“You made me forget myself
I thought I was someone else
I’m awake. I’m good. Did I miss anything?
Oh, Xander. Alexander Harris. Animus, the Heart; second to go in the spell, and now in the dreams. The Goof, the Best Friend, the One all the Girls Can Talk to but Never Want to Kiss. The Zeppo, the Unsuperhero, the Regular Guy. Not much color-wise going on here; the name “Alexander,” which I just looked up in the handy Very Best Baby Name Book, means “Defender of mankind,” and you know, I don’t really want to go there at all. (Let’s just read it as irony and move on, shall we?)
Xander’s dream, while not my favorite of the four, is the most successful in replicating the form and feel, the stream of consciousness, of a real dream. It is, in fact, one of the best dream sequences I can think of in any medium. (I knew Joss and co. could do good dream sequences—Buffy’s [and Faith’s?] in part two of “Graduation Day,” was a corker—but before I saw “Restless” I had my doubts they could pull it off for a full hour. They did, of course [more fool me for doubting], and with Xander’s dream, they raised the bar several notches in one go.) It had a beautiful visual dream logic—watch how the camera tracks around the corner of Joyce’s door to see the bed, covers folded back, and then fades back to Xander, who glances right, the back to Joyce—he knew the bed was there, and what it looked like, without actually going there to see it. He knew it, as they say, in the manner of dreams. Or the cut, from Xander in the playground to Xander in the ice cream truck—
But I get ahead of myself. Xander’s dream begins in an un-dreamlike way—he’s awake, in the room where he fell asleep, watching Apocalypse Now. Only it’s not as good as he remembered. “Corn?” offers Buffy. “Butter-flavor?” asks Xander. “New-car smell,” she says.
“Gotta keep going,” cries the soldier trapped in the dull Apocalypse Now. “Gotta take that hill, men. Oh my God—what’s happened to my men?”
As Xander scoops up some popcorn, he sees Willow, gasping for breath—just as we left her at the end of her dream. “What’s her deal?” “Big faker,” says Buffy. “Oh!” cries Giles. “I’m beginning to understand this. It’s all about the journey, isn’t it?”
It’s interesting, to me, that Xander alone of the four of them begins his dream with all of them together. He even gets a clue right out of the gate that something’s Not Quite Right—Willow’s gasping—and Buffy’s remark shows that somewhere down inside he knows how Willow’s being attacked. (“Big faker.”) Xander’s not as dumb as he thinks he is, and he really is the heart of the gang—he can’t imagine being anywhere else. (Actually, he can, and the thought depresses him horribly.) Though he’s far from infallible, and, like Buffy, capable of being too judgmental, he’s the moral center of them all. There’s no overt split between animalistic and rational in his dream at all—but that doesn’t wreck the theory. He’s the most centered and balanced of all of them; he has access to both guts and mind—he just doesn’t know how to use either to their full extent. Or trust himself to do so.
But for the dream to work its mojo, it’s got to separate him from the gang. Distract him from the clues that Something’s Wrong. Get him away from the others.
A quick aside, to the Sopranos faction—if you’re going to make a strong case for this episode being (on top of everything else it is) a Sopranos nod, then I for one would like to see some linkage with Giles’s line—”It’s all about the journey, isn’t it?”—which leads Xander to feel the need to pee, and Xander’s and Buffy’s odd exchange: “You don’t need help with that, right?” “I’ve got a system…” Do those hearken to anything in Tony Soprano’s second season? If so, then I think you’ve got a case. Otherwise, I’ll stick with coincidence. (Who came up with the idea first? Who can say?)
And Xander’s on his way upstairs.
Stairs. This is, of course, the only flight of stairs Xander manages to climb in his dream. Kudos to whomever spotted the pictures of doors on the wall; I saw them, too, but thought they were just, you know, there. Background detail, nothing more. Was I wrong. (Everything means something.) Anyone happen to know if those pictures are there in the “real world” of the Buffyverse?
Waiting at the top of this flight of stairs, of course, is Buffy’s mom in a red peignoir (red again—red sheets, curtains, blood, cherries)—not his dad, which might have made for a more interesting but infinitely more confusing and scary dream. And this being a dream, of course she comes on to him. Dreams are the unconscious sorting things out, playing with ideas we’d never seriously entertain in real life, and it’s perfectly okay for Xander to let his unconscious deal with something he’d be embarrassed to acknowledge awake. But there’s more going on here than just that. Joyce tells him his friends all left a while ago. “I probably better go catch up,” says Xander. He starts to tell her what men are all about—
“Conquest,” she says, smiling.
“I’m a conquistador,” he says.
“Are you sure you don’t mean comfort?”
“I’m a comfortador, too,” he says.
Which is a beautiful collapse and reversal of meaning. As Joyce offers up the word, it’s the thing Xander is seeking—he’s a comfortador, seeking comfort the way a conquistador seeks conquest. But we all know that, troubled as he may be, Xander is the one who offers comfort to the others. He’s the heart of the group. And that’s, ultimately, the stronger meaning of the coined “comfortador”: one who offers comfort. Not one who seeks it.
After all, when Joyce offers him a liaison (speaking without moving her lips—her eyes say it all?), Xander turns her down. “Thanks. I’d really like you. I’m just going to go pee, first.”
Unfortunately, the bathroom is full of soon-to-be-out-of-work Initiative extras: doctors in white lab coats and men in soldiery olive green. Xander, apparently, can’t perform with an audience. “I’m gonna go find another bathroom,” he says, and off he goes, leaving the toilet seat up. (He’s far from perfect.) Across the hall and—into his parents’ basement.
The basement, of course, is the emblem of his failure, and has been since the very first episode of this season. (And yet, when the chips were down, he opened it up to take in the whole gang and keep them safe.) It’s also at the bottom of a flight of stairs, and the door up there is rattling. Something’s trying to get in. “I didn’t order any vampires!” he calls out. Rattle rattle. Thump. “That’s not the way out,” he says. The first time.
(What I tell you two times is true?)
But Xander’s on the playground (slayground? Sorry—new XTC album playing in the background)—and it’s too bright. Giles and Spike (in first season tweed—please! More good suits!) are swinging, and Buffy’s playing in the sandbox. Here we have the classic elements of Buffy’s world that Xander stumbled into four years ago—Slayer, Watcher, vampire—but strangely trivial. Childlike. Is this how he sees the slayage—ultimately unimportant? Or his own part in the enterprise? “There you are,” he says. “Are you sure it was us you were looking for?” asks Buffy. And the natural order of slaying is subverted—Spike (the vampire they’ve left alive) is training to be a Watcher. “He says I’ve got the stuff,” says Spike. “Spike is like a son to me,” says Giles. “I used to be into that,” says Xander. (And he was. He may not have been the one to come through with the research, but he was always there in the library, even when the others weren’t, despite Giles’s sometimes heavy-handed scorn.) “But I’ve got other stuff going on.” And there’s the ice cream truck. “Gotta have something. Gotta be always moving forward.”
“Like a shark,” says Buffy. The image disconcerts him, and he moves immediately to negate it. He’s not a predator. Not an attacker. Not a conquistador. He’s a comfortador.
“Are you sure you should be playing there?” he asks her. “That’s an awfully big sandbox.” And here’s our second clue, our second glimpse of the First Slayer’s dreamtime home, her desert. Gorgeous shot and flashcut back as Buffy says, “It’s not after me yet.”
“You can’t protect yourself from some stuff.” Stuff, again.
“I’m way ahead of you, big brother.”
Thankfully, Joss and co. let the moment hang there, golden, shimmering, mysterious, a little too bright to look at directly. Yearning. Scoffing at gravity, but never taking flight. Don’t poke it too hard; dreams, unlike frogs, are ultimately immune to dissection. Just enjoy it. (Nice music, eh?)
And now we’re done. Anyone for ice cream?
