Continuing my Buffy the Vampire Slayer re-watch, containing spoilers for Season 1, Episode 6, The Pack. The episode sees Buffy dealing with high school bullies and a manipulative adult while another trustworthy adult is lost from Buffy’s world …
“You start a new school, you get your desk, some blackboards and some mean kids” – Xander Harris.
The Pack introduces a group of four extremely mean kids. They are mean in a different way from Cordelia and her friends, whose prime objective is to be popular. Cordelia and her friends – later known as the Cordettes – see the less popular kids as a nuisance to be mostly ignored and occasionally derided. Kyle and his friends however, actively hone in on kids to bully, and their meanness has an edge of danger and violence. When they attempt to provoke Buffy on a class trip to the zoo and get no reaction they move onto Lance, a more vulnerable student.
Principle Flutie intervenes referring to the students as “you four”. Although Kyle has been named by Lance, the group are usually not referred to individually by name, they are referred to as a group, given collective nouns – you four, the winged monkeys and eventually the pack…
The characters themselves lack individuality and depth, they are solely the “mean kids” who have strength in numbers, and who gather together to prey on others. They talk Lance into coming to the off-limits Hyena House with them. Xander goes in after them, but Buffy and Willow are held back by the zoo keeper who informs them that the hyenas are under strict quarantine and reminds them that “hyenas are very quick to prey on the weak”, much like mean kids and bullies.
Inside the Hyena House, Lance is nearly pushed into the cage, and Xander intervenes. The eyes of the hyena in the cage glow green and the kids’ eyes glow green too, including Xander’s. The camera pans to reveal an aggressive red symbol painted on the Hyena House floor. Even a school trip to the zoo will never end well in Sunnydale…
All this happens before the opening credits even roll, I love the way that so much would be packed into the introductory minutes before the theme song on a Buffy episode. These days many shows skip an opening credit sequence altogether and I feel that leaves something lacking.
Later in the Bronze, Willow and Buffy talk and we are reminded how besotted Willow is with Xander. He arrives, and he is acting kinda weird, sniffing Buffy’s air and grabbing her croissant. Despite the strange behaviour, he is is still more or less himself, though it stands out that after wearing a bright blue stripey sweater earlier, Xander’s clothes are now much darker. So too are the clothes of the mean kids – referred to as the winged monkeys by Buffy – who make a moody entrance. As they move onto bully some other kids, Xander laughs.
“Of course when I was your age I was surrounded by old guys telling me how much better things were when they were my age” – Principal Flutie
Next day at school, another new character is introduced – cute according to Buffy – fierce according to Principle Flutie – Herbert the pig. Buffy helps Flutie get Herbert back to his cage. They share a touching moment as Flutie reflects on school spirit and how the older generation will always argue things were better in their day. Flutie’s endearing speech and caring smile make the later events of the episode all the more heartbreaking. Xander – having recently stormed off from working on his geometry with Willow – passes them in the corridor causing Herbert the Pig to squirm in Buffy’s arms, leaving Buffy visibly alarmed.
Buffy is further alarmed in gym class when Xander aggressively targets Willow during dodge ball and aligns himself fully with the bullies. When only Buffy, Lance and the mean kids are left, Xander joins them in turning away from Buffy who they acknowledge is strong, to target Lance. The episodes motif is that the vicious will prey on the weak. The scene is eerily played out and gives me the chills, probably because it is seemingly mundane and could well be an ordinary occurrence rather than a supernatural one. In this plot the young people are possessed by the spirit of hyenas; but bullying and cruelty is such a familiar experience of youth. Most viewers will have at some point experienced or witnessed the kind of cruelty being played out here. There is a moment of also quite chilling comedy from the coach’s enjoyment of the brutality brought out by the game.
In case anyone has any further doubts that Xander has changed for the worst, he cruelly tells Willow he has dropped geometry so he won’t have to see her pasty face anymore. He then joins the Pack in stealing other kids’ lunch and going to see Herbert the pig. Poor Herbert. Yep, these kids are officially nasty…
When Buffy comes to the conclusion that something weird is going on, Giles is sceptical, arguing this is normal teenage boy behaviour. But Buffy remonstrates Giles, “I can’t believe that you of all people are trying to Scully me”, referencing Dana Scully’s legendary scepticism in the X-files.
The discovery of Herbert’s death leads to some more serious rethinking from Giles, eventually the connection is made that the kids are possessed with hyenas. While Principal Flutie catches up with the four other pack members, Xander goes after Buffy and attempts to sexually assault her. These scenes are counter-posed making it noticeable that Xander’s behaviour is subtly different from that of the other pack members. Although his behaviour is horrific, he is able to verbalise and attempts to justify his predatory behaviour, arguing that Buffy must like dangerous, mean guys. The other possessed students meanwhile are becoming increasingly animalistic in their behaviour, circling Flutie, growling and hunching forward, barely speaking. Xander’s behaviour is undeniably aggressive and dangerous – his words and actions are those of an abuser during this scene – yet he retains more human qualities than the other pack members.
This raises the question of whether the other kids who were already mean spirited and close to violence were more susceptible to the effects of the hyenas possession and that it took over them more strongly from the outset. They are the antithesis of Principal Flutie’s generous kind and heartfelt approach, and sadly they overwhelm and quite literally devour his school spirit. Xander’s treatment of Buffy in this scene also further develops the problematic nature of his continued pursuance of Buffy throughout Season 1, despite her having made it clear to him that she sees him as a friend from early on. Like the other Pack members, who have the urge to bully, Xander’s existing desires and tendencies are exaggerated by his hyena possession.
While the rest of the Pack have taken to sleeping in the bushes and growling at passers-by, Xander tries to talk Willow into releasing him. The episode also explores their relationship. Willow is unable to let go of her feelings for Xander despite his lack of romantic interest in her. In his hyena state Xander tries to exploit Willow’s feelings for him, but although she is love-struck, she is aware enough to not be fooled. After being reunited with the Pack, Xander becomes more clearly animal-like and attacks Willow. However, by the end of the episode it is clear that Xander does love Willow as a friend and he would not hesitate to act to save her life.
Joss Whedon has commented that in Buffy he wanted the vampires to have a distinct “vamp face”, because he did not want Buffy to be stabbing ordinary looking humans with a stake. In this episode the monstrous teenagers look like, well teenagers. Buffy only knocks them out and never attacks them fatally.
It is revealed that the real villain of the episode is the zoo keeper who is willing to kill to possess the power of the hyena. Fortunately he is dealt with by the hyenas themselves, leaving Buffy’s hands clean of causing the death of a human – even a morally questionable one. Xander and the other students are returned to their normal selves unharmed. Xander deals with the experience by pretending amnesia, but admits to Giles he remembers it all.
The other members of the Pack neither get mentioned or appear in Buffy again but must have been aware of what they did. Their non-recurrence seems a convenient way of not dealing with the fact that they committed murder and should face consequences. This leaves the episode feeling a little unresolved to me. However, having a few less mean kids around in Sunnydale has to be a bonus…
Text © Angela S