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Watching Buffy: s03e13 “The Zeppo”

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What is the point of Xander? He doesn’t offer Willow’s empathy and nerd abilities, or Giles’s knowledge and common sense, or Oz’s wisdom and wolfy-powers. He doesn’t do anything particularly well, except screw up. Why is he there? Why do the others allow him to get involved?

Revelations offered a compelling answer: Xander could disrupt the patterns the rest of the group tend to follow, and hold them to account when their ethics and morals are getting tangled. He could, in short, be the guy who cuts the crap. And as the most vulnerable person on the team, he’s a natural in the role, because uncut crap gets guys like him killed. That was a Xander with a point, a Xander who could justify his presence in the group.

Now forget that Xander. The writer’s room did. Maybe deliberately, deciding it was a narrative dead-end or something Nick Brendan couldn’t pull off or something else. Maybe they simply didn’t remember what Doug Petrie had done with the character. Maybe they didn’t understand how Petrie’s version would play out. Who knows? Whatever the reason, the show lined up this episode to tackle the same question again. What is the point of Xander? Writer Dan Vebber would deliver a very different answer.

In this episode, the Scooby gang face a grave and apocalyptic threat that forces them to confront their fears and feelings, before the danger culminates in an epic showdown with terrifying demonic enemies. Big, epic stuff. Also, in the opening scene, Xander is hurt, and the other Scoobies suggest he transition into more of a support role. While he is unhappy at the suggestion he can’t handle himself, he ends up fetching snacks while the rest of the Scoobies prepare.

In a more conventional show, things would play out from here in a predictable way. The Scoobies would face the horrific threat and the terrifying climax in the A-story. Meanwhile, in the B-story, we’d get glimpses of Xander slumping about the place, sad about being unappreciated. Then at the end of the episode the stories would recombine, as Xander would discover some crucial weakness and show up at the climax to provide the right assistance at the right moment. Everyone would win, the Scoobies would concede Xander was valuable after all, Xander would concede he shouldn’t be charging into battle so readily, they’d all laugh together, freeze frame and out.

Not this show. The episode completely flips the A story and the B story. The apocalyptic threat is gleefully relegated to the status of a runner, allowing the comic misadventures of Xander Harris to take centre stage.

The episode takes its time to let this reversal become clear. Early on we get our standard scenes of Buffy receiving portentous information from Giles in the library, and then a research scene that sets up information-gathering moves from Buffy and Giles. Everything looks very normal except we’re spending more and more time with Xander, to the point where the camera just stays with him for most of the second act. Soon the episode becomes a series of vignettes where Xander stumbles into a moment with each of the other characters, each time with steadily increasing comedy, culminating in the stupendous moment where Xander interrupts a charged tragic-romance scene between Angel and Buffy. Dramatic music stops and starts around his interruption, as the episode has become a parody of itself, while at the same time being absolutely sincere in every way. It’s utterly hilarious – Xander disrupts the show’s normal form by violating the way its stories are (through careful editing) assembled into dramatic narratives. We’re not just getting Xander’s perspective on life in the Scooby gang, we’re getting a sideways glimpse of how Buffy stories are made.

Throughout, Xander has an arc. After having his confidence sapped by the Scoobies telling him to step back and Cordelia attacking his sense of self-worth, he tries to act cool, and ends up being recruited by some very scary (but very street-level) thugs who turn out to be zombies trying to blow up the school. Across the episode Xander’s attempts to get help from the others come to naught, and he ends up having to stop these guys and their bomb himself, which he does by demonstrating that he is in fact willing to die in order to save the day. He then goes on to keep the whole affair to himself rather than brag about his success or show how he has been misjudged by his friends, and his new sense of self-worth allows him to brush off more invective from Cordelia and embrace his role as snack-fetcher. (Notably, no-one in the Scoobies reconsiders their decision to keep Xander away from the danger zone.) It’s a lovely arc, and the final confrontation, where Xander gently engages in a showdown over a ticking bomb, is perfectly played by Brendan.

So we finish this episode with a Xander who is at peace with himself. Roll credits.

And now we know: what is the point of Xander? He’s the snack guy, and he’s cool with it.

Wait. What?

This is a resounding personal triumph for Xander the character, finding self-acceptance; but it is a disaster for Xander the member of an action-drama ensemble. The problem was “he contributes nothing substantial to the Scoobies”, and you can’t fix that with “and he’s okay with it”. That is the opposite of fixing it! Nick Brendan will still be turning up to work every Monday, and every script will need to find stuff for him to do. At least his anxious inadequacy was a source of some kind of plot energy and character motivation, forcing him to try and justify his presence. Now he isn’t even going to do that? How is this better? How can this do anything but make Xander even more redundant?

This episode is surely one of the best chunks of TV to go out under the Buffy name – it is intelligent and suspenseful and laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s a failure where it matters. It set out to fix Xander, and it ended up making things worse. Xander is still broken, still pointless, but now he’s even harder to fix.

You had one job, episode. You had one job.

Other notes:
* Have to mention the highly-memorable scene where Xander is deflowered by Faith and then decisively shown the door, with the romantic/sexy music abruptly ending and Brendan looking absolutely bewildered.
* Willy at the demon bar again makes an appearance – this is likely a riff on Josie’s Bar, a staple of Frank Miller’s Daredevil run during Joss Whedon’s phase of high comics geekery.
* Vebber’s previous Buffy episode was the superb return-of-Spike episode Lover’s Walk. This one is even better, and while it is certain that the whole room was pitching laugh moments aplenty, the result feels expertly judged and strongly unified. Might as well give Vebber the credit for another classic. He never works on Buffy again.
* Okay, there is one moment in this episode that stretches credulity too far: that it’s Cordelia who calls Xander “the Zeppo”. That’s the kind of reference that might be believable coming from a TV nerd brought up in a family of TV writers cough cough Joss Whedon, but Cordelia? What, she’s been watching Animal Crackers while recovering from her impalement?
* Not really a fan of Xander desperately calling for those guys to throw him the ball at the top of the ep. I have never seen someone do this.
* The Buffyverse creative team decided not to transform the useless comedy character into a badass. Probably a good decision – no way the audience would go along with that sort of thing, huh. In completely unrelated news, new character Wesley debuts next episode!

{ 5 } Comments

  1. Iona | October 11, 2015 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    This was the first episode of Buffy I saw. It made zero sense, out of context. šŸ™‚

  2. Rodger | October 11, 2015 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Thing is, it doesn’t even dovetail with the things Xander is shown at being good in the overall story: Xander remembering weapons (the Judge), Xander knowing how to sneak into millitary bases, Xander using heavy machinery against Big Bads, Xander getting a real job, Xander getting an apartment, and so on.

  3. morgue | October 12, 2015 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    iona: ha! Though like The Wish before it, this episode does kinda give you the full tour of Buffy – just sideways (or in The Wish’s case, in a nightmare mirror). I imagine it would be strange watching the rest and seeing all the pieces upended/parodied here getting put into their places!

  4. morgue | October 12, 2015 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Rodger: yeah, true. As I recall, Xander does become a more dramatically useful character and some of those aspects are why, but there’s not much to go on in season 3 Xander.

  5. Charlene McMenamin | March 30, 2016 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    This episode was always a favourite. In retrospect, I like Xander a lot less than I did originally, so I think the creators really didn’t take enough care with him overall, but this episode is possibly the thing I like most about Xander.
    What if all your friends do have superpowers or something that makes them special, and you don’t? Xander is just ordinary; plenty of people are, or think they are, especially in high school.
    I think Xander’s just “the snack guy” in the same way that Buffy’s just “an average student who gets into trouble a lot”.
    This episode reminds me that we only see Buffy as the hero because that’s the narrative the show chooses to show us. The Scoobies don’t see Xander as a hero, so we don’t see Xander as a hero. He doesn’t have magic or super strength or super smarts, but I think even the gang knows that he is pretty much bedrock. He spends pretty much the entire 7 seasons being prepared to die for the cause, even if that’s all he has to offer. He goes in to battle time and again with none of the super-anythings. It was a major Slayer test for Buffy to be put in that situation last episode, and this is Xander’s everyday.
    This episode reminds me that every time Xander goes for snacks and the camera stays with the others talking demons in the library, we have no idea what Xander had to face to get the snacks.

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