The ice cream truck is a wonderful example of using the show’s memory to good effect. It was the scene of Xander’s confusing argument with Anya in “Where the Wild Things Are,” about sex and relationships; so of course it isn’t just an emblem of his directionless one-crappy-job-after-another existence (“Do you know where you’re going?” asks Anya, as he gets behind the wheel of the truck that’s already in motion), it’s also everything confusing and sloppy and embarrassing about sex, because of that argument—this big cold truck with the wheel on the wrong side and the out-of-tune calliope that sounds like a horror-movie soundtrack. (As far as I know, ice cream trucks in and of themselves aren’t considered to have any sexual significance by oneirocritics; still. Works awful well, don’t it? Ice cream. Sex.)
His conversation with Anya, which the Spouse refers to as “a Bewitched conversation,” begins with that non sequitur: “Do you know where you’re going?” He doesn’t answer it, and a new conversation begins almost as if it had never been said. “I’ve been thinking about getting back into vengeance.” (Season five speculation: is there anything to her saying “This will be a big year for vengeance”?)
The Spouse’s remark, of course, is keyed off that classic (ugh) American sitcom, with Xander as Darren (which one?) and Anya as Sam. She wants to use her powers; he wants her to be normal. But that’s the shell. There’s also his own anxiety about the relationship here: his eidolon of Anya is bored, restless, edgy. She wants a hobby. She isn’t satisfied. What does she see in this relationship? What does she see in him?
But his primary concern, and rightfully so, is the idea of her getting back into the nasty wish-granting game. People will get hurt. “People can’t do anything they want! Society has rules, and borders, and an end zone! It doesn’t matter—”
Speak of the devil(s). There’s Willow and Tara, who’ve ignored a number of society’s rules and boundaries, and let’s not even go to the end zone yet.
“Do you mind?” says Xander. “I’m talking to my demon.”
“We just think you’re really interesting,” says Tara, without moving her lips. (Just like Joyce.)
“Oh, I’m going places,” says Xander.
“I’m way ahead of you,” says Willow.
There’s a lot here. (Duh.) The typical het boy fascination with lesbians (it’s not just pubescent, CB); dealing unconsciously with a sexual attraction one’s waking self finds distasteful (linoleum may make Xander horny, but as we’ve seen with Faith, and Anya, he doesn’t let that do his thinking for him. It’s a close call, yes, but he usually wins out. He’s not a conquistador) (and we don’t know how Xander feels about homosexuality in general, but that’s not really important—it’s not lesbians he’s reacting to, here, it’s Willow as lesbian, Willow as untouchable object of desire—and that’s confusion and distaste enough, right there); the peculiar “My ex-girlfriend’s getting more than I am” envy. And, of course, all his friends have left him behind; he’s just going in circles. Willow, once his bestest bud, is moving away, moving on. Way ahead.
The kiss—no. It wasn’t a cop-out; it was a brilliant way to satisfy the censors and, at the same time, point out how silly they ultimately are. And a whack on the head to all the slavering otaku who see nothing more meaningful in Willow and Tara than two girls kissing. (They know who they are.) The point isn’t the kiss; it’s the idea of the kiss, the eidolon of Willow’s sudden shift and change in Xander’s eyes, and what that does to him. Has done to him. His facial expression—the confusion, the sloppiness, the yearning, the self-loathing (not because this is wrong, but wanting it is wrong), the envy… Wow.
“Do you want to come in the back with us?” asks Tara.
And since this is a dream, Anya acquiesces without even being asked. Her “emphatic gestures,” as someone’s already pointed out, can be read quite handily as Xander’s interpretation of her forceful if charming attempts to play by normal human rules.
Door spotters: someone’s already pointed out the “sheep” sticker on the wall of the ice cream truck. What else do we see, as Xander clambers back? A man in the moon. Bazooka bubblegum. What looks like a small soccer ball (“Goooooal!”). A puppet or two. An abacus. A spiral shape (They Might Be Giants, anyone?). What might be an Etch-a-Sketch. Sheep, of course. And he knocks over a picnic basket and a cooler. Supply your own interpretations; the rest of us are way ahead.
In the basement.
