Well, that was certainly step up on this season’s premiere, although, to be fair, “Beneath You” is another poor monster-of-the-week story but it’s elevated by Spike, Marsters’ performance in particular. To continue being fair, there are other good things on display here; the Buffy humour’s back at the forefront (always welcome), and there’s some good interplay between all the characters, but else is what I would call exceptional.
The crux of the problem is much the same as last week’s, the show’s being a bit too clever for its own good. We get more world-spanning scope as another teenage girl is murder in a faraway land and we return to Willow in England. Both these jaunts promise that something epically bad is coming Buffy’s way and there’s plenty of local exposition to back that up, but there’s really no time to consider what “it” is or when dinner time will arrive as the Slayer’s too busy investigating a missing dog. There’s more to this week’s case than that, but the presumed point here is to highlight just how mundane Buffy’s life has become. She (and we) have seen it all, and Sunnydale’s everyday monsters just don’t feel particularly threatening anymore.
Not to belabour last week’s point but, without a threat, why should we care. “Beneath You” goes one step further and directly connects the Big Bad that’s got everyone so jumpy with the most uninteresting monster since… Worm Boy? It’s a clever idea, one that has the potential to elevate the villain when they’re finally revealed, but it isn’t enough to carry the episode. We need story first and self-reflection second.
Still, we’ve got the aforementioned Spike-awesome to keep this episode firmly above mediocre. Before we get to some of Marsters’ best work at the end, we get him being nearly as great as the earnest, non-threatening do-gooder looking to pitch in. It’s bizarrely bland but strangely fun slant for the character, one that starts showing cracks almost as soon as it begins with the Scoobies immediately recognizing and rejecting the front and Buffy repeatedly flashing back to the attempted rape. He pivots from hero to villain as soon as there’s a chance that the truth might be revealed and shows us the sort of gleeful taunting we haven’t seen since “School Hard.”
The shifts in character, while compressed, are actually par for the course with Spike. The chip made for an identity crisis long before the soul did, as did Drusilla’s infidelity. In fact, who William/Spike really is has been confused since he became a vampire and, as the final scene with Buffy reveals, he’s further from an answer than ever. There’s a lot of raw pain on display here and Marsters delivers his best work since “Seeing Red.” I guess that wasn’t so long ago, let’s just say he’s great here and what Spike’s going through is enough to move Buffy. This scene is paydirt for Buffy/Spike shippers but part of why I love it while still loathing similar scenes with Buffy/Angel is that Spike’s torment is in no way portrayed as attractive. Sympathetic sure, but there’s no suggestion that Buffy’s been won over by what Spike’s done. If anything, she’s horrified by the fact that he did this for her. It’s a terrific way to move their relationship in a new direction and the first element of the season to really get me excited for what comes next.
Exciting as the promise of Buffy/Spike now is, I’ll admit to disliking the final scene the first time I saw it. I appreciated Marsters’ performance, of course, but I didn’t pick up on the key ways it differed from Buffy/Angel. At the time it seems like the character I loved had been exchanged for a poor Angel clone and that the series was fixing to retread the relationship I hated. I know better now, and so have a far greater appreciation for this episode.
Wow, Dawn’s actually pretty solid here, finally proving that she’s able to complain without whining. I may need to get back in the character’s corner.
The CGI on the worm are pretty damned terrible here and, by this point in the series, there’s really no excuse as the FX department was good enough at what they did to know when something didn’t work.