(Review) BtVS 8.25 'Living Doll'
'Living Doll' was one of the best issues of Season 8 to date. For one thing, the happy ending was all warm and smile-inducing; there were some solid character moments and revelations; and the pay-off to the Dawn transformation arc was solid (although I'm sure there will be people who complain about it. There always are.) Treating the issue on a surface level, it was a fun read.
However, after my first read-through, I started comparing 'Living Doll' to the last but one episode of Dollhouse, 'Briar Rose', and the themes that story played with - I'm wondering if Joss conceived of the two episodes at roughly the same time? Because both stories highlight the conundrum: is it disempowering for a person - and especially a woman - to rely on other people to save her, instead of saving herself? Or is it dehumanising to not need other people to help us, because friends and family and allies and Society are an essential part of what makes us human?
And after I'd thought about that for a while, it dawned on me that I'd been missing all the symbolism in 'Living Doll' about the toymaker, and how he compares to Buffy herself, and the possible relevance to the Season 8 arc and Twilight and so forth, and I hit myself for missing something so obvious.
So, yeah: 'Living Doll': lots and lots of onion layers. Plus Xander making jokes about dressing up as a superhero, and Naked Dawn (not that I'm shallow. Honestly.).
The preview originally released of this comic - being the first two pages - has to have been the least informative ever. A lot of people assumed that it was showing a torture scene, with the "not the knife" plea. I assumed all along that it would be a toymaker at work - those are woodcarving tools, and note the lack of blood on them. I also thought that the doll being carved up would be Dawn, or connected to Dawn somehow - although I was wrong in thinking that the toymaker had something to do with Kenny's spell, and was maybe protecting her from the worst results of it. In the end, he seems to have been an independent operator - although possibly a cousin of the toymaker in 'All The Way'. :-)
I'm not entirely sure what the toymaker is doing with the knife, mind you. It's obvious from his words that this isn't the first time he's used the knife on the Dawn doll, and she's not fond of it - although he claims he's doing it to "keep her safe". From what? She does have a large crack in her porcelain face here, and in later scenes the crack appears to have been repaired - presumably filled in with something. I just don't know why you'd need a knife for that: maybe to trim away any sharp or rough edges on the crack before filling it?
Now back to Slayer Manor (it's too small to be a castle) and Buffy doing her usual thing of talking about personal matters in the middle of preparing for a life-and-death battle, while Xander is all wise and supportive.
For the record, the Season 2 finale of 'Veronica Mars' was broadcast in May 2006 and the DVD boxset was released in August 2006. However, since we've been told that pop culture references in the comics are deliberately anachronistic - being aimed at present-day readers rather than attempting to be historically accurate - this has no bearing on the timeline, and presumably we're still "a couple of years after 'Chosen'". It's a show featuring a blonde teenage girl who fights evil in between attending high school, which might be why it appeals to Buffy - more confusingly, it's also a show which featured Charisma Carpenter in 11 episodes and Alyson Hannigan in three. (Non-fans of the comics can chip in here, "That's okay, since Cordelia and Willow as shown in the comics don't look anything like Charisma and Aly, so they can't be the same people...")
Looks like Buffy has run into DVD region coding problems. I'm guessing she bought the DVDs while she was in either New York or Tokyo in the 'Wolves at The Gate' or 'Time Of Your Life' arcs, and didn't realise they wouldn't work on a Region 2 DVD player bought in Scotland. (Can't really blame her, since President Obama didn't realise that either.) So evidently she had to hack her player to show them anyway, thus infringing the copyright protection and breaking the DMCA. Buffy's a pirate! (Well, she's already a bank robber, so no big... Next thing we know she'll be downloading torrents.)
I'm not sure why Buffy is putting that big clawed hand on. It looks like it would be more dangerous to innocent bystanders than to an enemy. I'm wondering if Andrew invented it and persuaded her to give it a try? Anyway, she's still got enough geek cred to make an X-men reference, which Xander tops - very amusingly - by denying that he got drunk and dressed up as Wolverine one time and that there are pictures to prove it. Still, there's a nice atmosphere here of "preparing for a big battle", which sets up the later joke neatly. (A 'judas cradle' for the record, was a mediaeval torture device - sorry, 'enhanced interrogation' device.)
