The Best of Buffy – “The Zeppo” (3×13)
XANDER: Long gone. Probably loaded with supplies. Gotta think. I can’t believe I had sex. Okay, bombs. Already dead guys with bombs.
Human lives are always complicated, multi-sided matters, regardless of how mundane they may seem. As we spend our days worrying over such great hits as our jobs, finances, love lives, friends, family and children, it’s easy to forget that we’re living out a grand adventure—and easier still to forget that everyone else is living one of their own.
In “The Zeppo,” Xander Harris, the case study of humanity within the Scooby Gang, experiences a wild one-night odyssey. While his friends are preoccupied with keeping the forces of hell out of the world, Xander will find his confidence, lose his virginity, stand tall in the face of danger and ultimately save everyone.
And the world will remain unaware.
“The Zeppo” has an unusual format for a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode. Though often lauded for its uniqueness, the series is formulaic in the sense of an’A’ and “B’ plot. In the case of Buffy the ‘A’ is usually the Scoobies fighting a metaphorical Monster/Curse of the Week or whatever trouble the season’s Big Bad has thrown at them; the ‘B’ is reserved for the inner turmoils and everyday dramas between the characters.
Here the structure is reversed. The ‘B’ plot is Buffy and friends trying to prevent the end of the world, but the ‘A’ plot is tailored primarily to Xander. The ‘B’ effectively becomes self-parody, a series of short scenes saturated with overplayed melodrama. As the other Scoobies rush to prevent another Armageddon scenario, Xander occasionally drifts into their space, practically begs to stay, and once rejected, must quietly return to his own private hell. Although the ‘B’ plot is the show lampooning itself, it still serves an important function in the end: showing a’hidden us’ principle that is integral to “The Zeppo.”
Much happens to Xander in this episode, and his friends inadvertently set him off on his journey. The arrival of one ‘Sisterhood of Jhe’ and apocalyptic tidings they bring force the Scoobies to exclude Xander for fear of his own safety. Xander is understandably resentful at being delegated to doughnut duty, even before his now-ex girlfriend Cordelia gives him a more demeaning label: the ‘Zeppo,’ referring to the youngest Marx brother who never contributed to the group.
This happens after Xander annoys a psychotic bully named Jack O’Toole, who responds to sheepish apologies with violet threats. Cordelia’s ensuing taunts have Xander searching throughout the day for his “cool” or his “thing” (purpose) despite not knowing where to look. Is it Oz’s trademark stoicism or guitar playing? Is it in the 1957 Chevy Bel Air that Xander borrows from his DUI-laden uncle? Is it the blonde car enthusiast who takes Xander by the arm?
It is none of those things (or people), though it will take Xander the rest of the night to understand that. First he accidentally rear-ends Jack’s car, and the enraged thug brandishes a hunting knife. But Jack is impressed by Xander’s refusal to snitch when a cop investigates, and the two become oddly paired buddies…that is, until Jack goes to the cemetery and starts resurrecting dead friends.
Xander is used to the supernatural at this point. When decaying Bob pops out of the ground and the blonde car enthusiast flees screaming into the night, Xander shouts after her, “I’ll call you!” But now he has to share his car with Jack and a backseat full of rotting zombie troublemakers, something he never expected.
Meanwhile, the others scramble to prepare for the Hellmouth’s reopening. Giles tries to contact ghostly spirit guides, Willow goes to the Magic Shop for supplies and Buffy runs to Angel so they can shed tears and shout at each other over a morose musical score. In each case Xander interrupts in an attempt to escape from Jack and the ghoul squad, always concluding with a meek “can I help?” And in each case he is turned down, sent back to the Chevy so his bizarre night can continue. What’s interesting about these brief encounters is that not only do Xander’s friends refuse to let him in, they never specify why they are in such a tizzy; for that matter, neither does Xander. But rising apocalypse or none, it is debatable whether there is anyone in Sunnydale more anxious than Xander Harris.
Xander soon discovers that Jack has more in common with his zombie friends than previously thought, as he is also a reanimated corpse. Xander manages to race away from the ‘gang initiation’ (being killed and resurrected) only to run into Faith as she battles one of the Sisterhood of Jhe demons. Xander and Faith retreat to her motel room, where Xander is promptly reeducated about what intense fights do to Faith. In a flash Xander loses his virginity and is shoved out the door. Faith isn’t one for cuddling.
