I was not looking forward to rewatching this episode, as I remembered it as embarrassingly silly. On repeat viewing, and paying a bit more attention to what the writers are doing here, I was wondering how I could have been so wrong about The Pack. I can see how I got a bad impression originally, and that basically comes down to an element of silliness on display here. Scenes of teenagers pretending to be hyenas are not helped by the overdubbed calls and growls, which are clearly not emerging from the mouths of the actors, and are about as convincing as the squeals that are not coming from the very docile pig, which Sarah Michelle Gellar shakes around a bit to make it look like it’s reacting to a threat. It would have been better if the actors just behaved like animals (perhaps with a little more subtlety), without being made to sound like them as well. It didn’t need to be that literal, because the metaphor is a very strong one: a pack of bullies becomes a pack of wild animals, and engage in their usual behaviour of preying on the weak, which is gradually amplified until they become killers.
“Every school has them. You get your desks, some blackboards and some mean kids.”
That’s depressingly true, as is the portrayal of dodgeball here as the most brutal of school sports. If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s the one where moronic PE teachers get a kick out of seeing the kids who get bullied being targeted by their bullies.
“God this game is brutal. I love it.”
It’s an entirely accurate portrayal of the mindless sadism of so many PE teachers. I once got into trouble for giving “intelligent PE teacher” as an example of an oxymoron. I was probably an irritating child to teach.
What makes this episode work so well is of course Xander. Even though we are only six episodes into the first season, his transformation into one of the mean kids rocks our world. As I mentioned in last week’s review, Xander is by far the strongest contender for an audience identification figure in this show, and turning him nasty pulls the rug out from under us. Nicholas Brendon puts in an amazing performance, and seeing Xander being mean to Willow is horrible to watch. When she starts blaming herself, it’s even worse.
“Maybe there’s something wrong with me.”
Wisely, Xander is separate from the rest of the pack when they commit murder. It would have created such a horrifying memory that the trauma could not have been ignored moving forward through the series, and this isn’t quite the kind of story that feels like it should be pivotal to a character arc like that. Instead, we cut back and forth between a scene of Xander as a sexual predator and the rest of the pack murdering the headmaster, and as that point I realised without any doubt that an episode I remembered as lame is actually something quite remarkable. This episode has got teeth, and isn’t afraid to use them.
“They ate Principal Flutie?”
… and then we crash back down to an awkward feeling of silliness, when an unspoken visual horror becomes a verbalised absurdity, reminding me once again why The Pack made such a weak first impression, hindered also by the too-convenient mopping up exercise that resolves the plot, while failing to provide a final word on the behaviour of bullies. Xander’s memories are laughed off, but how about the other pack members? What becomes of them? Do bullies learn the error of their ways, or are they condemned to mental anguish and societal exclusion for their actions? The writers have no interest in exploring those questions, but instead they manage to focus strongly on the Willow/Xander dynamic and how their lives have been impacted emotionally by Buffy crashing into their world.
“Weren’t things a lot simpler when it was just you and me?”
I suspect that is a question that will hang over this series for a while… RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
When I saw the name of the next Buffy episode, The Pack, I thought: ah, good, it’s bound to be about werewolves and I love werewolves! I was disappointed to find that it was to be hyenas instead but at the same time, I acknowledged the surprising subversion of expectation. But most of the episode was a bit of a slog for me. I decided to check how much this had in common with Babylon 5 again: were the strong ones written by Joss Whedon as B5’s were by J. Michael Straczynski? It seems that wasn’t the case for season 1 at least. Whedon appears on and off but really only had 5 of the 12 episodes. So I guess things can be hit or miss with defending a Hellmouth. I’ll just have to cope!
As if to rub my face in the hit or miss nature of the series, Willow and Buffy open the episode talking about guys and how Buffy hasn’t had that feeling for a guy for a while. Except that the very previous episode was all about a guy she had feelings for. She remembers Angel, but Owen is a distant memory. So we’re not dealing with the sort of world building B5 was good at. Still, no worries, they are different shows and I don’t deny it. There are other ways to win us over! If we were given an allegory about bullies, I might be willing to accept it, but no amount of possession will convert a person’s intestines. I mean, Xander and the Pack eat a pig raw; I think the pack will have some bad stomach issues coming up! (Pun intended!) Plus, does Xander feel nothing from his actions? Speaking of which, when they eat the principal, even if the investigation lead the authorities to really believe it was the work of a pack of wild dogs, that doesn’t change that these kids will need therapy for years to come. Plus, do they actually open the school the next day? Is death so common that they just keep the school running like nothing happened? (In fairness, I think the loss of Bob the Principal was no great loss; he was a caricature, not a real character anyway!)
Now, as silly as this episode was, the action did ramp up and kept me on edge while Willow was being hunted through the school. The Shaman/zoo keeper didn’t fool me for a second, but he still made a good villain (for the minute of screen time he had). There were other elements that I felt were impressive touches too. The tribal music that plays during the game of dodgeball was clever, illustrating the pack nature of sports. As a kid, I used to have a friend whose height of insult was to make fun of someone’s laughing by calling them “laughing hyenas”, so the laughing stood out to me as especially clever. (And who can’t use a reminder of one’s grade school days, huh?) And once again, there are some stellar one-liners. Buffy accuses Giles of trying to “Scully” her, a reference to the X-Files; Scully was always the pragmatic one denying all of Mulder’s claims. Giles makes the realization that Xander might be in real trouble with, “he’s turned into a 16 year old boy!” (I can appreciate this!) He even explains that testosterone “turns all men into morons!” But by far, the best line goes to Buffy who says that Xander’s current idea of “wooing doesn’t include a Yanni CD and a bottle of chianti!” In many ways, this episode is an allegory for becoming a teenager. But then, when we’re teenagers, we say and do very stupid things. Since this focuses so heavily on Xander, gender does play a part and his treatment of Willow is still very hard to watch. His overall exploration of becoming macho, part of the tough crowd, is played reasonably well, under the circumstances, but I still would not claim this to be a good episode.
The fact that Xander is the one who saves Willow at the end is a major feather in it’s proverbial cap, but it was still a long way from what I was hoping to be watching. I mean, for goodness sake, even the moment where Giles and Willow arrive at the zoo; why does Giles tells her to wait outside? Cliché much? It was one of those Scooby Doo moments; not worthy of “serious” TV. Look I know Buffy is immensely popular and I know it supposedly improves over time; I’ll give it the chance! I admit that despite the evident gaps in logic and lack of continuity, I am looking forward to each episode. Maybe the humor makes up for the lack of continuity and gaps in logic… but it’s still a tough thing to stomach. Much like eating a pig raw! I just have to hope that the next episode is better. I hope to the heavens that the next is a stronger episode! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel