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Returning to the Basement: Excavating the Unconscious in 'Buffy's' “Restless"

Laura Berger and Keri Ferencz

Although dreams permeate Buffy the Season Four finalé "Restless" consists of a series of dreams in which the characters confront their unconscious dreams.

“I believe the subtext here is rapidly becoming text.”

-- Rupert Giles, “Ted” (Buffy 2.11)

Dreams have been identified as “an important narrative element of Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Wilcox 165), both in the frequency of their occurrences–about thirty dreams in the first four seasons of the show (ibid)–and in terms of their significance, as they provide viewers the opportunity to penetrate the exteriority of each character and explore the realms of their unconscious. The episode which best illustrates the importance of dreams within the Buffy universe is “Restless”; each of the four dreams in this episode can be seen as an explication and dramatization of the irreconcilable tension between who one is and who one should be. The pages that follow, will explore this tension with reference to psychoanalytic theory, including the Lacanian understanding of the self, namely the division between the self and its ego-ideal or “ideal-I”, and Judith Butler’s gender theory that speaks to the external pressures on the self to conform to societal gender norms. Ultimately, the narrative decision to allow viewers entry to the interior dream lives of characters allows these tensions visibility, resulting in a deeper understanding of the characters as conflicted subjects becoming available to viewers.

Before beginning an analysis of “Restless,” it is useful to briefly explore the relevant aspects of both psychoanalytic and gender theory that will inform our interpretation. Psychoanalytic theory, originally developed by Sigmund Freud, seeks to understand the nature of persons by exploring the unconscious mind, because human consciousness is riddled with gaps (Freud, The Unconscious 50). Thus, the unconscious is the key to understanding fully the subject–to repair the gaps in consciousness. The primary way of uncovering the unconscious in psychoanalytic practice is through the interpretation of dreams, because they allow a privileged glimpse of the unconscious at work (Eagleton 157). Dreams can be seen as “picture-puzzles” (Freud, Interpretation of Dreams 924) or “symbolic texts” (Eagleton 157) because the divide between latent meanings and manifest details is so drastic in dream-form. Dreams, then, must be translated or deciphered in order to be understood. This process of probing allows for the discovery of the dream’s latent meanings–the unconscious fears and desires of the subject. Since the psychoanalytic approach to literary criticism is also concerned with discovering the latent meanings hidden in manifest details, applying psychoanalytic dream interpretation techniques to “Restless” is an ideal approach, for it will enable a more complete explication of the episode’s underlying meanings.

In addition to the writings of Freud on the unconscious and the interpretation of dreams, we shall make reference to the theory of the mirror stage posited by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, whose primary concern is the constitution of the human subject as a being or an ‘I’. Lacan conceives of the mirror stage as a process occurring during infancy that leaves lifelong tension within the subject. Sean Homer notes that “the sense of a unified self is acquired at the price of this self being an other.” (Homer 25). It is important to make explicit that the duality of self that develops in the mirror stage does not simply disappear as the infant ages; the sense of Otherness within the infant’s ego remains, and the tension inherent in the duality only increases with greater awareness on the part of the subject as he or she ages. Lacan notes that the ego is unable to live up to the expectations imposed on it by the ideal-I, as evidenced by the dreams of Willow, Xander, Giles, and Buffy in “Restless.”

It is not merely internal tensions related to the self that are illuminated in dreams but also tensions related to social norms, including traditional notions of gender. Prominent queer theorist Judith Butler suggests that gender is a result of social conditions, not an innate identity. As such, Butler asks that we consider gender as an act that is both “intentional” and “performative” (Subversive Bodily Acts 380): an invention with no origin, a circumstance and not a state. We are assigned a gender on the basis of sex, and it is our duty to “perform” that gender with an audience in mind, real or imagined. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is celebrated for “subverting…conventional gender dynamics,” (Felder 225) but even though the characters defy confining configurations of ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness,’ it is a struggle. “Restless” brings that struggle into the light, subtly showing the way that each character grapples with notions of gender and their own perceived failings in the performance of their assigned gender roles...

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