“Beauty And The Beasts”
“Beauty And The Beasts” begins with a lot of light-hearted conversation about various characters’ relationship statuses. Willow’s looking after Oz while he’s in his werewolf state, but she’s put blankets on his cage for privacy, so she won’t have to see him nude. (“I’m still getting used to half a Monty,” she tells Xander… though she refuses to tell him which half.) Faith is grilling Buffy about whether being with Scott makes her feel “that down-low tickle.” (“How low?” Buffy asks, red-faced.) Meanwhile Scott’s feeling self-conscious that while his friends Debbie and Pete are swapping flowers between classes, he and Buffy remain “pre-posey.” But he’d probably feel even worse if he knew that Buffy’s ex-boyfriend Angel has returned to town, snarling and incomprehensible after hundreds of years in Hell.
I’ll get into the themes and implications “Beauty And The Beasts” in a moment, but first I gotta say: I have issues with this episode. Like: multiple, serious issues. The pacing is too slack; the jokes too sparse; the tone too preachy. The cast is ill-used: Xander essentially has one task to complete for the whole episode—to keep an eye on Oz—which he bails on to grab some sleep, with very few qualms. Our new co-slayer Faith is awkwardly shoehorned into the story, while Cordelia gets maybe two lines. And even though it’s a longstanding television convention, I’ve never liked the “Hey, here’s some characters we’ve never mentioned before who will retroactively have been a major part of our heroes’ lives, and then will disappear for good in about 20 to 40 minutes” plot. (Family Ties did this roughly once a month when it was on the air.) I suppose it makes a little more sense here for Debbie and Pete to suddenly be part of Buffy’s circle—since they were Scott’s friends first, and she just started dating Scott—but I confess I drummed my fingers impatiently waiting for the inevitable revelation that Debbie or Pete or both were going to be our Monster Of The Week. And sure enough, “Beauty And The Beasts” zigged right where I thought it would.
Specifically, Pete turns out to be a Jeckyll/Hyde character, who concocted a potion to manly-fy him when he started to worry about Debbie’s constancy. After a while, he absorbed the effects of the potion so deeply into his body chemistry that he was able to Hulk-out at will—like whenever he heard Debbie’s “stupid, grating voice”—and these sudden surges of testosterone have prompted a kill-spree, directed against any boy Debbie has ever looked at twice. Since Pete’s kills resemble the mauling of a wild animal, Willow is worried that Werewolf Oz has been getting loose at night, while Buffy’s certain that Feral Angel is the culprit. Faith of course would say that all guys are bad at heart, and though I appreciate the idea of a Buffy episode exploring how male aggression affects the women in their lives, I thought the theme was handled pretty ham-fistedly here. The episode turned into a PSA against abusive boyfriends, when there were so many more subtle ways to have tackled this topic. (For example: How about weighing how Xander’s contempt for his Oz-watching duty is itself a controlling move, executed via passive-aggression?)
I was also disappointed that “Beauty And The Beasts” introduced a promising new character—school psychologist Mr. Pratt, part of a sudden migration of African-Americans to Sunnydale—only to kill him off straight away. Buffy has a lot of friends and adults that she can confide in already, but I liked the idea of her being able to spill her guts to an objective professional, and I loved the tension in the scene where she tries to tell Mr. Pratt about Angel, always unsure of how honest she can be. That’s a relationship that could’ve paid dividends for the writers if they’d let it play out a little longer. (And this episode aired pre-Sopranos too, so it wouldn’t have been a rip-off.)
In the end, my distaste for “Beauty And The Beasts” was tempered by some fine work by Sarah Michelle Gellar and Alyson Hannigan, as their characters took a pro-active approach to their malfunctioning men. Willow determinedly examines one of the teen corpses to see if Oz was responsible for his death, and when she finishes the job, she faints. Buffy actually logs time in the library researching what may have happened to Angel. It’s a fine portrait of resourcefulness on all counts.
Note however that in all this man-study, Scott goes unexamined. I’ve been there, dude.
And then Scott exits… stage left, even.
Unlike the quick departure of Mr. Pratt, I’m not sweating the sudden end to the Scott storyline. From a long-range narrative perspective, Scott’s abrupt decision to break up with Buffy (because she’s always “distracted”) clears the way for Buffy and Angel to resume their courtship—or at least to have the option to do so, which amps up the tension between them. It’s a also a smart writers’ decision in terms of this episode, in that the break-up gives Buffy something else to mope about, right when she’s feeling especially disconnected from her teenagerhood.
