My reviews looking back at “Buffy” Season 8 continue as we enter the second half of the 40-issue season with several standalones (to borrow TV show parlance), which nonetheless move the narrative forward, and one epic five-parter. SPOILER WARNING: If you are reading these issues for the first time, I will analyze the character of Twilight based on my knowledge of Twilight’s true identity, which isn’t revealed until later in the season.
“Harmonic Divergence” (Issue 21, January 2009)
If you ask me whether I prefer Dramatic “Buffy” or Comedic “Buffy,” I won’t hesitate to say “Dramatic.” But I have a soft spot for Harmony stories. “Harm’s Way” (“Angel” 5.9) is among my favorite episodes, and Jane Espenson’s “Harmonic Divergence” continues to find the funny in the notion of a vampire who wants to be an entertainment superstar. The thing is, thanks to everyone knowing about Slayers and vampires now, Harmony can be a star.
Espenson’s wit is in fine form as Harmony narrates the story of landing a hit reality show. “This is C.A.A. No one knows what that stands for …,” she tells us. Shortly thereafter: “This is the MTV building in Santa Monica. No one knows what that stands for either, but they do reality shows.” Adding loveable loose-skinned demon Clem to Harmony’s entourage is a nice touch that further makes me like the vapid vampire, despite my better instincts.
Light and fluffy as it may be, this is a crucial story because the public sides with Harmony after she kills a Slayer in self-defense in an episode of “Harmony Bites.” So there is weight to General Voll’s warning from early Season 8 about Slayers being at war with the human race.
The cover of “Harmonic Divergence” is also funny, even if it’s not original. “BTVS Classic” Issue 10 (June 1999) also used the faux-glamour-magazine style and so would “Angel: After the Fall” Issue 17 (February 2009).
“Swell” (Issue 22, February 2009)
Buffyverse TV writer Steven S. DeKnight delivers his only full issue here. It’s competent; it catches us up with Satsu in Japan, and Kennedy, whom Buffy sends to evaluate Satsu’s work. And it further establishes the Slayer Organization’s PR problem wherein the public thinks they are the bad guys.
But I’m not crazy about the Vampy Cats, stuffed animals that also function as vampiric minions of Twilight, who is using them to keep tabs on – and annoy – the Slayers. The TV series never did its “Tribbles” episode, and boy do the comics ever make up for that with a bevy of small-villain stories. For example, there’s “The Latest Craze,” where Hooligans aren’t merely hot collectibles, but also dangerous creatures. And not long before “Swell,” chronologically, Spike fights an army of ninja puppets in Japan in “Spike: Shadow Puppets.” Could Angel/Twilight have gotten his idea from there? It’s possible, but DeKnight makes no attempt to link the tales.
“Predators and Prey” (Issue 23, March 2009)
Again, a TV writer – Drew Greenberg – pops in for one issue, and again it’s a respectable yarn. We see the public is not merely frivolous in its ill will toward Slayers, it is in some cases reacting to genuine bad eggs. Simone, the pink-mohawked Slayer, and her followers have taken over an island village off the coast of Italy to use as a base in whatever war may come. As with the previous issue, familiarity hurts “Predators and Prey” because it is a larger-scale version of the old Buffy-Faith conflict. Simone is “want, take, have” writ large.
Andrew wins me over in “Predators and Prey” – barely. His incessant nerd-talk to Buffy on the plane ride is annoying. Granted, it’s supposed to be that way, but dang, I almost had trouble reading it all. But then he proves himself a part of the team – and the makeshift family – when he’s willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. This extra layer to his character makes him less of a sideshow going forward. Still, toning down the geek chatter would be welcome.
“Safe” (Issue 24, April 2009)
On the flipside of the rogue Slayers in “Predators and Prey” are the Slayers of “Safe,” who choose to not be Chosen. They didn’t sign up for this, thank you very much, etc. Faith and Giles are on this mission to sway some of the girls to their cause, as are Jim Krueger, penning his only Buffyverse issue, and artist Cliff Richards (stepping in for workaholic Georges Jeanty, who does the other nine issues in this batch).
