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March 12 2011

Failure of the Everyman: the lost character that was Xander Harris. Did his development stall in Buffy's final seasons?

From what I recall from a Nicholas Brendon interview with SFX magazine from 2004(?) was that there were two Season 7 proposals for Xander which ending up getting shot down. A Buffy/Xander romance which got rejected cause Joss and co wanted Buffy to be on her own and Xander getting killed off and coming back as a monster.

Losing his eye just reaffirmed his everyman status to me both because it happened at all and because he dealt with it in a very Xanderish way (when you look at the way he - an ordinary bloke - threw himself into the fray week after week it's pretty bloody astonishing that's all he ended up with. For all his faults - and as an everyman, they were legion - Xander was crazy brave).

But the article does have a kind of point IMO in that Xander, for all his jokey persona, was - arguably apart from Giles - actually the character that got his shit down quickest. He was (in Joss' infamous words) 'Done' by more or less midway through season 5 (stable relationship, job he enjoyed and was good at etc.) so that there weren't too many ways left for his character to change that didn't feel like deliberate steps backwards in order to go forwards (one of my issues with "Hell's Bells" for instance is that it felt a bit manufactured, didn't really seem to flow too well from Xander/Anya beforehand, despite all the hints dropped about his upbringing).
Everyone who's name didn't begin with Spike or Buffy had their development stalled in the final seasons, especially 7. At least Xander had that great scene at the end of Potential, which was more than Giles got.
I could not disagree with this more.

Well, I suppose I could, in that I do agree that Xander had much less to do in Season 7 than he should have, but everything else just seemed wrong to me.

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.


I don't think that's what The Replacement was about at all. This was simply the episode where Xander begins to realize that he's not the loser he thinks he is. That he can be confident and self-assured if he needs to be, and the only thing keeping him "the butt-monkey" is himself. It has nothing to do with distancing his character from magic. Indeed, the entire episode hinges on the spell that makes him two people.

At this point in the show’s run, all things must now include some kind of spectacle to be engaging, so Xander and Anya’s wedding is crushed beneath the weight of demons, magic, and even time travel. The episode leaves Xander emotionally broken, but it seems that it’s less because of what has happened and more because of how.


I disagree about the episode Hell's Bells as well. I would agree that the episode was a little heavy handed in its portrayal of Xander's family, but I believe that Xander's story is a beautifully perfect culmination of what his character has been up to that point.

If The Replacement showed Xander that he doesn't have to be a loser, Hells Bells reaffirmed the belief that he might be. His biggest fear is that he will become like his family. This isn't out of nowhere. Remember in Restless? "That's not the way out."

Hell's Bells is the story of Xander leaving Anya out of fear that he will become like his family and just end up hurting her. Contrary to what the author of this article said, it's a very natural decision for Xander to make at this point in the story, and I don't think it feels at all contrived or contrary to his character.

I think that the author puts far too much emphasis on Xander's role as "The Everyman." In doing so, he simplifies what is actually a fairly complex story arc into a simple "natural vs. supernatural battle," which I never really saw Xander as being anyway.
The article also largely ignores the largely important role Xander wound up playing at the end of season 6. I mean, all he did was save the world by getting Willow to stop trying to destroy everything -- and he didn't even have to fight or do anything remotely supernatural to do it. Superpowers or no, if you save the bleeping world, you're a pretty special character -- Everyman or not.
I think more than anything the character of Xander was inspiring. He wasn't perfect, all too human, but from the very first episodes he showed the courage that ordinary people have occasionally been able to find in themselves from the beginning of history. We all have it in us, Xander found it and used it.
Not having superpowers, feeling the fear, being a hero anyway, makes him arguably the bravest person on the show.
Season seven Xander was quite possibly the character who had his s**t most together. He had a steady job (at least while the town lasted), dressed like a grown-up and gave the best level-headed speech to Dawn. He was the one who could put your house back together after it fell (in more ways than one.)
I have the impression the writer only grudgingly accepts the monster elements in the show at all - Xander's main value is not-being-Special, rather than actually being Xander.

I do agree he was under-used in S7, as was Giles, and the inflow of Potentials has to have something to do with that. (Though real-life issues such as ASH's wish to spend part of the year at home with his family and Nicky's own problems are also part of that, if you want to take a Doylist rather than Watsonian line.)

However, Xander does manage a few important things in S6 and S7. He saves the world. He supports Buffy, Dawn, Faith - gender-swap (traditional wife role) if you like, but an important role for all that. He is ready to get up and go on, endlessly.

Xander is "ordinary" by contrast with the superpowered people on the show and also by contrast with the college-educated, well-paid norm of many of the writers. I think it's important that he grows up, becomes responsible, becomes the man who can mend windows - a valuable, hard-working individual despite his family background, moderate educational achievements and history of being a figure of fun. He comes out of the show decent, scarred, feeling his loss, but ready to keep going on. A pretty good result for Everyman, I feel.
I don't really get the impression from this essay that the author cared much for the final seasons of Buffy in the first place.
This reads very much like one of those fans that considers the post season 3, or post season 4 by the sounds of the article, Buffy to be under par. There are a couple of references to the show being "now saddled with continuity spanning four plus seasons [and has] became ever more and more dependent upon plot, moving further and further away from metaphor as its central conceit." As someone who thinks season 6 is the best of the run, I just can't get on board with that part of the argument.

I certainly don't agree with the 'Hell's Bells' discussion, although it is admittedly a very divisive episode. For me, the actions of Xander in that episode were very much in keeping with the character and can be seen so much more when you re-watch with hindsight. Even listening to the goofy 'I'll Never Tell' in 'Once More with Feeling' has a poignance to it, completely lost on first viewing.

I do agree they lost their way with Xander in the seventh season. He feels a little pointless and unnecessary for the vast majority of the time. Although I don't agree with the claims by some that Buffy and Spike completely take over the show (although I did find that to be true on my first viewing,) the writers definitely seemed to run out of ideas for Xander. His 'Potential' speech is the highlight of the season though, and possibly the highlight for his entire character arc.

In my eyes though, when it comes to him losing his eye it isn't undermining or destroying the lines stated by Xander during the speech, but just enforcing his essential role in the group, despite being the "everyman." The fact that Caleb picked on that particular aspect of Xander goes to show that he did fulfil a part of the group dynamic, even without any access to supernatural powers. It also shows that Xander is in possession of the very power that is the most important of the First's own arsenal, being able to see everything.

It's interesting to see that this power is even still present in the comics, despite the eye patch, as he is now the guy behind all the monitors, keeping his one good eye on all the slayers at once.
I can say that I pretty much feel this article is dead on. Perhaps a little too critical in some points, but Xander for me was the charecter whose existence seemed predicated on and adjusting according to what the writers wanted to do with Buffy and Willow.

Whenever I think of stories like "The Zeppo", "The Replacement", or even "Hell's Bells" it strikes me that there was a sort of problem the writers had writing major Xander story beats into stories that weren't exclusively about Xander. Note that this complaint wouldn't have been valid for me had Hell's Bells not occurred because they writers actually built a compelling realtionship and outlook over the course of many episodes but then shot themselves in the foot (or at least were guilty of a jump). The result is three episodes where one could argue Xander's outlook would abruptly shift in three convenient 40 minute backselling episodes depending on who the writers needed him to be at the time. Often, with little (or any) real setup of the change that was about to occur. One only needs to see Issue 1, Season 8 to see the pattern recur, where Xander who has up until this point exclusively followed is suddenly a competant commander of other human beings which is only hinted at but never shown in detail because of his former job.

I've never been mad at Joss for this. I think Joss & Co. were always writing a story about Buffy first, and at some point decided to make Willow as dynamic as Buffy. You only have so many minutes in a season and so many plot and charecter beats you can hit. But when they did that, because Willow and Xander split to an extent (honestly how many scenes do you think of Willow and Xander before the climax of S6) it left Xander without a dramatic dance partner unless Buffy or Willow were going through something. And if you're unwilling for Xander to take on new skills (and possibly taking back spotlight on his own) you essentially have a charecter in stagnation.

