Buffy is a show that could easily collapse under the weight of it’s own dire themes and apocalyptic melodrama. One of the things that constantly keeps the dramatic methane from overfilling the balloon of an episode is the shows humor and self awareness. I’d mentioned previously that Xander is the most razor witted and sharp character on the show. In the Zeppo, the Xander element is distilled from the episode. Skimmed off the top and the show is separated into component parts. The result is a hilarious hilarious escapade of nearly solo Xander. But far from being a simple comedic romp, there are very important questions at The Zeppo’s core – questions about masculinity, about bravery, and heart.
The gang is facing off against a horde of evil smurfs, indicating the possibility of a greater danger following after. Faith and Buffy do Slayer things and Giles aides with his considerable experience before getting tossed aside.
Willow intervenes with a clouding spell and the Slayers kill the last of them. The group discusses what this new evil might be an indication of and Giles curse having put Willow and Xander at…wait a minute where is Xander?
The next day, Xander, equally adept at sports drops a football into a school bullies lunch. The bully, named Jack O’Toole (can that name be anything other than a penis reference) threatens to cut Xander’s face off and then eventually lets him go, shamed and dominated. Cordelia witness to the whole thing slices into Xander expertly.
We see the shaming power of the ex that had access to all our secrets, as Cordelia completely nails Xander with his own Superman reference he made from earlier.
“You must feel like Jimmy Olsen.”
“You’re the useless part of the group. You’re the Zeppo. Look it up.”
All righty. The Marx brothers were an American vaudeville and movie comedy act in the early 1900s. Most commonly people remember the trio, Groucho, Chico and Harpo but there were actually 5 Marx brothers, and they included Gummo and Zeppo. Zeppo Marx was always cast as the straight man in Marx brothers bits, the one who doesn’t get any of the jokes. The one who was patently unextraordiary. It’s tempting to feel bad for Xander here. Nicholas Brendan’s great performance begs us too. But there’s always *Xander montage* Of course two wrongs might not make a right but as Cordelia says:
“There was no part of that that wasn’t fun.”
In the library, with Oz safely caged up for his monthly, Buffy and Giles are discussing the implications of monsters they slaughtered earlier and Giles has realized they in the midst of an apparent incoming Apocalypse.
I love this. At this point in the episode I hadn’t quite realized what was going on here so I was taking this entire scene quite literally. And in literal terms, the scene feels fatiguing and a retread. I mean what we’ve had, one, two, three apocalypses now? And Oz’s howl felt so on the nose. It hadn’t quite dawned on me what the writers were doing.
Xander decides that if Oz has being a Werewolf. The Slayers have Slaying. Willow has magic. And Giles has (let’s be honest here, Giles has Ripper,) then he needs a thing too. To that end he goes and borrows his Uncle’s car.
“You girls need a lift?” – “Is this a penis metaphor?”
Buffy shares with Xander regarding the incoming danger and he asks how he can help out.
“I’ll take two glaized. Two cinnamon.”
Cordelia, in the right place at the right time again catches Xander on his donut run for the gangs research night and uses the opportunity to cut into him again but Xander is bailed out by a female car nut interested in his new proxy penis…which he knows absolutely nothing about. At the bronze while having a drink and listening to her car talk he can’t fake being interested in Angel bursts in looking for Buffy. Xander is SO bored in fact he says to Angel:
“Angel. Buddy…would you like to stay here in and talk?”
If Xander is calling Angel buddy…Angel runs off after Buffy and Xander accidentally drives his car into Jack O’Toole. Xander cops to driving without insurance and Jack pulls out a bowie knife, threatening Xander in front of his car girl date.
“You know what the difference between you and me is? Fear.”
O’Toole hands Xander the knife and then throws him across the hood of his car. The cops show up and Xander chooses not to get O’Toole in trouble. Xander’s refusal to narc makes Jack change his entire perspective of Xander. O’Toole adopts him and asks him to drive them all to go and get the boys. It just happens the boys are dead bodies in the cemetery who O’Toole brings back through a touch of black magic.
At the library the rest of the gang sans Xander are discussing in dire terms the coming dark fate of the world.
“All I know is the fate of the entire world may rest on…did you eat all the jellies?”
Giles suggests Xander make another donut run for the team and Buffy insists that, after nearly injuring himself before, he needs to sit this one out. Giles proceeds to the cemetery to talk to the spirits who reject his request for help. He runs into Xander who tries to get Giles to take him with. Giles refuses saying there is far too much danger.
“There’s something in the air. Stench of death.” — “Yeah I think it’s Bob.”
Right about here was when I started to realize how the show was self satirizing itself. Oz’s cliche howl was like a trumpet announcing its intention. As if on cue in the next scene Buffy stands over the beaten body of Willy the Snitch who explains that the apocalypse is here tonight.
The boys with Xander decide they want to bake a cake, which is apparently degenerate speak for build a bomb. At the hardware store Xander tries to leave and the boys say they can initiate him into the group.
“What do I have to do.” – “You gotta die.”
Xander runs and stumbles on Faith, out fighting another evil smurf on her own. He drives Faith back to her hotel where Faith is feeling some pent up frustration from not being able to kill papa smurf. She jumps him and then tosses him out of her hotel.
“That was great. Gotta shower.”
Xander returns to his car and realizes the boys are planning building a bomb. He goes and finds Buffy and Angel who are knee deep in some choice Bangel speak.
“I can’t watch you die again.”
