It’s hard to enjoy this episode in its original context any more. Everyone knows Oz is a werewolf, certainly on repeat viewing. I doubt many people ever approach this episode without that knowledge now. After several repeat viewings of Buffy, I’ve tried to think back very carefully to my first experience of watching Phases, and I’m pretty sure the big surprise at around the 20 minute mark worked very well, when Oz is revealed as the werewolf. Without that surprise any more, the episode lacks a certain something.
Phases also suffers nowadays because special effects have moved on. It hasn’t aged well. There was a time when werewolves were almost impossible to do without accidentally making the viewers laugh at the actor in a silly wolf costume, and that’s exactly what happens here, but at the same time I think we tended to understand that was what was going to happen if there was a TV show about a werewolf and we could accept it for what it is and see past that. Less than a decade after this episode, Doctor Who showed how to put a werewolf on screen without making us laugh, with the benefit of eight years of advancement in special effects on a television budget. So we’re spoilt now, and it’s easy to forget that there was a time when werewolves were always going to be visually much more Teen Wolf than Twilight.
Let’s try to look past the unintentional chuckle of Angel the vampire vs an accidentally funny werewolf, and focus on the story. There is often some kind of a juxtaposition at the heart of a Buffy episode, and recently that has generally been a contrast between relationships, but this time it’s the two examples of boyfriends gone rogue that Angel and Oz represent. We get a nasty scene of Angel making one of Buffy’s acquaintances feel safe before killing her, whereas Oz is mortified by the idea he might have accidentally killed somebody, and tries to remove himself from being a danger to Willow. Werewolves might be used here as a metaphor for toxic male-dominated relationships, but if that’s the case Oz breaks that mould. By the end of the episode we instead have something akin to an allegory for mental health issues within a relationship, with Willow undeterred by her boyfriend’s split personality, and they can finally share their first kiss in the knowledge of who they are, without that kiss being stolen under false pretences. It’s the reverse of the Angel/Buffy relationship.
The episode does suffer from some silliness that extends far beyond the visuals. Cain is an utterly ridiculous character, with his necklace of bones and his depressingly predictable condescension towards Buffy. He’s also entirely unnecessary to the episode, which could have done with a bit more breathing room for the main thrust of the story, without the pointless distraction of this comic book absurdity. Giles hits the nail on the head with one word: “pillock”.
On the other hand, we have the magnificent red herring that Larry represents. There are a few continuity links in this episode, including the cheerleading trophy and the callback to Xander’s hyena transformation, but the cleverest example of world-building this week is the return of Larry, who seemed like a one-and-done character. He is still an abhorrent bully who is perving on women at every opportunity, until we get the hilarious misunderstanding between Larry and Xander that provokes Larry to make a confession:
“How are people going to look at me after they find out I’m gay.”
Turns out he was overcompensating. It’s a bit of silly fun, because it leads to Larry assuming Xander is gay as well, but it also manages to be an uplifting little development because Larry does change his ways after coming out to Xander, and starts behaving in a gentlemanly manner towards women instead of harassing them. As for Xander, he saves Buffy’s life again, and that has now happened so many times that I’ve lost count, prompting a subtle little moment of attraction between them. It comes as a huge surprise, since Buffy has never shown any interest in Xander in that way before, but it’s understandable with her emotions all over the place. It prompts the remark, “oh no, my life’s not too complicated,” from Xander, but hey, relationships are nothing if not complicated. Willow and Oz faced a huge complication and found a way through it. Against the odds, they remain this series’ only example of a successful relationship. In the end, that might be this episode’s biggest surprise. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
I’m a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t pieced it together the moment I saw the title, Phases. Of course this would be a werewolf story! Like Giles, I too think “werewolves are one of the classics!” The problem is they are so rarely done well. I won’t say this is a great story, but it’s a fun werewolf episode with our favorite Scooby-Doo wannabes. Where the episode succeeds is twofold: character advancement and addressing yet another issue of our teen years. The latter is around the awkward dating years when you’re not sure how far is too far and what is acceptable in a relationship. Oz and Willow have a lovely little romance budding while Xander is struggling with his feelings around his friend. Oz is taking things slow for Willow’s sake, but Willow is ready to advance their relationship. Xander can’t fully be with Cordelia because he feels something for Willow, though whether that’s brotherly protection or something more remains to be seen. Both relationships are handled well. But now there’s a twist…
One thing I could not have seen coming was Oz. Oh, I was totally with Xander, completely and utterly convinced that Larry was the werewolf. That was the cleverness of the reveal that Larry, in fact, is just gay and trying to find comfort in his own sexuality (yet another thing handled reasonably well, though I think the writers got cold feet part way through). Oz’s transformation had him respond exactly as I did when he changed back to human form: “hm!” No, didn’t’ see that coming and it was a pleasant surprise. This show is often bewitching, to use an apt phrase for a show about magical, mystical beings. Of course, this wouldn’t be Buffy the Vampire Slayer if I weren’t bewildered by some things while watching. I’ve already speculated about the idea of vampires popping like balloons but where do their clothes go? Theresa rises from the dead before Xander manages to stake her, but when she pops like that balloon that vampires must be, even here clothes disappear. Damn those vampires; cursing the humans and their wardrobes! And are you telling me no one noticed the marks on Theresa’s neck? They were clearly not animal marks! I guess this is a town with very few parents that care for their kids. They don’t even attend the funerals. Also, this episode gets pretty uncomfortable with all the womanizing that goes on. I mean Larry may be using it as a smokescreen but they are so overt that I think he learned most of his moves from Captain Kirk! The werewolf hunter is also pretty uncomfortable to listen to; “what a man and a girl do on lover’s lane…” Egad! And in another awkward moment, was I alone in thinking Giles walking out of school with a rifle in hand felt terribly wrong?
On the other hand, this episode reminded me a lot of Doctor Who’s werewolf episode, Tooth and Claw. Yes, that one is substantially better with a far more frightening looking werewolf but one line I loved from that was the library line to say, use brains over brawn to survive. In this, it’s a bit less intellectual, but Giles definitely states “no bullets” and Buffy points out that a werewolf is a human 28 days out of every month. On top of that, the fact that Oz is neither defeated nor cured is also a nice twist. This is a world that is inhabited by vampires, werewolves, and mantis women, to name but a few; how great that we have a werewolf on the side of the good guys. Although I’m not sure he can’t be an ally as such, what with all that animal instinct and whatnot, but time will tell. Until then, he’s just unpleasant for a few days every month. (Then again, as Willow says, “3 days out of every month, I’m not so much fun to be with either!” – brilliant!) And that leads to the kiss at the end both signifying that Willow accepts Oz, curse and all, and that she belongs in the same club of which I am a part: “People for the ethical treatment of werewolves!”
As usual, the lines in this show impress me over and over again. I loved hearing Seth Green’s Oz call up his aunt and casually ask if his cousin is a werewolf. What, that doesn’t happen in your family? While Xander is saying he can get into the head of the werewolf, Willow asks if that’s “on account of once you were a hyena”, yet again establishing that the show is slowly building on it’s own past. But I was bothered by how slowly Willow came to see what happened to Oz when he fell! I mean, God forbid he had a stroke or something. She’s almost better off that he was transforming! And I could have done without Buffy bending the nozzle of the gun in front of Casual Cain, who acts as though she just folded a piece of paper rather than showing any sign of surprise, but the show has to have its highs and lows. How else can it bewitch me while simultaneously bothering and bewildering me? ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered