The Pack

Season One, Episode Six

Lost time.

The Pack: The Review


For the second time in three episodes, Xander gets a chance to take center stage. Unlike Teacher's Pet, that successfully examined the characters of the cast while innovating with seemingly sterile material, The Pack is a disappointment from every aspect of consideration, including the characterization. The device by which the episode attempts to explore the more feral features of Xander's personality merely demonizes in a way that vampirism has already explored better in the brief history of the series. The plot borrows its pack metaphor from sources as diverse as The Wild One and the The Wild Bunch, and its theme of recrudescence from movies ranging from Cat People to Altered States, but it does nothing especially interesting or imaginative with any of the ideas or imagery. Worse, the description of a youth gang as a pack of hyenas is used with such literal bluntness that the term metaphor loses all of its technical denotation, the factual exemplar being driven home with a sledge hammer.

The four primary members of the pack are already social predators before the episode begins. This dilutes the effectiveness of the metaphorical transpossession that they suffer, and it makes them unsympathetic as victims, as well. That the viewers have never seen any of them is a weakness, too, for their abrupt inclusion marks them out as intruders rather than as indigenæ, and their very novelty is a dramatic clue that they have been conjured for some special purpose, only to be banished when that purpose has been fulfilled. What dramatic point is there to the metamorphosis of like into like? They serve only as a nucleus to which Xander can be added, for it is he who undergoes the real transformation.

Buffy, the viewers are shortly to learn, is in a nostalgic mood. The trip to the zoo has recalled memories of Hemery. Had this been known from the very first, her otherwise subdued reaction to the taunts hurled at her by the pack would have made sense. As it is, until the information is coaxed from her by Xander and Willow, the viewers cannot understand her vapid response. It seems a cheap way to make Buffy the victim and to produce a moment of puzzlement. Also, the moment is put to no further use. Buffys estrangement is an important theme in the show, and here it is trivialized and then set aside, not to be touched again for the duration of the episode.

Xander makes a gesture of manliness and separates himself from Buffy, who is the natural protector, and he is, thus, put into conflict with the Kyle, Tor, Heidi, and Rhonda. Xander's assessment of the four as stereotypical schoolyard bullies, and therefore cowards, could be correct, and his familiarity with these four might suggest that he has some experience in dealing with them, but the scene in the Hyena House belies those conclusions. Buffy's delay can only be explained as some sort of deference to Xander's pride, but the scene feels more like a contrivance by which he can be separated briefly from Buffy and Willow than a genuine expression of the characters. It feels even more contrived when the Zookeeper conveniently arrives to detain Buffy and Willow, and then to deliver the all-important information that the hyenas are rumored to be demonic. Adding still more to the feeling is the fact that, despite this information about the legends, it never occurs to Buffy, the one person with a sense for these things, that a mix of demonic hyenas and Hellmouth cannot be considered a good thing. At that point, some direct intervention by Buffy, over the protestations of the Zookeeper, even over his prostrate body, would have been justified, was, indeed, required; but the contrivance was in control, that the possession might proceed.

Less than zero.

So, by whatever means, Xander is placed in position, an icon on a battlefield map, to be possessed with the others, and then the really poor writing catches up with the episode. Xander begins acting oddly at the Bronze. In fact, the viewers learn, he had begun acting oddly on the bus, while riding back from the zoo. Yet the viewers never see this earlier uncharacteristical behavior, nor, more objectionable dramatically, do they see Buffy's and Willow's initial perception of it. The beginnings of suspicion, or, at least, the first signs of their awareness, of his deviation are missing. They have been aware of the possibly demonic hyenas and Xander's altered personality since his exit of the quarantine area, and yet Buffy has not put the binaries together. For Xander's suddenly erratic characterization an explanation is given, but for Buffy's there is none.

Things deteriorate further when Xander arrives. There appears to be nothing left of Xander's own personality: the anonymous hyena spirit is in complete possession of the premises. There is no sign of struggle, no resistance by the suppressed personality. The term transpossession suggests that Xander's personality was displaced into the animal's body, when the animal's spirit took possession of Xander's body, but the viewers later learn that Xander remembers having been possessed. Thus, the viewers must conclude that Xander's consciousness remained in his own body for the duration of the possession. Unlike the vampiric reanimation of a corpse, from which the human soul has been stripped or expelled, the possession by the hyena of a living body results in a co-tenancy. Where, then, are the indications of Xander's continued habitation? The viewers are left to conclude either that the possession deprives the human personality of its power of expression or that the personality is complicitous, both options having no dramatic value. (Another index of the lack of any human interaction with the demonic possessor is the ease with which Xander is accepted into the pack. The human pack despised him, but the hyena pack readily makes room for him after identification.) All that occurs after possession is an expression of the animal appetites and instincts, and nothing of the human is illuminated. This is even less compelling a proposition than vampirism, in which human traits are retained and affect the expression of the demon's own being. In other words, except for the danger to Xander, anybody might have been possessed with equal dramatic impact. Insofar as drama is concerned, the possession of the original members of the pack would have sufficed, for to save them would have been a disinterested act. To save Xander is to be expected. To save four detestable bullies would be heroic.

The bullies present other dramatic problems which are not addressed. Having been possessed, their behavior can only become more extreme, their pack traits having been fully formed and demonstrated prior to their possession. The progression from the killing of Herbert the mascot to the cannibalistic murder of Principal Flutie is to be expected. Principal Flutie, never a sympathetic figure, is deliberately softened here, in order to make his death regrettable. His concern for the pig is used to make him seem likable. While Flutie's murder is shocking and disgusting, one actually feels more despondent about the death of Herbert. The attempt to manipulate the viewers is crude and counterproductive. That is one problem. Another is that the murder itself seems mere sensationalism. Nobody feels any compassion for Flutie, and it becomes simply a joke at the end. The act itself is introduced simply for the shock that it induces. It is gratuitous. A third problem is Xander's exemption from the murder. This is patently a copout. Xander's possession was included to increase the anxiety of the viewers: a threat to one of the central characters is more potent than the threat to four unknowns. If there was to be any dramatic value to the murder of Flutie, it was to be derived from Xander's participation in it. The act in itself, carried out by the unknowns, is simply another death, one of many in the show, but, with Xander's participation it becomes tragic. Obviously, the show blinked here, unwilling to take the risk, unwilling to face the consequences of the murder. That point leads to the last problem with the bullies, their eventual disposition. Having murdered the principal and eaten him, two heinous acts, what becomes of them? Nothing. Not a word is mentioned of them after the fact. Time can be given to Xander's memory, which is simply embarrassing, but not a second can be spared to consider the trauma which recollection of the murder must have upon the others.

In Sum

There is not much of redeeming value in The Pack. Buffy's remark that she hit Xander with a desk is funny. Buffy's gentle teasing of Willow about her obsession with Xander is amusing. The scene in which Willow reluctantly observes that Buffy has become the object of Xander's affections, and Buffy denies it only weakly, brings out the feelings that the girls have been afraid to admit or recognize. The scene in which Giles announces Flutie's death and the manner of his disposal is saved from silliness by the actors, who give the death the dignity denied it by the script. Other than that, there is nothing to recommend it. The fact that The Master was not even mentioned, having been so prominently invoked in the previous episode, makes The Pack seem like nothing more than a time-serving effort, meant to fill a space in the production run, while more important things were being done. It is is waste of time.

Horace LaBadie

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