[Review by Mike Marinaro]
[Writer: David Fury | Director: Tucker Gates | Aired: 10/26/1999]
This is the best this season has put out yet! We get a thoroughly entertaining plot, the usual wittiness, useful character insight, and a whole lot of fun. This is a modern version of “Nightmares” [1×10] , and the fear demon plot works because the characters have changed and new ground is being covered. This is the first episode of the season that has that ‘homely’ feel between the characters. When Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Oz meet up in front of the frat house I can’t help but feel cozy and excited for their fun little adventure. Much of what happens here is further setup for the internal conflicts of the season: Willow’s use of magic and growing power, Oz’s beast coming out and having serious repercussions, Xander feeling that he’s not important in the group, Giles’ aimlessness, and Buffy’s relationship issues.
I’m going to take a “set ’em up, and knock ’em down” approach to this review. I think I’ll begin with Willow this time around. A big theme with her this season is the developing need to be a more powerful witch. Willow wants power and although right now it’s used for good, the magic stems from very dark roots and is sparking a gradual change in her. Oz points out that he’s afraid Willow will get hurt, and he compares it to his experience when “wolfing out.” He says “I touch something, deep. Dark. It’s not fun.” When the group meets in front of the “scary house” we see that Willow is dressed up as Joan of Arc, a girl who helped lead armies and was burned at the stake.
The big moment of insight comes during the Buffy/Willow dispute in the frat house. Buffy wants her friends to leave so she doesn’t have to worry about their safety, but Willow takes offense to this because she believes she has power and can help Buffy as an equal. Willow says “Being the Slayer doesn’t automatically make you boss. You’re as lost as the rest of us,” but that’s not necessarily true, Buffy does have certain advantages and instincts the others don’t. Buffy’s also realistic about Willow’s current magical limitations: “Will, let’s be realistic here. Okay, your basic spells are usually only fifty-fifty.” Willow eventually yells back, “I’m not your sidekick!” and that is ultimately the big issue. We can openly see right here that Willow wants to become a more powerful individual which commands respect and seniority over others, not unlike Joan of Arc.
Through the fear demon we discover that Willow’s big fear right now is not being able to successfully advance her magical abilities and that they’ll always backfire on her. Buffy’s comment about her spells being only fifty-fifty likely brought that fear to the surface when she did the conjuring spell. The demon doesn’t just work its mojo on Willow though. Lets move on to Xander. Early on we see Anya paying another visit to him and ask some tough questions. She says, “It’s those people. You continue to associate with them though you share little in common … I mean they go to college, you don’t. They no longer live at home, – you do.” Xander tries to come back but ultimately feels she’s right. He replies, “Oh, hey, those things… The bonds of true friendship transcends… Could we just change the subject?” Later on in the frat house we find out that his fear of not fitting in and not being noticed by his friends comes true. This is a theme that will plague Xander for the rest of the season. Xander himself says what he wants when talking about his costume: “As long as I’m cool and wield some kind of power.”
The reason why Buffy gets so little attention from the fear demon compared to the others is because her fears have already been discussed by that point. In the very beginning of the episode we see her completely “out of it” and suffering from “post-Parker depression.” She recites the life of a pumpkin and then takes off from the pre-Halloween gathering with the Scoobies. Xander says, “does anyone else want to smack that guy?” Everyone raises their hands and so do I. I really enjoyed seeing Buffy telling Willow she’s reached her quota of ‘someones’ and that she wants to be no dating Buffy for a while. The person that finally begins to shake her mood is Professor Walsh who essentially splashes some cold water on her face. She says, “if you miss another class you’re out.” Riley is pretty observant and is able to piece together that Buffy is the type of person who makes things hard on herself.
The Riley chat leads to her enlightened conversation with her mother back at the house. They get to talking and Joyce says, “Our divorce had nothing to do with you.” This is when Buffy reveals her growing feeling about serious relationships. She says, “I don’t know. – I’m starting to feel like there is a pattern here. – Open your heart to someone, and he bails on you. Maybe it’s easier to just not let anyone in.” Joyce responds and tells her it’s “Fear. I didn’t believe I could trust anyone again. It’s taken time and a lot of effort, but I’ve got a nice circle of friends now. – I mean, don’t get me wrong. I – I’m still a little gun shy. It certainly didn’t help that my last boyfriend turned out to be a homicidal robot. I will always be here for you. And you got Mr. Giles and your friends. Believe me, there is nothing to be afraid of.” This is her mom telling her that she can risk a serious relationship because she’s got her friends and family to support her when things don’t go well.
While this doesn’t completely wash away Buffy’s fears, as made clear by the fear demon and her resistance to a relationship with Riley in “Doomed” [4×11] , it certainly helps a lot. We also see that Buffy has a ways to go before fully learning from her mistakes. When Giles is reading out of the book on how to defeat the fear demon, Buffy rushes to judgement and assumes that the first thing he read was how to stop it. Instead she releases the demon. This is exactly what she did with Parker. She rushed into sexual relations with him before really getting to know him well which ended up releasing the demon within him. Buffy needs to learn to be more careful in both her Slaying and her personal life, or she’s going to keep getting hurt both physically and emotionally, respectively.
Next up on the list is Oz. Early on he tells Willow how dark the beast within him is and that it isn’t any fun. His fear is obviously that the beast will get loose and hurt his friends. In the frat house the fear demon makes this fear come true. Oz’s fear isn’t just brought up as an excuse for him to have something to fear in just this episode. It’s a real fear which comes true in a much more damaging way in “Wild at Heart” [4×06] . This is good setup for what happens to him there and makes why he leaves town make more sense.
Although Giles and Anya weren’t under the influence of the fear demon we did get to see what they fear. Anya simply fears Bunnies and losing Xander. I enjoyed it when she bursts into Giles’ place and says “Xander is in trouble. We’ve got to do something, right now! … Are you listening? Xander is trapped!” Giles poses an important question: “Uh, ah, where is Buffy and the others?” Anya snaps back, “They’re trapped, too, but we’ve got to save Xander!” We can see he’s very important to her right now. Giles, on the other hand, is unfortunately living his fear. He’s sitting around at his home, bored to death, eating his own Halloween candy with a sombrero on. In the span of this episode we get to see Sombrero Giles, Candy Giles, Toy Giles, and Chainsaw Giles. He’s in a rut and doesn’t know where he fits right now. Throughout the season this situation will only get worse.
When the fear demon finally rises we get the to the heart of the matter: fear, itself is actually really small. All you need to do is spot it and squash it, just like Buffy does. This is classic BtVS which works on all the levels that make the series fantastic. It’s an episode with great: plot, character development, subtle lessons, and humor. All around I loved it!
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Xander quickly admitting he wants to come to the party because he has nothing better to do.
+ Buffy hits a man in a demon costume.
+ All the frat boys care about is getting laid — I love how their shallowness is shown for all to see.
+ Xander takes the words people say and accepts them at face value. Anya says, “that’s stupid!”
+ Anya in the bunny costume!
* Oz’s fear of not being able to control the wolf causes him to run off leaving Willow hurt and yelling “don’t leave me!” This actually happens in a strikingly similar manner in “Wild at Heart” [4×06].
* The fear demon says, “They’re all going to abandon you, you know.” I’m pretty sure what it’s referring to is their separation in “The Yoko Factor” [4×20].