Buffy was a show that kept evolving in new and exciting ways. In The Zeppo, it’s time for another apocalypse, similar to the one we saw at the end of the first season, and this is “worse than anything we’ve ever faced.” A season ago this would have been the big drama of the year, but now it’s the insignificant part of the episode, with the focus instead on Xander’s “very strange night”. Buffy has moved on in the interim to more sophisticated and inventive storytelling, and monsters being summoned from the Hellmouth is now the mundane bit. It all plays out as background noise, while dead people make a bomb and Xander tries to stop them, after taking a detour to lose his virginity to Faith. Now that’s entertainment.
What prompts all this is Xander feeling like he’s expendable. Cordelia compares him to Zeppo Marx, considered to be the least important of the Marx Brothers, “the useless part of the group.” At the end of the opening battle, Giles tells Xander that he thinks “it would be best if you hung back to the rear of the battle, for your own sake”. That’s humiliating, because even though Giles has that Ripper side to his nature, he’s still a much older man telling a young, fit teenager that he’s not physically or mentally capable of contributing to a battle. With Willow now adding her witchcraft abilities to the mix, the question of what Xander brings to the party is going to have to be addressed eventually. This is the first step along that road, and initially it’s done with comedy, while nudging Xander in the direction of what it means to be cool. Nobody can answer that question for him (although for Oz it seems to be mainly to do with not saying much), but when he defeats the bad guys all by himself, using his intelligence and courage, Cordelia’s jibes can no longer hurt him, and he knows he’s on the right path. He doesn’t even need to boast about his achievements. He’s just satisfied that he has something to offer after all. That’s cool.
Xander makes a big mistake along the way, but I think it’s realistic, because it acknowledges the fact that he’s still a teenage boy, despite everything he’s been through. Faced with a dangerous bully, he can’t deal with the problem. The really horrible moment is when Jack has a knife to his throat, a policeman arrives, and Xander covers for him. That leads to the depressingly predictable initiation of Xander into the gang of cool kids. It reflects a horrible culture in schools of never reporting the crimes of a bully, because it breaks some kind of a code of honour.
“Could have narked on me. Didn’t do it.”
Translate that culture of not being a “dobber” (the favourite term when I was at school) to an actual knife crime, and all of a sudden Xander is complicit in a potential future murderer going free. The writer never quite joins the dots between the foolishness of that dangerous honour culture between bullies and victims, and the consequences of Xander playing that nasty game by the rules, but at least we do see where it leads for him: the bully remains free to nearly blow up the school and in doing so would have killed a lot of people, while Xander learns how depressingly uncool it really is to be one of the cool kids. This is a false path on the road to his acquisition of coolth.
Another false path is the loss of virginity. That’s another thing kids might think makes them “cool”: having a sex life. Xander’s first time is meaningless. He is used and discarded, thrown out immediately afterwards while Faith goes for a shower. At least she says it was “great”, but if this show remains as good as it has been at exploring relationship dynamics, there will be no reflected glory on Xander for his prowess between the sheets.
It’s interesting, though, that Xander meets everyone in turn during his night of weirdness, desperately looking for a reason to be needed by somebody, but nobody wants him. He is just told to keep out of trouble. The one person he can be useful to is Faith, who is the other outsider in this show, despite being momentarily needed for a big fight. If Xander continues to be sidelined, eventually the others are going to have to realise they’re not playing the game with a full deck of cards. One day, Xander might turn out to be the ace they need. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
Wow! This episode was a gut punch. I don’t know if The Zeppo is a well-received episode of Buffy but I thought it was very good; probably for rather embarrassing reasons admittedly, but good nonetheless. It’s down to Cordelia’s comment about Xander being the Zeppo. I grew up on old comedies like Laurel and Hardy and W.C. Fields, but one of the best of the comic geniuses was The Marx Brothers. Groucho had wit down to a science, offering rapid fire lines that would make your head spin. Harpo and Chico were a fantastic double act. (You can’t fool me! There is no sanity clause!) But Zeppo was the bump on a log; the non-funny member of the brothers. In fact, as I mentally track back through some of their greatest moments, I can’t think of a single moment where Zeppo shines. Xander is told he’s basically the useless one by being compared to Zeppo. His friends consist of a slayer, a werewolf, a vampire and a witch. By comparison, he’s… nothing. This isn’t just really painful to hear for the character, but it’s a blow for the audience. Or I imagine it is if you’ve ever felt like that fifth wheel, the one who is put on the backburner. Perhaps this is something all genre fans go through. I certainly have and I admit, it hurts. (“Oh, sure, maybe not as much as jumping on a bicycle with its seat missing but it hurts!”)
And let’s be clear: that’s all down to perception. It’s not that one is necessarily being cast out, but sometimes it seems that way and that’s all that matters. Xander isn’t really being ignored or neglected; they are trying to keep him safe. The gang is of the mindset that Xander’s life could be in jeopardy, which is the only reason they exclude him. Buffy says he should stay “fray-adjacent”. It’s not that he’s “expendable”, as Cordelia says, but actually the exact opposite. They want to keep him alive, but his perception is what matters; that is his reality and he is hurt by it. What makes it tougher is that Xander tries to change himself to fit in and “be cool”. He manages to find a girl who is interested in cars, only for him to realize he has no interest and can’t feign it even to impress the pretty girl he’s just met. I imagine this would be like me getting into football, just to impress someone. On top of that, he tries to join in with the wrong crowd (alright, he’s more bullied into it, but he doesn’t fight back enough to get out of it.) It’s not until the end of the episode when Xander actually looks death in the face and stands there that he sees what he is made of. But I have to question how much of that is really courage and how much depression; perhaps we can’t say. It could be that Xander was willing to die since his friends have all but abandoned him and he doesn’t even feel special enough to get the girls. In the mind of a teenage guy, I imagine this would weigh very heavily indeed on his mind. Whatever the reason, the story packs a wallop.
That’s not to say it’s not also immensely fun. The threat of another hellmouth opening is going on in the background throughout the story but it really is all background! We do see bits and pieces of it but, as Willow says, “no one will ever know what we did.” She doesn’t just mean in Sunnydale, but she’s talking about the audience too. And maybe that’s ok, because this story is about the smaller battle that Xander has to face to come out as a stronger person. I would consider the possibility of this series doing another episode to show what was going on at the same time, but I think that takes away from the impact of this story, so I think this will be all we see of it. I will tell you, I thought this was going to be an exercise in how to do an A/B plot where the bomb would be used to accidentally kill the demon, but nothing comes of it. Instead a far smaller plot (let’s call it C-plot) turns up as Oz, in werewolf form, leaps on the last of the zombie boys! Well done, Oz!
Also, there are a handful of great lines like Willow mentioning she brought marshmallows to roast over demon corpses. “Occasionally I’m callous and strange.” But my favorite was Xander’s, “Did I mention that I’m having a very strange night?” Xander gets the pretty girl, albeit not the one any of us would have expected, but I was happy for him at least. (Although perhaps a bit jealous of the actor who has now been with Cordelia and Faith…) The zombie who emerges from the ground with a “dudes!” made me laugh at the absurdity of it. But the funniest moment was having zombie Bob (I think it was Bob) get his head lopped off by a mailbox as Xander is interrogating him.
Overall this may not be the best episode of the series but it did what the series is good at: it told a story and had a message behind it. Although the more I think of it, the more I realize Xander is not the Zeppo. I can’t see Zeppo getting with Cordelia, Willow, or Faith, let alone all three of them. I just feel bad because none of them are any good for Xander. I guess he just likes all the bad girls… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Bad Girls