03 May, 2011

The Great Buffy Rewatch: The Zeppo

            These three posts -- The Zeppo, Bad Girls and Consequences -- are part of Nikki Stafford's The Great Buffy Rewatch on her Blog, Nik At Nite;  which, as the Buffy fan that I am, I was honored to be a part.  They'll be broken into three posts, one per episode, with Spoilers as Endnotes, in case any of you are newbies to The Scoobies.  See what I did there?  Nothing?  Is this thing on?
            To begin, I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew.
            When I first read that Guest Commentators would be co-hosting The Great Buffy Rewatch, I knew I somehow had to be a part.  But how?  I wasn’t sure.  I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Nikki in person, just over email, but the little contact we’d had made me believe I could at least email her about it.  So I did.  And of course she was as wonderfully gracious as you’d expect;  as most of you already know.  That I – just another fan – could join what many consider the great Buffy academics around.
            Which brings me to the biting and chewing.
           First of all, who was I to join such academics?  Sure, I’ve worked in Hollywood all my professional life – including a stint on Dollhouse – so perhaps I had a certain “in;”  could give an insider’s opinion.  And I write about The Whedonverse every once in a while.  And I’m definitely a fan, having watched all of Whedon’s series live as they aired, including hosting get-togethers for Buffy -- eventually along with Angel -- those wonderful Tuesday nights.  But would any of this give me cred among the real academics?
            More biting, more chewing.
          For, second of all, by the time I threw my hat in the ring, all the episodes were taken.  Had I missed my chance?  Well, I did see there were a few double-ups, so I thought, “I’ll offer a couple of weeks and see what happens,” pretty sure I could write a little something entertaining, hopefully interesting, and succeed in my own original goal:  to simply be a part of this exciting year. 
            I saw the Zeppo week and remembered how much I love that episode (I’ve always had a soft spot for Xander[i]) so I thought, “Yeah!  Zeppo!  That one will be fun.”  But what I didn’t immediately think about was Bad Girls and Consequences being in the same group.  I tried to remember what happened in those.  (Before this Great Rewatch, I hadn’t seen Season 3 in a couple of years.)  “Let’s see, that’s where Faith kills The Deputy Mayor.  And one of them is where Wesley shows up.  Anything else?  Eh, I’ll figure it out.  Yeah, I can do a write-up on that group.”
For the sake of this review, of course, I rewatched Bad Girls and Consequences again and, well, there’s a lot that happens in them.  (As I smack myself in the head) They’re kind of the crux of the rest of the season.
Uh oh.  Had I picked the wrong group?  Especially considering my academic audience?
Had I bitten off more than I could chew?
Camera pushes in on me staring wide-eyed at my laptop, furiously typing away and –
            Opening Credits.

The Zeppo
w Dan Vebber
d James Whitmore Jr.

