What’s weird to me now about this episode is that in my memory it was *really good*. And now, looking at it, it’s a mess.
The episode centres on Amy – later a fairly significant character, so the early development here is nice – who turns out to have been mind-swapped by her mother, who wants to relive her glory days as a cheerleader and is going to use Amy’s body to do it. And when Amy doesn’t make it into the squad, the witch-mother casts spells to get rid of some of the competition. So far, so X-Files.
The major problem is that it’s not clear at what point, if ever, we have met the Real Amy (as opposed to her mother, in her body, pretending to be her). We meet an Amy at the start who claims to hate cheerleading – we sympathise. Cordelia’s into cheerleading and Cordelia’s clearly at this stage a grade-A bitch, so we like Amy. But if her mother has already possessed her by that point, why would she say she hates cheerleading? And if we’ve never met Real Amy (which I think from the script we’re not supposed to have done) then who are we sympathising with? And if it’s her mother there in her body and she’s so good at faking an Amy personality then… surely she understands her daughter well enough to sympathise with her?
And if it *is* Amy’s mother in Amy’s body all the way through, and has been for months, why hasn’t anyone noticed any change in personality? Willow would be the most obvious candidate to say something like: “yeah, Amy never used to be into cheering until a few months ago, I guess her mom got to her”. Also, dramatically, this is missing a great second act where we’ve met “I hate cheerleading” Amy, and then we’d suddenly meet “laser-focused on the cheers” Amy, or at least one who was unable to keep the odd reference to how much she cares about it out of her mouth. A missed opportunity.
So, yeah, unfocused. I would have added in a scene of Amy suddenly seeming to, for example, care or know a lot more about cheerleading after she failed to make the squad, implying that her mother had been so enraged by her poor performance that she’d decided to take the body herself. And if cuts were needed, I’d have lost the lengthy and nonsensical scene where Cordelia is going blind but still for some reason decides to get in a car and drive.
It is weird to me that I can see now what could have been changed to make this episode better – I definitely didn’t know this when it aired, so perhaps I have got to be a better writer in the past 15 years!
So why do I remember it as being so good? Is it just rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia? Is it because of some lovely continuity work done by bringing back Amy, and by eg making ‘bad Willow’s’ eyes go black just like Amy’s mother’s do, implying that Willow probably studied the mother’s books a bit too hard?
I think it’s partly that. But it’s also that, although the plotting is a bit of a mess, the emotional core of this episode is rock solid. At the level of metaphor, it works absolutely perfectly. It’s about mothers and daughters, the jealousy and resentment over ‘lost youth’ that mothers can feel when their daughters blossom into beautiful young women. It’s about how and why a woman might want to steal her daughter’s youth, and as such it reaches right back to myths like Snow White (I think the use of the mirror at the end of the episode signals this too). The core of this ep is so strong it’s giving me a shiver down my spine right now when I think about it. And it’s set off – a little clunkily, to be sure – by the grace note of Buffy’s mom Joyce at the end of the episode shuddering when she thinks about having to be 16 again.
So there we have it. First episode of “Buffy proper”. They’re still doing the X-Files thing of having ‘mythos’ episdes (like Welcome to the Hellmouth) and ‘monster of the week’ episodes like this one; it takes them a while to stop doing that. And the “mother is caught inside the statue” ending is also very wink-wink at the audience in an X-Files manner. And the plotting is a shambles. But the core emotion is all there.