I’m going to be honest: for years, I loved the relationship between Willow Rosenberg and Daniel ‘Oz’ Osbourne fiercely. I remember it with a kind of nostalgic, rosy glow as one of the first fictional relationships I ever cried over, mourned the ending of, and sought fanfiction to soothe my broken heart. In fact, when I catch episodes from seasons two and three of the show, I often feel that same warm glow watching their scenes together.
However, there’s a point in the relationship between Willow and Oz where I can no longer say “I ship it”. That time comes in season four, when Oz tries to kill Willow’s new girlfriend, Tara.
Even before I came to identify as a lesbian and started paying attention to and identifying violence against LGBT women both in fictional works and in real life news stories, this arc made me uncomfortable. Many of the relationships between men and women on Buffy the Vampire Slayer make me uncomfortable, largely because they all seem to contain violence. (But please, tell me again how BtVS is a feminist classic.)
In this case, the violence is very specifically targeted at Tara for being a woman in love with another woman. It’s violence perpetrated by a man whose masculinity is threatened by her romantic and sexual relationship with another woman, one he’s “laid claim to” because he was with Willow first.
In episode 4×19, “New Moon Rising”, Oz returns after months of apparent meditation and soul-searching during which he’s learned to control his werewolf transformations. He does this, he claims, for Willow. He shows up unannounced during a Scooby meeting and asks if they can talk, then shows her that even under the light of the full moon he can remain human. This control over his wolfy side means, in his words, that he can “be what [Willow] need[s] now.”
Oz’s departure thirteen episodes before this return is marked by his cheating on Willow, in wolf form, with another wolf that he then kills because she tries to go after Willow. There’s a pretty explicit discussion of how his “wolfy side” will never really be tamed, because he’s not in his right mind during the full moon. Furthermore, “the wolf is inside [him] all the time, and until [he] figures out what that means,” it isn’t safe for him to stick around.
This problem is evidenced in the multiple times that he tries to hurt Willow or others during his initial werewolf transformations. It’s then reiterated as the reason he has to leave her — he can’t control his animal side and therefore Willow will always be in danger if she’s with him. Oz is painted as very self-sacrificing in his departure, which makes it even harder to swallow. Because he wants to “protect Willow from himself”, the audience is left nearly as devastated as she is.
Then, when she meets Tara, a fellow witch with real power who connects with Willow on a whole new level, things start to look up. And that’s really gratifying to see, especially given how horrific Willow’s romantic life had been up until that point.
Initially, the relationship between Willow and Tara is given to us in glimpses. There’s friendship and tentative flirtation, which nearly comes to a head in episode 4×18, “Where the Wild Things Are”, when a sex-infested ghost house brings everyone’s desires boiling to the top. There’s hand-holding and discussion of getting a cat at the beginning of 4×19, with Tara confirming that Willow isn’t allergic because she wants her room to be “Willow-friendly”.
When Oz shows up (during Tara’s first Scooby meeting, because of course), the awkwardness immediately kicks in. Everyone feels weird about Oz coming back, but most especially Willow… and Tara. As soon as his name is said, Tara murmurs, “oh, Oz” and looks at the ground. Then she leaves in a flurry of half-formed excuses, and the audience knows without a doubt that she not only knows about Oz, but expects to be shoved aside now that he’s come back.
It hurts to watch. And when Tara shows up at Willow’s dorm the next morning to find Oz there, but no Willow, that hurt grows. Oz has no idea who she is, though he remembers seeing her at the Scooby meeting; Tara won’t stay even when he offers. Then when she leaves, there’s a moment before Willow returns to the room where Oz looks bemused. Though he clearly doesn’t understand the tension swirling around all of them, he recognizes that it’s there.
Later, Buffy, whom upon finding out Willow spent an entire full moon night with Oz, assumes they’ve been doing something “really kinky”. This scene is the first one where we receive verbal acknowledgment of the relationship between Willow and Tara in the presence of another character:
Willow: It’s complicated because of Tara.
Buffy: You mean Tara has a crush on Oz? No, you… Oh. Oh. Um, well, that’s great, you know, I think Tara’s a really great girl, Wil.
Willow: She is and there’s something between us. It wasn’t something I was looking for, it’s just powerful. And it’s totally different from what Oz and I have.
This scene is awkward. Buffy is clearly thrown by Willow having feelings for another woman, which is portrayed by her awkwardly adding “Wil” to the end of every single sentence. But when Willow calls her out, Buffy stops the weird behavior and advises Willow to do what she feels is right. It’s a coming out scene that doesn’t feel nearly as painful as some others and it’s one of the only real comforting bits in this episode. Willow has an emotional thing happening, Buffy is weird about it, and their friendship persists. Easy.
Willow’s visit to Tara following the conversation is less easy, but still paints a fairly comforting picture for the future. Although we know that Willow hasn’t told Oz about Tara from her conversation with Buffy, she goes to see Tara and tells her explicitly that all she did with Oz was talk. She shoots down Tara’s insistence that just because Oz is back, it means Willow and Tara are done being More Than Friends, and the two share a really, really intense hug.
Then, Oz smells Willow in the halls of UC Sunnydale — except that when he turns around, he’s face to face with Tara, not Willow. At this point, all hell breaks loose. Once he figures out that it’s Tara he’s smelled and not Willow, it only takes him a minute of their awkward small talk to start jumping to conclusions.