I have always been a fan of “What If” stories;  taking established settings and characters and viewing them under different circumstances.  We recently saw Buffy’s own best example with The Wish.  And while The Zeppo feels like one – or, as I like to think of it, more like Back To The Future Part 2 where Marty revisits the adventure in the first movie while simultaneously being on another;  seeing the events of one storyline from the different point of view of a simultaneous one – what separates it from being categorized as Elseworld is that it’s really happening.  This isn’t a What If, but happening in our setting to our characters.  And that’s something even cooler.[ii]
And “cool” is the theme here, isn’t it?  It’s precisely how Xander isn’t portrayed at the beginning of this episode;  and, for the most part, how he hasn’t been portrayed in the series thus far.  There are moments when Nicholas Brendon is given the chance to play cool – say, The Soldier in Halloween (but this is a spell cast on the character) – and even moments of Xander playing it cool – say, his punching out The Clown in Nightmares or reenacting The Soldier in Innocence – but he’s never really been cool yet.  Well, in The Zeppo he gets his comeuppance in spades.  For all the buttmonkeying he’s been put through[iii] and, as I say, for how this very episode begins, Xander goes from Zero to Hero in one of the best stories not just of the season but, in my opinion, of the very series.[iv]
Let’s talk about that, how great the story itself is.  The two stories.  The first is the End Of The World Apocalypse that’s bigger than most of the episodic bads we face.  This is a Big Bad, as big as the two Season Finales we’ve seen thus far.  As built up, wonderfully melodramatic as it is, it indeed feels like a Season Finale, including the scene between Buffy and Angel in the mansion that Xander awkwardly breaks into.[v]  (I particularly love the music cues here, the score beneath Buffy and Angel that cuts out when Xander’s there then resumes when he leaves.  But I’m getting ahead of myself, because …)  The second story is of course the one playing out behind these scenes;  the one in which, really, our primary adventure takes place.  In which Xander saves the day;  and all our heroes’ lives.
On his own.
It all begins when he’s sent off for donuts, a seemingly unimportant task until the great callback with Giles when he tells Buffy and Willow he’ll try and contact The Spirit Guides, and asks what happened to the jellies.[vi]  And that’s just one example of the brilliance in this episode, and what I meant by it feeling like a What If, or at least slightly removed from our regular timeline.  It’s packed with moments like that.  And while the basic story is split in two – the Apocalypse and Xander’s Adventure – Xander’s Adventure is split in two as well. 
First is the what I’ll call “brilliant wackiness” of it.  Cordelia calling Xander The Zeppo (is she really enough of a Marx Bros fan to quip a reference like that?);  Oz mocking Seth Green’s guitar playing; the cut from Oz playing light-of and Giles astutely serious that “it’s the end of the world;”  Xander (always sex-on-his-mind Xander) – remember in Innocence, “I’m seventeen.  Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.” – all but flat-out turning down Lysette to hang out with Angel (of all people);  the cool-in-the-face-of-death quip, “Mostly I feel Katie” (though “Yeah, I think it’s Bob” makes a great best-line argument);  losing his virginity to (of all people) Faith;  his (in a very cool moment) grabbing the one baddie, dragging him with the car, about to get the information he needs and WHAM;  Oz, his memory simply “oddly full;"  all of it crystallized by the perfectly delivered, “Did I mention I’m having a very strange night?” 
It is strange, brilliantly wacky -- as I say, slightly removed -- and that’s what makes it work.  It plays like a fairy tale but – and this really makes it work – it’s really happening. 
Xander is this cool.[vii]
But the other half of Xander’s Adventure is a serious story and, in most ways, a conventional one.  There’s the Zero To Hero arc, sure, but with wonderfully conventional dramatic moments.  (And I mean conventional here in a good way, giving us what we expect in any story by going above and beyond what we want from as good a show as Buffy.)  One instance is the donut setup/callback itself – and I believe this is why, the episode running short or not, Whedon added this scene (missing from the original script) – where the seemingly irrelevant task means so much (this time Xander is the one out of the loop, mirroring everyone else being out of the loop on his adventure).  But the biggest instance is the state of fear.  Remember the setup outside The Bronze where Jack calls Xander out?  “Fear. Who has the least fear.”  And then the magnificent end when Xander turns that exact phrase back on his nemesis.  (Quick aside.  All of the script pulls throughout this and other Commentaries are from the Shooting Script, not necessarily how they Air.)

You'll die too.

Yeah, looks like. So I guess the question really is … who has
less fear?

I ain't afraid to die. I'm dead.

Yeah, but this is different. Blowed up isn't walking around and drinking
with your buddies dead. It's 'little bits swept up by the janitor' dead, and
I don't think you're ready for that.

Are you?

Beat.  Jack.  Xander.  Clock.

(smiling calmly)
I like the quiet.

