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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Phases

[Updated April 29, 2013]

After the sturm und drang of Innocence, we need some comic relief and Phases provides it. Humor is very much a matter of individual taste, and I think it’s the second funniest comedic episode in the series, after Pangs. Even the funniest Buffy episodes, though, have a serious point, and I think Phases does.


Let’s start with the title. It obviously refers to the phases of the moon which affect werewolves, but it has other meanings as well. For example, the werewolf himself has alternating phases of demon and human, which is why Buffy won’t kill it. Willow’s “three days out of the month” can be seen as a phase. Most significant, in my view, is this dialogue from Innocence:
Spike:  Is it really true?
Angelus:  It's really true. (laughs and walks around the table)
Drusilla:  (follows him with her gaze) You've come home.
Spike:  No more of this 'I've got a soul' crap? (follows him)
Angelus:  What can I say, hmm? (strikes a match on the table) I was going through a phase.

Needless to say, I don’t think this word choice is accidental. The ending of Innocence left no doubt that Buffy was going to have to deal with the consequences of her relationship with Angel, including her inability to stake him. One thing Phases does, in my view, is add a layer of complexity to her dilemma. Thus far, we’ve had the example of Xander suffering from temporary possession by a hyena, and Buffy rightly doesn’t slay him. Vampires (other than Angel) are permanently controlled by the demon, so Buffy slays them on sight. Now we get Oz, who’s a demon sometimes but not others. Oz needs to be given the opportunity to recognize his problem and control it himself; once he takes that responsibility, Buffy won’t slay him. The name of the werewolf hunter – Cain – hangs a lantern on this point.
So how should Buffy think of Angelus? Is he now just a vampire again, something to be slain on sight? Or is he unique among vampires such that she should treat him as merely going through a demon “phase”? Complicating her task further is the fact that, in stark contrast to Oz, Angel doesn’t control himself during this “phase”. Oz never harmed anyone, but Angelus has killed the prostitute, Enyos, and Theresa (at least). Buffy accepts responsibility for Theresa’s death, adding to her sense of guilt over the events of Surprise/Innocence. But what if Oz had been the killer, not knowing that he was the wolf and unable to control himself? Should Buffy then have slayed Oz?
I’m not going to answer these questions, though I intend to discuss them later when we have more story as background. I’m not sure they have definitive answers anyway. My point is only that Buffy’s situation can’t necessarily be resolved simply by reciting her duty to slay vampires. I can only say that the show is going to explore these issues going forward and that the show is consistent in recognizing Buffy’s responsibility for the consequences of her actions.
Now I want to return to the werewolf. The wolf needs to be controlled; on that everyone agrees. What we need to analyze is what it is about the wolf which makes this so important. Let’s see how Giles describes it:

Giles:  … Y-you see, uh, the-the werewolf, uh, is such a, a potent e-e-extreme representation of our inborn animalistic traits … And it, uh, acts on-on pure instinct. No conscience, uh, uh, predatory and, and aggressive.”

That’s kind of how I see the id. Here are some descriptions of the id taken from the Wikipedia article, and I think they fit pretty well with what Giles said: “The id comprises the unorganized part of the personality structure that contains the basic drives. … It is filled with energy reaching it from the instincts, but it has no organization, produces no collective will, but only a striving to bring about the satisfaction of the instinctual needs subject to the observance of the pleasure principle…. The id is responsible for our basic drives, "knows no judgments of value: no good and evil, no morality... It is regarded as "the great reservoir of libido"….”
Libido. Now, I think, we can understand what the episode is telling us. The wolf, as I noted, never actually kills anyone. Instead, what we see is lots of references to sex, consistent with the season to date. The wolf is attracted to places where there’s sexual heat: lover’s lane, the Bronze. “They're suckers for that whole sexual heat thing. Sense it miles away.”
I see Phases as telling Buffy in metaphor that her sexual urges need to be controlled. Not repressed, not killed, but kept under control. That’s a job for the superego – to keep the id from getting out of hand. That’s the message we get from Larry coming out: he’s wolfish beforehand, a considerate person afterwards. (h/t Aeryl)
When the episode opens, Buffy’s spirit – Willow – is obsessed with desire: “Willow:  … I mean, he said he was gonna wait until I was ready, but I'm ready. Honest. I'm good to go here. Buffy:  Have you dropped any hints? Willow:  I've dropped anvils.”
But Buffy’s desire for Angel still distracts her from her destiny as Slayer, and in Theresa we see the consequences. Not until Buffy takes responsibility for Theresa – “Instead of not protecting Theresa from the werewolf, I was able to not protect her from something just as bad.” – can her spirit rally and subdue the beast. At the end, her spirit comes to terms with her desire:
“Willow:  Well, I like you. You're nice and you're funny. And you don't smoke. 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.
Oz:  You are quite the human.
Willow:  (smiles) So, I'd still if you'd still.
Oz:  I'd still. I'd *very* still.
Willow:  (smiles widely) Okay. (more seriously) No biting, though.
Oz:  Agreed.”
Trivia notes: (1) The callback to Witch in the opening scene – Oz looking at the cheerleader statue – is a great moment. There are also references to The Pack, I Robot, You Jane, and Teacher’s Pet. (2) Cordelia told Xander that he put on too much “Obsession for Dorks”. “Obsession For Men” was a Calvin Klein perfume. (3) Buffy said that “tonight we bring ‘em back alive”. Bring ‘Em Back Alive was the title of a book written by big-game hunter Frank Buck. I read it when I was a kid. (4) Xander mentioned Robbie the Robot, who was from the movie Forbidden Planet. (5) Anyone else think Nick Brendan has kind of a Matt Dillon (actor, not Sheriff) look here? (6) This episode contains the first mention of bunnies, which will become a standing joke in the series.

