Written by Matt Keine & Joe Reinkemeyer
Directed by Bruce Seth Green
Original Air Date: April 7th 1997
Initially it’s hard to know how to feel about Buffy the Vampire Slayer producing a second Xander vehicle only two weeks after the last one, but unlike ‘Teacher’s Pet’, ‘The Pack’ is actually pretty decent, exploring the realm of toxic bullying behaviour in an increasingly dark narrative that sees the series kill of its recurring presence of Principal Flutie only halfway through the first season.
The whole thesis of the episode throws itself into Buffy’s ‘supernatural as metaphor for the teenager experience’, with the school most horrific bullying clique and Xander becoming possessed by the spirits of hyenas, which sounds silly on paper, but full credit to Matt Heine and Joe Reikemayer’s teleplay which isn’t afraid to throw itself deeply into the emotional muck for much of its running time.
The eventual reveal of the episode’s central villain (the groundskeeper at the zoo) and the final confrontation with him and everyone going back to normal does make the episode lose something of a mark, but the viciousness here gives the episode a real drive, although it might prove a little off putting to some.
There is a lot of the series’ trademark wit and humour here, but six episodes into this first season, and this is a season that many are quick to criticise for its lower budget and writers’ room still figuring out what the show is, ‘The Pack’ shows just how emotionally murky Buffy is willing to go.
The series has given us character dynamics that have made us fall in love with the characters very easily, and while you don’t believe that they’re going to change the status quo too much six episodes in to its first year on the air, watching Xander be incredibly vindictive to Willow is a hard pill to swallow, albeit in a good way because the scene stings hard.
I don’t want to talk too much about season six since these are reviews of season one, and I certainly don’t want to spoil some of the dark twists and turns that lie ahead, but ‘The Pack’ shows a willingness of the series to throw itself head first into stories and character beats that carry a heavy amount of emotional baggage.
The character of Xander is an interesting to look at in 2020. He’s very much a character who falls into the realm of the nice guy trope and certainly the series will challenge even that in later episodes (there is a moment at the end of the second season, subtle as it is, that I have never forgiven him for), and yet in the space of two episodes this season, they have used the character to explore somewhat toxic tropes, although here that metaphor and story is utilised to a better degree than it was in ‘Teacher’s Pet’, although a lot of that is down to ‘The Pack’ being a legitimately better episode
‘He’s not picking on you, he’s just sniffing you a lot,’ say Willow to Buffy during one pivotal conversation. Xander’s crush on Buffy very much plays on the whole idea of the nice guy who loves the girl who will never love him back, and yet here, boosted by a new found confidence that channels itself into increasingly macho and toxic behaviour, not only does he verbally tear apart Willow, but he physically forces himself on Buffy.
We never see her overcome him and I cannot never figure out if that is an editing oversight or merely a capitulation to the idea that we know she will so we don’t need to see it, but just watching that scenario play out is disturbing given that these are our lead characters.
The episode crosscuts between that scene and one involving the other bullies murdering Principal Flutie in what indicates is a clear willingness for the series to really commit to violent twists. Flutie, in the space of the first half of this run of episodes, became something of a lovable figure, not quite the antagonist the opening two episodes suggested, but a more benevolent one who is violently torn apart, literally, here.
The close up on his smiling photo as his murder takes place off camera but which we hear is as dark as Buffy has gotten and is a clear indication to any audience watching this in 1997 that this was a show that wasn’t afraid commit to the realm of horror, doing so on the network still best known at that point for 7th Heaven.
After the jolly comedy of the previous episode, ‘The Pack’ is a step up into legitimately darker territory, and while it does still involve a climax involving a central villain, who barely appears except for the teaser and one other scene before the Scooby Doo-like reveal, those darker elements do still sting, or at least they do until the final scene where things go back to normal way too quickly. The sequences involving bullying and toxic behaviour are pretty intense and even the school’s mascot, a piglet no less, isn’t even safe. It’s still indicative of the line that Buffy was walking on in 1997, at least in terms of how serialised television was being produced. There are threads still being carried over from episode to episode, but the monster of the week elements still need to be resolved in the space of forty five minutes, as per the standard of the majority of nineties genre television, and most television in general. Even this is a rule that will the series is going to break in later year