The episode opens with Giles complaining that Buffy has enslaved herself to a cult; she wants to join the cheerleading squad. He tries to appeal to her common sense and sense of duty; as the Slayer, she doesn't have time to be peppy. He forbids it. She points out that he doesn't actually have any way of stopping her; anyway, she just wants to do something normal and safe. The camera cuts to a creepy den with doll heads hanging from the ceiling. Someone in a dark robe puts something in a bubbling green cauldron and grabs a cheerleader voodoo doll off a hook.
At the cheerleader tryouts, Buffy, Willow, and Xander discuss the situation. Xander likes the girls stretching in spandex. Then he gives Buffy a bracelet bearing the legend "Yours always". He insists they all came that way. The camera focuses on Amber Grove, clearly a notch above the rest of the girls, standing on the toes of one foot while raising the other above her head, while Cordelia complains. We then meet Amy Madison. Willow is surprised that she's trying out for the squad and lost a lot of weight to do so.
Amber is performing superbly when something strange begins to happen. Smoke begins pouring from her pompoms. Then her arms catch fire. Buffy rushes to smother the flames with a banner while the rest look on in horror. Cue the intro.
Back in the library, Giles tells the gang that this isn't a case of vampires, though it's certainly abnormal. He muses briefly that it might be spontaneous human combustion, spoken of for centuries, but those usually just leave a pile of ashes. As combustion is usually caused by extreme rage plus a mystical extra, Willow is tasked with looking into Amber's records to see if she's had episodes before. Xander goes to seek information around the school. Buffy wants them to be careful.
Back home, Buffy finds her mother unpacking crates of artwork for her gallery. Buffy briefly tries to engage her mother's interest in her cheerleading tryouts. Her mother, distracted, hopes it will keep Buffy out of trouble, points out that she doesn't have time to help Buffy with her practice, and leaves.
The next day, Buffy and Amy return for the new audition. At the end of the routine, Amy falls after her cartwheel and lands on Cordelia. In the hall, an upset Amy looks at her mother's trophies, displaying her cheerleading talents. She tells Buffy about her parents' high school romance, then tears it apart by recounting her father's infidelity and the divorce. Her mother, Catherine, made it out alright, though; she put herself through cosmetology school, bought Amy everything she ever wanted, and never once gained a single pound. Buffy tries to reassure her that she doesn't have to be exactly like her mother, to no avail.
Willow walks up as Amy walks away and provides some background; they used to hang out in middle school. Amy's mother is obsessive about her appearance and some of that splashed onto Amy. Buffy inquires about Amber; no special information. Next up: waiting for the next shoe to drop.
In the locker room, we're treated to a slow pan to Amy. Cordelia confronts her and tells her that if she messes up Cordy's chances to get on the squad, she'll be beyond sorry.
Outside, they've posted the squad list. Xander pushes through the crowd and Cordy walks out. Cordy made it; Buffy's first alternate and Amy is number three. He's not aware that that means they didn't make it.
From the exterior of a house to the threatening interior we saw in the open, with its bubbling cauldron, someone performs an incantation, wrapping a cloth around a doll's head and offering it as sacrifice in proxy for Cordelia.
The next day, Buffy prepares breakfast as her mother walks in with her own old high school yearbook. Joyce tries to convince Buffy to join another club, perhaps yearbook like she did. Buffy protests that she wants to do her own thing, not Joyce's. Joyce replies that her own thing got her kicked out of school.
At school, Cordelia, in a daze, ignores and doesn't insult Xander. Xander and Willow muse on the meaning of Xander's invisibility and he talks himself into asking Buffy out. Unfortunately, as she arrives she's distracted by Cordelia's confused wandering and he doesn't have time to do so. Cordelia wanders out of the building to her driver's ed class. She appears to be having trouble seeing, tries to avoid getting behind the wheel, but gets put there anyway. She ends up driving wildly, eventually out into the street and into traffic, luckily without hurting anyone. Buffy pulls her out of the street before she can get run over, when it's revealed that her eyes have gone blank and she can't see. Another cheerleader is off the squad.
In the library, Giles confirms that blinding and disorienting your enemies is a classic move from witchcraft. Willow opines that Cordelia has too many enemies to count, but Amber doesn't. All they have in common is cheerleading. Giles muses that someone hates cheerleading. Buffy goes the other way: someone likes it too much. Their new suspect is Amy. Fortunately, Giles has a potion for detecting a witch.
In the biology lab, the gang prepares the spell (nitric acid, mercury, eye of newtnote , and Amy's hair). When poured on her skin, the solution turns blue; Amy's a witch. But as soon as Buffy confirms that, another student panics and the rest are horrified as her mouth disappears from her face. Amy looks shocked, and the gang are confused. Apparently it's not Amy, though the test came up positive. They suspect Amy just doesn't know what she's doing.
Back at the sinister house, now confirmed to be Amy's, we see her walking up the front walk and through the door. In a sinister voice, she seeks out her mother. She demands that her mother write her history report, muses that she belongs on the team, and threatens the gang. She reveals that she has Buffy's bracelet.
Buffy's next morning begins with her disoriented and... stereotypically blonde. She bounces into the kitchen, singing, and snags some juice. She chats for a bit, then snags more juice. Buffy accidentally lets slip that she's a slayer, and Joyce shows some concern as Buffy bounces out the door.
At cheerleader practice, Buffy's behavior is getting worse. Her ditziness leads her to behave erratically and injure a fellow cheerleader. First she steps on someone's foot then accidentally throws her across the room. Amy's now on the team. Willow and Xander stop an increasingly erratic Buffy from blurting out that Amy's a witch and drag her from the room. In the hallway, she blurts that she thinks of Xander as one of the girls, then collapses.
In the library, Giles informs the gang that it's a bloodstone vengeance spell. It hits the body like a quart of alcohol before shutting down the immune system. Unlike the other girls, the witch wants Buffy dead. She only has a few hours. Fortunately, his research has indicated that if they can get hold of the witch's spellbook, they can reverse all of her spells. The alternative is to decapitate the witch. The witch would need a sacred space, with a pentagram and a cauldron. Buffy and Giles go to Amy's home while Xander and Willow keep an eye on Amy and keep her away from the science lab, where Giles will cast the counterspell.
At the Madison home, Giles and Buffy confront Catherine, sitting on the couch and eating brownies. She tries to get them to leave, but they barge in. A few verbal gaffs and the brownies clue Buffy in that Catherine is in fact Amy; her mother switched their bodies. Amy as Catherine explains to them that she didn't know about her mother's powers, and how horrible she was, and that a few months prior she woke up in her mother's bed... Buffy reassures her that everything will be fine. Giles takes note of the important information; she would lock herself upstairs. The horrible room from the cold open is the Madison attic. They find her spellbook and Buffy, Giles, and Amy leave for the school.
At the school, the basketball game has begun and Catherine is with the rest of the cheerleaders at the gym. Giles carries Buffy into the science lab and gently lays her on a table, pillowing her head on his suit jacket. They only have a few minutes. Giles prepares a smoking, bubbling potion and recites an incantation. Amy begins having strange flashes of vision, disorienting her. Catherine does as well. Unfortunately, the visions tip Catherine off that the spell is taking place in the biology lab and she heads there.
Willow attempts to stall Catherine in the hallway. Xander sneaks up behind her, but she chokes him with a spell and punches Willow. Unable to open the door to the lab, she grabs a fire-axe and breaks it down. As she raises the ax to kill Buffy, Giles' spell finally takes hold and all of Catherine's spells are reversed. She and Amy are back in their own bodies. Buffy gets off the table and greets Amy, just as she's tackled by Catherine. She flings Giles against a wall with a magically shoved table, snags the axe from Amy, delivers a few lines about how she's a bad daughter, buries the ax in the table, and threatens to send her where she won't cause trouble any more. Then Buffy stands, informs Catherine that she's feeling better, and punches her across the room. Catherine returns the favor with a spell.
As Buffy stands, wincing, Catherine prepares a particularly threatening incantation and stares at Buffy with thoroughly black eyes. At the last second, Buffy spies the mirror above the teacher's lab table and drops it in front of her, reflecting Catherine's spell back on herself. With a despairing wail, she disappears, and "the dark place shall have her soul".
Giles and Buffy reassure one another that everything is fine. Xander and Willow burst in, ready to take care of Amy, only to learn that she was her mother, and everything is okay now.
Back at home, Joyce walks into Buffy's room and declares that there's some kind of biological imperative whereby she, not being sixteen, is incapable of understanding her sixteen year old daughter. Buffy asks if she ever wishes she could be sixteen again, and Joyce shudders at the thought. "Not even if it would help me understand you." A grateful Buffy kisses her and leaves. "I don't get it", muses Joyce one last time.
At school the next day, Amy is complaining with absolute glee that her father is smothering her with caution and love. And brownies. They stop by her mother's trophy case one last time, and wonder what happened to her. As they walk away, the camera zooms in on her trophy... now with a pair of very real eyes, spinning wildly...
- Abusive Parent: Catherine treats Amy like a genuine inconvenience, being emotionally and verbally abusive toward her. She goes so far as to steal her daughter's body so she can relive her glory days.
- The Ace: Amber is this for cheerleading. Apparently she turned the Lakers down.
- All Guys Want Cheerleaders: Except Giles.Xander: People scoff at things like school spirit, but look at these girls giving their all like this! (He notices Amber doing the splits between two chairs) Ooo, stretchy! Where was I?
Willow: You were pretending that seeing scantily clad girls in revealing postures was a spiritual experience.
Xander: Who said I was pretending?
- All Men Are Perverts: Assuming a witch might get out books on witchcraft, the Scoobies look up the library computer.Willow: 'Witches: Historic Roots to Modern Practice.' Checked out by Alexander Harris.
Buffy: (reads also) 'The Pagan Rites', checked out by Alexander...
Xander: Alright, alright, it's not what you think.
Willow: You like to look at the semi-nude engravings?
Xander: Oh, well, uh, I-I guess it is what you think.
- The Alleged Car: Giles' beat up Citroën makes its first appearance.
- And I Must Scream: Catherine has one of her spells turned back on her, and seemingly vanishes. At the end of the episode, it turns out she's been trapped in one of her old cheerleading trophies. She presumably died when they blew the school up at the end of season three, but fans speculate that this somehow released Catherine to possess her daughter Amy again, explaining Amy's otherwise inexplicable FaceHeel Turn in Season 6.
- The comics confirm that she's still trapped.
- During biology class, one of the cheerleaders mouths is missing through a spell inflicted upon her, leaving her with inaudible screams and in a state of panic.
- Anti-Climax Cut:Giles: I make allowances for your youth, but I expect a certain amount of responsibility, and instead of which you enslave yourself to this, this... cult?
[reveal: Buffy in cheerleader uniform]
Buffy: You don't like the colors?
- Attack Backfire / Attack Reflector: Catherine's spell rebounds on her.
- Badass Boast: Hilarious subverted:Xander: I laugh in the face of danger. Then I hide until it goes away.
- Black Eyes of Evil: When Catherine's casting her final spell on Buffy. This is the future indicator of a dark magic practitioner.
- Blank White Eyes: Blinded Cordelia
- Blatant Lies: Xander, regarding the bracelet he gave Buffy.Buffy: How sweet! [beat] "Yours always"...Xander: It came that way. Really. They all said that.
- Bullying a Dragon: Giles forbids Buffy from joining the cheerleadering squad. Buffy asks, "And you'll be stopping me how?" Unlike many examples of this trope, Giles is smart enough not to protest.
- Burn the Witch!: A deleted line in the shooting script had Giles consulting his books on the best way to find a witch, only to come up with the drowning test. He admits that his texts are somewhat outdated.
- ...But He Sounds Handsome: While in her daughter's body, Catherine can't stop telling everyone how wonderful she is.Catherine: [in Amy's body] She put herself through cosmetology school. Bought me everything I ever wanted. And never once gained a single pound.
- Captain Obvious:Giles: So someone doesn't like cheerleading.Buffy: Or someone likes it too much.Willow: Amy!Buffy: Amy.Xander: So you guys are leaning towards Amy.
- Cat Scare: Naturally since All Witches Have Cats.
- Characterization Marches On: Buffy's spell-induced ditziness makes her let slip that she's a Slayer to Joyce, who apparently accepts the brush-off Buffy gives her. In the sixth season, we learn about Buffy's institutionalization and Joyce's reaction is probably one of contained, abject horror. A massive change in behavior coupled with an apparent relapse into delusion? Yeesh.
- Chekhov's Gun Several.
- Xander, Willow, and Buffy prepare the witch-detecting spell in the biology lab, which is where Giles will prepare his counterspell later. We're also treated to a disorienting pan that begins on a great big mirror hanging over the teacher's lab table. That won't be important later.
- The bracelet Xander gave Buffy shows up later as the token Amy uses to cast a deadly spell on her.
- Chekhov's Gunman: Keep an eye on the biology teacher. He'll be showing up again in "Teacher's Pet".
- Damn You, Muscle Memory!: Catherine can't make her daughter's body move like her own, and so fails the tryouts.
- Death Glare: Catherine on the other cheerleaders.
- Did I Just Say That Out Loud?:Giles: But why would someone want to hurt Cordelia?Willow: Maybe 'cause they met her? [beat] Did I say that?
- Dissimile: "So maybe Amber has this power to make herself be on fire. It's like the Human Torch. Only it hurts."
- The Ditz: Buffy is turned into one to get her off the team.
- Does Not Know Her Own Strength: Buffy accidentally throws one of her classmates across the gym during cheerleading practice.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?:
- Parents trying to live through their children.
- The bloodstone vengeance spell is explicitly likened to alcohol. First Buffy acts increasingly drunk, then she acts wicked hungover.
- Everybody Lives: The absence of death is notable: Buffy saves Amber and Cordelia and technically the villain does not die. Justified, since otherwise Amy and Buffy would still be cheerleaders unless the other girls survived.
- Eye of Newt: Though apparently frogs eyes will do. They're still difficult to remove.
- Eye Scream: Cordelia is blinded by one of Amy's spells, which causes her to fail her driver's Ed test and nearly crash.
- Failed Audition Plot
- Foreshadowing: Amy recounts her mother's glory days, rags on her father, and brags that her mother "never gained a single pound". She also complains that she can't "get my body to move like hers". All this foreshadows the Grand Theft Me revealed later.
- Giles says in this episode that he had never used magic before. He was lying, because he doesn't want to think about his past as a demon summoning youth as revealed in season 2.
- "Freaky Friday" Flip: Catherine swaps bodies with Amy so she can relive her high school glory days.
- Free the Frogs: Averted as Willow has no problem dissecting a frog. (This may be because, as we learn in Season 2, she has a frog phobia.)
- From Bad to Worse: It's bad enough that a controlling mother might drive her daughter to do bad things. It's worse that the mother would steal her daughter's life. The horror on Giles's and Buffy's faces really sells it.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: Buffy looks in a crate at a fertility statue. "Jeepers!"
- Gilligan Cut: Buffy wants to join the cheerleaders to do something normal. Something safe. Cut to a creepy voodoo witches den where someone's doing something unpleasant to a voodoo cheerleader doll.
- Grand Theft Me: Catherine steals her daughter's body, switching places so she can relive her life as a teenager. She still makes Amy do homework, though.
- Heroic Self-Deprecation:
- Impairment Shot: Cordelia's vision as she slowly goes blind.
- Imperfect Ritual: The episode has Willow using the eye of a frog dissected in science class in a potion that calls for eye of newt. Apparently "eye of amphibian" was good enough, because it works just fine.
- Kill It with Fire: How the witch deals with Amber Grove in the cold open. Though she survives, her cheerleading career probably doesn't.
- Large Ham: Apparently a big chunk of pork is an unlisted ingredient in any magic spell.
- Last-Second Word Swap: Amy gets substituted for Buffy.Ditzy Buffy: You don't want her! She's a w—mmm-mmmm!Xander: [Hand Gagging Buffy] Wise choice indeed!
- Laser-Guided Karma: Catherine wanted to relive her glory days so she steals her own daughter's body. When the spell is reversed, she tries to blast Buffy with a magic spell but it gets deflected back at her and she disappears. The Scoobies don't know what happened to her but we find out that Catherine is now stuck in her old cheerleading trophy i.e "reliving her glory days".
- Love Triangle: This episode begins to play it up. Willow adores Xander who has a big ol' puppy crush on Buffy, who is completely oblivious to his feelings, but ardently ships Wander...Xillow?
- Meaningful Name: Catherine Madison, AKA Catherine the Great.
- Mirrors Reflect Everything: Buffy uses a lab mirror to deflect Catherine's spell back at her.
- Nightmare Fetishist:Giles: But that's the thrill of living on the Hellmouth! There's a veritable cornucopia of fiends and devils and ghouls to engage! (beat) ...Well, excuse me for finding the glass half-full.
- Never My Fault: When it comes to Catherine, everything is everyone else's fault.
- No OSHA Compliance: Keeping a fire ax in a school hallway? ''Really?' (On the other hand, this is Sunnydale. The fire axe will come in useful in future episodes.)
- Not Herself:
- Xander realises something is wrong with Cordelia because she hasn't insulted him all day.
- Buffy twigs to the Grand Theft Me when she sees Amy's 'mother' is eating chocolate cookies.
- Not So Dire:Giles: This is madness! What can you have been thinking? You are the Slayer! Lives depend upon you! (begins pacing) I make allowances for your youth, but I expect a certain amount of responsibility, and instead of which you enslave yourself to this, this... (stops pacing) Cult?
Buffy: (wearing a cheerleader outfit) You don't like the color?
- Oblivious to Love / Oblivious Mockery / Meaningful Echo: Xander asks Willow (unaware that she's pining for him) for advise on asking out Buffy.Xander: You're like a guy! You're my guy friend that knows about girl stuff!(Later on...)Buffy: Do you have any idea why I love you so, Xander?
Willow: We gotta to get her to a...
Xander: Let her speak!
Buffy: I'll tell you! You're not like other boys at all.
Buffy: You are totally, and completely one of the girls! [to Willow] I'm that comfy with him.
Willow smiles widely.
Xander: That's great.
Buffy: Any other guy who'd give me a bracelet, they'd wanna date me.
- Papa Wolf: Our first occasion of Giles getting angry over someone harming Buffy.
- Parental Sexuality Squick: Turns out there are worse things, like '80s Hair.Buffy: Mom, I'm old enough to know that you've had sex. I'm not old enough to know that you had Farrah hair.
- Pilot: Whedon's philosophy is that the first six episodes are the pilot of a show. Thus they spend more time explaining the premises and showcasing Buffy's and the gang's abilities than they would otherwise.
- Poor Man's Porn: Xander regularly checks out rare occult books on witches.Buffy: The Pagan Rites, checked out by Alexander Harris.
Xander: Alright, alright, it's not what you think.
Willow: You like to look at the semi-nude engravings?
Xander: I guess it is what you think.
- Reset Button: Giles is able to reverse all the spells.
- Scare Chord: Cordelia confronting Amy in the locker room.
- Shaped Like Itself: Buffy describes Xander thus. "You're my friend. You're my Xander-shaped friend!"
- Skewed Priorities: Perhaps Giles said it best.Giles: Let me make sure I have this right. This witch is casting horrible and disfiguring spells so that she can become a cheerleader?
- Spontaneous Human Combustion: Amber's hands catch on fire at the cheerleader tryouts as the result of a curse placed by Amy's mother.
- Stage Mom: Initially, Catherine seems to be this and she likely is, but she's taken it to a whole new level. Stage parents want to live vicariously through their children; Catherine wants to live quite literally through Amy.
- Standard Female Grab Area: Xander tries to drag Buffy out of the library to distract them from looking into who's been checking out books on witchcraft. It doesn't work.
- Super Loser: Catherine might be a powerful witch, but she's an emotionally stunted narcissist obsessed with her High School fame, during which she peaked.
- Super Strength / Mundane Utility: Buffy's strength is showcased at home when she casually opens with one hand a crate her mother had been struggling to open with a crowbar.
- Technicolor Toxin: The expected bubbling green cauldron.
- Tempting FateBuffy: I just want to have a life, do something normal. Something safe.
- Vain Sorceress: Catherine stole her own daughter's body to relive her high school glory days.
- Voodoo Doll: Done with Barbie dolls.
- Wicked Stepmother: Possible inversion with Amy; her mother is a real witch, literally, and her stepmother is presumably nicer to her, since Amy is shown to be much happier in her father's house, although this is never elaborated on. In fact, Amy even having a possible stepmother is only mentioned in an off-hand comment that Amy's father left Catherine for another woman.
- Wicked Witch: Catherine may not physically resemble the classic witch archetype, but she was certainly wicked (bodyswapping with Amy to relive her youth). Later seasons proved that Amy was also leaning toward the wicked side.
- Wipe That Smile Off Your Face: Lishanne finds her mouth missing.
- You Need to Get Laid: Buffy says Giles needs to get himself a girlfriend "if he wasn't so old."