StephenT (stormwreath) wrote,

(Review) BtVS S8: Goddesses And Monsters

So, my review of 'Goddesses and Monsters' is a little late because Christmas intervened. But here it is now.

One of the most popular genres of fanfiction is the "Missing Scene" or "Fill-in-the-Blank Fic".  'Goddesses and Monsters' is a rare example of a canonical missing scene fic. It doesn't really advance the plot of the main story - how could it, when it's a flashback to a year earlier? - but it does shed some interesting light on the events of the story, and most importantly gives us significant insight into the motivations of the characters. Like all the best Joss-written episodes, it's also got some fascinating symbolism and the occasional highly controversial lines to stir up debate. It's much like 'Restless', really.

I was also interested on a personal level to read this because I've already written my own account of Willow's visionquest and her first meeting with Saga Vasuki (AO3 link), and I was curious to see how it compared to the official version. Not wholly different, I was pleased to see, though Joss also managed to surprise me with many things, which is even better.

Anyway, the review.


I'm not sure who writes the "Previously..." blurb on page two of every comic - if it's Scott Allie, or Joss, or the writer of the individual issue (which of course is also Joss in this case). anyway, there may be an error here since it says that 'Goddesses and Monsters' takes place "at the end of her mystical, post-Sunnydale walkabout". But in the body of the comic, we learn that it's only been a few months since 'Chosen', and Kennedy is unhappy about the idea of Willow going off and leaving her alone... implying that this is the start, not the end, of her mystical walkabout.

Of course there could be a compromise - Willow might have spent the last few months travelling around the physical world visiting covens and shamans and gurus in a normal, mundane way, either with Kennedy or talking to her every night by phone; but now she's going to travel to other dimensions to complete her mystical education. This is kind of supported by Giles's line to Angel in the Ats episode 'Shells' where he says that Willow has gone to Tibet to practice astral projection.

The title 'Goddesses and Monsters' describes the people Willow will meet during this story, and also the idea that she faces a choice about which she will become herself. Assuming there's even a difference between the two, which might be another message of the issue...

The Hogwarts Express dimension was pretty funny, and I did like the idea that it's "culled from collective consciousness" - that because most people in the world associate the idea of "witches travelling to another place to learn about magic" with the Harry Potter books and films, then that's how the experience reveals itself. As Muffitt says, before JK Rowling came along it was 'Alice In Wonderland' that dominated the collective consciousness in the same way... and doubtless before Lewis Carroll it was something else.

Mind you, we later learn that the Black Knight and the sea voyage were illusions created by Saga Vasuki to test Willow - so it's possible that the Harry Potter scene is also an illusion crafted specifically for her, rather than being universal as Muffitt claims. Alternatively, she might be telling the truth and Willow has to pass through these dimensions before she reaches Saga Vasuki's own plane where she has more control over the environment.

I'm not sufficiently versed in Potter lore to recognise all the allusions in the picture, but I did notice that Willow has gone to platform 9.33 rather than the platform 9.75 that Harry and his friends go to. Nor do I know if the locomotive number '10642' has any significance or if it's just random, but it does seem prominent in the picture.

Muffitt (or Wheely-Girl as Willow later calls her with total lack of politically correct sensitivity... not that Muffitt seems to care about such things) is an interesting character. I loved her motorised quad-exhaust fuel-injected wheelchair and WW1 flying helmet. Calling Willow "kind of a puss" echoes Kennedy's comment in 'The Killer In Me' that "Safe to say no one will ever accuse you of being too butch." I'm not sure exactly what Willow is denying here; does she not think that she "almost ended the world"? Was that not her? Or is she just objecting to the idea that she's the kind of person who would normally do that sort of thing?

The field of flowers was another interesting scene - again, we don't know if this is a place that Muffitt must take Willow through in order to reach Saga Vasuki, or if instead Saga Vasuki is already shaping reality to match what she thinks Willow will expect to see.

