One thing we've learned about Buffy over the years is that the qualities she finds attractive in a potential lover include (a) being over 200 years old, (b) being evil. So with this in mind, let's take a look at issue 17 of Season 8...
Apparently the opening sequence confused a few people when it was released as a teaser, so just to make it clear: the dark-haired girl with purple highlights is Melaka Fray, and the blonde driving the flying bike is her older sister Erin. Not Buffy. Though to be fair, the only clue we get as to who she is in this issue is that Mel calls her "sis"; you'd need to have read the Fray comic to know she's actually Sergeant Erin Fray of the Haddyn Police. Also, this scene evidently takes place as a flashback before the confrontation between Mel and Buffy at the end of issue #16.
It's an interesting scene. Apparently future vampires build their nests inside flying vans - we later learn this was Harth's idea. The Scythe is capable of peeling the side of the van right open. And even more disturbingly, the police of the future apparently have the authority to shoot down passenger vehicles with giant ground-mounted plasma beams... It took me a while to figure out that image; it's a giant statue of a bearded man protected by a forcefield, and the beam that blew up the van was fired from out of it. The statue looks rather like Jesus, and the plasma blast looks like a bolt of lightning from his hand destroying the suspected criminals (without benefit of any trial or due process) - which makes me wonder if 'Fray' is supposed to be a satire of what the USA will be like if the Christian Conservatives maintain power for the next two centuries...
Mel's living accommodation, and the four-armed demon monkey, come from 'Tales of the Slayers'. I don't know what's behind the name, but given that both Starbucks and Microsoft are based in Seattle, maybe the Watchers' Diaries record Bill Gates as a member of the Council.... Then again, the Watchers all went stark staring mad in Fray's world.
And then we get introduced to the third member of the Fray family, Harth - Mel's twin brother, who was turned by a vampire at the age of 15 and is gifted with the Slayer's precognitive dreams and shared memories. It seems he's sending out vans full of vampires to capture victims, turn them and spread them all through North America (Noram). Judging by what appears to be the Brooklyn Bridge behind him in one picture, he's still based in New York.
And then we have his companion... I'll discuss the implications of who she is at the end, when the big reveal comes. (Spoiler: it's Willow.) But it seems here that Joss is trying to trick us into assuming she's Drusilla, given her black lace and Victorian-style skirts and weird speech. Although I've got to say that she's a lot more coherent than Dru would be, which kinds of gives away that it's not her. "The princess leaves her kingdom for the forest of the now" is poetic, but the meaning is perfectly clear; Buffy has left her world, where she's in charge, and come to their present day.
Trying to make sense of what they say: Harth has the communal Slayer memories, and he has dreamed about being Buffy and fighting Willow. This is probably a reference to 'Two To Go', but might possibly be about something yet to happen in the Season 8 continuity. Calling Buffy the 'Slayer of Slayers' is ambiguous: does he mean she is the epitome and paragon of Slayerhood, or the person who destroys the Slayer line?
We learn that Willow has deliberately engineered this meeting between Buffy and Melaka, because she believes that Slayers do not gain strength from each other. That's a hell of a thing to say: and it contradicts what Xander was telling Buffy in 'A Beautiful Sunset' about the immense sense of connection and purpose all the other Slayers (except her) felt. What led Willow to this conclusion is still a mystery so far - as, of course, is the question as to who is right and who's wrong.
Finally, Willow tells Harth that the events she's engineered here in the 23rd Century will result in the creation of the Frayverse: demons and magic banished from the world for two centuries, and only one Slayer again instead of hundreds of them.
Aaand... back to present-day Willow, who is of course ignorant of what her future self has been getting up to. But she's feeling guilty anyway, because she's Willow. She's worked out that she led Buffy into a trap. She told her about the temporal event thingie, and brought her to Manhattan, just in time for her to be sucked through a time portal into the far future. Of course, she doesn't know that it was her own future self who set that trap, and that its result could be the elimination of the entire Slayer Army.
So. "Betrayal. The closest, the most unexpected", anyone? Willow just met the requirements in full. (Although that's not to say that someone else close and unexpected won't also betray Buffy. Maybe it'll be like 'Murder on the Orient Express'?)
And now, back to Castle Slayer. Apparently Warren's mystical missile didn't utterly destroy it, and we don't have a hundred dead Slayers - although we do have at least seven of them dead, and all the electronic gizmos are apparently blown up. So it's a major defeat and a tragedy rather than the utter catastrophe I was kind of expecting. Since we all expected Renee to somehow survive her impalement back in 'Wolves At The Gate', but she died, maybe Joss thought he'd reached his quota of major character deaths for the time being? It meant he could get away with having this incident being less comprehensively fatal than it otherwise would have been.
I notice that Leah is being carried off, apparently unconscious, in one panel; and Rowena looks like a scared little kid until Xander puts a boot up her arse and gets her moving. I'm not quite sure why Xander didn't just follow her down the tunnel, even though he was injured - couldn't Rowena have carried him? But instead we get Dawn to the rescue, which is cool. And gives her some agency, and a heroic role, and an opportunity for smutty innuendo, so it's all good.
Brief interlude with the Fray sisters. What Mel says is both fascinating and inconsistent: that 'The madwoman's power reached through time and transformed the last Slayer.' So first, we seem to have confirmation that Buffy was the last Slayer before the 200-year gap - although she's not actually named here. Secondly, the Watchers seem to have recorded that Buffy was transformed into a demon... but in fact, 21st-century Willow and Kennedy and the others have already worked out that the demon isn't a transformed Buffy, but that they've swapped places. Either we're dealing with two separate timelines, or those records were falsified.
Back to present-day Manhattan; and although it's not spelled out for us, it seems that Willow has interrogated the demon using her telepathy, and discovered what happened to it - at least from its perspective. And she comments that whoever set this trap has way more power than her.
Let's just repeat that for full effect: Willow just said that someone else has way more power than she does. Well, obviously; her opponent has had 200 more years to learn and grow... :-)
Liked the Vi/Willow interchange about pasties. Maybe Willow was hungry, and it was Freudian? Also, it seems to be implied here that Saga Vasuki's warning was innocent; she herself was fooled by Future!Willow, rather than playing a sinister role in this. But I'm guessing we'll hear more about all that later...
The interchange between Buffy and Mel gives us this issue's quota of humour. I particularly loved the irony of Buffy, of all people, complaining about someone else's idiosyncratic use of the English language. In fact, she seems at one point to be blaming herself for the linguistic drift, which I think is a sly bit of metahumour by the writer.
Mel's Scythe is now an identical mirror of Buffy's - in earlier artwork it was drawn all in red without a silver blade, but apparently that was just a continuity glitch rather than something meaningful. Also, it seems that having two copies of the Scythe touch each other does not destroy the entire universe in a huge antimatter implosion, which I'm sure is a relief for all concerned.
So Buffy's mental image of New York was a vast Bladerunner-esque urban dystopia? Figures. It's also interesting - not to mention dripping with dramatic irony - that Buffy describes Willow here as "my best friend" and assumes she'll have a prominent role in the history books. Despite their recent distancing it's nice to know Buffy still feels that way about her. Wonder if she'll still feel that way by the end of the arc?
The fact that there's only one Slayer again in the 23rd century hits Buffy hard. Of course she'd assume there would be crowds of them; and now she's got to be wondering what happened to all the others. How they lost. Also, notice how she admits that in her time the Slayer Army is "flying blind" and the first thing she wants to ask Mel is advice on how to organise them? I'd kind of suspected all that before, of course, but it's nice to see Buffy say it openly.
When we met Gunther in the Fray comics, he kept nagging Mel to wear a skirt when she came to visit him. Looks like she forgot to warn Buffy that he's a massive fishy perv... He also seems familiar with magic, even if he doesn't trade in it, which shows he's got his finger on the pulse of events considering magic has only just recently returned to the Frayverse.
At this point, future shock finally catches up with Buffy as it sinks in where she is, and what happened in the past. And all the way across town, Willow can sense her thoughts.
I'm not entirely sure what Harth's plan is; he's clearly amassed a large army of vampires and says that a battle is coming. Presumably Buffy and Mel will be in the thick of this, and it's all been engineered by Willow.
Who is revealed to us in the final panel. I'd already guessed it would be her given that Scary Veiny Willow is on the cover of the next issue. She looks kind of sad and world-weary here, rather than angry or vengeful. Though obviously she's completely soaked in dark magics, given that she's preserved herself alive and still young-looking for over two centuries...
So what happened? So far, it's a huge mystery. Is present-day Willow set on a sinister path even now, playing with dark magics again and getting sucked in by them? Is she already evil? Or will some huge, traumatic event occur in the future of Season 8, forcing her to change direction? (Kennedy, if I were you, I'd take out life insurance and get your affairs in order now...) Or maybe Willow will come to believe she made a huge mistake helping Buffy to create all the other Slayers, and is trying to reverse it. We've already see her express grave doubts about the path Buffy is following, and maybe they'll get worse and turn sour.
Future!Willow still seems to be fond of Buffy and to regret what she's about to do. On the other hand, she's apparently not got a problem allying with a vampire, and we saw a scene of innocent victims being gathered. She's either actively evil, or utterly amoral.
Minor point: in Fray's world, all the magic was lost for two centuries. So how did Willow use magic to stay alive? I'm guessing one of (a) She was just too powerful for the magic drain to affect her (b) She hid in another dimension, or shielded herself somehow (c) She was actually responsible for the loss of magic, so of course she was immune to its effects. Maybe she even sucked up all the magic in the world into herself, like in Season 6 but on a far larger scale, which is why she's so powerful now...
And now she seems to be trying to engineer that - by bringing Buffy to the future, she will somehow eliminate all magic except her own from the world. The mechanics of this aren't yet clear. What is clear is that Future!Willow seems to have compatible goals with Twilight... to the extent that Scott Allie made a comment in his editorial to remind us that Twilight appears to be male, so probably isn't Willow. Even so...
TWILIGHT: Have your Slayers helped change anything in this world? Have they helped you? (#11)
WILLOW: Vampires gain strength from each other. Slayers, ultimately, don't. (#17)
I've avoided speculating on Twilight's true identity up to now, but I'm going to stick my neck out here. It's future!Xander, kept alive by the same magic Willow used to stay alive all those years - then sent back in time by her to carry out that end of their plan. He's in alliance with her, and is an enemy of Buffy for the same reason future!Willow is. Also, his flying boots use the same technology those flying cars in the Frayverse use.
Remember, Twilight doesn't want to kill Buffy: he thinks she made a mistake creating all the Slayers, and that the world will be a better place without magic or demons or Slayers or any of it. I can imagine a bitter, disillusioned Xander coming to that conclusion, especially after Renee's death, and the destruction of the Slayer castle this issue, and whatever else Joss has planned for the next 23 issues...
I'll probably be proved utterly wrong, but hey. For that matter, I'm assuming that future!Willow is being honest with Harth, rather than playing him for some greater scheme of her own, but that may turn out not to be the case.
Do we really have to wait a month to find out what happens next? In particular:
What is future!Willow's plan?
How will Buffy react when she meets her?
How will Buffy tell present-day Willlow what the future holds in store for her, and how will she react?
Hopefully, this warning would be enough to turn Willow onto a different path and make her dark future never happen... but if the story Joss is telling turns out to be a classical tragedy, then her attempts to avoid this fate will actually make it inevitable...