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Watching Buffy: s02e15 “Phases”

Phases_(Buffy_the_Vampire_Slayer)

Oz was already a firm audience favourite before he was inducted into the Scooby Gang. It’s not hard to see why, as he holds three mighty assets: an abundantly good heart, sardonic imperturbability, and the laser-accurate comic timing of Seth Green. All three of these meant Buffy now had a voice perfectly suited for mordant self-aware observations, its favourite comic mode.

Oz’s slow introduction, in isolation from the rest of the cast, allowed the show and Green to find their way into the character and work out how to best make use of him. This paid off in spades – his first full conversation with Willow in What’s My Line part 2 is a strong candidate for the show’s all-time highlight reel. The writing team had figured out how to ground Oz’s humour in good sense and morality, instead of leaning on character flaws like anxiety (Willow), overcompensation (Xander), and self-obsession (Cordelia). Oz was presented as a good man, Buffy-style. Which raises the question – what kind of man is that?

And so we come to Phases, an episode with Oz at its heart, and with the question of masculinity very much on its mind.

But before we talk about any of that, there’s some other business on the table. It’s the same damn thing I’ve been bringing up since the start of this blog. You guessed it: the problem of Jesse.

To recap: the first Buffy story ended with Xander and Willow laughing happily with their new best friend Buffy, despite having just seen the horrible death of their old best friend Jesse. If this show wants us to take its threats and its emotions seriously, this just isn’t good enough. And yet, if deadly and existential threats and the resulting emotions are taken seriously, then what room is left for laughter? This show would have to be completely different if Xander and Willow were embittered by grief from Jesse’s death. So how can you balance this triangle?

Over the last two episodes the show threw down its marquee storyline, in which Buffy had sex with Angel, transforming Angel into a murderous psycho. This plot twist turned the dials on real threat and real emotion right up to 11. Here’s the test we’ve been waiting for. Has the show worked out the Jesse problem? What happens next?

At the conclusion of the previous episode, Innocence, Giles refused to judge Buffy for her sexual activity. This redemptive moment was founded on empathy and respect – on love. In that moment, Buffy was able to find a way to escape judging herself and accept her own humanity. This is essential to the show’s method of resolving the problem of Jesse: the core ensemble of characters must love one another, so they can give each other the strength to move past trauma and remain in touch with joy.

That moment couldn’t escape the whole problem. The emotional consequence of Angel’s threat isn’t limited to Buffy’s profound guilt. Indeed, I made a comment last week about how killing Angel would mean tumbling into the problem of Jesse, by which I meant, such an action at this point in the narrative would be so emotionally devastating to the characters that there would be no plausible escape back to “normality”. However, that exchange with Giles shows the model that Buffy wants to apply to the more-manageable grief and confusion currently at play.

The problem of Jesse is really about the compact between a show and its audience. The show encourages us to love its characters, then puts those characters into enormous misery. Then it must earn back the right to have the same characters crack jokes without making us feel cheated. It does so like this: it shows us pain, and then it shows us love, and then it shows us the bruises.

There are storytelling choices at work here. The story has to show us pain on a scale that matches the harm they suffered. And then it must show us enough love that we can believe the character sees some light in their darkness. And that’s usually enough for us to accept they have been to a dark place. We are being told a story, here, and like all stories, we don’t need to be told all of it to believe in it. After this, the character can step back into the regular narrative function, as long as – and this is essential – we can see the bruises. We can’t settle back into “business as usual” unless we are shown from time to time that the character is still hurting.

It’s a neat solution to the Jesse problem, and it works fairly well here. It doesn’t stand by itself – this process only works because of other qualities of Buffy, like the hazy timekeeping that never quite nails down how much time is passing between (or even within) episodes; like the clearly different rules for minor characters, who don’t need to be depicted with psychological believability, thus allowing the whole edifice of a monstrous and murderous Sunnydale to continue; and above all, like the embrace of self-awareness on the part of the show as a whole. Being meta allows Buffy to get away with its neat solution to the problem of Jesse, because it enlists the show’s viewers as co-conspirators in achieving big tears and big laughs (two great tastes that taste great together).

