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"Beer Bad" is not that bad

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  • "Beer Bad" is not that bad

    Now, I'm not making the case that it's one of the top five episodes or anything like that. It doesn't do much to advance the season's big arc; the way the magic victims' hair grows to waist-length and their teeth turn filthy when they transform seems random; it's virtually impossible to apply a convincing makeup for extinct species of humans anyway; the metaphor of alcohol leading to bad choices is? not really a metaphor; the idea that of course the cave-students would kidnap women right away plays into the Buffyverse's irksome insistence that sexism is an innate part of the male id; and even accepting that they're possessive, women-objectifying cretins, why is knocking women unconscious, potentially killing them before the sexytimes, their method of choice?

    So I've listed a number of boneheaded (haha) mistakes that the episode makes, but they aren't any worse than the problems with other, much more popular, episodes. These are 22-episode seasons; they always come with some filler. Aside from the inexplicable hair growth and tooth decay, the makeup department does as good a job as you could expect, considering that we are the only known human variant to have even chins. (If BuffyWorld.com is to be believed, the shooting script describes them as Cro-Magnons. They are not. Cro-Magnons did not have a dramatically larger brow ridge than humans living today, and are generally classified as a population of our own subspecies.) I'm guessing maybe Neanderthals were used as the template, which would explain the muscle development, although it would open up a whole lot of other anatomical issues, including leg-toso ratios, the cranial profile, and those anachronistic chins.) Unsubtle metaphors don't exactly set this episode apart: Buffy delivers anti-gun declarations in "Flooded" and "Smashed" (rendering "Innocence" hilarious in hindsight), Willow suffers the shakes as a result of "magic withdrawal" in "Wrecked and "Gone," and Cordelia literally wishes herself to death in "The Wish," because the show's previous takes on "be careful what you wish for" just weren't clear enough. The sexism-as-male-default concept isn't any more on-the-nose here than it in, say, "End of Days." And if I had a dime for every time someone in the Buffyverse got KO'd without causing any concern for their long-term health, I'd probably have enough to buy the Dollhouse DVDs for that rewatch I want to do.

    My point is not that your average BtVS episode is terrible; if I didn't like the show, I wouldn't be writing this. But we do grow to expect and deal with certain flaws, because the good points outweigh them, and I don't think that "Beer Bad" suffers from its flaws more deeply than all the other episodes.

    Neither do I think it lacks it's good points. Lindsay Crouse delivers the episode's early exposition with disdainful aplomb. How much does Maggie despise people who haven't been steeped in early-20th-century psychology texts since kindergarten, and why aren't her theories more modern? I don't know, but her combination of hauteur and restraint sets her up as a formidable character, even before the reveal of "The Initiative."

    I also think this is a good episode for Xander, showing that he's grown into a supportive friend even though he doesn't really have his life together. You could make a decent case that he catches worse breaks than either Buffy or Willow throughout the past few months: He either wasn't accepted by a college or couldn't afford the tuition, he wasn't able to fulfill his dream of cross-country travel, he's mortified that he had to work as a stripper just to get back home, he lives in his parents' basement, and he has an unsteady job in a bar usually crowded with people who look down on him. It's fair to say that he isn't, in 2010s Tumblr-speak, "adulting" well. Nonetheless, he's patient with and watchful over a very-drunk Buffy: He checks on her in her room, never shames her for being duped into a one-night stand with Parker, and delivers an excellent burn to Giles when the latter fumes over her access to beer:"Well excuse me, Mr. I-Spent-the-Sixties-in-an-Electric-Funky-Kool-Aid-Satan-Groove!"

    Just this one scene is pretty complex. On the one hand, it probably isn't best that that the Slayer's too hammered to deal with unexpected emergencies. On the other hand, a) it isn't necessarily more destructive than other means of comforting herself on a night off and b) she really does need the occasional night of not worrying about Slayage if she's going to avoid burnout. And Xander is totally right to call off Giles, who may consider himself the epitome of cool dedication now, but had to sow his wild oats in much more dramatic fashion than Buffy before he returned to his inherited calling. Yet, in another layer, Xander adds that Buffy is intelligent enough to make her own decisions? right before he and Giles find themselves staring at cave-Buffy. Is it an infantilizing and possibly sexist subversion of Xander's defense of her, or is it just for the gag? Problematic or not, at least the cut to cave-Buffy's stare is funny.

    (As an aside, does anyone else think that SMG does "primal" really well? This moment's comic contrast would not have worked with a less intense actress, or one less comfortable handling the props and dressing. She's also amazing in the mud scenes in "Restless" and the unrestrained, unsophisticated sex scene in "Smashed." I would've liked to have seen what she could do if the show broke down the barrier between her California-bred, popularity-hardened persona and the Slayer line stretching back thousands of years. With so many women with so many beliefs covered, it could've stripped away her own cultural baggage in favor of something rawer and more instinctual.)

    Riley doesn't get a lot of time here, but it's well spent. We see that he does occasionally do normal things off-campus, and that he's confident and gracious enough to accept being accidentally insulted for his size by the woman who just barreled into him and whom he, at this point, has no real reason to hold in high regard. Riley has his flaws? he's an abysmal judge of character, and his craving for approval borders on the pathological?, but a fundamental aspect of his personality is courtesy. He actually thinks that the public needs his protection, and that people worth protecting are worth being kind to. We'll see this aspect of his character in later episodes when he hides Buffy's weapons for Willow without checking what they are; when he hangs the lesbians' banner; and when he not only agrees to babysit Dawn (who is old enough to be a babysitter), but, unlike every other "wholesome" influence in her life, respectfully listens to her rambling conversation.

    Of course, the only semi-major storyline that gets resolved here is Buffy's obsession with and guilt over Parker, and it gets resolved in a way that I think is telling about her other relationships. In each of these relationships, the collapse and aftermath is prolonged agony for her. Following the framework established in Maggie's monologue, this results from a three-way conflict between her id ("it wants"), the ego ("telling it what it can't have"), and the superego ("telling it what it shouldn't have.")

    Parker seems to be presenting her with a similar conundrum, but in this context, her superego and ego are of lesser power than her id, and her senses are heightened. As a result, she's able to gain clarity and closure in a way that she usually can't. Running mostly on gut feelings, she recognizes Parker for the scum that he is and knows that she doesn't want him. What she wants, instead, is to flip the power in their "relationship"? to be the one that rejects and hurts him. Although she shows enough control to not leave him to burn, she's nonetheless clubs him to unconsciousness when he tries to speak to her again. It was his words that she fell for in "The Harsh Light of Day"; here, she makes his words silent and powerless. No longer in denial about his potential as a partner or disempowered by his manipulations, Buffy regains her pride, and Parker Abrams ceases to be a source of emotional turmoil to her.

    However, Buffy's internal conflicts are going full-steam in her other romances. She's obsessed with what she can't have and what she shouldn't have, and she wants it anyway. No doubt her other affairs would be more complicated than her mistake with Parker anyway, since I think that Angel, Riley, and Spike all have genuine feelings and cannot, therefore, be revealed as mere fraudsters. Even so, she has few happy moments when her attraction to dark men, her social conditioning to seek a "good guy," and her sense of lost opportunities as the Slayer don't conflict to create dysfunction.

    "Beer Bad" is not a great, life-changing, genre-altering masterpiece, but neither is it a bad episode. It isn't trying to be "Hushed" or "OMWF." It's got a straightforward narrative, not a lot of big effects, a strong grasp of characters' personalities, and actors who seem to have perfected their comic reactions to each other. It's a workmanlike piece that won't teach you the meaning of life, but is faithful to the characters and a solid choice for days when you just to enjoy want a little taste of BtVS without getting sucked into a season-long plot.

  • #2
    Thanks! Now I want to re-watch it!

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