[Note: I'm writing a series about consent issues in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I will post a new entry in this series every month. In this series, I will look at an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that deals with rape, sexual assault, or consent issues as a main plot point or as a featured event of the episode. I will examine these episodes in chronological order. If, in my writing of this series, you feel that I have skipped an episode that should be a part of this series, feel free to submit a guest post, and I will consider publishing it.]
EPISODE: “Dead Things”
INCIDENT: Mind control, attempted rape, murder
PERPETRATOR: Warren Mears, Jonathan Levinson, Andrew Wells
VICTIM: Katrina Silber
The specifics: The Trio wants to take their attempts to take over Sunnydale to the next level. They create a cerebral dampener, a device that will allow them to control the mind and actions of any victim of their choosing. Their goal: to turn a woman into their willing sex slave. (“Willing” is a word they use rather liberally, considering the context.) Warren chooses his ex-girlfriend, Katrina, as their target. He engages her in conversation where she informs him that she never wants to see him again, but then he activates the dampener and Katrina says, in a robotic tone, “I love you, Master.”
The next time we see Katrina, she’s still under the influence of the cerebral dampener, only now she’s dressed in a French maid’s outfit and serving drinks to the Trio. All of them want to take a turn “playing” with Katrina, but Warren lays claim to her first. They go into the other room and kiss. He tells her to get on her knees, and she does. Then the spell wears off and she runs out of the room, yelling at the Trio. She informs them that what they’re doing isn’t a game or a fantasy: it’s rape. She tries to leave, but Warren is violent with her and breaks a champagne bottle over her head. Andrew discovers that Warren has killed her.
Andrew and Jonathan are upset, but Warren comes up with a plan: to use their assorted talents and skills to make Buffy think that she killed Katrina. This plan mostly succeeds until the end of the episode, when Buffy realizes that Warren had to be involved in Katrina’s death. Meanwhile, Warren and Andrew are satisfied that Katrina is no longer a problem and that they got away with murder. Jonathan, on the other hand, remains disturbed.
The mind of the perpetrators: “Dead Things” shows a marked difference between Warren, the leader of this group, and Jonathan and Andrew, the followers. Jonathan and Andrew want a sex slave that will do anything they want, and it can be any woman they find in a bar. Warren isn’t interested in picking a woman at random. He wants his ex-girlfriend back and claims to still be in love with her – and I think he believes that he means that. When Jonathan and Andrew comment that Katrina is “cute” and “hot,” Warren talks about the shape of her lips, her smooth skin, the way her nose crinkles when she laughs – traits of Katrina’s that he seems to miss. This doesn’t stop him from wiping her mind and treating her like a piece of meat, however.
When Katrina realizes what’s happening to her and calls them out on being rapists, Andrew and Jonathan are visibly shocked and upset that Katrina is defining them that way. (They also, notably, think that Warren trying to brainwash his ex is “messed up.”) Warren isn’t – he doesn’t care what Katrina in her right mind thinks, as long as he can brainwash her into being the Katrina he wants her to be and turn her back into his sex slave.
After Warren kills Katrina, Jonathan and Andrew, again, are more upset than Warren is. Andrew is the first to suggest that they turn themselves in (a detail that I had forgotten, and it surprised me), and Jonathan agrees with him – they both seem to think that the police will be more lenient with them if they confess to their crime. They’re still thinking of themselves, though – if they have genuine guilt over what they did to Katrina, the guilt is overshadowed by their desire to find a lesser sentence for themselves.
By the end of the episode, their three states of mind are clear, and all different from each other.
Warren, having told himself that he really loved Katrina and wanted her back, is completely unconcerned that the woman he supposedly loved is dead. Ironically, the first time we saw Warren back in season five, he was ditching the sex-bot he created and finding love with a real live woman because she was more interesting than a sex-bot. In this episode, he tries to turn the real live woman into the sex-bot and punishes her when she doesn’t capitulate.
Andrew’s intentions are less malicious than Warren’s, though he’s equally culpable for the group’s actions. Andrew lives in a complete fantasy world. He defines every person in his life, including himself, as a role in some kind of story that he’s creating in his head. He’s defined himself as an evil mastermind, a cool super villain in a comic book story. He thinks it’s okay to treat Katrina as a sex slave because she, too, is just a sex slave character in a comic book story. He is genuinely upset when Warren kills Katrina, and he has a brief window of opportunity to treat this issue seriously, and he is the first one to suggest that they turn themselves in. But after Warren breaks into the computer system to make Katrina’s death seem like a suicide, Andrew only says, “We just got away with murder. That’s…kinda cool.” He had a chance to make a positive change, but he didn’t take it, because treating himself as a cool super villain character is easier than owning his actions.
Jonathan’s intentions, by the end of the episode, are the least terrible of the three. Again, he, Warren, and Andrew are equally culpable for trying to rape Katrina, but he’s the only one who seems permanently unsettled about what they did. He sarcastically comments that “there must be some more girls that we can kill,” and it comes from a place that’s disturbed about what the group has become. He’s not redeemed by any means, but he’s at least realized that this Trio of Doom is not a game anymore.
The victim’s perspective: Katrina could not be more clear with her “no” when Warren tries to sweet-talk her at the bar. She reacts with fear, anger, and disgust when she realizes what the three men were planning to do with her. She immediately recognizes Jonathan and Andrew’s intentions for what they are:
“You bunch of little boys, playing at being men. Well, this is not some fantasy. It’s not a game, you freaks! It’s rape!”
She also threatens to get them locked up in jail: “And then we’ll see how you like getting raped!”
She’s angry, she’s direct, she fights back – and she’s still killed.
What does this episode say about misogyny and rape culture?
Hoo boy, does this episode have a LOT to say.
First of all, the word “rape” is mentioned. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has more than a handful of episodes that have rape or violation of consent as a plot point, but “Dead Things” is the first one that actually has a character call it “rape.” Buffy made reference to “the great roofie spirit” in “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and Angel and Faith talked about safety words in “Consequences,” but this episode actually uses the word “rape.”
This episode is also a criticism of geek culture and its sense of entitlement and victimization. Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew all have built-up anger from being ignored and treated badly in childhood and in high school. They believe that they’re entitled to sex from whatever woman they want. Sex with a hot woman of their choice is their reward for having been bullied and ostracized in their youth. They don’t see that their objectification of women is denying women their humanity, much like others denied their humanity when they were younger. Jonathan and Andrew are upset when Katrina calls them rapists, not because they feel remorse for taking advantage of a woman, but because they don’t want to see themselves as rapists.
Then we have to consider the Trio’s choice of sex slave in Katrina. Warren chooses Katrina because he claims to miss her, and maybe a part of him does, but he also wants to punish her/have her apologize for breaking up with him a year ago. He’s using sex as a weapon to denigrate the woman he claims to love. Even Jonathan and Andrew think that Warren brainwashing his ex is “messed up.” Of course, they have no problem with brainwashing a woman they don’t know. They’re all potential rapists and they’re all using rape as wish fulfillment, but they have slightly different mindsets. Warren is using rape as punishment and a culmination of a twisted romantic fantasy. Jonathan and Andrew are using it JUST as wish fulfillment, and they don’t seem to have a desire to punish women. They would, however, prefer to select a randomly chosen “hot girl” than someone they know, probably because picking a woman they don’t know makes it easier for them to deny her worth as a human being
The lesson here? Rapists don’t all rape for the same reasons.
And the reasons for their actions do not make a lick of difference to the actual victim, Katrina. She’s angrier with Warren because of their personal connection but doesn’t spare Jonathan or Andrew her wrath. She wants all of them to be held accountable for what they did. She does her best to get away, and she still dies.
The lesson here? You can do everything you’re told to do – fight back, try to run away, be “tough” and strong – and still be killed.
“Dead Things” has some very useful lessons about rape culture: rapists are often methodical and plan carefully and are not just “overcome” with lust, and that victims can follow every piece of advice in a “don’t be raped” seminar and still not escape. These lessons are disturbing, but necessary.
Unfortunately, the series fails to follow up on some of the promise in “Dead Things.” Katrina is only mentioned two more times in the rest of the series, and only once by name. Jonathan makes a bitter “deader than an ex-girlfriend” crack in a later episode, and Willow taunts Warren with an image of Katrina when confronting him for killing Tara. Andrew kills Jonathan in season seven and then becomes a hostage/comic relief of the Scooby gang, and the group judges him for having killed Jonathan and for generally being a weasel, but they don’t mention his role in Katrina’s death. We’re left to assume that Katrina’s death is still ruled as a suicide in police records, and that her parents are left believing that she killed herself.
The writers clearly forgot about this character when they moved on with developing the rest of the Trio. I don’t have a problem with that from a storytelling perspective – Katrina was a two-episode character, after all, and the Trio was the main villain of the season until Willow went evil. Still, it’s a little disturbing and ironic that a show can a) accurately portray the mentality of rapists while b) eventually disappearing the victim.
Almost 2,000 words and I haven’t even touched on the Buffy/Spike plot in “Dead Things,” so that will be a post of its own.