We open with a scene from Illyria's POV: she blacked out when Severin sucked her power, and comes round to see Buffy and Koh standing over her.
Illyria blames herself for what went wrong; she says she "waited too long" and "lost concentration" when trying to teleport her allies into the fight. That doesn't square with Severin's mockery of her last issue, when he seemed to know exactly what she was trying to do, and thus, by implication, was the reason why she failed. Still, I think that Illyria's characteristic arrogance might also lead her to blaming herself when things go wrong - after all, it's inconceivable that anyone else could have defeated her!
In a rather amusing graphical illustration of her state, Illyria without her powers has also lost her blue colouration: her hair and eyes are now brown like Fred Burkle's used to be.
The red balloon informs Buffy and Koh that since they failed to defeat Severin, the rest of the Council has run away. It also considers that it does not owe them any reward for their failure - specifically, they will not keep their promise to tell Koh who it is he's searching for. With that the red balloon flies away, possibly to join its 98 companions and start a nuclear war by accident.
Buffy, Koh and Illyria face the fact that Severin is now powerful enough to start an apocalypse - something Buffy thought was a threat of the past since she broke the Seed and destroyed magic. In this juncture, she decides she needs help from her friends. In this case, given the lack of Spike and Willow, that defaults to Xander and Dawn...
Who have problems of their own.
Andrew now has Dawn hooked up through his neural transfer machine to the Buffybot - the same one we saw in the earlier arc, complete with missing right arm. He asks Xander if he's sure he's willing to go through with it, and promises to build a proper Dawnbot as soon as she's stabilised and no longer in danger. Xander doesn't care about that now: he just wants her to be okay.
Now back to Anaheed and Billy. At this point I want to call out something I noticed about this arc in particular: it's interweaving three different stories at once, all of them separate but still interconnected either thematically (bodies as shells, powerlessness, saving the woman you love through possibly-unethical means) or through plot (Billy trying to discover where Buffy went to). It's well-done, and I like it because it's a move back to the more complex interweaving storylines of S8 instead of the more flat, simplistic narrative structure S9 was slipping into. So credit to the writer.
Anaheed gives Billy the back-story on her revelation of the last issue, that she's a Slayer. She actually was part of the Slayer Army, not a 'feral' Slayer: she was in Rona's squad in Chicago, and had never met Buffy face-to-face previously. Incidentally, that's also the squad that Simone started with, before she was transferred to Andrew's squad in Italy. She was part of a group who stayed loyal to Buffy when the Army broke up, and was given the mission of protecting her. Apparently, not so much protecting her from supernatural threats and monsters - Buffy can handle those herself - as from the perils of "being broke and twenty-something".
I'm not sure if Buffy would be touched and flattered by this demonstration that some of her Slayer followers were still so loyal to her leadership - especially given that she herself thinks she failed so utterly - or insulted by the idea that they thought she needed a babysitter. Probably both.
We also get the news that Tumble is not part of the plot, and Anaheed has been managing his expectations (pretending to 'discover' Buffy's stash of weapons) to get him used to the idea of living with a Slayer.
Meanwhile, Buffy, Illyria and Koh are sneaking into Buffy' apartment to regroup and plan. Illyria looks at herself in the mirror and says, "I should be dead", which Buffy interprets as her feeling suicidal, and rushes over to be supportive and reassuring. It was touching an showed her in a good light.
It's also interesting in terms of the parallel narrative structures I mentioned before. All the sub-plots have people who are worried about a woman who's in trouble, and are taking action to help her out. However there's a difference.
Dawn is in a coma and probably dying, and Xander and Andrew are trying to save her life by transferring her consciousness into a robot.
Severin's girlfriend died, and he's sucking the magical power out of every supernatural entity he can defeat in an attempt to go back in time and stop her from dying.
Buffy lost her position as leader of the Slayer Army and has been drifting in a purposeless manner for half a year or so: Anaheed is secretly keeping an eye on her to make sure she's okay.
Illyria has lost her powers, and Bfufy is trying to comfort her and reassure her, andwork out a way to defeat Severin to get them back.
The crucial difference -whether it's deliberate or not, I'm not sure - is that Buffy is talking to Illyria face-to-face, offering to work with her. All the others are acting on their own account, and not telling the woman they're trying to save what they plan to do. Okay, fair enough, in two of the cases they can't tell her, because she's either dead or in a coma. Even so, symbolically there's a contrast between Buffy's approach and the more paternalistic approach of the others...
On a shallower note, I really loved Buffy's comment at the end of her big pep talk that if Illyria is "feeling self-conscious about the hair", Buffy will see if she can find some blue hair colour for her to use. It's just so perfectly in-character. Buffy's never been ashamed of her priorities.
However, it turns out Illyria isn't suicidal: what she actually meant is more literal. When Severin stole her power, her body - 'the shell', which is to say the body she stole from Fred - should have been left empty and thus dead. But she's still walking and talking, which means something strange is going on. Neither she nor Buffy understands why, but I assume it's going to be significant. Either a flaw in Severin's power which is going to be his weakness, or possibly a more long-term plot point regarding Fred's continuing presence somewhere within Illyria?
After The Fall, if I remember correctly, went with the explanation that there actually is nothing of Fred remaining inside Illyria; that was just unconscious wishful thinking on Illyria's part as she tried to find a place for herself in this strange new world. I'm unsure, though, whether Joss and Andrew C will take that as canon for Season 9 or not.
Notice that the parallel to Dawn's situation is made even more explicit now, with this talk of the real essence of a person being distinct from the shell it's contained within.
At this point Tumble comes in with Buffy's mobile, which she lost, and says Xander has kept trying to call her. I smiled at his assumption about why Buffy has two people (of opposite genders) in her bedroom, both clad in skintight leather suits and one of them obviously a demon, and Buffy's frantic denial when she realises what he's hinting at.
Buffy's phone is a sight to see: it looks like something out of the 1980s, the size of a brick with an extending aerial. Is she deliberately following a retro style? Is she so poor she can't afford a modern mobile? Howev,er it serves its purpose as Buffy learns, finally, about Dawn's illness.
We now see Xander and Andrew looking worried. The procedure for exchanging Dawn's consciousness into the 'bot doesn’t seem to be working. Xander's question, "Whose hand should I be holding?" was rather sweet and touching.
It also made me realise what a fertile ground for exploration via fic this scenario would be, if Andrew's plan worked:
How will Dawn feel about being in a robot body? I suspect 'freaked out' is a natural response, but then again, it's hardly the first time something like this has happened to her. After being a giant, a centaur and a porcelain doll (not to mention a glowing ball of green energy), at least her robot body would be normal human-looking. And it saved her life.
More to the point, how will she feel about being in an anatomically perfect copy of her sister's body? I imagine that would be far more creepy for her, maybe triggering incest taboos if she starts to do anything sexual. Though I don't think she'd complain about having Slayer strength and reaction speed, and I'd be disappointed if she didn’t find something to make sarcastic comments about. (Deciding that Buffy's hair colour doesn’t suit her complexion, maybe, and she's going to do it differently.)
How will Buffy react to Dawn being inside a copy of Buffy's own body? She suddenly has a twin sister. Will she be possessive about the body and try (in vain, of course) to stop Dawn doing things with it?
And what about Xander? His girlfriend now looks identical to Buffy, although her thoughts and memories and feelings are still those of Dawn. That's got to be freaky for him. Will their relationship still be sexual? I can certainly imagine Dawn being concerned or jealous at the idea that Xander would be sleeping with her sister's body even if she's the one in control of it - and new, mature adult!Xander would be concerned, perhaps overly concerned, about giving that impression. (High school Xander would probably be all "wahey!" at the idea, of course, but that's of the past.) On the other hand, swearing celibacy wouldn't be fair to Dawn either, nor to him. And Buffy's own feelings on the matter are unlikely to be overly enthusiastic.
Anyway, back to the comic. Billy has taken the footage from the security cameras in the warehouse, transferred it to an iPad (which is in stark contrast to Buffy's vintage 1980s tech on the page before) and he and Anaheed have gone to Dowling's hospital room to review it.
We discover that the unusually strong and agile zompire they were fighting was indeed, as many people guessed, a former Slayer turned vampire. Anaheed recognises her - she was in the same squad in Chicago as her, but left to become one of Simone's followers. So what happened?
We immediately learn what happened. In a rather horrible scene, we see one of Simone's Slayer followers chained up and pleading with Simone, who's setting a zompire on her to turn her. With a cruel grin, Simone says that, "I'm not going to experiment on myself". At this point she officially steps into supervillain status, I think. Not to mention "criminally insane" status.
