Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “The Pack”

Anthony Stewart Head has never gotten the credit he deserves for these early Buffy episodes. In an excellent AV Club interview, James Marsters praised him for being able to be the infodump guy and make it interesting, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since. I can’t imagine anyone else creating Giles the way he did, from his dry enthusiasm when he first meets Buffy to the moment with Ben in “The Gift” to the moment he walks away from the Scoobies in the empty hallway in “Chosen.” Head built layers on this character with the slightest inflection, as when he has to tell Buffy what happened to Principal Flutie:

“They, uh. Ate him.”

It doesn’t look like much, does it? Three words and an “uh.” But it’s Giles. It says so much.

And in its own very first-season way, “The Pack” is so Buffy. The show didn’t really excel until it stepped out of the “make a high school thing monstrous” zone, but these early episodes do serve as a kind of worldbuilding baseline. You never know what you’re dealing with in Sunnydale. It might just be Cordelia—or it might be a gang of apparent 30-year-olds in the most astonishing ‘90s fashion, possessed by hyena spirits and ready for lunch.

Season 1, Episode 6, “The Pack
Written by: Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer
Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: Monday, April 7, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, April 7, 2017
Excuse for late post: FAMILY

“I can’t believe you of all people are trying to Scully me.”

What happens: On a field trip to the zoo, Xander and a gaggle of mean kids stumble into the closed-off hyena enclosure and get possessed by a nasty spirit that makes them aggressive and, uh, hungry. Buffy’s certainty that Xander is not acting normal is dismissed by Giles, who’s like, “Come on, he’s a high school boy, of course he’s a dick,” which is a very believable response, if a problematic one. (See also: Emily Asher-Perrin’s excellent essay about horror tropes and believing women.)

I wish, oddly, that the random geeks and jerks who appear in these episodes were ever seen again—that Buffy had a constant cast of bit players, to make it more like school. But neither poor picked-on Lance nor the jerk gang will ever be seen again (on this show, anyway).

But they aren’t really the point. They’re just a framework for this week’s real focus: Asshole Xander. I pretty much always think Xander is an asshole on some level, but “The Pack” ups the stakes while playing with the idea of losing your friend to another social group. In this case, it’s a possessed-by-hyena spirits social group that prefers its meat super rare.

In case we had missed the point that Xander is a hormone-driven obnoxious teenage boy, there’s a scene in the Bronze where Willow—poor, put upon Willow—says “He makes my head go tingly.” Love is blind and makes smart people do dumb things. Hyena possession, on the other hand, makes dudes sniff women a lot, stare intensely at people, and say all their most heartless thoughts. The scene where Xander tells Willow that he’s been different because his feelings are changing, and then they’re his feelings about math class, is so heavy handed, so cruel, and so effective.

Another thing I find surprisingly effective in this silly episode with its green hyena eye-beams and terrible music is how awful Xander is. Nicholas Brendan has the eyebrows to play a villain, and gives Xander this weird performative overconfidence that comes from really having none. Further supporting my Whedon-thinks-teenage-boys-are-the-worst theory, Giles says, “Testosterone is a great equalizer. It turns all men into morons.”

But there are morons and there are cruel jerks, and if regular Xander is the first, Asshole Xander is the second, and Buffy knows it. Behind all the cheesy trappings, there’s a really important moment in this episode: Buffy trying to convince Giles, the male embodiment of the slayer establishment, that a shitty dude is truly a problem, not just another shitty dude.

She knows the difference; she affectionately tolerates Xander’s personal failings because they’re friends, and friends aren’t perfect. This, however, is different, and she needs Giles to believe her. But this is only episode six, and just last week Buffy wanted to go on a date instead of deal with a prophecy, and he’s skeptical, still, that she knows what she’s talking about. This problem, from Giles’ perspective, isn’t supernatural. It’s hormonal.

Listen to your slayer, Giles.

But he doesn’t, not really, not until Willow—science girl—presents him with more convincing evidence. Hubert the mascot pig has been eaten. And Principal Flutie, trying so gently to be the voice of authority, is next.

