I guess it had to happen: with all other kinds of monsters in the verse, sooner or later we had to meet a werewolf. The twist is that it’s Oz, the nicest and by all appearance calmest and least aggressive man in the show. And of course it’s right after Willow started dating him, because there has to be some sort of complication in the most stable relationship, which means that Buffy is not the only one with a man-monster for a boyfriend. Although this monster, as it turns out, is a lot more manageable and less dangerous.
The best thing about this episode is that it plays with and subverts gender and other stereotypes so well, showing that people often aren’t what they seem on the first glance. Oz and Larry both have a secret. Willow spends a lot of the episode worried because Oz isn’t trying to kiss her even though they’ve been dating in a while. Larry is a stereotypical, over-the-top sexist jock, who makes crude sexual remarks about every girl. It’s ironic that the guy whose girlfriend is worried because he isn’t making sexual moves turns out to be a “beast” while the guy who’s acting stereotypically macho and makes a big deal out of treating women as sex objects turns out to be gay.
Despite all the werewolf and Angel stuff, I’ve always remembered this episode mostly by Larry’s coming out. It’s the first time the subject of homosexuality comes up in the show, and the last time, so far, that BtVS has had an explicitly gay male character (Andrew has so far only been strongly hinted to be gay). It’s a great twist, especially after Xander has wrongly assumed Larry was a werewolf, and to go against the expectations. The implication is that Larry’s bullying and sexist behavior was just about “protesting too much”, and he turns into a decent guy as soon as he comes to terms with his sexuality. Xander’s shock and the fact that he’s very uncomfortable both with the revelation about Larry’s sexuality and with Larry thinking, due to a misunderstanding, that Xander is also gay, which shows Xander’s mild homophobia and sexual insecurities of his own (probably not surprising for someone his age). Larry goes further and psychoanalyzes himself, incorrectly concluding he must have felt something in Xander he didn’t want to see in himself and that that was why he beat him up so many times – Larry probably doesn’t know it, but it’s called projection. (And unloading their self-hatred physically on someone that one is projecting their own “shadow” self in happens several times in the verse, explicitly with Faith/Buffy and Buffy/Spike, and arguably with Spike/Angel, Angel/Lindsey and Willow/Warren.)
Oz’s reaction to finding out he’s a werewolf is classic Oz: “Huh”. It seems like it runs in the family – he immediately calls his aunt to ask if the little cousin who bit him is a werewolf, and the conversation sounds if he’s asking if he broke his kneecap or something. The episode bails him out because he doesn’t actually kill anyone in his wolf state before realizing what’s happened to him. If he had, the Scoobies would have probably not considered him responsible because he really has no control over himself in his wolf state and doesn’t remember any of it, but I imagine he would have been a lot more upset. Until season 4, when the boundaries between regular Oz and Wolf-Oz will stop being so clear, he’ll be safe as long as he’s locked in a cage during his wolf days. The distinction between werewolves and vampires is drawn clearly: werewolves are “people”, normal humans, for most of the time, and they have no control over their wolf alter ego, while vampires are considered evil, and they are what they are all the time, and (at this point, anyway) presumably irredeemable.
This episode really brings home how much even the main characters are affected by traditional gender roles and expectations and trying to fit in them. In earlier episodes we saw this with Xander, worrying that he isn’t enough of a big manly man if a girl gets to save him and is stronger and better fighter than him, we saw it with Buffy trying to be more traditionally feminine in Halloween and thinking it would make her more attractive, and we saw it a lot with Cordelia. Here it’s Willow, who’s worried that she might be “the only girl in school without a real boyfriend”, and then worried that she’d be considered a “slut” if she makes the first move to kiss Oz or ask him to kiss her (!). She also calls Cordelia a “skanky ho”, as if it’s Cordy’s supposed sexual habits that matter, rather than very legitimate reasons Willow has to dislike her, such as her bullying. Later Willow tells Buffy she needs to fit in and pretend (in self-defense class) that she’s a meek, helpless little girl like the rest of them. Still, in spite of all that, at the end of the episode she’s the one to kiss Oz for the first time, when she tells him that she still wants to date him despite being a werewolf.
