Nightmares is the second episode with an affirmative message for Buffy, this time in the form of Billy. The solution to Billy’s nightmares was, of course, to face his fears. Xander, Buffy’s metaphorical heart, showed the way on this when he turned around and punched out the clown.
Along the way, we learn about Buffy’s fears: that she’s a bad student; being buried alive; and, most important, that her father doesn’t love her, and worse, that he doesn’t love her because of her own faults. I’m going to focus on the last of these because it’s the real crux of the episode. I say this not just because it’s the most troublesome for Buffy but because Billy’s fear is also reinforced by the belief that it was all his own fault: “It was my fault. … I missed a ball and I should have caught it. … He said it was my fault.” The parallel, and thus the metaphor for Buffy, seems pretty clear.
When Buffy does knock out the Ugly Man, she realizes that she herself can’t pull the mask off. It’s Billy’s fear, so it’s his responsibility. She learned that from Sid in The Puppet Show. Once Billy rips off the mask, it frees him just like Xander was freed when he punched the clown. We therefore need to consider what Buffy fears and what she ultimately faces in the episode.
Buffy expressed her fear to Willow at the beginning of the episode:
“Willow: … Do you know why your folks split up?
Buffy: (opens her locker) I didn't ask. They just stopped getting along. I'm sure I was a really big help, though, with all the slaying and everything. I was in so much trouble. I was a big mess.”
Then the nightmare version of her father tells her the same thing:
“Hank: I came early because there's something I've needed to tell you. About your mother and me. Why we split up.
Buffy: Well, you always told me it was because...
Buffy: Then what was it?
Hank: It was you.
Hank: Having you. Raising you. Seeing you every day. I mean, do you have any idea what that's like?
Hank: Gosh, you don't even see what's right in front of your face, do you? Well, big surprise there, all you ever think about is yourself. You get in trouble. You embarrass us with all the crazy stunts you pull, and do I have to go on?”
Buffy fears that being the Slayer is the cause of her problems, that her father doesn’t (or won’t) love her if she commits to her destiny. He may be like the Master – old, wrinkly, appalling in every way. If her nightmare father had a “Picture of Dorian Gray” somewhere, we can imagine he’d look very like the Master. She can’t commit to her destiny until she’s sure her father’s ok with it.
But her father isn’t really a monster; he only appears that way because of Buffy’s fear. “I [the Master, i.e., a monster] am free because you fear it. Because you fear it, the world is crumbling. Your nightmares are made flesh.” Thus, meeting her father at the end means she’s learned that, as the Master said, “If I can face my fear, it cannot master me.” Once the fear is gone, so is the monster.
We also see the flip side of this coin with Giles. His words in the graveyard specifically tell us that what we’re seeing there is not Buffy’s nightmare, it’s his. It’s not Buffy who fears becoming a vampire, it’s Giles who fears that for her. He’s Buffy’s putative father in Hank’s absence. Like every parent, Giles fears that his own flaws have left his child unprepared for the trials of adulthood: “I should have been more c... cautious. Taken more time to train you.” Parents have to face their own fears of their children’s journey to adulthood.
Xander’s fears tell us something about Xander, of course. His fear of being naked is a classic: he fears that there’s nothing to him, that he’ll be revealed as that in front of everyone. The clown was, Xander tells us, not funny. And Xander, who’s always joking, fears that he’s really just boorish and unfunny.
One part of Willow secretly believes that she’s great – “the world's finest soprano” – but she subconsciously fears that she’ll be exposed as a fraud if ever asked to perform. Note that while Xander confronted his fear, Willow seems merely to have escaped hers. This will be very characteristic of Willow’s personality.
I should comment on one other point from this episode. When Buffy first faces the Ugly Man, she barely escapes and limps away. This came immediately after the terrible scene with her father, and it establishes a key point which will be repeated throughout the show: Buffy can’t fight as well when she’s emotionally distraught. If you’re ever wondering why Buffy seems off her game in a fight, chances are this is the reason.Trivia notes: (1) SMG is somewhat claustrophobic and absolutely hated the buried alive scene. Joss promised her she’d never have to do it again. (2) Willow is dressed as Cio-Cio-San, the title character of the opera Madame Butterfly. (3) The first line Aldo sings to Willow is “Child, from whose eyes shines witchery…”. This will be relevant in future episodes. (4) The Master’s sarcastic line to Buffy – “A dream is a wish your heart makes” – comes, of course, from Cinderella. (5) Billy’s lines upon waking up (“I had the strangest dream. And you were in it, and you...”) are essentially identical to those of Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz.