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(Review) BtVS 9.13 'Guarded' Part III

13th September 2012 (21:51)

And so the 'Guarded' arc comes to an end. I think it's fair to say it's not one of the most important episodes of 'Buffy' from a plot perspective: it's a 'Him' rather than a 'Conversations With Dead People'. Still, it was interesting enough, and had some insightful character development and relationship moments, and it was good to catch up with Kennedy again. 

Some people complain that this season is ignoring many of the established characters by not giving them major roles in the story, or spitting them off to separate comics; while that's true, I'm one who actually likes seeing minor characters being given a share of the spotlight. It stops things getting stale and predictable.


I appreciated the continuity of seeing that Wolfram & Hart have set up a White Room in their new home, the Saarinen Hell Dimension. (Which sounds like it's in Finland somewhere, no?) At first I thought the odd krogan-like aliens were the Senior Partners, but it seems that no: they're simply the human-equivalents of that dimension, who work for W&H. The falcon on its perch is the Conduit to the Senior Partners, just like the panther, the little girl, and the clone of Gunn were in our own dimension.

There's a stand-off between Buffy and Koh. It's interesting that she's still prepared to reason with him, even though he's betrayed her - she suggests that they can still work together to find out who imprisoned him, and he doesn't have to sell out to W&H. For a while now, Buffy has tried to put rational cost-benefit analysis of what's best for the world ahead of any personal sense of anger or hurt she might feel - compare her attitude to Spike in early Season 7, for example. "Personal isn't the same as important", to quote Captain Carrot.

Theo is being heroic too, telling Buffy that it's more important to destroy TinCan and block out the Senior Partners than to save his life. Buffy agrees, and leaves.

She goes to fetch Kennedy, who has apparently been knocked unconscious by Koh. That wasn't shown in the last issue, where last saw the two of them standing side by side; but it's logical enough that he had to do something like that in order to show up in the server room to grab Theo.

Kennedy and Buffy get into an argument. Things start out badly when Kennedy highlights that it was Buffy's idea to bring Koh in on the mission in the first place - an act of judgment that turned out to be a mistake. Buffy doesn't shy away from that, however: she's very open with Kennedy about everything that's gone wrong because of her actions, with no attempt to justify them or shield the truth or hide behind jokes. That in itself is big progress for Buffy, though it ties in with her acceptance of Kennedy's leadership last issue.

Kennedy is more bothered by the fact that Buffy has abandoned Theo, their client, instead of rescuing him. Buffy does try to justify herself here, saying in effect that the mission is what matters - saving the whole world is more important than saving one person. Kennedy clearly disagrees with that view of morality, and gets in Buffy's face about it. She accuses Buffy of forgetting about "the little guy" - the collateral damage of her big world-saving schemes. Buffy thinks she's talking about Willow again - but no, Kennedy says she means Giles.

That line did seem to come out of the blue a little: we've not seen much sign on the page or screen that Kennedy would feel particularly strongly about his death, as compared to any other. From a meta perspective, of course, Giles's death looms large over all of Season 9, especially the part of it that has Angel and Faith in the title; so it's natural for it to crop up again here as well. We can also assume that Kennedy and Giles had more extensive off-screen interaction as well as what we actually saw. Her first appearance in Season 7 was in Giles's company, so they'd obviously had some dealings prior to the two of them (and Molly and Annabelle) showing up in Sunnydale.  In the gap between Seasons 7 and 8 Kennedy was a squad leader in San Francisco, and we know from 'The Long Way Home' and 'The Chain' that Giles had something of a roving role going from one squad to another helping them with training and inspiring speeches. It's not unlikely that Kennedy dealt with him directly quite a bit while she was setting up her squad. She knew him independently to Buffy, in other words. 

Another question is whether Kennedy is actually right to blame Buffy for Giles's death. What could she have done differently? It wasn't like she abandoned him as she has Theo here, and it seems a little unfair to expect her to feel guity for not keeping track of him in the heat of battle when she didn't even know he was present in the Seeed room. Alternatively, Kennedy could be obliquely blaming Buffy for giving in to the Glow and going off with Angel in the first place: but that would be a different argument - "trusting the wrong guy" rather than "being too focussed about the Big Picture". 

Of course, Kennedy's argument would be perfect if she'd addressed it to Angel, not Buffy. Focussing on the big picture instead of the people caught in its gears was exactly his problem; Buffy's own character arc in S8 mirrored Angel's, but not nearly to so extreme an extent.

Anyway, Buffy reacts badly to Kennedy's accusation, by punching her in the face hard enough to knock her down and give her a visible bruise. You know, that's a really bad habit of Buffy's - and it is a habit; we've seen her punch Angel, Spike and Faith in exactly the same way when she was angry with them. Granted, she only hits people who are super-powered and resistant to pain (vampires and other Slayers); but still, it disturbs me. Or, hey, maybe it's a cultural thing and in California people punch each other in the face over minor disagreements all the time? :)

At any rate, Kennedy takes the blow in her stride; she doesn't fight back, and she's wlling enough to cooperate with Buffy immedialy afterwards even if she's clearly still angry. The whole scene reminds me of Faith after Buffy hit her in 'Empty Places'.
The little scene with Buffy saying, "We'll go where they can't see us" immediately followed by Wolfram & Hart informing Koh where they were going was classic 'Buffy' humour.

An interlude with Koh and Theo talking - I wonder if his friendly approach was simply his personality, or deliberate psychology - adfter all, people who are kidnapped are advised to try and befriend their captors so they think of them as people, not faceless victims, and so will be more reluctant to hurt them. As a wealthy industrialist who hires professional bodyguard agenencies, Theo has quite likely had training in that sort of thing. Koh certainly suspects it's a trick.

We get one ominous moment when Koh says angrily, "No one needs to know why I was imprisoned". That obviously implies that the reason is something interesting or significant. Of course it might turn out to be the set-up for a joke - maybe he was imprisoned because he likes cute puppies, and the other demons thought he was too nice and letting the side down. Or perhaps he has some special power or ability that will turn out to be essential in the season finale. I also note that Koh says "You will attempt to talk me out of what I must do" - to me, that's a strong hint that he actually wants to be talked out of it. He has a guilty conscience and so is lashing out to try and deflect or suppress it.

Buffy's comment to Kennedy, "I'm going to get fired, aren't I?" was adorable - and it's interesting that even here, Kennedy doesn't say "Yes" but rather "It depends". Equally intersting is that Kennedy is leading the way, but she has no problem in asking Buffy's advice on how they can get into the server room. It's not exactly clear how they do it, though it obviously involves the Teuth demon's tentacles. At first I thought Buffy has some over-clever scheme of electrifying a tentacle so its muscles convulsed and bashed through the concrete; but I think it's simpler: she just looked for a place where the tentacle had already broken through the floor.
Wolfram and Hart discover the name of Koh's enemy who imprisoned him back in the day. This person is still on Earth, and W&H regard them as a "betrayer". The odds on it being Illyria shortened even more - especially given that, if you notice, the demon carefully avoids using any pronouns to refer to this entity. Referring to the perpetrator as "she" would be a dead give-away. (Though perhaps this is also a clever way of avoiding continuity issues, since Illyria was regarded as genderless back in the time she originally ruled as an Elder God - both Knox and Drogyn refer to her as 'it' before she possesses Fred's body.

It's interesting that they have to send the name as a file transfer, rather than just saying it out loud. Obviously the meta-reason is to preserve the surprise for those readers who haven't guessed it yet. In th Buffyverse? Maybe Illyria's True Name cannot be spoken out loud by lesser races, and has to be written in a special symbology. Or maybe saying it out loud will summon her?
Enter Kennedy, who seems remarkably cheerful about her Buffy-inflicted black eye - and I liked the detail that Koh assumes he gave it to her himself when he knocked her out. But Kennedy is only being the distraction to allow Buffy to sneak up from the other direction and kick Koh away from Theo.

I felt that what happens next is a little unclear on first reading, due to the red lighting making it hard to tell the characters apart. On closer examination, Buffy stands over Koh threatening him while Kennedy goes over to Theo and helps him up, asking if he's okay. Instead Theo runs off to destroy the servers, leaving Kennedy behind. She's annoyed by this. Buffy is still with Koh, and wants the Wolfram & Hart guys to shut up. Kennedy runs after Theo and tells him she can't protect him there. However, when he insists on staying she agrees to give him two more minutes.

So at this point, Buffy and Koh are in the main control toom, while Kennedy and Theo are in the area with the servers and the big self-destruct switch.

