So your writing team have been knocking it out of the park – taking risks, gaining attention, turning all the right heads. The show is surging into the zeitgeist, and the world is starting to notice. Suddenly there’s proof of how well things are going: the star of the show is booked to host Saturday Night Live. Quick, writing team! We need a new episode with no Buffy in it, and we need it now!
This is the episode they come up with, and it’s the biggest proof you’ll get that Buffy was on a roll. They produced not a filler episode, but an important, funny character piece that is remembered fondly as one of the better episodes of the entire series. That just doesn’t happen unless you’re in the zone.
So, following an episode examining the perils of masculinity, we get an episode examining… the perils of masculinity. This time, however, the show turns its attention to a different flavour of Buffy man: Xander Harris, who remains something of an unsolved puzzle.
In typical Western storytelling modes, different characters usually embody different approaches to problems and challenges, and I’ve previously suggested that Xander embodies “instinct”. Following your instincts is an important problem-solving approach for anyone, but especially for teenagers, and so a character with this approach is essential for the Buffy ensemble. Unfortunately, the show is generally down on the efficacy of instinct. It’s a nerdy show where part of the fun is being wrongfooted by the twisty plots. In the narratives deployed on this show, it’s very easy to use ‘instinct’ for comedy beats.
Instinctual responses are also useful to generate conflict when a protagonist needs to take a risk – “instinct” tends to be conservative, associated with “common sense”. Witness the somewhat odd spectacle of Xander being the one who maintains his resistance to Buffy’s relationship with a vampire, while the more cerebral Willow and Giles quickly fall into line. In a show with a vested interest in upending received wisdom, this usually puts Xander in the wrong.
As if that wasn’t enough – in this show, gender is very much under the microscope, and masculinity is often a source of frustration. An “instinct” character who happens to be male will also easily fall into the role of expressing objectionable male instincts and assumptions. This was a role Xander assumed in The Pack, where he became a way for the show to talk about sexual power and its abuse.
So with these three complicating factors more potent than ever as the show enjoys a golden run of quality, it’s interesting for the show to look a little closer at Xander. Of the core characters, his character arc has been the most patchy and uncertain. Willow has clearly blossomed into greater self-confidence and autonomy; Giles has changed his perspective on his responsibilities and his relationship to Buffy; and Buffy herself has come to terms with her duty and assumed the mantle of power. Xander, however, has had a series of small triumphs quickly reversed into humiliations, and while his heroic instincts and indeed his courage have strengthened he continues to fail to apply these in any consistent way. The obvious direction to take Xander is to give him some control over his circumstances, and that means addressing his continual downfall: his relationships with women.
There’s lots going on in this particular kettle of weird fish. Xander’s “girl trouble” arises from his general sense of inadequacy and tendency to overcompensate; his expectations of and assumptions about women; his habit of speaking without thinking; and many, many other happy contributing factors. Xander is a deeply flawed character. However, at this point in the show’s narrative, the writing team are working hard to show him in a redemptive light. He does keep trying to do the right thing – to rise above his limitations. His moments of heroism have never quite been able to eclipse the entitlement and poor judgement that typify his behaviour, but consistently, when he does find a clear and noble path, he commits. He represents, then, another important archetype of all storytelling: the sinner who keeps trying for redemption.
This comes out very clearly in the inciting incident in this episode, where Xander buys Cordelia a locket and tries to be honest with her about what’s happening between them. It’s a brave move, and one he’s uncertain about, but it’s also unquestionably the right thing to do. The audience can’t help but get on side with him here.
Unfortunately, Cordelia dumps him, and Xander immediately does something unspeakably awful, and all of that viewer identification and goodwill gets set on fire.
This is his role. He’s instinct, specifically a male instinct in a female-voiced narrative. He is going to screw up, and those screwups will reproduce the gendered biases at large in our world. To be blunt: Buffy is invested in taking on rape culture, and Xander is the best vector they have for bringing that on-stage.
Xander’s crime is to blackmail the witch Amy to enchant Cordelia so she’ll love him, giving him the power to break up with her and devastate her emotions. It’s a terrible thing to do, and though the show takes care to draw boundary lines around his intentions (specifically, he makes clear he doesn’t intend to use magic to rape her) it doesn’t soft-pedal the ugliness of his actions.
The use of Amy the witch as an instrument is interesting, however. She returns here for the first time since Witch (another instance of the show’s delight in recurring minor characters), and her engagement in Xander’s revenge is a reminder that this show does always speak with a female voice. The spell she casts ends up making all the women characters lust after Xander, but it reads to me as a very female-friendly take on that particular male fantasy. In fact, once you dial out a bit, this episode is revealed as a remarkable showpiece for the many diverse female characters of the Buffy world, and while the episode is unmistakably a spotlight for Xander, it is equally unmistakable that the hero is Cordelia.
Cordelia doesn’t get to lead the story, because the story is all about the weird experiences of Xander Harris. However, the character arc is hers. The story happens because of her crisis of self-belief and consequent bad decision, and it tracks her movement to a place where she can reverse that decision and lay claim to her true identity. Xander doesn’t get that kind of arc. He makes an awful decision and pretty much immediately realises it was an awful decision. For the rest of the story he’s just coping with the mess he’s made, which is very entertaining but doesn’t make him the protagonist.
Cordelia’s return to focus also means it’s time to bring back another recurring player, Harmony Kendall, who reigns supreme on the mean girl throne she claimed back in Out of Sight Out of Mind. Cordelia’s secret hookups with Xander are now common knowledge, and Cordy’s status with the in crowd is in the toilet. That she decides the best way to fix this is by dumping Xander and trying to hold on to her established identity is entirely understandable, even though it’s obviously the wrong option. Cordelia, after all, is the narrative’s truthteller, but here she can’t even bear to tell the truth to herself. She’s found out by the magic spell, which doesn’t affect her because the magic knows the truth even if she doesn’t – she’s in love with Xander. (Note that this is the second time a big magic spell hasn’t affected Cordelia – she evaded the madness of Halloween by shopping upmarket – underlining her association with truth and authenticity.)
The episode concludes with Cordelia choosing Xander, choosing truth, and choosing the Scooby Gang nerd vampire life over whatever she had before. Her final duty in the story is to pass judgement on Xander. The show, as noted above, is set to make Xander screw up a lot of times, and forgiving him will get more and more difficult each time, but he’s not yet too far gone. In Xander’s favour this time – he very quickly figures out what’s going on and doesn’t hesitate in confessing to Giles, whose absolute disgust makes clear the degree of his failure, as does Willow’s refusal to talk to him after. The episode sticks the landing on this, I think – “You came through. There might just be hope for you yet.” says Buffy – but it’s Cordelia’s acceptance of him, flaws and all, her empathy and love, that allows him to carry on.
* This episode has some standout gags – barricading the door only to reveal it opens outwards, and Willow’s “Force is okay!” comment is just the first hint of hidden depths…
* Likewise, Spike wondering what rhymes with lungs plays very differently after some later revelations about his origins as William the Bloody.
* The “suddenly, Angel!” instant threat move continues to work brilliantly.
* Oddly, this is the second time in recent weeks that Jenny has attempted a seduction while not in control of herself. She’s past due for a big spotlight episode to give her some dignity at last. Maybe next week?