(Review) BtVS 9.20 'The Watcher'
Issue 20 of season 9 definitely seems to be gearing up for the grand finale , with the battle-lines being drawn up. It was also very much a Scooby-centric episode, although given the plot, it can hardly be called "bringing the gang back together".
We start with a flashback to 8.39 and the aftermath of Giles's death, seen from Xander's perspective. AS he tells us in his voice-over, he "went down there to make a difference" and instead ended up doing nothing but watch another friend die. I did like the call-out to the people Xander remembers dying - Tara, Anya, Renee, Giles - especially because the writers didn't forget Renee. On the other hand, it's possible to quibble that Xander didn’t actually see Tara and Anya die - he was one of the people who found Tara's body afterwards, but he only learned of Anya's death from Andrew. Quibble number two is that he didn't mention Jesse - although admittedly that was ten years earlier, and many readers would be saying "Jesse who?" if he was mentioned.
Still, even if the details are questionable the point remains: Xander has lost a lot of people over the years, and it's not surprising he has been traumatised by it. Unlike Buffy who can process her reaction to stressful situations through action (beating demons to pulp), Xander can only bottle up his feelings of helplessness and futility until they come boiling out as rage.
As in this case, where we learn that his immediate reaction to Possessed!Angel killing Giles is to try and beat Angel to death.
It's noteworthy that Angel doesn’t try to fight back in any way; he just lets Xander beat him bloody. I'm not sure if that's remorse at having killed Giles since there doesn't seem to have been time for that really to sink in; it might just be post-possession shock. He does try to explain that it wasn't him, it was Twilight - Xander rejects that as an excuse which he won't accept. "You always have an excuse. Guess what? I don't care."
However, when Xander grabs the broken Scythe and makes to stake Angel with it, Buffy stops him. She says she doesn't want to 'lose' Xander - presumably meaning lose him as a friend since she doesn't want him to be the kind of person who commits murder in a fit of rage. This is of course an exact parallel to her motive in the finale of Season 6, with Xander now filling the role of Willow.
Xander's response that "[This isn't] me?! That's the point!" illustrates the depth of his anger at himself, which he's been taking out on Angel. He'd utterly sick of being helpless and unable to do anything: beating Angel to death would at least have been action.
It's interesting that Buffy makes no attempt here to defend Angel himself as a person; her concern is purely for the moral effect on Xander that killing Angel would have. Even more interesting is that Xander seems to accept that: he doesn't throw Buffy's words back in her face that she's only trying to protect Angel because of her assumed feelings for him, which he surely would have done a few years earlier.
On a broader note, I do find myself wondering if the beating was fan service for that faction of fandom who agree with Xander that Angel "always has an excuse", but he should not be forgiven for his actions in Season 8 - even if he was possessed during the worst of Twilight's crimes.
So is this the secret that Xander was keeping in 'Freefall' back in 9.01? The one where Buffy offered to spend a few minutes "talking about it", but Xander declined? If it is, it lacks a certain drama compared to some of th other secrets he might have been harbouring, but it does fit the characters.
Buffy knows that Xander is bottling up feelings of helplessness and rage over Angel and Giles's death, and thinks he would feel better if he was able to talk it over with someone; but Xander isn't interested in opening up about it. Classic male and female behavioural stereotypes ahoy! As for Dawn's involvement, then it would seem that Xander doesn't want to "bother" her by talking his feelings over with her either. He doesn't want her to know about his 'weakness' - and we can assume he wishes Buffy didn't know either, but because she was there in the Seed Chamber when it went all down, that can't be helped.
Back to the present day, and Dawn is still in a coma, and Xander is feeling more helpless than ever. Incidentally, is his 'SHS' sweatshirt a reference to Sunnydale High School? If so, did he dig it out of the crater, or is there still a shop somewhere selling them despite the fact the entire school fell into the Hellmouth three years earlier?
Buffy runs down the list of everybody who can't help them, getting a dig in against Faith which doesn't sound fair (though I don't really expect Buffy to be fair where Faith is concerned), making a reference to Dawn's transformation curse in Season 8, and sounding fairly exasperated with Spike's absence, but with no hint of sympathy for his reasons for leaving.
And now we learn that Xander is not speaking to Buffy, after their argument on the roof last issue where he said he didn't want her help saving Dawn - because she always ends up making things worse - but Buffy refused to walk away from her sister. It's really very petty and childish - but funny, so I can excuse it.
After a while though, Buffy gets in Xander's face and tells him that even if he doesn't "have the answer" she still needs him to have her back - and if he doesn't, he's as much to blame for what happens to Dawn as she is. We see a close-up of Xander's hand balling into a fist with rage - then he stomps out the door, pushing past Buffy as he does. She says, "Hey, watch it!" in alarm and/or anger, so it looks like he did actually shove her or at least threaten to. Still, that's safer (for him) than actually trying to punch her!
