\m/15-Minute Hellmouth\m/: Buffy the Vampire Slayer DeepWatch: Season 1, Episode 3: “Witch” (airdate: Monday, March 17, 1997): Part 1 of 3

00:00 – 15:00

The Monday in March 1997 that this episode aired, Bill Clinton was still President of the United States and John Major was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

“Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down,” by Puff Daddy, featuring Mase, was the #1 song in the US. (“One Headlight,” by the Wallflowers was #1 on the alternative charts.) “Mama,” by the Spice Girls, was #1 in the UK.

Four days prior to this episode, on Thursday, March 13, the Phoenix Lights, a series of UFOs spotted over Arizona, Nevada and parts of Mexico, appear.

Over on the comics page, Garfield smacks a spider with a rolled-up magazine after the spider smacks him with a tiny rolled-up magazine. Afterward, the spider tells his friends that they need to subscribe to bigger magazines.

Exactly one year later, I would be staying at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, attending some sort of seminar or meeting with Target. I recall hitting Beale Street with a few work friends. Lots of beer and blues on Beale Street, then lots of scotch far into the night at the Peabody bar. Good times.

The purpose of a teaser in a television episode is normally to get the viewer’s attention, like the “hook” in a song, and to set up the premise of the episode story itself.

This teaser attempts to get our attention with a joke.

Giles is upset with Buffy.

“This is madness! What can you have been thinking?” Giles says. “You are the Slayer! Lives depend upon you . . . I make allowances for your youth, but I expect a certain amount of responsibility, and instead of which you enslave yourself to this, this . . .” Giles stops pacing. “Cult?” he finishes.

When we see Buffy for the first time this episode, she is wearing a cheerleading uniform. “You don’t like the color?” she asks Giles.

You will see me using some version of the phrase subverting expectations many times during the course of diving deep into this series, fifteen minutes at a time. To subvert the viewers’ expectations, the writer and director first have to create a false expectation and then surprise us with a completely different outcome. Some writers on the internet define this as creating shocking twists that make little sense, which shouldn’t be true at all (though, sometimes it is). You find this technique done frequently in all genres. It’s also commonly used when writing jokes.

For instance: Here come three men. The first man walks into a bar. The second man walks into a bar. The third man ducks.

I didn’t say it was a good joke. But, when we say a “man walks into a bar” we set up a false expectation of a man entering a saloon. Using the universal Rule of Three, the first two instances set up a false expectation. The third man points out that there is an alternate definition for the word “bar,” and the expectations are subverted.

You’ll see a similar pattern in a lot of jokes. Comedian Steven Wright has written many very short jokes that accomplish the same effect in often surreal ways. Here’s an example:

All those who believe in psychokinesis raise my hand” — Steven Wright

The premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is, in itself, an example of the subversion of expectations on a macro scale. The pretty, young blonde is usually the victim of night-dwelling monsters in most horror stories, but in this show the vampires are afraid of her.

When Rupert Giles, a high school librarian assigned by some nebulous organization to watch a sixteen-year-old girl as she fights bloodsucking demons, gives Buffy a serious dressing down at the top of the teaser, we are concerned. Sunnydale is built upon a Hellmouth. Things such as cults not only exist, but they exist in over-abundance. In fact, one would believe they would thrive in an area of mystical convergence. The viewer might correctly assume that Buffy could have been magically coerced into joining some demon-worshipping cult.

But, no. Buffy just wants to try out for the cheerleading squad. She wants some semblance of a normal life, which will become a recurring theme on the show. Who can blame her? She is the Slayer, the Chosen One. But, she’s also a sixteen-year-old girl who wants to do regular teenager things.

Over her Watcher’s objections, Buffy insists that she’s trying out to be a cheerleader.

“I will still have time to fight the forces of evil, okay?” Buffy says. “I just wanna have a life. I wanna do something normal. Something safe.”

This is our cue to cut to an entirely new location. This is the witch’s attic. It’s dark, with a lot of witchy-looking paraphenilia. There’s all manner of dried vegetation hanging from the rafters. We see a cauldron bubbling with a viscous green liquid. Someone we haven’t seen fully yet moves around in the attic. She does something at the cauldron and then pulls a Barbie-type doll from a rack. The doll looks like its arms are bound.

The expectation being raised is that this figure is the witch of the episode title. Will that expectation be subverted? Ah, Grasshopper. Wait and see.

Then we’re at the high school gymnasium. These are the cheerleading tryouts. Hmm. How is the previous scene connected to this one?

Buffy enters the gym with Willow and Xander. Buffy is talking about Giles’s objections to her extracurricular activities. Xander gives Buffy a present, a “good luck” bracelet for the tryouts. It’s inscribed “Yours Always.” Of course, Xander Harris makes a quick joke, saying all the bracelets were inscribed like that.

The first two episodes of the series established that Xander has a crush on Buffy. That and his quick sarcastic wit—a defense mechanism that seems to be his factory default setting— are his defining characteristics so far. If you’ve ever had feelings for someone who didn’t return them, you may empathize deeply with Xander and it can be painful to watch. It is tempered somewhat by the fact that Willow obviously has a crush on Xander to which he is oblivious. Willow doesn’t know she’s a lesbian yet. Sorry: SPOILERS. Ah, high school drama.

Cordelia Chase, who is not a member of the Scooby Gang yet but always seems to be nearby, enters the scene talking about a girl named Amber, whom she considers to be her only real competition at the tryouts.

The head cheerleader calls for the beginning of “auditions.” The first one up? Amber Grove.

Meanwhile, we’re introduced to Amy Madison. Willow knows her and introduces her to Buffy. Willow also smoothly delivers a bit of exposition. She says she didn’t know that Amy wanted to be a cheerleader. In the same breath, she mentions that Amy has lost a lot of weight. “Had to,” Amy responds.

Amber begins her audition. If it wasn’t daylight, I’d suspect that she was a vampire, since all vampires in the Buffyverse are athletic and seem to be proficient in gymnastics and advanced martial arts. Amber’s routine is impressive.

New character Amy shoulders some of the exposition weight this time. She mentions that Amber trained with Benson, one of the best cheerleading coaches money can buy. The concept of cheerleading coaches is foreign to Buffy. Amy says that she herself trains with her mother—three hours every morning, three hours at night.

I think that Amy really, really wants to be a cheerleader. Am I reading this wrong?

Amber Grove continues her impressive tryout. It seems that she is a shoe-in for a spot on the team. Buffy, Willow, Xander and Amy are all admiring Amber’s efforts when, suddenly, Amber’s hands begin to smoke.

Willow says, “That girl’s on fire!”

Cordelia, who is facing the other direction and doesn’t see the smoke, says, “Enough of the hyperbole!” Which I thought was a funny line.

Buffy, ever the hero, reacts immediately. She jumps up into the stands and snatches down a school banner, which she uses to snuff out the flames threatening to snuff out Amber. Now that’s school spirit!

End of our four-and-a-half minute teaser. Cue the bitchin’ Buffy theme music and opening credits.

Act I returns us to the Library.

Buffy paces. Willow and Xander sit at a table while Giles mucks about in his book cage. Buffy has decided, on her own, that Amber’s flammable hands are a new sort of conundrum, not the vampire problem she’s accustomed to.

To be fair, Giles and the show’s writers prepared us for future non-vampire related episodes we could expect in the proximity of a mystical convergence such as the Hellmouth. This is the first.

“Spontaneous human combustion,” Giles tells us all, “is rare and scientifically unexplainable. But, there have been cases for hundreds of years. Usually all that’s left is a pile of ashes.”

I am a skeptic by nature, I think. As such, I’m not immediately accepting of things presented to me as “facts” or “truths.” At best, spontaneous human combustion falls under the heading of pseudoscience. Please don’t trot out “evidence” to convince me otherwise, because it won’t work. Besides, it doesn’t really matter. I accept that spontaneous human combustion is a verified fact in the Buffyverse, the same way that I will accept that vampires, witches and Hellmouths exist as fictional constructs.

It’s that willing suspension of disbelief that everyone’s always going on about.

We all respect Anthony Head as an actor and the character Rupert Giles as an adult role model, parental figure, and learned mentor. However, we should always remember that this is all fictional.

Giles is excited by the prospect of this “veritable cornucopia of fiends and devils and ghouls to engage.” He considers it to be part of the thrill of living on the Hellmouth. There is a certain darkness to Rupert Giles that we need to explore further. As I recall, we will.

Xander suggests that Amber could have the power to make herself burst into flames. “It’s like the Human Torch,” he says. “Only, it hurts.”

Xander is the surrogate for a certain subset of viewer. Joss Whedon has said that Xander was the character he most identified with on the series. In spite of the fact that there are times that I don’t like Xander Harris much, I have to admit that this is true for me as well. Defensive humor, a perhaps-unhealthy reliance on sarcasm, unrequited love, and superhero comic book references—all things firmly in my wheelhouse. It doesn’t surprise me that Whedon would add “comic book author” to his CV, later on.

Buffy says she needs to get more information on Amber, to find out if she’s had “colorful episodes” before this one. Willow quips that this gives her the opportunity to illegally hack into the school’s computer system. She is Computer Girl, after all, which is her secret identity until she becomes Witch Girl. Xander says he’ll ask around about Amber as well, in person.