My feeling was, Joss & Co. always never went the "Xander is helpful" route because they always felt it undercut the original intent of the charecter and they didn't want to fall into the trap of Buffy or Willow, "needing a man" in an active capacity. Having him fix windows makes him helpful, not necessary. One might even say, he was written to be harmless. Therefore Xander and Giles are often given moments, but not active roles. The problem for me as a viewer was, Buffy and Willow were no longer really serving their original roles either, but in their case it doesn't detract from the message but because Xander can't grow into a new, more active one he begins making less sense.

But the end result of the choices they made, are articles like this and certain people who look at the show and see Xander not as a fully constructed charecter, but as one whose responses often seemed almost cynically shoehorned into a role as required. And to be fair, it's not the only time this has happened in a Whedon show. Charles Gunn and Boyd Langton immediately spring to mind.

[ edited by azzers on 2011-03-13 03:06 ]
When I think about Xanders character I often get angry. Here is a man who has his sh*t together, knows how to handle himself, and has come face to face with pure evil but has to hide behind skirts. Now I am a feminist, equality isn't an idea its to be of human necessity. But I started to feel that Xander was kept around to highlight a "man good, woman better" point. Many times I would find myself befuddled as to why Xander would let this go on. He had a tough up bringing, some military experience, worked construction and was company to a girl who killed evil things on a weekly basis. This does not make for a soft, nonconfrontational man.
When I look at Wesley I see what could have happened to Xander. At the begining Wesley was a ninny, at the end Wesley was horrifingly awesome. Yes, Xander peaked early, but they left him stagnant. Instead of moving forward as a character he floated from side to side.
Only until recently in the comics does it seem that Xander has had enough and that it's time to take charge and stand up. Yes he was an everyman, but that shouldn't have been the end of his development.
I think the "behind the skirt" comment is a bit over the top. Early Xander is shown actively wanting to help. I think he did what he thought was necessary and what the plot (as the show layed out) allowed him to do within the limitations keeping the show on message.

Yes he was an everyman, but that shouldn't have been the end of his development.


However, I love this quote. I do feel that this line probably encapsulates a lot of Xander charecter angst. Everyman is an archetype, it is not a charecter. The Xander that offers helpful advice but stays out of way is far cry from even "everywoman" Kaylee Frye who isn't hugely educated, is only an ensemble charecter, and yet fills a role and is active in most scenes that she's in.

[ edited by azzers on 2011-03-12 21:48 ]
I feel like we would have been better served if someone from the black had written this article. Xander was, is and always will be my favorite character on Buffy. While I was often frustrated with his storylines while the show was airing, in many repeated DVD viewings they seem much better and conducive, especially Season 7. The entire season they literally have Xander "keeping the house together" and then, in Dirty Girls, when he goes down, everything goes to shit.
I thought it was a really well-written piece but (like most of yez, it seems) I don't buy this:

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.


The question of Xander himself aside, I just don't think every character in a story has to be constantly in motion / developing in order to be interesting or valuable to the story. They can be who they are, not changing, and be crucial and interesting. I don't see why that's a problem, and I don't really feel the conflict of his Everyman status with the supernatural elements of the show either.

With Willow recovering from the Dark Magic thing and Spike newly souled but bitched out to the First and the awesome Robin Wood on a vendetta and Buffy on whatever-the-hell journey she was supposed to be on (OK, I didn't love S7, though I did love many of the individual episodes) it would surely have been overkill to have Xander on some kind of dramatic change-a-thon as well. I don't think his stability as a character equals stagnation at all. The "central" character maybe needs to keep growing and journeying, but I never thought, oh Xander, he's so dull now that he's got his shit together. I really loved Xander with his shit together and I cared a lot about his relationships, with Anya, with Buffy, with Willow, and how those were developing.

Love your point about him literally keeping the house together BTW, E-Rawk, and how his serious injury undoes everyone. He matters so much to all of them, they so dearly need him, and need him to be OK. And same goes for the show and its viewers!

