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“You still don’t understand, do you? I am free because you fear it. Because you fear it, the world is crumbling. You nightmares are made flesh.”

We haven’t visited the Master in a couple of episodes and the season is almost over, so we find our Slayer doing a little underground reconnaissance in the Mater’s lair. She’s proceeding with caution but the Master still surprises her. The scuffle is brief. Buffy ends up on the wrong end of it. The Master leans in to take a bite and the Slayer can’t seem to resist him.

And she wakes up yelling as Joyce is trying to rouse her for school. There’s not a lot of subtlety in this episode. It’s called “Nightmares,” it’s about literal nightmares, the characters have nightmares. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, you know?

TMAS, Willow asks after Buffy’s father, who is due in for a weekend visit. We get more background on the Summers’ divorce ““ Buffy had just found out she was the Slayer and was handling it poorly, her parents were already on the rocks. They said she wasn’t the reason they got divorced, but this is the ’90s. Everyone knows that’s what parents are supposed to say. Buffy is clearly carrying around a lot of guilt.

The girls meet up with Cordelia (being bitchy), Xander (being sarcastic), and one of this episode’s red shirts, Wendell. Buffy notices a kid hanging around the classroom door just as Wendell opens his textbook ““ releasing dozens of tarantulas into the room. Everyone starts screaming, but Wendell is screaming loudest of all.

Underground, the Master is hanging out with the Anointed One, shooting the breeze since the sun is up and the Master can’t leave his underground church anyway. Shooting the breeze for two evil vampires consists of talking about what other evil things are going on in Sunnydale. (Gawker site re-design.) There’s some new psychic force in town that has potential to really mess some people up and the Master is pleased by this disturbance in the force; he thinks there’s a way to use this to their own ends.

TNMAS, Joyce mentions Buffy’s father’s visit again and the Buffster admits she is sometimes afraid he won’t bother to show up. Buffy did not see the title of this episode or she’d know better than to articulate anything she’s afraid of.  Joyce reassures Buffy that her dad is going to show up.

In the library, the gang finds Giles stumbling out the stacks, confused and flustered. He hasn’t found out anything about the incident in class. With Giles out of the research biz, the gang heads off to talk to Wendell about the spider thing.

Wendell admits that this wasn’t the first time he was swarmed by spiders. It’s happened before, but only in his dreams. He thought he was dreaming again until everyone else in class started screaming too. It’s not that he’s afraid of spiders, you see, he loves them, but his spiders were accidentally killed when he went away for a couple of days. He has these guilt nightmares about it now “¦

Cordelia interrupts Wendell’s story to remind Buffy about their history test, which Buffy has completely forgotten about. Nor can she remember where the class is. And she knows none of the questions on the test. Girl, I have been there. My stress dreams often take the shape of “that class you took but never showed up to and now you have to take the test.” Or they’re “you accidentally killed someone and need to hide the body because no one will believe its not your fault.” Everyone has those dreams. Right? Right? Only me?

Buffy catches sight of the kid from the day before watching her from the doorway again. He’s way too young to be hanging out in the high school, not that anyone else seems to see him anyway.

In the crowded hallway, a couple of nameless Sunnydale students are in between classes. One of the girls slips into the basement to have a smoke. She’s not alone ““ a hulking figure with a mangled club of an arm is there too. We don’t have to watch while she gets beaten, but we can hear her screaming.

Giles and Buffy visit redshirt Laura in the hospital. She can’t tell them too much, but she does remember that the guy called her “˜Lucky 19’. It’s the only clue they have, not that it’s helpful. On the way out of the hospital, Laura’s doctor mentions she’s the second victim of this guy; the first one is still in a coma.

Cordelia goes to chess club.The nightmares seem to be happening with more frequency. A high school tough is visited by his middle-aged mother, full of hugs and smooches. Xander walks into class and discovers he’s (mostly) naked. Cordelia checks out her hair in a mirror to find it’s become a rat’s nest.  Giles doesn’t remember how to read ““ not anything, in any of the five languages he knows.

