Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Written by: David Greenwalt
Story by: Joss Whedon (of note)
Air Date: May 12, 1997

There are a good number of things this show does well, but the predominant thing is character-based humor. “Nightmares” – while not the greatest episode in the world – has this in spades. The basic premise is simple: mystical forces, bound by the Hellmouth (mentioned two episodes in a row!) have somehow managed to make bad dreams come to life in the real world, leading to horrors for some, but laugh-out-loud moments for us, the viewer. Some of these range from the standard and cliche (Xander’s fear of going to class “naked” or Buffy’s fear of being unprepared for a test) to the downright unexpected and comical, but fitting of the character (such as Giles’ sudden inability to remember how to get out of the stacks in the school’s library). Others are just there for the great visual, such as Cordelia’s awful fashion day and subsequent forced acceptance into the school’s chess club.

The real treat, though, is in dealing with the two most important characters on the show and their fears in life; Buffy and Giles. You can make a claim that these two share the spotlight with Willow and Xander, but let’s face it; of all the characters even remotely developed, The Slayer and her Watcher are tops. Here, we get more in depth investigation into their characters, albeit somewhat lacking on Giles part (his reveal of having had distressing dreams about Buffy’s death, thus failing her, is fantastic and telling and all, but of little consequence and an obvious fear he would have). No, the thing that makes this episode work is Buffy’s increasingly horrific nightmares coming to life, each played expertly by SMG. The first, the test, is an easy one with some humor (and awful 90’s attire from the students in the class), but from there? Gold.

You see, Buffy’s folks have split up, something not really mentioned on the show, yet. So when her dad shows up to hang for the weekend, we are treated to the inherent fear of all kids lost to the suffering of divorce: finding out its their fault. See, Hank Summers hadn’t even been mentioned once prior to this, so now we get to see him. And what a doozy of a scene we get with him! Between Dean Butler playing of the cruelty like its just another thing he has to do that day, to the way SMG reacts entirely with her lower lip and eyes, the moment is etched in my mind so much that it is the only reason I remember this episode exists. To say the whole 45-minutes is otherwise boring is a lie, of course, but its this scene – painful and brutally emotional – that really helps develop SMG into Buffy, for me. Pair this with The Master being out and about (Metcalf gets to, yet again, ham it up both in a dream sequence and in the graveyard at night) and her apparent “death” and transformation into a vampire, and you have a deeper level of understanding for the character.

The rest of the episode, as I said is entertaining and fine, but not an A+ hour of television. Not by a long shot. The “monster of the week” is a stupid looking Nemesis clone with a baseball bat-shaped clubbed fist/arm/hand… thing, referred to by a boy as “The Ugly Man” and the underlying theme (lying so far under that you don’t even really know its there) is child abuse, because the kid lost a little league game and the coach – who ends up being the most cliche looking dude ever – beat him to near-death with a bat. You don’t really get that and, even knowing, as I did, that the episode featured this plot thread, it wasn’t noticeable, really, the whole time. Rather than care, even, I just wanted more time with The Master ham-fisting his way through every scene, being a badass by grabbing a cross, burning death for his kind. Also of note: the kid this week, Billy, has a better actor playing him than the Anointed One, a character who has been on screen through multiple episodes. Whoops.

As always, the music sucks, the effects are laughable, and the night scenes are too dark. The dream-cemetery sequence is noticeably lighter and more visible this time around, but not so much that it makes it worth it. Thankfully there is no major brawl in the graveyard this time to keep us all scratching our heads, wondering what in the world was going on the whole time. The supporting cast has little to do, some of the “nightmares” that come true are lame and uninteresting, and there are two new classmates that we get to know that are never to be named again. But to argue against a previous point a touch, one of the doctors in that hospital must fear a zombie-patient chasing them with defib paddles. Because that’s exactly what happens to him. Did I also mention that there were lame effects? Yes? Well, the scene with the giant flying bugs outside makes Birdemic look like quality cinema. Take that Joss Whedon!

Overall, this is just a “meh” episode that, in the end, yields nothing of great interest. There are some nice nods to things that come far later in the show, such as Buffy’s dad being kind of a douche and/or Giles’ statement that a “dream” would be a “musical comedy” (while “Once More With Feeling” isn’t necessarily a musical comedy so much as a musical drama, I feel it is still a hint-hint moment; its a known fact that a musical episode was a dream of Joss’ from the get-go. Note that “dream” in there?), but it really is of no consequence. The last episodes of the season are coming up and with them is a sense of the greater quality to come. There is some monumental stuff worth noting in regards to Buffy’s two encounters with the Master in this episode, but… well, we’ll get to that stuff, later.

Episode Rating: 76

Death Count: 31 (32 if you counted Buffy’s turning into a vampire, but it didn’t stick so it doesn’t count)
Annoying Scream Count: 18 (tons in this episode)

Additional Comments:
-We actually see Buffy in a class in this episode! Even if it was just a nightmare sequence, its nice to know that even going to class is something she’d only do in a bad dream.
-Giles being unable to read is horrifying and personally a nightmare of mine
-Xander’s fear of clowns is immediately squashed when he just pulls back and fucking decks that Bozo
-The M*A*S*H*-sounding music when Buffy walks alone, post-dad rant, is so awful it actually gave me cancer
-When/if a Slayer becomes a vampire, does she have increased strength?
-I have a note: “Buffy plays it right on both sides” but even rewatching the end of the episode, I have no clue what I meant
-When Xander’s clothes are gone or Willow’s outfit becomes that dress, did the molecules just shift? Or what happened to the clothes? When its over, they are wearing them again. So what happened?
-The Scoobies will get to know the school’s basement very,
very well in the seventh season…