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The Big Damn Buffy Rewatch S04E04, “Fear, Itself”

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In every generation, there is a chosen one. She alone just got back from vacation and is still in need of a god damn break. She will also recap every episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer with an eye to the following themes:

  1. Sex is the real villain of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer universe.
  2. Giles is totally in love with Buffy.
  3. Joyce is a fucking terrible parent.
  4. Willow’s magic is utterly useless (this one won’t be an issue until season 2, when she gets a chance to become a witch)
  5. Xander is a textbook Nice Guy.
  6. The show isn’t as feminist as people claim.
  7. All the monsters look like wieners.
  8. If ambivalence to possible danger were an Olympic sport, Team Sunnydale would take the gold.
  9. Angel is a dick.
  10. Harmony is the strongest female character on the show.
  11. Team sports are portrayed in an extremely negative light.
  12. Some of this shit is racist as fuck.
  13. Science and technology are not to be trusted.
  14. Mental illness is stigmatized.
  15. Only Willow can use a computer.
  16. Buffy’s strength is flexible at the plot’s convenience.
  17. Cheap laughs and desperate grabs at plot plausibility are made through Xenophobia.
  18. Oz is the Anti-Xander
  19. Spike is capable of love despite his lack of soul
  20. Don’t freaking tell me the vampires don’t need to breathe because they’re constantly out of frickin’ breath.
  21. The foreshadowing on this show is freaking amazing.
  22. Smoking is evil.
  23. Despite praise for its positive portrayal of non-straight sexualities, some of this shit is homophobic as fuck.
  24. How do these kids know all these outdated references, anyway?
  25. Technology is used inconsistently as per its convenience in the script.
  26. Sunnydale residents are no longer shocked by supernatural attacks.
  27. Casual rape dismissal/victim blaming a-go-go
  28. Snyder believes Buffy is a demon or other evil entity.
  29. The Scoobies kind of help turn Jonathan into a bad guy.
  30. This show caters to the straight/bi female gaze like whoa.
  31. Sunnydale General is the worst hospital in the world.
  32. Faith is hyper-sexualized needlessly.
  33. Slut shame!
  34. The Watchers have no fucking clue what they’re doing.
  35. Vampire bites, even very brief ones, are 99.8% fatal.
  36. Economic inequality is humorized and oversimplified.
  37. Buffy is an abusive romantic partner.
  38. Riley is the worst.
  39. Joss Whedon has a problem with fat people.
  40. Spike is an abusive romantic partner.
  41. Why are all these men so terrible?
  42. Wicca doesn’t work like that.

Have I missed any that were added in past recaps? Let me know in the comments.  Even though I might forget that you mentioned it.

WARNING: Some people have mentioned they’re watching along with me, and that’s awesome, but I’ve seen the entire series already and I’ll probably mention things that happen in later seasons. So… you know, take that under consideration, if you’re a person who can’t enjoy something if you know future details about it.

Of all the Halloween episodes the show has done, this one is hands down the very best. It is one of my all-time favorite episodes and possibly the funniest episode of the series. I love it with all my heart.

I mean, check out the opening shot:

The camera is positioned inside a jack-o-lantern so that we're looking out through the nose to see Xander, holding a knife and staring at his pumpkin in confusion.

It’s the Great Xander, Pumpkin Harris!

Buffy is still heartbroken from the manipulations of Stupid Fucking Douchebag:

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.”

Xander tries to lift the mood a little by announcing that he’s got the perfect scary Halloween movie: Fantasia.

Xander: “Fantasia?

Oz: “Maybe it’s because of all the horrific things we’ve seen but hippos wearing tutus just don’t unnerve me the way they used to.”

Xander: “Phantasm. It was supposed to be Phantasm!”

It doesn’t matter, though, because Buffy, Willow, and Oz were planning on going to a party at a frat house. They forgot to mention this plan to Xander, who plays it off like being excluded from college stuff doesn’t bother him. Still, they all agree that going to the party will be a rad time and Buffy morosely leaves. Xander, Willow, and Oz discuss the fact that she’s very sad about SFD because this was back in the day when if someone missed a single episode of a TV show they were lost forever and needed a ton of exposition to catch them up.

Meanwhile, Buffy is wandering the streets of Sunnydale sadly when a guy in a monster mask runs up on her and is surprised when she knocks the fuck out of him.

#8, mask dude. Look, everyone in town knows there are monsters because we’ve seen #26 in action. We also know that only weeks ago the mayor of the town turned into a god damn giant snake demon whose transformation darkened the sun and resulted in the explosion of the high school in an incident where many lives were lost. We also know that at this point, the entire town knows that a Slayer lives there, because she organized the student body into the army that vanquished the god damn giant snake demon whose transformation darkened the sun and resulted in the explosion of the high school in an incident where many lives were lost. So, let’s say you’re a dude who lives in Sunnydale where there are real monsters and you know for a fact that there’s at least one real monster hunter out there.

Why are you dressing up in a monster costume and attacking random people without anticipating at least the possibility of getting punched?

Like, if you’re a guy putting on a mask and running at people like you’re going to attack them you should already accept that someone might get startled and hit you. That’s just like, baseline expectation for something going wrong, even if you don’t live in a town full of monsters. But if you do live in a town of monsters, you should have a reasonable expectation that you’re even more likely to trigger someone’s fight-or-flight mechanism. And if you live in a town full of monsters and a monster hunter? You should thank your lucky stars all you got was punched in the face, pal.

Anyway, he asks what the hell is wrong with her and she despondently echoes the sentiment to herself because, you know. Clearly, there’s something wrong with her if SFD doesn’t want her. Ugh, Buffy, why can’t you see what a total jag he is?

After the credits, Buffy and Willow are heading into the cafeteria, where Willow bemoans her lack of “Wicca” progress:

Willow: “I’ve got the basics down: levitations, charms, glamours. I just feel like I’ve plateaued, Wicca-wise.”

Buffy: “What’s the next level?”

Willow: “Transmutation. Conjuring. Bringing forth something from nothing. Gets you pretty close to the primal forces.”

