Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Bruce Seth Green
We open on the Ominous Church/Cavern Set. Buffy is entering with a stake in hand. She looks around a couple of corners for the Master, but he keeps slipping around just out of sight. Finally, he emerges, but she freezes up, unable to fight as he approaches her. He closes in slowly, his hand closes on her throat, and he leans in for the bite.
Buffy wakes up! She is still very shaken from her nightmare. Joyce reminds her of her weekend plans with her dad. At school, Buffy tells Willow about her parents’ divorce. Buffy seems to have some insecurity about the reason they split up.
In…I can’t tell…psychology class? Health class? Cordelia is being Cordelia, and Xander and a boy with a ponytail are suffering from it. Class starts, and Buffy notices a young boy standing in the doorway. The teacher says something about how one of our most fundamental needs is to be heard. I’m sure that won’t turn out to be a major theme of the episode; school is always for learning, not for conveniently timed morals! Ponytail Boy opens his textbook, and it is full of tarantulas! Everyone freaks out, and the boy in the doorway offers a quiet apology.
In the Ominous Church/Cavern Set, the Master is discussing the power of fear with the Anointed. He claims that fear can be controlled. Facing one’s fear is the key to mastering it. The two vampires can sense some kind of change in the town above them.
Buffy arrives at school the next day, shaky after another nightmare and definitely insecure about whether or not her dad will show up. Willow is still freaked out about the spider incident. Xander isn’t all that bothered; he’s confident that Buffy will be able to handle whatever it is.
In the library, Giles wanders into the main room. He’d just gotten lost in the stacks. He hasn’t had any luck with the research so far, so the kids go to talk to Ponytail Boy. Turns out, he’d had recurring nightmares about spiders coming out of his textbooks in class. During their conversation, Cordelia strolls by and reminds Buffy about the history test. Buffy freaks out and follows her. Ponytail Boy was a spider collector, but his brother fried all his spiders with the heat lamp while he was away at camp. He’s had the nightmare ever since.
Buffy makes her way confusedly to the history classroom. She isn’t remotely prepared for the history test. Her pencil breaks and time goes by crazy fast. Her teacher looks like he fell out of the ‘70s. Buffy sees the little boy again. He wanders through the halls, focusing on a girl who goes down to the boiler room for a smoke break. When she’s down there, a huge dude with a hideous face and a club for an arm attacks her.
Buffy and Giles go to the hospital to check on the girl, Laura. She’s too afraid to give them much of a description, but she tells them her attacker said “Lucky 19.” They talk to her doctor next, and he tells them about the first victim, who is in a coma.
At the school, a tough guy is making threats about some dude who offended him. Willow and Xander are talking about what Ponytail Guy’s dream meant, when the tough guy gets accosted by his overly affectionate mother, which totally ruins his “tough guy” reputation. Willow and Xander walk into class, and Xander is suddenly only wearing his underwear! He tries to wake himself up, and when it doesn’t work, he runs away.
In the library, Giles is still trying to do research when Buffy comes in. Giles can’t read! Buffy picks up the paper Giles throws down in frustration; it’s an article about the boy at the hospital, Billy, who is the same boy she’s been seeing around the school. Giles thinks the boy could be doing some kind of astral projection thing. Buffy notices that the boy’s baseball shirt says 19 on it.
Hank Summers arrives at the library. Buffy thinks there’s something wrong. He asks to speak with her. She introduces Hank to Giles. Outside, Hank tells Buffy that she’s the reason he left Joyce, and he no longer wants to spend weekends with her. He leaves her crying on a bench. She sees Billy standing nearby.
Willow and Xander, now wearing his gym clothes, go to the library. Willow realizes that Xander’s nightmare and Ponytail Boy’s nightmare both came true. Giles’s nightmares of getting lost in the library and being illiterate also came true. Giles thinks it’s all because of Billy. He brought the nightmare world with him when he went into a coma, because Hellmouth. They have to stop this soon or things will get much worse.
Cordelia opens her locker to find that her hair is a ratty mess. She freaks out.
Buffy, still very upset about her dad, sees Billy again and follows him into the gym. She tries to get some answers out of him, but he’s a little disoriented. He tells her about the ugly man who wants to kill him, just in time for him to show up and club Buffy over the head. She tries fighting him, but he’s very strong.
Giles thinks it’s urgent that they find Buffy and warn her, because she tends to have more apocalyptic nightmares than most. They split up, to Willow’s chagrin. Elsewhere, Buffy and Billy are trying to hide from the Ugly Man.
Willow sees a frizzy-haired, unfashionably dressed Cordelia get dragged off to chess club kicking and screaming. Before she can enjoy it too much, someone calls her name, and she goes to see what’s up. She goes to the basement, thinking Buffy’s down there. Instead, she gets jumped from behind.
Elsewhere, Xander finds a candy bar on the floor, then another. There are swastikas painted on the walls and the building he’s in needs some repairs, but he’s focused on the candy. He follows the trail of chocolate bars.
Buffy and Billy are having trouble finding the library. They find a baseball field, and Buffy gathers that whoever the Ugly Man is in real life, he beat Billy up because he blamed him for losing the baseball game. They keep running, and they end up in a cemetery at night.
Willow is now dressed in a kimono and has geisha makeup and hair. She gets to perform opera! She very much does not want to perform opera. A famous opera tenor starts singing, and when it’s her turn, she makes a couple of frightened squeaks. He keeps singing, getting more and more annoyed with her. Poor Willow, but it’s really hilarious.
Xander is still following candy bars. Then he finds one that he hasn’t had since his sixth birthday, which brings up the terrifying memory of the birthday clown from his party. An actual birthday clown wielding a butcher knife shows up, and Xander runs away screaming.
In the cemetery, Buffy and Billy are trying to figure out how to get back to the school. They find an open grave with an empty coffin, and then the Master appears. He informs Buffy that her fear is making all of this a reality. He throws her into the coffin, which slams shut. Then he starts shoveling in the dirt.
Willow escapes the stage, dodging tomatoes. Xander finds her, and they both have to run from the murderous clown. They find Giles too and he runs with them. However, Xander quickly realizes this is ridiculous, so he punches the clown out. He has conquered his fear! He feels good. Alas, nobody else is having his luck.
The town seems to be getting more chaotic. They need to find Buffy and wake Billy so they can end it. Willow notices the cemetery that suddenly exists across from the school, where it is inexplicably nighttime. They head there. They find a headstone with Buffy’s name on it. Giles believes they’re in his nightmare now, of failing Buffy. Before he can get too busy with grieving, Buffy emerges from the grave in a super creepy fashion! She dusts herself off, and when she looks up we see that she is a VAMPIRE. She feels her face and is completely horrified.
Giles reassures Buffy that they can reverse all the nightmares if they wake Billy. Buffy agrees to try and help, but…she’s getting hungry.
At the hospital, patients are running around crazy, surgeons have deformed hands, and giant wasps are flying over the city outside the window. Astral Billy is there, standing beside coma Billy. The Ugly Man shows up, and vamp Buffy goes to fight him. (Sarah’s pretty good at talking around those fangs for someone who only has to do it for two scenes.) She has more success than before, finally knocking him to the floor.
She invites Billy forward to finish the job. He has to confront his fears too. He peels away the Ugly Man’s face, and in a flash of light, everything goes back to normal. In the bed, Billy wakes up. He recognizes them all from his “dream,” and then his little league coach shows up, calling Billy his “Lucky 19.” Buffy knows immediately that he’s the one who beat him up. Billy isn’t afraid of him anymore. Giles and Xander stop him from fleeing.
At the school, Buffy’s dad is there to pick her up for real this time. He’s really happy to see her, they hug, and they leave. Willow asks Xander if he was still attracted to vamp Buffy. Yes. Yes he was.
Now this is more like it. “Nightmares” is definitely one of the top stand-alone episodes of S1, and it even has the Master in it to connect it to the season arc! Admittedly, Billy's story is a bit cheesy in places, particularly the final confrontation with his coach, but the episode is such a fantastic study of the fears and weaknesses of all the main characters that it hardly matters. Nightmares becoming reality is such a fantastic concept, and when it's happening to a whole town at once, it has excellent stakes. Combining a lot of the classic nightmares with all the fantastical ones of Sunnydale’s residents was a great way to merge Plot B problems with Plot A and really engage the audience. The Master’s role helps ratchet up the tension as well, getting us ready for the finale, which is only two episodes away.
Buffy’s fears are the main focus, operating both on the Plot B level and the Plot A level. I kind of wish we’d heard more about her dad before this episode, because her fear that he doesn’t care about her would’ve been more powerful if it had been foreshadowed. However, Sarah’s acting is pretty much good enough to make up for that. Even though we know it’s only a nightmare when he says all those horrible things to her, it hurts to watch her listen to that. Also, just because her fear of abandonment wasn’t established earlier in the season, it doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of it by any means. She’s also afraid of academic failure, but this seems to be the shallowest of her fears. The deepest is her fear of death, a fear represented by the Master, a coffin, and herself as a vampire. I don’t think this is something she’s really dealt with yet.
Willow’s only nightmare is the opera one, which is no surprise after “The Puppet Show.” Her fear of public performance is not one she really overcomes. In spite of her own fear, though, does come up with some good ideas to help them solve the problem. It’s interesting that neither Willow nor Xander, after growing up in Sunnydale and spending months fighting monsters with Buffy, would have nightmares about those monsters. I think it might be because they have complete trust that Buffy can handle anything in Plot A, but they know she can’t take care of their Plot B problems for them.
Xander continues to be pretty likable. The focus is still off his crush on Buffy (until the end, but I’ll discuss my issues with that in a minute), which is great. He’s funny and his nightmares are very relatable. Like Willow, one of his nightmares is about public humiliation. Regarding Xander’s attraction to vamp Buffy, however, why isn’t this something he remembers when he’s being all holier-than-thou about her feelings for Angel?
Giles fears his own failure. Being unable to read, getting lost in his own library, and losing Buffy are all different sides of this. For the whole season, we’ve seen evidence of how hard he works to ensure that his fears aren’t realized. He gives up entire nights of sleep to research, he does recon, and he even performs rituals with aggravating computer science teachers. He doesn’t just let Buffy face dangers alone; he does everything in his power to help, always.
Cordelia continues to serve as comic relief. It’s hilarious, but there’s really nothing new here. This is the third episode in a row in which Xander is the only main character to have to put up with her, though. I wonder if that could be building up to something…
No Angel again! Aaargh! Admittedly, the episode didn’t really need him, but I am so deeply curious about what Joss would have come up with for Angel’s nightmares that I can’t help being disappointed.
“I’m sorry, I’m unruffled by spiders. Now, if a bunch of Nazis crawled all over my face…”
The Watcher's Diary
In this blog, I'll be reviewing, analyzing, and generally fangirling over excellent television. Exhibit A: the Whedonverse.