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4x04: "Fear, Itself"
Review by Mikelangelo Marinaro (MikeJer)
Posted on February 10, 2006
Writer: David Fury | Director: Tucker Gates | Air Date: 10/26/1999
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Spoiler Warning!
This is a retrospective review and may contain spoilers from anywhere in the series. Read at your own peril.
Review

This is the best this season has put out yet! We get a thoroughly entertaining plot, the usual wittiness, useful character insight, and a whole lot of fun. This is a modern version of "Nightmares" (1x10), and the fear demon plot works because the characters have changed and new ground is being covered. This is the first episode of the season that has that 'homely' feel between the characters. When Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Oz meet up in front of the frat house I can't help but feel cozy and excited for their fun little adventure. Much of what happens here is further setup for the internal conflicts of the season: Willow's use of magic and growing power, Oz's beast coming out and having serious repercussions, Xander feeling that he's not important in the group, Giles' aimlessness, and Buffy's relationship issues.

I'm going to take a "set 'em up, and knock 'em down" approach to this review. I think I'll begin with Willow this time around. A big theme with her this season is the developing need to be a more powerful witch. Willow wants power and although right now it's used for good, the magic stems from very dark roots and is sparking a gradual change in her. Oz points out that he's afraid Willow will get hurt, and he compares it to his experience when "wolfing out." He says "I touch something, deep. Dark. It's not fun." When the group meets in front of the "scary house" we see that Willow is dressed up as Joan of Arc, a girl who helped lead armies and was burned at the stake.

The big moment of insight comes during the Buffy/Willow dispute in the frat house. Buffy wants her friends to leave so she doesn't have to worry about their safety, but Willow takes offense to this because she believes she has power and can help Buffy as an equal. Willow says "Being the Slayer doesn't automatically make you boss. You're as lost as the rest of us," but that's not necessarily true, Buffy does have certain advantages and instincts the others don't. Buffy's also realistic about Willow's current magical limitations: "Will, let's be realistic here. Okay, your basic spells are usually only fifty-fifty." Willow eventually yells back, "I'm not your sidekick!" and that is ultimately the big issue. We can openly see right here that Willow wants to become a more powerful individual which commands respect and seniority over others, not unlike Joan of Arc.

Through the fear demon we discover that Willow's big fear right now is not being able to successfully advance her magical abilities and that they'll always backfire on her. Buffy's comment about her spells being only fifty-fifty likely brought that fear to the surface when she did the conjuring spell. The demon doesn't just work its mojo on Willow though. Lets move on to Xander. Early on we see Anya paying another visit to him and ask some tough questions. She says, "It's those people. You continue to associate with them though you share little in common ... I mean they go to college, you don't. They no longer live at home, - you do." Xander tries to come back but ultimately feels she's right. He replies, "Oh, hey, those things... The bonds of true friendship transcends... Could we just change the subject?" Later on in the frat house we find out that his fear of not fitting in and not being noticed by his friends comes true. This is a theme that will plague Xander for the rest of the season. Xander himself says what he wants when talking about his costume: "As long as I'm cool and wield some kind of power."

The reason why Buffy gets so little attention from the fear demon compared to the others is because her fears have already been discussed by that point. In the very beginning of the episode we see her completely "out of it" and suffering from "post-Parker depression." She recites the life of a pumpkin and then takes off from the pre-Halloween gathering with the Scoobies. Xander says, "does anyone else want to smack that guy?" Everyone raises their hands and so do I. I really enjoyed seeing Buffy telling Willow she's reached her quota of 'someones' and that she wants to be no dating Buffy for a while. The person that finally begins to shake her mood is Professor Walsh who essentially splashes some cold water on her face. She says, "if you miss another class you're out." Riley is pretty observant and is able to piece together that Buffy is the type of person who makes things hard on herself.

The Riley chat leads to her enlightened conversation with her mother back at the house. They get to talking and Joyce says, "Our divorce had nothing to do with you." This is when Buffy reveals her growing feeling about serious relationships. She says, "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." Joyce responds and tells her it's "Fear. I didn't believe I could trust anyone again. It's taken time and a lot of effort, but I've got a nice circle of friends now. - I mean, don't get me wrong. I - I'm still a little gun shy. It certainly didn't help that my last boyfriend turned out to be a homicidal robot. I will always be here for you. And you got Mr. Giles and your friends. Believe me, there is nothing to be afraid of." This is her mom telling her that she can risk a serious relationship because she's got her friends and family to support her when things don't go well.

While this doesn't completely wash away Buffy's fears, as made clear by the fear demon and her resistance to a relationship with Riley in "Doomed" (4x11), it certainly helps a lot. We also see that Buffy has a ways to go before fully learning from her mistakes. When Giles is reading out of the book on how to defeat the fear demon, Buffy rushes to judgement and assumes that the first thing he read was how to stop it. Instead she releases the demon. This is exactly what she did with Parker. She rushed into sexual relations with him before really getting to know him well which ended up releasing the demon within him. Buffy needs to learn to be more careful in both her Slaying and her personal life, or she's going to keep getting hurt both physically and emotionally, respectively.

Next up on the list is Oz. Early on he tells Willow how dark the beast within him is and that it isn't any fun. His fear is obviously that the beast will get loose and hurt his friends. In the frat house the fear demon makes this fear come true. Oz's fear isn't just brought up as an excuse for him to have something to fear in just this episode. It's a real fear which comes true in a much more damaging way in "Wild at Heart" (4x06). This is good setup for what happens to him there and makes why he leaves town make more sense.

Although Giles and Anya weren't under the influence of the fear demon we did get to see what they fear. Anya simply fears Bunnies and losing Xander. I enjoyed it when she bursts into Giles' place and says "Xander is in trouble. We've got to do something, right now! ... Are you listening? Xander is trapped!" Giles poses an important question: "Uh, ah, where is Buffy and the others?" Anya snaps back, "They're trapped, too, but we've got to save Xander!" We can see he's very important to her right now. Giles, on the other hand, is unfortunately living his fear. He's sitting around at his home, bored to death, eating his own Halloween candy with a sombrero on. In the span of this episode we get to see Sombrero Giles, Candy Giles, Toy Giles, and Chainsaw Giles. He's in a rut and doesn't know where he fits right now. Throughout the season this situation will only get worse.

When the fear demon finally rises we get the to the heart of the matter: fear, itself is actually really small. All you need to do is spot it and squash it, just like Buffy does. This is classic BtVS which works on all the levels that make the series fantastic. It's an episode with great: plot, character development, subtle lessons, and humor. All around I loved it!

Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
Minor Pros:
+Xander quickly admitting he wants to come to the party because he has nothing better to do.
+Buffy hits a man in a demon costume.
+All the frat boys care about is getting laid -- I love how their shallowness is shown for all to see.
+Xander takes the words people say and accepts them at face value. Anya says, "that's stupid!"
+Anya in the bunny costume!
Foreshadowing
  • Oz's fear of not being able to control the wolf causes him to run off leaving Willow hurt and yelling "don't leave me!" This actually happens in a strikingly similar manner in "Wild at Heart" [4x06].
  • The fear demon says, "They're all going to abandon you, you know." I'm pretty sure what it's referring to is their separation in "The Yoko Factor" [4x20].
95/100A
N/A

DEPTH
N/A

EMOTION
N/A

CHARACTER
N/A

PLOT
Quotes
BUFFY:I was just thinking about the life of a pumpkin. Grow up in the sun - happily entwined with others, then someone comes along, cuts you open and - rips your guts out.

ANYA:Are we dating?
XANDER:There are definitely date-like qualities at work here.

GUY 2:Blindfold chicks and have them stick their hands in the bowl and tell them it's eyeballs. They love that.
XANDER:And here I was wasting time buying them flowers and complimenting them on their shoes.

