In the thirteenth episode of the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Xander copes with being left out of the Scoobies’ current adventure by…well, it’s sort of hard to describe. If you’re intrigued by that, then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
What a strange episode of Buffy.
Ultimately, I think I like it a whole lot, certainly far more than I expected to. It addresses something I’d honestly never thought about: Xander is the only member of the Scoobies who possesses no powers or special skill sets. (At this point, I’m not really counting Cordelia as part of the bunch, since she only has tangentially gotten involved in the main plot after breaking up with Xander.) I think it’s a very valid thing to explore for his character, too, and it fits in really well with the general theme of identity and morality that we’ve seen in season three. We’ve witnessed Willow’s progression as a witch and how that’s come to develop who she is. Buffy and Angel both have had to deal with their evolving roles in Sunnydale, questioning whether they even have the capacity to do real good in the city anymore. Joyce took an active role in shaping her own identity in “Gingerbread,” and Oz had to examine his life as a possibly murderous werewolf in “Beauty and the Beasts.” I imagine that in the coming episodes, Giles himself is going to have to deal with the post-Watcher life.
For now, though, Xander’s identity as a part of the Scoobies is examined, and it’s contrasted in a way that pokes fun at some of the more serious moments that the other characters are in. I think it’s natural for this show to tackle this by having Xander wonder why it is he’s even around at all, and why he’s obsessed with being “cool.” In a way, I think this episode is sort of a companion to “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” and not just because it’s Xander-centric. Xander wants to experience life as the center of attention, to be viewed as cool. He wants to be the guy who miraculously saves the day. This episode grants him that, and in the process, he realizes that maybe his own self-worth is not contingent on any of those things happening as he desires.
Does anyone else feel like there’s some unspoken rule that you’re not supposed to have a meta conversation about the word “cool” and what constitutes it? I think Oz certainly feels this way. I guess I’d never really put any thought into it, but how does that happen in a school setting? Someone I went to high school with got in touch with me last year and told me that they always knew I’d be doing great things because “you were so cool in high school.”
WHAT FUCKING SCHOOL DID YOU GO TO? IT WASN’T MINE. People knew who I was because I was basically Hermione, involved in every club I could get my hands on, but I wasn’t social royalty! I was made fun of constantly, right up past my own graduation when I got outed the summer before college. But the thing is, whose to say I wasn’t cool to that person? What if their idea of what made me cool was nothing like mine? To me, I thought all the hardcore kids were cool. The popular guys on the basketball team were cool. The metalheads who wore Megadeth tees to school every day were my idols! And I would be lying to you if I did not admit that I cared every bit about how I was perceived by others. I mean, that’s part of the reason some people stay in the closet, much like I did. I wanted others to perceive me as a straight man, though that didn’t work out too well when I was given the lead in the spring musical my senior year. WHOOPS, I’VE FAILED THE MISSION.
I jest, though. I think that was a point where I started to realize that I’d been spending nearly a decade allowing others to dictate my actions, and all of that was in pursuit of anyone seeing me as a cool person. So I finally did something I wanted to do, and perhaps that’s also what people saw as cool in me.
I’m okay with that.
Xander’s mission to find that “essence” of coolness is understandable to me, and I think a lot of his character is about navigating masculinity and popularity as a straight dude in that sort of microcosm. He believes that if he has just a single thing to make him stand out to others, that’s what’ll work in his favor. Of course, that sort of turns out to be a bit of a disaster, doesn’t it? I get that Cordelia acts to pick apart Xander partially because of what he did to her, so her comments didn’t necessarily bother me. I think I agree with what Willow said in an earlier episode: they all need to cut her a bit of slack. What she does to Xander once he pursues this singular identity is point out the flaws in it. Yes, she’s harsh, and I’d even be willing to admit that she possibly goes a bit too far. But there is an absurdity to thinking that getting a nice car is the answer to your problems. Even when things appear to work for him, the girl who expresses interest in him can clearly see through the fact that he doesn’t really know anything about cars at all. (Which is not to say that she’s shallow or terrible for this. Some people really like cars a lot! That’s okay! I would act exactly the same as this unnamed young woman if you had, like, a Camus book in your hands and then I found out you’d only read one chapter. I would keep talking and talking and you could never get me to stop. WHOOPS.)
I thought I knew where this episode was heading until Xander didn’t rat out Jack to the cops. Okay, so now he’s cool by not turning in a bully. So…what? That’s what this episode is trying to tell me? Why is Xander hanging out with this guy? I really don’t understand why this is happeni – HOLY SHIT THAT GUY IS DEAD. THAT GUY JUST CAME OUT OF A GRAVE. Did that just happen? IS THIS REAL LIFE? What the fuck is going on? OH MY GOD, IT’S A GROUP OF ZOMBIE FRAT BOYS. WHY IS THIS SO FUNNY TO ME? YOU’RE DEAD, HOW CAN BEER EVEN HAVE AN EFFECT ON YOU? WHY DO YOU WANT A CAKE SO BADLY? I MEAN, DON’T GET ME WRONG, CAKE IS DELICIOUS AND I WOULD NEVER TRULY JUDGE YOU FOR WANTING ONE AFTER BEING DEAD FOR SO LONG. THAT’S A GOOD FIRST CHOICE OF FOOD. BUT YOU’RE DEAD. CAN YOU EVEN TASTE CAKE???
And then this episode just gets strange. Like, it was already pretty weird, but what the hell, y’all? That is the most bizarre gang initiation I’ve ever seen. What has Xander done to truly deserve a place in your gang anyway? Why didn’t Xander drive off and leave the dead guys behind as soon as they left his car to go in the hardware store? Wait, why on earth would you bake a cake with supplies from a hardware store? Wait a second, how did getting hit by a car not kill that demon? That Sisterhood of Jhe is pretty tough. WHOA, WHY IS FAITH HITTING ON XANDER? WHOA, THIS IS REALLY WEIRD. WHOA. THIS IS AWKWARD. I mean, I think I get this? Did Xander become “cool” by saving Faith from the demon? Or WAIT WHAT THE FUCK DID THEY JUST HAVE SEX? Well…okay! Cool! If Faith wants it, then I’m all for it! And I mean that! She wanted sex, Xander was cool with it, everyone wins! I don’t imagine that was how Xander fantasized losing his virginity, but WHOSE FANTASY FOR THAT EVER TURNS OUT EXACTLY AS THEY PLANNED? Pretty much no one, so there. Plus, I’m glad that the episode never tells us that either person is gross for having sex. It happened, they liked it, the end. I SUPPORT THIS, AS AWKWARD AS IT IS.
What the last third of “The Zeppo” turns out to be is this kind-of-brilliant contrast between the ridiculous absurdity of the end of the world by way of the Hellmouth, and the fact that Xander, being exactly the kind of person he is, can save all of his friends in the process. There’s obviously a subtext here that the Scoobies (Xander included, of course) can be quite melodramatic about things that happen to them. That’s understandable, though! Look at their experiences. It has to seem like the world is constantly ending for them every week. But this story in particular is about Xander coming to realize that he does have the power to affect things in Sunnydale. He can save lives. He can make a difference.
I think the best part of it is that he keeps it to himself. This episode wouldn’t work if he gloated about getting Jack to defuse the bomb. The character growth wouldn’t be believable. As to whether we’ll actually see that growth in Xander in the future, of course I have no idea what’s in store for him. But for a character who has such extreme issues with identity as him, it was nice to see him figure something out on his own. Self-worth is an important thing, and I hope Xander does good things with this newfound confidence.