For all the prestige that Buffy the Vampire Slayer enjoys for being the most iconic, influential, and well-written television shows of the ‘90s (nay, all time?) the show’s spinoff, Angel spent its 5-season runtime living mostly in Buffy’s shadow. While for many it may perpetually exist as an afterthought for another series, Angel had some truly great episodes in its own right, including Season 3’s skin-crawling “Billy”—a more grounded, gritty installment that examined the horrors of violent misogyny through the lens of a demonic young man.
The episode (which premiered a dizzying 20 years ago) follows Angel and his team of do-gooders as they attempt to find and defeat Billy, a half-demon with the ability to induce what the show describes as “primordial misogyny” in men with a single touch. Though at first they seem to be hot on his trail as normal, the encounter quickly devolves into a nightmare for the team’s youngest member Fred (Amy Acker) when Wesley (Alexis Densiof) begins to terrorize her after being infected by Billy’s breed of misogyny.
Why “Billy”? What makes this episode in particular so scary? It’s relatively lacking in flash for a product of Mutant Enemy—no crazy special effects, makeup, or even lengthy fight sequences. Instead, it’s the concept’s embrace of a more grounded, realistic story that makes “Billy” so hard to watch. As far-fetched as a half-demon who turns men into misogynists may be, the episode uses the fantasy element as a mere jumping off point to deliver a chilling encounter for Fred that’s frightful because of how true to life it is.
The script (courtesy of Tim Minear and Jeffrey Bell) features some of the show’s best writing, and the episode’s direction is top notch, but the real terror of “Billy” comes courtesy of Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker’s performances. The episode takes the (up until then) soft, gentle, almost schoolboy crush Wesley has on Fred, and turns it into a dark, violent, seedy obsession that almost gets her killed.
Acker holds her own as a Wendy Torrence-esque victim, stumbling down dark spooky hallways in classic horror movie fashion, but Alexis Denisof makes the most surprising turn. Wesley has always existed as an intellectual, soft-spoken character, bordering on comic relief in the early seasons; of all the men on Angel he seems the least likely to snap into a violent rage—which is why it makes it so terrifying when he does. Wesley’s sudden and unsettling descent into barbarism, viewed through a modern lens, taps into the mythos of serial killers and murderers being “nice, normal, quiet guys” before they “suddenly” snap and become violent. It’s evil that hides in plain sight.
Denisof echoes elements of this in his performance. Though the episode makes several deliberate references/homages to The Shining (including their spin on the famous axe scene, substituting a more medieval-looking battle axe instead), Denisof goes beyond just emulating a horror icon and roots his performance in contrast to the typical Wesley we know and love. He’s still soft spoken, and maintains the same cadence as always for most of the episode, but that’s what makes his sudden outbursts even more frightening; his usually polite, borderline-stuffy dialogue now takes on a sinister edge dripping with seediness.
The early scenes of Wesley beginning to turn on Fred also notably have no music, a staple in the Buffyverse when hammering home the brutality of an episode (Buffy’s “The Body” notoriously is void of music). It works to full effect here when underscored by the gentle sound of his voice, which now makes unhinged, misogynistic rants sound perfectly reasoned. This is helped especially by the fact that Minear’s dialogue is top notch; the vulgar things Wesley says are so unsettling to hear from him because the “real” Wesley we know and love would never be so cruel.
When it comes to horror, things like jumpscares, bodies falling out of closets, or other similar genre staples are the kind that frighten you for a moment, maybe two, and then they’re gone. “Billy”’s horror operates from the opposite direction, capitalizing on quiet moments and the slow burn of it all: the haunted look in Lilah’s eyes as she steps out of the shadows to reveal her face mottled with bruises, or the cruelty in Wesley’s voice as he taunts and terrorizes Fred. It’s a kind of unsettling, skin-crawling horror that will sit with you long after the credits have rolled.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is certainly no stranger to exploring misogyny as villany, so why does this episode stick with us when Buffy touched on the same idea in its own way? The Trio (led by Warren) from Buffy Season 6 are what modern audiences would call “incels”—nerds who resent women for not paying them attention, and who are willing to go to any means necessary to get women to sleep with them. Warren in particular gets violent and often resorts to misogynistic comments when cornered by Buffy, but that’s about as far as it goes; Buffy always has a snippy comment and a roundhouse kick to shut him up.
Angel, though, is a show that’s fundamentally darker: where Buffy triumphs over evil, Angel himself was once part of that evil, and now walks the line determining which is which. In this moral greyness is where Angel is its most effective and most terrifying: where Buffy’s more optimistic, borderline lighthearted tone (even when dealing with dark subject matter) always keeps its audience in the safety that Buffy herself will prevail, Angel is willing to make us uncomfortable, to frighten us, and to never leave the darker, seedier side of the world it presents.
Though the series remaining in Buffy’s shadow (for better or for worse) meant it was less successful with its ratings and has had less of a cultural impact, that lack of spotlight allowed for the show to present a more unsettling, murky examination of Buffy’s world—a world filled with monsters, yes, but one where the most terrifying realities are also the most mundane.
Lauren Coates is a freelance entertainment writer with a passion for sci-fi, an unhealthy obsession with bad reality television, and a constant yearning to be at Disney World. She has contributed to Paste since 2020. You can follow her on Twitter @laurenjcoates, where she’s probably talking about Star Trek.
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