Most of season 1 episodes featured monsters as metaphorical representations of real life high-school problems. In this episode, the fears of the characters are literally made real, while the real monster/villain of the episode is (for the first time in the show) a regular human – and a very prosaic one, not a serial killer or mastermind criminal but an over-competitive and abusive a little league coach who beat up a child and put him in a coma because of a lost game - and instead of being slayed, he gets his comeuppance by being handed to the human authorities and sent to jail. It’s not the first or the last time that the ruthless competitiveness of parents or coaches who push or abuse children or teenagers in order to fulfill their ambitions has been the theme of the show (“Witch”, the dodgeball scene in “The Pack”, “Go Fish”). It’s interesting that the previous episode, “The Puppet Show”, had a demon villain that the Scoobies mistook for a human, while this one has the opposite – the apparent (but imaginary) villain for most of the episode was “The Ugly Man”, a monstrous-looking representation of the coach, with his inner ugliness embodied by his horror-movie looks, created by the mind of Billy, the little boy in coma whose mind created the nightmares.
Of course, the most interesting part of the episode are the nightmares themselves. “Your worst fears made flesh” is hardly a new concept in SF/F (and will be used once again on the show in season 4 “Fear Itself”) but it gives an opportunity for both entertaining scenes and revealing character moments. Some of the character’s fears are quite trivial and are there to provide some fun (Cordelia’s greatest fear is to have awful hair, be dressed as a dork and be dragged by a bunch of nerds into the chess club; a ‘tough guy’ has his mom suddenly visit him in school and embarrass him in front of his friends), others, like most of Buffy’s nightmares or Giles’s biggest nightmare, which we see later on in the episode, are far darker and more serious. Some of the nightmares turn out to be more complex and revealing than they first appear – this is the case with Wendell, a school boy who appears only in this episode, whose fear of spiders turns out not to be a case of arachnophobia, but a result of his feelings of guilt over the deaths of his pet spiders that he loved, even though it was his brother who was responsible that they burned. (Wendell could have an interesting chat with season 8 Buffy, who seemed to suffer from a similar case of self-blame, if #10 “A Beautiful Sunset” and “Always Darkest” are anything to go by, only more serious since it wasn’t about pet spiders.) Willow’s stage fright is quite common, but fitting for her, with her shyness and insecurity; Xander’s first nightmare of being naked in front of a bunch of people is also very common dream (which shows the feeling of being vulnerable and exposed), while his fear of the clown who was at his 6th birthday and scared the hell out of him when he was a child seems both trivial at first glance, and unoriginal (scary clowns are also a popular theme in fantasy/horror) – however… Later in the show we learn that Xander's home life was far from happy and that his family was dysfunctional and his father abusive (and there’s a little hint about that at the end of this episode – his remark that he knows from experience how ruthless it can be in the little league and that he’s only surprised that it wasn’t one of the parents who beat up the kid). Xander being afraid of a clown from his childhood hints that he hasn't gotten over his childhood issues (Xander is acting especially childishly in those scenes – he is lured to the clown by a trail of chocolates, as in a fairytale)... and how fitting is it that his boogeyman is a clown (someone that should be funny on the surface but is scary and disturbing underneath, in Xander's view), when Xander himself is someone who uses jokes to hide his own demons?
Buffy’s first nightmare is extremely common as well – failing a test, which is generally taken as a manifestation of the fear of being unprepared (it’s interesting that it’s again history that she’s failing – one would think it’s exactly the subject that could help her in her calling). It gets a lot more serious when Buffy’s father comes to see her and tells her that she was a great disappointment to him and the reason her and Joyce divorced, and that he doesn’t want to see her anymore. It’s heartbreaking to watch even though it’s obvious that it isn’t real: the Hank Summers that appears in Buffy’s nightmare is apparently just a representation of him, not the real Hank who appears at the end of the episode. It’s not that uncommon for children to blame themselves for the divorce of their parents, but it turns out to be a very revealing moment for Buffy, since abandonment issues are going to plague her throughout the show, all through season 8 – the feeling that people, men in particular, are always leaving her because there is something wrong with her, which she will trace back to her father in “Conversations with Dead People”. (In “Nightmares”, we learn that Joyce and Hank’s explanation for Buffy was that they had just grown apart, but in CWDP Buffy says that she thinks it was really because Hank cheated on Joyce.) It doesn’t look like a coincidence that a nightmare involving abandonment by her own father, Buffy’s next nightmare is meeting the Master over ground (who is a dark paternal figure, a cruel, authoritarian and evil “father” ), being buried alive, and then becoming a vampire, the very thing she is fighting against. Buffy hasn’t really met the Master (and won’t until Prophecy Girl), she’s only seen him in her prophetic Slayer dreams. It is a little weird that one of the things Imaginary Master says to her is that she’s prettier than the last Slayer – of course, it doesn’t matter than the real Master probably didn’t meet the last Slayer since he was underground for so long (who is a product of her subconscious mind, just like Imaginary Hank was – the reality bends to the imagination, a graveyard appears in the middle of the street and it is night around Buffy while it’s daytime in other parts of Sunnydale), you have to wonder where that came from – was it a reminder of past Slayers that died, Buffy’s need to get some sort of compliment from a ‘father’ figure, is she even seeing the monster she fears as some sort of latent sexual threat. (Did I just use the words “The Master” and “sexual” in the same sentence? The sound you’re hearing is me and Buffy screaming “ewww” in unison. ;) ) For Buffy’s other father figure, Giles, one of his fears is losing the ability to read – which isn’t trivial since it means, for him, being useless and unable to perform his duty and help Buffy – and his biggest nightmare is her death – and the touching speech he gives over her grave confirms how attached he has become to her and that he feels that protecting her is his duty.
