[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt | Director: Bruce Seth Green | Aired: 05/12/1997]
“Nightmares” is one of those episodes that has a mix of the fantastic and the horrible, which, when melded together, leaves behind a whole lot of mediocre. On one hand we get some great character insight, emotion, and foreshadowing out of Buffy. On the other, we have a premise that fails to live up to its potential, and an awful, heavy-handed plot with no real thematic gravitas. The character work certainly is more important than the plot, but that can’t quite disguise just how irrelevant most of the episode really is.
Let’s start with what “Nightmares” does really well: Buffy! Buffy’s episode opening nightmare doesn’t waste any time with the foreshadowing (despite the usual poor music and a hissing Master – lame). We see Buffy finding her way into the Master’s lair as he skulks around in the shadows. He comes up behind her and immediately paralyzes her as he goes in for the bite. This is almost exactly what goes down in “Prophecy Girl” [1×12], and it’s a great way to remind us of the prophetic lineage and mysticism that always surrounds the Slayer. It also serves as a nice prologue to what happens within “Nightmares” itself.
With Buffy hollering “no no no” to the literal horrors that await her, Joyce’s awakening response of “yes, it’s time to go to school” is yet another welcome nod to the show’s early focus and a reminder that the “horrors” of adolescence are getting near. Notice Buffy’s hairstyle during this sequence? It is pigtails, which are typically seen on young girls — children. Time’s almost up for Buffy; the Master awaits.
The nightmare is nicely expanded on with an interesting visual cue in the post-credits scene involving the Master (talking about controlling fear) that begins in his tomb, and then slowly rises up through the ground into the daylight where the high school comes into frame. Note how this is the exact opposite of a similar scene in “Welcome to the Hellmouth” [1×01], where we start in the daylight and then slowly pan downward through the ground to uncover the Hellmouth itself. The earlier scene hints at the danger (and metaphors) that lurk below, while the scene here in “Nightmares” hints at that very danger rising to the surface and invading the world above which, at least temporarily, it very much does here in “Nightmares” — neat.
There’s a truly cathartic moment (and we love those!) later in “Nightmares” — for those of us who have full knowledge of the show to come — where the Scoobies, sans Buffy, notice that there’s suddenly a cemetery across the street from the school… and it’s nighttime there. This is not only one of the sweetest-looking effects the whole season has, but it’s also a moment that strikes me both emotionally and symbolically. It alludes to the separation that exists between Buffy’s world and that of the other Scoobies. Buffy’s always drenched in darkness and the loneliness that stems from it, despite her struggle to embrace the world of daylight (“normal life” and her friends). This reality will always lead to a separation from her friends and the world around her, all of which informs that sense of loneliness and the craving for human connection.
As this scene evolves we see the Scoobies try to enter Buffy’s world only to want to immediately leave it, what with Buffy initially appearing dead and then rising as a vampire. While her friends are there to pull her out of the grave (hello, “Bargaining Pt. 1” [6×01]) to face a depressing reality (in this case, being a vampire, in Season 6’s case, depression itself), in this reality Buffy has already had to face the Master alone… and died (hello, “Prophecy Girl” [1×12]). This all makes for a truly prophetic and haunting sequence, and is probably the high point of the episode.
Earlier in “Nightmares” there are some interesting insecurities unearthed about Buffy’s relationship with her dad, which become increasingly important as the show progresses. Willow and Buffy have a conversation about the divorce of Buffy’s parents in which it’s clear that this is a big sore spot for Buffy, one that will not heal anytime soon (and doesn’t). We see that Buffy fears her dad won’t show up for their weekend outing, and that her personal instability at the time contributed to why her parents got divorced. The scene later, with her nightmare dad, shows that she’s also not entirely sure her dad wants to spend time with her. This is particularly brutal to watch, mostly thanks to Gellar’s ability to suck me into the emotion of the moment. It’s utterly heart-breaking to see Buffy’s peppy excitement turned upside-down. Even sadder, though, is the knowledge that some of these fears are actually justified — her dad will come to really douche-it-up in the future.
Worth noting is Buffy telling Willow that, back when she found out she was the Slayer, “I was in so much trouble. I was a big mess.” This tidbit, in conjunction with Joyce’s words to Buffy in “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] (about needing “help” and Joyce’s proclivity to forget uncomfortable realities), make the future knowledge that Buffy was briefly in a mental hospital (“Normal Again” [6×17]) all that much more believable.
