I think ‘The Zeppo’ was one of the most important episodes of BtVS.
“I laugh in the face of danger…and then I hide until it goes away.”
From the very first episode of, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, there’s no doubting what kind of character that Xander Harris is going to be. He’s a tall, gangly white kid in somewhat shabby clothes. What he lacks in self-esteem, he makes up for with witty one-liners and a goofy sense of humor that seems to be put there to mask the real pain of his troubled home life and feelings of being unworthy. What does that make him?
The comic relief.
In most cases, the “Comic Relief” is a socially awkward outcast, who has few to no friends outside of the beautiful and powerful protagonist. They come with a veritable plethora of ‘flaws’, almost to highlight the superiority of the superpowered people they hang around and Xander Harris isn’t much different in the regard, only he’s lucky/unlucky enough to have an entire group of people who outshine him in their own, special ways.
The rest of the scoobies are unique. Buffy, with her super strength, stamina, and agility. Giles and Willow are both extremely intelligent and capable of magics. (Though Willow’s affinity for magic is stronger, and Giles relies on books where she uses to internet.) Oz becomes a werewolf, making him an unquestioned part of the supernatural. Angel and Spike are vampires, giving him strength, speed, and stamina in bounds. Anya is an ex-demon, Dawn is the Key, Tara is a witch, Kendra and Faith are Slayers, Cordelia becomes a higher power! The list goes on and on and the only one who never gets a magical destiny? Well, of course, it’s Xander.
When comparing Xander to the rest of them, it’s not difficult to understand why some fans think that they could have gotten rid of him or never had him at all, without changing much of the plot. Because he lacks superpowers, it’s easier for people to see his flaws and hold them against him, in ways that they don’t with Buffy, Willow, or Giles. They seem to share Cordelia’s view: That Xander is ‘The Zeppo’, and no one needs him. When, in fact, that’s what makes him unique.
Xander stands out from other ‘comic reliefs’ in the media because, unlike most of them, he does get his own episode. His own moment to be a hero; his own character arch that makes him stand out in spite of the actions of his friends, not just because of them.
As most of us are aware, by now, in ‘The Zeppo’, Xander is alienated by his well-meaning friends and pushed to stay out of the fighting because of an injury he sustains. In the aftermath of his breakup with Cordelia- (something that was his fault; no arguments from me there)- he feels lost and uncertain about his place in the group and tries to find himself by making friends with a residential creep, leading to him having his own adventure while the rest of his friends are trying to avert another apocalypse.
Xander doesn’t lose his status as the comic relief, though. He still makes his one-liners. He’s still goofy. He doesn’t get a superpower to defeat his bad guys, and he doesn’t get any help from the friends who are too busy trying to keep him ‘safe’ by keeping him out of the way. In the end, he’s only able to rely on himself. Nothing about him changes but our view of him. Xander is the hero of the story and so he seems more suave. More confident, in the end, when he’s confronting ‘The Big Bad’, as shown by one of his most memorable one-liners,
“I like the quiet.”
And that’s it! He wins by showing no fear. By making the other guy think. All Xander did was do what he always does and shoot his mouth off and it worked.
The real kicker of the episode comes at the end. He has the chance to tell his friends what he did; to make them see that he’s more than a weak link, or even rub their noses in it and make them feel bad for seeing him as less. But he doesn’t. He doesn’t tell them, and slides comfortably back into his role among them, even offering to get them snacks. Nothing changes.
So, why was it important?
This episode showed us, the viewer, that there was more to Xander than met the eye. That he could be a hero without any supernatural advantages and without losing who he is in the aftermath. That ordinary people could still do extraordinary things under pressure. That just because he wasn’t as strong, or as smart, or as gifted didn’t mean that he wasn’t anything. It also showed us a humble side of Xander. He keeps his adventure to himself. It was an insight to who he was as an individual instead of who he was in the group.
There are many ‘Xanders’ in the world. Awkward kids who make jokes out of life because it’s easier to laugh than it is to admit when you’re feeling useless, down, or being hurt by the people around you. People who feel out of place in their group of friends, or in their school. People who get mixed up with the wrong crowd and whose cries for help are unheard. This was an episode for all of those people; proof that they could have the spotlight on them, for once, and that they were capable of making the right choices and being brave like Xander was.
Xander Harris is an important part of the scoobies. Not a flawless one; but important nonetheless. He’s ordinary, but that doesn’t stop him from trying to help. He gets up everyday knowing that he’s weaker than them and does all that he can anyway.
Seeing that side of him was the key to understanding that. That’s why I think ‘The Zeppo’ was important.