Angel chained and on his knees: Buffy's solution to the boyfriend problem.

Angel chained and on his knees: Buffy’s solution to the boyfriend problem.

Marti Noxon has written some great scripts for BtVS up to this point in the series. I Only Have Eyes for You is my probably favorite, in which she uses a standard ghost possession trope to dig at Buffy’s loss of Angel, her self-recrimination, and the buried anger that she cannot recognize in herself. It’s a fantastic melding of the monster-of-the-week, seasonal arc, and character development. Yes, it’s a bit messy and over-the-top – with snakes and insects plaguing the school – but keeping the action hopping is one of the writer’s best qualities.

I know she's reviled for her work later in the series, but Marti Noxon is my favorite writer outside of Joss Whedon in the first three seasons.

I know she’s reviled for her work later in the series, but Marti Noxon is my favorite writer outside of Joss Whedon in the first three seasons.

With What’s My Line Part 1 and Part 2 Noxon delivers us the wild nuttiness of Drusilla and a highly diverting demonic hit squad out to finish Buffy. It’s funny, suspenseful, and surprising. In Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, she unleashes the power of love and lust on Xander like a missile, while in Bag Eggs, she draws on silliness and sexual panic with an ode to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The above two episodes take love/lust (Bewildered) and sexual consequences (Eggs) and wrap all that high school anxiety in palatable package of zaniness (Drusilla falling prey to the Xander love  spell!) to make it go down like honey. Just two shows back in Dead Man’s Party, she greeted Buffy back from L.A. with a rollicking zombie pandemonium to counter and lighten the ugly confrontations with friends and family at the heart of the story. And Noxon penned the game-changing Surprise, which sends the series into a spin of darkness and terror that it never fully emerges from. Thus far, Noxon has contributed more than any other writer outside of Joss Whedon  BtVS, and her name in the opening credits signals that I need to stay sharp – twists and layers and laughs and tears await.

What she accomplishes in Beauty and the Beasts is daring and sharp in its ambition and strikingly on point in its execution. Noxon’s script zeroes in on the theme of abusive relationships with not one but three pairings, all featuring male monsters and female forgivers: Oz and Willow; Angel and Buffy; and the one-off appearance of Pete and Debbie. It’s really Beauties plural to match the three Beasts – because Noxon focuses just as closely on women’s/girls’ roles in the dynamic as on the boys’.

Beauty and the Beasts

Yeah, it sounds like it could turn into an after-school special, not unlike s2’s cautionary steroid story Go Fish, and I do understand the quite negative reaction from some fans that the story plays out like a preachy PSA. Yet I don’t read it as such because Noxon incorporates a well-constructed murder mystery in addition to some fine levity to ease the overall gloomy tone. (Giles getting shot with the tranquilizer gun in the ass = top-flight entertainment.) Moreover, the plot takes advantage of Buffy’s reunion with Angel, asking us to consider how she will be different from Debbie in her acceptance of a partner who alternates between displays of tender affection and horrible violence.

I hadn’t really read the abusive relationship theme so heavily into Buffy and Angel’s disastrous affair last season since Angel actually transformed into another creature, Angelus, but then, such a transformation from loving romantic to violent sadist – and back again – is a hallmark of domestic violence, making breaking the cycle so difficult to break.

Sasha's Angel in B&BNoxon smartly acknowledges the theme of transformation with Oz as well. Both our heroes are monsters who depend on the love of a good woman to save them – or at least to keep themselves and others safe: Willow has to lock Oz up in the library cage during the full moon to keep his werewolf self from mauling the Sunnydale citizenry, while Buffy must chain up the grunting, wild-eyed Angel in the mansion to prevent him from running on a madman’s rampage through the cemetery by night.

How do we interpret these extreme measures? It’s hard to imagine the show spinning a reversal, caging and chaining to control the womenfolk, especially if they suffer from a monthly spell of “not being themselves.” I don’t see this episode as anti-male in totality, but it does pose at least one question to which Noxon leaves no answer:

Are men all beasts, as Faith plainly states to Buffy in the opening? Must they be caged and shackled by women for their own benefit?

Buffy with Angel in chains

Oz werewolf in cageNoxon really puts it out there, but she’s not finished yet. With Pete and Debbie, she introduces a far more commonplace couple, but one even more deeply damaged by their dynamic. Pete is a monster by choice. No Darla or Cousin Jordy removed his free will with a fateful bite; instead, he chooses his direction – dominance by design. Debbie, playing the role of his victim/apologist, walks through the standard conventions of the abused girlfriend: making excuses for bruises inflicted during bouts of rage, emptying bottles to prevent such rages, and making desperate pleas amidst declarations of devotion. It’s familiar, sad and true, and though Pete and Debbie might come off at first as a hackneyed representation better suited to a PSA than an episode of BtVS, the theme really fits into the high school experience as a darker flip side to the wacky romance loosed by Amy’s spell in Bewildered. Love and its approximations are danger.


