Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Phases

“On behalf of my gender – hey!”

Xander Harris may not be clued up about She-Mantises or Inca Mummy Girls, but when it comes to blatant sexism, he knows an insult when he hears it.

With a new werewolf in town terrorising the neighbourhood, Buffy is quick to pounce upon Giles' description of its habits: “It acts on pure instinct – no conscience, uh, predatory and aggressive”. The Slayer simply writes this off as “your typical male.”

Werewolf stories are a strange breed in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. More often than not, they analyse the patterns of male behaviour. Some stories come off better than others – Wild At Heart, the highly dramatic tear machine, is saddled by an out-of-character premise, while Beauty And The Beasts is bogged down by awkward male stereotyping and crass soapboxing.

Can't wait to watch that one again. Honest.

Phases is the most successful of the werewolf tales. While it tells a simple story that bridges the comedic and dramatic, it still has some interesting things to say about society's perception of us geezers. What's more, it does so in a reasoned and balanced fashion without the need for preachy, ham-fisted moralising (a notable problem of Beauty And The Beasts).

Let's look at Giles' above description in more detail. It's not surprising that Buffy's quick to react in such controversial fashion, given that her boyfriend's just taken a hefty slug of Evil Pills. Angelus is the Poster Boy for predatory aggression and lack of conscience. This week, he's relegated to a brief cameo, although these few minutes sum up the character's aim: to taunt and freak out Buffy through her friends and family. He's started by pretending to be 'Mr Nice Guy' to an unassuming classmate of Buffy's called Theresa. Twirling a daisy with nonchalant innocence, Angelus kids Theresa that he's a friend of Buffy's and then offers to walk her home. Naturally, she's left with a fatal hickey and a new set of pointy fangs.

It's only a fleeting moment of Angelus torment, but it's still a potent reminder that Buffy's up against a formidable opponent – one who's quick to send vampiric greetings in the funeral home. “Angelus sends his love!” leers Theresa, before she's staked by Xander. In some respects, Angelus is exactly the same as the werewolf. The beast within is masked by a genial, unassuming persona.

Given that this is Sunnydale, it's no real surprise that Willow's current flame, Oz, turns out to be the werewolf. In typically laconic fashion, Oz reacts to his first metamorphosis with a vaguely bewildered “Huh!” Eagle eyed viewers would have spotted the very subtle clue in the gym scene in which Oz tells of how he got bitten by his cousin Jordy. The blindingly obvious candidate would have been Larry, who was bitten by a dog. This being Buffy The Vampire Slayer, things are never that obvious, so this opens up a fresh dilemma for Willow, who's already worrying that her relationship is progressing with the speed of a horde of lumbering oxen. “Oz and I are in some sort of holding pattern except without the holding or anything else,” she huffs. It's only when Willow decides to have it out with Oz that she finds that her new boyfriend has gone all Wolfman Jack on her.

“Oh what, so now you're special boy...with chains and stuff?” she quizzes Oz, before getting a somewhat snarling reply. In theory, it's a relationship that's dead in the water, but it's the compassionate side of Oz that brings out Willow's compromising side: “I mean, three days out of the month, I'm not much fun to be around either,” she grins at the end. “You are quite the human,” replies Oz, and it's that human side that marks out the difference between him and Angelus. While Angelus shows no remorse at his actions, Oz shows genuine worry that he may have killed Theresa in his wolf state. It's an echo of how Angel used to have a soul, a phase that's become a thing of the past, much to Buffy's chagrin.

Remorse is something that werewolf hunter Cain does not feel. While Angelus' excuse is that he's a vampire, what can Cain offer? Very little – he's the human side of aggressive greed. He's the walking definition of a MAN (copyright, Jarvik, 2189, Kairos). He's sexist. He's quick to shoot first and then ask questions later. He's also a bit of a perv – he thinks that Giles and Buffy are an item (“Gotta say I'm impressed,” he drawls. “Well, it's good to get the fruit while it's fresh”). Cain spends practically all of the episode leering at Buffy and bellowing that she has no place to be hunting for werewolves. “This is what happens when a woman tries to do a man's work,” he grunts irritably after Buffy's plan to capture the werewolf in The Bronze has gone wrong. Whether or not there happens to be a Mrs Cain is never touched upon – she'd have the patience of a saint, bringing Cain tray upon tray of homely food and can upon can of warm beer.

