What does it mean to be “cool?” That’s the question that runs throughout “The Zeppo” a fan-favorite (and now me-favorite) Buffy episode that in and of itself kind of defines what "cool" is. The episode is packed with snappy dialogue and references that the viewer has to be semi-hip to get—and that includes the title, which is only half-explained—and it defies conventionality in ways that wink at the audience, knowingly. Heroes run away from confrontation. The world is saved off-screen. If being cool is partly about withholding what’s cool, then “The Zeppo” is one of the coolest TV episodes of all time.
It’s also the kind of showcase for Xander (and by extension Nicholas Brendon) that partially redeems a lot of the erratic behavior the character has shown over the last two seasons. (And I hasten to add here that I don’t really have a problem with an erratic Xander; I like that Joss Whedon’s characters are often as jerky as they are awesome.) When “The Zeppo” begins, the gang is all on the job, fighting evil—including Willow, who helps out with a clouding spell—though Xander’s really more “fray-adjacent” than the rest of the his friends, helping out mainly by “allowing himself to be pummeled about the head.” Even in the aftermath, the next day, Xander finds himself relegated to being the Slayer’s donut-fetcher, and when he’s confronted on campus by brooding bully Jack, Xander shrinks away from a fight, letting Jack threaten to “kick your ass until it’s a brand-new shape.”
Even worse? The Jack encounter and the donut-fetching are witnessed by Cordelia, who wanders over after each to twist the knife in. (“Of all the humiliations you’ve had… that was the latest.”) Cordelia notes that if the gang is like The Marx Brothers, then Xander is “the Zeppo,” the brother that doesn’t really have anything cool to do.
So Xander decides to take a crash course in cool. First he asks Oz for advice, since Oz has mastered the art of short, non-committal phrases, and because he’s in a band. (“Is it hard to play guitar?” Xander asks. “Not the way I play it,” Oz replies.) But after Xander recalls that in eighth grade he played the flugelhorn and got “zero trim,” he ditches the music idea and becomes “Car Guy… guy with a car.” He borrows a ’57 Chevy from his DUI-prone Uncle Roary and in no time flat meets the beautiful Lysette, who’s impressed by Xander’s description of the Chevy as handling “like a dream about warm, sticky things.”
Not only that, but while shepherding Lysette around in the Chevy, Xander has another encounter with Jack, and so impresses the bully with his heightened cool that Jack invites him to be his “wheel man” as he picks up some buddies for a night on the town. The problem? His buddies are a-moulderin’ in the grave. And Jack’s not technically “alive” himself. Thus Lysette takes her leave, and Xander winds up spending the night as a chauffeur for zombies.
I’m sure everybody has had the feeling—either in adolescence or adulthood—of being in stuck far from where you’d like to be, while your friends are doing fun things without you. Maybe you’re grounded, or on a family vacation, or maybe your friends couldn’t reach you in time, but there’s nothing worse than feeling like an accidental outcast (unless it’s feeling like an actual outcast). In “The Zeppo,” Xander is stuck hanging out with these awful, awful people, and he can never seem to break away to get where he wants to be. Lysette bails on him. He busts in on Buffy when she’s busy strategizing with Angel. Oz is locked up because of the full moon. Giles and Willow are otherwise occupied. Xander’s like the Sisyphus of excluded friends.
At one point Xander’s willing to settle for a semi-Slayer experience by helping out Faith, but that takes a wrong turn very quickly. Faith, aroused by combat as usual, jumps on Xander, saying, “Relax… take your pants off.” (Xander: “Those two concepts are antithetical.”) Xander admits to faith that while he’s up for this, “It’s just that, um, I’ve never been ‘up with people’ before.” But he goes with the flow, only to be shoved out the door by Faith when it’s over with a curt, “That was great. Gotta shower.”
What I loved about “The Zeppo” is how Xander’s feelings of abandonment pervade the structure of the episode, which is filled with moments that are (intentionally) dramatically unsatisfying. A zombie gets accidentally beheaded mid-sentence. Xander’s heroic quippery while threatening beasties with an axe never gets to reach its punchline. The big fight against the creatures emerging from a re-opened Hellmouth happens only in flashes, on the fringes of Xander’s story. “The Zeppo” is blissfully unconcerned with doing what’s expected. Like Xander at the end of the episode—staring down a ticking bomb because he likes the quiet, or walking away from a snide Cordelia rather than answering her slams—“The Zeppo” understands the secret of cool. Just don’t let anything get to you.
We’ve covered the meaning of cool. Now let’s talk about what it means to be “bad.”
“Bad Girls” marks the arrival of Wesley Wyndham-Price, whom The Watchers’ Council has appointed to look after Buffy and Faith and Sunnydale. Wesley arrives boasting to Giles that, “I have in fact faced two vampires myself. Under controlled circumstances of course,” and naturally Giles can barely conceal his contempt, even though in manner and dedication he and Wesley aren’t so unalike. (Think of Wesley as the Barney Fife to Giles’ Andy Taylor; Wesley knows the procedures, but Giles knows how to deal with actual people.)
Buffy picks up on Giles’ vibe, and hates Wesley from the get-go. “Is he evil?” she asks Giles. “Not in the strictest sense,” he replies wearily. Faith meanwhile, has a less passive-aggressive response to Wesley: “New watcher? Screw that.”
The more time Buffy spends with Faith, the more attractive the other Slayer’s approach to life seems—especially when the alternative involves taking orders from Wesley. So Buffy rebels a little, and throws herself into Faith’s world of hedonism and mayhem and blowing off chemistry tests to roust a nest of vampires. After all, the work Faith’s doing is work that needs to be done. There’s a big blobby beast named Balthazar in town who’s looking for an amulet he believes will boost his powers. That’s the kind of tomfoolery that Slayers are supposed to stop, right?
Well, what if Balthazar’s mission were to interfere with the goals of The Mayor? His Honor actually wants Balthazar dispatched, so that he can go to “The Dedication,” which brings him one step closer to “The Ascension,” an event for which he has “waited longer than you can imagine.” A wicked-leaning Buffy and Faith succeed in stopping Balthazar, but they let a bigger bad slip through. In fact when Allan, The Deputy Mayor, arrives to warn Buffy of his boss’s plans, an in-the-zone Faith stabs him and kills him. Oops.
Much of “Bad Girls” is about the relativity of evil—and the banality. Is being “bad” about dancing all night at a club? Or is about The Mayor’s deadpan To-Do list: “Become Invincible. Meeting With The PTA. Haircut.” For that matter, is there something a little bit evil about Wesley—not overtly, but in a devotion to order that has him babbling about “mission scenarios” while his charges are out in the field risking their lives?
So many ways to misbehave in “Bad Girls,” and no easy answers about the way to do things the right way. When Buffy or Faith are pinned down, and need weapons, Faith breaks into a sporting goods store to liberate some crossbows. They have a good reason for stealing—a world-saving reason, perhaps. But that doesn’t necessarily excuse the gleam in Faith’s eye when she explains her personal Slayer motto: “Want, take, have.”
Is this evil? Not in the strictest sense. But yes.
We’ve covered “cool.” We’ve covered “bad.” Now… “maturity.”
What does a Slayer grow into? In a way that’s been the question that the introduction of Faith to the Buffyverse has been posing all season. Faith is a Buffy with no support group, and very few moral qualms, and an example of what may happen to our heroine if she doesn’t maintain some kind of grounding. In fact, when Giles notes that what Faith did to Allan has happened before, he almost seems to imply that it always happens—that killing indiscriminately is an inevitable byproduct of being a Slayer.
When “Consequences” begins, Faith is joking around as though she hadn’t just killed a mortal, and frankly, it was a little hard for me to watch her being so nonchalant. (Which, of course, is exactly how I'm supposed to feel—and how Buffy feels as well.) “Consequences” is the first real “this follows this” episode of Season Three, where the incidents of the previous episode proceed directly into the next, and as such I have a hard time judging it on its own merits. I didn’t love it as I loved “The Zeppo,” and it didn’t engage me intellectually as “Bad Girls” did, but it’s a necessary episode for what it sets up. We see The Mayor coping with Allan’s death—even though it makes shredding documents less fun, and he usually loves shredding—and we witness the untimely end of Mr. Trick, whom Faith immediately replaces as The Mayor’s dark servant. The pieces have been duly moved into place.
And though “Consequences” doesn’t really work as a stand-alone episode, it features several magnificent character interactions, such as:
-Willow & Buffy. With Buffy spending more time with Faith, Willow’s started to feel like a Zeppo herself, and she eventually unloads on Buffy because she “wants to be fester-free.” But when Buffy starts weeping, Willow softens, muttering, “I don’t know my own strength”
-Xander & Willow. When Xander obliquely confesses to sleeping with Faith, the ramifications of what he’s saying slowly dawn on everyone, with a quiet, “Ohhhh.” Only Willow doesn’t need to say “oh,” because she gets it right away. And later she breaks down crying in the bathroom, deeply hurt—and perhaps moreso because she knows she has no right to be. A wonderful little moment, so painful and true.
-Faith & Xander. Faith is extra-scary in this episode—almost like Dark Faith, if I can speak in X-Men terms—and never moreso than when she dismisses Xander’s attempt to comfort her by sneering that any “connection” they have is “just skin.” Then she jumps on him again, and lets him know how insignificant he is by hissing, “I can make you scream. I can make you die.” Yikes!
-Wesley & Cordelia. Our new watcher is instantly smitten with Cordy, to whom he confesses that he’s “here to watch… girls.” Perhaps emboldened by meeting the first person in Sunnydale who’s taken a liking to him, Wesley barges in on Angel’s attempt to talk sense into Faith—like Cyclops talking to Dark Phoenix in X-Men #136!—and promptly finds himself overpowered by her, as she escapes into the night and eventually joins the forces of darkness.
Great stuff all, and a testament to how rich this show has become. But it does raise a question: Remember when this show used to be about Buffy? I wonder how long Joss Whedon can keep giving the best storylines and moments to the supporting cast before Sarah Michelle Gellar begins to sound a loud, “Ahem.”
Not much to say about this threesome as a unit, except to note that as the back half of the season begins, the master-plot’s starting to heat up a little—and none too soon. It’s been an entertaining season thus far, but a little short on the sickening “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen next week” tension that was defining Season Two by its midpoint. I expect more juice in the weeks to come.
-Some bad, bad hair from SMJ in “The Zeppo.” I know you’re not getting enough screen time honey, but don’t act out.
-“The shaking is a side effect of the fear.”
-Giles’ hurt expression when he realizes that his favorite donuts are gone—“Did you eat all the jellies?”—sketches out a whole history of long nights and camaraderie in just a few seconds. And it’s funny to boot. Score another one for the Buffy writers (and for Anthony Stewart Head).
-Xander makes an eerily apt Michael Jackson reference when Jack asks him if he “wanna be starting something.”
-Jack’s been taping Walker: Texas Ranger for his dead buddies. “Every ep.”
- I would question Cordelia even knowing enough about The Marx Brothers to make a Zeppo reference, but this season she’s revealed all kinds of hidden talents, so I’ll allow it. I have been wondering, though: Does Cordelia like Buffy or not? She’s flashed outright resentment towards Buffy several times this season, even before breaking up with Xander, yet Buffy still calls her “my friend.” Is the Buffy-hate an act, or is Cordy seriously opposed? Either way, Cordelia’s become increasingly cutting. I know that Faith’s betrayal is meant to be Season Three’s “evil Angel”-style twist, but in some ways I feel like Cordelia has become Angel-like in the way she turns everything she knows about Xander and Buffy and the rest into a weapon. Not nice at all.
-The Mayor loves The Family Circus. (“That PJ! He’s getting to be quite a handful.”) Mr. Trick likes Marmaduke. Allan likes Cathy.
-I love how at the start of “Bad Girls,” The Mayor’s hushed evil laugh is held for an extra beat over a black screen before the credits start.
-Xander on his potential college acceptance: “I’m just expecting thin slips of paper with ‘no way’ written in crayon.” Oz in reply: “They’re typing those now.”
-Chemistry is a lot like witchcraft only “less newt.”
-Waffles don’t have calories if you cook them for your kids.
-After last week’s comment-section discussion on gun-toting vampires, it was amusing to hear Mr. Trick say, “It’s called an Uzi, chump. Could’ve saved your ass.”
-My wife often sleeps in one of several full sets of pajamas I’ve bought for her as Valentine’s/Mother’s Day/Birthday/Anniversary/Christmas gifts—because PJs are versatile that way—but just as often she wears pajama pants and a T-shirt, as I’ve always assumed most women do. On TV though, women tend to wear skimpy nighties or full-on button-up-shirt-and-pants pajamas, as Buffy and Joyce are seen wearing in “Consequences.” Is this standard sleepwear for most women, or is this a TV thing?
-Is the Sunnydale freighter the sole form of transportation for exiting slayers?
-“If you want to criticize my methods, fine. But you can keep your snide remarks. And while you’re at it, don’t criticize my methods.”