It is interesting to compare 'Freefall' to 'The Long Way Home'. Andrew Chambliss's storytelling is more straightforward than Joss's, without the multiple parallel threads and jumping around that Joss is so fond of. That certainly makes the narrative of S9 easier to read, but means there's less to talk about in reviews since we're not puzzling over exactly how it all fits together! There were some good action scenes in 'Freefall', but they didn't blow my metaphorical socks off as much as Buffy's "No. Panic." line in 'The Long Way Home'. I've already mentioned that the characterisation isn't presented as deftly here, although there's nothing wrong with the actual content. There's plenty to talk about regarding the relative situations of Buffy, Xander, Dawn, Willow and Spike.
As for the plot, S9 actually seems to address the main criticisms of S8 head on. There's been no massive multi-year time jump: S9 is set about seven months after the end of S8, but all the characters are pretty much in the same situation we left them. The changes are the minor sort of thing you'd expect: Buffy has a new apartment, Willow has a new girlfriend. Certainly nothing on the level of seeing Buffy in combat armour jumping out of a helicopter, or Dawn being a giant. The first arc of Season 9 is crammed full of character interaction, not only between the main characters but with new secondary characters who are just normal folks going about their lives. Buffy's fighting vampires in alleys and having trouble with the police, not fighting giant robots on the streets of Tokyo and having trouble with the US Army.
It's probably way too late to draw back the people who gave up on the comics because Season 8 wasn't what they were wanting, but Season 9 seems to be giving us that in full. The only risk is that it doesn't drive away the people who actually liked Season 8 for what it was...
Anyway, onto the review.
So, Severin is an enemy after all. I did wonder last month if it might be a fake-out - but on reflection, I can't see how that would have improved the story. That would only really work if they were playing it for laughs - ha ha, you thought he was evil but he was just summoning his power to demonstrate it for Buffy! So, they fight. I do think it's an interesting insight into Buffy's current mindset that she was so quick to trust him last issue. She's always been someone who prefers to think the best of people, not the worst. But right now, with most of her friends drifting away from her and feeling devoid of purpose after the Slayer Army fell apart, she was particularly vulnerable to the offer of a friendly face and a strong arm.
We start with a flashback to "three months ago" - interestingly, last issue Severin said that he discovered his powers "a couple months ago". So either he was being vague and "a couple" here meant "three"; or for some reason he was lying to Buffy to make her think he'd had his power for less time than he actually had. Either would work. Apparently he was letting himself be attacked by random vampires, then revealing his powers and using them to threaten the vamp into telling him where Alessandra is. She was the vampire who turned his girlfriend into a zompire, and apparently at that stage he thought she was to blame for why the turning didn't work properly. But he's interrupted by a mysterious woman telling him that it wasn't Alessandra's fault: it's Buffy who he should be angry at for breaking the Seed.
Given the reveal on the last page, we can assume the mysterious woman is Simone. Her motive is hatred of Buffy, plain and simple: she wants to "Destroy everything that makes her who she is. Her power, her freedom, and the nauseating idea that she's doing good." Severin, on the other hand, considers that he's "not the bad guy" here: Buffy is. I don't think we're meant to take his word for that as authorial authority, mind you; this isn't a morally-grey-Buffy story.
Severin blames her for the zompire epidemic, and it's true that technically that was Buffy's fault even if she didn't cause it intentionally or knowingly. But the idea that zompires are actually worse than regular vampires strikes me as special pleading. Severin wanted to become a vampire; he admitted that last issue. Buffy breaking the Seed took away his chance for gaining immortal youth by preying on the blood of the innocent, and he's pissed off at her for that. His line about how she "doesn't deserve the power she has" strikes me as coming from Simone. I said last issue that Severin came across as a bit naive, and while some of that might have been play-acting to deceive Buffy it might not all be. He's fallen for Simone's blandishments.
Incidentally, I think it's an interesting aside that Simone defines the qualities that makes Buffy who she is as "power and freedom" plus "the idea that she's doing good". And she wants to take away Buffy's power and freedom because, in her eyes, Buffy doesn't deserve them. She's not a hard woman making hard choices in the name of power; Buffy believes in liberal tripe like altruism and helping other people. So we've got politics and feminism all mixed into the story. :)
Also, we now see that Severin was the round-glasses guy from the last issue of Season 8. And it's implied that Simone has been researching him in depth; she knows who he is and what his story is. Of course, Severin has apparently been making the rounds of the vampire community trying to find Alessandra, so he's not been low-profile.
One final interesting note before we cut away to the other characters; Severin gloats to Buffy that he's going to take her power. And Buffy's first reaction isn't rejection or defiance: it's to ask, "You can do that?" I do wonder if she's tempted by the idea. Of course she then fights him, so she clearly wasn't tempted enough to actually go for it.
An interlude at the police station, where we finally learn that the woman detective's name is Cheung. An anonymous tip has been phoned in - presumably either by Severin himself off-camera before the issue, or by Simone - that Buffy has killed hundreds of vampires down at the Embarcadero wharfs. Dowling seems quite taken aback by Cheung's vehemence in response. Simone and Severin's plan is also spelled out; the whole idea is to frame Buffy for the murders, then drain her power and leave her to be picked up by the police. It answers why Severin didn't just take her power while Buffy was asleep in his apartment the previous night: she needs to suffer and to lose everything.
Spike and Eldre Koh are on their way back from Alcatraz and taking the opportunity for a little male bonding on the way by discussing girl problems. I do second Spike's demand why they couldn't just take the ferry, but maybe Koh's not as confident in his disguise... Spike's comment about vampires and water not being best friends caused a lot of comment when this page came out in the previews: there's never been anything before on the show to suggest any particular such weakness, but several indications that vampires have no problem at all with seawater. Personally I prefer to believe that Spike just doesn't want to get wet, and was spinning a line. Seawater would probably stain his leather coat, and maybe interfere with his carefully-set hairstyle, and certainly wouldn't be good for his smartphone.
This is the scene that did feel a bit too exposition-y, although it's not exactly a bad thing to see Spike's current feelings for Buffy set out clearly. He'd "do pretty much anything to keep her safe" because they "go way back", but there's no chance of a relationship because "she needs one thing, and that's normal", which he isn't. I've seen this scene criticised because Spike is apparently deciding what's best for Buffy without actually asking her. It's a fair point, but I think that from Spike's perspective, he has asked her. The last time they spoke, she told him that the thing she wishes most of all is that breaking the Seed had taken away her power, and she was no longer the Chosen One or a Slayer and could just be Buffy. Since Spike can't ever be just a normal person - William Pratt died 130 years ago - he thinks it's what she wants if he backs away from her. It's in character with what he was doing in late Season 7, too.
Koh, of course, sees right through his pretence, and tells him that Spike would prefer his relationship with Buffy to be a lot more than it is. But Spike doesn't admit it.
Cheung is still hyper, and demanding a SWAT team to take out Buffy because "you know what a Slayer is capable of". I'm not sure if she's just gung-ho, or if she takes Buffy's attempt to flee custody personally, or maybe she's trying to hide her nervousness since she does know what a Slayer is capable of. Dowling is still playing the Good Cop, though, and is apparently genuine about it.
Back to the battle. Buffy is trying to stop Severin putting his hands on her head, and one question I had last month is answered now: absorbing vampires' power does give him superstrength. (So if he absorbed power from a demon with magical abilities, would he get those too?) He talks about having "more power than hundreds of vampires" - and honestly, what he's doing by trying to drain Buffy is by its very nature vampiric. So it's appropriate that in self-defence she stabs him with a wooden stake, although not through the heart.
Severin now reveals he can also use his power to heal himself. Buffy, though, makes the intuitive leap that doing that has drained a lot of his power, and if she can keep on hurting him without giving him chance to recharge, eventually he'll give up. I don't think there's any concrete evidence that she's right, but it' generally how most Buffyverse demons seem to work so it seems a fair assumption. Plus as I said, Slayer intuition. It was a bit clunky for her to actually tell us all this: the TV show could have used camera angles and CGI and significant glances to get across the idea that Buffy notices that healing himself drained some of his power, instead of using dialogue,. A problem of the comics format.