Koh summons his energy-daggers - to Buffy's envy - and attacks her, because she's "standing in my way". Buffy, furious with him, tells him that she would have helped him - so there was no need for this betrayal. Of course, what she's forgetting here is that two issues ago, he actually did ask her to help and she turned him down. Oops. Back then, though, she was focussed on her new job with Deepscan, and trying to build a life that doesn't revolve around demons, so she blew him off. I assume, to be charitable, her thought process now is, "But if you'd convinced me that it really, really mattered to you, I would have helped you."

Buffy defeats Koh at first, but he recovers and uses his laser-knife to cut Buffy's forehead open (thus incidentally proving that his upper body strength is at least equal to that of a Slayer). That knocks her out of the fight for a moment - and it's intersting that her first concern is for Kennedy, that Koh will go after her next.

Kennedy says her objective is to protect Theo, not defeat Wolfram & Hart - but then she comes up with an ingenious way to achieve both, by ripping the self-destruct switch clean off the wall so Koh won't be able to throw it back the other way. That's the kind of spur-of-the-moment inspiration Buffy herself would come up with; like I said last month, I think Kennedy is quite a lot like a younger version of Buffy, only more privileged and less tactful. Plus also, Buffy hasn't slept with Willow (as far as we know).

As Koh goes into the server room, Kennedy and Theo run out of it - does this mean there are two doors? Kennedy is alarmed by Buffy's injury and rushes over to help her. Buffy is all heroic and says that she wants to atone for her mistake in bringing Koh along by making sure that he - and W&H - don't win. 

In the event, though, she doesn't fight him again; but rather tries to communicate with him. As it turns out there's no need to fight anyway: Kennedy's trick worked, and he's unable to turn off the self-destruct before the communication link goes down. He doesn't get to learn who imprisoned him, and is furious.

Buffy's sympathy for Koh is interesting; she doesn't seem to blame him for what he did. Perhaps part of that is that she can afford to be magnanimous given that she is victorious: Theo is alive and TinCan is destroyed. Perhaps she has a new realisation of just how important to him all this was: back in 9.11 she was pretty flip and dismissive of his request for her help, but now she knows what he's prepared to do for it. After all, he was doing it in the name of his honour: something Buffy herself knws the importance of, given that it's why she went back after him just now.

This is one of those scenes that inevitably makes you think that Buffy's advice to Koh is also going to be about herself as well. There's no in-your-face connection, but Buffy is telling him to let go of the past and stop allowing things that happened a really long time ago control his actions now. Given that she's spent most of Season 9 so far wallowing in guilt over Angel, breaking the Seed, the end of magic and the cutting of the Slayer line, it's a positive sign that she's now in this frame of mind.

The TinCan building burns and the servers go down. It's interesting that Buffy apologises for this to Theo, but he doesn't need an apology. He did what had to be done.

The final scene is presumably a short while later - not too much later because Buffy's face is still bandaged and Kennedy still has a black eye, and presumably Slayer accellerated healing still works in the post-Seed world. So I'll guess it's just the next day.
It was a little surprising, but heartening, to see that Kennedy bears no grudge against Buffy. She's sarcastic about the things that went wrong, but she also puts a comforting hand on her shoulder when Buffy thinks she's about to get fired.  She's also talked to her bosses, and not only are they not firing Buffy, they're promoting her. Kennedy even apologises for the remark she made about Giles - "I was out of line" - and praises Buffy's ability to make the tough decisions.

But Buffy turns the job down, and even hands back the cheque Kennedy gave her for her first mission. I know that's been controversial among fans - I assume Buffy is thinking of it as a signing bonus, so she can't honourably accept the money if she's not taking the job. Personally, I hope Kennedy persuades her to keep it since it was money she earned fairly - I do note she lays the cheque to one side rather than tearing it up!

(Edit: Scott Allie has since clarified that Buffy does in fact accept the cheque, although she doesn't take the job.)
Buffy's reasons for turning down the job are because she's reached a better realisation of who she is and what she wants from her life. Of course the punchline- "I'm the Slayer" - isn't exactly new; but this arc does involve something of a reasaessment of what that actually means.

The wording of her introspective speech is a little confuing, and I know it's been interpreted differently. As I see it, it parses like this:


You were right. I keep trying to save the world when sometimes I should just save a single person.
- Buffy is acknowledging that her focus on the big picture is not always the right choice.

