When I first watched Buffy I found the first season entertaining enough to keep watching, but on repeat viewings I’ve always felt it doesn’t quite reach the standard of what followed later. I think that’s probably because it feels so episodic, as if we’re not really building to anything, but the interesting thing is the way that these episodes are actually introducing important characters and storylines. We just don’t really know that at this stage. It’s hard to understand the world-building when it’s being built. So just like Harmony and Darla were minor players over the last couple of weeks, Amy seems like a one-and-done character here, to all intents and purposes. That makes this feel quite disposable, and it also feels like it’s playing a bit too much within the realms of standard fantasy clichés. Much like the Master was a fairly standard representation of an ancient vampire, here we have spells being cast by saying magic words over a bubbling cauldron. We even get a voodoo doll (well, sort of), and eye of newt. That then gets mashed up with another old standard, the body swap story.
This being Buffy though, the story is used as a springboard to examining relationship dynamics, and very cleverly this is all about establishing how the relationship works between Buffy and her mother. That might not seem like the most important thing about this episode, but it’s clearly the whole point of the thing if you think about it. Last week we had hints of Joyce’s exasperation with Buffy, which of course is no fault of Buffy’s, but Joyce doesn’t know that. She just thinks she’s got a delinquent child on her hands. Mike bizarrely suggested Buffy should stand up to her mother instead of sneaking out of her room, which would in fact have been a dreadful example of writing, for two reasons: (1) Buffy didn’t have time for a domestic, and much more importantly, (2) she cares about her mother. This episode makes their relationship much clearer. Bubbling under the surface is a slight resentment about not being able to spend enough time together, on Buffy’s part. This is a familiar story in a single-parent family. The mother is left having to be the sole breadwinner, and juggling her work with spending time with her daughter is challenging. Joyce naturally assumes that her absence from Buffy’s life has made her drop the ball, and Buffy has gone off the rails. As for Buffy, she loves her mother (that’s the key here), and is stuck with the problem of never quite being able to dispel her mother’s fears that she has done something wrong, because she can’t tell her about being the Slayer. So she isn’t going to want to do anything to make that bad situation worse.
Witch gives Buffy a point of comparison, a mother who does have time for her daughter, but the other side of that coin is a parent who focuses too much on her child to the point where she is living her life through her daughter. Being a fantasy series, a genuine life problem is explored by taking it to its literal extremes, and that’s fine, but the meaning behind it remains clear. Buffy gets the opportunity to see what too much attention from a parent looks like, in comparison with not enough, and realises she doesn’t have a bad deal at all.
“I love you Mum.”
This is a cleverly written episode, because there are nicely-integrated clues along the way, but never enough to spoil the surprise for most viewers. Amy describes her mother as “really great”, which is a depressingly unusual thing for a teenager to say about a parent, and later says “I can’t get my body to move like hers”, which of course is really the mother finding that her skills don’t translate well to a different set of limbs. We also get some progress in the Xander/Buffy relationship. Xander has now clearly fallen for Buffy and wants to ask her out, but this episode leaves us in no doubt whatsoever that he is heading for disappointment.
“You’re not like other boys at all. You are totally and completely one of the girls.”
in vino veritas. The spell that incapacitates Buffy works like drunkenness, and she also blurts out the fact that she is a vampire slayer in front of her mother. It all happens so quickly that Joyce seems hardly to notice, but I wonder if that will plant a seed. Any good parent would at least worry that her teenager is too old to fantasise and, as this episode illustrates by comparison, Joyce is a good parent. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
Before I talk about episode 3 of Buffy, I need to talk about that opening monologue. I had hoped it was a product of the 2-part opener but that seems to still be around and man, is it silly. But so far, that fits the show. It’s fun, sure, but it’s silly fun! I had high hopes that this story would move us into more mature storytelling and away from the “teenyboppers save the world” style we’ve seen so far. Nope! Witch is a story about a witch who wants to be a gymnast. “Aspire to great heights”, is what I tell my kids. I don’t mean the top of a human pyramid. I’m again reminded of the last episode where this feels like a teenager’s dream come true. I wonder if Joss Whedon was crafting out his own fantasies when I watch this. As a teenager, I think we all secretly hope we can amaze everyone with some special power we have, while everyone watches on in amazement. Probably some means of overcoming our self-conscious youth! Definitely fun to imagine. But in Sunnydale, it’s easy to have that wish granted. When a cheerleader spontaneously catches fire, not a soul moves except for Buffy the Action Hero. I admit maybe that’s how they do things in California; it’s always been a bit of a Twilight Zone to me. (And rather aptly, the cheerleaders practice to that very song, so I guess I’m not alone in thinking that way!)
What’s winning me over is not the stories, sadly, but the characters. They are funny. I’d rather strong stories (“Oh these grapes are sour!”) but I can’t stop watching because the characters offer us so many great lines that I think I’m waiting to see what they say and do next. Willow and Xander talking about why he looks at the books on witchcraft is “not what you think”, until Willow suggests it’s to look at the semi-nude engravings. “Oh it is what you think!” When Buffy is affected by the spell and she’s practicing her cheerleading, she flings a girl across a room to marvelously comic effect. And I love Xander’s comment that he can “laugh in the face of danger… then hide until it goes away!” So these are all terrifically funny things but is that enough to make a horror/fantasy series work? Perhaps references to “the invisible man syndrome” might help, considering my observation last week about the character, or the comment about Barbie Doll murders; John Varley wrote The Barbie Murders in 1978. I don’t know; somehow good characters and clever references don’t feel like enough to give this series the reputation it has! It’s lacking in areas that need serious work!
For instance, when Cordelia is behind the wheel and wrecks the driving instructor’s car, she staggers out into the road. A truck driver is menacing the roads as he barrels ahead. What, was he under the witches influence too? It makes no sense that he wouldn’t stop for the car in the road for the staggering girl. (Unless we simply use the excuse: “Californians!”) I also don’t buy that a high school is going to have a chem class that gives students free access to hydrochloric acid and mercury. Less, that they also happen to have eye of newt on hand! Then to have Buffy think to test her concoction by pouring it on Amy??? I could see it now: “sorry, Bob-the-principle. I thought she was a witch and the corrosive acid wouldn’t eat her arm off!” Give me a break! And if anyone complains about old Doctor Who feeling cheesy, when Giles announces that the titular witch is using a bloodstone vengeance spell, I nearly fell out of my seat. He just happens to know the symptoms and names of all these spells?? This guy needs a job at Hogwarts; they always seem to be looking to fill the post of Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher!
“Guess what, I feel better!” What I will give this episode is that it does ask a serious question about aging and what we’d give to have our youth back. While the execution needed some work, the idea is one that resonates especially as I get older. Like the Witch, sometimes we need to look into the mirror to see what’s really motivating us and that’s not always an easy thing to do. (Although, I will say, I knew Buffy was going to use a mirror to defeat the witch!) Will this witch be back? No idea. Does she need to be? Nah. There’s a good message in here and it works well without having to destroy the witch; she’s banished to who-knows-where. Maybe next week will win me over more. Give me more meat with the meal, fewer sides no matter how much I like my references and character building! At the very least, give me an apple… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Teacher’s Pet