‘Buffy’ Flashback: Thanksgiving, Vampire Slayer Style

Yahoo TV
(Credit: The WB)
(Credit: The WB)

One doesn’t typically associate vampires — or vampire slayers, for that matter — with Thanksgiving. And that’s among the many reasons why “Pangs” stands out as one of the most memorable episodes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s seven-season run. Eight episodes into the show’s fourth year, on Nov. 23, 1999, the Joss Whedon-created series took a break from its season-long arc pitting UC Sunnydale freshman Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) against the subterranean military operation known as The Initiative for a standalone hour set on Turkey Day. With her mom out of town, a homesick Buffy strives to re-create her usual Thanksgiving feast for the rest of the Scooby Gang. As usual, though, her best-laid plans go awry thanks to a little paranormal activity — in this case the reawakened spirit of the Chumash people, a Southern California-dwelling Native American tribe.

Written by fan-favorite Buffy scribe Jane Espenson, “Pangs” boasts some of the series’ best-ever one-liners, and provides the setup for an equally memorable call-back joke in the Season 6 musical episode, “Once More With Feeling.” (Hint: It involves a bad case of syphilis that Nicholas Brendan’s Xander receives from the Chumash spirit.) It’s also a memorable showcase for James Marsters’s sneering vampire, Spike, who became a regular part of the ensemble in Season 4 after Angel (David Boreanaz) decamped for Los Angeles and his own series. To be fair, Buffy’s ex-boyfriend does make the trip back to Sunnydale in time for her Thanksgiving feast — he just declines to attend in person. (Gellar returned the favor by crossing over to Angel for “I Will Remember You,” which aired directly after “Pangs.”)

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Amid all the humor and action, “Pangs” provides some trenchant historical commentary about the less pleasant side of Thanksgiving: Specifically how it’s a holiday that celebrates the European settling of America while ignoring the settlers’ persecution of the continent’s native population. In this reading, the Chumash spirit isn’t just another rampaging boogeyman for Buffy to defeat; he represents the soul of a people who were driven out of their own land by foreign invaders. It’s a complex subject, and “Pangs” doesn’t provide any easily digestible answers. But the fact that it addresses the issue head-on within the context of a horror/sci-fi universe illustrates what makes Buffy a unique series, both then and now.

Sixteen years after fans got their first helping of “Pangs,” Yahoo TV reached out to Espenson, director Michael Lange, and stunt coordinator Jeff Pruitt for their memories of all the ingredients that went into producing this hearty feast of a Thanksgiving episode.

(Credit: The WB)
(Credit: The WB)

Jane Espenson: Joss had mentioned a few times that he always wanted to do a Thanksgiving episode in which the characters had to eat their dinner with a dead Native American on the table as a reminder of the losses built into the holiday. I got the impression this was an idea that pre-dated Buffy. “Pangs” was assigned to me, and I was excited to write it because it had such a high degree of difficulty. I did more research for this episode than for any other I’ve written.

Jeff Pruitt: Joss would usually give me a hint about what was coming up in future episodes, so that I’d have a chance to think about the action scenes. For “Pangs,” they told me they were working on an episode with a Native American tribe. It was fun shooting that. Michael Lange was such a funny director. He was always cracking jokes and stuff.

Michael Lange: I had directed a bunch of Christmas episodes [of other shows], but I had never done until then — and have never done since — a Thanksgiving episode. It was kind of cool, actually, and of course Jane’s scripts were always really good. She really had the tone of the show down and did a great job with the dialogue. And thematically, it was an interesting show to do. I’m sort of an old hippie from my college days, so I liked the idea about the Native American storyline. When my kids were in elementary school, they would go on field trips to Chumash reservations near L.A. They were a pretty peaceful tribe, but they were not peaceful at all in this episode!

Espenson: I was eager to get [the history] right. I started by taking a map of California into [executive producer] Marti Noxon’s office and having her point at where she thought Sunnydale was. That told me which Native Americans to research — the area she indicated had been the home of the Chumash. I did research online and also noted some museums within a day’s drive between L.A. and Santa Barbara, so I took a road trip to look at artifacts and talk to people about the exhibits, including some Chumash descendants. You can’t become an expert in a few days, of course, but I had enough time to at least be confident that I wouldn’t be accidentally referencing events that only happened in South America, or some other dumb error.

