The next story arc of Buffy Season 8 once again hits on the main theme of this season and indeed the later seasons of the TV series: what does it mean to be a Slayer? This question is at the heart of season 5, for example, and comes up very prominently at the end of season 7. Prior to this, the most dramatic example of what a slayer should, and shouldn’t, be was the infamous Faith the Vampire Slayer (played by Eliza Dushku on TV). This “dark slayer” had all of Buffy’s physical abilities but very little of her sense of mission. Faith wasn’t a team player, and never seemed particularly committed to the rules of being a slayer, and the traditions that had grown up around the slayer-watcher relationship. Buffy herself, of course, questions and challenges the authorities several times over the run of the TV series, but ultimately she commits to her version of authenticity and moral righteousness. Faith, who ultimately undergoes some form of spiritual healing thanks to Angel, doesn’t have that same commitment. So, here in issue #5 of Buffy Season 8, we meet with with Faith once again on her own, struggling to find her place in the new world of the slayer army.
But not before we get the Whedon-penned issue #5, “The Chain”. A tradition in Buffy Season 8 is that the major story arcs are somewhat broken up by one-issue diversions and vignettes, related to the major narrative themes but telling self-contained stories. This is a TV tool, harkening back to the days when some episodes were required to be cheaper to produce and smaller in scope, providing a quiet moment before diving back into the centre of the action. In the hands of a great TV writer, these “buffer” episodes can achieve a greatness all their own, such as “The Zeppo” from Buffy Season 3. “The Chain” is another example, and thus begins an informal tradition in Buffy Season 8 that these issues are often pencilled by artists other than Georges Jeanty, in this case Paul Lee.
The issue at the heart of “The Chain” is one that comes up again in the “No Future For You” story arc that follows, which is what the place of the slayer in society has become, now that there are so many of them. Another theme is what the role of Rupert Giles, one of the last surviving Watchers, can be in this new society. Buffy, the “original” slayer and head of the army, has become such a celebrity that Giles has decided she needs “doubles”, other slayers with their appearances sometimes modified to look like her who can take her place at public and demonic activities. The story of how one such slayer is “chosen”, recruited and trained is told in this issue, which also involves a fairies, demons and blood. Because, you know, this is Whedon.
The “TV Commercial” in the middle of this issue is worth the price of admission alone, showing two actors (who bear more than a passing resemblance to Tom Lenk and Felicia Day), posing as a classic 1950s couple, with pearls, sweaters and a pipe, offer useful advice to women who deal with such everyday problems as not being able to “control my strength” and “having dreams that are strange and disturbing to me”. If the viewer finds these problems familiar, they can call 1-800-CHOSEN-1 for help with this “alarming yet fun condition”. It’s one of those bits of humour that is driven my logic, as many good jokes are.
The young slayer at the centre of this issue sees that commercial after being “called” at her high school and quickly finding herself at a slayer training centre, receiving instructions in martial arts, history, demonology and tactics. But the ones for whom this is a possibility, due to their appearance or their abilities or both, are given the special mission of being “Buffy” to the world for certain special missions. It’s often useful, so goes the logic, for some demons to believe Buffy is dead, and for others to believe she’s partying in Rome (a reference to Angel Season 5’s episode “The Girl in Question”). After her training, and a bit of hair dye to make her look a bit more like our familiar blonde Buffy, this slayer is sent to save some magical cavern-dwellers, including a talking magical slug, from the tyranny of a particularly nasty demon. Though the slayer army does win the battle, this girl does the one thing that ultimately all “body doubles” should be prepared to do: die. Her last bit of dialogue is used to explain in the voice over narration that we readers “don’t even know who I am. But I do.”
What “The Chain” makes abundantly clear is that there are many slayers in the world and many of them need help desperately, just to cope with their new “condition”. We’re also shown that Giles plays a large role in these proceedings, as opposed to taking a leading role at Buffy’s side. Giles, by this point, has developed sufficient respect for Buffy’s leadership abilities that he doesn’t need to look over her shoulder, preferring instead to lend his Watcher talents to the slayer army in the traditional way, as a mentor and teacher. No slayer seems to need his mentorship and guidance more than the wayward, wisecracking Faith.
The “No Future For You” story arc covers issues #6-9, and is written by comics luminary Brian K. Vaughn. For those who welcome a reminder, Vaughn’s excellent Saga is probably the most Whedon-like science fiction series available at the moment, and his previous masterpiece Y: The Last Man also covers familiar Whedon ground, exploring issues of gender and power with a great sense of humour. Vaughn is the perfect choice to write Whedon characters, sharing Joss’s almost Shakespearean sense of character and humour, mixing the highest level of dramatic poetry with the most lowbrow jokes imaginable. In particular, all through this run, Faith’s dialogue is absolutely “five by five”. Other than Spike, Faith must be the most fun character to write dialogue for in the Buffy-verse, and Vaughn’s presentation of Faith has a joy in the verbal that’s matched by Georges Jeanty’s excellent visuals.