WILLOW:Uh, ah! Cobweb! Okay that part was realistic.
OZ:Frat boys aren't too obsessive with their cleaning. Might not be decoration per se.

BUFFY:Conjuring. Will, let's be realistic here. Okay, your basic spells are usually only fifty-fifty.
WILLOW:(upset) Oh yeah? Well, - so is your face!
BUFFY:What!?

BUFFY:Our fears are manifesting it. We're feeding it. We need to stop.
XANDER:If we close our eyes and say it's a dream...it'll stab us to death!

:(Wall bursts open to reveal Giles with the running chainsaw in his hands)
XANDER:Giles? Everyone, it's Giles! With a chainsaw!

XANDER:Who's a little fear demon? Come on! Who's a little fear demon!
GILES:Don't taunt the fear demon.
XANDER:Why, can he hurt me?
GILES:No, it's just - tacky.

:(Xander stares at Anya while he's eating his candy)
ANYA:What?
XANDER:That's your scary costume?
ANYA:Bunnies frighten me.

GILES:Oh, bloody hell. The inscription!
BUFFY:What's the matter?
GILES:I should have translated the Gaelic inscription under the illustration of Gachnar.
BUFFY:What's it say?
GILES:Actual size.
Screencaps


Comments (35)
All Comments | Link1 | TranquillityFeb 15, 2007
A major development is Buffy's whole
"Maybe it's easier to just not let anyone in" chat with her Mum. I believe this is a pivitol moment in Buffy's development as a character. Here she decideds its safer not to love anyone romantically and she sticks with the decision untill the final episodes of season 7. She chooses Reilly because he's safe and normal and she's in no danger of really loving him.
All Comments | Link2 | MikeJer | CREATOR/WRITERFeb 15, 2007
Tranquillity, I couldn't agree with you more. Nice observation. :)
All Comments | Link3 | junMay 19, 2007
Foreshadowing: Willow's cry to Oz of "Don't leave me!" reverberates around the house. Two episodes later, he does just that.
All Comments | Link4 | LibMaxAug 22, 2007
Re: the cry "Don't leave me!" echoing around the house. I think that was because it's the common thread of all the fears of the affected Scoobies (Buffy, Xander, Willow, and Oz). Buffy's afraid people will leave her because it keeps happening (Angel, Parker, her dad). Chaz (the guy who died falling down the stairs) greets her in the basement with, "All alone. They all ran away from you. They always will."

Willow is afraid people will leave her because she's not important enough, Xander because he's not smart enough or useful enough, and Oz because he's too dangerous. The individual fears are all theme-and-variation on that one fear - of being abandoned. The very fear that will play itself out in real life between Wild At Heart and The Yoko Factor.

This is a great episode for introducing Season Four themes, as MikeJer pointed out. I don't love the way cheesy frat-house schlock effects are played as if they were actually scary (worst example, bleeding-dummy-head's "IIII SEEEEEE YOUUUUUU!"). A bigger complaint is that Gachnar is so easily defeated in the end. Yes, it's funny. It's really, really funny. But these very fears are going to rip the Scoobies apart through the rest of the season. It seems like cheese to stomp them out so easily here.

