I'm out of practice at this. It's been months. :-)
Unlike a lot of fandom, I've never disliked Riley as a character; I enjoyed his Season 4 arc especially. On the other hand I can't say he's a particular favourite either, and I must say I was underwhelmed when Dark Horse announced that he'd be the subject of their one-shot comic to fill the gap between the penultimate and final arcs of Season 8. But when it emerged that the story would be about his original recruitment into the Twilight organisation, and therefore give us more details about that, and perhaps about Angel's motives too, I got more excited. And it turns out, that is indeed what we got.
It doesn't hurt that this issue was written by Jane Espenson (there's a photo of her inside wearing a NOH8 stamp to protest against California Proposition 8) and she pays a lot of attention to characterisation and motivation and parallel-drawing and so forth.
So, the review.
The subtitle, "Commitment through Distance, Virtue through Sin" sounds very Orwellian, and suitable for a spy thriller about double agents and hidden agendas. Jo Chen's cover makes Riley look very suave and James Bond, while his wife Sam looks much like Lara Croft. Then in deliberate total contrast the title page takes us back to the bucolic Iowa countryside of Riley's childhood.
Except that as every 'Twilight Zone' fan knows, cornfields are sinister things...
Our first scene has Riley and Sam arguing about two simultaneous propositions Riley has received, one from Buffy and one from Twilight. He's being reluctant and avoidy, apparently because he's planning to settle down, raise corn and start a family and leave all that stuff behind. Sam is trying to persuade him to accept the mission on what, on the face of it, seem like principled and practical reasons. It would be the right thing to do, and also, starting a family is "easier with a planet under us". As we'll discover later, Sam also has rather more personal and complicated reasons for this argument.
This comic finally settles the question of whether Riley knew all along who Twilight was, and the answer is "No". From what I figure, the sequence of events is something like this:
- Angel decides to recruit Riley into the Twilight organisation. In the 'Retreat' arc he's totally unsurprised by the revelation that Riley was loyal to Buffy all along, so it's possible that he knowingly recruited him to be a double agent and a secret conduit to feed information to Buffy. That's not confirmed here in this issue, however. Angel seems to think Riley can possibly be brought over to the Twilight anti-magic crusade for real, and it's implied it's all part of his plan to 'push' Buffy by isolating her. Making her think even Riley has betrayed her would be a huge blow. Of course, Angel wins either way.
- Twilight contacts Riley, possibly through intermediaries, and offers to recruit him. Riley says he'll think about it.
- Somehow, Buffy gets involved; the most obvious possibility is that Riley himself got in touch to warn her about the anti-magic organisation being formed. What is clear is that Buffy then asked Riley to join the organisation to act as a spy inside it, and he told her he'd have to think about it. This is the situation when the comic starts.
Was I the only one to think that Sam's reassurance "I'm into it. I am" was immediately undercut by her complaint that the Iowa countryside "All looks alike"? But her comment that she's happy to send Riley back to Buffy because it shows she's emotionally secure was very in-character. (Given that Sam's character has always been "annoyingly perfect". *g*)
The idea that there's a nuclear missile silo hidden beneath a cornfield in the mid-West again seems very Twilight Zone, though I do worry that the only security is apparently a broken-down chain mesh fence. Also that a general would be personally opening the door; don't they have underlings for that kind of thing?
And now we get the revelation of our surprise guest; Whistler. Apparently it was Jane's idea to bring him back, to give Angel a confidant that both he and we in the audience would have reason to trust. There's a plan, and Angel has been acting under Whistler's advice. This scene is important for the readers more than for the plot, I think - and makes me think that the brief for this issue was very much to patch things up in audience perception of the season.
The original idea was that Angel would pretend to be bwa-ha-ha evil as part of a deception plan, then it would be revealed that he was good all along. The problem was, too many fans bought into the bwa-ha-ha act to the point where they, not just the characters in the comic, genuinely believed that Angel had turned irredeemably evil. (Or that if not, he had to be under some sort of mind control.) What Jane's doing here is trying to salvage the plot and characterisation, by emphasising that it is all an act. She lets Angel express his hatred of having to go through with it so we'll sympathise with him again. It's the sort of script-doctoring that Joss himself used to be famous for. ;-)
He also hates having his hair flattened down by the mask, so it doesn't stick straight up anymore. That bit was funny.
I liked the scene with the missile, the idea that someone had hacked into its systems and was arming it remotely. I'm sure someone will be along to argue that it could never happen that way in real life because US Strategic Command has better computer security than this, and it ruined their suspension of disbelief; but for me it's exactly the kind of scenario you'd expect in a fictional spy thriller. Very sinister and tension-building.
To be honest, I assumed the missile was being prepared for an attack on Buffy's HQ, either without Angel's knowledge or he'd somehow manoeuvred Riley and Sam into position so they could stop it without him breaking his own cover. The truth turned out to be different... although it really was the Twilight organisation hacking the missile's controls. When General Voll talked about nuking Buffy in 'The Long Way Home', it seems he wasn't kidding about having the capability to do it.
It is a bit odd that Riley and Sam would be brought in to disarm a nuclear missile; they're commandoes, not technicians. Jane hangs a lantern on this by having Riley make the same point, but he's assured that they come personally recommended by the Pentagon (that's the reference to the "five-sided building", if anyone missed it). Really, though, as we'll learn, it's all a set-up anyway.
The quitting/quilting joke was funny but bizarre. The words don't actually sound the same at all, even if they're spelled almost identically. :-)
The scene in the aircraft is a perfect Buffyverse mixture of serious discussion about emotional issues mixed with domestic concern for getting your collar folded under, while the fact that the characters are also doing something insanely dangerous and dramatic - like, in this case, making a parachute jump in pitch darkness into the ocean - is simply taken for granted by them. This is also important background to the Twilight organisation. We learn that Angel's cover story to the humans he recruits is indeed, as suspected, that he's waging a war against magic. (Presumably his demon recruits are told a different story? Or simply promised "clemency from the coming purge" if they sign up.)
The misogyny angle is also brought up in an interesting way, if you remember General Voll's diatribe in 'The Long Way Home' where he dismisses Buffy's argument that this is "about power and about women". Sam implies that while feeling threatened by Buffy and her "gyno-army" may not be an explicit cause for the Twilight organisation, it certainly seems to be the subtext motivating many of its male recruits. I can buy that.
Then there's the key question of the entire issue - and the one I posted a poll about earlier today. Riley says that he must "hope that nothing I have to do to preserve the cover will cost my eternal soul", and then he gives a specific example - that Twilight will make him "shoot a witch in the head or something" as a gesture to prove his loyalty to the cause. That was a powerful, even brutal image to give us, but it's one which strikes to the moral core of Season 8. After all, Angel himself has had to do things repeatedly to "preserve his cover", like stand by and watch while Warren and Amy design a missile to kill all the Slayers in Scotland. Has it cost him his eternal soul? (Well, Angel's soul isn't so much 'eternal' as easily swapped out for repair and maintenance, but you know what I mean.) A lot of fans seem to have decided already that it has. My impresson is that Season 8 isn't intended to answer the question definitively one way or the other, but leave us to dscuss it and make our own minds up.
Part of the problem, I think, is a matter of genre convention. In a fairy-tale heroic fantasy, the champion on a white charger never has to murder an innocent person in order to bluff his way inside the evil sorceror's castle. In a noir spy thriller or hard-boiled crime drama, such a scenario wouldn't be out of place at all. If you believe 'Buffy' is the former, then you're never going to accept Angel's actions as Twilight. On the other hand, on Angel's own show we saw this exact scenario played out - when Angel was forced to murder his friend and fellow-champion of the Powers Drogyn as a test in order to infiltrate the Black Thorn and bring it down from the inside. In the darker and more noirish atmosphere of Ats, this scenario wouldn't be out of place at all (well, except to people who refuse to accept that Angel in Season 5 was in character, I suppose). It feels more uncomfortable shoved into a 'BtVs' storyline. Buffy's the person who doesn't believe in unwinnable scenarios, who always finds a way to beat them. She'd probably win the Kobayashi Maru exercise too, just like Kirk did.
But then again, it's not Buffy who's facing this particular test. If anything, it's her example which shows Angel how to extract himself from it as well, or at least once he comes face to face with her he decides to trust in her proven ability to find a third way.
Anyway, back to the plot, and we finally - finally! - get to see a less-than-perfect side to Sam Finn's personality. :-) She has an ulterior motive to pushing Riley into helping Buffy, and that's because it will help her justify it to herself if later on, she also wants to do something similar. I liked this; it felt kind of twisty but also the sort of motivation that really does happen. I was also pleasantly reminded that Riley isn't just a demon-fighting commando. He was also once a postgraduate psychology student and TA to one of the US's most renowned experts in the field. His easy insight into Sam's real motivation shows that he's actually pretty good at this.
Back to Whistler and Angel. The comment he makes, "She should be the most powerful player in the game, not a piece on the board. This is wrong" is once again Jane putting words in Angel's mouth in order to answer one of the criticisms levelled at the season. Buffy's the hero, or should be; and Angel is being a patronising patriarchal dickwad for manipulating her instead of letting her make her own choices. This scene says, yes he knows that, and he knows it's wrong; but he doesn't think he has any choice. "You can do what she'd want, or you can do the right thing."
The plan is to make Buffy "feel powerless in order to find the ultimate power". It's manipulative and deprotagonising, and that's fully acknowledged by the story as a bad thing - but it's also nothing we haven't seen before on the show. "So that's everything, huh? No weapons... No friends... No hope. Take all that away... and what's left?" Both Whistler and Angel know better than anyone what Buffy's answer to that would be - and that's another reason why it was a stroke of genius to make Whistler of all people the exposition character here.
The misappropriation and mangling of the famous 'Heroes' quote made me laugh out loud. "Torture the former cheerleader, save the world." Whistler looking at the bottle as he said it was a nice call-back to his raiding Giles's fridge in 'Becoming'. When he says "Working her ex? Her *other* ex?" I'm assuming 'other' means Angel himself as opposed to Riley. It could be a Spike reference instead, of course, but indications so far don't suggest that Spike was also being manipulated as part of Angel's plan.
