Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Buffy Blog: "Nightmares"

“Nightmares” is another one of my favourite episodes of Buffy.

Slipping into the Twilight Zone: Buffy sees a boy (we will eventually find out it is Billy) as Wendell is attacked for real by the spider’s of his nightmare, as Buffy is taking her history exam, when Laura goes down into the basement to smoke, when she meets the “Ugly man” for the first time, as she sees a grave in the cemetery. Time going all wonky. Way cool boy’s mum appearing at Sunnydale High as he is doing his macho huffing and puffing. Cordy being pushed and pulled into the Chess Team. Giles lost in the stacks. Giles unable to read a newspaper. Willow suddenly on stage seeing an aria. Xander “naked”.

Monster of the Week: The Ugly Man, a monstrous version of the monstrous baseball coach who beats Billy into a coma because he dropped a ball and who sent Billy’s self-esteem spiraling downward by blaming him and him alone for losing a baseball game. “Aren’t there eight other players on the team?”, Buffy asks Billy, a phrase Billy will repeat as he conquers his fear of the Ugly Man with a little help from the Buffster.

Moral Message of the Week: We sometimes take sports, and its win at all costs mentality, way too seriously.

Character: Xander digs Vamp Buffy. Willow doesn’t like spiders.

Nightmares: and Fears: “Nightmares” is the first of several Buffy episodes that foreground character narrative arcs. The season two episode “Halloween” and the season four episode “Fear Itself” will continue this BtVS tradition.

Nightmares: Xander fears Nazis, fears being naked in class, and fears clowns thanks to an incident during his sixth birthday when, according to Willow, a clown chased Xander scaring him and scarring him. Willow fears being on stage and, in this instance, having to sing. Giles gets lost in the stacks, fears looses his ability to read five languages, and fears that he will be unable to protect Buffy (father feelings?) from death due to vampire (or other monster). Buffy fears that she was the reason that her parents broke up, fears that her father doesn’t think she is very bright, fears that her father doesn’t really want to spend time with her, and fears that the Master will kill her. Cordy fears that her hair will go all curly and thicket nerdy and that she will be mistaken for a member of the Sunnydale High Chess Team.

Reality Check: “Nightmares” really brings the darkness whether it is Willow’s fears of failure, Xander’s fear of his past and the impact of his past traumatic experiences on his present, Giles’s fear that he is not really up to his job as Buffy’s watcher, or Buffy’s fears that she might be vamped and that she was the one who broke up her parents marriage. One of the most horrific moments for me in all of Buffy, one of the scenes which first tipped me off to the fact that Buffy was not going to be your standard Saved by the Bell portrayal of teens and teen problems on TV, is the scene where Buffy’s father tells her, in her nightmare, that he is disappointed in her, that Buffy isn’t as smart as he had hoped, and that it was Buffy who broke up the her mother’s and father’s marriage. This brilliant scene is one of the first great foreshadowings of the darkness that is to come in later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The “realness” of the scene makes it even more horrific and reflects the “everyday” emotions at the heart of Buffy, a show that is ostensibly supposed to be more fantasy than “fact”. It is a scene that ties Buffy to serious teen show predecessors like Degrassi (The Kids of Degrassi Street, 1979-1986, Degrassi Junior High, 1987-1989 and Degrassi High, 1989-1991), My So-Called Life (1994-1995), and to the intense psychological and dramatic films of Ingmar Bergman.

This trip down memory lane, by the way, reminds me of that there is an episode of My So-Called Life, a show Whedon has cited as a precedent for Buffy, called “The Zit”. In that episode Angela (Claire Danes), one of the protagonists of the show, blows her mundane zit problem up to epic apocalyptic proportions just as Buffy takes the everyday problems of teen and early adult life and makes them end of the world level serious.

Conquering Your Fears: Xander gets tired of running from the clown that is chasing him and the other Scoobies and decks him. He feels liberated.

Out of the Mouths of Big Bad’s: The Master arc weaves in and out of this episode, an episode that like a lot of Buffy episodes, well early Buffy episodes anyway, is primarily a standalone. It is the Master who recognizes in act one what is happening. “We are”, he tells the Anointed One, “defined by the things we fear”. He is as we see throughout this episode as each of the Scoobies is defined by their fears, spot on. This is not the last time a big bad will reveal verities in Buffy (see the Mayor in season three).

Xander to the Rescue: Xander grabs Billy’s coach as he is trying to escape the hospital room in act four.

Previously on Buffy: Xander is once again thinking about a female high school teacher in a sexual way. He did this in “Teacher’s Pet” as well. Cordy’s self-centredness continues. “You’re in my light” she tells Wendell (see the very first episode). Willow is once again on stage and once again this doesn’t end well for Willow (see “Puppet Show”).

Foreshadowings: In the teaser Buffy dreams (has a nightmare about?) being killed by the Master. Buffy’s dreams are often prophetic. This one turns out, to some extent, to be prophetic, as we will see when we see the somewhat different reality in the season one ending episode “Prophecy Girl”. Buffy dies (see the season five episode “The Gift”) at the hands of the Master (see the season one concluding episode “Prophecy Girl”) and has to claw her way out of her grave (see the season six episode “Bargaining”).

Mise-en-scene: Narcissistic Cordelia has a mirror in her locker at Sunnydale High so she can look at herself. Willow has a Nerf Herder sticker (the band that does the Buffy theme and a band that Allyson Hannigan apparently liked) and a picture of her and Giles in her locker. Does Willow have a crush on Giles (see “Where the Wild Things Are” from season four)? The typical sunny Sunnydale High daytime scenes scenes counterpointed against the nighttime cemetery scenes are this time embedded in one another. When Laura goes into the basement to smoke and is attacked we see a “Smoking Kills” poster. Is this a metamessage?

Sound: Buffy’s history teacher’s pencil tap tap tapping on the desk like the second hand of a clock. Buffy, of course, looks at the clock a couple of times in this scene. Time has gone all wonky in this scene.

Acting: Both Dean Butler (Buffy’s Dad) and Sarah Michelle Gellar, but particularly SMG, are superb in the I’m disappointed in you Buffy scene. Notice the teary glaze in SMG’s eyes and the tears. Emotional intensity a la Bergman. Awesome.

Nazis: There are swastikas on the walls of the nightmare version of Sunnydale High School.

Fairy Tales: Xander, like Hansel and Gretel, follows the candy trial. A feminist Hansel and Gretel tale will come to Buffy in season three.

Personal Hygiene: Cordy’s nightmare is about her hair. As we saw in “Puppet Show” Cordy is obsessed with how her hair looks.

Buffy is Da Man: Xander says this to Buffy at one point in “Nightmares”. Buffy tells Billy during her first fight with the Ugly Man in the gym that she isn’t strong enough to defeat him. Does Buffy gain power once she is vamped? And does this increased power help her defeat the Ugly Man?

Female Gaze/Male Gaze: a buff Xander in nothing but boxers.

Fathers and Daughters: Buffy doesn’t see her father, who still lives in LA, often.

It Doesn’t Make Sense: Why does the Ugly Man, Billy’s coach, attack Laura while uttering “lucky nineteen”, Billy’s number? Is it a device to move the mystery along?

No comments:

Post a Comment