Hello and Goodbye to Mr. Platt

Mr. PlattAnother Sunnydale staff member’s life insurance policy comes into effect: the school counselor, Mr. Platt. I thought at first that the counseling session scene (his only – outside of making an appearance as a mauled corpse) would be a replay of Buffy’s skirmishes with Principal Snyder, but instead of another adversary, we meet a positive figure offering legitimate therapy, something that Buffy seriously needs! I thought Phil Lewis sold the part well, and I would have kept Mr. Platt on, despite the chainsmoking on the job, but I suppose Giles already fulfills the role of Buffy’s adult confessor, as in his culling the truth about Angel’s death just last week in Faith, Hope & Trick, which is also the episode where Mr. Trick offered his take on the Whiteness of Sunnydale. Black characters, be they itinerant Slayers (Kendra) or kindly counselors , do not catch a break in this town. Too bad for Mr. Platt, as the possibilities of Slayer therapy might have opened up a new dimension, not necessarily another hell one, to the show. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be in the fun-filled season three, though.

We Get More Impact with Featured Players

Debbie and Pete.

Debbie and Pete.

Debbie and Pete, we hardly knew ye, and that’s a fault against the show. How much more shocking would the revelation of abuse have been had we known them as peripheral characters, maybe like Larry or even Harmony. Jonathan in the upcoming Earshot demonstrates the weight that even a very minor character can carry to an episode when taking on a temporary major role. Imagine if we’d seen Debbie and Pete throughout various episodes, canoodling in the halls or occasionally snogging at The Bronze, with casual hellos to the Scoobies, and how much greater our shock would have been at the revelation of an insidious underbelly to their relationship. We’d then have a much better idea of the emotional toll that the denouement takes on Scott Hope.

buffy and debbie

Debbie as Reflection of Buffy

Buffy and Debbie. Debbie is yet another anti-Buffy, or better said, she causes us to wonder how Buffy might have handled an abusive boyfriend like Angel/Angelus had she not  had her Slayer status (and physical power). After all, Buffy’s engaged in some rather brutal battles with her sometimes-boyfriend, always able to hold her own in a physical match-up. But what if she didn’t equal his fighting prowess or own the confidence she’s earned in her role as Chosen One? Would she fulfill the dynamic of abused girlfriend as Debbie? Look in the mirror. The reflection reveals very little separation between the two girls.

Improved Continuity in Season Three

Much better fourth episode than #4 in s2. Whedon shook things up with School Hard and then regressed  with the next couple (Inca Mummy Girl and Reptile Boy), dumping the glorious Spike and Drusilla for monsters-of-the-week, offering no real continuation of the seasonal arc. Here, the just-introduced Faith assumes her spot as partnered Slayer. She’s not central to the story by any means, but her dialogue pushes the theme and she takes part in the school-spawling action of the conclusion, and most importantly, she didn’t vanish!

Boys as Mad Scientists

Pete's potion. Its secret will be buried with him and Debbie.

Pete’s potion. Its secret will be buried with him and Debbie.

Okay, so BtVS isn’t sci-fi, but they go really, really light on the science whenever experiments come up. I’m assuming there is some scientific procedure that went into creating Pete’s potion, which seems to fall into some sort of allegory with alcohol, though this part of the episode feels a bit messy to me. Maybe if I knew where this glowing green substance came from. How does Pete concoct such a potion? Does just sitting over the Hellmouth simplify such achievements?

Thinking back, we didn’t really get much of an explanation as to how the boys in Some Assembly Required managed to resurrect the football star, nor how they planned to succeed in their surgical construction of a new girl featuring Cordelia’s head. They just had the basement lab ready to roll with regeneration!

What gives with boys and nefarious science projects?

Cheating P.O.V.

This is a pet peeve. While I love when BtVS misdirects me in the storyline, I resent being tricked by the camera used as the perspective of a stalker – when there is no stalker! This happens when Pete and Debbie surreptitiously enter the supply room and we get the cam with creepy music as if someone is spying on the couple, which is not the case. Director James Whitmore, Jr. wants to deflect our suspicions from the pair, but it’s almost instantly clear that Pete is the Beast, so why even bother to cheat?

The Fucking Book Cage!

The book cage fails twice this time!

The book cage fails twice this time!

Not once, but twice does the library book cage fail to contain Werewolf Oz. First we discover that the space actually has a tiny window! Is it truly Xander’s fault for falling asleep that Oz gets out, or should Giles or Willow have made a point of closing (or bricking up!) the window before the full moon? Really, that was more important than the bedtime story of Call of the Wild.

Oz showing us what Willow terms "the half-Monty."

Oz in repose on the cage floor, showing the camera what Willow terms “the half-Monty.”

Then Pete in his Beast form tears the cage apart in his jealous rage. How susceptible is the cage to claws? The hyena teens dismantled it to free Xander with no difficulty in The Pack. And what level of reinforcement should it require? Its swinging door brought calamity to Miss Carpenter in The Dark Age when Zombie Philip crashed it open.

I’m a bit stunned that Werewolf Oz can’t tear it apart. He seems far stronger than the demon-possessed hyenas and certainly more than Zombie Philip. And in there’s no match between him and Beast Pete, who flees the library quickly after the battle takes a definitive turn in Oz’s favor. Consistency with the cage is needed!