Watching Buffy: s01e03 “Witch”


This episode is basically a shakedown of the BtVS concept, giving pretty much every aspect of the show a workout. You have:

  • Buffy caught between her desire for a normal life and slayer duties with attendant Giles tension on one side and (Buffy’s mother) Joyce tension on the other;
  • the support crew established as a support crew for the first time (Willow tries out the name “Slayerettes”);
  • ongoing romantic tensions are clarified: Xander has a thing for Buffy but she only sees him as a friend, while Willow has a thing for Xander but he only sees her as a friend.
  • Cordy functioning as Buffy’s dark mirror;
  • supernatural shenanigans drawn from a metaphorical high-school problem, in this case, failing to live up to a family reputation.

This is all straight out of the pitch document, Buffy-by-numbers, which is exactly the job of the first regular episode so that’s fine by me. (No Angel this week though!) But there’s something else that comes in with this episode and becomes a real feature of Buffy moving forward: the three-quarter swerve. From the accounts I’ve heard, Joss Whedon kept his writing room focused tight on story-breaking with a really heavy angle on the pre-commercial cliffhangers. In network TV dramas, a big cliffhanger at the 3/4 mark is typical – it’s where you set up your big climax, pumping the viewer for maximum excitement so they’ll finish watching off a nice high. But Whedon pushed the BtVS room into leaning heavily on big reversals of expectation, usually at the 3/4 mark – plot twists that upend all your assumptions and make the final challenge surprising as well as exciting. It’s a great technique, although it’s one the show perhaps came to rely on a bit too much as it went on.

Here, the big swerve is the reveal that Amy is not the witch – Amy’s mum is the witch, and she has swapped bodies with Amy to relive her glory days. Shock and surprise! Except, well, it doesn’t quite work. It sets up Amy as a meek klutz, then shows her doing witchery, then has her revealed by a witch test as a witch, then shows her reacting with shock at the effects of witchery, then shows her stalking around being mean to her mother – this is just an incoherent mess of conflicting data, so the reveal when it comes is muted. It makes sense of some of what has come before, but other bits make no sense – if the mother was in control, why was Amy such a loveable klutz, and why was she horrified by the magic effect?

So, early days for this trick, another sign that a big part of season 1 is Whedon & co. working out how to tell stories their way. The story here doesn’t quite work but you can see what they’re shooting for. I remember seeing this on first run and being excited for the potential of this show. I can see why I liked it.

A few other notes:

  • Joyce, Buffy’s mum, has a job bringing her in close contact with weird figurines from strange foreign cultures. Pretty obviously, this was set up as a potential source of plotlines – strange statues imbued with evil sprits are something of a staple of the horror genre. Thankfully, given the dubious racial/cultural politics of such tales, this is about as prominent as Joyce’s job ever gets.
  • The driver of that big black bus that nearly runs down blind Cordy has the slowest reactions of anyone in the world.
  • The Sunnydale cheer and basketball teams don’t turn up on-screen again, right? They make Sunnydale High feel like a pretty normal high school, a perception that steadily dwindles over the ensuing seasons.
  • Willow, whose dress sense is vastly more reasonable all of a sudden, gets to show off her special skill: computer hacking! Every show in the ’90s had a character who was good at computer hacking. But curiously enough, this episode also has her mixing up her very first potion – and the black-eyed power of dark magic also makes an appearance. Foreshadowing… (at least in hindsight!)

7 thoughts on “Watching Buffy: s01e03 “Witch””

  1. Oddly enough, I watched this episode last night. I was very tired but even so I noticed the problem with the Freaky Friday body swap.

    I think that a single line of dialogue really confuses things here. When Buffy & Giles talk to Amy in her mom’s body, Amy says that the switch happened “months” ago. But the way the episode plays, it seems to me that Amy is still Amy until she fails the cheerleading trials and then her mom takes over. If you change “a few months ago” to “a few days ago” there’ll probably still be problems but it should play more smoothly.

    My guess is that the continuity errors are caused by Buffy being a mid-season replacement thrown together in a hurry, so that rewrites didn’t get proofed thoroughly enough

  2. Yeah, that kind of writing confusion seems likely. I’d assumed that an episode 3 script wouldn’t end up rushed unless it was itself a replacement episode, but I’d forgotten it was a midseason pickup, so yeah – they could have been under the gun to get the first few episodes before the camera.

  3. “and becomes a real feature of Buffy moving forward: the three-quarter swerve. From the accounts I’ve heard, Joss Whedon kept his writing room focused tight on story-breaking with a really heavy angle on the pre-commercial cliffhangers.” – My problem with the Whedon 3/4 swerve is that it’s a technique that he’s massively overused. When it’s every now and again, it’s surprising and shocking, now I just figure I shouldn’t get too attached to any Whedon characters – any one of them could die, or do a face-heel turn at any moment. Yawn. The actor involved probably didn’t know that was going to happen, so they can’t build in any foreshadowing or character development out of it either, so it strips out the possibility of a subtle performance or a ‘better on the second viewing’ experience to boot.

  4. Tv writing is usually about as formulaic as you can get with any given episode of a tv series following the same structure. Especially 42-minute single-story episodes, which can be expected to hit the exact same beats almost every single time.

    Whedon’s structural innovations seem to me to shake this up by at least providing a somewhat different formula. The reversal of expectations might become predictable to a certain extent, in that we’re primed for something unpredictable to happen, but it’s not like every second episode features someone dying or someone turning evil. There’s a pretty good range of different kinds of swerves (e.g. the reversals in The Puppet Show, Earshot and Ted are all very different).

    Foreshadowing doesn’t have to come from acting (none of the actors in Whedon shows give subtle performances in any case, it’s usually a chunky ham sandwich – there’s a reason why most of the Buffy actors have not gone on to stellar careers) and on rewatching there’s a ton of it in the scripts that wouldn’t be picked up the first time through.

  5. I’ve been thinking about your comments and I think there’s some interesting stuff to be said about how Whedon + team use the same storytelling structure, complete with 3/4 swerve, on the level of a season arc plot as well as down at the episode level. I’ll keep thinking about that as I go…

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