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It’s time to meet our first non-vampire threat in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Are you prepared? Well, grab your pom-poms and let’s go.
How to Adult
As the episode begins, Giles is fuming because Buffy has “enslaved” herself to a “cult”… which turns out to be the high school cheerleading squad. This first scene serves a dual purpose: it sets up the cheerleading squad as an essential part of the episode’s plot, as well as establishing the conflict between Buffy’s duties and desires.
Giles is eager for Buffy to prioritise her life as the slayer above all else, while Buffy is determined to do “something normal, something safe.” This contrast can be seen as representing the tension between childhood and adulthood.
Some part of Buffy doesn’t want to take responsibility of the slayer too seriously, because she wants to enjoy ordinary high school activities. But Giles takes on the role of the rational, responsible mentor, arguing that she should leave more time for combat training.
We are also starting to see the metaphorical role which Giles plays in the story, as Buffy’s “Mind.” Giles’s view is always based in logic, academia, and strategy. Sometimes, Buffy is influenced by this perspective, while at other times, Willow and Xander hold more sway. Willow is Buffy’s metaphorical “Spirit,” while Xander is her “Heart.” We’ll see plenty of examples of these metaphors in action as we continue through the series.
The Love Triangle
Following Buffy’s declaration that she wants something “normal” and “safe,” we cut to a dark and dusty room which looks pretty abnormal and unsafe. Something is brewing… and it’s clearly not a nice pot of coffee. The ironic cut strikes again!
Back at Sunnydale High, it’s time for cheerleading try-outs. Xander is objectionable as he objectifies the flexible young women preparing to cheer. However, his affections soon focus primarily on Buffy as he offers her a bracelet with the words “Yours Always” engraved on it.
I’m not a huge fan of Xander’s romantic interest in Buffy at this point, because his jokes in her presence are often sexist and he has no idea how to express his affection for her in a helpful way. He doesn’t admit that the bracelet is a romantic token, and downplays the gift as a “good luck” present.
But this less-than-ideal, one-sided relationship has a very real impact, because we see how much Xander’s interest in Buffy hurts Willow. Alyson Hannigan’s performance as the crestfallen Willow produces a strong sense of empathy in me, and probably most viewers of the show. Having Willow get hurt is a sure-fire way to make the audience care about what happens next.
The try-outs begin with the very talented Amber. Cordelia, played by Charisma Carpenter, scornfully asks, “Who does she think she is, a Laker Girl?” This is rather amusing considering that Charisma Carpenter was, in fact, a cheerleader herself. However, her team was the San Diego Chargers, not the Los Angeles Lakers.
Now we meet Amy, played by Elizabeth Anne Allen. She is keen to join the team and trains with her mother daily. Buffy can’t imagine spending all that time with her mom, Joyce. But the try-outs are interrupted by Amber’s screams… Her hands have caught fire!
Time for a debrief in the library with Giles, whose nerdy joy is palpable at the prospect of spontaneous combustion. Xander displays his own form of nerdiness too, with a reference to “the Human Torch” from Marvel’s Fantastic Four. Joss Whedon and most of the writers are comic book fans, so expect plenty of references to Marvel and DC throughout Buffy’s run.
Willow acknowledges the formation of our core team, by referring to herself and Xander as “the Slayerettes.” I suppose that makes Giles the manager, or perhaps the producer of this little rock band?
Xander also redeems himself a little in my eyes, by saying, “I laugh in the face of danger, then I hide ‘til it goes away.” Me too, Xander. Me too.
Mothers and Daughters
At the Summers' residence, Joyce is distracted by work, while Buffy tries to engage her in conversation. Although Joyce is clearly not listening, at least she ‘fesses up to her crime. However, while she is attempting to open a crate, she says in passive-aggressive tones: “It might not physically kill you to give me a hand here.” Personally, that kind of parental tactic makes my blood boil.
This scene continues the theme of mothers and daughters which was established with Amy’s scenes. Buffy and Joyce are both different people with different interests. They have their own independent lives, whereas it seems like Amy’s mother is foisting her obsession with cheerleading on her daughter.
Back at school, Buffy meets Amy by the trophy cabinet. Amy tells the tale of her mother, known as “Catherine the Great” due to her cheerleading prowess. This is a reference to the Russian Empress Catherine, and shows how highly Amy’s mom was esteemed in her teenage years.
Amy offers up nothing but praise for her mom, and disdain for her dad, who “ran off with Miss Trailer Trash when I was twelve.” Considering the revelation later in the episode that Amy and Catherine swapped bodies, it seems to make much more sense for a mother to say something like “Miss Trailer Trash” than a teenage girl. Also, Amy’s apparent admiration for her mother because she “never gained a single pound” is rather telling.
Willow offers Buffy a less pretty picture. Catherine would freak out when she put on any weight and Amy was forced to eat nothing but broth until her mother relented. Amy developed a taste for brownies at Willow’s house to help get her through the lean times.
Buffy comments that mommie dearest is, in fact, “Mommie Dearest” referring to a book of the same name by Christina Crawford, the adoptive daughter of the Hollywood star Joan Crawford. The memoir contains allegations of abuse against Joan Crawford, whom Christina judged unfit to raise children.
Guys and Girls
Before we continue, let me make it clear that the Friend Zone is not a thing. It is rooted in patriarchal BS about men being entitled to sex, and involves blaming women for not sharing a man’s romantic feelings. But the themes of unrequited love and friendship are very prominent in this episode, and in this season of Buffy.
Xander’s very overt attraction to Buffy contrasts with Willow’s secret attraction to Xander, while Buffy is oblivious to Xander’s attentions. It’s a classic love-triangle scenario.
In Witch, Xander talks to Willow about his thing for Buffy, and asks advice. He tells Willow that she is like a “guy friend who knows about girl stuff”. Willow is not at all pleased, because she has been completely desexualised in Xander’s eyes. A backhanded compliment if ever there was one.
However, Willow gets a moment of triumph later in the episode, when Buffy says that Xander is “one of the girls”. Xander gets a taste of his own medicine. Listen to Buffering the Vampire Slayer’s episode on Witch for a great discussion of this topic.
The love triangle plot appears again when Xander wants to ask Buffy on a date, but she completely ignores him, and he imitates a cartoon character falling off a cliff to demonstrate his feelings about this. I feel more empathetic towards Xander in this moment, because he was prepared to tell Buffy his feelings, and was thwarted.
The plot (and the potion) thickens.
We don’t really know Cordelia very well at this point in the series. It’s only episode three after all. Which is why she is prime red herring material!
The creepy jump-scare moment with Amy and Cordelia in the locker room, assisted by the score and the sequence of shots, implies that Cordelia would do anything to get a place on the squad. However, we’ve all watched the episode, we know that’s not what’s going on here. In general, I’m not a big fan of Buffy’s red herrings, because they’re not really necessary to the plot and don’t add enough mystery to justify themselves, but it doesn’t bother me too much.
We also see the exterior of Amy’s house for the first time, a sinister, red-brick affair. Back to the lair in the attic, where a gravelly, female voice recites an incantation. Having seen this episode multiple times, I can now clearly hear that it is Amy’s voice, but on my first viewing, I don’t think I noticed.
I’m into my own thing.
Joyce extolls the virtues of being part of the yearbook team to Buffy, who is not impressed. She tells Joyce that she’s into her “own thing,” and she isn’t just a carbon copy of her mother. This is a bold statement of this episode’s theme, and extremely relevant to teenagers who feel pressure from their parents to conform. Her “own thing” could, of course, be slaying, but she can’t share that with her mother because she doesn’t want to put Joyce in danger.
The metaphor of a parent and child being the same person is made reality in Amy and Catherine, where Catherine has literally become Amy in order to live her life for her. But at this point in the episode, we don’t know that for sure!
