"Phases," etc. S1998 / E15-17
- A- Community Grade
Next to vampires, there's probably no monster more ripe for use as metaphor than the werewolf. Both I Was A Teenage Werewolf and Teen Wolf use werewolves as a metaphor for the horrors of puberty in boys–pimples, body hair, uncontrollable erections–and the fine Canadian fright flick Ginger Snaps comes at it from the distaff side, introducing menstruation into the equation. In Buffy, the revelation that Willow's new boyfriend Oz is a creature of the night–a revelation that, damn it, I already knew–mirrors what's going on in Season Two's master-plot, and serves as a metaphor for the wild beast lurking within even the sweetest of young men. Angel's turn to the dark side is only an episode old, and it's already having repercussions; the women of Sunnydale are learning that boys are no damn good.
Or are they? "Phases" works best when it's exploring the direct correlation between Oz's transformation into a werewolf and Angel tormenting Buffy with fresh teenage corpses. For a time, Buffy's convinced that the mysterious werewolf is responsible, and she blames herself for not seizing the monster when she had the chance. But as soon as we see kindly, timid ol' Oz wake up naked in the woods, with a quizzical "Huh"–a moment that would've had more impact on me if I hadn't already known, damn it, that it was coming–it's obvious that Buffy's sniffing out the wrong animal. Not that it matters: whether Oz or Angel is out there gnawing on youngsters, the buck stops at our heroine, whose job is to take care of this kind of business.
What doesn't work in "Phases?" Well, the episode's a little overstuffed. In addition to Angel's nascent kill-spree and Oz's secret life, "Phases" introduces the obnoxious werewolf-hunter Cain, whose smirking, Buffy-deriding nature makes him too strong a character to be reduced to a single element in a much larger story. Cain's got to jostle for position with Giles, who's delighted to be researching a different kind of monster–"One of the classics!" he gushes–and Xander, whose suspicion that the werewolf might be the caddish Larry leads him to discover that Larry is secretly gay.
(Aside: The Larry being gay stuff is fairly funny, if a bit overplayed. But I do like how it reinforces the idea of men and their secret lives.)
So there's maybe too much going on in "Phases;" and the pacing is a little off at times, almost in the vein of a Season One episode. Still, there's an awful lot to like here, including callbacks to old business with Xander's reference to his hyena curse and Oz's staring at the cheerleading trophy that's currently housing Amy's mother's witchy soul. (Perfect timing too, since Amy's about to return to the show.) The awkward conversation between Oz and Willow about their date is also priceless, with the two of them talking like they've been translated into a foreign language and then back into English. ("My time was also of the good." "I have my friend. I will go to her.") Oz has a couple of funny lines at the end of the episode too, including referring to his werewolf nature as "fairly freaksome" and describing Giles' advice for him requiring a lot of words "and a globe."
Mostly though, what lingers about "Phases"–aside from the underuse of Cain–is the image of Angel sidling up to one of his potential victims, convincing her that he'll protect her from the werewolf. Contrast that with the look on Oz's face when he hears that the girl has been killed, and that Buffy and Giles suspect the werewolf. Oz feels worried, guilty, and a little queasy. And in a sign of hope for humanity, he heads home and goes looking for his shackles.
"Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered"
This episode, however, I'm a lot more conflicted about. I love the idea of exploring the odd-couple relationship of Xander and Cordelia, and even though Cordelia's decision to dump Xander on Valentine's Day comes a little bit out of the blue, that doesn't make it any less painful to see her entourage make fun of him in the hall, or any less moving when, at the end, she tells her friends off and rushes back to Xander's side (with a lingering look of uncertainty on both their faces as she grabs his arm).
In fact, "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" is a real showcase for Nicholas Brendon, who gets to do slow-burns, double-takes and head-palms–all the classic business of the comic actor–throughout the episode, while also getting to display how deeply wounding this whole Cordelia situation is. So wounding in fact that he goes running to Amy–daughter of a witch and now a practicing dark-artisan herself–to ask her to cast a spell that will make Cordelia fall back in love with him. Instead, every woman in Sunnydale but Cordelia (well, sort of I have a theory about that*) suddenly finds Xander irresistible, thus setting into motion the action of the episode and, in my opinion, driving it off the rails.
"Bewitched" has an amusing premise, and Xander's reactions to being Sunnydale's Sexiest Man are spot-on, but the actual scenes of him fleeing from hordes of grabby, catty women were too shrill by half. I found myself cringing through most of this episode, and though that reaction was partly what the creators intended, for me it wasn't a good kind of cringe. (I cringed through most of the next episode too, for example, but with "Passion," the cringing was sublime.)
Part of the problem is that I was more wrapped up in the subplot. While I did genuinely care about whether Xander and Cordelia would get back together, I cared just as much about Angel, who lurks around the edges of the episode like a malicious presence, reminding Buffy and the audience at home that he could strike at any time. For Valentine's Day, he gives Drusilla an actual human heart that he found "in a quaint little shopgirl," and he gives Buffy a dozen roses with a note that reads, "Soon." With that looming, I was maybe a little too distracted to be entertained by Buffy getting turned into a rat and Joyce MILF-ing it up with Xander. The comic stuff just seemed too frivolous. (And not that funny, honestly.)
(*My theory about Cordelia not being affected by the love spell: In the actual episode, some arcane explanation for her invulnerability is offered, but I think the answer is much more simple. I think she wasn't affected because she was already crazy in love with Xander. It's like in Trivial Pursuit, when you have to answer a pie-piece question even though you already have that color pie-piece. Cordelia already has her Xander pie-piece.)
