This is one of the show’s most unusual and original episodes. But while most of the BtVS episodes with an unusual format belong to its best (Hush, Restless, The Body, Once More, With Feeling, Conversations with Dead People), The Zeppo is, at the same time, a great episode and a very bad episode – depending on whether you look at in isolation or within the continuity of the show.
The originality of the episode comes from the inversion of the normal format: it is heavily filtered through an unusual perspective; the big epic events, in which Buffy and the Scoobies (Giles, Willow, Oz, Angel, and Faith) prevent apocalypse, are relegated to the B-plot, while the main plot is centered around Xander, who is feeling marginalized from the group and is being treated as more or less useless or inept to help with the ongoing danger (though in a polite, friendly way). Xander is dealing with his insecurities, feeling that he is useless since he has no superpowers or clearly defined role (something Cordelia calls him on), and is at the same time he’s obsessed with the idea that he has to find a way to be “cool”. ((It’s interesting that this episode, where Xander deals with the problem of not having superpowers, comes right after Helpless, where Buffy was dealing with a loss of her powers.) Meanwhile, his friends are mostly ignoring him because they’re too busy dealing with the apocalypse, while Cordelia is taking every chance to relentlessly mock him. The main antagonist in this A plot is Jack O’Neill, local thug who bullies and scares Xander. Xander starts off his quest with a pathetic attempt to be “cool” by borrowing a car from his uncle Rory, which then unexpectedly brings him into unwanted contact with Jack and his gang of undead thug buddies. He is at first terrified of them, then wins their trust and the unwanted chance to be initiated into their gang (all he has to do is… die), but then finds courage and determination to stand up to them and stop them from blowing up the school. The climax takes place in school at the same time as the Scoobies are fighting the demon baddies in another room – and while no one ever finds out about his heroic act, he is a changed man at the end of the episode, confident and feeling good about himself, without needing to tell anyone what he did.
Joss Whedon has listed this episode as one of his favorites, and named it as inspiration for the entire TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., because it focuses on a character who’s otherwise a marginal character and not one of those seen as main heroes, and offers their perspective. Now, this is all fine and dandy, and the episode really does an excellent job with this format. If I had never seen another episode of BtVS and only viewed The Zeppo by itself, I’d probably think it was great.
But the problem is, looking at the episode within the continuity of the show, the premise doesn’t make any sense. It requires that we think of Xander as this marginalized character who is seen as useless and inept to deal with the dangers and never allowed to participate in the fight against demons and world-saving activities of the Scoobies – which is not true and never happens in any other episode of the show. If they wanted this kind of story, they should have done it with someone like Jonathan, or some other minor recurring character, maybe even Cordelia. But Xander has always been an integral part of the group, and despite his lack of superpowers, has fought vampires besides Buffy or helped her save the world many times – in fact, all the Scoobies have been doing it for years even though, most of the time, most of them had no superpowers; Willow only started practicing magic at the end of season 2, and wasn’t even using it when she, Xander and Oz were killing new vampires in Buffy’s absence during the summer; Oz is still an ordinary human most of the month, and on these three nights when he’s not, he is not useful at all, but needs to be locked in the cage.
Maybe it would work better if the episode had made the case that this is a new development – if something had happened to make everyone so protective and worried about Xander’s safety, such as a more serious injury. Or if it was all about him feeling excluded due to the changed dynamics within the group – he’s not in a relationship anymore and Cordelia now just comes around to taunt him; Willow is now focused on her relationship with Oz, and is scared of being too close with Xander after their fling, so Oz wouldn’t take it the wrong way (even though, oddly enough, Oz is completely fine with hanging out with Xander, and Xander sometimes seems to see him as the only one he can talk to); and due to Xander’s complaints and rants against Buffy regarding her relationship with Angel earlier in the season, there’s probably still some remaining tension there (although it’s mostly been smoothed over after Xander’s apology in Amends). And Giles has always had his order of preference/importance: Buffy > Willow >>>>> Xander. But still, Xander is far less of an “outsider” of the group compared to Faith, or Angel, who is only close to Buffy, and even Oz, who is friendly with everyone but really only focused on Willow. More importantly, social awkwardness doesn’t explain why everyone is sending him away from the fight, or considers him only fit to bring them donuts. Perhaps we should see it as a distorted version of reality due to Xander’s POV, but again, that doesn’t explain the Scoobies’ attitude.