8 comments:

  1. Larry's coming out ties in with the sexual themes of this episode as well, playing into the "desire must be acknowledged and controlled, not repressed and ignored" idea you posit here, and that is continued throughout the show by demonstrating how out Larry is much more at peace than repressed Larry.

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  2. Excellent point. I should have caught that!

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  3. I have been following this blog since the beginning, and, at the risk of seeming VERY ignorant, I have a question about the trivia notes; do the numbers reference any particular text? Often I read the trivia notes without really understanding the reference. Case in point - Trivia note #4 - what does Robbie have to do with any of this? Sorry to seem so obtuse, but it has been bugging me for a few weeks.....

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  4. Sorry, I should have explained that. The trivia notes refer to bits of dialogue (mostly), though occasionally to other issues. They're generally in order as they happen in the script. For example, in Phases the reference to Robbie the Robot comes from Xander in the mortuary with Buffy (heh; sounds like Clue):

    "Buffy, you can't blame yourself for every death that happens in
    Sunnydale. If it weren't for you people'd be lined up five deep waitin' to get themselves buried. Willow would be Robbie the Robot's love slave, I wouldn't even have a head, (looks at the coffin) and Theresa's a vampire."

    I just figure it helps to explain the more arcane or dated references, but I guess I need to do more to provide context. I'll try to add that from now on.

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  5. Another great review Mark. I think I remember you allowing spoilers in the comments, but just in case....

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    This episode is one (the first one?) where it's made very clear that there is a continuum of demons. (Is there a better way to express this?) It introduces the idea that Buffy may sometimes disagree with (or struggle with) the expectations of her destiny. She can spare Oz, who is human (mostly) with a curse...and can spare SouledAngel even though he may slip BACK to Angelus, and can spare ChipSpike... But then we see so many other characters who are in a gray area. I have read discussions of good-evil/souled-unsouled/human-demon but there has not really been a 'unified field theory' that explains Buffy's slaying responsibilities. I'm thinking of cases such a Clem, and dechipped pre-souled Spike. Your examination of the Superego control of the Id looks to be a nice way to develop a basis for Buffy's overall actions in this regard. And could involve puns, Mr. Field. ;-)

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  6. Any explanation involving puns MUST be true.

    Thanks. Oh, and spoilers are fine as long as they're labeled. Leaving a gap, as you did, is fine too.

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  7. In continuing my re-watch of the series, I just finished "Phases," and as always enjoyed this analysis and the way it tied in the previous episodes.

    Though the show is essentially about adolescence, I think it is equally about gender. I suppose that forming and understanding your own personal gender expression against preconceived notions of gender is a vital part of adolescence, and is a theme that has been played with a lot this season, especially with Xander and his desires to

    In this episode, I think you could also view the werewolf as a metaphor for masculinity. Early in the episode, Oz is established a man who is comfortable with himself, and not concerned with performing typical expectations of masculinity. He states that he wishes to wait and take things slow with Willow, and seems unphased (pun intended) by Larry's knocks about not getting anywhere with Willow.

    However, when Oz is in demon/werewolf form, he is fueled purely by biological instinct and can't help but pursue the sexual energy at The Bronze or Lover's Lane. Oz learns to control these animalistic urges at the end of the episode, similar to the way Larry learns, in his own way, to control his.

    The werewolf hunter and Xander are both caught up in performing their masculinity, perhaps in an earlier "phase" than Oz.

    On another note, I think Cordelia's comment that she wants to do things with Xander that "she couldn't tell her father about" mirror Buffy's guilt and possible regret at the events of "Surprise."

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    1. I agree that (false) masculinity could certainly be at issue in Phases, with Cain another example. That's certainly a very defensible reading. I'm more inclined to see it as universal, though, because (a) I think future episodes will make that clear; and (b) there will be plenty of examples of similar behavior from the XX side.

      VAGUED-UP SPOILERS THROUGH BTVS 3 AND ATS 1

      Good catch about Cordelia's comment. At the time I interpreted that as saying they might be having sex, but later events showed I was, shall we say, unduly optimistic about that.

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