As for the character insight, it's interesting. Buffy is clearly worried about Dawn and feeing guilty about not spending more time with her, even though her concern is mixed with typical sisterly bickering about her annoying habits. Notice, too, that she's making a resolution to be a better sister later, but right now she's still got more important, Slayer-related work to do. This seems to be less of a sudden life-changing epiphany and more something that's been nagging at her for a while but she's not got round to doing anything about it. However, I do think that the events of the last few episodes - killing Willow, seeing her mother again, and even her bonding with Andrew - might have made her more conscious than earlier in the season of the importance of family, which is why she's raising this now.
As for Xander, he's being more relaxed about it all. We've already seen - both in S7 and in early S8 - that Xander's the one who's willing to treat Dawn as a person in her own right, and he finds it entirely understandable if she wants to go off and do her own thing away from the pressure of being "Buffy's sister". Still, it seems he's concerned enough about her to send Andrew on an undercover mission to the University of California in Berkeley to investigate Kenny.
This, incidentally, sheds an interesting sidelight on the events of 'Damage'. In that episode, Andrew infiltrated the LA headquarters of Wolfram & Hart then whisked away a Slayer from under their noses before she could be carted off to the depths of their medical labs. Here too, the fact that on the surface he's a whiny, annoying nerd whom nobody can take seriously is being exploited to lull a potentially but not definitely hostile opponent into letting him get close. In 'Living Doll', Xander arranged this with Andrew on his own initiative, without telling Buffy - although when he mentions it to her later, she's very pleased. I wonder if it was a similar story with 'Damage'?
I was amused by seeing the chalkboard on Kenny's door in his dorm. In my university days we made do with a piece of scrap paper and a pen held on by Blu-tack, but the principle was still the same. (Although I did wonder if modern day students would use email and texting and AIM and so forth, rather than physically writing messages on their friends' doors. Any modern day student care to comment?) Also, I wonder if it's a coincidence that someone called 'Parker' left a message there. Maybe Parker Abrams missed so many classes after Buffy hit him over the head that he had to re-take a year, and he's still a UCal student? Heck, maybe he's taking a PhD or something... Kenny also appears to be a Pink Floyd fan, although I wonder if there's any significance in the image itself - a prism splitting a single beam of light into a whole spectrum of different colours. Maybe a reference to Dawn's situation? Or even to the way Buffy's power was shared out to create all the new Slayers?
Now an interesting two pages in which Dawn tries to escape from the toymaker's house, but the other dolls prevent her. You can see why this was a resonant scene for someone who's just been watching 'Dollhouse', can't you? Dawn has self-knowledge and awareness of her situation, and she wants freedom. She also tries to persuade the other dolls to escape with her (unselfishness has always been one of Dawn's biggest virtues). However, the dolls don't want to escape; this is their home, and they trust the person who made them this way, and Dawn's desire to leave makes her different and strange. And so they attack her, proving that they're not so different to humans after all.
The downfall of Cradle's army was a funny scene. He'd been built up earlier into such a dangerous-sounding threat, and he turns out to be the leader of half a dozen mangy vampires, who run headfirst into 62 Slayers all waiting for him. I'm not sure whether Buffy and Xander actually knew all along how small his army was and arranged this confrontation to make entirely sure he was killed - and maybe give the Slayers some practical experience - or if it came as a surprise to them too. Maybe his reputation had been inflated in the telling. Xander's words "which turns out to be..." do hint at the second alternative. (There is a third alternative, which is that the six vampires we see are just the advance party, not the entire force, and so there was more of a battle than we actually got to see on the page.)
It's slightly confusing that Buffy is now watching the battle on a laptop screen instead of being in the fight with her Wolverine claws. My guess is that some time has elapsed - maybe several days - between these two scenes. Whatever Buffy and her squad did after the first scene provoked Judas Cradle into launching an attack on Slayer HQ, which is what we see in this later scene. It's also nice to see that Team Slayer is still out there slaying vampires and protecting humanity. Anyway, once Cradle is disposed of it's back to the Dawn plot.
Buffy has been criticised a lot this season for ignoring Dawn. Here, though, we get an insight into her motives. She wasn't being thoughtless at all; she was trying to help Dawn by not suffocating her by over-clinginess. That's quite an advance for Buffy, considering her natural inbuilt tendency is to shield Dawn from everything - a trait which the monks who made Dawn surely programmed into her deliberately with their spell, even not accounting for the fact that Dawn is Buffy's only remaining blood relative if-you-don't-count-her-father-which-she-c
That second point, of course, is an idea that won't survive this episode. Xander reminds her of it here; Dawn is not Buffy, even if their blood is the same thing for ritual purposes. Plus, of course, Buffy trying to give Dawn her own space as an adult is a work-in-progress for Buffy, and not one she's always going to succeed at.
Buffy's look of stunned horror when she learns how Dawn came to be under the spell is a case in point. I'm sure the revelation that her baby sister has had sex at all is part of it - let alone that she slept with her boyfriend's roommate, which is way more skanky than anything even Buffy herself ever did. I'm reminded of a meme that went round a couple of years ago, cast as an interview in which different Buffyverse characters were asked a series of moral and philosophical questions. One of them was "How old should you be before you start having sex?" - and I remember at least three people answering the question from Buffy's perspective gave a sensible starting answer followed by "Unless you're Dawn, in which case the answer is never" or "Not until you're 35" or something similar...
So, Buffy's protective nature gets a huge shock as she realises her sister is all grown up now. In response, Xander resorts to British English swearing - I liked his self-awareness of this - which shows he obviously does mingle with the locals, or at least watch British TV, even though we've not seen it in the pages of the comics yet.
Now another interlude with the toymaker, in which he emphasises that he's only trying to keep
Echo Dawn safe, and that she's at home now. The thing is, he sounds like he genuinely cares about her, and he does have a point that she'd be in grave danger if she went outside - porcelain is pretty fragile stuff. He also stresses that despite her body now being made of wood and porcelain, it's her body, just as surely as a human's flesh and blood body is their own - changing a person's outward form doesn't change who they are inside. And yet she's still a prisoner, deprived of her own agency. The toymaker also reveals that he made all the other dolls, and that they "have no real souls", and that they do what he tells them, which is "wonderful". Hmm.
Next, we see Andrew setting up a trap in Kenny's dorm room, and Willow teleports him over to Scotland. The timing here is once again rather compressed. I have to assume everything is happening pretty much simultaneously: we cut from Buffy and Xander in the woods, to Dawn and the toymaker, to Andrew and Kenny in California, to Willow in Scotland, and back to Buffy and Xander - who are dressed in identical clothing, which means nothing as far as Xander is concerned but does strongly imply that Buffy hasn't had chance to go home and change. Therefore, I assume that when Buffy said "Have Willow transport him immediately" Xander called Willow on his mobile, and she in turn contacted Andrew to say "Set up the teleportation grid NOW!" and started casting the spell straight away.
Wesleyan university gets another namecheck, and Kenny proves he's quick on the uptake and can recognise a magical totem on sight - even if it's disguised as a statuette of Yoda. I assume it was Andrew, not Willow, who thought of that. Speaking of Willow, this is the first time we've seen her use magic that turns her black-eyed since 'The Long Way Home' - I assume that using teleportation to snatch someone magically-powerful without their consent is inherently dark magic, even if she'd doing it for unselfish reasons. I also laughed out loud at the spell she casts - if you don't get it, "Erehavoteg!" is "Get ovahere!" backwards...
It was at this point that I realised I like Kenny as a character: he's self-possessed, quirky and witty. "No, wait. You say that" was classic BtVS humour; I can see what Dawn saw in him. :-) (Though the tentacles, not so much.)
Incidentally, there's a blonde woman with a ponytail in the room with Willow - the one watching on the screen who says "We're made" - and at first I assumed that was Buffy. It can't be, though, if this is all happening simultaneously and Buffy is out in the woods with Xander. It must be someone else. (Also, she has brown eyes, not green eyes, although that's not always conclusive proof in the comics...)
