[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer | Director: Bruce Seth Green | Aired: 04/07/1997]
“The Pack” is an odd little piece that is all over the place in terms of quality. There are some moments of gutsiness, moments of cowardice, moments baked in pure cliché, and it’s all coated in the episodic amnesia that is Season 1. In some ways the episode reminds me of “Witch” [1×03] in that it tells a stand-alone story that is firmly rooted in the “high school is hell” mode of making broad statements about the high school experience rather than telling its story through the characters we care about. The episode almost makes it work by having Xander be among the possessed, but it’s all thrown away by the end of the episode. Enough teasing, though — let’s get into the meat of this story. (Sorry for that! ;))
The central point of “The Pack” is in exposing the dark side of social cliques. The social pack isolates and preys on the weak and then ‘devours’ them, which is made literal in Sunnydale thanks to the Hellmouth. This concept is set up in the early sequence where a group we’ve never seen before picks on another guy we’ve never seen before, and it is all written and directed in the most clichéd way imaginable. Fortunately, the episode’s execution of this concept becomes a bit better when filtered through a possessed Xander and his interactions with Buffy and Willow. When Xander lashes out at Willow we see an example of how painful it can be to have a long-time friend turn on you in an instant – something that can actually happen during those teen years, albeit generally not due to hyena possession. The approach “The Pack” uses to make its point, though, is representative of a larger problem that plagues the season (more on this in a moment).
After Xander has done his damage to Willow he moves onto Buffy, but he’s not looking to hurt her emotionally – he’s looking for something a lot more physical. One interesting bit of information to come out this is that, at least on some level, Xander sees Buffy as liking men that are “dangerous and mean, right? Like Angel, your mystery guy. Well, guess who just got mean.” While I can see why Xander might come to this conclusion when looking at Angel, Season 1’s lack of memory strikes again with Xander acting like Owen, from “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05], never existed. In Owen we have some evidence to support that Buffy can also like a non-threatening guy with a softer personality (and perhaps in some ways, a precursor to Riley). I do think Buffy likes men who have a bit of mystery about them, but that doesn’t necessitate danger or cruelty.
Things get interesting – in the moment — when the pack, sans Xander, actually eat Principal Flutie, while Xander makes an attempt at sexually assault on Buffy, both of which combine to make for quite the shocking sequence – particularly for this season. I very much appreciate the episode’s guts in even going there, but sadly that appreciation gets diluted all-too quickly by the lack of follow-through. Xander’s assault is promptly forgotten by episode’s end, and is never brought up again despite being fertile ground for both character insight and exploration. Principal Flutie’s gruesome demise is also pretty washed over in the episodes that follow, with only jokes about it down the road. These moments seem impressive in the moment, but they lack the emotional resonance that could elevate them to the level of pathos – something Buffy will eventually thrive on. Not taking advantage of these moments is not the only problem of this kind in “The Pack:” how about there being absolutely no parallel drawn between the possessed students and Cordelia’s often cruel ‘pack?’
To put the final punctuation on my feelings regarding “The Pack,” I’ll refer to the giant slo-mo scene that focuses on the possessed pack. This is a unique scene, to be sure, but it’s allowed to continue going on for way too long, to the point of absurdity. The choice of music here only adds to the problem, as it is trying way too hard to be edgy, and instead ends up coming across as incredibly pretentious. It’s a bizarre sequence that in the grand scheme of things just doesn’t end up giving me anything to chew on other than a passing “weird.”
In the end it’s a bit difficult to sum up “The Pack.” It’s a mixed bag, but what’s ultimately damning is – like so much of Season 1 – its irrelevance. There are some good ideas thrown around and even a few individually compelling scenes, all of which keep the episode interesting to watch most of the time. Sadly, though, there’s just not much else going on. The central theme — while relatable in a broad sense – doesn’t hold up too well in terms of depth and character relevance.
“The Pack” handles itself reasonably as a stand-alone story (although I prefer “Witch” [1×03] in this regard), but beyond that there’s just not much there to care about. When events like these don’t have follow-up consequences and/or reflection they lose the ability to resonate with me, and then all we’re left with is an uneven one-off. The jokey ‘everything is back to normal’ tone at the end of the episode sums up that dissatisfaction better than anything I could possibly write. “The Pack” simply suffers from too many missed opportunities, a darker tone that isn’t earned (see “Passion” [2×17] and its place within Season 2 for the opposite), and very little thematic relevance. If the same basic concept was tossed into the more complex Season 2 landscape, then I think we’d be looking at an overall much better episode. Good concept; poor setup and follow-through.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Nicholas Brendon played the possession quite well; kudos to him.
+ Creepy dodge ball sequence; loved the teacher getting uncomfortably excited over it.
+ Willow baiting a possessed Xander into showing her if any of the real Xander is in there. Thankfully she’s not dumb enough to fall for his obvious ruse.
+ Xander’s behavior while possessed by a demonic spirit does bring up some interesting questions about how much we should hold Xander accountable. This becomes an important line of thought considering the spotlight it will be given in “Angel” [1×07], and will play an important role in the show at large (e.g. with Angel, Spike, and Anya, for starters).
– The early bullying scenes are kind of painful: way too obvious and forced.
– Yet another episode plagued by key roles for one or more annoying students that we’ve never seen before, and will never see again. If only Jonathan had been the one being picked on…
* Buffy wearing Angel’s leather jacket (from “Teacher’s Pet” [1×04]) when she goes to the Bronze is a wonderfully subtle reminder of what’s on her mind (besides the crisis of the week, of course).
* Willow tells Xander that studying is important if he doesn’t want to end up “the guy at the pizza place that sweeps the floor.” While not quite janitor work, Xander does end up working as a pizza delivery guy in Season 4 while his friends are off at university.