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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Witch

[Updated April 29, 2013]

One of the great things about BtVS is that it can be watched on multiple levels. The episode Witch begins a three year run of episodes satirizing high school. Joss Whedon had, as we say, issues with high school, and one theme of the show is that high school is Hell, in Buffy’s case literally. Many of the first 56 episodes make fun of the stereotypes of high school life, as Witch does here regarding cheerleading. I’m not going to talk much about this aspect of the show. It’s not that I think it’s wrong to watch Buffy for this reason – it certainly isn’t; I personally think the satire is hilarious – it’s that I don’t think I have anything to add.

When I first watched Witch I thought it wasn’t very good. The production values, as in all of S1, are sub-par, and I was disappointed that we seemed to have dropped the story about the Master. I’ve come to see that there’s actually a lot going on that I didn’t appreciate at first. Among other things, learning about the Master isn’t the goal of the show, learning about Buffy is. And Witch teaches us, in metaphor, about Buffy.


Let’s start with the title. Lots of people, even on Buffy web sites, have it as “The Witch”. That’s wrong – the title is just the one word “Witch”. It’s a pun: witch = which, meaning “which is it, Amy or her mother?” Maybe it’s even a question for Buffy: “which direction will you go?”.
Witch introduced an important structural feature of BtVS, namely the “Little Bad”. In the language of the Buffyverse, there is always a Big Bad who poses a challenge for Buffy throughout the season. “Little Bads” last only an episode or maybe a few episodes. It’s usually the case that Buffy’s defeat of the various Little Bads will set the stage for her confrontation with the Big Bad. I see Catherine Madison as the first of the Little Bads, though I suppose you could also see Luke as the first.
As I explained in the Introduction, the bad guys on Buffy are generally metaphors. If Buffy defeats a lust demon, then the point of the episode is to show that she has defeated the challenge posed by lust. So what does Catherine Madison tell us, in metaphor, about Buffy? Well, Catherine, like vampires, is frozen in time. She’s an adult, but wants to remain forever in the body and role of a teenager. Note particularly the contrast with Joyce: “BUFFY: Y'know, there's this girl, Amy, and, um, she trains with her mom, like, three hours a day. JOYCE: Uh-huh. BUFFY: Sounds like her mom's pretty into it. JOYCE: Sounds like her mom doesn't have a lot to do.” Joyce’s reaction may seem harsh, but grown-ups should be interested in their children’s lives, not trying to live them.
Cordelia is so awful to everyone in her relentless pursuit of cheerleading glory that we should also consider this as another clue that Cordelia’s path may be the wrong one for Buffy. We’ve seen enough of Cordy by now to realize that she’s not a very good role model for anyone. Cordy represents the path not taken, or perhaps the path which should not be taken.
Buffy’s goal of being a cheerleader plays off the movie, in which she was depicted as a shallow cheerleader until called as the Slayer. Her desire to recapture her role as a “normal teenager”, which she enjoyed at Hemery, just as Catherine tries to recapture her own youth, is actually a distraction from her calling as the Slayer, as Giles tells her straight out in the teaser: “This is madness! What can you have been thinking? You are the Slayer! Lives depend upon you! … You have a sacred birthright, Buffy. You were chosen to destroy vampires…” And since, in my view, Buffy’s commitment to being the Slayer is, in part, a metaphor for her commitment to growing up, Giles warned Buffy that cheerleading was a distraction from that goal.
Joyce drives home the lesson at the end by distinguishing herself from Catherine Madison: “Buffy: Do you ever wish you could be sixteen again? Joyce: Oh, that's a frightful notion. (exhales) Go through all that again? Not even if it helped me understand you.” Joyce’s example confirms Buffy’s choice of which route to take: “Amy: (to Buffy) Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot that you wanted to be on the squad. Buffy: Oh, hey, that's okay. Cheerleading's just a little too hairy for me these days.”
And note the metaphor for Catherine’s end. Buffy doesn’t kill her. No, she shouts “Grow up!” and shows Catherine her own reflection, which forever traps her in the statue of a cheerleader. Frozen.
There’s a final reason why Witch is more significant than I originally realized: the events and/or characters of this episode will be referenced at least once in every single remaining season. One of the great things about the show is that it expects its audience to remember the events of previous episodes, and it builds on them. I obviously can’t say any more about the details of these future episodes because of spoilers.
Trivia notes: (1) Charisma Carpenter, who plays Cordelia, was herself a cheerleader for the San Diego Chargers. (2) The plot of the episode seems loosely based on the story of Wanda Holloway, the Texas woman who hired a hit man to kill the mother of her daughter’s rival for the cheerleading squad. (3) The biology/chemistry class of course mirrors the witch’s cauldron.

20 comments:

  1. i know you don't want spoilers, which is why i won't reference it completely, but one of my favorite moments in the entire series is a reference back to this episode.

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  2. I know which one you mean. I love it too.

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  3. Also, I'm fine with spoilers as long as they're labeled.

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  4. SPOLIER

    The one with Oz? That one is great. Plus, this episode introduces Amy, who has a huge impact on the show ovcer it's course.

    I don't like how Giles' ignorance of the occult that he demonstrates here is retconned away later, but that change does give Giles a more interesting backstory.

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  5. loving this so far! (just a hey yeah!) comment.

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  6. Which I really appreciate -- don't want this to be entirely a spectator sport.

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  7. @mark - good to know :) i'm definitely following along for the whole she-bang... might have to rewatch along with your posts (avoiding a couple of the gawd-awful season 1 episodes, that is :)

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  8. SPOILER:
    Oh! and that moment where Oz comments that "the eyes follow you wherever you go", is when i fell completely and madly in love with this show.

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  9. I knew your spoiler comment was the scene you meant. It's just great.

    I'm rewatching as I write. I haven't done that in a while and it's fun. I see new stuff every time.

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  10. I always wondered if when the school was destroyed, did Catherine escape her frozen fate?

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  11. Spoilers above and here:

    I think you can see it either way. Option A is that she was destroyed with the statue. Option B is that her essence was trapped in the statue and released when the statue was destroyed. Maybe it floats around, disembodied, like the souls lost when people are vamped. Or maybe it found a new home in Amy. That would certainly explain a lot.

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  12. Spoiler!

    Oh, then imagine how ticked she'd be! Gone from stuck in a trophy to a RAT!

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  13. Its worth noting for later quite how extraordinarily powerful the witch is in this episode. After all, killing her won't undo the spell she has done on Buffy, the slayer (the only one!). The show is more than a little inconsistent on the powers of magic as the show continues...

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  14. SPOILERS

    I recall reading (god knows where) that the original script for Doomed featured a callback to this episode - one of the characters stepped on the cheerleading trophy, which still had Amy's mother in it.

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  15. Wow, that's a new one to me. I'd never heard that before. I can't decide if I'd like that or not.

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    1. SPOILERS

      It is in the "shooting script" over at www.buffyworld.com (http://www.buffyworld.com/buffy/scripts/067_scri.html).

      Start of quote:

      XANDER
      Mayor meat. Extra crispy.

      Willow nods. Makes a face. Steps on another piece of debris.

      CLOSE ON DEBRIS

      It's a CHEERLEADING TROPHY, black with smoke-damage. In fact - it's AMY'S MOTHER. Still entombed, her eyes dart desperately as Willow's foot comes CRASHING DOWN ON HER. After Willow moves off, Amy's mom GLARES AT HER despite her impotence.

      BACK ON GANG

      Unaware of the life-form in their midst.

      WILLOW
      I think we're near the-

      endQuote.

      Never would have thought to look for that without this comment.

      JEL

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    2. And according to http://buffy.wikia.com/wiki/Doomed the trophy can be seen on the floor in the actual episode even though Willow doesn't step on it. (Will have to try to remember to look for that the next time I watch that episode.)

      JEL

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  16. Ha! I JUST finished the entire series for the first time aaaaand I'm already starting back up again :P I have a few thoughts on the finale which I might add at some point if I ever get them organised, but I just wanted to take the moment to tell you thank you!!! Reading your posts has added so much for me to the experience of getting to know Buffy - I don't think I would have loved it as much without it - so seriously: thank you!

    And also: Especially going back again now, I have NO IDEA how you managed to keep your posts spoiler free - serious kudos! - (now I almost wish there were two versions one without and one with spoilers for even more geeky fun but I guess thats what we have the comments for ;)) but thank you again for your tremendous work and effort and for making it possible for me to read along on my first way round - I had so much fun (and I'm already coming back to re-read...)! :)

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    1. Thank you!

      It's impressive to me how many new fans the show attracts so long after it ended. I know how important it was to me to see the episodes unspoiled, so I was determined to preserve that for everyone else.

      Enjoy the re-read and don't hesitate to comment along the way.

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