Saturday, 10 November 2012

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 2.15 & 2.16 – 'Phases' & 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered'

Saturday, 10 November 2012
Cain: First they tell me I can't hunt an elephant for its ivory. Now I've gotta deal with People for the Ethical Treatment of Werewolves.

I must confess I knew Oz (Seth Green) was a werewolf from the start, which robbed me of the chance to be astonished by the big reveal in "PHASES"—although I don't seriously believe viewers in '98 didn't make that deduction before Oz woke up naked after a night terrifying Sunnydale's population. Nevertheless, the classic werewolf icon makes an overdue appearance on Buffy the Vampire Slayer here, and does so with aplomb. There are moments of camp silliness, but it's balanced by interesting themes and ideas that aren't typical of the werewolf genre—which is mostly used to symbolise puberty.

In "Phases", writers Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali went for a more unusual theme: the threat men can pose to women. Obviously this was signified by Oz's dual nature as a lycanthrope, making him a hazard to would-be girlfriend Willow (Alyson Hannigan), but it also found voice with a local werewolf hunter's sexist dismissal of Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the bullying of a schoolboy chauvinist called Larry (Larry Bagby). While the episode was largely typical of the sillier first season, and the reveal of werewolf-Oz didn't provide the intended shock for me, "Phases" earned extra points for what was going on between the lines.

Elsewhere, it was great fun to catch the references to past adventures—such as Xander's (Nicholas Brendon) possession by a hyena spirit, and Oz noticing the cheerleader trophy from "Witch" has eyes that "follow you wherever you go". It helps bring cohesion to the BtVS universe if you feel that the characters remember the past they've shared with the audience. The creature effects for the werewolf was a traditional man-in-a-suit effort, but I can't be too critical because that's what the original Being Human is still using 15-years later. It actually helps that "Phases" didn't try to hide the fact its werewolf was so cheap-looking, because once you commit to something it can be easier to just accept the cheesiness and go with it. After the mytharc-heavy mid-season run of stories, I was pleased of the break from Angel (David Boreanaz), although he still dipped his toe into the story, and it was interesting to see Xander share a moment with Buffy after comforting her following a near-fatal vampire attack. I'm now left wondering if Xander's going to be a weird rebound for Buffy, which will sour the already complicated relationship he has with Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter). Oh well, I'm just glad BtVS is making me write more about the characters than the week's monster, which wasn't true of season 1.

Buffy: Slaying is a tad more perilous than dating.
Xander: Well, you're obviously not dating Cordelia.

The love spell is another classic concept in supernatural fiction, and it gave me great pleasure to watch BtVS pull off its own rendition here. Marti Noxon's been ubiquitous in the credits lately, but with "BEWITCHED, BOTHERED & BEWILDERED" she finally turns in a story with no major hindrances. It also marks the first unequivocally good showcase for Xander, who until now has spent the series being a writer/audience mouthpiece—chipping into conversations with quips and sarcasm. As a fan of the Xander/Cordelia relationship, it was perhaps inevitable that I'd respond positively to this episode, because it brought all of their brewing love-hate emotions to the forefront.

It's Valentine's Day; meaning many of the characters are reflecting on their love lives: from Willow's bliss over finally having a boyfriend, to Buffy's depression over her first love becoming a psycho intent on killing her. Xander sits somewhere in the middle of the spectrum (happy he technically has a sizzling hot girlfriend in Cordelia, but unsatisfied with how she's embarrassed by her own feelings because of peer pressure from her shallow clique). After Cordelia cold-heartedly dumps him on 14 February, disconsolate Xander vows to get his own back by blackmailing school witch Amy (Elizabeth Anne Allen) into casting a love spell on Cordy so he can dump her instead. Unfortunately, Amy's spell backfires and every female in Sunnydale becomes dangerously infatuated with Xander the very next day, with the exception of his intended target...

"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" was a spirited caper from start to finish, having a tremendous amount of fun with its ideas. Nicholas Brendon (wearing clothes clearly a few sizes too big) was excellent throughout as Xander; negotiating the highs and lows of his character's experiences, and doing a sterling job shouldering most of the episode. This was the first time Xander's role as comic relief worked for a double purpose, and this easily ranks as the most consistently funny episode of BtVS to date. It was also genuinely touching at times—most notably when Xander demanded Cordelia return the expensive necklace he gave her, and she pretends she needs to retrieve it from her locker while secretly unfastening it from around her neck. The overdue moment in the denouement, when Cordelia finally realised it's ridiculous to deny what she has with Xander, even if it means being ridiculed by her conceited friends, was also a highlight.

Apart from all that, this episode also registered as the first time Sunnydale High actually gained verisimilitude. The return of Amy from "Witch", together with the prominence of other characters en masse, all worked to make the place feel like it was an actual place. Before now, there was the unavoidable feeling that the entire town consists of the lead actors and a bunch of non-speaking extras milling about in the background, so it really made a difference having various other characters woven into the story.

Overall, I just had a great deal of fun with this episode. I haven't even mentioned Buffy being transformed into a rat, or the profound likability of Oz (decking Xander for turning Willow's head, then pulling him to his feet because deep down he knows there'll be a good reason), or the great scene where Angel was unable to turn Xander into a vampire because he was under the protection of (a similarly bewitched) Drusilla. Highly enjoyable.

written by Rob Des Hotel & Dean Batali (2.15) & Marti Noxon (2.16) / directed by Bruce Seth Green (2.15) & James A. Contner (2.16) / 27 January & 10 February 1998 / The WB