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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Beer Bad

[Updated April 30, 2013]

There are worse episodes than Beer Bad, but not very many. If you ask a random Buffy fan to name the worst episode in the series off the top of his/her head, Beer Bad will come up pretty often. The problem is not that the point is obscure, as was true of, say, IRYJ. To the contrary, the episode beats us over the head with the message, even more than Buffy beat Parker. Emotionally satisfying that may be for her, but less so for us. At least I can discuss the point of the episode instead of stretching to find one as I did with IRYJ or Go Fish.

Immediately after Buffy’s dream, the camera panned to a shot of Parker and his next conquest-to-be chatting in Prof. Walsh’s class. We then hear Prof. Walsh tell us about the id, the ego, and the superego:
“These are the things we want. Simple things. Comfort, sex, shelter, food. We always want them and we want them all the time. The id doesn't learn, it doesn't grow up. It has the ego telling it what it can't have and it has the superego telling it what it should want. But the id works solely out of the pleasure principle. It wants.”

This all sounds very familiar from S2, and it arises in the same context: sex. The transition from the shot of Parker to the lecture hammers home the point that Prof. Walsh is talking about Parker here. He’s a slave to his id; sex is all he wants. “Willow: This isn't sharing. This isn't connecting. It's the pleasure principle. That's right, I got your number id boy. The only thing you're thinking about is how long till you can jump on my bones.”

The episode’s metaphors, heavy-handed though they may be, reinforce the message. Beer, even if not enchanted, strips us of our inhibitions, that is, our superegos. The “cavemen” represent the stereotypical instance of that. They’re pure id. CaveBuffy wants too, but not sex. She wants revenge on Parker. She gets that metaphorically in three different ways: when her metaphorical spirit exposes the shallowness of his pick-up routine, revealing his true self; when the metaphorical ids (the cavemen) hit him over the head immediately after Willow finishes; and when she herself hits him over the head at the end.

You might have sensed another case of id on display. We’ll see that play out next episode.

The episode also fits in with the seasonal theme of identity theft. The beer robbed Buffy and the other students of their true selves. This was similar to the identity theft we saw in Living Conditions, in that something essential was taken away. Keep in mind that there may be other ways to steal someone’s identity.
Trivia notes: (1) Xander may have seen the movie Cocktail, but perhaps that wasn’t the best model. (2) A fugue state (Xander’s description of Buffy’s mopey sadness) basically involves temporarily forgetting who you are. (3) The arrogant guy who wanted to conduct sociometry was looking to use numbers to describe social relationships. The scene is an homage to the movie Good Will Hunting. (4) In case you missed it, there was a very brief scene with Veruca in Living Conditions. Veruca’s band, Shy, was actually the band T.H.C. Sarah Folkman was the lead singer – Paige Moss, who played Veruca, didn’t sing. (5) Thomas Aquinas was probably the most important Catholic theologian. He lived in the 1200s. His theory of divine providence – what one of the students wanted to discuss – states that God actively supervises Creation rather than just creating the universe and then sitting back and watching it. (6) Buffy was watching Luscious Jackson on MTV when Willow thought she’d had group sex. (7) Xander described the boys affected by the beer as “questing for fire”. Quest For Fire was a 1981 film about the discovery of fire by archaic humans. (8) Xander described Giles as “Mr. ‘I spent the sixties in an electric Kool-Aid funky Satan groove’”. The “electric Kool-Aid” refers to the book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.


  1. If you ask a random Buffy fan to name the worst episode in the series off the top of his/her head, Beer Bad will come up pretty often.

    That's true, but not for me. This episode spoke to me, because of a similiar experience I had in college. It wasn't that I thought this guy(whose name I can't even remember now, HA!) and I had this deep thing, I was only in it for the sex myself, it's just that I thought we'd continue a sexual relationship, but he was more of "notches on the headboard" kinda guy.

    It bugged me for weeks, and fed into all these insecurities I had at the time. And then I fell in with this group of guys who helped me feel better, but got me all caught up in this exceptional girl syndrome(you know the one, where Nice Guys are all "Why can't other girls be as cool[read sexually available and geeky] as you?").

    So everything Buffy goes through in this ep just gives me SO MANY FEELS! I identify so much with her in this episode.

    Plus, Gellar's capability of physical comedy isn't given many opportunities to go free rein, but in this one she really lets go, with hilarious results. The part where she spins in the chair, touching the TV asking "where people go", and sniffing Xander. All of it was spot on.

    So yes the metaphor is heavy handed instead of subtle, but sometimes that works too.

    Letter from Joss if anyone missed over at Whedonesque the other day.

    1. Heh. Somebody's been reading Mark Watches too much -- ALL THOSE FEELS!

      But yeah, the problem with Beer Bad is not that it's unrealistic, because we've all been there. It just comes across like an anvil. I think for many people it also conjures up all those after school specials on the evils of alcohol (or marijuana or whatever).

      I'd seen Joss's letter but didn't think to provide a link. Thanks for that.

