Covering “The Replacement,” in which the amorous possibilities of duplication are contemplated.
Pity Xander. While his friends spent season 4 going to college and living in TV dorms, he struggled to find decent employment and lived in a basement shitty enough for verisimilitude. His beatnik fantasy alternative to college flamed out and had to be replaced with a beatnik reality of desperate employment. Did this succession of hilarious and degrading jobs—pizza delivery, barman, energy bar shill, ice cream man—reduce the character to a joke, as some believe? Well, sort of, yes, it does a bit. But I don’t think it stalls out the growth he’d experienced over the high school years, like many do, though that growth did get less pronounced. Yeah, he had a fairly immature meltdown when Anya showed up at Initiative House with Spike, but he also was trying to navigate and reconcile her particular idiosyncrasies like a grown up before that. Gosh, it’s almost like there may be two halves of him or something.
Admittedly, moments like that are few and pretty minor in season 4, hence, no doubt, the desire to give Xander something of a showcase, a “The Zeppo II: Insecurity Rising,” which Willow didn’t need since she got all the impactful Tara stuff, something to show what the character meant now, but also that his relationship means something beyond serving as a solid joke machine. Xander and Anya was never destined to feel as meaningful and historically significant as Willow and Tara, but it had deeper meaning for them, also fleetingly seen but present in season 4, like their little scene near the start of “Primeval.”
So in keeping with the fine tradition of “The Zeppo,” “The Replacement” is all about Xander, and really damn funny, definitely one of those episodes I’m very likely to watch again whenever I get a hankering, even if it doesn’t look as formally clever as that previous episode—there’s no lightly satirical B-plot that should be an A-plot, and while it doesn’t come together with the same structural, all plots converge flair that had Oz eating Jack O’Toole, it does end with some business that’s even more memorable, in its own particular way. While “The Replacement” really can’t equal “The Zeppo” in genius, it can in affection.
Curiously our fairly superfluous demonic villain plays pretty straight, rather like Dracula—Xander may mock cauldrons, but Toth actually uses his to great effect in a pretty solid plan, only felled by some bad aim that manages to zap Spike’s scavenged lamp, Xander’s new carpeting, and Xander himself—the comical highlight of which is his confrontation with Giles, where despite being wacked with a fertility idol, he emerges with his dignity unassailed (among my favorite bits in an episode full of favorite bits is Giles noting Toth doesn’t flee so much as “swept out majestically”) while Giles has to claim victory for not being dead or unconscious.
If you can’t tell, I’m really struggling to prevent turning this into simply a recitation of scenes and bits I like, both because they’re all so great, but also because “The Replacement” is pretty up-front about its main point, which is that Xander can be smooth and confident at the same time he’s bumbling and hapless (thus the same for we all!), which isn’t an insight pulled from the deepest of pools, but it’s just so funny to watch in action. It actually is pretty genius (if also an acknowledgement that Xander’s treatment has been a bit unbalanced) that the episode does hardly anything to make Xander’s bumbly half seem more bumbly than normal, instead just counting on our expectations of how Xander acts to do most of the heavy lifting convincing us that decent shirt Xander (much like the twin Crichtons, we can easily differentiate Xanders by shirt, at least for a little while) is a demonic imposter (or a robot), the smooshed nickel and occasionally ominous line reading being mere embellishments. It’s only when awful shirt Xander is placed next to decent shirt Xander that it becomes obvious how much more outsized a blithering fucking idiot than he normally is, and we see how much they are the same, making and then laughing at each other’s Star Trek jokes (“He’s clearly a bad influence on himself.”) until they’re so indistinguishable Anya thinks they should take advantage of this unique situation to have a three-way that technically remains a two-way.
It’s only in the last few minutes that it becomes clear what “The Replacement” is really about: perception and reality, a real division codified by Riley’s shocking and seemingly from nowhere assertion that Buffy doesn’t love him. Significantly, the episode started with both pairs watching a movie in Xander’s subterranean hovel, a tableaux meant to maximize his humiliation in his circumstance, from the cat-pissed-upon hot plate, to his parents drunkenly rowing upstairs, to even the small detail of his couch not being sufficient for two couples (which conveniently frames the scene nicely), where he tries to imitate the seemingly-perfect blissful sanity between Buffy and Riley with an ill-advised back rub on Anya’s dislocated shoulder. His perception, indeed everyone’s perception is that he and Anya are always teetering on the edge of disaster, hence Willow’s somewhat bitchy dubiousness when bad shirt Xander says Anya is the one thing he can’t do without. But Willow never saw Anya cuddle up with a despondent Xander and tell him to “PSHT!” away any failings his friends see in him because he’s a good person and a good boyfriend, and only we saw how, just a minute or two after the failed backrub, her face is nearly overtaken with concern and worry when his alky parents crash on home.
But what has convinced Riley of this truth? Knowing his statement is coming makes it hard not to scour the episode for whatever snippets might be there. And indeed, while they look all gooey and lovey, you can see little snippets. Riley seems very territorial and paternalistic when he vows to kill Toth for targeting Buffy. Buffy insults him from nowhere and for no particular reason (“He called you a ‘toth,’ it’s a British expression, it means, like, moron.”). His expressed interest in separating the Xanders and experimenting upon them doesn’t exactly go over well. Are any of these indications?
Maybe it’s as simple as this: when presented with the hypothetical chance for two Buffys, she isn’t certain Riley wouldn’t prefer one to the other, but when actually presented with two Xanders, Anya doesn’t think it’s odd to sex them both.