Give Willow Rosenberg a little power and she goes nuts.
You loved it when she interrogated Jonathan in “Go Fish.” And remember the burbling when Snyder made her a teacher? These are the little bitty things that lead, in time, to Dark Willow.
When “Faith, Hope and Trick” opens, she’s contemplating the heady prospect of being permitted, as a high school senior, to go off campus for lunch. She chokes, and the boys have to drag her down the steps to their picnic meeting with Buffy, who isn’t yet allowed back at school.
It’s an easy, action-free beginning: the gang hangs out, bantering, and we learn Buffy and Joyce are going to meet with Principal Snyder the next day. Willow is keen to get her best friend back on the dating horse, and—as a handy visual aid—arranges to have an available boy named Scott float past on a bed of rushes.
(It’s not really possible to take Scott seriously, or even to be all that interested in him as a character. He’s too obviously a decoy. Even if David Boreanaz wasn’t still in the S3 credits of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a soft-spoken guy with no charisma to speak of was never going to cut it as a Slayer boyfriend candidate. We all know this. Besides, TV super-women tend to need super-duper-powerful men.)
Buffy’s not ready in any case. She hasn’t told anyone that Willow’s attempt at soul transmigration worked, that it was Angel and not Angelus who got the pointy end of the sword in the finale.
So we leave her there, hanging onto her guilt and emphatically not keen to date, and cut to a snappy-dressing vamp who’s come to town with his boss on a mission to eat the fast food workers of Sunnydale.
Mister Trick does have his charms. He mentions Sunnydale’s lack of racial diversity—which we all discussed some weeks ago—and he’s eager to drag vampirekind into the age of at least the vacuum tube. If he were around today, he’d order his delivery boys on his swanky new iPad. But neither he nor his incredibly grumpy boss monster, Kakistos, is the truly exciting new kid on the block.
That honor, naturally, goes to Faith, Kendra’s replacement, who makes her appearance at the Bronze while the gang is hanging out. By way of saying hello, she stakes a vampire and then trots out her best Slaying while Naked stories to entertain the group. (If only there were more of these. I’m envisioning webisodes.)
Before Faith’s arrival, Buffy had been working through the process of plugging back into her life. She and Joyce had the satisfaction of taunting Snyder for his inability to keep her out of school. She’s taking make-up tests, reconnecting with the Scoobies, and generally enjoying the fact that she’s not waiting tables in an L.A. greasy spoon anymore.
And even though she doesn’t know it, Giles is trying to help her process her Angel guilt with a fib about a binding spell. On the whole she’s about as keen to tell him the truth as she is to date Scott.
Faith’s arrival on the scene disrupts Buffy’s fragile and hard-won balance, setting off a surge of what can only be described as sibling rivalry. Apparently happy to be a Slayer and confident in her ability to kill and kill again, Faith presents an image of herself as a happier, better-adjusted Buffster, one at ease with her friends, her Watcher, with Joyce and random men. Especially random men.
It’s all an illusion, of course, classic fakery until you makery. Kakistos ate her Watcher, and Faith is on the run.
And this is what gives Buffy a clue: seeing Faith taken down a peg and almost fatally unable to talk about or otherwise deal with her trauma. The two slayers dust Kakistos and Buffy tells Giles and Willow what really happened when she took Acathla down. She feels better, enough so that she makes a date with Scott and says goodbye to Angel, leaving his Claddagh ring (which is apparently a magic decoder homing beacon for vampires with souls) on the floor of the mansion where she killed him.
Giles’s small lie about needing Buffy to spill is lovely Watcher caretaking; it just makes me happy when he is a good dad. And I like the undercurrent of tension between him and Willow, not to mention the foreshadowing, about her dabbling in magic. But, mostly, there’s a lot of housekeeping going on in this story. The Scoobies are cute and Snyder is snivelly and by the end of the episode we’re just about back to business as usual: kids at school, mom at home, vampires on the loose.
Eliza Dushku, as Faith, has terrific appeal. She’s a great foil for Buffy: more earthy and at home with the violence that is their life. In this episode, when we see what turns out to be a core of emotional instability, we’re invited to assume it’s just a passing fling with crazy, the natural result of having lost her Watcher. It’s only in retrospect that we see she was always on the edge of falling apart. Just as it’s twenty-twenty hindsight that Willow kinda has power issues.
In the meantime, Eliza’s having a good time, as she seems to in every show she’s in, and it makes her fun to watch.
In “Beauty and the Beasts,” it’s all Guy Trouble. We start with Buffy and Faith talkin’ boys in the graveyard, the Slayer equivalent of a water cooler, and we get to hear Faith’s deeply cynical assessment of the male gender: to wit, they’re all beasts.
Which brings us handily to Oz, who actually is a beast three days a month. And, unfortunately for him, Xander’s on werewolf-watching duty at the library. He spends his shift snoozing as, out in the woods near the school, someone from the jazz band is getting mauled to death.
Next day, Buffy is still filling time with Scott and we are all thereby obliged to meet two of his childhood buds, Pete Jekyll and Debbie Woebegone. Debbie, like Buffy, has been obliged to visit the guidance counselor. She disses him, for reasons that become obvious later, but he turns out to be a pretty decent guy. Though Buffy is only seeing him because it’s one of the hoops she has to jump to stay in school, there’s a connection there. We like him. He could have made her life better. Clearly, he’s toast.
But she leaves him alive for the moment, and by the time she gets to the library after this appointment, the Scoobies are in full worry mode. Did last night’s maulee die at the paws of Oz?
It’s impossible not to feel bad for Oz in this scene: Seth Green always does an awesome job of selling the quiet guy in anguish.
So night two of the full moon unfolds: Buffy goes looking for a suspect they can all feel good about, and instead finds feral Angel. Did he kill their fellow student? At the same time, Willow and Xandelia go seeking answers at the morgue.
(Hey, did you all see that Willow’s forensic kit is in a Scooby Doo lunchbox? And, speaking of character props, Faith’s enormous music player may be the most dated-looking piece of technology on the show. It’s sometimes surprising to me how old BtVS doesn’t look.)
Buffy chains up her foaming former honey and hits the books for answers, and when Giles finds her the next morning, she tells him that she dreamed Angel came back. They discuss living conditions in Hell and whether he’s got much chance of being redeemable. Buffy then pours out her troubles to the corpse of the savvy counsellor, who being dead is no help at all. He’s extremely handy, though, in clearing both Oz and Angel. He died in the daytime, when the one was human and the other was allergic to sunlight.
The real murderer of the week turns out to be Pete, who’s been working his way through the classic spouse-batterer playbook. He beats Debbie up, blames her for the violence, gets all penitent and forces her to comfort him, buys her flowers during the honeymoon phase and takes his special home-brew ’roid rage vitamins just so he can hit her harder when the cycle starts up again. The killings are supposedly about jealousy, but they also isolate Debbie from anyone who might help her. So when Oz asks her if she’s okay, just a few minutes before sundown, Pete decides to kill him too.
The Scoobies have figured most of this out by now, and go off looking for Pete. He finds Oz in the cage. Oz tries common sense and logic to defuse the situation, which gets him nowhere. He even utters a lengthy compound sentence! To no avail. Pete goes all Hyde-y, rips off the cage door, and has a little fun batting Oz around the library before moonrise, which is where the fight evens up.
By the time Giles gets shot in the ass with a trank gun, all three beastlike boys are on the loose: Angel’s popped his chains, the second version of Oz’s bad costume is skittering around the polished school floors and Pete has retreated to his Sunnydale mad scientist storage closet. (Buffy should really give up patrolling one day a week and just search the whole school top to bottom for weird rooms full of things maladjusted students can use to prime the Hellmouth.) Angel throttles Pete, bursts into tears and throws himself on Buffy’s mercy.
Then the Sunnydale police, earlier characterized by Snyder as deeply stupid, are apparently left to figure out how Pete killed Debbie and then strangled himself with a heavy chain.
And poor decoy Scott loses two friends.
There’s a setting-the-board component to “Beauty and the Beasts,” though it’s less overt than it was with “Faith, Hope and Trick.” Getting Angel back as something other than a gloomy Buffy flashback is a necessary move. What’s admirable is how cleverly this necessity is blended with the other two thirds of the story—the Oz stuff and Batterin’ Pete.
What we get in this episode is three violent men, two of whom have limited responsibility for the mayhem they cause. Oz has learned to deal with his inner beast by placing himself in the hands of others: he trusts the Scoobies to keep him from harming anyone, and we see how hard that is when Xander fails him and then he finds out his minder, on night two, will be a Slayer. He accepts the need for it, even then. But when Pete attacks him, we see a tiny, delightful glimmer as Oz surrenders to his inner monster: “Time’s up. Rules change.”
Angel, meanwhile . . . well, he couldn’t have known what would trigger the loss of his soul. And I say he can’t be blamed for what Angelus did afterward. He’s paid for it all the same, what with the going to a hell-dimension for centuries and all. The question Giles puts to Buffy, thinking it’s hypothetical, is “Does he want to be redeemed?”
We all know the answer to that one. (“Sure, especially if it means I get my own series!”)
Pete, on the other hand, is a much more garden-variety monster: easily found, hard to deal with, and less willing than either Angel or Oz to take responsibility for actions that are conscious choices. It’s a fine piece of storytelling and nice, too, to get a little bit of an Oz story.
As for Angel... part of me would have been wholly satisfied if he had never made it back from Hell at all. It annoys me sometimes, when characters are only dead during rerun season, even though I know it’s a common superhero convention. But maybe that’s a conversation for another rewatch. What do you all think?
Next up: “Homecoming”
A.M. Dellamonica has a short story up here on Tor.com — an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. She also has a second story up here called “Among the Silvering Herd.”