Oh right, the Master. I keep forgetting we’re supposed to be afraid of him this season. He’s not a very prevalent Big Bad, unlike future seasons where we’re almost constantly reminded of the Big Bad–Glory, in particular, felt like she got gratuitous scenes to just remind us that she existed.
I have a question before we get into the rest of the show. Why isn’t the Anointed ever in vamp face? Like, he’s proven to be a vampire later when Spike kills him, so why isn’t he ever shown in vamp face? Is it because it would be really difficult to get a little kid in that prosthetic? Because I feel like that might be a limiting factor. But I’m also confused why he wouldn’t vamp out, particularly around the Master, who is always vamped out. Maybe I’m over thinking this.
And, while we’re thinking about little kids, the other little boy in this episode, Billy? He isn’t super great at acting. He never looks terribly sorry or scared, just sort of baffled by his presence on set. Which, don’t get me wrong, I like this episode, but it, too, has it’s flaws. At least the story is coherent in this one, and we set up a lot of good character bits. I love that we get to see such ordinary nightmares from most of the Scoobies, Giles included. But the plot is super bare bones, even for a S1 Monster-of-the-Week episode. I think it’s a good idea for a plot, it just comes off as being very Movie of the Week/After School Special ish.
As for the nightmares themselves, I think it’s such a great character beat for Giles’ nightmare to be getting lost in his library and forgetting how to read. It really highlights the idea that Giles places most of his self-worth in his education and ability to figure things out, and when he’s not able to do that he feels vulnerable and lost. I also love that Buffy’s first nightmare is a history test. It’s a great way to remind everyone that Cordelia isn’t just a dumb cheerleader, since she seems not only prepared for the test, but confident she’ll ace it. It also is a nice call-back to the idea set up in “Angel” that Buffy is horrible with history.
This feels like a much more important episode for Willow, too, since we see her nightmare is literally what they had to do in the last episode–performing in public. Willow is also a lot more settled as a character this episode. She’s becoming a lot closer to the Willow fans remember, and within the next couple of episodes really finds her place and tone, which is great. It’s also another important establishing moment because we’re reminded that Willow and Xander have known each other forever during Xander’s nightmares, particularly the one about the clown.
Xander’s first nightmare, about being naked in front of his classmates, is pretty normal and doesn’t really give too much insight into his character. He’s always been the awkward, slightly embarrassed guy who’s always putting his foot in his mouth, and he’s always come off as insecure because of that, so this nightmare isn’t very enlightening. I never had this nightmare, but it’s a common one among people of all ages, so even without the character development we’ve seen before this, it makes sense that someone in this episode would have this particular nightmare. However, Xander’s second nightmare, about the clown chasing him, is much more interesting, particularly for how Xander deals with it in the end. Instead of just running away, like everyone else does, or waiting for the situation to be over, Xander reaches a point where he’s had enough, turns around, and punches the clown out. It’s a big moment for his character, because up until now he hasn’t really shown that he has that kind of ability to turn on a dime and do both an emotional and physical one-eighty. Not only is he switching from flight to fight mode, he’s switching from fear to anger. This is important because it’s setting up that Xander might look like a simple man on the surface, he actually has emotional depths that he chooses not to show even his friends. It’s only hinted at here, but Xander’s ability to channel his fear into anger or determination becomes very important in later seasons (I’m thinking of S2 and S6, specifically, but I suspect this idea shows up in other seasons, too).
I think that Joss and the writers didn’t realize how strongly fans would react to this episode. It’s super relatable as far as the nightmares go, and there are a couple that just reach out and grab your heart and twist hard, particularly the ones that have to do with father figures. First, there’s Buffy’s conversation with her father, who basically tells her she’s the reason he and Joyce split up and he never wants to see her again because she’s annoying and he hates her. This one is tough to watch, and I think caused a lot of fans to find insta-hate for Hank Summers, even though it is a nightmare. It’s a testament to that dude’s acting, because wow, he sells it. I believe him, I believe his character would say that, and even though we see him at the end and he’s nothing like his nightmare self, his performance in that scene and Buffy’s reaction to him make it really hard to forget.
The other nightmare that just rips your heart out is the one where Giles reveals he thinks he’s going to fail Buffy and cause her death. They’ve barely known each other a year at this point, and Giles is already sure that Buffy’s going to end up dead and it will be his fault. And it terrifies him. It’s just such a great moment for Giles, and a wonderful contrast between Giles and fake!Hank. None of Buffy’s nightmares involve Giles, but Giles has nightmares about Buffy, and his ability or inability to keep her safe. Which is a theme the show plays with as the seasons go on.
The last nightmare I want to hit on is Buffy’s nightmare about being buried alive. I’ve heard people say that the whole sequence with the Master and Buffy becoming a vampire is about Buffy’s fear she won’t be able to defeat him, but she has no reason to believe that at this point. As far as she knows, she’s thwarted him every time he’s tried to get out, and she’ll keep doing it until she finds him and stakes him. To me, this is less about the Master and more about Buffy’s fear of becoming the thing she hates. She’s seen vampire risings, she knows that you get buried and then claw your way out of the ground. For her, the horror is that she’s the slayer, and she kills things every day, and what if that makes her no better than the vampires? What if she’s no different than the things she kills? Does that mean someone should kill her?
This episode does some really great character building, and I love it for that, even if the whole Billy vs. Coach/Ugly Man thing is really on-the-nose.