Standard disclaimer: I'll often speak of foreshadowing, but that doesn't mean I'm at all committing to the idea that there was some fixed design from the word go -- it's a short hand for talking about the resonances that end up in the text as it unspools.
Standard spoiler warning: The notes are written for folks who have seen all of BtVS and AtVS. If they become relevant I'll spoil through the comics as well. Basically -- if you are a spoiler-phobe and haven't seen or read it all, read further at your own risk.
Buffy 1.03 The Witch, in Which Buffy Clings to Fantasies of Normality-Through-Cheerleading and We Meet Amy and Her Witch of a Mother.
On one level the purpose of the episode is to establish that there are other evils in Buffy’s world besides vampires and to insert these monsters into stories about ordinary teenage life. The theme of a mother who tries to live through her daughter becomes a story about a mother who switches bodies with her daughter. The monster as (heavy-handed) metaphor that is the backbone of season one.
Strudel interjects: We might as well acknowledge how clunky some of these early episodes are.
In retrospect, however, the episode is more interesting because it almost entirely masks what it really is, namely an introduction of Willow’s arc. Willow herself has little to do in the episode. But it’s an episode about a witch, sandwiched between the introductory episodes which give us Buffy and her fight against vampires and Teacher’s Pet, which is our introduction to Xander, the demon magnet.
Further, the story of Amy and her mother foreshadows the developments that are to take place in Willow’s arc. We first meet Amy, who seems like a sweet girl (and who not incidentally is first introduced as Willow’s friend). But then Amy seems to be much darker. Her mother has switched with her. Later on in the series Amy herself is going to develop into that dark. Amy is a mirror for Willow all the way through (a story played in a minor key, but one which mattered enough to get Amy pulled out of the Sunnydale crater to serve as a villain in season 8.) In this episode we have Amy representing Willow’s sweet exterior, and Amy’s Mom representing the witch who is consumed by her power. This episode also repeats the detail we got in the opening episodes, and that’s that Willow is happy to break the law as a hacker. Nobody watching this episode the first time could possibly predict that Willow was going to end up where she was in Grave. But the trajectory is laid down here. Interesting that it is Amy we see first as a witch – it’s not unlike the fact that the first high school blonde we meet is not Buffy, but rather Darla.
Strudel adds: indeed, no one can predict where Willow will wind up, but there is a neat little scene -- seems like a throw-away -- that does foreshadow her vocational calling: in Biology class, she takes Xander's frog and deftly plucks its eye out. "Eye of newt," she crows.
Maggie replies: Ooh, good catch on the eye of newt! I wonder if it's the fact that Willow sees the witches as powerful forces against Buffy that ends up being a subconscious attraction. She can't be a slayer, but if she can get the power that can hold its own with a slayer? Next best thing.
Buffy: She really wants to have a normal life, which she perceives as safe. The ironic segue the story makes from this desire to the revelation that even ‘normal’ things like cheerleading can be dangerous in Sunnydale nicely suggests that the divisions aren’t as neat as we’d like to think. To underscore that theme we see Buffy save a burning cheerleader in the teaser using by doing things any ordinary human could do. Buffy’s notion that there’s ‘normal’ to one side and ‘slaying’ to the other is shown to be false from the get go – but figuring that out is central to her arc for the entire series.
Strudel adds: The ironic "quotes" you put around normal are a bit too subtle for me, so let me just come out and say that cheerleading is an excellent choice of an activity that is typically treated as normal and wholesome as apple pie but which, on further scrutiny, is bizarre and fraught with sordid tensions. The skewering of normal continues when Amy recounts the story of her mother and father, Homecoming King and Queen, who married long enough to have Amy, but the father ran off with "Miss Trailer Trash." Even outside the Jossverse, nothing is as it seems. In any event, in this episode, we dispense with both cheerleaders and mothers as potential safe female harbors for our Slayer. Her quest for a role and a role model is just beginning.
The episode also offers us another reminder that for all the show we’re going to make about her academic problems, Buffy is sharp as a tack. She very quickly figures out that Amy’s Mom is really Amy. And she’s got compassion as well, wanting to be helpful to Amy when she still thinks Amy is the bad guy. One of the joys of re-watching the early seasons is getting the chance to spend time with a Buffy whose heart is still wide open.
Willow/Xander. The Witch subtly lets us know that Willow has some feelings for Xander (her very quick flash of hurt when Xander presents a bracelet to Buffy). And we again hit the theme that Buffy is to Xander as Xander is to Willow. Xander gushes to Willow that he values her because she’s like one of the guys; then a bespelled Buffy tells Xander she values him because he’s like one of the girls. Willow encourages Xander to ask Buffy out, but one wonders if that’s so much a selfless desire to help Xander get what he wants even though it’s at her own expense, or a more self-interested desire to get Xander to realize sooner rather than later that he doesn’t have a chance with Buffy. Since Willow has both a sweet side and a more ruthless side, I’m going to say it’s both.
Strudel adds: another note on the sweet/ruthless Willow dichotomy, we have again an example of her very cheerfully stepping up to do some hacking, which she now unabashedly admits is illegal. More telling is the self-deprecating line that follows -- "at last, something I can do" -- which shows that even now Willow is resenting being thrust into the role of powerless side-kick. The venom that she will spew at Buffy in Season 6 has fermented for years.
Strudel inserts: Poor Giles. Ever the under-written, forgotten man, and here he is, overlooked in this episode summary. To rectify the situation, let's give the poor bloke his own heading:
Giles: We get a few revealing glimpses of this character in this episode. First, he tries in vain to dissuade Buffy from cheerleading. His importuning goes nowhere, but it does make enough of an impression on Buffy to serve as an excuse for she and Willow to joke that he needs a girlfriend, except he's too old for one. OK, really, this sequence does more to illuminate us about the girls' generationally self-centered POV. Buffy will eventually, notably, begin to see Giles as a three-dimensional person, but that's going to take a while. In the next scene, we really do get a glimpse of Giles when he is positively gleeful on the discovery of this latest occult threat. This excitement of his is juvenile (contradicting the decrepitude to which the girls have assigned him), and it shows one or both of the following: (1) Giles is still new to his post as the Watcher and he is as yet unappreciative of the full gravity of the role (a lack of appreciation which dovetails with his reluctance to delve into the stories of the inevitably early demise of all previous slayers); and/or (2) Giles senses that without occult threats, he has no authority over Buffy, and hence no job (which prefigures somewhat the drift he'll go through when he is dismissed by the Council). One last item for Giles before we send him back to the library: in this episode, he gets to do the anti-magic magic, and he does it with a ferocity that seems entirely driven by concern for Buffy. Of course, we'll later discover that he has his own history of playing with the magicks, and that may contribute to his fierce determination in confronting Catherine/Amy.
Nothing is what it seems. Amy is sweet and the Mom is the villain. Then it seems that Amy is the villain. But it turns out to be Mom after all, but in a way you’d not have expected. And Amy’s Mom is a template for what Amy becomes, so Amy isn’t going to stay sweet. There’s more to people than whatever label you want to put on them at first blush. It’s worth observing that Joss calls back this episode in LWH, where he has Buffy defeat Amy with mirrors in a way that echoes her defeat of Amy’s mother with mirrors. Mirrors. Get it? They’re all over the place.