Written by Dana Reston
Directed by Stephen Cragg
Original Airdate: March 17th 1997
So many teen shows or movies have featured, in one way or another, a plot line involving a parent wanting to live through the lives of their offspring. Think of a parent from a Disney TV movie cheering from the side-lines at their kid’s sports game and being obnoxious in their cheering and then almost being borderline emotionally abusive when they get home.
It’s a tale as old as coming of age stories itself. This being Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the story of ‘Witch’ literally becomes that of a parent who has taken over their child’s life and swapped bodies with them in order to become a cheerleader.
The first script of the series not credited to Joss Whedon, ‘Witch’ thankfully retains a lot of the spiky spark of ‘Welcome to the Hellmouth’ and ‘The Harvest’. Written by Dana Reston, Buffy’s third episode is a story driven by themes of female competition and lost youth.
A parent wanting to make up for their lost youth and the opportunities never within their grasp during that period is one that has been told repeatedly, but here it functions as a glorious twist for the end of the episode. Dana Reston’s teleplay is one driven very much by female characters that marks it out as quite different to so many other genre television shows of the era.
While there was also the iconic Xena: Warrior Princess, most genre shows were led by male characters, with females amongst the cast who would be given an episode or two to themselves over the season, but who were mostly there in support in the long run and the majority of the story arcs of the male lead. The X-Files put Mulder and Scully on an equal footing, and admittedly put Scully front and centre in much of its mythology, but genre series driven by female characters and female interests weren’t exactly filling the television schedules at the time.
Okay, a female centred teen series, even one with genre elements such as this, doing an episode about cheerleading seems kind of obvious even at this early stage, but it never treats the story or the desire of the characters in a trite way. In fact, the cheerleading scenes have a genuine intensity to them thanks to the competitive nature and that one moment where Cordelia is genuinely threatening to Amy/Catherine. The one thing that dates it of course is that awful techno dance music that underscores the scenes, and if that doesn’t make me sound like an old man shouting at the clouds, I don’t know what will. Give me the indie flavourings of the bands at The Bronze any day of the week.
‘Witch’ isn’t an episode of Buffy that is going to threaten future classic episodes such as ‘The Body’ or ‘Hush’, but what it does is take the obvious story that was inevitable (Buffy wanting to be a cheerleader) and uses it to tell a more disturbing story involving the pursuit of lost youth and opportunities never gained and a mother who effectively takes over her child’s life to make up for her own disappointments.
Even more brilliantly, the episode centres itself thematically as an episode about mothers and daughters even when turning its focus away from Amy. The episode drives home beautifully the impact that Buffy’s slaying life has had on her unknowing mother, what with the move to Sunnydale that started the show and Joyce more or less confirming that she is anticipating the moment when Buffy goes off the rails again.
It’s a quietly devastating moment, even this early in the run and asserts Buffy as a series that isn’t just going to be one revelling in supernatural tropes and clichés. There is emotional meat on these bones that might come as a surprise to anyone watching the show not knowing where future seasons will take us.
Still in the process of figuring itself out means it never quite hits the more polished drive of the stand-alone episodes that would be delivered later in the season or thereafter, and there is a stretch in the middle of the episode where it pretty much just goes for sustained set pieces such as Cordelia’s eyesight being stolen and Buffy in a hyperactive mode due to a spell, but instead of just wallowing in obvious mid-90s genre storytelling, the eventual reveal that Amy and her mother have swapped, under the duress of the real Amy, makes for a surprisingly effective reveal, not least the moment when Buffy realises due to a plate of brownies.
We get the obvious visual clichés of a cauldron with green goo bubbling away inside it, but what is truly unexpected is that final image that feels like something straight out of The Twilight Zone, a twisted reveal that is both hilarious and yet incredibly disturbing at the same time, and drenched in wonderful irony.
A subtly important episode of the show, it proves that Buffy could do a non-vampire tale very competently and more importantly do entertaining things with it. Like so much of early season one, some might complain about it looking like a show of its time (and it cannot be overstated enough how badly that the series needs a proper HD makeover and not the crap that was released a few years ago), but it indicates a clear ability to take the obvious and do interesting things with it, while also having an unpredictable streak that would become ever more important to the series as it went on.