As put-off as I was by “Beauty And The Beasts,” I was thoroughly won over by “Homecoming,” because it worked all the show’s major characters (and a few of the minor ones) into an action-packed story where nearly every element supported the theme of prematurely pining for vanishing youth. Not to put too personal a spin on this recap, but I went through something similar to what Buffy goes through in this episode when I was a senior in high school. I didn’t care so much about making sure I had plenty of high school memories—although I did go to prom and buy a yearbook and do all that junk—but I started feeling more wistful about the idea of “home” the closer I came to leaving. I started reading Garrison Keillor books and listening to The Band a lot. (“Oh to be home again… back in Old Virginny…”)
Buffy, on the other hand, is driven to run for Homecoming Queen. When she discovers that she can’t get a recommendation from the person she thought was her favorite teacher, and when she misses her yearbook picture, and when the first “normal” boy she’s dated in years dumps her, Buffy feels she has something to prove, even if that means taking on Cordelia, who’s been working up to being Homecoming Queen her whole life. Buffy makes a list of all the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses—Cordy’s weaknesses include “fake smile” and “Xander”—and goes out of her way to bake cupcakes and flirt with all the boys in school. She’s in it to win it.
While all this is going on, Willow and Xander are doing some pining of their own—for each other. The lifelong friends get so stirred by the site of each other in their Homecoming Dance duds—“Since when did you become a… gentleman?” Willow coos—that they fall into a passionate embrace. Though Willow dismisses the moment as a fluke—“No more fluking,” Xander agrees—it’s clear that they have some unresolved issues that need, well, resolving. Even if that means betraying Oz and Cordelia.
Poor Cordelia. She gets backstabbed left and right in “Homecoming,” and even when she gets to take the limo ride she’s always wanted to take to big dance, she has to share a seat with Buffy, who’s been essentially shoved into there with her by all their friends so that they can work out their problems. And then to make matters worse, the limo gets attacked by a man-hunter and a “spiny-head-lookin’ creature.”
Oh, did I mention that the Homecoming Dance is taking place at the same time as an event that Mr. Trick has dubbed “SlayerFest ’98?” (I should also mention that the moment when he says “SlayerFest ‘98” was the moment I let out a big sigh of satisfaction with this episode.) Seems Mr. Trick and a technologically advanced old man (played by Seinfeld’s Mr. Pitt!) have money in a pot to be won by whatever vampire, demon or mortal can take down Faith and Buffy. Unfortunately, Faith’s not in the limo with Buffy; Cordelia is. So we’re treated to the glorious sight of Cordelia whapping the bad guys with a spatula and using her powers of intimidation to help herself and Buffy get out of a bad scrape.
(Buffy holds her own too, especially when she uses misdirection to get two German slayer-hunters to kill each other, all while a flyer about “problem solving” hangs on a wall behind her.)
It’s worth noting that neither Buffy nor Cordelia wins the title of Homecoming Queen. It’s also worth noting that as the two girls are fighting for their lives, Giles is at the Dance, distracted by disappointing finger-sandwiches. And it’s also worth noting that in the wake of SlayerFest, Sunnydale’s fax-smelling neat-freak Mayor Wilkins calls Mr. Trick into his office to discuss an alliance. And it’s worth noting that Angel is beginning to get his memory back, and that he and Buffy are making mutually skittish steps toward reconciling.
What does all that mean? Only that while Buffy and her friends are preoccupied by nostalgia and gun-toting gamblers, there’s real menace lurking in the shadows, waiting to come home.
Which of these best expresses the theme of “Band Candy?”
A. Violence Breeds Violence
Picking up where “Homecoming” left off vis-à-vis the Mayor Wilkins/Mr. Trick alliance, His Honor hatches a plot with the dapper vamp to distract the populace with some fresh hell while he offers tribute to a demon he owes a favor. “I know a beast who knows a guy,” Mr. Trick says. The guy in question: The gang’s old nemesis (and Giles’ old friend) Ethan Rayne, who concocts a scheme to distribute tainted chocolate bars throughout Sunnydale, and cause the adults in town (who are usually the only ones who buy and consume fundraiser candy) to revert to a carefree teenage state. Soon fuddy-duddy old teacher Ms. Barton is tripping like a longhair, saying things like, “Willow… that’s a tree. You’re a tree. Are there any nachos in here, little tree?” And the gang is saddled with a more Ratboy-ish than usual Principal Snyder, who bums a ride with them from The Bronze and reveals what he knows about the Mayor’s conspiracy—which ain’t much.