Meanwhile, Buffy interacts with one of the "Wood Folk". I know some people hate them as a concept and have done ever since the fairies appeared in 'The Chain'. (Although fairies which lay eggs in your inner ear canal are hardly twee and fluffy). For me, though, they're no different to the demon community that lived in the shadows of Sunnydale and Los Angeles, except that they're the product of a different continent with its own magic, traditions and ecology. The idea that they and the humans - and the Slayers - have a truce is also significant given the theme of the season is the war between the natural and the supernatural. The elves who shoot Xander also look at first sight to be members of the Wood Folk, but if you look closely you'll see they're actually jointed wooden toys, and therefore part of the Toymaker's defence force.
Dawn's reaction to her sister arriving is interesting: "And obviously, Buffy is here." She sounds almost resentful of the idea of her sister coming to rescue her, although not at all surprised. It must sometimes seem that being rescued by Buffy is Dawn's function in life. (Which of course it is, from a meta point of view. The fact that Dawn is kind of aware of the fact is another proof of this show's cleverness.)
However, Dawn isn't waiting about to be rescued; she's going to escape herself using Buffy as a distraction. Unfortunately, it doesn't work - she's caught by the Toymaker, and needs Buffy's intervention after all. Which, I think, kind of squares the circle: the message is that you should never rely on other people to save you without making the effort yourself, but even so, help is a good thing to have.
Meanwhile, it seems that Kenny has rushed to save Dawn, and ends up saving Buffy instead - taking the arrows meant for her on his own tentacle. Since he later implies he was keeping track of the spell he placed on Dawn ("I would have called it off") I assume that's how he knows where to find her. Buffy seems completely unworried by the huge tentacle-monster looming up behind her, so I assume she recognises him as a Thricewise and knows they're not automatically dangerous to humans.
Dawn, meanwhile, recognises Kenny specifically. Which, of course, proves that she knew all along that he was a Thricewise - and more to the point, that she's seen him in his tentacle-monster form already. The later scene of them holding hands seems to prove that. I'm pretty sure they're making a point here that you shouldn't judge by external appearances - and that Dawn, in particular, has seen enough of the supernatural to not be freaked out by it. I'm reminded of two things: Connor's calm reaction to Jasmine's true form, and even more so, Buffy kissing Angel in vampface in 'What's My Line'. (In fact, she tells him she hadn't even noticed he was vamped out until he mentioned it). Dawn takes this idea much, much further than her sister did, but it seems she's still a Summers girl. :-)
And when Dawn says "I'm sorry" to Kenny, she immediately transforms back to human form. (The doll dress doesn't transform with her, which leads me to think the toymaker gave it to her rather than it being part of the spell). It's not entirely clear if the spell was set up to end automatically as soon as she apologised, or if Kenny chose to break it himself when he saw her and when "Kenny, I'm sorry" were her first words. So... Dawn's a human again. I'm sure celebrations will begin throughout the world.
I'm rather amused by the first panel on the next page, where Buffy is threatening the toymaker and Dawn in the background is covering herself. The thing is, she's standing up and using both hands to cover her breasts, but we saw in the last panel that she's completely naked... so she has interesting priorities for which bits of her she feels compelled to hide and which bits she doesn't... :-) I also noticed that she doesn't have a scar on her face in the place where the porcelain doll had a crack - that would have felt right from a magical point of view, but maybe one of the conditions of Kenny's spell was that no permanent harm should come to Dawn until she changed back?
Buffy is persuaded not to hurt the toymaker when all his dolls plead for his life. "He keeps us safe" is an interesting phrase for them to use - it's obviously important, because he himself has said it to Dawn twice already. And Dawn will use that word to Buffy, in just a short while...
The final scene between Kenny and Dawn is sweet and very natural and real-seeming... apart from him being a huge tentacle-monster, obviously. It felt very much like a teenage lovers' quarrel, where one did something that badly hurt the other, and so he got angry and did bad things in turn, but now they're all sorry and wanting to apologise to each other. Awww. Dawn's rather geekily precise explanation of the intensity of her feelings was a little awkward, but it felt like the kind of awkwardness that would be natural for her in such a situation. And she still loves him, but they end by separating and saying goodbye. Is that meant to represent the end of any possible relationship between them? Of course, looking at the scene through a different lens, Kenny used magic to curse Dawn - and I'm sure if she'd simply forgiven him and got back together, people would be muttering about abusive relationships and comparing her to Tara in S6 or Buffy and/or Spike in S7 and it would be all kinds of messy, so maybe it's good that Petrie didn't go there...