"Enter all ye who seek knowledge."
That phrase, etched at the entrance to Sunnydale High and subsequently spoken by Angel, is the pivotal line of this ridiculously amazing–like "among of the best TV of all time" kind of amazing–installment of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. It comes before a thrilling chase sequence and a sickening act of violence that deepens the meaning and significance of the episode. But it also sums up what "Passion" is mostly about prior to that moment.
For about the first half of "Passion," I was gleefully taking notes about all the ways the episode was riffing on the ideas of invitation and exclusion. Start with the obvious: With Angel tormenting Buffy and her friends by entering their bedrooms at night and leaving notes, Giles has to help them "change the locks" by casting a spell that will dis-invite him from their homes. Meanwhile, Jenny's exile from the gang is up for review as Giles makes tentative steps toward reconciliation and Buffy considers allowing her Watcher to renew romantic contact. Also reinforcing the theme: A couple of kids have the gall to enter the library looking for books while our heroes are plotting, Spike reminds Angel that "you're a guest in my bloody home," Willow makes a joke about how her Jewishness prevents her from watching A Charlie Brown Christmas unless she sneaks over to Xander's house, and Xander makes a joke about Buffy's increasingly not-so-secret identity, quipping, "The more people who know the secret, the more it cheapens it for the rest of us."
So I was all ready to write at length about the common emotion of feeling left out, and how it applies to Angel (seen in one of the opening scenes gnawing on a victim behind The Bronze while keeping an eye on Buffy and her friends) and to Buffy (who, like everyone who's ever been in the throes of a breakup, laments that the person she most wants to comfort her in her pain is the one responsible for it).
And then, oh my God, they killed Jenny.
I confess that I knew Jenny was going to die at some point on the show, but I did not expect it to happen in "Passion," and as she was fleeing Angel–after downloading the instructions for restoring his soul–I was thinking to myself, "Surely she escapes, right? She can't die yet." Even as Angel cornered her by a window, I noted a car passing on the street and thought, "Ah, here's one of the gang to save the day." Then twist. And crack.
What's most stunning about "Passion" is that I'm not even sure the death of Jenny is the most emotionally devastating moment in the episode. I'd have to go with a flat-footed tie between Giles finding Jenny's corpse in his bedroom (complete with opera blaring on his hi-fi) and Angel blurting out to Joyce, regarding Buffy, "I haven't been able to sleep since the night we made love."
In fact, hang thematic analysis for the rest of this week. I just want to marvel at what a masterpiece of storytelling "Passion" is. Everything about it works, from the moody music during Angel's creepy voice-overs to a climactic fight sequence with some of the best action choreography I've yet seen on this show. (I love the shot where Buffy jumps up the crates in Spike's factory to head Angel off on the catwalk.) The episode has old-fashioned horror staging, as in the scene where Willow's talking with Buffy on the phone while the audience comes to the nerve-jangling realization that she's invited Angel into her room before. And it has subtle character comedy, as in the scene where Willow clumsily explains to Giles that Buffy and Joyce are having it out about Buffy and Angel having sex. ("You know You do know, right? I just realized that being a librarian and all, you maybe didn't know.") That this scene between Willow and Giles happens after Jenny has been killed but before Giles finds out only makes it all the more brilliant. It takes guts to shock an audience like that and then come back from the commercial break with a moment so light. It plays with our expectations, and puts us in the position of knowing more than the characters do, and proactively feeling pain on their behalf.
It also takes guts–and smarts–to put a scene as pivotal as Jenny's murder at the halfway point of the episode, and leave room in the final act for ass-kicking and repercussions. We feel every vengeful punch from Buffy, and every silent wail from Giles. And as for the final shot, in which Jenny's disk with the downloaded Angel-saving instructions falls in the narrow gap between her desks? I immediately thought of another famous quote with "enter" and "ye:"
"Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
I'm heading out of town next week, so I'll have to take a week off from Buffy coverage, which is killing me a little inside. It's hard to believe there are still five episodes to go in Season Two. How can it get any more intense than it already is?
-Let's talk fashion for a moment. It's not a distraction–yet–but it's definitely noticeable the way Buffy is looking more and more like a snappily dressed, spray-tanned, glow-toothed, bleach-haired TV star than a typical teen. Meanwhile, Willow has lost the fashion sense she was showing at the start of Season Two and is dressing more and more like an 11-year-old girl, while Xander well, I don't even want to know what that checked-pants-and-multicolored-pullover combination he's wearing in "Passion" was supposed to be about.
-It seems the Buffy creative team discovered CGI. The special effects in "Bewitched" and "Passion" are a cut above what we've seen before.
-Just like the use of the rocket launcher to dispatch The Judge in "Innocence," I like the idea that the secrets to saving Angel can be downloaded from the internet. There's a subtle comment there on how the ancient ways are being undone by the modern.
-Does Buffy really need to pretend she's weak when taking her self-defense lessons in gym? I know it's still "a secret" that she's The Slayer, but half the school has seen her wreak havoc on bad guys by now. They may not know she's "chosen," but they know she can handle herself in a scrap.
-Does Oz's band have a new lead singer?
-Is anyone else getting a kind of Dark Phoenix vibe from Angel? Like, he's evil now, but somewhere deep down he still cares for the people he once loved? Either way, every time David Boreanaz shifts gears from brooding to grinning, it makes my skin crawl. In a good way.