Jul 9 2012 2:00pm

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Zep Zep Hooray! We Cheer for Xander Harris

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch of The Zeppo

Cold open on a monster hunt: Willow and Giles working magic, Faith and Buffy kicking demoness ass, and Xander picking himself off the cave floor afterward. The gang unanimously declares that he’s way too fragile for all this crazy slayage, and needs to start keeping himself fray adjacent (one of my favorite Buffy phrases ever) if he’d prefer to not, you know, die.

Next day, Xander’s attempting to blend with his fellow students when he pisses off the local bully, Jack O’Toole. He wimps out, and one humiliation segues neatly into the next as Cordelia sees the whole thing and takes the opportunity to mock. She points out that of all the Scoobies, Xander is the one with no paranormal bonus abilities. She does this math by excluding herself, but even so this sends Xander on a quest to find a thing, anything, to make himself cool.

Most Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes have two storylines on the go, and in any other episode, the Sisterhood of Jhe and their pursuit of the latest Apocalypse would be front and center. But “The Zeppo” neatly mocks the conventions the show has been setting up for two-plus seasons, giving us hilarious little glimpses into a standard Buffy end-of-the-world battle while making the A storyline all about Xander.

Excluded from the fight against the Jhe Sisters, Xander finds himself at the center of his own little Hellmouth plot: Jack raises a bunch of his dead friends, who engineer a scheme to blow up the high school.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch of The Zeppo

The evil gang is like gum on Xander’s shoe: no matter how many times he tries to lose them by flinging himself at the locked gates of the current Scooby mission, he keeps getting thrown back into their scabrous, undead arms. He finds Giles in the graveyard, for example. Does Giles need help? The answer’s an affable negative.

Then he finds Faith... okay, we all remember Faith does want help, if only momentarily. She’s a woman with needs, however fleeting. (Say goodbye to your virginity, Xander—I hope you weren’t using it for anything much. At least now the praying mantis ladies won’t want you!)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch of The Zeppo

The comic peak of it all comes when Xander turns to Buffy for help with the deadite BFFs, only to find her in the midst of another big World-Breaking Love Crisis™with Angel, complete with romantic soundtrack. They definitely don’t want his assistance, and they’re busy besides. Like it or not, Xander realizes, he’s going to have to take care of the junior baddies himself.

It’s easy to dismiss a story like “The Zeppo” as a lighthearted comic romp, a bit of a lift before Wesley arrives in Sunnydale on a mission to suck the fun out of everything (yes, that is a Freaky Friday quote) and Faith defects to Team Serpent. It is all of that. It’s funny, and it’s a good break in tone from the heavy-duty pain and woe. . . but it’s also in this episode that Xander truly cements his role as the unsung hero of the Scoobies.

There’s good and bad in this solidification. In one sense, he takes a step away from being the crucial member of the support squad—the guy who makes Angel pursue Buffy on her date with the Master, prophecy be damned, the guy who stands up to people far more powerful than he is. Now he’s on the road to being the guy who eats bugs and gets the funny syphillis.

It’s not that Xander is diminishing, or even failing to grow—his defeat of Jack and the others proves that handily—it’s just that the others are growing so much faster. Willow is building up her magical abilities, and Buffy is gaining in experience and leadership skills. With Faith and Angel covering the combat, the team now has three supersoldiers. If the Hellmouth didn’t have limitless reserves of evil to throw at them, they might eventually have to take up late night traffic patrol.

But, luckily (or maybe not) Sunnydale is nothing short of a war zone, with more than enough badness for two explosive showdowns in one night. Xander’s a good soldier and he does what he always does—he steps up. His confrontation with Jack over the bomb in the high school basement reveals the cool he couldn’t see in himself earlier. It also shows he has accepted that the most likely outcome for him, if things don’t change, is a gruesome and painful death.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch of The Zeppo

Since the gang, by keeping him fray-adjacent for a night, is essentially offering him an opportunity to quit the fight entirely, one could argue that what happens in “The Zeppo” is that Xander, having survived his first tour of duty, has now signed up for life.

Then there’s the other big upside of Xander’s emotional journey in this episode: once it’s over, he’s at peace with himself. He has figured out who he is, how he fits, and why he matters. He doesn’t need the car or any other form of external validation anymore. We see him grin at Cordelia and walk away from her taunting, untroubled. True, there will be lapses later, and moments of doubt and even disastrous weddings—he is human, after all—but overall this character becomes ever more certain of himself as the battle for Sunnydale grinds on.

And it’s a good thing he does! Some of you have talked about Xander getting no respect for his world-saving accomplishments. I’m not sure it isn’t more a matter of his having cred, initially, that he lost as the others thought they’d grown beyond him. The group’s affection for him is constant, but as the seasons unfold, Xander seems to become less able than they to fight their various battles. So they all kind of miss the fact that he’s there, showing up, doing what’s needed and not looking for applause, week after week after week.

Which is how a lot of families work, isn’t it?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch of The Zeppo


Moving on: Bad Girls and Consequences

A.M. Dellamonica has two short stories up here First up: an urban fantasy about a baby werewolf, “The Cage” which made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. Her second story here is called “Among the Silvering Herd.” In October, watch for a novelette, “Wild Things,” that ties into the world of her award winning novel Indigo Springs and its sequel, Blue Magic.

Ken Neth
1. neth
I've been waiting for you to get to this episode since this whole re-watch began. It's my favorite of the series by a good margin (even though I'm generally no better than luke warm about Xander). It's comic genius - an existential exploration where Rosancrantz and Guildenstern are Dead meets American Grafitti. Very nearly a perfect episode in a great series.
Chris L
2. Chris L
Much later in the series, towards the end of season 7 (I can't remember which episode, but I think it might be the series finale?) Xander remarks to Dawn that he is basically OK standing in the shadows of his more powerful friends, doing the little things that need to be done and not getting the recognition, because he knows he is still making a difference and that his friends do care for him and want him involved. Basically, us little people are here supporting the heros to get the job done, because it isn't about the fame and fortune, its about keeping the world going in the face of impossible odds. I always have liked that moment of self-awareness.
Sarah Holland
3. SarahHolland
The romantic soundtrack! Just for that scene alone, this episodes marks among the greats.
Alyx Dellamonica
4. AMDellamonica
Neth, I agree--there's not a thing wrong with "The Zeppo, and it holds up beautifully on rewatch.

Chris--true! And this is where he really comes to terms with that understanding of his role. (But as a Xander Fan, I want a Xander parade!!)
Chris L
5. Lsana
Here's the thing about the Scoobies: the reason that they were able to make such a powerful difference to Buffy isn't because of mad fighting skills or magic or even knowledege and research. It was just the fact that they were there, that they were standing by Buffy, and no matter what crap hit the fan, she didn't have to go through it alone. Xander Harris exemplifies that "standing by." He's the friend none of us deserve but a few of us are lucky to have none the less.


I was thinking about that scene with Dawn as well. That was one of Xander's best moments in the series. Not only accepting his own place, but offering some words of encouragement for someone in the same situation. Buffy might get too busy for her friends and her sister (occupational hazard, comes with the job of saving the world), but Xander won't.
Chris L
6. Doctor Thanatos
Here's my favorite thing about this episode: The A Team is making their usual corny melodramatic announcements about "the end of the world" and "worst apocalypse ever" etc etc and it's now the background; we can appreciate how goofy it sounds when it's not the foreground story. And that makes Xander's perspective all the more interesting, since he's the guy who sits and listens to that goo every week and has to keep a straight face.


It reminds me of scenes in season V (which I'm rewatching currently) when Robo-Buffy says all the typical Buffy lines but in a monotone so it sounds hokey or Spike is trying to explain things to the group that they can't remember and they go into typical Buffy-Research mode trying to figure out what he's just told them. Most shows would not poke fun at their own conventions to this degree and that's part of why I love it.


Plus any reference to Zeppo is wonderful, even if I do have to keep explaining to my younger colleagues and Scoobiphiles who Zeppo was...
Chris L
7. Gardner Dozois
One of the best episodes. Keeping the World-Ending Apocalpyse in the background and using the foreground Xander line to satirize it is a stroke of genius. Plus, as I've said before, this really should count as one of the times when Xander saves the world, since if he hadn't kept them from setting off the bomb in the basement, the Scoobies above would have been killed, and the Hellmouth would have opened.

And Xander finally gets laid (yay?). You never really see Faith having any romantic attachments or romantic/bedroom scenes in either the rest of BUFFY or ANGEL (except the time she took over Buffy's body), but her approach to such must be quite, er, direct--later, when Anya comes on to him by basically taking all her clothes off and casually saying the equivilent of "Let's do it," he says that her approach is STILL more romantic than Faith's.

I always thought that Xander was by far the bravest of all the Scoobies, even including Buffy herself, because he never hesitated in going up against beings immensely more powerful and dangerous than himself in mortal combat, even though he had no superpowers or magical abilities or special fighting skills, and was in much more danger of getting killed during these fights than any of the others. And even though he often got the shit kicked out of him during these encounters, that wouldn't stop him from going up against such antagonists the NEXT night.
Chris L
8. Gardner Dozois
Plus, Xander's the only one of the group who would have been brave enough to literally go to Hell to save Buffy. I can't see even Giles doing that, and even Angel was scared to do it, and pretty much had to be shamed and bullied by Xander into attempting it.
Chris Long
9. radynski
"The boy" has clocked more field time than all of you combined.
He's part of the unit.
Chris L
10. JohnnyMac
Thank you for the most excellent tribute to Xander, the guy who keeps demonstrating that you do not need to be a superhero to be a hero.
john mullen
11. johntheirishmongol
I really like this episode a lot. The reverse plot was a great change and centering it on Xander was good plotting. Plus, it shows his growth as a person from start to end of episode and you don't often get that in any episode. The walkaway from Cordy at the end was perfect.
Chris L
12. gewbook
The Zeppo is one of my favorite episodes. Xander has some truly wonderful moments that are understated in the grand scheme of the series that I just love and this is one of them. The others are season 5 when he sets Buffy straight about how messy love can be and then declares himself to Anya "just to be clear." And then the season 7 moment with Dawn that was mentioned above.

