Monday, September 24, 2012

Buffy, She Bloggo: 1x03 - "Witch"

The Scoobies are born:
debuting the Slayerettes
and Watcher sidekick!


If I remember correctly, when I first watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Witch" is the episode that hooked me.  And I think the reason why has to do with its place as the follow-up to what is essentially a two-part pilot.  "Welcome to the Hellmouth" and "Harvest," steeped in vampire lore and apocalypse-preventing, really provided the skeleton for the series, letting us know what to expect in big episodes and season finales.  But "Witch" fills in the muscle, showing us that not all Buffy episodes will deal with vampire slaying; that there is a whole slew of supernatural misconduct happening on the Hellmouth, and that Buffy will inevitably get tied up in the goings-on.  Not only that, but "Witch" sets a  tone in storytelling that is not only structured smartly for maximum audience enjoyment, but that lets us know what to expect for the rest of the series.

It's perhaps a bit dorky of me, but I honestly wonder what it was like to break the story for episode 3 of a show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Where to go from the first two episodes of setup?  The writers created a basic plot about witchcraft, and then made the genius - and necessary - decision to tether it to the characters we already care about.  The main conflict of "Witch" was character vs. character, Amy vs. Amy's mom.  The only issue is that we've never met Amy before.  So, how to make us care?  Make Buffy care.  This construct falls into pattern with Buffy and Willow's dynamic from "Welcome to the Hellmouth."  Buffy sympathizes with Amy, just as she sympathized with Willow, and suddenly as an audience we care about Amy's story.  Double bonus points: we care even more about Buffy, because she's once again demonstrating compassion where not every main character would.  

The writing went one step further, and created a loose parallel between Amy and her mom, and Buffy and Joyce.  While Joyce is not an embittered youth-stealing ex-cheerleader cauldron user, there's still an element of alienation between mother and teenage daughter - especially when they are the only two in their family unit.  What could be a little "out there" for an audience to relate to (a mom using witchcraft against her kid so she could reclaim her youth) is tethered back to characters we're familiar with.  Basically, it's as if the writers are translating for us, making sure we understand what's being said by interpreting it to a level we fundamentally get.  But they're not dumbing it down for us!  It's a subtle decision threaded through the episode's construction, and it minimizes having to do that "translating" in more awkward areas, like dialogue or individual scenes.

"Witch" makes the most of the mother-daughter motif, and capitalizes on the fact that they're suggesting a parallel where there truly isn't one (at least not literally).  Even though Joyce and Buffy have missteps in communication during the episode, ultimately they are not like Amy and her mom, and so the cap on their episode journey is one of harmony.  They connect, even if for just a moment, even if Joyce doesn't know exactly why Buffy's reaching out to her.  It's not even a terribly emotional moment - it's just the right addition of sentiment to conclude their mini-arc and wrap up the parallel that the writers hauled out in the first place.  (It's like children with toys: if you get them out, you have to put them back up!)

With this choice, it's as if the Buffy writers are letting us know: everything is going to tie back to Miss Summers herself.  They even went so far as to put Buffy in danger in "Witch," making the life-threatening peril literally pertinent to Buffy's existence.  Of course, this also gives rise to establishing that Buffy needs people helping her - the Slayerettes, as Willow calls them.  Giles plays the biggest role, administering the spell against Amy's mom and saving Buffy's life.  But both Xander and Willow offer to help Buffy investigate the Mystery of the Burning Cheerleader, and refuse to stay out of it simply because she doesn't want them hurt.  They also both put themselves in harm's way to prevent Amy from getting to Buffy during the pep rally, and even show up again, this time with a baseball bat.  

It's lovely to witness the original Scoobies becoming a team, although I must confess that I'm slightly bewildered by the teenage romance aspects of the triangle.  "Witch" piles on Xander's crush on Buffy, and hints at Willow's crush on Xander.  I'm not terribly engaged in any of these romantic interests, simply because the narrative is already setting them up as unlikely: Buffy refers to Xander as "one of the girls," echoing how Xander earlier referred to Willow as "one of the guys," and on the whole this flirts a bit too closely with teenaged awkwardness for me.  I get further exasperated with Xander's masculinity complex when it comes to Buffy.  His insistence on "saving" Buffy from dangerous situations is really only made tolerable by the fact that Willow is in step with him most of the time.  

In fact, I'm actually more engaged in Willow's support of Buffy than Xander's simply because it demonstrates breaking out of gender norms, as opposed to reinforcing them.  Even though Xander's and Willow's arcs both are perhaps about empowerment and protecting loved ones from harm, I'm inherently more intrigued by Willow's in that she is actively asserting her own identity and not echoing a society-administered expectation of (masculine) identity.  It's tough, because the narrative does a good job of making Xander sympathetic without ever indicating that Buffy "owes" him something.  Moreover, this series does make it a point to highlight the realities of being a teenager, and unrequited and embarrassing crushes are certainly relevant to that theme.  But at the same time I'm already a little bit over Xander's relationship with the opposite sex.  I'm really just here for Willow busting in to save Buffy while wielding a baseball bat.

Beyond the establishment of both character anchor and the foundation of the Scoobies, "Witch" actually sets a storytelling standard for the rest of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes through its use of dramatic irony.  If you watch "Witch" with a careful eye for what information is distributed when - and how - it's actually a pretty masterful example of having the audience baited and hooked with every passing scene.  The main genius of this lies with the use of dramatic irony, the principle of filmmaking that allows for the audience to know things that the characters within the narrative do not.  (This is also the principle that allows moviegoers to shout "BEHIND YOU!" at characters onscreen who cannot hear them.)  The beauty of dramatic irony is that we, as an audience, are selectively allowed to anticipate what's next.  We see a cauldron bubbling with potion way before Buffy and Giles ever get to Amy's house.  This is done so that we can actively try and put the clues together; it keeps us engaged.  Can we figure it out before Giles and Buffy do?  We see a Cordelia doll being dropped into the potion before Cordelia comes to school acting weird and gets in a car.  We may not know exactly what will happen, but we know it can't be good.  So when we see Cordy acting weird, we want to shout at Xander and Willow that something's wrong, because no one else knows what we know, and when Cordy gets behind the wheel of a car, we are all the more fearful for imminent danger.  Dramatic irony means that we know things the characters onscreen don't, and that actively involves us in the narrative.  It's even echoed at the end, when we're privy to the knowledge of what happened to Amy's mom: we see the darting eyes in the cheerleader statue after Amy and Buffy have turned their backs.  No one knows what we know.

It's a powerful device, and it can be used not only for good but also trickery (which is also good, in the end).  This trickery results in a glorious storytelling device: the misdirect.  The narrative gives us information others don't know, so we put two and two together, and before we know it we're anticipating - except we're anticipating the wrong thing.  Yank!  The rug is pulled out from underneath us, and we're delighted by the surprise.  It's like a magic trick, a slight of hand you don't see coming until after you know how it was done.  In fact, "Witch," as an episode, fits this description perfectly.  Throughout the whole piece, we're expecting that Amy is engaging in witchcraft to act out against her tyrannical mother, but actually, it's the reverse.  There's an actual body switch, and Amy turns out to be Amy's mom.  Misdirect!  (Sure, there's an eensy plot hole where you have to wonder how Amy's mom in Amy's body only made third alternate when she was a cheerleading champion back in the day, but we can let it slide for the sake of the reveal.)

Buffy even takes the "misdirect" concept down to the most basic building blocks of storytelling: dialogue, and shot placement (editing).  We first see this in "Witch," and we'll see it again and again and again, and I guarantee you'll never actually get tired of it.  It's delightful every time.  This, my friends, is the "cut-to" moment.  It's classic misdirect at the smallest level, and Buffy makes good use of it for any purpose - comedy, horror, suspense, tragedy.  In fact, within the first few minutes it's hauled out for comedy: we see Giles chastising Buffy for besmirching her sacred birthright.  Serious, right?  Cut to: Buffy standing innocently in a cheerleading outfit, wielding pompoms.  You can't tell me you didn't laugh.  I laughed.  I laugh every time.  But you can also use the "cut-to" moment for suspense: Buffy comments to Willow that maybe nothing bad will happen.  Cut to: a shadowy locker room, complete with eerie dripping faucets and a foreboding score.  Something bad seems sure to happen.  And actually, this is a misdirect back-to-back.  Buffy's "famous last words" indicate to us that there is danger, and we're expecting something scary - and supernatural - to come from the shadows and attack Amy.  But cut to: Cordelia slamming Amy's locker shut.  The horror genre "jump" moment is given to Cordy, mere mortal, but who's a monster of a whole other kind.  She threatens Amy, and walks away.  The result we expected was not the result we got.

Ultimately, "Witch" works from the ground up and uses storytelling devices to not only engage and entertain the audience, but to indicate to them what this series is going to be all about.  It's not just vampires and Hellmouth lore.  There's not always going to be the looming threat of apocalypse, or issues concerning Buffy's duty as a Slayer.  The material that's going to carry Buffy the Vampire Slayer through most episodes is going to look a lot like the material in "Witch."  There will be storylines that tether meaningfully back to our core characters, insights into what it's like to be a teenager, and things that go bump in the night.  This content will also be assembled with the intent to engage the audience and keep them hooked.  So in some ways, "Witch" is a promise to its viewers: get ready.  We're taking you on a ride.


  1. Wonderful, truly wonderful. I'm definitely going to send your commentary to some poor Buffy-hold-outs I know.

  2. Hey there ! I've been following your blog for a while now, so this is just to say that I love your articles :D They're clear, concise and interesting. And you have just the right dose of feminism for me :) So, kudos to you, this is exactly the sort of things I want to read about, for instance, a show like Glee.

    (Oh, and btw, I'm not a native english speaker, so I apologize in advance if my english is not very good.)

    Anyway, so glad you're doing a Buffy recap ! Buffy is one of my favorite shows ever. I have this strange affection for The Witch, it's imo one of the best standalones of S1/early S2 (which, granted, might not mean a lot). It has this trademark "metaphore of the week" structure of early Buffy but the metaphore of the mother literally trying to live through her daughter works beautifully. It's smart, well done, and has just the right "campyness" of season 1. Plus, Slayerettes ! And how cute is Buffy singing "Macho Man" ?

    About your complaint on the love interests, I think it was inevitable, so it had to be adressed. I've always thought it was done rather realistically. It's not over dramatic, it's just something they (the characters and the writers) had to go through. Xander has this fascination over mature, hot Buffy, and Willow has the best friend/secret crush syndrome. It works for me (much more than the Willow/Xander thing in S3).

    And "Xander's masculinity complex" is something that never bothered me that much because it gets questioned and, ultimately, this is Xander's journey : to discover that his role actually isn't the one of "The Man" (as dictated by the gender norms) and to accept that. And, in this society, I don't think that it's necessarily something easy to do for a guy who has certainly grown up under at least a kind of "subliminal pressure" to be a strong, virile man and all that stuff.

    But yeah, Willow is the best :P

    So keep on, I'm faithfully waiting for the next episodes :D

  3. you, writing about buffy just makes me so, inordinately happy. in your reviews buffy looks like a damned Master Class on how to write strong, interesting female characters. Perhaps the Glee writers should be locked in a room w/ BtVS DVDs. come on Marti Noxon, you sat at the foot of the master. :) Gosh, season 1 was sooooo cheesy, like wisconsin sharp cheddar, with sinfully bad production values and yet it still is entertaining.


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