It was different when I was younger. 
- In the past, Buffy would never have put the world ahead of individuals she valued. She would have let the world be destroyed rather than harm Dawn in Season 5; and agreed with Willow's choice to prioritise saving Tara over defeating Glory. 

Something changed.
- When Buffy found herself leading an army of Potentials and later Slayers, she came to believe that victory often comes with a price, and hesitating to pay the price can mean defeat instead. 

But I don't think that's a bad thing.
What isn't a bad thing? To me, I think Buffy can only mean the fact that her views changed is not a bad thing. She's accepting that yes, she focusses on the big picture. Yes, she puts saving the world ahead of saving individuals.  And she doesn't think that's a bad thing.

Her views are clearly nuanced. She admits that sometimes she "should" just save a single person. How to reconcile that with her saying that it's not a bad thing when she doesn't? I think it comes back to the idea that "personal isn't the same as important". Buffy would feel better about herself if she could focus on saving the people she loves, rather than having to worry about the big picture instead. She feels guilty about the sacrifices other people have had to make on her behalf - which is progress for her compared to last season. 

But ultimately, as I interpret it, she thinks that would be selfish to narrow her focus. It would mean acting like the Pharisees who are more concerned to preserve their own moral spotlessness than to help other people. 
To use an analogy: if you're a firefighter driving to a burning building full of hundreds of people, and on the way you see a little orphan boy drowning in a pool - do you stop to rescue the boy, even if it will mean you'll be too late to rescue any of the people from the fire? Or do you drive straight past the drowning boy, because an awful lot more people will die if you don't? 

Kennedy would say, stop to save the boy. What I think Buffy is saying here is: no, drive past him to save the people in the burning building. and her emotional beakthrough here in thi episode is that she's finally admitting that not saving the boy IS a bad thing, and is something to be guilty about - but it's still her duty to look at the big picture. Because she's the Slayer, and she can never save everybody; and it would be selfish of her to let the desire to avoid guilt prevent her from making the hard choices.
But hey, I might have interpreted that completely wrongly. :)


Comments

Posted by: erimthar (erimthar)
Posted at: 17th September 2012 16:03 (UTC)

Hmm... I meant to comment on this last week, but must have gotten distracted.

I'm now about 99.9% certain it was Illyria who imprisoned Koh, and not just because we've been told she's showing up later this season. She is the only demon who was a) around "millennia ago", b) powerful enough to have arranged a full-scale prison dimension with a guardian army, and c) somebody familiar enough to us that withholding her identity this long would pay off with any kind of dramatic reveal.

(I really do think Dark Horse have hurt themselves this season by spoiling so much ahead of time, or sending advance copies out to bloggers who spoil things. This reveal has become so obvious that I almost wonder if it's a fakeout and will turn out NOT to be Illyria. But I can't imagine who else it would be.)

The Senior Partner mouthpieces say that the betrayal of the demon in question should come as no surprise. The word "betrayal" implies that a trust had previously existed, which further implies that Illyria and Koh were once allies, or at least non-antagonistic peers of some sort. It also implies that she betrayed some trust that Wolfram & Hart had in her.

Illyria seemed to have had no dealings with the Wolf, Ram and Hart prior to her time on Team Angel, and held them in contempt (as does Koh). Maybe W&H were referring to her actions in AtF, when releasing her inner kaiju helped scuttle their Hell-A gambit? Even though this was hardly her plan, are they upset with her for helping humans against her fellow demons? Or was there something in the more distant past she never admitted to?

There's also still the mystery of why Illyria went to the trouble of constructing such an elaborate prison for Koh instead of just killing him outright, and why his guards thought letting him escape would be such a catastrophe. So far he seems to be just a human-sized demon with very good fighting skills and a handy energy-blade weapon. Buffy has her hands full with him, but is still a match for him in hand-to-hand combat. He's nowhere near as tough as Illyria in her humanoid form. So what about him gave an Old One so much pause?

The whole "file download" issue is awkward and really needed some explanation, but I think it's because Koh has no way of knowing if W&H are lying to him or not, and can't risk betraying his honor on the say-so of some very untrustworthy demons. He would therefore require some documentation to prove the identity of the guilty party. (How Koh would view that documentation is another question... I'm not sure his computer skills would be exactly up to date.)

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