And then Buffy’s dad shows up. This is the first time Mr. Summers appears on screen and he looks ““ well, like I expected him to look, a blandly attractive middle-aged dude. He’s not supposed to show up until after school, but he really needs to talk to Buffy. Right now. Alone. They take a little walk and Mr. Summers lets Buffy know she’s a horrible daughter. He expected a smart kid, a nice kid, an obedient kid, and she’s kind of dumb, kind of stupid, and always getting into trouble. Of course her parents got divorced; who’d want to wake up to Buffy every day? It’s a brutal scene. This is a hundred times worse than being naked or forgetting the answers to a history quiz. SMG looks like she’s going to completely lose it.

Buffy is just hit with nightmare after nightmare. Everyone else has one or two moments, tiny weaknesses that are exposed, but the Slayer is completely pummeled. So much is made of Buffy’s strengths over the course of the series that we often forget what she really is: a teenager. She’ll turn 16 this season and 17 next ““ the ages where we question who we are, what we’re going to become. We see a lot of resistance to Buffy’s destiny to the second question but we rarely see the uncertainty. And that’s what’s exposed here, over and over again. Fears about not being strong enough, not smart enough, not good enough, that her life is destroying her family, that being the Slayer is a death sentence. We rarely see this glimpse into Buffy’s doubts. After watching this episode again, I kind of wish it had been revisited more. We know how lonely being the Slayer is, but this is a story about how scary it can be.

Giles has finally put together what’s going on. The kid in the coma, Billy, has projected his dreamworld out into Sunnydale and everyone in town is getting sucked into it.

Speaking of Billy, Buffy sees him again and this time goes to talk to him, getting his story. In the real world, Billy plays baseball. His team lost the last game and someone blamed him for it. Not that he’s willing to name names. Or that he has time to ““ the big monster is back and Buffy isn’t strong enough to fight him. They run right from daylight Sunnydale into nighttime Sunnydale cemetery.

Bad move, Buffy. The Master is there, free, because Buffy is afraid that the Master will get free. She fears it, it comes true. She’s afraid of being buried alive too, so the Master tosses her in a grave and fills it in.

Xander, Willow, and Giles have split up to find Buffy. Never a good idea. Xander gets attacked by the scary clown from his 6th birthday party. Willow gets dragged onto a stage to perform an opera she doesn’t know the words to. Giles is, uh, doing something. Running around. Getting sweaty. Whatever it is that tweedy librarians are afraid of.  Xander pops the clown in his face, which makes it two weeks in a row that Xander assaults creepy circus performers. And two weeks in a row they deserved it.

Vamp Buffy

They find the cemetery, which is kind of hard to miss, because it’s a giant portal to the nighttime world across the street from the high school. And they find Buffy, because there’s a gravestone with her name on it. Every watcher’s nightmare. Buffy digs her way out of the grave and everyone is happy for approximately two twitches of a lamb’s tail, because she’s turned into a vampire. Buffy just can not win today.

Everyone tramps off to the hospital to find Billy. He’s there, both in his real comatose body and in his dream self. He’s terrified. The monster has shown up again. But that’s ok, because if there’s something that makes Buffy feel better on a really shitacular day, it’s beating the snot out of the bad guys. Vamp Buffy manages to get the monster subdued, but Billy is the only one who can end this. He reaches down to pull the monster’s mask off ““ and they’re all back in the real world. Billy is awake. Buffy is a real girl again. And the monster ““ well, we find out who that is, too. Billy’s Little League coach beat him for losing the game last week. Giles and Xander keeps the coach from running off.

Everything is right again in Sunnydale. Cordelia’s hair is back to normal. Buffy’s dad picks her up for their weekend visit. Xander remains clothed.

But there’s always next week.

Bonus Material:

In the interest of fairness, I decided that Cordelia’s nightmare-related nerd get up is not a contender for worst outfit. That’s just cheating. Instead, I present to you the return of Xander’s hideous shirts. He’ll be assaulting your eyes like this for the next two seasons.

Xander dresses poorly.

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