Buffy suggests that Willow and Xander shouldn’t get involved. She doesn’t like putting them in danger. This will also become a recurring theme. Xander and Willow are adamant about helping out, however. They are a team. Maybe they haven’t been referred to as the Scoobys yet, but Willow does coin the term “Slayerettes” in this scene. It doesn’t catch on.

Since the previous scene moved the plot incrementally forward, assigning tasks to several of our major characters—tasks that can be performed off-camera—it’s time to move to a new location. We cut to Buffy’s house, where we find Joyce Summers in the kitchen, using a crowbar to attempt to pry open a crate.

Buffy is telling her mom about her day. She tells Joyce about the accident during tryouts. Joyce makes encouraging sounds, saying “Oh, I know you’ll do fine. Keep on pluggin’, just have to get back on the horse,” but she seems distracted. For one, she’s having trouble opening the crate.

Buffy calls her out on it. Joyce doesn’t even know what Buffy was trying out for. She’s distracted because her gallery’s first major show is coming up and she has a lot of inventory to go through. In her kitchen, apparently. Still struggling with the crate, she asks Buffy to give her a hand.

Buffy effortlessly rips off the lid of the crate. Slayer super-strength.

Buffy tells her mom about Amy’s mother training with her for three hours a day. Amy actually said six hours a day—three in the morning, three at night—for all you nitpickers out there. Joyce Summers says, “Sounds like her mom doesn’t have a lot to do.”

Just like Xander, Joyce doesn’t always come across as likeable. Especially during the first season. You’re never sure which version of Buffy’s mom you’re going to get.

In an episode that turns out to be about mother-daughter relationships (at least in part), this scene touches on that aspect of Buffy and Joyce’s own relationship. It also doubles back to mention Amy and her mom, and mentions Amber’s “accident,” lest we forget what this story is about.

The next scene is back in the Sunnydale High School gymnasium, presumably the next day. Cheerleading tryouts continue. Amy—who trains with her mom six hours a day—falls while completing a cartwheel during group tryouts, accidentally knocking Cordelia Chase to the floor. Cordelia wants everyone to acknowledge that it wasn’t her fault.

Later, in a hallway, Amy stands at the trophy case. Amy’s mother has an entire section in the case, with a photo. Buffy comes up next to her and Amy smiles and points at the picture. “That’s my mom!” she says proudly.

Amy goes on to tell Buffy that her mom’s nickname was “Catherine the Great.” She made her cheerleading team tri-county champions, something that had never been done before. Amy’s mom and dad were homecoming king and queen, getting married right after graduation.

“That’s kinda romantic,” Buffy says.

Amy has an odd response to this. She says, “Well, he was a big loser. Never made any money. Ran off with Miss Trailer Trash when I was twelve.”

Buffy attempts to bond with Amy over divorced parents. Common ground, and all that, even though Buffy never seems to have the same bitterness towards her own father. I believe this is the first time the viewer is “told” that Buffy’s parents have divorced. I just assumed this to be the case during the first two episodes.

Amy seems to have nothing but admiration for her mother, however. Catherine Madison put herself through cosmetology school, bought Amy everything she ever wanted, and never once gained a single pound.

Buffy says, “She sounds really great, Amy. But . . . it doesn’t mean that you need to lock step as far as this cheerleading thing.” She seems to be gently trying to tell Amy that maybe—just maybe—she’s not cut out for cheerleading. Passive-aggressive or just nice? You be the judge.

Amy’s still beating herself up over her performance in tryouts. Her mother was the best, but Amy just can’t get her body to move like hers.

A dejected Amy heads off just as Willow breezes into the scene. Always emotionally perceptive, Willow asks Buffy if Amy is okay. Buffy says Amy is “wigging” about her mom, the former cheer queen. Wigging and The Wiggins are genuine examples of Buffy jargon, I think.

“Yeah,” Willow says, “her mom is kinda—”

“Nazi-like?” That explains Buffy’s lock step comment to Amy.

“Heil. If she gains an ounce, she padlocks the fridge and won’t eat anything but broth.”

“So, mommy dearest is really . . . Mommy Dearest?” For you youngsters, this is a Joan Crawford reference. She may have been mean to her adopted daughter.

For you oldsters, “Joan Crawford” is one of my favorite Blue Öyster Cult songs.

“There’s a bitter streak,” Willow says. “But, Amy’s nice. We used to hang in junior high. When her mom would go on a broth kick, Amy’d come over to my house and we’d stuff ourselves with brownies.”

I frequently lapse into dialogue exchanges for a couple of reasons. First, the dialogue on this series is often sublimely brilliant, always entertaining and what Roger Ebert would have called load-bearing. Which is to say, the dialogue is rarely pointless or throwaway. If it’s not imparting important plot information, it’s fleshing out backstory or characterization, or providing more worldbuilding details. In a medium that must get its message across almost entirely with visuals and dialogue, Buffy the Vampire Slayer provides plenty of examples that should be studied and, if possible, duplicated. Many shows which followed have tried.

