[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali | Director: Bruce Seth Green | Aired: 01/27/1998]
I described “Innocence” [2×14] as the storytelling “blueprint” for how Buffy the Vampire Slayer wanted to tell its stories going forward. Its influence can immediately be felt when watching “Phases”, an episode that very easily could have ended up on the ‘uninvolving Season 1 entry’ pile if not for taking advantage of its opportunities at attaining emotional resonance. There are two key elements of “Innocence” [2×14] that “Phases” carries over: a change to an important character that is not ‘fixed’ by the end of the episode and genuine emotional stakes that derive from the setup of prior episodes.
In the case of the first carryover, the werewolf Buffy and Giles are hunting turns out to be Oz, who is quickly becoming an important recurring character. Like Angel before him, Oz goes through a change and has an experience that doesn’t disappear by the end of the episode. This is more like it! In the case of the second carryover, there is real tension generated when Buffy is morally struggling with whether to kill the werewolf or simply stop it. The tension and emotional resonance exists because it parallels Buffy’s recent experience with Angelus and her inability to kill him when she had the chance. (“Instead of not protecting Theresa from the werewolf, I was able to not protect her from something just as bad”, Buffy says.) These two qualities elevate what would have likely been a pedestrian episode into a very good one.
Even better is that the aftermath of “Innocence” [2×14], in a more literal sense, is making itself felt time and time again in “Phases”: in the background, Angelus is creeping me out playing deadly psychological games with Buffy and slowly killing off her classmates. This is also used as a way to start ramping up yet more tension and setup for the future! The only notable hindrance in “Phases” is the character of Cain, who’s portrayed with a mediocre-at-best performance by Jack Conley. Oh, and the cheesy werewolf costume doesn’t help either.
“Phases” is a surprisingly introspective episode that uses the nature of the werewolf to drive home its core messages. What is this nature, you ask? Well, Giles has the answer: “You see, the werewolf is such a potent extreme representation of our inborn animalistic traits … And it acts on pure instinct. No conscience, predatory, and aggressive.” Later, Cain will add that werewolves “are a sucker for the whole sexual heat thing — can sense it miles away.”
Oz becoming a werewolf is a fabulous allegory for a guy having an adolescent sexual awakening, which parallels and comments on Buffy’s own experiences throughout Season 2 thus far — “When She Was Bad” [2×01] being Buffy’s more emotionally-weighted take on it. At some point during adolescence there are suddenly all of these new, powerful, even primal sexual instincts and urges to contend with. Dealing with this change is the tricky part, as doing it the wrong way can have disastrous consequences.
With this in mind, “Phases” is apt to ask the question: what’s the healthiest way to handle these potent urges? There are certainly several approaches to consider. Should they be allowed to run wild? Should they be completely repressed? Or should they be controlled? “Phases” not only asks these questions, it also explores them through three characters: Angelus, Larry, and Oz, respectively, with the results guiding Buffy towards the healthiest path forward.
Let’s start with Angelus, who is now loose on the streets of Sunnydale, skulking around in the dark. More specifically, he stalks a classmate of Buffy’s and turns her into a vampire. Angelus is an extreme representation of what happens if we allow our “inborn animalistic traits”, as Giles described the werewolf, to run wild without constraint, conscience, or thought. With no conscience, all consequences can be easily ignored in favor of getting off, something Angelus very much achieves with his deadly games. We’ll get to see more of this perspective soon, in “Passion” [2×17]. This is the ultimate example of the purely utilitarian view of the sexual urge.
As a bit of an aside, I have to single out the scene where Angelus stalks Buffy’s classmate at night. The way it starts is creepy enough, but the scene gets considerably creepier once Angelus shows himself. The subtle detail of Angelus spinning that little flower petal adds so much horror to the scene. There’s just something about Angelus’ pale face and hollow grin contrasting against that bright yellow petal — excellently directed! This kind of scene subtly builds tension for the episodes to come (“Passion” [2×17], the most), and is one that really doesn’t draw attention to itself yet contributes to making the “big” moments to come genuinely big.
Okay then, so if we don’t let our passions have free reign, should we do the opposite? Should we do everything we can to repress these urges, even going so far as denying they even exist? Should we essentially try to “kill” them? Enter Larry, who we’ve seen thus far in Buffy portrayed as a gross horndog who goes out of his way to make crude sexual jokes about girls. The thing is, when someone acts out like Larry has been, it’s usually because they have their own internal issues and are massively overcompensating for them.
In Larry’s case, thanks to a hilarious misunderstanding by Xander, we find out that he is gay. Larry’s attempt to completely repress his own instincts has resulted in lashing out at everyone around him, particularly the girls at the school in a forced attempt to fit in and be normal. Once he admits the truth to Xander, Larry says that a weight has been lifted off his shoulders and by the end of the episode he’s no longer seen staring up girls’ skirts and being a complete lunkhead. The werewolf hunter Cain can also be added to the repression camp, as he tries to kill the werewolf rather than control it. So, the lesson here? Repression is not the answer!
So what’s left then? How do we deal with our sexual urges in a constructive manner? This is where Oz discovering he’s a werewolf comes in. I see three key steps in dealing with the situation. The first is to simply acknowledge that a change has occurred — to be aware that we can be powerfully yanked around by our urges if we let them. The second is to recognize the danger these urges can pose, and to acknowledge the potential fallout from acting on them rashly. The third and final step — the hardest — is learning how to responsibly control the urges, and to try to redirect that energy into something constructive rather than destructive. What Oz goes through in “Phases” hits all three of these, um, phases, from his initial shock of waking up naked in the woods to worrying if he killed anyone while in wolf mode to submitting himself to be locked up around full moons. Giles’ statement, “The full moon appears to bring out some of our darkest qualities,” resonates on a whole new level now.
This, of course, has Buffy feeling not-so-great through most of the episode as she weighs the similarities between how she let her impulses get the better of her in “Surprise” [2×13] against the nature of the werewolf here. Buffy thinks that she acted like a werewolf — attracted to Angel’s sexual energy and all — and “killed” him for it. While there is a lesson to be learned for Buffy in all of this, she also has to realize that what happened to Angel was in no way her fault. That realization is very much a work in progress.
An important distinction is made between the werewolf, who is only an animal with no ability to control its behavior three nights a month, and Angelus, who is an acting like an animal all the time and kills with a song in his heart. Buffy appropriately struggles with identifying the distinction between the two, and whether one deserves to be saved over the other. What’s the solution here? Well, since Oz’s situation is very temporary, it can be controlled, thus allowing him to continue living a relatively normal life and avoid ever putting himself or others at risk. Buffy offers Oz the opportunity to control his situation. If he does, she gracefully lets him live. But if he didn’t… she’d no doubt be forced to put him down. Cain, of course, isn’t interested in offering his victims this choice because he’s pretty much a self-serving utilitarian-based person (and a bit sexist to boot). This all metaphorically reinforces the notion that Buffy shouldn’t try to “kill” her sexual urges but instead gain control over them.
Angelus is a different beast, though; he’s the deadly embodiment of the consequences set loose from Buffy indulging those very sexual urges. This is no more apparent than in an exchange between Buffy and Cain. Cain says, “If that thing hurts anyone, it’s on your head. I hope you can live with that.” Buffy solemnly responds, “I live with that every day.” Take note how the werewolf doesn’t end up killing anybody in the episode, but Angelus does. This is the show nudging Buffy further towards her commitment to stopping Angelus for good, and that there is a big difference between him and Oz — i.e. running wild instead of controlled.
All of this ties right into Willow’s attempts to push Oz into taking their relationship to the next level. After Buffy’s recent experience, though, perhaps Willow shouldn’t be so quick to tap into that well. Oz’s restraint is something to be commended here, particularly in contrast with his newly fresh werewolf identity. Willow wants Oz to “hurry” up the process. Her reasoning? “I don’t want to be the only girl at school without a boyfriend.” Beyond making Buffy feel bad, it again shows Willow to not have the best motive for wanting to be closer to Oz, which is something he called her out on in “Innocence” [2×14].
Where Oz is dedicating the time to get to know Willow, the person, Willow seems more concerned with status and satisfying her own urges. This is precisely why they don’t share their first kiss until Willow is able to finally view Oz with clear eyes and accept him for who he is, rather than who she wants him to be. Note that she kisses him, not the other way around, which feels perfect considering their interaction thus far. Remember what Oz told her in “Innocence” [2×14]? He said, “See, in my fantasy when I’m kissing you, you’re kissing me.” And now here we sweetly are.
There’s a running thread in “Phases” that sees various characters wondering why other characters couple together. Willow asks re Xander and Cordelia, “what does he see in her, anyway?” This is something Xander’s asked many times in regard to Buffy and Angel, respectively (and yes, the male/female analogs being swapped definitely brings to mind “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19]). The answer to Willow’s question, of course, couldn’t be made any clearer when the scene abruptly cuts away to Xander and Cordelia frantically making out in a car. Lust is the clear answer here, and not much else — certainly not love at this point. This is especially humorous considering the location: “Lover’s Lane”. “Luster’s Lane” might be more appropriate though. 😉
It can be difficult to be the outsider who can see that a relationship won’t work, which is why we see everyone opining on each others’ relationships in “Phases”. Xander says, “All I’m saying is she’s not safe with him. If it were up to me…” to which Buffy aptly responds, “Xander… it’s not up to you.” All we have control over are our own choices, so rather than trying to convince others to change it’s generally more effective to instead focus on avoiding their mistakes and setting an example that would be in their best interest to emulate. Well, unless you’re Xander and you do a love spell to accomplish that change, but that’s the next story (“Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” [2×16]).
The final scene sums up “Phases” quite nicely. Oz tells Willow that “It’s not every day you find out you’re a werewolf. It’s fairly freaksome.” Willow responds, “Yeah, it’s a complication”, but that “You’re nice, you’re funny, you don’t smoke”, which is in his favor. Willow also references her period, which is obviously a less extreme parallel to what Oz is going to have to go through now. But it ultimately brings us back to what “Phases” is all about: adolescence, sexual development, and consequences. It’s a solid, well-executed outing offering sharp character work, thematic depth, and only a few rough edges (Cain being the roughest).
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Obligatory comment about Janus’ (and “Halloween” [2×06]’s) influence on Season 2. Remember the descriptors of Janus? A “division of self” and the Roman god of “beginnings and transitions”? These seem extremely applicable to “Phases”, don’t they? 🙂
+ Oz noticing the moving eyes in the cheerleading trophy. Subtle, yet amazing, callback to “Witch” [1×03]! It’s also a nice little reminder of how the show has moved beyond the struggles of childhood — they seem small to the characters now.
+ Oz’s comment about most movies unfortunately being like popcorn: you forget about them when they’re done. I’m with you Oz, I’m with you. 🙂
+ A funny bunny reference! Pre-Anya!
+ Giles getting extremely excited at the prospect of learning something new about werewolves. “One of the classics!”
+ Xander’s “moon pie” joke cracking Giles up — just not something you see every day. The girls both roll their eyes. Hah.
+ The gym scene. Watching Larry get thrown over Buffy’s shoulder for grabbing her ass is fantastic.
+ Surprisingly nice effect of the werewolf transforming back into Oz.
+ Oz’s conversation with his aunt about his cousin being a werewolf. The matter-of-fact tone of it is absolutely hilarious.
+ Xander’s reference to “The Pack” [1×06]. It’s only vaguely applicable here, but it’s always nice to see the show remember where it came from. There’s even brief “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01] (the globe) and “The Puppet Show” [1×09] references too!
+ There’s something incredibly satisfying about Xander, of all people, being the one to bring the gay out of Larry. The awkwardness of that moment for Xander feels so, so deserved.
+ Willow’s primary werewolf suspect, based on behavioral history, is Buffy! Haha.
+ Alyson Hannigan is a pretty good screamer. Props to her.
+ Oz got shot in “What’s My Line? Pt. 2” [2×10] and now he gets shot again as a werewolf, this time by Willow. Poor guy!
+ Buffy bending the entire barrel of Cain’s gun. Mega symbolic, obviously, but mostly just awesome.
+ Not the most convincing werewolf costume.
+ Oz’s final line: “A werewolf in love.” Just no.