And so to the coda of Season 4, and Joss’s dreams obsession coming to a head (or lungs or heart or hands). This episode has been criticised, and I would agree that it’s a little self-indulgent, but, heck, Whedon had made 77 excellent episodes of BTVS and was confident that the series would be around for at least another 44. So, much of the content of this episode is hints and foreshadowing, or simply ideas that were paid off in the next two series. Less of a coda than a codex, perhaps.
So, the gang are still wired from defeating Adam and they retire to Joyce’s house (where much of the action in the next season is set) to watch videos and to promptly fall asleep. We open with Willow’s dream and some beautiful shots of Miss Kitty Fantastico (RIP). Willow has come a long way since we first met her aged 15, but her dream shows her inner insecurities. We start with an intimate scene: Willow painting calligraphy onto Tara’s naked back. The text is, aptly, a poem by Sappho, but my reading is that Willow sees Tara as a blank canvas to project onto – with Tara she can carry out her incantations, she feels secure in her witch identity (her real self?) with her girlfriend. But there is a (false?) hint that Tara is not all she seems. “You don’t know everything about me,”, she tells Willow - intimating that the real Tara will appear in S5. The concept of the real self continues as Willow arrives in drama class - playing herself. It was interesting that in The Yoko Factor, Willow told Tara that she was thinking of taking a drama class next semester. We saw in The Puppet Show and Nightmares just how terrified Willow is of being on stage, of being seen, noticed. Her relationship with Tara makes her feel so safe and confident that she believes she has overcome her shyness enough to feel her fear and do it anyway. But her dream tells her that she is wrong – the bizarre version of Death of a Salesman (which appears like a particularly bad Pinter play rather than Arthur Miller, although the stream of consciousness style of the actual play is similar to this ep) is more like a school play (including Harmony in the cast) than a college drama class, with Giles as a luvvy director (like in The Puppet Show and also foreshadowing the musical episode: “Stay in character, remember your lines and energy energy energy – especially in the musical numbers!”) and she is soon returned to school in the dream. Willow not being able to find her character in the dream is akin to her being unable to find her real spirit, her real self in life - but conversely, she is scared of that real self being revealed.
She walks through the soft, red, voluptuous curtains (less a homage to Twin Peaks and more to Sigmund Freud) to try to find the one who makes her feel secure, but ends up back in a high school English class making a child’s book report. Her primal fears are portrayed as Buffy and Xander ignore the First Slayer trying to choke her breath, her spirit, out of her; Anya hates her, and Oz and Tara flirting with each other and laughing at her. Buffy tells her: “Willow, everybody already knows. Take it off” as she rips Willow’s “costume” off of her, revealing her old “softer side of Sears look”. Anya states that: “It’s a Greek tragedy,” which may refer back to the stage-frightened performance in The Puppet Show, but also to Tara’s death (Sappho was, of course, Grecian).
Even though she is terrified of being on stage, people keep hinting that they know she’s acting. Buffy says: “Your costume is perfect. Nobody's gonna know the truth. You know, about you”. Meanwhile, Tara tells her “Everybody’s starting to wonder about you - the real you. If they find out, they'll punish you”. This hints to three things - Willow’s possible insecurity about her lesbianism and her witchiness, her fear that her faults will be found out and people will know that she’s not a cool person at all, but still a boring unpopular geek, and thirdly the sinister self that will be revealed in S6. Willow states: “I’m very seldom naughty”, but when she is, when Tara dies and what she has is taken away from her, Willow’s darker self rises to the surface, the side she’s tried to conceal, and she is punished.
Willow’s version of lesbianism is Pillow Book-esque, Xander’s is rather different. “Sometimes, I think about two women doing a spell, and then I do a spell by myself,” he says, parodying the witchcraft/lesbian metaphor that has been prevalent throughout S4. Xander was the heart of the combining spell, yet here he can’t find his heart’s desire. Anya is an unromantic friend in the dream, his former crush, Buffy, is a little sister, but Joyce (referencing Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered) and Willow/Tara dressed as lipstick lesbians are the ones who tempt him. Even in his dreams, Xander isn’t committed to Anya. Anya tells him she’s thinking of getting back into vengeance (which of course she does in S6) which shows Xander’s view of her – she could go ‘bad’ at anytime and so he doesn’t see her a long-term girlfriend, just as a stop-gap. Given Anya’s nonchalance, Xander tries to get to the seductresses, but ends up wandering through corridors, rooms and sets before constantly ending up back in his basement: possibly the most obvious symbol in the episode. “It’s about the journey,” says dream-Giles, watching Apocalypse Now, and Xander tries hard to progress, but he is thwarted. Anya asks him: “Do you know where you’re going?”, as they drive along in the ice-cream van with the fake backdrop, showing their stasis, and Kurtz/Brando/Snyder asks him: “Where you heading?” ‘No’ and ‘nowhere’ are the answers to those questions. Xander is more like an amoeba than a shark. Xander-as-Sheen approaching Kurtz is perhaps the zenith of his army obsession which has been with him since Hallowe’en – let’s hope it’s out of his system now.
Giles/Diego and Anya speak French to him, representing his fear that he will not be able to understand and be with the gang as they become more educated than him – they’re moving away from him whilst he is stuck. Even in the idyllic scene with Buffy in a sandpit and Giles and Spike bonding on the swings (paid back in Tabula Rasa), he fears that Spike is taking his place in the gang – Giles has taken him under his wing and now even a chipped vampire can get a proper job (Watcher-in-training). Xander says that he used to feel like Giles’s son, which is not surprising as we see a potential father figure, Snyder, telling him that he’s a “whipping boy” and his actual father deriding and sneering at him.
In the scene with Xander’s father, we see that the basement – representing the same to him as Willow’s geek-clothes in her dream – is a vicious circle. Staying with his belittling family quashes his self-confidence and makes him unable to leave the basement. He can’t move out without a good job, which takes self-esteem, but he can’t get self-esteem without moving out. It’s in their most fearful places: high school and the basement, that the First Slayer tries to take Willow and Xander’s lives as they themselves struggle to get their lives on track. “You can’t protect yourself from some stuff,” says Xander, meaning life – or death? (Joyce’s, Buffy’s).
Whereas Xander saw Spike as an usurper, and Buffy and Willow don’t think of him at all, Giles views the vamp as more of a Sideshow Spike, a pointless entertainer. Anya’s bad joke-telling is seen in the same way, as silly showing-off, whereas Giles, who has the important thing to say – the exposition of the story through song (more foreshadowing of Once More with Feeling) - is the true artist and is appreciated by the audience. He walks through the coffee shop, scene of his first gig, to his rightful place in the Bronze (where he is effectively not allowed, as he has to be the sensible adult-figure that the others want him to be). He feels that he is denied both a second youth playing guitar and a “true” adulthood – marriage, fatherhood and family. Olivia’s empty pram represents the child he never had and Buffy as a pre-pubescent, his daughter-substitute, shows the reason why. Timepieces play an important part of Giles’s dream – does he feel time is running out for him? Or is it an oblique reference to Buffy’s death? “What am I to do with all this stuff,” he wonders - what is he to do with his life? Both Spike and Buffy warn him about missing out. Willow and Buffy have been studying Psychology all year and should be able to analyse their dreams, but they don’t, and even Giles’s enormous brain can’t work out what is going on, and the First Slayer tries to decapitate him (suggestions of The Puppet Show, once again). In this season of Science vs Magicks, Giles feels that he knows the true way, has the true knowledge and yet he isn’t valued, except in his dream. He tells the First Slayer that she never had a Watcher; he believes that this is what makes her out of control – Slayers need Watchers, even if Buffy has been proving otherwise. Meanwhile Buffy is back in the Slayer dream of making the bed. The time theme from Giles’s dream is also continued: Buffy’s alarm clock states 7.30, but it’s wrong; we’re now counting down from 365. Beds are referenced several times in Buffy's dream – a place of birth but also of death. The theme of family is continued as we see Joyce trapped in the wall (as in School Hard) and Buffy leaving her there. In the earlier, non-dream part of the episode, Joyce gently rebuked Buffy for not having introduced her to Riley until now. Joyce’s death is not foreshadowed in Buffy’s dream, but Buffy’s need to pay more attention to her mother and not, as in the dream, abandon her does happen in S5, as the Slayer moves home to look after her mother.
