Complete Buffy reviews: Beauty and the Beasts
|REVIEWS - TV|
Seth Green consolidates his well-deserved new status as Buffy season regular.
“All men are beasts”. Yikes. What happened on the day that Marti Noxon wrote Beauty And The Beasts? Did the milkman deliver a bottle of curdled milk? Did the postman deliver a parcel 30 days late? Did the paper boy turn out to be a shaggy werewolf all along?
It's a bold, and some might say, glib generalisation to open a story with. Personally speaking, as a man, I'd like to categorically state that I'm not a beast. Not literally or metaphorically or any other word ending in ally. Faith's claim comes seconds after talking about down low tickles, which kind of muddies the moral waters a tad. If Phases looked at the behaviour of men in a balanced fashion, then Beauty And The Beasts certainly gets off to a bumpy start.
Actually, Beauty And The Beasts has far more to recommend it than I remembered. I'd not seen it for quite a while and had, in my mind, dismissed it as a dull, man-hating plod. It's actually not dull at all – on the one hand, it's a murder mystery, on the other, it's a continuation of the Angel's Back saga. The only problem with this story, and it's quite a hefty one at that, is that its depiction of men isn't the best. While Noxon makes some sound points about domestic violence, at other times, she resorts to preachy soapboxing and heavy-handed generalisations.
The murder mystery provides the backdrop to some serious issues. Some sort of animal is running amok in Sunnydale and reducing innocents to purée. All the fingers initially point to Oz, given that he's going through his monthly wolf phase. Despite being locked in a library cage, the window's been left open, something that a sheepish Xander has failed to realise, having slept during guard duty. If there's anything good to come out of this dire situation, then it's Giles' furious temper which is always good for a laugh. “How long... exactly... did you 'rest your eyes' for?” asks Giles. “A little now,” splutters Xander. “Uh, a little then. But I never heard Oz leave, and he was here in the morning when I, um... when I...” “WOKE UP??!!?” bellows Giles. The annexe window isn't really that big though is it? While Oz ain't exactly the tallest guy in the world, he'd have to shrink to about two feet tall to get through the window.
Luckily for Oz, another potential culprit enters the fray at the end of the first act. Having been expelled from a hell dimension, Angel is back – snarling and gnashing like a wild animal. Maybe Angel was turned into a dog in the hell dimension. There's a lot of dog-like behaviour from Angel in this one to the point where I thought he was going to start barking. Perhaps he's extra grouchy because Buffy hasn't given him his regular quota of dog food.
Making Angel a wild, feral animal was a good move on the part of the production team. It would have been all too easy to bring Angel back and instantly have him pick up where he left off with Buffy in a romantic clinch. Having just simultaneously reviewed Doctor Who's Day Of The Doctor , I've experienced the Moffat way of dealing with dramatic problems. The Buffy writers choose the difficult path instead, and that's one of the reasons for its revered reputation. The fallout from events such as Joyce's death, Buffy's resurrection and, in this case, Angel's return, are dealt with realistically and logically. This episode toys with the notion that there may be no redemption for Angel. Buffy's discussion with Giles about the possibility of Angel coming back from hell is a notably brutal one in its own quiet fashion. Giles says that it would take someone of “extraordinary will and character” to survive a hell dimension while retaining any remnant of self. “Most likely, he'd be a monster,” he adds, before explaining that there are two types of monster – one who can or is willing to be redeemed and the other, one who is void of humanity and cannot respond to reason or love. While the scripting is superb, the real horror of the scenario comes from Anthony Head's quietly striking delivery, which sums up the true implications of what Angel could have become.
"There's a message in there somewhere, but it's got lost in translation as a result of badly fudged signals"
It's easy to assume that Angel has fallen into the second category of monster, given that there seems to be zero humanity left. The scene in which Buffy tries to get close to Angel subtly tricks you into thinking that there's hope. The romantic music and Angel's relatively calm reaction suddenly become loud, wild noise. It's only by the end that there looks to be some crumb of hope, as Angel ends up sobbing against Buffy. It won't be an easy reunion, but it's the start of a long healing process that's well played out over the next few stories.