Related: From Buffy to Once: Jane Espenson on Creating TV’s Best Female Friends

Lange: The funny part about holiday episodes is that, in general, they’re sort of throwaway episodes. The conventional wisdom is that people don’t watch TV on the holidays, which I’m not sure is completely true, but that’s what everyone [in the industry] says. So a lot of times, [the networks] try to save money on these episodes because they figure no one’s going to watch. And “Pangs” really is a bit of a bottle episode; everything was pretty much on a stage, except for one day where we shot at the school.

Espenson: The story itself was broken in the usual way, with the rest of us looking on as Joss wrote the beats on the board all at once, his process invisible to the rest of us. But, unusually, there were changes made to this particular story after the research. I distinctly remember telling Joss some specifics of the atrocities committed against the Chumash, and him taking those horrific details and working them into the story. Joss was very clear about the attitudes he wanted from each character, so for me, this was just a matter of finding the way the characters would express them in their voices.

(Credit: The WB)
(Credit: The WB)

Pruitt: One of the earliest things that we shot was Xander falling through the ground into that tomb. We were on the soundstage there, and that’s when my camera got damaged. I was able to have a behind-the-scenes camera rolling a lot of the time during our fight and stunt scenes, because there was always a lot of action viewers didn’t get to see. We’d do all these combinations, but they would be edited down [for the final version]. For that scene with Xander, the special-effects guy put way too much dirt on the first take, so when the stuntman crashed through, all of our cameras were completely covered in dirt.

Espenson: The Thanksgiving dinner stuff was the part that got the most heavily rewritten when Joss took the script to do his pass on it. All of Act 3 ended up being pretty much Joss, so those are his traditions and recipes that are referenced. Although the mention of a potato ricer was mine; my family had a potato ricer, and I was surprised to learn that no one else seemed to have ever heard of such a thing when I went out into the world.

Lange: The action sequences in “Pangs” are atypically violent for that show. Obviously, there was violence in the fighting, but it always felt like a little bit exaggerated or heightened somehow. But there’s something viscerally very disturbing about the museum curator getting her throat cut, even in the genre of Buffy, which was all obviously fantasy.

(Credit: The WB)
(Credit: The WB)

Pruitt: There was nothing specific to Native Americans in the fighting sequences we choreographed. We did use some Filipino-style knife-fighting techniques. And all of the action on the show was always done by the stunt doubles. Sometimes we’d have Sarah swipe a knife, or duck, or something like that, but no combinations or fighting for any of the actors. I remember that one of the stuntmen got his nose broken when we were filming “Pangs,” during that Xander fight scene. One of the camera operators asked the Chumash stuntman to raise his head a bit, but in the heat of the moment, Xander’s stunt double punched him right in the nose and broke it. That was one of our few injuries that we had on the show, and it’s also the reason we had stunt doubles. I was on a show once where an actor got punched by another actor [during a fight scene] and throughout the rest of the episode, the director of photography had to light him with a shadow to cover the swelling on his face. That’s why, on Buffy, we never had two actors actually fighting each other. It was always one stunt double fighting an actor or two stunt doubles fighting, but never the two actors hitting each other together.

Espenson: Spike was probably my favorite thing to write in the episode. I love it when any character is seen in a new light, and I knew James Marsters would be great doing this. If I recall correctly, the outline had Spike tied to the chair, but letting him get hit with the arrows was my idea largely because I realized that it wouldn’t be realistic to have all the arrows miss him when he’s tied to a chair in the middle of the room. I was delighted when Joss agreed with the decision to let him get hit. What’s the use of having a dead character if you can’t take advantage of it?

(Credit: The WB)
(Credit: The WB)

Lange: James was perfect in that scene. He played it like, “Oh, no, not again.” He was sitting there knowing he was just going to get shot up, and that he just had to deal with it.

Pruitt: We didn’t give him any breaks. We were just like, “No, James, you need to stay there” and he was like, “Yeah. Right. Sure.” He stayed tied to a chair even though we would take a break and get something to drink. He just sat there, tied to the chair. I thought it was the funniest thing. If you look closely at the scene where Buffy and the Chumash warrior are fighting, you might notice James in the background bouncing around in his chair, but he doesn’t have any arrows sticking in him. It flashes by quickly, but if you pause it, you’ll notice and go, “Hey, where did those arrows go?” Just one of those things. No time for that, you know.

