[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Dan Vebber | Director: James Whitmore, Jr. | Aired: 01/26/1999]
In one of the most unique episodes of the entire series things that are normally important to the show are made meaningless. Most episodes of BtVS and television in general adopt a standard A-B plot scheme (sometimes it’s A-B-C). The A plot is always the focus of the episode; the most important thing. The B plot is usually some small character issue that’s relegated to the background. It seems obvious that the A plot of this episode is going to be this pending apocalypse, but very quickly we start to notice that something is very wrong and it appears to be the fault of the director. The apocalypse thread isn’t getting the screen time it would normally warrant and instead the entire episode is about Xander! It turns out the A plot is Xander’s journey for self confidence and the B plot is an apocalypse via the hellmouth. This is weird and twisted stuff which will make for a different review. Instead of hitting on specifics I think I’m just going to let my thoughts flow as they come and see what happens.
There’s one scene in particular which sums up the entire episode, and I’m not sure yet if it sums it up in a positive or a negative way. This moment is when we jump in the middle of a melodramatic moment between Buffy and Angel crying about death and impending doom. Then Xander walks in, asks if he can help, then walks off and lets the melodrama continue. I think the intent is to let the audience mock and laugh at all the Buffy and Angel angst we’ve had to endure this season. While this is amusing to me on some level I kind of feel awkward about mocking what the show’s like some of the time.
I think there’s an important distinction I must make between this kind of Buffy and Angel angst and the bunch we usually see. In this episode, we come into the middle of the melodrama. We don’t know what’s going on, we don’t understand their motivation for feeling as dire as they do, so there’s no way we can sympathise with them. This gives the viewers of the show a chance to stand back from the usual fare and get a genuine chuckle at their angst. I don’t think I need to feel bad about laughing at Buffy and Angel here. If I dropped into the middle of a big sequence of Romeo and Juliet without any explanation of their motivations, I can be assured that I’d probably find it equally ridiculous and laughable.
So I think with that distinction better laid out I can appreciate this episode more. We somehow are able to ‘mock’ the series without actually mocking it. That takes some careful writing and directing to pull off, so kudos to writer Dan Vebber and director James Whitmore Jr. Fortunately, the fun ‘mocking’ ploy isn’t even the core of the episode. What we also get is so much character development for Xander that the impact won’t fully sink in for many years to come.
While I really enjoyed seeing Xander’s personal adventure I think it still could have been done a lot better. Having reanimated corpses be the catalyst for this ride is ultimately too corny to work. There are some genuinely amusing lines, sure, but the added corniness is not necessary to get the point across. I like what happened with Jack before the corpse stuff started and the ending bomb scene could have still been pulled off had Jack been human. This is the biggest mistake of the episode.
Early on Xander tries to convince Buffy and the gang that he’s useful in their weekly demon skirmishes. He obviously doesn’t do a very good job because everyone agrees to keep Xander out of the fighting for a while. The next day Cordelia amusingly lets her fury loose on him in a way that reminds us of her S1 days. She obviously has personal motivation to be snarky with him for what he did to her. Buffy later sends Xander to buy donuts for the group and that doesn’t help matters either.
All of this leads Xander on a mission to discover what the “essence of cool” is. His first subject is Oz, who as Xander points out, is “more or less ‘cool’.” Oz doesn’t seem to be able to provide Xander with any concrete answers, but Xander does come to the proposal that being cool means having a ‘thing;’ something that people can identify you with. Fast forward a bit and now we see “car guy” Xander. He thinks that maybe this stylish old car will make him ‘cool.’ Well, in some ways it does. Right away an attractive blond girl comes onto him and wants to go riding around in the car. He ends up taking her to the Bronze where he then sits there bored out of his mind. Xander gets a taste of being ‘cool’ and discovers he doesn’t like it at all. He is so bored of hanging out with a ‘cool’ person that he even jumps up in excitement when Angel walks in and wants his company!
After some crazy antics with some reanimated corpses Xander eventually picks Faith up after a fight and they head off to her apartment. This is where Faith’s logic kicks in: fight with no kill leads to sex. So she comes onto Xander and he doesn’t do much to resist. I must admit that I’m a bit surprised Xander would have sex with someone he doesn’t know very well. Sure he got excited about her stories about being nude and rassling aligators in “Faith, Hope, and Trick” [3×03] , but this is a big jump from that. We saw Oz show sexual restraint with Willow in “Amends” [3×10] , but I guess Xander’s the type who will have sex with just about any girl who jumps on his lap and isn’t under a spell. I can’t say I respect him for that but it does make for some amusing future storylines (Anya in S4 for example).
Xander learns things about himself and he has a growing confidence within, but it takes him a long while to fully seize that confidence and lets it rise to the forefront. We see this again and again from this episode to “The Replacement” [5×03] to “Hell’s Bells” [6×16] . Xander shows a moment of self confidence here when he confronts Jack in the basement of the school and gets him to defuse the bomb. He shows even more maturity when he doesn’t feel the need to tell the Scooby Gang what he did and again when he lets Cordelia’s snarky comments go without a response. It’s important to realize that this is just a temporary attitude, at least in this episode. People don’t change overnight, it takes time and many reminders before we finally “get it.” This is what happens to Xander throughout the series as he slowly does ‘get it.’ I feel that by S7 he finally begins to grab a hold of his life and lets that confidence he’s always had inside him finally play a more prominent role in his personality. Lets not forget that by series end he’s still only in his early twenties. Buffy’s cookie dough speech in “Chosen” [7×22] applies not just to her but to all the main characters.
This is a unique episode that dances on some very fine lines and comes out mostly successful. I’m not a fan of the reanimated corpses plot thread but everything else ranging from the A and B plot swap and Xander’s moments of self confidence all sit well with me. On top of all that there are some fantastic lines given to Xander which constitute some of his best in the entire series.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Willow doing spells to help the gang fight.
+ The episode essentially pushes the apocalypse storyline to the background.
+ Oz eating Jack at the end and then being “oddly full” the next morning.
+ The werewolf howl.