Over the course of Buffy’s first season, I — sometimes to my own surprise — found redeeming qualities in even some of the least-respected episodes. At the very least, something like “I Robot, You Jane” made me think about the state of the internet circa 1997, which, oddly enough, is something I rarely tire of thinking about.
“Inca Mummy Girl” has very, very little to recommend it. Well, except that I just saved an interesting Smithsonian article about Peruvian mummies to Instapaper for subway reading. And there’s a good line about scones! And Oz turns up! And Willow starts to think about moving past Xander! So that’s something.
For some very simple context, I offer this: “Inca Mummy Girl” was written by the same two men who brought us the similarly culturally troubled “The Pack.” Their IMDb listings tell me that they were both story editors on a dozen or so episodes, but these were the only two the pair actually wrote.
Truly, I cannot imagine why that is.
Season 2, Episode 4, “Inca Mummy Girl”
Written by: Matt Kiene & Joe Reinkemeyer
Directed by: Ellen S. Pressman
Original airdate: October 6, 1997
Rewatch date: October 6, 2017
“I thought this exchange student thing would be a great deal. But look what I got stuck with. ‘Momento’? ‘Punchy fruity drinky?’ Is Cordelia even from this country?”
The thought of being an exchange student in the ’90s is a tiny bit terrifying, and I say that as someone who frequently met internet friends in those early, somewhat more dubious days. It’s like the anxiety-producing first day with a new college roommate—a person with whom you might (back then) have exchanged letters or, gosh, phone calls—but with the added layer of being from a different country, plus bonus ’90s-era cultural ignorance, which is my unnecessarily polite way of saying: we’re all a little bit racist, and it was worse then.
We had a few exchange students in my tiny rural high school; for whatever reason, they tended to be Swedes, or at least there was more than one Swede, which seems like a lot when your graduating class is 124 people. But I never knew how people got themselves exchanged to another country, or I would’ve been out of there in no time, nerves or no nerves.
(Probably you had to know another language first, which I didn’t, because my school didn’t require it. In one year of German II, which I skipped into after a term of community college German, I learned to say “Er hat mich geschluckt!!” when we translated Ghostbusters. And even that, I just misremembered and had to look up)
In Sunnydale, the exchange students come for two weeks, culminating in a “World Culture Dance” for which Willow already has her costume picked out. Buffy is less than enthused about sharing her home with a total stranger; Xander frets over “a man, with man parts” staying with Buffy, and let’s just get it out of the way right now that this is one of the least bothersome things he says in this painful episode.
But it’s Xander’s turn to introduce the rando cannon fodder of Sunnydale High. Today, at the museum where they’re all on a very unattended field trip, it’s Rodney, who beat Xander up every day for five years. Willow helps Rodney with homework sometimes. Both of these things are just to explain his impending disappearance: a, he’s a dick, no one cares; b, since Willow is too nice, she notices when he’s gone.
This plot. Subtle, it is not. Rodney wants to steal things from the museum, but Rodney is not very good at things. He breaks the giant plate the Incan mummy is holding, which frees her to suck his life-force, like turbo-charged Rogue. Bye, Rodney, we hardly knew ye. (We did not know ye at all.)
Buffy, of course, wants to go to the World Culture Dance (I feel like that should really be in quotes every time). Despite the fact that there is not yet a specific pressing threat, Giles disapproves, which leads to one of Buffy’s best Giles-mocking lines:
(I like it every time they talk about scones, I guess.)
When everyone learns that Rodney didn’t come home last night, they start joking about how maybe the mummy rose from the dead and attacked him and maybe … well, maybe that’s not all that odd, given that they live in Sunnydale. And hey! Guess what? That’s exactly what happened, as they learn when they make their first trip back to the Museum Where Nobody Works.
“Someday I’m going to live in a town where evil curses are just generally ruled out without even saying.”
The great majority of the rest of this episode is taken up with Xander falling in instant love with the mummy girl, who takes the place of the exchange student Buffy was supposed to host (bye, Actual Ampata, we also didn’t know ye). This involves a lot of cross cultural tone-deafness that’s echoed by Buffy and Giles, who think that maybe the exchange student will be able to translate the pictograms on their broken ancient seal because both are from South America, which is clearly like being from the same small town in Nebraska: everyone knows everyone and everything!
If you feel inclined to look around horrible Xander and the very ’90s approach to “learning” about other cultures by dressing up in wildly stereotypical versions of traditional outfits for a high school dance, you can see two things: One, there was a kernel of a could’ve-been-decent idea here about how Slayers are not the only young women to be sacrificed so that the rest of a society might be safe, or at least believe themselves safer. And two, while Xander is mooning over a girl he just met, something much sweeter and more believable is happening to Willow: a boy she’s never talked to is getting a crush on her, just because.
(It’s not that boy’s fault it looks like someone drew on his goatee with a crayon.)
Sadly, point one never goes anywhere, except that Buffy has an inkling of sympathy for the mummy for a little while. The writers can’t figure out how to make a bigger point from this mummy/Slayer parallel, so they just make it about Buffy’s wistful feels, which does a disservice to both women. For a moment, Ampata’s story veers intriguingly close to a reminder that a monster and a princess aren’t always so different, and that “monster” is not synonymous with “evil.” But it veers away again.
Point two, on the other hand, dovetails neatly with Willow finally realizing that it’s her choice whether she keeps mooning over Xander or not.
“Well, you know, I have a choice. I can spend my life waiting for Xander to go with every other girl in the world before he notices me, or I can just get on with my life.”
It would’ve been amazing, when I was 16, to hear a nerd-girl say that. Out loud. To watch someone 16-year-old me would’ve totally identified with (when she wasn’t secretly identifying with Buffy) figure this thing out. Instead, it took me years. Very long years. I’m a little slow sometimes. But this moment gives me so much love for Willow.
Ok, fine, not everything in this episode is 100% horrible. Just … most of it. Mostly Xander, and occasionally everyone else. The second half spins its wheels inexplicably, killing a lot of time in a truly uncomfortable montage of Xander and Ampata staring at each other before she starts to go all wrinkly and has to make a choice: kill the “nice” boy with a kiss, or turn into a mummy again. The plot does its thing until everyone winds up back at the Museum Where No One Works, where Ampata just sort of shrivels up just in time to get pulled apart like a scarecrow.
Seriously, no one works in this museum. And the gang appears to just leave the mummy-parts on the floor. When someone eventually shows up there, they’ll have a heck of a time figuring that situation out.
I too would like to walk away from this hot mess of cultural appropriation, but one more time for the cheap seats: the cultural cliches and shorthand in this episode are just shitty, no matter how adorable Willow looks in her giant parka. (“Sigh.”) From Xander’s yell-talking to Buffy saying Ampata was “gypped,” it’s like a bingo card of, well, racism, plain and simple. Giving Sven, Cordelia’s exchange student, a chance to vent about how shitty she’s being doesn’t make up for how the entire episode treats its “South American” characters, who don’t even get to be from a specific country.
- “Isn’t he lunchable?” OMG, Cordelia.
- “I wasn’t gonna use violence. I don’t always use violence. Do I?” “The important thing is… you believe that.”
- Ampata’s factual yet unclear answers to their questions about her home are kind of great in that they play right into the stereotypes her hosts have about where she’s from while also being literally true of her specific existence. What’s it like? “Cramped. And very dead.”
- Does Xander pull an unwrapped Twinkie out of his bag? Ew.
- “What kind of girl travels with a mummified corpse and doesn’t pack lipstick?”
- “I am from the country of Leone. It’s in Italy, pretending to be Montana.” Ok, this is actually kind of funny, and I fully believe that Xander sits at home watching Sergio Leone movies, not least because this is his second reference to something Western.
- Hello, Jonathan! Many firsts in this episode: Oz, Jonathan, Dingoes Ate My Baby, and — I think — the first of many (so many) Widespread Panic stickers in the background.
HEY, THAT GUY! FACTOR In real life, short-lived Rodney grew up to be on a whole lot of Rectify and then star in the Lethal Weapon TV show which, holy shit, how does it have that many episodes? Also “Peru Man,” as Ampata’s bodyguard is credited, is Gil Birmingham, who went on to play Billy Black in Twilight.
APPEARING BAND Dingoes Ate My Baby! Which is to say, Oz and his annoying singer and rarely seen other bandmates “performing” the music of Four Star Mary.
IN HOW MANY WAYS DOES XANDER NOT DESERVE WILLOW’S AFFECTION It’s a tough call whether the worst of these is his dickwaving at the thought of a dude being in Buffy’s house, or his instant obsession with Ampata.
Previously: “School Hard” | Next: Are you serious? From this straight into “Reptile Boy”