Monday, June 20, 2011

Buffy Blog: "The Zeppo"

“The Zeppo”, to paraphrase Spike from season two’s “Halloween”, is just plain fun. Written by Dan Vebber (who would go on to write for Matt Groening’s and David X. Cohen’s Futurama) and directed by James Whitmore Jr., “The Zeppo”, along with season four’s “Superstar” and season seven’s “Storyteller”, both written by Jane Espenson, can, I suppose, be seen as“postmodernist” because it, and they, are all self-aware, all seem rather off kilter, all manipulate audience expectations, and all break, to some extent, the mythical fourth wall as a result.

“The Zeppo’s” narrative, mise-en-scene, and music all reflect the off centredness of the episode. And they reflect it from the very beginning of the episode. The teaser to “The Zeppo” begins with a knock down drag out battle between the sisterhood of Jhe, an all female demon cult that eats those they triumph over and who want to bring the world to an end (apocalypse again) and is the monster of the week, and our heroes Willow, Buffy, Faith, and Giles. The off kilter quality of the episode comes into play because of the absence of Xander in this fight, an absence which gives us the viewer, or at least this viewer, a sense right away that something is a bit off, that something is a bit weird, that something is a bit strange. It’s not long before we find out what happened to Xander. About a minute or so into the teaser the Xandman, who has been thrown by one of the warriors of the Sisterhood of Jhe into a pile of rubbish rises out of a pile of rubbish. Even the mise-en-scene, in other words, marginalizes Xander.

This sense that something is off and that Xander is suddenly being marginalized from the Scooby Gang continues throughout the remainder of the teaser as our supernatural superheroes, Willow the Witch, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Giles the Watcher, Faith the Vampire Slayer, and Angel the Vampire each, out of a concern for the unsuperhuman Xander, tell him one after the other that it is too dangerous for him to take part in the battle against the powerful and strong Sisterhood of Jhe.

This marginalization of Xander in “The Zeppo” continues throughout the length and breadth of the episode. The school bully Jack O’Toole, whose soda is knocked over by a football Xander is unable to catch during a game of catch at Sunnydale High, threatens to kick Xander’s ass. That other human in the Scooby Gang, Cordelia, who is missing in action, seems to have returned to her mean girl persona of season one and some of season two form and is in full revenge and Xander put down mode, calling him a “little nothing”, a Jimmy Olsen, the cub reporter from the Superman comics who often puts himself intentionally or unintentionally in harms way, and a Zeppo, the fourth of the Marx Brothers who starred on stage and on screen but who virtually no one remembers these days. Angel, who Xander runs into at the Bronze in act one, tells Xander to steer clear of the dangers associated with the coming apocalypse. Giles, who Xander runs into in one of Sunnydale’s cemeteries in act two as the Watcher is trying to learn more about the apocalypse by communicating with the spirit guides, leaves Xander behind with his new friends while going off to prepare for the coming apocalyptic battle. Willow, who Xander runs into outside a magic shop to which Willow has come to supplies for a protection spell later in act two, tells Xander she loves him not sure she will ever see her again. Faith kicks Xander out of her apartment after he saves her from one of the female warriors of the Sisterhood of Jhe early in act three. Buffy and Angel, who Xander goes for help later in act three, are in hyper exaggerated almost campy gothic romance and apocalyptic mode (something the music reflects) and and hence of no help to the Xandman who seems ever more isolated from them.

One of the things that is really off kilter about “The Zeppo” is the fact that we are only shown snatches of Buffy’s, Willow’s, Faith’s, Angel’s, and Giles’s struggle to keep the world from ending on what will be a very long night in Sunnydale. It is also off kilter because, as we the viewers learn very rapidly, this is not a Scooby episode. It is a Xander episode. “The Zeppo” largely centres on Xander’s character arc, an arc the other Scoobies are simply not aware of.

This Xander episode begins with Xander’s accidental involvement in spilling Jack O’Toole’s soda. The interaction between Xander and Jack, one in which Xander’s manhood is threatened by Jack and right afterwards by Cordelia (the you are a Zeppo speech I referred to earlier) underlines that “The Zeppo not only about Xander, is not only about manipulating the audience, but is a parody of macho manliness. Feeling marginalized by the Scoobies and feeling emasculated by Jack O’Toole Xander attempts to find the thing that will make him, as he says to Oz, “cool” and that will make him feel like a man.

