Season Eight is now exactly halfway-finished, and this issue marks that in an appropriate way. It's not full of important action or arc-heavy plottiness - although there is one very important conversation - but it does give us what some people have been demanding for months. An introspective look inside Buffy's head, and the way she sees her life and her place in it at the moment. As such, I thought it was a nice change of pace, although I can understand some people being disappointed at the lack of earth-shattering revelations. Personally, I'd have preferred it if the issue had addressed Buffy's recent series of grey moral decisions more directly - although I have to say that what 8.20 does do is prove that at least in her own head, Buffy is still the hero saving the world from evil.
Also, notice in that in the 'Previously' blurb it mentions Buffy "breaking a Slayer's heart". I assume that's a reference to Satsu, but I can't say she looked especially heartbroken when we last saw her. As she said herself, "Nah. I'm tough." Still, we'll be catching up with her in a couple more issues so we'll hopefully get to see how she thinks about Buffy now.
The opening sequence is very well-drawn, full of powerful action and emotion - and Buffy's threat on the title page ("all blechy") is perfect for her. Notice also how her narration mirrors the opening monologue from 'The Long Way Home' - not the last time this issue will recall the opening story of the season. I'm not entirely sure on the timing or location of this episode, given that last month Xander and Dawn were outside the ruins of the castle in Scotland and Buffy and Willow were in New York. Clearly they've got back together again, so some time has elapsed: but Buffy is still clearly traumatised by killing Willow, so it can't be that much later. (2maggie2 also points out that Buffy's constant refrain of "Can't say I didn't warn you" as she kills the demons might also be a reference to her killing Willow and wondering if she ought to warn present-day Willow of what she will become.)
As for where they are: they're apparently all staying in some sort of château somewhere. It looked vaguely South German to my eyes, although it also could be a modern fake anywhere in the world. By the look of the bedroom - with a folded bed next to the one Buffy's lying in, and a rolled up mattress on the other side - I'm guessing that everybody has had to cram into a space far too small for them; probably one of the headquarters of the other Slayer squads.
Buffy/Xander shippers are, I suspect, going to be delighted by the fact that she fell asleep in his bed (without realising it). Given all the bedding scattered around, though, I suspect that they're all sleeping in the same room and Buffy just couldn't be bothered to unfold or unroll her own bed. Or she forgot which was her room and wandered half-asleep into the one he is sharing with at least two other people instead.
Also, notice that Buffy's first thought is that Dawn might be in trouble. And that this is more serious than an apocalypse, because after all Xander would only have woken her for something important...
And then we get Buffy's dream. On seeing the preview, I wondered if the Season 1 interlude was going to be some form of time travel or parallel universe, but it turns out to be a dream, pure and simple. The art style, for anyone who didn't already know, is based on the abortive 'Buffy: the Animated Series' TV cartoons from a few years ago. This was going to be set during Season 1 in the timeperiod following the episode 'Angel' (so Buffy knows he's a vampire and has kissed him, but isn't yet in a full-scale relationship with him). In fact the basic plot of this issue, with the dragon, is also based on the never-broadcast pilot episode of the cartoon. Even some of the dialogue is the same.
Some people on seeing the preview questioned why Buffy didn't try to warn people about all the disasters to follow over the next seven and a half seasons and try and change the future. That; of course, turns out to be the central point of the episode; but initially, it's clear that she simply knows that this is nothing but a dream. She's angry with her subconscious at first for tormenting her with images of her dead mother, but then decides to accept the fantasy and enjoy it for what it is while she can.
The fact that this is a dream also explains why Dawn's there in season 1; and Buffy's line "You're just little. Really, really... when were you ever this little?" made me smile a lot. Though I did wonder why every member of the Summers family has dramatically differently-coloured eyes... (Yes, yes, I know the real reason why.) I also got a kick out of the exaggerated, cartoony expressions people get: Buffy's blissful smile as she hugs Joyce, Dawn's sulk as she's told to go and finish her breakfast, Buffy's rapidly-changing expression as she realises her Mom doesn't know she's the Slayer yet and has to think of an explanation for what she said. (Which is actually quite a good one, for her.)
Remember when Cordelia used to be Queen Bitch of Sunnydale? I saw a complaint about the preview that her tormenting Willow here was too drawn-out and calculated, rather than being just a bitchy remark in passing; but I don't get that myself. It's no different, really, from her "Willow! Nice dress!" routine in 'Welcome To The Hellmouth'. As for Buffy's comeback about "Maybe someday she'll be dead", that sparked off even more criticism. Personally I agreed,myself, that it was a pretty harsh thing to say - although not actually unusual compared to some of the other insults Cordelia and the Scoobies flung at each other back then: how may times did Xander accuse her of dressing like a hooker, again? But I think the important point is the emphasis: maybe she'll be dead. As opposed to you being dead because I just stabbed you through the heart with the Scythe.
Look at Willow gazing up at Buffy as she squeezes her shoulder and tell me Season 1 Willow didn't have a crush on Buffy. :-) That, of course, is backed up by perhaps my favourite line from the issue: "Oh, that's right. You like... and you're not... well, you probably are... but not..." Also, yay for the explanation of why we never saw Xander's skateboard again after the opening episode; and notice how it's Buffy who pushes Willow to safety?
