The idea for Nightmares is very simple: bad dreams are becoming real. When that starts happening to everyone, the world eventually descends into chaos. We start with one of the obvious ones, with spiders going for a stroll across random-student-of-the-week Wendell’s face. As soon as he is questioned, and we hear his backstory about his brother carelessly cooking his pet spiders, we realise that the writer is going beyond the obvious scares here, and the fears are tailored to each victim’s phobias or other negative emotions.
There is quite a range here. Cordelia’s is just silly, reflecting how shallow her personality is. Willow gets off lightly in comparison with the rest of the gang, although it does reflect two fears in one. Not only is she frightened of being the centre of attention, she is used to being prepared for everything, but in her nightmare she has failed to even learn the lines for the performance. For that reason, I think it was a misstep to give the history test scene to Buffy. Not being prepared for a test for once should have been one of Willow’s fears, and Buffy already has plenty of her own trauma to work through. There is the frightening suggestion that she might actually be freeing the Master with one of her dreams, and being turned into a vampire is an obvious fear for the Slayer, but the most effective nightmares here are the very personal ones. For Buffy that’s the fear she carries that she might have caused her parents’ separation. Watching her father breaking her emotionally is really sad, and as I’ve mentioned before this is a far richer series than it might have been, thanks to the lead character having some very real vulnerabilities. Even watching this for about the fifth time, I couldn’t take my eyes off Sarah Michelle Gellar’s face for a second of that scene. It’s a stunning performance, where we see Buffy’s heart being broken in front of our eyes.
Giles’ fear is also a deeply psychological one, robbing him of the one thing he does best, while Xander gets a couple of clichés: turning up naked in class (well, almost), and a clown with a knife. The cliché dreams at least provide us with the most effective scares. The spiders already had me feeling uneasy, but when that clown turned up I was thinking: come back spiders; all is forgiven. Xander is far from being badly served as a character, though. He might get the obvious nightmares, but he also gets to be the one who faces his fear. Once again, he is the surprising hero (last week he saved Giles’ life and killed the demon), and I love how the writers are starting to make the point that an ordinary human being with no special powers can be the most amazing hero of all sometimes. For the viewers, the clue to what would be the solution to the problem was buried early in the episode, when the Master said, “if I can face my fear it cannot master me.”
I enjoyed how things eventually started to obey dream logic, with day suddenly becoming night and locations merging together without having to travel between them. That was clever, although the special effect to represent the area of night later in the episode somehow subtracted from the idea, making a surreal concept far too literal. As for the cause of the problem, the real villain could have perhaps done with a little more screen time through the episode to build up to the moment of his downfall, especially as he had been visiting his victim to presumably make sure the kid was staying in a coma, or perhaps to be ready to threaten him when he woke up. That said, the off-screen nature of the horror that had led to this whole mess was quite effective. Every so often this series gives us a moment of human nastiness to remind us that monsters are not necessarily the scariest things in town. RP
The view from the Sunnydale Press…
Do I detect a hint of the B5 syndrome returning? No, that’s not a vitamin deficiency, but another connection between Buffy and Babylon 5. I noticed it when the opening credits were rolling: story by Joss Whedon. Why this was significant to me is that it may have been the strongest episode so far. Like B5, when JMS wrote, you felt differently from the others; they tended to be far stronger stories. That gives me hope because the last three of the season are all Whedon’s episodes. And make no mistake, the others are not bad, but too often there’s a massive lapse in logic that has always said to me that the writers or producers didn’t think much of the audience. I know that’s very unlikely but it does rub me the wrong way when a series is made that relies too much on convenience without thinking through basic things like, you know, physics. This episode didn’t need physics because it remained largely in the realm of dreams, or more specifically, Nightmares.
The episode opens with Buffy hunting the Master and I knew how it would play out immediately because I knew the title in advance. That’s ok though; it’s not always about the surprise, but how the story helps the characters develop and this one plays out extremely well. I’m not saying it’s flawless because I do have a glaring question, but it pays to look at what happens first. The story opens with Buffy’s nightmare, then goes straight to my nightmare. Wendell’s dream shows him opening a text book which promptly swarms with large tarantula-like spiders. (I regret watching this so close to my own bedtime…) I need to pause now to wonder how this was filmed. Did the actor who played Wendell really have those nightmare creatures crawling on him? It didn’t look CGI. I think: how much would I need to be paid to do that scene? I don’t think I could be bought. I’m a bit like #6 but rather than having the Village try to break me to find out why I resigned, they’d be working on trying to get me to film a scene. “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or caught dead filming with live spiders!” Ok, speculation over… We get a number of Nightmare On Elm Street style vignettes from the fairly innocuous (not being prepared for a test, bad hair day, or being forced into the Chess Club – the latter two of which are Cordelia’s and are outright funny) to the more common (being naked in front of a group, being on stage, being chased by a clown, or being buried alive). But the best nightmare is the one that hits closest to home.
Early in the episode it is established that Buffy’s dad is coming to see her. When he shows up early, I again knew what was coming, but still didn’t mind because of how she is impacted by it. Her dad displays such disappointment in her that it breaks the viewers heart. I had to give Sarah Michelle Gellar credit here too, because she is 19 by this point in her real life, but really captures the young girl who wants to see her dad. When she’s talking to her mom earlier about his arrival, it’s hard to realize that this is a vampire slayer; she’s such a normal, vulnerable young girl. So when her dad says the things he says, it’s very hurtful. I was very happy that she is the sort of person who, upon defeating the villain of the episode, knows that it was not her dad speaking, but self-doubt. Of course, that also brings us to the main villain, The Ugly Man, who is a manifestation of the hatred of a bully. Billy beats the Bully in the end and everything goes back to normal but it takes the bravery of the child to stand up to the adult to overcome the monster. This does show who the real monster is and it’s not a creature. It’s a coach who can’t see the value of teamwork when he’s obsessed with winning. I love that Xander prevents the coach from leaving and we learn moments later that he now is behind bars. A very solid story indeed.
That said, I was left with a question: if everyone remembered the spiders early on, did everyone remember all the nightmares, or was it all reset and no one remembers a thing? Willow, Xander, and Buffy do… so how will that get explained? Still, credit where due: this was a very well done episode and had some great lines, as per usual. “Billy! That explanation was sort of unusual!” If this show were more recent, I would try using that explanation on things; sort of a litmus test to see who watched the show. Why was I late today? Billy! Maybe my son could try it too. Why didn’t you do your homework? Billy! Billy’s line upon waking from his coma is also great fun: “Who are you people?” But really, the best was when Buffy asks Giles if she might be able to see Billy’s “Asteroid body” instead of “astral body”. (Again, credit to the writers for capturing the mindset of a 16 year old!)
The episode also added to my confusion about Buffy’s age. Her gravestone says 1981-1997. In I Robot, You Jane, Buffy has two birthdays, one in 1979 and one in 1980. Does anyone know her age? Well, we’re still in the realm of cliché horror movies but at least this one was done well. It used common tropes and predicable ideas to subject the characters we like to a gauntlet of nightmares. I could get behind that. When an episode is done as well as this one, the weaker ones suddenly go out of sight, out of mind! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Out of Mind, Out of Sight