Xander, of course, has long been concerned about his manliness. And the “thing” he comes up with to do something about it is a “thing” Buffy very appropriately refers to as a “penis metaphor”, a car, a 1957 Chevy Bel Aire, an appropriate “penis metaphor in a US in which males are obsessed with their automobiles. And while the car enables Xander to do his formulaic donut run for the supernatural Scoobies it also, after he is put down yet again by Cordy the mean, enables him to pick up a “chick”, to Cordy’s surprise.

With “chick” in tow it’s off to the Bronze for Xander and Lysette. There Xander runs into Angel, as I noted before. Unfortunately for Xander it’s also at the Bronze that the he and Lysette run into Jack again. As Xander and Lysette are leaving. Xander crashes his “penis metaphor” into Jack’s car, Jack’s stolen car it turns out. Ubermacho Jack, responds to the accident the same way he responded to the first accident Xander caused, he threatens the Xandman, this time with his knife Katie. Xander’s manhood goes once again into deflation mode. Xander manages to extricate himself from his dilemma by telling a policeman who happens upon Jack threating him that he and Jack were “’rasslin”. As a result Jack asks Xander if he wants to have some fun.

The fun Jack has in mind is raising his “boys”, his “buddies” (Bob, Dickie, and Parker), from the dead. This is why Xander is in one of Sunnydale’s cemetaries when he runs into Giles. With the “boys” raised and Lysette gone—she is freaked by Jack’s raising of the dead—Xander becomes wheel man for the “boys” who resurrected from the dead now want to have a bit of fun. The fun they choose is “bak[ing] a cake”. While the “boys” are collecting what they need to “bake a cake” from a hardware store they break into Xander runs into Willow coming out of the magic shop across the street.

Running into Willow seems to lead to a bit of self-reflection in Xander and he decides that hanging with the dead and becoming a member of the gang of the dead by becoming dead himself is not for him. So he splits in his “penis metaphor”. Running into a Faith battling for her life with one of the warriors of the Sisterhood of Jhe in act three Xander rams his “penis metaphor” into the warrior incapacitating her for the moment and allowing Faith and Xander to escape. Hungry and horny (remember that line in “Faith, Hope, and Trick” earlier in season three?) and ready to pop (wow there are so many sex metaphors in this episode) after not getting a kill Faith helps Xander get “up with people” (a reference to the late 1960s musical group that always seemed like a mainstream response to the hippie and countercultural movements of the late sixties and seventies), gets Xander, and then gets him gone.

With his virginity lost and his sense of manhood inflated as a result Xander looks at the supplies the “boys” stole in order to build a cake and discovers it is not a cake they are building but a bomb. Trying to figure out where the gang might plant a bomb Xander goes to Buffy and Angel later in act three but to no avail. As he is driving to the school to ask Giles about where the dead boys might plant a bomb he comes across them walking in the street, grabs Parker while driving, interrogates him, and gets almost all the answers he needs—the bomb is at Sunnydale High—before he decapitates Parker by driving too close to a post box. Hilarious.

Xander, now that he is knowledge guy, heads to Sunnydale High to defuse the bomb with Jack, Bob, and Dickie in close pursuit. In the chase through the high school halls Xander manages to dispatch Bob with a soda macine. Dickie is killed when trapped in a room by the Sisterhood of Jhe. All the while we see glimpses of the apocalyptic battle Buffy, Faith, Willow, Angel, and Giles are involved in during the chase. Then he traps Jack in the boiler room where the bomb lies. Xander, in a scene laced with references to Donald Siegel’s machoish Dirty Harry (1971), refuses to let Jack leave and thus forces him to defuse the bomb. On his way out the door Xander tells O’Toole that he doesn’t want to see him on campus anymore. And he won’t since Jack is eaten by Werewolf Oz as he tries to exit through another door leaving Oz feeling “oddly full” the next day. Hilarious.

In the final scene of “The Zeppo” Cordy tries once again to pull Xander’s chain. This time Xander smiles and walks away from Mean Cordelia. Xander, at least for the moment, is a new man.

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