The next scene touches on the real point of this issue, in my opinion. Buffy just is relaxing and enjoying being with her friends, no cares or responsibilities in the world. As she says, her Season 8 self has almost forgotten what that was like. As for Giles, his scene was fun but, I felt, a little bit of a caricature. And we didn't get any insight into Buffy's modern-day feelings about him, except that she clearly isn't very glad to see him or feeling particularly bondy with him. We do get the incident with the stake, which presumably is there to show that in Season 1 Buffy's relative lack of training made her clumsier and less coordinated. Incidentally, is it significant that the stake hits her on the forehead just about where Spike's scar is, and she says "That's gonna leave a mark"?
Slaying the disciples of Morgan Freeman is exactly the kind of action I encourage. It's a nice action sequence - I loved Buffy kicking the door off its hinges, Xander's commentary, Giles' expression - at first dubious, then pleased at Buffy's performance, then annoyed at Xander's joking - and above all the adorable reactions of Willow as she peeps through her fingers and covers her mouth in terror. She's come a long way since Season 1...
That's not the meaning of 'S, S and S' that I'm familiar with.
Buffy gets the opportunity to vent her Season-8 frustration to somebody for what I'm guessing is the first time in pretty well ever. (She's complained about it to Xander but didn't get the opportunity to shout at him...). Her final scene with Joyce is both funny and touching, providing the other side of the coin. Buffy knows she can't go home again, so she's going to enjoy it while she can.
And then we have the scene with Angel (who seems to have borrowed Spike's red t-shirt in Buffy's dream). Her reaction is interesting. It's clear that she still finds Angel very attractive on a physical level, and she can feel herself slipping into nostalgia for the simpler time "before she knew he was Angelus". But her conscious mind rejects that, and she angrily tells herself off for wanting to succumb to those feelings again. "We were never really good at this. Lots of the other stuff, but not so much the talking stuff..." is the voice of an adult woman looking back at her first teenage crush, not the voice of someone who's still OMGinluv 4eva with Angel.
Angel's petty reaction to Buffy's "You've lived for like a million years" was a perfect character moment. (And it's interesting that, if we remember that this is all a dream, it's presumably Buffy's subconscious that's writing Angel's dialogue, rather than him saying it. In other words, that's how *she* expects him to react to a comment like that).
And then we get what, from the plot perspective, is the key moment of the issue:
"If you knew something about someone's past.. and ... future... would you tell them?"
"Probably not. You can't change a person's past. And just be telling them, you'll change their future into who knows what."
At first glance it might seem she's wondering whether to warn him about the Gypsy curse; but I think it's clear that it's actually Willow she's worried about. Should she warn her that she's going to go dark, live for two hundred years then die at Buffy's hands? Angel's advice is no, she shouldn't. Attempting to change the future using foreknowledge could have all sorts of unforeseen consequences, and might easily make matters worse, not better.
Jumping off tall buildings is an Angel thing, not a Buffy thing. Here we see why. :-) The scene of her replaying her memory of the conversation like a videotape is very funny, especially when her libido tries to interpolate missing parts of the scene and she gets angry at it. But then we get the second important part of Buffy's characterisation. Yes, she's enjoying a holiday from being Supreme Leader of the Slayer Army, just relaxing and going to parties with her friends. But even in a dream, when danger threatens Buffy feels she has no choice but to fulfil her duty as Slayer. Her sense of obligation is overpowering.
Doesn't Willow look happy when Buffy's shoe drops down from heaven and hits Cordelia on the head? And the dragon disappearing in mid-air with Buffy sat on it is pretty funny too. (Is that the other shoe dropping, with Buffy still inside it?)
And then she wakes up. And yeah. It was all a dream.
Apparently it was a really, really short dream as well. Which brings us back to the episode title - 'After these messages (that Buffy heard in her dream)... we'll be right back (to reality).'
Buffy's dream clearly left her all hyper, much to the confusion and disturbance of her friends. It's significant, though, that just as she was really glad to see them in their earlier incarnations, she's equally glad to see them in their modern forms. Buffy's repetition of "And you were there" is a homage to Dorothy's last scene in 'The Wizard of Oz', as Willow clearly recognises by her reference to Toto. (And if Buffy here is Dorothy, does that make Willow a friend of Dorothy?)
As befits such an introspective episode - although it's not otherwise really a BtVS stable- the issue ends with Buffy summing up what she's learned. Which is a pretty simple lesson, really - yes, her earlier life was simple and uncomplicated and she had close friends she cared about. But she also had her duty. And here in Season 8, things may be more complex but the important things are still there. She's still got her friends. And her responsibilities still interfere with her life - but no worse than they did back then.
Last issue, Riley accused Buffy of 'living in the past'. I don't think that's actually accurate, but it does contain a small sliver of truth. Buffy has been discontented with her current life because she's comparing it to happier times in the past. "I miss my Mom. I miss the gang. And churros. And sex." Well, she's now met her mother again, thanks to this dream. Willow's back from her mystical walkabout and Dawn is, while still transformed, at least small enough to fit inside the house again, so the gang are together. And she's even had sex, thanks to Satsu. I don't think she's had a churro recently, though, so things are still not perfect. :-) But it does look like Buffy is starting to get her groove back.