I don't like Hell's Bells much, though not really for the same reasons as the author. Most of the break-ups on the show felt real and earned and made emotional sense (Willow and Tara being the best and most heartbreaking example, maybe), but Xander and Anya's just felt forced for the sake of shaking things up. I thought them getting engaged in the first place was kind of dumb, actually. Bleh. I didn't love any of that story-line, Anya returning to her demon ways, I even thought her death was lame - so I agree maybe that they didn't know what to do with that relationship, and I didn't love what they did with Anya once she was out of it, but I think Xander being edged out in S7 was due to other problems with S7 and not because of any problem with the character itself. (I should add though that even the eps I don't like have their moments; I did and do love Anya at the end, in the dark in her wedding gown, being offered a handkerchief and her powers back by D'Hoffryn...don't know how to spell that, or why I think it might be spelled the way I've spelled it).

I don't know why you think Xander was hiding behind skirts, The Goose, or in what ways you think he was used to highlight a "women are better" kind of point - I never felt that at all. The "female power" thing got a little heavy-handed and let-us-hammer-you-over-the-head-with-the-point-now in S7 at times, but I never thought Xander was anything but awesome and brave and indispensable and Xandery.
Hmm. Personally I really, really dispute the theory that Xander "has his shit together" by early S5. He graduated from high school in S3, making him twenty (or even still nineteen) in early S5. Awfully young. Remember when Giles leaves in S6? None of our heroes can buy any booze for him -- meaning they're under 21, for our non-US friends here. I defy you to find anyone out there at that age who's truly "together."

For me I have always interpreted S6 as, "You think you're grown up? You think you're mature? You think you can deal with problems? Try real life." And our heroes stumble a bit. They've grown, but not enough to make it on their own yet. Xander's breakdown in "Hell's Bells" fits that pattern perfectly.
Whew! That was a lot of reading, Xander would have been asking Willow for the summary at the end. That being said, Xander gets labeled as "The Everyman" and I keep thinking how great it would be if everyman was similiar to Xander. I disagree with the idea that Xander's tether to reality creates a division between him and the rest of the cast. I think he becomes their tether, and as many stated above, when that tether is endangered, (such as Dirty Girls) then everyone becomes endangered.

And as far as S7 is concerned, for myself, I felt like Caleb's attacking of Xander shows how important he really was. Caleb went after the important targets and he knew that even though Xander wielded no magical powers, and wasn't a potential or a Slayer, that he was the foundation of this group.

And now I want to rewatch the entire series with a character specific stance. Awesome.

Oh, and I absolutely agree with those who said his speech in Potential was outstanding. I fall a little more in love with him every time I think about it.
The Zeppo is one of my favorite Xander episodes. And it being a Season 3 ep shows early on his ongoing development from teenagehood to manhood as he deals with dead guys trying to make him join their club to counting down a bomb with James Bond-like cool: "I like the quiet". Then totally ignoring Cordelia at the end of the episode by realizing he is more than the sum total of his parts and doesn't have to respond to her catty, provoking remarks every single time, or maybe, ever again, or really, doesn't have to kowtow to anyone again if he doesn't want to. I don't buy the everyman tag either. Xander is learning at his own pace throughout the show, within a unique journey (do Everymen fall in love with their teacher who is really a giant insect or seem to end up dating many demon chicks? I don't think so).
Xander's character arc (or lack thereof) is discussed in Buffycast Episode 3, entitled Dude, Where's my Character Arc.

It, as well as the rest of Buffycast, are well worth listening to.
Yet Xander is NOT the Everyman. He has never been the Everyman. If anyone was the Everyman, it would be Jonathan, at least pre-Season 6. Xander is the biggest hero on the show, the most courageous. Courage isn't the lack of fear, it is feeling fear and standing up anyway. As the only one with no powers, Xander was still almost always in the middle of the action, helping in any way he could. The Everyman would see a vampire and run. Xander would try and stake. Maybe not successfully all the time, but he would try nonetheless. He was the most defenseless against the monsters - no slayer powers, no witch powers, no demon powers or werewolf powers, or even watcher knowledge power, and yet he was always there helping to save the world. From day one (or episode one) he was more than the Everyman. He was always a hero, even if he didn't see it himself.
Like a few people who have already posted here, Xander is basically my favourite character from the show...and this article leaves me of two minds.

