Author: Fleur (stoptocheer)
Spoilers: From Welcome to the Hellmouth right through to Chosen, and an awful lot in between.
Note: I'm very, very nervous about posting this, and it's my birthday so please be gentle. :) I really hope you all enjoy reading it, because I have to say it was a bundle of fun to write.
Canonical Interpretation; or, "the one who isn’t chosen, to live so near to the spotlight and never step in it."
Alexander (only don’t call him that) Lavelle Harris, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame, is completely, utterly and undeniably human. His friends are Slayers and witches, werewolves and military men, while Xander is, was, and always will be, ‘just’ a person. And that is how I can best sum him up in one sentence. Thank-you and good-night.
Although considering he’s in a show famed for the supernatural, it’s interesting to see that the one normal person amongst them is also one of the integral parts of the ‘Scooby gang’. Xander has been the literal heart of the group in Season Four’s Primeval, while he’s been the metaphorical heart all along. He’s the one without powers. The one who freaks out (The Harvest) at the very idea of talking seriously about vampires. The one with a talent for hair braiding. The one who keeps them all grounded; occasionally even the one who keeps everything in perspective. The glorified bricklayer who’s also a swell bowler. The one who sees what the others won’t almost as often as Giles does.
And most importantly, the point has to be made that Buffy is considered history’s most effective and successful Slayer because she bucks the system - among other things, she doesn’t fight alone. Buffy keeps her friends. She isn’t a demon or an obedient instrument.
She has a very human heart.
Xander is, by a long way, my favourite character in Buffy. This came about a long time ago, before I even saw a single episode, when the series first aired in New Zealand and I was young and stupid - for the record, I’m still stupid. All of my friends were utterly taken with this show that I refused to watch, and had officially dubbed me a cross between Giles and Xander - neither of whom I was even remotely aware of as characters, beyond laughing at the name ‘Xander’.
One of my friends (self-dubbed ‘Darla’) had a list of Buffy quotes on her wall, and I remember, very vividly, reading the quote “I laugh in the face of danger. And then I hide until it goes away.” And lo, I was amused. And then rather jealous, because that was the sort of thing I’d say, and here someone had apparently said it first.
So my friends decided I was more of a Xander than a Giles, and the rest, as they say, was history. Right up until I saw my very first Buffy episode six months ago, saw Xander skateboard into the railing, and I immediately loved him for his own worth. Since then, I haven’t once changed - Xander has been my favourite character, without a doubt - and that’s why I’m very honoured to be writing this essay.
Xander’s early character is shown best by Season Three’s The Zeppo. As an episode, this is done with an extremely clever touch that I took a long while to understand: the entire episode is actually told by Xander.
People have complained at length about the writing and characterisation in The Zeppo. Television Without Pity claimed that the episode proved that the Buffy writers hated Xander.
In fact, the whole episode - except, possibly, the teaser, which rings more true than the rest of the tale - isn’t as it happened at all, but rather, the real story, told through a filter of Xander’s insecurities and beliefs about himself. His friends treat him badly here because at that point, in Xander’s mind, his friends don’t believe in him or value him one bit.
The reason that the beast from the Hellmouth seems so random and, well, lame? It’s something that could have come out of Xander’s worse comics. The fact that there’s no mention later of the extremely close apocalyptic call? The importance of what happened without Xander there is greatly exaggerated by his retelling.
So once we take The Zeppo as an episode with Xander as unreliable narrator, it becomes apparent what he thinks of himself - a nobody, more or less. Someone who isn’t needed. The group non-event.
By the end of this episode he’s certainly improved, but this sets up Xander’s overall character journey: to make something of himself, to be important and needed. To, metaphorically speaking, get out of the basement.
The next big step in Xander making something of himself comes in the Graduation Day arc. Xander is the key guy in the entire plan - suddenly, even he can’t deny how much his friends obviously value him, because there’s now very tangible evidence. This is a huge high point for Xander. He’s the key guy in the plan to foil the mayor, he’s finishing high school, he’s got a road trip around America planned, he even had a date to the prom.
And then, between Season Three and Season Four, everything for Xander begins to go downhill. The engine in his car falls out at Oxnard and he spends the summer washing dishes at a strip club. When he gets back to Sunnydale, he’s without a job, Buffy and Willow have gone to college, and he’s all of a sudden having to rent the basement from his parents. He’s gone from making something out of the nothing he thought he was, to being back at the bottom of the pile again.
Season Four is, on the whole, a season of setbacks for Xander. Willow and Buffy are not only away at college without him, but they’re treating him differently. Oz in Fear Itself points out that Xander isn’t a college student - when Xander is trying to fit in on campus - while Willow directly mocks Xander’s depression at being stuck in the basement in Something Blue. Xander finds himself going through job after job. He and Giles are left out of Buffy’s life, and while Xander has Anya, there’s definitely a lot in his life going badly to counter that.
The final episode of Season Four; Restless, shows best the state of Xander’s life. The beginning of the dream best describes Xander’s character arc, in my opinion: as Giles - both the Watcher and the one who exposits the episode’s plot later - says, it’s all about the journey. (In the rest of the dream, ironically, every journey Xander makes leads back to the basement - but that isn’t the point; the point is what happens along the way.)
But as Xander tells Buffy in the dream, you have to be moving forward. There’s an implication in this scene that he has Anya - his ‘other stuff going on’ - because she’s what he needs to move on with life. Something he can point to and say ‘look, there, I’m getting somewhere, I’m important’. As well as that, he seems to be moving on from Giles - remembering that he spent most of the season with Giles, as the only one of Xander’s friends who didn’t move forward without him - even Willow says that she’s way ahead of Xander.
There’s also the signs here that Xander isn’t entirely comfortable with Anya. He reacts badly to the talk of her vengeance, and calls her his demon, before leaving her to go in the back with the girls.
The other significant event in Xander’s dream is when his father, or Xander’s mental manifestation of his father, comes down the stairs, intimidates the hell out of Xander and rips his heart out.
As an aside, Xander’s parents are a source of great speculation in fandom. We’re shown very little of them in canon; we know they both drink, they fight a lot, and Xander’s mother doesn’t recognise his voice on the phone. We know that Xander’s afraid of becoming his father (Hell’s Bells), and from Xander’s dream, there’s a definite point to be made that Xander’s rather terrified of him. This is true, certainly, at this point - by Hell’s Bells, Xander’s father is shown as more of a laughable character that Xander’s mostly embarrassed by, because Xander’s own relative position has changed.
Personally, I think it’s shown that Xander loves his parents - he doesn’t try and go to Willow’s, or Giles’, or Buffy’s house at any Christmas; he just goes outside to avoid the fighting. He may not like them, but he certainly does love them - or he wouldn’t go back in Season Four, and he wouldn’t be so hurt when his mother doesn’t recognise his voice on the phone. He may not like them, he may be intimidated by his father and not want to grow into him, and he’s certainly embarrassed by them - but he doesn’t hate them, and in my opinion, fanon makes a larger deal of his parents than canon does. But I digress.
The next step in Xander’s character development comes from the early Season Five episode The Replacement, where, essentially, Xander becomes split into two halves of his personality - his weaker points in one half, his stronger points in another - or as they’re generally referred to, scruffy!Xander and smooth!Xander.
The episode is told, predominantly, from the perspective of scruffy!Xander, showing the state of Xander’s psyche at the time - his own view of himself tends toward the negative. It’s only after seeing what smooth!Xander can do - getting a promotion at work, getting out of the basement and into the new apartment, working things out with Anya - that Xander realises his own worth. And that is when the two halves of Xander start acting alike - or, as Giles says, Xander is clearly a bad influence on himself.
It’s not until late Season Five and Season Six that things really begin to change and develop for Xander.
All along, so far, Xander’s relationships have been conquests. Cordelia was a conquest in the sense of being someone unattainable - higher in the social hierarchy at Sunnydale High, certainly. But Xander dated her - was in love with her, in fact, until he, essentially, ruined things by kissing Willow. Seeking comfort from his best friend.
From there, the next significant event was Faith in The Zeppo. To Xander, this was definitely a conquest as well. Faith was, in some ways, a replacement for Buffy - another Slayer, an extremely attractive girl - though it can’t be denied that Xander wanted her for her own qualities as well. However, when all is said and done, Faith was, more than anything, a conquest. (The conquest, at that; the first girl he slept with.)
And then, along comes Anya, who doesn’t appear to fit either category for a while. She’s partly a conquest, partly a comfort. Right up until The Gift, when Xander proposes.
It’s not Anya who’s the comfort, here, it’s the idea of her. Of marriage, of future, and, in no small part, of living through the next day. Suddenly, Xander’s clinging to the idea of this comfort - though as soon as they live through it, he’s rejecting it again; not wanting Anya to tell anyone too soon, getting cold feet about the wedding.
Ultimately, then, not going through with the wedding at all.
When Xander’s shown the vision of what his future would be like, true or not, the comfort is suddenly taken away. There’s no future, and all that’s left is a conquest; a check next to the box marked ‘wife’ in the game of life. And this is, essentially, why Xander leaves Anya, in my opinion: he realises it’s wrong, because he’s seeking something that can’t ever be attained that way.
He’s seeking a definition of himself. He’s still looking for his place in life, and his end-goal, and it’s not to become his father. Instead, it’s rather about the journey, as Giles said.
A few episodes later, however, Xander’s quest ends itself and he finds his place. By Willow’s side, in Grave. If the world ends, there’s nowhere he’d rather be.
When Xander’s love for Willow saves her and brings her back from the point of no return, it’s a moment that defines his character completely. He belongs with his friends - he’s finally found the niche he’s always been looking for. And what’s more, he’s important and needed - he saved the world, and all by being nothing more than his own, normal, utterly flawed human self. We see in Season Seven that there’s a marked difference in his position within the group - he’s confident, the stable male figure in the Summers girls’ lives. Xander’s finally found who he is, and it’s a sum of everything that happened along the way. As well as this, we see his utter loyalty in Selfless; defending Anya, even against Buffy.
Xander’s friendships - especially of the other three of the core four - have always been the central point of his character.
The first time we see Xander in the series, he’s so distracted by watching Buffy that he skateboards into an unfortunately placed rail. Since our first shot of him is relative to Buffy, it seems logical to start by talking about him in relation to her.
Buffy is, to Xander, the unattainable. Right from day one, Xander has a painfully obvious crush on her, that he barely even attempts to hide. But even after Xander comes clean and asks her out, things aren’t made awkward between them - though Xander’s devotion to her is still very much apparent.
He saves Buffy’s life before he saves the lives of any of the other core four (except Giles in The Puppet Show, though that’s certainly in less dramatic fashion!) - he, quite literally, follows her into the mouth of Hell, and again, very literally, brings her back from the dead. And while Xander, as the normal person of the group, could walk away at any time and never come back - especially in Season Four - he never once leaves, and it’s certainly at least partly due to his love for and loyalty to Buffy.
That said, despite his love for her, he still sees her for her faults and calls her on them - sometimes quite harshly. He’s quite often the one to tell Buffy when she’s being a so-called bitca, and he’s definitely very capable of getting at her with his sarcasm - one the most memorable moments in Season Seven, to me, was Xander snarking about Buffy’s point being just a little to his left.
But his love is what matters the most, and quite often in later seasons - to both Buffy and Dawn - he’s very much part of the family. At the beginning of Season Seven he’s seen as the one driving Dawn to school, the one who fixes things about the house. He’s the grounding factor tying them down, because, of course, home is where the heart is.
But unlike his love for Willow, Xander’s love for Buffy, despite extending to a sense of family, doesn’t cross Xander’s mental lines of right and wrong. In Bargaining, Xander’s nervous about the idea of raising the dead - and it’s very obvious that unlike Willow, who wants to do the resurrection spell because she can’t bear the thought of Buffy spending eternity in a Hell dimension - Xander only does the spell because of Willow.
The other very obvious moment where his love for Buffy clashes with Xander’s ideals of right and wrong is, as aforementioned, in Season Seven’s Selfless, where Xander flat refuses to allow Buffy to kill Anya, despite the latter being, apparently, a very dangerous vengeance demon yet again. His sense of loyalty to friends; to Anya despite everything, comes before his sense of Buffy being right.
The same isn’t true for his love of Willow. Despite everything Willow does or attempts to do, Xander accepts her. The end of Season Six shows this more than anything else ever could. Despite the fact she’s killed Warren, despite the fact she’s ending the world, she’s still Willow, and Xander loves her, and his place, in his opinion, is right there beside her.
The best part, I think, about Grave, is that Xander saves her by being himself - the heart; it’s his love for Willow, the history, the everything that they have together that saves her. That’s the very moment the defines everything that Willow and Xander mean to each other, and there’s little I can say to enhance it.
On the contrary, Xander’s relationship with Giles is a lot harder to define. A lot of people put it down to a father/son relationship, which I disagree with - Xander’s never really shown as seeking a replacement father figure in the same way that Willow and Buffy are. It’s more than that; and I think that anyone who puts their friendship on a level less than the one Xander has with the girls is selling the boys rather short.
They care about each other a lot more than fandom gives them credit for; Xander’s panic in Revelations when he finds Giles unconscious, Giles rushing over to Xander in The Replacement when he sees him hit by the light. And unlike the girls, early on, Giles is very good at picking up on what Xander needs - when Buffy very bluntly informs Xander that Faith thought of him, in all likelihood, as a joke, Giles immediately asks Xander for help with research; giving him a place to be.
It’s obvious from rather early on that Giles’ opinion of Xander matters a lot to him; it only takes one look at Xander’s expression when Giles snaps at him (What’s My Line, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, Beauty and the Beasts) to see how much it hurts him. And early on, Xander saves Giles’ life quite directly twice - in The Puppet Show, Xander’s not only the first to realise that Giles is the one the demon will target, but he’s also the one to stop the guillotine from falling. And then, of course, in Becoming, Xander’s the one to rescue Giles.
As well as this, Xander is, at times, rather similar to Giles - the two of them hold the same opinions of many things; most notably, of Angel feeding from Buffy and of the decision to kill Ben - more on this later. I could, and have before, go on for hours about Giles and Xander’s friendship, but all I want to really say is that in the beginning of Season Four, without a single doubt, Giles is Xander’s comfort - when the girls are leaving Xander out, he goes to Giles; when he’s unemployed, Giles gives him a job.
While Xander is loyal to a fault to the three of them, outside the gang, the lines become a little more blurred - most notably with Spike, where Xander’s hypocritical tendencies become more apparent.
It’s no secret that Xander is extremely biased against vampires. The most logical reason for that can be assumed to be the fact his friend Jesse is turned at the beginning of the series, and Xander’s the one to stake him - after seeing a demon in his friend’s body, mocking what Jesse stood for; what Xander loved about him.
Spike is no exception - even after he shares Xander’s basement, Xander still sees him, very much, as the Evil Undead. It seems, at times, to even surprise Spike - his outrage when he finds out in early Season Six that Xander kept the resurrection secret from him even while fighting at his side all summer, for example. But the fact of the matter seems to be that no matter how human Spike, or any vampire, seems, he’s still a vampire.
Even late in the show, when Xander’s fought by Spike’s side, he still sees him as a thing - as in Entropy, an evil, soulless thing. And this again demonstrates Xander’s mental division between right and wrong being rather black and white.
He did, of course, have this bias when Angel was the vampire around the gang - of course, this was clouded at first by his jealousy in regards to Buffy, and then, in Season Three, by his protective streak about Giles - fuelled by Xander being the one to find Giles after the torture session. He also reacts as badly as Giles to Angel feeding on Buffy, while also bringing up the fact Angel killed Jenny as often as possible - more often, actually, than Giles, who usually stands aside while Xander argues his case for him.
