The only real knock against this fourth episode of Season Four is that it’s been done before on Buffy. The Season One episode “Nightmares” (which I gave a “B+” to back when I was still passing out grades for this show) confronted our heroes with their deepest fears and first gave us insight into what really torments them, besides all the demons and beasties of Sunnydale. “Fear Itself” does much the same. The gang attends a frat party that’s been transformed by a little accidental mojo into a full-on phantasmagoria. Each finds him- or herself in a scenario that reflects their own self-doubts: Xander can’t be seen or heard by anybody; Oz turns into a werewolf unexpectedly; Willow can’t control her spells; and Buffy… well, her problems are more complicated.
In fact, what’s really good about “Fear Itself”—an episode I liked a great deal, by the way—is how well if demonstrates what Buffy The Vampire Slayer has become between May 12, 1997 and October 26, 1999. “Nightmares” is a fine episode on its own merits, but it represents a Buffy still beholden to its original pitch. Back then, the show was slamming together high school clichés and horror clichés, and though Whedon was working hard to subvert both, he and his writers had to play by the rules of those genres in order to make them their own. By “Fear Itself,” the Buffyverse has become so intricate and self-sustaining that while the episode nods to standard college rituals and basic demonology, the action is far more specific to Sunnydale and the characters we’ve come to know.
Consider Willow’s dilemma. It’s established early in the episode that Buffy and Oz are both worried that she’s getting in over her head with her magic practice—when Buffy warns, “Your basic spells are only about 50/50,” Willow sputters, “So’s your face!”—and it’s established also that Willow’s tired of being thought of as a sidekick. So, naturally, when she casts a guiding spell to help lead her through the haunted frat-house, her worst fear comes true and the spell goes awry, leading her to call on her friends yet again. There's nothing there that wouldn’t have been possible in Season One, really. But it’s the nature of the way the spell goes bad—with one dot of light turning into a dozen, all buzzing around Willow’s head—that’s more advanced. It speaks to one of the reasons why Willow is a sidekick, and is only 50/50 with her magic: Because she’s still a little meek and indecisive, cowed by the multiple options available to someone as bright and giving as her. We’ve hung out with Willow for three years now, so we can recognize this trait, because it’s a Willow trait, not the “nerdy smart girl” trait it would’ve been in the early days of the character.
As for Buffy, she’s still bummed because Parker used her as a one-night-stand. She begins the episode waxing melancholic about jack-o-lanterns, which are really just pumpkins that have been ripped away from their partners and had their guts torn out. (“That nose-hole is sad, full of self-loathing.”) Her fear in “fear itself” has partly to do with not being able to save her friends, but it also runs a little deeper. While surrounded by the undead in the basement, one tells her that no matter how hard she fights, she’s not going anywhere. That’s Buffy’s real anxiety, and it’s one that’s really developed into something kind of tragic over the past few seasons. She will be doing this job forever, and nothing will ever change. No romantic fling will transform her for long.
Here’s a few more things that "Fear Itself" does much better than a Season One episode could’ve:
1. It’s genuinely scary, thanks in large part to screenwriter David Fury, who’s become the go-to guy for episodes that ramp up the old-school horror.
2. It keeps the master-plots bubbling along nicely, with a quick glimpse of the uniformed commandoes that patrol the UC-Sunnydale campus, and a quick scene of Professor Walsh and her TA Riley warning Buffy to get her head back in the game. We also see Buffy’s mom for the first time in a while.
3. It features the comic stylings of that classic team Anya ‘n’ Giles. Anya’s funny enough on her own, whether she's reminding Xander that it’s been “one week since we copulated” or she's dressing up in a bunny suit for Halloween because “bunnies frighten me.” But she’s even funnier when paired with Giles, who knows how to get into a supernaturally shuttered frat house by using his mystical know-how and a handy power tool.