Either way, it seems like the clearest confirmation yet, direct from Joss, that Willow is in fact 100% lesbian rather than being bisexual. :-) Lesbians get a field full of vaginal petals, heterosexual women get a field full of phallic trees. Presumably bi woman get a mixture of trees and flowers, and asexual women get an empty field. I'm not sure what a warlock would encounter - maybe the opposite, so the tall thrusting trees if he's gay and the soft folded petals if he's straight. Or perhaps the plant metaphors are only for women, and men see, I don't know, dark inviting caves if they're straight and high towering pillars of rock if they're gay?

Willow's uncertainty about whether to be outraged or empowered at being called a dyke was both funny and pretty accurately observed, IMO. It's also interesting to compare it to the scene in 'Wolves At The Gate' - chronologically after this scene, although written earlier - when Satsu uses the same word. Then, Willow is still rather uncomfortable with it, but at least manages to say "Whatever the kids are saying these days, I'm hip".

So in order to proceed on her visionquest Willow has to literally be pulled down into the giant flower-vagina where she can no longer breathe. If that's not a blatant metaphor for re-entering the womb in order to be reborn I don't know what is. Also, Muffitt teasing Willow about suffocation is clearly evil, though maybe not Evil in a Buffyverse sense.

The scene where Willow lands on her back apparently reveals that she wears enormous pants, which is actually a good sign for Kennedy although Kennedy herself might not appreciate that. (That's a 'Coupling' reference for the non-UK folk reading this.)

And we meet Saga Vasuki for the first time (chronologically, we've obviously seen her before several times in Season 8). She's not drawn exactly the same as before; she has a rattlesnake-like rattle on the end of her tail which she didn't in 'Anywhere But Here'. Also, she has no nipples. I'm not sure if this is because the artist didn't draw them but we're meant to assume she has them anyway; or because she doesn't have them since she's a reptile not a mammal and those are non-functional decorative breasts; or because she's a trickster goddess and can make her nipples appear and vanish at will, depending on her mood and the effect she wants to have on people looking at her. I lean towards a mix of 1 and 3, personally.

Flashback inside a flashback! I'm pretty sure that's the Golden Gate bridge in the background; and from the angle, these Slayers are training somewhere near the Presidio in San Francisco. Kennedy's comment about "we're traditional since when now?" therefore has less impact, since of all the traditional places for a gay couple to make their home in the US, I'd put SF near the top of the list. :-) On the other hand, I do note that they're not in Rio de Janeiro.

The most important part of this scene thematically is Willow saying "Power is not knowledge. In a way it's almost the opposite" - then using the newbie Slayers as compared to Kennedy as an example. Having power without knowing how to use it safely and effectively means you might as well not have it - or worse still, you'll either use it badly, or you'll be exploited by people who understand your power better than you do. That's exactly the situation the Shadowmen put the Slayers into back in the day, and it's the choice Buffy was faced with in 'Get It Done' when she insisted on being given information rather than more power. Here, Willow is faced with a similar situation, and she makes the same choice as Buffy.

This scene is also the answer to people who accuse Willow of being power-hungry, and going on this quest in order to gain more power. The fact is, she believes she already has the power, but what she lacks is the knowledge and self-awareness to be able to use it safely. All through Season 7 Willow was terrified that if she let go of her self-control for just a moment, or tried to draw on her powers in any way, she'd turn evil again. 'Chosen' proved her wrong, in a huge life-changing epiphany kind of way, and now she's desperate to learn more.

Meanwhile, Kennedy is, quite understandably, upset at the idea of Willow leaving her all alone for an indefinite period. This is part of why I'm fascinated by her as a character; on the one hand, she's got a perfectly justifiable complaint against Willow. On the other, it's hard to deny that she's expressing herself in a rather pouty, whiny and self-entitled kind of way here, trying to guilt Willow into not going and then bitching about being a "drill sergeant". On the third hand, she's also self-aware enough to recognise what she's doing. Even though she and Willow are genuinely arguing here, they're also comfortable enough with each other to throw in little jokes and side-comments and tease each other. Compare that to Willow in 'Tough Love' where she thought that one quarrel with Tara was the end of the world and the collapse of their relationship. Willow's matured a lot since then.

For the record, I'm pretty confident that Kennedy's joke about the "blonde with the R. Crumb thighs" and Willow's retort about turning her into a newt were teasing, not actual angry retorts. Kennedy does have a wicked half-smile on her face as she says it. Of course, I'm a big fan of this kind of relationship banter and snark in real life too, so I approve of Willow/Kennedy.

