I just read the entire Guarded arc and I think it reads A LOT better the second time around and all at once.
Buffy's reliving the end of Season 8. Kennedy is a stand-in for Willow. Koh for Angel. Theo for Giles. Kennedy makes the arguments to Buffy about the benefits of not destroying TinCan and how it could be pro-magic (a pseudo-version of Willow's position, only Kennedy's more concerned about saving people). Theo stands in for Giles as the one who's decided he has to destroy the Seed/TinCan. And Koh stands for Angel, the demon Buffy mistakenly trusted who has his own reasons for betraying her that involve honor and some higher purpose that she just can't understand (a la Angel keeping secrets and thinking for Buffy rather than confiding in her). See also: Koh's holding Theo hostage in a headlock, threatening to kill him (presumably just snap his neck) if Buffy doesn't disengage from the fight -- which is like the slowed down version of Angel snapping Giles neck as he tries to destroy the Seed. W&H then stands in for Twilight!Kitty, off in another dimension trying to invade; likewise, W&H ordering Koh the way Twilight!Kitty controlled Angel.
The difference here being that Buffy didn't get caught up in the fight with Koh and blind to the casualties around her. She helped Theo destroy the Seed and she did it by working with Kennedy. Destroying the Seed and saving the "little guy" who possesses secret knowledge.
So how does this track in terms of Buffy's arc?
People have commented how Buffy's been getting beat down a lot recently. I think that's the point. In Last Gleaming Part IV (8.39), Buffy only succeeded in stopping the fight because she reacted through desperation and pain -- all done to stop the madness. That act wasn't one done while Buffy was in complete control, but more an act done as the last resort imaginable. Consequently, breaking the Seed, Giles' death, and perhaps most important of all -- breaking the Scythe -- unsettled Buffy's sense of what it meant to be a Slayer. She'd broken the connection, broken the Chain that connected her to the mystical origins of the Slayer. She's lost that place in the desert where her Slayer ancestors can share wisdom and connect her to a deeper knowledge held within herself. That magic within that makes her fully whole, thus made her vulnerable after the Seed was broken.
Freefall is her losing hold of her sense of self to the point that her walls get completely torn down and she's going through the motions of Slayerhood in a robot body. Spike, Koh, and Dowling are the ones who save the day because Buffy's lost herself.
In Apart of Me, Buffy needs Andrew to put her fractured self back together -- the self that she lost when she betrayed herself and her Slayer mission in Season 8. Guarded then is Buffy rebuilding her sense of self, rebuilding the defenses and the boundaries that define her as a person -- rebuilding her self-respect and her ability to help others while also doing what's right for her. She doesn't have the big hero moment where she saves the day singlehandedly. She's not the Chosen One being badass lone ranger. Rather, her actions harken back to classic Season 1 Buffy who inspires others to help themselves and do the right thing. This is what Buffy had to rediscover how to do in Season 7, too.
In Guarded, Buffy works together with Kennedy and inspires Theo to save the world. Buffy rediscovers the power of collective action and the importance of a moral center guiding one's actions. She rediscovers that the Slayer is more than a warrior who kills demons, the Slayer isn't merely a killer -- the Slayer beats back the forces of darkness, forces that terrorize, and she does this by helping humanity to be strong, to fight their own fears. Think of Buffy urging Billy to fight back in "Nightmares" because he has the power to defeat the demons. The Slayer is a moral force, not merely a weapon. That's what Buffy lost in Season 8 and that's what she's regaining in Season 9, her moral center, that which Angel worked tirelessly to pound out of her.
This relates to Buffy's epiphany at the end of Guarded:
"You were right. I keep trying to save the world when sometimes I should just save a single person. It was different when I was younger. Something changed. But I don't think that's a bad thing."Because saving the world cannot be done alone. Buffy can't save the world if she's not trying to save the people within it. Saving a single person is how Buffy saves the world. Buffy helps save Theo by helping and inspiring him to destroy TinCan. By helping one person, Buffy saves the world. Helping the individuals is how to help the collective, but it must be consciously done with an eye on maintaining the balance. A big picture mentality makes it easy to lose sight of the moral reasons for action. Buffy has to work bottom-up rather than top-down. Working on an individual level to bring humanity to the global scale of justice.
So I think I just talked myself back aboard the Season 9 train. Wow. At least, in terms of Buffy's arc. I still have issues with how the story's jettisoned ensemble storytelling, but Buffy's arc is en pointe.
Oh Buffy, my girl. <3 I predict she's going to be kicking ass and taking names very shortly. I for one have been dying for a badass powershot.