00:00 – 15:00
Welcome back to the Sunnydale High library, my fellow Scoobies.
Rupert Giles, the librarian who pulls double duty as Buffy Summers’ Watcher, is over there in his book cage, looking for some dusty ancient text probably bound in human skin. Willow Rosenberg, likely the smartest student at Sunnydale since that ventriloquist student lost his mind (literally), is over there, on the computer, pulling up the digital schematics of City Hall or the labyrinthine Sunnydale sewer system or something. No one is sure where Xander Harris and Buffy are, but they’ll show up at any moment. I mean, where else would they go?
Let’s get in our Wayback Machine (it’s up the stairs in the stacks, last aisle) and go back to May 1997. The day before this episode aired, a computer beat a World Chess Champion for the first time when IBM’s Deep Blue defeated Gary Kasparov in the final game of their famous rematch. This was considered a really big deal in artificial intelligence circles. I’ve lost almost every game I’ve played against non-super computers, so I failed to realize the import of this when it was first reported.
A couple of days before Deep Blue‘s big victory, the world’s first genetically modified three-parent baby was born. This is according to Wikipedia, I should add, since I find no corroboration from any other source. The rest of the internet seems to think this feat wasn’t accomplished until the 21st century.
Later this same week, on Thursday, May 15, the Spice Girls’ debut album, Spice, took over the #1 spot on US charts. They were the first British act to make this achievement with a first album. The group’s movie Spice World would be released in the theaters later this year in December. I remember it being at the same shopping center I was working at, not long after I moved to Arkansas the first time.
I feel obligated to add that I was never a Spice Girls fan, although I will reluctantly admit that “Wannabe” was a catchy tune that made me really, really, really wanna zigazig-ah.
“Nightmares” was written by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt, and it was directed by Bruce Seth Green, who is not the Seth Green we come to know as Oz later on. Bruce is also not related to that Seth Green, in case you’ve ever wondered. He did, however, direct the previous episodes, “Teacher’s Pet” and “The Pack.”
In the introductory teaser, we see Buffy Summers looking younger than ever in pigtails, and she’s inside the Master’s Lair. This reminds us, ten episodes into a twelve-episode season, that the gloriously hammy Mark Metcalf’s Nosferatu-like Master is our Big Bad of the season.
It seems like the Slayer has finally met her match. She freezes as the Master closes in upon her, about to sink his fangs into her neck, when suddenly . . .
Buffy wakes up in her bedroom. It was all a nightmare. Buffy’s mother, Joyce Summers, is there, telling her daughter that she has to get ready for school. Buffy seems uncharacteristically excited to go to school.
Joyce mentions that she talked to Buffy’s father on the phone. He’s coming this weekend to spend time with Buffy. This is a big deal, because we’ve conspicuously avoided talking about Buffy’s father this entire season. Her father is coming to Sunnydale, and we’re going to meet him for the first time.
At Sunnydale High School, Buffy talks about her dad with her friend Willow Rosenberg. Buffy’s not wearing pigtails in her waking life.
“Do you see your dad a lot?” Willow asks.
“Not a whole lot,” Buffy admits. “He’s still in L.A. He, like, comes down for weekends sometimes.”
“When did they get divorced?”
“It wasn’t finalized until last year. But, they were separated before that.”
You see how Mssrs. Whedon and Greenwalt did this? In a quick, simple exchange of dialogue, we all learned a lot of new information about Buffy, answering questions we may even have forgotten to ask during the highly episodic parade of episodes in this freshman season. As we may have suspected, Joyce and the as-yet-unnamed Buffy’s father are indeed divorced. Buffy says he comes down for weekend sometimes, but we haven’t seen him yet.
The always curious Willow asks why Buffy’s parents divorced. Here we find out something more troubling. Buffy believes that her getting into trouble at school, what with all the slaying and whatnot, contributed to her parents’ breakup.
Willow supports her friend, saying that she’s sure that Buffy had nothing to do with her father leaving. “And he still comes down on weekends,” Willow adds.
“Sometimes,” Buffy says. We haven’t met him yet. I’m just sayin’.
We cut to a classroom, where Cordelia Chase gives a student we’ve never seen before the business for standing in her light while she is applying her makeup. The new student is named Wendell. We find this out when Xander Harris enters the scene.
“Wendell, what’s wrong with you?” Xander asks. “Don’t you know that she’s the center of the universe and the rest of us merely revolve around her?”
Cordelia retorts, “Why don’t you revolve yourselves out of my light?”
Xander and Wendell take their seats. Willow and Buffy come into the classroom after the bell rings. Today’s lesson is going to be on active listening. Xander didn’t do his homework, it seems. Ms. Tishler, the teacher, talks about Isaacson’s research. According to Isaacson, she says, one of our most fundamental needs after food and shelter is to be heard.
I don’t know who Isaacson is.
Ms. Tishler calls on Wendell to read a couple of paragraphs from the chapter. Meanwhile, Buffy sees a young boy—who we will come to know as Billy—standing at the door, looking at her.
Wendell opens his book, then screams and drops it on his desk as several tarantulas begin to crawl out of it. The teacher and students quickly move away from Wendell, who is suddenly crawling with tarantulas himself. He pleads for someone to help him.
“Sorry about that,” the boy in the doorway says.
End of teaser. The opening credits roll over that rollicking theme music.
Okay, what was that all about? The sudden tribute to Arachnophobia was genuinely unexpected. At least, by me. Throw in the creepy boy and Buffy’s nightmares, and the viewer is left feeling unsettled. Something doesn’t feel exactly right about any of this.
And that’s okay. In fact, setting up story questions like this one—what J.J. Abrams’ refers to as “mystery boxes”—keeps the viewer’s interest. Keeps them watching, even after commercial breaks.
As we ease into Act I, we’re in the Master’s Lair once again. You remember the Master, don’t you? He’s the Big Bad of the season, who’s been trapped in a subterranean prison near the Hellmouth for a long, long time and is now trying to break free at last and bring Hell directly to Sunnydale, California.
The Master is sitting with Collin, the Anointed One, a young boy who is sort of the Master’s prophet. Maybe. Or, possibly the Master’s pet or mascot. It’s a little fuzzy in my mind.
The Master is lecturing Collin, letting him know that fear is the most powerful force in the human world. Even more powerful than love or hate. “We are defined by the things we fear,” the Master says. The vampire leader places his hand on a large cross that he keeps in his lair. An odd design choice for a vampire, but a nice visual in this scene.
“This symbol,” the Master says, “these two planks of wood—it confounds me. Suffuses me with mortal dread. But fear is in the mind.” The old vampire’s hand burns where it touches the cross. “Like pain,” he continues, “it can be controlled.” He lets go of the cross. “If I can face my fear, it cannot master me.”
The Master looks up. “Something is happening above. Something new. Powerful, psychic force. Do you feel it?”
“I feel change,” Collin says.
“Change, yes. For the worse.”
The camera pans up, through the ground, and then we’re at Sunnydale High School.
Including the Master and the Anointed One in the previous scene was a gentle reminder who the season’s Big Bad is supposed to be. Perhaps Big Bads, plural. Also, it suggests that whatever powerful psychic force is at work in Sunnydale, in this episode, is somehow related to the Master, although it really isn’t unless you consider that the common denominator is proximity to the Hellmouth.
Joyce Summers drops off her daughter Buffy at the front of the high school. It’s Friday, and Buffy is expecting her father to pick her up for school to begin their weekend together. Oh, no. Buffy forgot her overnight bag.
Not to worry. Joyce reassures Buffy that her dad can swing by their house so Buffy can get her bag after school.
Inside the school, in the single hallway we’re allowed as a location this season, Buffy meets Willow and Xander. Buffy’s friends want to talk about the spiders in Ms. Tishler’s class. Turns out that spiders give Willow the heebie-jeebies.
Xander seems mostly unperturbed about the incident. He tells Buffy: “If there’s something bad out there, we’ll find, you’ll slay, we’ll party!”
The Scooby Gang enters the library. Buffy calls out for Giles, who emerges from the stacks, looking more befuddled than usual. He says he got lost. I suspect he’s not being hyperbolic.
Giles tells the others that he couldn’t find anything particularly illuminating about spiders coming out of books. He suggests it may be best if they have a chat with Wendell himself about it. As the gang leaves the library, Giles looks back at the stacks, still looking confused.
Something’s not right with Giles either.
Buffy, Xander and Willow talk to Wendell outside. Turns out he doesn’t hate spiders the way Willow does. In fact, he loves them. He once had the best collection of spiders in the tri-county area. Then, while he was away at wilderness camp, his brother left the heat lamp on in their habitats for a week, and all of them were dead when he returned from camp. After that, he began having the nightmares.
“The nightmares?” Willow asks, helpfully.
“It’s always the same,” Wendell says. “I’m sitting in the classroom. Teacher asks me to read something. I open up my book and then there they are. They’re coming after me. God, can you blame them after what I did?”
When it happened for real, Wendell thought he’d just nodded off again, until everyone else began screaming.
We cut to the next scene. This is Buffy’s history class, and she’s having a test she didn’t prepare for. This is a familiar nightmare situation, isn’t it? I remember having dreams like this, having to take a test I didn’t prepare for. Cordelia is in the same class, breezing her way through the test while Buffy’s pages remain blank. Time passes too quickly. Buffy’s pencil breaks as she tries to fill in the blank for her name on the test, the one answer she knows.
As everyone else is turning their completed tests in to the teacher, Buffy remains in her seat. That creepy kid from the spider scene appears at the door and looks in. He looks sad as he turns and walks down the hall. Buffy remains alone in the empty classroom at her desk.
The boy, Billy, comes across two girls talking in the hall. One of the girls, Laura, stops in front of the basement door and indicates to her friend that she’s going to take a smoke break. She goes into the basement alone and her friend leaves.
Billy says, softly, “You shouldn’t go in there.” Billy’s alter-ego is Captain Obvious. Bad girl sneaking away to have an illicit smoke. What could go wrong? Have these high schoolers never watched a horror movie?
Laura walks down the stairs into the dark, foreboding basement and lights up a cigarette.
When I was in high school, kids, the students had their own smoking area. So did the teachers, of course. They could smoke in the teachers’ lounge. Times have changed. You’ve all either wisely chosen not to smoke, or you sneak into high school basements, especially if your high school boasts a higher murder rate than many cities.
Someone we’ll come to know as the Ugly Man, a deformed monster with a club for an arm and a terribly scarred face, emerges from behind Laura as she lights up.
“Lucky Nineteen!” the Ugly Man says, as he begins to beat Laura with his deformed arm.
It is at this point that we reach the end of Act I. We are also at the 15-minute mark, which signals the end of part one of this DeepWatch of “Nightmares.”
Another effective act break, as a wholly unexpected monster appears, shouting the seemingly nonsensical “Lucky Nineteen!” Okay, this episode is somehow about nightmares. It’s right there in the title. And there has been a surrealistic, nightmarish vibe about the episode so far.
To wit: Buffy dreams about the Master killing her. She’s nervous because her dad is coming for a rare visit, and she seems to be concerned that he might not show up. Wendell opens up a book in class and is covered in spiders. Buffy has a test she never prepared for. And this creepy Billy kid keeps showing up. What’s that all about? Finally, a real monster with a club for an arm attacks a girl who sneaked away into the basement to grab a quick smoke.
And there was something slightly off-kilter about Giles in the library as well. Right?
Join me next time and we’ll pick up with the beginning of Act II. You know where to meet me.