A number of students, including Xander, begin acting oddly after a field-trip to the zoo, leading Buffy to believe that they've become possessed by vicious animal spirits.
The review for "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date" can be read here.
Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) has faced a number of terrible foes, but her hardest battles are those fought against her friends. While Jesse's (Eric Balfour) death was unavoidable, Xander's (Nicholas Brendon) is not, and she has to walk the line between beating him to a stand-still in order to save those around them and protecting him from himself in order to reverse whatever has affected her friend.
Xander gets a chance to prove his heroism outside of Buffy's jurisdiction when he chases after a group of maladjusts ganging up on a weaker student. We have seen him defend Willow (Alyson Hannigan) against the cruelty of others, but here he comes to the rescue of someone with no connection to himself. Whether it's Buffy's influence in his life that has given him the courage to stand up for those weaker than he, or if he would have done the same had she never come into his life, it's still a noble deed that he performs here. His taking charge of the situation allows him to prove himself as the alpha male, and his leading the pack during their possession makes absolute sense in that regard.
Having known one another for the greater portion of their lives, Xander's ability to manipulate Willow's emotions makes absolute sense. He uses his awareness of her crush on him to romanticize their past with one another, leading her to imagine that they might have some kind of future together, only revealing his true intentions when it's nearly too late for her to escape. His actions are absolutely monstrous, but narratively forgiven because he was under the influence of a powerfully evil force. Interestingly, Xander uses the same tactic once more after recomposing himself, faking memory loss as a method to get around apologizing for his unforgivable acts, once more abusing Willow and Buffy's feelings for him in an effort to remind them of his better moments.
Willow and Buffy are partially at fault in this story for allowing the possession to happen, and while they were not directly involved in the event, following their initial instincts would have drastically changed the story. The animal keeper (James Stephens) warns Buffy and Willow not to enter the hyena house, informing them of the dangers the animals pose and the consequences of crossing into their territory. At this point, Willow flat-out lies and says that no one had gone in, appeasing the keeper enough for him to leave, in effect endangering the six students who had gone inside. Certainly they couldn't have known that their classmates would be possessed, but they were warned that their lives were in danger.
Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) laughs in Buffy's face when she brings up the concept of hyena possession despite her having shown an aptitude for understanding the possibilities of even the most ridiculous situations. In the previous episode she had identified the symbol of Aurelius despite having seen it only once in passing while Giles had dismissed it entirely when he had been researching through the same book for a great amount of time. Giles should be showing support of his charge in these situations, encouraging her instincts and helping to hone her techniques, and to mock her so openly is to undercut whatever rapport they might have worked up.
The performances in this piece are largely fantastic, the standout being Brendon's Xander; his caged speech to Willow is so wrought with emotion, so naturally executed, it's absolutely believable that these two have known each other since they were mere children. Brendon switches immediately from his heartfelt moment to a terrifyingly pure rage that drastically alters the mood of the scene, and the threat behind his actions proves Brendon's acting chops. The only flaw in the cast's abilities lie in the forced and unnatural hyena laughter, delivered poorly from most of the people involved.
The sequence wherein the possessed students call out Willow's name and stalk her through the school is directed brilliantly by Bruce Seth Green. The tension builds as Willow is cut off at every turn, and the danger posed to her by her former friend seems very real. Interesting to note during the dodge ball game is that some of the squeaking of the sneakers on the wood floor mimics the sounds of hyenas as they stalk their prey. Perhaps the only lingering issue I have with the episode is whether or not there were any repercussions for the kids that are their principal. Having cannibalized someone they will most certainly need to seek counseling, and their mental breaks from the event should surely inform Buffy and Willow that Xander, too, should remember this ordeal. Should the police department launch a full investigation, one imagines that these kids will be arrested, but it would have been nice to have had a passing line, however glib, to offer some closure to this story.
While Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer write many good character moments in their script, there are numerous other small issues with their characterization here. The P.E. teacher watches as Xander's dodge ball team turns against one of their own members, beating him repeatedly when he's already down, and does nothing about it; he claims that he loves the brutality of the sport, but that doesn't excuse him form doing his job of protecting the students from being harassed by one another under his watch. Willow is exceedingly angry at Xander when he takes her out of the game, despite that being the sport's ultimate goal, and while it would make sense that she's building upon his recent behavior, it's still somewhat ridiculous for her to have expected him to let her win when they're on opposing teams.
It seems clear that Buffy will come to realize that Xander has feelings for her, if she hasn't already come to that conclusion, but more importantly is Giles' slow revelation that Buffy is more knowledgeable about her work than she initially appears. He will surely come to rely on her instincts as much as she does in order to win their battles.
The review for "Angel" can be read here.