Buffy, along with her two companions, has made her way to Andrew's workshop to find out the situation with Dawn. She's stressed and upset; I did like the exchange with Andrew:
"But it's not working. And if we don't figure out why soon... Dawn's going to--"
"If the next words out of your mouth aren't 'Be' and 'okay', preferably in that order, stop talking."
Illyria works out the reason why they can't transfer Dawn's consciousness into the Buffybot: it's because the things going on inside Dawn's head - according to Andrew's instruments - are not brain waves but mystical energy patterns. For the first time in four seasons, the fact that Dawn is the Key actually gets mentioned!
Buffy gives Illyria (and any readers who don't remember) a brief summary of the events of Season 5. I smiled at her reference to "A demon named Glorificus -- who, sidebar, might have run in the same circles you did". Fans have already made the connection but it's good to see Buffy did too.
When she remembers that Dawn was made human so that Buffy would protect her - something she's clearly failed to do, and she didn't even realise Dawn was in trouble because she was off "playing magic police" - she starts crying. Then she gets angry when she thinks Severin might be to blame - and then, horrified, realises that she's the one to blame, because she broke the Seed.
I've discussed this before, of course: the idea that ending magic by breaking the Seed would affect Dawn is logical enough. However, as I saw it she should have vanished with a *poof* the moment the Seed broke, if her existence was magical; or been totally unaffected if she was only created by magic but was now fully human. The idea of her body breaking down gradually didn't really seem to fit the narrative.
Illyria offers the explanation that, "the magic that was left inside her is now fading", and also that the mystical energy is "leaving her body". I suspect that's all we're going to get in terms of explanation. So does that mean all supernatural creatures will also see their internal store of magic fade? Will Slayers gradually become powerless, and vampires lose their powers and eventually turn to dust? Or is this a special feature of the Key alone?
I suppose it's possible that either the magic used to sustain Dawn's body required constant renewal, or the Key itself was linked to the dimensions it unlocked, and drew the power to sustain itself from those dimensions. With magic gone and other dimensions locked away, the magic within Dawn could no longer renew itself, and now after nearly a year it's starting to run dry. It's a fanwank, but I think it works.
If only one of Buffy's friends could arrive now with a powerful internal source of magic, that she was given as a gift on the condition that she shares it with other people who need it! :)
Back to Simone. The Slayer she had chained up previously is now dead, and a zompire. Simone stakes her without releasing her from the chains. At this point Severin comes in and asks her sarcastically if she's "Still playing with vampires?"
It seems that Simone is trying to find some way to make herself more powerful than Buffy - and she's working on the idea that if she has herself turned, she will have both Slayer powers and vampire powers combined. The catch (well, apart from the catch that it's an utterly crazy thing to do!) is that since the Seed broke, all vampires are turning out to be brainless zompires. It seems that Simone is "experimenting" to see if she can find a way to overcome that problem - I assume one idea she had was that Slayers, being supernatural already, might be immune to losing their minds when they're vamped. Clearly not.
On the other hand, given Severin's sarcasm and the fact that that Simone, while clearly being quite intelligent is also seriously lacking in wisdom, it might be that she's just trying the same thing over and over again in the hope of getting a different result. Which is traditionally another sign of madness, of course.
I was a little confused by why Simone called Severin a 'copycat', until I realised she was talking about his hair. She famously dies her hair magenta, and since draining Illyria's power, it seems that Severin now has her blue hair (and eyes, and forehead).
Severin doesn't have enough power yet to travel back through time, and he's frustrated by that. He wants Simone to help him get more, and in return he'll help her with her own ambitions. Uh oh. I'm going to guess here that Simone will betray more of her own Slayer followers to Severin for him to drain their power.
Back to Buffy and Xander for the final scene of the issue, which is a very long one by comics standards (five pages). Xander has gone up to the roof to mope; Buffy follows him up there to apologise for not getting there sooner, and reassure him that they'll find a way to fix it. But when she tries to put a comforting hand over his, he snarls at her and snatches his hand away rather than let her touch him - then starts pounding both fists against the wall until they bleed. (Nice call-out to 'The Body' there.)
Buffy stops him (by force) and asks rhetorically if he thinks this is her fault. He doesn't deny it, and in fact says "I'm not the only one". I wonder if by that he was referring specifically to anyone - Dawn perhaps? Or maybe Willow - or it was just a general comment.
Xander also comments, insightfully, that he thinks Buffy came to talk to him because she's also blaming herself for what's happening to Dawn, and hoped Xander would reassure her that it's really not her fault. Unfortunately, he's not about to do that. He does think it's her fault.
