Overall Rating: 9.4
For sheer creativity and characterization, this one is easily the best of the fourth season (minus Hush).
The intricate details can be found here.
This show in unlke any other in the Buffy cannon. Just this season, we've had attempts to force the slayerettes to face their fears, in years past we've had symbolic dreams driving Buffy's intuition and telling us things about the coming conflicts, and we even had an episode where a comatose young little leaguer made everyone live in a land of nightmares coming true...but none of that accomplished what this episode does when it comes to expressing one of the penultimate conflicts of striving for adulthood. This episode is about the search for identity. The primeval essence of the first slayer - the supernatural explanation for these dreams - is, as far as I'm concerned, completely irrelevant except as it pertains to Buffy herself.
Each member of the core four is at a crossroads - not too different from those difficult transition times we all face during our early college years. Willow is moving from invisible, meek and nerdy (at least in her own mind, though many of us saw much more in her from the start) to enormously powerful as she masters the forces of magic and gains confidence in her sexual identity. Her dream focuses on the secret world she's created for herself and her nagging belief that she's not ready for her life to begin unfolding publicly. We've all had a dream similar to hers regardimg running late for a class, arriving and finding ourselves completely unprepared while everyone we care about watches us fail. Willow has felt like that for most of her life...it's why earlier nightmares for her revolved around being noticed (in some deeply revealing way).
Xander's dream leads him again and again to his parents' basement. He's a young, sexually peeking male so many elements of his dream involve typical juvenile male sexual fantasies, but the two core conflicts raging in his unconscious mind are clear. First, while his friends head off to college and work toward a better future, he is stuck doing odd jobs and living in his parents' dingy basement - he fears he has no future...that everyone he cares about will leave him behind, including Anya, when she realizes how mundane his earning potential might be. Second, he feels redundent to the slayer and her gang. He's the ordinary one...no special powers useful to a demon hunt...just love and devotion to offer. We see this in his conversation with Spike and Giles...he even thinks the chained animal that is Spike is of higher regard in the mind of Buffy and her watcher than he is. His gang even goes so far as to begin speaking another language!
Giles, meanwhile, feels helpless to protect his charge. He has lost his job as watcher, his authority as school librarian, and - he believes - his place as the one Buffy truly relies upon for advice and wisdom. He'll soon find a new balance in his dealings with the slayer, but for now, all he can do is analyze the situation and try to warn Buffy.
Ane Buffy...Buffy is dating a soldier in black ops, fighting evil, going to college, and even mourning the loss of her mother as an everyday force in her life, but above all else, she is fighting an internal battle that will not be entirely settled until the finale of 5th season. Deep down (as shown by Riley's refering to her as "killer", by her application of war paint to her face almost on instinct, and by her dealings with the first slayer), she wonders where she "Buffy Summers" stops and the destructive power within her (the essence of the first slayer) begins. She fears that she will be consumed by a life of death and violence and that her capacity to love is nothing compared to that power. For now, she defeats the first slayer by asserting that she is not defined by her destiny...that although that power is a part of her, she has made a life for herself that includes things of infinitely more value than violence and death. Here, she chooses to own her power, rather than letting the power own her. This conflict will reappear after Riley leaves her and she'll seek out the first slayer again in a vision quest.
SABR Matt has pretty much covered all the bases, so what I'm going to do is link to a few of the more interesting and comprehensive analyses of this episode so you can see how it invites a multiplicity of interpretations:
Craig Warner's Analysis
MikeJer's Buffy Reviews
A Review @ AllAboutBuffy.net
I think it's especially funny that Craig Warner in particular ignores Joss Whedon entirely and comes up with a meaning for the Cheese Guy. LOL!
Writing: 9.5 / 9.5
PAY ATTENTION when you watch this episode - apart from the hilarious appearance by "cheese guy" - inserted because Joss Whedon felt that all dreams needed an element of randomness - every detail has one or many meanings and it's worth your effort to try to figure out what it all means. The way the scenes were shot...the inclusion of different colors, merged sets, lighting effects, and the creation of the "fisrt slayer" image are among the most beautiful and effective things Joss Whedon ever accomplished.
Acting: 10.0 / 10.0
There was a rather remarkable balance in the cast between playing this as obviously a dream and playing it entirely in character. The situations become truyly remarkable (as in...out of the ordinary), but you feel like you have stepped into the minds of the characters, rather than into a whacky melodramatic nightmare.
Message: 8.7 / 8.7
I did feel that the resolution of Buffy's conflict (that saves the day) was a bit rushed. She encounters her internal power source and...gives it hair tips without even being slightly thrown by its' confident assurance that a slayer must walk the Earth alone and that there's nothing to her but the kill? Her real-life dealings with the slayer calling would suggest she isn't that confident yet. The basic idea...that a person is not defined by their career, their emotions, even their intentions...but by their actions...is very nice to see, though. Buffy resolves things by asserting that she "walks, has friends, goes shopping"...that she lives in the world and intends to continue doing just that. That'll do for now.
This show cannot be highlighted. Period. It is deeply, almost SPIRITUALLY visual and the dialogue is almost pointless compared to the symbolism in the directorial and artistic elements. I emplore you all to watch it and be amazed. Just trust me on that.