Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Master remains trapped beneath Sunnydale with the Anointed One and Buffy's parents divorced before the move to Sunnydale while her dad remains in Los Angeles.
Dreams are a big deal in Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Buffy has prophetic dreams when the plot requires it and whole episodes are dedicated to them, such as this week's Nightmares and Season 4's excellent final episode Restless. Nightmares deals with that awful concept of having your worst fears realised, which, as Giles points out, can be deadly in this particular world, given the monsters that Buffy and the gang have to deal with.
The students of Sunnydale High start seeing their worst nightmares in daylight as a textbook reveals a load of spiders and then a girl is attacked while on a smoking break in the basement (witnessed the blackly comic Smoking Kills poster as she's beaten). Buffy keeps seeing a young boy around campus when these moments happen, prompting her to find out what has led Billy to astral project from his comatose body.
I'd always remembered this as one of the best episodes of the first season, but I think there may have been a certain rose-tinted nostalgia attached to this particular instalment. It's not a bad episode by any stretch of the imagination and it certainly has an intriguing and scary concept from a Joss Whedon story and a script by stalwart David Greenwalt, it just has a lot going on. Several of the nightmares provide the comedy for the episode, particularly Cordelia's vanity-based horrors or the badass biker who gets visited by his mum in school. Yet for an episode in which the plot deals with child abuse, the veering between levity and drama can sometimes feel a little misjudged.
It sets up some major character points for our Scooby Gang, particularly the fears of the central foursome; Giles unable to read and his fears for Buffy, Willow getting stage fright and Buffy's fear of death and resurrection as a vampire. Again, some foreshadowing going on with Giles revealing that one of his worst fears is Buffy dying on his watch. Of course, he'll have to face this fear head on. Twice. Buffy's scenes are particularly important as so far, she's largely been too quippy and offhand to really understand just how scared she is underneath. Even in Witch when threatened with death, the one-liners kept coming.
Now however, we start to see more of the vulnerability which makes the character so interesting and will be particularly important when we get to the season finale. The scenes with Buffy's nightmares also form the horrors of the episode, though not in a traditional scary way; she's told by her father that she is the reason behind her parents' divorce. It's a cold, cold scene and the hurt is written all over her face as it slowly dawns on her what her father is saying. Gellar gives a fantastic performance in this scene and it tugs at the tear ducts every time I see it.
The nightmares of the various characters also mean that the plot for this episode is actually quite weak, despite the thru-line of Billy's nightmare coma causing the manifestations. Because we flit from dream to dream, the episode itself can feel quite episodic and fractured, not unironically, like a dream itself. It's an atmosphere that Whedon would go on to capture in Restless but, it doesn't quite work on this occasion.
Despite its faults, Nightmares hints towards the better times to come with its commitment to a bold concept that doesn't just affect the Scooby Gang this time around. It also sets up a fair bit for the last couple of episodes of the season.
Next Time: Out of Mind, Out of Sight
Quote of the Day: Xander: I'm not worried. If there's something bad out there, we'll find, you'll slay, we'll party.
Sunnydale Who's Who: This episode marks the first appearance of Hank Summers, Buffy's dad. He appears every now and again in the next few seasons before disappearing entirely with his new wife.
Let's Get Trivial: Billy will be referenced again in musical episode Once More With Feeling as one of Willow's theories (and one of her only lines): "Or maybe, some kid is dreaming and we're all stuck inside his wacky Broadway nightmare?"
There is also a forecasting in which Giles declares that if it were happy dreams, it would be a 'comedy musical version'. Holy Whedon.
You can read about the previous episode, The Puppet Show, here.
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