They crash through the floor into the basement, almost completely unlike the similar scene in 'Smashed'. and apparently Severin has been storing up zompires as a kind of personal recharge station...
Brief cut to Xander and Dawn watching the news. They don't come off especially well here, though I think it can be overstated. Xander is clearly both angry and exasperated with Buffy, but even so his first reaction is that of course he'll help her raise bail. He's not abandoning her to her fate even if he resents the necessity to help. Dawn seems more worried than annoyed, and it's quite interesting that her first thought is to contact Willow. For help? Advice? Moral support? Why is she turning to Willow and not to her boyfriend who's sat right next to her? Although her body language as they sit there is very closed in: knees together, arms tucked in, not physically touching Xander at all. I think they're still on bad terms.
Incidentally, compare this scene to the preview cover just released of Buffy and Spike who are also sitting on the sofa watching TV. But in that image - which is probably a fantasy, but anyway - the two of them are snuggling together cosily, both looking at the same thing, and brightly lit in clean, vivid coloured clothing. This scene here is a much less happy-domestic image.
And Tumble and Anaheed discover that Buffy is a Slayer, not to mention wanted by the police. Anaheed has been nosing around in Buffy's room. This could be interesting... For the record, the contents of Buffy's private arsenal include:
The 'Vampyr' book.
A credit card?
A morning star flail.
A nunchaku (I don't think we've ever seen her actually use one of those?).
Three throwing knives.
Six wooden stakes.
Three bottles of holy water.
A cross on a chain.
Two sticks of some description, which don't look large enough to be weapons.
And... two hand grenades?!
Back to the battle, and Buffy is fighting off zompires as Severin drains them for a power-up. She reminds him that if the vamps kill her he won't be able to drain he power, which is logic he accepts... He also manages to zap a vampire in mid-air, although it's not clear if he drained its power, or is just developing long-range magic powers from draining so many of them. This new power, whatever it is, is bad news for our heroine...
Meanwhile Dowling meets Spike and Eldre Koh, who tell him to leave for his own safety while the two of them handle the Siphon. Dowling is clearly intimidated by meeting a vampire face-to-face - Spike puts his game face on - and apparently does what they say, although as we'll see he doesn't actually go far. They then hear a noise from below, and I notice that while Koh says, "The Siphon" Spike shouts "Buffy!"
Severin has Buffy by the throat and comments that a Slayer's power "sparks" differently to a vampire's. He uses his new long-range zapping ability again, this time on Spike and Koh - Koh is knocked out cold, but Spike is tougher. It doesn't do him much good, though, because Severin grabs him in his other hand and starts draining his power too. So Buffy and Spike are held at arm's length from each other by Severin, whose eyes are glowing solid green. The two of them say each other's names: I've seen some discussion about who Buffy is addressing here, but to my mind, when she says "Spike... don't..." she's talking to him, and telling him not to throw away his life by leaping to her rescue and getting himself killed. Though I suppose it's also possible she's asking Severin not to kill him. Either way she's definitely more worried about Spike than her own power.
As the lightshow proceeds Buffy starts to look weak and pale - though that might just be the artist showing the effect of the lighting - and Spike changes from vampface back to human. However, Severin tells them that "in two seconds" Spike will be a corpse and all Buffy's power will be... We never hear the end of his sentence on account of how Dowling shoots him repeatedly in the back. That was a pretty dramatic scene, especially the reveal of a nervous-looking Dowling crouched there with his smoking pistol in his hands.
I thought there was a continuity error at first since Severin talks about being shot three times, but there are four bleeding wounds on his torso. But the fourth is where Buffy stabbed him with the stake, not a bullet hole.
So did Severin actually affect the two of them at all? Buffy seems to think she's still a Slayer afterwards, and Dowling says that Spike is still a vampire. So maybe they were unaffected; Dowling was in time, and Severin's power drain is reversed because it never actually completed. Or maybe we'll discover later on that the partial drain did affect them in some way; Buffy has lost some of her power, Spike is less vampire, more human. At the moment I'm more inclined to reject that idea, and go with Severin failing to affect them; but we'll see.
The lighting effects in the final scene were kind of weird: the blue and red flashing police lights give an odd tint to everything. Buffy is grateful to Dowling for "figuring out what was going on" - in other words, realising that Severin, not her, was the bad guy. He's also managed to get her cleared with "his supervisors" - Cheung isn't mentioned and doesn't appear in this scene, which is interesting - so she's no longer wanted by the police. I liked her flat "Yippee" reaction to that, and can just imagine Sarah saying it - and I also liked the call-back to the well-known fact that Buffy doesn't like guns. Also, an interesting comment that if Spike had died, his body would be "shipped across the Pond" - repatriated back to Britain, in other words. So the San Francisco police know that Spike is a British citizen, and for that matter, his citizenship is still valid 130 years after he died? :) Or maybe Dowling just recognised the accent and assumed...
More reinforcement that Koh just want Spike to go talk to Buffy already, but Spike wants her to be *with* "what this realm calls normal". Those two are becoming regular buddies, while it's also implied that Dowling and Buffy might get involved with each other.
Now Willow shows up to give Buffy a lift home. I was kind of curious about the way she apparently walked through the barrier of police cars and SWAT teams and calmly interrupted a homicide detective to say, "I've got it covered". I don't know if this is the effect of her now being New and Improved Self Confident Willow, or a reflection of the idea that she's a solid, respectable middle class citizen and thus naturally given the kind of respect by the police that people like Buffy don't get; or maybe she has some sort of mysterious connection to the authorities now. Who does she work for?
And it's pretty touching and thoughtful that Willow's reason for coming to help Buffy was in case she had lost her powers and needed sympathy from someone who'd gone through the same thing. Compare Xander and Dawn, who apparently didn't think that Buffy might need personal support as opposed to the financial kind. I liked the staging of the conversation too, with the car between them but them obviously connecting on an emotional level.
I've said before that I don't think Buffy broke the Seed because she had a sudden flash of Slayer intuition that it was the only way to save the world. She lashed out in grief and anger because she blamed magic and the supernatural for everything that had gone wrong in her life -especially Giles's death - and decided that she'd just had enough of it. The Seed itself - magic, creativity, wonder - was morally neutral; but instead of fighting to preserve it for the good guys as Willow wanted, Buffy decided on impulse to just break it so that nobody could have it. "In order to save the village it had to be destroyed". That's why she's now feeling guilty.
As for Willow, it seems she thinks Buffy was thoughtless - similar to Xander's feelings in a way - but she was never motivated by jealousy. She cares about Buffy too much to wish the same on her that Willow suffered. She has, however, "lost what makes her tick", and I still think she' holding it together a lot better than I'd expect. Unless we're talking about a 'Something Blue'-level amount of denial here but older Willow is better at keeping it bottled up?
Buffy promises Willow that "We'll figure it out" how to get her magic back. I think that's important. Of course we don't know if it's even possible, and I'm sure Buffy doesn't know either; but a promise like that from her to her best friend isn't just idle words. Finding a way to get magic back, either generally or only for Willow, is going to be a priority to Buffy from now on. Of course, given what we saw of Future Dark Willow, that may not end well...
And we end on the reveal that Simone is indeed Severin's puppetmaster. As others have mentioned there are logistic problems here: shouldn't he be in police custody? And if he is, how did Simone get in? It's also interesting that Severin wants to drain "just a taste" of Simone's own Slayer power to help him heal, and she recognises what he's trying and warns him off. So has he done tht to her before? Or did she just work it out? He's becoming more and more vampiric; I suspect he'll be the naive but basically decent guy who turns utterly evil by the end of the arc due to the corruption of power.
So will Simone be the big bad of the season? Or will she be the Maggie Walsh, and Severin is Adam, her creation that eventually turns on her? I'm actually now excited to find out.