Written by Dana Reston
Directed by Stephen Cragg
We open on Giles scolding an off-screen Buffy for participating in some kind of Plot B frivolity, which turns out to be cheerleading. (Why are they holding cheerleading tryouts in March? Are they trying out for next year’s squad, or have all the girls who made the squad in the fall been killed by monsters already?) He tries to forbid her from doing it, insisting that Plot A must consume all of the time she isn’t spending on schoolwork. His argument is rather flimsy, and Buffy is determined to pursue normal, safe Plot B activities no matter what he says.
However, unbeknownst to either of them, this particular Plot B activity is about to be sucked into this week’s incarnation of Plot A, and will therefore be neither normal nor safe. Cut to a creepy darkened attic with lots of dried herbs and a bubbling cauldron, where someone is moving about in a twitchy and sinister fashion.
Cut to the gym, where Willow and Xander have accompanied Buffy to her cheerleading tryouts. Xander ogles all the girls who are doing warm-up stretches, earning him mild disapproval from Willow and Buffy. He then gives Buffy a rather questionable good luck present: a bracelet with “Yours Always” engraved on it. Buffy is bemused and Willow is upset. Ah, high school love triangles.
Cordelia is there for tryouts, and for all her popular girl swagger, she is very anxious about how this will go. We are introduced to Amy Madison, who is a friend of Willow’s and completely insane. She practices cheerleading six hours a day, and she isn’t even on the squad yet. But instead of registering the insane parts, Buffy focuses on how much time Amy says she spends with her mom while she’s doing all that training.
To the shock and horror of all present, the first girl to try out catches fire in the middle of her routine. Buffy puts it out, but Amber’s going to need some serious skin grafts on her hands and might even lose them. This is new and unexpected Plot A stuff. We are not dealing with vampires this week. Giles is very intrigued and not appropriately upset, which Buffy, Willow, and Xander find off-putting.
Cut to Buffy’s house, where her mom is going through inventory for her art gallery. This is not a comfortable mother/daughter moment. Joyce is too busy with her work to remember what’s going on in Buffy’s life, and she isn’t very tactful about Buffy’s past alleged delinquency. Buffy is disappointed. She’s clearly hoping for more time, attention, and respect from her mom, particularly after talking to Amy.
Cheerleading tryouts resume! Amy doesn’t perform as well as she’d hoped, and we learn that she’s been running herself ragged trying to live up to her mother’s example…to a creepy degree. Buffy is now seeing this less as an example of a perfect mother/daughter relationship and more of an example of unhealthy idolization.
The research into what caused Amber to burst into flames is going nowhere, and Buffy and Willow tempt fate by suggesting the madness might be over. Fate promptly responds with a sinister scene in which Cordelia threatens Amy in the locker room. Cordelia’s bullying is accompanied by way more ominous music than usual. *gasp* Could she be the culprit?
Xander is trying to use Willow as his wingman regarding Buffy. Willow, who has had a crush on Xander since they were in kindergarten, is not happy to be in this role. This particular exchange is a bit jarring to hear right after Jesse's death. Instead of being moody and grief-stricken that he no longer has any actual guy friends, Xander is just casually happy that Willow is basically the same thing as having a guy friend. Bad form. Anyway, Cordelia made the squad! Buffy and Amy are only alternates. Buffy tries to console Amy, but she refuses to be consoled.
Cut back to the creepy attic, where a girl in a black robe is using an off-brand Barbie and the bubbling cauldron to cast a spell on Cordelia.
Another Buffy and Joyce scene. Things between them deteriorate further. Joyce thinks Buffy should try doing some of the things she herself enjoyed as a teenager. Buffy scoffs at these suggestions, which hurts Joyce. Buffy tries to forestall further suggestions by reminding Joyce that she’s her own person, and Joyce lashes back with another reminder that Buffy doing her own thing is a recipe for expulsion. It’s clear that Joyce instantly regrets saying this, but Buffy leaves before she can try to repair the damage.
At school, the spell is beginning to affect Cordelia, and Xander is still trying to wingman with Willow. He’s trying to work up the nerve to actually ask Buffy out (his second attempt in the episode), but Buffy is too distracted by Cordelia’s weird behavior for him to be able to finish.
Cordelia is being very zombie-like in her driver’s ed. class, then drives like a maniac, crashes through the fence and a hedge, and is almost run over by a UPS truck. Buffy pushes her out of the way just in time, but then we see that she has gone blind. This is great news! According to Giles (who is still way too enthusiastic), we are dealing with witchcraft. They quickly deduce from there that Amy is the most likely suspect. Giles is appalled at the idea that someone would waste perfectly good witchcraft on boosting her chances of getting onto the cheerleading squad. Buffy is projecting, so she thinks this is about reacting to crazy parental expectations. The investigation then leads them to the library records on witchcraft books, which only leads to a dead end that contains nothing except Xander’s shame. Giles has a better idea: do a basic witch litmus test.
Cut to the biology lab, where it is frog dissection day! Willow and Xander make the witch test potion at their table, and we have some more fun with Buffy’s complete inability to be subtle. The test is positive, just in time for another cheerleader to succumb to a spell! Amy looked terrified like the rest of the class, so Buffy’s new theory is that Amy’s mother is the one behind it all (or at least the reason Amy feels she has to do these things).
Amy heads home, where it immediately becomes clear that between her and her mother, she is the one calling the shots. She did not fall for Buffy’s lack of subtlety, so Buffy is her next target, and she’s using Xander’s gift bracelet to cast her spell.
The next morning, Buffy is acting unusually loopy. Joyce tries to apologize and loopy Buffy is in a good enough mood to admit that her mom had a point. It’s the most positive interaction they’ve had all episode, but Buffy is obviously Not Okay.
At cheerleading practice, she’s only getting loopier. She doesn’t do an awesome job of controlling her Slayer strength, and she gets kicked out. Amy is now on the team! Loopy Buffy confirms quite clearly that she isn’t interested in Xander romantically, and then she collapses. This spell is way nastier than the others: they have a few hours to reverse it or Buffy will die.
Buffy and Giles go to Amy’s house, where a surprise is waiting for them. Based on the behavior of Catherine Madison and some clues in the house, Buffy realizes that Amy’s mom forcibly switched bodies with her. Yikes. But this means their path to the spell-casting materials is clear, so they’re one step closer to a cure for Buffy and reversals for the spells on Amy, Cordelia, and the girl with no mouth.
At the basketball game, Catherine-as-Amy is cheering with the rest of the squad. Giles starts the spell-reversal process with Amy-as-Catherine’s help. As the spells begin to break, Catherine-as-Amy starts losing her focus in the cheers. She realizes what’s happening and heads straight for the science lab. Xander and Willow try to stop her, but she force-chokes Xander and punches Willow out. She smashes her way into the lab with the fire axe, but Giles finishes breaking the spells just in time to prevent her from taking the axe to Buffy’s head. Amy and Catherine are back in their own bodies and Buffy is back to normal.
Catherine turns her powers on all of them and makes an excellent case for why she should win a Worst Mother of the Year award, in case the judges haven’t been paying attention. She tries to curse Buffy, but Buffy uses a mirror to bounce the curse back at her. She vanishes. Giles got hit on the head (a tradition begins!) but he’s okay, and Willow and Xander burst into the lab, also okay.
Back at Buffy’s house, Joyce comes into Buffy’s room with an epiphany: because she’s an adult, she isn’t capable of understanding what her 16-year-old daughter is going through. She also definitely doesn’t want to be a teenager again. This answer pleases Buffy, and all is right in the Summers household. All is also right in the Madison household. Amy now lives with her dad, and it’s going great.
Just in case you were feeling really optimistic about the ending, though, the episode concludes with a close-up of the trophy case. Catherine’s cheerleading trophy’s eyes are moving and we can hear the sounds of muffled whimpering. But hey, if she's prepared to body swap with her daughter because she's so convinced she peaked as a high school cheerleader, then I guess she got her wish. Now she'll always be a high school cheerleader. (Come on, lady, you're a powerful witch! You really can't think of anything more fulfilling to do with your life than relive high school?)
As a girl who was never interested in being popular and thought school spirit was a laughable concept, I’ve always felt a certain amount of disdain for cheerleaders. Consequently, I used to dislike this episode a lot because the fact that Buffy was interested in cheerleading made her much less awesome in my eyes. But I think I’m over that now. This is a great episode. It isn’t about cheerleading, really. Cheerleading is just a vehicle for the plot. Any other extracurricular activity could have worked in this story, though probably not quite as well. The real focus of the episode is mother/daughter relationships and how difficult it can be for mothers and teenage daughters to accept each other as distinct individuals who won’t always see eye to eye. Neither Buffy nor Joyce is without fault in their uncomfortable conversations and arguments, and their scenes together feel very genuine. The contrast of Amy and Catherine ties this episode’s Plot A to Buffy’s Plot B concerns with cheerleading and her mom very well.
Buffy really shines in this episode. Things are difficult with her mom, and she’s determined to pursue her own interests. These developments aren’t surprising. But from Buffy’s interactions with Catherine-as-Amy and then Amy-as-Catherine, we get a closer look at an aspect of her character that we glimpsed when she befriended Willow. Yes, she has super strength and she’s very good at coming up with clever ways to win her fights, but she also has very strong intuition about the people around her, and she pays attention to them. Giles didn’t have the slightest inkling that Mrs. Madison wasn’t really Mrs. Madison, but Buffy realized it almost instantly. It’s starting to become clear what really makes this girl such an effective Slayer, as well as an effective lead character.
Xander, on the other hand, doesn’t come out of this episode looking that great. His problems in “The Harvest” can be attributed to the writers’ unfortunate continuity choices, but the same cannot be said here. His crush on Buffy, which began the first moment he saw her and was kind of cute at that point, is rapidly becoming less endearing. Where Buffy spends most of the episode more concerned about the well-being of other people (including someone she actively dislikes and someone she only just met), Xander’s focus in almost every single scene is self-centered. When Buffy is too distracted to listen to his fumbling attempts to ask her out, it doesn’t occur to him that maybe this isn’t the right time. It also doesn’t occur to him that Willow has no desire at all to help him get a date with Buffy. Either he hasn’t noticed that she’s had a crush on him for years, or he’s pretending not to notice. His self-centered approach makes me question the nature of his feelings for Buffy. Does he really see her for the amazing girl she is, or is it still primarily based on the instant attraction he felt when he first saw her? It’s starting to look like the latter. Also, giving her a piece of personalized jewelry and then pretending it’s just a platonic gift when she is understandably weirded out by it? Not cool.
Willow, admittedly, is making similar mistakes to Xander when it comes to pursuing her crush, but the difference is that her crush on Xander doesn’t include a sense of entitlement or expectation. It isn’t nearly as much about her as Xander’s crush on Buffy is about him. She’s known Xander since they were kids. She knows everything about him and is crushing on him because of that. I feel sympathy for Willow and am inclined to hope she succeeds, but I really want Xander to knock it off. It’s interesting that Willow can’t tell that something’s wrong with Amy, who has been her friend for a while, but this isn’t necessarily a bad reflection on her; it’s possible that Catherine-as-Amy slowly withdrew from that friendship on purpose, and Willow, who never expects anyone to be nice to her, probably wouldn’t have questioned that.
Giles is even more of a geek about the Plot A stuff in this one, and it is glorious. He also gets a subtle moment of character growth. At the beginning of the episode, he’s accusing Buffy of being a shallow teenager who is more interested in trivial activities than in doing her duty. By the end of the episode, he has seen her compassion and intuition—and that it surpasses his own. I’m sure that if Buffy still wanted to be on the cheerleading squad after this, he wouldn’t object (at least, not as much). He’s beginning to understand what a remarkable girl he has in his charge. When he’s working to save her from Catherine’s curse, it’s obvious that he now really cares about her, and that makes him a more sympathetic character in turn. There are a couple of particularly sweet moments from him. He's so worried about Buffy that he gets kinda shouty with "Catherine," he carries Buffy when she's too weak to support herself anymore, and he makes a pillow for her out of his jacket. This episode might be about mothers and daughter, but there's one incredible pseudo father/daughter relationship brewing too.
Cordelia is pretty much the same. The only new insight into her character is that layer of insecurity that seems to be behind a lot of her bullying.
“Well, I know that I’ll miss the intellectual thrill of spelling out words with my arms.”
The Watcher's Diary
In this blog, I'll be reviewing, analyzing, and generally fangirling over excellent television. Exhibit A: the Whedonverse.