Covering from “Harsh Light of Day” to “Wild at Heart,” in which it’s all about the most boring playa in existence.
And so we have the saga of Parker. What a silly thing to have to write. Parker is only marginally less dull than Scott Hope, in that at least Parker is a sleaze-ball, though Scott had the decency to arrive and depart in the midst of all sorts of big events. No such luck with Parker, a story which steals way too much focus for how blasé its subject is.
Because it’s me, I see the intention here. Settled into the liberty of college life, Buffy has sex she comes to regret, a perfectly acceptable story. And it’s actually a fine one when it begins in “Harsh Light of Day,” which is where the story really begins, the character (if you can call him that) having been introduced in “Living Conditions” notwithstanding, and features Buffy as just one of a few ladies regretting where their emotions have led them. Which is all fine. Great, actually, enlivened considerably by the return of Anya, the reveal that Harmony is now a vampire and dating the most patient guy in the world who is who else? Spike, who engages Buffy is a pretty spectacular brawl at the worst moment, just when she’s realized the extent of Parker’s games so Spike can give voice to all the things she’s doubtless thinking. Before that moment, the show works just as hard to trick us as Parker does to trick Buffy, scoring their consummation or hook-up to soaring strings provided by proto-Avril Bif Naked. Hey, remember Bif Naked? You know, from 1999? No? There’s a reason for that.
But like I said, Buffy isn’t the only one with emotional regrets in “Harsh Light of Day,” the title of which alludes to Spike’s temporary invulnerability, but also riffs on the colloquial Walk of Shame, even though logistics keep such a thing from happening under the harsh daylight here and a more accurate but less punchy term might be “Walk of Soul-Searching Regret.” Buffy’s misused by Parker, Harmony is abused by Spike (though it has to be said, she is utter garbage as a hench), and Anya finds her attempts to purge her feelings for Xander have only made things worse for herself.
Quick aside, “Harsh Light of Day” crossed over with Angel’s “In the Dark,” which sees Spike following Oz in the hopes of reacquiring his invulnerability gem. And he gets a fantastic speech in the cold open that played a pretty big role in getting me to watch the show in the first place (“Say no more! Evil’s afoot! And I’m almost out of that nancy-boy hair gel I like so much!”). But he seems characterized a bit out of character—basically, Angel implies Spike is dumb and mocks the idea that he would have a plan, which…actually, it just makes Angel look rather dumb, because most of what Spike does is plot and plan and bide his time and work unconventionally (drunkenness notwithstanding). The whole episode hinges on the fact that not only did Spike figure out a mythical artifact was real, he also figured out where it was and found it. I don’t think I’m going to dive into Angel in parallel, but I probably should hit the crossovers when they’re relevant.
So, anyway, the question arises, is Buffy punished for getting it on? I don’t think so, she just feels bad and mopes about getting played (probably the truest sentiment in this story is when she rags on Parker for being shallow and manipulative, but can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t like her). No, if anyone is punished here, it’s us, as we’re subjected to Buffy moping about it for two more episodes.
Of those two, it’s not a controversial sentiment to say “Fear, Itself” works better, as it gives Buffy’s moping a fairly sound anchor to something specific—with two lovers in her leger, both of whom turned evil (one much more literally than the other, obviously) on her, she fears abandonment—and highlights that with a simple but fun haunted house story, which ends on a silly, obvious, and yet charming joke (the incarnation of fear turns out to be quite small, geddit!?). Also, Giles saves the day with a chainsaw, and Anya dresses as a bunny (a beloved joke, but I much prefer the character in “Newly human and strangely literal” mode). Little details help a lot.
In fact, while the show obviously never holds much sympathy for Parker’s perspective, it does at least mirror Buffy’s situation and give sympathy to the more casual sex perspective in Xander and Anya’s miscommunicated expectations and assumptions, with Xander being baffled and confused at Anya being upset that their experience didn’t mean more to him. His cool is, of course, fueled by her thin insistence she’s over him and, no doubt, how his assumptions got him assaulted and strangled by Faith, but there’s some undeniable sympathy for him when he’s chided for not calling the girl, and he didn’t realize that was expected in this case.