Certainly, Xander was never perfect and some of the things said and done by him were childish and moronic...but I've felt kinship with the type of person he was/is: the Evolving Everyman. He started off completely like the large majority of teens in his age bracket in relation to personality and behaviour but after getting a peek at what goes bump in the night, he started sloughing off the dross of his personality to start finding the inner core of awesome.

However, what IMO especially made Xander a key component of the show was the fact that he arguably should be a much more dickish character, if he had years of emotional and potentially physical abuse as part of his formative years. Here's someone who's leaving his Everyman behind every step forward he takes but he's fighting against all the years of being made powerless and the temptation of the knowledge there are ways to gain power out there and he could give back a taste of the crap he's suffered from his parents and others around him. But he only bows something like once I can immediately think of - the love spell against Cordy in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered - in trying to attempt revenge. Though I'm sure he nominally would have thought about it at other times.

In the end, I think more could have been done with Xander but I truthfully think there was just a bit too much effort in giving Buffy and then Willow detailed arcs that others kinda lost out.
He started off completely like the large majority of teens in his age bracket in relation to personality and behaviour but after getting a peek at what goes bump in the night, he started sloughing off the dross of his personality to start finding the inner core of awesome.

That's very well put BlueEyedBrigadier.

I defy you to find anyone out there at that age who's truly "together."

I'm going by what we see rather than the character's ages ManEnoughToAdmitIt (and though in general I agree - particularly looking back at what I was like at 19-20 :) and also :(- as to his behaviour in "Hell's Bells", i've seen people well past the age of 21 deal with impending marriage just as badly). By season 6 for instance Xander had been living (and working) in "real life" for two years. People may disagree but his S4 speech to Buffy about Riley was from a mature, even wise perspective IMO and as I say, jokey persona aside, post S4 he's often the most sensible when it comes to advice/action. Xander was basically baked when a lot of the others were still cookie-dough (partly because he didn't have super-powers/responsibilities to deal with at the same time as growing up).

It's interesting too BTW that I pretty much see "everyman" as a compliment whereas many here seem to see it as a verdict Xander should be defended from. He was an everyman AND he was extraordinary. For me that's kinda the point.

(also, catherine, are we the same person ? Cos i've never seen us both in the same room together and now i'm starting to wonder ;)
I'm glad PopMatters devoted a column to Xander, but I have to agree that this particular reading misses a lot. Recommend instead Marc Camron's "The Importance of Being the Zeppo: Xander, Gender Identity and Hybridity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from Slayage 6.3. Don't be put off by the fancy title or the reference to "The Zeppo;" Camron does look at Xander's role in all 7 seasons & into season 8:

"And so we have Xander, the only member of Buffy’s gang with no special abilities, yet upon closer examination, the one character the Scoobies can always count on when the battle explodes, no matter how dire the situation....Xander the squire embraces his masculinity when he must, and subjectifies himself to Buffy the rest of the time, because he knows her power trumps his. He is not a woman in man’s clothing, but a fully actualized and hybridized male character."

In other words (to paraphrase Saje), Xander is done, fully baked.
I feel like we would have been better served if someone from the black had written this article. Xander was, is and always will be my favorite character on Buffy. While I was often frustrated with his storylines while the show was airing, in many repeated DVD viewings they seem much better and conducive, especially Season 7. The entire season they literally have Xander "keeping the house together" and then, in Dirty Girls, when he goes down, everything goes to shit.

E-Rawk | March 12, 22:52 CET

------------------------------------------------------------

I could be wrong but I'm sure I read a Joss interview when he said that Xander being the glue that holds the group together was meant to be one of the major storylines but got pushed into the background because of time constraints with the showed coming to an end.