4. The climactic scene is hilarious. Giles reads from a book about how to defeat their enemy, but an impatient Buffy doesn’t listen to the whole instructions, so when Giles reads, “The summoning spell for Gachnar can be shut down in one of two ways. Destroying the Mark of Gachnar…,” she smashes the mark on the floor. Then Giles, exasperated, reads, “…is not one of them!” But then the summoned Gachnar turns out to be very tiny—which Giles would’ve realized if he’d read the description under his illustration, which says “actual size”—and thus is easy to smash.
All in all, a good Buffy episode, well-grounded in the elements that make this show special. Including irony. How else to take this line directed at our hellion-fighting heroine: “Halloween isn’t a night for responsibility. It’s when the ghosts and goblins come out.” (Um....)
And so we come to “Beer Bad,” which I've gleaned from my reading is perhaps the most be-hated episode in Buffydom. I’m afraid I can’t offer much of a counter-argument either. Even though this is one of the few episodes of Buffy ever nominated for an Emmy (for Outstanding Hairstyling!), at one point I honestly considered switching it off and jumping straight to the next episode. It’s my understanding that this episode was conceived in part to take advantage of money being handed out by The Office Of National Drug Control Policy, which helps explain why it’s so one-note about the dangers of drinking alcohol. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the producers’ application for government reimbursement was ultimately rejected. Even the anti-teen-drinking crowd hated “Beer Bad.”
I’m glad I stuck it out to the end though, because after sitting through the whole episode, I had a revelation about why it doesn’t work. The problem isn’t really the script, even though the premise is definitely thin. Xander becomes a bartender at a local joint run by a student-hating owner, who’s spiking the beer with a potion that makes kids revert to a Neanderthal state. (The owner’s brother’s a warlock.) Buffy, trying to drown her sorrows over Parker, drinks said brew. And… well, that’s about it.
But y’know, there are some honestly funny moments in “Beer Bad.” Even though I’m well over Parker, Buffy’s daydreams about saving his life and winning his love are still amusing. (Especially when Dream Parker shows up bearing flowers and ice cream.) I also liked the depiction of bartending as being harried and unrewarding, as opposed to Xander’s romantic conception of the job.
Still, once the Cave Buffy stuff takes over, this episode gets excruciating quick. This is one of those occasional Buffy ideas that probably looked good in script form, but as actually performed by living people is repetitive and kind of repugnant. The same could be said of the whole Parker storyline, really. I understand wanting Buffy to go through a quick bout of boy trouble early in the season, but when Parker gives his little mea culpa speech to Willow—even though he was just trying to woo her too—I couldn’t help but agree with him a little. His methods were sleazy, but it was just a hook-up. There’s really no excuse for Buffy taking it this hard.
Now if you want some real romantic angst, hold onto your hats….
“Wild At Heart”
I try not to overdo it with the personal stories in my Buffy coverage, but sometimes it’s germane. So bear with me for the next paragraph (or just skip on ahead).
My first college girlfriend—my first serious girlfriend, really—broke up with me after we’d been together for about a year, because she met somebody else. She went on to marry the guy she dumped me for, so I look back on the whole situation as being like losing to the team that won the championship. Nothing to be ashamed of, really. And frankly, I wasn’t really in it to win it. I liked this girl—a lot—but we weren’t exactly soulmates. We enjoyed the same music and movies, we ran with the same crowd, and we were unattached when we met. We paired off the way these things tend to happen in college: almost arithmetically. But I had no long-term intentions, and when the other guy came along, he won her heart because of that old cliché: he wanted it more. And she was drawn to him too, instantly and irrepressibly. Intellectually, I understood all this. Emotionally, it still hurt like hell.
Willow had a lot more attachment to Oz—and he to her—that my college girlfriend and I had for each other, but to some extent, like all teen sweethearts, they were together because of the natural momentum of couplehood. They hooked up in high school, and shared some major life events, but who’s to say they were really meant to be to be a pair forever? Certainly those doubts have to be running through Willow’s mind as she watches Oz becoming quietly smitten by Veruca, with whom he shares a love and understanding of music. And when it turns out that the two of them share something else as well—the ability to turn into a werewolf—then what chance does a good-hearted, inexperienced witch-in-training really have? Watching Willow watch Oz watch Veruca is some heart-rending, deeply relatable stuff—for me at least.
