Standard spoiler warning: The notes are written for folks who have seen all of BtVS and AtS. I'll be spoiling through the comics as well. Basically -- if you are a spoiler-phobe and haven't seen or read it all, read further at your own risk.
Standard Credits: I've written the material in black; Strudel (aka my Bro) writes in blue; local_max writes in purple. Or at least, that's what they've done when I finish editing and formatting!
Buffy 1.10 Nightmares, In Which Dreams Come True!
If The Puppet Show played a bit with the theme of predators and prey; Nightmares moves on to the general theme of fear. In season 4 they hit this theme again with more depth in Fear Itself– presumably because the writers knew the characters better. But here we get some decent material.
Foreshadowing. Buffy’s opening nightmare is pretty much what happens to her in Prophecy Girl. She freezes when the master attacks her. When she encounters him in the cemetery later in the episode she freezes again. As we learn here, Buffy’s fear is not just that she’d be killed, but also that she’d become a vampire. The last episode brought up a bit on the blurry nature between demons and demon hunters, and here we learn that Buffy is actively afraid of it. Also worth noting that Buffy’s fear about becoming a vampire includes a strong helping of shame. She doesn’t want to be seen that way. And since the demon in her is related to the demons she fights, that has to be part of a freestanding fear that her friends will see the dark in her. (This is a theme that only becomes explicit in season 8; but it’s an important part of Buffy’s dynamic with the scoobies in the high school years). Strudel adds: This part of the Slayer metaphor touches on the secret fear of all adolescents that they are freaks who can be socially ostracized if their freakiness comes to light.
Buffy getting buried alive is deeper foreshadowing, as is Giles, Xander and Willow having to stand before Buffy’s grave. All images that recur in The Gift and Bargaining. Giles’ expression of his fear of failing Buffy needs to be born in mind when we get to his reaction to the events of Prophecy Girl.
Strudel wonders, is this another hint of foreshadowing?
Xander: Uh, our dreams are coming true?
Giles: Dreams? That would be a musical comedy version of this.
Cue up Once More with Feeling.
Max chimes in: And of course (more below!) Willow refers to this episode in OMWF. There's also another more subtle call-back: Willow here says of spiders, "What do they need so many legs for, anyway?" which is very similar to a question Anya will pose. (Second consecutive episode with an Anya-resonant line!)
Father Issues . In addition to her fear about vampires, Buffy fears failing her father. The standard-issue anxiety dream about the history test is bound up with the larger fear. One of the ways she fears disappointing her father is that she’s not all that bright. (The episode features yet another example of Buffy’s quick insight into what’s going on, reminding us that her academic difficulties notwithstanding, Buffy is remarkably sharp). The opening sequence connects Buffy’s fear of losing to the Master with her fear of her father not loving her. The connection between Buffy’s father issues and vampire issues also come together in the figure of Angel, who is the older boyfriend she looks to for protection. Angel himself does not figure in any of Buffy’s nightmares, and this is the third episode in a row that fails to deal in any way with whatsoever Buffy might be feeling for Angel. Perhaps it's appropriate that in an episode about nightmares the vampire/father figure who stalks her is the Master. Though as we know Angel will stalk her too, soon enough.
Buffy's father issues and demon issues are connected, too. The reasons nightmare!Hank gives for leaving Buffy are directly related to her being the slayer--causing trouble, not being able to spend any time studying, etc. Hank doesn't say that he thinks Buffy is a demon, but it seems pretty plausible that Buffy worries on some level that the demon in her is what made him leave.
Guilt and Blame and Lucky 19. Max: I think it's important to talk about one of the episode's overarching themes--guilt--in terms of how it relates to Buffy in this episode. Wendell's nightmare is the first one in the episode to come true, and it's about being confronted with the spiders he loves whom he feels responsible for killing. Laura is attacked while in the midst of sneaking downstairs for an illicit smoke. And Billy's astral-projected nightmare turns out to be a response to his coach blaming him for losing a little league game, and beating him silly. The crisis is solved when Buffy helps Billy recognize that what happened either to the team or to himself was not his fault. The fear that paralyzed Billy and kept him in a coma was, we find out, a fear that he himself was responsible for the beating he received, intensified by being told to him by a father figure (the coach). What's interesting is that Billy is the cause for the nightmare-chaos of this episode, but holds no (moral) blame--it was the coach who battered him so that his subconscious does what it does, and it is the coach who rightly gets the blame.
This ties in with Buffy and Giles' nightmares. Giles holds himself responsible for Buffy's death, and her resurrection as a vampire (while part of Buffy's own nightmare, not Giles') uncomfortably recalls Wendell's dead spiders walking again. Buffy has nightmares in this episode in which she is told by her father that she is responsible for her parents' divorce, and by the Master that she is responsible for his release. ("I am here because you fear it--because you fear it, the world is crumbling!") Buffy's ultimate fear is not just rejection but of responsibility, which ties in with the superiority complex being One Girl in All the World necessarily brings. And both Hank and the Master are father figures who put all the blame on her for their actions--in stark contrast to Giles. Now Buffy recognizes that Billy has to place the blame on his coach, where it belongs. But it's debatable whether Buffy applies this to herself. Certainly it seems like she isn't able to yet. With her father, Hank never says out loud that he left because of her, and so Buffy never has full catharsis. In "Normal Again" Buffy still seems to hold herself responsible (he and Joyce are still together in her hallucination where she was not the slayer), but by "Conversations with Dead People" she identifies him as the probable cause of their divorce, not Buffy. The Master does explicitly tell Buffy that she is responsible for his release in "Prophecy Girl" ("If you hadn't come, I couldn't go!") but fortunately she kills him before he does any damage.
Both the Hank and Master nightmare elements recur in "Innocence" with Angel. The morning after scene, in which he rejects and belittles her, is very similar to the Hank/Buffy nightmare. And Angel explicitly blames Buffy for causing his soul loss, just as the Master blames Buffy for releasing him. Just like Billy, who is the cause of the nightmares but shouldn't be blamed, Buffy is the cause of Angel's soul loss but has done nothing morally wrong to cause it. But Buffy takes a long time to forgive herself (and put the blame on the father figure, not herself) the way Billy does here, if she has managed it. Showing once again that Buffy sees others better than she sees herself.
Giles and Buffy. Strudel: Since we're talking about father issues, it is worth pausing to note Giles' feelings about Buffy. He hasn't done a good job demonstrating his empathy for her -- in fact, he's tried to play the unfeeling taskmaster mainly. But I find it remarkable that, once he knows that everyone's nightmares are becoming reality, he immediately understands that Buffy's nightmares are the most serious ones to be worried about. I don't remember off hand that they had talked about Slayers' prophetic dreams, but to me, I find it quite interesting that Giles knows that Buffy's destiny brings with it enough angst and responsibility to provoke nightmares much darker and worrisome than anyone else's, and that he knows it so well that it he makes that immediate connection. And sure enough, while Xander and Willow have their lightweight childhood fears chasing them around, the Master stalks Buffy's dreams. Nobody else internalizes that fear because nobody else has that responsibility. As Xander will cavalierly demonstrate in this episode, Buffy will do the slaying and they'll all get to party, no problemo.
An interesting textual echo of this theme: As Billy and Buffy run from the Ugly Man and find themselves suddenly in the cemetery, Billy asks, "is this where your friends are?" Buffy's answer, "no, it's not." Ouch.
So, I think this episode demonstrates that Giles has a much better insight into Buffy's burdens than either Xander or Willow. Unfortunately, he hasn't managed to translate that insight into the most effective way to help her. We are seeing the beginning of the alienation among the Scoobies, and Giles at least was the one with the maturity to recognize that, and I'm not sure he does. Furthermore, as he sits before Buffy's grave, lamenting his failure to better prepare her, I am reminded of his failure to do more to learn from the lives -- and deaths -- of the other Slayers, as hinted at in The Puppet Show.
Giles also dreams of getting lost in the stacks -- getting buried in knowledge and cut off from life. When we get to Jenny/Giles next season that's part of her attraction to him. She can draw him into real life again. In the context of these other observations about Giles, the knowledge that threatens to swallow him up could also be seen as a protective shield against the very real pain he knows will come eventually when Buffy dies.
Xander and Willow. Willow’s nightmare is the least interesting… an anxiety dream about public performance. Xander’s main nightmare about the clown is also not particularly deep. What’s significant, though, is that whereas Xander confronts his fear, Willow does not. At the end in Billy’s room, Willow doesn’t see what Buffy wants Billy to do, but Xander gets it right away. The lack of depth to Willow’s nightmare along with her inability to confront the fear points to just how much is buried in Willow – a very quiet way of setting up the very deep dark that lies within her. She is the only one of the four who remains paralyzed by her fear throughout the episode.
Speaking of Xander, he has a hot and cold episode here. On the one hand, he punches the clown and he's quick on the uptake with Billy's need to confront his fears as well. Clocking the clown was the first step to reduce the chaos that was threatening to engulf Sunnydale, so, way to go Xander! On the other, there are several scenes where he doesn't come off so well. First, he is glibly unconcerned about the spider incident ("hey, it's the hellmouth. We'll find, you'll slay, we'll party") in a way that smacks of bravado and that also -- to me -- comes off as emphasizing and objectifying Buffy's Slayer status. Maybe I'm overly sensitive here, but to me, this is another little sign of the distancing he'll help propel between Buffy and the rest, a theme that will become more explicit in the next episode. He also comes off harshly when dealing with Wendell. He is way, way quick giving up trying to talk to Wendell about the spiders and only stays because Buffy grabs him. He then overcompensates by trying to inject bad jokes (and I think whenever Xander's humor is off the mark, it's a sign something isn't well with him). Later, he talks over Willow's early theories about the dream/reality coincidences, only to find himself walking into class naked.
Strudel's point here about Xander's humour being off the mark is a great one. I think it's interesting then that Xander's central nightmare is an encounter with a childhood clown, who presumably was trying to be funny and came off as boorish and terrifying instead--Xander's dark side, to a tee. Xander is the only major character to have a young-childhood dream, which works well with later episodes suggesting that he underwent an abusive childhood. Interestingly, Xander's nudity, which is the ultimate in uncomfortable visibility, gets reversed in "Fear, Itself," when Xander becomes invisible.
Xander the demon magnet watch. OK, so it's not a demon pursuing him this time. But we find out in this episode that Xander remains attracted to Buffy even as a vampire in vamp-face. This ties in with some of my theories written in the comments to "Teacher's Pet" about the function of Xander's demon magnet status in the show. I think that much of what attracts Xander to Buffy (both sexually, and as a person and an idol) is her power as a strong woman. That strength is closely intertwined with her Otherness, and, in fact, demonness. So I think the demon relationships are related to examining Xander's fear/excitement at the prospect of otherness and power in Buffy. (Not that Xander's arc is all about Buffy, but as it's her show many thematic roads do lead back to her.) So it's nice to see some confirmation that Xander's attraction to Buffy in particular remains in place when Buffy is a demon. Strudel makes a good point about Xander's objectifying Buffy's slayerness, so don't mistake attraction for understanding or acceptance. But it's definitely in the mix.
Buffy's empathy. In stark contrast to Xander's somewhat hard-assed effort, we see Buffy on three occasions reaching out very effectively to the victims in the show: Billy, Wendell and the girl who was beaten in the boiler room. Every time, she shows a very, very strong ability to empathize and gently connect. Most strikingly, she is able to put aside her own hurts (from her father's visit) to focus on Billy, and it's her quiet, careful support that gives Billy the strength to confront his coach at the end. It's kind of sad to see this, knowing how hardened she will become over time.
Having noted in the last episode how there is usually a more or less obvious connection between classroom subjects and episode themes, this week, the class is discussing active listening. That might have been a good classroom subject for I, Robot (who really listens to Willow?). But this time -- maybe I'm stretching here -- it looks like the connection is Buffy's ability to listen to the victims and meet them where they are is what allows her to solve this week's apocalypse.
A touch of Spike. The master deliberately grasps the cross to show his mastery of his fear. Spike will deliberately touch a cross twice – in Beneath You and in Destiny. Like the master, Spike is not afraid of pain.
Another resonance I like: Wendell loved his spiders, but they burned up and he feels responsible. So he loves them, but he really, really doesn't want to see them back alive, due to his overwhelming guilt. In "Last Gleaming, Part 1" Spike arrives (with a crew of bugs), and the last time Buffy saw him was having burned up in the Hellmouth as part of her fight. And no, she isn't instantly happy to see him. Wonder why?
Cordelia. The throwaway nightmare in which Cordelia is forced to join the chess team makes me smile. We do find out later (and there are hints early on, with her great vocabulary and quick, if self-involved, wit) that Cordelia has deliberately been hiding her intelligence to maintain her popularity. The nightmare can be read as Cordy's fear that her braininess will out and she'll lose her social standing as a result. Cordy, like Buffy, has a own secret identity to preserve.
A touch of Dark Willow. The translation of the lyrics in the opera from Willow's nightmare: "Child, from whose eyes witchery shine, now you are all mine."
More on Willow's nightmare. Maggie's not wrong to say that Willow's nightmare, in and of itself, is uninteresting; anxiety about public performance is pretty generic, and I love the point that the shallowness of the dream itself points to how deeply Willow's issues are buried. But, however much or little thought was put into her nightmare in the writing of this episode, it's notable that this dream is called back in no fewer than three of Joss' very own scripts later in the series. In "Amends," during Willow's planned seduction (a performance act in and of itself), Oz asks Willow, "You ever have that dream where you're in a play, and it's the middle of the play and you really don't know your lines, and you kinda don't know the plot?" It could be a coincidence, but considering that Oz is describing accurately the one on-screen dream Willow has had up to that point, I'm inclined to say no. Her "Restless" dream is an expansion of this one into a full-blown play, with textual acknowledgment of this ep as the source: "This isn't Mme Butterfly is it, because I have a whole problem with opera." And in "Once More, with Feeling," in "I Got a Theory" she wonders if "Some kid is dreamin', and we're all stuck inside his wacky Broadway nightmare."
