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.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Faith, Hope and Trick

Season #3, Episode #3: Faith, Hope and Trick

"He said he lived for kissing toast. Taquitos?"

Hello, reader! I know at least one of you is out there, as I received a blogger e-mail today from someone I've never met asking me if I intended to continue on with my blog! As it turns out, flattery is awfully motivational. So this one's for you, blogger guy!

And anyway, October has got to be the official month of Buffy, no? In honor of this month--the best month--I will do my darndest to review many episodes. Maybe even two in one go! And what better way to start than with the introduction of a New Major Character!

Two shady characters in a black limo roll up to the McDonald's drive-thru, and suddenly you remember that the last "big bad" skipped out of town with his ~*~crazy~*~ girlfriend, and that the real "big bad" was "put down like a dog," as Cordelia astutely describes. Sure enough, these two seem like big bad material, saying of the Slayer: "I'm going to rip her spine from her body, and I'm going to eat her heart and suck the marrow from her bones!" Could they be the major new characters??

Principal Snyder agrees to let Buffy back into school so long as she gets a teacher to write her a letter of recommendation and sees the school psychiatrist. Could the kindly psychiatrist be the new major character??

The Scoobies rejoice that Buffy is back, and that they are cool seniors with open lunch status, which for some reason is an actual thing that people in the real world care about. Giles, on the other hand, is all business, asking Buffy to give him all the nitty gritty details about Angel's demise so he can prepare some Aramaic doodad to prevent Acathla from coming back, blah blah. Who cares because...

Hey, did you hear that Darling Violetta are playing at The Bronze tonight?

Oh, The Bronze, how I've missed you. I recognize this band as having done the theme song to Angel, which technically I shouldn't know exists yet. They provide an adequately angsty backdrop to Buffy turning down Scott, a harmless teen boy fighting for her affections. New major character?

Buffy is distracted by a girl Cordelia charmingly calls "Slutorama" who is seduced out of The Bronze by a vampire. The Scoobies run out to save her just in time to see her kick the crap out of the vampire and introduce herself as Faith. As Oz notes, "I think there's a new Slayer in town." If you're like me watching this for the first time, your reaction will be, "Eliza Dushku is in this show??"

Faith is the new major character. She is the Slayer called forth after Drusilla killed Kendra, who is meant to be the working class response to bougie Buffy. She's crass, fun-loving, and says slaying makes her "hungry and horny."

Buffy responds: "Sometimes I crave a low-fat yogurt?"

Faith is a bad girl who wants to live large. She'll become a pal, a foil, and a source of sexual tension for Buffy, and do all of this while wearing lots of eyeliner and press-on tattoos, using cheeky phrases like "five by five," and living in a seedy motel.

In theory, Faith sounds awesome and she should totally be right up my alley, but it is no secret that she is one of my all-time least favorite characters. (Riley, Drusilla, and Faith--the unholy trifecta.) Where do we go wrong? I'm excited to get through this season again, as I do love Faith as a concept, and her arc is intellectually satisfying. But execution-wise? We'll see.

The two big bads from the beginning of the episode turn out to be Mr. Trick and this guy who looks like he wandered of the Star Trek set. The latter is super pissed that the Slayer gave him a big scar on his face, or maybe gouged out his eye?

But, as always, interpersonal drama permeates all. Faith warms herself immediately to the Scoobies with her tales of naked alligator wrestling (Xander), calling Giles young and cute (Giles), and charming dinner table banter (Joyce). The only one who remains unconvinced is Buffy, who resents Faith for trespassing on her turf. She doesn't begrudge Faith for stealing the spotlight, but for mirroring her life exactly, down to hitting on Scott, the inoffensive fella from The Bronze. Remember the mirroring!

Buffy and Faith go on their first co-slaying adventure together, and we see the sinister side of Faith's wily charms. Faith leaves Buffy pinned by a vampire while she repeatedly punches another in the face with a big old grin. Hungry and horny, likely. Buffy warns Giles that Faith seems to enjoy the slaying thing a little too much.

Giles discovers that rather than being at a Watcher convention in the Cotswolds, Faith's slayer was actually killed by Star Trek guy, who is actually an ancient vampire named Kokistos. Revelations! Faith is on the lam, and her tough-as-nails facade wears when he comes knocking on her door. But actually, they dispense of him rather anti-climatically. I thought this guy was gonna be the new big bad?

But they bond, and share post-slayage cheese fries. Faith confronts her fear. And she will remain in Sunnydale indefinitely.

I've neglected to mention that per David Boreanaz's contract, Buffy visits Angel in her dreams each episode, sometimes on a beach at sunset, dancing slow at The Bronze, whisperin' sweet nothings.

One wonders--will we have to endure this for the rest of the season?

Fear not, reader.
Buffy finally accepts Scott's offer to go out on a date, but balks when he presents her with a claddagh ring, as Angel gave her the same ring back in Surprise. But after a heart-to-heart with The Scoobies (to be described later), she decides she's ready for closure and asks Scott for another chance. She then goes to leave the claddagh at the site where she stabbed Angel in Season 2. So sweet!

And then who should burst forth but...sweaty naked David Boreanaz?? Oh, to be a fangirl watching this in its original broadcast...

So let's take stock. We have Faith the bad girl Slayer. We have Mr. Trick, the new vamp in town. We have puppy dog Scott. Angel emerges from the depths of hell. But...who's Hope?

Favorite moment: At the very end of the episode, Buffy reveals to the Scoobies that Angel's soul was restored when she killed him. You know, in case it helps with Giles's Aramaic spell. Everyone gets teary-eyed, Sad Theme #4 twinkles, and Giles reveals, "There was no spell."

Oh Giles, you card!