Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Witch

Fitting in with the in crowd. That's just as important a part of school as achieving high grades. Some find this easier than others. If you're blessed with good looks, razor sharp cheekbones and buckets of charisma, bordering on arrogance, you've bypassed the queue and entered the inner sanctum of cool. If you're not so lucky, you have to work just that little bit harder. Finding a hidden talent can help - if you're in a band or croon a bit in the bathroom, this will come in useful. Sporty? Again, a useful cool card to be played. And judging by the latest Buffy episode, Witch, shaking balls of shredded paper while chanting at the top of your voice provides the girls with a pass into the trendy clique.

Having already established a reputation as a stake-wielding harbinger of death to all vampires, it's little wonder that Buffy's having to resort to such desperate measures as cheerleading. Her social life is near to DOA, and furthermore, hanging around with the likes of Xander and Willow have not endeared her to Cordelia Chase, who's no doubt been phoning every single person in the state about last week's antics at The Bronze.

"I just wanna have a life," she sighs, clutching pom poms before an exasperated Giles. "I wanna do something normal. Something safe." Giles is less than impressed, comparing cheerleading to some mad cult. Apparently, the secret cult of cheerleading is none too happy with this reputation, despite clandestine chanting and pom pom making while dressed in numbered capes. All of this culty talk suggests something witchy, as alluded to in the title of this ep. But how exactly?

Well, it's a mystery that's successfully spun out for three quarters of this episode. The basic premise of the story is that various members of the cheerleading tryouts are put out of the running in a number of grisly ways. Amber's hands get toasted. Cordelia's naturally a shoo-in, as her eyes turn into milky cataracts after nearly crashing her driving instructor's car. Lishanne is literally left speechless by the whole traumatic experience. And even Buffy is left dazed and confused by a Broadstone Vengeance Spell. Somehow, the evidence points to twitchy mummy's girl, Amy Madison. But is it as simple as that?

Having established a reputation for blind-siding viewers in Welcome To The Hellmouth/The Harvest, Buffy The Vampire Slayer would never make things that simple. What Witch manages to do is keep the viewer guessing as to who's responsible for the various spells. More to the point, it fools you into thinking that Amy's the culprit, with the solid motivation of making her mum proud. Listing off enough motherly platitudes to fill 10,000 Mother's Day cards, Amy gushes about "Catherine The Great" - a shining beacon of Homecoming Goodness and tasteless broth. "She took that team and made them tri-county champions," explains Amy while discussing her mum's cheerleading accomplishments with Buffy. Not only that, but "She put herself through cosmetology school. Bought me everything I ever wanted..." In short, "She was the best!"

The evidence seems incontrovertible by the time that Amy shows up at her mum's house, raging about the fact that Buffy had dared to snip off a bit of her hair during science class in order to determine her involvement. The mystery deepens, however, by the fact that Amy shows no such reverence to her mum when she walks in the door - berating her mother for another productive day in front of the TV and ordering her to do her homework.

In fact, all becomes clear when Giles and Buffy pay a visit to Catherine, who is literally not all that she seems. Looking back at the clues in the first part of the story, it seems obvious that Catherine switched bodies with her daughter. All that motherly love was actually self-aggrandising boasting on what Jesse would call an EPIC scale. Chowing down on chocolate brownies, Amy cuts a pathetic figure in the body of her mother, all nervy tics and hushed speech. "She said I was wasting my youth," she explains. "So she took it." It's a cleverly spun mystery, well worked out by writer Dana Reston, who deftly keeps the viewer guessing with plenty of red herrings (such as Amy's astonishment at poor Lishanne's plight in science class).

The other notable aspect of Witch is that it establishes the Buffy tradition of linking in a supernatural force with an underlying message that's closer to home - or what us pretentious critic sorts sometimes refer to as allegory. In this case, Witch looks at the parent/child relationship. On the one hand, we have Catherine, bitter and resentful that Amy hasn't followed in her footsteps as a successful cheerleader. "I gave up my life so you could drag that worthless carcass around all day!" she howls at Amy. It's as if Catherine expects something in return for slavishly moulding her daughter into a replica of herself. The padlocks on the fridge and the broth kick conjure up images of an overbearing parental regime, as if Catherine's bringing up a dog to be entered into a show rather than a child.