How does Willow’s strong interest in the physical side of their relationship fit with the later revelation/retcon about her sexuality? I think it’s not that hard to reconcile, since she might be more bothered that Oz isn’t doing anything because she thinks a guy should be, and it makes her fear that she isn’t attractive enough. Having a boyfriend means proving that she isn’t that much of an outcast. And she probably did like smoochies with boys and later sex with Oz, she just liked it better with women later on.
Talking about stereotypes - Willow’s equates Oz’s werewolf days with menstruation (saying she’s not that pleasant 3 days a month, either). Oh, for the love of god. Again, you can see that a couple of men wrote the script. No, it’s nothing like it, women don’t turn into monsters and don’t act uncontrollable, it’s not like it’s a terrible debilitating disease, it’s just blood leaking and some bellyache.
And once again, smoking = bad: Willow isn’t bothered that Oz is a werewolf, and she lists the fact that he’s a non-smoker one of his positive traits.
Xander is starting to show first signs of jealousy of Oz. But is it a brotherly protective thing, or something more? After finding out that Oz is a werewolf, she gives a speech to Buffy about Willow’s supposed lack of future with Oz, comparing him to a trained animal, which is very similar to the speech he gave to Willow in Surprise
about Buffy’s supposed lack of future with Angel. But when he hugs Buffy for a moment, to comfort her over the whole Angel thing and Theresa’s death, it’s obvious that he still has feelings for her, when she walks away and he tells himself ironically “oh, no, my life is not complicated”. Indeed, having feelings for three girls at the same time. Cordelia is now feeling jealous of both Buffy and Willow, complaining that Xander talks about them all the time - and she sums up his views of those two girls as “poor, defenseless Willow” and “all-powerful Buffy”, though those two are over-simplifications; Willow is not really that helpless as she seems, and Buffy can be very vulnerable. There’s even a moment of bonding between Cordy and Willow, both complaining about their boyfriends, and saying they're such "a couple of guys", even though Oz has really been acting the opposite of the cliché bad male behavior.
A character that certainly is a cliché is the antagonist, a macho sexist hunter, Cain, who hunts werewolves for money and keeps their teeth as trophy, not caring that they’re regular humans on other days. It’s an obvious dig at hunters – he says at one point that they’ll next forbid him to hunt elephants, and mockingly refers to a hypothetical “People for Ethical Treatment of Werewolves” organization. Of course, he also mocks Buffy’s skills, since she’s a girl, and Giles’, since he looks like a “librarian”, i.e. an intellectual male who’s presumably not the masculine action type. In the end Buffy threatens him and tells him to leave town, but I’m not too happy that she puts the fear in him by…bending his rifle. Besides the fact that it’s too much to believe that Buffy has this level of strength, I don’t like that it’s implied that it’s Buffy’s physical strength that can beat someone like Cain, rather than her determination, strength of character, intelligence, or fighting skills. Not a great feminist message, especially since the majority of women in real life don’t have the physical strength that men have. I think it’s also selling Buffy short, she’s got a lot more going for her than strength.
Another example that Things Are Not What They Seem: Cain assumes that Giles and Buffy are lovers, mocking him as dirty old man cradle robbing. I’m not sure if it’s a hint at the age difference between Angel and Buffy (even though Buffy/Giles would certainly be a lot more wrong due to his position as her Watcher), or a mockery of Buffy/Giles fanfiction, or simply an acknowledgment that many people could easily misinterpret their relationship, seeing them together that much, talking at school, patrolling at night, sitting in his car. Maybe that’s why one of the rumors about Buffy in high school, according to Holden in CWDP, was that she was dating some “really old guy”. I wonder if, or rather, knowing human nature, how often it happened that Watchers abused their position and had relationships with their Slayers?
The whole “Oz is a werewolf” thing can be seen as an unsubtle metaphor that all men are beasts underneath, even the nicest and mildest ones (as Faith will say in S3), and Buffy and Willow make a remark to that effect (one of the rare times that Buffy says something misandric, but considering her Angel situation, it’s understandable), but fortunately Giles says that everyone can be a werewolf, male or female (we’ll only meet a female werewolf in S4, and she’ll be a lot nastier than Oz), so I choose to interpret it as a less sexist message, that everyone
has a beast inside, not just men.
There are quite a few gender inversions in the episode, like the scene where Cordy and Xander are kissing in her car in the woods when he hears a werewolf making a sound. It’s like a classic scene from any horror movie, except that in horror movies it’s always the girl who’s scared of strange noises, while the guy is eager to continue with the smooching, while here it’s the opposite.
