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."
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).
- 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...