FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - The Zeppo
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: When the Master rose, the gang fought off a big tentacle-based creature from the Hellmouth opening in the library. Faith's the new Slayer in town and working with the gang, but is frequently absent and Xander is now the only character in the immediate four Scoobies that doesn't have any form of superpower. Also, Giles got fired from the Watcher's Council.
When I was younger and even less wise than I am now, I didn't have a whole lot of time for The Zeppo. The Marx Brothers reference passed me by, Xander was never particularly a favourite character and I really resented that I barely saw any of the other Scoobies in this episode. Considering how much I tend to love the episodes that upset the status quo, it's odd that I just didn't react to this episode at all. Of course, now I'm slightly older and wiser (only slightly), I realise that's pretty much the point of the episode. With more of an open mind going into The Zeppo, I can understand now why it ranks so highly for many fans of the show and why flipping the traditional episode formula of the A Plot and B Plot produced such a great result.
That twist on the usual episode structure proves to be a masterstroke with the majority of the episode devoted to Xander's quest to be cool and then his entrance into the gang of Jack O'Toole and his resurrected gang of juvenile delinquents. Having battled the Sisterhood of Jhe and nearly gotten himself killed in the process, Xander is told repeatedly that he should stay out of the way. In the background, the main bulk of the Scoobies are fighting off another impending apocalypse in the library, but the threat of the apocalypse hangs heavy over the episode and contrasts sharply with Xander's story. Everything in the apocalypse storyline is massively overplayed to great effect, particularly in the scene between Angel and Buffy which follows the traditional overwrought pattern of their most dramatic exchanges... until Xander shows up.
The writing is spot on all the way through the episode whether it's the brilliant conversation between Xander and Oz about the essence of cool (Seth Green proving once again he needs only two words to be funny) or Cordelia's takedown of Xander after his confrontation with school bully Jack O'Toole. The contrasts between the high drama of impending doom and the comedy of Xander's situation is beautifully played, underpinned by a fantastic score that captures both the weighty end of the world atmosphere and the considerably more playful moments in the main storyline. It brings the climax of the episode to near farcical levels as Xander chases the undead gang with an axe only to have them all run the other way when the Sisterhood of Jhe turn up and start chasing them all. It's another neat reference to the Marx brothers who give the episode its name and a visual joke that gets a big laugh.
It transforms what would just have been another end of the world based episode into something far more personal, more of a coming-of-age story for Xander as he finally starts to recognise that his self-worth is only something he can bestow on himself and not something measured by others. For a character who traditionally acts as a borderline antagonist within the group itself, it's a fascinating development, concentrating all of his neuroses into one episode and keeping him apart from those who enforce them. Also, it builds into the constant thread of his character, that of the outsider whose value is often underestimated by the rest of the gang. His smile at the end to Cordelia is one of Xander's most triumphant moments in the series, topping even his confrontation with Jack in the basement for me. Standing in the way of a bomb just seems less dangerous than standing up to Queen C.
The other thing to admire about the episode is the technical skill that went in to creating it. The show's practical make-up effects were pretty stellar from the word go, but everyone here is excellently constructed. The Hellmouth demon is wonderfully fierce, all heads and teeth and dry ice, the Sisterhood of Jhe in particular look like the kind of demons you really don't want to run into down a dark alley and the dead members of O'Toole's gang are nicely icky. James Whitemore Jr's direction is also highly inventive, making use of reflections to show some of the episode's more R-rated moments; Xander and Faith's tryst is seen in the screen of her TV whilst the Hellmouth monster is rarely seen full-on, but in the library window's reflection or through a wall.
I still haven't quite warmed up to The Zeppo as much as some people, but I stand in admiration of its brilliance. There's not a foot put wrong anywhere in the episode and whilst, it probably won't beat some of the other 'best episodes' competition in my mind, it's a cracking standalone character piece.
Quote of the Week:
Xander: I like the quiet.
Let's Get Trivial: According to Mr Whedon himself, this episode would go on to inspire the premise of Agents of S.H.I.E.LD., following the other guys who don't have superpowers.
Inventive Kill: Not realising that Oz in werewolf form is behind a basement door, Jack O'Toole vows his revenge before being eaten alive. Or should that be eaten dead? Either way, Oz is left 'strangely full' the next day.
Sunnydale Who's Who: Michael Cudlitz who played Bob would go on to play the much loved Sgt. Bull Randleman in Band of Brothers.
You can read Becky's look at previous episode Helpless here.