I've got a theory: every issue of this arc will contain a cliffhanger apparent death of a major character.
So, last month Buffy disappeared into thin air just as Dowling was about to get bitten by a mysterious female super-zompire. Billy tries heroically to rescue him, but himself gets swamped by a crowd of zompires - somewhat reassuringly, since I don't mind him being a tough, determined fighter, but he's not superpowered.
In the end, though, they are saved - but by a squad of policemen. I liked the way their uniforms say 'VTF', presumably in this case meaning 'Vampire Task Force' but in the same lettering and style as the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) uniforms in the real world. This is of course continuity from the 'Guarded' arc when we saw that Dowling was training the San Francisco PD to fight vampires.
Apparently all the zompires are staked, seemingly including the 'special' one that was the focus of attention last month. That's kind of a let-down after the build-up - although perhaps there'll still be a reveal in a future issue. Perhaps it's the circumstances of how, or by whom, she was created that made her stronger than normal, rather than her prior identity? Or maybe Buffy will discover someone she knows has gone missing/been killed and makes the connection to the zompire. Or, maybe she actually survived and managed to escape - we didn't see that happen, but at the same time we didn't actually see that specific zompire being staked on the page; it's at least conceivable she slipped away in the confusion.
Meanwhile, Buffy is confronting Illyria. I complained last review that llyria's voice didn't seem quite right: the arrogance was there, but not rally the poetic quality much of Illyria's dialogue has. In this issue I'll say, as an overall thing, that her lines were still not perfect, but on the whole they felt better than before. At least some scenes did feel like the genuine Illyria. To be fair she, like Drusilla, is someone that's difficult to pull off without descending into parody.
I did laugh at the offhand way the writers dealt with the continuity issue of 'Time Bomb' in Angel S5, when Illyria was stripped of most of her power. "Suffice to say I found it again", she says now. Heh. I suspect that's all we'll be told of what took place, and it's an unashamed comics-style retcon.
Illyria takes Buffy to met the 'Council' she mentioned last month, and it turns out it's really not the big, ancient, organised conspiracy that many suspected. It's simply a group of powerful magical entities who got together after the breaking of the Seed for mutual self-protection. They now want to recruit Buffy - and she angrily rejects the idea that they're trying to guilt her into this because she caused the problem by breaking the Seed. Clearly it's bad enough when Willow did that; she's not going to take it from a bunch of demons. However, they reveal the true threat is a familiar face: Severin, the Siphon from the first arc of the season. I knew we'd see him again.
Speaking of which, when the comic revealed the Council to us I was thinking, "That demon in the centre looks familiar. Who is it...wait, is it D'Hoffryn?" and then I turned the page and the first word out of Buffy's mouth was "D'Hoffryn". :\o/ Since he normally lives in a demon dimension, I have to assume he was visiting Earth when the Seed broke, and so got stranded here. The other demons seemed fairly generic and unfamiliar, but there was one twist I liked - the creepy little girl holding a red balloon, where it turned out that the balloon itself was the thing doing the talking.
We now cut across to a scene featuring - incredibly enough - Xander and Dawn. She's still poorly: coughing and sneezing at night and preventing Xander from sleeping. Until, in a fury, he knocks the bottle of cough medicine out of her hand with a yell of anger so it smashes on the ground. It's quite a brutal scene, and reminds me of Xander's vision of the future in 'Hell's Bells' where he ends up murdering his wife in a fit of rage. I did like Dawn's calm yet sarcastic response, and to be fair to Xander he did recognise he was in the wrong and apologised. But no sooner had he settled on the couch than the phone rang, and he answered it with the same violent rage
So what's going on? Clearly something is. The question is whether it's something affecting Xander himself - either supernatural or mundane in origin - or whether he's cracking up under stress due to worry about someone else. For instance, the theorised problem with Dawn that's being hinted at regularly, and that he originally told Buffy that Dawn "never needs to know". The issue is addressed later, but not necessarily truthfully.
The phone call was from the hospital where Dowling has been taken. I'm guessing it was Billy who actually made it, rather than the hospital authorities. Xander and Dawn rush over to the hospital; Xander nearly gets into a fight with Billy over Buffy's disappearance; and then Dawn has a talk with Xander about what's going on.
She's clearly aware that something is wrong with him lately, and is quite mature in the way she handles it. I must admit to an odd moment of cognitive dissonance hearing Dawn Summers refer to another character as "a sixteen year old kid" - though of course by the time of Season 9 she's around 19 or 20 years old herself. Xander is self-aware enough to know there's a problem, and blames the fact that after years of fighting demons on a nightly basis, he's finding it hard to adjust and slow down. He still sees every minor difficulty as a matter of life and death. Dawn also insightfully asks him if he's feeling survivor's guilt now he's no longer in the fight.
As I said, I'm not sure if this is the full story or if there's more to Xander's problems than this. However, even on the facts as presented here, it seems realistic. Xander and all the other Scoobies were basically fighting a war from the age of 16 onwards: a war in which they regularly saw people killed, including people they loved. Their own survival was never certain. And so, now that Xander has tried to leave that life, it's entirely reasonable and likely that he would suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The hair-trigger responses to minor stimuli, the inability to calm down, are all classic symptoms of PTSD. He doesn't seem to be suffering flashbacks or fugue states as far as we've seen, but not all PTSD suffers get those.
Back to Buffy, who's getting some exposition. Severin, when last we saw him, was hospitalised after Dowling shot him. Now though, it seems he's back in action: and his chosen modus operandi is to lure demons back to his apartment, then drain them of their power. Buffy has also figured out that Simone is probably working with Severin - we saw that hinted at in '(Apart) Of Me', when Simone talked about Buffy's 'energy' in a way reminiscent of Severin, and Buffy was drawn as noticing something off about what she was saying, Here we get the payoff of that.
