Buffy has, from the very beginning, tried to be about things. The monsters were always a general metaphor for the many ways in which life sucks when you’re a teenager, and Buffy and the Scoobies were a metaphor for how teenagers can rise to challenges beyond the expectations of their teachers, their parents, and themselves. Often the show leaned harder on this, and the monstrous threat would be a specific metaphor for one aspect of teenaged life-suckery; in the world Buffy created, these metaphor monsters could be potent pieces of symbolism.
This episode by Marti Noxon takes that idea of addressing issues to a new level of blunt clarity. We meet Pete and Debbie, who seem happy and normal and friendly. However, we also see them when they are alone, and we learn Pete is jealous and controlling. Debbie is afraid of him. He is verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive, and Debbie covers for him. When Pete calms down from his rages, he blames Debbie for provoking him and begs forgiveness. She does forgive him. She loves him. When his violence is revealed, she tries to protect him. This is their conversation (source):
Debbie: Pete! You’re all right! God, you’re all right.
She throws her arms around him and hugs him close, but he doesn’t hug her back.
Debbie: She almost shot you. Did you see? I stopped her.
She lets go of her hug and looks at him.
Debbie: You have to leave, get out of Sunnydale. She knows.
Pete: How did she know, Debbie? Did you run your big mouth?
Debbie: (frightened) No! She just knew. It seemed like she just knew.
Pete: So you filled in the blanks!
He shoves her to the floor.
Debbie: (screams) NO! (looks up at him) No!
Pete: But what did I expect from a screw-up like you?
Debbie: (Shakes her head) I-I didn’t… Pete…
Pete: You’re nothing but a waste of space.
He moves to grab her.
The camera cuts away as Pete kills Debbie.
There are many depictions of partner abuse in popular media. The wife with the black eye is depressingly common. But among that mass of stories, this stands out for its brutality. There’s no escape here, no 3/4 swerve to reverse expectations. There is a monstrous metaphor here: the mood swings that keep love alive in an abusive romance are rendered as literal Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations. This metaphor provides no cover, however, and it is not intended to do so. It’s barely even symbolism at all, only there to provide the story with a genre trapping (and to allow the abusive Pete to go toe-to-toe with a werewolf and a slayer).
And there’s something very powerful in this. Buffy vs. monstrous abusive boyfriend is as pure an expression of the show’s feminist viewpoint as you could get. It feels, though, like dangerous ground for the show. There’s prior form for trouble: when it stops hiding behind metaphor, Buffy‘s storytelling starts to lose its moorings. The significant precursor here is Ted, where Buffy’s new stepdad was a dangerous and controlling man underneath his pleasant facade. Not coincidentally, that was another episode about domestic violence, and while the episode itself was a success, it achieved this by sacrificing consistency with the rest of the series.
This episode, however, manages these risks much more successfully. Partly this is the result of the show’s greater maturity. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has paid its dues and shown in the intensity of season two that it can deal with heavy themes with care and impact. It is hard to imagine such a bluntly violent storyline in earlier seasons. Crucially, the show also manages risk by putting the violent relationship one step away from the regular characters. Pete and Debbie are not friends of any of the group, and so everything that happens here is allowed to be brutal without creating more trauma for the core cast.
This social isolation from Buffy and her friends creates its own narrative problems – this feels in some ways like a Very Special Episode, those stalwarts of 80s TV where shows would address difficult and intense topics inside a single episode. As Vulture points out in its just published secret history of the Very Special Episode, one of the reasons these episodes went out of fashion was the rise of serialised stories; attempting to do justice to some of these important issues inside standard commercial running time rarely ended well. Introducing two brand-new friends and immediately revealing their awful secret feels clumsy and inauthentic in a series that trades on comics-style continuity and ongoing subplots.
However, I feel like this episode gets away with it, for two reasons. Firstly it manages this through the point of connection between Pete and Debbie and the Scoobies: Scott Hope, the lovely normal guy with whom Buffy’s embarking on a very hesitant dating relationship. Pete and Debbie are his best friends. It’s actually very refreshing for any TV show to acknowledge that part of the experience of a new boyfriend or girlfriend is meeting their social circle: the vast majority of TV shows have boyfriends coming and going without any sign that they have other people in their lives at all. We care about these new arrivals because their appearance is organic to the narrative and their friendship with Scott is a mark in their favour, so the introduction works well, and we can forgive the swift revelation of the truth because we believe Buffy and her friends are now skilled at uncovering these sorts of secrets once contact is made.
