In the sixth episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a shaky premise gives way to one of the creepiest (and most brilliant) things I’ve seen on television. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
I have an image in my head, and I am going to share it with you.
I’m in a field. It’s a field because it needs to be open and inviting, like a good hug from a close friend or someone you care about, but have not seen in many years. It’s full of California poppies, those brilliant and radiant flowers that seem to sparkle as the wind and light hit them from different directions. Across the field on this impossibly perfect spring day, Joss Whedon stands with a smile on his face. He’s standing next to a massive oak tree, and the shadow it casts falls gently over him. It’s inviting. It’s comforting. He’s wearing a light cardigan and it’s the color of an eggplant. He waves at me, and I can’t help but wave back.
I start walking across the field, taking time to run my hands through the swishing poppies as a breeze picks up. As I get closer to Whedon, I see that there’s a small folding table next to him. Is it possible? There’s a plate full of freshly-baked cookies, and somehow, impossibly, I know that he made them vegan so that I could eat them, even though he’s not a vegan himself. Is that a cold glass of almond milk sitting next to the plate? I can see condensation building on the side and slowly running down. He knew, I think. He knew I loved this. I race towards the oak tree, towards the blue horizon that meets with the green and orange earth, and I can’t wait to give him a hug, to enjoy the milk and cookies, to catch up, to talk about what’s going on in our respective lives.
I’m just feet away when I realize the table isn’t real. The cookies aren’t real. The glass and the condensation and the way the light reflects off of it aren’t real. This isn’t just any normal field, either, but before I can slow my body from the rush, I realize that I’m at the edge of a cliff, and that’s why the sky met the horizon in the way that it did. It’s the edge.
Whedon sees the fear on my face, and he merely smirks in response. In one motion, he grabs me forcefully and chucks me over the edge, and as he does so, he’s laughing. He’s laughing. I fall and it is not graceful or pretty or poetic. And all I can remember is that he was laughing at me.
This is a premature statement, of course, but I know from Firefly (and especially Serenity) that I should not expect things to be cute and adorable and safe when it comes to Joss Whedon. Unfortunately, I’ve made the very mistake of doing so; I assumed that season one wouldn’t go very far in terms of violence, the repercussions of living over some nexus of paranormal activity, and especially not with death. I like what I’ve seen so far, but Whedon is clearly setting things up before he knocks it all down. I don’t necessarily want to say that season on is safe, but it’s the first season of a show that was probably believed to be a failure. I’m sure he had certain concession he had to make to the network in order to keep his show on the air, and I get that.
And that’s why this episode basically destroyed me. Because it’s only the sixth episode of the premiere season and it is REALLY, REALLY, REALLY FUCKED UP. First, though, there are a few things I want to point out and discuss that are…well, not my favorite things in the world. I think the cold open to “The Pack” is abysmal. It’s awkward, poorly acted on most parts, and sets up a premise that is so bad it made me laugh out loud. (Which, incidentally, is also a strength of this episode, since it made me think the whole thing would be horrible.) I can excuse the awkwardness and the bad acting; in fact, it’s kind of endearing to watch. I recently watched a ton of old The X-Files episodes from seasons one and two, and while I think that show started out a bit stronger than Buffy, I would be straight-up lying if I didn’t admit how cringe-worthy a lot of it is. But 90s television has this wonderful appeal to me, so I don’t want this to seem like I’m trying to be a snob because the show isn’t available in 1080p with modern references.
However, the idea that five people could be possessed by a hyena just by looking at it was just…too much? And look, there are few people in the world who are more willing to suspend disbelief in the name of a good story than me, and this was just silly. Again, I can excuse bad effects and the like, but I have to admit that I set the bar pretty low because of the cold open.
