It was Suzy McKee Charnas, author of the unforgettable werewolf story “Boobs,” who first pointed out—to me, anyway—that the werewolf is the most tragic of the classic horror monsters. It’s self-evident, once you consider it: they’re ordinary people for the vast majority of the time, sometimes they don’t even know they’re lycanthropes, they’re helpless to prevent their periodic transformation into monsters, and they’re contagious to boot. It is a terrible fate and one its victims rarely, if ever, deserve.
I think Being Human (I should mention I’ve only seen the UK version) does this especially well: curse really is the word that applies.
BtVS doesn’t do it half-badly either, which brings us to “Phases,” one of the most widely-beloved S2 one-offs. The story opens with a little girl bonding: Willow’s increasingly fond of Oz, but he’s not offering up any great sign that he’s, say, physically into her. Buffy is listening as a loyal friend ought, while trying not to mope too visibly over the fact that her boyfriend’s gotten all evil and stuff.
The girls aren’t getting any, in other words, and before we can get bored we bounce on to Xandelia, who are in theory much further along Intimacy Road, by virtue of having skipped the step where they come to like each other. They’re having a little grapple in Cordy’s car. But this is a problematic boy episode, so Xander keeps breaking the liplock to babble about the WillOz relationship. Cordy has too much self-respect to put up with that for long (to which I say, Go Cordy!) But before she can kick her inattentive, babbling ball of boy to the curb of Lover’s Lane, a hairy arm comes tearing through her car roof, and so much for that date!
Nobody really doubts that what’s going on is werewolf-oriented. Giles is delightfully aglow with geeky excitement. He’s the only one with a genuine happy on, except for maybe Angelus, who’s thinking through ways to make Buffy miserable. (Make that miserabler).
Checking in with the rest of the cast: Spike is pretty miserable, himself, while Dru remains deeply insane with a slight chance of visions in the morning.
Night comes, the moon rises, and Buffy and Giles go out a-werewolf hunting. Instead they find the loathsome Gib Cain, who manages to be sexist, ill-dressed and morally yucko, a veritable hattrick of smarm. A race is declared. Will Mien Furrier, as Buffy quippily dubs him, kill and defang the werewolf before she can capture it?
Cain is at least good for one thing: werewolf lore. He foolishly drops a clue that sends Buffy off to the Bronze, and the rest of what turns out to be an action packed night unfolds. The first Wolf vs. Slayer throwdown comes out a draw: nobody dies, nobody gets captured. Second, Angelus enacts a cunning plan—Buffy will be sad if I kill someone! He’s having a postprandial gloat over the corpse of a local schoolgirl, Teresa, when the werewolf shows up.
There’s a meaningful exchange of growls.
Angelus backs the heck off.
And all the internet discussion forums devoted to the Buffyverse lit up at this exact moment in history, with a frenzy of “Who would win? Angel versus Oz?” speculation.
Yes, Oz. Because it’s Oz who wakes in the woods the next morning, in a profound state of naked but still with a pretty decent hairstyle, Oz who thinks, basically, “Oh, crap. It’s me who’s the teenaged werewolf. There goes my nephew-sitting income.”
(This makes me wonder where Oz woke up the previous morning, and why the fistful of Cordy’s hair and car roof shreds in his mitt failed to spark his interest. But whatever.)
Everyone assumes WereOz killed Teresa. So Buffy’s not bummed at all. At least, she’s not bummed about Angelus having killed her gym partner. Instead, she blames herself for having let the wolf get away.
Up until this point in S2, we’ve still really only had a few tasty Oz bits. They’re appetizers, really, as we see him glint at Willow, play his guitar, and evolve towards being a real Scooby. His man-of-few-words mystique is established, and we’ve had one delightful scene in his van, when Willow asks him to make out and he eloquently puts her off, for all the right reasons. Up until now, that’s all there is to this character: lovely smile, funny persona, and an aura of cool that makes him seem untouchable… which, naturally, makes him a perfect target for the terrible curse of lycanthropy.
What all of this amounts to is Oz becoming the latest Scooby to do the Sunnydale High Offishul Walk of Shame. Unlike Buffy’s creep through the hallways in “Ted,” nobody’s actually staring at him thinking “Homicidal maniac!” (Next week, by the way, there will be another such walk.)
So Oz walks in on a Scooby debrief and learns Teresa was killed by a monster. Probably him. Oh, the guilt! Buffy’s thinking next time she won’t go so easy on him. Oh, the ouch to come! Xander tries to get into the bad guy’s head. OMG, impending discovery!
But, crack profiler that he is, Xander comes up with bullyboy football player Larry instead—he is a better fit, to be fair. He leaves Oz bewildered, stricken and relieved and not at all focused on Willow’s needs, rushing off to the locker room to confront Larry. All this gets Xander is a big unexpected coming out confession. The quarterback embraces the middle part of his fan nickname, Dead Gay Larry, and is just about ready to embrace Xander too, who flees back to the library in a homosexual panic.
This leaves the gang with less Larry-led sexual harrasment of girls at school and a werewolf still to catch!
Seth Green is at his super-fantastic best in “Phases.” It’s hard sometimes to sell a very quiet character in turmoil, but in this episode you never doubt that Oz is struggling. It’s the quietness, a huge source of his mystique, that gets him into trouble here. Oz is more of a listener than a talker in the general run of things, but like a lot of quiet guys, the facade conceals the fact that he’s emphatically not a confider. He’s scared, confused, guilty about Teresa, coping with unforeseen identity issues, and he doesn’t trust the gang enough to share. It’s no surprise that Willow decides to confront him about his mixed signals, and plain bad luck that she stumbles right into his third transformation.
Even with CGI, turning a human into a big monster dog is a tough task, and the look of Oz is, overall, less impressive than that of other BtVS monsters. (It changes, too, over subsequent seasons.) Even so, it’s plenty good enough to convince Willow to shelve the relationship talk and run for her life. She even scales a fence before calling in the troops. In the ensuing melee, it’s she who shoots her boyfriend with the fast-acting tranq rifle. Everything about Willow in this episode rocks, except possibly her yellow overalls. I’m not so sure about those. On the upside, she’s not in a toque yet.
And now, with all secrets revealed and Oz fortuitously off the hook for Teresa’s death, we get the morning after scene, with its ultra-sweet exchange where both Witch-to-be and Wereboy agree they’re still into each other. Willow stops waiting and claims her darned smoochies, and Oz declares himself to be a werewolf in love.
Can you believe it’s not even Valentine’s Day in Sunnydale yet? That, as it happens, is next week’s romantic horror story.
A.M. Dellamonica freely admits her Locus-recommended Tor.com story about a baby werewolf, “The Cage,” owes a debt to this episode of Buffy. She also has a second story on this site called “Among the Silvering Herd.”