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Monday, May 7, 2012

Fear, Itself

[Updated April 30, 2013]

Fear, Itself may have the ending of a shaggy dog story, but it’s actually a critical episode for the season. Structurally and thematically, this episode identifies the most significant problem Buffy must solve in the climactic episode – not the finale this year – and the solution to that problem.

I won’t spoil the season conclusion, nor what’s going to happen two episodes from now, so what I want to do in this post is explore the fears of Buffy, Willow, and Xander, something the show hasn’t done since Nightmares in S1. I’ll talk about the way those fears interact with their relationships to each other. Note that all the fears are on display even before they enter the haunted frat house. I’ll give quotes from before and after they enter the house to show what I mean.
Willow displays two fears: that she’s just Buffy’s “sidekick”; and that she isn’t really any good at magic. What’s wrong with being a “sidekick”? Two things, I think. First, the sidekick is generally there to magnify the hero’s accomplishments, to make sure we all recognize the hero. Second, and related, the sidekick isn’t an actor in her own right. Being the sidekick means that you occupy an inferior position, one who just sets the stage for the hero. As we’ve known since Nightmares, Willow fears that underneath it all, she’s still just a badly dressed geek. If her role with Buffy is merely subsidiary, that reinforces those fears.
Willow needs to be important in her own right. Magic is a critical part of her identity, or at least she wants it to be. That’s her chance to be a real contributor (as computer hacking was in S1). Just after the teaser we get this dialogue expressing her uncertainty:
Willow:  “I’ve got the basics down – levitation, charms, glamours.  I just feel like I’ve plateaued wicca-wise.”
Buffy:  “What’s the next level?”
Willow:  “Transmutation, conjuring, bringing forth something from nothing.  Gets pretty close to the primal forces.  A little scary.”
Buffy:  “Well, no one’s pushing.  You know, if it’s too much don’t do it.”
Willow:  “Don’t do it?  What kind of encouragement is *that*?”
Buffy:  “This is an ‘encouragement’ talk?  I thought it was ‘share my pain’.”
Willow:  “I don’t know.  Then again, what is college for if not experimenting?  You know, maybe I can handle it.  I’ll know when I’ve reached my limit.”

Then, when they do get to the frat house, both of Willow’s fears get tied together in one scene. Not only does she feel that Buffy is giving orders, but Buffy doubts Willow’s ability at magic. Buffy, by the way, is right about Willow and magic, but that probably just makes it more painful to hear rather than less:
Willow:  “Being the Slayer doesn’t automatically make you boss.  You’re as lost as the rest of us.”
Oz:  “What are we talking about?”
Willow:  “It’s a simple incantation, a guiding spell for travelers when they become lost or disoriented.”
Buffy:  “And how does it work?”
Willow:  “It conjures an emissary from the beyond that – lights the way.”
Buffy:  “Conjuring.  Will, let’s be realistic here.  Okay, your basic spells are usually only fifty-fifty.”

Xander fears that he’s invisible to the group and to Buffy in particular. Xander isn’t in college, he isn’t employed, and he feels himself inferior to those who are:
Xander:  “There is a party?”
Willow:  “We didn’t tell you?”
Xander:  “No, it’s cool.  You guys got your little college thing.  I’m fine.  I mean, I got better things to do than tag along to some fraternity.”
Anya:  “I don’t understand.”
Xander:  “Well, every October 31st, we mortals dress up in masks...”
Anya:  “No, no, I understand that inane ritual.  It’s those people.  You continue to associate with them though you share little in common.”
Xander:  “What are you talking about?”
Anya:  “I mean they go to college, you don’t.  They no longer live at home, - you do.”
Xander:  “Oh, hey, those things...  The bonds of true friendship transcend...  Could we just change the subject?”

Again, the scene in the haunted house merely reiterates what Xander already said:
“Buffy looks around:  “Xander?”
Xander:  “Funny how you still haven’t lost your sense of inappropriate humor.”
Buffy turns around looking right through him:  “Xander, where did you go?”
Xander:  “Buffy, knock it off. Skit’s over.  I’m right here.”
Buffy stomps off down the hall:  “This is so *typical* of him!”
Cut to Xander walking up to a mirror:  “There I am.  I didn’t go anywhere.  Great.  Now I just have to live with the fact that no one else can see me.”