So if the dream is so shallow, why bring it up again and again? Note that Willow's nightmare is her being asked to sing. Willow becomes a spellcaster in the show, and her words shape reality. She is in "Primeval"/"Restless" identified as "spiritus," which is spirit but also, literally, breath. So words have particular resonance for her; they are her power. She learns the lines to say the spells, and then they are done. Similarly, as the series goes on, Willow learns to perform by learning (often by rote) the social behaviours she wants to display. I think that the recurring performance element is about self-expression: and in all cases Willow's self remains unexpressed. I'll add that within the episode, words are emphasized as the way to dispel nightmares. Billy ends the trauma by telling his coach off. So Willow's silence is particularly worrisome.
The performances in "Nightmares" and "Restless" are both plays, where she is expected to behave a certain way and say certain lines. What terrifies Willow in "Nightmares" is the idea of speaking/singing in front of others at all. (Very season 1 Willow, who can only utter a few vowel sounds around a guy she likes and who, as we found out in "I Robot You Jane," feels particularly comfortable communicating through the anonymity of the internet.) What terrifies the superficially more confident Willow in "Restless" is appearing in front of others without having rehearsed or learned the lines. It suggests to me that while Willow is much less shy in "Restless," it's only by virtue of having figured out a way to express herself in the ways she believe she is expected to, socially--not by expressing her true self (her own words, her own song), which she still resents and fears. (And I'll add that "Amends," about midway between the two eps, is a very good intermediate point between these two dreams about performance, in which Willow wants to express her very real feelings of love for Oz, but does so through an elaborate and silly "seduction by the numbers" act.)
So fast forward to "Once More, with Feeling." Everyone bursts into song. And notably, it's not a play or opera, and there are no lines to memorize; the lyrics come straight from the Sunnydale denizens themselves. And Willow doesn't sing. Oh, she sings in a group, and she has a short exchange with Giles in "I've Got a Theory." But otherwise she has two solo lines. One is the reference to "Nightmares," and the other hangs a lantern on how little Willow reveals of herself via song ("I think this line's mostly filler"). Yes, there are well known meta reasons for this (Aly didn't want to sing, and Joss didn't want to make her), but it works very well in-story. Following Maggie's theory about the shallowness of this week's dream, Willow's actual emotions, under the constructed identity (the lines she's memorized), are buried so deep they don't bubble up to the surface even under a Sweet's spell. But whereas her inability to sing Mme. Butterfly is a nightmare, Willow is perfectly happy to remain silent while Tara serenades her. Five years after "Nightmares" Willow still doesn't sing (express herself); the difference is that by OMWF, she's no longer even aware that it's a problem.
Strudel's great catch on Dark Willow compels me to add that her "Restless" dream opens with Willow writing on Tara's back, and it's Tara who does the singing for both her and Willow in OMWF, right after Willow's words have been written onto Tara's mind in "All the Way." Willow doesn't have to sing, because Tara does, and Tara is an extension of Willow. And of course when Tara dies, Dark Willow emerges and finally, after six years, the words just come pouring out.
A fourth (more ambiguous) callback comes in season eight: "Goddesses & Monsters," which takes place in a spirit quest very much like a dream, makes a point of beginning with a very generic introduction ("This is so...derivative!" Willow exclaims). During her big fight with the Black Knight, Willow begins singing. It's pop songs, so they're still not Willow's own words. But perhaps that Willow sings in a dream-like setting as part of a quest and self-exploration, is a sign that she is finally moving toward real introspection.
(I'll add, probably without further comment, that all four series incidents involve costumes as part of the performance: "Restless" most obviously, but "Nightmares" has Willow in prima donna makeup, "Amends" has her stab at sexy attire, "Once More with Feeling" has her quasi-Medieval fairytale outfit.)
Maggie replies: Excellent insights. To skip ahead to a point I would make in Restless, Willow keeps getting asked about the costume she's wearing -- which straightforwardly means that 'hip' Willow is a costume for stuttery, inarticulate Willow. But as we've been noting as we've gone along, sweet season one Willow is a mask for a rather more ruthless persona underneath. Perhaps she doesn't know what to say because she's trying to speak through a mask that doesn't fit. When she puts on the 'costume' of hip Willow, she can talk much more easily, without all the stuttering. It's her truer self coming out. But in her dream in Restless she dreams that part of herself is a mask. So many twists and turns in one psyche. I can see why Joss has a special affection for her.