Issue 26 of a 40-issue comic run is roughly equivalent, in terms of timing, to episode 13 or 14 of a 22-episode season. That's almost always the big turning point, the moment when the battlelines are drawn up and people choose sides. It's the point in the season where Angel loses his soul, Faith kills the Deputy Mayor, and Adam kills Maggie Walsh. Dawn finds out she's the Key and Warren changes from amusing nerd to misogynistic murderer. In Season 7 it's the episode where Willow and Kennedy become a couple, which doesn't quite fit the pattern but is certainly a moment where battlelines were drawn up and people chose sides. :-)
In Season 8, the pattern is repeated. Early on I compared the storytelling technique Joss is using to a jigsaw puzzle; he's laying down the pieces one by one, and at first it's hard to see how they connect. But gradually the picture is filled in - and now I'd say it's almost complete. There are a few surprises yet to come, of course - most notably Twilight's identity - but this episode conveys a definite feeling that now the pieces are finally all on the board, and it's time for the game to begin. And yes, I realise that's a mixed metaphor. :-)
I liked this issue. The last arc contained some good stand-alone episodes, but I felt the pacing dropped off because there were too many of them in a bunch. With 'Retreat', though, things definitely seem to have picked up again.
Incidentally, the introductory blurb at the front of the comic now specifically mentions that Riley Finn is allied to Twilight. I wonder how significant it is that Scott felt he had to make sure we remembered that fact? Also, the Jeanty cover shows Leah and Rowena fighting alongside the rest of the gang (from left to right: Satsu, Leah, Giles, Xander, Andrew, Dawn, Buffy, Willow, Faith, Rowena, Kennedy) but they don't actually appear in the pages of this comic.
Anyway, on to the comic. I actually thought at first that Willow had transformed the entire Slayer squad into a flock of seagulls... which would be an appropriate choice, at least for people who remember the 80s. But no, it's just her and Buffy sneaking in under the radar with some real birds for cover. There's an interesting titbit of information slipped in here too: nowadays, "people notice flying witches". That implies that until recently they didn't; that Willow could zoom around happily in the assumption that anyone who noticed her would think they were imagining things, and forget it. But now people know the supernatural exists, and the shield of denial has been shattered.
I still suspect Twilight has something to do with this, and it's not entirely because of Harmony's TV show. But maybe it is...
There was a lot of debate over whether Willow had simply cast an illusion on herself and Buffy to fool prying eyes, or whether she'd actually shapechanged them into a bird and a fish. Personally I can't see that it matters much; but witches taking on animal form or changing other people into animals is one of the most common types of magic in the book, so I'm leaning that way. Also? If you can accept a woman turning into a seagull, I'd think you could accept a woman turning into a talking seagull... but apparently that extra detail also confounded some people. 'Reverse mermaid' was funny.
I'm not exactly sure where this Slayer base is meant to be. A castle by the sea on a peninsula is vaguely reminiscent of Tintagel, and the architecture looks European... but given the submarine and the presence of Satsu, maybe they're back in Japan, or Korea. It probably doesn't matter because they're not staying long.
(ETA: I missed the significance of Willow's later line about "every demon in Scotland" - apparently, they're still in Scotland. Satsu must have sailed the submarine around the world.)
Kennedy being all snuggly with Willow was cute to see, and I liked her suggested reason as to why Buffy is being all clingy. The real reason, of course, is because Buffy killed Willow in 'Time Of Your Life'. When I first saw this scene I assumed she was just concerned generally for Willow's health out of a sense of guilt. Having seen the end of the comic, though, it's now clear to me that she has a more direct worry - she's afraid that Willow's constant use of magic is pushing her back onto the path that will end up with 200-year old Dark Willow.
Also, I have to admit it took me a moment to recognise the woman standing with Xander, until I remembered - oh yeah, Dawn's back to her normal size and shape again. She and Xander do seem awfully close, don't they? :-)
Buffy's big master plan is to hide and wait for everybody to go away. There's nothing specifically wrong with that, but it's not exactly a recipe for ultimate victory. Satsu's question is a very valid one - and it seems like Buffy doesn't have an answer. Satsu's sarcasm coupled with her increased self-confidence from being a squad leader - and someone who's seen Buffy's hidden vulnerable side better than most - might be moving her into the Cordelia / Spike / Anya role of blunt truthsayer.
I confess to not spotting the link between the words "the judgement of history" and then cutting to Faith and Giles sitting in a WW2 era bunker under Berlin, until it was pointed out elsewhere. :-) Mind you, if it is genuine then I'd expect the red banner on the wall to have a swastika on it, but maybe then the comic would be banned in Germany so Georges used some artistic licence. Oh, and just for the record, this is clearly just a small cellar with a metal door that's been left undisturbed for 60 years - it's not supposed to be Hitler's actual bunker (which was filled in soon after the war anyway.)
Faith and Giles are clearly good friends now, although it seems like Giles has been overruling Faith's worry about their current hiding place. Also, it's clear that this isn't the first time they've been hunted. Demons keep finding them and trying to kill them; and humans are now also their enemies. In five pages, this issue of the comic has already created a much more vivid picture of how Slayers are now under threat than the last five issues...
And a new scene change as we basically make the rounds of all our known characters. Andrew and his squad are still in Italy, but now hiding out in the catacombs under Rome. Cue obvious parallels between the early Christian martyrs suffering persecution and the Slayers today. Incidentally, for those who don't recognise it, "Ee-may oo-tay" is Pig Latin for "Me too". The markings on the wall appear to be just random scribbles. although some of them look like Japanese script. Andrew's comment on the bones is very fitting (and chilling) - and notice how he, the normal human, is the one who volunteers to go check out the noise, rather than the half-dozen Slayers with him?
A confrontation between Andrew and Warren was certainly not what I was expecting at this point... but really, it was something that had to happen. This is the first time they've met since Season 6, but presumably Andrew heard Willow's story after 'The Long Way Home' so knows what to expect. Andrew doesn't seem to be too quick to believe Warren this time around... although he's concerned by the fact that Keith Olbermann (a US TV presenter) has apparently accused the Slayers of being "modern-day blackshirts" and fascists. (I'm guessing the whole Slayer=Übermensch thing ties into that.) We never learn what Warren's proposal was going to be, because Amy sends in the army of goatmen to kill the Slayers before he can finish. The two of them still haven't got that "cooperating together" thing mastered yet, it seems... Presumably, though, the plan was to kill the Slayers but let Andrew survive for some reason, either to corrupt him or to send a message to Buffy - unless Warren just wanted to play with him then let him die along with his Slayers.
One panel here appears to indicate that Amy is spying on the scene magically, as we saw her do in the previous 'Time Of Your Life' arc. Certainly Warren knows he can speak to her just by talking out loud. I assume she teleported him to Rome, and I also suspect it's the two of them who are locating Slayers and setting the demons onto them.
There's an apparent continuity error here, since Warren is referring back to Season 7 dialogue that was actually said by The First in his form, rather than by him directly. Of course, that can easily be got around - all it would take is for Warren to be friends with someone who has the power to spy on scenes magically - oh hey, how about Amy? It's entirely believable that Warren, during his convalescence in S7, asked Amy to spy on Andrew and Jonathan for him, and so witnessed what the First said to them. Or alternatively, maybe the First decided to tell Warren its plans anyway. I'm sure It would entirely approve of what he and Amy are doing now, and Amy's dialogue in 'The Killer In Me' did sound suspiciously like the sort of thing the First was saying at the time.
Six Slayers went in; only five come out. I think the one who was killed was Posey, the one who knows Latin. This scene is a mixture of tragedy, black comedy and really cheesy puns. I admit I laughed out loud at "That's a femur", and "They're martyrs. They're into it" made me kind of smile and cringe at the same time. Of course, the same could be said about the Slayers - they're also martyrs.
Speaking of black humour, Faith's line about the cattle car also won a wry smile. Although I was annoyed by the steam train... normally, I take the frequent complaints about inaccurate depictions of foreign locales in S8 with a big pinch of salt. Yes, believe it or not, there are picturesque tourist towns in Germany; yes, some British aristocrats own large stately homes. They may be stereotypes, but that doesn't mean they're not also true. But steam trains in 21st century Germany? Come on...
I was amused to see that Willow's bedtime reading is apparently "Wicked" by Gregory Maguire. This is the story of Elphaba (a name Xander has already used for Willow), the Wicked Witch of the West from the 'Wizard of Oz'. It's apparently also a book that has lots of femslashy subtext. Incidentally, assuming that Kennedy got undressed on her side of the bed, it appears she just dumps her jeans on the floor when she gets undressed, rather than folding them neatly on a chair or anything girly like that. :-)
The way everybody cautiously waits outside Buffy's room and knocks instead of bursting in amused me, when you compare this scene to 8.12. They've learned their lesson - in fact, Xander seems to be treating it as a lesson that he must impart to Dawn, who from her hands-on-hips pose and pointed "yes it is" seems like she already knows. It's a little odd that Willow hunted out Xander and Dawn before going to Buffy, though - unless their bedrooms are en route.
There is another possibility, of course, which is that Willow burst in and found the two of them in the same bedroom. :-) I mean, they are standing very close together, even now they're both in pyjamas... In this light, Xander's comment on the importance of knocking can be assumed to be sarcasm aimed at Willow, and Dawn's apparent annoyance has a more direct cause.
I did like Dawn's sarcastic "not the demons" and Buffy picking up on that.
And now we have the big reunion scene, and the surprising revelation that Buffy and Giles aren't angry with each other after all. Either that, or being under threat from the entire world has caused them to forget their differences. Andrew's line to Dawn was very funny; Satsu is being briskly efficient; Willow also missed Giles; and I'm finding it hard to tell the drawings of Kennedy and Faith apart. I assume Kennedy's the one in the white t-shirt who's looking on calmly as Willow hugs Giles, but then has folded arms and is glaring at Faith challengingly. Maybe she sees Faith as someone who might seduce Willow away from her, or maybe she's heard too many stories from Willow of Faith's misdeeds to trust her readily. Faith, on the other hand, looks as if she's trying to make peace, and Willow looks fairly sympathetic but also defensive.
The following scene is all very dramatic and action-y. Willow is definitely the one in charge here - which implies that she spent time setting up this base long before she carried Buffy there in the opening scenes. Incidentally, Willow confirms something interesting here - that some of the Slayers who were called are also witches, and combine both sets of powers.
The battle heats up, and people are dying. Lots of Slayers, and Buffy's immediate reaction is that she should be with them - "I should be down there." Which shows how responsible she feels for her Slayers... but also implies a certain level of self-loathing and even a death-wish, if she really wishes she should be down with the women being burned to death... One of the Wiccans also dies trying to support the defences - "brain-fry" - which both shows a potential danger to magic we've not really encountered before, and also hits directly at Willow since the Wiccans are "her women".
That might explain why Willow is so eager to take the prisoner when the ever-efficient Satsu brings him up. Interestingly, Giles is baffled by her disappearance while both Buffy and Faith immediately jump to the conclusion that Willow took him away to interrogate (torture) him. But Buffy is ruthlessly pragmatic while Faith - the one who used to be into torture herself until she reformed - is freaked out.
When Willow reappears, her eyes have turned black and she looks gleefully malicious. She's apparently flayed the demon alive, which is definitely a worrying sign - especially in an episode that Warren appeared in. (I assume she vanished to a holding dimension where time passes faster than on Earth, giving her time to question the demon then get back almost before she left.) Buffy doesn't care, or so it seems - she's too busy ordering the evacuation to the submarine. I wonder how many Slayers didn't make it? There were definitely high casualties in the battle scene. But at least they have the information that the enemy is homing in on their use of magic.