Gotta admit, I think the very funniest mini-scene in all BTVS is the coda to this episode, starting with Giles "Oh bloody hell, the inscription!" The way the music builds ominously and the subtle tension in the reactions and shading and framing, which all cutely evaporates on "Actual size." The first time I saw that, I laughed until I ached all over.
All Comments | Link5 | LibMaxAug 22, 2007
Tranquility, who does Buffy decide to love in the final episodes of Season 7? I thought the touching thing about her parting with Spike was that she didn't really love him, and he knew it, but just in that moment she really wanted to. Nor did she trot off to happily-ever-after with Angel. In fact, the implications of Angel Season 5, especially The Girl In Question, indicated to me that (off-screen) Buffy became kind of a selfish, mean-spirited bitca in the aftermath of BTVS Season 7.
All Comments | Link6 | XenophonOct 7, 2007
For some reason I have never like Riley. Every time he appears on screen I get irritated. I did like parker though, until I see him for who he was.
All Comments | Link7 | buffyholicNov 3, 2007
This episode has it all: great character development, great laughs and some scary stuff. We delve right into the Scoobies and it´s great stuff. Willow´s part is amazing for me. Not only in the frat house but at the beggining of the episode we see that she wants Buffy to have fun and probably meet someone at the party. That just shows that she has no clue what Buffy is going through. I find it amazing because back in S3 and S2 she expresses the same thing. In S3 she wants Buffy to start dating again, most notably Scott Hope and in S2, in "IOHEFY" she suggests the same thing. That means for me that she doesn´t know what Buffy is feeling and that she doesn´t want to deal with depressed Buffy, she wants a happy Buffy. And in the frat house, she argues with Buffy because she wants power, she wants to be respected. I have to admit the whole "I´m the slayer, so you do what I say and I know what to do" is what irritates me a little in Buffy. This is gonna tie in with S7, "CWDP" where Buffy feels superior to others because of the Slayerhood. But still, very good development for all, especially Buffy and Willow.
BTW, seeing Anya in a bunny costume always makes me laugh
All Comments | Link8 | BreakAtmoNov 13, 2007
I love this ep. It has some truly golden lines, such as, "Actual Size", "It's just - tacky", and a real favourite, "Well, technically speaking, you're a fifth wheel". VERY Xander. blend this in with a plot that really hones in the the truth of the characters, and you have genius.

And to LibMax, I'm glad the reveals of Buffy: Season 8 have availed your "Girl in Question" concerns. Or if they haven't, they should have.
All Comments | Link9 | MrTrickOct 31, 2008
Completely coincidental, I happened to reach this episode on Halloween. Going through the series for a second time, I was surprised at how much I liked this episode. I remembered it as mediocre, but it's really one of the better stand alones so far.

It's too bad Oz is leaving in a couple episodes, because first of all he's a great character, and also because we can see the writers trying to flesh him out at this point. He actually showed an emotion in this episode. Riley really didn't though. His acting is even stockier than I remembered.

Also, to the commenter a few posts above me who said that the easy kill at the end undermined the episode, take a look at the title. There's nothing to fear, but, wait for it, Fear Itself. It's what the entire episode is about.
All Comments | Link10 | LelaDec 24, 2008
This was the episode I that got me into Buffy and the one I show to get people obsessed with it as well.
All Comments | Link11 | Suzanne BJan 28, 2009
I always loved Oz's costume. "Hello, my name is: God". I always crack a smile, even when I'm just thinking about it. Like right now, I look like a doofus. Grinning at my computer whilst typing. People are staring...
All Comments | Link12 | Elianne23May 9, 2009
Spoilers for the BtVS comics and the truth about GIQ -

S

s

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s

s

s

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s

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The "Buffy" in Rome is actually a double (there are a few of them) meant to

confuse Buffy's enemies as to where she actually is. So the real Buffy is completely

innocent of the questionable behaviour of the double who's having a fling with the Immortal.
All Comments | Link13 | SeleneJul 8, 2009
Best line of the episode---Willow to Oz: And if Parker shows up we just - ax-murder him. That’s halloweeny!
All Comments | Link14 | SeleneJul 18, 2009
Oh also---Giles with a chainsaw = SEXY!!! (okay, so I'm a little different than most people)
All Comments | Link15 | LeeluJul 18, 2009
@Selene: Pretty much everything Giles does is sexy. haha
All Comments | Link16 | dsaAug 5, 2009
XANDER:
All Comments | Link17 | PersonNov 14, 2009 @ 8:34pm
I kinda agree with the whole Chainsaw-Giles fetish. It kinda makes up for the scene with Giles trying to be funny with the "It's Alive!" thing. I was wearing the same "This is VERY awkward" expression Buffy had on. Is it just me, or is Oz very orgasm-worthy in this season?
All Comments | Link18 | PersonNov 14, 2009 @ 8:43pm
I wonder if Oz feels uncomfortable around people dressed up as werewolves...they should've put that in, just a little "Fuck you" look from him. Damn, reading this review is making me watch the actual episode- what is with Oz speaking foreign in this episode? Why Am I paying so much attention to Oz!? Because he has sexy crazy hair. :) *MINE*
All Comments | Link19 | AttackedWithHummusJan 31, 2010 @ 9:00am
I always find it humourous that the "real" scary things in the house are no more realistic than the fake ones! E.g. grapes vs. eyeballs. Ah, I pine for the early 2000's...
All Comments | Link20 | PersonMar 14, 2010 @ 12:53pm
I noticed that too! It was kinda like " Why is she screaming? It looked like lasigna and devilled eggs." (YUCK.)
All Comments | Link21 | TommycakesApr 28, 2010 @ 7:54pm
Xander's line "If we close our eyes and say it's a dream...it'll stab us to death!" could be foreshadowing to Restless, no? As during a dream the first slayer effectively tries to kill the whole scooby gang, and stabs Buffy several times (to no effect, but still). It's probably not, but I thought it was a nice little connection there.
All Comments | Link22 | buffyholicMay 10, 2010 @ 4:14am
A great line is:

Buffy: Thank the Lord!
Oz: You´re welcome!

mike, in the section of foreshadowing you said that the line about everyone leaving her mentions The Yoko Factor but I also think it can be related to "Empty Places".

Plus when the demon says to Buffy that she will be always be alone, no matter how hard she fights can be related to her Slayer status. She works so hard to be normal and have friends and a normal life, when it comes to Slayerhood she will always be alone.
All Comments | Link23 | LizzieJul 9, 2010 @ 8:58am
Mike, I actually think that when Fear, itself, said that they were all going to abandon Buffy, he meant in season seven when the entire scooby gang turn against her.
All Comments | Link24 | nathan.taurusAug 30, 2010 @ 9:27pm
Good:
Giles in a sombrero.
Oz is God. I always had that suspicion and now it's confirmed.
Anya in a bunny rabbit costume. adorable.
Good creepy skeleton, not the plastic version.
Giles with the chainsaw. Go Ripper!
Gachnar is so cute. Because he's small. "Actual Size".

Bad:
The episode pacing is quite slow.
The hokey dead people holding Buffy down.

Foreshadowing: The scared guy in the closet is crying and apologising and Buffy is attacked. In 'Selfless' a frat girl is crying in a closet and Willow is attacked.
All Comments | Link25 | John RobertsOct 17, 2010 @ 7:55am
Outstanding.

The episode revealed/advanced all the major characters -

1) Mature conversation between Joyce and Buffy about men and disappointment.
2) Oz's fear of being consumed by the primeval when he werewolves
3) Xander's fear of being alone, left behind by the college Scoobies
4) Anya takes one step further toward semi-normal adulthood
5) Giles continues to let loose of The Watcher's formality
6) Willow beginning to chafe in her role of Slayette, wishing to exert her own dominance and power

But all done seamlessly through a plot that is alternately scary and hilarious. The production values were better too. That helped maintain the mood. Finally, Buffy was as she should be ... upset by the Parker debacle, but not absurdly weak and stupid. She stepped right into her Slayer role when the gang realized that the house was haunted. And she was the one who realized why they had all been drawn to the upstairs room. She wasn't perfect -- moody and pouting, and her usual impetuous self in destroying the demon's seal before realizing the consequences -- but she wasn't annoyingly lame, either. Good to see the real Buffy back.

That's the best of BtVS, insight into genuinely interesting characters without being preachy or intrusive, instead entertaining. This is a Platinum for me.

