Posted by: thebuffyrewatch | April 2, 2012

Robin’s Review: S4, E04 – Fear, Itself

Synopsis: It’s Halloween and the gang are attending a frat party with a haunted house theme. Buffy is still upset over Parker while Oz worries about what might happen if Willow pushes her magic any further. Xander invites Anya to the party and Giles gets in the Halloween spirit by dressing up in Mexican apparel. Once they arrive at the party things begin to get scary.

The Good: This was a very strong and memorable episode.

Stylistically it was quite different from most episodes of Buffy. Once the gang went into the haunted house things got unusually intense without explanation for about twenty minutes. Although Giles and Anya did the usual detective work on the outside the four Scoobies inside were tormented in a way we’ve not often seen. This was effectively set up by the strobe lighting jump cuts of those already at the party as they began to be consumed by their fears.

Instead of the traditional approach to storytelling, where a character would have to overcome their fears, we simply saw all four hounded until they were gathered into one room. Oz’ fear was that he would hurt those he loves by turning into a werewolf unexpectedly and we got an emotive shot of him in a bathtub willing himself not to change. Xander was worried that his status as a townie would soon make him irrelevant to his friends and so he became invisible to them. This was nicely set up through Anya and Oz’ frat friends pointing out this disparity earlier. Willow seemed offended at the suggestion that she couldn’t handle stronger magic but clearly had some doubts as she was afflicted by a spell going wrong. Finally Buffy, spurned by another man, feared that everyone would abandon her. She and Joyce had a terrific conversation (see Best Moment) earlier in the episode to set this up and link the rejection by Parker back to her Dad leaving.

These scenes were engaging and kept you guessing as to what was going on. Buffy as a show hasn’t leant on horror movie pastiches too often and so this was a nice change to proceedings. It also contrasted with the strong comedy that bookended the episode.

We kicked things off with some predictable gags about Fantasia and Giles wearing a sombrero. Then continued on as the Frat guys revealed that the real aim of Halloween is to sleep with women and the only holiday where that isn’t the case is Arbour Day. Once everyone was in costume the real fun began with Willow walking past a guy in a lobster costume reassuring his girlfriend. Willow was dressed as Joan of Arc while Oz wore a nametag saying “God” – an exchange that only works the first time you see it but was a tremendous gag. Once Giles shows up the comedy resumes as our unfamiliar picture of him travels one hundred and eighty degrees and he brandishes a chain saw in order to overcome the morphing house. He begins to read up on the fear demon Gachnar and announces that one of the ways to shut him down is to break his symbol which Buffy promptly does. Giles then continues to read saying “is not one of them and will in fact immediately bring forth the fear demon itself!” This was an extraordinarily sit-com-like moment which only escapes further mention because it was immediately topped by Gachnar appearing and being only a few inches high. His squeaky voice brings taunts from Xander and giggles from Willow. Later Giles finds that printed below the picture of Gachnar in the magic book are the words “Actual Size.” Those last three jokes were so outrageous and self mocking that you really can only do them once. We’ve seen a lot of lame looking demons on Buffy and to openly acknowledge one is taking a big risk. With brilliant execution in such an unusual episode though I think they pulled it off.

The earlier part of the episode had lots of good small moments like Oz being very sweet in his concern for Willow and Riley being kind to Buffy. The army guys managed to sneak in another appearance on a night where they can roam without suspicion. Xander chooses James Bond as his outfit just in case they get turned into their costumes which was nice continuity (from 206). His dynamic with Anya continued to entertain as she asked awkward questions and he began to warm up to her. The continuing independence of Willow was also highlighted in her arguments with Buffy where she makes a case for not being just a sidekick.

The Bad: I know I enjoyed this first time out but I couldn’t argue with someone who felt that Gachnar makes a mockery of the show.

The Unknown: As I said above the ending was a risk. I’ve complained before about how easily demons get dispatched and a lack of tension in some episodes. What makes “Fear, Itself” so unusual is that most of the episode was very intense and involving in a way the demons don’t usually get to be and then bam! We get the ultimate jokey ending where the demon is completely harmless. It’s worth asking why Gachnar wanted to be summoned forth if he would then only be able to stand at people’s feet and apparently exert little control over them.

Why do Bunny’s frighten Anya? Or was that just a cheap joke?

Best Moment: I’m sure I would have chosen Oz revealing his name tag if this were the first time I was watching. But on rewatch I will give it to Joyce and Buffy having a chat. Joyce hasn’t been a major part of the show for quite a while and yet the writing and acting make her feel part of the furniture. I love the depth of writing that reminds us that between Angel and her father Buffy has become jaded about men leaving her. Joyce, from years of experience, knows that her capable, attractive daughter will be fine. And I loved the speech she gives about how she approached living in Sunnydale as a divorcee and the struggle to make friends. It was all so authentic and touching and fitted the theme of fear nicely.

The Bottom Line: This was the hardest episode to judge on rewatch. I think this is one of those episodes that relies heavily on the viewer being surprised. The punch lines and haunted house scenes both function strongly when you don’t see them coming. This is an episode I’m quite familiar with and I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I remembered. That shouldn’t detract from the praise the episode deserves but between that and Gachnar this is a very hard one to score.

75/100

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