    2. Heh. I had heard the phrase before, but yeah reading it so much over there has definitely integrated it into my lexicon.

      I remember when I used the word "wonky" and a boss argued with me that it wasn't a real word, til Buffy used it. Then a few weeks later, HE was using it.

  2. I can't remember where I read this, but......Sarah Folkman of THC was Russell Crowe's girlfriend when he lived in Los Angeles in the 90s. Interesting sidenote.

    I don't really think "Beer Bad" was about the evils of alcohol. I think it was about the varying degrees to which we humans obey our primitive "pleasure principle" and little else.

    People like Parker don't need ANYTHING external to themselves to spur their continued blind obedience to their wants, and their wants alone. Whereas, someone like Buffy actually requires 'magic beer' to become that single-mindedly self-obsessed.

    The rest of us probably fall somewhere in between. It's not beer that's bad. It's our failures as humans at exerting some degree of control over our most primitive, antisocial urges.

    1. That's a fair point. JMHO, but I think it got lost a bit by the focus on the beer. Once they went that route, it's hard to avoid the moralism just because that's such a prevalent trope in our society. It might have had a very different resonance in Europe. If there are any European readers, they might be able to add something on this.

    2. Well, it was actually trying to be that obvious on the drinking metaphor to collect dollars from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, on the reasoning that the show promoted an anti-drug message. Yeah. It didn't get any of the funding despite the attempt.

  3. I really didn't like the episode the first time I saw it, but I find it actually improves on re-watch. The premise is just sooo silly, that I can't help but think the writers were sort of taking the piss out of the whole "anti-beer" campaign. More than that, however, is that that cast just seem like their having so much fun - and if I don't let the premise bother me, I can ride along with them. And it includes some of SMG's best physical comedy. With the chair and TV in her dorm room, priceless.

  4. There are a lot of drug/alcohol metaphors throughout the series, this is just one of the most heavy handed. That said, it's probably not in even my top five worst episodes...most of those are in season six...

    1. I personally don't have Beer Bad in my bottom 5, but lots of people apparently do.

      I have mixed feelings about S6. I think parts of it are great and I might rate it first among the seasons in terms of its top episodes. Sadly, IMO it suffers from some really bad episodes as well, including my personal worst episode, which makes it hard to rank overall.

    2. some of my favorite episodes are in S6, as well...but I think for me the bad outweighs the good...

  5. I have been remiss in commenting, but I have been finishing my thesis. Anyway, I like what you write here, but I think that it's missing a crucial aspect of the equation for this episode, which the after-school special-ness is, I think, meant to disguise. Walsh tells us what she thinks motivates people, but is that really all? See, Parker is all traditional id-boy, it's true. But cave-Buffy, and this is really important, saves the day, including Parker's life. This goes counter to the pleasure principle, if the pleasure principle is entirely about self-gratification only, then what is Buffy, no superego, doing saving people's lives? The point is that Walsh sees the instinctual, the id, as entirely selfish, but, in-universe, this is not entirely true. Id-Buffy, or lower-instincts Buffy, actually has her own moral code -- it's simple (save people!) and uncomplicated, but it's undeniable.

    Further, the episode is about how higher reasoning can impede emotional progress. Buffy thinks herself into hating herself rather than Parker. But her id can recognize him for what he is more easily. It's not that she wants revenge -- she doesn't even consciously know she wants revenge. Unencumbered by overthinking, id-Buffy sees more clearly in some senses (though obviously less clearly in others).

    This really plays into the season's themes. SPOILERS. After all, Maggie and the Initiative try to deal with, and harness, demons from the top-down--assuming they are but animals, no will, really, no motivation besides pure destruction. And that is true in some cases of demons. But Maggie also treats humans that way too (e.g. Riley) -- not trusting human instincts, going for pure human rationality. But the Primeval forces Buffy accesses save the day.

    1. I hope your comments here mean that you've finished the dissertation or at least made significant progress. Either way, congratulations.

      Your reading of Beer Bad is the most interesting and favorable I've seen. I'm not sure if I agree or disagree, so let me explain how I see the finale (briefly) as a way of getting at it.


      In a phrase, I see the spell in Primeval as meaning that Buffy, by integrating hand, heart, mind and spirit, can access the full range of adult powers. That would, of course, include the id/subconscious, but it would do so under more control than we saw exercised in Beer Bad.

      I'm not sure if that's how you'd see it or not.

    2. I have finished! Thanks!


      Yeah, I agree with that. I think that the point is not that the solution is to be all id -- but to recognize that no part of yourself is worthless, and that the non-conscious levels can be worthwhile and can have something positive to contribute. We're coming up to Hush, where communication occurs most effectively non-verbally in some cases, as another example. Walsh's view of the id as being something that can only be controlled contrasts with Buffy's ability to find something positive in her id, and that parallels the later ability of the Core Four to come together willingly into an integrated adult, vs. Adam and Walsh achieving integration of disparate parts only by manipulation, butchery etc.