So, I understand that the “primal forces” remark is #21, as it foreshadows the “First Slayer” stuff that happens at the end of the season, so that’s not an issue here. What is an issue to me is how the show conflates Wicca and Witchcraft, especially as the season goes on. I’m not a Wiccan, but that’s where my Paganism started. I can safely say that I never had to levitate, charm, or glamour anything to move up a level. In fact, I never had to do any magic at all to feel connected to “the primal forces,” because that’s what Wicca is. It’s a nature-based religion that honors the inherent spiritual energies and cycles of our planet. Practitioners may or may not also study Witchcraft, but the two aren’t the same. Some Wiccans do Witchcraft. Some Witches are Wiccans. Not all Wiccans do Witchcraft. Not all Witches are Wiccans. And while it might seem like it’s not a big deal, this is just world-building in a fantasy show where none of this really matters, the conflation of Wicca with fictional Witchcraft and spooky magic powers is what keeps a lot of people from being open about their spirituality, which is really sucky. It wasn’t as though “Witchcraft” wasn’t available to use as a descriptor in this world building. Using the name of a real religion because it sounds more interesting is frankly insulting. Especially considering how Willow’s “Wicca” arc goes for the rest of the series.

Oh, and speaking of #21, Willow also says:

Willow: “Then again, what is college for if not…experimenting.”

Oz walks into the conversation and assumes they’re talking about wine coolers, but he when finds out they’re discussing magic he says he hopes Buffy isn’t encouraging Willow. Because he’s worried about how dangerous her magic “Wicca” powers are. So, uh…see why I have a problem with this? Because here we have a cultural phenomenon television show describing a very real and very misunderstood religion as dangerous and something people should be concerned about their loved ones getting involved in. All because she’s going to be dealing with power that Oz thinks she can’t control. So, let’s just add another number to our list: #42: Wicca doesn’t work like that.

Oz tells Willow that he’ll support her no matter what, but that he doesn’t want her to feel the way he feels when he’s starting to get all werewolf. Buffy spots SFD across the cafeteria and runs out. Willow followers her and tries to convince her to go to the Halloween party, but Buffy tells her that she’s done with dudes for the moment. And Willow is like, okay, but you can still go to the party. Buffy says she probably won’t get to go because Giles is going to want her out patrolling since he totally doesn’t care about Halloween.

Cut to:

Giles is wearing a sarape and sombrero, holding a bowl of candy. He is uncharacteristically psyched for Halloween.

I don’t know if cultural appropriation falls under #12 or #17 but knock that shit off, Giles. You’re smarter than that.

Buffy is horrified by the decorations and Giles’s overall enthusiasm for the holiday:

Buffy: “What is going on here? You hate Halloween.”

Giles: “I’ve never said any such thing. As my Watcher’s duties took precedence I simply hadn’t taken time to embrace its inherent charms until now.”

Then he shows her a Frankenstein decoration that mechanically jitters around.

Retired Giles needs a hobby.

Buffy suggests she go patrolling and Giles reminds her that monsters don’t really like Halloween and tend to stay in. Which I thought they all knew, so I don’t know why Willow didn’t have that one in her arsenal to combat Buffy’s depression excuses. Either way, Giles tells her that there isn’t going to be any spooky goings on and not to waste her time. But Giles doesn’t realize that Buffy is going to spend Halloween…

AT THE AMERICAN HORROR STORY MURDER HOUSE!

An exterior shot of the house from season one of American Horror Story.
“You’re gonna die in there.”

Inside, the fraternity brothers are setting up for the super cool party. Polo shirts are everywhere. They want to make the house as scary as possible so that girls are afraid and end up fucking them. I honestly have never been so afraid of plastic skeletons that the only way to soothe my fear was to have sex with a dude in khakis. Maybe my standards aren’t low enough. But whatever.

Frat Guy: “Is there any holiday that’s not about getting laid?”

Other Frat Guy: “Arbor Day.”

Uh, dude. You really needed to say “Mother’s Day” here.

Frat Guy tells Other Frat guy that he’ll call Oz to get the sound system fixed and oh, by the way, I found this spooky occult symbol in this book let’s decorate with it. Even if you don’t live in Sunnydale, you should know not to fuck with ancient symbols and shit.

Back at Xander’s basement, Anya randomly shows up unannounced and startles Xander, who reminds her that it’s customary to knock before busting in on someone. She wants to know why Xander hasn’t called her, despite her saying that she was over him after they had sex. He tells her that since she said that, he assumed she meant it. But she didn’t and she wants to go out with him that night. He explains that he already has Halloween plans with Buffy, Willow, and Oz, but Anya can’t wrap her newly mortal noggin around why he’s still friends with them. She points out that unlike them, he’s not in college or living on his own, so they no longer have anything in common.

Oof. Let me tell you how hard I feel this. I did not go to college after high school as most of my friends did. Nobody ever really told me how to like…sign up for the SATs or apply to colleges, so I assumed it was something you did after high school was all over. As a result, I guess I kind of missed my chance, having to work to pay rent and bills and such with no money left over to pay for extravagant extras like higher education. This isolated me from those friends, whose lives seemed easier and effortlessly like the movies and television shows that had prepared us for a post-high school life of what we expected would be non-stop wacky parties and the exhilaration of a blissful, responsibility-lite transition into adulthood. It was very easy to feel like I was doing my late teens/early twenties “wrong,” and it still kind of does. I really love Xander’s arc in this season because there were so many people going through this at the same time it was airing (including me), and it’s the one area of Xander’s economic reality that isn’t played up just for laughs but to give him some much-needed character development after three fairly static seasons of Nice Guy comic relief––though in this scene, there is a joke about Xander’s alcoholic uncle who lives with them because you know. Poor people drinking too much and having to live in a multi-family/multi-generational household is somehow shameful and the result of the low morality that led to poverty in the first place or whatever bullshit capitalist trash drives this sort of narrative. (#36).

Xander tells Anya that it doesn’t matter that his friends are all in college and he isn’t. But he can’t put up much of an argument. He invites Anya to go to the party with him and she asks if that means they’re dating. He admits that their relationship is “date-like” and Anya is pleased––until she finds out that this particular date involves a scary costume.

Back on campus, Buffy asks Professor Walsh for the assignments for the day, citing a personal problem as the reason for her absence from class.

Professor Walsh: “Right. I count four limbs, a head, no visible scarring, so I assume your personal issue wasn’t a life-threatening accident of any kind and am therefore uninterested. You got problems, solve them on your own time. Miss another class and you’re out.”

I just once want her to give this bullshit hardass act to someone and have them be like, “My parents and siblings were killed this morning in a brutal home invasion gone wrong. I am the only member of my family who survived. I was talking to the police and a counselor but this class is important to me and despite my personal tragedy––the emotional impact of which you can’t begin to fathom––I don’t want to fall behind because I value your insight and the time you take to educate us.”

I just really want Maggie Walsh to have the shittiest day possible. Because here’s the thing: Buffy isn’t in medical school. She didn’t miss a class that will someday determine whether or not another human being lives or dies. She’s a freshman in a psych 101 class that’s probably fulfilling some bullshit credit requirement. And despite having an issue that prevented her from showing up to class, she still made the effort to come in to get the assignments. She’s not blowing the class off. One might assume that the goddess of all human psychology would recognize the difference between a student who doesn’t care and is bullshitting and a student who legitimately wants to succeed and is making effort.

What really pisses me off about the Maggie Walsh character is how much of a stereotype she is. She’s this “strong” woman who shows her strength by being a no-nonsense ballbuster. But she’s the villain. I’m torn on how to feel about her. Is she a mark of the show’s feminism, highlighting how these stereotypes are negative? Or is her stereotypical she-beast nature just lazy writing? This gets especially muddied for me when we begin to see her almost incestuous fixation on Riley and her motherly adoration of Boringstein later in the season.

Speaking of Riley, he’s there and witnesses the whole thing. He tells her that her work in class hasn’t been great lately but that he understands how tough freshman year can be. When Buffy says she’ll use the night to complete the assignments she missed, he encourages her to go out and party:

Riley: “Halloween isn’t an night for responsiblity. It’s when the ghosts and goblins come out.”

Buffy: “That’s actually a misnomer.”

No, it’s a misconception. Misnomer is when you use the wrong term or name for something.

Anyway, they have a nice moment and it’s back to Murder House, where the frat guys are painting the occult symbol on the floor. Xander and Oz are both there while this is happening, but only Xander expresses interest in what the symbol is and where it came from. Frat Guy tells him that the symbol came from a book that had a lot of cool stuff in it, which should be a red flag to Oz and Xander, but the former is setting up stereo equipment and the latter is distracted by a bowl of grapes. Our heroes have succumbed to #8, so I guess that’s something that gets worse gradually as you get older?

Anyway, Xander notices the grapes are peeled.

Other Frat Guy: “Eyeballs, man. Blindfold chicks, have them put 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.”

In case you come to my blog to look for romantic tips to woo that special someone, just a heads up: no women like to have their hands thrust into bowls of eyeballs. You’re welcome. I just saved your anniversary.

Oz turns on the shrieking scary Halloween sound effects and realizes there’s an imbalance coming from one of the speakers. He’s going to fix this by trimming up the wire, which I’m not entirely sure fixes that type of problem? But that doesn’t matter. We need to get this spooky symbol on the floor activated somehow, and Oz accidentally cutting himself and dripping blood onto it is how we’re gonna do it. Within seconds of his blood hitting the painted circle, waves of mystical energy emanate from it and a toy spider turns into a not-so-toy spider.

A warped, unfinished wooden floor and a portion of the painted symbol. A tarantula is moseying his way along the perimeter.
On the upside, it’s a way scarier decoration now.

At Casa de Summers, Joyce has her sewing machine out, working on a costume for Buffy. She’s repurposing an old Red Ridinghood cloak, which leads them on a trip through memories of happier times. They talk about how much Buffy’s father loved taking her trick-or-treating and how much Joyce loved eating Buffy’s candy.

Joyce: “Your father loved spending time with you.”

Buffy: “Not enough, I guess.”

Joyce: “Buffy…”

Buffy: “That just paved right over memory lane, huh?”

Joyce: “You know the divorce had nothing to do with you.”

Buffy: “I don’t know. I’m starting to feel like there’s a pattern here. Open your heart to someone and he bails on you. Maybe it’s easier to just not let anyone in.”

Joyce: “I thought it might be easier. You must have noticed that I’m not exactly the social butterfly that I was when I was with your dad. I don’t think I made a single new friend the year we moved to Sunnydale.”

Buffy: “Why not?”

Because she made a new friend and that friend turned into a zombie and got killed by a shovel through the skull. I mean, Joyce doesn’t cite that example, but she does mention that she dated an evil robot and that’s kind of made her gun shy in the love department. Reasonable, Joyce. Reasonable. But her point is that eventually, she made new friends and learned to trust other people, and that Buffy should focus on all the loved ones she has who haven’t abandoned her.

At the dorm, Willow is on the phone with someone, adjusting her kick-ass knight costume. She says that they’re going to have to force Buffy to have fun at the party and brutally murder SFD if they see him. You know. In the spirit of the holiday. She leaves for the party and walks past all sorts of wacky college characters and disagreements. We cut to Murder House, where Other Frat guy is trying to pull off his “put your hands in this bowl of peeled grapes and then touch my dick” plan, but it doesn’t go quite right. He tells his blindfolded lady companion that she’s touching eyeballs and:

The girl's hand, full of actual eyeballs, above the bowl that is now full of eyeballs.

Buffy meets Xander on the sidewalk near Murder House. He’s all dressed up in a tux and she’s in full Red Ridinghood regalia.

Xander: “What you got in the basket, little girl?”

Buffy: “Weapons.

Xander: “Oh.”

Buffy: “Just in case. Like the tux, Xander.”

Xander: “Bond. James Bond. Insurance, you know, in case we get turned into our costumes again. I’m going for cool secret agent guy.”