The Master has a small but interesting scene where he’s mentoring the Anointed One and teaching him about overcoming one’s fears – and demonstrates it by grabbing a huge cross and holding it for a while (again we see that crosses are not mortally dangerous to vampires – it burns his flesh for a while but then it stops; we don’t get an explanation why they have this effect in the non-religious Buffyverse world, the Master only says that the cross is a symbol that “confounds him”). Ironically the villain is the one to introduce the ‘lesson’ of the episode: Xander defeats the clown as soon as he tells him he’s not scary, Buffy doesn’t resolve her fear of the Master in this episode (it only happens in the season finale) but she faces and defeats the Ugly Man, who at first “confounds” her because he’s something she hasn’t had to deal before: everyday human evil; and Billy wakes up and stops the nightmares by finding the strength to accuse his abuser, the coach.
Other observations: Willow’s family life seems to be no better than Buffy’s, or maybe worse – her parents don’t fight, but instead just keep their resentment inside and stare at each other. Willow and Xander both have dysfunctional families, which is a good way to explain why they’re spending so much time with Buffy and Giles and why we never see their parents.
The episode ends with Xander admitting he still found Buffy attractive as a vampire and calling himself sick – which is interesting considering how much he would criticize Buffy throughout the show for her attraction to vampires. Earlier on we see that he has a crush on yet another teacher (he’s not just into demons but also into older women – another similarity with Buffy?).
Willow has a picture of herself and Giles on her locker door (a hint that she had a bit of a crush on Giles, which she will admit in season 4?), together with a poster for Nerf Herder (the band that plays the Buffy theme song).
The Master is dressed in a Nazi-like black uniform, and we get yet another mention of fascism (Xander says he’s not afraid of spiders but would be if a bunch of Nazis crawled all over his face).
Recurring characters introduced: Hank Summers, Buffy’s elusive dad, who will appear rarely through the first couple of seasons and then later disappear from Buffy’s life.
Buffy (to the Ugly Man): “There are a lot scarier things than you – and I’m one of them!”
Xander (referring to Wendell's love for spiders): "It's platonic, right?"
Inconsistencies: Buffy’s birth year is now 1981, according to the inscription on her grave. Maybe her file was just wrong?
Pop culture references: Several references to children’s movies and TV shows: The Muppet Show (Willow is using “to Gonzo” as a verb), Disney’s Cinderella (Imaginary Master quotes the song: “A dream is a wish your heart makes” in a much darker context), The Wizard of Oz. Willow compares Cordelia to Evita Peron.
Buffy destroying English language: 1 - She says “asteroid body” instead of “astral body”. Xander thinks “arachnids” are people from the Middle East.
Shirtless scenes: Xander, during his nightmare. (Total so far: 2: Angel 1, Xander 1.)
Foreshadowing: Giles’s remark “That would be a musical comedy version of this” now makes you think of “Once More, With Feeling”, which will have a callback to “Nightmares” (one of the theories in OMWF was that a kid was dreaming and they were all stuck in his wacky Broadway nightmare).
Buffy’s grave we see in the nightmare foreshadows the end of season 5, while Buffy digging her way out of her own grave foreshadows her resurrection in “Bargaining”, when she had to do exactly that. Her death (?) at the hands of the Master in her nightmare foreshadows the season finale.
Buffy’s biggest fears don’t seem to have changed much from season 1 to season 4 (“Fear, Itself) and even season 8 (her dream in the Whedon-written supplemental e-comic “Always Darkest”): abandonment (by her father in “Nightmares”; by her friends in “Fear Itself”; by her lovers); the guilt/self-blame (her father tells her it’s her fault; in “Always Darkest” Spike and Angel blame her for their respective deaths in “Chosen” and “Becoming II” while Caleb tells her they won’t bother with her because she’s a “dirty girl”); and the fear that she will become or is becoming a monster herself or that this is where she belongs (being buried alive and becoming a vampire in “Nightmares”; getting stuck with the bunch of zombies and unable to move in “Fear, Itself”; marrying skinless Warren – with Caleb as the minister and various monsters in attendance – in “Always Darkest”).