Giles: Xander's taken to teasing the less fortunate?
Buffy: Uh huh
Giles: And there's a noticable change in both clothing and demeanor?
Giles: And all his spare time is spent lounging around with imbeciles.
Buffy: It's bad isn't it?
Giles: It's devastating. He's turned into a sixteen year old boy. Of course you'll have to kill him.
The metaphor in this episode is pretty clear-cut. A group of cool kids are infected by hyenas, they become, literally, a pack, terrorising and bullying. Xander is drawn into their group, and Buffy and Willow have to attempt to come to terms with the changes in his behaviour.
This is Nick Brendon's episode, and it's his acting that carries what is otherwise a pretty straightforward episode. Brendon's change in attitude and carriage is beatifully handled, and serves to undercut the notion of teenage coolness nicely; we see the arbitrary nature of popularity in the way he so comfortably co-opts the guise. The change in the power relation between Xander and Buffy is a large part of what makes the episode powerful.
Indeed the strongest moments of The Pack come not from the menace of the pack itself, but in the way Xander's transformation impacts on the interrelations between Xander, Buffy and Willow. Xander's treatment of Willow is truly heartbreaking, particularly because we know there is a little truth in it. And Alyson Hannigan handles the hurt beautifully. Her facial expressions in the cage scene are just painful.
The central storyline itself is less interesting, although the attacking of Principal Flutie is quite genuinely surprising and raises the stakes. Up until now, it seemed Flutie was comic relief, destined to play a light role of ingnorant bumbling in the face of supernatural disturbances. His treatment here demonstrates, again, Joss's commitment to keeping us on our toes.
The tension does escalate, but at this point, while normally I'm a fan of the sideline episodes, I'm starting to feel that the season has had perhaps too many peripheral episodes, and it's time to bring back the central story arc. This story isn't as strong as the last three episodes; the metaphor is a bit obvious, the acting of some of the pack is a bit hammy, and the writing isn't as clever.
There's a nice gag at the end, and I love Willow's wish that Xander could have been possessed by "some ducks" instead. Ultimately though, probably one of the weaker episodes so far.
I give it two principal Fluties...