This one I was dreading almost as much as the Insect Substitute, so it came as a pleasant surprise when I not only didn’t hate the episode, I rather liked it. The equation of a high school clique and a pack of hyenas, both preying on the small and weak while spilling out peals of hideous laughter, speaks to me more than all of the adolescent romance in other episodes early in the series, and the dodgeball game made quite clear the dynamics of both clique and pack: when faced with a threatening lone adversary, the hyenas switched their target to the nerdy boy from the zoo and pummeled him mercilessly.
Merciless is an operative word in this episode, nowhere more in evidence than the cross-cut scenes of Xander nearly raping Buffy and the rest of the pack beginning to eat Principal Flutie alive, still one of the more shocking moments from the series, even if it doesn’t carry much emotional weight or significance to the story arc.
Still, Principal Flutie’s demise represents the first of Whedon’s offings of recurrent characters. He’s truly the first on the roster that most people generally start with Miss Calendar, and while she is a more rounded character with some backstory and whose departure does indeed heave that aforementioned emotional weight, she’s just not the first to go. (I might state that Darla precedes Miss Calendar as well, though her vampire demise gets rather complicated by numerous flashbacks, a resurrection, and even a ghostly appearance.) So, Principal Flutie, this is your distinction.
What I missed here was any continuity with last week’s episode, in which we got the big revelation of the Anointed One. At least one scene with The Master chatting with his new best bud would have sufficed, but no, not even that!
In place of such a candlelit cavernous scene, we have Xander getting his second showcase episode – after the Insect Substitute. (Should I make a mental note that two episodes that I recall as being terrible were both Xander-centric and were not terrible at all, especially this one, and that Nicholas Brendon is winning me over much faster the second time around?)
The Pack gave us much more Xander development – his sexual lust for Buffy, the ease with which he falls into a pack, his reveling in newfound alpha status: this is the one where Xander gets to show off the dark side of the teenage boy – and in the end he even pretends not to remember any of it. Giles, himself a former teenage boy who knows better, doesn’t buy it but colludes with Xander to hide the truth. They know what lies beneath, as Giles suggested to Buffy earlier: “It’s devastating. He’s turned into a sixteen-year-old boy. Of course you’ll have to kill him.”
Or cage him. I believe this was our first visit in the book cage, no? Hyena-possessed Xander gets temporarily incarcerated in the library’s holding cell before the rest of the pack frees him by ripped the cage apart with their bare hands. Apparently hyenas possess greater strength than Oz-Werewolf, which I find somewhat problematic and even illogical. Perhaps Joss Whedon had not yet bargained on how important the cage was to become. Let’s keep a tally of its uses!
What with Buffy’s jackets and the library cage’s inmates, I may have to create star charts on my living room wall just to organize my observations. That sounds better than another fucking spreadsheet in my life. But then, a star chart on my living room wall tracking cage usage on a 1990s television program doesn’t sound so glamourous either. It’s really putting my OCD on display, literally, and almost in an aesthetic sense if I get the right colors.
Wait, back to the show: how about that hyena, huh?: How much money did they have to construct these demonic creatures of the Masai plains anyway? I’ve seen far, far better work with handcrafted beasts at elementary school third-grade safari festivals. Seriously, moose, narwhals, and red pandas, all rendered with more professionalism and accuracy, molded and stuffed by the hands of eight year olds – and I suspect some ambitious parents. Should they have farmed this out to the PTA?
Here’s the thing: I don’t give a fuck about how lame the hyena head is. Why? Because the cheap, embarrassing hyena gets overshadowed by a solid story drawing an analogy between kids’ cliques and packs of vicious animals, sharp dialogue, and actors on the screen delightedly exploring their characters. There’s enough to enjoy; I don’t mind the see-through cheapness and bad effects at all. (OK – some of Buffy’s fighting and stunt doubling could be more convincing.)
This brings me back to my other vampire stories, Dark Shadows. The soap is sometimes shockingly shoddy looking, especially in one’s first viewings. But since the show is so sincere in trying to get the damn job done and do it the best it can on a shoestring budget with a punishing shooting schedule, I not only overlook the styrofoam gravestones, teetering brick walls, and rubber bats attached to visible fishing poles, I welcome such phenomena, not as intrusions on the story, but enhancements.
I seldom forget that my stories are stories, not real, and the effort put into all the artifice actually comes alive when the fakery becomes so apparent. I readily forgive Buffy for the terrible hyena. No, I suppose in a way I thank Buffy for the terrible hyena. It doesn’t diminish the passion of the storytelling at all for me. Instead, it lays open some of the creative process. You can tell where they sank their resources, like with the mad zookeeper’s make-up:
In what I believe to be the most Scooby-esque moment thus far in the series, the meek zookeeper turns out to be behind the whole thing, except that rather than a hoax, the hyena possession is quite real, but like youth, wasted on the young. What’s more, where they skimped on the hyena, they went whole hog on the madman make-up for his final scene. Seriously, I’m a bit creeped out by this, though it looked even more frightening when he was talking with those teeth eerily covering his facial hair. Plus, I love that he kept he eyeglasses on over the tribal face paint for the “predatory ritual.” A Scooby villain to the core.
I ask for no more and no less.
And to close, a dare: Who will be the first to enter into the bizarre, secretive online Buffy The Pack society? Don’t forget to read the rules!
And a challenge, who wants to track Buffy for scientific accuracy? Don’t forget to study hyena pack structure better than Willow did!