StephenT (stormwreath) wrote,

(Review) BtVS 8.28 'Retreat' Part 3

My copy of 8.28 arrived late, probably due to the public holiday last week. I've not read anyone else's reviews as yet to avoid spoiling myself, but I've noticed there have been quite a lot more of them than there usually are. Obviously this issue of Season 8 struck a chord. It actually reminded me quite a bit of 'Touched' in its themes and position in the season, except that the role of Spike in Buffy's character arc was taken by a whole group of people (Xander, Willow, Faith).

There's probably a deep message there about the season's meta-themes and the difference in concept between S7 (learning to share your power) and S8 (learning to accept the consequences of having shared it). In 'Touched', Buffy was told she was special, she was The One. In 'Retreat', she (and Willow) are learning how to give that up; how to act and feel when you're no longer unique. It's interesting.


Speaking of interesting, when the preview came out some people commented that Giles's bedroom door looks awfully suburban, not something you'd expect to see in a Tibetan monastery. However, the inside of the room with its stone floor and wooden folding screens looks more like you'd expect. There was something of a fake-out here; I was thinking Andrew had actually uncovered the mole, whereas in fact he's just decided that there must be one. Giles thinks he's being alarmist and silly; we, of course, know that there really is a mole and Andrew's right.

Andrew is apparently basing his notion on the incident in 8.26 where he met Warren. I'm not entirely sure of his logic - and neither is Giles - but it seems to be that because Warren was trying to recruit him, Andrew assumes that Twilight and his agents will have also tried with other members of Buffy's team. And maybe he succeeded with them where he failed with Andrew? He's not sure, but he wants to check.

One thing you can say for Andrew - he's extremely annoying, but he's not too proud to use his reputation as a cover story. Like he did in 'Damage', he's prepared to let people underestimate him and treat him as a joke until he's ready to turn the tables.

I speculated last year that Xander would be the one to make regular supply runs into town from the Scottish castle (probably carefully timed for the one week in the month when a hundred superpowered killing machines living in close proximity went into synchronised PMS). Now they're in Tibet, it's confirmed that he's doing this, except he's going all the way to Lhasa. I wonder if he speaks Tibetan, or at least Mandarin? Also, note that Andrew's essential supplies include a replica Alien xenomorph and a bust of Hellboy. Either he was storing them in Satsu's submarine or he persuaded Xander to buy them from, um, the Tibetan branch of Forbidden Planet?

I'm assuming the scenes with Andrew sat in his leather armchair are all in his head, just as in 'Storyteller'.

His summary of Bayarmaa's description of letting go of your power and becoming one with the Earth as 'decomposing' was funny in a rather biting sort of way. I hope it's not foreshadowing of what many Slayers will be doing by the end of the next episode now they've given up their power...

I did like the way all the Slayers are scowling ferociously at Bayarmaa as she shows Andrew around. It doesn't seem like Buffy's plan is all that popular... Satsu appears to be pulling up weeds with her bare hands in the first picture, which does seem like gratuitously making things harder for yourself. Maybe it's taking this "connecting with the earth" literally? Leah just looks miserable and depressed as she weaves cloth; the woman churning butter - who I think is Kennedy - looks like she's ready to commit murder. Reading this I was reminded of the Cultural Revolution in China, or even Pol Pot's killing fields in Cambodia; city intellectuals and middle-class people being sent to work in the fields for the good of the Revolution.

There's probably some more symbolism in the fact that the Slayers buried the submarine (...their powers) and are now having to dig it up again so they can sell it for parts. So is there a big black market for bits of submarine in Lhasa, then?

I struggled with the identity of the woman milking the yak, too. I'm pretty sure it's meant to be Willow, and I spent a few minutes flipping back and forward between these pages and the pages with genuine 100% Willow to see if she was drawn the same. These scenes are obviously taking place over the course of a day or more, since Leah appears again, sparring with Rowena. And they think this whole "lack of powers" thing is "kinda lame".

Apparently there's been some speculation about the fact that the three people given full-panel cameos complaining about this whole "lose your powers" thing are also the show's three most prominent lesbian characters - Kennedy, Satsu and Willow. It might be coincidence, since one remarkable thing about this issue is that just about every good-guy character on the show puts in an appearance this month. If it was a deliberate choice, though, it's another pointer towards the idea that Buffy's idea was a bad one; she's asking her followers to surrender an important part of their own identity, whether that's "being gay" or "being a Slayer". (Or witch, in Willow's case.)

Then there's a rather sweet scene between Buffy and Faith - remarkable if nothing else for the fact that they chose to work together in the first place, even before their moment of bonding. This is also our first sight of the mysterious cat, first sitting on the rock the two Slayers are trying to move, and then looking curiously into the hole they made. There's more symbolism in this scene, of course. First Buffy and Faith are trying to move the boulder by sheer strength - something I think they'd struggle with even if they still had their full Slayer powers. But then they use a lever - a simple mechanical tool that normal humans have been using for millennia - and they work together side-by-side; and they move the boulder easily.

Given some of the recent discussion in fandom about Faith, and how she originally embraced being a Slayer as a means to stop being a powerless victim, it's very telling that now she's happy to give it all up and just be normal. Acknowledge her humanity, and stop having to fight all the time. She's come a long way.

And so has Buffy, since we get the first of her big S8 emotional epiphanies. (I say "the first" because come on: this is Buffy. As soon as she finds The Answer, someone always changes The Question.) She's just being a normal person; not The Slayer, not even the leader, and she's found the sense of connection she told us she was missing back in 'A Beautiful Sunset'. And there's more too: "I don't want to stand... to stand over people any more." That's a reference to leading the Slayer Army, of course, but it's also clearly a reference to her whole "be better than human" attitude that Fray called her out on. She's realised how wearing to her soul that was.

What this scene shows is that while many of the Slayers resent having to give up their power, for Buffy and Faith it's exactly what they want right now. As we'll see later, it is for Willow and Xander too. It's probably no coincidence that they're the people who've been fighting the longest, and are now getting tired of it. Maybe the moral here is that one-size-fits-all solutions are never good?

Now we get Xander and Dawn being cute together. The big "revelation" at the end of this issue should have come as no surprise to anyone who's been reading my reviews or, indeed, the comics, but this scene is another sign that these two are spending an awful lot of time in each others' company. They're also pretty compatible; I'm not sure how many other 19-year old girls would know that claymore mines have "this side towards enemy" written on them, but Dawn instantly recognises Xander's reference. She also immediately calls his bluff because she knows he's just guessing, but that gives Xander an opportunity to get all philosophical, as he does. They're obviously made for each other. :-)

Dawn's "cryptic reference" is of course a sign that, just like her sister, Dawn isn't the passive type in relationships. She knows what she wants and she's not afraid to tell Xander to stop hesitating about it. His hesitation makes sense, of course; there's the whole "you're six years younger than me and my best friend's kid sister" element to overcome; but there's also the fact that Xander's last girlfriend died horribly a few hours after their first kiss. I doubt if Xander is quite so fourth-wall-breaking as to have realised that there's an all-powerful force overseeing the lives of everyone Buffy knows, and killing them off as soon as they find happiness in a romantic relationship; but he's likely to be rather hesitant and gun-shy all the same. I get the impression he and Dawn have already discussed this before.

Okay, I admit it. I laughed out loud at Andrew's line about "The next time I catch up with Xander, he's taking the time to just sit with his friend Buffy and yak." The look on Buffy's face in particular is priceless. (And so is the way the yak gets rid of the bird sat on its head.) So's the way the line about the 'big secret' is repeated twice, by both Andrew and Buffy.

So why was Xander spying on Buffy, listening in on her conversations with Giles? Could he be the mole???

I really liked the detail of Buffy getting a splinter in her finger. She seems so confused about why it hurts so much, when in former days she could suffer multiple broken bones and just keep right on going. That then segues into the whole "learning how to feel again" thing. I don't think we've seen Buffy be this emotionally open with anyone since she killed Angel. It's all cosy and romantic, and probably torture for all the people who've been wanting a Buffy/Xander relationship ever since Season 1, since we know what's going to happen.

So Andrew confronts Giles again - he's still wearing his Sex Pistols t-shirt, presumably a souvenir from his Ripper days. Andrew being all aggressive is a bit of a shock, but he's obviously playing a role. Giles looks like he just wants to get rid of him (maybe it's actually Giles who is the mole???) but he does eventually agree that Andrew should investigate Willow. I'm not sure if this is because he realises that Andrew does actually have a good point, or if he's secretly hoping Willow will turn him into a baby goat.

I loved Andrew's drawing: the way he gave Dark Willow a mouthful of fangs, and the way he drew Jonathan as less than half his own height.

Now we get another intense scene between Willow and Oz, full of character insights and developments. Willow can't let go of her magic, and she's feeling angry and resentful that most of the Slayers seem to be managing perfectly well. The little interchange where Willow says Oz should know that saying "it's easy" makes it harder, and Oz acknowledges that and apologises, was a nice touch. These are two very intelligent people who understand each other extremely well, and they get what the other is saying straight away.

Willow sounds a bit dubious about Oz's description of casting a spell. I'm not sure if that's because she's not thought of it in those terms before and recognises his insight, or if it's because she knows it doesn't feel anything like that, and she's humouring him. :-) The big statement on this page is presumably Willow repeating her sentiment from 'Wrecked', that without the magic she doesn't know who she is, with the twist that magic is described as "poison". On the other hand, I did find myself wondering about Oz's statement that Willow should find a way to not "bottle up the poison inside you." Werewolves and Slayers are magical by nature; the power is inside them and they have to learn to release it back into the Earth. But Willow is drawing power from the Earth and releasing it again, which is different. Is this a hint that she could learn to still cast spells by letting the magic flow straight through her, rather than bottling it up inside her and letting it change her? Maybe, maybe not.

Cat watch #2; here it's threatening Oz's puppy and scaring it away. Not a nice kitty.

Now we get to the core of what's bothering Willow, at least since the flashback conversation with Kennedy in 'Anywhere But Here'. She wants a normal life, and doesn't think she'll ever be able to have one. She's resentful of Oz for being able to do what she couldn't do when Buffy died; give up the fight, retire, become normal, start a family. She even accuses him of being fake, pretending to be a normal person when he isn't (as she isn't either) - and as she says that, she goes all black-eyed and scary for a moment. She really feels strongly about this... and as I said in my review of the last issue, it seems Willow really wants to have kids of her own.

I liked the way that Oz - like a typical man  - sees Willow's problem in practical terms and offers her practical solutions. So she and Kennedy can't conceive a child the natural way, but they can adopt or use a sperm donor. Willow - like a typical woman - gets annoyed at this attitude. The problem for her is a more existential one; she doesn't think of herself as the kind of person who can have children. She's a witch, she's a warrior against evil; as she tells Buffy later, she's started to think of herself more as a force rather than a person. She doesn't believe Oz when he tells her that's not true, that she can be just plain Willow Rosenberg again. (I've just rewatched 'Lessons', as it happens; remember "I just wanna be Willow"?) But Oz breaks through her barriers with a simple yet touching gesture that brings tears to Willow's eyes: asks if she wants to look after the baby herself for a while.

Next time we see her, Willow is transformed. She's having the time of her life playing pattycake with Kelden and making a fuss of him, and she's optimistic about her future for the first time in years. She'd actually be ready to give up her magic entirely, if need be, because she's realised it doesn't have to define her as a person. She's more than that. In other words, Willow's just had her own biggest epiphany in about three years of the show. She's so happy, even Buffy's heartwrenching confession doesn't phase her.

I must admit, I wasn't quite expecting this scene - Buffy telling Willow she killed her in the future - to play out quite like this. Willow is clearly from the John Connor school of temporal mechanics - "No fate but what we make". She doesn't think Dark Willow will happen anymore, because now she doesn't need the magic; she sees another life for herself.

She may, of course, turn out to be wrong. This is a Joss Whedon story, after all.

Kelden seems to have a habit of grabbing at things; Giles's glasses, Buffy's hair. And Willow actually uses the word "cleansy" in dialogue (A Jane Espenson quote: "When I joined the writing staff... I showed up for work eagerly anticipating my dive into the linguistic world of Buffy.") Buffy ges to have a heart-to-heart chat with Xander, and Willow - as she does, ever since Bangel in S1 - is cheering her on.

And Buffy discovers Xander and Dawn in mid-clinch, and is gobsmacked. Given Dawn's challenging Xander earlier on in the issue to "Go for what you want" I'm going to guess this is their first full-scale passionate kiss. From the way it's staged - and from comments Scott Allie has made - it does seem that Buffy has finally realised that her feelings for Xander do have a romantic element to them, just in time for her to discover that her sister beat her to it.

I know a lot of people dislike the idea of Xander/Dawn because in earlier seasons, their relationship had more of a big brother-little sister feel to it. Oddly, these people are often fans of Buffy/Xander even though their relationship *also* had a brother/sister vibe. But it's not like the sexual element has never been there; even at 14 Dawn had a crush on Xander, and Xander certainly thought Dawn was hot when he saw her dancing in the Bronze in 'Him'.I also think it's grown very nicely over the course of S8, as the two of them were thrown together by events and spent more and more time in each others' company while Buffy was off doing her own thing.

As for Buffy: while I do think she has feelings for Xander - which is why she's so upset at seeing him with Dawn - I'm not so sure that this is some major emotional revelation for her. I think it's less that she's just realised the hidden passion she's been nursing for Xander ever since her dream in 'The Long Way Home', and more that like Willow she's become more connected, more optimistic about her future, and more open to her emotions. Xander's one of her closest friends, and she thinks he's a great guy, and yes, he's pretty hot (especially with all that working out in the gym he's been doing secretly at night), and so she starts to think that maybe she and he could work something out together. It's all new possibilities. Or not.

And then the final page, and apparently Andrew has brought everybody together so he can make his public confession that he suspected Willow. Again, I' got a strong Cultural Revolution vibe from this scene. Kennedy's instant impassioned defence of Willow was both cute and typical. And then the cat teleports out, and it's crisis mode.

Notice how Buffy addresses herself to Xander and Dawn straight away, treating them as a unit... but she's not actually looking at them as she speaks. I think that can be read either way.

Everybody assumes that the cat had something to do with Amy, or maybe it actually was Amy under a polymorph spell. She's a witch, she knows transformation and teleportation magic. Also, the cat was a Siamese, with blue eyes, and Amy has blue eyes - possibly a clue. On the other hand, given Amy's rat affinity, would she be comfortable taking on the form of her natural enemy? :-)

It's possible that this is a red herring, and the cat was actually nothing to do with Twilight or Amy. Remember, there's also a group of hostile werewolves somewhere out there, whose leader was killed by Oz's wife, and now they want revenge. Maybe the cat was their spy, rather than Amy's? (And maybe if there is a werewolf invasion next issue, it will be *this* that tips off Twilight about their location?)

If the cat was Amy, though, I did see one interesting scene. The cat peers down into the crater left behind by the boulder Buffy and Faith moved, and it actually reminded me of the Sunnydale crater in microcosm. Maybe it reminded Amy of the year she spent buried under the rubble with Warren eating corpses to survive?

So: emotional pain for Buffy, but she's still in a pretty good place overall. (Unless, of course, the shock of seeing Xander and Dawn together has driven her right back into General Buffy mode forever...) Willow is feeling good about her life; Andrew's doing the thing he does so well; Faith is reconnecting with Buffy; Xander and Dawn have found love together. Everybody seems really happy and content with their lot right now.

Assume crash positions...


Tags: buffy, meta, review, season 8, season 8 review
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