[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Douglas Petrie | Director: Nick Marck | Aired: 10/01/2002]
Here lies an episode that ultimately works because of how generously it spreads around its solid character work and follows-through from last season. It also happens to contain one of the best scenes in the entire series, which makes a part of me want to give it an A just for the one scene. The plot of “Beneath You” is kind of lame, but it doesn’t take up too much time and is used simply to set the character interactions in motion. Want a summary? Here: Anya does vengeance mojo on a man for an unknowing angry woman, and then is later convinced to undo it. There, that’s it. This episode really doesn’t try very hard to hide the fact it’s entirely about the characters, so I’m just going to dive into what’s really important, which happens to be what the episode excels at.
Speaking of character interaction, the entire early scene in Xander’s car with Buffy, Xander, and Dawn is simply sublime and kind of sums up my fondness for this episode — it represents classic Buffy, but with all of it coming from a more wiser place. Buffy still looks positively happy and glowing, Dawn looks a lot more well adjusted, and Xander looks solid but a little lost. When Xander tells Buffy and Dawn how lucky the kids are to have Buffy watching them at the school, I just melted. In particular, his comment to Buffy about how he is grateful for her was incredibly genuine and sweet. Once again, like in “Lessons” [7×01], it just feels like these two have something deeper than friendship here. But, alas, that’s something for us (or maybe just me) to dream about on our (my) own.
Another leftover from “Lessons” [7×01] that I’m still enjoying is Buffy’s giddy excitement for her new advising job at the high school. This feels totally genuine and is really fun to see. It’s interesting that the first chance Buffy gets to be alone in the new high school, she checks on Spike. This tells me that she’s clearly been thinking about him since she found him in “Lessons” [7×01]. Despite the attempted rape of last season, she can feel that something’s very different about him now. At the very least, she can’t just leave someone like Spike unattended in the basement of the high school her sister is going to. This is followed up with Buffy telling Spike he needs to get out of there in “Selfless” [7×05].
When Spike later appears, Buffy is willing to work with him, but is still very cautious and justifiably snippy around him. Spike tries to hide his craziness in “Lessons” [7×01] by blaming it on the manifest spirits. Later, after Spike tells Buffy he’s changed, she tells him that she believes it, but says, “I just don’t know what you’ve changed into.” I don’t think Spike fully knows that yet either. Buffy’s approach to Spike so far is incredibly wise: she doesn’t react purely on emotion, but rather uses a combination of slayer instinct and emotional distance/caution to get at what Spike’s game is. This continues to showcase Buffy’s enhanced maturity this season, as this is not a reaction I’d expect from her in previous seasons, yet makes perfect sense here.
Xander gets some attention in “Beneath You” as well. Ever since Xander left Anya at the altar, he’s returned to being, as he says, “a dateless nerd.” I think I’ve used that phrase before to describe myself, so I can definitely relate. Buffy astutely points out that maybe the whole leaving-Anya-at-the-altar thing hasn’t yet overcome the passage of time. That makes sense to me, anyway. It’s not going to be easy to start dating after an experience like that! With that said, he definitely gives it a shot with Nancy: the girl who’s dog got eaten. At first, she’s worried the Scoobies will think she’s crazy. Amusingly, she soon finds out the Scoobies are crazy. Haha. This girl is like someone who’s never watched Buffy before and is watching this episode. Too much backstory! For the rest of us, though, it’s simply wonderful.
Nancy jogs Xander’s senses and makes him realize that Anya is the root cause of this whole monster problem. Ah, poor Xander. Almost gets a date, but then it gets scared away. Anya uses Xander’s behavior at their wedding as an excuse for what she’s doing. Xander finally stands up: “And sooner or later, Anya, that excuse just stops working.” Nice! Anya’s getting really impatient with herself and escalating her vengeance deeds, although still willing to reverse them. This is the kind of nuanced attention that is so often ignored as unimportant by both TV writers and viewers, but is the bread and butter of a show that will keep my attention.
While Buffy, Willow (which I’ll get to in a bit), and Xander each got a nice dusting of characterization this episode, Spike is really where the true focus is. Apparently a lot of fans are pissed that Spike ended up getting so much attention this season because of the screen time he took away from the other characters. Personally, Spike has, from day one, been a character I wanted to see more of and get more development. The fact they turn him into one of the most focused-on characters this season is a huge positive for me.
No season can heavily focus on every character. While I can sympathize with the desire to focus on the “core four” in the show’s final season, the concept of the core four just doesn’t hold as much value to me in Season 7 that it did earlier in the series. I believe the writers purposefully did this to be more realistic to life. People grow older and change; relationships evolve and rarely remain what they used to be. Yes, the core Scoobies are still very close, and are still good friends, but their relationship with each other hasn’t been of the innocent tightly-knit warm and fuzzy variety since S2. Nor should it be like that anymore, after all that’s happened. By S7, making Spike a central part of the story makes sense to me and, personally, I absolutely love his role and development this season. I’ll get more into the details as the episodes progress, but I feel “Beneath You” begins the trend of developing Spike in a riveting manner.