It's unlikely though, given that Cain's 110% dedicated to his mission. He's on his way to rounding up his werewolf kills to an even dozen, and even has a tooth necklace to show for his troubles. It's ironic that Cain tells Buffy that if the werewolf kills anyone then it's on her “pretty little head”, given that he's effectively killed 11 people. Cain can't tell the difference between human and werewolf, probably because he's blinded by the dollar signs in his eyes. Curiously, Cain can't seem to afford a razor or a trip to the barber's – mind you, he's probably keen to keep up the appearance of a man's man. Ordinary things like a shave and a haircut are probably Cain's idea of being too metrosexual.

God knows what Cain would make of Larry. For the first part of the episode, Larry's spouting macho burblings from the Cain Handbook Of Romance: “Man, Oz, I would love to get me some of that Buffy and Willow action if you know what I mean!” During gym, he's leering at Theresa and trying and failing to engage Buffy in kung-fu, Larry-style. In fact, it's all a smokescreen for his fear that his being gay will alienate his friends. Following the amusing scene in which Xander unassumingly outs him, Larry is, however, a changed man, helping girls with their books and being polite to them. Larry had nothing to worry about with his football team or his reputation – by the start of the next season, he's confidently proclaiming that Sunnydale will rule. So far this season, there have been plenty of instances of the Janus law: Two sides to every person. Giles. Angel. Oz. Now, Larry joins that list.

Xander, however, seems in a pickle, relationship-wise. He's torn between his weird but burgeoning relationship with Cordy and his innate feelings for his two closest friends. “It's like he's there, but then he's not there and he wants it but then he doesn't want it,” pouts Cordy to her new-found partner in crime, Willow. He's openly criticising Oz in gym class, and more to the point, his old feelings for Buffy seem to be coming back to the fore after he consoles her in the aftermath of Angelus' Theresa-shaped greeting card. “Oh no, my life's not too complicated,” he sighs after Buffy's bolted. Xander's problem is that he wants to have his cake and eat it – it's a dilemma that will reach a head in the next season.

One of the great things about Phases is that it takes Buffy's initial assertion and turns on its head. While Cain and Angelus represent the aggressive, predatory side that Buffy claims to be in all men, ordinary chaps such as Oz, Larry and Xander are merely wrestling with their own personal demons. For the moment, they become all the stronger for it. Xander gets the girl in the next episode. Larry no longer has to hide from his fears of prejudice. And Oz, of course, becomes “A werewolf in love”.

The Oz and Willow relationship is one of the highlights of the early years of Buffy. Oz himself gets to hog all the best lines, combining wise insight (“Today's movies are kind of like popcorn, you know, you forget about them as soon as they're done”) and pithy humour (“That's great Larry, you've really mastered the single entendre”). It's a relationship that's bringing out the best in Willow. Compare the Willow of Phases with the shy, gawky Willow of Welcome To The Hellmouth. Willow has slowly gained confidence, and in Phases, she's now able to communicate with Cordelia without insulting her (to her face anyway – the “1-800, I'm dating a skanky ho” is far more vicious than Cordy ever came up with) and call the shots in her new relationship. The two characters continue to hold out a great deal of promise, and they make for engaging, interesting company. Needless to say, Alyson Hannigan and Seth Green continue to be the stars that they are.

With all the shocking events fresh in everyone's minds, it's interesting that all the main protagonists are actually quite chipper this week. Giles is gleefully relishing the prospect of investigating the mystery (“Werewolves, it's one of the classics...I'm sure my books and I are in for a fascinating afternoon!” he gushes) and even laughing at Xander's moon pie joke. Things must be bad.

Even Buffy seems relatively untroubled for the most part of Phases. It's only Theresa's death that serves as a potent reminder of her recent devastating experience. At least this time around, Buffy successfully puts a lid on the werewolf crisis of the week, and reduces Cain's gun to a useless lump of metal.

Phases is more of a stand-alone episode, with only fleeting glimpses of the season arc. It's more of a throwback to the first season, and perhaps because of this, there are sly nods to the good old days. Oz is intrigued by the statue and the moving eyes. Xander mentions the preying mantis and Malcolm the robot. It's more old school in feel, and that's a key to its success. Peddle the season arc all the time, and there's a danger that it may get weak or stale very quickly. This season gets the balance in the latter half, and offers an even mix of Angelus shenanigans and stand-alone stories.

The script for Phases is highly entertaining and well written, and the production is just as well judged, save for the poor werewolf costume, which looks like it was hired from the local fancy dress shop. Shame, since the metamorphosis effect and halfway stage of Oz's werewolf transformation are very effective.

As a more balanced look at the psyche of the male of the species and an enjoyable monster romp, Phases scores on both counts. It's another example of how the second half of Season 2 of Buffy consistently reaches for the highest quality that it can get.

Just ignore the silly werewolf costume, that's all.