Compared to Beer Bad, the last wretched instalment of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, it's inevitable that Wild At Heart will seem like a work of genius in comparison. Established writer Marti Noxon is putting pen to paper. Spike's back for a nanosecond. And most importantly, it's the last episode to feature Oz as a regular. What can possibly go wrong?
Well, on the surface, not a lot – providing you don't think about it too much. If you're prone to blubbing like Ian Beale, then it's a fair bet you'll be weeping buckets by the time that Oz has driven off in his van into a life of meditation and mystical charms. The story goes that Seth Green wanted to leave the show to pursue a film career – so the writers of Buffy had to find a credible reason for breaking up one of the show's most enduring couples, Willow and Oz. That was never going to be an easy task, given that they've been as solid as a rock – even when Willow entered into some ill-advised smooching with Xander, Oz still wanted to give the relationship a second shot. So it's left to Wild At Heart to find a way to tear the couple apart in devastating style.
In terms of emotional impact, Wild At Heart succeeds in this respect. Which is mainly down to the incredible performances from Seth Green and especially Alyson Hannigan, brilliantly conveying a Willow who's put slowly and painfully through the wringer. If Sarah Michelle Gellar can do weepy bawling superbly, then Hannigan can do this just as well. Despite her growing confidence, there's an endearing vulnerable core to Willow's personality. Oz is still her first proper lover, so she's never experienced a break-up like this before. Worse still, she's blameless in all of this – it's an episode in which Willow comes off as the wounded victim, after Oz inexplicably gives into his wolfy self to mess around with the wretched Veruca, last seen getting frisky with her microphone stand in Beer Bad.
And unfortunately, that's one of the issues I have with Wild At Heart. While the story succeeds in drawing out every tear-drop until the bitter end, logically, it's a mess. For some reason, Oz has been noticing Veruca, a girl named after a blister on the foot. You couldn't dream up a less appealing name if you tried. It's possible that the production team toyed with the alternative names of Bunion or Chilblain, but instead opted for the marginally less offensive but still laughably monikered Veruca.
Despite possessing the name of something that you'd get cream from the chemist for, Oz is still smitten. He's acting all weird – deliberately and tactlessly taking Willow and the gang to The Bronze to see Veruca's band Shy play. This week, they've gone for a trancey Europop sound with a ditty that sounds like it might just have cracked the Dutch Top 10 in 1992.
Worse still, the next morning, Oz is behaving like a complete arse to Willow, keeping her out of the loop in a boring conversation about amps with Veruca, who's busy chowing down on a king-sized burger and fries as if she hasn't eaten a substantial meal for a month. Anyone with half a brain can deduce that there's more to Veruca's prodigious appetite than meets the ketchup.
Anyway, amp talk is an area that's alien to Willow, who touchingly thinks that Hound Dog's referring to the classic Elvis track rather than a type of speaker – what's worse is that Veruca's barely able to stop bursting into scornful laughter while Oz patronisingly talks down for America. It's a frustrating scene, but this is barely the tip of the iceberg.
Because, in case you hadn't worked it out, Veruca's a werewolf. Things get notably bleaker after Oz manages to burst out of his cage and stumble upon a wolfy Veruca. About the only good thing to come out of this is that they manage to freak out scowling harridan, Maggie Walsh, who's still possessed of her own lofty self-brilliance. Having scared Walsh out of her wits, both Oz and Veruca end up rolling around in the local woods and leaves, fighting – or heaven alone knows what. Maybe this is the wolf in Oz behaving this way, but the man in him ought to know better.
Which leaves the question as to why he isn't more upfront about what's happened. He deliberately keeps Buffy and especially Willow out of the loop – most probably for fear of hurting Willow, but for a reasonably smart guy like Oz, surely he'd know that a secret like this would end up spilling into the open. Of course, Willow finds this out in one of the episode's killer scenes.
Clutching a flask and breakfast doughnuts, she's devastated to find Oz and Veruca naked together in a hastily rigged-up security cage (that's Oz's brain-dead solution to stop them killing innocents, apparently). It's brilliantly acted by both Hannigan and Green (who does angry bellowing very well here in his uncharacteristic yell at Veruca to leave), but as Veruca herself pipes up, why not go to Willow and Buffy in the first place and be honest about the whole thing?
