Buffy and her friends begin to suspect that one of the participants in the school's talent show is trying to kill off the competition.
The review for "I, Robot...You, Jane" can be read here.
With Principal Flutie (Ken Lerner) having been eaten by his students, it's roughly time that his replacement (Armin Shimerman) arrived in town, fortunately just in time for the talent show. An interesting development is Cordelia's (Charisma Carpenter) lack of awareness in regards to her singing talent, as it very well could make a mockery of herself and would work against everything she has done to make herself popular.
There's a certain amount of danger that comes with a Sunnydale address, but while demonic activity is prevalent, human crime is still somewhat of a shock. Here Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friends are hesitant to believe that one of their fellow students may have murdered another, convinced that, somehow, a demonic presence must have been involved. Despite all of the terrible things they've seen, Buffy remains determined to lay the blame on something supernatural, and it's a cue toward the fact that the people of Sunnydale, while surrounded constantly by unimaginable horrors, are still good at heart. The high mortality rate could scare off any decent person, but Buffy proves here, through her refusal to believe a human murderer was involved, that the goodness of the residents here are what makes this town a viable option. Buffy argues that, through it's relation to the Hellmouth, the ritual murder had to have been done by a creature of the night, and even in the face of evidence pointing to the contrary, such as the knife used by the culprit, she's still unable to comprehend the notion that someone from her town would have performed such an act. There's a nice innocence to her here that will likely fade with time, but it lends credence to the fact that so few families up and leave town when strange things start happening.
Throughout the episode there's a set up of Morgan (Richard Werner) slowly growing mad, convinced that his dummy Sid (voiced by Tom Wyner) is preparing him to murder Buffy. Buffy catches wind of the plot, planning to turn the tides against her would-be attacker and stop him from his rampage, creating a sense of our protagonist being hunted throughout the narrative. In hunting Morgan, thinking that he's a demon, Buffy learns that she, too, is being hunted by Morgan and Sid, who believe she to be the monster. Their identical goals eventually clash, and they come to realize that they're allies, and the twist couldn't have been done any better, providing a feasible rivalry as well as deepening the mystery of who truly committed the crime.
At one point Buffy wakes up in the middle of the night to find Sid the Dummy trying to murder her in her sleep, and her first reaction is a natural one for a teenage girl: screaming and calling for her mother. When Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) arrives, Buffy hides behind her, stating that there's something beneath the bed and not calming down until Joyce assures her that there's nothing to be afraid of. While this is a good display of the fact that she's still new to her duties as the Slayer, and is still a young girl at heart, it can't be ignored that she just placed her defenseless mother in the path of danger. Had Sid actually been the demon that Buffy worried he was, Joyce very likely could have been killed here, and Buffy would have had no one to blame but herself for placing her mother in that kind of situation.
Buffy tells her friends about Sid attacking her, going into detail about what she saw and admitting that it sounds insane, yet not one of them believes her. Their hesitance to listen to her here would be understandable were it an isolated incident, but Buffy has proven time and again that her instincts, no matter how crazy they appear at first glance, are genuinely on point; Buffy correctly identified a vampire in a crowd at Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) command during their first meeting, she was the first to make claim that Xander (Nicholas Brendon) had been possessed by a hyena spirit, and she warned Willow (Alyson Hannigan) against her online relationship with a boy who turned out to be a demon. Her friends are shocked beyond belief when Sid disappears from the library, Xander announcing that Buffy had been right all along, but had they been paying attention to anything that had happened so far during their school year they would have listened to her in the first place, and their disregard for the Slayer's advice only works against them time and again.
Given how carefully Cordelia crafts her public persona, it's an inspired choice here that she's completely tone-deaf, and Carpenter plays it wonderfully, remaining absolutely oblivious to the fact that she has no musical talent whatsoever. Gellar, Brendon and Hannigan also make inspired choices during their rendition of Oedipus Rex, revealing an intense stage fright in Willow and an apathetic lack of acting ability in both Xander and Buffy. Werner's performance as Morgan is fantastic, with his mood swings and headaches clearly playing into his slow decent into madness, and the revelation that, instead, he has a form of brain cancer completely changing how the audience views his character, revealing that there was no madness at play at all.
Throughout the story there's a good use of shots made from behind doors and between curtains that creates a sense of being followed, and director Ellen S. Pressman makes very good use of this technique. The episode opens with someone watching the auditions from back stage, breathing heavily and making a threatening monologue, the picture initially in black and white, and as the color slowly fades into the screen the breathing disappears, transitioning from the killer's point of view to the audience's point of view incredibly effectively. There are, however, a few missteps in the shots chosen, such as the awkwardly framed view of the chandelier falling on Buffy, landing on top of her in a way that isn't really possible given how and where she was standing, and the shot of Marc (Burke Roberts) falling into the magic box and breaking out once more in full demon guise is clever in theory but poorly executed. Whatever suspect choices made in camera shots is more than made up for in the subtle character moments thrown in, such as Xander's fear of the mime, Willow's stage fright, and Buffy unapologetically wearing Angel's (David Boreanaz) leather jacket over her own clothes. Nice, too, was Principal Snyder's assumption that the stage, set with Buffy holding a dummy while Xander, Willow and Giles stood around a decapitated demon, was some kind of avant-garde performance art piece that he simply doesn't understand.
Writers Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali show their understanding of the character's relationships as Buffy, Xander and Willow appear to make fun of Giles' role as talent show producer. While they aren't malicious about it, they do chide him for his involvement, and their mockery plays against them as Principal Snyder is introduced to the series. Snyder immediately calls the trio on their lack of respect for authority figures, noting that they had skipped class the previous day, thus already earning them the ire of the new man in charge. While their interactions with Giles are all in good-natured fun, it's not made clear that Giles understands that until later, when, in speaking to Cordelia, he stutters "...your hair..." causing her to panic and retreat, with Giles noting that Xander had advised him to say that whenever he needed to get rid of Cordelia Chase, displaying a mutual appreciation for Buffy's friends. The confrontation between Buffy and Sid is well done, providing the same quips and barbs from both parties before they realize they're fighting the same fight, neither of them winning, and coming to terms with the fact that they are allies. Morgan's headaches being later revealed as brain cancer, and the realization that, with cancer, his brain is useless to the demon, lead Buffy and Xander to think that Willow will be the next target, as she's the smartest student after Morgan. Instead, the demon targets Giles, and it's clear that the line of thought stating that any student would be smarter than the faculty is somewhat juvenile, no matter how true it may be in certain cases.
Principal Snyder is set up here as a good foil for Buffy and her friends, acting as a much more effective barrier to their extra curriculars than Principal Flutie ever managed. Interestingly, despite all of the horrors she faces on a daily basis, Buffy proves here that she still easily reverts to her childhood and hides behind her mother when she thinks that Sid the Dummy might have invaded her room, before finally realizing that she holds more power than her mother does.
The review for "Nightmares" can be read here.