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.
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!)
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.
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?
Moving on: Bad Girls and Consequences
A.M. Dellamonica has two short stories up here onTor.com. 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.