My second reason? I just like good dialogue. The dialogue on this series may be more pop-culture oriented than, say, Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue on The West Wing, but I don’t believe a one-to-one comparison is unwarranted. Good dialogue is good dialogue.

As far as we know, we haven’t met Catherine Madison, Amy’s mom, yet. But, we’re getting a clearer picture about both her and Amy. We also get the impression that Willow and Amy used to be closer than they are now.

Willow gives Buffy her report of Flammable Amber. Average student. Detention once for smoking a cigarette at school. A tobacco cigarette. Pretty normal stuff. Nothing that screams supernatural subplot or Hellmouth.

Buffy has adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

We’re not going to wait long. The scene shifts to the girl’s locker room. The showers are dripping. Water beads on the tile walls. The camera pans across the lockers until we arrive at Amy, standing alone by her locker.

The way the scene is choreographed, we’re led to believe that Amy is in some sort of danger. She hears a noise, turns to look, but nothing is there. The showers continue to drip. Amy closes her locker and is leaving until—at the climax of some creepy music—Cordelia appears out of nowhere.

Amy begins to apologize for her cartwheel accident during tryouts, but an angry Cordelia cuts her off.

“If your supreme klutziness out there today takes me out of the running, you’re going to be so very beyond sorry,” she says. As Cordelia turns to leave, she throws her hair scrunchie into a locker which doesn’t remain shut after she slams it.

I thought this was all meant to punctuate Cordelia’s anger, but there’s another reason we’ll get into in a bit. Load-bearing. Every scene needs to serve a purpose.

Outside, Willow and Xander are walking together. Willow tells her friend that she told Buffy about Amber. All Xander is interested in is finding out if Buffy was wearing the bracelet he gave to her. He’s got it bad for Buffy and doesn’t realize that discussing it with Willow is just cruel, since she has a crush on Xander. When Xander asks Willow if he should ask Buffy out, she responds that he won’t know till he asks. In spite of her own crush, Willow is a true friend.

Xander notices the crowd gathered around the bulletin board and runs over to check the list of names for the cheerleading squad. Buffy and Amy are at the back of the gathered crowd.

Cordelia approaches Amy after checking the list. She tells Amy that she’s lucky.

“I made it?” Amy asks, hopefully.

I made it,” Cordelia says. If you’re among those who hate Cordelia Chase, I can understand. Cordelia does little, especially in these early days, to earn your respect or affection. A pretty young woman who’s not so pretty inside. We’ve all known a few like her.

Xander returns from the frontlines with news for Buffy and Amy. He congratulates them both for making the squad. Buffy is first alternate, and Amy is third.

Amy seems devastated and walks off after sharing a look with Buffy.

Willow has to explain to Xander that the “alternates” didn’t make the squad. They fill in only if something happens to one of the girls on the squad. He declares himself Xander, King of Cretins, as Buffy goes to console Amy.

“At least it’s over,” Buffy says to Amy. “And you know what I think we should do about it? Brownie pig-out. My house. After school.” This is a callback to Willow’s brownie pig-outs with Amy when they were in junior high school.

Amy, however, is inconsolable. “It’s just, how many more hours a day can I practice?” she says. “You know, how much more can I do? This would never happen to my mother. Never.”

Amy leaves, and the scene travels with her. We cut to an exterior shot of Amy’s house. The camera pushes in on the bricks under the peak of the roof. Where the attic is located.

And, then, we’re back in the Witch’s Attic from the teaser. Lots of hanging dolls with tags on them. The same bubbling cauldron as before. We don’t see the witch’s face at first. She pulls down a doll and then wraps a hair scrunchie around its head. This is Cordelia’s scrunchie, from that scene in the girl’s locker room where she threatened Amy and tossed her scrunchie into a locker.

The witch begins reciting a spell, calling on the laughing gods, whoever they are. Of course, the witch seems to be Amy. Makes sense. She invites these gods to let their blackness crawl beneath her skin. As she drops the doll into the cauldron, she asks the laughing gods to accept her sacrifice of Cordelia.

Here is where we reach our 15-minute point AND the end of Act I. It’s not always in synch like this, but this is nice.

So far, I’m enjoying this episode. Probably more than I did the first time. This is a standalone episode, I think. No vampires. No Angel. No Master, who is still our Big Bad in the season story arc. This episode is what I think of as a Non-Vampire Monster-of-the-Week episode, and our “monster” for this outing is a witch. Apparently a teenage witch.

Join me next time for Part 2, and the beginning of Act II, of “Witch.”

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