Hey, when did Joyce realize that Ted was a robot?
All Comments | Link26 | MichaelJan 7, 2011 @ 9:08am
When I was about 13/ 14 watching this episode I always liked to think that the size of the tiny Fear demon was actually due to the small amount of fear within Sunnydale/ The Scoobies, because with Buffy around they aren't as scared. As if in some other Buffy-less town, Gachnar would be huge :P

Not that I didn't get the funniness of it at the time, it's just nice to think how I perceived things in the show about 8 years ago compared to now, where I can appreciate the metaphorical side to it more.

Also, I knew 'Fear, Itself' was especially good when even my sister said that she loves this episode - and she thinks Buffy (in general) is crap!
All Comments | Link27 | NixJun 29, 2011 @ 3:14pm
John, Buffy probably told her mother about Ted's robot nature early in season 3. By that point Joyce knew she was the Slayer and she was living in the house again, so for the first time Buffy could tell Joyce what had *really* been going on for the last few years. I can see her not telling everything, but I can't see her holding out on something that directly affected Joyce as much as Ted did.
All Comments | Link28 | MashAug 7, 2011 @ 9:59pm
Early in the episode Willow claimed that she knows where her magically limits are. Oh Willow, you do not...

Did anyone see this mid way through the episode: When the fear demon starts working and everyone at the party is freaking out, the girl dressed in pink passed out on the couch with blood on her mouth makes a one second cheesy grin to the camera.

Shout out to the black power ranger :)
All Comments | Link29 | OdonFeb 16, 2012 @ 6:37pm
I saw it; I thought it was meant to indicate she'd turned crazy or evil. But we don't really see her again, unlike the boy who breaks his neck falling down the stairs.
All Comments | Link30 | AfterthebattleFeb 26, 2012 @ 10:27am
I always feared that Buffy's fear in this episode is pretty obvious: she's afraid that people will abandon her. This is something that is rooted in her "daddy issues" that are brought up in her conversation with Joyce. And over the course of the show this fear is confirmed again and again. There are so many people who leave her: her father, Angel, Parker, Riley, Giles and even her friends in "Empty Places". Pretty sad when you think about it :(
All Comments | Link31 | AfterthebattleFeb 26, 2012 @ 4:25pm
*I meant to say "thought", not "feared", hehe.
All Comments | Link32 | Gemma Mar 2, 2012 @ 2:01pm
I also think it subtly highlights Buffy's aloneness. Being the Slayer, the ONLY girl in all the world etc. Not being able to see Xander and then WIllow and Oz taking off, demonstrates Buffy being alone. Cutting herself off
All Comments | Link33 | EllieMay 27, 2012 @ 5:16am
I don't know if this is just me, but I always thought the part where Buffy is being grabbed at by all of the dead people could be some foreshadowing for the end of season 5/beginning of season 6. Just a thought.
All Comments | Link34 | CassieNewtonOct 30, 2012 @ 2:08pm
I'd add Willow's "She didn’t even touch her pumpkin. It’s a freak with no face."- hilarious line delivery^^
All Comments | Link35 | JELDec 16, 2012 @ 4:04pm
Something that struck me as funny the last time I viewed this was when Xander asked “Hey, Red. What you got in the basket, little girl?” and Buffy replied "Weapons." For just a fraction of second I thought she was kidding until she came out with the next line. ("Just in case.") Then I was amused. First that Buffy (even on Halloween) thinks to pack an empty basket with weapons. (Shades of that line that Buffy says about normal girls think about x,y and z but she thinks about unarmed combat tactics etc.) Secondly that little Red Riding Hood would be carrying a basket of weapons.

Then, as I was thinking about commenting about this here, I realized this is another Whedonesque stereotype reversal. Little Red Riding Hood is your standard damsel in distress, but this Little Red Riding Hood is no such thing. I suppose there could have even been some intentional but unstated irony in having Buffy dress up as Little Red Riding Hood in this episode.
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