But even with those issues aside, Xander could never actually like Angel because of the vampire issue. Right from the second episode Xander was very definitely making a stand and saying that vampires were not good - and Xander of the black and white mindset doesn’t change his opinions particularly easily. Spike, who helped the gang out for so long even without the soul, and Angel, with the soul and the adoration of Xander’s best friend, were the two vampires to honestly challenge Xander’s firm set ideas and prejudices about vampires, and in my opinion, he clung to the prejudices quite firmly.
It’s this sort of bias that seems to lead to Xander being generally disliked in fandom, though I, for one, can’t quite understand it.
Xander has never claimed to be more than human. He has unreasonable biases, he can be hypocritical at times, and he makes poor judgement calls. But this all happens because he’s human, and he’s flawed, and he has his faults.
The biggest and most obvious fault, and the one most often cited by those who don’t like Xander, is his inability to take responsibility for his own actions, no matter what the consequences. This begins early, when, after the events of The Pack, Xander fakes amnesia (and Giles supports him with it). This is, to be fair, a refusal to accept the consequences of what he did with the animal spirit, but, that said, for Xander to have tried to deal with what happened with Buffy or Willow, at that stage of everyone’s emotional development, couldn’t possibly have gone well.
There are small moments of complete irresponsibility from Xander - Season Three’s Beauty and the Beasts, for example, where Xander reports for Oz watch and promptly, and very deliberately, goes to sleep - while the next morning he automatically acts like it isn’t completely his own fault. In The Wish, Xander blames Oz and Cordelia for finding out about his affair, of sorts, with Willow. Even later in the series Xander seems to ignore completely the fact that people died in Once More With Feeling because he wanted to know if there’d be a happy ending. In Season Seven when the truth about his lie in Becoming (more on that later) comes out, Xander swiftly moves on, so it never seems to be dealt with.
For all his irresponsibility, however, Xander does, at times, own up to what he’s done. In Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, he admits to Giles that he’s messed up, and doesn’t even try to blame it, directly, on Cordelia. After Hell’s Bells - in Storyteller, for example - he again admits that he made a big mistake leaving Anya at the altar. This is just a fault of his character, and I’m in no way trying to explain it away or excuse it - it’s the way Xander is. He has faults. Big ones, that a lot of people share - but few admit to. Xander has faults, like everyone does. He uses humour as a defense mechanism, like many people do.
To me, that’s what makes him one of the most admirable characters in the show. He does everything because he chooses to, but throughout it all, he makes mistakes, he screws up, he’s unreasonable - because he’s as human as any of us.
And the most important part is his heart.
Contextual Extrapolation; or, "I've sworn to protect this sorry world, and sometimes that means saying and doing what other people can’t."
As Xander is a character who usually says what he’s thinking and wears his heart on his proverbial sleeve almost constantly, the amount of fanon extrapolation is relatively little compared to that for other characters, and as it is, I think a solid argument can be made for two points.
The first, as most slash writers will tell you, is that Xander can quite easily be considered canonically bisexual. A lot of writers seem to struggle with the idea, though they’re usually swayed by the oft-quoted Mutant Enemy comment that they were keeping it open as to whether Willow or Xander would be the one to pursue an alternative sexuality.
Personally, I think there are a lot of hints about Xander being at least bisexual - the first, and most obvious, of course, is his stereotypical teenage-boy homophobia - which begins very early on, and I doubt anyone who happens to be a Xander fan could forget his completely shocked look in Phases when Larry comes out to him, and his panic when Buffy asks about the episode, complete with overreaction about her ‘pushing’ him.
There are other comments, of course - Xander mentioning that Oz is attractive, though obviously not to him, and the line in The Zeppo about two guys rasslin’ - but not in a gay way; many little moments like that which all happen to add up to Xander protesting perhaps a little too much. Xander gets excited in Earshot when the jocks know his name, while also freaking out at the idea of Larry putting a coming out note in the paper for him. Even in Season Seven, in Beneath You, when Nancy asks whether anyone in the group hasn’t slept together, Xander’s homophobic streak shines through again - in my opinion - when he gives Spike a disturbed look, while in First Date, he demands that Willow gay him up.
Like Warren, we all know what homophobia really says about you, and Xander’s constant denials are quite probably mostly for comic effect, but they really do leave a questioning taste in one’s mouth - though, of course, as with everything in this section, your mileage may vary.
The other major theory one gets from Xander in canon is the idea of Xander as a Watcher.
Of course, the impression is given - by mentions in Angel Season Five, as well as a few whispered rumours about the potential Giles spin off - that Xander, among the others, is rebuilding the Council and thus essentially a Watcher by default, but I, for one, along with many people, believe that Xander had at least a secret desire to be a Watcher from very early on.
Even if he hadn’t wanted it consciously - after all, the only remote acknowledgement is in his dream in Restless, where Giles is teaching Spike to become a Watcher - it’s fairly obvious, upon study, that Xander would have made an extremely good Watcher indeed.
As Giles says in the quote I used for a subtitle here, signing on to protect the world - to be a Watcher and all that entails - means saying and doing what other people can’t - and in that episode while it’s Giles who kills Ben when others can’t - when Buffy, the hero, can not - it’s Xander who first mentions the idea of doing it.
Xander typically always thinks of the world before the personal; despite his undying loyalty to his friends, he sees the big picture. He comes up with the idea of killing Ben to stop Glory. In Phases, he automatically expects that they’ll just kill the werewolf, even though he’s a regular guy most days in the month - showing that though he sees the bigger picture, his judgement needs more than a little work. Even as early on as Witch, when he’s instinctively and automatically in favour of beheading Amy to stop her and reverse the spells, he’s putting the needs of the many ahead of the few, and in Teacher’s Pet, he’s the one to ask what everyone else can’t - where Dr Gregory’s head is.
And the big moment of seeing the larger picture; Xander’s lie, in Becoming.
A lot of people interpret Xander’s lie - “Kick his ass” - as a way of Xander getting rid of Angel from Buffy’s life. It’s not. If he’d told Buffy that Angel was going to probably have his soul restored, she would have stalled, Giles would have died, the world would have died. She would have been waiting and the spell might not have worked, whereas by lying, he ensured that Angel would be killed. For the good of mankind.
Xander is, at heart, as much of a Watcher as Giles. He’s the one who sees everything. And he’d make a brilliant Watcher, too, if things had gone differently: he has an ability to empathise and say the right thing quite often (especially to Buffy in The Freshman), he’s shown many times over that despite a lack of scholarly application he’s a most effective researcher - and the one that Giles turns to for help most often. He’s more proficient with magic than most people give him credit for; he’s helped with spells quite often and summoned the Once More With Feeling demon without any help from the others.
As well as this, Xander is, as often as not, the one to realise what’s happening before the others - or at least, before the girls realise. In The Puppet Show, he’s the first to catch on that the demon is targeting Giles instead of Willow. In The Dark Age, he realises first that Jenny was unconscious and Eyghon changed forms. This is, I think, best exemplified by Restless, in Xander’s dream - he realises what’s after them and that it’s here, but when he goes through Giles’ flat trying to tell them, the others don’t seem to notice. Xander is, as they say in Season Seven, the one who sees.
And Xander has the loyalty necessary. He has no power, but he’s clocked field time. If things had happened differently; if we’d ended the show with one girl still in each generation chosen with the strength and skill to fight the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness, Xander would have, in my opinion, made one of the best Watchers imaginable.
All through being a normal guy.
In a show where the superhero is the one you least expect; the tiny blonde girl with a love of bad ice-skating movies, it’s only fitting that a flawed, very normal, occasionally pathetic guy is one of the biggest unsung heroes you could imagine.
And that, above anything, is why I consider Xander to be one of the best characters there is. He holds everything together just by being himself - he gets fired from jobs, he fails school, he screws up on a monumental scale, but by the end he’s been through everything and seen it all, saved the world with his love and seen too many people die. And all of this is why he should be admired: no powers, no training, no knowledge, every reason and opportunity to quit and walk away, and yet he’s there to the last, looking into the crater that was Sunnydale, and, a changed man, ready to face the world they now live in.