Xander stalks home and sits on the sofa, looking at a picture of the Summers family - Dawn, Buffy and Joyce. Creepily, Dawn is slowly fading out of the picture, so the background is visible behind her. (The same effect as when Buffy cast the 'tirer la couverture' spell back in S5 - and it's the same photo.) Then he crumples up the picture in rage - and suddenly gets teleported into an abandoned warehouse.
Who by? Severin, using the powers he stole from Illyria. He apologises for the 'bumpy landing', explaining he's still figuring out how everything works; in an amusing comment, Simone (who's stood next to him) says that she understands perfectly how to use the gun she's holding.
In a nice bit of continuity, Xander recognises Simone and she pretends to be flattered he remembered her; presumably this is referring back to Season 8 when he was Buffy's XO, since I don't think they've interacted since then. He also works out who Severin is, presumably from Buffy's description.
Severin tells Xander the story of his girlfriend Claire, which we readers learned back in the first arc - she wanted to become a vampire and live forever, but instead turned into a zompire because of the after-effects of Buffy breaking the Seed. As such, Severin argues, he and Xander are in the same situation: both of them will lose their girlfriends because of Buffy's actions.
This does leave a slight continuity glitch: how does Severin know about Dawn? I assume we have to assume it's just because he's spying on the Scoobies, perhaps using Illyria's powers to distort time and space.
Back to Buffy: she's back on the roof of the building, where she came to be alone - but Andrew followed her up there, to try and reassure her that they'll save Dawn. Buffy is mildly grateful but not convinced, and also gets in a little jab that she doesn’t trust Andrew.
She does however trust Willow, who chooses this moment to reappear in Season 9. :) I did like their reunion scene, and thought it was important for the comic to spend some time on it.
Willow's comment that she's brought the repaired Scythe back "as a peace offering... ironically in the form of an extremely lethal weapon" was classic Willow. The fact that the Scythe now looks different - it's Fray's Scythe, not the TV show Scythe - was dealt with amusingly.
Meanwhile, Buffy/Willow shippers were given some fan service by Buffy's wondering comment, "Willow. This isn't a dream this time...?" thus clearly demonstrating that Buffy dreams about Willow. :) I should note that the last time Buffy and Willow spoke was also in a dream - the one Buffy kept having each night with the First Slayer, which prompted Willow to leave on her quest to bring back magic. However, it doesn't seem like Buffy is referring to that here, since it sounds like she kept on dreaming that Willow had come back. Now she has.
Willow notices Buffy's facial scar - the one she received from fighting Koh back in 'Guarded'. With a comment that it, "makes you look worried", she heals the scar with a touch of her finger. Buffy is pleased and thanks her - then realises what this means: Willow has magic again. The scene ends with Buffy, her eyes streaming tears, hugging Willow.
This scene does bring up some interesting points. Willow doesn't stop to ask Buffy if she wants the scar removed - she just goes ahead and does it. In short, we can argue, this is typical Willow interfering to fix other people's problems as she thinks best, without asking their consent. On the other hand, Buffy is pleased and grateful for what she did, and clearly doesn't consider it an intrusion or imposition in any way. So the counter-argument is that Buffy and Willow have such a close bond of friendship that Willow doesn’t need to ask; she already knows exactly what Buffy would want.
There's also the question of why, if Willow can heal Buffy's scar this way, she never healed Xander's eye. The simple explanation would be that scars are much less complex than eyes and so it takes less power - and there's less risk of things going wrong. On the other hand she did heal her own lobotomy back in S8, which was even more complicated than just an eye.
My personal handwave would be that healing magic gets progressively more difficult the more time has elapsed since the injury, because the body's morphic resonance field (to borrow one of Terry Pratchett's terms) gradually adjusts to its new form, and resists attempts to turn it back to how it was before the injury. Something relatively simple like a scar can be healed several weeks later with an easy spell; something more complicated like an eye would have to be healed within a few hours, or the body would become 'stuck' that way. After that only magic of godlike scope and power could change things. However, I should emphasis that this is only my own idea, not something in the show!
Willow mentions that her restored magic is "limited", which is presumably the writers' handwave to explain why she can't just cure Dawn with, well, a handwave. Exactly how limited it is remains to be seen, of course. One idea I have is that in the 'Wonderland' mini-series the Embodiment of Magic re-awoke the magic power within Willow herself: but before Season 8 ended, Willow could also tap magic from other planes and the Earth itself. So maybe the restriction now is that she's limited to her own personal power.
Finally, it's left unclear - deliberately, I think - how far Buffy is pleased that Willow has magic again for her own sake, and how far because it means there's now a chance that Dawn can be saved. I think it's mostly the second, but with elements of the first. It is typical Buffy, though, that the thought that Willow has brought back magic for the world itself doesn't seem to occur to her, despite that being Willow's original stated motive. Buffy didn't really see that as a problem before.
Back to Xander confronting Severin and Simone. Sevrein says that he wants to "turn back time" to save his girlfriend, but explains - as was also mentioned last week - that as yet he lacks the power to do this. Xander has no problem with that aim - "I'm not going to stop you". However, Severin is thinking bigger than just stopping his girlfriend getting herself vamped. He wants to stop the whole Twilight affair from ever having happened.
At this point, I'm sure there will be cheers from fandom's peanut gallery and cries of "Good idea! Tell that to Joss!" :)
Interestingly, his stated motive for doing this is still petty and self-centred. He thinks that his girlfriend Claire will still want to become a vampire: by preventing Twilight - and thus preventing Buffy from smashing the Seed - he'll ensure that she becomes a 'proper' vampire and not a brainless zompire.
I assume this is where Simone fits into the picture. We learned before that she quite likes the idea of becoming a vampire herself - to combine vampire powers with her own Slayer powers. She's a powergamer. Obviously, though, she doesn't want to become a zompire. If Severin can prevent Twilight, both his girlfriend and Simone herself get their wishes to be vamped.
(This does raise the question of whether the whole business of vampires going public, and 'Harmony's Rules' about not killing the people they feed on, only happened because of Twilight, and if preventing Twilight from happening would also prevent the arrival of 'civilised' vampires. Or maybe the two events both happening during Season 8 was just coincidence.)
Severin explains that he doesn't plan to kill Buffy because "I'm not a bad guy" - amusingly, Simone interjects that she is "okay with that label" and was "all for killing her". However, according to her, her own motive for trying to prevent Twilight is to "get another shot at trying to make the great Slayer Dream come true". What I assume she means is that without Twilight, the Slayer Army of early S8 would still exist, and would not be hated by the general public. Simone apparently looks back fondly on those days - though at the time she was impatient and angry with Buffy's leadership and rules like "no guns". Presumably her hope is that this time, she'll depose Buffy and lead the Slayers herself.
A quick cut to Buffy and Willow. Sadly, it looks like not even Willow's power is enough to save Dawn - at least not easily. This is interesting; it could be that the scene should be read at face value, as that not even Willow is going to be able to save Dawn. As such, Xander's despair and willingness to listen to Severin can be justified.
However, there is another interpretation: that Willow does know of a way to save Dawn, but is worried and unsure of herself because the plan is very dangerous. In that case, Buffy's comment, "You have to try, Will" is not a bland, "Do whatever you can" but a specific, " I know the plan you just explained to me off-camera is risky but we don't have a choice". I suppose we'll find out next month. It's been leaked that the final issues of the season will visit the Deeper Well in England (where Illyria came from); so it's possible Willow's plan involves taking Dawn there.
Simone tells Xander they need him to acquire the 'Vampyr' book which Giles gave Buffy as her inheritance from him. Why isn't explained, although perhaps it gives more details on the Twilight prophecy which will help Severin to reverse it.
Or maybe - a cool idea - it's actually needed as a material focus that will allow Severin to travel back in time to one specific moment: the one where Giles first showed that same book to Buffy way back in 'Welcome to the Hellmouth'. After which, presumably, he'll somehow prevent her from ever meeting Angel (a stake may be involved) and thus avert Twilight... But what other consequences would there be from changing history in this way?
At first Xander is unwilling to betray Buffy, but Severin and Simone assure him that she won't be harmed in any way - and in fact, if they successfully change the past, she'll never even have known he would have helped them. So he agrees to join them.
It's clear that Severin and Simone are not nearly as benevolent as they're presenting themselves here. I think Xander can accept Simone's comments about wanting to kill Buffy as just more big bad villain posturing - he's heard plenty of that in his day, quite possibly from Anya let alone people like pre-soul Spike. It's not like he's particularly fond of Buffy right now anyway. However, I'm sure that if he knew Simone had been chaining her own Slayer followers up in the basement and feeding them to zompires, that would have been a deal-breaker. As for Severin, while he claims to be "not a bad guy" and to be doing this out of a desire to save his girlfriend, his delight in using his power and tormenting people as he does shows a definite sadistic streak.
So now I'm curious to see what their plan actually is -and what the catch is, since of course there'll be one. It'll be interesting to see whether their plans are foiled, or if they actually manage to reverse time and we get a 'The Wish' type parallel universe where Twilight never happened. The second would definitely be more interesting, although sadly there might not be time or space to do it justice in the comics. Narrative logic obviously demands that preventing Twilight will result in something even worse happening, but what? Maybe Gigi rather than Buffy becomes the prophesied Slayer, and the new world is based on her foibles and prejudices. Or maybe Severin stops Twilight by going back and staking Angel at the start of 'Buffy' Season 1, which would have all sorts of butterfly effects. That people should write fic about. :)