FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Phases
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow has been sort-of seeing Oz and getting over her Xander crush whilst Buffy is still reeling from the arrival of Angelus.
Phases is another episode I've been looking forward to (the back half of the second season is one of the show's strongest run of episodes) and yet another one that hasn't disappointed, even developing in quality in the intervening years. One of only three Oz-centric episodes in the series, Phases finds our deadpan guitarist bitten by his cousin and turned into a werewolf. Said werewolf is running around Sunnydale attacking hormonally charged students and generally causing a bit of havoc. As the gang are unaware of who the werewolf is but wanting to save man the behind the dodgy wolf mask, Buffy starts to track it before it can hurt anyone, fending off the attentions of werewolf hunter Kane in the process.
Although Buffy often goes with the teen movie trope, Phases is probably the teen moviest of episodes with some added horror cliches thrown into the mix. First up, the horror element; Xander and Cordelia are engaged in that standard American teenage experience of making out in her dad's car in the woods when Xander hears something. Naturally, it's not long until the werewolf crashes a claw through the roof. Elsewhere, Giles declares the werewolf to be 'one of the classics' and gets very enthusiastic about spending an afternoon with the books, a girl walking home hears something behind her (more on her later) and Willow runs away from the werewolf only to fall over in the process. Unlike other horror cliches, these moments aren't followed by an ironic comment about the horror movie-ness of it all, but are rather left uncommented upon to feed into the wider concerns of the episode where women become prey.
This is where the teen movie aspect comes in, providing a solid foundation through which to explore the sexual politics of Sunnydale High. With that, you need to have a jock and so Larry returns, mastering 'the single entendre' and plaguing the females of Sunnydale with his lumbering male chauvinism. The sexually active (at least in his head) male jock is pretty much standard when it comes to creating a high school setting and Larry will not be the first we get acquainted with. He is, however, probably the most complex. Opening the episode with leering over Buffy and Willow, knocking books out of a female student's hands to get a look up her skirt and asking Oz if Willow's 'putting out'. Before his coming out to Xander in the locker room, Larry is your classic sexually entitled male, believing that he has access to any female of his choice because, well, that's what they're there for right?
Giles: Quite. And it, uh, acts on-on pure instinct. No conscience, uh, uh, predatory and-and aggressive.
Buffy:In other words, your typical male.
Xander: On behalf of my gender, hey!
Giles: Yes, let's not jump to any conclusions.
Buffy: I didn't jump. I took a tiny step, and there conclusions were.
I don't usually include quotes as paragraph breaks in these, but the above exchange is so important to the themes of the episode that it would be remiss of me not to include it. Larry is not the only male character whose actions towards women come under some heavy criticism in the episode, with Angel, Oz and Xander all representing different ways in which men can victimise or belittle women.
Buffy's 'typical male' comment makes explicit this connection and Shannon Craigo-Shell explores Phases in her essay on feminist ethics in Buffy to look at the way in which sexual violence as a 'problematic background' against which the female characters attempt to have relationships with the male characters. Angel is the easiest one to categorise and as a vampire he's famed for making his conquests sexual in nature. In this episode, he stalks Theresa and takes on the classic 'attacker jumping out of the bushes' role, a cliche and not a particularly useful one at that. He stalks through the episode in the background and leaves Buffy a message by leaving a victim for her to dust. He acts as a reminder of the threat awaiting Buffy later in the season as well as serving to represent the aforementioned cliche.
Xander is a tad more complicated and the flak he comes under in this episode is more subtle than with Larry. Xander is your classic Nice Guy; friends with female characters and therefore believes that he is entitled to possessing those women. It is behaviour he exhibits throughout the series, but particularly in the first three seasons with Willow and Buffy. He becomes irrationally jealous of Angel almost instantly and actively hates him (something that will become important later) and now starts to do the same with Willow and Oz, becoming obsessed with their relationship. Although it paves the way for their affair in the third season, Xander's behaviour acts as another signifier of the way in which the male characters attempt to possess the female characters and is offended when he's called out on it. At the end of the episode, he actually utters the words 'if it were up to me' about whether Willow and Oz's relationship should move forward to which Buffy, carefully and calmly responds, 'Xander, it's not up to you'.
Watching this episode again, particularly Larry's behaviour, is particularly fascinating when considered alongside the ongoing Everyday Sexismproject. If you haven't come across it before, the Everyday Sexism project collects stories of exactly that, when people (the majority of which are women) face discrimination because of their gender. It can be stuff like the kind of catcalls and groping that Larry engages in, the stalking that Angel engages in or the assumption that women aren't capable of 'doing a man's job' as stated by werewolf hunter Kane (a man I so badly wanted Buffy to punch). All of these moments are Everyday Sexism-worthy and the episode demonstrates particularly well how this is a constant in society. By using the high school setting, the show demonstrates that this behaviour is learned from an early age. Each female character in this episode faces some form of victimisation at the hands of the male characters though thankfully, each of them stands up for themselves in the wake of it. Buffy was never going to back down but Willow also takes the initiative with Oz and Cordelia calls out Xander on his behaviour repeatedly.
Returning to Larry, the show ups the analysis of gender politics even more by having him come out to Xander in the locker room when the latter believes the jock to be a werewolf. In this one scene, Buffy gives a minor character who only appears in a handful of episodes more depth than some shows give their regular cast members in an entire run. Larry identifying himself as gay also speaks volumes about the way in which homosexuality can be treated in high school; he worries about not being accepted and so overcompensates by becoming the alpha-male of his group, complete with outright sexism. Although by the end of the episode, he's picking up the books that a team-mate has knocked out of a girl's hands, Larry still won't come out to his schoolmates during his time at Sunnydale High because prevailing attitudes state that he will be victimised as a result.
For a standard monster-of-the-week affair, Phases has got a huge amount going on. I feel a little awful that I've spent the majority of this Oz-centric episode lookback talking about everything else that's going on in the episode and not Oz. I love Oz. Not only is he very funny, but he also adds an interesting dynamic to the group and his relationship with Willow kickstarts some big developments for her. His actions can be seen to fit into the above theme with his mistreatment of Willow (because he does mistreat her by refusing to talk to her and be honest about himself, not in the werewolf context, but in terms of how he feels), but instead of being focused on the themes of this episode, Oz fits into the much wider context of Buffy.
With his transformation, he becomes another double in the Buffyverse, a man torn between his inate gentleness (and Oz is nothing but nice) and the animal within. Duality becomes something of a key signifier for each character as they have to deal with something inside themselves that can be threatening. Buffy has two identities and struggles to keep them separate, Angel has Angelus who is now running around doing unspeakable things to high schoolers and Willow will later have the witch in her to contend with. Oz is another in a long line of Buffy characters who is forced to reconcile two halves of himself and one who is not always successful at doing so. As Giles states, the werewolf represents our most base, animalistic urges which makes Oz the perfect character to deal with that particular problem; he's so laconic and controlled in his day-to-day life, the wolf becomes the other side of that. The Oz Gone Wild if you will.
Like Innocence before it, Phases takes the metaphorical aspect of the series and really runs with it. A fascinating, layered and witty episode, it is thematically one of the strongest and an episode which rewards on repeat viewings. Plus, Oz is now in the gang. That is a good thing.
Quote of the Week:
Willow: "Yeah, okay, werewolf, but that's not all the time and hey, three days out of the month I'm not so fun to be around either"
Oz: "You are quite the human"
You can read Becky's look at two-parter Surprise & Innocence here