It's out of character for Oz to be as dumb as this, and it's a sometime annoying habit of writer Marti Noxon to force the characterisation to meet the requirements of the plot. I've talked about this in Dead Man's Party, in which many of the Scoobies behaved appallingly out of character in order to drive the plot forward (which it didn't anyway). Wild At Heart's characterisation of Oz is just as out of kilter with the norm – and you get the sense that Oz has only been written this way in order to fit in with Seth Green's departure from the show. It's annoying, and surely Noxon could have come up with a far more credible reason for him to leave the show?
The other downer with this subplot is Veruca herself. Paige Moss' weird performance comprises lots of husky wheezing, disjointed head swivelling and OTT eye rolling. It's a one-size-fits-all performance trick, whether Veruca's supposed to sing, seduce or threaten, but regrettably it makes Veruca look and sound like a malfunctioning wind-up toy doll.
What makes this subplot almost irrelevant is the fact that Marti Noxon can create some brilliant dialogue. She manages to coax every emotion out of the impending break-up, and this lends the story a heavily poignant air. Both Seth Green and Alyson Hannigan give some of their best performances in the series, getting their teeth into some raw, gritty material. The aforementioned confrontation in Oz's crypt is a notable example, and stands as a harsh contrast to an early scene in which Oz and Willow slowly and happily wake up in bed together. How can such a good thing go so badly wrong? It's testament to Noxon's brisk dialogue and Green's and Hannigan's performances that the break-up scene becomes grimly inevitable.
Although Noxon's characterisation of Oz is a bit too far off the mark to be believable, some of her other character stuff is far better. Buffy is very much the strong, solid best friend, willing to do something about the Veruca situation and help out Willow. I especially like her cold brush-off of Oz: “Now might be a good time for your trademark stoicism”. Oz is most definitely off Buffy's Christmas card list.
Xander is also seen as the Scooby member who everyone seems to be turning to so far this season. He's provided a reassuring shoulder for Buffy to cry on in The Freshman, and now he's doing his level best to provide Willow with relationship answers. Giles' incongruous appearance at The Bronze also provides a welcome burst of light relief in what's otherwise a dour tale. Poor old Giles is slowly finding that he no longer has a place in the world of Sunnydale. His regular salaries of Watcher and librarian are no more, leading me to wonder quite what Giles is doing for money. It's possible that he's been left some money by a well-off long distance uncle or grandparent, but for a guy who lives for intellectual challenges, mooching around in a bar full of kids shows that Giles has stooped lower than a prize-winning limbo dance champion.
Wild At Heart is also a novelty for introducing a pre-credits teaser which has nothing to do with this week's plot. Bizarrely, Spike is back in Sunnydale again. He's become the boomerang of Buffy baddies in that no matter how often you get rid of him, he always bounces back. Quite what he's doing back in Sunnydale again is never answered – barking impotent threats at a distant Buffy is indicative of a baddie who's fast running out of ideas. At least the mysterious commando guys will shift Spike in a new direction in the very near future, and it also can't be too long before we find out what the deal is with these lurking army goons either.
But for now, break out those hankies and reach for that industrial-sized tub of ice cream. Because that last scene could even reduce a Weeping Angel to cry baby tears. In order to control the wolf inside of him, Oz is skipping town and leaving behind his beloved Willow. “Oz... don't you love me?” blubs Willow, and a crushed Oz replies “My whole life? I've never loved anything else.” While it's not the last time that Seth Green and Alyson Hannigan will create acting alchemy together, it's still a blinder of a scene. While Green's Oz looks on the verge of tears as he hesitates alone in his van before reluctantly starting up the engine, it's left to Hannigan to break millions of hearts as Willow's own ticker is cruelly ripped in half.
Director David Grossman never lets the pace of the story flag, with some notable set-pieces such as the chase in the woods to prevent Veruca from making a meal of a spell-casting Willow. Christophe Beck's music is again first rate, and unlike last episode's fiasco, is actually suited to the mood of the story. If Wild At Heart occasionally misses the mark with some baffling characterisation for Oz and the annoying Veruca, then at least it hits the emotional bullseye with pinpoint precision.