Everyone knows the basic genius of Buffy: it made monsters out of the horrors of high school. But if you actually trawl through the episodes, you find there are a lot of Buffy eps that don’t do this, or do it only loosely, or in a roundabout way. There’s no secret as to why: this metaphor monster trick is hard. In season one there are really only three episodes that have a metaphorical monster at their heart. As we’ve seen, Witch flubbed it a bit. Invisible Girl is a few weeks away yet. But in this episode, the show nails it.
The episode features a bunch of mean, popular kids – and Xander – getting possessed by hyena spirits, and turning their cruelty dials all the way up. If you’re in the group, you’re great. If you’re out? You’re meat. The metaphor is plain and strong and central and brutal – but it’s also complex enough that a simple description doesn’t do it justice. The show is talking about power, status, in-groups/out-groups, bullying, and other crucial aspects of the high school experience, and I’m sure every viewer would see their own variation on these themes in the behaviour of the Pack. (Particularly the behaviour of Xander. We’ll get to Xander.) In terms of the general theme, to me the most shocking moment is the Pack devouring Principal Flutie. First, this is obviously another marker that in this show, no-one is safe. Change will happen! Even writing out a minor supporting player like Principal Flutie stands out from the reluctance to upend the status quo that marked most TV at the time. Looking at it now, though, with Buffy‘s reputation for character death well-established, what strikes me is the metaphor. The bullies have amped up their cruelty and they are targeting, not fellow students, but the school institution itself. The message seems to be that institutions are helpless before bullying. If you were in high school, being bullied, and you watched this episode – well, I don’t think you’d find it very comforting. (And from what I understand of bullying response statistics in the US and further afield, perhaps that’s how you should be feeling.)
Okay, Xander. Comments over on Facebook for my last Buffy post were not kind to Xander, and there is nothing in this episode that will turn you around. But this episode does something that I think is quite shocking and potentially brave: it uses the excuse of Xander’s possession to lean all the way into Xander’s creepy nice-guy entitlement that colours his every interaction with Buffy and Willow. He actually grabs and holds Buffy down while he says out loud all the things a “nice guy” says to himself about the girl he desires. He holds her against a wall and forces a kiss on her. It’s an upsetting sequence, even more so because Buffy reclaiming her power (by knocking him out) happens off-screen.
This is an instance of the show recognising that if it wants to talk about the horrors of adolescence, it has to talk about sex, and power, and the abuse of both of those things. There is nothing metaphorical in hyena-Xander’s behaviour towards Buffy – he is sexually assaulting her, and potentially on the way to raping her. And his dialogue indicates this is not an outsider impulse that comes from the demonic possession, but an expression of some genuine thoughts and feelings that he holds and experiences. It would be going to far to say that the episode portrays Xander as a repressed rapist – but the show is definitely showing that his desire isn’t all innocent boyish frustration. There is real darkness in the mix. And, to the extent Xander is intended as the “everyguy” character in the show, it’s a pretty ruthless and damning portrayal of the unpleasant undercurrents in the cultural experiences and assumptions of teenage boys as a class.
Of course, the show lets him off the hook. I don’t know how to feel about it exactly. Buffy, in particular, shrugs it off: he wasn’t himself, you can’t hold that against him! The parallels between hyena spirits and alcoholic spirits pass without remark. And in a sense they have to – this show can’t throw one of its core cast off the cliff in episode 6. If they couldn’t justify Xander staying friendswith Buffy and Willow, then they’d be forced to cut the scene. And I think it’s a good scene, an important one for the show. However, in terms of Xander’s character, it’s a black cloud that he never entirely escapes. Partly it’s mitigated by the fact Xander has to live with the memories of his behaviour, and he is obviously mortified and traumatised by them. Partly, too, there is some relief in Xander’s growing up/redemption plot at the close of this season. Still, to me it feels like these aren’t enough to counterbalance the dark weight of this scene. The show doesn’t want you to hold this moment close, but it’s hard not to feel that Xander won’t ever shake off the unpleasant aspects of his character. The show doesn’t quite know how to deal with the issues of sex and violence it is grappling with here, and it can’t quite address the problems with Xander before they get embedded too deep to change. From now on, he is damaged goods.
But for the show, this is a return to the issues of sex, power and abuse that were treated so lightly in Teacher’s Pet a few weeks ago. The show has a handle on what it’s doing here, and takes it all much more seriously. The challenge it faces is, of course, the Problem of Jesse, which is the difficulty with including both real threat and real emotions without destroying your show. Buffy distinguishes itself here with its willingness to explore sexual threat and sexual violence as a common feature of teenage life, but it can’t yet allow itself to honour the real emotions side of the equation, excusing itself this time with “a hyena did it”. This is just a step along the way of course – so much of season one is the show figuring out what it wants to be – and I find the weak consequences here much easier to accept knowing that the show is learning as it goes, and in future the consequences of this kind of threat will be addressed head-on.
A few other notes:
- There’s some great silent storytelling in the interactions among the pack. The show’s confidence in non-verbal storytelling grows as it goes on.
- I remembered this ep as a showcase for Nick Brendan’s Xander, but it actually turns into something of a Willow showcase – she gets a huge punch-the-air moment when she’s dealing with Xander in the cage (and compare that to the equivalent scene in the writer’s draft). But man, this episode also reveals Alyson Hannigan’s secret power: when she has emotions, you feel them. Fairly quickly the show realises what it has here, and Willow starts carrying more and more of the feels.
- The 3/4 twist here actually comes a little bit after the final commercial break, when you find out the zookeeper was a crazy cultist all along! The actual 3/4 cliffhanger is basically “Willow is suddenly in danger”, and it works like gangbusters, because of Alyson Hannigan’s secret power.
- Giles realises Xander’s hiding something at the end. This becomes a character trait for Giles, figuring out when people are holding things back. It’s certainly useful as a storytelling tool, because secrets that never come out aren’t much fun. But where the show shines is in how it uses this as a way to communicate Giles’ character. Every time he identifies, and sometimes guesses, a secret, his choice about how to act on the information is pretty much perfect. It’s something the show does consistently well.