Buffy is a hero, but she isn't perfect. It's the fact that she has flaws, makes mistakes and sometimes lets her heart rule her head that makes her achievements all the more impressive. In light of that, I want to talk about her character arc in the middle of Season 8, from 'Time Of Your Life' (8.16-19) through to the most recent issue of 'Twilight' (8.33).
A few months ago, Buffy killed her best friend.
With all the drama and angst over her "losing the mission" by having sex with Twilight, I think that's a key to her current state of mind that's too readily overlooked. Remember when Buffy killed Angel back in 'Becoming Part 2'? It was so traumatic and devastating for her that she ran away, not only from her home but from herself for months, changing her name and trying to start a new life. The repercussions of that killing were still with her well into Season 3 - and arguably, her inability to give her heart over to anyone else fully and unconditionally ever again is a consequence that's still affecting her today. When Buffy killed Willow in 'Time Of Your Life', it was even staged much the same way. Angel was standing in front of a glowing dimensional portal; Willow was standing in front of a glowing dimensional portal. Buffy stabbed Angel through the heart with a sword; Buffy stabbed Willow through the heart with a Scythe. Why should we expect the emotional aftereffects to be any less devastating?
And indeed they are. When she first returns to her own time and sees present-day, not-dead Willow, Buffy's immediate reaction is to rush over in floods of tears and hug her and tell her she loves her - much to Willow's embarrassed surprise (and leading to one of my favourite Kennedy lines). In the next issue, 'After These Messages...', when Buffy meets Season 1 Willow in her dream, her very first comment is "Willow! Alive!" and she goes on to marvel that she's not evil and Buffy hasn't killed her yet.
When she meets Season 1 Angel - and remembers that this is Angel before she knew he was the 'baddiest bad', which is kind of ironic in hindsight - her main concern is to ask his advice about Willow. Angel's reply is, of course, also full of dramatic irony given his role in Seaso n 8 - if he knew something about another person's "past... and future" he wouldn't tell them, because you can't change their past and telling them about their future could lead to all sorts of unforeseen consequences. Buffy takes his advice to heart and doesn't tell Willow about killing her... but we will see in 'Retreat' that it's still weighing heavily on her mind, and arguably plays the major role in shaping her actions all through that arc as well.
There are more subtle consequences as well. In the first half of the season, Buffy's state of mind has often been described as 'depressed', 'isolated' or 'disconnected'. While that's true to an extent, I think it's only half the story. Buffy is now the leader of a worldwide organisation; she has over 500 followers who are loyal, enthusiastic, and in many cases hero-worship her. She's surrounded by people. In earlier seasons she was alone because she was the only Slayer in the world (or the only sane, non-imprisoned Slayer) and nobody else could understand her; but now there are a couple of thousand Slayers. The fact that she still feels disconnected is quite ironic: Buffy herself certainly thinks so. Xander speculates it's because she's the leader, and so still has to stand apart and think thoughts and make decisions that others are spared.
So there's another thing to consider: Buffy, at an age of no more than 24 and with no formal qualifications other than a high school diploma, is effectively head of a multinational corporation. Quite an achievement. I can think of at least three occasions in the first half of the comics where we are shown Buffy late at night, alone except for Xander, still hard at work while all the other Slayers are safely in bed. And yet she's intensely proud of what she's done, what she's achieved. This is her life's work; she believes she's changed the world for the better. A little loneliness is a price worth paying for that.
In 'Time Of Your Life' Buffy saw that all her work was for nothing. Her legacy would vanish and be forgotten, her Slayer Army not even a footnote in history. And while she's still reeling from that shock, she's manipulated into killing her closest friend.
It would be entirely understandable if she sank into despair after those revelations, gave up hope. But Buffy doesn't do that. She comes back fighting. Notice how much more attention she pays to reconnecting with her friends and family after she gets back; with Andrew in 'Predators and Prey', with Dawn in 'Living Doll', with Xander in 'Retreat' and 'Turbulence', with Willow and Giles and even Faith in 'Retreat'. She's seen the price of isolation and is trying to change that. Moreover, in 'Retreat' part 1, we see that she's still trying to think of ways to change the future, prevent Willow from turning evil again. In the heat of battle - and, just to note, immediately after one of her Wiccans has died a horrible death right in front of Willow's eyes - Willow takes a captured demon away to, we're led to assume, torture for information. Both Faith and Giles react with instant horror and disgust. Buffy, more nuanced, says she hasn't time to worry about ethics in the middle of a battle... but afterwards, when she's alone with Giles, she reveals that she's just as worried about the path Willow is heading down:
"Oh, Giles. You don't know the worst of it. You're right. More than you know. I'm killing her. I mean, I have killed her. Did, am, and will.
"I went to the future and evil Willow was there and I killed her and what I'm doing now could be how she got that way. Evil. And dead."
Buffy's much-criticised plan to ask Oz for help in suppressing their magic was conceived in that moment. Hiding from Twilight was only a secondary benefit; Buffy's main concern when she thought up the idea was to find a good excuse, a convincing reason that would persuade Willow to lay down her own magic before it was too late. Not to mention that Buffy, herself, was starting to despair at all the deaths that were resulting from her decision to empower the Slayer Army:
"Giles, are they right? Are we the bad guys? We've killed. Since the beginning. All of us. Even the best of us--"
When she thought she'd changed the world, Buffy accepted the cost in lives as a price worth paying to save the world from Evil. But now she's seen that in the future nobody even remembers her Slayer Army. Are the deaths of her friends and followers merely a futile waste? Does she have the right to ask them to die for her if their deaths will turn out to be meaningless in the long run?
In that conversation with Giles, she seems to have decided that the answer is 'No'. And in the next few issues, Buffy acts like a nine-year weight has been lifted from her shoulders. She doesn't have to be The Slayer anymore; she can just be Buffy. She even dares, finally, to forget Angel's advice and open her heart to Willow, confess her sin of killing her. And then she goes further. Without the pressure of leadership, she has the space to realise that her feelings for Xander have been developing into more than just friendship, and she decides to take the risk of telling him. Remember Buffy's trust issues that I talked about in the first paragraph? That's a huge scary emotional step for her to take. and of course it goes wrong, because she was "too late" and hadn't realised Xander just spent the last dozen issues falling in love with her sister.
So here's Buffy at the end of 'Turbulence'. She's tired of fighting. She's scared of being the cause of her friends' deaths. She's seen how liberating it can feel to just lay down her burden, stop being the leader. She's feeling closer than ever to her friends, and yet she's unlucky in love, rejected romantically. She believes that her creation of the Slayer Army all comes to nothing in the end, and so all those deaths are ultimately futile - and her own fault for dragging those innocent girls into her war. She's starting to wonder whether Twilight was right all along.
And then she discovers that Twilight was Angel all along, and he tells her he's been trying to protect her and (secretly) prevent the killing, and he offers her a chance to be happy.
Even if her mind is not being affected by the 'unholy glow', is it really that surprising that Buffy is tempted by his offer? Under these circumstances? She's always been impulsive and trusted her instincts.
And besides, I wonder how Xander will feel about the fact that Angel is now Buffy's rebound guy from him? ;-)
I don't know how this is going to end. I don't think Buffy is making the right decision here - but as I've tried to convey in this essay. I think she's making a very believable and human decision. One that has been foreshadowed and led up to for much of the season. In the end, though, I don't believe that Joss's final message will be that it's right to give up the fight for a better world.
"Strong is fighting! It's hard, and it's painful, and it's every day. It's what we have to do."
"It was supposed to calm the population, weed out aggression. Make a peaceful... it worked. The people here stopped fighting. And then they stopped everything else. They stopped going to work, stopped breeding...talking...eating... There's thirty million people here and they all just let themselves die."
-Dr Caron, 'Serenity' (and see the cover to issue 8.37 for a comparison...)