So as I brace for episodes that I didn’t like the first time around (Teacher’s Pet and The Pack), only to find that they are much better, especially in character development, than I had remembered, I suppose the experience has to be inverted, and so it is with Nightmares. This one I looked forward to, especially as it ranks higher than average among Buffy fans, yet I came away from it wanting more from the story, especially given the opportunities that the nightmares laid open.
Moreover, despite my softening for Teacher’s Pet and The Pack, I find that I most enjoy episodes that focus on vampires, and even more so on those stories that contribute to the seasonal story arc. In short, I need The Master, not just in bad dreams, but propelling the narrative forward.
Sure we get a peek into the psyches and fears of Xander (exposure & body discomfort – showing up in class in his underwear); Willow (attention – forced onstage to sing); Giles (losing his ability to read); and Cordelia (her appearance). But the nightmares offered the writers the opportunity to give us something we didn’t already know and find some depth – subconscious depth! – in characters we have become familiar with; instead, they stuck with the rather predictable (Willow and Cordelia), generic (Xander), and uninteresting (Giles’ loss of literacy).
Giles’ worst (and in terms of his character development, better) nightmare is losing a slayer on his watch, which is what the gang find has happened as they come across Buffy’s headstone in the cemetery.
But on to the best of the episode:
Buffy’s nightmares capture her soon-to-be longstanding dualistic dilemma of being both a teenage girl (with a more typical nightmare about wrecking her family) as well as a Slayer (losing to a vampire in the worst possible way).
Nicely segueing from Giles’ nightmare, Buffy sired and rising from her grave a vampire not only lets us glimpse a Slayer with a game face, it also reveals that the character has a dread greater than death: transforming into that which she battles ceaselessly. It’s not only a horror to behold, it’s the ultimate defeat to experience.
Almost as awful but more immediately relatable is Buffy’s father’s appearance in the waking nightmare, confessing with an air of smiling malice that Buffy herself was the cause of her parents’ divorce. This is my favorite Sarah Michelle Gellar moment thus far in the series – Buffy’s steeliness and sassiness crumble during the cruel admission, garnering my sympathy and marking a turning point for me in better appreciating the actress and her character.