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Watching Buffy: s01e10 “Nightmares”

dean butler in buffy the vampire slayer4

With the exception of one notable scene, this episode is a perfectly serviceable monster-of-the-week entry. It introduces a Buffy subgenre that will pop up once or twice every season: the whole world goes wacky! (See also “Bewitched Bothered & Bewildered”, “Band Candy”, “Gingerbread”, “Once More With Feeling”…) In this case, everyone at the school starts having their nightmares come to life. Turns out there’s a psychic kid in a coma making the nightmares happen, because his little league coach beat him into the coma.

The explanation is a bit vague but the concept of this episode is great. Nightmares coming to life is a great opportunity to reveal more about the characters and show some of the hidden aspects of who they are. That’s interesting to the audience by itself, but it also means you can help the characters learn about each other, giving them insights into the secret fears their friends are holding back.

Yet for all this potential, the reality is underwhelming. For some reason the episode ignores the “highschool is hell” motif of the series and makes the cause of the nightmares a younger boy. Making a kid be the cause puts the problem outside of Buffy’s world; Buffy is positioned as a considerate adult helping a child in need, which is a default storyline for procedural TV shows but a poor fit for this one. As we’ve seen, whenever the series steps away from its highschool milieu, it feels weaker. The show will be able to tell stories outside of high school eventually, but the groundwork is not yet in place. And there is no reason why Billy couldn’t be a high school student! That simple change would have charged much of the narrative with direct relevance to the characters. A missed opportunity.

Also, the nightmares we see revealed are utterly mundane – Willow’s stagefright (which was played for laughs in the episode just before this one!), Xander’s fear of clowns (also revealed last episode), generic nightmares of being naked in front of people or screwing up exams… Boring. Even when the episode builds towards climax and gets more personal, most of what we see is completely unsurprising. Giles’s worst fear is Buffy dying? Gosh that must be the secret reason why he’s said “be careful” five times in every episode before this one! Buffy’s worst fear is dying and turning into a vampire? Hmm well you are a vampire slayer so that’s about as insightful as the “you had one job” meme.

The whole episode feels undercooked. Even the gags, which are usually pretty reliable even in the weak episodes, just don’t land – there’s this Wizard of Oz bit when the kid wakes up that just thuds. And the episode closer, with Willow getting Xander to admit he still fancied Buffy when she was a vampire, is among the weakest finishes in the entire seven seasons of the show. This episode just isn’t finding the good stuff. Maybe it was a rush job?

Except for one scene. In fact I think it’s possible this whole episode was created as an excuse to play this scene, because it works like crazy. It’s the scene with Buffy’s dad in it. I feel like quoting the whole thing (source):

Hank: I came early because there’s something I’ve needed to tell you. About your mother and me. Why we split up.
Buffy: Well, you always told me it was because…
Hank: Uh, I know we always said it was because we’d just grown too far apart.
Buffy: Yeah, isn’t that true?
Hank: Well, c’mon, honey, let’s, let’s sit down. You’re old enough now to know the truth.
Buffy: Is there someone else?
Hank: No. No, it was nothing like that.
Buffy: Then what was it?
Hank: It was you.
Buffy: Me?
Hank: Having you. Raising you. Seeing you everyday. I mean, do you have any idea what that’s like?
Buffy: What?
Hank: Gosh, you don’t even see what’s right in front of your face, do you? Well, big surprise there, all you ever think about is yourself. You get in trouble. You embarrass us with all the crazy stunts you pull, and do I have to go on?
Buffy: No. Please don’t.
Hank: You’re sullen and… rude and… you’re not nearly as bright as I thought you were going to be… Hey, Buffy, let’s be honest. Could you stand to live in the same house with a daughter like that?
Buffy: Why are you saying all these things? (a tear rolls down her cheek)
Hank: Because they’re true. I think that’s the least we owe one another.
She begins to sniff and cry.
Hank: You know, I don’t think it’s very mature, getting blubbery when I’m just trying to be honest. Speaking of which, I don’t really get anything out of these weekends with you. So, what do you say we just don’t do them anymore?
She stares at him in shock. He pats her on the leg.
Hank: I sure thought you’d turn out differently.
He gets up and leaves.

It’s a brutal sequence. Almost hard to watch, and a thousand times more affecting than anything else in the episode. But take another look at the scene, read that dialogue again: it’s so on the nose, it’s almost a parody. There’s no subtlety to it at all. Dad just comes up and says all the things any child of divorce fears the most. The simplicity of it, played straight, gives it power but also carries enormous risks that it would all fall over and become laughable, like a soap opera sequence. That it works as well as it does is down to one person.

So it’s time, finally, to talk about the MVP of Buffy, the person carrying this whole joint. Her name is Sarah Michelle Gellar, and she’s the lead.

Let’s be clear right away: Gellar is not a great actor, whatever that might mean. She can’t pull off the wild feat of making you really believe in the unlikely world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She’ll never really convince you that she’s a badass fighting type. She can’t trick you into thinking Whedon’s dialogue, which would soon earn its own adjective “Whedonesque”, is emerging spontaneously from her character’s mind. But hey – those are significant challenges.

But. She’s good. And there are some things she can do really well. She was early in her career, and stepped effortlessly into a sole lead aged just 20. She had come out of the daily daytime soaps, All My Children specifically, for which she won a Daytime Emmy. Her time on that show had honed some aspects of her craft to a very high degree, and they were perfectly suited for the Buffy gig.

Gellar has excellent timing (comic timing gets talked about plenty, and she has it, but it’s a general skill and her instincts for playing responses and pauses and emotional beats are impeccable). She has a big range – she can creditably play all over the emotional spectrum. But above all, she can communicate pretty much anything. Every step of her internal journey is clear on the screen. The audience always knows where she’s at and what’s driving her, and while she’s sometimes not exactly convincing, you never lose the thread. In a show like this, that’s a huge asset. It lets Buffy get away with big monsters as well as real emotional responses to those big monsters. Gellar sets the tone. She’s perfect.

As this show commits to long-form storytelling and emotional development, Gellar’s ability to tell stories with her acting choices will become an essential part of the show as a whole. By this episode, the show knew what Gellar could do, and this episode – this one scene – gave her a chance to dig a bit deeper than before. She sells this scene like crazy. She makes it land. You know exactly what she’s feeling, and it hurts.

And then fifteen minutes later she’s wearing vampire makeup and making jokes while she punches people. That’s the gig. That’s Buffy.

Other thoughts:
* Despite Mark Metcalfe’s great performance in the role of the Master (straddling the funny/scary divide), this episode is the first time he actually meets Buffy – and it’s in a dream. They don’t come face to face in real life until the final episode. Keeping the Master isolated is not the strongest choice for their conflict, although you can see why they did it – Buffy needs to be free to develop through the season step by step, and an early confrontation with the Master would make that harder. Still, it’s one of the reasons the Master is not remembered as a great villain, only a good one.

{ 4 } Comments

  1. Ben | December 28, 2014 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    Geller’s acting chops are really shown in later years – when she plays Faith or robot Buffy or when Dawn summons her mum back. But in season one the character was supposed to be an airhead valley girl with no depth who discovers she has lots of depth. That’s a tough role to play

  2. morgue | December 28, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Oh gosh yes, that Buffy!Faith stuff was done really really well. And I like your description of her s1 character too, I’ve never seen Buffy described like that

  3. Rodger | December 29, 2014 at 6:29 am | Permalink

    Buffy suffers from being a heroic protagonist – it’s hard to give an actor genuinely interesting development to do in the context where the character is so much in service of advancing the story. Babylon 5 have the same problem, too, where Sheriden/Delenn were much less interesting characters than the cast assembled around them.

    (Oops, almost triggered my “if you do cutting-edge with aliens you’re a footnote, if you do it with gangsters you’re an innovator” grumble.)

  4. morgue | December 29, 2014 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    That’s true. The show does end up actually using this tension more and more, as Buffy feels the weight of her role and wishes for escape – substitute “lead character in long-running TV series” for “chosen slayer of vampires” and the narrative still works. Never more than at the start of season 6!

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