This is my favorite episode of Season One. Well, maybe tied with the finale. I think I love this one so much because it’s the first time we really see all of our favorite characters as well-rounded, through their deepest fears. Sure, we know they’re afraid of vampires and being brutally murdered and general things like that, but clowns? Stage fright? Being unable to read? Being buried alive? Failing as your duties as a protector? Ahh, it makes them all the more realistic and lovable to me.
As B pointed out, Buffy has never seen the Master in person, but I’m pretty sure she knows what he looks like from all her prophetic dreams. As I recall, we got images of the Master in bits and pieces during her dream in the very first episode. Also, this episode begins with a dream about the Master. I’m pretty sure she’s just inferred that this creepy blue bat guy she keeps having nightmares about is the Big Bad himself. Perhaps she has even confirmed it at some point with Giles; maybe there’s a picture of the Master in the library somewhere.
(Side note. In class when Willow makes the joke about Cordelia’s hair “weighing heavily on the cerebral cortex” with that little nerdy chuckle, I want to marry her. Forever. Oh, I love her.)
I’m really down with the idea of nightmares coming true. I think Joss is one of the best people ever at conveying dreams on screen, and while these aren’t actually dreams, they still have a lot of that unreal-but-totally-terrifying quality that nightmares have. The Master’s monologue in the beginning is definitely over-dramatic but it actually says a lot about what this episode is about. He says that fear defines you, but also, it can be controlled. So it stands to reason that how the characters control their fear, in a way, also defines them. Everyone in this episode does control their fears to fix what’s wrong and help Billy. They all FACE their fears in the end (Giles admitting he’s scared of failing Buffy, Willow attempting to sing opera, Xander sucker-punching a clown, Buffy using her vamp strength to her advantage) and that’s really beautiful.
Speaking of Billy, I really don’t understand why the doctor made a connection between Laura’s unfortunate basement beating and Billy’s comatose state. One attack happened in the high school’s basement, during school hours, to a teenage girl. The other happened after a baseball game, presumably nowhere near Sunnydale High, to a little boy. I mean, other than “two people got beaten,” why assume it was done by the same person? It really doesn’t make any sense, but oh well.
Buffy’s conversation with her father is so, so painful to watch. Even though we, as the audience, know it’s (most likely) supernatural and not actually how her father feels, and even though Buffy knows weird shit is going on, too…it’s still a really terrible scene and makes me feel things. My only solace is that directly after her father walks away, Buffy sees Billy lurking nearby. Since she’s already seen him after Wendall gets attacked by the spiders and after time goes all wonky during her history test, I’m going to assume she realizes that this, too, isn’t exactly naturally happening. It’s probably little comfort for her, but at least it’s comfort.
While I appreciate all of B’s questions about how this nightmare reality works, I think going back to the default explanation of “It’s a Hellmouth” is the only way to deal with…well, everything that happens. I LOVE this explanation because it sums everything up and makes anything possible. When Willow asks how Billy could possibly astral-project himself out of his comatose body and bring the nightmare world with him, and Giles just says, “Things like that are easy when you live on a Hellmouth,” I can’t help but think, Okay, well played. But, to answer at least a few questions, I think that once the nightmares stop, everyone (not in the Scooby group, that is) assumes that everything that happened was just a series of bad dreams. That’s immediately what Billy says when he wakes up (“I had the strangest dream, and you were there…and you…”) and it’s reasonable to assume that this episode isn’t so much an alternate universe, but rather, feels like a dream to those who experienced it.
Also, I *love* how everyone is having super-scary stuff happen to them, and then we cut to Cordelia, who’s having a bad hair day and being dragged off to join the chess team. Oh, Cordy. Don’t ever change (even though you will and I will love that too).
Buffy’s conversation with Billy in the gym creeps me out because it’s very “show me on this doll where he touched you” and….ugh. I think this is also why I love this episode so much, because what happened to Billy IS a nightmare and it happens in real life. There’s actually nothing supernatural or Hellmouthy about what started all of this, and for the bulk of the episode, you can only imagine what happened. Did his parents beat him? Was he kidnapped? What happened to this little boy. It’s very disturbing and although supernatural things happen as a result, the original act is monstrous and scary and all too realistic. This brings me to my next point…Sometimes I think that the Hellmouth is a blessing in disguise. Without it, without the Scoobies’ investigation, would Billy’s coach have gotten caught? Would Billy have gotten the catharsis of literally pulling back his coach’s mask? Who knows.
XANDER’S NIGHTMARE IS THE SCARIEST FUCKING THING EVER. I know that clown phobia is a *thing* and I don’t have it. I mean, clowns and grown-ups dressed as Barney and shit did sort of unnerve me as a kid, but nothing too serious. Anyway, I want to curl up and cry when the clown bursts out of the plastic sheet thing with a knife. Ughhhh. I’ve seen it a dozen times and I’m still not…adjusted.
Buffy’s nightmare of becoming a vampire strikes me as particularly scary, just because Buffy never really knows if what she dreams is a prophecy or not, does she? I’m sure there are some dreams she can totally rule out, but ones that could come true…what’s to say that they won’t come true? It doesn’t surprise me that she never told Giles about this dream. She didn’t want to voice it, to admit that she was scared it might be prophetic. There is pretty much always a possibility that Buffy will be vamped and dreaming about it on top of that must be awful.
I also love that Giles asks her to please hold it together until they can stop these things from happening. He recognizes that Buffy is (understandably) having a really difficult time with everything that is happening to her, and instead of commanding her to do her duty (as I’m sure some Watchers would), he asks her. And she says she will. And he thanks her. That’s huge, and I don’t think we understand how huge it is yet, but we will. Giles and Buffy truly are leagues ahead of other Watchers and Slayers and I just love them so damn much.
So anyway, this isn’t a perfect episode, but it holds a special place in my heart forever. The end.
P.S. Just so people don’t think I’m unfair to the characters I dislike (because, well, I totally am), I like Joyce in this episode. I like that she’s optimistic about Buffy’s outing with her dad. I like that she intuits that Buffy might be nervous about him not showing up, and I like that she comforts her and quiets those fears. There’s nothing I hate more than a parent who bad-mouths another parent after a break-up (or at any time, really). I think kids should be left to form their own opinions about their parents without interference (and in the end, Buffy does). Joyce probably has a lot of anger and sadness towards Hank but she doesn’t show it, and that’s good stuff.