“Testosterone is a great equalizer. It turns all men into morons.!”
Friends, we need to talk about Xander. This week brings us the second Xander-centric episode in the 1st season (the other being Teacher’s Pet).
I have to admit I’m not the biggest Xander fan girl. There’s always something about him that has put me off, a sort of buried resentment of Buffy and her Slayerness that bubbles up in incredibly ugly ways. Lots of people on this show do a lot of truly terrible things and most of them end up punished for them in various ways. Willow, for instance, basically spends the entirety of season 7 being punished for and trying to make up for the events at the end of season 6. Angel and Spike both must shoulder the burden of their souls, re-realized after hundreds of years of murderous and depraved acts. Xander doesn’t commit atrocities on the level of, say, what happened to Warren, but he frequently betrays Buffy in ways that he always manages to weasel out of. I haven’t quite figured out if this is intentional on the writers’ part or a side effect of dropped plot lines, but I have to assume that it’s mostly on purpose.
Xander’s betrayals are all rooted in his deep insecurities. He’s a low-totem person at the school, he’s a sidekick to a girl, he’s thwarted in love, and he can’t quite square these facts with his desire to be.. Be what? More masculine? Stronger? A leader? It’s a bit of all those things. This episode gives us a glimpse at what Xander would be like if he were a bit more (ok, a lot more) of those things and it isn’t pretty.
For once we don’t open up The Next Morning at School, because the sophomore class is on a field trip to the Sunnydale Zoo. There’s a pack of bullies roaming around causing problems, preying on the socially defenseless, and taking cheap shots at Buffy. They’re just lucky she’s a hero, because someone like Faith would have used their superpowers to shove their taunts right up their late 90s clad backsides. The gang sees them leading another student into the off-limits hyena cage. Since the situation doesn’t involve slaying, as Xander points out, he trots off after them to intervene.
While confronting the bullies and arguing in front of the hyenas, a weird mystical moment passes between them. The bullies’ ““ and Xander’s – eyes glow bright yellow and they erupt into a chorus of hyena like cackling”¦
TNMAS, Xander is behaving strangely. His jokes are biting and cruel. He teases Willow about her crush on him and reduces her to tears. He’s hanging out with the bullies. During a gym class game of dodgeball, Xander and his pack (get it? get it?) pick off all the weakest players first until only Buffy remains on the opposing side. And rather than having to pit themselves against another predator, they turn on the weakest member of their own team.
Unsurprisingly, Buffy suspects something supernatural is going on. Giles pooh-poohs her theory, even though he’s consistently wrong about second guessing Buffy’s instincts (see: basically the entire series for evidence) and gives a version of “˜that’s what growing up is like speech’. Flavor: Teenage Aged Boys are Jerks.
Giles: “Testosterone is a great equalizer. It turns all men into morons.”
The thing is, Giles isn’t entirely wrong. There’s definitely an undercurrent in the episode that suggests Xander could actually be the jackass he’s acting like. In the Buffyverse, we rarely see anyone mind controlled, be-spelled, or tricked into doing things they might not actually do anyway. They may get the strength or charisma to boost their behavior (see: The Trio), but they are still themselves at the core. This isn’t something that’s readily apparently if you’re just coming into the series and watching it for the first time ““ it’s easy enough to read Xander as be-spelled. But between certain comments made in this episode and the themes over the run of the show, I can only conclude that there is a real deep well of jerkdom buried in Xander. The hyena spirit is just letting it run loose.
However, after it is discovered that the bullies have killed and eaten the piglet that is the school mascot, Giles is forced to agree that Buffy might be right about the hyena possession. She runs off to find Xander while Willow and Giles try to see what they can find out.
Buffy finds Xander no problem, but it’s not a pleasant encounter. He’s in full on predator mode. His season-long crush on Buffy comes to an ugly head as Xander decides he’s not going to take no for an answer anymore. Buffy likes dangerous guys, he says, and now he’s a dangerous guy. Buffy hits him with a desk.
While Buffy is having it out with one of her best friends, the pack is keeping themselves busy: they eat the school principal.
No, no, let’s linger on that for a moment, because this is Sunnydale High. A group of students eat the principal.
Good-bye, Principal Flootie. We barely knew you.
Buffy locks unconscious Xander up in the cage in the library and leaves Willow as his guard. She and Giles run off to the zoo to talk to the hyena keeper and see what they can find out. Xander comes to and immediately tries to manipulate Willow into letting him out, but Willow, as usual, is too smart to fall for it. No matter ““ Xander’s pack will break him out. And then, for a lark, they hunt Willow through the halls of the high school.
Buffy gets back in time to avert the crisis ““ I’m pretty sure Just-In-Timeness is one of her superpowers. After running the pack off, she needs to go out and find them again, in order to lure them back to the hyena pit at the zoo. Which is no problem ““ Buffy knows what Xander wants. After this episode, everyone knows what ““ and who ““ Xander wants.
Giles, Willow, and the hyena keeper prepare a ceremony that should transfer the animal spirits out of the jerky teenagers and back into the animals. Or would, if the hyena keeper wasn’t actually interested in that power for himself and pretty irritated that a group of school kids managed to steal it in the first place. Down goes Giles with a bump to the noggin. Tied up goes Willow, who quickly figures out that she’s not a fake sacrifice but a real one. In comes Buffy, with the pack hot on her heals.
The zoo keeper manages to capture the animal spirit, but his victory is short lived ““ Buffy throws him into the hyena pit, and they take care of the rest.
Everything is back to normal TNMAS, and Willow and Buffy forgive Xander for everything he did, since he wasn’t “himself” over the last few days. Heck, Xander can’t even remember what happened!
After the girls walk away, Giles notes that memory loss isn’t usually listed as a side effect of animal possession. Xander begs him to keep his secret, and thus beings the long line of Things Xander Does and Gets Away With. Just wait until the end of season 2, my friends. Or that thing that happens in season 6. Or that other thing that happens in season 6. You’ll see.