With Oz and Angel in the clear, the spotlight of blame falls on a squeaky voiced chap called Pete. Initially Pete seems like a normal kind of guy. He has a girlfriend called Debbie. He's one of Scott Hope's friends. He makes jokes about Barbie Dream Journals. Normality usually adds up to blame in the world of Buffy, and of course, it turns out that he can turn into a violent, veiny psychopath. It's too bad that the message of the piece is a little mixed. The original “all men are beasts” salvo is just one implication that all blokes are capable of having a dark, violent side. What's more troubling is that Pete started making a formula to “be the man” that Debbie wanted – what's the story here? And at the end of the story, it's not Buffy who saves the day but Angel – male violence gets rid of male violence apparently. The other point to make here is that two out of the three suspects are not at fault when it comes to their bestial ways. Oz got bitten by Cousin Jordy, so it's not his fault. Angel's just returned from a hell dimension so it's not his fault. You could say that Pete's not at fault either, given that he only became a monster after using science to make him into the sort of guy that Debbie apparently wanted – when he's not under the influence, Pete seems like a regular guy, buying flowers for his girlfriend. Could it be that that's not enough in a man? There's a message in there somewhere, but it's got lost in translation as a result of badly fudged signals.
The metaphor of Pete's Jekyll And Hyde character tackles the issue of domestic abuse. It's a surprisingly mature topic for a show that's still set in the last year of high school, and there's no shying away from the effects. Pete is the embodiment of the jealous, possessive abusive boyfriend, ready to hurt and kill when necessary. Debbie proves that escaping an abusive relationship isn't simple – she still loves him no matter what, even going so far as to making excuses for him. She's clearly in denial of what's happening, ending up as a broken shell repeating “He does love me” over and over again in the toilet. While the “all men are beasts” message is highly questionable, both actors are particularly good – especially Danielle Weeks – and add much weight to this storyline. Too bad that the explanation behind Pete's turn to the dark side is so rushed at the end in what feels like a tacked on afterthought.
Another downer about Beauty And The Beasts is that a potential recurring character is unceremoniously bumped off without warning. Mr Platt the counsellor is one of those great Buffy one-off characters who could have had a solid future in the series. He only gets one scene, but in these five minutes, he comes across as level-headed, witty and likeable. “We're not gonna be friends,” he assures a non-committal Buffy, before offering his services as “a trained, not too crazy professional who will always give you his honest opinion.” Platt's very much on the ball, explaining that all people battle with demons, identifying “Bad ending guy” and warning Buffy that love will become her master if it becomes too consuming. Phill Lewis is excellent as Platt, providing a down-to-earth, intelligent character. It's a great shame that he's killed off halfway through in grisly fashion. Smoking kills. Drinking turns you into a monster. Vices ain't worth it.
"Seth Green goes from strength to strength with his superb portrayal of the character"
Fortunately, Beauty And The Beasts has quite a lot going for it, in spite of its clunky moral stance and missed opportunities. After the sloppy characterisation in Dead Man's Party, Noxon has luckily gone back to what she does well, which is providing good material for the regulars. Oz, in particular, comes off well – it's rare that Oz gets rattled by anything, so it's refreshing to see that side of him here, whether it's his quietly upset reaction at his friends jumping to the wrong conclusion (“Uh, you know that thing where you bail in the middle of an upsetting conversation? I have to do that. It's kinda dramatic, I know, but sometimes, it's a necessary guy thing”) or his firm insistence that Willow leaves him alone before he changes. Oz's werewolf side isn't something that he's figured out yet, and he's unhappy about Willow seeing that side of him. Top marks to Seth Green, who manages to convey Oz's emotional side without a raised voice or a flared temper – that's some skill, and Green goes from strength to strength with his superb portrayal of the character.
It's also worth noting some of the other performances from the regulars. Sarah Michelle Gellar, through one facial expression, portrays Buffy's 'What the...?' reaction to her first sighting of Angel since he was banished to hell. Surprise. Shock. Fear... It's all there, and is just one example of Gellar's versatility in this episode. From the confused vulnerability in her chat with Giles about Angel through to her flippant façade with Platt through to her assertive stance with Debbie, we get to see all sides of Buffy, and Gellar's nuanced portrayal skilfully handles all bases. David Boreanaz is also very good as the wild animal version of Angel, and keeps the viewer guessing as to whether this is a feral version of Angelus, a crazed monster or actually the real deal. All the regulars give solid back-up, and provide some great quirky moments such as Giles getting shot in the back again (“Bloody priceless!”) or Willow going all CSI with a Scooby Doo lunch-box!
The direction from James Whitmore Jr is very good, with some atmospheric POV shots through the woods, quick-fire action sequences and well-achieved transformation effects. Pete's fast-cut whirling head fades into another triumph from the make-up team, while the Oz werewolf mask is far better than the one on offer in Phases.
While the central aggressive message of Beauty And The Beasts regrettably lets the side down, there's still plenty to enjoy in this episode. It's better than its reputation would suggest with some strong direction and acting. Whether or not you'll agree with Faith's initial assertion is up to you.
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Check out John Bensalhia's Complete Doctor Who Reviews, now available via Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and W.H. Smith.
John Bensalhia limbered up for his Shadowlocked writing with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here. His Twitter feed is @JohnBensalhia.
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