A short interlude with Billy, designed mostly, I'm sure, to help cement his status as "new major character". He's talking to his boyfriend Devon over the phone, which at least proves that Devon is still around. Not sure where he is, though - in San Francisco too, or back in Billy's home town? Anyway, Billy decides to go back to where they fought the zompires to see if he can find any clue to what happened to Buffy. Since we readers already know that, there's not much suspense there - although I suspect that he's going to get himself into trouble there next issue. Maybe the 'special' zompire survived after all, and will be lurking there to capture Billy next month?
Buffy is told she'll be fighting Severin alongside an old ally, and for a while she assumes they mean Spike - and warns Illyria with a wry smile that "things might be a little awkward between us". I'm not entirely sure what to make of that. It clearly shows she wasn't as oblivious to his feelings at the end of '(Apart) Of Me' as some people suggested - but rather that she didn't know how to respond to them, or couldn't say the words he wanted to hear but still wasn't willing to reject him entirely. At this stage I honestly couldn't say if Spuffy is the endgame of the narrative, or if the writers are trying to disentangle these two characters emotionally while still keeping both of them viable as major protagonists, so they can continue to tell new stories about both of them without having to write about them as a couple. We'll see.
Anyway, Buffy's ally turns out to be Eldre Koh, which is awkward all around. The artist was careful to draw in the scar above Buffy's left eye that Koh gave her when they fought each other in 'Guarded'. It seems Illyria has acquired Koh's support through promising to find out for him who it was that imprisoned him back in the day - which is interesting because a lot of fans thought it might have been Illyria herself who did it. Of course it still might be: it would be a classic cold-blooded manipulation of him to lure him along with the promise, then when he asks for payment turn around and tell him she herself is his enemy.
Back to the hospital, and the big emotional cliff-hanger of the episode. The doctor comes out to tell Xander the good news that Dowling survived surgery - but then Dawn herself collapses. "Xander, I don't... feel so good" leading to "Xander, I think it's more than a cold. I feel like I'm starting to..." Then she's on the floor and the doctor says she's not breathing.
My immediate reaction. I'll be honest, was not to take this too seriously. Yes, she's not breathing which sounds bad: but she's in a hospital with an experienced doctor right next to her, and presumably all the resuscitation equipment you'd need ready to hand. So there's no practical reason why she can't recover from this, and next time she sees Buffy she can boast that she's catching her up in the "number of times I've died" stakes. Plus, narratively, this isn't being presented as a major, shocking crisis: it's not even the final scene of the comic.
But on the other hand... Dawn is a character in a Joss Whedon show. Of course she's at risk of being killed off. The thing that struck me about this scene was that it's staged very much like Renee's death in 'Wolves At The Gate'. In both cases we see the scene from the dying person's perspective; we hear her thoughts but know that the people around her can no longer hear them; we see Xander rushing over in a panic; we see her vision gradually whitening out to blank. It's clearly and deliberately set up the same way.
Of course the parallel could be meant either way; it might be deliberately intended to make us think Dawn has suffered the same fate as Renee (and Anya and Cordelia...) so we'll be surprised/relieved when next month she's not dead after all. Or maybe the parallel is there for angst because she is dead. We'll have to see.
So what's going on? Most of the recent speculation has been that Dawn's illness is connected to the end of magic, what with her being of mystical origins herself. I've offered the suggestion that the people around her have forgotten all their memories of her life before the age of 14, because those memories were created by a magic spell - but that she herself might retain the memories, because in her case they were an integral part of her identity from her creation, rather than having been inserted into her brain by an outside magical force. However, that wouldn't cause her to collapse now.
The other theory is that the magic that turned the Key into a human girl is breaking down now, causing Dawn's body to malfunction and self-destruct. I'm not particularly happy with this idea because in other cases, magic simply stopped working when the Seed broke. Willow fell out of the sky, Warren fell apart into red goo, and the cell holding Koh imprisoned vanished. The idea of a spell slowly decaying over time doesn't fit what else we've been told. Plus, if this is happening to Dawn, wouldn't other supernatural entities like vampires and Slayers also see their powers (and bodies) breaking down over time? But that doesn't seem to be happening,
Still, I suppose it's not impossible that they might handwave this. Perhaps Dawn's human body has a material existence but needed to be maintained by magic periodically. Without the regular renewal, it's starting to deteriorate.
There's also the possibility of a Joyce Summers twist, where the characters suspect that her illness/death is the result of some nefarious supernatural curse, when in fact it's a purely mundane health issue. There would be an irony there that the story could point out, in that Xander thought he was escaping from danger and death by leaving the Scooby life, when in fact you can't escape it at all.
Or maybe, combining the two, Dawn's problem is a result of the memory loss. Last issue we saw that Buffy had forgotten about Dawn's peanut allergy (which is itself a retcon, unless that has been corrected since then?). Maybe Dawn has some other medical problem which is entirely controllable and benign as long as it's treated regularly, but can cause respiratory failure and collapse if she goes for too long without medication... and nobody now remembers that she needs to have it treated? Hey, maybe she's allergic to Nyquil?
The final scene of the issue is actually Buffy's, not Dawn's. She, Illyria and Koh launch an attack on Severin's apartment - I did like the way Buffy swings in through the window while Illyria punches a hole through the wall itself. Severin is ready for the, however - he was told they were coming. I assume that's the demon he depowered before, who told the Council where to find him; though it's not clear what's happened. Did she go back to Severin and betray the others in return for a promise to get her power back? (Can Severin do that? Or if not, would he lie and pretend he could?)
Still, next month there's presumably going to be a big battle - and more importantly, more news of Dawn.