While I will talk about the brilliance of so much of the writing and the metaphor used throughout “The Pack,” I think I also need to state that some of the choices for the portrayal of high school life were just downright unrealistic. First of all: the zoo. THE ZOO. ARE YOU SERIOUS. Now, perhaps life in Southern California is drastically different than elsewhere, but we stopped getting sent to the zoo for field trips in maybe fifth grade. I get the sense that the show was trying to convey that this was for some science class (Lance seemed to be working on something???) and they were doing…research? LOOK I DON’T KNOW. And if that was the case, WHY WAS PRINCIPAL FLUTIE THERE. Principals never go on class field trips!
On that same note, what sort of gym class plays dodgeball in high school? We stopped that in junior high at the very least, and I was completely lost as to how that was included at all. To be fair, though, it did give us that beautiful line from Coach Herrold at the very end, so I’m quite forgiving of this little detail.
Aside from one thing at the end of this episode, though, “The Pack” is a brutal and vicious study on bullying in a high school setting, but it’s done in a way that’s both clever and unique. As bad as the cold open is, I was impressed that Buffy was showing that some people literally bully in packs. I had individual bullies while I was in school (naming one of them now: Curtis Tiegler, fuck you, I hope you were run over by a pack of puppies), but there’s nothing quite as disorienting and frightful as being bullied by a group. That manifested in different ways in junior high and high school. Sometimes, it was a group of kids in class, or it was a pack of them during gym who were all friends and seemingly got off on making my life miserable. But anyway it existed, it was powerful, and that’s what “The Pack” does so well that I was blown away by how well-informed the analogy was.
Is the metaphor for hyenas really obvious and heavy-handed? Sure! But I’d argue that it needs to be because it’s just so ruthlessly applicable to the situation. I really don’t want to get into specifics for my life, as I’ve written extensively about the bullying I was subject to growing up for….well, a lot of reviews. I HAVE A LOT OF FEELINGS, OKAY? But the narrative that Buffy puts forth in this episode is stunning in its accuracy. While there’s a whole lot of oppression that does go on within bullying (and I’d argue that the majority of bullying is done in an inherently oppressive manner), I also can’t deny that it’s an issue of people going after those they view as “weaker” than them.
The dodgeball scene is pretty terrible to watch, but the part where they turn on Lance is not only horrifically awkward. It’s the point where the writers do their best to spell this out for us: they are going after the person they perceive as the weaker of the two remaining. Buffy stood up to them and Lance did not, so they turn on him given the chance. And that’s a fascinating observation about bullies, especially since I think that’s generally true in the way they operate. It’s not even an issue of whether they objectively are weak or anything like that; it’s all based on perception. Who won’t fight back? Who is lower than them on the social ladder of high school hierarchies? Who is deserving of their scorn because they’re weird or odd or have a different color skin or come from a different culture?
I can already sense that one thing Buffy will get right is their depiction of what it’s like to go to high school, and they certainly get it right in “The Pack.” The society that crops up in a school is such an interesting thing to me, especially since it varies so wildly from school to school. My high school followed a pretty familiar model: the jocks on the football, baseball, and basketball teams were always the most sought after and the most popular; the cheerleaders were the pinnacle of high school beauty; the band geeks were reviled by most people, as were the drama kids, though even in those groups, there was a clear order and rank. I found that I would drift about, with most of my friends on the largely-ignored cross country and track teams, between the acquaintances their and in my AP classes, with a few of those people being friends, too. Though…oh lord, I was totally the teacher’s pet a lot of the time because I couldn’t deal with bullying or being ostracized and I knew (most) teachers wouldn’t do that kind shit with me.
That’s what I like about this episode in that sense; there’s a way for me to see this sort of attention to detail and to a specific culture in the writing. But honestly, that’s just one of a few things that this has going for it. First of all, there’s an entire sequence with the entire group of possessed students walking dramatically towards the camera as FAR plays and I HAD NO IDEA FAR WAS ON BUFFY. Jonah Matranga I LOVE YOU SO MUCH. Oh god, now I can’t wait to see what other bands are in the show’s soundtrack.
Let’s just get to the best part of “The Pack,” though. The episode is strange enough, but I didn’t get the sense that I should fear these five students possessed by the spirit of a hyena. They bullied other kids, and it also leads Xander to treat Willow like shit. Is it okay for me to assume that even though he was possessed, he was still acting out some subconscious thoughts of his own? We know he likes Buffy a whole lot, and we see how that manifests later. I don’t really care that much for Xander at this point, and I don’t think this episode helps a whole lot, either. I don’t think Willow and Buffy are going to let him forget this in the future.
Anyway, back to my point. I didn’t understand why I should feel anything for this episode beyond my interest in the bullying plot. What’s the danger in having possessed students who are just crude with everyone around them? Don’t get me wrong; it’s entirely shitty, but what’s the risk? Why should I care?
I think the writers anticipated this, because then the five students eat a pig raw. And what was kind of a silly but clever metaphor quickly turned into a fucked up, surreal nightmare. Did this show just have these characters eat raw meat to satiate some animal desire? I was impressed. The ante was upped. This was interesting to me, because it’s such an unexpected thing to happen. Yet after this, things only get worse. (Do they ever get better???) When Principal Flutie calls the four original students into his office, Xander goes to confront Buffy. We’re given these two contrasting events that show how these students are starting to go beyond being rude and cruel. In Buffy’s case, Xander’s desire for her manifests in a really, really gross attempt to essentially rape her. (And as a related note, I was completely shocked that minutes after it happened, it’s called an attempted sexual assault. IN THE SCRIPT. THE SHOW ACTIVELY CALLS IT WHAT IT IS. i mean….WHAT THE FUCK THAT NEVER HAPPENS.) Buffy beautifully takes him out with a desk and then everything with Principal Flutie is somehow more uncomfortable. I kept wondering, “Where is the show going with this? Are the students just going to keep intimidating him and acting like cats OH SHIT SHE SCRATCHED HIM. Wow, that was violent. What are they going to do nex–SWEET SUMMER CHILD WHAT ARE THEY DOING OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD THEY ARE EATING THE PRINCIPAL WHAT THE FUCK WHAT THE FUCK DID THIS SHOW JUST BECOME.
Legit one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen on television, made all the more worse because it’s left up to our imagination and…well, I rather liked Principal Flutie. This show just killed off a re-occurring side character IN THE SIXTH EPISODE. That makes it possible for anyone who isn’t part of the main four characters to die off; it makes this episode REALLY GODDAMN CREEPY AND INTENSE.
And I do genuinely enjoy how this ends, though the reveal of the zookeeper’s true intentions had me frowning a bit. I’m not a fan of the use of some unnamed African culture just for entertainment purposes; it felt a bit too imperialist to me. That being said, I am going to exercise my own personal canon for the fate of the zookeeper and imagine that the show is saying that if white people try to appropriate the culture of other folks, they’ll be eaten alive by hyenas. This pleases me greatly.
In all seriousness, this is an incredibly solid episode of the show and gives me an idea of the capacity Buffy will have to entertain and intrigue me. For all the action and plotting that excited me, I almost feel like “The Pack” gave me more character development than anything else. Up until this point, Xander’s been playing the Woe-Is-Me Nice Guy here, acting as if it’s rude that Buffy won’t date him or give him that sort of attention. His possession brought out the worst in him, and I don’t think Buffy or Willow will never bring this up to him. They tease him at the end of the episode, but I imagine before the season is over, Willow and Xander will have to have a conversation about what he said to her in the hallway a few days after being possessed.
I guess the worst part about it is that the final reveal of “The Pack” is that Xander’s amnesia is a complete lie, one that Giles figures out. He knew what he did to both Buffy and Willow, and I found it really gross that he kept that to himself. (And I know I shouldn’t have to state this, but that’s not a criticism of the writing. This is remarkably in-character for Xander, who puts his romantic feelings above other things constantly.) I’m disappointed in Giles as well; that’s not a secret that I necessarily think deserves to be kept, even if Giles has the best of intentions in doing so.
I’m just six episodes into this thing, and everyone’s already in an interesting place. I don’t love this show yet, but “The Pack” just did a whole lot to make me enjoy it as a whole.