You may have thought we had made it through the month with no Joss Whedon characters, but take heart! For X is for Xander Harris! Just your average, socially awkward, class clown of a teen, he ends up an integral part of the Scooby Gang in Buffy, saving the world from demons, vampires, and general badness.
Right? He matters, right? The defining Xander episode was The Zeppo, where Xander has a solo adventure while his friends, Buffy and the gang, fight off what is described as “the worst thing they have ever faced” – which happens off-screen. And meanwhile, trying to find his identity and figure out what it is that is his “thing” – what makes him cool or unique – Xander gets mixed up with some undead who want to blow up the high school. He beats them all, and saves the school, while his friends save the world – something they couldn’t have done if they had blown up.
So let me look at Xander, but also at this idea of “the Zeppo,” this character who is at once essential and expendable.
Just an Ordinary Guy
One of Xander’s defining characteristics throughout Buffy is that he is just a normal guy – the closest he gets to having powers is that he has memories from a soldier from one Halloween gone wrong. So he occasionally gets to have helpful military or strategy moments, but otherwise? He’s just a kid.
As the Gang grows in later seasons, and everyone has something they bring to the table – some skill or power – it remains painfully obvious that Xander does not. Nonetheless, he faces the wide variety of evil week to week with his head high and without backing down. And definitely with a joke on his lips.
Thinking about this as a character type, I think there are a number of other Zeppos I can think of in recent fiction. For instance, Ron Weasley is a pretty solid Zeppo. We got into quite a discussion recently about the idea of Harry and Hermione – but what about Ron? Their trio matches up pretty well to the core group in Buffy, really – Harry and Buffy, the chosen ones, Hermione and Willow, the smart and powerful ones, and then Xander and Ron – the Zeppos. Essential, but not. Take the part of Deathly Hallows when Ron is gone – all that Harry and Hermione have left is the mission. It’s joyless, it’s quiet and oppressive, and they barely make it through alive.
There’s something to the heart of these Zeppo characters – that they bring a different balance, and try to lighten the mood. They are brave without either the need to be – unlike the hero – or the power to back their fearlessness – like the powerful ones. But they keep showing up, keep battling evil.
A few other examples I’ve thought of: Sokka, from Avatar: The Last Airbender, who much like Ron and Xander, functions as humor, and a stabilizing element, while not being a powerhouse like the others. Or I would say potentially some of Doctor Who‘s third wheels, like Rory Williams or Mickey Smith.
And one other recent example. Because in the episode The Zeppo, Xander is trying to figure out what his thing is that defines his personality, that other people know him for. Which is a defining feature for Emmet in the Lego Movie. Emmet is a Zeppo who gets to be the main character!
The Zeppo in a Story
So what purpose does the Zeppo serve? Are they a filler character? Someone else to join in the conversation? Undecided? Underdeveloped?
So if they’re usually part of a trio, let’s look at the other characters. One is the hero, the object of the plot. The sort of character about whom prophecies are told, and against whom villains scheme. This character generally begins by not knowing much of what is going on in the universe, and their journey is also the audience’s journey, discovering the things the author has invented.
The other character could perhaps be called the know-it-all, someone who does know the world and its ways – often from studying, and not just from experience. So they’re not the mentor, but an incredibly useful peer. However, they also can help function for exposition, or to answer and solve issues in the plot. Their research can be a shortcut. As such, they function in a role as the author – figuring out and leading through the plot.
So then what is the Zeppo? As the plot unfolds, the audience is often less like the hero anymore – their world is a bit crazier than our lives. However, we might just be like the Zeppo. No powers, not the most knowledgeable about what’s going on, but willing to experience it, to figure it out, to face it. Enjoying the journey. Maybe even more than the audience, the Zeppo is like the fans – they want to be there, regardless of whether they fit in. Willing to experience the world regardless of being prepared for it.
Also, this analysis shines a different light: in terms of Doctor Who, it’s the Doctor who is the know-it-all… and the companion who is the hero. And occasionally, they bring along a Zeppo! Because having a Zeppo along makes it a much more enjoyable experience.