Buffy The Vampire Slayer Reviews: Nightmares

Being on top of a Hellmouth leaves zero leeway for peace. The most innocent things can become causes for concern. A starling could be affected by Hellmouth energy, turning into a flesh-eating, 20-foot big bird. A leftover cheese sandwich tossed to the ground could spawn demon fondue, oozing through every drain and tap in Sunnydale. Even the simple act of dreaming is not sacred any more, given that a coma-induced kid has somehow brought the nightmare world kicking and screaming into a slowly fading reality.

ightmares is what it is. It's a catalogue of every Buffy regular's worst fears made real. The Scoobies, not to mention Cordelia and a random extra from the Grease movie are confronted with the terrors that lurk in their subconscious minds. Generally, it's not an episode that readily springs to mind, not just in the whole Buffy series, but in the first season. It tends to fly under the radar for a number of reasons. The obvious one is that there are more memorable stories in this season – the bookending, biggie mini-epics; the redefining Angel episode; the horror of The Pack; even the superficially daft I Robot, You Jane tends to get noticed more. But the Nightmares episode doesn't quite stand out as much – possibly because the old living world of nightmares is one of those stock cliché ideas; possibly because it's difficult to relate to some of the unfolding events.

Take Laura, the hapless victim of what's known as the “Ugly Man”. It's difficult to relate to her admittedly brutal plight of being beaten black and blue just for taking a crafty puff on a cigarette – mainly because we've never encountered the character before. She's just dumped in the middle of this strange blurry world of reality and dreams, and then she's quickly forgotten about after telling Buffy of the weirdo who grunts “Lucky 19”. Maybe if Laura had been a previously established character like Amy or even Harmony, this might have made more impact.

Another problem is that some of the so-called nightmares are naff in the extreme. The random Grease extra's worst nightmare is apparently being fussed over by his mother. Worst of all is what we learn about Cordelia. One of her worst nightmares is being caught with bad hair. The other is being dragged kicking and screaming by a small gang of geeks to a chess club. Any Buffy fan will know that there's a lot more to Cordelia than this – ironically, the next story will add considerably more depth. So it's an odd choice to depict the Cordelia of this story as a vacuous, shallow airhead who's too busy obsessing about being in the cool clique.

It's also getting a bit irritating seeing The Master do so little. For a Big Bad, he's curiously small fry for the most part of this season. His reputation as a fearsome granddaddy vampire is considerably enhanced through dialogue and back story, but it seems that most of the time, he's stuck talking to a sulky kid and stomping about shouting in a dingy cavern. At least he gets to be a bit more mobile in this one, taking Buffy to her grave, but it ultimately turns out that this is just happening in the nightmare world, not in reality. It might have been interesting to see if The Master could have summoned enough power to use the blurring of fact and fiction to somehow break free from his prison. But by the season finale, he'll still be largely confined to his freezing grotto.

As it is, there's no real baddie in this to speak of – the “Ugly Man” turns out to be a metaphor for young Billy Palmer's abusive baseball coach. Turns out that Billy was found beaten and unconscious – and the nightmare world of his coma-induced state has crossed over to the real world, bringing with it the metaphorical bully boy coach, who just happens to refer to Billy as “Lucky 19”. It's a strong subject to cover, and the full horror of the coach's actions are left implied rather than dwelt upon. At least the coach looks set for a lifetime of prison gruel and window bars.

So at times, Nightmares feels a little inconsequential. But on closer examination, there's some intriguing stuff going down in this one. Many of the nightmares of the Scooby Gang are particularly interesting. On the surface, they are just the bog standard scares – death, humiliation, clowns etc – but in a sense, some of these deep-rooted fears will be revisited many times throughout the future of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. The nightmares link in with the personalities, relationships and abilities of Buffy, Xander, Willow and Giles. All of their subconscious fears are brought to the surface and many of them will be seen again in the real world. Perhaps the most effective one is Buffy's nightmare of her father's rejection of her. Up until now, we've seen Buffy as the formidable vampire slayer, but here, she's seen as a daughter who's worried that she has somehow influenced her parents' decision to go their separate ways. “I'm sure I was a really big help though, with the slaying and everything,” she confides to Willow early on in the episode.

Buffy's worst fears are realised in the quiet chat with her visiting father, Hank. It's a killer of a scene that works because it's so quietly matter of fact. Hank decides that it's time to tell Buffy the truth about why the family split. It was all down to her. “Gosh, you don't even see what's right in front of your face, do you?” sighs Hank. “Well, big surprise there, all you ever think about is yourself.” Never mind stakes, Hank's words cut through Buffy's heart far sharper. She's supposedly “sullen and rude and not nearly as bright” as Buffy had hoped. Sarah Michelle Gellar is superb in this scene, and although she doesn't get much dialogue, her pained facial expressions quietly convey her devastation.

Perhaps it's not just the fear that she was the root of her parents' split – it's also that her sometimes single-minded personality can drive away the people that she cares for the most. It's a character trait that will surface time and time again in the future. Her decision to run away from her responsibilities at the start of the third season. Her relationship with Riley at the cost of pushing her friends into the background (see The Yoko Factor). Her flawed leadership in the later episodes of the last season (a Potential Slayer even crows “Ding Dong, the witch is dead” at one point). Another vivid fear of being buried alive and then returning as a monster will be the focal point of the sixth season after Buffy is brought back from the dead. Clawing her way out of her grave, there's the mystery of whether Buffy has returned as something else, something of unnatural means as a result of Willow's spell.

It's not just Buffy's nightmares laying down the groundwork for future episodes. There's Giles' horror at not being able to read and his nightmare of failing in his duty to protect Buffy – these pre-empt his later sacking as Watcher and the climax of The Gift. Willow's fear of being centre stage tallies with her gawky shyness, but the clever use of Madam Butterfly nicely sets up her witchy capabilities (one line allegedly translates as “Child, from whose eyes the witchery is shining”). Xander's dual nightmares of being laughed at in pants in class and clowns also hint at his massive insecurity problems. While Xander was terrified of clowns at the age of six, you could argue that he's also scared of letting his clownish side get in the way of growing up. Xander regularly hides behind a wall of goofy one-liners, and so far this season, we've seen his frustration at his inability to man up. Xander's battle with his self confidence will crop up on future occasions such as The Zeppo, his Season Four career rut and the pivotal Season Five episode, The Replacement.

Tellingly, the story is the work of series creator Joss Whedon. It's like he's been planning these characters for a long time, and knows their foibles and hang-ups inside out. It's really now in hindsight that Nightmares is more of an important episode than it was thought of at the time. It's fascinating to see the fears of the Scooby Gang take root, and how they will play out in the future. It doesn't take a Hellmouth to turn nightmares into reality.

On the whole, Nightmares is an underrated episode that improves with each viewing. The story and teleplay (provided by David Greenwalt) are generally well up to scratch. The story is brought to surreal life by director Bruce Seth Green, who adds a strange, off-beat flourish to events unfolding on the screen. The regulars all turn in great performances, and also a quick mention to Dean Butler who does a terrific job of making Buffy's worst nightmare come devastatingly true. Cordelia apart, it's the characters who benefit the most from Whedon's and Greenwalt's Nightmares. By parading their nightmares for all to see, viewers also get to see their inherent weaknesses, character flaws and fears. And by revisiting these themes in the future, it proves that Whedon and his creative team were very much in this project for the long haul.

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