We join faith in full Batman-mode, lurking over the city on a tall building, until she receives a call from Robin Wood, now a General in the slayer army, who describes him as “an ex”. Wood, alas, is calling on business, and directs Faith to a house where a vampire the army has just dispatched used to live. Because this vampire was a single mom, something which Faith understands immediately. When you need someone to slaughter vampire children, Faith will get the job done.
When she returns, Giles in waiting for her in her apartment, wearing a snazzy Beatles sweater and sipping some very poor tea. Faith’s opening line, “Haven’t clocked you since the Sunny D went from being an outie to an innie”, makes about as much sense as ancient Greek until you perform the translation from Faith Snark. (Giles does not even try, simply saying, “I have no idea what the means, but it’s good to see you, Faith.”) Giles is there to present an important mission, to kill a Slayer. This has to be done from time to time, as girls with the slayer abilities don’t always get the guidance they need, as Faith of all people knows very well.
This particular slayer who is marked for death is an English Aristocrat whose Watcher is in fact a powerful and less than scrupulous Warlock. The first part of Faith’s training for this mission involves a little Pygmalion nod in which Giles must show her how to behave like a well-cultured English girl. Faith affects a passable British accent, chooses a secret identity and quickly picks up on slightly non-PC British vernacular. Despite her sometimes questionable manners, Faith soon finds herself at a Jane Austen-like “soiree” at which this wayward slayer is supposed to appear. Retiring to a deck for a quite cigarette, the undercover Faith is suddenly face to face with her prey, but is rapidly yanked from the situation by gigantic magical Gargoyles. Captured by the evil slayer, she wakes up in a posh bedroom, only to be told that this girl, “Lady Genevieve”, is actually hunting Buffy, on the advice of her Warlock Watcher. And most symbolically of all, these people seem to be making use of a book carrying the familiar “Twilight” symbol.
Faith being the person she is, she doesn’t immediately do the right thing. Giles, frustrated that he can no longer contact her, turns to a mystical dwarf who can’t help him, much. Faith on the other hand takes a bath and bonds over music and life with Lady Genevieve, just as her Warlock Watcher summons Buffy herself to the mansion. As the evil slayer battles Buffy, Faith makes an appearance and Buffy blows her cover, exposing her to the Lady and her Warlock as an agent of the slayer army. The three-way battle is classic Buffy: lots of magically infused kung-fu between young women, sprinkled with witticisms like “Your sense of sorority sucks”. The end is fairly dramatically devastating, though, with Faith literally holding Buffy’s head underwater, revisiting all of her jealousy and rage towards not only Buffy as a person but the entire order she represents. But Faith relents, responding to a threat by an axe-wielding Lady Genevieve and to the fact that Buffy disappears, saved by the efforts of Willow and her witches back at the slayer headquarters.
Meanwhile, Giles’ magical dwarf has given up on contacting the slayer, telling him that “It’s gonna take arts darker than mine to get you to the other side”. Moments later, Willow reaches Giles with that modern bit of mystical communication: the cell phone. It’s Giles who eventually saves the day, adding an essential bit of extra power to Faith’s efforts in fighting off the Lady and her Warlock. Though he offers Faith some money, a passport and a “new start”, the epilogue of this of story involves Faith and Giles bonding tenderly, with Giles admitting that he and Buffy aren’t on speaking terms at the moment. Instead, he suggests that he could be “Steed” to Faith’s “Peel” (quoting another sort of Avengers, for us Whedon fans). Faith and Giles are finally reconciled that they need each other, and they’re both “on their own”.
The relationship that Giles and Faith have with the rest of the slayer army, and indeed with the main force with which all of that is associated, is complex. Giles is essentially Buffy’s only father figure, but by the end of the TV series he had been relegated to a senior advisor capacity, freely surrendering his authority to that of his protégée. Faith, too, in Buffy season 7, had submitted to Buffy’s priority and followed her lead for the time being. But the question of what these characters do in the new world is a good one. Giles is the one who pushes Buffy away, saying that he doesn’t want her to be any part of this. This sort of tough love, subtle but firm, caring but cold, is typical Giles behaviour in the later seasons. He must let Buffy be the leader, and he must be free to do things that aren’t in the official Slayer handbook. From the very start of the TV series all the way back in Buffy season 1, Giles was playing a longer, larger game. It seems, as of issue #9 of Season 8, that he still is. And Faith is a good and rather logical ally for this “rogue agent” of the slayer army.
And Giles and Faith will be needed in the future, as the dark revelation in this story is essentially that Twilight was manipulating the whole situation that, as he intones, “night falls soon enough”. The next two issues, “A Beautiful Sunset” and “Anywhere But Here” are both standalone stories that lead into our next major story arc, “Wolves at the Gate”. If you think Buffy’s interesting and spectacular in Scotland, wait until she gets to Japan…