Ooh, I think this is one of the first body-swap or mind-swap episodes I saw and knew what it was! Amy and Catherine switching bodies is super creepy to me. Actually, this episode may be why I generally only like body-swaps when their played entirely for the comedy value. Buffy and Angel are the only two exceptions. Switching bodies with another person has creeped me out for almost as long as I can remember, though, so it may not entirely be Catherine and Amy’s fault. I know The Skeleton Key freaked me out about this, too. I think my problem is that it generally happens without consent from one or both people involved. I had to put Tale of the Body Thief down, and now that I’m thinking about it, this trope (which, you might guess from the title, plays a giant role in the book) is handled quite well right up until Lestat tries to get his own body back again, at which point it ends up in a giant, skeevy mess of non-consent.
Anyway, while I was watching this episode, I did a little research on body exchanges as a plot device, and while it doesn’t seem to have become a hugely popular trope until the 1990s, it exists in pop culture as a phenomenon as early as the 1920s. Since it’s a science fiction trope, this makes sense, since sci-fi as a genre didn’t really gain popularity until the 1920s, at which point it kind of exploded. It was helped along greatly by silent movies, which were able to spread sci-fi stories among far vaster audiences than might have heard of it otherwise. A great example of this would be A Trip to the Moon, which was so popular at the time that we still know of it and reference it to day, over a hundred years later.
The earliest television reference I found to switching bodies was an episode of I Dream of Jeannie where Tony and Roger switch bodies. I feel like there should have been something earlier than that, but I’m pretty sure Bewitched never did a body swap episode, and there weren’t really any other TV shows that would have facilitated that kind of plot line until after Jeannie finished her run. But I digress.
What makes this episode so creepy to me is the idea that Catherine probably never even showed Amy any magical tendencies at all before they swapped bodies. Amy tells Buffy when she woke up in her mom’s bed she had no idea what had even happened until she looked in the mirror. Catherine must have hidden her magic from her daughter, because otherwise Amy would have been more suspicious, and better able to figure out what’s going on when she wakes up in her mother’s bedroom.
Certainly we all keep secrets, parents from children just as much as children from parents, but there are always clues, cues, traces we can pick up after a reveal and piece together. Catherine doesn’t seem to have dropped any of these for Amy to find. That’s pretty chilling, to me at least.
Another reason this episode works so well for me is that Amy and Catherine are mirrored by Buffy and Joyce. Buffy and Joyce are a great relationship, even through their faux pas, disagreements, and other bumps. Buffy and Joyce love each other, and because of that they fight to understand each other, are considerate of each other, and put in the effort to work things out. Amy and Catherine clearly have the bare-bones minimum of a mother-daughter relationship. Catherine is described by Willow as neglectful and probably abusive–she even goes so far as to call Catherine “Mommie Dearest.” Catherine locks food away from her daughter, doesn’t seem to notice when her young daughter disappears for entire weekends, goes into screaming fits over food, and is clearly controlling and manipulative. Joyce, on the other hand, is calm, admits she has no idea where Buffy is coming from, and apologizes when she accuses Buffy of falling into her “old ways.” Joyce isn’t a perfect mother, but she’s a good one.
This is also one of the first episodes where it’s obvious that there aren’t very many men in Buffy’s life she trusts. She doesn’t trust teachers or principals, despite tolerating him she doesn’t trust Angel, her father is conspicuously absent from Sunnydale. The only adult male in her life she has consistent interactions with is Giles, and I don’t think she fully trusts him until this episode.
Until the end of the episode, when they’ve figured out that Catherine switched her and Amy’s bodies, Giles is just a person Buffy has to tolerate in her life. He’s a part of her slaying, and sure he’ll come with if she needs backup on a mission, but he hasn’t shown himself to be useful, and he hasn’t shown himself to be worthy of her trust. But here, in an abandoned chemistry lab, he takes care of Buffy–carries her because she can’t walk, puts his tweed jacket under her head as a pillow, cares for her, encourages her, and ultimately dabbles in witchcraft for her. He does everything he can to make sure she’s going to be okay, even though it isn’t necessarily in his job description to do that. He doesn’t have to put himself in the direct line of fire for her–in fact, that’s her job to do for him. But he does it. He steps up, he takes care of Buffy and he handles the situation. And in this moment, as Buffy is looking up at his blurry face, he earns her trust. That’s a big moment for her. She’s been abandoned by her actual father, so her accepting this pseudo-father figure is big. She’s allowing him in–not a lot, not yet. She’s not ready to trust him completely. But she’s ready to let him in a little bit, to trust him more than just as a Watcher.
And Giles himself needs this moment, too. He’s proving to himself that he is capable, he can perform magic, he can take care of his Slayer, he has a use aside from research and training. In a way he’s also proving that he’s worthy to himself. Giles’ history isn’t stellar, as you may recall. He joined a gang of demon worshipers, raised a bloodthirsty demon, and probably did all kinds of other unsavory things before going back to the Watcher’s Council. This is a redemptive moment for him, too.
Xander and Willow also have important moments in this episode. We’ve already established Xander’s crush on Buffy, and Willow’s crush on Xander, but those feelings are explored here as Xander decides to be active about his feelings and Willow decides to keep passive about hers. Xander crashes and burns, and this seems like a good sign for Willow. Maybe she’ll have a chance to win Xander over. But her choice to stay silent means that she still doesn’t say anything, even after Xander’s struck out with Buffy. Instead Willow follows Xander around and is his slightly snarky moral support. At first blush, this seems like a weak move on Willow’s part. It’s cliched, the moonstruck girl running around after the boy she’s fallen for, staying near him even though he’ll never see her that way. But this time it struck me much more as Willow making a decision to keep their friendship. She’s not trying to stay close to a crush, she’s teasing her best friend about his love life. She’s not moonstruck, she’s always hung around with him. Willow’s choice not to act might actually be a choice to stay friends. At this point, she’s not mature enough to tell Xander how she feels and still maintain their relationship, and I think she understands that about herself, at least on some level. So her choice not to make a choice isn’t her being weak and lovesick so much as it is her choosing a lifelong friendship over a slim chance at a romance. That’s a strong choice.
Hopefully that last paragraph isn’t a hopeless word jumble and actually articulates what I’m thinking here? I’m not sure I 100% said what I meant to, but this is the version we’re sticking with.
Sidenote: There’s a poster featured in this episode that says “1996 Cheerleading Tryouts.” I’m going to assume that this means S1 was filmed in and takes place in ’96. Interestingly, that might mean that while S7 aired in 2003, the destruction of Sunnydale would actually have happened in 2002. I’m not sure of how the timing would work out. Maybe not, since, doesn’t S1 end with Buffy going away for the summer with her Dad? I bet there’s an actual timeline out there I could use to figure this out. I’ll have to do some research and report back.