As for Xander he did on occasion get ignored but he always would always pop up with the odd speech that would steal the show. Yeah okay I'm a huge Xander fan.

I do feel him and the rest of the Scoobies got pushed into the background in season seven, which is why it's my least favourite(note least favourite not disliked) but I was always more of a Scoobies man than a Buffy man.

I also don't think that because a character grows up and becomes stable that their character arc has ended. No matter how stable you are theres always something that can turn your life upside down.
Maeve said:

In other words (to paraphrase Saje), Xander is done, fully baked.


Do you mean he is already cookies?

Faneater said:

I do feel him and the rest of the Scoobies got pushed into the background in season seven, which is why it's my least favourite(note least favourite not disliked) but I was always more of a Scoobies man than a Buffy man.


Agreed. I don't think it is fair to single Xander out as the character that gets minimal story during season 7, as they all suffer from this. I still think the reason the majority dislike Kennedy is not down to the character, or even that she is not Tara (of course, for some this will be that case,) it is instead down to her and Willow's relationship not being given time to grow. Giles and Anya are also not really given much to do, whilst you also have an influx of new characters to deal with.

I don't think these are problems that couldn't have been fixed in the show, but they could probably have done with shredding a few storylines or getting rid of a few standalone episodes, maybe even running the First/potentials storyline for two seasons.
(also, catherine, are we the same person ? Cos i've never seen us both in the same room together and now i'm starting to wonder ;)


Yeah, I've been meaning to mention that. The Atlantic ocean has nothing to do with it - we are actually the same person. Have you noticed yet that our socks don't match today?
Yeah but in fairness we were in a hurry this morning, I don't think we should blame ourself.
Saje: It's interesting too BTW that I pretty much see "everyman" as a compliment whereas many here seem to see it as a verdict Xander should be defended from. He was an everyman AND he was extraordinary. For me that's kinda the point.

This wot he said. Yessir. As with several other characters, I have some minor nitpicks about his character development, but I think his Everyman journey was interesting and felt natural. I think that season seven as a whole was a bit uneven and that the Scoobies as a team lost out a bit because of it, but not Xander in particular post season four or five or whatever signpost people want to assign as a stagnation marker.

He was Everyman and he was a hero, and he made it easier for us to see our own individual hero myths because of it.

catherine/Saje, I like your shirt today - fashionable but not fussy.
I often didn't like what was done with Xander's character, especially the train-wreck ending of his relationship with Anya, but there was quite a bit of character development for him in seasons four and five, as he tried to transition with his friends into a world in which he didn't belong. Later, especially in six and seven, he was the real-world foil to everyone else: holding a job, finding his place in the world, almost getting married. To say that there wasn't any development or journey there seemes ... well, silly and wrong.

And do I need to point out that out of the seven seasons of Buffy, Xander saved the day at the end of both season one (when he revives a dead Buffy in a way Angel is incapable of), and season six. I mean, really. He saves the world twice and has no powers at all. So Xander's supposed lack-of-usefulness seems ridiculous to me.

catherine/Saje, I like your shirt today - fashionable but not fussy


Plus it matches one of our socks!
"He was Everyman and he was a hero, and he made it easier for us to see our own individual hero myths because of it."

Quotergal, you said it perfectly!
I really don't have time to get into an extensive comment, so Catherine, thanks for this:

"I never thought Xander was anything but awesome and brave and indispensable and Xandery.

I would add flawed, in the manner of all Joss's characters (which is exactly why they're so awesome.

Also what QuoterGal said ....

"He was Everyman and he was a hero, and he made it easier for us to see our own individual hero myths because of it".

I disagree that Xander was underused in Season 7. There was so much to be wrapped up and considering where S6 left off, the final season was obviously going to focus on Buffy and Spike and Willow.
So I loved what they did with Xander. I thought it was economical and elegant, from his initial appearance as "all grown up" to his beautiful speech to Dawn about being extraordinary.
And it may not have anything specifically to do with the essay, but I just have to mention how beautifully I think Nick Brendon played the role, start to finish.

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