“Fear, Itself” starts with the gang engaged in pumpkin carving in the subterranean unsplendor that is Casa Harris. Xander is failing to capture the spirit of his chosen pumpkin, while Buffy’s moping over Parker, and relating too heavily to pumpkin guts. The group agrees to spend Halloween checking out the scary house at one of the frat houses—Xander gets invited, but not quite gracefully—and Buffy heads home.
Instead of getting into a real pre-credits fight, she punches a guy costumed as a demon. Psych! These have got to be the situations where Buffy wishes she had a badge, or a Sorry I Hit You coupon that comes preloaded with money from a popular caffeine franchise. On the upside, everything beats trying to wash Deputy Mayor DNA off Mister Pointy.
After what we presume is a quiet, slay-free night, the roomies go to breakfast. Willow’s got magic on the brain, and Oz—in what, for Oz, is an incredibly long speech—urges her to be careful as she fiddles with the dark powers. He also reminds us all he’s a werewolf, in case this is our first season watching. (I have the impression that a lot of people started watching BtVS in S4, actually.) Everything’s warm and sweet and supportive until Buffy spots Parker having fun across the cafeteria.
Still blue and justifiably wary of her friends’ desire to force her to have fun and get over it all at the haunted house, Buffy claims she must work and flees to Giles. But he’s busy decking his halls in Frankenstein and getting a sugar high out of the candy bowl... he tells her to kick back and enjoy herself.
It’s nice seeing Giles chill out a little, I have to say. As I watch the early parts of this season, I feel like the BtVS team has captured, in Giles, the ineffable adolescent-like joy that comes of having months off your day job. He’s dating, he’s watching TV, his house is clean—okay, his house was always clean, if you don’t count the time Angelus spilled Jenny all over the bedroom—and seasonally decorated and he’s pretty much always there. If my house looked as cool as that, I might always be there too. Or at Angel’s mansion, now that it’s empty. There’s at least a few homes worthy of envy in Sunnydale, despite the whole death and Hellmouth issue. And a big honking castle—but that, as you know, comes later.
But instead of babbling about fictional real estate, I should be telling you the fake haunted house is coming together over in the land of the Alpha Delta fraternity. The guys are painting a mystic Mark of Gachnar on the floor and planning to impress girls and asking Oz if he can fix their sound system. Sadly, Oz is fated to cut himself and get werewolf blood on the mystic symbol. Anyone else wonder if the werewolf part of the equation made what happened worse?
Speaking of holidays, Halloween is the one week anniversary of Xander and Anya having had sex. Or, as she puts it, having copulated. She wants to know why he hasn’t called—there’s kind of a funny echo of the Parker thing there—and he points out she told him they were done. But he’s happy to see her, she’s happy to hear it, and they agree they’re dating. Dating! A mere week after sex! This makes Halloween the anniversary of the first time Xander actively asks Anya out... and he does it even though she kicks him right in the insecurities by claiming he has nothing in common with Buffy and WillOz anymore.
Buffy is by now so desperate to bail on her social obligations that she has resorted to picking up out-of-date homework. This gives us a chance to see Professor Walsh and Riley. Riley tells Buffy to take psychology 101 very seriously, except on October 31st. Mixed message, maybe? (Of course he’s going to work, but that’s because the Initiative hasn’t figured out the whole Monster Boycott of Halloween.)
And so Buffy goes home to beg her mother to fix up an old costume for her. They have a nice honest talk about loneliness and Buffy’s fear that she’ll end up being abandoned by everyone she loves. There hasn’t been much Joyce yet in this season, but it’s been pretty great so far. She lets Buffy talk, empathizes, and doesn’t pretend there’s an easy answer. If she secretly thinks: But I’m still glad Angel left you! she keeps it to herself.
Oz and Xander go off to fix the frat sound system. Wereblood on the spooky sigil in the attic makes the holiday decorations real, turning a plastic spider into a tarantula and, as the party gets started, turning the grape-y eyeballs into real ones and the stabby skeleton into a real threat. (Oz, who’s been very busy today, also made time to out Xander as not-a-college man to the Alpha Delts, just to reinforce his anxieties about becoming superfluous to the Scoobies.)
As the festivities begin, the gang gathers and compares costumes. They’re all so adorable: Xander as James Bond, WillOz as Joan of Arc and God, respectively—Jean Grey and Scott Summers would be too on the nose—and Buffy as Little Red Riding Hood. The only thing cuter is Anya, tardy, in a not-so-terrifying bunny costume. Or is it Giles in that sombrero? Who did you love most, folks?
They get to the frat, Willow gets a tarantula on her, and all the arachnophobes in the viewing audience go running in search of their blankies. The gang finds real blood on the floor and then are attacked by bats. Hmmm, something supernaturally lethal seems to be afoot! Lucky Buffy brought a crossbow. In some shows, this would be ludicrous. In this one, it’s utterly believable. Of course she brought weapons to a party. Xander’s fear of vanishing starts to manifest as the gang begins ignoring him. For a while, he doesn’t notice.
Anya, meanwhile, gets to the frat late and finds there’s no door. She sees a window close up on a frightened hula girl and immediately beelines (bunnylines?) off to Giles’s place.
By the time she gets there and sounds the alarm, Buffy’s fear that her loved ones will abandon her has started to come true and she and Willow are having a serious bicker. The boys are both trying to play peacemaker, at least until Xander realizes nobody can hear him. The gang gets separated, Oz starts to wolf out and hides in a bathtub, trying not to change. Willow attempts a guiding spell (I want to call it a de-losting spell, but that’s just silly) and gets way too many guides, while Buffy ends up in the basement of the frat, alone, friendless, and fighting an endless pile of monsters. One of the dead frat boys is heckling, telling her that evil springs eternal and that fighting it is pointless. She’s heard it before; she ignores him.
When she gets away from the monsters, Buffy magically ends up in the attic, with all the others—not just her friends, but everyone who went to the party and hasn’t yet died. Gachnar is feeding on their fear, it turns out. Xander finds the textbook with the floor icon and they’ve barely started to grapple with the Gaelic and consider ways to get all the scared students out of the house when Giles and Anya cut their way in. With a chainsaw!
I love Giles with a chainsaw. I want Giles with a chainsaw in every episode from here on in.
Buffy shatters the Mark. Wait—don’t shatter the Mark! It’ll bring forth Gachnar! This info comes too late. They all have a bad moment when they think an enormous and gnarly demon is going to turn up and whale on them. But the episode has no time left for a big fight scene, and Gachnar, it turns out, is tiny. How fitting. When we look at our fears straight on, they shrink. And then we mock them.
Don’t taunt the fear demon, Xander. It’s tacky.
The self-proclaimed dark lord of nightmares is eminently stompable and Buffy puts him to rest. Then, having faced some of their deep seated fears—except Giles, who’s so very relaxed—the group retreats to Casa Ripper for a well-deserved chocofest. And on that note, and though it’s a little early, Happy Halloween, everyone!
Next week: Clan of the Cave Beer
A.M. Dellamonica has two novelettes up here on Tor.com. Her ’baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales.