Always Darkest is a 3-page Season 8 webcomic written by Joss Whedon and painted by Jo Chen, and available for free on the Dark Horse website. Here's the review. But first, some icons:
(8 more below the cut)
The artwork is, as you'd expect from Jo, excellent, Her likenesses of the main characters are superb and all instantly recognisable. The pictures did seem rather simpler than her cover paintings - less detail and texture - but that's only to be expected given the different time constraints three pages of artwork impose as opposed to a single cover. If I have a criticism, it's that the images do sometimes seem a little lacking in energy compared to the normal comic artwork. It's as if the characters were asked to pose and hold still in a particular position for each picture, rather than being captured in the middle of flowing motion. Still, that's only a minor complaint and the artwork is, indeed, very pretty.
So what about the story? Well, I guessed fairly early on that this would be some sort of dream, with Buffy confronting figures out of her past rather than fighting a resurrected Caleb in the here-and-now. Which is not to say, of course, that Twilight might not actually be Caleb, and this is foreshadowing. It might even be a prophetic Slayer dream, although hopefully if so it will be to warn Buffy that Caleb is alive (and that Spike is alive, perhaps?) rather than to warn her that Warren plans to marry her...
Slayer-dream or not, the most important aspect of this story is the insight it gives us into Buffy's current state of mind.
So, she's fighting Caleb - but he tells her that she "can't kill what's inside you." That ties in to her earlier symbolic dream in 'The Long Way Home':
"I can't go outside, I'm afraid of the dark." / "Buffy, you are the dark." / "That's what I meant."
Buffy is afraid she's becoming her own worst enemy. In Twilight's words, she's losing her moral certainty: she's starting to wonder if creating the Slayer Army was a mistake. That she herself is becoming the Big Bad; that she's morally equivalent to Caleb. She blames herself for Simone's Italian rampage and agrees with the homeless child that it's "not fair"; she sees the people of the world turning on the Slayers and regarding them as worse than vampires.Now her subconscious is creating the image of Caleb and he (she) is accusing herself of having him "inside you".
The room where she's fighting Caleb is the same one she saw in the vision in 'Anywhere But Here'; she's also wearing the same clothes and has the same scratches on her arms as in that vision. Which either means that this dream is feeding on or repeating the vision and this scene is still to come later in the season - or that this scene is in fact the fulfillment of that prophecy.
Which would mean that when we spent all that time wondering what "Betrayal. The closest, the most unexpected" would refer to, it was actually a prophecy that Buffy would dream that Spike and Angel preferred each other to her...:-) I kind of like that solution.
Anyway, Buffy's subconscious conjures up her two favourite vampires, and the words she imagines them saying are to accuse her of abandoning them both. Whether that's fair is debatable, but it's entirely likely that Buffy would be feeling guilty about it.
A small detail - Spike isn't wearing the amulet, so Buffy isn't picturing him exactly how he was when she last saw him, but rather a more generic composite memory image.
The next scene is neatly posed so we can't tell if Buffy's "I missed you so much" is directed at Spike, Angel or both. They can't tell either... but they don't really care, since they're into each other far more.
This, of course, is almost certainly Joss's way of poking some gentle fun at the whole Bangel v Spuffy debate whilst continuing to avoid the question of which one she'll end up with - or rather, he tells us that she'll end up with Skinless Warren instead. That last bit is definitely a joke. I hope.
However, if we set aside the meta and take the story on its own terms... we learn (as if it were ever in doubt) that both Spike and Angel are still present in Buffy's thoughts, and she misses them. She doesn't specifically say to Spike "I thought you were dead", so that question is left unanswered - possibly forever. Buffy is ready to admit that she's feeling needy, which seems true enough. Also, though, her subconscious is telling her that she's no longer worthy of them. She's just a dirty girl, and they're very clean boys. It's just another sign that Buffy is no longer confident she's doing the right thing.
Angel calls Buffy a "bottle blonde". Is this finally the confirmation of a question that has baffled fandom ever since Season 1 - whether Buffy is a natural blonde? :-) Unless, of course, Angel was just saying that to wind her up and to flirt with Spike, who is canonically a bottle blond... Notice also another sign that Buffy is a fake - she's presenting a false appearance to the world, and that might not be limited to bleaching her hair.
"What the slashy heck" as an exclamation also implies strongly that Buffy is familiar with slash as a concept. Although since we already saw in 'Chosen' that the idea of Spike and Angel wrestling in oil gets her hot, that's not really a huge surprise. I wonder if she has an LJ, or if she's more a mailing lists and websites kind of girl?
And then we have the big wedding scene reveal. This is obviously over the top - the fact that Buffy is overjoyed at the idea of marrying Warren - slimy bits and all - shows that she's lost control of her dream now. It's proof, though, that she's seeing herself as a monster and a freak, only fit to be seen with other freaks.
Oh, and she blames herself for Tara's death and still feels guilty over it. Which is ironic because Willow also blames herself for Tara's death and feels guilty over it. And the man Buffy is marrying is the one who actually shot her... (And can I just say in passing that the idea of Amber Benson and Adam Busch going out together in real life still completely freaks me out?)
I couldn't recognise all the people in the wedding montage, although I've confidence that the comments to this review will quickly fill in the missing ones, since my flist is clever that way. :-) Still, going clockwise:
Groom: skinless Warren.
Small green demon usher: ?
Best Man: Xander.
Groom's side pews:
Willow, looking odd (is she crying?) and being comforted by Future Dark Willow, whom Buffy killed.
The Judge. Didn't recognise the demon with him.
Clem and either the Invisible Man or the Mummy.
Bride's side pews:
Either Frankenstein's Monster or one of the Munster family?
Don't recognise the green eye demons.
Don't recognise the two boxers.
Spike and Angel's clothes being discarded in the heat of passion.
Don't recognise the two demonic bridesmaids.
Maid of Honour: Tara, complete with bullet wound in her chest.
And finally, the reveal that it was all a dream. And Buffy's apparently been having these nightmares for a while and is fed up about it all. And she eats cereal for breakfast.
Interesting final note - usually, the artwork in "awake" sequences is more realistic and detailed than the artwork in dream sequences when a comic contains both. This one reverses that.
And what about the title? "Always Darkest" is of course the first half of the phrase "Always darkest before the dawn". Which might imply that something significant is about to happen to Buffy's sister, but it's propbably best to assume the more common meaning... This is Buffy at her lowest ebb, her worst self-doubt: she believes that even Spike and Angel would turn away from her now, and she's fit for nothing better than to marry Tara's murderer.
Whether she believes that consciously is another question, of course... despite her insomnia and increasing doubts (as shown in the last few episodes), Buffy seems to be pretty cheerful on the surface. I suspect the message we're supposed to take from this comic is that it's a front; that in her subconscious at least, Buffy is feeling increasingly guilty. The world has turned against the Slayers, and their suffering is all Buffy's fault...