Another thing that really contradicts the rest of the show are the comedic resurrections of Jack and his gang. Yes, this episode is a comedy, and the resurrections are purposefully made to look incredibly easy (Jack was raised by his granddad after spending 10 minutes in the ground, and then goes on to raise all his buddies who have been dead for longer periods – by simply speaking a few words over their graves and having them rise immediately) for comedic effect. I also realize that comedic effect is also the reason why the undead thugs, though they are physically gross and on various levels of decomposition, are acting as if everything is normal, why they are apparently mentally and psychologically unchanged; not only did they retain human mental abilities – well, as much as they had them in the first place – and not only are their personalities apparently unchanged, but they’re all happy dudebros without any sign of psychological trauma, not even from being killed or from having to dig themselves out from their graves. Sure, it’s funny, but it’s still really annoying, considering the fact that the series otherwise makes a big deal about how dangerous and difficult resurrections are – which will go on to be a major plot point in season 5, when Dawn wanted to resurrect her mother but it was implied Joyce would have been probably been raised as some terrible zombie monster, in season 6 when Buffy was successfully resurrected (by the super-witch Willow, in a complicated ritual involving animal sacrifice, and they weren’t even sure it would work) but suffered massive psychological trauma, and when Osiris straight up told Willow Tara could not be resurrected. If resurrections went on like they do in this episode, you’d wonder why everyone in Sunnydale isn’t doing it.
Nevertheless, if we ignore the continuity issues, this is a really funny, well-written episode. The B-story about the apocalypse is a great self-parody of the show: everything that happens is similar to the things that’s happened in other episodes, but it’s like a mishmash of all the most epic, dramatic plot lines and moments, amped up and thrown together. There’s an exposition scene where Giles is explaining who the villains are; a heartfelt conversation between Buffy and Willow where they’re reinforcing their friendship while Buffy is telling Willow how worried she is and how much she needs her help; a warm scene between Buffy and Giles; more research in the library; Oz is locked up because it’s full moon; later he gets free in werewolf form and Willow has to shoot him with a stun gun (another thing that’s already happened in the show), apologizing for it; Giles is performing a ritual and contacting some mystical beings; Buffy goes to see Willy the Snitch; there’s some vague plot about Angel’s life being in danger; and an incredibly melodramatic scene between Buffy and Angel, where they’re arguing about what to do and whether Angel will risk his life, with them telling each other “I love you”, Buffy insisting she can’t watch him die again, and a little dig at Angel’s paternalistic tendencies (Buffy: “I don’t know what to do” – Angel: “Well, let me decide for you!”). It’s made even funnier when the mood suddenly changes when Xander walks in on them, tries to tell them about the bomb, but feels like he’s interrupting and leaves, and they immediately continue where they left off, and the scene goes back to the same style. All these scenes aren’t that different from the usual plot points of BtVS, almost all of the usual “epic” ingredients are there (except for the fact that, in normal episodes, Xander also participates in those scenes and has his share of heartfelt conversations etc., but this episode is trying to ignore that…), but the way the story is told in short snippets, where we’re lacking the context, makes it all look even more OTT to the point of silly. There’s the dramatic music and characters making exaggerated statements about the near apocalypse that’s happening almost entirely off-screen – the evil is “biggest, maybe bigger than I can handle”, “this is worse than anything we’ve ever faced”, and in the end when they’re discussing the way they had beaten the bad guys off-screen, Willow says she’ll “never forget that thing’s face – its real face”, while Buffy is telling Giles that something he did was “the bravest thing I’ve ever seen”.
The A-story is also very well-written and has some of Xander’s funniest and most likable moments – e.g. when the terrified Xander is reacting to Jack’s macho threats and insults in his dorky, wordy way, by treating them as normal conversations:
Jack: What are you, retarded?
Xander: No! No, I had to take that test when I was seven. A little slow in some stuff, mostly math and spatial relations, but certainly not challenged or anything.
Their interactions throughout the episode show Xander gradually growing braver, more willing to call Jack on his crap:
(after Jack threatens him with his knife, which he calls “Katie” – prompting Xander’s comment: “You gave it a girl's name. How very serial killer of you…)Jack: (sneering) Your woman looking on, you can't stand up to me? Don't you feel pathetic? (traces the knife around Xander’s neck)
Xander: (nervously) Mostly I feel Katie.
Jack: You know what the difference between you and me is?
Xander: Again... Katie's springing to mind.
Jack: Fear. Who has the least fear.
Xander: And it has nothing to do with who has the big, sharp...
Later on, when a more confident and brave Xander gets his real heroic moments, saving the school and everyone in it (which includes the Scoobies, who are fighting the apocalypse-bringing villains in the library), his attempts to act like an action hero get undercut whenever he tries to give a big movie speech: there’s a classic BtVS moment of dark humor when he’s interrogating one of the undead thugs while driving at full speed, and doesn’t get to learn a crucial info because he asks: “Alright. Now I'm gonna ask you this once, and you better pray you get the answer right. How do I defuse…?” but the impact of a mailbox he drove by knocks the guy’s head off, leaving Xander to conclude: “I probably should've left out that whole middle part.” A bit later he tries to deliver a badass line to another one of the thugs, who runs off before he could finish, which angers Xander: “Hey, I wasn’t finished! Note to self: less talk.” It’s all a combination of subverting the heroic tropes and playing them straight; Xander does get to deliver his big speech to Jack in the crucial moment, but in a matter-of-fact way, without cliché movie lines, finally asserting superiority over Jack by proving that he and not Jack is the one who is ready to risk his life, and less afraid in the situation where they both could die, which is how he forces Jack to back down and defuse the bomb. Furthermore, Xander shows Jack the difference between being actually brave, and being just a cowardly bully.
Xander’s speech also includes some Lampshade Hanging of the fact that the show plays fast and loose with the concept of being “dead”, which apparently includes vampires who drink, smoke, have sex etc.: “this is different. Being blown up isn't walking around and drinking with your buddies dead. It's little bits being swept up by a janitor dead, and I don't think you're ready for that.” But at the same time, just as slaying vampires is OK while killing psychopathic murderous humans is not, Jack being “dead” is why, when he finally gets eaten by werewolf!Oz, this is played for comedy (Oz refuses food since he feels oddly full – he doesn’t remember what happened, but the viewer knows it) – which is pretty gross and disturbing, come to think of it. Somehow I don’t think the show would pull the same joke if Jack was a “living”, breathing human thug, even though he was portrayed just like one.
The one genuinely important event in this episode, the one that has consequences for the rest of the season is, is Xander losing his virginity to Faith. Even though we had already known that Xander was attracted to Faith (though that hasn’t been brought up in a long time), it happens out of the blue, in the middle of Xander’s crazy night, when he accidentally runs into Faith as she’s fighting a demon, helps her escape with his car, and they find themselves in her motel room. It turns out Faith was telling the truth when she said slaying makes her horny – sexuality and violence are interconnected for her, she got off on the fight, and didn’t get to climax through a kill, so she quickly seduces the very confused Xander, who was there as an available human vibrator. Xander’s admission that he’s “never been up with people before” is also a confirmation that he and Cordy never had sex, in spite of their intense physical attraction; this is why I think it’s likely Cordy is a virgin, too (her comments in AtS season 1 also suggested that), since I don’t see why else she wouldn’t initiate sex with him.
I like the fact that the show reversed the stereotypical gender dynamics here, with Faith being the aggressive, experienced one who’s only after sex, and Xander a confused blushing virgin with illusions to what their tryst meant. Earlier, Xander was initially happy that a hot blonde got interested in him because of his car, but quickly got so bored by her, once it turned out that cars were all she cared about and talked about, that he was practically begging Angel, of all people, to stay and talk. Xander is, on one hand, a horny teenage boy who can’t say no to a hot woman, but at the same time, even though he may not think of himself that way, he needs sex to be about something more – as we see in the following episodes, he deluded himself into thinking that he and Faith had a “connection” and that it meant something. We don’t really get any reaction from Xander in this episode – though we may assume having sex for the first time helped him gain more confidence for the rest of the night, he looks neither particularly happy, proud, or, well anything; which fits with his later description (in one of the of following episodes) that the experience was “like a blur”.
Pop culture references: The title of the episode is reference to Zeppo Marx, one of the Marx brothers; Cordelia compares Xander to him. There’s also yet another Superman reference – Xander and Cordelia are on the same page, as both compare Xander to Jimmy Olsen. Bob aka undead thug #2 (played by Michael Cudlitz, who is these days fighting zombies in The Walking Dead) asks Jack if he has taped episodes of Walker: the Texas Ranger for him while he was dead; bad taste in TV is obviously a part of their characterization. Michael Jackson is also mentioned, when Jack is threatening Xander: “You wanna be startin' somethin'?” and Xander tries to divert the conversation to the MJ song of the same name.
Mythology: Nothing in this episode should probably be taken seriously regarding the mythology of the show – see: the amazingly easy resurrections of Jack’s gang. Other “info” includes the existence of a cult that exists only to bring about the apocalypse, and the existence of Spirit Guides that Giles contacts because of the super-serious situation, who “exist out of time, but have knowledge of the future”. (That kind of sounds like the Prophets from Deep Space Nine.)
Apocalypses averted: If my count is right, this should be the fifth. The previous ones were: The Master trying to rise in The Harvest, the Master rising in Prophecy Girl, Dru and Spike putting the Judge together in Surprise/Innocence, and Angel and Dru trying to wake Acathla in Becoming I/II (technically, that would be the only “real” end of the world, since the known universe would have been sucked into hell, while in other cases, the world would have continued to exist, but would have been drastically changed, with vampires ruling over the world, or the humanity would have probably been mostly or completely destroyed by the Judge). But this is the first and only one that is a B-plot and mostly off-screen, and where the perpetrators were random demons rather than major villains.
Fashion watch: Throughout the episode, Buffy has strange frizzy hairstyle that she’s never been seen with before – maybe another sign of things being off in this episode.
Shirtless scene: Xander during the sex with Faith and right afterwards, when Faith promptly gives him his clothes, says bye and chucks him out.
What the slashy heck: There not much slashiness as far I can see, but Xander still seems concerned about saying things that could be interpreted that way – he tells the cop he and Jack were “just blowing off steam…Two guys rasslin'…But not in a gay way.”
Buffy: Uh, what do we do with the trio here? Should we burn them?
Willow: (smiling) I brought marshmallows.
(Everyone looks at her.)
Willow: Occasionally, I'm callous and strange.
Taking into account the good and the bad, in the end result I find this episode to be somewhat above average, so it gets: