Standard disclaimer: I'll often speak of foreshadowing, but that doesn't mean I'm at all committing to the idea that there was some fixed design from the word go -- it's a short hand for talking about the resonances that end up in the text as it unspools.
Standard spoiler warning: The notes are written for folks who have seen all of BtVS and AtS. I'll be spoiling through the comics as well. Basically -- if you are a spoiler-phobe and haven't seen or read it all, read further at your own risk.
The Pack, aka Buffy’s love life, Part 2, in Which Xander Becomes a Possessed Hyena in a Pack.
Strudel steals the introduction: I'll get the surface issues out of the way first. While Buffy is trying to get Giles to believe Xander is possessed, Giles brushes it off. "Boys can be cruel. They tease. They prey on the weak." The metaphor of the cruelty that kids are capable of when operating in packs is painfully thin in this story. The demonic behavior -- at least initially -- that the pack displays in this episode is all too un-supernatural. Of course, they spiral out of control from there to much darker territory, which is a good place for Maggie to pick up the story:
Xander’s turn at bat. Buffy has absolutely no romantic interest in the guy at this point. He really isn’t on her radar. Hyena!Xander lets loose with every feeling he’s got about her. Hot for her. Jealous of Angel. Pegs Buffy as the girl who wants the guy who is dangerous and mean. We already knew every particle of it.
So if Hyena!Xander is just very upfront about the feelings Xander always has, what do we make of Hyena!Xander’s dissing of Willow? As I observed in Welcome to the Hellmouth, the trope of the nerdy guy who ultimately gets the hot chick is slightly undermined by the fact that the nerdy guy is completely unattracted to the nerdy girl who’s into him. Here it becomes text. He tells Willow he would never settle for her while Buffy is around. Max interjects: Actually, he tells *Buffy* that he would never settle for Willow while Buffy is around, though he implies something similar to Willow. So Xander’s turn as an evil Hyena guy reveals some of the darker undercurrents of his relationship with both Buffy and Willow.
Willow and Xander. Max: The hyena in Xander (focused on basic drives like eating, mating, and, er, general cruelty) isn't interested in Willow the way he's interested in Buffy, suggesting that he has no sexual feelings for Willow. But he does love Willow and, when restored to himself, risks his life saving her from the zookeeper. He makes a big show of his affection for Willow at the end in order to try to undo the damage his hyena may have caused. But we also get confirmation here that Xander knows that Willow is into him; we could have guessed that before, but Xander tends to pretend not to notice Willow's pining. He wants Willow around but he doesn't want to deal with her inconvenient feelings, so he ignores them.
On Willow's side, when Xander is cruel to Willow, she gets extremely upset. Buffy says that Xander's behaviour has nothing to do with Willow, but Will adds with a touch of barely concealed jealousy that Xander isn't being mean to Buffy, "he's just sniffing you a lot." She doesn't seem to blame Buffy-the-person, but she does feel that Xander's behaviour towards her is because he no longer needs Willow with Buffy in his life. She says that Xander has never treated her this badly, but she is much more willing than Buffy to consider the possibility that this is really Xander being so cruel to her. On the other hand, Buffy has known Xander for all of a few weeks, but she is able to piece together that he's not himself--because *she* isn't already convinced, as Willow is, of Willow's intrinsic worthlessness. (We see also a spectrum in terms of emotional responses to Xander: Willow is too emotionally invested to see clearly, and Giles is too emotionally disconnected to see clearly. Buffy is in the middle, in the best position to see that something is up with Xander. On the subject of Giles' interactions with the kids, I like when Buffy & Giles save Willow from Xander and the pack, Giles instinctively hugs her to protect her.)
Later on, Xander is locked in the book cage while Willow obsessively watches hyenas devouring prey (Willow seeks comfort in knowledge, even the bloody kind). Xander then tells Willow that he's still Xander. He wants her to let him out, so he preys on what he thinks is Willow's weak spot: Buffy. He insults Buffy, suggests that she has ruined the careful dynamic that Xander and Willow had, insinuates that she treats Willow like a lackey ("You did what you're told"), and suggests that she really doesn't care about either of them (leaving Willow alone with dangerous Hyena!Xander). Willow defends Buffy, but we've seen before in this very episode that she's jealous of the attention Xander pays Buffy--so Xander isn't wrong to suspect this will have an impact. Willow, looking particularly helpless, approaches, keys in her pocket. Xander continues soothing her with promises about how much she means to him, and when Willow gets just close enough he lunges for the keys. Willow jumps back, smiling broadly. "Now I know!" she says, certain now that he is possessed. Willow hates her nerdy, helpless side, but she also knows how to use it to her advantage, in somewhat the same way she got revenge on Cordelia with "deliver"--it goes without saying that this is something worth tracking.
So on both sides of Xander & Willow we see some real insight and some distortion. Willow is quick to believe that Xander thinks ill of her or would be cruel to her, because of her own insecurities. But she is dead certain that the real Xander wouldn't try to trick or (physically) hurt her. Xander is admittedly under demon possession so conclusions on what Xander knows about Willow are a little more tenuous, but assume for a moment that Hyena!Xander is acting off the same understanding of Willow that Xander has. Xander correctly pegs that Willow is jealous of Buffy, and feels uncomfortable about her intrusion into the Scoobies, though (probably being a demon) he misinterprets the degree. But he misses that Willow is only playing helpless--and then Willow, on another level, correctly guesses that Xander will fall for her trap. (Also worth tracking is how frequently Willow's friends notice when she uses her helplessness to her advantage.) In a few minutes we have a great interplay showing the depth and complexity of the core relationships in the Scoobies, in which both characters use the information they think they have to try to manipulate the other. In this instance, Willow comes out ahead.
The demon made me do it. This is our first dry run at excusing a character’s darkness on demonic forces. How much of this is Xander and how much is it the possessing demon? Hyena!Xander does and says some things that don’t seem to reflect real truths about him. Saying he can’t stand to be Willow’s friends, for instance, or enjoying mocking other kids. (Though even here, they might. Xander loves Willow as a friend, but the part of him that is attuned to social standing is aware that she's a drag on his upward mobility. That same normally very submerged interest in social status could also manifest in enjoying mocking other kids. Still, the hyena would be drawing on impulses in Xander that are not very important to his overall make-up) So does that mean that Xander is off the hook for trying to rape Buffy? There’s no doubt that normal Xander would never do such a thing. But I do think we’re supposed to walk away knowing that Xander has a potential for darkness that we wouldn’t have guessed. First, upon learning that Xander wasn’t with the Pack when they ate Principal Flutie, Giles is relieved. It would have been hard to come back from something like that demonic possession or no. Second, Xander is embarrassed enough by it to lie about remembering it. If it were not him in any way shape or form it wouldn’t matter what the demon did while in possession of Xander. It does matter if the demon is bringing to the surface feelings that are really there. BTW, this is just the first time a character coming back from demonic possession will claim to not remember it. It’ll happen again in Becoming II. Third, Giles keeps Xander’s secret rather than try to tell him that it’s nothing to do with him. Finally, Xander’s posture in the closing shot looks defeated or shamed. His stint as a hyena revealed things about Xander. It’s interesting that Willow and Buffy choose to ignore (or try to) what they learned about him.
Strudel, scratching his head, wonders why Maggie doesn't dwell more on the attempted rape issue, or at least flag it for future consideration when we get to Spike's notoriously controversial attempted rape of Buffy. It is more than just interesting that Willow and Buffy are willing to sweep this little detail under the rug, but as Maggie undoubtedly knows, it will be more interesting to talk about these choices later on. Maggie replies: I think it's more worth flagging when we take up Xander's reaction to the events of Seeing Red. The sojourn into hyena!ness is just that -- a sojourn. It tells us something about Xander, without requiring that we tag him with the label of attempted rapist.
Max: I will add that Buffy's ease of brushing it off actually reinforces that Buffy has no romantic feelings for Xander at this point--Xander doesn't represent a threat to Buffy emotionally or physically, and so it's easy for her to brush the whole event off. She won't always be as emotionally insulated as she is here.
Maggie: The demon serves as a window into the dark part of ourselves that we certainly want to keep secret from others and all else equal would rather not acknowledge to ourselves. Bear this in mind when we get to the Angel/Angelus split.
Max: Speaking of the dark part of the characters, this is (I believe) the first time we see the library cage in action, when Hyena!Xander is locked inside. The library cage will later house Oz's full moon self and Vampire Willow, so it seems to be a recurring symbol associated with the dark sides of Scoobies.
Pushing boundaries. Four students eat the principal, a character we know and expected to be around for a while. That’s out of bounds for the these sorts of stories, a signal that the show is not going to respect the conventions of the genre. Max: Not to mention that Buffy tosses the zookeeper into the cage with the hyenas, after which he's promptly killed. It was very definitely self-defence of course. But this is the first human life Buffy (arguably) has on her hands. Maggie replies: For some reason that aspect of the episode keeps slipping from my mind. The episode itself breezes right past it, in a way that makes me think that it's an artifact of the plot rather than an important plot point. We'll encounter this problem later on -- most notably in OMWF when we plainly aren't to think hard about Xander's choice to invoke the singing demon and then conceal that information when it could have been used to save lives. Max responds: Another significant similar situation is the deaths of the Knights of Byzantium whom Buffy kills in self-and-sister-defence in "Spiral". Anyway, Buffy does actually run to try to save the zookeeper as he falls in the cage. I think Buffy's ethically in the clear, but I agree that it is odd how little focus it gets. I'll try to refrain from talking about the OMWF demon-summoning until we get there, but I have some theories about it (none of which are entirely satisfying).
I just want to add how funny/poignant the shot of Flutie's framed photo of himself is, as the hyena-students tear into the real Flutie. This is a guy who tried hard to be both friend to his students and to discipline them, and was never convincing while trying to do either. So he got eaten alive. Moreover, we see that he has no family, no connections, no one to miss him when he's gone. It's pretty sad for a man to have a picture of himself on his own desk. It's very bleak humour, and typical of this show, that we get reminded how pathetic Flutie is at the moment when we are most horrified by his death.
Buffy and Angel. Willow does some serious cheerleading for B/A; but Buffy at least says she’s reserved. Angel is hot, but he’s never around. I think this plays mostly as her not wanting to fall for him until she’s got clearer signals from him that he’s interested in her.
Strudel, pretending he is wise in the ways of young women, notes: The way she jumps when she thinks Willow sees Angel shows that she's not as reserved as she'd like to think.
Buffy and Bad Boys. This seems like a total cliché, but I actually think Xander is right. Buffy wants a bit of demon in the guy. Season 8 seems to want to tell us that this is for sure the case. I’ve long argued (link to Buffy’s Dance with the Vamps) that this is an important structural element in Buffy’s seven year journey. This is the first time the theme gets openly mentioned.
Poor Xander. He may be right about Buffy's deep-seated interest in the Big Bad, but alas, his version of the same provokes nothing more from her than a professional clobbering on the head with a desk.
Max adds: It's not just Buffy who likes bad boys (or girls) though. The camera does too. Bad boys (and girls!) as "cool" gets played out in this episode. Xander and the pack get a big power ballad walk, ala the opening credits to Reservoir Dogs or the end of the Boxer Rebellion sequence in Fool For Love/Darla. And in all cases, the characters may be bad guys, but damn--they're so cool! Of course part of it is that we're in the "bad guys'" own POV. But film in particular lends itself to the glorification of power, with ethics not entering much into it. Something to watch out for in Buffy's attraction to bad boys (and Xander's attraction to bad girls, and...) going forward.
Xander as a demon magnet watch: Max: This is also the second time in three episodes that Xander attracts either a demon (Miss French) or a demon spirit (the hyena spirits here). Not all of Xander's demon-magnetism is romance-related.
Bottom Line: Xander as a temporary demon sets up the big reveal that Angel really is a demon. Stay tuned for Angel, aka Buffy's Love Life, part 3