For Joyce, however, bringing up a child isn't an experience that's mapped out bullet point by bullet point in a guidebook. In a way, there's parallels to be drawn with Joyce/Buffy and Catherine/Amy. Both women are divorced. And even Joyce initially laments the fact that Buffy isn't following in her footsteps on the committee of the school yearbook. The difference is though, at least Joyce is concerned about her daughter. She hopes that Buffy keeps out of trouble, especially in the wake of her experience at Hemery High. But even Joyce finds that being a parent is no easy task, what with a tendency to put her foot in her mouth with lines such as "Your own thing, whatever it is, got you kicked out of school and we had to move here to find a decent school that would take you." Being a parent is a learning curve, especially during the teenage years, and as Joyce resignedly concludes "I don't get it - I think there's a biological imperative whereby I can't understand you because I'm not 16." With both Buffy and Angel, we get to learn more about the supporting characters. Time and energy are invested into what could be potentially throwaway ciphers - instead, we get real, three-dimensional people with everyday problems. Joyce Summers is the standout example in this episode, and well served by Kristine Sutherland's performance.

A surprising twist is that Buffy doesn't really save the day this time around. It's left to Giles to reverse the damage done by Catherine, which should boost his cheery frame of mind even further. Throughout Witch, Giles displays the ebullient mood of a little boy who's been granted the gift of seven consecutive Christmas Days. With a Hellmouth underneath, all sorts of mysteries and crazies are thrown into Giles' mundane existence of musty books and lukewarm mugs of Bovril. "There's a veritable cornucopia of, of fiends and devils and ghouls to engage..." he beams at the newly formed Scooby Gang, before harrumphing "Pardon me for finding the glass half full." Even when Cordelia's been blinded, he's revelling in the genius of his mysterious opponent. "Blinding your enemy to disorientate and disable them - it's classic!"

Or perhaps he's heard about Cordelia's bully girl tactics while attempting to qualify for the cheerleading squad. At this point in time, it's near on impossible to equate the mature, reasoned Cordelia of Angel with the snarling, spoilt rich girl of Buffy's first season. "If your supreme klutziness out there today takes me out of the running," she hisses at Amy in the locker room. "You are gonna be so VERY beyond sorry." Two polar opposites on the likeability scale, then, but Charisma Carpenter and Anthony Head prove to be key finds of the regular team, delivering their lines with enthusiastic relish.

It's maybe not such a great episode for Xander or Willow, though. Willow's largely on the sidelines, occasionally chipping in with some much needed back-story on Amy's childhood, but that's about the limit of her involvement in this one. Xander, on the other hand, is experiencing a bad week in the Court of the King Of Cretins. The role call of Xander goofs in Witch is nearly as long as the route of the Tour de France. Ignorance of Willow's attraction. A special bracelet gift to Buffy with the subtle engraving 'Yours always'. Borrowing books just to perv over engravings of semi-nude women. To cap it all off, a spell-afflicted Buffy crows: "You are totally and completely one of the girls!" No wonder the poor guy's bleating "May all lesser cretins bow before me".

Altogether though, Witch is just as important a story as Hellmouth Harvest in its own quiet way. Not only does it establish the method of putting a supernatural spin on an everyday domestic issue, it also paves the way for things to come with its take on the misuse of magic. At this point in time, Witch is more of a one-off with its emphasis on magical spells and power-mad women. In the future, though, we'll see that a key member of the Scooby Gang will dabble in magic to the point where she becomes just as formidable and dangerous as Catherine.

It's a well directed episode, as Stephen Cragg keeps the camera swooping and hovering dizzily over bubbling cauldrons and grotesque voodoo dolls. A lot of atmosphere is conjured up by Cragg, who uses neat camera tricks such as fast camera cuts for Cordelia's erratic driving lessons and the opening human torch, as well as drunken, slow-mo shots for Amy/Catherine's near achievement of glory. Elizabeth Anne Allen and Robin Riker are great choices for the dual roles. Both actresses manage to combine the right mix of sneaky malevolence and childlike terror - Allen would prove to be popular enough to return as Amy in the future, although as the viewers will see, whether or not Amy sticks to the right path is a matter up for debate. Poor old Catherine however ends up hoisted by her own petard - the final shot of the pleading eyes peering frantically out of the cheerleader statue is oddly unsettling.

Witch isn't the first Buffy episode that springs to mind among fans, which in a sense, isn't that surprising. After all, a premise of a jealous has-been cheerleader trying to take out the competition sounds a little daft. Scratch the surface though, and there's a surprising amount of both mystery and depth to this tale. It's unpredictable, amusing and fun, and also paves the way forward for things to come with its depiction of magic abuse. Unlike poor old Catherine, there's many moments of magic to be enjoyed in Witch.

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