The dream has turned and changed. Before, he was pretty much wandering aimlessly (vids, bathroom, Joyce, basement, playground, ice cream truck, Willow and Tara), but now—
The door at the top of the stairs is still rattling. He yells: “I know what’s up there!” The pounding gets worse, and he turns to go, and there’s the Cheese Guy. “These will not protect you,” he says, but we’ll ignore him, because the door at the top of the stairs just crashed open, and here comes the First. Xander flees—to the UC Sunnydale campus, a place he doesn’t belong. Students wander about purposefully (way ahead), and the color’s all wrong, and there’s Giles, eating an apple. And the First, following after.
We could see this dream as broken into two halves—first, Xander deals with female figures (sister, lover, mother, wife); now he’s dealing with male figures (professor, soldier, principal, father)—but I don’t want to get bogged down in an argument over gender roles. Say, instead, that his dream is suddenly haunted by Authority, and Xander has a little problem with Authority. (Especially male authority.) (Shh.)
Also: this isn’t Giles making a cameo in Xander’s dream. Xander’s perfectly capable of figuring out something’s wrong, and even what caused it (he’s ahead of Willow, there); the information Giles gives him before he lapses into bad French—”It’s because of what we did, I know that”—isn’t anything Xander couldn’t have figured out himself. But his own insecurities, his fear of being stupid, undo him. Giles is giving him vital information, but Xander can’t understand it.
(An aside: Of course the French is ungrammatical and bad. Xander doesn’t speak French! Just like Willow doesn’t know theatrical superstitions. So there.)
But Xander doesn’t understand, and so everyone grabs him and lifts him up (and a wonderfully disorienting shot that was, too) and drops him into the movie that started this whole mess.
“Mistah Snydah, he dead!” Sorry. Had to do that.
Much like Giles’s speech in Willow’s dream, Snyder’s is (as much as anything can be) the crux of Xander’s. Xander failed to understand what was going on, and now he’s being judged. “Where are you from, Harris?”
Snyder tells a little tale about seeing a bunch of kids in the guidance counselor’s office, waiting to be shepherded (sheep!). He smelled dead flowers. “I realized the hope of our nation’s future was nothing but mulch.” (Growth from decay?) (Look, you.) “Where you headed?”
Xander chooses the most limited possible reading: “Well, I’m supposed to meet Tara and Willow. And maybe Buffy’s mom.”
“Time is running out,” says Snyder.
“I’m just trying to get away. There’s something I can’t fight,” answers Xander.
“Are you a soldier?”
“I’m a comfortador.” What I tell you twice is true.
“You’re neither,” says Snyder. “You’re a whipping boy, raised by mongrels and set on a sacrificial slab.”
And Xander, through a small act of defiance—standing up in Snyder’s presence—breaks out and takes some small modicum of control. He’s in the courtyard to Giles’s apartment—but here comes the First.
This long tracking shot was gorgeous, and collapsed location just like in dreams. First through Giles’s apartment, where Giles and Buffy and Anya stand around Willow, choking in Giles’s chair (again, Xander knows what going on, if he’d just stop a minute and think). But he’s got to keep going—out into the hall in Buffy’s and Willow’s dorm. And the First is still after him. Into Buffy’s and Willow’s room, and then their closet, and then a dark hallway I didn’t recognize which seemed to lead to a sewer and then back to the basement. The door’s rattling and pounding again. “That’s not the way out,” says Xander. The second time.
Xander’s been judged, and now he’s going to be punished.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” bellows Xander’s dad. (Uncle Roary?) “Why won’t you come upstairs? Are you ashamed of us?” (Raised by mongrels.) “Your mother’s crying her guts out.”
“You don’t understand,” says Xander.
“You don’t understand,” says Xander’s dad, thumping down the stairs. “The line ends here, with us. You’re not going to change that. You haven’t got the heart.”
But he does. He is. Still. The First had to attack precisely that, his heart, to get to Xander. Interesting, how with him she does something she doesn’t do with anyone else: disguises herself, as his father. Or hides behind his eidolon.
Nothing else worked.