(Review) BtVS 9.11 'Guarded' Part I
So, issue 9.11 of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. That's an ominous number. The issue's not bad, though. The plot feels kind of monster of the week-ish: I'm not sure if Buffy's career change will be a permanent one or whether it'll all be over at the end of next issue. However, in terms of character development and continuity this was a very solid story; it fits with what's gone before and it feels very real for the state of mind Buffy would be in right now.
The premise of 'Guarded' is that Kennedy has organised a group of Slayers into a bodyguard agency, and at the end of last issue she offered Buffy a job. The biggest incongruity of this is pointed out from the start:
"Slayers I used to give orders to. [pause] Slayers I'm now taking orders from."
In some ways it's a major come-down for Buffy; and I give her credit for accepting her new situation with comparative good grace. Of course she chafes having to take orders from Kennedy, and occasionally flat-out ignores them: but on the whole she's being very mature and sensible about it. Just about everybody who has to work for a living has to take orders from someone, after all - be it their boss or their clients. Buffy even comments about how "grown-up" she's feeling.
I also think it was a good choice of the writers to pick Kennedy - and not only because I like her as a character, and because I'm glad to see the relatively minor characters of the Buffyverse being given important roles to play now and again. She's also appropriate because we know from Season 7 she's one of the few new Slayers who's always had enough strength of personality to stand up to Buffy, and even argue with her. I can't imagine part of her isn't secretly gleeful that the tables are now turned and she's in command. On the other hand, I always got the sense that Buffy and Kennedy respected each other: Buffy supported her rants against the other Potentials and put her in charge of training them, after all. We saw them conversing together without Willow being around a couple of times in Season 8, too, so they do have a history of interaction with each other.
Plus, Kennedy comes from a wealthy family: she presumably has the contacts and she certainly has the drive and self-confidence to do well in business.
Getting back specifically to this issue: I liked seeing Rowena again (the Slayer with the baseball cap and bubble gum) and I suspect that's Leah with the red hair, though she's cut it since her Season 8 days. I also though there was a set-up here: the first page looks as if the Slayers are actually organising an assassination or a robbery of some kind, until it turns out they're actually there to protect the 'target', not attack him.
The reveal of Buffy in the smart grey business suit reminded me a little of the reveal of her in her Doublemeat Palace uniform back in Season 6. She's come a long way since then, of course, at least in the material sense: "salary, benefits, paid vacation and a 401K".
Her reply to the client's comment that she's a little short for a bodyguard did strike me as trademark Jossian humour: "I only come in Buffy size". It's an interesting point that she says that's actually an advantage in bodyguard work, to look small and unassuming so nobody will suspect her role. Wouldn't a big, beefy bodyguard actually work better, by deterring attackers from even trying anything? Though I suppose a professional assassin would have a plan to deal with any such protection first, while they might not notice or suspect any danger from the small blonde girl in the next room until it's too late.
Kennedy radios Buffy with a report of an intruder spotted on their floor, and Buffy goes to investigate. This was fairly obvious mislead: there's a middle-aged maid and a big scaly demon in the corridor, and Buffy naturally assumes it's the demon who's there to attack her client. Wrong - he's perfectly innocent and is working in the hotel as a bellhop. This of course is a call-back to the loan-collector demon from the first arc of the season: the breaking of the Seed means demons trapped in our dimension are having to work for a living, and thanks to Harmony people now know the supernatural exists. Buffy ignored Kennedy's instructions to chase down the demon, and even took out her radio earpiece so she wouldn't have to listen. Exhibit A of Buffy chafing under someone else's control.
I'm impressed by Buffy reeling off different ways the demon might try to kill someone: is this basic Slayer knowledge she's picked up over time (Giles would be proud, and slightly incredulous), or training from Kennedy's organisation? Her jumping down a three-storey stairwell was also pretty cool: I've always been a fan of demonstrations of Slayer powers that aren't purely about hitting things very hard.
Of course, it was the maid who was the real villain. Buffy dashes frantically into the room, sees the maid pointing a pistol at her client and throws herself between them just as she opens fire. While it was her mistake that gave the assassin such an opportunity, you can't fault her self-sacrifice or heroism by interposing her own body. As a Slayer a bullet might not be as fatal to her as it would be to a normal person, but it's still going to hurt, and there's no Willow with magic around this time to heal her if the wound does prove fatal.
And then we get the big reveal, which I definitely wasn't expecting: the whole thing was a training mission, but Buffy didn't know that. The 'client' and the demon - and presumably the 'assassin', though she's not shown specifically - were actors, and the gun was loaded with blanks. Kennedy was filming the whole thing, and we skip ahead to Buffy watching the film with her and admitting she screwed up. (And for non-native-English speakers reading, the comment 'Swiss Slayer' is a reference to Swiss cheese, which is famous for being full of holes.)
Buffy's complaint about the gun having blanks loaded in it was confusing: does she wish they'd been real bullets because she thinks she deserves to get hurt for her failure? Or does she mean she wishes the gun hadn't been loaded at all, because she saw the flash and heard the 'bang' from the blank, assumed it was real, and panicked? I assume the second.
Buffy getting the names of the two actors mixed up was presumably put in there to show that she's still out of her depth in the new world of demon-human interaction. It was nice of her to try and apologise even so - and heck, even Kennedy apologises (kind of) for tricking her.
This leads into the fascinating argument between Buffy and Kennedy on the changing role of Slayers. Buffy assumed that the demon was the bad guy, and so missed the actual threat in the situation - because, as Kennedy says, "You're thinking like a Slayer". As she goes on to explain, her clients don't really need protection from the supernatural, fire and brimstone: they want people who are "strong, smart and good in a fight" to protect them from ordinary mundane threats like robbers and kidnappers.
And then Kennedy ends her argument with, "You need to stop looking at the world like you're the Chosen One". She has more to say - practical stuff about their next mission: but it's all off-camera as the artist focusses on Buffy's expression. She's thoughtful, but there's the glimmer of a smile hovering around her lips. I think the idea of not having to be the Chosen One appeals to her right now.
We cut to the HQ of Kennedy's company: there are 27 Slayers (not counting Buffy and Kennedy) training on the grass outside, so it's clearly a major operation. Interestingly Kennedy says she joined it, not she created it: so it sounds like it was an existing agency she approached with the idea of employing Slayers, and presumably they have other more conventional lines of business. I assume Kennedy is the departmental vice-president of the Slayer Division or something like that.
Also, Kennedy drives a red Audi. I'm afraid I don't know enough about cars to know if that has any particular symbolism - though the obvious point is made that Buffy could never afford a new car like that on a waitress's salary.
Kennedy sees herself as giving the Slayers another chance to make a success of themselves after "whatever it is we did" screwed up their lives. She makes the pointed comment that many of them never even finished high school before being Called and joining Buffy's army. Buffy gets angry and defensive at that: she still thinks what they did was a good thing.
On the other hand, she also stays up late into the night studying - presumably books on how to be a bodyguard, since Kennedy mentioned having to do that before their next mission. In the cafeteria of Bodyguard HQ she meets Eldre Koh, who is lurking there (he actually uses that word *g*) waiting for the opportunity to speak to her without being spotted by the other Slayers.
This is the first time we've seen him for quite a few issues, but Buffy remembers him. It seems that she talked to Spike about him quite a bit, in fact: enough to get the idea that Koh and Spike have an 'underworld bromance'. Buffy is still definitely a slash fan, it seems: specifically she slashes Spike together with other hot men and possibly oil. I did like Koh's confusion about what a 'Scoobie' is...
Eldre Koh wants Buffy's help: he's trying to track down the demon responsible for his original imprisonment, and can't do it alone. Buffy doesn't want to help: she's trying to build a new life for herself that doesn't revolve around demons. Kennedy's earlier lecture about not having to be the Chosen One struck home after all. All along, Buffy is perfectly polite and friendly, but her conversation is peppered by rather glib jokes about 'Slayer most-wanted lists' and 'bromances' and 'slaycations' and 'I won't tell if you don't'. It feels to me as if she's using it as a way to distance herself through humour: "jokey-rhyming her way out of it" as Willow once put it.
Koh gets angry (and reminded me quite a lot of G'kar from Babylon 5 in the process). He accuses Buffy of selling out: using her superpowers for personal profit. It's an argument Buffy herself once made - back in the 'Flooded' days - so that's perhaps why she reacts so badly and lashes out at him. She's "just trying to get her life together".
However, it's not that easy. As Buffy reflects to herself afterwards, her Slayer instincts don't come with a pause button. In fact, she's going to get a stake and go out patrolling, just like in the old days when things were simple. Koh's remarks seem to have pricked her conscience after all.
But Kennedy catches her leaving, and warns her that their next mission starts "in five". I assume that's five hours, not five minutes! Buffy suspects this might be another disguised training mission, and isn't in a mood to mess around; she ignores her boss and starts walking out. Kennedy warns her that if she leaves, she can consider herself fired. That stops Buffy for a moment, though from her expression I think it's even money whether she'd turn around or keep on walking.
But then Kennedy reveals that the other Slayers didn't want to work with Buffy - they still blame her for ending the Slayer line and taking away their purpose. It was Kennedy alone who decided to reach out to Buffy, because she personally wanted to work with her. This is actually the second time in the issue Kennedy said that: earlier she says she is organising this company to give Slayers, specifically "including you", a shot at a future.
Buffy naturally asks why Kennedy's so concerned about her - she refers to their conversation back in 8.40 when Kennedy was angry with her for breaking the Seed and, by extension, causing her and Willow to break up. Kennedy doesn't answer her question directly, but says that being dumped by Willow turned out to be "the best thing that could've happened to me", by forcing her to reassess her life and her choices, and make a new future for herself. And why does she want Buffy at her side? Because, "You're one of the strongest girls I know."
She also points out that her bodyguards are still helping people, even if it's not a supernatural Destiny thing anymore. Buffy isn't convinced, and Kennedy accuses her of being scared to face the change and leave her comfort zone: of discovering she might be good at something that doesn't involve being the One and Only Slayer.