Willow sees Riley as a big lummoxy cowboy but Buffy views him as something more dangerous as, in her dream, he teams up with Adam to plot world domination. Again we have Science vs Magicks: as Riley and Adam talk about technology, Buffy digs deep into her weapons bag of primeval mud and gets closer to the source of her power: the First Slayer. Giles also dreamed about Buffy muddying her face, and Xander of Buffy in a sandpit, and Buffy returns to the desert, to pre-history, to a pre-language Neanderthal time. “I live in the action of death. Destruction. Absolute. Alone,” says the First Slayer, (translated by Tara, who, just as she becomes more of a mother figure in S5 and 6, is here wise and supportive), something Buffy refutes as much as Adam’s assertion that “Aggression is a natural tendency, but you and me come by it in a different way”. “We’re not demons”, she says, but does Buffy secretly associate herself with Adam – half-demon and half-human? Riley greets her with: “Hey there, killer”, showing her fear that, like Faith, she considers herself not so much a Slayer as a murderer. He leaves her with: “Guess you’re on your own”, just as in S5, when he does desert her. Does Buffy, like Xander, believe her beau is just a stop-gap? Being alone is something Buffy fears above all else and in her dream, she is searching for her friends, the thing that makes her different from all the other Slayers. She believes that her power source comes from her love for them and not a primeval force. Ironically, the power that the gang drew from in order to fuse into one being belonged to the First Slayer and her affront at this (as she says: “No friends, just kill, we are alone”) causes her to attack the gang and try to take what they represented in the spell. TFS believes her power cannot be used as a unifier; she believes in isolation. Just as the idea of Buffy’s uniqueness as the Slayer was used as a metaphor for teen angst in Seasons 1-3, here we can read it as analogous to how we all live (and die) alone. Each of the Scoobs is alone in their dreams, with the others ganging up on them or ignoring them or absent.
Even though Buffy accepted her role as the Slayer some time ago, she still doesn’t believe that she can’t have a normal life with college and friends and family and lovers, and neither does she acknowledge that her power may well come from a dark place. The pun of ‘primeval’ as ‘first evil’ hints that Slayer power and original sin come from the same point. Both she and TFS emerge from the same place in the curtains in Willow’s dream and Buffy is told: “You have no idea what you are”. But to prove her antipathy to TFS’s message, Buffy has to fight her. Once again, Buffy’s motivation is to save her friends and ironically, given that ancient magic has been proven better than advanced science, she needs to demonstrate that modernity beats the primitive. She succeeds, and is the only one of the gang whose power is not taken away from her, but we get the impression that Buffy is fooling herself. Tara’s words, as Buffy looks into the spare room that will become Dawn’s, come back to haunt her: “You think you know what’s to come, what you are. You haven’t even begun”. This is also a reference to Buffy’s new role as big sister, a new experience for her. More foreshadowing of Dawn is shown in Olivia’s pregnancy (Giles becoming a father figure to Dawn as well as to Buffy) and the theme of childhood and family throughout the dreams hints at Dawn’s arrival (presumably the monks were planning their spell at this very moment). Tara makes it explicit: “Be back before Dawn” she tells Buffy.
The themes of birth (Dawn’s) and death (Buffy’s) are combined with both the S4 themes of Magicks vs Science and change. The dreams show us that the gang have moved on, but have not yet grown up: they still need to find purpose and to accept themselves. The theme of progressing forward relates not just to the characters but also to the story – Joss has moved them successfully from high school to college; now the story must move on from university to a mystical world of goddesses and spells, and then to the diametrically opposed dark place of S6 with its real life drudgery and real life villains. The woods may be lovely, dark and deep, but the Scoobs have promises to keep, and miles to go before they sleep. Oh, and the cheese man represents the subliminal desire to kill the parents, the providers of milk and life. Or something.