Teleplay by David Greenwalt
Story by Joss Whedon
Directed by Bruce Seth Green
Original Air Date: 12th May, 1997
There’s a wonderfully surreal charge to ‘Nightmares’ that always makes it a joy to return to when rewatching Buffy. For all the criticisms that get levelled at the first season about how it’s rougher around the edges and maybe nowhere near as sharp as it would get from season two onwards, it’s easy to forget that there are some good episodes here. ‘Nightmares’ in one of them.
In fact, the last third of the first season would see a shift towards a very assured style of writing and direction that were clearer indicators of how expansive the series was about to get. ‘Nightmares’, with a teleplay by Greenwalt and based on a story by Whedon, is a prime example of that.
This wouldn’t be the last time that Buffy would utilise dreams as a means to tell a story and explore the inner psyche of its characters; admittedly the episode that would conclude the fourth season is a much more spectacular version of what we have here, but that is a long way away yet, during a time when the series was hitting its peak and had more money to play with.
In terms of production value, ‘Nightmares’ is a clear indication of where the first season was, but you can see how Greenwalt and Whedon are inching their way towards playing in a field of what Buffy will eventually be able to do.
What’s most brilliant here is how so much is filtered through character. Ten episodes in and the series has established Buffy’s fractured relationships with her parents magnificently, while ‘The Puppet Show’ clued the audience in on Willow’s stage fright. Greenwalt’s teleplay ups the ante in terms of drama, paving the way for the first appearance of Buffy’s dad and digging in when it comes to angst and heartache.
That’s not to say that Buffy is going full Bergman-esque here because it’s also a wickedly funny hour of television, but it commits to tonal shifts throughout that in lesser hands would probably never work as well.
That sense of elasticity of tone and genre is something that you can see why Buffy would become famous for and it’s all here. (I also must apologise to season one haters out there, or those who don’t like this season as much as the others. Looking back on these reviews I realise I’ve given them higher ratings than they might deserve but nostalgia does carry a lot of weight with me when it comes to these first twelve episodes, ‘Nightmares’, and the next two episodes, included.)
Dreams or nightmares coming true are a dime a dozen in so much genre fiction; from the works of Philip K Dick, to future classics (at this point in time) such as Inception, although this being 1997 means that you cannot help but feel the shadow of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. There’s even a demonic entity showing up to kill people just for good measure, although we’re a long way away from Freddy Krueger. Interestingly the final twist of the episode will revolve around child abuse, once again indicating just how much the writing on this show was unafraid to go down darkened tunnels.
Ten episodes in, and we’ve spent a lot of time with these characters so naturally the episode gets to have some real fun in exploring their psyches and those elements of their characters being used against them; Giles’ being unable to read, Willow having to sing opera, Xander showing up naked in class, then being attacked by a clown, and Cordelia morphing into a unfashionable nerd, the episode revels in playing with those scenes, eventually building up to a surreal moment where giant bees attack the town.
The latter is the one thing the show doesn’t have the budget to quite pull off at this stage, but credit for trying to expand the scope of the storytelling beyond the realm of Sunnydale High. That the episode can mix and match from the hilariously surreal scenes of Xander being chased by a killer clown to Giles’ admission he can’t read mix together well, but it’s Buffy’s strand of the story that carries the emotion the hardest here.
Fearful of being the one responsible for her parents’ break-up and that her dad doesn’t love her, those identifiable fears for many a teenager are laid bare in one of the episode’s most devastating moments. Buffy’s dad has been absent all season, referred to but never seen, and our first glimpse of him is basically outlining as truth to a heartbroken Buffy all the things she has been afraid of.
Gellar is superb, her face slowly crumpling to a tearful state, it lays bare the heart beneath the warrior we’ve come to love all season. If that were the end of if there, it would be almost be enough, but the revelation that she is afraid of being turned into a vampire is itself a dramatic piece of information.
All season we have watched the character vanquish and turn to dust the vampire minions of The Master, but to see our heroine with a vampire’s face is one of the most shocking visual reveals the show has done up to this point, and also something that has never been touched on. One could make the argue that it’s a piece of character development that comes out of nowhere, but it not only works, it even plays more into the idea of how this teen show is haunted by death.
Look, it’s not Six Feet Under and I’m not saying that’s what Buffy is striving towards (although, let’s be honest, Buffy deserves its place as one of television’s greatest ever shows), but death only plagues characters on teen shows whenever the contract of one of the on-screen talent has expired and negotiations break down.
Yet, here is a show where a high body count is part and parcel of what happens on-screen and the revelation that Buffy herself is afraid of dying and being turned into a vampire is perhaps the first indication from the series that a character on this show is aware of their mortality.
It’s a running joke amongst viewers and fans that Sunnydale High is the world’s most dangerous high school, and the town itself is one of those small television towns that makes you wonder how in the hell the town can sustain itself when death is sometimes literally around every street corner.
We don’t expect Buffy to die ten episodes into the first season of a seven season run, that would be silly, but there is something gently and darkly amusing, not to mention dramatic, in seeing Whedon and Greenwalt thrust death upon its leading character so soon and with a wonderful self-awareness.
It’s a teen horror show, so a higher body count than Dawson’s Creek is understandable, and Buffy, even with its genre subversions, is still playing in a pool previously populated by movies such as Halloween and Friday the 13th, although thankfully in terms of quality it’s more in line with the former than the latter. Death is part and parcel of a television series offering up genre conventions with characters coming of age, and even if you don’t die, there is still the threat you could end up a soulless monster with a taste for blood.
Buffy may be our hero, chosen to fight the forces of darkness, but it’s a refreshing note that her biggest fear away from the being the one responsible for destroying her mum and dad’s marriage is being just one part of the large cycle of death, or un-death, that Sunnydale offers. It makes her a wonderfully human creation.