Here’s where I have to break out the behind-the-scenes info, which I’m sure most of you already know and which I just found out about this week, while reading up on this episode. Apparently, Joss Whedon had originally intended for the Willow/Oz/Veruca story to play out over the course of the entire Season Four, until Seth Green decided abruptly that he wanted off the show, and they had to find a way to bring this particular subplot to a quick conclusion.
On the one hand, “Wild At Heart” suffers for being a response to a off-camera problem. Green and Alyson Hannigan don’t have enough time to really explore the emotion of this dynamic, or the repercussions of Oz having sex with Veruca while in wolf-form (and not remembering it the next day). But on the other hand, I’m glad this plot wasn’t dragged out for an entire season because I haaaaate Veruca. I mean, I know I’m supposed to, but I hate her even more than the parameters of the storyline require. I didn’t think Paige Moss did a particularly good job playing the character, and I didn’t think the character’s “Hey Oz, embrace the wolf!” rap was really necessary, coming so soon after the similar philosophizing of Faith. The whole thing felt like a retread, distinguished only by a gender switch and its attendant sexual tension.
Nevertheless, I was moved by what this episode was ultimately about: the idea that sexual desire is hard to control, both within ourselves and in the hearts of the people we love. Poor Willow, suddenly feeling inadequate with Veruca around, asks Buffy, “Why didn’t you tell me I look like a crazy birthday cake in this shirt?” and gets the unhelpful answer, “I thought that was the point.” So she runs to Xander to get a perspective on relationships and sexual attraction “from the Y side of things,” only she can’t articulate her anxieties very well, which prompts Xander to warn, “If you’re doing it, I think you should be able to say it.”
It’s all just so difficult, though. The problem with so many sexually active high school and college relationships is they feel like a fast-forward to adulthood. Suddenly you’re sharing a bed, making breakfast for each other, enjoying the security of having a standing date (and an outlet for pent-up physical desire), and it’s all enough to make you feel like a happily married couple with a limitless future. Except you’re not. If nothing’s legally binding you—be it a piece of paper or a passel of kids—then in the back of your mind, you have to know that it could end at any moment, if your partner finds a better option.
Oz’s option isn’t Veruca—whom he kills when she threatens Willow—but escape from a relationship that he knows in his head probably isn’t permanent. The brain can grasp such things. The heart breaks regardless.
There’s much about the serialized TV storytelling that doesn’t get celebrated enough (or utilized enough), including its ability to tease out subplots over weeks and years, and its ability to ground audiences in a place and its inhabitants so absolutely that we become deeply invested in what happens. But as I’ve noted in the past, serialization has its perils. Creating a TV show requires a combination of preparation and faith, because even the best-laid plans can go awry when a casting decision doesn’t work out as well as the show-runner hoped, or when fans resist the direction a show is taking. There are aspects of TV that are hard to predict in the writers’ room, weeks before a shoot and months before air. This week’s batch of Buffy’s is a classic case-in-point. You’ve got storylines that are too abrupt because a cast member wants out, storylines that are lingering unnecessarily because the writers couldn’t anticipate how punchless they’d be, and one clunker episode that probably worked on the page but stinks on camera. The ride is never bumpless.
-When new Buffy seasons began, did fans pick through the opening credits for clues to upcoming events?
-Xander means to rent Phantasm, but ends up with Fantasia. Could happen to anybody. So long as it’s not the other way ‘round….
-The only holiday that’s not about getting laid? Arbor Day.
-Giles’ Halloween sombrero is really something. As is his decorative Frankenstein. And the dozen Fun Size bars he consumes. I’m assuming that the low-boil Giles subplot is building to something. In all three of these episodes he’s a comically pathetic figure, popping up unannounced at The Bronze (with a cheery “Hullo!”) and elsewhere, and seeming more than a little out-of-place with his new slacker lifestyle.