Less good is “Beer Bad.” So much less good. Another candidate for worst of the series less good.
It sucks. It’s still not my pick, though.
I know it’s only two episodes, but Buffy’s continued Parker moping just really strains at this point (and it should be noted, under the old paradigm, this would have constituted almost month to viewers). He’s really just not remarkable enough to justify it—he’s blandly handsome (I’m not sure if “WB pretty” was a thing back in the day, but today we’d definitely mock him for being “straight out of the CW’s pretty actor mines”), and disingenuous, and that’s it. Ain’t like she broke up with Angel again. And while “Fear, Itself” had the good sense to find something deeper in Buffy’s state, in “Beer Bad,” it’s just about the boy. So Buffy gets entangled with some cartoon versions of what passed for college drinkers in 1962 (I was a pretentious college drunk about this time, and we never brought up fucking Thomas Aquinas), they drink beer cursed by a cartoon townie (which was apparently a term people still used unironically? Or Sunnydale has always been a college town, we just never heard about it, and despite a strong enough industrial district to keep turning out abandoned warehouses?), and become cartoon cave-people. The episode is simultaneously very shrill (“You served her beer!?” Giles says to Xander in a tone better reserved for peyote) and too ridiculous to work as a condemnation of binge drinking. I mean, Christ, they turn into cave-people? Especially when you’re going for moralism, it’s best to not attempt cute metaphors, especially when they’re so silly.
On the plus side, Buffy’s funny fantasies of Parker begging her forgiveness ring true, and he never shows up again once Buffy bops him with a club (sigh).
The Parker business is so dominant, you might forget significant scenes or details, like the girl that Oz trades a glance with back in “Living Conditions,” or his little bit where he talks fearfully of the primal power he feels when the wolf begins to take over. It’s hard to forget that his fear in “Fear, Itself” is an unexpected transformation, but no one’s fears in that episode are especially surprising or out of left field. Would time have been better spent expanding these moments? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter too much, “Wild at Heart” is still pretty crushing, and after way too much moping over a character we could not give less of a shit about, that’s a pretty good thing.
I mentioned in “Beauty and the Beasts” that, rather than the gender essentialist notion of fundamental male violence that episode tried to force Oz’s lycanthropy to be, it actually played more like a chronic illness or, perhaps, an addict’s binge. Either way, it was something Willow desperately wanted to help him through, but couldn’t because, ultimately, it was something he had to cope with alone. In “Wild at Heart,” it feels very much like an addict binge, with Veruca seducing him into giving in to his urges rather than try to stay clean.
As much as Willow may want to help Oz, there will always be the wolf part of him that she can never touch or understand, but Veruca can and does. And this is another sad fact of the transition from high school to college—freed from the constraints of that one building and exposed to a wider variety of people, couples may find that as much as they may love each other, they may find themselves drawn to new people they never had the chance to encounter before, people with whom they share more commonality. Maybe, just maybe, that first high school love was just a matter of convenience.
The sadder fact is that Oz’s affliction makes him at times uncontrollable and dangerous, and he can’t find the solution to it in Sunnydale, so he has to leave. It sucks seeing Willow so hurt (she tends to carry her devastation much more nakedly than Buffy). It sucks seeing Oz so frightened he has to depart. But after so much false sadness thrown at the feet of the shit version of Scott Hope, it’s nice to see the show engage legitimate emotion again.
Costuming Alert! A twofer here, kinda, maybe, and in the same episode. First we have Spike. “What?” you say. “But Spike’s costuming changes so little! And later he wears something objectively terrible!” Addressing the second first, that’s the joke. And the first first, you’re right. But something seems off in the way Spike’s obvious stunt double wears it. Also making it not mostly black causes it to fall apart:
And also, we have Buffy. Now, as a straight male, I remember well the days of the extreme backless shirts, and remember them fondly. The bandana tops, those were great. They still look a bit weird, though: