The second issue of the 'Willow:Wonderland' arc sees our heroine reunited with (one of) her True Love(s), while her morality is put to the test. There's also hints at something even more disturbing going on back on Earth.
We ended last month on a cliff-hanger, as a huge, familiar-looking monster attacks. Marrak and Willow intuit that this is the mother of the creature Marrak killed, here for revenge - and later on we learn it's called the Hyberrax. Willow's magic fails to stop it, and we get a notable scene where they realise that the giant talking caterpillar from last issue is right in the monster's path. Marrak sees this as an opportunity to flee while the Hyberrax is distracted by eating the caterpillar; but Willow is concerned about him and goes back to warn him. The difference in morality between these two is thus once again thrown into contrast.
It turns out that the caterpillar is quite able to protect himself, leading to one of this issue's laugh-out-loud comments, when he proclaims that "his cocoon" will protect him from any threat - then snarkily adds, "Bet you wish you had a cocoon". Sadly when he emerges from the cocoon he's still a giant talking caterpillar, not a giant talking butterfly.
And then in what has to be dramatic irony Marrak himself gets his foot stuck between some tree roots, giving Willow the opportunity to leave him behind to distract the monster while she escapes. The karmic comeback is so precise that I'm actually starting to wonder if it's not just a dramatic device, but a feature of this dimension that your bad deeds rebound on you.
Willow can't free Marrak in time, so she casts a spell on him moments before the Hyberrax eats him. Four seconds later, the creature explodes - showering blood and guts everywhere - and Marrak is standing in the middle of it unharmed but messy. Willow's magic - a "prey-inversion spell" - protected him while killing the creature. He's definitely not happy, though personally I feel he got off lightly given what he did and was willing to do.
I also have to say I love Willow being all hyper-confident and effective and lethal with her magic, both in this scene and the one which follows where she purifies the area and the magic pool again after the battle. At the same time she's endearingly geeky about it, discussing the different types of spell she's using, and being pleased with the way the purification spell can be modified to also give her a fresh change of clothes. You can see why Willow missed having magic back on the post-Seed Earth. Not only is it useful and makes her powerful, she just enjoys it, and is damned good at it.
As thanks for "cleaning up after herself" - a phrase the caterpillar actually uses, which again made me smile - he advises them to take some of the water from the magical pool. It's the water of memories, and will help them when they get "a particular kind of thirsty" later on. This is obviously a clue, or prophecy, about something that will come up later in the miniseries - though I'm also wondering if it's going to be relevent to Dawn's situation. More of that later.
I noticed, though, that while Willow took some of the water - in a container she presumably just magicked up out of thin air (see my comment last month about her not bringing a backpack or camping gear) - Marrak didn't bother.
Marrak also gives us some cryptic foreshadowing; "Energy is released by opposing forces. The light casts thick shadows, and the path of righteousness employs some very dark gatekeepers." Willow doesn't understand what that means, nor does Marrak. Given the contrast between these two's morality which is being thrown into even more sharp relief in the next scene, I do wonder if the resolution of this plot arc is going to be a fight between them that has a mystical meaning, rather than them just turning out to have incompatible goals. (Marrak wants to bring magic back to Earth so he can return there and rule it; something I'm sure Willow would oppose. Their current alliance is one of convenience.)
Alternatively, maybe Willow will learn that she has to turn dark herself - becoming the Future Dark Willow of 'Time of Your Life' - in order to bring back light and magic of the rest of humanity. That would be a tragedy in more ways than one, but it's the sort of sacrifice I could see Willow agreeing to make.
The next incident in the journey is an attack by ghostly black winged heads, which we later learn are nightmares. When people dream back on Earth, their dreams can take on solid form in this dimension, especially if they're recurring. Since the Seed broke, the dreams have been trapped here, and their numbers are increasing. Although it's not stated, perhaps that also explains the lack of creativity back on Earth? People are losing their dreams, literally, and not getting them back.
Willow finds herself plunged into a nightmare where she's back on Earth - I assume that's San Francisco - and she sees Xander and Dawn run past her, then Buffy standing there holding an intact and repaired Scythe and a stake - but all three of them are faceless. As in, smooth featureless pink ovals where their faces should be. Then they and a bunch of other people - Xander and Dawn are definitely there, but I couldn't see Buffy in the crowd - jump into a big fiery orange hole in the ground. Willow interprets this as them plunging into Hell.
Once she frees herself from the nightmare, she wonders whose dream that was; and why they were all faceless. I assume it's not her own dream, but it has to be someone who knows Buffy, Xander and Dawn., and is worried about them all losing their identities and being dragged into Hell. I'm going to guess it's Xander's recurring nightmare, based mostly on his appearance way back in 'Freefall' 9.01 when he obviously has something haunting him in his conversation with Buffy, but doesn't want to talk about it.
There's a humorous interlude where we learn Marrak was also dragged into someone's dream, but instead of a nightmare about faceless people and hell it was "someone's dream about nurses", and clearly not an unpleasant one. Willow is envious - "Man. Why couldn't I have gotten that nurse dream?" I don't know if Jeff Parker ever played the 'Buffy' video game 'Chaos Bleeds', but there's a possibly unintentional call-back to it here. When the various characters find a health pack in the game to restore the damage they've taken, they have a set line of dialogue they speak. Buffy says, "This'll help with all those little cuts and bruises. And mortal wounds". Willow's line, however, is "Great! Now I can be Nurse Willow. Tara's gonna love this". Which just goes to show that her nurse fantasy is one of long standing. J (I also laughed at the classic Willow wordplay "What the Hello Kitty?")
The caterpillar mentioned a "deeper well of magic" as the thing Willow was searching for earlier. Now, as Willow and Marrak go down through a fog-enshrouded rocky waste, Marrak realises Willow is looking for this world's Deeper Well - something Willow confirms. This is a reference to the Hole in the World from the eponymous 'Angel' episode. It's obvious in hindsight that Willow would know about that, but it's nice to get the crossover. In 'Angel' the Deeper Well was the burial place and prison of the Old Gods, such as Illyria, though she seems to be treating it here as merely a very strong source of magical energy. I do wonder, though, if there'll be a connection to the later appearance of Illyria in Season 9?
Willow alternates between pride in her skills and accomplishments - "My intuition is pretty awesome most of the time" and insecurity - "It sounds good when I say it out loud, at least" - which I think is well-observed about her character here in the later seasons.
It's clear she's making her plan up as she goes along, but we now get her objective: find this world's strongest source of magic, then use the Scythe to cut a hole between the dimensions to let the magic pour back out through it into Earth. Marrak agrees that the plan is possible, though he does say they'll need a conduit, not merely a portal, to lead the magic through to
the Citadel Earth.
He also tells us that by doing this, Willow would be "creating a Hellmouth, more or less". Oops. That would a pretty major downside of Willow's actions which I'm not sure she's considered. It wouldn't be the first time Willow was so pleased about her ability to fix things that she screwed things up for everybody else. Or maybe Marrak is over-pessimistic. While this dimension clearly contains both good and evil, it seems more like a world of fairy-tale consequences than an actual Hell Dimension. As such, perhaps the magic it would transmit back to Earth would be fairytale magic, not evil Hell energy.
Or maybe there's no difference. The caterpillar last month did mock the idea of Light Magic and Dark Magic, saying it's as ludicrous as the idea of Dark Science. Back in 'Goddesses and Monsters' too, we were presented with the idea that dividing magic into Good and Evil is futile. Chaos and order are intertwined like lovers, according to Aluwyn, and the universe needs both. Maybe it's intentions that count, not the nature of the power?
Speaking of Aluwyn, it's at this point that she reappears. She's had a slight makeover, it seems; her eyes in Season 8 were blank, featureless white, but now she has pupils in them. Though sometimes they're black pupils in white eyes, and other times white pupils in black eyes. This could be a continuity error by the artist, but personally I like to think that Aluwyn can vary her appearance at her whim. She is the Trickster, after all.
There's a tense moment when Willow and Marrak think they're under attack; then Willow recognises Aluwyn and they fall into each others arms, while Marrak looks confused. In fact, he actually makes an o.0 expression as they kiss.
This is, if we recall, the first time Willow has seen Aluwyn since she realised she loved her - which was only after the Seed broke. From 8.40, as Willow says to Buffy:
"The fact is… there's someone else. I didn't realise it - or I kidded myself - for a long time. But now… (It's not you, dumb-ass.) It's someone I'll never see again."
The feeling is clearly reciprocated, since Aluwyn is crying when she says to Willow, "It's actually you." I thought it was highly amusing that when we meet Aluwyn's companions, they've clearly all had to spend a very long time listening to Aluwyn praising Willow to the skies at every possible opportunity, as being the most incredible witch ever. For a powerful, possibly immortal demon-goddess, Aluwyn seems to have been acting a lot like a lovestruck teenager.
We also get a neat little clarification of her multiple names, as Willow introduces her as "Aluwyn, the Saga Vasuki". So one is a title, not a name. I wonder if that was always planned, or if it's a neat retcon of a writers' error in giving her two different names?
As mentioned, Aluwyn once again has a group of magical followers - but a different one to the group she was leading in 'Goddesses and Monsters'. They all clearly hero-worship Willow - or "Willow the Red" as a couple call her, presumably in reference to Gandalf the White. It's played for fun, I think - especially when contrasted to Marrak's grumpy reaction when nobody showers him with admiration and praise.
I do wonder, though, if it's going to be a trap. Willow even acknowledges that Aluwyn is a "lying, deceitful, sexy snake", and back in 'Goddesses and Monsters' made big play of the fact that she can trust a liar better to be her spirit guide - presumably because she'll know never to trust her words, but always look behind them to find her own truths. So is Aluwyn lying here? The assumption would be that this is a lotos-eaters trap, or Circe's island: she's created an apparent paradise because she wants Willow to stay her with her forever. The connection to Angel and Buffy in the Twilight paradise is obvious; and made explicit late when Willow tears a cut in reality to see what her friends are doing back on Earth, in the same visual as we saw Buffy doing in 'Twilight'.
On a less refined note, I did laugh at the acknowledgement that it's almost impossible to interact with centaurs without risk of double entendres related to mounting and riding. Also, Aluwyn is jealous. And horny, if her grin when she tells Willow to rest now because "We have a lot of catching up to do" is anything to go by.
We learn that Aluwyn has been trying to get back in contact with Earth - and specifically with Willow - for just as long as Willow has been trying in reverse. She failed, but she did bring together this group of witches - a "super-coven", and establish a very pleasant home for them - which looks a lot like Rivendell in the Peter Jackson films - called the Wellspring.
One thing the coven does do is repair the Scythe. Their craftswoman - Vulcana, either named after or an avatar of the Greek/Roman god of smiths - once again compares the Slayer weapon to Excalibur, and makes the interesting claim that such a powerful artefact is eternal and "can never be broken". Presumably it only looks broken, and fixing it is a matter of reminding it about its true form? I do notice that Vulcana speaks of healing the Scythe, as if it were a living thing, rather than repairing it.
In a possibly significant detail, Marrak recoils from the brilliant flare of white light as the Scythe is restored, while Willow stares right at it. Afterwards, the weapon is as good as new once again (yay!) apart from one cute little detail. It's now completely red, including the blade, instead of red and silver. That's how it appeared in the 'Fray' comics, which was its first appearance in real time although of course chronologically those comics were set 200 yeas into the future. So Willow is now holding Melaka Fray's version of the Scythe. (In 'Time Of Your Life', though, Mel's Scythe looked like Buffy's - which means either a continuity error, parallel-dimensional shenanigans, or quite possibly both.)
Incidentally, Willow mentions that she has been practicing the rift spell in her mind "for weeks2,. Since she'd only just thought of it when she arrives at the Wellspring, this does imply that some significant time elapsed between the scene of her arriving there, and the reforging scene. That's also supported by the fact that she's now wearing totally different clothing, and it's night. Proper night, with a black sky and stars, which didn't appear earlier on in a different part of this world.
The moment the Scythe is repaired Willow rushes over to try and open the rift back to Earth - despite Aluwyn trying to urge caution. We learn shortly that Aluwyn has in fact tried the same spell herself multiple times and it failed. She didn't tell Willow beforehand because she hoped the more powerful witch would succeed where she lacked the strength.
But she doesn't. Willow goes from pride in her work and the way she's "saved the world" and made everything work again, to despair and tears when she realises she failed.
As I mentioned, this scene is staged very much like 'Twilight', but the details are different. Willow sees Buffy, Xander and Dawn engaged in family-style banter, not fighting for their lives. She's actually trying to get back to them, rather than being tempted to stay in this paradise. Aluwyn's role is uncertain; on the face of it she's also trying to help Willow get home, not persuading her to stay in Heaven as Angel did to Buffy. But maybe she's deceiving Willow and/or herself about that.
We do learn that, according to Aluwyn, the only way for this spell to work would be if there were already magic on the other end of the breach, to form a direct pathway for the magical current to flow between the two worlds. This does, I believe, foreshadow the solution which the arc might end up with: that Willow chooses to use herself as the conduit, returning to our world while Aluwyn opens the rift from the other side. The magic would then flow from the Wellspring into Willow's own body and then outwards into the world itself. The catch would be that she'd never be able to leave Earth again, or the pathway would close. So Aluwyn's world and this witches' paradise would be lost to her. Also, she wouldn't be allowed to die, or that would also seal the pathway again. Immortality isn't so great when all your friends will die of old age and you can't leave the place you're bound to, so becoming Future Dark Willow would be a great sacrifice.
This also, I think, could (finally!) explain why Willow engineered her own death in 'Time Of your Life'. Using the Scythe on the Wellspring cut open a rift to allow magic to flow to Earth, but it failed because there was no conduit on t other side. Presumably, then, using the Scythe on the Conduit back on Earth - that is, using it to kill Willow - would open a matching rift on the Earth side of the channel. The pathway for magic to flow back into our world would thus be open at both ends, and thus permanent. Willow would restore magic to the Earth at the cost of her own life. As for the time-travel business, that could be explained by Willow having to leave the Scythe with Aluwyn to open the rift at her end when Willow returns to Earth. She would then have to use time travel to arrange for Buffy to bring our world's Scythe back from a time before it was broken; and presumably it took her 200 yeas to arrange that magic.
Or something. It works, I think, but it's not necessarily where they're really going with it.
Finally we get another mystery: what's going on with Buffy, Xander and Dawn. I assume this will be the theme of the next arc on the main Season 9 comic, and it'll deal with what's been going on in the background with the two incredible disappearing Scoobies ever since 9.01.
The fact that Buffy is over at X/D's house and talking to them about slaying is quite a twist in itself, though I understand it's been said she'll be staying with them again instead of in the apartment with Anaheed and Tumble. (Who, however, are apparently not disappearing form the season, so there's clearly more to it than that.)
We may not have seen him for a while, but Xander's wry innuendo - "Vampire or love?" in response to Buffy saying Dowling had found a nest, was perfect. Buffy protests that her relationship with Dowling is strictly business, and I smiled at the way Dawn managed to both support her sister against Xander's teasing and get in a sly little dig of her own.
It's a nice enough little scene which then turns to nightmare as Dawn turns to look towards Willow, and we see that she has no face. Just like in the nightmare that Willow experienced earlier.
So what's going on? It seems clear that this is not a literal change in her appearance, since Buffy and Xander don't seem to notice anything wrong with her. It's possible they're under a spell of some sort that hides the change from them, but that seems unlikely given that spells don't work anymore back on Earth. The more likely answer is that it's Willow who has special insight. This may be from the nature of the portal she just opened, or some ability or intuition of her own; but with her magic senses she can tell there's something badly wrong with Dawn.
What is it? The obvious answer, which I suggested myself a couple of years ago now, is that the end of magic meant that the spells used to create Dawn out of a ball of green Key energy, and give everybody fake memories of her childhood, are no longer in effect. She didn't just vanish out of existence when the Seed broke: magical creatures were unaffected by the end of magic. However, it's possible that the memories created by the monks would disappear, while Dawn's physical self was unaffected. It's even possible that Dawn's own memories of her early life remain, because they're actually an integral part of her; but other people's memories vanished because they were sustained by a spell. So Dawn herself wouldn't realise anything was wrong.
There's also the issue that Dawn has existed, as a person, for at least six years now in the world. Her friends have plenty of memories of her which are genuine, and not created by Czech monks. These presumably didn’t disappear when the Seed broke. So it's not like they would forget Dawn's existence completely, but more that their memories and knowledge of her would have odd gaps and holes.
I think this works as an explanation for Xander's reaction at Buffy's party back in 'Freefall'. Something is haunting him; he's grouchy and miserable; but he doesn't want to talk to Buffy about it - and he definitely doesn’t want to talk to Dawn. She "never has to know". He's protecting her from something; and his black mood implies it's something he doesn’t think he can fight. We get another hint in 'Apart Of Me' when Xander gets violently, unreasonably angry when he thinks Dawn has vanished; and again when he snaps at her when she mentions a memory of her younger life. In both cases he apologises to her afterwards; but he's clearly feeling a lot of strain. It could be that Willow saw his nightmare earlier; he fears that not only Dawn but everybody will lose their identities.
As for Buffy, the question is left open as to how much of this she knows. She seems a lot less bothered by the situation than Xander does, which is odd when you reflect how protective of her sister Buffy used to be. The two clues that she's also aware of the situation are in 'Freefall' when she offers to "talk about it" to Xander - that really leaves open whether she knows what's wrong, or just knows something is wrong - and in 'Apart Of Me' when she's reminded she hasn't returned Dawn's call, and says, "Oh no. I keep forgetting about Dawn". It's possible that this is the literal truth; Buffy isn't disturbed by her memories of Dawn fading… because she forgets about it. But Xander lives with Dawn, so he's being constantly reminded of her. Perhaps she keeps saying things about her past that he has to pretend he remembers?
Of course, this may all be a red herring, and the problem is totally different. But it does all fit. Your memories - and other people's memories of you - are a key part of your identity, which is why Dawn now looks faceless to Willow's vision. But I also note that Willow is carrying around a vial of water composed of pure memories, which the caterpillar told her would be important sooner or later. So perhaps the solution to the problem is already right there in front of us?