It’s New To Me – BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (“Beer Bad” / “Wild At Heart”)

In my years of TV watching, there have been tons of well-regarded shows that have eluded my gaze. Thanks to the magic of Netflix and other online streaming sites, I now have an opportunity to watch these shows and share my thoughts on them. It may be a classic to you, but It’s New To Me!

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While I admit that Buffy ‘s past three seasons have all started slow and picked up steam around halfway through, I remain somewhat ambivalent about Season Four. Despite the presence of Season Two’s awesome baddie Spike and an intriguing mystery surrounding the masked commandos lurking around the UC Sunnydale campus, I just haven’t been able to muster much interest for this season, especially after the greatness of most of Season Two and pretty much the entirety of Season Three. The first of the Season Four episodes reviewed this week marks my personal low point with the series, but thankfully the second episode is a marked improvement that will hopefully steer the rest of the season in the right direction.

“Beer Bad,” the fifth episode of Season Four, finds our normally plucky protagonist still royally bummed about being used and discarded by her would-be suiter Parker Abrams to the point where she neglects her class lectures in favor of wishful daydreams in which she imagines saving a grateful Parker from a gang of vampires. Buffy’s off-campus buddy Xander offers a brief respite from her grief by inviting her to the local campus pub where he used a fake ID to get a job as a bartender. When she arrives at the bar, however, she is embarrassed to find Parker there chatting up a random girl. She receives a sympathetic ear from her friendly TA Riley Finn and briefly from Xander before he is called away to fill the bar’s many drink orders. Depressed, Buffy starts to leave before she is approached by four overly confident and slightly douchey upperclassmen who invite her to hang out with them and share their pitcher of “Black Frost” beer. Meanwhile, Willow and Oz hang out at the Bronze, watching a band fronted by an alluring fellow student named Veruca (Paige Moss), whom Willow worries that Oz may be attracted to. Her worries are verified somewhat by the intense way Oz stares at her as she sings.

The next morning, Willow arrives at her dorm room to find Buffy staring blankly at a music video, muttering broken sentences. Later that evening, Buffy returns to the bar and continues to down Black Frost with the group of boys (one of whom is played by a pre-Harold and Kumar Kal Penn). As the group downs more of the potent libation, they act increasingly goofy and animalistic to the point where Xander pulls rank as the bartender and excuses Buffy from the bar, sending her home. As Buffy’s four drinking buddies continue to get wasted, they quickly turn into violent Neanderthals that attack Xander before exiting the bar to run amok around campus. When Xander confronts his boss Jack about what just happened, he admits to Xander that he spiked that particular brand of beer with an ingredient that turns the drinker into the equivalent of a modern-day caveperson as a way to get revenge over all the smarmy college students who looked down on him. Xander fetches Giles, and when they both arrive at Buffy’s dorm room, they find her drawing cave paintings on her wall and yelling “Parker bad!”

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While this is happening, Willow personally confronts Parker and chides him for how he treated Buffy. He tries to turn on the charm for her, but Willow sees right through him, complaining about how primitive men can be. After she says this, as if on cue, the four Neanderthals show up and knock both of them out before starting a fire in the room. While following “Cave-Buffy” after she busts out of her dorm room, Xander and Giles notice the smoke from the fire that the Neanderthals set, and Buffy rushes in to save everyone, including the Neanderthals. After the fire is contained and the four guys are carted off to await the end of their temporary de-evolution, Parker walks up to the still-affected Buffy and expresses his gratitude to her, to which Buffy responds by knocking him unconscious.

“Beer Bad” is without a doubt the silliest and, in my opinion, worst overall episode of Buffy that I’ve seen so far. It reminded me of the eye-rollingly earnest “Very Special Episodes” that plagued nearly every TV show during the Eighties and Nineties, and while it’s anti-binge drinking message is a positive one, it’s handled in the dumbest way possible, with a number of frustratingly glaring plot holes and unclear motivations. Why, for example, would a so-called professional small business owner like Jack risk losing his beer license by dosing his customers, no matter how they treated him. Is the guy really that shallow and petty that he values getting one over a group of obnoxious kids over earning a living? Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but after the past two seasons showed me how great this show could be, an episode like “Beer Bad” just seems like a major setback. If there are any bright spots to this episode, however, I hope one of them is the end to Buffy’s annoying pining for that loser Parker once and for all, as I never bought that she would let what happened to her faze her for more than a week or so. After this insufferable dud, Season Four certainly has a long way to go to even be remotely compared with the previous season, but hopefully the worst of this season has passed with “Beer Bad.” 1 out of 5 “Quests for Fire.”

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Thankfully, the quality of the season gets ramped up considerably with the following episode, “Wild At Heart,” which gives us a crucial turning point in Willow’s relationship with Oz. After an intriguing cold open that involves Spike being tazed mid-monologue and carried off by the same masked Call of Duty-looking dudes that were briefly introduced in the season premiere, we return to the Bronze, where the whole gang is hanging out, Giles included. Willow continues to notice Oz’s intense interest in Veruca as she performs onstage, but when she tries to talk to him about it, he just brushes it off, telling her not to worry. Of course, since this is Willow we’re talking about, she continues to worry, and she shares her concerns with Buffy, who tells her to trust Oz.

That night, while Willow attends an initiation meeting of a local campus Wiccan club, Oz prepares to lock himself up for the night, seeing as it is the night before a full moon. When he changes into werewolf form, he manages to break free of his cell and roam the campus, where he runs into a female werewolf, with Professor Walsh (played by Lindsay Crouse, a.k.a. the former Mrs. David Mamet) caught in the middle of them. The two creatures ignore the Professor and lunge toward each other and engage in a long and brutal fight. The next morning, a nude and de-wolfed Oz wakes up at the site of the battle to see the also-nude Veruca lying next to him. The two sneak into a campus laundry room to pilfer some clothes and talk about their mutual “problem.” That morning at school, Oz acts even more closed off from Willow, which promts her to ask Xander for advice on how to approach him regarding her concerns about Veruca. Meanwhile, Buffy becomes aware of Professor Walsh’s encounter with two “wild dogs,” as she called them, and contacts both Giles and Oz, who says he doesn’t remember anything that happened once he turned.

That night, as Oz once again begins to lock himself up, he is visited by Veruca, whom he pleads to get in the cell with him so that they don’t run the risk of hurting anyone. Veruca refuses, stating that they should embrace their animal nature instead of trying to stifle it. Oz’s lust then gets the better of him as he begins to kiss Veruca, pulling her into the cage with him. The next morning, Willow arrives with breakfast for Oz, only to discover him and Veruca lying naked on the floor of the cell. Mortified and hurt, she flees, while Oz follows her and tries in vain to explain that this was the only way to make sure that both of them would not be able to hurt anyone. Willow asks him if he is more physically attracted to Veruca than he is to her and then leaves when he doesn’t answer right away.

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After Willow shares this new information with Buffy, the Slayer decides to go looking for Veruca in order to contain her for the final night of the full moon, and Oz joins her. Willow decides to cast a spell in one of the school’s chemistry labs that will hurt both Oz and Veruca but is reluctant to burn his picture as part of the spell. At that point, Veruca arrives at the lab, stating that the sun is about to go down and revealing her plan to kill her once that happens, stating that once she’s out of the way, Oz will fully embrace his animal side. Oz then shows up and pleads with Veruca to leave Willow alone as both of them begin to change. Oz attacks Veruca as both of them fully transform, and Oz kills Veruca by ripping out her throat. Buffy shows up and shoots Oz with a tranquilizer dart before he can attack Willow. With the threat neutralized, Willow bursts into manic tears as Buffy tries to console her. The next morning, Willow finds Oz packing his bags, and he tells her that he needs to go away for a while to try to come to terms with who and what he currently is. The two have a brief and sorrowful farewell before Oz drives off in his van.

“Wild At Heart” confronts an issue that viewers had been wondering about ever since it was revealed that Oz was a werewolf way back in Season Two, which of course is the question of how it would affect his relationship with Willow. It’s been obvious for the past few episodes that Veruca had a profound effect on Oz, and now that we know the reason, perhaps his decision to wander about Incredible Hulk – style isn’t a bad one, as a heavily populated college campus may not be the best place for someone with his condition. This of course doesn’t make his departure from Willow any less painful for both characters. This episode also features another appearance by those mysterious gun-toting masked figures, both in the cold open and in a brief encounter with Buffy in the woods near the campus. If past seasons are to be believed, these commando-types will more than likely be the big bads of the season and we should be learning more about them and their mission in the next few episodes. Aside from these positive aspects, there is one major plot hole in “Wild At Heart” that bothered me, and that is the question of what Buffy, Willow, and Oz did with Veruca’s body the next day and whether her death will be addressed in future episodes, since Oz technically murdered her even though he was a mindless beast at the time. Aside from that rather disturbing omission, “Wild At Heart” stands out as one of the most emotionally effective episodes of the entire season, and I hope to see more episodes like it, and hopefully none like “Beer Bad,” for the remainder of the series. 4 out of 5 Hidden Scratch Marks

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Who ARE these people!?

Ben Gilbert is an avid comic and movie fan, father of two amazing kids, and husband to one awesome chick. He resides in the hills of East Tennessee and still doesn't quite know what he wants to be when he grows up.

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  1. B. says:

    “Beer Bad” is actually a great episode when you know the history behind it, and realize how wonderfully subversive it is.

    I’m not sure if it’s still the case now, but back in the ’90s the government required networks to run anti-drug and alcohol messages during shows aimed at a ‘teen’ audience. The networks obviously didn’t love that, since it cut into the amount of commercial time they could sell to advertisers. The Clinton administration came up with a deal where they offered to waive the PSA requirements if networks would work those messages into the actual storylines of episodes, instead. The WB took them up on it, and made “Buffy” and “Dawson’s Creek” and their other ‘teen’ shows do it. Joss and the other writers apparently hated the idea (who can blame them?), and their response was basically, “You want an episode showing that beer is bad? Okay, here you go–we call it… ‘Beer Bad’. Now can we get back to running our own damn show, please?” It’s pretty much a giant raised middle-finger at network meddling, which I think makes it awesome.

    Also, SMG is hysterical as Cave-Slayer, and I love the Willow/Parker conversation…

    • Ben Gilbert says:

      In 1999, that may have been seen as a funny bit of meta-commentary, but in a post-30 ROCK and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT world, it doesn’t play as well. Still, kudos to Whedon and company for trying to do something creative with network-mandated content.

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