are particularly lame.
'Til they're hyenas.
"The Pack" is one of those Buffy episodes with a truly bizarre premise that somehow manages to make everything work. Watching the episode, I was completely engaged, and enjoying it. Then I took a step back and thought, "Wait. This is about high schoolers who are possessed by the spirits of hyenas and end up cannibalizing their principal." How on earth do the Buffy writers manage to sell that? We're only six episodes into this series, and already launching one of our heroes into the throes of magic hyena curses? But the writers make it work, and what would be jumping-the-shark material on any other show is wielded with freakish agility on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There are a few things of note that make "The Pack" work.
1. It takes itself completely seriously. This is a bit of a surprise, honestly. Usually I find that it works better when shows are self-aware, and point out the occasional absurdities of their own mythology. (This stage comes a bit later for Buffy, in the casual references to the demise of poor Principal Flutie.) But "The Pack" drinks its own Kool-Aid, and then crushes the cup against its own forehead in an attempt to make you understand just how committed it is. The episode never allows for the audience to have that moment to step back and have that "wait... hyenas?" moment, because it's too busy demonstrating how sick and twisted The Pack is, and giving them a slow-motion badass montage to a pretty awesome rock song. I absolutely love that sequence, because it is so drawn-out, and dark, and stylized. It's self-indulgent and exaggerated, and yet it works.
2. Actually, the key to #1 lies here: this episode would fall to pieces without the high school drama behind it. We would not care one iota about hyena bullies if not for two reasons. One, Xander is among them and he's behaving uncharacteristically. We want to save him. Two, Xander's behavior is negatively affecting Willow. As an audience, we know that Willow likes Xander and Xander likes Buffy - but it's mostly been languishing under the surface, thanks to human inhibitions. But when Xander basically becomes an animal who operates only on instincts? That all comes out - and it hurts. We see his attraction to Buffy, his dismissal of Willow, and worse yet, so do Buffy, and so does Willow. It's all out in the open for all to see, and we care a lot about how that hurts Willow. The moment when Xander carelessly pegs Willow with the dodgeball is seriously heartbreaking, as is the scene where Willow tearfully expresses to Buffy that Xander's clearly only picking on her - and there must be a reason why. Don't cry, Alyson Hannigan! (Seriously, when Alyson Hannigan cries? I cry.)
Not only that, but "The Pack" successfully creates a parallel between teenaged bullies and a group of scavengers banded together. It does more than say "bullies are mean and so are hyena spirits." It communicates the idea that there's strength and security in numbers, and that the power of "belonging" to a group is everything to high school mean kids. The very first moments of the episode show the bully group approaching Buffy and taunting her for not being surrounded by friends. Because in a pack, you're cool and popular. In a pack, you're untouchable. And in a pack, you have the power to keep kids like Xander or Willow underfoot. This was perfectly delineated in the dodgeball scene - a perfect setting of "high school torture" to make it relatable. During gym class, the pack banded together to pick off a dorkier individual student. So by making high school meanies pack animals - instead of animals bigger or stronger or more ferocious - this episode offers more than just your standard "tough kid picks on the weak" bully storyline and endeavors to explore psychologically. The casting was even strong on this idea: the bullies don't look like the stereotypical bullies of most mainstream media; they weren't all football jocks or cheerleaders or even conventionally aligned with polished Barbie-and-Ken looks. They didn't have any identities at all; there was nothing specific that united them. They were simply a group of randoms who chose to ally themselves for the sake of their popularity.
3. Nicholas Brendon does a damn good job acting. I automatically love any Buffy episode that involves a body or personality swap of some kind, simply because it's exciting to watch the actors deal with the challenge. "The Pack" is the first foray into that example, and Nicholas Brendon handles it brilliantly. Like the episode itself, his Hyena Xander takes himself completely seriously, and commits wholeheartedly to the construction. There's absolutely no warmth behind the eyes, and Xander's usually-endearing smirk turns mocking and sinister. It's a great performance of doing so much with so little, and being confident that it's enough.
So, even though "The Pack" can be casually referred to as the time demon hyena spirits caused students to eat the school principal alive, the episode is still pretty solid. Dark and serious in tone, with relatable high school emotions supplying the content and a great performance shading between the lines, "The Pack" transcends its goofy and slightly traumatizing premise to be one of Buffy's more memorable hours.