Buffy: “I hate to break it to you but you’ll probably end up cool head waiter guy.”

Xander: “As long as I’m cool and weild some kind of power.”

They mosey across the street, where Willow and Oz, sans costume, wait.

Willow: “I’m Joan of Arc! I figured we had a lot in common, seeing as how I was almost burned at the stake. And plus she had that close relationship with God.”

Xander: “And you are?”

Oz pulling back his jacket to reveal a name tag that reads GOD, while Willow beams proudly at their joke.

As they stroll down the street, two dudes with giant guns, night-vision goggles, and fatigues step out of the bushes. Buffy makes a crack about their nice costumes, not realizing that they’ve just run into the season’s Big Bad. Willow says they’re going to have “the best time” at the party.

Cut to the interior of Murder House, where the running and screaming has commenced. I can’t describe it for you in detail because there is a ton of stobe lighting effects and I have epilepsy but what I will tell you is things are bad and getting worse if your Halloween party involves real dead people in a way that is unintentional. The gang arrives at the party and Oz says ominously:

Oz: “Let the horrors begin.”

But the horror I’m focused on isn’t so much the fact that Other Frat Guy has just fallen down the stairs and broken his neck and died, but the yellow vinyl siding on the entryway of Murder House. I’m so glad that shit got taken care of before Ryan Murphy showed up. That shit would have been the real American horror story.

Oz, Willow, Buffy, and Xander enter the surprisingly deserted house, but Oz assures them they just need to follow the signs to the actual party. While they walk the hallways, Buffy talks about how unscary the decorations are, but Xander gets spooked by a skeleton and Willow freaks out over some cobwebs. Oh, and the very real tarantula that perches on her shoulder. Uneasy, the group decides to keep moving toward the party. But when they enter the next room, Oz is confused because he was expecting to end up somewhere else. Oh, and there’s blood. Real blood, Buffy deduces via smell.

Buffy can sniff-test human blood.

No wonder the plastic rats aren’t spooky enough for her.

Speaking of rodents, they all hear a weird squeaking sound that Xander blames on his shoes. They look up in time to see a whole ceilingful of bats just swoop the fuck down on them, only to disappear and leave behind cheap rubber imitations. A demonic voice demands that someone release it, and the gang knows they’re in trouble.

Meanwhile, Anya is about to arrive in her terrifying costume:

Anya is wearing an Easter bunny-style suit, but the ears/head is a hood that allows her face to be shown.

But when she gets to the door, there is no door. Wait, is that why the siding is there? Because they were able to cover the door with a siding panel? And maybe that atrocious siding isn’t actually affixed to the house? It was just set dressing? Please, God, someone tell me that siding came and left with the production.

Anyway, Anya can’t get in. As she looks for another entrance, she sees a woman screaming and pounding on a window that suddenly bricks over by itself. She knows something’s up and takes off with the intent to save Xander.

Inside, Oz cuts the speaker wires to stop the constant Halloween sound effects so that they can concentrate. They realize that there are no stairs and no door anymore and that they’ve just gone in a big circle. Willow wants to get out, and Buffy makes a crack about how much they all wanted her to come. But Willow doesn’t want to joke. She reminds Buffy that they don’t know what they’re facing, and everyone…ignores Xander.

Xander: “Okay, my turn. Does anyone hear that?

Buffy: “Well, as soon as we start dealing with it I’ll know what it is I’m dealing with. Do you hear something?”

Xander: “Like I said. Sounds like a hissing.”

Buffy: “It’s like a…’sssss’ noise?”

Xander: “I thought the word hissing kind of covered that nicely.”

The hissing is the quiet sobbing of Frat Guy, who’s in a closet rocking and crying. He stammers that he’s sorry and he didn’t know, and while Oz attempts to comfort him and get some answers, the guy just manages to utter a dire warning:

Frat Guy: “It’s alive.”

And then we see the plastic skeleton that scared Xander before, but it’s not so plastic now:

It's a human skeleton now, covered in spiderwebs of sinew and rotting flesh, with one good eye that stares directly into the camera. Its head is tilted down in an oddly seductive way.

So, my favorite part of this shot is how much it looks like an album cover for a smooth adult contemporary skeleton that your grandma would describe as “foxy.” He’s like the Crypt Keeper’s hotter brother and he knows it. The line he’s about to lay on you works every time. He’s leaving with your numbers and your panties, ladies. And he’s not gonna call you. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

My second favorite part of this shot is how much it looks like the poster for Evil Dead 2. I don’t know if that’s intentional, but I like to think it is. There are a lot of great horror movie homages in this episode.

After the commercial, the group is trying to calm down Frat Guy when Josh Groban’s skeleton attacks Buffy and slashes her arm. She knocks it down and it turns back into plastic. Then they look back at the closet where Frat Guy was hiding, only to find that he––and the entire closet––is gone. Buffy formulates a plan. She says she’s going to head deeper into the house to look for survivors and tells the others to find a way out. Willow balks at being asked to abandon Buffy, but Buffy has her reason for sending them away:

Buffy: “We need help. We need the only person who can make sense of what’s happening.”

Giles is still in his stereotypical costume, sitting in his apartment at his desk with the trick-or-treat candy bowl in his lap, a mouth full of candy, and a pile of empty wrappers on the desk in front of him.
That would be this guy.

Anya knocks frantically on the door and bursts in the moment it opens a crack:

Anya: “Xander’s in trouble. You’ve got to do something, right now!”

Giles: “Anya––”

Anya: “Are you listening? Xander’s trapped.”

Giles: “Uh, where’s Buffy and the others?”

Anya: “Oh, they’re trapped too. But we’ve got to save Xander!”

Giles gets Anya to calm down and give him some more details. When she tells him about the disappearing window, he gets an idea of what’s up. He tells her not to worry because at least Xander is with his friends.

