Cultural Catchup Project: “Beauty and the Beasts” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

“Beauty and the Beasts”

May 9th, 2010

You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.

Due to more Mother’s Day related traveling than I had anticipated, I actually ran out of time to watch enough of Buffy to make today’s piece as expansive as I wanted it to be. I watched “Beauty and the Beasts” earlier in the week when I went through the first disc of the season, but then I haven’t moved on since that point as a result of more excursions than usual. Accordingly, you’re stuck with a small capsule review rather something something a bit more substantial, but I do have a few points to make (as if running out of things to say is ever really my issue).

While not quite as momentous as “Faith, Hope & Trick,” this episode nonetheless plays an important role in starting off the season’s story arc. While it’s not the most subtle episode the show has ever done, the various parallels do a nice job of handling the reintegration of a certain character both in terms of the character himself and Buffy’s response to their return, and they have some fun with a couple of television clichés in the process.

The story of Pete as a self-medicating Jekyll/Hyde figure is a little bit dull, but I think that’s more or less the point here: when something goes wrong like this, we used to be able to presume that it was some sort of demon and just move on, but now the characters we know and trust are just as likely to be responsible. In the case of Oz, you all alerted me to the fact that Oz’s three days a month affliction wasn’t going to be smooth sailing, and here we see Xander asleep on the job result in our resident werewolf potentially being responsible for the attacks. Meanwhile, the feral Angel is an entirely unpredictable creature, as his centuries in hell (as nicely set up by the time/space continuum details in “Anne”) have robbed him of his humanity. Both situations are reflected in Pete’s strange concoction, a story which never particularly goes anywhere but does help keep the episode thematically consistent.

I was initially very wary of the introduction of the school psychologist, primarily because this device always seems a bit too convenient. Most shows have had episodes where a shrink of some sort comes in so that they can justify having characters letting out their feelings, and Mr. Platt first appears to be such a device and little more. The character isn’t uninteresting, but it seems like an excuse for Buffy to talk about her feelings in more detail, and there isn’t enough clever dialogue in Buffy’s attempt to speak vaguely about her situation to make the scene really pop. However, at a certain point you realize that it’s all a bait and switch in order to parallel Angel’s return: Angel emerges from hell just as soon as she’s ready to put him behind her, so it’s fitting that Mr. Platt is murdered by Pete just as soon as Buffy wants to start confiding in him. It’s a nice demonic subversion of the typical cliché: Buffy isn’t going to be the kind of person who gets “saved” by a school psychologist arriving in order to put her life into perspective, and it’s nice of the show to remind us of that sometimes.

Part of the reason I wanted to watch a bit more before writing about this episode is that I still don’t quite know how to respond to Angel’s return. I can say that the scenes with Buffy watching as a chained Angel struggles like a wild animal are really evocative, and there’s a heartbreaking quality to the entire story which again makes poor Scott Hope seem just too gosh darn normal for this universe. Boreanaz does a great job of playing the wounded Angel, but my opinion on the speed of his return to “normal” will depend on how things play out in the future. Making the entire episode about transformations and reconciling behaviour with identity means that we at least understand what it means for Angel to recognize Buffy at episode’s end, but the nature of that recognition will very much be something to figure out in the future.

Cultural Observations

  • I am going to presume from this point on that any people we meet who are very clearly not “new characters” are going to somehow be involved with the main case: this isn’t a new thing for the show, but both Pat in “Dead Man’s Party” and Phil and Debbie here seemed like characters who would logically exist in this universe (a friend for Joyce, friends for Scott) who become collateral damage perhaps because the show doesn’t have time for them to keep existing.
  • You know that Faith’s introduction was strong when the show can just nonchalantly make her “one of the gang” here and I don’t even bat an eye.
  • The opening (from Willow) and closing (from Buffy) readings from “Call of the Wild” were an interesting stylistic choice: I’m going to presume that they’re supposed to directly recall Angel’s voiceover in “Passion,” which is the last time that we got this sort of structure, and it certainly clarifies (if perhaps too well) the focus of the episode.
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27 Comments

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27 responses to “Cultural Catchup Project: “Beauty and the Beasts” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

  1. Gill

    I am going to presume from this point on that any people we meet who are very clearly not “new characters” are going to somehow be involved with the main case: this isn’t a new thing for the show, but both Pat in “Dead Man’s Party” and Phil and Debbie here seemed like characters who would logically exist in this universe (a friend for Joyce, friends for Scott) who become collateral damage perhaps because the show doesn’t have time for them to keep existing.

    Dangerous presumption, Myles – don’t forget Joss’s habit of taking very minor characters and re-using them until they become more substantial.