Joyce also says something super-shitty at this juncture, that Buffy’s “own thing” got her expelled from her old school. Bad move. While this is true, it implies that Buffy can’t be trusted to make her own decisions, revealing, once again, how Joyce treats her like a child when she is actually making adult choices all the time.
Cordelia is the next to fall foul of the witch’s magic, as she suffers blindness while driving a car. Buffy saves her just in time, and tells Giles what happened. He guesses that witches are responsible.
Buffy demonstrates that she is a skilled detective, not just a strong fighter. She works out that Amy has a motive to get onto the cheerleading team, and applies her own experience of parental pressure to the situation.
Willow and Giles come up with a plan to determine whether Amy is a witch. In chemistry class, the plan is put into action. I like that Willow is so matter of fact about the eye of newt, while Xander is the squeamish one. The potion confirms that Amy is a witch… and a girl suddenly appears to have had her mouth sealed up. Shocking!
Next morning, Buffy wakes up the next morning in a chirpy mood, and sings “Macho Man” as she gets ready for school. She accidentally says the words “vampire slayer” in front of her mom, but Joyce is none the wiser. At practice, her slayer strength gets the better of her and she throws a fellow cheerleader across the room. Amy is now on the team! Suspicions confirmed.
Giles reveals that Buffy is the victim of a bloodstone vengeance spell, which will kill her if a counter-spell is not found. The watcher-slayer duo need to get a spell book from Amy’s house to reverse the effects. Despite her life being threatened, Buffy still shows empathy for Amy, because she only “became a witch to survive her mother.”
At Amy’s house, Buffy notices that the woman who appears to be Catherine has been eating brownies. That seemingly insignificant detail from earlier has paid off! Sometimes this kind of storytelling can seem far too convenient, but here it shows how observant and quick-thinking Buffy is, which is always good in my book. Buffy works out that a body-swap took place, and that Catherine is literally living her daughter’s life for her. The metaphor made manifest is one of Buffy’s most interesting characteristics as a show, because it allows us to look at typical teen problems with a new perspective.
Things heat up.
Giles grabs the necessary spell book and meets a cat (which may appear again later in the series). Next, we see Catherine is using Amy’s body to lead cheers with her squad, in triumphant slo-mo. But Giles is weakening her spell, causing her to fall from her human pyramid and get very cross.
Willow valiantly tries to delay Catherine by asking her very sweet, innocent questions about witches, but she chokes Xander, perhaps knowing that he is Willow’s weakness. She uses a fire axe to get through the door, not very witchy of her, I must say.
Giles has never performed magic before, and is trying his best. The hosts of Buffering the Vampire Slayer wisely point out that it’s Giles’s fatherly affection for Buffy which allows him to complete the ritual. He realises that Buffy is in immediate danger, giving him the surge of emotion required to break the spell. All of this is communicated in his last desperate cry of “RELEASE!” Props to Anthony Stewart Head for his excellent performance.
Catherine and Amy are also back in their own bodies, and Catherine is not best pleased. But Buffy is not phased, with a quip (“Guess what, I feel better.”) Buffy kicks Catherine’s ass and reflects her own dark magic back at her. Catherine disappears in a swirl of magical energy.
Now everything has calmed down, Buffy returns home to Joyce, who says she can’t understand what’s going on with Buffy. Many parents of teenagers don’t really get what’s going on with their kids. It’s the time when teens are discovering the ways they differ from their parents and are trying to find their own identity. Buffy’s slayer identity makes her especially different from her mother. Joyce also says she wouldn’t want to be sixteen again, which lays Buffy’s fears to rest that Joyce might do a body swap with her. Phew. Although Buffy feels pressure from her mother to conform, at least Joyce doesn’t want to take over her life.
Amy is happy living with her dad and making brownies. What a sweet deal.
But what has happened to Catherine? She is trapped in her own cheerleading trophy, forced to relive her youthful triumph for all eternity. This is typical of Season 1 Buffy, ending on a sinister note with a creepy reveal. We can only wonder what scary creature we might encounter next week…?