Buffy then gets angry and defensive, and tries to justify herself. The arguments here are interesting to read because they're addressing the same controversies that fandom has been arguing over ever since Season 8 was published. Of course, I think there's one important caveat to bear in mind: neither Buffy nor Xander are being the impartial voice of the narrator here. They both have strong personal biases affecting their interpretation of what happened, and neither can be claimed to be the "official" statement of "what we, as readers, are supposed to be thinking".
So Buffy makes the argument that if she hadn't broken the Seed, "the world would have ended in a blaze of Twilight-fuelled Armageddon". She isn't necessarily correct about that - Willow, for one, would argue that they stood a chance of defeating the demon invasion; and Angel was under the impression they could have saved the people if not the world itself. I can certainly appreciate, though, that from Buffy's point of view she believed she didn't have a choice. She did what she had to do to save the world, and without that, Dawn would have died a year ago along with everyone else in the world.
Xander, however, says that while he's willing to buy that, it's not his real problem here. What he blames Buffy for is not smashing the Seed, but her earlier actions in having outer space sex with Angel and "boning a new universe into existence". Which, yeah, is continuing a trend of Xander thinking he can police Buffy's sex life, and specifically the Angel-related parts of it, which isn't cool: though he perhaps has more justification for his anger here than he did in Season 3.
It's curious that Buffy apparently hasn't previously drawn the connection between her action in jumping Angel and the later apocalypse - or at least Xander accuses her of not having thought it through. He's reduced to tears himself as he repeats that Dawn is now dying because of Buffy's actions. (I actually thought at first that was a close-up of Buffy's face - the right side only - with a tear falling from the eye; then I realised that (a) brown eye, not green (b) black hair, not blond.)
Then I noticed the upper-lip stubble as well. Buffy would hate me at this point. :)
Buffy is still defensive, trying to justify herself by saying things were "out of my control". Given the controversy over the "glow" and consent issues last season, I think Xander's words are worth quoting:
"Yeah, I get it. The universe gave you and Angel so much mystical mojo... neither one of you could keep it in your superpowered pants."
In other words he's putting Buffy and Angel on the same level - both victims of "the universe" - which is more or less how I always saw the situation, but I suspect will not be a universally-popular reading.
Buffy's rejoinder - spoken in what seems a pensive and downcast manner - is that they were caught up in "a prophecy, millennia in the making", and there was a lot going on that she didn't understand at the time. I was fascinated by the way she started to blame Giles, in part, for not warning her: and a furious Xander cut her off before she could complete the thought. I've always thought Giles was at fault for not telling Buffy what was going on, though they did show that he had reasons for his reluctance. I can also see why Xander wouldn't want to hear any criticism of him from Buffy's mouth given that he presumably blames her in part for Giles's death as well.
At this point, Xander's accusations against Buffy become more wide-ranging, revealing a greater depth of bitterness:
"It always starts with you trying to save the world, Buffy. But that doesn't change the fact that every time you save it... somehow the world just keeps getting worse. So you won't blame me if I try to save Dawn without your help. 'Cause right now I can't face things getting any worse than they already are."
Is he being fair? No, I don't think so at all. I can understand his immediate anger, because he's concerned about Dawn. It sounds like he has more general concerns though` - so what are they? Does he now think that Buffy's actions at the end of Season 7, creating the Slayer Army, were a mistake? It resulted in a lot of girls being plunged without their prior agreement into a lifestyle of danger and demon-slaying and death; a lifestyle which Xander had himself become tired of.
Of course, my own counter-argument would be that even if an action has both bad and good results, it would be a cop-out and not morally superior in the slightest to refuse to act at all out of fear of the possible consequences. "I didn't do it, I just failed to prevent it even though I could have done" isn't a moral stance I support. Buffy, however, doesn't try to argue with Xander. She looks stricken, perhaps a little angry and frustrated, and then gets tearful again. However, she wipes away her tears and ends the issue on a determined note. Xander can be as angry with her as he likes, but Buffy isn't going to walk away:
"Dawn's my sister, and you're NOT doing this without me."
So what are they going to do? Sadly it looks like we're not going to get a Dawn-in-Buffy's-(robot)-body situation. I'm guessing the answer will be "Wait for Willow to show up"; but maybe we'll be surprised. There are a lot of separate threads in the story right now, and only a few issues left to draw them all together again...