Espenson: We were excited to see Angel again on that episode. Joss very much wanted the two shows to grow increasingly independent of each other, but this was early days, where a crossover felt right and we were eager to do it.

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Pruitt: I wanted Angel to do a bunch of cool stuff [in the final fight], but they said, “No, we don’t have time.” That’s the reason he just breaks that guy’s neck. It’s a little bit of the Raiders of the Lost Ark thing. It would always be like, “OK, Pruitt — if you want to have this much time for Buffy’s fight, you’re only going to have this amount of time for Xander. We can’t spend any time on Xander.” I would always compromise in one area to get something else.

Lange: When I watched the episode again recently, I saw the bear come onscreen and involuntarily flinched. That whole scene was a nightmare. We had a real bear for a couple of close-ups, but most of it was a fake bear that looked horrible and never did what I wanted. With the real bear, we’d have these little electric wire perimeters around it, which would work unless the bear really wanted something to eat, in which case they don’t work. The bear doesn’t care.

(Credit: The WB)
(Credit: The WB)

Espenson: Writing the bear scene was amazing. We imagined a much larger bear than the one that reported to work, who was probably 4 feet tall standing up. Notice how it’s shot from a very low angle. The bear was very sweet — we all went down to the stage to meet him. Marti Noxon, who is wonderfully fearless, leaned down and gave him a big hug while the trainers looked on nervously.

Pruitt: Sarah [Michelle Gellar] and the bear were never in the room at the same time, but Sophia [Crawford, Gellar’s longtime Buffy stunt double] filmed a few quick scenes with the bear. She and I went over with the animal trainer to a different soundstage, and there was thin wire that around the bear keeping you about 10 feet away. Sophia stood up against the wire, and then it was a matter of getting the shots over her shoulder to make it look like Buffy and the bear are facing off. We wanted to have the bear roaring, but it was difficult, because it would start playing instead! His name was Bonkers; he would look around at the crew instead of looking at Sophia, and start bouncing like he wanted a treat. Sophia would try to move around to catch his attention, but the trainer warned her not to move too much, because you don’t want the bear to think you’re trying to attack it.

(Credit: The WB)
(Credit: The WB)

For the scenes where the bear actually hits Buffy, we had this great stuntman, Gary Morgan, dressed in a bear suit. It was a weird sequence to shoot. We’d be on one stage standing there with Bonkers saying, “OK, Bonkers — look at Buffy.” And then we’d be on another stage shooting Sophia throwing herself over a sofa. And then in between that, we’d shoot Sarah getting swiped by Gary Morgan in his bear costume. I was like, “OK, I hope this all works!”

Espenson: My favorite bit of dialogue is Xander yelling at the bear: “That’s for giving me syphilis!” That’s a Joss joke, and easily the best in the episode. I’m also fond of Willow ranting about the Yam Sham and talking about “making sweaters out of sheep.”

Pruitt: I’m so happy that a lot of my behind-the-scenes stuff is on YouTube now. Fans are so happy that all these years later they get to see the fight the way it really was rather than the chopped-up version that was in the final episode. For example, the first fight with the vampire at the beginning of “Pangs” had a whole big exchange of kicks and punches that you don’t see in the episode. So I’m very thankful that I had that camera rolling so that we have that to show to people. And I really enjoyed working with Michael Lange. He could have been a comedian instead of a director — he’s a funny guy.

Lange: I think fans really responded to that underlying theme of Native Americans, and how we look at both them and at Thanksgiving. That’s a lot of people’s favorite holiday, but it becomes complicated when you raise this subject. Quite a few years ago, I directed an episode of Northern Exposure, and there were quite a few Native Americans working on that show. It was around Thanksgiving, and I said to one guy, “Are you doing anything for the holiday?” You know, in the sort of happy way we think about Thanksgiving. And he said, “Eh, not really our favorite holiday up here.” So every year at Thanksgiving, I think about that guy, and that’s the same thing with “Pangs.” Also, there’s all this comedic stuff in the midst of the episode. Like, how cool is Buffy that she can be thinking about her mashed potato recipe while dodging arrows?

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is currently streaming on Netflix.