Monday, July 26, 2010

Buffy 2x15 - "Phases"

EDIT: [ by a bizarre coincidence, this review was posted on the full moon. How weird is that? You might think I planned it that way, but I'm nowhere near smart enough (or organized enough) for that. ]

While Buffy's love life has taken a turn for the absolute worst, the Cordelia/Xander/Willow/Oz love trapezoid has now been fully activated, and this episode features the show's first earnest attempt to work through it. As if that weren't enough, it features an exciting standalone plot and some interesting subtext regarding issues of masculinity. It's just a pity the werewolf looks so lame. More after the jump.

"Werewolves! It's one of the classics."

- Giles

While Willow and Oz's relationship takes center stage, Xander and Cordelia have some fine moments as well. Xander's irrational hostility toward Oz is funny, and consistent with his behavior toward Angel prior to the latter's turning evil. And the funniest moment of the episode has to be the scene in the Bronze where Cordelia is complaining to an unknown individual about Xander's attitude toward Willow, and then we reveal that she's talking to Willow. Who actually empathises with her. It's gold. But the character who really shines in this episode is Oz. One of Oz's best moments is his deadpan, nonchalant discussion with his aunt about the fact that his baby cousin is a werewolf (and therefore, so is he). His chemistry with Willow is great, and continues to shine even as they hit the first real bit of friction in their relationship.

Another area where this episode really works is the inclusion of Angel. Although it's relatively standalone, "Phases" is pretty important in establishing just how much the status quo has been shaken by Angel's about face. The world is just a little bit more hostile toward Buffy, now that she has a villain who is looking not only to kill her but to torment her, and he's quite good at it.

Overall, it's a pretty strong standalone procedural. Like many of the best Buffy episodes, it features a sharp turn at the second act break (in this case, the revelation of the werewolf). But by using Larry as a red herring the episode does more than just increase suspense: it also sets up some interesting subtext. It's initially assumed that because of Larry's aggression and masculine swagger, he's the werewolf, but we soon learn that those traits are not manifestations of his true nature, but rather affectations designed to hide it. Instead, the werewolf is Oz, whose behavior couldn't be more different from Larry's: he's passive to a fault, much to Willow's chagrin. And then you throw in Buffy's attitude, as she snidely compares the werewolf to the "typical male." And who can blame her, in an episode where she's sexually harassed by Larry, taunted by Angel, and belittled by Cain, the homicidal, misogynistic werewolf hunter. But Angel's literally inhuman, and although Larry starts from a position of caricaturish male chauvinism, we learn that his motivations are complex, and by the end of the episode he has reformed (braving the disapproval of his peers).

It's a pretty interesting tension between different notions of masculinity, but unraveling it is pretty well beyond the scope of this blog post. Suffice it to say that the next episode deals with gender issues in a markedly less common (but more fun) way.

  • A spoilerish note on sexuality: [HIGHLIGHT FOR SPOILERS] As previously mentioned, Joss was for a while considering having either Xander or WIllow experiment with their sexuality. Eventually he chose Willow, but one must wonder whether the misunderstanding between Xander and Larry was ever intended to amount to more than just a gag.
  • When it's implied that the werewolf is feeding on small animals, Willow shudders to think of the poor bunnies. Oz assures her that "they might not look it, but bunnies can really take care of themselves." In an utterly meaningless coincidence, there's a character we won't meet until next season whose attitude toward bunnies becomes something of a running joke. Made me chuckle.
  • In this episode, Larry taunts Oz for dating a junior, which implies that he (like Oz) is a senior. But we see him a couple of times in season three, still a student. But feel free to come up with your own explanation. Shouldn't be too difficult. 
  • As discussed in the comments for my review of "Teacher's Pet", this episode features a cameo appearance by the cheerleader trophy from "The Witch." Oz has a peculiar interest in the trophy and feels like it's watching him. Of course, Amy's mother is imprisoned in the trophy. Speaking of which, it's been a while since we've seen Amy...


  1. YESSSS!!!! OK, so it's THIS episode that has the comment about the cheerleading statue! Funny, I never realized until now that the line really serves to remind us of Amy, who we're going to see in the very next episode!
    Also, I always thought that Oz's nonchalant discussion about werewolfism was kind of odd and out of place. I thought supposedly everyone else thinks they live in a normal town, and that's why Buffy and the Scoobies have to be so secretive. The fact that Oz's aunt speaks so casually about her son being a werewolf implies that residents of Sunnydale are all used to this overt supernatural presence, which they aren't. Sure, a lot of them know that something's a little weird in this town, but I feel like it's a stretch to have a non-Scooby character be so unfazed (no pun intended) by her son being a werewolf. Any thoughts?

  2. That's the joke: that Oz's relatives handle this sort of thing with the same uncanny nonchalance that he's known for.

  3. Sara--you raise the interesting and vexing problem of how familiar the average Sunnydale-ian is with the fact that they're living on top of a Hellmouth. Some people (such as early Joyce or Principal Flutie) seem entirely oblivious to what's going on--others (Principal Snyder and others of the Mayor's flunkies) seem to have some level of awareness. I guess that quite of few of the town's residents have at least some inkling--after all, quite a few of the Scooby gang's adventures happen in public places, and the Magic Box seems to do a pretty brisk business, implying quite a few of the town's residents at least dip their toe into the occult all around them.

    BTW, Oz explicitly addresses still being in HS early in Series 3--I forget exactly what he says, but I know he says something about it.

  4. I believe Oz says he was held back because he's not a good student. Which is a bit contrived, but at least it's explicitly addressed. Then again, Larry's class year isn't particularly important.

  5. Larry remains perpetually a senior every year due to experimental testing by the Three (from season 6, not the Three from season 1) which eventually resulted in that cool mummy-hand time-vortex thing.

    I think this is the best explanation.