Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Episode: “Gingerbread” (January 12, 1998)
Synopsis by Jason Henderson
Buffy’s own Mom leads a witchhunt across Sunnydale, and Buffy and Willow are two of the chief targets.
Buffy: Sarah Michelle Gellar
Joyce: Kristine Sutherland
Willow: Alyson Hannigan
Xander: Nicholas Brendan
Oz: Seth Green
Angel: David Boreanaz
Giles: Anthony Stewart Head
Cordelia: Charisma Carpenter
We open with Joyce, Buffy’s mom, dropping in on Buffy’s nightly patrol in the park with a snack and a thermos. (Mom thinks “maybe this is something we could share.”) While Buffy summarily fights and stakes a newly-minted vampire, Joyce wanders towards the carousel to find a more horrible sight: the bodies of two murdered children, a boy and girl, their hands marked with an occult rune.
As police take pictures of the two children, Joyce can’t shake the image. When Buffy promises to get to the bottom of the slayings, Mom dismisses her: “You can’t make it right.” “I’m sorry you ha to see this,” Buffy says.
Giles suggests to Buffy that the symbol is the sort used by witches, not monsters. Don’t make this personal, he warns her. But it is personal to Buffy - - she wants to see the child-killers punished.
At lunch, Amy the witch-girl (an infrequent character introduced in Season 1) plots with Willow, Oz and Xander on what to do for Buffy’s upcoming 18th birthday. Buffy joins them in time to see her own mom walk into the cafeteria (every high school senior’s nightmare.)
Mom is dazed and has been dreaming about the child victims all night. She thinks, as Giles does, that witches are involved, and she’s has gotten busy: she’s organized a “Never Again” vigil at city hall. “The mayor’s even going to be there.” (That’s the Satanic mayor, to you.) Willow and Amy, both witches, are worried.
At the vigil, Willow’s dizzily academic mom shows up, and has seen Willow so little that she’s shocked to see the haircut her daughter’s been sporting since August. Giles and Joyce see one another and promptly swallow their tongues (their own tongues.) “It’s been awhile,” Joyce manages to say. “Yes, not since… not for awhile,” Giles replies, referring to the episode Band Candy, where he and Joyce were bewitched by youth-potion-spiked chocolate and became ersatz David Bowie and Juice Newton, respectively. Mistakes were made.
Amid placards bearing the faces of the children, Satanic Mayor speaks, and assures everyone that Sunnydale is a good town. But Mom speaks and begs to differ: this town is plagued by things the citizens pretend not to notice. It belongs, she says pointedly, to the monsters and witches and slayers. It’s time to take their town back.
We fade to a coven ritual, Amy and Michael, a young warlock, and Willow. We pull back to reveal the occult symbol found on the children’s hands, adorning the small coven’s table.
At school, the heat is turned up on the witchy kids, culminating in a search of all lockers for witchcraft paraphernalia. Willow reveals the symbol is a protective spell, not an evil one, and they had nothing to do with the deaths. Willow and Amy are called to the Principal’s office as the police raid Giles library, removing all of his Watcher materials. Who’s responsible? MOO, Mothers Opposed to the Occult, says the gleeful principal (who Giles calls a “little homunculus,” archaic for “little man.”) The founder of MOO? Mom.
Willow’s Mom is the MOO, too, and grounds Willow for “acting out” with her witchcraft. Joyce, meanwhile, tells Buffy not to see “that Willow” anymore, and defends the seizure of Giles’ library: she’s protecting kids from crazy ideas. It’s better, she says, than Buffy’s “fruitless” reaction to the evils. When Buffy storms out, we learn that Joyce is being driven by the ghosts of the two children, who urge her to root out the “bad people.”
Angel consoles Buffy about her role as a Slayer. It’s not fruitless, even if she never fully wins. “There are things worth fighting for,” such as the children’s parents. That stops Buffy cold.
Who were the parents? No-one in the Scooby gang knows, and at the bookless library, Oz goes on-line to search for information on the kids, linking up with grounded Willow in her room. It turns out the kids themselves have no parents—they’ve been appearing dead in towns for hundreds of years, setting off witch hunts. Their original names? Hans(el) and Gretl. This whole ordeal is the work of a demon sowing the seeds of destruction.
Just then Willow’s Mom bursts in, unplugs Willow’s computer , and tells her she’s going to have to “let you go with love… Get your coat, witch.” Giles an Buffy head to Buffy’s place, but barely get a word out before Giles is waylaid by MOO and Mom chloroforms Buffy at the behest of the ghost kids.
Buffy, Willow and Amy are actually tied to stakes over mounds of banned books, as the townsfolk gather with torches. While Oz and Xander race to the scene, Cordelia revives Giles back at Buffy’s place. Giles drives wile Cordelia follows his instructions on mixing the potion he’ll need to dispel the demon.
At the stake, Amy calls the powers of Hecate, turns into a mouse and runs away, leaving Buffy and Willow before the bloodthirsty crowd. With the two ghosts goading her on, Mom has gotten creepier, dead-set on “punishing” her daughter for dabbling in witchcraft.
The fires are lit just as Giles and Cordelia burst in, and while Cordelia blows back the crowd and the fire with a firehose, Giles breaks the demon spell. The two children morph into one large, ugly demon, which Buffy manages to kill with the stake she’s tied to (by bending over.) Then Xander and Oz fall from the ceiling, where they’ve been crawling, waiting for the right moment.
Later, Buffy, Willow and mouse-Amy try to cast a spell in Willow’s room to turn the rodent back into Amy. Willow isn’t grounded anymore, since her mom is now practicing “selective memory.” The spell doesn’t work, and Buffy suggests that perhaps they could get Amy “one of those wheel thingies.”
This is an extremely well-put-together episode, chiefly because of just how much happens here.
First, at its to it’s another story about mobs forming witch hunts, an image that strikes close to home for Americans. We’re a flat, democratic society and we know one of the chief dangers we face is that of spiraling out of control. In Buffy, of course, the witch hunt can actually hunt witches.
The episode is also a clever riff on all the strange hysteria that does occur periodically, when a group of Citizens Against the Occult or whatever go on the march against black mascara and Magic: The Gathering.
But the premise of the episode is a lesson in good writing rules: rather than force the characters to follow the plot, a writer should do something to the characters, and see how they react and how complicated things can get. Here, Mom gets a taste of Buffy’s nightlife and promptly freaks, making life tougher for Buffy.
Now, apparently Joyce’s growing madness is helped along by the demon Hans and Gretl, but one wonders just how mad Joyce is. It’s interesting that the episode never tells us whether the parents, when about to burn their children at the stake, were mind-controlled or merely heavily convinced. It’s a scary thought, but I like that the question is left opened: I like the idea that good people could be moved to do horrible things by a compelling leader. It’s easier for us to see a story where the character is “possessed,” often accompanied by a face or eye change, even different voices or mannerisms. Further, the possessed character usually forgets all when freed- - for some reason this detail is important; forgetting seems to be a crucial part of innocence. At the end, Buffy says her Mom is “practicing selective memory,” and the girls have gotten over their mothers’ murderous betrayal fairly well, considering.
Also brilliant is the seizure of Giles’ books. I've been waiting for this to happen. Giles looks genuinely panicked without his library. I’m waiting for the extension of this crisis- - just imagine what would happen if Giles, and not the books, had to go. If he had a restraining order keeping him away from the school and Buffy? In this episode we saw a little of how tenuous Giles’ watcher setup is.
Joyce, numbed as she might or might not be, cleverly deconstructs Buffy’s vocation and finds it wanting. “You don’t have a plan. You just react. It’s sort of fruitless.” Buffy’s a superhero, basically, and she suffers the superhero’s fallacy: you can’t win, just move from episode to episode. You can fight and beat a villain or two, perhaps many at a time, but somehow they will always keep coming, and innocent people will keep dying. Luckily this problem plagues true heroes, like doctors, as well. But Buffy is momentarily struck by the hopelessness of being a Slayer. (To her credit, she does mention that she saved Sunnydale from Hell last season.)
Joyce also gives us an insight into the Sunnydale world. Apparently there’s a tacit agreement in Sunnydale to be silent about the monster slayings that so frequently occur. In a sense, this means the demon is doing Buffy a favor, to some extent, by getting people to talk about it all; it just so happens that the demon points them towards witches as the culprit.
I enjoyed the fairy-tales-are-real angle, but this idea is too good to throw away as merely the basis for the demon-of-the-week. But there you are.
Nice to see Cordelia helping out at the end. She still cares. Sigh.
On separate worlds
“This hall is about school and you’re about home. Mix them and my world dissolves.”
Buffy, disturbed by her mother’s presence in her high school
On convenient, repeatedly-used plot devices
“How many times have you been knocked out, anyway? One of these days you’re going to wake up in a coma.”
Cordelia to Giles, who does seem to get k-o’d every couple episodes.
“I’m not an age group. I’m me- - Willow group.”
Willow to Willow’s mom, who dismisses Willow’s witchcraft as normal for her age group