Part 3 of Espenson’s “Retreat” arc… and I think we’ve finally struck gold. All-around gold, but there will be plenty of praise for the key players. What do we have here? Basically the calm before the storm. With the exposition that was #27 out of the way, we’re now able to get down to the single element that makes the Buffyverse so compelling: i.e. the human aspect.
Art: Jeanty provides us with some of his strongest pencils since “A Beautiful Sunset”. There is a sense of motion throughout, and his likenesses are pretty consistently strong. This being an Andrew-centric issue (most of the issue unfolds from Andrew’s perspective behind a video camera), Jeanty is particularly good at Andrew. But his characters don’t just look good, they “act” like the characters would on screen. The tenderness in the scene where Xander is examining Buffy’s hand is palpable, and Buffy’s face when she says, “You think? I can feel more now” expresses just the perfect mixture of trepidation and insecurity. What follows is a wonderful blend of child-like content, punctuated with longing. The moment just plays on perfectly, and because of the detail to little character ticks, it all feels alive and yanks at your heartstrings. What’s even niftier is how upon rereading the comic, seemingly inconsequential things add more to the scene. Amy the cat, can be seen hovering in many of the panels, but my personal favorite (see if you can detect my bias) is when the cat scares away the little puppy in the Willow/Oz scene. Cats are evil… it’s official now!
An obvious difference between the last issue and this one is how the clever pairing up of characters has significantly reduced the strain of having multiple characters clutter up a scene. As a result, there are a lot less wideshots, and many more close-ups, which is fitting, since the focus here is on trust and connection between the characters.
Madsen should be commended again for her atmospheric colors. In moments of openness and honesty, we get her usual bright, saturated palette. Scenes that contain distrust are oftentimes, for the lack of a better word, shady. This is most obviously seen in the Andrew/Giles scenes. It is also perhaps symbolic that when Willow is about to leave Oz in the room, she’s exiting a space of brightness, and about to step into the dark. Oz’s renewal of her faith keeps her in the happy place.
Pop culture note: Aside from Andrew’s Bobba Fett hoodie, a couple other Dark Horse franchises make guest appearances. In the panel where Andrew is rummaging through his stuff to find the video cam, Hellboy and an Alien figure can clearly be seen. Also, Sesame Street’s Count is clearly seen on Buffy’s t-shirt during her bonding session with Faith.
The art is nuanced, quirky and delightful with an incredible attention to detail that only raises the standard of strong characterization (Faith’s disappearing tattoo notwithstanding. Maybe she’s just following Angel’s example on the path to redemption. Step one – stop killing people. Step two – remove tats).
Writing: Jane Espenson delivers a ridiculously dense and multi-layered script that actually translates beautifully, unlike her previous work in “Harmonic Divergence”. In what is proving to be a game-changing arc, Espenson successfully expounds on what was meant by letting the power through you into the earth, as well as establish some key character moments.
Slayers aren't repressing their powers, but letting the energy flow through them and back into the Earth. The “poison” is bottled up in supernatural human beings, like the Slayers and Willow. It's not repressing power, but letting go of power. But the question remains: what is the source of this power and is it inherent to a person? Is letting go of power perhaps letting go a bit of their identity? This is what Willow fears, but Oz reassures her that she's still Willow Rosenberg without the magic, assuring her that she “can be done”, that she too can have a life, something which Willow resents him for having.
This desire to let go ignores the fact that the world is in danger of being destroyed every May (if not several times a year). The power that Willow sought and now struggles to let go of was something she chose. She chose to arm herself with this power in order to help Buffy fight the demons and save the world. Just as the power consumed her once before during her dark arc, here too we see the negative consequences of her choice to fight alongside Buffy – she feels she cannot have a family or a normal life.
Power, by its nature, is not evil. Having power doesn’t define you; how you use your power defines who you are. You are what you do, but your power is the tool you use. It’s a puzzling and panicked logic that leads to the Slayers feeling "weak,” having let go of their power, and leaving themselves vulnerable to Twilight coming with all kinds of pointy and explosive weapons.
It is perhaps telling that the most vocal “malcontents” are our three lesbians: the witch who granted the Slayers their power, and the two Slayers who have most ardently embraced their power. Perhaps hiding who you really are and turning the other way may not be the best solution. Kennedy sums this up best: “It’s bull$#@&.” Is this just merely a moment of weakness? Faith makes it seem so: “It got to me. What we had to do. What I had to do. I’m not strong enough to have to be that strong.”
Where will this lesson lead? Will it be another Helpless where the Slayers are without their powers and instead rely on their wits to defeat their enemy? Perhaps in realizing that they don't need their powers to survive, they'll realize that the power isn't who they are, but what they use to become who they choose to be. Just as a person would go to medical school to become a doctor, arming themselves with this knowledge, so too will a warrior arm themselves with weapons to fight.
This issue also puts into perspective the criticism that #26 felt too rushed and jam-packed. Deliberately so. Here we have the very literal slow-down effect. The world slips away and the characters are finally interacting on a deeper level. Connection. The frantic pace of #26 retreats into the flashbacks and exposition of #27 and the promise of a solution. We see this potential realization of a life without magic and what it brings - deeper connection, something Buffy’s been desperate to feel for a long time (“Connection. Why can’t I feel it?” – “A Beautiful Sunset”).
This deeper connection doesn't come consequence-free. Feeling more, besides the ability to feel happy, means you're more vulnerable to pain, both emotional and physical. Buffy gets this one-two punch at the close of the issue, first witnessing Xander and Dawn's romantic liplock just as she was seeking out that deeper connection with him, then leading to Twilight's army discovering their location. The battle is imminent. Will their defenses be enough without magic and Slayer powers? Doubtful. Which means more emotional and physical pain is coming. And that’s where a Slayer lives and breathes.
What’s next? Warriors, by their nature, don’t retreat for good. They retreat in order to rally for the next battle to come. The Slayers may have laid down their power and with it their most powerful weapons, but not for long.
It’s interesting to have the issue about rooting out the truth told by Andrew, the one whose looser grip on reality has been called into question in the past. Now it’s Andrew who is questioning everyone’s loyalty and consequently becoming a less likely suspect – reestablishing and betraying trust. This happens repeatedly through the issue. First, with Buffy and Faith bonding over the need to rest and be normal segueing to the intimate scene between Xander and Dawn who talk around what they’re really trying to say. Flirting with the topic and each other, much? Then Xander and Buffy connect and share the secret of what happened to Willow in the future – their trust in each other having never been stronger or more intimate. This revealed secret leads to Andrew questioning Giles, then Giles questioning Willow. This loss of trust in Willow is restored with serene faith from Oz when he hands over his son, Kelden, into Willow’s hands. More trust in Willow follows with Buffy’s confession of killing her in the future and Willow’s immediate trust in herself that everything will be okay and she’ll work harder at the “no-magic thing.”
The Scooby Core is strong in this moment, Xander’s trust in Buffy leading to Buffy’s trust in Willow and Willow’s bolstered trust in herself thanks to Oz reverberating back down the line. Buffy seeks to complete this circle, going to Xander to tell him how her conversation with Willow went as he’d made her promise and here comes the final betrayal of trust – Buffy walks in to find Xander and Dawn together, kissing. Her best friend, one of the “people that [she] loves[s]” and might have started thinking about in a more intimate way, and her sister, who represents all the normal that Buffy wants in her own life. Buffy’s expression, shock and hurt and “feel[ing] more”, fades back into her stoic general’s persona. The cycle of trust is stymied, but not yet broken.
- Co-written by Emmie and Wenxina (originally posted on the SlayAlive Blog)