Cordy says that her dad doesn’t know what she does in car with boys, he thinks she’s still “a good girl”. Was she going to say “virgin”? Is Cordy still a virgin? I always assumed she was, because if she had sexual experience, I assume she’s want Xander to do more than kiss, and Expecting
also suggest she was.
The B-plot is darker – Angel(us) is now terrorizing Buffy by siring students from her school, or at least he does that to Theresa. Like a wolf in sheep’s clothing meeting a little Red Riding Hood, he seems all nice and charming, even carrying a flower, and even presenting himself as Buffy’s friend to gain Theresa’s trust so she’d allow him to walk her home. After Buffy let Angel go in Innocence
, this brings up the issue of Buffy’s responsibility for the deaths of people Angel(us) kills from that moment on. Buffy first feels responsible for Theresa’s death while it’s wrongly believed that the werewolf killed her, because she let the werewolf go rather than kill him; until she learns Theresa was killed by a vampire, which doesn’t comfort her because she feels she failed to protect her from another monster. But then it gets worse, when she learns that it’s Angel who killed and sired her, when newly vamped Theresa attacks her and during the fight distracts her telling her “Angel sends his love”. That disturbs her so much that she doesn’t fight well and it’s Xander who saves her by staking Theresa, one of the instances where Xander does get to save Buffy.
There are several nice continuity nods to season 1 episodes: Xander tries to comfort Buffy reminding her of the times she saved him from the insect lady (Teacher’s Pet
) and Willow from Moloch (I, Robot, You Jane
); Oz notices that the trophy figure is strange, with the eyes that follow him around – that’s Catherine Madison, Amy’s mom (Witch
); and, the most interesting one, Xander talks about his memories of feeling beast urges, similar to those of a werewolf, when he was possessed by the hyena spirit in The Pack
. Willow doesn’t notice it, but Buffy does and reminds him suspiciously that he claimed he didn’t remember anything. He just changes the subject, caught in the lie, and I wonder why Buffy didn’t make a bigger deal out of it, that time or ever. Maybe she would have if it hadn’t been for the circumstances, with the werewolf and Angel and all. Or maybe she just decides to let it go. But it never comes up again, not even after Seeing Red
, even though Buffy knows that Xander remembers sexually assaulting her when he was possessed.
Gotta go with Larry coming out to Xander in the locker room.
Oz: That's great, Larry, you've really mastered the single entendre.
Buffy (about Larry): That was weird.
Xander: What, it's not okay for one guy to like another guy just because he happened to be in the locker room with him when absolutely nothing happened, and I thought I told you not to push!
Buffy: All I meant was that he didn't try to look up my skirt.
Xander: Oh, oh, yeah. That's, that's the weirdness.
Buffy: Ah, he'll come around. What guy could resist your wily Willow charms?
Willow: At last count, all of them. Maybe more.
Willow: I'm sorry about how all of this ended up, with me shooting you and all.
Oz: It's OK. I'm sorry I almost ate you.
Willow: It's OK.
What the slashy heck:
Xander says Oz is attractive, then quickly adds “Maybe not to me, but…” He’s also really freaked out by learning that Larry is gay, and has a “bad liar/protesting too much” moment when Buffy asks him how it went with Larry. I’ve heard that Joss intended for either Xander or Willow to turn out to be gay. I think that he made the right call because Xander was too sexually interested in women, but he seems so sexually insecure and threatened in this ep that I can see the groundwork laid out to make him bisexual.
Buffy’s strength is, again, amazingly inconsistent. She can bend a rifle with her bare hands?! Then how come neither she nor Faith can break out of police handcuffs in season 4?
Oz when he wakes up in the woods after going back to his human state.
Pop culture references:
Cordelia says Xander splashed too much Obsession for Dorks (because of his obsession with Willow’s love life), a reference to Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men/Women. Forbidden Planet
(Xander calls Moloch “Robbie the Robot”).
Oz jokes that Willow is an evil mastermind..It’s not so funny after season 6! Oz comforts Willow, when she’s worried if a bunny got hurt by the werewolf, saying that bunnies are stronger than they seem and can take care of themselves (a bit like Willow?) which makes me think of Anya’s fear of bunnies. Willow shoots Oz with the tranquilizer – maybe foreshadowing Buffy having to kill Angel in the season finale.