From the first episode of the show to the last, Xander Harris was a constant presence in Sunndale. It’s clear what Xander was supposed to be: the nice guy. But decades of discussion has not been flattering for the Scooby Gang’s allegedly lovable loser. It’s not that Xander was the secret villain of Buffy the Vampire Slayer– but you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find someone who thinks that he was. Why is that? What happened? And what can be done with Xander in 2019? Buffyversity is now in session, and we’re going to be looking at the rise and fall of Xander Harris.
A flattering account of the life and times of Xander Harris
Alexander Lavelle Harris never really had superpowers (for more than an episode), but he was a founding member of the Scooby Gang. His parents were neglectful and abusive, and before Buffy rolled into town, his only good relationships were with Willow Rosenberg and their good buddy Jesse. You remember Jesse. He was turned into a vampire and killed by the end of the second episode of the show.
Xander had bad luck through high school, dating and befriending various supernatural creatures who secretly desired his demise. Listing all the occasions this happened to Xander would take a long, long time, but highlights include a doomed Inca mummy girl, a mantis monster, and a weird situation involving the swim team really being composed of fish boys. He also dated his childhood nemesis Cordelia Chase, and cheated on her with his best friend Willow. Remember, this is supposed to be the flattering take on Xander’s life.
After high school. The rest of the gang tried their hands at college, Xander did not. He became a townie, and got a job in construction. He struck up a relationship with former demon-turned-mortal Anya, and wouldn’t you know it, the two of them got engaged. It seemed sweet and normal, until Xander was visited by a demon claiming to be his future self who showed him a vision of his future- Xander was destined to turn into his terrible parents and um, murder his wife Anya with a frying pan. He left her at the altar.
Other notable relationships include one between Xander and friggin’ Dracula, which got vaguely erotic and was consummated by Xander teaching the Count how to ride a motorcycle. Oh and the embodiment of evil ripped his eye out, which can’t be fun, but he did wear a Snake Pliskin-style eye patch for the rest of his days so it’s not all bad?
The TV series ended with Slayers around the world awakening to their powers and the town of Sunnydale being sucked into the Earth. Xander spent his time after that as a general of sorts in the new Slayer army. During this time he grew closer to Buffy’s younger sister Dawn, and the two of them struck up a relationship. Xander was defined by his relationship with Dawn for the rest of his time in the original series, up to and included their marriage and the birth of their three kids.
The truth about Xander Harris
Xander is weak. And the story bends over backwards to forgive him for his weakness. He messes up, but because he does have good qualities (and he does, he really does), we are supposed to forgive him. He starts a “We Hate Cordelia Club?” That’s just the immaturity of an elementary school kid. He cheats on Cordelia with Willow? He knows he’s doing the wrong thing, and he like, feels really bad about it. He creeps on various women? Well, he’s a young guy, he’s so non-threatening, and he usually gets a cosmic comeuppance, even if he doesn’t actively try to make amends.
His later sins as an adult are a little harder to parse. His relationship with Anya always seems like a bit of a mess. He calls it off because he was convinced that he was going to murder her out of resentment. And he didn’t talk about that with her, he just ditched her in front of all their family and friends. Because Xander was the character we knew longer, we stick with him, and Anya is relegated to the supporting character heap. We even judge her harshly for having a fling with Spike, far more harshly than we ever judge Xander for lusting after a mantis-lady. And then he marries Dawn.Continued below
Look, relationship dynamics change as people grow older. I have friends now who felt much younger than me growing up, but as adults, it’s no big deal. (Some of them even read this column. Hi guys!) But I never married those friends. And Xander did that. He used to fucking babysit Dawn (season 5, episode 2 if you were curious). And he marries her and starts a family with her. That’s weird and creepy and is never adequately addressed.
That’s because Xander is something insidious. He’s a nice, relatable nerdy guy, the kind of guy who was into Buffy in the early 2000s. Xander is neurotic and emotional, but he’s also supportive and funny. He doesn’t look out for people as part of an evil scheme to manipulate them, but he feels entitled to certain treatment in return. He thinks kindness is a currency for sex. He acts like moments of bravery cancel out acts of cowardice. But that’s not how things work. Just because Xander is kind to one person does not give him license to be cruel to another. Doing good things doesn’t make him a good person, it just makes him a person, and sometimes he does bad things. Xander is complicated. But the story smiles and shrugs, and lets him get away with being a creepy jerk.
And part of that is OK! Part of what makes Buffy great is the complexity. Xander’s nerdy relationship with toxic masculinity was honestly sort of refreshing for the time. The jock/nerd dichotomy was still going strong. This was a world before Dwayne Johnson and Mark Zuckerberg. Xander’s flaws were refreshing. But the series wasn’t interested in his growth, and gave license to a lot of creeps who though they were in fact, the nice guys.
The X-Man Today
Xander has not been the focus of the 2019 “Buffy” comic book reboot but already, you can see the beginnings of a change. For one, Willow is out and has a girlfriend. Xander was never anything less than totally supportive of his best friend, but this makes it less likely that the two of them are going to secretly hook up and cheat on their significant others. The fact that Willow who starts as the shyest, most timid character is kissing her cool girlfriend in the halls at school also bodes well, as it shows she’s transcended the sexless shy nerd stereotype she started as in 1997. Maybe Xander can also skip over some of his more toxic growing pains with some self awareness.
Anya has also been introduced to the story quite early. She runs the magic shop in town and she and Xander haven’t made goo goo eyes at each other. They are getting solidly established on their own and not as a couple. Of course, without a romantic plot, Xander hasn’t had much to do. It seems that he’s more into computers than he used to be, and he’s still really supportive, but he hasn’t shown a lot of needs and wants of his own. That’s the key question. If Xander can be a full character who can express his desires without any sense of entitlement, we’ll know that he’s fully matured into a real 21st century dude.