The sex scene is fleeting, and goofy in how little Faith thinks of her boy-toys. But it illustrates an important point, the eternal question of “what makes a man?” Many boys see virginity loss as a bridge to manhood. For poor Xander, who has no time to process what just happened or bask in a post-coital (or perhaps post-using) glow, there’s plenty of growing up left to do before the night’s over.
He realizes that Jack’s gang is building a bomb. Moreover, the bomb has been set in Sunnydale High’s basement, not far from where Buffy and the others are battling a hydra that’s risen from the Hellmouth. They have become the people in the Hitchcock aphorism about the breakfast table. As the bomb ticks down, Xander chases and kills the zombie gang to reach the school basement.
Here the ‘A’ and ‘B’ plots intersect. As Xander deals with Jack’s ghouls, they must all contend with the Hellmouth monster and the Jhe demons. Xander’s story now takes place within the same vicinity as the other Scoobies. Neither is remotely aware of the other.
Finally, Xander reaches the bomb and faces Jack for the closing showdown, in a scene that not only shows Xander as capable of physically defending himself, but a young man prepared to take a stand over impending doom. After their skirmish, he makes an astute observation that diminishes the menacing Jack O’Toole character.
XANDER: I know what you’re thinking. Can I get by him? Get up the stairs, out of the building, seconds ticking away. I don’t love your chances.
JACK: Then you’ll die, too.
XANDER: [Casually] Yeah, looks like. So I guess the question really is, “who has less fear?”
JACK: I’m not afraid to die. I’m already dead!
XANDER: Yeah, but this is different. Being blown up isn’t walking-around-and-drinking-with-your-buddies dead. It’s little-pieces-being-swept-up-by-a-janitor dead, and I don’t think you’re ready for that.
JACK: [Realizing the truth of the matter] Are you?
This is a crucial moment for Xander and a fantastic scene. Jack’s key to bravado lies in his undeadness and the immortality it supposedly grants. But we have seen what happened to his friends upstairs when they were killed (they stopped moving) and here Jack has been stripped of an escape through harsh truth. Xander is a living human, well-aware of his own mortality and with far more to lose. And Xander of all people, the cowardly Xander from earlier, is refusing to back down. His only response to Jack’ s question about death is, “I like the quiet.” A humiliated Jack ends the standoff by disarming the bomb, seconds before it explodes. Xander makes his cool exit. And Jack, who accidentally lets out Oz in werewolf form, is devoured.
Cut to the next morning. Buffy, Giles, Willow are dealing with the ‘B’ plot’s aftermath. They are covered in cuts and bruises; Buffy’s arm is in a sling. They touch on topics such as the “brave thing” Giles did and when Angel will recover from his injuries. The audience has no context for any of this; we saw none of it happen. But reflective Willow says one thing that is very telling:
GILES: But the world continues to turn.
WILLOW: No one will ever know how close it came to stopping. Never know what we did.
At that exact moment, Xander walks up. Two entities, one Xander, the other the separated group, are looking at each other with no idea what the other went through. The one connection is Oz commenting that he’s “oddly full today.”
Willow is referring to the fight in the library, but what she doesn’t know is that the world could have also stopped in a very different way. And just as no one will know what the Scoobies did to save the world, they won’t know about Xander. Another ironic twist is that by not letting Xander in on the battle in order to keep him safe, the Scoobies have saved themselves.
The lack of clarity about the Hellmouth and the library alludes to a kind of blindness in our own lives. What does your friend do after he/she leaves your house? What about your coworker when he/she punches out for the day? None of us, thankfully, have a psychic clairvoyance that allows us to spy on others. We can only see the life in front of us. Xander is blind to the Scoobies, the Scoobies are blind to Xander, and we are all blind to each other. The episode sends a message that what we don’t see can be surprising and enlightening.
As for Xander, it’s safe to say he has found his ‘cool,’ and part of that cool is not caring whether others learn of his adventure. After their harrowing night the others may have changed, but Xander has gone one step beyond. He has evolved.
Is There Anything I Didn’t Like?
Not really, except that the lampooning ‘B’ plot might be a little confusing for newcomers. Aside from that, this a solidly done episode.
The Final Word