One of the things I like about television shows is their ability to have characters step out of their shells. When a show has several years to explore its characters, it can be fun to see them act very differently than they usually do. Clark Kent did it in Smallville after being exposed to red Kryptonite and virtually every sci-fi show has at least one episode where a character is possessed by some sort of alien influence. Despite focusing on the horror and comedy genres, Buffy the Vampire Slayer certainly had its share of these episodes. Tonight we are going to look at one of the earliest examples of a major character on the series temporarily becoming an antagonist. Tonight we look at The Pack.
One of the unusual aspects about this episode is the timing. Remember what television shows were like in the 90s – this was before the trend of platforms like Amazon or Netflix creating their own content and it was still fairly uncommon to buy seasons of your favorite shows on DVD. Television was an expensive industry to break into and your show had basically two options to be successful. The show could be syndicated or you could get a network to back your show. Because of these circumstances most shows back then tended to play it safe with character development. You usually did not see episodes where a major character undergoes a drastic personality change until the second or third seasons. It is a testament to the writers’ attention to character development on the show that such an episode could be made so early.
The Pack begins with a school field trip to the Sunnydale Zoo. One of the weaker kids on the trip is harassed by a gang of bullies who eventually take him with them as they sneak into a hyena exhibit that is currently closed. Buffy prepares to step in and help him but her friend Xander decides to handle the situation. While in the exhibit the bullies and Xander happen to make eye contact with the hyenas and are possessed by the animal’s primitive spirits.
Yeah, the plot is very cheesy but that is true of many episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With that said, the story does some interesting things with Xander as an antagonist other than simply being a main character turning bad. For one thing, his relationship with his childhood friend and (at that time) potential love interest Willow is revisited when he tries to manipulate her into helping him and she realizes it.
We’re here to talk about horror though and while The Pack is not a scary episode, it certainly has its share of unsettling moments. At one point a possessed Xander attempts to sexually assault Buffy and the rest of the pack eats a member of the high school faculty. That was some pretty deep stuff for TV back then. By the way, there is an absolutely terrific scene of the pack while Job’s Eyes by Far plays. One of the best uses of a song in a television episode I have ever seen.
I think one reason why this episode has sort of been overlooked is that there really is not a memorable villain. There certainly is a villain but is dealt with very quickly and the hyenas themselves were simply following their natural instincts. While there are better episodes of Buffy out there, The Pack is worth revisiting if you want to check out the early dynamics between the core characters.