Incidentally, for those like me who had no clue what an "R Crumb thigh" might be:

Of course, there's also huge dramatic irony going on because Kennedy has made a big commitment to monogamy out of love for Willow, just as Willow is about to go off and, presumably, be unfaithful to her with a big snake. I do believe that Willow is genuinely in love with Kennedy - there have been enough indications of that all through Season 8 - but crucially, Kennedy is not the centre of her world in the way that Tara was. Willow, however, IS the centre of Kennedy's world - and there lies potential tragedy.

Back to the main timeline of the comic, and Saga Vasuki has apparently been reading Willow's mind, or her memories, because she tells Willow to "Forget about her". She says that to know herself, Willow has to shed all her attachments and connections to the world. That's a very Buddhist kind of philosophy. It's also very foreign to the typical Western mindset; we're brought up to believe that love between two people is important and valuable, rather than an aspect of the illusion binding us to the wheel of suffering that must be peeled away before we can achieve enlightenment.

The rest of the conversation about wounds and illumination is pretty obscure, and Willow herself can't follow it. It's possible that Saga Vasuki might be spouting unintelligible gibberish purely to confuse Willow, as part of a test to see if Willow will see through that to the real truth. Or, she might be expressing mystical truths in an obscure manner, again as a test. Or being a Trickster, she might be doing both at once. However, my own personal interpretation of her words, assuming they are meant to be meaningful, is:

The "wound" is the hole torn in reality that allows the magical energies of the cosmos to leak through and affect our world. Ever since she absorbed the magics into her body in 'Villains' and 'Grave', Willow has had a part of that wound. By 'working' it, she can access that cosmic power; but to do so, she must understand her own self perfectly, because the wound is in her and part of her and can only be accessed by going within herself.

On a more basic level, "wound" is a fairly common metaphor for the female genitalia, especially given their propensity to bleed at regular intervals and (allegedly) the way they heal up if not disturbed for too long. :-) It's a whole Gaia blah blah moon menstrual lifeforce power thing. "Working the wound" would presumably therefore be a metaphor for masturbation (or fingering), which sheds a disturbing light on how Willow casts her spells, so maybe I'd better end this chain of thought right now...

The "darkness will illuminate" if you yourself are a source of light. Only if all around is dark can you see yourself shine.

Next comes the confrontation with the Black Knight, who we later learn is called Gnog. We also discover this was all stage-managed by Saga Vasuki in an attempt to intimidate Willow, presumably so she would be more willing to rely on Saga Vasuki for help. The other reason for the fight - one Saga Vasuki actually explains openly - is that the danger is intended to teach Willow to reach inside and rely on her own abilities to protect herself.

Willow certainly seems intimidated enough at first, although she's more confused by how the Black Knight seems to know so much about her. Or maybe she's confused at first by who she is herself, and only recognises her own identity again in the clarity of mortal peril?

The fact that Saga Vasuki is called Aluwyn by her friends is rather confusing - although it's not all that unusual for goddesses, and especially Trickster spirits, to have several names. 'Vasuki' is actually a real entity in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, who was responsible both for creating the Elixir of Immortality and also for creating a deadly poison that might have wiped out all life on Earth - a contradiction that's very appropriate for a Trickster. It's also an apt comparison for Willow herself, who's shown herself capable of both great evil and destruction, and great goodness and healing power. And who may herself be immortal...

The huge threatening demigod talking about "I love you because of that spell you did that time" if funny and rather strange because of its totally random nature, undercutting the pomposity of the scene in classic Joss fashion - it may also be a first clue that Aluwyn and her team are actually kind of lame despite their power... a bit like the Scoobies in that respect.

The idea that order and chaos are intertwined and both essential to the universe is an important one. Of course, you know who else is guilty of black-and-white thinking? Hitler  Twilight. He wants to wipe out all magic and all demons, regardless of the fact that some demons are not evil. I guess he and Aluwyn would get along like a house on fire - with the screaming and burning and people dying and mass destruction and all.

