FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Beauty and the Beasts
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Oz is a werewolf, but locks himself in the library to avoid maiming anyone. Angel's returned from the hell dimension Buffy sent him to, but she doesn't know it yet as she's too busy dating Scott.
The episode opens and closes with Buffy's voiceover, reading extracts from Jack London's The Call of the Wild, as Willow watches Oz in full werewolf mode at the library. When Xander falls asleep on Oz-watch and a vicious animal attack takes place, suspicion is instantly placed on his wolfish self. The gang desperately try to hunt down another possibility as Oz begins to wrestle with the idea that he may have killed someone. Meanwhile, Buffy's patrol causes her to run into a feral Angel, chaining him up in the mansion and hoping he's not the one causing the attacks. What is actually happening is that a friend of Scot's, Pete, has turned himself into a rage monster after trying to 'macho' up to impress his girlfriend Debbie.
A curious thing happened whilst watching the opening of this episode. I realised that I had absolutely no recollection of it. I've definitely seen it before because this isn't my first Buffy re-watch rodeo, but there was nothing in my brain that made me go 'oh, it's this episode!' Watching it back now, it's largely because it's not very good. It's one of the few cases where the themes overtake the story and it results in an episode that had a lot of potential, but one which falters in its execution. Domestic violence is ostensibly the major focus with the added exploration of masculine duality, the sensitive exterior versus the beast within.
The plot itself lacks the usual metaphorical zing, but that's because it's largely not that metaphorical. The domestic violence that Debbie experiences is very real and somehow, having Pete take some serum to Hulk-rage his way into it feels like a clumsy add-on. It would have been far more powerful if it had been a human killer at the centre of it all, something fairly rare in the Buffyverse. Not only would it have enhanced the exploration of violence in Buffy's world, but it would also have provided a much more nuanced examination of masculine duality alongside Oz and Angel. Both of those characters have a monster not of their making as part of their personality whereas Pete creates his through that glowing serum thing. Would it not have been more powerful in this instance if he was just an ordinary guy who became a monster?
Part of this problem is that we don't see much of Debbie and Pete in the episode beforehand apart from exchanging flowers and sweet nothings. Whilst this adds to the domestic violence/behind closed doors angle, it also ensures that the revelation that Pete is behind the killings because of his love for Debbie feels tacked on. There's no real effort to get to know Debbie and Pete as characters before he turns into his own personal Hyde. When the violence does come, we're sympathetic to Debbie purely because of the situation and that makes it feel a little exploitative and the domestic violence angle very heavy-handed. The episode is much stronger when dealing with the vaguer notions of duality and inherent violence within characters like Oz or Angel. Because we've known these characters for a comparatively longer time, their respective narratives are more compelling and thematically a whole lot more interesting.
It also means their own stories get sidelined towards the end of the narrative in favour of a gungho chase scene through the corridors of Sunnydale High. Oz wrestling with his wolf side starts here as he starts to wonder whether they are entirely separate entities, or whether it is something he has to deal with in his human side. Angel meanwhile has been so broken by his hellish experiences that he's feral, concerned only with protecting Buffy by the episode's end. I'd much rather have seen more of Oz trying to come to terms with his potential murder status because Seth Green has the nuances of his character down early on. The wry humour becomes a defence mechanism and his relationship with Willow suffers because he doesn't want to put her in harm's way. I know we go on to see this later in the fourth season, but this feels like the perfect episode to have introduced it properly, rather than as a vague introduction to someone else's plot.
The strongest scene of the episode is when Buffy and Willow confront Debbie in the bathroom and quickly set about trying to convince her that Pete is not worth all of the violence. Debbie employs the language often used by victims of domestic abuse to justify their partner's actions (whilst Pete does the same to justify his own). Buffy has previously shown she abhors any form of violence against women and goes hell for leather in trying to convince Debbie otherwise. However, it's one of those situations where Buffy can't save everyone and Debbie runs back to Pete only to die at his hand. It's a tragic ending for her character and would have been more effective had the narrative pushed their relationship to the forefront more.
Just about everything in this episode feels a little off. The script doesn't sparkle with its usual wit, which is surprising considering its a Marti Noxon-led episode and the story feels disparate, despite its obvious thematic connections. It's the first dud so far of the third season, but next week, it's Homecoming so get your party dress on.
Quote of the Week:
Willow: Hey at least this time it's not your boyfriend who's a cold-blooded... [Oz walks over] jelly doughnut.
Let's Get Trivial: Those chains that Buffy uses to restrain Angel? They're in a chest with Drusilla's dolls. Which means those are Spike and Dru's sex chains. Yep.
You can read Becky's look at the previous episode, Faith, Hope, and Trick here.