And then the final scene. I have to say that while Jeanty isn't always great at likenesses, he's always spot on about conveying nuances of feelings. I loved Dawn's hands-in-pockets mooching here.
Anyway, Buffy apologises for not paying enough attention to Dawn, and promises to try to do better. It's not the first time she's had to say this, and I'm sure it won't be the last - but I did admire her honesty, and the way she opens herself up for Dawn to criticise her if she wants to. Dawn, however, doesn't quite take the expected tack. Yes, she was feeling neglected, and overshadowed by all the new Slayers; and she admits that part of her was deliberately taking risks with Kenny because she was hoping to attract Buffy's attention and get her to come save her. However, what she's learned since then is that she doesn't need Buffy to save her. "You can't keep me safe. And you don't have to." The first part of that is something Dawn already knew - she said it to Buffy in 'Grave', after all - but the second part is something she's learned about herself.
She may have started Season 8 moping and whining in a barn - not that you can really blame her - but over the course of the season she's become a pretty determined fighter. Yes, having superpowers thanks to Kenny's spell helped with that. But if I think of Dawn's finest moments in the season, they're not directly related to her using her abilities as a giant or a centaur: Dawn rallying the Tokyo Slayers who were on the point of running away from battle, and inspiring them to keep fighting. Dawn rescuing Xander from Castle Slayer when it was destroyed, and then facing down the Wood Folk. It's true that the other characters might not have let her get into such dangerous situations in the first place, if she hadn't been transformed - but the strength she revealed came from within her, not from her external form. I think there's a moral there.... especially since Dawn pretty much admits that the magical transformation she needed in order to find her true strength was something she brought upon herself in the first place. Briar Rose created the handsome prince that freed her out of her own dreams and desires.
Now we get to that word that's kept on reoccurring all through the issue:
"How long are you going to keep doing this to me?" "I told you. Until you're safe." - Dawn and the Toymaker.
"You could get hurt. That's what I'm keeping you safe from." - The Toymaker to Dawn.
"Don't. Don't hurt him. He keeps us safe." - the Dolls, about the Toymaker.
"You can't keep me safe. And you don't have to." - Dawn to Buffy.
Remember also that the last issue of the comic was called 'Safe' - and the safety promised to the characters there turned out to be a trap and a cruel lie. Safety, in the Buffyverse, is not all it's cracked up to be - and Dawn now recognises that.
The parallel between Buffy and the Toymaker runs right through the issue. The Toymaker is only trying to keep his dolls safe. And isn't that just what Buffy has been trying to do? All along she's been clinging to Dawn and trying to protect her from the world, even as she's tried to force herself to back off. More than that - she's been doing the same for her Slayers. Sacrificing everything to keep them safe. Even robbing banks on their behalf. Cutting herself off from humanity.
It gets even more disturbing though. The Toymaker made the dolls, but they're not really alive; they're just reflections of him. Soulless; empty porcelain. Bound to obey the Father who created them without ever questioning Him. So how does that compare to the relationship between Buffy and her Slayers? Are they equally her toys? Her puppets and playthings? Dawn says they will "literally die to get your attention", after all... and twice in this issue it's stated that they may be Slayers, but Buffy is still THE Slayer.
"I say that my power... should be our power." It will be disturbing if it turns out that they're Slayers only on sufferance, that Buffy's continuing willingness to share her power is the only thing that keeps the Potentials empowered themselves. We'll have to see.
However, it turns out that maybe there's not as much to worry about as it seems. Why? Because Buffy too has learned something herself.
"I can't keep her safe and it makes me crazy. But I love her. I love my sister to death."
Her acceptance that she can't keep Dawn safe forever - and that perhaps it's wrong of her to even try - is a significant breakthrough. She knows she can't keep Dawn safe; but she's probably going to keep on trying anyway, because that's what you do when you love somebody. It's crazy, but it's a very human thing to do. A very Buffy thing to do.