Kennedy also makes the point that since the general public are now so happy to embrace vampires as cool and trendy, they shouldn't expect Slayers to save them from them when things go wrong. Which is cynical: but remember how the general public turned against Slayers in S8, and Kennedy's attitude is understandable. Another little bit of information let slip is that zompires are on a "siring spree" - there are lots of them and the numbers are growing.
Buffy goes patrolling anyway. We get her internal monologue again - which I'm glad about: it's one of the benefits of comics over TV that seems rather under-utilised. She kind of agrees with Kennedy that she's being cowardly in not facing up to her future; but she also feels that helping to save people from vampires is her mission, and she'd rather risk being fired than give it up.
Except she sees a victim being attacked by a vampire... only to be saved by a uniformed police officer, who's carrying a stake and knows how to use it. It's a very strong scene, and both surprising yet logical. Detective Dowling shows up, and we learn that his new task force has started training beat cops how to deal with vampires. Luckily, the new-style zompires are predictable and feral enough that a trained human without superstrength can still deal with them. I presume the idea is that the zompire concentrates so much on its victim, that a human can sneak up behind them and stake them before they're aware of it. A normal vampire would have faster reactions and be less primally focussed on his food.
Buffy offers Dowling sympathy for what happened to Cheung: he says it was thanks to her and Spike that the police have enough information to deal with the zompires. (What about Xander and Dawn? Didn't they help too?) Buffy realises this means she isn't needed to patrol the streets anymore - a call-back to her reaction to Severin in the first arc. But Dowling gives what I think is the perfect answer: she's still needed - but now she can get to have a night off every once in a while, as it were.
With that knowledge, Buffy decides to go back to meet Kennedy after all, for the bodyguard mission. Kennedy is clearly a little annoyed with her - I did smile when she tells Buffy it will be her job to carry the client's luggage - but she accepts her presence and tells her about the job.
Turns out they've been hired to protect a client named Theo Daniels, who set up a social networking site called Tincan. The artist has drawn Theo Daniels to look exactly like Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. Facebook is also, in Buffy's words, "The site where you poke people" (I laughed at Kennedy's reply to that), so it's clear what they're going for here. :)
And the issue ends with the big reveal that Theo hired two Slayers as bodyguards because (dun dun dun) Wolfram and Hart are out to kill him. This is the first time they've been mentioned on 'Buffy' as opposed to 'Angel' - and interestingly, they're described as 'an organisation from a hell dimension' rather than 'a law firm'. It'll be interesting to see what's happened to W&H in the post-Seed world. (Not to mention to discover whether the events of 'After the Fall' will be referenced at all!)
The parallel to 'Angel' S5 is strong here as well: Buffy in this issue has been worrying about 'going corporate' and whether she's selling out her mission as the Slayer by accepting this job with Kennedy. She's still not as bad as Angel, though...
Finally a couple of character notes. First, Buffy and Spike. Buffy isn't pining and brooding about him here - although according to the preview of his mini-series that's certainly what Spike is doing right now. There's also the scene where she tells Koh that she's trying to "build a life that revolves around things other than-- well, demons" and seems quite happy about the idea. So is she writing Spike out of her life? The glass-half-empty brigade would say yes, I suspect, but the glass-half-full faction would point out that Spike's name is dropped into the conversation quite casually three times - twice by Buffy and once by Dowling to Buffy - and there's no sign at all of any hesitation or "I want him out of my life!" feeling to that.
My own conclusion is that most of the time, Buffy doesn't think of Spike as a demon at all. She treats him like he's a man, and her generalisations about 'demons' exclude him by default. Of course as we saw last issue, Spike is capable of getting hurt by that anyway. It's only when she's *reminded* of his vampireness that she remembers he's different and gets defensive.
Next, Kennedy. After reading the issue something struck me: usually when a gay character is included in a work of fiction, the story becomes about their gayness. It's a plot element, or it's the shorthand for their character. 'Buffy' has been better than most shows in this respect, but even Kennedy herself was introduced to be "Willow's new love interest". The episode of S8 where she and Satsu were the main characters was still a case of "the other lesbian Slayer" goes to talk to Satsu after her breakup with Buffy. But in contrast to that, Kennedy's sexuality was almost completely irrelevant to this issue. Which is how it should be, of course; and with straight characters it would be taken for granted - Buffy's sexuality is equally irrelevant to this episode, for instance. But it's still kind of refreshing to see it here.
I said 'almost' irrelevant because another stray thought did hit me, but only on my re-read as I wrote this review. Kennedy makes a point of how she went out on a limb to give Buffy this job, despite the opposition of the other Slayers. She keeps her on despite Buffy screwing up and disobeying her orders. She shows genuine concern for Buffy's future well-being. She tells Buffy she's the strongest girl she knows. Her answer to Buffy's question, "Why help me?" is a seemingly irrelevant digression about how Willow dumping her was the best thing that ever happened to her. So apparently Kennedy is still single. And Kennedy was right there in S8 when Buffy was with Satsu: in fact, if you remember she warned her to keep away from her own girlfriend.
You know, 'ships have been built on less. :)