    Another good review. It’s interesting to see your take on Angel’s return at this point.

    • Tausif Khan

      Yeah, Myles your memories of Once More with Feeling Are failing. Cordelia was a great one off character! (hopefully you get this joke once you see the episode again).

  2. Eldritch

    I was somewhat put off by the Jekyll/Hyde subplot because it was just so season one movie monster of the week. Not to mention the abused girlfriend syndrome message, which has become so common in entertainment.

    But it was nicely integrated into the more personal stories of both Willow and Buffy, each of whom worried that her boyfriend was the monster eating their fellow students. Lots of nice double entendres there.

    • Beth

      I agree. This episode was my least favorite of the season for that reason (plus I really hated Debbie’s hairstyle, haha). It was more of a whodunit than an exploration of “beasts”, as the voiceovers tend to suggest.

  3. greg

    It’s not awful or anything (IMO, no episode this season even comes close to being bad) but this is definitely the most ham-fisted. Marti Noxon, unfortunately, never met a subtle metaphor she didn’t want to make literal – this is gonna be a recurring problem with almost every episode you see her credit on. Unlike the rest of the writing staff, she seems to have no faith (swidt?) that the audience is gonna get anything even remotely obvious without making it condescendingly clear. But I love that this episode gets all the subtext out of the way to make space for the other stuff that this season deals with. I felt this one was annoyingly condescending (almost to the point of being a Public Service Announcement to teach us all a Valuable Lesson – and Joss promised us there wouldn’t BE any “very special episodes!) at the time it aired but, in retrospect it serves a VERY useful function that I didn’t notice until I took a step back.

    Kudos for the insights in your fourth paragraph; that’s exactly the kind of deconstruction I often can’t do until I rewatch after a season’s over. It was certainly in season three that I began to gain respect for the writing staff for carefully constructing forests instead of building trees.

    • diane

      Treating a metaphor as literal truth is one of the basic idea generators in SF and fantasy, which makes it very hard to play a metaphor as metaphor. Granted, Marti Noxon tends to nail it down a little harder than necessary, and this isn’t her strong point. Her reputation among the writers was the “Queen of Pain,” and in later seasons she puts that to good use.

    • Beth

      Her larger involvement in Season Six was a major reason for the overarching metaphor (which really almost stopped being a metaphor at some point – subtext rapidly becoming text) that almost brought the season down. I love Season Six, but man, I almost quit on Buffy after “Wrecked,” I was so dismayed by the hamfistedness of it all. But, of course, I didn’t.

      • Susan

        S6 gets a bad rap. It’s arduous to watch, but I think the narrative works well, considering what came before. There are always a couple of clunkers in every season, and I don’t think it’s one of the strongest seasons overall, but it works. Buffy at its worst (and I think S4 is the weak link) is still in the 99th percentile.

        • Eldritch

          “Buffy at its worst (and I think S4 is the weak link) is still in the 99th percentile.”

          Agreed.

          However, I really didn’t care for drug addiction analogy. I really wish the evil character’s motivation had been explained some other way. Arrogance. Absolute power corrupting absolutely. or something other than drug addiction.

          • Susan

            Good point, Eldritch. I guess we can’t go very deep into a discussion of S6 right now, but I agree that drug addiction is a problematic analogy.

          • Raine

            Re: the drug addiction analogy. Especially since there is plenty of background for a different set of motivations in previous seasons and the beginning of season 6 which “Wrecked” effectively throws out the window to make the storyline fit the drug addiction analogy. Which we can all discuss when Myles gets there. (I think I’ve been appropriately vague for Myles here…)

      • Becker

        S6 is the only season that has an episode that I have never seen and have zero interest in seeing. not because of what happens in the episode but because the season just made me stop caring, and it all started with the train wreck (unintentional) of Wrecked. Marti in interesting in that she wrote some of my favorite episodes (namely BBB) and some of my least favorite ones (namely Wrecked).

        I disagree with Susan below in that I think S6 gets a proper bad rap and is by far the worst moment of the show. S4 was nowhere near as bad.

  4. greg

    I get why everyone was so concerned that Oz might have escaped from the library cage, but just how did they imagine a wild werewolf could have (or even WOULD have?) gotten back in? (For that matter, I can never stop wondering where and in what state Oz woke up the FIRST time he turned into a wolf – we only saw him waking up naked in the woods after the second night – inquiring minds want to know)

  5. rosengje

    Despite the ham-handedness of the primary story, I really enjoy a lot of the elements introduced in this episode, particularly Buffy’s ambivalence about Angel’s return. When Angel recognizes Buffy at the episode’s end and collapses hugging her, her face as she looks away is just a beautiful mixture of emotion. This theme of Buffy having to reconcile her happiness about having Angel back with the complications it imposes on her life is one of my favorite plot threads of the season. And although I never warmed to Scott Hope (the Television Without Pity recappers poisoned me against him pretty quickly), I appreciated the reminder of the effect that all of the Sunnydale deaths have on people outside of our core group.

  6. imdoinggreat

    Eldritch, I agree that the MOTW Jekyll/Hyde storyline is not up to snuff. It’s obvious, it’s a bit cliched, and it’s just not that interesting, especially compared with the serious awesomeness of the rest of the season. Plus, the Scooby Gang figures out what’s going on far too easily.

    But there are a few awesome moments:

    – It’s great that Debbie and Pete are introduced naturally, as Scott’s friends, rather than being the “high school peers you’ve never heard of before but now you should care that they’re dead.”

    – The domestic violence is a little heavy-handed, but the way Debbie, after being beaten, immediately shifts to comforting Pete, is painfully accurate.

    – Along the same lines, every time Buffy says, “She was broken already,” my heart just breaks.

    – And I just CAN’T be the only one who goes “OMG Reading Rainbow!!!” when I see LeVar Burton :-D I’m 28… anyone else? Anyone? Bueller???

    But in the end, it’s just a filler episode, while we ramp up to the awesomeness that is the rest of season three :-D

    • LeVar Burton was in this?!?!?!? Impossible, as a major Star Trek fan I would have spotted him immediately! The only Trek actor to be in the whedonverse (that I can think of) is Armin Shimmerman (Quark/Snyder) ;)

  7. fivexfive

    I don’t believe LeVar Burton was in this episode. If you’re thinking of Mr. Platt, he was played by an actor named Phil Lewis.

  8. Susan

    I really like this episode. I do think the Jekyll/Hyde story is heavy handed and not very interesting, but I very much like what’s happening with Willow/Oz and Buffy/Angel.

    After Buffy’s discussion with Giles about how hell would affect someone and what kind of person could possibly retain any sliver of humanity, the moment when Angel falls at her feet, recognizing her, is really powerful. Their pain is palpable. I’ve watched that ep at least 20 times (okay, I’ve watched them all that many times), and I still cry. Hell, I start to cry early now, in anticipation.

  9. rosengje

    This episode also beautifully sets up Revelations, one of my more random all-time favorite Buffy episodes. I’m really hoping that one gets a major write up, as it contains crucial thematic elements for the rest of the season. Also: it features probably my favorite fight scene the show has ever done (Buffy’s jumping punch being the highlight).

  10. Bob Kat

    As to characters being “collateral dmage because the writers just don’t have time to keep them alive,” that does seem to be the Mutant Enemy logic and it has a glarign hole. If the character has no function, just leave them out. Of course somebody *has to* be the victim in horror, so it might as well be someone with some depth. But, semi-spoiler, Joss Brillig and His Slithy Toves don’t seem to grasp the idea of not killing people.

    • Becker

      “But, semi-spoiler, Joss Brillig and His Slithy Toves don’t seem to grasp the idea of not killing people.”

      I’m a little confused as to what you are getting at in general, as opposed to a specific spoiler. This is a vampire show. If no one dies, the suspension of disbelief required for the show would pretty much be impossible. Or is this not what you are saying?

      • Bob Kat

        becker: Jusy saying that the writers at times seem to kill off characters when it would make more sense to have them simply walk away.

        • Tyler

          When you say “make more sense,” what kind of “sense” are you talking about? I’m not sure I understand.

          Honestly, this is probably impossible to discuss properly w/o spoiling things–so make sure to bring it up later, where appropriate–but with the deaths in BtVS to this point (Beauty and the Beasts), would you say that it would’ve “made more sense” to have any of those characters walk away?

        • Becker

          I’m with Tyler on this. You’ll have to explain when we get to those people. As my memory goes, I can’t think of anyone on Buffy off of the top of my head who either didn’t earn their death, or their death didn’t serve the bigger story.

          • Bob Kat

            Yeah, spoilers, plus to me _BtVS_ and _angel_ conflate as the Buffyverse and _Dollhouse_ is the only other thing I’ve seen. It doesn’t really apply so far. Just to take a really odd example, if Theresa hadn’t been staked immediately in “Phases,” or soem other time before “Becoming,” Buffy and Spike would’ve failed. And, in case of this episode, Pete had already killed twice so Debbie could’ve walked away, but there’d be no real point to that, as co-dependent a character as she was. So right, not so far.

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