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Monday, November 14, 2011

The Pack

[Updated April 29, 2013]

I watched BtVS because my then-nine year old daughter wanted to watch and was worried that it would be too scary. I thought the first few episodes were cute and funny, oblivious to metaphors or growing up or anything else. The Pack was the episode which made me sit up and think there might be something more to this show. It’s really a dark episode – the male lead, someone we like, actually attempts to rape the heroine. Now, it’s done in metaphor, there’s an excuse given, and Buffy euphemizes Xander’s attack by calling it “felony sexual assault”, but I saw it as a daring and dark episode for a show which seemed so light in the beginning. I mean really – they ate the nice Principal Flutie?

Buffy will get darker and darker as the series continues; this was the first real hint of something deeper.
Let’s consider Xander’s actions in the context of the show. We learned from Giles in The Harvest that a vampire “isn’t a person at all”. Rather, a demon sets up shop in the human; the person is “infected by the demon’s soul”. That sounds a lot like Xander’s situation. He was infected by a hyena, but the net result was pretty much the same. Jesse became infected by a demon, but his basic view of the world remained very similar to what it had been before: he went to the Bronze, he wanted Cordelia, he resented not getting what he wanted. It seems that the demon may be in control, but that elements of Jesse’s memory and personality remained. Only the moral restraints were lifted.
Similarly, Xander became cruel to others, but like the human Xander he remained obsessed with Buffy. Let’s face it – hyenas don’t sexually assault human women. That came from Xander, not the demon possessing him.
This raises all kinds of interesting moral issues. It is, for one thing, a comment in metaphor about the evil potential inside all of us. Xander isn’t a bad person. He just has dark sides to him which he keeps in restraint and which we’d never have seen if the demon hadn’t released them. Given Xander’s “Everyman” role on the show, this seems like a commentary on all of us. And it probably is more true than we’d like to admit about ourselves.
So does this mean Xander was at fault, that he was morally culpable for the attack on Buffy? I have my own view of this, though I won’t give it now. But you should be thinking about it because this same issue is going to arise at critical moments throughout the show in some of the very best episodes.
Since I’m of the view that every episode is all about Buffy in some way, I need to explain how I think that factors in to an episode which seems to be very much about Xander (like Teacher’s Pet). There’s an interesting fact about hyenas: they are female dominant. The reason why they’re female dominant is even more interesting: the females produce an unusually high concentration of androgens (male hormones), including testosterone.
The way I see the episode is that Buffy is the dominant character. She’s stronger than everyone else and she’s in control in some ways even when she’s taking Giles’ advice. Thus, the message for Buffy seems to me a simple one of “this (Xander) could be you”. It’s not about bashing males for “testosterone poisoning” or anything superficial like that, it’s about not abusing a position of dominance, about caring for the weak (as Buffy does in the dodge ball game) rather than preying on them.

I should add that I thought this episode used a number of dramatic devices to add to the effect. The silence of the Pack, interrupted by laconic phrases and cruel laughter; the power walk; the image of Willow watching the documentary so that we don’t actually see them eat the pig. And Nick Brendan was terrific as the possessed and dangerous Xander.


  1. i watched this last night, so i could comment today :) i agree that it's one of nick's finest performances. he totally sells the "moment of posession" when he turns back to buffy and willow with that look upon his face - not quite a smile...
    and *SPOILER AHOY* in answer to your question as to whether this makes xander morally culpable i give you: "kick his ass"

  2. Yes, this is quite the good ep. And I'm glad Xander didn't help to eat the principal. Now, I remember(maybe incorrectly) in The Harvest, Cordelia reacting a bit more favorably towards Jesse with his new forward manner(until he takes it too far). Doesn't she do the same with new more forward Xander in a scene as well?

    If so, and Cordelia is supposed to be Buffy's shadow self, well you can see what this is saying about Buffy.

    Also, it was quite irritating that Xander got so many focal episodes in the beginning of S1, while Willow isn't really touched on til I Robot You Jane. But it does make sense thematically, considering what Xander stands for about Buffy herself, and these episodes help define that.


    Plus, eventually the storytelling will definitely weigh more in Willow's favor as the stories go on(perhaps establishing that Buffy's heart remains steady, but her spirit is always evolving).

  3. This episode comes across a bit silly to me on rewatch; the themes of darkness and the "everyman's" potential for evil, while explored in potent fashion here, just work so much better later in the show that this episode seems to suffer in comparison (and, even for the first season, I find it one of most dated in its look).

    However, it was definitely the first episode that really creeped me out the first time I watched the series. I couldn't believe they would take it so far as to have them eat the principal! And Xander's "lost memory" seemed a lot creepier than I think it was supposed to (and might hint at future instances of "convenient" Xander brain lapses).

  4. SPOILERS through at least Becoming 2:

    stephane: Heh. Xander's definitely on the "morally culpable" side when it comes to Angel or Spike. Less so with himself. Even when the fact that he remembers his time as a hyena slips out in Phases, he rushes past the point.

    Aeryl: Cordy doesn't appear in The Pack, but your point about her reaction to Jesse in The Harvest is a good one. And, of course, Cordy will try to hit on Angel several times, notably in Some Assembly Required and Halloween.

    I agree with you about Xander, though at this point he was my favorite character after Buffy. I think you're right that there are good thematic reasons for his prominence at this point, which I'll make explicit in the Angel posting on Thursday. It's probably obvious to everyone who's already seen the show.

