[7 March 2011]
From the moment he rides his skate board on to the screen in “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, Alexander LaVelle Harris stakes his claim as the outsider looking in on each aspect of the Buffy the Vampire universe. Xander is placed as the Everyman in the midst of both the natural and supernatural worlds. He is the awkward, geeky boy in high school, the shiftless townie in college, and the lone member of the Scooby Gang without powers or abilities above and beyond the normal human being (at least until the arrival of Dawn). More so than any of the other characters, Xander’s story arcs are tethered to the real world. Yet the resolutions to those stories are supernatural in nature, and in turn undermine their real world significance. This becomes problematic in the latter seasons of the show, when the rest of the cast continues to delve deeper and deeper into supernatural realms and Xander’s Everyman role becomes harder to maintain.
During the first two seasons of Buffy, Xander’s standing on the show is less distinct, as the entire cast is still being fleshed out. While Willow may be a borderline genius, her intelligence is not regularly a benefit to the group’s missions. She, Xander, and Cordelia are all civilians pulled into a super-powered world familiar only to Buffy and Giles, both of whom have specific skill sets that make them essential. When Xander’s desire to be a part of the popular high school crowd comes to a head in Season One’s “The Pack”, its supernatural resolution doesn’t seem at odds with the character. At this point, he represents nothing more than an awkward teenage boy who tries too hard and says the wrong thing too often. His run in with hyena spirits is no better or worse than Willow’s relationship with a medieval demon in “I, Robot… You, Jane”. Even as late as episode 2.16, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered”, Xander has still yet to be thematically ostracized from the rest of the gang, so his magic-gone-awry attempt at winning back Cordelia doesn’t come off as particularly strange.
It’s not until Season Three when Xander’s future status on the show is clearly laid out with the appropriately titled “The Zeppo”. While the rest of the gang, which now features an additional Slayer in Faith and the ever more powerful witch Willow, engage in an epic battle, Xander is sent away for his own protection. The fact that Xander is not bound by the rules of the Buffyverse is underscored when he interrupts a stereotypical Buffy/Angel moment that parodies their usual melodrama. At this point, the show itself is still maintaining a fine balance of real world problems told through a supernatural lens. It’s a balance that keeps Xander’s role on the show from becoming forced.
The climax of Xander’s overarching story comes in episode 5.3, “The Replacement”. This is the moment of Xander’s self-actualization, the pinnacle of his role as the Everyman. Every aspect of this episode is set up to establish that Xander’s world is at odds with the supernatural world his friends live in. While he might spend time with them in that world, when Xander is the center of his universe, all is normal, all is mundane. His girlfriend might be an ex-demon, but her mortality is underscored by her injured arm; it’s her current, human form that matters. Xander moves into an apartment of his own, escaping from the basement that has been the center of so many Buffy-related adventures. His new home isn’t a gathering place for the Scooby Gang; it’s a home for him and his all too human girlfriend. This is his refuge, his way of establishing his own identity, one that is not beholden to Buffy or her influence. By the end of “The Replacement”, Xander owns his role as the Everyman.
The difficulty, then, lies in writing a character that has ostensibly reached the end of his journey, but continues to appear in episodic stories for nearly three more seasons. Even more problematic is the fact that the show, now saddled with continuity spanning four plus seasons, became ever more and more dependent upon plot, moving further and further away from metaphor as its central conceit. This meant that Xander’s newfound solidarity would not last. Soon, the supernatural elements of the show were crashing down on Xander’s real world problems in increasing less subtle ways.
The epitome of this new era in the life of the character came in Season Six, with “Hell’s Bells”...