Smash cut to Buffy and Willow in a heated argument. Buffy tells Willow that she can’t worry about fighting monsters if she’s also trying to protect the others, and Willow is like, just because you’re a Slayer doesn’t mean you’re in charge. Willow wants to do a guiding spell to get them out by conjuring spirits or something. Buffy is like, no, because your spells don’t always work, and Willow tells Buffy that she’s not a sidekick before storming off, followed by Oz. Left alone together, Xander tries to do damage control with Buffy on Willow’s behalf, but Buffy…ignores Xander. And then she starts calling out for Xander. While he tells her to stop joking around, she heads off in a huff to find him. They haven’t been ignoring Xander. He’s invisible.

This is…what, the second instance of invisibility on this show?

In another part of the house, Willow’s witch ego is spiraling out of control to the point that she doesn’t notice Oz sprouting a lot of worrisome hair and fangs. He’s transforming, despite it not being the full moon, and tells Willow she needs to get away from him. She’s like, no, I can do the spell, but he tells her there isn’t time. She tries to grab him and he inadvertently claws her. As he runs away, she shouts:

Willow: “Oz! Don’t leave me!”

#21 in full force here. The house is amplifying the things they fear the most. Oz’s fear that he won’t be able to control his transformations and he’ll ultimately hurt Willow. Xander’s fear of no longer existing to his friends because they’ve moved on without him (but don’t worry. A spooky decapitated head reassures him that he’s totally not invisible). So, Willow’s biggest fear is…

Well, it’s losing Oz and that’s great foreshadowing for the rest of the season. But it’s possible that she’s afraid of her magic, too. She does the conjuring spell, bringing a little tiny green light into existence. She tells it to take her to Oz, but her thoughts quickly scatter. She knows she should try to find all the trapped people first. And then she has to find a way out of the house. Every time she thinks of something else, the light splits and multiplies, until she’s surrounded by a bee-like swarm.

So, here’s #4 in action. Willow’s spell puts her in danger and she shouts to Buffy for help. Which is exactly what Buffy said was going to happen, so now Buffy has to rescue her. Also, Willow already said hey, we don’t know what we’re dealing with. So why, in the middle of what is clearly a spooky paranormal situation, would you then introduce magic you’re not familiar or successful with? Ego. Pure ego. Willow’s spiritual path is infuriating because it’s all about aggrandizing herself, something that never really gets dealt with through the course of the series because it turns into an addiction narrative instead.

Anyway, Buffy is looking for a path to Willow to help her, when she pushes open a door and falls straight into the cellar. It kind of looks like the chick pit from “Buffy vs. Dracula,” but we’re not there yet. Anyway, Other Frat Guy’s reanimated corpse is down there with her, broken neck at all, and he’s ready to get pretty fucking personal:

Other Frat Guy: “They all ran away from you. They always will. Open your heart to someone and… But don’t fret, little girl. You’re not alone.”

Decomposing hands thrust up through the ground to grab Buffy as she struggles. Let me use the commercial break to talk about #16. Buffy has just fallen pretty far and landed flat. Yeah, that hurts. She probably got the wind knocked out of her. But zombie hands? She can’t get away from zombie hands? Come on. Literally, all she had to do was stand up, but she lays there until after the commercial when they’re now whole zombies. I mean, she could have even just rolled to avoid the hands before they even got a chance to dig themselves out. Also, where are her weapons? Oh, right. She sat them down and left them behind. Like you do when you’re a Slayer whose entire life revolves around being tough, using weapons, and not dying? I guess? This has always bugged me. She knows she’s up against something supernatural and she left her weapons behind, anyway.

Outside the house, Giles examines where the door should be and says, well, he’ll just have to make one. And then he gets a chainsaw.

In the basement, Buffy continues to struggle, crawling away from the zombies and trying to kick them. That’s the big ass fight scene in this one, by the way. Buffy crawling frantically away from zombies and kicking at them while crying in terror. Ring-a-ding-ding. She makes her way to a tiny door and escapes from the basement directly into the attic where the party started and then went terribly wrong. There are people huddled, terrified in corners, including Oz, who’s no longer an almost-werewolf. Willow bursts in, swatting at the lights which are now gone. Once they’ve reached the room, they’re suddenly no longer being tormented by fear.

So…why did the party devolve into chaos in that room, if it’s an unaffected part of the house?

Buffy tells Willow and Oz that they need to find out a way out and Xander says:

Xander: “I’d offer my opinion but you jerks aren’t going to hear it anyway. Not that Didn’t-Go-To-College-Boy has anything important to say. I might as well hang out with my new best friend, bleeding dummy head, for all you dorks care.”

Buffy: “What is wrong with you?”

Xander: “You…you heard that? You can see me? Good. Oh god, good.”

Willow tries to Brightside Barbie this shit and says hey, at least they all found each other and got away from the things tormenting them. Buffy is like, no, it drove them there for a reason. She looks at the sigil on the floor and Xander tells her he saw the frat guys painting it. Yet nobody says, “Uh, hey Xander? Why the fuck didn’t you mention this shit to us before we came to the haunted party?” Because that would be my first reaction. We live in Sunnydale and you saw someone painting an obscure sigil out of a weird old book? And you didn’t think this was worth mentioning?

Willow says the book is in Gaelic but that maybe she can translate it. Did we miss the part where Willow learned Gaelic? I can believe it of Giles, who has been trained in spooky ancient woo his entire life. I could believe it of Anya, who’s been alive for a millennium and therefore has had time to study it. I have a harder time believing it of Willow, but this show does kind of treat her like, “Oh, she’s smart. So she can do literally everything.” She says the spell will summon Gachnar, a demon that feeds on fear to manifest itself into being. Buffy says they need to stop being afraid of it so that can’t happen.

Xander: “If we close our eyes and say it’s a dream…it’ll stab us to death! These things are real!”

They decide yet again to leave the house that’s unleavable. This script really needed someone to look over it and go, “Hey, you’ve got this exact same idea expressed like nineteen hundred times? You might want to just trust the audience to remember that the characters still need to escape the haunted house even if they didn’t say it a second ago.”

The group makes for the door when it bursts open and:

Giles, still wielding his chainsaw and looking super scary serious.

Xander: “Giles? Hey, everyone, it’s Giles. With a chainsaw!”

Nicholas Brendan deserved an Emmy based on his delivery of this line alone. The Goofy-like shriek of pure fear he leads into it with is brilliant and his panic makes it clear that this would, indeed, be one of his worst fears.

Giles and Anya come in and Giles immediately explains what’s going on:

Giles: “Gachnar. Of course. Its presence infects the reality of the house but it’s not managed to achieve full manifestation. We cannot allow this to come into being.”

I love how there are seemingly a bajillion monsters and demons out there and Giles is like, oh yeah, Gachnar, why didn’t I think of specifically him? How has this guy gotten a good night’s sleep ever in his life when he knows about all this stuff?

Anyway, Buffy asks if she’ll still be able to fight it and Giles shows her what she’d be dealing with:

A page of the book with a woodcut-like drawing of Gachnar. He is covered in spikes, has long claws, and antler-like things sticking up off his giant head. The text around the picture is clearly English.

Please note that Willow said the text in the book “looks like Gaelic” and struggled to read it. It’s clearly English. So much for being the smart one.

Buffy says she doesn’t want to fight Gachnar, so Giles finds a passage on shutting the whole shit down.

Giles: “The summoning spell for Gachnar can be shut down in one of two ways. Destroying the mark of Gachnar––”

Buffy destroying the mark of Gachnar by ripping up the floor boards.

Giles: “Is not one of them and will in fact immediately bring forth the fear demon itself!”

Oh shit, guys. Buffy fucked up. I don’t want to point out that the ritual for summoning Gachnar is kind of pointless if all you have to do is just destroy his mark but I have to because this is Trout Nation and goddamnit, we don’t fool around here. What would be the point of summoning Gachnar and trying to bring him forth by feeding him fear and stuff if you just have to break his sigil? You could draw it on a piece of paper and rip it and bam, here he is.

It is what it is, I guess. I still love this episode because it’s hilarious.

They all stand around the hole in the floor, looking down helplessly into a vortex of blazing light while Gachnar emerges.

Gachnar, viewed from over Buffy's shoulder. He is about four inches tall.

Everyone’s terror turns to confusion as they realize that the demon that’s been tormenting them is about the size of a Star Wars action figure. But he tries. In his tiny, squeaky voice, he tries.

Gachnar: “I am the Dark Lord of Nightmares! The Bringer Of Terror. Tremble before me! Fear me!”

The best part of this scene is how Buffy tries to stifle her laughter. Like she doesn’t want to be unnecessarily cruel before killing him.

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.”

Then, in a couple shots that I’m a hundred percent sure have been paused and screencapped and frantically masturbated to in the decades since this first aired, Buffy picks up her foot and squishes Gachnar.

Back at Giles’s apartment, Oz, Buffy, and Willow are eating the left-over trick-or-treat candy. Xander finally addresses Anya’s “scary” costume (bunnies frighten her), and Giles finishes up his Gachnar research.

Giles: “Oh, bloody hell, the inscription. I should have translated the Gaelic inscriptions under the illustration of Gachnar.”

Buffy: “What’s it say?”

Giles: “Actual size.”

Cut to credits.

There is so much wrong with this episode. Why does Buffy abandon all of her weapons and march off alone into what she knows is a haunted house trying to kill them? Why would Willow use magic she already said she’s not sure of using yet in a situation she argues is unstable? Why didn’t Oz or Xander mention the sigil not just when they entered the house but literally hours beforehand? What happened to all the people who died in the house while Gachnar was trying to manifest? Why would a smart guy like Giles just plunge chainsaw first into the wall of a house with the electricity still on? And right by a porchlight, at that? Now that they know their deepest fears or whatever, why don’t they ever get addressed? Their individual character arcs continue on in those same paths of conflict without any acknowledgment from the characters that these are real problems they need to deal with?

Things like Willow’s magic and Buffy’s abandonment of her weapons could have been easily explained with a single line of dialogue somewhere, from any character. “Something isn’t right…we’re not acting like ourselves.” Anything. I mean even a line that bad could have been delivered by Seth Green and changed the whole thing. Then everyone gets to the top of the house and they get the book and it’s like, oh, it alters reality AND your perception. Because the whole, “worst fears” thing was already done in season one, anyway. Plus, putting an emphasis on how manipulation through fear is robbing them of their ability to make decisions that will aid their survival would have made it even scarier. But none of that happened. All the tension was just, “We have to get out of here,” over and over and over. Ugh, it sucks sooooooo much.

“Fear, Itself,” is in my top ten Buffy episodes of all time.

34 Comments

  1. Baronbrian
    Baronbrian

    I remember the first time I saw this episode just roaring with laughter at the last line. It really is full of so many problems like you mentioned but damn does humor make me overlook them.

    June 29, 2018
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  2. Anon
    Anon

    Long ago, I went on a date with a guy who took me to a haunted house. Only I was far past the age where haunted houses scared me and so I didn’t even flinch on the way through. And then he never called me again.

    I’m pretty sure he took me in there so I’d fall into his arms or something. (This was not our first date.)

    The “miss another class and you’re out” thing is pretty much how college works, honestly. At least mine did. You had a certain number you could miss. More than that and you failed and they really didn’t care why. heck, show up 30 seconds late and they might kick you out. College profs don’t mess around.

    June 29, 2018
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    • Emerald
      Emerald

      I think that depends on where you go. I went to university in Canada and my first year psych class looked a lot like Buffy’s. Big lecture hall full of people, there were almost 400 students in that class. No way was the prof going to notice/care if you didn’t show up.

      June 29, 2018
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    • I’ve been to four different colleges, and most of my profs didn’t even take attendance. Where on earth did you go?

      June 29, 2018
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      • Kate
        Kate

        I think it just varies by professor. I’ve had giant lecture hall classes take attendance by putting up a silly question on the slideshow at the beginning of class, and then you had this fun little clicky remote thing that you used to answer it. Each remote was tied to your student ID and so the professor could check the results whenever and see who wasn’t there.
        But I do find that they’re more concerned with attendance in the specialized classes, not Psych 101. I think they just wanted to drive home the point that buffy isn’t going to quite fit in, which serves to make her feel more alienated.

