The Witch

Season One, Episode Three

A mother daughter thing.

The Witch: The Review

The cult of normalcy.

The Witch resumes the themes of Welcome to the Hellmouth and The Harvest. Buffy is making the effort to pick up the dropped threads of normalcy that had previously formed the substance and pattern of her life before the shears of her destiny as Slayer severed them. Her new friends are firmly bound to her already, and her relationship with Giles is as much composed of overt resistance as of tacit submission, each to the other.

The roots.

The episode also takes advantage of another premise of the series, the exploitation of outworn plots and devices. The Witch capitalizes on the movies that involve the switching of a parent's and child's personalities, exemplified by Jody Foster's Freaky Friday (1977), and the spate of films from a decade later, Dudley Moore's Like Father, Like Son (1987), Judge Reinhold's Vice Versa (1988), or the Tom Hanks variant, Big (1988).


The episode teases with that form of dramatic irony so favored by the show, the visual juxtaposition. As in so many cases, the viewers are presented with a reaction from the characters to something off camera, which reaction is then juxtaposed with the reality, thereby exposing the reaction as either risibly exaggerated or naively uninformed. The precedent was established early in Welcome to the Hellmouth, when Buffy asks, "How bad an evil can there be here"; which is answered by the cut to the exterior of the school and the Toland-like descent through the turf into the lair of The Master. Thus, if, in any other series, someone with the proverbial British aplomb were to exclaim in utter disbelief, as Giles does in the teaser of The Witch, "This is madness", one might reasonably expect that he had some visceral provocation for the eruption of emotion. This being BtVS, however, it is reasonable to expect that the outburst will be shown to have been excited by something less than mortally important, i.e., Buffy's cheerleading attire.

Buffy manifests her unflagging desire to have a normal life by attempting to rehabilitate, to resume with the costume the role of teenage girl. As Olivier would "get into character" by creating and donning the makeup, Buffy is trying to get back into the character she had been at Hemery, to march to the beat, by putting on the uniform. That Buffy is out of step is made evident immediately. Her mother has hired no professional coach. Nor, in contrast to Amy's mom, Catherine the Great, does Joyce drill her daughter. Indeed, Buffy knows that her mom would not take an interest, and she has not even informed her of the decision to return to cheerleading. And, then, there is the unvoiced but obvious fact that Buffy's reactions are those of a Slayer, which place her on a different level of physical agility and mental quickness, which proves fortunate. For the Slayer, the cheerleader's uniform is exiguous. It is inadequate.

Joyce, whom one would expect to effuse over this intention, is, instead, the disengaged parent in this episode, the mother who is not there. Symbolically the packing cases full of tribal artwork represent the career-oriented parent who brings her work home, to the detriment of her family. Buffy is back in school and Joyce hasn't had another call from the principal, the only information about Buffy's life that she needs at present. Buffy's wistfulness is, therefore, not her priority. Thus, the theme of mother and daughter relations is set, Amy and Catherine on the one hand, Buffy and Joyce on the other. Catherine Madison is that human monstrosity, the overbearing parent, who consumes her daughter rather than allow her to express herself as an individual. She is the cliché made flesh, the parent who relives her own life through her daughter by actually putting on the daughter's body. Amy is merely a costume to Catherine. Joyce is the other extreme, the busy career woman who is so absorbed by her own life that she forgets that her daughter is part of that life. Joyce is distracted, but it is not work that is the distraction, it is Buffy. As long as she is not too much of a distraction, fighting, burning down gymnasia, etc., she is a tolerable distraction. Buffy's hints that it would be nice if Joyce took an interest in her fall unnoticed to the kitchen floor. When Joyce later does make an effort to involve herself with Buffy's extracurricular activities, she errs on the Catherine side, suggesting that Buffy emulate her career on the yearbook editorial team. Buffy, unlike Amy, does have other resources. She has Giles, Willow, Xander, and her own strength. The Slayerettes make their first official appearance, Buffy's own cheerleaders. It is indicative of her condition that Buffy had told Giles of her desire to become a cheerleader before Joyce. He, at the least, can be counted upon to have some reaction. Even when given a direct statement of Buffy's vocation as Slayer, Joyce doesn't get it. She is always a day behind the conversation. Joyce probably doesn't know the name of her daughter's school mascot, which well might be the Vampire Slayers. She sees her daughter in cheerleading costume and behaving strangely, and the sad fact of her distance from Buffy's true life is emphasized, albeit humorously. The insertion of the phrase "older generation" seals the confusion into a formula that satisfies Joyce, and which she later overtly adopts. It fits her programmed, topical approach to motherhood.

Not being noticed in high school is another facet on the theme that the episode illuminates briefly. Buffy doesn't notice the importance of Xander's gift. Cordelia is rendered blind. Xander does not understand the amorous signals that Willow is broadcasting.

The mystery of the cheerleading accidents is not all that mysterious, nor is the ultimate secret of the transposed spirits. The script drops enough hints, the brownies being the most prominent. All that is merely mechanism; the real story is in the evolution of the characters.

Giles begins as the ineffectual brake on Buffy's enthusiasm for a "life", the stodgy librarian, whose own enthusiasm is to catalogue horrors. He dissents from Buffy's plan to become a cheerleader as a matter of form. He knows that she is uncontrollable, but he is obliged to make the statement of official policy. As the episode unreels, however, he becomes more humanly involved in the events the more that they become focused on Buffy. When she herself falls victim to the sympathetic magic, his concern overcomes his reserve, and the scientific detachment that had animated his interest before is replaced by a very personal anxiety for Buffy's survival. And the events have a fascinating way of proving his point, to wit, that Buffy should not try to be ordinary.

Buffy is hiding her light. Possession of exceptional talents is both a burden and a gift, but it is worse than futile to attempt to conceal or to stunt those talents for the sake of appearances, to be acceptable to those who would be envious or intimidated. Giles is right in that: her superiority to the normal is not something that she needs or ought to hide from herself. Normal, after all, is defined by Amber, who was an average student and whose most glaring infraction of the rules was smoking a cigarette. Significantly, it is Giles who becomes the parental figure to Buffy, the one who rescues her from the cult of mediocrity. She is not like other girls, however appealing such likeness might be.

In Sum

There is plenty of wit, as one has come to expect even this early in the show's run. Perhaps the best line of all is given to Willow, who answers the question, who would want to harm Cordelia, by replying, "Maybe because they met her? Did I say that?" Amy's closing shot at Cordelia comes a close second: "Well, I know that I'll miss the intellectual thrill of spelling out words with my arms." Mere humor is even broader and more abundant, as Xander shoulders most of the load. His unexpected interest in the history of witchcraft, or rather the art of engraving semi-nude illustrations, is one example.

The Witch is a surprisingly effective and subtle episode. It has a deceptive simplicity. The theme of understanding is explored in several relationships, while presenting a seemingly prosaic story. It maintains the high standard of witty writing that had been set in the first two episodes. In every respect, it is a success.

Horace LaBadie

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