In a story with echoes of “Giles: Beyond the Pale” thanks to its Lovecraftian monster, Giles learns that a Watcher (perhaps the last member of the Council other than Giles) has developed this Slayer Sanctuary as a ruse. The girls come to the village and are eaten by the demon, who in turn keeps vampires from attacking the villagers. The Watcher’s twisted logic is that he’s sacrificing young girls, like the Council has always done; admittedly, that’s rather ingenious.
“Living Doll” (Issue 25, May 2009)
Doug Petrie joins the parade of TV writers making a Season 8 appearance with this issue that satisfyingly concludes the long-simmering thread about Dawn’s curse. For the third and final step of the curse from her ex-boyfriend Kenny (a Thricewise demon), Dawn turns into a porcelain doll. In the end, Dawn is back to normal (finally!) and the Summers sisters have a lovely chat. Buffy may have many metaphorical little sisters in the form of the Slayer army, but she has only one Dawn in her life. Aw.
“Living Doll” also provides a solid answer to the lingering question of “When exactly does Season 8 take place?” thanks to its reference of “Veronica Mars” Season 2 DVDs. That season hit DVD in August 2006 in the U.S. and August 2008 in Europe; Buffy’s reference to finally getting the discs to play on her Scottish DVD player suggests they are U.S. DVDs and that she acquired a special player (or maybe Andrew did some techie thing). If they were Region 2 discs, acquired in 2008, she’d have no problem to begin with.
So we can conclude that these events occur no earlier than 2006. References to Daniel Craig’s first James Bond film and Christian Bale’s “Rescue Dawn,” both released in 2006, support this theory. So Buffy, Willow and Xander are 25 years old and Dawn is 20. Going by the half-your-age-plus-seven rule, Xander is allowed to date Dawn, so don’t get all wigged out if that happens in future issues. Just sayin’.
“Retreat” (Issues 26-30, July-November 2009)
Espenson returns for an epic five-parter that has an “Empire Strikes Back” vibe where the good guys are on the run, there’s a peaceful training interlude, and then a final battle where they lose. Amid all this are wonderful character moments. Issue 28 is the best issue of Season 8, as Espenson revisits the structure of her own episode, “Storyteller” (7.16). Andrew seeks to uncover the spy in their midst; it turns out to be Amy disguised as a cat, which he doesn’t come close to figuring out. But the memorable part of his video-taping is that he catches Buffy right when her heart breaks in two from seeing Xander and Dawn kissing.
I love how Dawn and Xander naturally couple up as everyone gathers in Tibet, perhaps subconsciously reacting to seeing Oz living a peaceful family existence with his wife, Bayarmaa, and their baby boy. Buffy’s timing is crappy: During this rare time when she’s not training Slayers or killing demons or strategizing for war, she realizes Xander is the perfect normal guy for her, both nine years too late and a couple issues too late (although granted, the seeds of Xander-and-Dawn go further back, arguably to Season 7).
The final battle is intriguing, as the Slayers and magic-users are forced to use conventional weapons since they have purposely given their magic back to the Earth in order to hide from Twilight’s forces. This allows Xander to be the key leader, drawing on the military knowledge he picked up in “Halloween” (2.6), further convincing me that Season 8 is the best Xander season in a long time.
It’s harder than ever to reconcile that Angel is Twilight here, as he orders one of his underlings executed for failing to properly track the Slayer organization. I hold out hope that his actions will make some kind of sense eventually. In an ironic contrast, Riley comes off well in “Retreat” as we learn he was a spy embedded in Twilight’s camp; hopefully he’ll have some helpful intel in the next arc – although it’d be understandable if Buffy is distracted by the fact that she can now fly, apparently having absorbed a ton of magic back into herself. Come to think of it, Twilight/Angel can also fly in Season 8, so it’s hypocritical that he wants to rid the world of magic when he relies on it. But such is the timeless hypocrisy of those who use force to change the world as they see fit.
My only disappointment with “Retreat” is that Espenson unnecessarily overwrites Christopher Golden’s excellent “Oz: Into the Wild,” which tells how Oz gains control over his inner werewolf during his time away from Sunnydale in Season 4. In Espenson’s flashback segment, Oz meets Bayarmaa during that time. There’s no good reason why Oz couldn’t have met Bay after “New Moon Rising” (4.19), thus preserving Golden’s story.