up at his place. There’s some sexy wall-leaning both inside and out of the crypt—they’re basically trying to spuff through the concrete, but she finds the strength to walk away.
As Buffy tries to think about something other than the evil bloodsucking fiend, she hears a scream. Oh frabjous night! Off she skips to the rescue.
She runs into a fray which is dreamy and confusing. Spike shows up and there’s some possibly real and possibly unreal fighting. Demons keep charging and vanishing, and Katrina—who is actually Jonathan, shapeshifted—does some fleeing and screaming. Eventually she flees into the path of Buffy’s right cross.
When the time distortion clears and they find Katrina’s body, it all seems at first glance as if she’s been Slayerpunched to death. Spike hauls Buffy away, tries to calm her down and eventually takes her home to bed.
In many ways, he is pretty okay with this turn of events. It offers the possibility of drawing Buffy further into the shadows, where Spike is so desperately trying to keep her. At this point in their relationship, he is making a deliberate, conscious and concerted attempt to convince Buffy that she is, essentially, bad.
One of the things we have been talking about is whether it’s important that Spike regain his ability to hit Buffy as they moved into the sexual phase of their relationship. Some of you argued that if he’d remained physically helpless, he might still have emotionally abused her. I’d argue that this sales pitch for the dark side is emotional abuse. Spike wants Buffy to believe she is evil because it gives him some measure of control in their relationship. If she believes she’s not human, he can more easily isolate her from her friends. If she’s all alone, she’s apt to stay with him, and eventually give him the love he craves.
He’s reacting to the little glimmers of warmth she keeps feeding him, but he has also misjudged this particular button of hers.
Buffy always falls apart when she thinks she’s killed an innocent. She was a mess when Ted seemed dead, and her horror over the death of the Mayor’s assistant, in season three, was epic. She and Faith chewed over many of the same arguments that Spike offers here as reasons for why she shouldn’t surrender herself to the cops. But it only takes one terrible, guilt-ridden dream to convince Buffy to confess. She tells Dawn, who trots out her abandonment issues with predictable tiresomeness.
Buffy heads for the police station, and Spike tries to stop her. He’s ditched the body—though not competently. They break into a fight over whether or not he truly loves her and whether she is or isn’t going to do the right thing. He pushes, he argues, he all but drags her away from the police station. He invites her to put ‘it’—meaning all her rage, pain and guilt—on him and eventually she does just that, absolutely whaling on him.
So there’s this horrible beating. Spike doesn’t fight back and he gets very seriously tenderized. It’s consistent with the “go on and be bad,” strategy. It’s also a wretched pile of awfulness. We’re all uncomfortable again.
She’s depressed. He’s actively trying to convince her she’s demonic and above the law. She’s trying to obey the rules of decent human behavior by taking responsibility for a mistake—admittedly, in a way that might get her out of her current difficult circumstances. He’s trying to cover up a crime and absolutely doesn’t give a crap about the victim.
How do you sift the right from the wrong in this?
The fight, if you can call it that, merely confirms Buffy’s powerful desire to turn herself over to the forces of law and order. But while she’s waiting to be seen, she overhears Katrina’s name. The connection to Warren is too obvious to ignore. Plus she remembers Spike’s parting shot: you always hurt the one you love.
So instead of getting Sunnydale’s finest to slap the cuffs on, she zooms over to the Magic Box, where Anya identifies the time distortion demons and the Scoobies piece together what happened.
The police never catch up, and so the Trio concludes that they got away with murder. Andrew says this is cool. Jonathan reluctantly claims to agree.
In the final scene of “Dead Things,” Tara tells Buffy that her basic molecular structure was altered in her big undeadening, and the result is just enough to confuse Spike’s chip. Buffy, goggle-eyed with denial, tells her about the sex. And when Tara’s incredibly sweet and completely non-judgmental, and goes so far as to say some (measured) nice things about Spike, Buffy loses her mind with grief and guilt, melts down, and begs Tara not to forgive her.
On that happy note, I’m left to mention that at least the end credits still have peppy music.
Next: Dawn the Lightfingered gets her Curse On
A.M. Dellamonica has tons of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales. (Watch for the second Gale, story too—“The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti”!)