Posted by: thebuffyrewatch | December 3, 2011

Robin’s Review: S3, E13 – The Zeppo

Synopsis: Signs of evil are appearing as the hellmouth is about to open again. Xander feels increasingly left out by his super powered friends. He borrows a car to try and be seen as cool but it leads him into the path of local psycho Jack O’Toole. Jack begins raising his friends from the dead and forces Xander to drive them around. The Scoobies prepare for Armageddon and keep Xander out of the loop. When he realises that Jack plans on blowing up the school he is the only one who can stop him.

The Good: I’ve been waiting a decade to write this review. When I first saw “The Zeppo” I absolutely loved it. Adored it. It was one of the best things I had ever seen ever.

Once I started to write reviews as the TV Critic I began to realise that when I actually committed my thoughts to the written word they didn’t always come out as I had imagined. Some episodes have flaws that I had previously overlooked. Some had hidden strengths I hadn’t considered. I haven’t watched “The Zeppo” in a long time and with Xander looking less impressive than I remembered during “The Buffy Rewatch” I was nervous about sitting through it again. Would it hold up? Would it be a disappointment?

On first viewing I loved that the young male lead, of a show about a girl, finally got to take centre stage. I loved that Xander was able to do what every geeky fanboy wishes they could do – go from zero to hero in a day. I loved the fact that Xander was able to save the world with just his wits as a weapon and then could refrain from telling anyone what he did. That last part was the most heroic thing of all because any real geeky fanboy knows that they would have talked about it for years to come.

On rewatch that central emotional core remained true. What stands out about this episode is the singular focus on Xander. His struggle for identity as “just” a guy within a group of super heroes is the real story despite the grand apocalypse in the background. And quite unlike any episode of Buffy before the focus never leaves him. The more intense the hellmouth part of the story becomes the less real and resonant it gets which thrusts more and more onus on Xander to provide the relatable emotions.

When I first watched this Xander’s story really gripped me. We had never seen him or anyone on the show just live. We had never followed any one person’s story from incident to incident like this and I had no idea what would happen next. On rewatch the intrigue had all vanished of course but the pace of the episode made up for that. The story whipped along at a terrific rate and my chest was tingling with tension as the credits died away, such was my concentration on the action. The story of Xander’s world collapsing all around him while he tried desperately to hold it together remains an amazing achievement.

Let’s talk specifics…

I really like that Cordelia is taking time out just to tease and mock him. It fits their story perfectly that she would want to belittle him after their break up but just by interacting with him she gives away how much she still cares. He has no right to snap back at her anymore and so is naturally thrilled when a hot blonde walks up and takes notice of his car. Of course that gets him nowhere because he’s still Xander and he continues to be shut out by the Scoobies from helping them with the coming apocalypse.

Then he runs into Jack O’Toole again and the real fun begins. O’Toole played the psycho nicely and the idea of raising the dead was a particularly familiar one for Buffy fans (202, 302). That led nicely to the first resurrection where Xander, a veteran of graveside antics, shrugged while Lysette went screaming into the night. Xander managed to keep calm and get away from the mad gang of dead vandals and ran into Faith.

Again I think this sex scene is one that stands out for its contrast with the rest of Buffy. It’s very much a male fantasy as the hot and worldly Faith gives Xander the experience that guys dream about. Xander’s nervousness and excitement is far easier for a guy to relate to than Buffy and Angel surrendering to their passion (213). At this stage I was impressed with the change in performance from Xander. As he gets back into his car he is calm for the first time all episode. Gone for a moment is the jittery, jokiness that he had been playing up to that point.

That calmness then allowed him to take charge of the attack on Jack’s gang even as the opening hellmouth put into perspective the danger he was facing. The final showdown with Jack remains one of my favourite scenes in television history. The mirroring of Jack’s question about fear definitely works as a neat piece of scripting. Xander is no longer afraid of not fitting in to a gang of super heroes. He has learnt to be his own kind of hero.

But beyond that I just love everything about the way he defeats Jack. He has to risk his life in a way that he never has before and he finds the inner calm to know he has to do it. It’s also a case of heart over brain. Xander can’t defuse the bomb himself and he can’t ask anyone else for help. So he simply puts his life on the line and uses his fear to convince Jack to disconnect the wires himself. The line “I like the quiet” captures it all perfectly. He now accepts that his quieter role in the gang has value in itself and he doesn’t need a “thing” to have an identity. It’s also a statement in contrast to all we know about Xander. He is always loud and attention seeking and making jokes. In that moment he is growing up a little and realising the value of being quiet. Again it strikes a contrast to the Buffy-like quips he was trying to come up with minutes before. This moment is serious. On a TV show about vampires and demons and dead football players asking if their friends have been recording Walker Texas Ranger for them it astounds me how profound and wonderful I find that moment.

I think it also manages to shine yet another light on the dignity and heroism of Buffy herself. She puts her life on the line all the time and here Xander has learnt from her example. Through her he has discovered how to be a true hero and risk his life for the sake of others. His act has a different resonance though because he isn’t the chosen one. He has no super powers to support him. He has to stand more alone, in a way, than she does. It’s a tremendously brave act.

Deep breath.

Another thing I loved about “The Zeppo” on first viewing was the delightful skewering of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a show. The A and B plots were switched in a way I had never seen on any show before. As I’ve already said this manages to shift the focus even more strongly onto Xander but it achieves several other things too. One is just the comedy value of Xander’s mishaps taking centre stage while the end of the world is in the background. This allowed plenty of fun moments with no one clueing Xander in on what was really going on. It also satirised the whole show in a way that was pretty risky. When Xander walks in on Buffy and Angel going through one of their intense arguments the show is mocking one of its central emotional hooks. I wouldn’t blame some viewers for feeling that this undermined a story that they care about but I thought it walked the line well. The fact that those apocalypse scenes were played entirely straight really helped. It meant that I viewed the closing of the hellmouth as a real and serious incident. In a way that story implies that we don’t always see the fights which Buffy and Angel wage against evil. For them it is a daily occurrence, it just so happens that today the cameras followed Xander.

After the breathless intensity of it all (with Jack neatly gobbled up by werewolf Oz) the final scene is calm. The gang all thank one another for a job well done and Xander is able to take all Cordelia’s abuse with a smile. She no longer hits a nerve because without him the world would have ended. It restores huge dignity to Xander’s character that he tells no one about what he did. Again he has learnt from Buffy, who labours daily in obscurity, the true meaning of heroism.

Finally of course this episode had good comedy. Top of the list is probably Faith kicking Xander out of her bed as soon as the act was done but there were lots of good comedy cuts from one scene to another as well.

The Bad: Of course as we asked back in “Prophecy Girl”, who explained what happened to the library to Snyder? Presumably next episode it will be back to normal with no mention of the huge hole in the floor. I guess we will have to wait and see but you would think that after everything that went on the night before the school would be closed for some clean up.

The Unknown: This episode does sort of create and answer its own question. The opening scene makes it explicit that we are supposed to view Xander as Jimmy Olsen and think of his dilemma as the odd one out in a group of super powered crime fighters. However this isn’t a situation that organically occurred. At the start of the season he was nicknamed NightHawk and went out fighting vampires with everyone else. Just a couple of episodes ago he was an integral part of the gang, helping Buffy when all the adults went crazy (311). In fact five episodes ago Spike almost caved his head in and no one suggested that he stay out of the Slaying business. I think the episode did a good job of making the dilemma seem plausible but it was created pretty much from scratch.

On rewatch I found the episode less funny and less gripping which is understandable (as I knew what was coming). I think it all works better when Jack’s gang are unpredictable and the sense that Xander’s life is falling apart is tangible. When I first heard him tell Faith “did I mention that I’m having a really strange night” I probably giggled with sheer delight at it all. This time I just nodded.

Giles has had his access to sources cut by the Watcher’s Council even though the new Watcher hasn’t arrived yet. That sounds just like the Council doesn’t it?

Best Moment: “I like the quiet” and everything before it.

The Bottom Line: I will never recapture the sense of adventure and excitement that I felt when I first saw this episode. But I hope in my review I have helped explain something of how I felt back then. I save my scores of 90 plus for episodes which are both excellent and do things you can’t see anywhere else. You couldn’t have another Zeppo next week. This episode works because no other episode of Buffy has ever looked or felt like this.

The writers break all their own rules. The episode isn’t about Buffy. It isn’t about vampires. It isn’t about the ensemble. It isn’t really about the ongoing stories. It’s about one person going on an emotional rollercoaster that changes their perspective on themselves and the world. Buffy is a subversion of horror stereotypes and this is a subversion of Buffy.

I can see that this episode won’t be for everyone. If you weren’t on that emotional ride with Xander then I can fully accept a description of this as ‘silly’, ‘exaggerated’ or even possibly ‘undermining.’ However I was on that ride. And even if I wasn’t I hope I could still see something of the amazing creative achievement that it is.




  1. I also love this ep!!! I did not love it the first time, as you did, but I think being a teenage girl when it first aired probably had something to do with that. I love all the the things you do, plus – I really like that this episode addresses Xander’s relationship with women, with two characters that don’t have any lasting romantic relationship with him.
    Lysette and Faith both see something they want, and take it from him without really stopping to care about what he wants, or is feeling. Xander often ignores Willow/Buffy/Cordelia’s feelings to follow his own desires/hormones/emotional crisis. I like that after Faith kicks him out he experiences the difference between a physical encounter with someone who genuinely values you and someone who doesn’t.
    I agree that the sudden distance the gang puts between Xander and the events going on is inorganic, and a little exaggerated but I like it because I feel like there are a number of rifts in his relationships with them right now. Since Jenny died he and Buffy have been distant or fighting. Since Lover’s Walk Willow and Xander have had to create boundaries in the relationship, and while he may not have contributed to a lot of the actual fighting, before that he let himself feel important because he was a bestest bud.
    So I like that this ep uses a story that exaggerates this emotional distance, even though it is contrived. And I like that he gets a chance to move through his douchy phase (aka – really annoying but realistic teenage boy phase) feeling more like a man.


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