Willow suddenly losing the ability to communicate in anything other than "old-person radio" song titles was just plain weird. Still, it's par for the course for Joss dream sequences for random weirdness to occur, and the explanation that Willow's brain was stuck in a loop due to panic is a good one. Here's an interesting thought: when she says "I believe I can fly" (R. Kelly, 1996) and flies up in the air to dodge the mace, I wonder if that was the first time she did that? That thanks to this impromptu lesson arranged by Gnug and Aluwyn right here, Willow discovered within herself the ability to fly that she uses so readily in S8? (The implication being, of course, that she had the ability all along, but it took this life-and-death situation to force her to learn how to make use of it.)

For all the wackiness, Willow's reaction to the accusation that she doesn't care about the world obviously hits her hard. She's carrying a burden of guilt for what she did at the end of Season 6, but she's decided it's more dangerous to refuse to learn about her powers than not... but she's stll oversensitive to accusations that she's being reckless. So she gets both sad and angry - with dramatic consequences. I really, really loved the next panel where she blasts out such pure bluish-white light that her very form seems turned into energy, and the giant demigod is ripped apart. Even so, she doesn't actually kill him - though it's clear from Saga Vasuki's surprise that she could have done so. But Willow has discovered, or reconfirmed, something else about herself as well as her ability to fly: she's not a killer.

She's killed, yes, but that doesn't make her "a killer".

So, did anybody else expect the Black Knight to shout after Willow "Come back and fight! It's only a flesh wound!"?

And now we go on a boat... or not. I'm pretty sure Aluwyn's comment about "You'll never finish the journey if you're afraid to get wet" is deliberate sexual innuendo; certainly on the part of the writer if not Aluwyn herself. She's telling Willow that she'll have to get involved in sexual situations if she wants to finish her journey of self-discovery. Whether that's a mystical truth or just Aluwyn flirting with Willow isn't made clear; of course, it could easily be both.

If Aluwyn is flirting, Willow's reaction is not favourable. She looks pretty pissed off, in fact; though that's more because she's worked out that Aluwyn is giving her the runaround. And of course she's right: as soon as she says it, she finds herself before the assembled court of goddesses. (Scott Allie has confirmed that yes, they are fully fledged goddesses, not just 'spirits' or demons. As the title of the comic implies, of course.)

We saw these guys in 'The Long Way Home' too - at least the tree spirit, werewolf, mathematical-logic-girl, water spirit and parti-coloured woman in a red dress. There are others here too in this larger view. Their own size is variable; they're far larger than Willow here, later on in this comic they're closer to human size, and in 'The Long Way Home' the water spirit at least is no taller than Willow herself.

Note that Aluwyn is rattling her tail when she comes face to face with the goddesses, presumably in fear/threat response. They're obviously much more powerful than her, and dismiss her easily. I do like the humanising touch that she'd keep seekers running around in circles "for the company" - that's a more vulnerable side to Saga Vasuki that's not been so clear, though you could see it in her interactions with Willow before if you looked carefully. Evidently, the goddesses allow Aluwyn her way in order to ensure that only worthy candidates ever manage to reach them; it's a test.

Now comes the scene where the goddesses give Willow her choice of spirit guide, and offer her Tara's spirit. It seems that this idea was at the back of Willow's mind from the start; but once she's presented with it for real, she decides that it's not what she really and truly needs. She's searching within herself and discovering her true self. It's all very ironic and multi-layered.

For the record, I don't believe Willow was deliberately lying to Kennedy; she wasn't consciously leaving Kennedy behind so she could go and meet up with the ghost of Tara. As she says, she's discovered three separate layers of motivation within herself. The public one she gave Kennedy; the secret one she didn't really want to admit to herself; and the really secret one she didn't even recognise in herself until she saw Tara.

As for Willow's second motivation, it's fascinating in itself. Willow isn't sure if she's "a good witch or a bad witch", and wants to find out the truth. She knows she's capable of both; slightly scarier is the revelation that she's drawn to both, that she can easily see herself going in either direction. I can imagine Buffy, Xander or Dawn being completely freaked out if Willow confessed that to them, though Buffy might recognise something of herself in the dilemma. (Faith definitely would; ditto Spike or Angel.) It all ties into the theme of power and knowledge, or self-knowledge in this case. Willow's power gives her the capability to do anything, but it doesn't predetermine how she will use that power. Only she can decide that.

Then comes perhaps the final closure of her relationship with Tara. It's been a long, gradual process letting go. Willow was unable to weep for Tara until the end of 'Grave'. She was unable to accept the idea of loving someone else until 'The Killer In Me'. She was incapable of allowing herself sexual release until 'Touched'. She thought she'd never be able to use her magic freely again until 'Chosen'. Here, finally, she lets go and accepts that her journey with Tara is completed and there's no going back, even with magic or wishes. Time to move on.

This would be important enough by itself - but remember, this is also the Willow who brought Buffy back from the grave because she refused to let go. She now recognises she was wrong, and given a second chance, she chooses the other alternative - to leave her loved one in Heaven.

Of course, it's possible that this whole scene is also aimed at the fanatical Willow/Tara shippers who still demand at every opportunity that Joss bring back Tara. This would be a "no", then. :-)

I did smile at the goddess breaking down in tears at the sad, angsty, romantic and sentimental scene playing out here. Especially at the idea that it was the mathematical-logic spirit who did so... and the water spirit's remark that everybody assumes that she'll be the one to start crying, presumably because she's made out of water.

Now we go back to Saga Vasuki rather unfairly accusing her team of spoiling her chance to ally with Willow. They're all highly dysfunctional; and as I said before, the resemblance to the Scoobies is doubtless deliberate. It's interesting that she apparently sees Willow - "the most powerful witch of her time" - as a potential ally, rather than the power relationship being the other way around as S8 implied. My interpretation is that it's rather like the experienced master teaching the young but incredibly talented apprentice: she knows that one day soon the apprentice will surpass her, but for the moment her experience and knowledge give her the advantage.

I wonder if the Great Ronok who "kinda looks like a leaf blower" is the same entity that Not!Buffy persuaded to fight Yamanh of Hoht's army in 'The Chain'?

And Willow drops in, literally, from a great height. Her nakedness is interesting, and not just in a fan-service-for-the-lesbians-and-straight-men-in-the-audience kind of way. (Besides, far less of her body is actually shown on the page than Saga Vasuki's body; it's mostly just suggestion). The important thing is that Willow is totally unselfconscious. She's in control of the situation; her body language - all hands behind her head, then on her hips - shows that she feels no need to hide or conceal anything. So where did her clothes go?

One interpretation is that she's a Wiccan, and going skyclad is an important part of many rituals. Not that we ever really saw Willow (or Tara) doing that before; but that might be because of the constraints on what an early-evening US TV programme can show, rather than reflecting the canonical truth. :-) At the real start of her visionquest, she needs to be properly attired.

Another idea is that she's deliberately flirting with or even seducing Saga Vasuki. The first panel, where she has her hands behind her head and eyes closed, and her breasts are presumably being outthrust in Aluwyn's general direction, does lend some weight to this idea. However, the rest of the time Willow's general attitude seems not so much "I'm nude and I'm sexy" and much more, "Yeah, I'm naked, so what?" One interpretation I do like is that she's deliberately testing Aluwyn, in revenge for what Saga Vasuki did to her earlier; she's trying to keep her off balance.

Then there's the mystical idea, which is the one I favour. Willow has learned that "there is no journey, there is just within." She has to travel inside herself to discover who she really is; face herself, strip away all her illusions, get beyond the surface, uncover the truth. Of course she has to be naked to do that; in a symbolic and figurative way, and literally too.

The little bit of byplay "You're putting yourself in my hands?" "I expect it will come to that." has drawn a lot of controversy already, I gather. Willow is clearly anticipating that she'll end up having sex with Aluwyn; and she says it in a really dry way that certainly made me laugh when I read it. However, the expression on her face as she says it doesn't look too overjoyed at the prospect; she's not smiling or looking flirty. It actually looks like a bit of snark. There may even be eye-rolling involved.

So, I'm pretty sure that this is not a case of Willow randomly deciding to have an affair with a serpent woman three days after saying goodbye to Kennedy. There's no sudden passionate attraction, and no kinky urge to discover exactly what Aluwyn can do with that rattle on the end of her tail. (Not that I'm saying we can't write fanfic to explore those possibilities anyway - but I don't think it's there in canon). Nor is Willow offering to trade her body for power, as some people have bizarrely alleged; since it's clear that she, not Aluwyn, is the one with the upper hand here, and Aluwyn is desperate to be the one to train her.

So what's going on? Quite honestly, I think we go back to the passage before about not being afraid to get wet. Willow's power lies inside her. In fact, it comes from "her wound", which she needs to learn how to "work" if she's going to tap her power. Magic and sex have always been tightly wound together in the Buffyverse; use the same metaphor enough times and it becomes more than a metaphor. (That's Sympathetic Magic at work right there.) Willow needs to understand, control and draw upon her sexuality and her libido in order to understand, control and draw upon her magic, because in part they're the same thing. And her teacher will need to instruct her in that.

So is she being unfaithful to Kennedy? The simple, easy answer is "Yes of course". I'm pretty sure Kennedy herself would agree, and be deeply hurt and angry, if she happened to see what will be going on. The demon Sephrillian in 'Anywhere But Here' clearly thought that he was revealing a truth about Willow that was as shameful as the truth that Buffy robs banks... although Buffy herself didn't seem all that upset. ("Wow. Your bad is way better than mine".) But what does Willow think about it? My impression is that in her eyes, "It's just sex" and it doesn't mean anything emotionally real to her. It's part of her magical training and she still loves Kennedy; to reverse the Gospel of Matthew, she may have committed adultery with her body, but not with her heart.

"Ken-doll, do you trust me and know that I love you and I'm not a crazy person and what we do is for the greater good cross your heart no backsies?"

Self-delusion or self-awareness? Ultimately, I think the choice you go with says as much about you as a reader as it does abut Willow. :-)

As for the other matter: why does Willow choose the Trickster, the one who's no good, to lead her to wisdom? She starts out by saying she's go a lot in common with Aluwyn; that she's also known for chasing her own tail. Then there's the gnomic line "For Truth, I choose the Trickster" where she formally acknowledges Saga Vasuki's mythic role.

For those who don't know, the Trickster is a common mythical archetype. A god or great hero, usually male but often with the ability to take on female form or transform into other shapes. He breaks all the rules. He's a liar, a cheat and a thief - but he's also essential to our survival, because he's the only one willing to admit that sometimes the rules are wrong. It's the Trickster who steals fire from the gods and gives it to humanity. The Trickster who breaks a path through the woods where none has been made before.

On the page, Willow's willingness to trust Saga Vasuki is clarified by an apparent paradox:

I'll know if you lie.
I always lie.
That's how I'll know.

If you try and apply formal logic to this, it falls down. If Aluwyn always lies, then she cannot say "I always lie" because that would be the truth, not a lie. If she always tells the truth, she cannot say "I always lie" either, because that would be a lie, not the truth. So the only possible combination is that sometimes she lies and sometimes she tells the truth, and there's no way of working out which is which.

So why does Willow say "That's how I'll know?" Is she just being dumb? It seems unlikely, given how she just won an audience with the assembled Goddesses by seeing to the heart of the truth faster than most any mortals. My interpretation, therefore, is that she's being deeper than that. She knows that Saga Vasuki is a Trickster. She knows that her statement "I always lie" is false logic. She knows that she can't rely on anything Saga Vasuki says; she can't rely on it being the truth, and she can't rely on it being a lie. So what can she do?

Well, much the same as we do in the real world, where we can't automatically know if someone is lying or telling the truth either. We have to learn to use our experience and knowledge to judge the truth for ourselves. And that's what Willow is doing here. She's not come to this dimension to have knowledge poured into her like an empty cup: she's come to learn the truth that already lies within her. She knows she needs a guide, and a protector, and even a friend; but she knows how dangerous it would be to rely on her patron too much instead of on herself. By choosing a guide that she knows, in advance, cannot be entirely trusted, she is guaranteeing that she'll have to learn to trust herself instead. Which is the whole point.

Do you trust me?

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