Season One, Episode Ten

Dream a little dream with me.

Nightmares: The Review

Where the wild things are.

With three episodes remaining in the first season, the show takes the direct approach to the exploration of the central themes upon which it is founded. As a result, Nightmares uses simple declaration rather than suggestion to present its purpose. Foremost is the coming mortal battle with The Master, which dominates Buffy's unconscious and, through the agency of Billy Palmer, begins to palpably affect her conscious, life. Secondary is the evocation of the theme of a collaborative reality: individuals contribute to the common, but illusory, perception of reality in Sunnydale, and Buffy has the special ability, in effect, to wake people to the "real". Tertiary is the theme of fatality: the nightmare world is repetitive, cyclical, closed and inescapable, but Buffy has the ability to break the preordained order.

It is not necessary to list the possible influences on the story: they are too numerous and obvious, everything from Nightmare on Elm Street to It's a Good Life, starring Billy Mumy as Anthony Fremont in the classic episode of The Twilight Zone, with Ursula K. LeGuin's Lathe of Heaven as a lineal antecedant.The oneiropompist who has the ability to shape reality with his will is a favorite subject in one or another form. The nightmare is an intrusion from Hell, and Sunnydale is built on the Hellmouth, whence emanate the evil dreams.

Failed assay.

The episode hits upon practically every common form of performance anxiety that plagues the dreamer: Buffy shows up late for a test, for which she has not studied and in a class that she doesn't recollect having attended; Xander walks into a classroom in his underwear; Willow has to sing Italian opera in front of a select audience, magnifying the horrific experience of The Puppet Show many times over; Giles loses his ability to read; tough guys are humiliated by their fawning mothers; perhaps cruelest of all, Cordelia is turned into a chess club member on a bad hair day. All of these are played for laughs. More terrible, however, is the Ugly Man, the creature with the clubbed arm, who batters children. It is here that the episode becomes serious, as it takes the extrinsic reality of the nightmare existence of the battered child and mixes it in with the harmless and amusing minor insecurities that bedevil everybody, and it is here that the metaphorical evils to which the viewers have become accustomed are overshadowed by an evil that is all too real. The carefully created and maintained fictional surface, which provides an insulating intellectual and emotional distance between the viewers and the show's violence, is shattered. The episode becomes less of a drama and more of dramatized public service announcement about a particularly hateful crime. The artificial world, inhabited by the characters and operated by rules of allegorical correspondence between the external and internal realities, is ruptured by the naked fact of abuse. Basically, the snow globe is dropped and broken, and the viewer can no longer contemplate the inner completeness and imaginary self-containment with pleasurable detachment. The fact of child abuse is not transformed artistically, and thus it destroys the work into which it intrudes. The characters are diminished by this contact. The crime is itself trivialized in the process.

With the disruption of the show's fictional integrity, one is left with a series of statements about the show and its characters that stand apart as commentaries, but which have only hypothetical interest, lacking all dramatic impact. Buffy's fear of paternal abandonment, of an early death at the hands of The Master, and her greatest fear, of becoming a vampire herself, are displayed, but the revelations are simply paraded across the stage without any attempt to render them artfully: they do not involve the viewers. It is merely a recitative, a reading of a laundry list of doubts. The episode plays as if it were its own synopsis.

The interesting problem of a collaborative reality in Sunnydale is given its most forthright, and consequently least effective, exposition in Nightmares. There can be no doubt after this episode that the show has taken the position that the willing suspension of disbelief by the viewers is matched by a participation by the citizens of Sunnydale in the creation of a common delusion, one in which the horrors that permeate their world are willed out of sight and out of mind. In Nightmares, the communal process is dominated by a single will, Billy's, and individuals project their fears into Sunnydale, but the common experience continues, everyone sharing the experiences of each. When the dreamer wakes, the town's sense of manufactured peace is restored. Buffy, as the arbiter of reality, the one person capable of releasing Sunnydale from Billy's power, becomes the dominant personality by default. The Hellmouth, the viewers are to believe, is the source of the power by which will asserts itself in solid form and community expresses itself in blind acceptance. This philosophical view of experience is a fascinating basis for drama, but the usage in this episode is too literal, leaving one with understanding but little appreciation. The unstated formula, as it is worked out in other episodes, is far more compelling and convincing.

In Sum

Nightmares attempts to address with earnest disapproval a real world horror within the framework of the symbolical universe of the show, but it succeeds only in presenting itself an intractable mare's nest of self-contradicting factors, which serves neither dramatic interest nor social conscience. The episode is dogged by an inimical sense of the mundane.

Horace LaBadie

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