Spike makes his awkward entrance into the plot of “Beneath You” by bursting into the scene where Buffy, Xander, and Dawn are discussing what to do about a worm monster eating a girl’s dog. Spike shows up offering help in his totally out-of-place tight blue shirt, which he will later accurately call a “costume.” Spike is trying to cover up the mess that’s inside his head at the moment, and is only thinly pulling himself together here to try to help Buffy. His voice is so much softer now — gentler, you could say. When Buffy tells Spike “everything about you is wrong,” you can see, in his eyes, the pain and acknowledgement of that fact — he actually believes it now.
Later in the episode, at the Bronze, in one of the most refreshingly comical Buffy ensemble scenes in quite some time, Anya realizes that Spike has a soul now — she can see right through his “costume.” This moment between the two of them is both fun and unpredictable. Anya’s flipping out in amazement. The moment Spike realizes she’s on to him, he starts trying to break up the situation. It takes a brawl to make that happen. Great acting from James Marsters here. When Buffy steps in between them and starts beating on Spike, he goes into full-on attack mode in the hopes to conceal his soul. He pulls out all the stops here, saying “working out the personal issues, huh?” and “ooh, up for another round at the balcony then?” Although he does his best to return to form, the moment something serious happens, this costume just melts away. By the way, I absolutely love the references to “Dead Things” [6×13].
That “serious” situation happens almost immediately after Nancy runs away in response to the punches being thrown. This leads to an amazing scene when Spike stabs the now human-again Ronny (Nancy’s ex-boyfriend). Spike just flips out in shock and pain. He says, “right, wrong” as if still trying to work out what those terms even mean to him anymore, which is particularly curious considering what the First was feeding him at the end of “Lessons” [7×01]: “It’s not about right. It’s not about wrong. It’s about power.” He’s totally confused now that his whole concept of morality has another layer to it. He also seems a bit tormented by the fact that he can’t just turn off these new feelings (“Calling quits, if only that was an option”). Spike still appears to be hounded by the First, yelling into the air, “What are you screaming about!? I can hear you!” This obviously makes a lot more sense than it did the first time I saw it.
Eventually Spike just implodes and runs off. This, fortunately, leads to the, what should be, famous church scene. This is one of, if not the, best scenes in the entire series. Right from the start of it, a shirtless Spike sets Buffy on edge. You can tell she’s thinking “what the hell is this!?” She tells him, “no more mind games, Spike.” He responds, “no more mind games? No more mind.” When Buffy touches Spike, he immediately recoils: “Hey! No touching! Am I flesh? Am I flesh to you? Feed on flesh, my flesh. Nothing else, not a spark… fine! Flesh then. Sod it through, get it hard, service the girl.” Wow, talk about scars left from last season. This dialogue is telling me that Spike is very morally confused on how to react to Buffy anymore. He’s very much hurting because of his part of what happened last season. But Buffy also used Spike, which is why he brings up the point that, before, he didn’t have a soul, so he was just flesh to her. When Buffy throws him across the room as he starts unbuttoning his pants, he realizes “right, girl doesn’t want to be serviced, because there’s not a spark.”
Spike goes on to look around the church and ask, “aren’t we in a soddin’ engine?” This line to me translates as somewhat of a joke from Spike. What’s interesting is that he’s speaking from the perspective of not having a soul, and is using the “the engine” as a metaphor for the church, or God. So I think the joke is saying, ‘hey, we’re in a church aren’t we? Hook me up with a soul [spark] so that I can get it on, because that’s what Buffy wants.’ It’s said in a very broken and sad tone, though, which tells me he’s just saying it out of desperation and confusion, rather than intending it to have any legitimacy. It’s clear, though, that Spike definitely still loves Buffy, but he’s unbelievably confused right now on how to interpret it. It’s like he’s… no, he is experiencing the world through new eyes. Everything’s different now.
Buffy, very confused now, demands some concrete answers out of him. Spike tells her, “I tried to find it, of course … the spark! The thing that’ll make me fit. Because you didn’t want…” At this points he bows his head, like he’s ashamed of even explaining himself to her; ashamed of putting even the hint of blame on her after what he did to her. Spike continues, “I dreamed of killing you. At least I think they were dreams.” Could this also be referring to the attempted rape? I think it could also just referring to his vampiric nature and history mixing in with his soul. He goes on, “You made me weak. Thinking of you. Holding myself, spilling useless buckets of salt, over your… ending.” This is likely referring to Buffy’s death in “The Gift” [5×22].
It’s not until Spike mentions Angel that the reality of the situation fully hits Buffy. Spike says, “Angel should have warned me… They put the spark in me, and now all it does is burn.” This is me getting chills at this point. From this point on, Spike’s soul just spills out onto the floor of this church, which is symbolically relevant in terms of the themes of forgiveness and self sacrifice — both terms metaphorically layered throughout this beautifully realized scene. Spike asks both Buffy and what seems to be God if getting a soul is what they wanted from him — at the very least, we know that Buffy constantly told him in previous seasons that she could never love him because of the lack of a soul.
When Spike says, “and now everyone’s in here, talking, everything I did, everyone I… and him [Spike’s concience manifesting as his perception of God’s punishment]… and it [the First] … they all just tell me to go… go, to hell.” When Buffy asks him why he’d go get his soul, Spike rightfully snaps back: “Buffy, shame on you. What must a man do what he mustn’t for her, to be hers. To be the kind of man, who would never… to be a kind of man. And she shall look at him with forgiveness, and everyone will forgive, and love. And he will be loved. So, everything’s okay, right? Can we rest now? Buffy, can we rest?” It’s these final words, overlayed with Spike wrapping his now scorching body around (hugging) a large cross, that the episode ends.
Honestly, I almost don’t even want to analyze this moment any further — it can be appreciated both on a thematic level and a visceral level. Spike’s unrequited love for Buffy mixing with his sorrow over what he’s done in his un-life, especially to Buffy, is beyond compelling — it’s spellbinding. Spike wants forgiveness for what he’s done, even though he feels, to some extent, that he doesn’t deserve it. He simply wants all the agony to stop — he wants his guilt over the destructive nature of their relationship last season to be put to rest. ‘Redemption’ is the word.
This entire scene only works as well as it does because James Marsters is a mind-blowingly great actor. It never really hit me until I originally saw this scene, but this man puts everything he has into this scene. This is some of the most naked, raw, and emotionally real acting I’ve ever seen in my life — television and movies. So major kudos here to James Marsters for sending chills down my spine and bringing me to tears, the same as it does to Buffy. This is a huge moment for the character of Spike, one that so emotionally tethers us to where the character is at now, post-soul, it boggles my mind in its succinct power.
Seeing a soulless demon recognize its inherent limitations and seek out a soul for completion and love — despite not fully knowing that really means — represents one of the most compelling stories of redemption I’ve ever witnessed. This scene in “Beneath You” wonderfully tackles the emotional fallout of that decision. If you’re not affected by this moment, from an acting perspective and from a character perspective, then we must really be watching different shows. To this day, this scene represents one of the top moments of television I’ve ever witnessed in my life. It is creepy, slightly amusing, and utterly heart-breaking. Thank you Joss Whedon, thank you James Marsters, and thank you Season 7!
Before wrapping this review up, I have a few words to say about Willow. I’m really liking that Willow has serious reservations about returning to Sunnydale prematurely. This concern also happens to be the center of her arc this season: overcoming her fear of losing control. Willow’s arc also directly overlaps with one of the central themes of the season: power. Willow obviously has a lot of power these days. The problem is that she is struggling in learning how to use it properly. In Season 6, she used it out of selfishness and a lack of discipline. This season, being aware of her weaknesses, she must learn how to control the magic within, and use it in a healthy and wise manner (“What if I go all veiny and homicidal again…?”). This is not an easy thing to do, and it represents Willow’s final arc that, personally, I find fairly satisfying. This arc does address the fallout from last season, and in a very thematic way.
Also touched on is Willow’s concern for how she’ll be recieved by her friends back in Sunnydale, a subject that gets the attention it deserves in “Same Time, Same Place” [7×03]. Although we all have a good idea that her friends will still be accepting of her, albeit a bit less trusting, I can understand that Willow would still be very nervous about it. It’s events like what happened in S6 where true friendship is tested. What happens next is tackled in the next episode.
Although “Beneath You” is marred by a silly demon-of-the-week and a somewhat slower pace, the character material, especially for Spike, is really first-rate. This is definitely one of those Buffy episodes where the character development and interaction are so appreciated that it rises above its mediocre plot, which I barely noticed or cared about. In the end it’s an overall unspectacular but quite decent episode.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The Run, Lola, Run inspired opening.
+ It’s nice to see Buffy getting prophetic dreams again. “Back to the beginning” indeed. 🙂
+ Continuity! Buffy brings up Principal Flutie based on a comment Wood makes about being eaten alive. Awesome!
+ Buffy asking Wood if he admired her work at the Doublemeat Palace. His response: “I’m a vegetarian.” The look on Buffy’s face is great here, as you can tell she’s thinking about the fact that the DMP burgers are made from vegetables. This is just totally fun banter.
+ Nancy gets very scared off by the crazy confrontation with Spike. Things must sure look nuts from her perspective. Poor Xander: “She’s not calling me.”
+ The scene where Nancy is trying to work out all the relationships in the Scooby group, gets totally confused, and then asks “have any of you not slept with each other?” Xander and Spike then exchange a hilarious look. 🙂
– The cheesy worm monster. The CGI, from the tremors-like effect on the ground to the actual thing itself, is very poor.
– Although Spike going crazy is fun for the whole family, the way the early scene was shot in the basement, when the earthquake occurred, felt cheap to me.