At least Xander doesn’t help eat the principal, but the reason why is not exactly reassuring: He was busy threatening Buffy in one of the early seasons’ most rapey scenes. He thinks she wants someone dangerous and mean, like Angel. (What does he actually know about Angel?) I hate this scene a lot, but there is relief in it, too, because it’s Buffy. Xander, even Asshole Xander, is not really a threat, not to her. She could destroy him, and all his actions are doing, in her eyes, is proving that something is very wrong. Later, when she turns this aggression against him—”Come on. You know what you want.”—it’s something she’d say to a real villain. It’s chilling, and it’s so very Buffy.

Willow gets her proof, too, when she volunteers to keep an eye on unconscious Xander while Buffy and Giles go back to the zoo to talk to the zookeeper. This scene is also important, because it’s a reminder of how smart Willow is, how she can be hurting and still think her way through a situation. Xander tries to sweet-talk her, to make everything Buffy’s fault, to claim he wants her, and even though I so want her to tell him off for the way he treated her earlier, I love the way she gets just close enough for him to snap. And when he does, she just says, calmly, “Now I know.” It was an experiment. The results were … illuminating.

The climax of the episode is less so. This is the first but hardly the last time a threat on Buffy comes from Africa, and the ugly, racist cliche of this never gets any less ugly. (Specifying that this problem comes from the Maasai does not exactly help.) You could, were you feeling very generous, read this particular instance as distantly being about appropriation, given that it is a white zookeeper who’s using the hyena ritual to nefarious ends. But that is a stretch.

Naturally, the troublesome zookeeper meets a fitting end, courtesy of Buffy’s stunt double and a pit full of animatronic hyenas.

And equally naturally, there are no consequences for Xander, because it wasn’t his fault, was it? It’s never a teenage boy’s fault when they behave like a monster. Xander pretends to remember nothing, but Giles—bless him—calls this out. Nothing in the literature about animal possession says anything about memory loss.

“Your secret dies with me,” he says, dryly, to Xander, who fully does not deserve this. But the patriarchy will let him get away with it.

MISCELLANY

  • “I suppose some girls might find him good looking … if they have eyes.”
  • “Oh! Great! It’s the winged monkeys!”
  • Giles and Buffy training in the library, utterly confident no one will interrupt them.
  • Dodgeball as the symbol of all that has ever been wrong with gym class has never really worked for me, as I, weirdly, liked dodgeball? I’m good at dodging. Anything where I can play defense for myself and only myself, I’m fine with.
  • Farewell, Principal Flutie, we hardly knew ye!
  • “Why couldn’t Xander be possessed by a puppy, or some ducks?”
  • Can we talk about that crappy aside with the family the pack stalks, where the mom is sulking and the dad says, “I didn’t say she looks better than you, I said she looks better,” because women are vain and men are dumb, right? The number of the-pack-threatens-someone scene make this feel like half an episode, stretched too thin.
  • I still don’t understand how they ate raw pig and person given that they still had human teeth, but whatever. Details.

HEY, THAT GUY! FACTOR One of the actors playing a mean kid, Eion Bailey, has a fascinating career being in basically every show ever, and is presently on Once Upon a Time. Another, Jennifer Sky, starred in Cleopatra 2525. The bit-part Buffy cast is truly a gift that keeps on giving.
WORST FASHION CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY Buffy’s hat at the end, oh my god.
IN HOW MANY WAYS DOES XANDER NOT DESERVE WILLOW’S AFFECTION To infinity and beyond.
WEIRD THINGS EATEN OR DRUNK AT THE BRONZE Some kind of cola beverage and a croissant, because Buffy is a weirdo.
WHO GETS LOCKED IN THE LIBRARY CAGE Xander! (Why do books need a cage? Is this the first time someone gets locked up with them?)

Previously: “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” | Next: “Angel

Welcome Back to the Hellmouth: “The Pack”

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