Or maybe Parker Abrams is a key agent in Twilight's genocidal organisation of death. :-)
Angel seems to be letting his dislike of Riley (as seen in 'The Yoko Factor') influence his judgement. Riley isn't a huge fan of magic, true, but unlike Angel we in the audience were able to see him working through and at least partially overcoming those prejudices.
I'm not sure if the pattern on the front of the incoming missile was meant to be just shadows, or some sort of design. If the latter, I didn't recognise it. "Maybe it wasn't smart for us to come to the target coordinates" was, you have to admit, a funny line. :-)
Many real-life nuclear missiles do indeed have multiple small warheads inside the nose-cone, which can be directed to individual targets once the missile gets close. The pictures I've seen don't look much like this one. However, the fictional MIRV missiles used by the Cylons in new Battlestar Galactica do look quite a lot like this, so we can guess where Jane got the idea from. :-) In this case, though, it turns out that they're not really nuclear missiles, just ordinary ones, and the whole thing was a test. Twilight has used this method to lure Riley to him... presumably arranging the theatrics to convince Riley that it was all a test of his competence and dedication to see if he was worthy to join.
A final scene with Angel and Whistler. This time, it addresses the issue of why Angel didn't just tell Buffy what was going on. The answer here feels a bit too much like author fiat - "Because the prophecies say you can't" - but it does tie in with Angel's warning to Buffy in 'After These Messages...' that foreknowledge can "change their future into who knows what". Some interesting comments on Whistler's motivation here too, which don't exactly explain everything - presumably we have to wait for 'Last Gleaming' for that.
But the Powers That Be are definitely getting involved, and they're concerned about the Twilight prophecy as "the biggest one (they've) ever seen". Interestingly, that implies that the Powers aren't actually causing the Twilight; they're reacting to it. Whistler also makes clear that Angel's goal here is to "save the world". Presumably - although not for certain - he means that Angel should carry through the Twilight prophecy and make sure Buffy is a part of it, and that will ensure the world is saved. Which leads to some questions:
1. Do Whistler and the Powers That Be actually know that the world will end when the new one is born in the Twilight?
2. Do they take the long view, and assume that the world after Twilight will be the same one they're sworn to protect as the one before, even if it's had a radical change in the number of inhabitants?
3. Or do they think that Twilight is inevitable, but it will make a big difference whether it's someone worthy like Buffy or someone who isn't - Gigi, perhaps - who becomes the Ascended One?
4. Or is Angel being played, and they're lying to him? (Maybe this isn't actually Whistler at all, but someone taking his form?)
As a final comment, Whistler asks to know if Angel's loyalty lies "With the girl or with the world". It's an important question...
Riley and Sam's conversation in the tunnel is another Buffyverse-style dialogue about normal coupley things - worries about commitment and individuality when settling into a permanent relationship - while heading into deadly danger. It's interesting that they mention the mission for Buffy, which honestly is poor operational security on their part given that, as we learn, Angel was eavesdropping on them. He surely knows now, if he didn't before, that Riley is going to be a double agent for Buffy. Oops. Good thing he's secretly on their side too.
Twilight now does his big recruitment spiel, complete with an impressive show of armed force, to overawe the new recruit. I liked the remark about the army, undercutting the seriousness a little. Presumbly the soldiers went through a similar process, and we get confirmation that they see themselves as "fighting for humankind" against "the forces of magic". Angel's snide remark asking Riley if he really needs his wife's permission to join up also seems to reinforce the macho "We're not about misogyny here except actually we are" atmosphere I alluded to earlier. (And notice that he basically dismisses Sam by his actions: the invitation to join his gang doesn't extend to her, even though she's standing right next to Riley. Nor does he care about her enough to bother keeping the whole thing secret from her.)
Riley's comment on his relationship - "We're together even when we're not" echoes the first part of the episode title - "Commitment through distance" - and of course stands as a compare-and-contrast to other relationships in the Buffyverse. (And not just romantic ones.)
Then comes the ominous moment, when just as Riley predicted, Twilight-Angel sets him a test of commitment. I wonder if anyone thought that his next words as you turned to the final page were going to be "Kill Sam"? Indeed, when Angel repeats Whister's words to him, "You have to decide where your loyalty lies... with the girl or with the world", one meaning is that he's asking Riley to give up being with his wife in order to dedicate his life to saving the world. (Which calls back Sam's words to him at the start of the comic.) Angel is obviously also reflecting on his own decision - note that the words are in text boxes, not speech balloons, implying he's thinking this rather than saying it out loud.
Angel, it seems, has decided to put the world before the girl. Riley's last whispered word in the issue - 'Buffy' - shows that for him, it's the opposite. Angel is the man in the shadows, willing to get blood on his own hands to spare those of others; Riley is a big noble doof who always tries to do the right thing. Which of them is right?
We know from 8.35 what Buffy's answer would be. But we can make up our own minds...