This week's trio of episodes is fairly Xander-iffic, starting with Episode 4, in which Xander develops a crush on substitute teacher Miss French, who turns out to be a giant praying mantis in disguise. She bites the head off the old teacher–a kindly gent who earns audience sympathy early in the episode by telling Buffy, "You have a first-rate mind and you can think on your feet"–then lures unsuspecting virgins like our man X to her basement lair, where she lays eggs and forces the boys to fertilize them.
The fundamental goofiness of this particular monster-of-the-week is a strike against "Teacher's Pet" (as is something else that I'll get to down in the "overall thoughts" section), but the depth of characterization is a major game-saver. Even Buffy, who's more of a bit player in "Teacher's Pet" than a lead, has multiple well-crafted moments in the spotlight: deriding her own tendency to screw up normal life by calling herself "Destructo-Girl," putting on Angel's leather jacket and panting "whoa boy" after he leaves, getting jazzed when she and Giles start making plans to take the bug out ("I'll handle the armory," she barks like an overeager lieutenant colonel), and feeling a sense of pride as she realizes that she beat Miss French because she did her homework.
But Buffy's arc is nothing compared to Xander's. He begins the episode by having a lucid daydream in which he saves Buffy from a vampire (then grabs a guitar and rocks out on stage at The Bronze, just like Buckaroo Banzai). Then, when Angel shows up to warn Buffy about a new razor-fingered vampire–thereby notifying the home viewers that the writers haven't forgotten about the Master plot–Xander's feelings of inadequacy in comparison to the handsome, brooding Angel essentially drive him directly into the forelegs of Miss French.
Or course it doesn't hurt that Miss French is, when not in mantis form, "woman-shaped" (as Giles so delicately puts it). The subtext of "Teacher's Pet" is that Xander isn't just afraid of a six-foot-tall insect, he's afraid of the practical realities of real-life sex. Sharing the cage with him at Miss French's house is Blaine, one of Sunnydale's more popular boys, who is, like Xander, a virgin. As I recall from my own high school experiences, teenage boys talk cocky when it comes to sex, but outside of the odd fantasy, not many boys would respond enthusiastically to a mature woman ordering them to fertilize her eggs. Sex at that age is supposed to be furtive, awkward and giggly, not directly tied to the mysterious and creepy biological processes by which we create new life.
"Teacher's Pet" ends with another one of the show's stinger images, as deep in the supply closet of the Sunnydale High biology class, one of Miss French's egg sacs hangs, dripping with potential menace. But I don't think the menace has anything to do with the prospect of the monster returning. It has to do with the looming subtext of teen sexuality. Pine after each other, grope each other, make crude and misleading jokes in the cafeteria about how far you've gone and how far you're willing to go but as this episode points out, at the bottom of everything it's all eggs and seeds and impulses. (Let's see Maxim do a photo spread about that.)
"Never Kill A Boy On The First Date"
And now we take a break from psychoanalyzing Xander so we can get back to the star of our show. In "Never Kill A Boy On The First Date," Buffy meets Owen, a hulking, sensitive lad who reads poetry and is impressed that Buffy spends so much time in the library (even if she does talk about how much she loves "Emily Dickens"). Giles, who's already down on Buffy for not taking her mission seriously enough–too much quippery for his taste–wants Buffy to step up her night patrols until they can discern what the Master has in store for Sunnydale. But Buffy insists she deserves a night out. "Clark Kent has a job," she says. "I just want to go on a date."
I like the writers exploring this side of Buffy, but my only real qualm about Episode Five is that the four episodes that preceded it didn't do enough to establish our heroine as person with normal teenage tastes and desires. We know from the two-part premiere that Buffy at least claims to crave stability, and we know she's got a store of pop culture references at the ready (even though we've yet to see her read a book, watch TV, go to a movie or listen to the radio). We also know that Angel makes her weak at the knees. But I found her crushing on some random bookworm–no matter how rugged-looking and sweet-natured–to be a little contrived. Why would she be into Owen and not, say, Xander, who has a lot of the same qualities and knows about her double life? Has Buffy even picked up the obvious cues that Xander likes her?
That said, I enjoyed the plotting of this episode, which involved the classic superhero's dilemma: how to have an everyday life when the bad guys never seem to take a night off. While Buffy is canoodling with Owen at The Bronze, Giles stumbles into a nest of vampires, and is saved only because Xander and Willow are keeping tabs on him, and are able to drag Buffy and Owen away from making moony-eyes at each other so that she can do her job. And how does Owen react when he realizes what his prospective girlfriend can do? He's into it. Too into it. Turns out, the bookworm is addicted to danger. And perhaps because that hits too close to home for Buffy, she gives him the brush, for good. (I assume.)
Forced premise aside, there was a lot to like in "Never Kill A Boy," including Angel chastising Buffy for doing something so mundane as dating, and evangelicizing serial-killer-turned-vampire Andrew Borba muttering "pork and beans" in the middle of one of his rambling sermons, and the final reveal that The Master's "Anointed One" is an innocent-looking little boy. (More on that in future weeks, I'm sure.)
But though he doesn't have much to do in the episode, Xander has some of the best moments, including critiquing the school lunch thusly: "I think it's kale. Or possibly string cheese." A minute later, in the same scene, he has the episode's one laugh-out-loud line, after Buffy fumes at him for asking, "How did the slaying go last night?" in the middle of the cafeteria. Stumbling to recover, Xander says, "Uh, I mean, how did the laying go?" No, I don't mean that either."
Xander's back at the center of this story, in another horror movie premise doubling as a metaphor for high school anxieties. During a field trip to the zoo, Xander wanders too close to the hyena cage along with a quartet of obnoxious popular kids, and all five of them get zapped with a kind of spiritual transference spell that turns them into a tight-knit band of roving savages, preying on nerds and gradually turning more and more feral. And who's behind the transformation? The lowly zookeeper, who had hoped to get hyena-ed himself.
Again, I'm going to save one of my major objections to this episode until the "overall thoughts" section, since it's a problem I had with "Teacher's Pet" as well. Instead, I'll note some minor annoyances here, like the way the teenagers look a little silly leaping catlike at their victims, and the way the writers throw away a good potential action sequence when the pack surrounds Buffy during a game of dodgeball, then turns away from her to pummel someone else. (A scene of Buffy using her powers to dodge and throw would've been awesome.)
And yet, even though the analogy of hyenas to high school cliques isn't developed as well as the "sex = icky" theme of "Teacher's Pet," the storytelling in this episode is engaging and a few of the scenes genuinely creepy, as when the Xander-less pack goes after Principal Flutie in his office. If there's one thing nearly all adults–and authority figures in particular–fear about kids, it's that there will come a day when children realize that grown-ups feel like frauds, with no real power beyond vague threats. What exactly can the principal do if his students don't obey? In this case, nothing. The pack rips him apart, and Principal Flutie dies. I have to say: I did not see that coming, and I thought it was refreshingly hardcore. A reminder that, to quote De La Soul, "stakes is high."
The Flutie-murder alone bumped this episode up half a point, as did the way that this Xander-focused episode ended up being mainly about Willow, a character finally starting to get her due nearly halfway through the first season. Willow has a touching conversation with Buffy at The Bronze about which boys they like and why, and when Dark Xander starts ignoring her and sniffing around Buffy, Willow is deeply and profoundly hurt. Thus far, Buffy The Vampire Slayer has been hit-and-miss in its grasp of high school life–something I'll talk more about below–but there's something hauntingly familiar about the relationship between Xander and Willow, two longtime friends dealing with becoming adults, and developing attractions they can't quite control.
These three episodes find Buffy in the settling-in phase, as the writers codify the concept ("pleasing cast, some monsterism") and test what they can do with the characters within that concept. As I wrote above, in terms of character development, this group of episodes is reasonably strong. And they're entertaining on a story level too, with decent twists, a nice mix of action and repose, and a few effective creep-outs.
But here's my big problem with the show so far: The high school stuff's not really working for me.
Maybe my problem is that I've got the first season of Veronica Mars–a clear descendant of Buffy–to use as a comparison. Where Veronica overcame a small budget to create a high school environment that felt contemporary and complex, the Sunnydale High of these first six episodes doesn't even feel like a believable high school from the mid-'90s. It feels like a conglomeration of high school movie clichés: the popular kids who look down on anyone who's different, the clowish authority figures, the principal who wants more school spirit, and so on.
One major reason for the lapse is the lack of recurring Sunnydale students outside of Buffy, Xander and Willow. Each week we've gotten Cordelia behaving like a stereotypical stuck-up soc, and we've gotten one or two characters who appear long enough to participate in that particular storyline, then disappear. (And do the likes of Owen and Blaine spread the word about what they've seen when hanging out with Buffy and the Slayerettes? Thus far, we've seen little evidence of it, aside from some popular kids joking about Buffy's violent tendencies.) Is there more to Cordelia and the other Sunnydalers than just their relevance to any given week's plot and theme? I hope so.
I also hope the writers eventually do more with the pressures of high school, and how hanging out in the library with Giles can be an escape, even if library time tends to turn into "battling the undead" time. Heck, I'd be happy if the show just came up with a few scenes that reflect the actual concerns and experiences of high school students. I mean: Dodgeball? The zoo? Are these kids in high school or elementary school?
Barring that, I'm hoping the high school setting becomes more or less secondary, or maybe even more outsized and mythological. Verisimilitude isn't the most important characteristic for a genre piece, but if these stories are going to build on common touchpoints of teen angst–fitting in, dating, dealing with authority–it would help if the context for those touchpoints were rooted in real experiences, not just vague impressions of John Hughes movies and Archie comics.
-I'm enjoying the interactions between Buffy and Giles and between Buffy and her friends, but I'd like to see more of how Giles relates to Xander and Willow. Does he like having them around? Or does he just tolerate them because Willow's good at web-surfing?