The second reason for the episode’s success is by locating this narrative within a strong thematic throughline for the episode. It isn’t just about Pete and Debbie, but about masculinity. Faith shoots from the hip in a bout of truthtelling that bites some of Cordelia’s style: “All men are beasts, Buffy… It’s not cynical. I mean, it’s realistic. Every guy from Manimal down to Mr. I-Love-The-English-Patient has beast in him. And I don’t care how sensitive they act. They’re all still just in it for the chase.”
So let’s take a moment to check out the other men in the story.
He’s still lovely and funny and kind. He’s not particularly memorable in the grand scheme of Buffy, but’s that’s a point in his favour – he isn’t trying to hog any spotlight, he doesn’t screw up in dramatic fashion, he doesn’t dominate. He’s just happy to be spending time with Buffy. It’s lovely to watch, honestly. But by the end of this episode, he is shattered. His two best friends, who he’s known since they were all preschoolers, are dead in a murder-suicide. The abuse plotline is too far from the Scoobies to give any of them trauma, but Scott catches a huge dose of it here. Poor Scott.
We spend a lot of time with Oz this episode, for a change. He’s still a werewolf and Willow and the Scoobies take turns watching him as he spends wolf nights in lockup. The weight of werewolfiness is obviously wearing him down, and when he believes he might be responsible for a murder, he is sickened. In fact, Oz is pretty much perfect, with Seth Green again showing his dramatic and comedic acting chops are on a level above everyone else on the show as he sells every single beat. (“Uh, you know that thing where you bail in the middle of an upsetting conversation? I have to do that. It’s kinda dramatic, I know, but… sometimes, it’s a necessary guy thing.”
As a side-note, we also get more of Oz as the quiet wise observer, as he’s the one who figures out what’s happening with Pete and Debbie. As a second side-note, shirtless Oz.
If you’re looking for an episode where the show officially throws up its hands and gives up trying to “fix” Xander, you could do worse than his first scene here, where he promises Willow he won’t fall asleep while watching Oz-wolf, and then promptly settles down for a sleep as soon as she’s out of the room. As it happens the show has some good moves still to make with Xander, but it might yet be too little, too late.
Giles doesn’t get to do much this episode, but he does have a good conversation with Buffy, showing again their mature relationship, confessing his personal experiences after Jenny’s death to help Buffy reflect on her own grief process. He also calls out Xander for his failures. There is one curious note here, where Buffy asks about Angel returning from torture in a hell dimension, and Giles suggests there are “two types of monster. The first, uh, can be redeemed, or more importantly, wants to be redeemed. The second is void of humanity, cannot respond to reason… or love.” Within the framework of this episode, it’s clear where Pete should sit – void of humanity, with no desire for redemption – but it feels like an off-note, attributing abusive behaviour like Pete’s to some personal deviance or deficiency and denying the possibility of a social/contextual contribution to his violence. Still, a small point, and Giles’ views shouldn’t be taken as the show’s.
The excellent Mr Platt is Buffy’s counsellor. He is a fun character, provoking Buffy to tell the story of her and Angel with the monstrous flavour stripped way, revealing the metaphor. It’s the show basically showing its cards. He’s a great character and useful for the kinds of exposition the show sometimes has to work hard to shoe-horn in. The kind of stories we’ve seen in this show – heck, in this episode – cry out for this kind of figure. He’d be a great regular character and would reduce the pressure on the characters. So, by the inevitable calculus of Buffy’s commitment to real threat, he has to die. (Sadly, as he’s just the third significant black character to be introduced on this show. Sigh.)
And finally, Angel. He’s back, he’s bestial, he has no shirt. Buffy finds him, and in a very interesting move, keeps his return a secret. This is a shockingly great storytelling decision, a pure expression of the character flaw we saw just last episode, Buffy’s tendency to take things on herself. She wonders if the violence is Angel’s doing, and is relieved when it turns out Pete was responsible – even more so when Angel kills Pete to save her, then collapses before her, revealing he is still himself (and simultaneously resolving the problem of what to do about Pete, saving Buffy from becoming a killer…)
So this broad tour of masculinity does gently support Faith’s point. All of the other male characters are (more or less) uncorrupted, with the partial and notable exception of Xander. And yet the central theme of dangerous masculinity is reinforced because all of these men fret about their own potential for darkness – Angel is struggling to express his humanity, Oz is distraught about what his wolf-side might have done, Giles sees wickedness as a philosophical problem, Xander tries to hide his failings even from himself, and even Mr Platt clearly has no illusions about masculine failings. This gives the episode what it needs to make a particularly tricky episode land. A very special episode, indeed.