I am in season 6 in my own personal re-watch and I have to say that this time around I have noticed Xander gradually developing fighting skills that work for him because he is unwilling to stay fray-adjacent. As you move through the series more of Xander's punches land on bad guys and more of his personal fighting tactics are effective as he figures out how to work with what he's got. Hooray for Xander!
Alyx Dellamonica
13. AMDellamonica
Thanatos, you're up to S5! And Gewbook, S6! It's neat to have you guys looking back at those of us inching through earlier stuff.

Gardner, I'm with you on this counting as world-save-age. I defy anyone to interpret it differently!

Radynsky, "He's part of the unit" somehow sounds dirty when taken out of context.
Chris L
14. Chris L
People do seem to forget that Xander does end up with some psuedo-military training, most of which he retains, after the Halloween hijinks where everyone becomes what they are dressed as, which I think happened in Season 2(?). So he does know stuff, but the writers only reminded us of it when it was convenient to the plot line in any given episode.
Chris L
15. Gardner Dozois
Yes, they were very inconsistant about him remembering his pseudo-military "training." You'd think that the martial arts training that Soldier Boy probably got would come in handy during his confrontation with the switchblade-weilding punk in this very episode.

I always wondered why, during this period and even later, they always sent him out without a weapon to fistfight with vampires and demons. If they'd at least given him an ax--easy to use without much training, and effective if you're strong and have some weight to put behind a blow, both of which would apply to Xander--he might have been actually able to contribute to defeating the enemy rather than just getting the shit beaten out of him every time. To say nothing of more modern weapons, which he ought to be checked out on the use of with his Soldier Boy memories. Why not give the physically least-formidable member of the team a flame-thrower, for instance, which would allow him to make a real contribution, especially against vampires?

For that matter, Giles often goes up against vampires and demons barehanded, in spite of having a catche of old-style edged weapons which he presumeably knows how to use, since he's supposed to be teaching Buffy how to use them.

One of my pet peeves with the show.
Chris L
16. Sian
I love The Zeppo and Xander for all the usual reasons, but I really like the idea you present that he wasn't underappreciated to begin with, he just gradual got left behind or taken for granted. I never thought of it that way before, but I think I agree.

Military training - he only uses it in season 2 against the Judge, when it's handy, and then at some point later on he says that it all faded. Does he ever use it again, other than against the Judge? Because I always figure it's gone by season 3.
Chris L
17. Gardner Dozois
He seems to reference it again during a conversation with Riley toward the end of the Initative arc, when they're discussing military weapons. Other than that, not a lot, though.

By this logic, of course, that the spell gave him all this military knowledge, Buffy should know all about what it's like to be a noblewoman from a few hundred years back, and Willow should know everything there is to know about being a ghost.
Emma Rosloff
18. emmarosloff
The overall self-awareness of Joss Whedon's shows is a large part of what keeps me coming back for more, in both Buffy and Angel. I love seeing the world from Xander's perspective -- he's our connection to the Buffyverse. Like us, he has the enthusiasm, the willingness to engage in the thrill ride of this fantastical world, but he lacks the magical skillset, and it would be remiss on the writers' part not to have the other characters acknowledge this at some point. I'm glad they did, and what a hilarious way to address it. 'The Zeppo' is one of my favorites of the season, for sure... but there's so much good in the series... it's probably still in the top 10 for me.

Xander has become a liability at this point, that is... until he proves his worth (and the worth of the audience, in caring), the worth he's had all along. 'The Heart', a term they touch on at various points (and the role that Cordelia and then Fred serves in Angel). He's not so much a moral compass (although he plays that role too, at times) as he is an emotional one... and that can be very grounding for the other characters; sometimes it's the only thing preventing them from going off the deep end (case and point -- Dark Willow). Let's face it, when the world is ending, every little bit counts; and sometimes it's the littlest bits that count the most.

Yes, his conversation with Dawn popped into my head -- 'You're not special, you're extraordinary'. To which I say, hell yes, because it's one thing to throw yourself into mortal peril when you're more or less equipped to deal (and in Buffy's case, it's your very cut and dry lot in life)... it's quite another when you're not. Xander's coolness in the basment of the school is priceless -- it could all end, and yet, he's perfectly calm. He's conquered his fears; all of them, even if for just that moment... and it's enough to intimidate the hell out of the bully who planted the bomb. Xander had no guarantee... just a gut feeling, a gamble... and it saved them all. Sure, the Scoobies are busy dispatching a nasty world-ending cult, but without Xander, it would've been for nothing. And in the end, he doesn't even bother to mention it, because that's not what's important. It's about getting the job done, and living to see another day. Suddenly, Cordelia's snottiness is meaningless -- he's still breathing, and he did good, and his friends are safe. So he can smile, and walk away, and let bygones be bygones.

As always, good show.
Alyx Dellamonica
19. AMDellamonica
Mmmm, Emma--so good to hear your thoughts! This is a great analysis.

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