        June 30, 2018
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        • Jane Eyre
          Jane Eyre

          Yeah, where I live we have ‘lectures’ and ‘classes’ classes are like discussion and reading stuff and on classes, you’re allowed to miss one. If you miss more you failed but you can make a certain amount up during ‘coaching hours’ and pass. Because as I said classes are the discussion of the stuff they told you to read, so it’s usually important stuff and a lot of times you don’t have an exam at the end, maybe just some pop quiz along the way. and of course, science courses have laboratories which also are mandatory for attendance.
          Lectures usually they are non-obligatory because most lectures end with the final exam at the end of a semester to which you have a list of excerpts from books and the books you have to read and they usually question you from the books so you don’t have to attend. Sometimes the lectures are for attendance but often they’re such with an agreement with students. Like you can see that this is a ‘filler’ subject that is mostly made up a theory, so you pass on attendance. to practice so having an exam from it would be pointless. But as I said LECTURES are not obligatory to attend, usually.

          June 30, 2018
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        • Liza
          Liza

          When I was in college we would group up and rotate who went to class. One person would end up taking several clickers to class and answering questions on behalf of everyone else. So you only ended up attending maybe a quarter of the class. If there was a quiz or something using the clickers, you had to rely on your friend to be smart enough for you, but I figured it was worth the risk.

          Meanwhile, my brother-in-law owns a company that has taken the clickers to the next level. Students have to download his software onto their cell phones, tablets, laptops, or whatever device(s) they take to class. It geo-locates the device within the room to take attendance (and can be used for quizzes/tests, to send questions to professor in real time, and other forms of participation). Makes it really hard to bypass attendance rules. Professors love it.

          July 3, 2018
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      • Liza
        Liza

        I teach for a master’s level program and we definitely have a department wide policy that if a student misses more than 20% of the classes, they automatically fail (barring unforeseen and extreme circumstances). Our class sizes are small so it’s easier to take attendance. You would think, with a master’s level program, people would take their commitment seriously, but that’s not necessarily the case. This is one way that our department has determined will allow us to weed out the people who are really committed to the career.

        July 3, 2018
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    • Nanani
      Nanani

      No, it’s really not o.O
      Taking attendance ended at high school for me.

      A lot of media portray high school/uni/etc are “Basically high school but older” and that’s so wrong.

      June 30, 2018
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      • Person
        Person

        Yeah, the big concern most parents/students/whoever have about college in my experience is how you need to be completely responsible for your own class performance, including the fact that nobody’s going to check or care whether you’re attending your classes, they’ll just let you fail when you don’t know enough come test time. In small seminar classes that are just 10-15 people, the professor and your classmates would notice and judge you, but I’m not sure if even then they’d feel motivated to do anything about it? Maybe for those you can only miss so many and I just never knew because I didn’t blow them off. But yeah, it’s hard for me to even imagine college professors being stringent about students’ attendance in lectures.

        June 30, 2018
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  3. Mel
    Mel

    I adore this entire episode. Sure, there are a lot of plotholes but I don’t really care because I love the Halloween episodes…the early Halloween episodes.

    Giles’ lines are gold in this episode, so are Xander’s It’s just a perfect popcorn episode.

    June 29, 2018
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  4. Sigyn Wisch
    Sigyn Wisch

    Ugh, Buffy, why can’t you see what a total jag he is?
    ^ because she’s a naïve young woman :'( I personally found her extremely relatable here because the first few guys I slept with were also SFDs and my self-esteem suffered as a result before I learned it’s got nothing to do with me and everything to do with them being assholes.

    Thank you for going into the difference between Wicca and Witchcraft. I was raised by a Fundie so I wasn’t really *allowed* to learn different religions, but even so I probably wouldn’t have known the difference without someone pointing it out.

    I actually really like Walsh’s hardass act. It promotes a strong work ethic, which MANY in my gen are lacking. I respect teachers and bosses like her quite a lot.

    Although, you do make an excellent point in the next paragraph about Buffy making an effort to get her assignment. (I just have a couple of personal hangups due to a friend who is letting her life go down the toilet because she can’t be bothered to take care of her responsibilities and usually cites a breakup as an excuse to miss, like, a week of work to go chill at the mall. Obviously they fired her, but I have to hear her whinge about how UNFAIR it is. Meanwhile I’ve had dermatitis for two weeks and have been collecting extra shifts at work because one of our girls quit us. Cry moar.)

    Giles with a chainsaw was my favorite thing about this episode.

    June 29, 2018
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  5. Helen
    Helen

    I can’t believe I’m about to defend Maggie Walsh but it really pisses me off when students skip classes. Seriously, we put SO much effort into planning and delivering them. It may just be ‘a bullshit credit requirement’ but it isn’t to us and certainly shouldn’t be treated as such if your professor is world-renowned (as Maggie supposedly is). As for coming to get assignments, the lessons are specifically designed so that students can do the assignments, or the assignments are designed to test their understanding of class material. Otherwise why bother coming to class at all?

    I go easy on students who do this as a one off and/or have a situation that they’ve discussed with me, but yeah, I’m going to come down hard on someone who has a weak excuse. Obviously Maggie goes overboard (I would certainly try to elicit the importance/urgency of the problem before threatening a student with expulsion from class) but I’ve put up with enough crap that I can see her side of it.

    However, excellent recap. I love this episode partly because Giles with a chainsaw was the first time I realised he was hot. Can’t believe it took me so long, but I was young and foolish.

    June 29, 2018
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    • Paige
      Paige

      The flip side of Maggie Walsh’s attitude is that students with legitimate accommodations for health (mental or physical) reasons are frequently treated as slackers or like they don’t care when they miss class despite having medical documentation allowing it. I’ve had to reveal VERY personal health information to some professors because they assumed that having accommodations meant that I was just trying to get out of class. My parents are both teachers, so I fully understand the amount of effort and planning that goes into every lesson, but some people seem to just be hardasses for the fun of it.

