Of course the episode with the traumatized kid has a story by Joss Whedon. “Nightmares” is one of season one’s stronger entries, though it doesn’t hang together perfectly. It feels a bit like two halves of different sandwiches; they line up, but they still don’t match. (One of those halves is the Master, and the other half is the nightmare plot, in which the Master essentially has a meaningful cameo.) But what matters is the affecting character work “Nightmares” does in between the scenes featuring the eerie child who looks like but definitely is not a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
In hindsight, it’s kind of funny how little the Master has to do with this season. He’s as close as it gets to a Big Bad, but he has none of the presence of later Big Bads; he’s more of a lurking shadow than a constant threat. The boogieman is out there! He just can’t get you yet. For an establishing season, this makes a lot of sense. You don’t want to tear out of the gate with super-charismatic villains, and there needs to be room for the ensemble to blend, and for the central characters to establish themselves outside of the primary conflict.
This season’s primary conflict isn’t the Master, anyway. It’s life versus work, fun versus responsibility, doing what you have to versus doing what everyone thinks you’re supposed to. It’s figuring out what your life means for you, even if you have a destiny. The Master’s just a big symbol of all the darkness that destiny can hold.
But that doesn’t mean he’s not scary. “Nightmares” starts with Buffy dreaming that she’s in the sewers, in an outfit that’s a nifty reversal of what she wears when she really goes down to face him: black leather and braids. So practical, yet so not iconic. The hand on her shoulder isn’t the Master, but just Joyce, waking Buffy up for school. Which has its own horrors. So much of this episode is about the power of a child’s fear—which is why the first nightmare, the actual nightmare, is Buffy’s. Her fear is powerful too.
Season 1, Episode 10, “Nightmares”
Story by: Joss Whedon
Teleplay by: David Greenwalt
Directed by: Bruce Seth Green
Original airdate: Monday, May 12, 1997
Rewatch date: Friday, May 12, 2017
“If there’s something bad out there, we’ll find, you’ll slay, we’ll party.”