[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Dana Reston | Director: Stephen Cragg | Aired: 03/17/1997]
With the introduction of the show out of the way, “Witch” has the daunting task of showing us what Buffy should look like on an episode-to-episode basis. If I was watching this for the first time – let alone when it originally aired — I’d be left with a strong whiff of ‘not interested.’ While “Witch” is entertaining at times and has a pretty solid plot, it lacks character depth and has minimal relevance – both important qualities in shows I love. What we have here is an amiable yet mostly forgettable ‘monster of the week’ episode. On its own, it’s nothing much, but when looking through the retrospective eye, a few new shades of color begin to appear.
One of those colors is the first of many scenes to come where Buffy and Giles share an awkward or disapproving moment with each other (think Sombrero Giles in “Fear, Itself” [4×04] and Wizard Giles in “No Place Like Home” [5×05]). Here in “Witch,” the amusement takes shape with Giles berating Buffy for wanting to join the cheerleading squad. He even calls it a “cult!” Considering Buffy is generally known as a “cult hit,” I find this early-series line quite amusing. It also speaks to Giles’ desire for Buffy to be a more studious slayer. While Giles will come to respect Buffy for who she is in the future, there will always be a little disappointment that she just wasn’t as excited about this life as much as he was. It’s no coincidence that Giles is at his most cool and confident during Season 5, the season Buffy admits she needs him and actively wants to learn what it means to be the Slayer.
A nice little lesson I took from Buffy’s attempt to get back into cheerleading is that sometimes what’s considered normal isn’t necessarily smart or safe (as Buffy says of cheerleading) — a sentiment I heartily agree with — and that the Hellmouth will make sure Buffy’s life is always normal turned upside down.
Xander’s first (and failed) attempt to ask Buffy to go on a date with him yields an interesting response. It turns out that Buffy was so eager to hang around Xander from the start precisely because he wasn’t aggressively pursuing her romantically. Of course he wanted to pursue her that way, but ends up shying away from it until “Prophecy Girl” [1×12] — long after their basic friendship is established. It’s interesting to consider that if Xander had been more aggressive from the start, the two of them would have probably never become friends in the first place. If Xander were to ever think back on this, I am sure he’d be glad he has her as a friend over having no relationship at all.
Another welcome little character beat is how “Amy” – saying that she trains hours with her mother for cheerleading — indirectly helps Buffy try to wedge open a connection with Joyce. I thought Buffy’s attempt at connection was quite sweet and Joyce’s complete black-out of her daughter’s desire to spend more time with her a little sad. Once Buffy finds out what Amy’s mom did though, she’s not so quick to want Joyce all into her activities after all. I think, per usual, balance in these matters wins the day. It’s great for your parents to show support in the things you love (provided they’re not self-destructive), but not so much support that they stick the successes and failures of their past onto your shoulders. Most of the time children just aren’t into the same things as their parents, and that’s totally okay! To act like it’s not would not only be incredibly immature, but also very stressful and potentially damaging to the child. This is what makes Buffy telling Amy’s mom to “grow up” so rich.
Even better is how Buffy’s comment ties into the season thematically. Season 1’s primary purpose is to (perhaps forcefully) prepare Buffy for a transition into adolescence. “Witch” bounces off of this theme by asking an important question: why do we have to grow up, anyway? Why not just stay a child forever and demand life to appease and comfort us? Well, Amy’s mom is a living example of what that looks like. In her quest to forever remain a child, she is driven mad to recapture her youth, and goes as far as hijacking her own daughter’s body. Remaining a child forever trivializes the relationships around you, leads to overwhelming selfishness, and then, finally, self-destruction. This is why Joyce’s remarks about not wanting to recapture her youth are so comforting to Buffy – it lets her know that growing up isn’t all bad, and that the alternative is certainly a whole lot worse.
Amy’s mom manages to trap herself in her own cheerleading trophy by casting a spell at her reflection. Is this not a great example of being your own worst enemy? The final shot of the trophy also illustrates the point that we can be prisoners to our obsessions — a consequence that will be played out in long-form with the core characters down the road.
“She said I was wasting my youth. So she took it” — a chilling statement, no doubt, but it gets to the heart of what “Witch” has on its mind. When putting it all together we’re left with an episode that has a few nice – albeit minor and somewhat fleeting — character moments, a great plot, and some nice season-specific thematic relevance. Sadly, the lack of focus on the characters themselves, combined with the poor production values (although the mirror spell at the end wasn’t too bad), pull the episode down into mediocrity. “Witch” has some moments, and is a decent opening regular episode, but it is by no means a showcase of what Buffy is capable of.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Spontaneously combusting cheerleaders: always a good time.
+ Giles mentions that people with terrible rage can sometimes spontaneously combust. While not foreshadowing, I do enjoy the synergy this comment has with “Once More, with Feeling” [6×07]’s ‘dance until you die.’
+ Buffy’s cluelessness in all things supernatural not related to vampires. It’s kind of neat that she’s just as much a novice at dealing with a witch as Xander and Willow are.
+ The irony of “Amy” saying, in regard to the cheerleading trophy, “That’s my mom.” Since it is Amy’s mom saying this, it also ends up foreshadowing the end of the episode.
+ Xander trying to bail out of asking Buffy out and, for a moment, trying to get Willow to do it for him! Imagine that scene!
+ Willow chewing on the blue pen.
+ Buffy running around her house singing the “Macho Man” song – cute and fun.
– The witch’s cauldron: a bit over-the-top and unnecessary.
– Blind Cordelia lasted far too long. And why did the truck that almost hit her not even try to slow down?
– The cat jumping out of the chest at Giles. Cliché alert!
– Despite becoming a recurring character, we don’t really learn much about Amy here.