Overall Rating: 6.0 - 1 pudative penalty for permanently damaging the franchise by doing great injustice to an otherwise fascinating relationship = 5.0
This episode strikes a lot of solid chords - the acting is fantastic, the writing is good if you ignore the core of the story and the message it sends, it is very well directed. But...I cannot "like" an episode that deeply wrongs the characters and sends very disturbing messages.
The full summary can be found here, thanks to BuffyGuide.com.
My response to this episode comes in three pieces:
1) The Werewolf
What does it represent and can we settle on one notion of that, please? You have to be a little bit thick-headed to assume that every piece of mythology on the show should be taken at face value. Every monster you encounter in a story like this is supposed to represent some aspect of humanity...some source of evil within us (well...except for the ones who make brief appearances only to be slain by Buffy as window dressing to an unrelated story). When Oz became a werewolf, they treated him as a genuinely good guy who was just unlucky. He was extremely calm - to the point of many jokes being made about him almost cracking a facial expression or being especially verbose when he uttered six words in a row. I suppose you could argue that his wolfy characteristics were symbolic of repressed emotions that are common for the "quiet ones"...or that what made Oz a noble character in the third and early fourth season was his desire to control his animal instincts. But if you want to make that argument, then you have to conclude that Joss Whedon and company have a very unhealthy view of love. Because the wolf seems to get worse when Oz encounters the love of his life. That Willow touches him and it causes blind animal rage (and this is a meme I find genuinely offputting throughout the BuffyVerse...that love is a dangerous, blood-boiling chemical infection that tears you apart unless you can restrain it somehow), rather than bringing out his virtues...I'm sorry, but I find that disturbing.
Yet there are times in Oz's first full season where he is the voice of reason and gently guides Willow into the next stages of their budding relationship. Times where his passion seems to cause him to become calmer, not crazier. Whole episodes where the wolf is treated as an unwanted piece of bad luck. Buffy and her friends even regard it as something he literally cannot control for most of his appearances. If this is the case...if he can't control it...if he lives by the phases of the moon...then this plot doesn't fit the myth. Or...even more disturbingly...he arrives and proves he CAN control it...and then Buffy and the Scoobies ride to his rescue even with evidence that the animal can be controlled but he lets it loose in the presence of a rival mate (!)...wouldn't that be like a woman's closest friends AGREEING with her that her boyfriend can't help but abuse her and attack other people he suspects she might be attracted to? Isn't this defending the abuser? I am not saying that any of these interpretations are exactly correct, but the message re: the wolf and what it means is so muddled that I can't help but be disturbed. Buffy writers usually do a better job of crafting stories that send a clear message.
2) Willow Chooses to be Gay
I strongly emphasize the choice element of this episode, because I am greatly disturbed by its' significance and by what it says about Willow's character in previous seasons. Please stick with me for a moment and understand that I am not reacting negatively because Willow is now a lesbian. On the contrary...my co-author expresses a certain fascination for her own gender and the GLBT subculture and I've never once given her a hard time over it or looked down on her. I spent a huge chunk of my young adult life in community theater surrounded by gays and lesbians (yes, the theater does draw a larger percentage than a random sample...I know from experience)...some of the best directors and fellow actors I ever worked with (and some of the most fun at cast parties and rehearsals, I might add) were gay. That is NOT why I'm objecting. But let's have an honest look at Willow's character from the beginning to now and see if it agrees with the current consensus regarding how most gays and lesbians are made.
- Willow enters high school DECIDEDLY straight. She is madly in love with Xander (who is madly in love with Buffy) for two full years...and is absolutely CRUSHED when Xander chooses instead to date Cordelia (the exact opposite of her emotionally and culturally) because the sex is hot (and, essentially, for no other reason).
- She then gets over that and falls madly in love with Oz...slowly...it's not like she meets the guy, thinks she's supposed to like him "that way" and confuses friendship for love. In fact, she's the one who wants to make out with him first (and he shoots her down because she's doing it for the wrong reasons), she's the one who is ready first to have sex, she's the one who wants to stay in her relationship even after Oz cheats on her while wolfy and then nearly kills her after killing the would-be mistress. But he flees and leaves her alone and absolutely a WRECK!
- She spends MONTHS trying to recover from a point where she is depicted as NEARLY SUICIDAL! over Oz's departure...finding meaning in the pursuit of her skill with magic. It's here where she meets Tara.
- She and Tara become very close, trusting friends. She stumbles uncertainly into a relationship with this girl...I am fine with all of this up to this point...
- ...but now the love of her life comes back and the writers force her to choose between a man who apparently is incapable of restraining his passion enough to be safe around and this woman she has just begun to get close to. She chooses to remain with Tara and from this point onward, she is very vocally "gay now - hello!" (this is actually said by Willow in an early fifth season episode when Anya expresses some misplaced jealousy over how close Xander is to her)
But NONE of those three things involves conscious decision making. Even the "nurture" aspect is influenced by the individual only in that certain cultural groups place emphasis on the supposed need for "experimentation." I do not believe a person can will themselves to prefer one gender or another and actually feel the same way as someone who comes to it naturally. That this is EXACTLY what Joss and co. do with Willow...force her to CHOOSE to be gay...and then shoe-horn her into that choice as though one bad dating experience with an apparently violent man (even that violence is suppressed as much as possible) can actually turn you gay...should OFFEND you as fans. It certainly offends me. This is, however, the only time I will harp on this problem with the BuffyVerse. The choice was made once and for all in this episode and this episode will pay the price.
3) But Other than that Mrs. Lincoln...
You can tell they put a huge amount of effort into making this one of their "epic" episodes though...this was a big moment for the franchise and the episode is extremely well made, well acted, well directed, well produced...and...apart from character confusion and mixed messages...well written. The plot keeps you on your toes and the interesting developments regarding Spike would have been fabulous if not for the fact that Spike's Yoko factor attempts were really LAME when they were tried and nothing rewarding came of Spike's betrayal. But anyway...it's not that I want to be super hard on this episode...I wanted to like it. I think Willow and Tara have phenomenal chemistry together and their relationship is very sweet...if she'd started out a lesbian in the closet or unaware...if she'd come to a realization about her sexual identity in a way that made sense...I'd be ROOTING for those two...and from now on, I will be positive about their relationship in future reviews, since it served to propel the plot forward in very effective and emotional ways in the next two seasons. But I have to go with what I believe at some point and call attention to this episode as the source of many of my long-held concerns regarding Willow and Oz.
10 for dialogue and impact, 2 for character consistency and canon coherence.
On the other hand, there are no problems with the performances...Seth Green, Alyson Hannigan and even Amber Benson, who is charming in her own way, but not all that impressive as an actress IMHO, are all outstanding and James Marsters does good scene work as well.
The writers' grasp on the psychology of sexual preference is disconcerting...their lack of balance in how they write romantic love - at least in this episode - is downright aggravating. And the team's reaction to Oz's inner violence doesn't feel right somehow, even if you assume that they are merely acting because they don't think Oz deserves to be studied like a lab rat. All in all, I just can't get on board with how this story unfolds.