After the sturm und drang of Innocence, Whedon grants us a bit of levity with Phases. I hadn’t remembered taking this brief semi-break from tragedy, but it’s well timed. The show must go on, even though Buffy’s heart has been broken, Angelus is unleashed on Sunnydale, and pervasive doom hangs overhead. We’ve got Oz in the gang now, in a newly compromised capacity, and this introduction to his werewolfism is great fun.
Buffy also gets a bit of a break, ceding the spotlight to Willow and Oz. She’s in mourning, and though not cloistered, she’s stepped off to the side enough to let other characters develop while pushing the story forward. Smart move for the series. I could use a little break after last week too.
Xander’s on hand as well, dancing around hetero-discomfort after learning that the outwardly misogynist, bullying Larry is truly a terrified gay. Their locker room confrontation/miscommunication presents a brand new kind of locker room terror! First it’s Larry who experiences a rush of fear (followed by elation) at being discovered – though he’s clueless about the werewolf accusation that Xander levels – and then Xander follows suit in discomposure as he’s left alone to support Larry in solitude and secrecy – and in uncomfortable embrace.
Xander has falsely outed himself, and while the whole double-meaning scene reeks of a typical Three’s Company farce, I’ll lodge no complaint, because, one: John Ritter just turned up as a menacing robot in Ted and the funny sex-spillage is practically destiny; two: Xander manages to be goofily Jack-Tripper funny but not a dick about the news and its related wrongly mirrored mistaken admission – even keeping mum afterwards (to protect Larry and himself); and three: remember, we need some levity, and who’s to deny that Three’s Company isn’t light?
Moreover, Xander seems to be re-emasculated by Larry again! If he’s not getting bullied in public by Larry, he’s being embraced by Larry as a fellow closeted teenager! Yet, as Xander will do time and again, he proves at heart he’s not a jackass, not wrecking the moment for his former tormentor.
Just as Larry steps out of one closet, Oz retreats into another! A werewolf closet! Odds are he won’t find a fellow false confessor like Larry did. (I don’t believe he’ll happen upon another werewolf until everyone goes to college and Willow has moved on to the ladies – wait, the queerness in all of this is twisting upon itself!)
Willow, in the meantime, takes some romantic initiative for the first time, and though it’s horribly ill-timed to coincide with Oz’s transformation, she does take command for a few funny moments – before she bolts out the door shrieking at a level that might give Cordelia a run for her money.
And on the topic of Cordelia, though Willow harbors extreme resentment toward her and even calls her a skank (to Buffy’s delight), Cordy remains cordial. She and Willow even commiserate later about boys, especially Xander, while unhappily biding their time without dates at The Bronze.
I think it’s in this episode that I really came to see the girls’ relationships as friends coming together. Not so much Cordy, who’s just becoming increasingly tolerated (and tolerable to me), but Buffy and Willow. I really believe them as friends, despite Xander’s constant (though now diverted sexually) pining for Buffy. It took a more Willow-centric episode to firmly establish Buffy as a good friend to me.
Just goes to show ya: even the main character benefits from a strong ensemble and from sharing the focal point of an episode!
And while the focal point here certainly centers on Oz and Willow, the awful turn of events from last week doesn’t simply vanish from memory, as has been the case with episodes splintering the arcs set up with The Master & The Anointed One is s1 and Spike & Drusilla thus far in s2. Phases is an example of how to do a monster-of-the-week-ish episode while still incorporating the seasonal arc, in this case, working Angelus into the werewolf story tangentially by targeting poor Theresa, who’d been harassed by Larry in P.E. class and later succumbed to Angelus’s false promise of vigilance on a dark sidewalk.
Oh, Theresa, if you’d only paid closer attention during that self-defense lession in gym! After being sired solely for the purpose of delivering a reminder to Buffy that Angelus was prowling close by, Theresa gets one flashy scene climbing out of her casket before being staked by Xander, an act I don’t believe we’ve witnessed as of yet save for his accidental staking of another high school peer, Jesse, in The Harvest. I’ve long lost count of the Sunnydale student mortalities on the series.
Phases succeeds on multiple counts: moving a recurring character into regular status while permanently altering his identity; granting us a reprieve from the torment of the episodes just before (and soon to follow); easing the (newly established) seasonal threat into the episodic storyline; and incorporating a loving tribute to the farcical sitcom sex comedy of Three’s Company.
- Oz is transfixed by the cheerleading trophy that entombs the spirit of the evil mother from Witch! Her eyes seem to follow you everywhere. Thank you for the callback, Oz. We’ll be ready for Amy’s reappearance next week!
- Buffy meets what could pass as the werewolf-killing counterpart to a Slayer in the character of Gib Cain, but he’s all machismo and bravado. Buffy does share his tendency toward condescension, however; hers just isn’t sexist and mercenary. I did quite enjoy her bending the barrel of his gun at the end of the episode, a nice parting touch to contrast with the two characters’ introduction when she was trapped in his net.
- The werewolf is strictly b-movie material. I think I’ve seen more convincing werewolfery in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but you know I don’t care. In fact, I love it.