Dear Mr Whedon,
The 6th episode of 'Firefly' was called 'Safe'. And now the 168th episode of 'Buffy' is also called 'Safe'. You're going to confuse people this way. Please stop it.
"Remember who you were, Rupert. A Watcher. You've always sent Slayers to their deaths."
Something worthy of note about this particular episode called 'Safe' is that Buffy doesn't appear in it at all, not even in a cameo. There's only been one other episode of which that's true - and interestingly, in both 'Safe' and 'The Chain', while Buffy herself doesn't appear another character does get mistaken for her. However, in 'The Chain' Joss was making a serious point about heroism and fame, by contrasting the egotistical Simone with the self-sacrificial protagonist, who doesn't even tell us her name but is content to die knowing she's done her duty. In 'Safe' the question of identity is apparently thrown off as a joke, with no attempt at deep symbolism... but in fact, it sets the scene for an issue in which lies, deceit and fake identity are fundamental to the storyline. If there is a moral, it's that attempting to hide away from life's problems doesn't work, and in the end you have to face them head-on.
Another noticeable thing about this episode is that it's only tangentially related to the main season arc. We're shown another side to the story, and another insight into the place of Slayers in this world, but the story, its villains and its resolution are all remarkably self-contained. This is very much a standalone, monster-of-the-week episode - but having said that, it's a very good one, with a plot that is genuinely creepy and disturbing.
The opening scene starts with yet more proof that newbie Slayers have a tendency to miss the heart the first time they try to stake a vampire... Buffy did it, here Courtney does it, and we'll later learn that Faith did it too. The vampire chasing her does give us a small connection to the overall arc, as he claims that "Everybody wants to be a vampire now" (the "n-" then "-ow" of that last word as he's staked is a nice touch.)
Incidentally, someone on Whedonesque complained that the whole of Season 8 is now ruined for him because the poster in the background says "Octoberfest" instead of "Oktoberfest".
Courtney's words as she flees are significant in light of one of the recent debates in the fandom - whether the hundreds of women endowed with superpowers after 'Chosen' have the option of just ignoring them and leading a normal life. This page seems to imply not; Courtney cries that she "quits", that she "never even wanted to be chosen". However, we soon learn that this isn't accurate: Courtney actually left her Slayer squad because she got bored with training and wanted to dive straight into the vamp-slaying action. She's an over-enthusiastic Slayer who panicked when it wasn't as easy as she thought it would be, not someone who genuinely hates what happened to her.
The teaser for this issue ended on Courtney saying to Faith, "Oh my God, you're her! You're Buffy!" which was, of course, a real cliffhanger. Happily Faith is now mature enough to take such comments almost in her stride, with only a snide remark which is possibly the funniest line in the comic ("She's calling me names, G.") Mind you, Cliff Richards' art makes Faith look alternately sulky or miserable pretty much all through the comic; I'm not sure how deliberate that's supposed to be.
Faith and Giles have clearly established a decent working partnership - although there's no evidence they're sleeping together, which was a conclusion a few people leaped to after an incautiously-worded reference in the pre-publicity to them as "bedmates". Looks like it was just metaphorical - although mind you, Courtney does say they have an old-married-couple vibe at times. Also, Giles now shares with Buffy the honour of having Faith refer to him by his initial...
Now we get the reveal of the mysterious 'Slayer Sanctuary', a legendary place where Slayers who "don't want to be Chosen" can take shelter. However, Courtney explains that the rumour of its existence has spread among Slayers who already joined up with Buffy's Slayer Army, but now want to drop out of the battle and go somewhere with no vampires or demons at all. So there's still no conclusive evidence either way of whether Slayers who never got into the life in the first place can lead a normal routine.
My second favourite line of the issue is Faith's deadpan "Yay. Let's bond." when Courtney gets all gushy and enthusiastic because she's actually heard of Faith too. Courtney is quite an interesting character on paper, though I suspect she'd be quite wearing in real life. :-)
Amazingly enough, there apparently are some steam locomotives still in service in the wilder, more tourist-infested areas of Germany - so it's remotely possible the image of Faith, Giles and Courtney riding through the mountains in a steam train is accurate, rather than a kitsch and clichéd American view of Old Europe. The sight of the horde of vampires lurking in the forest outside the town, on the other hand, was genuinely atmospheric and scary. Though I wonder where they go in daytime...
Interesting character insight into Faith; she doesn't want to force the Slayers who've found sanctuary back into the fight, because it's "their call"; and she's rather taken aback when Courtney claims Faith inspired her. Also, I notice that Faith has now used the expression several people in fandom have been using to refer to the newbies: "baby Slayers".
And now we discover that another Watcher survived the First's slaughter of them, and is apparently now running the town. The meal in the town hall is suitably creepy and awkward, fitting the horror theme of the issue. Fillworthe's speech about the general public now hating and fearing Slayers is another example of us being told that every hand is lifted against them, rather than being shown it... but in the writers' defence, we'll soon learn that he's hardly a disinterested witness. More insight into Faith's backstory: she ran away from home "first chance she got"; and she also reveals that she no longer seethes with resentment at people who aren't suitably grateful for what Slayers do for them.
Even more creepiness: the lack of any children in the town. Faith remains as perceptive about potential traps as she was in 'Dirty Girls', but goes in anyway (just as she did then). And then we get Faith's flashback to the first time she met vampires, when she was still young and cocky... and even though one got away, she still equalled Buffy's first time score (two dusted). Apparently, the one who did escape has been preying on her conscience ever since, as she wonders how many people he killed, how many new vampires he sired... and his gloating also points to her fear that the new Slayers will be better at it than she ever was.