Buffy's fear is fear of abandonment, i.e., that every time she cares about someone she'll be deserted. Worse than even this is her fear that the reason people abandon her is that there’s something wrong with her, that it’s her fault. That was the fear about her father we saw expressed in Nightmares, and her experience with Angel and Parker reinforces that:
 Joyce:  “…Your father loved spending time with you.”
Buffy looks down:  “Not enough, I guess.”
Joyce:  “Buffy.”
Buffy:  “Oh, that just paved right over memory lane, huh?”
Joyce:  “Our divorce had nothing to do with you.”
Buffy swallows:  “I don’t know. – I’m starting to feel like there is a pattern here. – Open your heart to someone, and he bails on you.  Maybe it’s easier to just not let anyone in.”

Then again in the frat house, where it’s phrased generally enough to include not just the men in her life but her friends too:
Hollow voice:  “All alone.”
Buffy pushes herself up:  “Who said - that?”
The guy that fell down the steps walks around a corner with his head tilted at an unnatural angle.
Guy:  “They all ran away from you.  They always will.  Open your heart to someone and …”

Their individual fears and insecurities isolate them from each other. Start with Buffy’s fear that her friends will desert her. If Xander feels ignored by Buffy, then of course he’s less likely to stick around. Similarly, if it’s true that Willow is only there to magnify Buffy’s accomplishments by the contrast to her own weakness, then she’d have no reason to stay. And if Xander’s fears and Willow’s fears were true, then it would also be true in some sense that it is Buffy’s fault that they leave.
Returning to the metaphor I’ve used before, Buffy needs to listen to her heart. She needs to give recognition to the importance of her spirit. They are, after all, part of her.
In the episode the friends reunite because the demon who’s feeding off their fears needs those fears to manifest itself. The reveal of the manifestation of their fears allows them to recognize the insignificance of those fears.
Trivia notes: (1) The title of Fear, Itself comes from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous line “we have nothing to fear except fear itself.” (2) This is the first episode to use the word “wicca”, but it will become common from now on. It’s mostly used as a synonym for “witch”, though that’s not quite right as you can see from the link. (3) Oz’s description of Buffy as suffering from “post-Parker depression” seems like a play on post-partum depression.  (4) When Giles said “It’s alive!” in reference to his Frankenstein puppet, that was a reference to the 1931 movie Frankenstein. Chaz repeats the phrase when they find him in the closet of the haunted frat house. (5) Oz’s “mi casio es su casio” is a bi-lingual pun. In English, the phrase “my house is your house” is said by the owner to make a guest feel welcome. Oz translated the phrase into Spanish, where the word “house” is “casa”: “mi casa es su casa”. Casio is the name of the speaker Oz brought over. (6) When Buffy said she was “just the beard” for her father to get candy, she was using gay slang to say that she was just the cover her father used. A “beard” in slang is (originally) a man used by a lesbian who is concealing her sexual orientation, or vice versa. (7) We never saw Buffy tell her mother that Ted was a robot, but apparently she did. (8) In addition to being correct about the phrase “fifth wheel”, Xander is also right in that there will be 5 people in the group once Anya gets there. (9) Abbott and Costello were an old comedy team. One of their movies was “Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein”. (10) Willow freaked at the tarantula on her shoulder because she’s always been afraid of spiders. From Nightmares: “Xander: Oh, the spiders! Willow's been kind of, um, what's the word I'm looking for? Insane about what happened yesterday. Willow: I don't like spiders, okay? Their furry bodies, and their sticky webs, and what do they need all those legs for anyway? I'll tell you: for crawling across your face in the middle of the night. Ewww! How do they not ruffle you?” (11) Buffy’s “size doesn’t matter” reference to Gachnar plays off of the advertising campaign for the 1998 movie version of Godzilla. (12) Bunnies will become a standing joke in the series.


  1. Awesome write up. I really like how you connected the foreshadowing of the real life conversations with the fears that manifest themselves in the frat house.

    And of course... this one!

    "Dress up as the scariest thing you can think of."

    "Bunnies frighten me."

    1. Thanks. The bunnies thing cracks me up every time.

  2. I really enjoyed this episode, your write-up, and “Thank the Lord!”...”You’re welcome”.

    Are Oz’s fears unimportant or just less important?

    Or are they only relevant to later events?

    1. Later events. I'll talk about them in the essay on Wild at Heart.