Oz: Is that her sweater? … You smell like her. She’s all over you, do you know that?
Tara: I can’t talk about this.
Oz: But there’s something to talk about? [Tara turns to leave and Oz grabs her arm.] Are you two involved?
Tara: [Scared] I have to go—
Oz: Because she never said anything to me like that and we talked all night and she never— [Tara tries to leave again.] No, STOP! [Oz grabs her arm again.] IS SHE IN LOVE WITH YOU? TELL ME, IS SHE— [He loses control and starts to transform. Tara is terrified.] Run.
This scene is really layered, so let’s break it down.
First and foremost, it’s easy to assume that Tara smells like Willow “all over” because she’s wearing Willow’s sweater, or because they just exchanged a really intense hug, but the fact is that Oz’s word choice paints a very sexual image. With his werewolf sense, he has an extremely heightened sense of smell. The idea that Willow is “all over” Tara suggests that she really does smell like Willow ALL OVER, which suggests that they’ve been sexually intimate.
Second, the scene takes place after Oz has very carefully explained to Willow that after travelling all over the world and working with, first a Romanian warlock and then Tibetan monks, he’s learned how to control the wolf even during the full moon. He says he uses meditation, a few charms, some chants. He tells her that the key is “keeping your inner cool.”
Third, his first reaction to finding Willow’s scent on Tara is to be confused. But that rapidly turns into the kind of anger that quickly becomes violent. All of his training and meditation fly out the window in the face of a reality where Willow has started sleeping with someone else — something she doesn’t tell Oz during their all-night conversation — and furthermore, started sleeping with another woman. Oz immediately transforms into a snarling hellbeast and chases Tara through the halls of UC Sunnydale, intent on ripping her throat out.
This scene is really disturbing.
What’s somehow more disturbing is how this reaction is just… normalized. After the Initiative takes wolf!Oz into custody, Tara immediately goes to find Willow because she’s worried about his safety. Nevermind that he just tried to kill her after she — terrified — kept trying to flee the situation rather than provoke him further. Oz’s behavior here is chalked up to his being a werewolf and to his being in love with Willow, a two-factor excuse that apparently makes it okay for him to chase down innocent women in broad daylight because they smell like his ex-girlfriend.
That sets a dangerous precedent for how men treat women, and for how we normalize violence against women — especially queer women — from men who are or were intimate partners. The Initiative scientists running tests on Oz discover that he transforms in response to “negative stimulation”, regardless of moon phase or time of day, which I guess the audience is supposed to just accept. Tara smells like Willow, so Oz jumps to the conclusion that they’re together and loses all of his “inner cool”; a scientist shocks him with electricity and Oz also loses all of his “inner cool”. It’s gross all around.
Because this is BtVS, the Scooby gang immediately hatch a plan to break into Initiative headquarters and free Oz. Once he’s with them, just before they’re all about to walk out of the underground bunker, he looks at Willow and starts to transform again. He manages to get himself under control this time, but the fact remains that looking at Willow — whom he now knows is seeing another woman — triggers the same violent response.
Consider: in episode 3×08, when Oz and Cordelia discovered Willow and Xander hooking up during one of Spike’s poorly-hatched plans, Oz doesn’t transform into a werewolf. Actually catching Willow cheating on him with her childhood best friend doesn’t “negatively stimulate” him into wolfing out. Why is his reaction to Tara so much stronger than his reaction to Xander?
Women loving women is more emasculating. Of course. I won’t link to any of them, but a quick Google search turns up dozens of blog posts and think pieces about this “fact”. (As I submitted this draft, news came out that a Florida man shot and killed his ex-wife and her new girlfriend before shooting himself, because he couldn’t stand to see the mother of his children in a relationship with another woman.) Oz can deal with Willow kissing Xander because then, at least, she’s still kissing a man. He can’t deal with the idea of her being with Tara because a relationship between two women doesn’t require a man. Oz is irrelevant. And given that he came back to Sunnydale hoping to find Willow waiting for him…
At the end of the episode, when Willow and Oz say goodbye, she still defends him and what he did. She insists that because he stopped the wolf from cotensioming out in the Initiative bunker, that’s enough progress. He’s changed. She’s seen it. Never mind that he literally attacked Tara. Never mind that Tara desperately tried to get away and he kept stopping her. Never mind any of that.
Oz: It turns out that the thing that brings it out of me is you, which falls under the heading of ironic in my book.
Willow: It was my fault. I upset you.
Oz: Well so we’re safe, then, because you’ll never do that again. But you’re happy?
Willow: I am. I can’t explain it—
Oz: It may be safer for both of us if you don’t.
Excuse me. What? This scene is played as tragic and comedic; Oz says “you’ll never do that again” as if it’s a joke, says “it may be safer for both of us if you don’t” as if vague threats are a-okay and even funny. No.
The fact is, Tara didn’t provoke Oz. Neither did Willow. He barged back into her life demanding her attention and then lost his cool when he found out Willow was not only not waiting for him, but had moved onto a relationship with another woman.
We don’t talk about this episode enough, and we need to start. Violence against women — especially LGBT women — should not be normalized even in a fantasy series where half the characters are literal hell spawn. This kind of violence happens too often, in fiction and in real life, for us to sweep it under the rug.