-Costume round-up: Buffy as Little Red Riding Hood (a little girl lost, but capable), Willow as Joan Of Arc (showing a much-improved self-image), Xander as James Bond (as insurance, “in case we get turned into our costumes again”), and Oz as God (who looks a lot like Oz, only with a nametag).
-I’ve come to accept the TV convention that on Halloween, everyone has access to a Hollywood wardrobe department for their costumes. But it still annoys me a little.
-Buffy on her first entry into the cheesy haunted frat house: “If I were Abbot and Costello, this would be fairly traumatic.”
-Willow, momentarily happy about the little glowing spell she did: “I did you! Hi!”
-Xander, feeling unseen, unheard and unloved: “I may as well hang out with my new best friend, Bleeding Dummy Head.”
-“Don’t taunt the fear demon,” warns Giles. “Why?” asks Xander. “Can he hurt me?” To which Giles replies: “No, it’s just tacky.”
-Hey Kal Penn is in “Beer Bad!” Dude just can’t stay away from intoxicants.
-At no point in my college days was I ever inclined to look down on townies. Of course I was in Athens, GA, where the townies were the hip ones, looking down on students.
-The funniest exchange from “Beer Bad:”
Willow: “I don’t believe this ID is entirely on the up-and-up.”
Xander: “What gave it away?”
Willow: “Lookin’ at it.”
-Two good Oz-related Buffy lines in “Wild At Heart.” First, her insistence to Willow that, “I’m sure Oz is flogging and punishing himself.” Second, her snap to a guilt-ridden Oz that, “Now might be a time for your trademark stoicism.” The more I think about those two lines though, the more I understand Seth Green’s reason for leaving the show. How many times did Buffy make a joke about Oz, or mention Oz at all, or even talk to Oz? How often did Oz and Xander interact? Or Oz and Angel? I know Oz had moments here and there with each, but he was never fully integrated into the gang or the storyline, except for the parts that had to do with Willow. A waste, really.
-A brief glimpse of Spike: “The Big Bad is back, and this time…arrrrgh!”
-“NOTHING CAN DEFEAT THE PENIS!”
This week’s Angel trio reveals some of the limitations of the show’s early emphasis on the case-a-week format. When the case is dull—or silly—the episode tends to sink fast, since there’s not enough meta-plot to maintain momentum. (The same could be said of some of Buffy’s early Season Four episodes, which focus so heavily on their particular premises that leave no sense that there’s a larger story the show is telling.) There’s one really strong episode in this batch, and that would be “Rm w/a Vu,” in which Cordelia gets a swell deal on a haunted apartment. There’s one just-okay one, “I Fall To Pieces,” about a stalker who can remove and reattach different parts of his body; and one pretty awful one, “Sense & Sensitivity,” in which a demon in the employ of Wolfram & Hart weakens the police force by turning them all into bleeding-heart therapy-culture devotees. Though “sensitive Angel” is kind of cute, “Sense & Sensitivity” is a lot like Buffy’s “Beer Bad,” in that what reads as clever is painful to actually watch.
I’ve been thinking a little too about what some of you wrote about Cordelia last week, how in the early days of Angel she seemed like she’d been out of Sunnydale far longer than she actually had. One of the things that’s interesting to me about Angel so far is how it’s taking place in a wider, more adult world than Buffy takes place in, where the danger (to everyone but our hero) feels more palpable. In that context, Cordelia’s teenybopper-flirty exchanges with Doyle strike me as out of place, but otherwise I’m warming to Cordelia in this context, because I can see how a few months on her own in this environment would age her beyond her old Sunnydale friends, with their frat parties and midterms.
Something else I’m warming to: Angel as a different kind of private detective, shy, blunt, and—here’s the biggie—not interested in sex. Even the girls he helps seem shocked that he doesn’t want to bed them. Shocked, and not entirely relieved.