Friday, April 22, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Beauty and the Beasts"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has throughout its run exhibited a penchant for playing in genre and playing with genre. In season one’s “The Witch” (1/03) Buffy took the witch tale and spun it around turning it into a commentary on parents trying to relive their high school glories through their high school aged children. In “I Robot, You Jane (1/08) Buffy took the demon possession story and turned it into a exploration of the dangers of computer dating. In season two’s “Some Assembly Required” (2/02) Buffy took James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and turned them into the tragic tale of a now deformed former high school football star looking for a little female companionship. In “Go Fish” (2/20) Buffy took the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and turned it into a commentary on a high school coach with a win at all costs attitude. In “Beauty and the Beasts” written and directed by the same team who did “Dead Man’s Party (3/02) Buffy takes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and morphs into a commentary on anger, jealousy, and girlfriend beating.

The mystery of the week is who is the beast who killed Sunnydale High School student Jeff and, later on, Sunnydale High guidance counselor Mr. Platt. Is it Oz who is in the midst of one of his three-day a month periods (pun intended) of being a werewolf? Is it Angel who, as in Buffy’s dream in “Faith, Hope, and Trick”, has returned from a hell dimension but as a beast who cannot speak? Eventually we viewers and Buffy, Willow, Giles, and Faith learn that it is neither. The monster of the week is Pete, Scott’s friend, Debbie’s boyfriend, the Pete who in trying to be the macho man his girlfriend Debbie wanted him to be has developed a liquid formula which gives him super strength but which also exacerbates his jealousy and anger over any man who gets close in some way, shape, or form to his girlfriend including Jeff, Mr. Platt, and Oz.

Some Buffy commentators have observed that writer Marti Noxon tends to wear her feminism on her sleeve. There is some truth to this. One has to look no further for a prime example of Noxon’s feminism on her sleeve than “Beauty and the Beasts”. This episode is clearly a commentary on and a critique of male machismo, male jealousy, male anger, and male aggression against women. It is also an exploration of a far too common reality: women who continue to stand by their men even though they are suffering abuse at their hands because they think they love them, a perspective Buffy and Willow try to undermine when they confront Debbie in the bathroom late in the episode.

But it is not entirely fair to reduce “Beauty and the Beasts” to either of these social criticism motifs. It is possible to have some sympathy for Peter and see him as a tragic figure given that he is simply trying to live up to expectations, to the “be a man” syndrome, in other words. Pete is not simply a misogynistic Jekyll and Hyde. Moreover, the existentialist motif that runs through the episode, the notion that, as Mr. Platt says, all of us have a beast within, means that all of us, be we characters in the Buffyverse or be we viewers of Buffy, have, to some extent, the potentiality to be Pete, the potentiality to be Oz, or the potentiality to be Angel. We have the potential to allow our inner demons to turn us into angry and jealous killers and abusers of others or, on the other hand, to make sure we keep our inner demons in check (Oz caging himself) or to use them for positive purposes like saving someone from danger (Angel killing Pete to protect Buffy at the end of the episode; whether Buffy needs the protection is an entirely different issue). “Beauty and the Beasts” then is not only a condemnation of misogyny it is also, as is common in Buffy, an episode with a deeply humanitarian quality to it. Moreover, as I noted earlier “The Witch”, “I Robot, You Jane”, “Some Assembly Required”, and “Go Fish” have a social commentary quality to them and Buffy has, as Buffy creator Joss Whedon has said repeatedly, was, even before Marti Noxon joined the writing team, a show that, to some extent, always wore its feminism on its sleeve.

There are a several interesting (at least to me) things going on in “Beauty and the Beasts”. The title, of course, is a take off on a French fairy tale first published in 1740, a fairy tale that has been filmed several times before, most famously by Jean Cocteau (his magical La belle et la bête of 1946) though both of these have an entirely different point than Buffy’s “Beauty and the Beasts. “Beauty and the Beasts” is, along with “Passion” (2/17) one of the few times that Buffy has voice over narration: Buffy then Willow, at the beginning of the episode, and then Buffy again, at the end of the episode, read passages, appropriately enough, about the primal wildness within the seemingly “tame” dog Buck, from Jack London’s famous book Call of the Wild (1903). The music is appropriately eerie and plays variations with and eventually quotes the now famous Buffy/Angel theme. The sound, particularly when it brings us Angel’s beastly growls and Oz’s beastly whimpers (the angel and beast within each of us?) is superbly done and quite frightening.

By the way, don't you just love the mirror mirror on the wall in the photo at the beginning of this blog post? And don't you just love how Whedon and company manipulate and give new meaning to that famous fairy tale image?

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