Xander interrupts. The dramatic music holds for a moment. He realizes his problem probably isn’t as big as the problem his friends are dealing. He leaves and the dramatic music begins again. So. Much. Fun. Xander decides his best course of action is to figure out where the boys wanted to put the bomb. He manages to get the information from one of the degenerate undead and proceeds to the school where the rest of the gang are in the midst of fighting the real apocalypse.
Xander finds the bomb in the boiler room, keeping with the shows penchant for making basements the sight of significant metaphorical or subconscious activity
“Who knows what will come up from beneath us?”
and Xander has the final showdown with Jack O’Toole. Xander doesn’t know how to stop the bomb but O’Toole does so he traps O’To in the boiler room with him, willing to sacrifice his own life to save his friends.
Jack defuses the bomb and Xander tells him to never come back again.
The next day the rest of the gang, battered and bruised commiserate over a struggle to save the world that demanded the very heights of unrestrained bravery and self sacrifice. Or so we’re told. Xander goes and gets snacks for everyone, running into Cordelia one more time. Whose, barbs this time fail to sink in.
Of all the characters, Xander gets some pretty fantastic one offs. Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered might be the most charming episode in all of Season 2, weird magical roofie vibe aside. And The Zeppo capitalizes on everything that made Bewitched great but plays with perspective and lore in such a fun and joyful way. The episode was written by Dan Vebber, who only wrote one other episode – (the nearly equally fantastic Lovers Walk) before he went on to become a writer on Futurama. It’s a shame.
Such an exceptional episode.. And there is something extra cool about these particular kinds of episodes in Buffy. Very rarely does the show completely divert from its own format but when it does, it figures out a way to ground that diversion in either its own lore or the characters. In a lot of other shows when you have a musical episode or an alternate timeline episode, there isn’t an internal reason for that storyline to actually occur. People just sing for one single inexplicable episode and then everything goes back to normal the next. But stylistic departures in Buffy are always justified in some fashion, and fit neatly within the season arc. As ever, there is never a very special episode of Buffy. Here we the audience witness things like the hyperbolic melodrama between Angel and Buffy and the indifference to yet another apocalypse because we’re watching the episode through Xander’s eyes. The story is told completely from his point of view. This is how Xander sees the world.
And Xander is by his nature, conflicted. He is a boy who desires strongly to check the tick boxes of conventional masculinity *FOOTBALL SEQUENCE – HALLOWEEN SEQUENCE* And yet his two best friends are girls. He shows no signs of relating well to any other male, quite the opposite actually. With the exception of Giles, he lacks any positive male role model.
“Uncle Rory stacked up his D.U.I’s “
The closest thing he has to a conventional male role model is Oz *Oz you’re cool conversation* And in The Zeppo we see Xander grasping for the conventional male identity, and doing so in all the wrong ways.
The Zeppo is an interesting pairing with Helpless in their examination of gender. In Helpless, Buffy’s physical strength was taken from her, making her vulnerable – something the male overseers in the episode suggested was a natural product of her gender.
“I throw like..” – “A girl?”
In the Zeppo, common gender stereotypes are completely inverted from the very opening. Faith and Buffy are the two warriors, slaying the powerful Sisterhood smurfettes. Xander is the weak and helpless one of the group which generates in him, massive insecurity.
From there we get a magic carpet ride tour of Xander’s quest. From his proxy penis, to joining O’Tooles gang. O’Toole exudes all of the loathsome characteristics of conventional masculinity. He is always trying to be dominant, aggressive, and mean. Which eventually leads to my favorite scene in the episode where Faith deflowers Xander. Again, all conventions here are turned on their head. Faith is the sexually aggressive one – concerned mostly with her own pleasure instead of Xander’s. Riding him to her own satisfaction and then kicking him out when it’s over.
And there’s a spectacular little bit in this scene as well. In her book, Why Buffy Matters, Rhonda Wilcox points out the very artful nature of this shot. Xander has always been in love with buffy and here is a shot of him mirrored off of the the television screen having sex with Faith, who is a version of Buffy in a way we’re not really clear aabout yet at this point in the season. Simultaneously the image itself represents this entire episode, a normal episode of the show reversed and flipped on it’s head. What a brilliant little image.
If Helpless was asking us to question our preconceived notions about femininity, power, and equality, The Zeppo asks the same of us regarding masculinity. In the world of Buffy where women kick ass and are the frontline warriors, Xander accepts it. He is doesn’t try to change or deny it, or walk away from it. He embraces it. In the end, he finds a firmer grasp of his own identity, one that doesn’t require any witness other than himself. Love him or hate him, Xander is a very important component to the shows discussion of gender. As producer and director of the original Buffy movie Fran Kuzuki said in an interview: “you can [educate] your daughters to be Slayers, but you [also] have to educate your sons to be Xanders”.
And The Zeppo is the type of episode that makes Buffy, Buffy. It’s a show that can look at it’s own developed cliches, point at them, and laugh. As if to say to us, “You thought THAT was the point?”
During the final standoff, Xander appears to defeat O’Toole on his terms.
“Now we’ll find out who has less fear.”
But really, what has changed from the opening confrontation to now? Why was Xander able to face down O’Toole and his own possible demise so comfortably in the end? I’ve always felt that the notion of fearlessness or people who feel fear being perceived as cowardly, was an idiotic one. Fear is an essential survival mechanism. It’s a valuable tool that tells us not to poke the bear or to run when the lions start chasing. Total absence of fear isn’t courage. It’s stupidity.
To quote author Meg Cabot, “Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something else is more important.” And here, in the quiet of the high school basement Xander puts everything on the line to save his friends. What else would we expect from Buffy’s metaphorical heart?