But the heart of this process is love. Love is the pivot point that lets us, the audience, take the character’s hand and walk them back into the party. Our love for the characters, as expressed through the love the characters show for each other.

So: maybe the perfect Buffy man is one who can solve the problem of Jesse. One who is wise enough and good enough to save other characters with his love.

Through this episode we get a bit of a tour of the male cast of Buffy, but it isn’t love at the forefront, it’s lust. (Willow: “I want smoochies!”) Hello metaphor monster: there’s a werewolf on the loose and werewolves (says hunter Cain) are drawn to “sexual heat”. This is the show directly addressing something previously only featured in Xander’s dialogue: guys only have one thing on their minds. Right?

The episode dives into it hard, featuring returning character Larry (the I-became-a-rapist-pirate from Halloween) as the uber-macho sports guy sexually harassing all the women, to the point of outright groping Buffy Summers (which doesn’t go down well). He’s the obvious candidate to be the werewolf, especially after he shows off his dog bite injury.

Then it introduces new character Cain the werewolf hunter, who is even more macho than Larry. His attitude towards women is condescending rather than salacious but he still reinforces the theme by instantly assuming Giles and Buffy were having a sexual rendezvous.

Next the episode gives us a young woman named Theresa, who is the designated victim of the early episode – she was harassed by Larry before, and we are led to believe the werewolf is about to strike. Instead, Angelus steps into frame, and he smoothly lures her into his fatal embrace.

Three men, each of them a cliche, each of them dangerous. The show is making it clear in no uncertain terms that there is a problem with men and masculinity. Against these three, we are given compelling portraits of Xander and Giles: the first, too hung up on Willow to make out with his girlfriend, and the second nearly moved to violence by the insolence Cain the hunter shows towards Buffy. Both presented as flawed but clearly on the right side of things. And then there is Oz, presented as essentially a mystery – Xander frets about him, in fact.

Having put all its pieces in play, the episode immediately sets about subverting them. Most dramatically, there’s Larry. The decision to have Xander lead the investigation would tip off any audience members who hadn’t yet clicked that he was a red herring. But then the show makes a beautiful ju-jitsu move, taking that audience expectation of Larry’s innocence and yanking them right around into a reveal that Larry does have a secret: he’s gay, and all that sexual harassment has been overcompensation. It’s a splendid move that quickly undermines the very idea of hypermasculinity by revealing Larry’s version was just a performance. The show moves on to make Cain the hunter such a male cliche that you can’t take him seriously either: his unrelenting manly man act is clearly positioned as a performance like Larry’s, even if it isn’t hiding anything.

Angel, however, doesn’t need to be subverted. He’s a straight-line character at this point, a murderous troublemaker out to make Buffy’s life miserable. When he sends his message to Buffy via the girl he killed and turned into a vampire, it shocks Buffy, rips open that wound – we see her bruises.

Giles is essentially a secondary character this episode, with his bravery and support for Buffy and her friends reinforced several times. With Xander however, the show makes some trickier moves. Xander’s past (I-became-a-rapist-hyena-spirit in The Pack) hangs over him, and the show overtly references it when he almost reveals to the other characters that he remembers what happened in that episode. Buffy lets the moment pass, which is just as well, because that unpleasantness is the last thing the show needs to put front-and-centre. Later, Xander is allowed to save Buffy when she loses herself before Angel’s threat, and then he is the character on-hand to give her the love she needs to continue. The moment between them is layered with the complexity of their relationship, but the central emotional transaction is clear.

Which leaves Oz, who turns out to be the werewolf. The climax comes, hilariously, when Willow confronts him to demand that he be *more* of an animal, whereupon he turns into a werewolf and attacks her. After OzWolf is incapacitated (and saved from the hunter), we finally get the measure of Oz the man. He is calm, and considerate, and suggests forgoing his own happiness for the greater good of everyone. But Willow doesn’t accept that: “Yeah, okay, werewolf, but that’s not all the time. I mean, three days out of the month I’m not much fun to be around either.”

And Oz listens to her.