      June 30, 2018
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      • Rebecca
        Rebecca

        Personal health information should be on a need to know basis, but (as a professor) we do need to know that. And we need you to advocate for yourself. That’s the part of college that isn’t “high school plus” as was stated up thread.

        June 30, 2018
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        • Know that medical condition exist, sure. Know the details… no. Not necessarily, at least. And some professors absolutely do demand much greater detail than is any of their damn business, and will then proceed to scoff at them and say that’s no excuse to miss class.

          As for advocating for yourself, yes, to a degree, but this is also why the Disability Office exists, so there’s someone to advocate FOR students.

          June 30, 2018
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          • Rebecca
            Rebecca

            I once asked for details because I got an accommodation letter less than 24 hours before the final exam, and I needed to know if this was something emergent, or something that had been working its way through the system for a while, so as to know whether accommodation was strictly necessary (it wasn’t, and it would have created an undue burden on me, and the student was completely forthcoming about what was wrong.)

            In general, I don’t ask. In general, I don’t particularly need to know the inner workings of my students’ lives. I want them to show up, do the work to the best of their abilities, and be good learners, and I’m very pleased to accommodate short or long term needs to the best of *my* abilities.

            In specific cases, I *do* need to know things. Is this something that will necessitate a room change? Are they able to be physically present, or do we need to work remotely? Will they be able to do their readings, or will they need an incomplete, and why–not because *I* care to know, but because even with accommodations if I’m issuing an incomplete I need to justify it to the registrar.

            And in my experience, the disability office issues accommodation letters, but does little else. It is up to the student, and *specifically stated* that it is up to the student, to discuss accommodations with their professor. I say this as someone who has physical disabilities–become very, very comfortable stating your needs and insisting on your rights, or they will be under-served.

            July 1, 2018
          • Paige
            Paige

            Yes!! This!! My professor demanded to know whether I had a “real disability” that warranted the accommodations I had. Not her business. And yet I had to sit and explain to her that being severely mentally ill IS in fact a reason students should be accommodated. She was nasty to me every time I tried to come for her for work I missed after that. It made my semester miserable.

            July 1, 2018
      • Helen
        Helen

        I would never deliberately punish a student who has legitimate health or personal problems, and it’s rare that I ask for specific details or to see any documentation to prove it (though our attendance department definitely does if somebody misses too many classes). However, as Rebecca says, teachers and professors do need to know about medical conditions that will affect somebody’s performance and it’s really helpful to be informed of personal issues too.

        June 30, 2018
        |Reply
        • Rebecca
          Rebecca

          This. A+ student suddenly takes a nose-dive, and I’m going to be asking some delicate questions. Heck, C+ student suddenly takes a nose-dive, ditto. Every piece of information a student can give us will help us help them.

          Except, oh sweet baby jesus, I don’t need to know symptoms. Please miss me with the “Dr. Rebecca, I threw up 9 times this morning…”

          July 1, 2018
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          • Helen
            Helen

            Oh, God, I’ve been there. A couple of months ago I had someone describing their diarrhoea.

            Do you work with many international students? I’ve experienced a lot of problems with them not declaring health problems or SENs, and even pushing back when we suspect something is wrong and try to help.

            July 1, 2018
          • Rebecca
            Rebecca

            The one I side-eyed said he threw up “two and a half times.” …um. Okay… How…? No, you know what, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.

            Not a lot, no, though that might change with my next assignment. And yup, I’ve experienced that with international students. If they’re out of their depth in the class, they’ll try very, very hard, but never take my advice to go to the writing center or the international student center. It impacts their grades, and they just. won’t. go.

            July 1, 2018
  6. HeidiAphrodite
    HeidiAphrodite

    This is one of my favorites, too. It’s been years since I’ve watched Buffy (it got me through a really awful job and my cat’s death), but I remember really starting to love Anya in this episode because she’s afraid of bunnies.

    June 29, 2018
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  7. Betsy
    Betsy

    This was the very first episode of Buffy I ever saw on TV. It’s what had me hooked!

    June 30, 2018
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  8. Amber
    Amber

    I distinctly remember watching this with my mom, and both of us howling with laughter for a good few minutes at the end.

    Buffy was one of the few things we shared. Sure, the writing is a little choppy and swiss cheese, but I have fond memories of this episode and will always love it.

    I also like the musical one.

    June 30, 2018
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  9. Agent_Z
    Agent_Z

    Fun fact, one of the frat guys is played by Walter Jones, the original black ranger from Power Rangers.

    July 1, 2018
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  10. Agent_Z
    Agent_Z

    Okay I accidentally clicked the “notify me of follow up comments” option. Anyone know how I can turn that off please?

    July 1, 2018
    |Reply
  11. Jessica Kopp
    Jessica Kopp

    I have been waiting for this recap literally since I found your blog (you were halfway through season two at the time!) I was NOT disappointed!

    July 1, 2018
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  12. Laina
    Laina

    Yup, my thoughts exactly. I watch this episode every Halloween and absolutely adore it.

    Honestly the more you recap of this, the more I find it weird that four of my favourite Buffy episodes are in this season, at least, and yet it’s one of my least favourite seasons.

    July 2, 2018
    |Reply
    • Jessica Kopp
      Jessica Kopp

      A lot of people actually feel this way about season four. I know I do. “A New Man” is one of my favorite episodes of dramatic television, period, but I almost stopped watching Buffy all together during its first run in season four, because I hated it so much.

      July 2, 2018
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  13. Gayaruthiel
    Gayaruthiel

    Thank you so much for writing those 😀

    July 2, 2018
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  14. merry
    merry

    Misnomer vs. misconception. That’s a smart joke!

    July 3, 2018
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  15. Jessica Kopp
    Jessica Kopp

    So I went back and watched this episode to kick off Halloween Season (fight me!) now that Independence Day is over.
    And holy shit the one frat dude was the original American Black Power Ranger!

    July 8, 2018
    |Reply
  16. Demonomaniac
    Demonomaniac

    ‘Uh, dude. You really needed to say “Mother’s Day” here.’

    I immediately thought of Lonely Island’s Motherlover.

    July 8, 2018
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