Saturday, October 29, 2011

Beauty and the Beasts

Season #3, Episode #4: Beauty and the Beasts

"Oz ate someone last night."

No, I am not going to mention again how totally inept I've become at updating this blog. I'm not going to promise to be better and then wait for another month to pass before reviewing another delightfully absurd episode just waiting for my derision. I am so not even going to get into it.

Instead I will preface this entry with a word on Marti Noxon. Marti Noxon, a Buffy writer who became a producer in this season, has a tendency to write terrible episodes full of schmaltzy nonsense and clunky metaphors that make even Clint Eastwood cringe. (I've heard that in Buffy fandom, these are called "Martiphors.") A typical Marti Noxon episode features nothin' but ~true love~ between Buffy and Angel and reads like an after school special roundup in which the cast warns us about the dangers of peer pressure. Beauty and the Beasts is, I believe, the quintessential Marti Noxon episode.

(I can't dump on Noxon too much, as she is known to sometimes write things that aren't horrible, and in fact wrote I Only Have Eyes For You, one of my favorite episodes. But this woman was also responsible for Wild at Heart and Into the Woods, which I will contend are the two worst Buffy episodes should I ever get to them.)

Get ready for something awful.

The episode opens with the silliest possible camera tricks all thrown into one scene--a flash of the full moon (so that we will know to expect Oz) while a blurry predator cam snakes through the woods, scored by an echoed voiceover from Willow telling a story about wild animals, all set to the sweet tunes of my Monster Mash compilation CD. Once you know Marti, a couple more lines of dialogue will be all you need to divine exactly what will happen in Beauty and the Beasts.

Turns out Willow is reading this bedtime story to Werewolf Oz while keeping watch over him. Xander comes to take over her babysitting shift, leaving one to wonder why anyone would ever trust Xander to do anything ever. She tells him 600 times in a row why it's soooo amazingly important that Xander watch over Oz and what specific things he must do and watch out for and "EVERYONE WILL DIE IF OZ GETS OUT!!!" and then as soon as she leaves, he goes to sleep.

Meanwhile, Buffy and Faith patrol the cemetery. Eliza Dushku shows all her cards here trying her hardest to make any of Faith's dialogue sound like it belongs on this TV show or anywhere on planet earth, but when she asks Buffy if she and Scott are "doing the ditty" and says that he gives her that "good low down tingle" and that "he's a muffin. Blueberry!", you will be left confused and vaguely in need of a shower. Buffy, ever the good girl, is just happy to be dating someone who isn't a hell beast for a change. "All men are beasts," Faith tells us. If you know Marti...say no more.

Predator cam leads us to a defenseless teen, who is dragged away and probably eaten. Men!

After the credits, we jump smack into the middle of Willow and Buffy's passing period conversation and hear Willow say, "I don't think it's true that all men are beasts!" Which leaves one to imagine Buffy coming to school that morning and saying, "Hey Willow! Faith told me that all men are beasts!" But I digress. The group are joined by Scott and his random two friends who we have never seen before and, spoilers! will never see again.

They're Pete and Debbie, who are such a cute couple!!

Giles reams Xander out for being such an unfathomable douche and leaving Oz to his own devices--they've discovered the mauled body of defenseless teen and fear Oz is responsible.

But Buffy has her own duties, namely seeing the school psychologist Mr. Pratt. He proves himself to be one of those cool, understanding hip adults who can relate with the kids and earn their trust, and isn't that just what Buffy needs! Mr. Pratt has to run off to his fishing trip, which I imagine is the only possible explanation for this outfit.

Back in the library, the Scoobies strategize and try their best to exonerate Oz. Oz is a 'lil shaken up and tries to run off dramatically, but Willow reminds him that he's about to turn into a werewolf and needs to go into his cage. "Stop, don't come near me!" he tells Willow. "I'm about to change, get away from me!" I've rambled about the icky way the show tries to present Oz's werewolf self as his unbridled masculinity that might lash out against the nearest innocent bystander if they don't GTFO of his way, but really, Buffy writers? This is the exact tack Stephanie Meyer took with werewolves, and that's gross.

But you'll get a whole lot of that in this episode, what with meaningful predator cam voiceovers, monologues from Mr. Pratt, and confusing babble from Faith, all of which go down one path: men are beasts, love takes over people and makes them crazy, and get away from me, woman, I'm about to get masculine. And just wait til you see the icky conclusion.

