Last week, I noted that the problem with "I Robot, You Jane" was that the episode had about a half-dozen potentially good ideas, and wasted nearly every one of them. This week, with "Nightmares," we have the case of an episode with a premise that doesn't seem initially like much more than an uninspired rehash of A Nightmare On Elm Street, but ends up going far deeper than expected. And yet it was still a mild disappointment to me, for reasons I'll get to shortly.
First the plot, which is all about nightmares coming to life. Xander literally shows up in class in his underwear (and later battles an evil clown); Willow has to perform an opera before an auditorium full of people; Giles loses his ability to read, and imagines that his ineptitude has led Buffy to get vampire-ized by The Master; and Cordelia well, she has frizzy hair. All of these waking dreams have one recurring character: Billy, a little leaguer who's been in a coma ever since his coach knocked him unconscious in retaliation for Billy blowing the big game. Once Billy regains consciousness and confronts his fear of "the ugly man" (a nightmare version of his coach), a new day dawns and everything's sunny in Sunnydale again. (Or as sunny as Sunnydale ever gets, anyway.)
My problems with "Nightmares" are as elusive as, well, nightmares themselves. For one, I don't think the performances are uniformly strong. Sarah Michelle Gellar has one heartbreaking moment when she talks with her dad–more on that in a moment–but by and large this is kind of an off episode for her and for the rest of the cast, as they either underplay or overplay the script's most dramatic moments. That script felt a little shapeless to me too, tying itself into knots trying to explain a strange phenomenon that could've easily have been left vague and mysterious. There's just an overall slackness to this episode that keeps it from entering the pantheon.
Which is too bad, because while the presentation is poor, the dish itself is sublime. "Nightmares" signals its intentions in one of its earliest scenes, as Buffy and the gang sit in class and learn about "active listening," and humanity's "fundamental need to be heard." It's no accident then that so many of the characters' nightmares have to do with communication and attention, and that the episode's most powerful scene involves Buffy being told by her nightmare-dad that, "You're sullen and rude and you're not nearly as bright as we wanted you to be," and that she's responsible for her parent's divorce.
Any TV or movie character can have a nightmare about a killer clown; it's the specificity of the nightmares in this episode that makes it so powerful. In one of the scenarios, The Master riffs on Disney by chirping "a dream is a wish your heart makes," and that line isn't just a joke. It's possible that Willow craves attention as much as she fears it, and that Xander really likes looking exposed and vulnerable in front of the whole school, and that Buffy would rather her parents and friends see her as a bad seed instead of a troubled savior.
In a way, "Nightmares" cannily subverts the Nightmare On Elm Street concept from its very first scene, in which Buffy is awakened from a bad dream by her mom, who tells her it's time for school. But as we know from the first nine episodes of this series, school in Sunnydale offers no respite from nightmares. From catty popular girls to literal monsters, the high school world in Buffy is as terrifying as anything our subconscious can spit up.
"Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight"
This episode too comes awfully close to being a classic, but can't quite overcome the same problems that "Nightmares" has: some erratic performances and a plot that's more busy than necessary. It's also another of the Monster Of The Week episodes in Season One that's a little too blunt about its metaphor.
The story is simple: Someone's been messing with Cordelia and all her friends. Someone who's invisible. Someone who turned invisible because–irony alert–nobody in school has ever paid any attention to her. (Even Willow and Xander signed the invisible girl's yearbook with ultimate insult: "Have a nice summer.") The logic of all this seems a little dicey–and the mechanics of invisibility are mostly ignored until the climactic fight between Buffy and Miss Invisible, when our heroine finally and belatedly gets the bright idea to use outside materials to make the invisible visible–but Clea DuVall plays the villain well in her handful of flashback scenes, and the episode's final shot of a classroom full of invisible girls in training for covert government operations is suitably creepy. So I'll forgive the on-the-nose-ness of this premise. Mostly.
Still, there are intimations of real depth in a few scenes here that I wish the episode had explored more fully. It's there in the literature class, where Cordelia reveals something fundamental about her worldview by complaining that Shylock's "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech in Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice is just the rambling of a whiner. It's there in the scene where the invisible girl stalks the boys' locker room–a pointed inversion of the usual invisibility fantasy in sci-fi and horror movies–and wallops Cordelia's boyfriend with a baseball bat. It's there in the interlude where Giles consults with Angel about the danger coming in the season finale, leading Giles to spend long stretches talking to Angel's absent reflection. And it's there in the scene where Buffy watches Cordelia try on her May Queen outfit, and she pines for a life she left behind to become a Slayer.
All of those scenes speak more subtly and wisely about high school society than the too-simple idea of a girl who vanishes due to inattention. The central contradiction of adolescence is that nearly every teenager feels like their problems and their lives are incredibly important, while also feeling that they could drop dead tomorrow and no one would really care, because no one really knows who they are. (Even Cordelia confesses to Buffy that she doesn't think the popular crowd she hangs with understands her, but that loneliness in a group is "better than being alone all by yourself.")
To that end, my favorite scene in this episode–and one of my favorite scenes of Season One–takes place in the hall between classes, as Xander and Willow share a private joke about Cordelia that they've obviously laughed at for years, and they fail to share it with their new friend Buffy. For a moment, Buffy's face registers the pain of feeling excluded even among the excluded, and we're reminded that her calling is always going to make her an outsider.
I probably wouldn't be as hard on the two episodes above if this week's trio didn't also include "Prophecy Girl," a sterling example of how to write and direct this show. (Well, mostly sterling–some of the storytelling is a little over-accelerated.) From the artful dissolves in the episode's opening and closing sequences to performances that feel more engaged, interactive and frequently heartrending, "Prophecy Girl" is an episode that knows exactly what it's doing and why. It looks right and feels right.
And no wonder–it's the last episode of Season One, and it's written and directed by the boss of all bosses, Joss Whedon. Most of "Prophecy Girl" has to do with wrapping up the first season's meta-plot and dispatching The Master, while also bringing back all the major characters and reiterating their significance. Cordelia, presumably softened up to Buffy and her cronies by the way they helped her out in "Out Of Sight," becomes integral to the action in "Prophecy Girl," delivering necessary warnings about the increased vampire activity around Sunnydale High, and even saving Willow's life at one point. Miss Calendar returns, to serve as Giles' peer and able assistant. And of course Angel is back, following up on his conversation with Giles in "Out Of Sight," and learning that according to the ancient texts, Buffy is doomed to die if she fights The Master. But if she doesn't fight him well, then the world will probably end.
It says something about the quality of this episode that its moments of highest drama have little to do with vampires. "Prophecy Girl" opens with Xander trying out his "go to the dance with me, Buffy" speech on Willow and completely muffing it, to her quiet delight. ("Buffy, the Spring Fling is a time for students to choose a mate and observe their mating rituals before they migrate.") When he finally screws up the courage to ask Buffy out, her rejection of him is painful, especially after the heartfelt way he says, "I want to dance with you." But it's almost more painful when Xander asks Willow out as compensation, and she turns him down too, not wanting to be his second choice anymore.
It also says something about the quality of this episode that Whedon includes so many scenes of people talking quietly with each other, without sacrificing any tension. (It helps that there are also ample scenes of menacing beasties emerging out of the mist). After Giles reads the prophecy, he's genuinely touched to see that Buffy's still alive the next morning, though when she finds out her fate, she's so freaked out that she insists that she's done with slaying for good. Later, she talks with her mother, who thinks Buffy is troubled by the upcoming Spring Fling dance, and tells a story about meeting Buffy's dad at a school dance that she went to by herself. ("You had your whole life ahead of you," Buffy whispers ruefully. "Must be nice.")
All of this chatter enriches the main action of "Prophecy Girl," in which Buffy does face off against The Master (in her prom dress, no less), and does die though she's revived by Xander, who grabbed a cross and forced his romantic rival Angel (over his dismissive objection that "you're out of your league, kid") to lead him to the Master's lair. A newly alive Buffy who feels "strong" and "different" (possibly because she's a vampire now? stay tuned for Season Two) struts back to Sunnydale High, where Willow, Cordelia, Giles and Miss Calendar have been holding off a horde of vampires, as well as a multi-tentacled creature that has emerged from a crack in the earth. (That sly come hither stare? It's Lovecraft.) Buffy arrives, stations Angel and Xander by the stairwell (where Xander worries that Angel is looking hungrily at his neck), and then heads up for a final confrontation with The Master that doesn't take very long to resolve.
As I said, my qualms about this episode are minor, and mainly have to do with the story feeling a little compressed. (Some of these scenes could've happened an episode or two ago, and would've left more room for old-school suspense.) I'm also not wild about the moment when Willow recalls seeing the student lounge littered with corpses and laments that, "It wasn't our world anymore." Too much overkill there, especially since none of our heroes spends even a moment mourning their dead classmates–not even Cordelia, whose boyfriend is among the victims. And anyway, Whedon makes the same point much better earlie in a single image: a TV in the lounge, playing Porky Pig cartoons, smeared with a single bloody handprint.
If you want one picture to sum up the mood and message of Buffy The Vampire Slayer's first season, that just may be it.
In response to my question about the first season's comprehensive opening credits, you readers pointed out that the entire first run of Buffy was in the can before the show premiered. You also reminded that no matter what writer's name is on any given episode, the final arbiter of what made it onto the screen in Season One was Joss Whedon. So why is the first season's quality so erratic? Perhaps because of the circumstances under which it was shot? Grinding out one episode after another, with no feedback and no sense of what's "playing," likely led Whedon and company to try a lot of different things, and to lose sight of some basics like a consistent tone and taut pace.
If there's one thing I've learned from nearly two decades of writing on deadline for public consumption, it's that momentum–combined with panic–is the key to maintaining standards in any creative endeavor. When you have no choice but to go the post, often you respond on pure instinct, and stick with what you know will work. You may still deliver something completely uninspired, but at least it'll be competent. And sometimes–more often than not–the demands of a deadline can prompt unexpected inspiration.
Some of that inspiration is plainly evident in these first season of Buffy episodes. I picture writers' room pitch sessions in which Whedon and the gang toss around ideas like "sexually voracious insect woman!" or "unpopular girl who literally becomes invisible!" and then I picture the assigned lead writer (or writers) for that script going home and finding more possibilities in that simple idea than they'd expected. (Or sometimes–as in "Puppet Show"–much less.) But I also picture them getting exhausted as production on these 12 episodes wore on, without a single episode having hit the air. I know that I use the constant stream of reader feedback–even the hate-filled screeds–to refine my efforts from day to day. I also know that there's something different between looking at a final draft on my word processor and seeing it up on a website or in print. You notice different things when you're reading something that's already been published; and I'm sure Whedon and his creative team noticed things about Buffy The Vampire Slayer once the show was actually being seen by millions that they couldn't have noticed in the privacy of their editing suites.
All of which is a way of saying that I'm very curious to see what lessons they learned heading into Season Two. My hope? They'll realize that they've tragically underused Willow.
I guess I'll start finding out next week.
-In "Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight," there's a great shot of Cordelia about to get her eye pierced by The Invisible Girl's blade. That's classic horror: the injury-to-the-eye motif. (Somebody roust Fredric Wertham!)
-Buffy's nightmare of having to take a test in a class she's forgotten to attend is one that I have myself fairly frequently. Some dream analysts will say that these recurring nightmares have to do with feelings of inadequacy and imposterdom. Me, I think it's because I was kind of a lousy student. I got good grades, but did as little as possible to get them, and in college I frequently skipped the maximum allowable number of classes per quarter. I've taken more than a few tests that I wasn't properly prepared for. (I even fell asleep in the middle of a final exam once, though I woke up in time to finish, and got a B for the course as I recall.) So for me, these aren't dreams–they're memories.