(Review) BtVS Season 9: Willow: Wonderland part III
A much-belated happy new year to everyone! Here's my review of Willow:Wonderland part 3, which I acquired last weekend.
Last issue ended with Willow trying and failing to open a portal for magic to flow back to Earth. We start this issue with her refusing to accept her failure, and trying again and again while screaming "Open! Open!" at the portal. Eventually Aluwyn calms her down and gets her to stop by pointing out that "I understand you're upset - but it would be very nice if you didn't cause all reality to collapse in on itself". Oops. (I laughed at Aluwyn's tone, though.) Willow sweeping the Scythe around again and again has opened at least three separate rifts in reality - just none of them go back to Earth.
However, the portals do close again - and it looks like Willow is the one who closes them, given her posture holding the Scythe while the other witches hang back. I do think this illustrates the two sides to Willow's character. There's an arrogance and recklessness about her when she's sure of herself, which is certainly demonstrated here. It does make an odd contrast to her insecurities, which are or at least were a major part of her personality - but I think the point is that Willow has always overcompensated for her insecurities by clinging too fiercely to the things she is confident about. On the other hand, when she realises she's screwed up, she does take personal responsibility for it, and makes efforts to fix the problems she's caused if she can.
There's also a plot twist here which I maybe should have seen coming, but didn't. If Willow can't open a portal back to Earth at all - how can she get home herself? She needed Connor's special attunement to Quor'toth to leave Earth in the first place, but Connor's gone home again. So is she stuck here?
Marrik intervenes angrily at this point with such a blatant display of misogyny that I wondered if he'd been taken over by some kind of hostile force. He's hardly been a pleasant person throughout the arc, but this seemed rather over-the-top even for him. He tells Willow she should "focus her rage" instead of "screaming and pitching fits, just like a woman", and grabs the Scythe off her to show her the proper way to do it.
It would be interesting to know if he was actually right, or whether "focussing your rage" to rip a hole in the dimensions would have been a really stupid, Hellmouth-creating thing to do. But we'll never know, because Aluwyn is infuriated by his rudeness to Willow, and zaps the Scythe out of his hand - then when Marrik insults her too, the combined witches of the Coven magically banish Marrik.
After the excitement, Willow is left sad and drained - her speech bubbles contain small text in a large empty white space to show she's speaking in a small voice. Aluwyn promises her that the witches will help her try and find another way home - but if it's not possible and she ends up stuck here, then "You'll mourn, and I will comfort you, and in time the pain will stop".
The next part of the comic shows several separate scenes from Willow's new life with the coven, which clearly take place over multiple days - exactly how long isn't specified.
First, three of the witches take her to look at the Great Heart, a 'goddess gem' that can show visions to those who meditate on it (but incinerates those that actually touch it - which makes you wonder why there's not a guardrail around it...) We're told that it can either "give answers", or allow you to speak to "long dead friends and lovers", or show you your "true life's path". Willow is open to any of those options.
What she gets is a vision of Marrak, after his exile, trudging through a bleak wilderness. She also gets the sense that he's "her teacher", and steeped in magic. She's distinctly unimpressed with this revelation, and makes a pop-culture reference to the Sopranos finale which for some reason has got fandom enraged. (Not having seen that show, I don't know why it's apparently so wrong for Willow to reference it.)
What does this mean? Marrak - as he'll confirm in greater detail later - thinks that the coven Willow has found is a trap: a group of lotos-eaters who will distract her from her true mission. It could be that he's right, and the lesson Willow will learn from him is the truth of that. He's also been demonstrating the power of magic used for amoral and selfish purposes, of "focussing your rage", and perhaps Willow will learn from that as well. The Future Dark Willow of 'Time Of Your Life' lies at the end of that road.
Or alternatively, maybe she'll learn lessons from Marrik by doing the opposite of what he shows her, and learn from him in that way? That's a more hopeful future - and interestingly, it's already what Willow decided to do with Aluwyn, back when they first met and she didn't know if she could trust her.
The idea that Marrik is someone we've seen before, but transformed, is certainly not refuted by a scene in which Willow is told the stone might show her "long dead friends and lovers" just before she's shown him. At least she didn't see Tara again, which I half-expected the vision to be. Or maybe Marrik holds a fragment of Giles's soul that Angel is looking for, and this is a cross-over?
We get an interlude with Marrik where he's still angry at Willow for abandoning her mission to allow him to go back to Earth (and conquer it). He sees one of the flying nightmare-birds from last issue, and comes up with a plan - luring it towards him with a magical cat's-cradle of energy.
Back to Willow, and with the failure of her last attempt to find answers, an aquatic fish-woman witch is taking her to another source of knowledge. I did like the humour in this scene, with the fish-woman teasing Willow about her new clothing (made from a puffer-fish bladder) and pretending to flirt with her. Willow is uncomfortable with that, emphasising that she sees herself as a "one-woman woman" - though she's honest enough to add "When I'm not totally screwing up", obviously a reference to being torn between Kennedy and Aluwyn back in Season 8. Given that he's just been reunited with Aluwyn after thinking they'd be parted forever, it's not surprising for her to be thinking along those lines.
The fish-woman tells Willow that she barely remembers her old life before coming to live here, which is clearly meant to be ominous. Willow replies that she can understand how it would be easy to forget, but she hasn't as yet - "I remember Buffy, Xander..." Notice whom she doesn't mention? The third name which you'd expect to be included in that list of people she remembers from back on Earth? Uh-oh.
Willow now meets a giant mystical purple sea anemone (!) of some sort, which shows her the deepest secrets of the universe and helps her understand her place in it - then tells her that she won't remember any of this in detail afterwards, only "impressions" like the memory of a dream. I confess I laughed at the reveal, especially since it was Willow's own suspicious and genre-savvy nature that guessed that she'd forget it all afterwards.
The mystic anemone does tell Willow that there's good and evil in everyone and you need them both to give life meaning. Willow calls that a cliché, and it's an idea she herself has expressed before - but even so I have to say it's pretty subversive. Imagine how Buffy would react to the idea that it would be a mistake to destroy evil outright, should that ever be possible. The idea that you need evil as a contrast for people to demonstrate their goodness against is the sort of thought that would occur to a god - or to a writer of stories - not a normal person.
The symbols Willow sees in her vision include, appropriately enough, the yin-yang symbol of balance, and a serpent about to eat its own tail (which is how Aluwyn has been referenced in previous comics). There's a pink female symbol too, which is obvious enough. I'm not sure what the yellow circles-symbol represents- I didn't recognise it, although there are several possibilities. It's kind of like the Modern Pagan symbol for the wheel of the year, or the Buddhist symbol for the Eightfold Path. Alternatively, the cross in a circle at the centre is the astrological symbol for the Earth, and it's surrounded by eight outward-pointing arrows which could either represent growth and inspiration, or Chaos (in the Michael Moorcock sense.
The next scene is, basically, a party. I did like Aluwyn's reference to Wiccan drinking songs - I wonder what they are? I also note in passing that Aluwyn is capable of carrying a wine barrel over one shoulder - the Internet tells me those things generally weigh about a quarter of a ton when full - while simultaneously balancing a tray of wine glasses in her other hand. More seriously, Willow is told that she has a place to belong here; that the other witches (led by Aluwyn) will welcome her among them. Willow is grateful, but "not quite ready to give up yet".
The next scene has Willow going for a walk, alone, across an ocean. At first I thought it was shallow water and she was paddling, until I realised she's actually using magic to walk on the surface of the water. I'm not sure what's cuter - the little orange floating baby octopus she sees drifting past - or Willow's reaction to it. A reaction for which the word "squee!" was invented. She chases after it to make it her pet, and even gives it a name - with a startling show of unoriginality, or should that be respect for tradition: "Mr Octopus Fantasticus. At least her Latin is improving; she got the case ending right. :)
Even cuter than the octopus, at least to me, was Aluwyn surprising Willow by rising from the deeps and giving her a tackle-hug from behind while saying "Sexy sea-serpent attack! Chomp!" I'm starting to like Aluwyn's sense of humour, and she clearly likes Willow a lot - especially when she reveals her real reason for following was that she was worried about Willow going off alone in her state of mind. Willow is piqued by the shock of the attack, and complains that Aluwyn has ruined "all her mermaid fantasies" by turning them into shark movies. Which made me think two things:
I'd missed it because she's always described as a serpent, but Aluwyn really does resemble the classic mermaid a lot. Except on land.
So apparently Willow has sexual fantasies about mermaids. Several of them, in fact. I do hope fanfic writers are paying attention. :) (Last issue she talked about nurse fantasies as well. Willow clearly has an active imagination.)
There's a bit more serious character exposition, where Willow has doubts about whether the world really does need saving, or she was just projecting her own needs onto it. (Still an open question.) There's also the revealing comment that her friends "seemed to be doing fine", while she was "the one falling apart". I'm not sure if that's an accurate realisation, or Willow's own insecurities rising to the surface, or even the effect of the place she's in clouding her judgement. Buffy certainly wasn't doing fine compared to her in the early part of Season 9, although to be fair it's not certain how much of that Willow would have been aware of - they'd been drifting apart for the run-up to 'Freefall', and only really reconciled right before Willow left again: so all Willow would know is that Buffy had a steady if unexciting job, a great new apartment and new friends.
Aluwyn makes the insightful comment that Willow may be associating "losing control" with giving in to her dark side - which does reflect what she told both Xander and Kennedy in Season 7, so seems accurate - but in fact Dark Willow's mistake was to try and achieve the opposite. Total control. Fixing everybody's problems simultaneously, and using magic to undo all the bad things that have ever happened. That seems pretty spot-on to me.
Aluwyn warns Willow that magic is inherently unpredictable - you can choose a direction, but not a path. Again, it's nice to see someone in-'verse confirm my own interpretation of magic :) Contrary to what someone was arguing in the letters column of this issue, I personally do think of Buffyverse magic as being the opposite of science. Science, at its fundamental core, is about reproducible results. Combining A and B will give you C, every time. If it gives you D instead, then either your theory was wrong, or an outside force intervened to contaminate the results.
Magic, though, doesn't work like that: by its very definition, magic defies the laws of physics and causality. Combining A and B will often give you C, but sometimes D, occasionally E, and now and then FGHIJK. It's true that Willow in Seasons 3-6 would have still seen it in terms of science, or computer programming - if her spell gives an unexpected result, it's because she made a mistake. But what Aluwyn is saying is that such unpredictability is inherent in what magic is, and you can only accept it and try to steer roughly in the direction you want to go.
Of course, she is a Trickster and a spirit of Chaos, so she would say that, wouldn't she?
The philosophy lesson is interrupted by this issue's one episode of violence, when the adorable baby octopus turns out to be part of a collective hive-creature that turns into a huge, ravening giant octopus. "Hello Cthulhu", as Willow calls it (the second Hello Kitty reference of this arc). Interestingly, Aluwyn looks to Willow to save them from it when it tries to eat them, calling her a "battle-witch". There was some debate before about whether she or Willow is the most powerful, with my argument being that Aluwyn is filling the role of the experienced master who teaches the brash young apprentice, knowing that one day she will surpass her.
Willow doesn't kill the monster; a solid piece of characterisation throughout this arc, not to mention back in 'Goddesses and Monsters' too ("I'm not a killer") - and for that matter in 'The Long Way Home' where she convinces the zombie apocalypse that they're at a formal ball and should behave peacefully, rather than just destroying them. Instead she and Aluwyn link hands - an obvious call-back to Willow and Tara in 'Hush' and 'The Gift' - and use a magical shield of heat to persuade the creature they're not tasty to eat, so it will leave them alone.
We next see Willow and Aluwyn on a beach on a deserted island, talking about the fight. They've build a shelter and a campfire out of driftwood; the sun is setting, and it's all very romantic and snuggly.
The final scene of the comic is Willow's dream. She's soaring naked through the sky, eyes closed and arms outstretched (and back bent at an unnatural and painful-looking angle in the first two panels, though happily the next ones are better), through fluffy pink and magenta clouds.. I loved the way she was self-aware enough to realise it was a dream - not because she was flying, since she can do that in real life too; not because she was blissfully happy, because apparently her real life currently contains large amounts of bliss and contentment - but because in her dream, her body is surrounded by wispy white streamers of clouds designed to conveniently hide her nudity from us readers. She even calls them "boob clouds", and blames her "old neuroses" for not being comfortable with being naked even in a dream. (Compare 'Goddesses and Monsters', though, when she was much more comfortable walking around naked in a dream-situation).
But then Marrak imposes himself into her dream, and we discover why he was luring the nightmare-bird down to him earlier. I liked how Willow at first thought he was symbolising her subconscious guilt, then when she realised it was actually him, thought he was spying on her dream-nudity. Marrak is not impressed, and makes a snide comment on Willow's dream-self being enhanced by her own wishful thinking.
He tells her that he's found "ancient signs" that lead to "the font of magic" that they were searching for before they found the coven. It's left unclear whether Marrak's telling the truth or not. He then warns Willow that she's in a trap; if she stays there too long she'll forget all about her old life back on Earth. He shows her a vision of Buffy, Xander, Dawn and Angel and asks her if she even remembers them. (It's notable that Dawn's face is visible here - though perhaps that's because this is Marrak creating the vision deliberately, not a sign of Willow's failing memory. If that's what is going on here.)
This lotos-eaters syndrome isn't any different from what we've already had suggested, but what's new is the description of how the trap works that Marrak gives Willow.
Back in Season 6, Willow and Amy were, notoriously, using magic to get high. Fans often complain that "magic as drugs" was pulled out of a hat in 'Smashed' and 'Wrecked', although in fact it had been referenced as early as Season 2 when Giles talked about his early experimentation with Ethan Rayne. In Season 4, as well, we saw that casting spells together sometimes gave Willow and Tara a rush of ecstasy that apparently felt (and looked) a whole lot like having sex. By that definition, what Willow was doing with Rack was notable in that she was casting spells purely for the purpose of getting high on them, rather than it being a side-effect of using magic for other reasons. (And possibly Rack's magic was custom-designed specifically for that purpose, although it apparently also summoned a demon...)
.Willow angrily rejects the idea that she's abusing magic like that now, but Marrak explains that it's not deliberate. Simply living in a coven among so many other witches exposes her to a constant level of magical background radiation, and she's soaking it in from the very atmosphere: "A self-sustaining contact high". Like getting drunk from walking through a brewery, without actually drinking anything.
It does make a lot of sense: I can imagine that magic really does work like that. Or then again, maybe Marrak is lying for his own purposes, because he wants Willow to leave the coven and join him again. Willow kicks him out of her dream and wakes up, telling herself he was lying: but she doesn't seem to be able to convince herself.
I can't imagine that Willow will stay in this wonderland forever - if only because of the narrative necessity of getting her back into the main Buffy story. So maybe either Marrak is right, or at least Willow will believe him - and she will have to part from Aluwyn just as she's found love and happiness again. Though that does beg the question of why should she - does she owe Buffy and her friends a greater duty than she does to the snake-woman-goddess-thingy who loves her?
Last issue I speculated that the memory-water Willow took from that enchanted pool will be useful for restoring people's memories of Dawn, once she gets home. That's still possible, but now I'm wondering if instead (or as well) she'll need to use it to break free of the coven and remember why she's needed back on Earth?