Written by Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkmeyer
Directed by Bruce Seth Green
Zoo fieldtrip! As she wanders the animal exhibits, Buffy encounters four bullies who all look like they would’ve needed to be held back about seven times to still be in tenth grade. They insult her and walk off. Xander and Willow find her, and their company considerably improves her mood.
The four bullies are now picking on a shrimpy kid, who is much less skilled than Buffy at countering insults with witty banter and disdain. Principal Flutie arrives and awkwardly tries to get to the bottom of things, but Shrimpy Kid plays it cool, so Flutie leaves. The bullies pretend Shrimpy Kid is now part of the group, and they go off to sneak into the quarantined hyena house together.
Buffy, Willow, and Xander walk by in time to see where they’re headed, and Xander decides that rescuing Shrimpy Kid is more a task for a Level 1 human adventurer than for a Level 5 warrior with a +12 strength bonus, so he goes in alone. Buffy and Willow decide that this was a bad idea, but before they can follow, they are intercepted by Beardy Zookeeper and are forced to turn back. Beardy Zookeeper drops a couple of creepy hyena facts on them.
Inside the hyena house, the bullies are back to terrorizing Shrimpy Kid, and while this is escalating, Xander arrives and pulls him away from them. Plot A rears its ugly, hyena-shaped head, and Xander and the four bullies are granted the class of Druid, which comes with a +9 strength bonus at the cost of all their wisdom and intelligence stats. Xander also switches alignments from neutral good to chaotic evil.
That night at the Bronze, Buffy and Willow are talking about boys. Willow thinks something’s up with Xander. Buffy teases her about her crush. It’s adorable. Willow teases Buffy about Angel (whose jacket she’s wearing again). Buffy admits that she is very attracted to Angel, but she’s not sure he’s relationship material because he’s never around and always very focused on Plot A. Xander arrives, and he’s not acting like his usual self. Instead of being hapless and goofy, he’s insensitive and has a certain predatory air about him. He’s also taken to sniffing Buffy’s hair and implying that regular bathing is a turn-off, which she finds super weird. The four bullies show up, and Buffy and Willow are disturbed by Xander’s sudden camaraderie with them.
The next morning at school, Buffy is training with Giles in the library. Out in the hall, students are scattering and fleeing from something running around at ankle height. Buffy comes onscreen and catches whatever it is, and it turns out to be a piglet wearing a football helmet, tin foil tusks, and a foam razorback. New mascot! How adorable.
Willow is trying to tutor Xander, and even though she is very patient and understanding, he grows increasingly belligerent until finally storming away.
Principal Flutie leads Buffy to the room where the mascot’s cage is. It’s probably Principal Flutie’s most endearing scene. He really is a sweet guy, just a bit of a spaz when he gets flustered (which is most of the time). Xander walks by and the piglet starts freaking out. Buffy is beginning to suspect that something of a Plot A nature is going on.
It’s gym class, where a Stock Gym Teacher character has them playing dodgeball. A jungle soundtrack plays over the sound of rubber balls colliding with teenage bodies. Xander throws a ball at Willow with unnecessary force and doesn't seem remotely sorry for it, and soon the only players left are Buffy, Xander, the four bullies, and Shrimpy Kid. Instead of ganging up on Buffy, Xander and the bullies turn on Shrimpy Kid, who is on their team. Buffy rescues him and stares the bullies down.
Willow confronts Xander about his mean behavior, and he cruelly dumps her as a friend while the four bullies cackle behind him. Buffy stands up for Willow, but Xander and the bullies just keep laughing. They head out into the courtyard and steal some students' hotdogs. But they want fresher meat, so they head for Herbert the piglet instead. They surround his cage in a slow, prowling fashion. He starts squealing, they start cackling, and the scene cuts to black.
We are treated to a full minute and a half of Xander and the bullies stalking the courtyard together while bad guy rock music plays in the background. Xander sees Willow and Buffy sitting on the second floor balcony. He apparently also has super-hearing now, so he eavesdrops. Willow is crying over Xander’s treatment of her. She thinks his behavior means she’s no longer welcome in the group. Buffy consoles her by insisting that this is Plot A (and therefore something they can fix).
Giles is skeptical that this is really a Plot A matter. Buffy is indignant and insists that he help her investigate. Something he says (while still skeptical) reminds Buffy of what Beardy Zookeeper said about the hyenas, and she puts the pieces together. Giles is trying not to burst out laughing at her theory, but she’s serious. He’s still very dismissive, but then Willow arrives with the news that Herbert the piglet has been eaten. Giles, feeling like a complete prat, immediately heads for his books to research Buffy's theory.
Principal Flutie is angrier than we have ever seen him. He goes to confront the bullies about Herbert, and he orders them to his office, threatening them with a lifetime of detention. (Come on, Principal Flutie, they’ve already been in high school for over a decade. If you give them that much detention, they’ll never leave!)
In the library, Buffy, Willow, and Giles make significant headway with the research. They learn that as the hyena possession progresses, it eventually leads to cannibalism. Buffy takes off to go find Xander before that can happen, and she heads for the room with Herbert’s cage (now bent and mangled and empty of cute piglets). Xander sneaks up behind her in there, and it’s obvious that hunger isn’t the appetite he’s interested in satisfying just now.
In the principal’s office, Flutie is yelling at the four bullies, unaware that they are closing in around him with very unsettling gleams in their eyes. The scene switches back and forth between Buffy fighting off Xander’s unwanted advances and the bullies getting more and more aggressive with Principal Flutie. Hyena!Xander seems to think that his new qualities have made him attractive to her because now he’s more like the mysterious Angel (whose cross necklace she is wearing). He is very mistaken. Buffy fights him off, finally knocking him out. Principal Flutie is far less successful at dealing with his own attackers. They pounce, and the scene ends with a slow zoom on a photo of the smiling principal. Buffy drags Xander into the library, where she and Willow lock him in the book cage.
Giles returns with the news that the four bullies ate Principal Flutie. He, Buffy, and Willow are deeply horrified and saddened. They keep working on the research. It occurs to Buffy that Beardy Zookeeper might be able to help, so she and Giles go to speak with him, leaving Willow to guard Xander.
Somewhere outside (somehow it is already nighttime), a young mother is out jogging with her baby strapped in a backpack/seat thing on her back. She stumbles across the four bullies, who are napping on the ground. They growl and drool hungrily at her, and she is freaked out enough to run away. They go back to their naps.
In the library, Xander is awake. He talks to Willow about how important she is to him and how much they don’t need Buffy. He talks about how it used to be just the two of them (even though it was actually them and Jesse). This is, of course, a ruse so that she will let him out of the cage. She doesn't fall for it. He is not pleased.
At the zoo, Buffy and Giles have found Beardy Zookeeper, who seems confused but willing to help. He and Giles start wasting time geeking out, but Buffy gets them back on task and they form a plan. Beardy Zookeeper tells them it shouldn’t be a problem to find the rest of the pack, because they’ll just head straight for the missing member. Willow is in danger!
The rest of the pack has indeed come looking for Xander. They bust Xander out of the book cage and chase Willow through the school. Just when Xander and the blonde female are closing in, Buffy and Giles arrive. They rescue Willow and take cover in a classroom. The pack is now too stupid to manage a door, so they leave to look for easier prey. Willow and Giles head for the zoo (where they will do the ritual) and Buffy follows the pack.
Cut to a family of three heading out for the evening. The husband and wife are having an argument, but before long, their car is surrounded by the pack. Xander breaks in and starts trying to get at the kid in the backseat, but Buffy shows up before he can do any damage. She uses herself as bait and leads them on a chase all the way back to the zoo. (How far away is the zoo? Did she have to run a marathon to get them there, or is it in Sunnydale? If it's in Sunnydale, then how big is this town?)
At the zoo, Giles goes into the hyena house to meet Beardy Zookeeper and leaves Willow waiting at the entrance to yell when Buffy and the pack show up. Beardy Zookeeper is now wearing a robe and has blue and white paint all over his face. There is also a big red ritual circle painted on the floor, and astute audience members will remember that the circle was there when Xander and the bullies first went into the hyena house. Giles is complimenting Beardy Zookeeper on his thorough preparations when it occurs to him that something is amiss: this guy is behind this whole thing! Alas, Giles's epiphany comes a little too late, and he gets hit on the head.
The pack is coming, so Willow runs in to alert Giles. She falls for Beardy Zookeeper’s act just as much as Giles did, only figuring out he’s the villain when he literally has a knife to her throat. Enter Buffy and the pack! They pounce on Buffy, but Beardy Zookeeper yells an incantation of some kind, and the hyena spirits leave the kids and transfer to him. At last he has the power! But he’s no match for Buffy. They fight briefly and she throws him into the hyena pit, where he meets the same fate as Principal Flutie.
The next day at school, Buffy and Willow are filling Xander in on what he’s been up to since he got possessed by a hyena. They appear to have completely forgiven him and moved on. Giles walks up as the girls head to class, and he mentions that nothing in his research indicated that memory loss was part of the animal possession experience. Yeah, Xander was faking to save face. He walks away, mortified, ashamed, and traumatized. It's played for laughs, but there's a serious Fridge Horror moment here: if Xander remembers everything he did, then so do the four bullies. Now they’re going to have to live with the memories of eating their principal alive.
I don’t know much about hyenas, but according to my dear friend Kairos, the writers of this episode got pretty much all their hyena facts wrong. If that’s something you can overlook, this is one of the stronger stand-alone episodes of season one. It’s a much more effective overlay of supernatural threat on top of mundane threat than “Teacher’s Pet” was. A group of run-of-the-mill jerks get turned into vicious animals, and the whole thing is an effective metaphor for the unforgiving social pecking order of many high schools. Xander’s role lends it an additional layer, exploring how upsetting it is when an old friend turns on you to save face with his new gang. The cherry on top is the gruesome death of Principal Flutie, which ratchets up the stakes for the show as a whole: just because a character only participates in Plot B, it doesn’t mean they’re safe from Plot A. Plot A can have real consequences, and the status quo can change. This helps the show to recover from the problems I discussed in my review of "The Harvest" (hiding the consequences by leaving the victims' bodies out of the final shot and completely forgetting about Jesse).
Having gotten her priorities straight by the end of the previous episode, Buffy is back at the top of her game. She notices quickly that there’s something not normal going on with Xander and the bullies, and she refuses to back down when even Giles fails to trust her intuition. We learn about another one of her major character traits: she is very forgiving (or at least very good at mentally separating the person she cares about from the actions of the altered version of them). She can be happy and friendly with Xander less than 24 hours after he tried to sexually assault her.
Willow makes me so sad in parts of this episode. Once again, we see that she is very used to being treated poorly by her fellow students. This is so normal to her that she doesn’t realize Xander’s mean behavior might have a supernatural explanation; she just thinks she’s unlovable. I would demand that someone give her a hug, but Xander does when he’s back to his usual self, so I guess it’s okay. She displays similar powers of forgiveness as Buffy, even though she suffered much deeper emotional wounds from Xander. None of this is to say she's entirely a victim, though. When Xander tries to trick her into letting him out of the cage and fails, she shows a streak of real cunning (which unfortunately doesn't reappear when Beardy Zookeeper is the one tricking her), and she is also able to close herself off to Xander's cruel words now that she knows it isn't the real Xander treating her this way. She's becoming stronger and, gradually, less naïve.
Xander still hasn't had much character development that I like. I definitely prefer normal Xander to hyena!Xander, but I’m not sure if the experience and the subsequent shame have done much to improve him. He certainly seems less inclined to take Willow for granted and more respectful of Buffy at the end, but these improvements will have to last longer than one scene before I can call them real character development. One of his lines while possessed by the hyena spirit suggests that he's been aware of Willow's crush this whole time, which makes using her as his wingman to ask Buffy out in "Witch" even worse in hindsight. It’s also not terribly admirable of him to take the easy way out by playing the memory loss card instead of actually dealing with what he’d done. Buffy and Willow would still have forgiven him if he’d told the truth. He seems to be very dependent on his role as the lovable dork. When something goes wrong, it’s easier for him to hide behind the lovable dork role until it blows over than for him to actually deal with the problem.
No Cordelia at all in this one, and Angel only gets a couple of name-drops.
Giles’s skepticism in this episode is a little frustrating. Yes, it was a very funny scene, but someone as psyched about all things supernatural as he is should be more willing to entertain theories like Buffy’s, especially after previous episodes have established his growing respect for her instincts. Although, now that I think about it, his skepticism might just have been born of his disdain for teenagers in general. He still hasn’t personally connected with Xander, and Buffy’s initial evidence of Plot A shenanigans was just that Xander had gotten meaner.
“Xander has taken to teasing the less fortunate? And there’s a noticeable change in both clothing and demeanor?”
“It’s bad, isn’t it?”
“It’s devastating. He’s turned into a sixteen-year-old boy. Of course, you’ll have to kill him.”
Series count of Giles's head injuries: 2
R.I.P. Bob Flutie
The Watcher's Diary
In this blog, I'll be reviewing, analyzing, and generally fangirling over excellent television. Exhibit A: the Whedonverse.