            “I like the quiet.”  As Ferris Bueller would say, “So choice.”  It’s the exact kind of Gary Cooper line we don’t expect from Xander – or the show, per se – but looooove when he says it.  Because it falls right in line with the duality of the piece.  The fairy tale.  
            (Speaking of asides, am I the only one that thinks the moment where Xander is chasing Dickie in the school hallway, only to be turned around and chased by The Demons must be an homage to Star Wars?  And speaking of Dickie, I do love the moment where he’s the only one to see what’s going on in the library.  “Wow,” he says!)
“But Xander’s totally brushed off by his friends,” a friend of mine said to me while we were discussing this episode one time.  But it’s not really a brush-off, is it?  Or, rather, it’s the kind of brush-off only real friends can give.  Because they don’t want him out of their hair like an annoying sibling, they want him out of the way because they’re genuinely concerned for his well being.  When Willow passes him outside The Magic Shop[viii], then coming back to tell him she loves him.  And I particularly like Buffy’s reaction to Xander in the mansion scene.  She waits for him to say what he needs to, even when he ends up saying nothing – she doesn’t come off as annoyed, it’s simply bad timing -- and when he asks if he can help, she just shakes her head, appreciative (I believe) that he’d even ask. 
I remember the first time I saw The Zeppo, when it first aired, I thought, “A ha!  The bomb’s in the basement of the school, right under the library (we’d dropped straight down from Giles – “Who knows what’s going to come up from beneath us?” – to first see it).  Xander will save the day by using the bomb to destroy the tentacled monster the others are fighting!”  (The same tentacled monster we first saw in Prophecy Girl;  I love Giles’s simple, “It’s Grown.”)  Well, how happy I was to be wrong.[ix]  Because even better is Xander saving the day – indeed saving all our heroes’ lives -- and they never know.  The episode is bookended by the wonderful Cordelia scenes[x] in which, at the beginning she berates him in wonderfully witty repartee – “Cool.  Look it up.  It's something a subliterate who's repeated the 12th grade three times has and you don't.” – and at the end, she can only look at him, bewildered, while continuing to ask, “What?  What?  What?” 
            “I like the quiet,” Xander said. 
So it’s no surprise, then, that it’s his silent smile, his back to Cordelia as he walks away, that’s the coolest ever.

                                                                          # # #

[i] Which makes me hate Hell’s Bells with a furious passion, but we’ll get to that later.  I don’t even blame Xander.  I love Xander.  But Whedon allowing it (and more on his "allowing it" later too)!  I'm not giving Commentary that week but oh do I have a few thoughts to share.
[ii] I’ve had this same argument about Restless.  It too feels like a What If episode, but it’s not.  Sure, it’s their dreams, but it’s happening within the construct of our real timeline (they remember their dreams at the end of the episode).  Different than, say, spell-cast sagas – the swooning “Isn’t he just?” of Superstar or the “Who are we?” of Tabula Rasa (in which how can you not love when Giles and Spike hug as father and son?).
[iii] And will continue to be put through, he himself fed up with that very label in Buffy Vs. Dracula.
[iv] One of my arguments against “bad writing” in a series (not standalones like features, I’m talking episodic storytelling;  a series of features, comics, especially television) is writing against character.  Having a character all of a sudden do something that is completely not who they are.  One of Buffy’s greatest strengths as a series is never failing here (including Willow’s Oz to Tara evolution in Season 4).  Sure, Xander is the loveable buffoon, as he will be again, but it’s in his character to do the right thing, so his being the hero here indeed works.  In fact, for me, Zeppo sets the stage for Grave when, again, Xander stands alone against all hell breaking loose.
[v] We’ll see a similar Buffy-Angel exchange “for real” in this season’s two-part finale, Graduation Day.
[vi] This scene isn’t in the Shooting Script, so it must have been written while they were shooting.  By Joss?  Feels like his work.  (Perhaps the episode came in short so it was added?  In any event …)  If you’ve never been to the great site Buffy World, please do;  it’s the best source for all the Buffy and Angel scripts online (that I know of).  And this “missing scene” is just one of the fun things you find when reading a script.  Another favorite is in Marti Noxon’s stage direction in Bargaining Part 1 when The Biker Gang arrives in town.  She writes, “The open highway. Razor leads a pack of demons, who roar down the road on their hogs. (or motorcycles. Motorcycles would be better.)”  It’s just stage direction, nothing to be seen on screen, it’s just for those reading, but I love when writers do that.
[vii] Foreshadowing the funny – and touching – The Replacement in which Xander’s cool is literally split from him, for everyone to once again realize it’s been part of him all along.  (And who doesn’t love the Snoopy dance?)
[viii] A decent recurring character of its own, from Jenny Calendar buying the Orb of Thesulah there in Passion (easily a Top 10 episode, also directed by Consequences’ Michael Gershman) and Giles becoming its proprietor in Season 5, to its demise at the end of Season 6.
[ix] We won’t see a bomb in the library save the day until Graduation Day Part 2, and what’s really waiting to come up from beneath there until the series finale Chosen.
[x] While so many people talk about Willow’s character arc throughout seven seasons – and rightly so – what about our little Cordelia?  How much she’s changed from the first couple seasons of Buffy to the woman she’ll become on Angel.

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