Speaking of abusive predator boyfriends, Buffy goes patrolling in the woods and comes upon feral Angel, who has somehow managed to contemplate and understand pants.

They brawl, but Buffy overpowers him and ties him up with chains. Kinky.

Angel is completely "wild," can't talk, can't recognize Buffy, can't function. Buffy is too busy being like, "HOW???" She stays up all night in the library researching "demons that get sent to a hell dimension and inexplicably appear because I put my claddagh ring on the floor." Her search futile, she turns to Giles and asks about a "dream" she had that Angel came back. Giles tells her that if Angel managed to come back from his eternity of brutal torment, he'd either be the kind of monster wants to be redeemed, and or the kind that is "void of humanity and cannot respond to reason or love."

Buffy's mission--to determine what kind of monster Angel is.

She goes to his love dungeon and asks if he understands or recognizes her, but he starts grunting and gnawing on his own flesh, which is never really a good sign. She rushes to Mr. Pratt to vent, and yells, "Don't turn around, and don't say anything! Just listen! Because (A) yeah, that's a thing people do!, or (B) I'm about to profess my undying love to you!, or (C) you are dead and you can't turn around or say anything!" If you have not completely given up and turned off your TV by now, you'll see a very mauled Mr. Pratt, cigarette in hand.

So I guess he didn't hear Buffy's proclamation of love.

Pete and Debbie run off to make out in a janitor's closet because they are soooo in love. But things take a turn when Pete finds some empty Mason jars that appear to have once contained Gack, which he is not too happy about. Debbie says she got rid of it to help him, because "you know how you get when you drink that stuff!" He starts flexing his muscles and yelling that it isn't the Gack that makes him that way, it's stupid harlot Debbie!!!

Then he turns into a monster. If you haven't thrown your remote at your TV right now, maybe it's time you do, because he starts to repeatedly hit Debbie across the face, accusing her of turning him into this, telling her she's a slut, and admitting that he murdered Mr. Pratt so she wouldn't be able to talk to him anymore. When he calms down, he whimpers and apologizes and appeals, "You know you shouldn't make me mad! You know what happens!"

Ugh, I can't even get into this. More on the prevailing ickiness at the end.

Oz notices that there's something wrong with Debbie when he sees her black eye, and tells her that he's always around if she wants to talk. Unfortunately for everyone, especially you, Pete notices.

Some piece of evidence exonerates Oz, so the Scoobies turn their attention to finding the real killer. They deduce that Debbie is the common denominator, and Buffy and Willow go to reason with her in the ladies room. Okay, I'm just warning you--if you haven't turned off your TV yet...

This scene is so awful in every conceivable way that I can do little else but just quote it verbatim. Buffy says, "It's hard covering up a shiner like that. Do you know what works? Don't get hit." When Debbie refuses to give Pete up ("It's not his fault! It's me! He does what he does because he loves me too much!"), Buffy makes it quite clear how ridiculous and weak she is and how she better just get over it because people are dying! I want to give the show the benefit of the doubt and say that this scene shows Buffy's imperfection, that as the episodes continue she becomes all business and has no patience for people getting in her way. And that's true--the show will take her character to that extreme. But not here. Not now. Not when the episode is making the crassest statement on domestic violence possible with all the nuance of a jackhammer and trying to play it straight, and the protagonist berates Debbie for not exercising power that she does not have to begin with.

We interrupt this reaaaal deep commentary on domestic violence for a fight between Monster Pete and Werewolf Oz, with an Angel Escapes from his Chains interim. The fight culminates in the janitor's closet where Pete comes upon a hiding Debbie. He blames her for the fact that Buffy now knows he's the killer, and while Buffy tries to rush to the rescue, she is too late to stop Pete from...killing Debbie.

Yes, Pete actually kills Debbie. Well, Buffy warned her that this would happen if she didn't just stop being weak.

While I'm always shocked when any kind of mainstream media chooses to show the violent and extreme outcomes of relationships that, in the real world, are abusive, I'm usually shocked in a positive way. Later in the series, the writers will let another abusive relationship unfold in a way that I think is pretty amazing and nuanced and challenges some of our assumptions about love and domestic violence. But there's no ambiguity about whether Pete is abusive toward Debbie--because Marti Noxon has never heard of the word ambiguity--and so the episode sets itself up to end violently.

Not a single moment of this episode earns the right to honestly and thoughtfully address domestic violence, let alone the murder of one partner by another. It's disgusting and everybody involved should be ashamed. It falls into the trap the show made for itself from the first episode--that monsters are not real, but domestic violence is. That you can't equate a guy unwillingly turning into a werewolf/vampire/Mr. Hyde with an abusive partner. That you can't attribute this violence to the "beast within" every male, like every guy in the world is just waiting to get too angry before he snaps and becomes abusive. So you better watch out.

HOWEVER. I have mixed feelings about what happens next. Just as it looks like Buffy won't win this fight, Feral Angel turns up and strangles Pete. Searching for redemption, or void of humanity?

He falls on his knees and says, "Buffy?"

The first time I saw this episode, I thought this was one of the most striking moments of the series so far. In bringing Angel back, they have to deal with the fact of Angelus in a way that is a little more than, "Well he has a soul again!" I want to believe that this moment acknowledges that even if Angel is searching for redemption, the violence between Angel and Buffy hasn't disappeared, and that thread will always come up in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways. For all of Buffy's strength, her abusive relationship isn't abusive all the time, and not in obvious ways that are easy to identify. It could have been--and at one point very nearly was--Buffy and not Debbie.

The shot of Angel at Buffy's feet with Debbie's body lying in the foreground says just that...and only a class act like Marti Noxon would use the dead girlfriend as a device to prop up Plot A.

Well, she did learn from the master.

Favorite moment: When it's over.


  1. Your review reminded me of Buffy's awful admonishment of Debbie's "lack of power" and how we can feasibly attribute that doozy to the master himself: Joss. He's always going on rants about "power," and he makes Buffy his mouthpiece on more than one occasion, the most distinctive being when she tells the Watcher's Council off in Season 5.

    It goes something like this: Glory is stronger than me. Glory wants something from me. I have power over Glory.

    Uh, yes, Joss, but also Buffy won't feel too powerful if Glory just punched a hole in her face!

    Ergo, Pete is stronger than Debbie, but Pete wants something from Debbie. Debbie has power over Pete. Personal responsibility, pull yourself up by your Slayer bootstraps, but what if you're not the Slayer?!

    Slayers are not real, but abusive partnerships are. You said it best.

  2. I get a kick out of that scene with the Watcher's Council because who doesn't love to see stuffy old British men shamed? But the way that Joss sets up characters/institutions are "the patriarchy" in this show is just...

    Like the scene with the Watcher's Council. It's exactly like you say--Buffy has power over the Council not because she is so enterprising, but because she is endowed with Slayer strength and has a Key sister. Perhaps if my sister were the Key, I too could smash the patriarchy.

    And don't forget that this whole stupid analogy falls apart in Season 7 when Joss likens the Council to mystical rapists from indistinct Africa. So this super power that gave Buffy the strength to dismiss the patriarchy was actually given to her through a process analogous to rape? Huh? (I'm not even touching Caleb.)

    Whedon sets up figures as "the patriarchy" and knocks 'em down, and if he weren't playing it so straight, he might be able to make a nuanced point beyond, "I love women, Buffy's so strong, that's hot!"

  3. Undoubtedly, Buffy handing it to the Watchers is brilliant and entertaining as hell. Current theory about Joss: he's a huge masochist, a submissive, who entertains sexist/misogynistic thoughts about women and takes no shortage of pleasure in getting smacked around for it. Yeah, yeah, authorial intent blah.

    I want to enjoy Buffy as a feminist icon, but it's so hard when the writers trap her in these situations. Why is the patriarchy only vulnerable to (a superior) violence? Willow's Wiccan alternative seems more digestible, yet it also smacks of second-wavey global sisterhood mixed with rape? It was bad when the African tribal caricatures injected the first Slayer with demon strength but when Willow does it on a mass-scale it's all empowerment-goddess and girls-be-vibin'? Or was the sin of the first watchers that they only made one girl the Slayer, consigning her to a short life of pain?

    What even?! We'll talk more when you get to season 7 (and there's no doubt in my mind that you *will* get to season 7). This blog remains my favorite blog.