    By the end of S2, I liked Willow much better and that remained the case for the rest of the series.

  5. aaron: You're absolutely right that the themes were done better in later seasons. One of the main points I'll eventually make about S1 when we get to Prophecy Girl is that Joss had to tell the outline of his vision in just 12 episodes. That makes his achievement in S1 pretty remarkable, but it also means that he uses ideas first raised in S1 and explores them in much more depth in later seasons.


    An easy example of what I mean is the relatively short treatment given Angel in S1 compared to the season-long drama of S2. S1 is impressive given the short scope available. S2 is brilliant.

  6. I think "hyena possession" constitutes a mental disease or defect sufficient to negate mens rea.

    Which brings up the question of whether any un-slain vampires who serve prison terms then have to be deported to a Hell dimension after completion of their sentence.

  7. Well, let's see what kind of defense I could make for Xander if I were his lawyer. There's not a perfect real world substitute for demon possession, obviously, but a reasonable facsimile might be substance abuse.

    Intoxication can be a defense to crimes, but only if it's involuntary. Let's say, then, that Xander went to a party and someone spiked the punch bowl without him knowing it. That would make him not guilty, and it fits reasonably well with the story, substituting a party for the hyena den and intoxication for the demon possession.

    And then maybe a Hell dimension. :)

    I'll have lots more to say on this, but I'm holding off until probably Amends.


    "Even when the fact that he remembers his time as a hyena slips out in Phases, he rushes past the point."

    Xander does the same thing in Selfless during this exchange:

    Xander: You think we haven't all seen this before? The part where you just cut us all out? Just step away from everything human and act like you're the law? If you knew what I felt...
    Buffy: I killed Angel. Do you even remember that? I would've given up everything I had to be with - I loved him more than I will ever love anything in this life and I put a sword through his heart because I had to.
    Willow: And that all worked out okay.
    Buffy: Do you remember cheering me on? Both of you? Do you remember giving me Willow's message? 'Kick his ass'?
    Willow: I never said that...
    Xander: This is different.
    Buffy: It is always different. It's always complicated. And at some point someone has to draw the line and that is always going to be me. You-you get down on me for cutting myself off, but, in the end, the Slayer is always cut off. There's no mystical guide book, no all knowing council. Human rules don't apply. There's only me. I am the law.
    Xander: There has to be another way.
    Buffy: Then please find it.

    Willow immediately pipes up that she never said it, yet xander totally diverts the conversation away from it. classic xander.

    gotta love the character consistency over 7 years!!

  9. I watched this episode fairly recently, and like most of season 1 it's pretty weak. That said, it is by far the darkest material we've seen up to this point and that keeps things interesting enough. I remember watching it for the first time over a year ago and being totally floored when they ate the principal. Just crazy stuff. I also remember thinking, up to this point, how much more interesting a character Willow was compared to Xander, but like another commenter said, her time is almost here with the awful IRYJ.

    Thrilled you've made this blog, Sophist!

  10. "Let’s face it – hyenas don’t sexually assault human women. That came from Xander, not the demon possessing him."

    THANK YOU! I have been arguing this point for a really long time myself. Every other behavior he displays can be easily correlated with hyenas except for that one.

    Then again, I haven't studied hyenas in depth, so maybe there is sexual assault in their... culture? Is that the word?

    Until I find out for sure, I will firmly maintain that Xander influenced the hyena as much as the hyena influenced him, and that the attempted rape is evidence for it.

  11. Hi Mark! I'd like to include your BtVS blog on my Whedon Studies Bibliography. I'll have to list it under your blog title, "Fragments of My Imagination", so perhaps you can let me know if you have a better idea, or if you ever change the name to "Unpaid Sophistry" (or anything else, for that matter!) In any case, I look forward to reading more posts! :) - Alysa Hornick

  12. I'm thrilled to have you list it. Right now I don't have a more Buffy-centric name, so go ahead and use Fragments. If I come up with something more apt I'll let you know. Thanks.

  13. It occurs to me that a better title would probably be that of my introductory post: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Myth, Metaphor and Morality.

  14. Joss must've liked the Buffy-hyena contrast too, since we get to meet her in S3.

    Also, I always saw this episode to be partially about bullying.

  15. Edit: I just read your review again after rewatching the episode. I hope my comment didn't sound sarcastically obvious. What I mean is that I used to think this story dealt with, among other things, bullying and Xander's own need to belong and be strong. We see him get infected, in fact, as soon as he stands up to the bullies in the zoo. After reading your analysis about the Buffy side, though, I now also see it as her potential dark path. She (or we) could easily be a predatory threat to humans if not for her conscience. I'm enjoying how these early episodes set up each of the characters' paths and their relationships to each other--and especially how (as you're showing me) they all relate back to Buffy's experience. Since I didn't start watching until I was in my 40's, I don't always immediately pick up on the teen role model aspect of our main character.

    1. Oh no, not at all. And I agree that the bullying issue is definitely there.

  16. I noticed on rewatch that this bit of dialogue seems to fit with your magical realism take — that Buffy causes what happens around her (or at least fuels it somehow).

    Willow: That's not fair. Buffy saved both of our lives.

    Hyena!Xander: Before she came here our lives didn't need that much saving, did they? Weren't things a lot simpler when it was just you and me?