If you follow pop culture at all, you’ll know just how unusual that is. The man is meant to make the decision for both of them – it is his tragic burden. (The prominent recent example is Spider-Man, which has had film after film where Peter Parker must tragically end his relationships to protect his partner regardless of her opinions on the matter.) The episode never really explains why Oz has been withholding smoochies – presumably he just likes to take things slow – but it makes it very clear what kind of man he is.

Xander’s moment comforting Buffy made clear that he could do the job of carrying her through the problem of Jesse, but it also showed he was compromised. Oz, in contrast, has none of those limitations. Oz has empathy and respect. He cares, and he listens. He’s just what this show needs.

Other notes:
* At the top of the episode, Oz is watching the cheerleading statue from way back in Witch. It’s a neat little continuity nod, the kind of comics-style back-issue reference that was leveraged last episode to save the day. It’s also a cute reinforcement of Oz’s acuity and perceptiveness.
* It’s kind of beautiful that Xander’s many, many flaws can bring together Willow and Cordy.
* The introduction of werewolves to a vampire-focused mythology is commonplace now, but wasn’t when this episode aired. The show has been working through a list of non-vampire monsters since Witch, so it was bound to hit “werewolf” eventually, but it sure does play differently in 2015 when it’s almost a cliche.
* Using werewolves to talk about masculinity might seem obvious (men are animals!) but it wasn’t actually that much a feature of werewolf fiction. The reverse, using werewolves to talk about femininity (they change with the moon!) has perhaps been more common, with two standouts being Alan Moore’s story The Curse in Swamp Thing and the subsequent film Ginger Snaps.
* Oz’s cousin Jordy is just a kid, and also a werewolf. Apart from being a very amusing bit that is pointedly never referred to again, it’s interesting to note that a pre-pubescent werewolf clearly serves as counterpoint to the association in this episode between lyncanthropy and sexual drive.
* Angel is a great villain because the show can just have him be nice to someone and cut away and you know it’s awful.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Alasdair Sinclair | May 4, 2015 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    Spidey’s a bit of a special case in a way, because the films are all based on the emotional reaction to Gwen Stacey’s death in the comics. It’s a weird bit of post-modern bleed through, where the emotional reality persists even when the story has ceased to via “rebooting”.

  2. morgue | May 5, 2015 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, that’s definitely part of the picture, but it doesn’t let the films off the hook – e.g. Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man pointedly reversed this in its first year, back in 2001, having Peter Parker confess his secret ID to MJ before starting their long-running relationship – and it was explicitly framed as a matter of him having respect for her.

  3. Alasdair Sinclair | May 5, 2015 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

    Well, perhaps its getting a bit off topic here, but Bendis also skates around all the issues by not putting death on the table at all (other than the obligatory Uncle Ben) – until he goes off the deep end and offs Spidey himself out of nowhere. Spiderman the film came out, btw, in 2002 and finished principle photography early-mid 2001 so deviations from the canon out of the ultimate reboot can’t really help it much.

  4. Pearce | May 8, 2015 at 1:17 am | Permalink

    “Using werewolves to talk about masculinity might seem obvious (men are animals!) but it wasn’t actually that much a feature of werewolf fiction.”

    Sure it was. The archetypal werewolf in fiction is Mr. Hyde, who is usually depicted as a sexually rapacious alpha-male. Sure he’s not a literal werewolf, but the character has been a big influence on werewolf fiction.

    Another big influence is the Big Bad Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood. His most literal reinterpretation is probably in Angela Carter’s short story A Company of Wolves and the amazing film adaptation.

    The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore explicitly links lycanthropy with male aggression.

    An American Werewolf In London features a character who becomes sexually aggressive (and more attractive to women) after he is bitten by a werewolf. The Howling goes much further and has a werewolf who is a sex killer.

    Then there are things like Teen Wolf (Michael J. Fox gets sports chops and added sexiness from being a werewolf), the Jack Nicholson vehicle Wolf (Werewolf Jack gets his mojo back in the business world and, um, becomes more attractive to women), etc. And then there’s Curse of the Queerwolf.

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