While one would think an episode titled “Nightmares” would inspire relevant insight into most of the major characters, it sadly doesn’t. Only Buffy gets the royal treatment in what begins as surface fears (being unprepared for a history exam), evolves to life fears (all the stuff surrounding her dad), and then climaxes with primal fears (the Master rising, being buried alive, and turning into a vampire). If only that logical progression had also been applied to anyone else! Instead, we only get surface-y stuff for Willow, Xander, Giles, and Cordelia.
Willow’s sole nightmare is both shallow and brief. We see her having to perform in front of an audience, which only touches the surface of her inherent insecurities and desire to be out of the spotlight. As funny as the scene plays out, this knowledge isn’t exactly revelatory: the end credits scene in “The Puppet Show” [1×09] demonstrated as much, if it wasn’t inherently obvious before. Xander’s nightmares include walking into class without his clothes on (even though he’s clearly in fine shape) and acting like a gullible six year-old, chasing a path of chocolate bars surrounded by Nazi symbols and an excited clown. Giles’ nightmares — getting lost in the stacks, losing the ability to read (which does admittedly make “Something Blue” [4×09] even funnier), and seeing his charge (Buffy) dead – are more serious, but still not very revealing.
Cordelia…. well, apparently Cordelia’s deepest fears are having a bad hair day and being forced into the chess club. The problem is that “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” [1×11] shows us there’s obviously more going with Cordelia than meets the eye, so this is yet another missed opportunity where she’s concerned. What binds all of these characters’ nightmares together is that we don’t really glean anything new from them. Where Buffy’s nightmares are insightful, everyone else gets disappointingly superficial material.
The plot of “Nightmares” doesn’t fare much better than the characters. Whereas most Buffy plots are supernatural metaphors for real-life problems, the plot here ends up being a straight-forward tale of a random man beating up a random kid in anger. Beyond the plot being poorly drawn and its resolution ham-fisted, how is this relevant to either the characters or the larger story? The theme of the episode seems to be the effect one’s fears have on those around them, but it’s very poorly sewn into the episode and doesn’t resonate at all. The finer details of the plot are pretty shoddy too, what with the lame “Ugly Man” bumbling around hollering “Lucky 19.” Contrast all this with the similar but vastly superior “Fear, Itself” [4×04], where the plot and theme are clearly drawn to serve the characters rather than making a heavy-handed statement that doesn’t resonate with anything.
There’s material surrounding Buffy to admire in “Nightmares,” some of which proves to be surprisingly meaningful in the seasons to come – it’s these scenes that hold the episode up. Unfortunately, there is almost just as much to be frustrated by. The episode is centered on a plot that is completely irrelevant, the byproduct of which gives us nightmare sequences that are generally light fun, but quite shallow. “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” [1×05], flawed as it is, is a better example of a Season 1 plot with a coherent message that consists of both thematic and character relevance from start to finish. It’s disappointing that “Nightmares” couldn’t follow that example.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The Master possibly getting his name from his mastery of fear. It’s always impressive to see a vampire confront the cross, because so few can.
+ I’m with Willow: spiders are ick!.
+ The hard-zoom on the history teacher’s face. Hilarious expression!
+ In what’s almost a negative, I can’t help but laugh when the girl goes into the boiler room (always a mistake) for a smoke, and then gets mauled as the camera focuses in on a “Smoking Kills” poster. Buffy, you see, had it right. She shot her “Smoking Sucks” poster with a crossbow! Buffy’s not having any of that.
+ Good bit of acting by the mauled girl in the hospital.
+ The guy with the shades getting ogled by his mother in the hallway.
+ Vampire Buffy wailing on the Ugly Man. Good times.
+ Xander still digging Buffy as a vampire. Can’t say I blame him.
– The Billy kid looks way too similar to the Anointed One.
– Giles’ speech about Buffy over her grave only resonates at all because this reality actually comes to pass (“Bargaining Pt. 1” [6×01]). Within the context of this episode, though, it’s overly melodramatic. I mean, come on: we know this will soon all be reversed.
* The teacher states that a researcher concluded “one of our most fundamental needs after food and shelter is to be heard.” I love how this sets up the next episode, “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” [1×11].