FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Fear, Itself
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy has been royally used and dumped by manipulative campus bicycle, Parker Abrams, Willow has been dabbling more and more in the magical arts and Xander is back living in his parents' basement and forming a tentative relationship with Anya.
Buffy Halloween episodes, appearing in even seasons, are always a treat; one of the in-Buffyverse jokes is that Halloween, the one night ghosts and ghouls are supposed to walk the earth, is actually a complete snorefest for the demonic and the undead. Thus begins Fear, Itself as a moping Buffy continues to mourn her treatment at the hands of Parker by trying to avoid life and a Halloween party. Giles reminds her that nothing ever happens on Halloween and so she dresses up and heads out to a frat house party as Little Red Riding Hood with James Bond (Xander), Joan of Arc (Willow) and God (Oz, obviously). However, frat boys being idiots, a demonic symbol they paint on the dancefloor triggers a summoning spell for the demon, Gachnar.
The gang's fears made manifest is something that the show has explored before, way back in the first season episode, Nightmares, when the gang's bad dreams came to life. It's an effective way of doing some character leg work and the show's maturity is evidenced here as Fear, Itself is a lot stronger in using the central conceit. Not only do we get several character arcs explored here through their respective fears, it also begins to sow the seeds for the rest of the season and seasons beyond that. For what appears on the surface to be a simple standalone episode like the excellent Halloween, Fear, Itself is another great example of how the show uses monsters-of-the-week to propel along the wider narrative arcs.
Chiefly, it's Buffy's episode as she's still coming to terms with another guy in her life walking away from her and leaving her behind. Connecting back to Nightmares, it's a fear that has built since her parents' divorce. If you remember, back in that episode, her first nightmare is that she is to blame for her father leaving and he tells her so in quite a malicious way. The post-Parker depression brings this all back, especially in light of Angel leaving on Graduation Day. It's a common thread throughout the series as a whole and is hammered home once again that no matter how many times her friends rush to help her, she feels she will be left to face her life alone, distanced by her Slayer powers or a mercurial sense that something is wrong with her. Much has been made of Buffy's isolation in the first three episodes of this series and it's still kind of repetitive, but the rest of the episode is so much fun that you can't really help but get swept along in it.
The other major character work here, albeit in a smaller and less obvious way, is that of Oz. Oz's manifesting fear is that he will lose control of the wolf within him and he starts to transform in the house, hurting and abandoning Willow in the process. The scene of him cowering, almost weeping as he chants "you're not gonna change" is the most emotion we've ever seen from the usually unflappable Oz and it's almost traumatic in its rawness. We always knew Seth Green could handle Oz's deadpan one liners with aplomb, but he deserves more credit for consistently nailing the more emotional side of the character when it appears. Given this fear is something that'll be increasingly important in the first half of the season, it's a sad foreshadowing to glimpse it now.
For Xander and Willow, their fears tap into something that is a continuation of old fears and the beginning of new ones respectively. Xander is still feeling isolated from his friends; back in school it was because he had no real physical strength or supernatural powers with which to contribute (see The Zeppo for details) and now, it's because he's not with them at college. He becomes invisible and ignored, the others bemoaning him for abandoning them. In later seasons, he comes to accept his role as the heart of the group, but it's the fourth season that really starts to cement that as his role from now onwards.
Willow's little nightmarish moment is a really interesting one to rewatch in the context of what happens in later seasons. After the opening credits, the episode begins with her discussing her desire to learn more about magic and continue her experimentation with spells. Both Buffy and Oz advise caution, but she ignores them and performs a spell for the lost in the haunted house; her fear is that she will not be able to control it and so it proves as the resultant little green balls of light start to drive her mad. Willow's path to magic addiction is paved with good intentions, the beginnings of which are seen here, both in her desire to help, but also her inability to resist magic's allure. It's effective foreshadowing once again and repeated viewings of the episode are richer for it.
With all the seriousness dealt with, focus has to turn to just how funny this episode is and how willing it is to experiment with the traditional grandiose formula of villain reveals. The build-up to Gachnar's arrival is perfectly pitched with the soaring score, Anthony Head's dramatic warnings and Buffy's hesitancy to fight what sounds like an awesome and powerful demon... who also happens to be about four inches tall. It's a hilarious moment, a classic example of the kind of subversion the show constantly played with, as well as leading up to one of the best episode punchlines: "actual size."
And yet, there's also something more to be said about the wider themes going on in the fourth season and the appearance of tiny little Gachnar. The episode isolates the characters to face their own fears, but it is only once they are all together again that these fears begin to ease. In its own, quirky way, the show reiterates the point that Joyce makes to Buffy earlier in the episode; she's never alone because she has her friends and from them, she draws her strength. It's something that'll be taken quite literally when the gang take on the season's Big Bad, but it's also another reminder that the Scoobies will always work best together.
Quote of the Week:
Xander: Prepare to have your spines tingled and your gooses bumped by the terrifying... Fantasia... Fantasia?
Oz: Maybe it's because of all the horrific things we've seen, but hippos wearing tutus just don't unnerve me the way they used to.
Inventive Kill: Buffy squishes Gachnar under her sneaker.
Let's Get Trivial: It's the first time that the running gag of Anya fearing bunnies is mentioned. It will come to the fore again in her showstopping rock number in Once More With Feeling.
You can read Becky's review of The Harsh Light of Day here.