And then it's revealed that this is all an illusion in her head, and there's a demon feeding on the guilt and regret she's feeling. That's not a new idea for the Buffyverse: the "Hansel and Gretel" demon in 'Gingerbread' and the paranoia demon in 'Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been...' did something very similar. (And note the name of this town.) Eventually, Faith imagines herself being bitten, and collapses unconscious. The demon then turns on Courtney, spinning her the illusion that her parents have reunited.
Meanwhile, Giles is telling Fillworthe that his sanctuary is a dead end. Its existence is known to the vampires, and by telling Slayers they can hide here from the world's problems Fillworthe is merely making them incapable of dealing with them. That, if anything, could be the moral of this episode. There's an interesting aside comparing vampires to children; they are both creatures of pure need unable to internalise their pains and hungers. Then Fillworthe reveals his evil master plan... presumably he thinks Giles will sympathise with it because they were both Watchers. Both trained to treat Slayers as a disposable asset to be expended in order to protect the rest of humanity... and that's what Fillworthe has been doing. It's quite ingenious, really: lure Slayers to the town with lies about a sanctuary, feed them to the demon because it finds children (and teenage Slayers) tastier than adults; and also preserve the town safe from vampires because the demon finds them just as delicious as children.
The really creepy bit is the revelation that the townsfolk fed their own children to the demon even before Fillworthe came along with his plan. I wonder how long it had been going on? Also, Fillworthe talks about vampires slaughtering the Watchers' Council, which seems like a continuity glitch - surely that was Caleb and the Bringers? Still, it can be reconciled if we either assume Caleb used vampires as his agents as well as Bringers, or (more likely) if Fillworthe is referring to a different event, in which those Watchers who survived Caleb's blowing up of their HQ were then hunted down by vampires who saw an opportunity for revenge on their age-old rivals. Certainly Fillworthe is seething with resentment against Slayers for their crime of abandoning the wise guidance and leadership of the Council, which suggests he's thinking of something that happened after 'Chosen'.
When Giles rejects Fillworthe's overture of friendship, it looks like the other Watcher switches to plan B: throw the most hurtful and vicious words he can at Giles in order to fill him with regret and thus turn him into a tasty demon snack. At first I thought that the line "Your Buffy! Think of what she's done to you!" was about to introduce an update on exactly why she and Giles are now estranged, but it turned out to be nothing of the sort; instead, Fillworthe was raking up events of seven years previously, of Buffy and Angel and Jenny's death. Giles certainly runs out of the room, but I think Fillworthe misjudged his man; Giles may still regret what happened to Jenny, but not to the extent of letting it overcome his judgement. He runs off to save Faith from the demon, and its lure apparently has no effect on him.
Courtney is apparently filled with regret because she thinks she was the cause of her parents splitting up; that she "ruined everything." It's not clear at first, but the demon not only has dozens of squirming tentacles but also a huge mouth lined with teeth. It's slowly dragging Courtney towards that mouth when Giles bursts in. What I assume is that it broadcasts the psychic illusions both Faith and Courtney experienced, and enjoys absorbing the regret and misery they experience as a result; but it also needs to feed on living flesh. Presumably it tried Faith first, but she didn't feel enough regret because she's all redeemed now; then it grabbed Courtney and found her guilt more tasty. As Giles arrives it's spinning out the process of eating her to make sure it extracts maximum yummy goodness from her angst first.
I'm guessing the demon is not meant to be a parody of one Mr Joss Whedon and his approach to storytelling, is it? :-)
Then in comes Fillworthe, hoping to make sure Giles gets eaten too. I did find the resulting fight scene a little too pat. Faith jumps up, back in the fight all too conveniently at the right moment. Maybe the demon can only concentrate on a limited number of victims at once, and had to release her from its illusions because of the new people present? (/fanwank) She knocks Fillworthe into the middle of the tentacles, and Giles gets Courtney free. The reversal as Fillworthe first says
Then Faith kills the demon, showing impressive lateral thinking by stabbing it with the metal arm of her crossbow. At first I was a little disappointed by this too - she just looked to be hitting a random tentacle, so why should that kill it? But then I realised she stabs it in its central node just over its mouth, presumably where its brain is located. So I'll forgive that one. :-)
Then the final scene, which is a pretty cool one for Faith, as the vampires see that the demon has died and come swarming in towards the town. Courtney is all in favour of letting the townspeople die - they did, after all, sacrifice their children to the demon then lure Slayers to the same ugly death. But Faith has come to appreciate human life rather more than she once did, and her line here is as good a summing up of her new philosophy as any I've heard:
"We're Slayers, and we don't let people die. Not even crappy ones. You people wanna live? Then you fight."
It's a huge horde of vampires that's about to attack the town... but that final shot of Faith, Courtney, Giles and the townspeople leaves me in no doubt about who will win...
On a separate note, I was amused to see that the letters column in this issue covered four whole pages, because Scott was publishing the correspondence related to issue 8.12 (the one where Buffy sleeps with Satsu for the first time). I was pretty pleased to see he printed the negative letters as well as the positive ones, although I shake my head at some of the sentiments expressed. I also wondered if one letter was a parody, when it said this:
"Xander deserves Buff just like every nice guy dreaming of his hot best friend deserves her love. Did Joss actually watch his own show? More than once Buffy made it clear that lesbian sex was icky to her. Stop slaughtering your characters for the sake of promoting alternate lifestyles."
Come on, Scott. That was an April Fool's Day wind-up, wasn't it?
(Oh, and I LOL'd at Scott's final sign-off comment, about the cover to next month's issue. ;-) )