Buffy Oz

Referee Guy: Why Oz Was One of the Most Supportive Characters on ‘Buffy’

About as soon as the Buffy fan base started to develop, one of the things fans became most outspoken about was the relationship between Willow and Xander. Or, rather, the lack of relationship. Willow’s crush on Xander had been established since the pilot, but it had never been reciprocated. She’d been head over heels for him for years before the show even began. Of course, throughout that entire first season Xander only had eyes for Buffy. But so many fans wanted him to follow the trajectory of countless rom-coms of that decade and ignore the cool, hip new girl so that he could see what was in front of his eyes the whole time. Honestly, though, the love triangle at the center of the main characters was one of the weakest points of the debut season, as compelling as those relationships could sometimes be. Even though everyone knew Buffy would never start to see Xander that way as soon as Angel came into the picture, the three best friends were still defined by a love triangle. 

Given that, the decision to give Willow a love interest of her own was one of the best decisions made for the series early on, as it allowed the three main characters to finally form identities that were separate from one another. Oz was also introduced in a very different way than any other character on the show before or after his introduction. He’d make little appearances throughout early season two, seeing Willow at random times and letting out a curious “Who is that girl?” No other character was teased on camera before finally becoming an actual part of the show like Oz had been. Because of that, he was kind of a breath of fresh air from the moment he first stepped on screen. Fans at the time did not see it that way, though. 

Fans can, of course, be great and supportive as they are always the people who ultimately keep the show going. But they can also become really attached to specific ideas or storylines or, especially, potential couples. The first season had admittedly almost seemed to be structured and written in a way that suggested Xander and Willow would end up together some day, so a great many fans expected that to be the natural course of action and others were just so passionately tied to that pairing that they did not even want to consider anything else. Which meant that when Oz first stepped into the picture, the reaction was maybe more hostile than any other character that had entered the show up to that point. 

That’s crucial to point out, because that’s never the way Oz is spoken of now. Depending on who you talk to, Oz will either be spoken of as a fan-favorite character or won’t really be spoken of at all. He occupies an interesting space between beloved and forgotten, though he definitely belongs in the former category, as he is absolutely one of the show’s best characters. For a show as stylistically written as Buffy, Oz truly had a different, distinct way of speaking that was entirely his own. He was witty, often hilarious, but not by any means outspoken, able to own a scene with a single, perfectly timed line. The reveal that Oz was a werewolf was maybe the thing that began to push the show in a direction of having a main cast of lovable monsters rather than simply monster fighters, as Angel being a vampire had always been the norm, but after Oz, Willow became a witch, paving the way for more vampires, super-soldiers, witches, mystical keys, demons and so on down the line, so Oz is incredibly important in that respect as well. 

If there is a single quality that makes Oz stand out, that defines why he is one of the show’s best characters, I think it would also be one of his most overlooked qualities: Oz is one of the most supportive characters on the show. He might not always get credit for it, but he is. Part of that stems from his way of looking at the world and being generally accepting of it. Oz doesn’t have much of a reaction to seeing a vampire staked in front of him and then having to have to come to terms with the fact that vampires are real. As a generally observant person, he kind of takes it in, shrugs it off and says, “Actually it makes a lot of sense.” He doesn’t even have that big a reaction, at least externally, toward becoming a werewolf. He’d been bitten by his little cousin recently, so he hilariously called his aunt to ask if Cousin Jordy was a werewolf, they said yes and that was that. With that in mind, it would only naturally be easier for Oz to be less fazed by the decisions that many of his friends would be constantly bickering about—or would even sometimes be at each other’s throats over. 

This is explicitly portrayed in early season three, in “Dead Man’s Party,” when everyone gangs up on Buffy over running out on them without offering any kind of explanation. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has something to shout at one another, except for Oz. He reads the room, sees where it’s headed and immediately steps in to be a self-described “Referee Guy” between Buffy and Xander, but really between Buffy and everyone else. He notes that both sides are making great points and that both need to step back before everyone says a bunch of stuff they would regret, which is absolutely true. Xander and Willow especially point out that Buffy left without telling anyone and they had no way of knowing if she was even alive, or if she was ever coming back, leaving her mom especially devastated. Meanwhile, they all have no idea about the devastating circumstances that led to Buffy’s decision to leave. Oz serves as the intermediary between all of this. Ironically, it’s the character who actually turns into a monster of pure animalistic impulse three nights out of the month that provides the group’s level head.

Which, in addition to his love for Willow, was always the role he basically served among the Scoobies. Oz’s ability to keep a level head through most—but certainly not all—situations is something that I think definitely feeds into his support of the other characters. And I think the best way to do that is just to go through each character on their own. First and foremost, of course, there’s Willow. He was in her corner from the first moment, he was there before she got into witchcraft and was there as she started to take it seriously, but he was also open and honest about certain things when he needed to be. For instance, Oz was the first one to try and warn Willow about the darkness that goes alongside power and that she needed to be careful when experimenting with dark magicks. Advice that was clearly sound, given the fact that she would abuse magic and eventually transform into Dark Willow throughout the sixth season. 

More than anything, though, Oz and Willow balanced each other incredibly well. She’s hyper, often intense, she babbles, gets overworked about often very small details and Oz is the exact opposite of that. He’s calm, quiet, reserved, speaks for the most part only when he has something to say. They’re very different people who nonetheless bring out the absolute best in one another. Which is not to say that the relationship was perfect, of course, given the situation that led to Oz leaving the show, let alone Willow’s later awareness and acceptance of her own sexuality. But so much of that stemmed from his own treatment of being a werewolf as something he could forget about whenever it wasn’t actively happening, which led to the attraction to Veruca as the only other werewolf he had ever met and then the inability to communicate any of that to Willow before it all fell apart. His support of not only Willow and the entire circle of friends up to that downward spiral, though, had been unwavering. He’s also the only character who, immediately after messing up for really the first time, decided to leave to work on himself so that he could be the person she actually needed as well as be more honest with himself about what it means for him to be a werewolf.

Oz’s relationship with Xander is another interesting one, because there’s every reason for these guys not to be friends. You would think it would be the natural TV thing for there to be some alpha male pissing contest between the two of them. After all, Willow was still head over heels for Xander pretty much until the moment Oz showed up. And even after they start dating, some of those issues remain clearly unresolved. In fact, the show openly and honestly dealing with that might be the thing that won over fans and allowed Oz to be truly integrated into the series.

In that scene, he and Willow are sitting in his van while she tries to initiate a kiss. Oz explains that while he’s thought about kissing her for some time, he’s not going to do it because she’s only doing it to make Xander jealous, and that’s not his problem. It’s the first thing that really tells us how clearly Oz sees everything around him, as well as his ability to be patient with her and to wait for their moment to just belong to them, rather than any petty moves against anybody else. It’s a scene astonishingly crafted in its sincerity for someone as petty as Whedon has proven to be. But even after that scene, the feelings don’t disappear right away. In “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Oz actually punches Xander in the face after hearing Willow pour her heart out to him over her love for Xander when she—and every other woman in Sunnydale—is under a love spell. Oz notes that he was up all night “listening to Willow cry about you” which was no doubt torture for him, but as soon as Xander explains the situation, Oz puts it aside and is willing to help. It’s an underlying thing throughout his relationship with Willow, especially when they take a break after she kissed Xander, with him saying to her that he’s “not sure it ever will be [over] between you two.” Yet this doesn’t stand in the way of having a genuine friendship with Xander, largely due to the fact that he loves and trusts Willow and therefore has no need to act jealous. Grandstanding was never Oz’s thing, which is refreshing, considering how often werewolves on TV and film fall into that traditional “alpha male” trope. And how often Xander fits that trope too, for that matter.

The friendship between Oz and Xander is definitely strongest in the third season, where they have a bit more to do together and in certain instances establish an almost Odd Couple kind of rapport. It borders on an Abbott and Costello routine in “Gingerbread,” especially, with Oz as the straight man and Xander as the nervous, loud and energetic one, when the two of them attempt—pretty miserably—to try to save Buffy and Willow on their own. In “The Zeppo,” Oz is the only character that Xander gets to talk to about his new obsession with fitting in and being cool while everyone else blows him off to deal with the impending end of the world that they figure he can’t handle. With Oz, he has an actual conversation as Oz listens, takes in everything he’s saying and tries to put it in perspective by somewhat ironically telling Xander that his personal crisis isn’t “the end of the world.” This friendship with Oz was probably where Xander was at his best, because these moments were among the only times he got to be genuinely funny without a leering eye or a chip on his shoulder.

But Oz also has noteworthy relationships with the characters that aren’t always supported by their friends. Take Angel, for example. Xander disliked Angel from the beginning, mostly due to his jealousy over the vampire’s relationship with Buffy. He acted like a jerk more and more throughout the second and third seasons, sometimes borderline unforgivably so, and while there were moments that felt like he and Angel were finally making peace, there would always be something that would set him off again and pretty much set him back to factory settings and acting petty toward Angel all over again as if they’d just met. After Angel went bad in season two, nobody ever really trusted him again, except for Buffy and maybe Willow. Everyone was hesitant around him, Giles made strides toward forgiving him, but it was clear that he never really did. Oz’s relationship with Angel, though never really centered on as much as it should have been, was very different from everyone else’s. He never really questioned Angel’s relationship with Buffy, noted that they were responsible enough to make their own choices and accepted that once Angel got his soul back, that was that. This is especially amazing because Oz literally met Angel for the first time the night he lost his soul. Angelus was basically the first version of Angel he ever knew, and one could wonder if that’s why it was potentially easier for him to accept the reformed Angel more than any of his friends. 

More than anything, though, we have to take into account the fact that by the time Angel got his soul back, Oz had already been a werewolf for a while and had adjusted to that new condition. There’s a bond formed in that that’s largely unspoken, as both of these guys get each other in a way the others don’t, even if they’re very different people. Throughout season three, when Oz and Angel are actually interacting with one another and occasionally fighting side-by-side, they’re the two guys on the team with a monster inside of them. One tries to pretend it isn’t there, one never tries to forget, but they’re both dealing with something that the others aren’t and it allows them to every now and then relate to one another in a way the others can’t. Writers of expanded material such as the novels and comics, Christopher Golden especially, have leaned into this friendship in interesting ways. And it’s worth noting, given all of this, that Oz was the first guest star from Buffy to appear on Angel after he went on to star in his own show. 

Even more than Angel, the character that sees the least amount of support from the Scoobies is Cordelia. Admittedly, that works both ways, as she sometimes gives them the least amount of support as well. That’s never really the case with Oz, though. In fact, the friendship between Oz and Cordelia is one of my favorites. Way more than Oz and Angel, these are completely different people. Yet they relate to one another in some very interesting ways, despite their disparate personalities. There are definite unexpected commonalities. For instance, Oz and Cordelia are really the only characters within the Scoobies to be considered “cool” by their Sunnydale High peers. Even if they’re wildly different kinds of cool. Cordelia is the Queen Bee of the school and though she remains popular well into the second season, her association with Buffy and the gang does eventually diminish her status. Oz never really has that problem, because his level of cool isn’t directly tied to his high school status. He’s cool because he’s in a band, one that regularly performs gigs and that recognition helps him maintain that status all throughout his time on the show. Which is somewhat ironic, all things considered, because Oz is definitely the one out of the two of them that would not be remotely bothered by whether or not he’s popular. 

One other thing that connects Oz and Cordelia is something that never really gets talked about, but that I think is fascinating: they actually knew each other before either of them got involved with the Scoobies. While Cordelia and Xander/Willow had hated each other since grade school, they’d never really been a part of the same social circle until Buffy came along. Similarly, when Oz came into that group, everyone was meeting him for the first time. Even when Oz would start to make small appearances in early season two, he talked to Cordelia like they’d known each other for awhile, because they had. While it wouldn’t be accurate to call them friends by any stretch, they knew each other better and longer than any of the others at that point thanks mostly to Cordelia’s on again/off again relationship with Oz’s bandmate, Devon. Oz and Cordelia always had an easy way of speaking with one another, and he never really talked down to her in the way that others often would. 

But the biggest thing to talk about would be Oz’s relationship with Buffy, because I think he doesn’t get enough credit for his support of her, in particular. It cannot be questioned that Buffy’s circle of friends all love her. But that doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that they always support her. While I’m not saying Oz is immune to that, I am definitely saying that he is the one who does it the least. It goes right back to that argument in “Dead Man’s Party,” where Oz steps in to keep his other friends from ganging up on Buffy, because he’s clearly able to piece it together that they are all friends and even if Buffy’s not saying what it is, she’s obviously been through a lot. Oz is quick to offer a word of support for Buffy’s ideas, even the ones he may not always appear to agree with. Even more often, he’ll be the first to offer to help, whether it be to provide his van or his heightened werewolf senses. Or, in the case of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” to find her clothes after she turns back from rat to human. The moments centering on just the two of them are tragically few and far between, because they’re all great. The support cuts both ways, too. When Oz is revealed to be a werewolf, Xander immediately turns against the relationship. Buffy, on the other hand, notes that it’s Willow’s decision and says she considers Oz to be the loyal type. Whereas Buffy would openly be critical (usually in a good-natured way) of Xander’s mutually destructive relationship with Cordelia, she always openly supported Willow and Oz. 

Oz may only have been on the show for three years and, just by nature of his character, may have occasionally drifted into the background, but he was without a doubt one of the best characters in the history of the show. He did the nearly impossible thing of stealing almost every scene he was in while always, always building up the characters around him. He’s one of the best members of the Scoobies and certainly one of the best werewolves in TV history and hopefully soon he’ll be clearly remembered as such.

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