“But… It’s just that it’s buggin’ me, this ‘cool’ thing. I mean, what is it? How do you get it? Who doesn’t have it? And who decides who doesn’t have it? What is the essence of cool?”
I give Xander a lot of well-earned shit in this recap series. He’s not my favorite character. I don’t find his habit of being an asshole endearing. I really hate that he gets away with stuff on the show for which any of the other characters would be raked over the coals. However, a large part of my frustration with Xander stems from the direction the creators took him in. For every step forward, he seems to reset himself in the next episode. His lessons don’t stay learned. That’s not exactly the character’s fault. For a very in-depth discussion of Xander’s lack of growth, I highly recommend an archived Buffycast, “Dude, Where’s My Story Arc?”
That said, I give credit where credit is due. Xander Harris is brave.
He’s brave. There’s no getting around that. As this episode (and Cordelia) points out, everyone else in the Scooby gang has some form of superpowers – Slayer, witch in training, Watcher who dabbles in witchcraft and sorcery, and werewolf. He’s the only vanilla human around. That means he’s less capable of defending himself. He’s easier to break. His squishy parts are super squishy. But every time something happens, some evil occurs, Xander is right there offering to help. He helps when he’s scared. When he knows the odds are against him. That is admirable – and occasionally stupid. There’s a whole series of recurring scenes in “The Zeppo” where Xander asks if he can help the gang out. Often, he’s asking with the hope he can get out of running with the Dead Guys Gang. But by the end of the episode, it’s obvious he just really wants to help. That’s who he is.
I launched right into my commentary this week – in case you’re not watching along, the plot of this Xander-centric episode is as such; Xander is deliberately left out of yet another apocalypse on the Hellmouth because his friends are worried he’ll get hurt. When left to his own devices, he falls in with a gang of resurrected toughs. They do very ’50s era tough guy things. They pick up a hot blonde into cars. They get into knife fights. They drive vintage cars. They plant bombs to blow up the high school. This threads through the Scooby’s fight against a bunch of female demons who open the Hellmouth so that Xander shows up in the middle of dramatic moments – notably a scene where Buffy and Angel are tearfully declaring their love for each other (again) – unwanted, and slinks off to deal with his problem alone.
The whole 50’s guy gang issue is an interesting take on Xander’s problems. I’ve mentioned before that his character suffers from anxious masculinity – he’s constantly trying to live up to a “manly” standard that has no place in the Buffyverse. So much of the interaction between Xander and Jack (head dead guy) revolves around this idea of being masculine. The show calls it “cool,” who has, who doesn’t, etc., but that’s not what is actually in question. “Cool” is purely defined in the context of this episode in traditionally masculine ways. Who is tougher, who is stronger, who is a better fighter, who is getting laid – Xander even acquires a car (for this lone moment in time) because what guys bring to the table are wheels. The final showdown in the school basement between Jack and Xander is shot as a classic cowboy standoff. And everyone knows there’s nothing more manly than cowboys. By out manning Jack and calling his bluff as a bomb ticks down, Xander earns his “cool” and is able to withstand Cordelia’s slings and arrows at school the next day.
One of the things I really love about this episode is the opening up of Sunnydale’s supernatural community. In the beginning, the show is very black and white about Good versus Evil. If you are on the Slayer’s side, you are good. If you are not, you are evil. Demons are always bad. Vampires just want to kill you. “The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats”¦” By the end of the series, the world is a lot more complex. Some demons are our friends. Some are just guys getting around. Some humans (and Slayers) can be just as evil as any beast from the Hellmouth. The dead guy gang from “The Zeppo” is an early glimpse of this variety in the underworld. They’re not looking to end the world. They don’t want to bring about the apocalypse. They’re probably not going to sew themselves girlfriends out of dead cheerleaders (partially because they don’t seem smart enough). They’re just assholes. Dead assholes. Much like I like complexity in the portrayal of my Slayers, I enjoy nuance in the world she lives in. It makes everything that much more believable.
I mean, you know, to a point.
Xander lovers, this video is for you: