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!)