I found a lot to like about “Band Candy”—most of which I’ll get to later—but I found the regressed-adults scenes got old quickly. What, teenagers never think clearly, or make sound decisions? I think the heroes of Buffy prove otherwise, yes? I’ll grant that Ethan may have slipped something else into the candy to make the grown-ups go batty. But that doesn’t really explain how candy-eating Xander was unchanged. (Yes, I realize that Xander’s unaltered state was meant to be a joke, but it’s a joke that works against the premise of the episode.)
That said, the idea that all of this candy business was misdirection, allowing the Mayor to steal a bunch of babies from the hospital to feed to a giant snake? Well, that’s just genius. Very creepy, very cool stuff.
B. All Things Must End
“Band Candy” opens with Buffy stressing out over having to take the SAT. (Aside: Standardized testing fear is one common trope of high school movies and TV show that I’ve never quite been able to sympathize with, probably because I was an ace bubble-filler.) But it’s not just the SATs that are bugging her. She also wants to get a driver’s license—even though her driving freaks Willow out—and she wants more slack both from her mom and from Giles. The “time to grow up and get out” theme from “Homecoming” persists.
C. All Systems Tend Toward Chaos
Of course one of the main reasons Buffy wants Joyce and Giles to get off her back is so she can sneak off and see Angel, which is an impulse that ultimately can’t end well, no matter how much she lies to Angel about her thriving relationship with Scott. Also sure to end badly? Xander and Willow’s flirting, which is still occurring on the sly.
What I liked most about “Band Candy” was the idea that so much of what governs a functioning society can be easily stripped away. Sunnydale is being led by a terrible, terrible Mayor, and yet on the surface he seems no less oily than any politician. Joyce and Giles revert to their rebellious teenagerhood after consuming the candy, and they wind up making out and listening to Cream. (“You got good albums,” Joyce sighs. “Yeah, they’re okay,” Giles grunts.) But the implication is that their feelings for each other are natural, even if they were accelerated unnaturally. Ultimately, “Band Candy” shows an alternate version of Sunnydale that’s grounded in the town’s own dark reality. Or as Oz says, “Sobering mirror to look into, huh?”
Oh, and the answer to our little quiz. All of the above, chum. All of the above.
The horror is back! (Or at least the action is.) “Beauty And The Beasts” aside, this was a genuinely exciting, funny and creepy set of episodes. And even “Beauty And The Beasts” was aiming for something worthwhile, even if it swung too widely.
-I like Seth Green in general, and I like the character of Oz, but there have been times this season when I’ve wondered if Green is maybe too low-key. He provides a different energy to the ensemble, whether he’s making jokes about how the school’s marching jazz band improvises and “runs into floats,” or whether he’s holding a deadpan expression during his yearbook photo. But sometimes Green’s quiet, slow pace throws off the rhythm of a scene, in my opinion.
-Alyson Hannigan though is getting better and better. She’s the only one on the show who actually looks like a teen, which aids her performance in subtle ways. As she becomes more assertive, her slight frame and girlish expression adds an ironic contrast to every bold gesture.
-Pete’s Jeckyll/Hyde change involved that quick-cut head-shaking effect that was popular there for a while in late ‘90s horror and music videos. It’s always creeped Donna out.
-I know Eliza Dushku is from Massachusetts, but Faith’s Boston accent still sounds fake to me.
-Does Oz’s band play every Sunnydale event?
-Every time Mr. Trick appears on screen or gets mentioned in any way, I start humming Nick Lowe’s song “The Gee & The Rick & The Three-Card Trick” to myself.
-Buffy, deflecting questions about why she and Cordelia apear disheveled, mutters, “Long story,” to which Cordelia adds, “Got hunted.” Pause for a beat, and then Buffy again: “Apparently not that long.”
-Cordelia, on her surprising SAT skills: “What, I can’t have layers?”
-Signs of the times: Buffy drops a reference to the Real World house.
-Blindfolded Buffy appears to miss Giles wildly in her training exercise, but the projectile hits Giles on the bounce. Training complete!
-I liked Buffy’s suggestion to Joyce for ways to unload candy to her gallery’s patrons: “Buy something pre-Colombian, get a free cavity.”
-Those handcuffs Joyce pulls out when she’s with Giles… did she already own those before she started eating the candy?
-I’m not sure the playing air-guitar during the opening credits is working out for me. I’m considering switching to miming Giles swinging his flame-pole.