Now comes probably the most important scene of this issue, the conversation between Buffy and Giles. (By the way, there's a map of South Korea on the wall behind them). It seems that Buffy is a lot more worried about Willow than she's been letting on - which explains her earlier solicitude about her friend. She's terrified that by pushing Willow to use magic more and more to help in the fight, Buffy will herself be responsible for turning her into Future Dark Willow. Willow's death is on Buffy's conscience, and it's eating away at her. But what's the alternative? They need the magic to protect themselves and keep up the fight.
Giles's attitude seems similar to Season 6; he's worried that Willow is starting to over-use magic again, and it's corrupting her again. Is he right? At the moment, I'd say that's not known. Black-eyed Willow torturing the demon was certainly disturbing, and I'm pretty sure Jane chose that particular method of torture to ram home the parallel to 'Villains'. On the other hand, Willow had just watched someone she was in charge of being horribly killed, and was then presented with one of the people responsible for her death... her vindictiveness might have an entirely human reason rather than being a sign the dark magic has taken her over. She hasn't really been showing other signs of corruption.
What I suspect we're seeing here, then, is setting up a twist: both Buffy and Giles are convinced that Willow is endangering herself and everyone by continuing to use magic. Therefore, they'll try to find a way to take away her powers "for her own good". The twist would be that in fact Willow is in control, and by turning on her like this, Buffy is playing straight into Twilight's hands. Remember 'Anywhere But Here', and a weeping Buffy, and the words "Betrayal - the closest, the most unexpected"? At the time, Willow assured Buffy that she wouldn't be the betrayer. Now I'm wondering if the betrayal will be the other way around - that Buffy will betray Willow. (And feel really, really guilty about it afterwards. Or maybe get beaten up by Twilight's goons because she betrayed Willow and so Willow wasn't around to save her...)
Then again, maybe I'm over-complicating things, and Giles's concern is well-founded, and Willow really is turning to the Dark Side again. We'll see.
Buffy is not only feeling guilty about being responsible for Willow's death; she's finally wondering if the whole thing was a bad idea from the start. She's staring at her hands, and I wonder if she's picturing the blood on them. Twilight has managed to do what he said was necessary back in 'A Beautiful Sunset' - he's stripped Buffy of her moral certainty.
Nice to see Buffy and Faith having a conversation without trying to gut each other for once. Faith has apparently appointed herself spokeswoman for the other Slayers. And Buffy gets her big brainwave - she remembers how Oz was able to suppress the werewolf inside him, and decides to do the same for the Slayers.
It's nice to see her being proactive and decisive after spending quite a while merely reacting to events. I'm less sure that her plan is a good one (and I know I'm not alone in thinking that.) She's still running away and hiding, but now she's not only hiding from the world, she wants to hide from herself. Her guilt over all the death and misery has become too much for her to bear, so she's going to retreat. Give up.
We know how well that worked for Oz in 'New Moon Rising'. For that matter, we saw how well giving up magic worked for Willow in the second half of Season 6 - and notice how Buffy's "one last big spell and then that's it, Forever" calls back that period. But Butffy's going to try and suppress her Slayerness in much the same way. Huh, as Oz would (and indeed does) say.
I do wonder how the other Slayers will enjoy being told that they have to stop using their powers. I doubt they'll take it too well - although you never know, there may be some who are only too glad to become normal, mundane women again. ;-) As for how Willow will react... I'm guessing "badly" may be an understatement. Next issue will be interesting.
Oz's reaction to the submarine teleporting to the middle of the Tibetan mountains was, perhaps predictable - but what else could he possibly say?
ETA2: The thought occurs to me that Dawn will end up being crucial to the whole resolution of the arc. Buffy now wants to suppress all use of magic... but Dawn's entire existence is dependent on magic. End it and she turns back into a glowy green ball of energy. If that's true, I think she'll fight Buffy... or on the other hand, when Buffy realises the cost, maybe she'll also realise her plan is the wrong one.