This arc of Buffy Season 8 is complex and more than a little confusing for those who don’t pay strict attention. This has to be said up front for those playing the home game because if you stick with it, “Time of Your Life” has some great Whedon moments and it ultimately adds another important slice of motivation to Willow’s plate, anticipating the major theme of this arc.
Way back when we began the discussion of Season 8, we observed that sometimes during this season the writers’ reach exceeds their grasp. Seemingly intoxicated by the visual and thematic possibilities that comics offered as opposed to TV (giant Sci Fi cityscapes, half-human Centaurs, Aquamen, Fog demons, etc.), Season 8 sometimes goes over the top and makes clumsy use of the medium, where the constraints of TV storytelling sometimes enhanced what Whedon and company were able to do. “Time of Your Life” seems more than a little in that category. Cutting between three almost completely different story lines with different tones and a different visual style, foregrounding visual splash sometimes at the expense of narrative clarity, this one is a challenge to the reader. Compare it to the previous arc, “Wolves at the Gate”, by Drew Goddard, which had big themes and visuals, too, but kept the characters together and focused in on a few easily understandable character-driven themes.
The stew is rich right from the start because of the return of Fray, the futuristic Vampire Slayer who got her own book, and her own review, earlier in this series. Joss Whedon, who wrote this arc but drafted Andy Owens and Karl Moline from the original Fray comic for art, tosses us right into the action, on page one, starting with a fight between Buffy and Fray over the skyline of futuristic New York. Echoing Fray’s first words in her comic, Buffy’s voiceover has her say, “Bad day. Started that way.” Then there’s a smash cut right to Giant Dawn experiencing pain in the Scottish forest that could easily be mistaken for menstrual cramps. Then a second smash cut to Buffy, Xander and Willow eating Chinese food in the control room. Within four pages, the story has careened across time and space, shifting tone and thematic content.
I find it difficult to believe this narrative cacophony is an accident. Approaching it as a deliberate stylistic choice, it does succeed in making us, the reader, feel almost as unbalanced and desperate as the characters. But there are a few too many “sudden reveals” and sharp twists for my taste.
The first of these sudden twists is when the meeting between Xander, Buffy and Willow comes to a sudden end when they hear Dawn in apparent pain outside. Rushing out, they find her transformed into a Centaur, half-woman, half-horse. Dawn’s disappointed expression perfectly reflects her single-word summation of her newest transformation, “Neigh.” Meanwhile, back in the evil lair, Twilight continues to entertain plots from the aggressive (and skinless) Warren. This time, Warren has come up with a nuclear missile with the added kick of some demon enchantment. He plans to aim it at the Slayers’ castle, finally taking out Buffy, Willow and Xander, the three key leaders of the army.
But as it turns out, Buffy and Willow aren’t even in the castle, having established that an important source of Buffy’s power, the Slayer scythe, has been lost and is to be found in New York. This doesn’t quite make sense to anyone, as Buffy rescued the scythe from Tokyo in the very previous issue, but Willow claims to have a direct message from her demon goddess contact (which, in a Whedoneque twist, can only be contacted during orgasm) and Buffy and Willow are off to New York to investigate.
The sequences of Buffy in present-day New York are probably the most enjoyable part of this arc, at least for me. Kennedy, Willow’s girlfriend with whom she shares an apartment, is there to meet them as Buffy carries an alarming amount of baggage from the flight, using her Slayer strength. It isn’t lost on anyone that the metaphor of Buffy carrying too much baggage is resonant, as is her assertion that it’s not a burden because “I’m balanced”. In the context of the story, it comes across as someone describing themselves as a “functional alcoholic”.
Buffy has struggled all season with denial and depression, and this story arc doesn’t make that any less of a burden for her. All of the major character this season are struggling under their new burdens. Since season 5, they have tried to come to terms with life outside of high school, in the adult world, and each season, just when they are getting their feet on the ground and some sense of direction, the stakes are raised. Buffy, so far this season, has endured depression, has had a sexual relationship with another woman and is about to get her first taste of New York City. She’s as confused and over-burdened as ever. The message seems to be that life continues to throw you challenges that you’re not ready to face, at any age. However true that might be (it’s been true for me), it isn’t exactly an encouraging thought.
The character points deserve mention here, because the story is about to literally fall off a building and/or explode. This mega-action approach, very much in keeping with the tradition of Fray, is part of the style of Season 8. It’s spectacular, and it’s often interesting to see our characters in physically challenging situations, but it does make the very real and internally consistent character development (which is the reason people keep coming back to Buffy) more difficult to spot.
In amidst all of this we finally get a clue as to what the recurring “Twilight” symbol actually means. As Willow explains, time is experienced as a straight line, but if we could jump between time periods this would appear as an arc from one point on a line to another (which is an exact description of Twilight’s calling card). She goes on to explain that changes to the timeline would create ripples, ultimately affecting events in the past and present, as we perceive it, as well as the future. The appearance of Dark Willow from Season 6 in the far future, creating havoc for Fray but with vastly reduced magic powers, is a consequence of the events, not their cause. The actual cause of the ripples in time won’t be revealed until the very end.
When Buffy finally recovers from the shock of being hundreds of years in the future, her response is one of despair. Clearly, her creation of the slayer army, with all of its power, didn’t remove evil from the world and didn’t make for a better society. The evidence is right there in front of her eyes, with “Lurks” (vampires) still present and still causing problems for the people of the 23rd century. All season, Buffy has questioned the wisdom of her actions and this is her most meaningful response to being hurled forward through time. As Buffy says, sadly and quietly, “spoiler alert.” But, like many points, that one almost gets lots in the non-stop action sequences reminiscent of the car chase in The Fifth Element.
Allowing that Part 3 of the “Time of Your Life” arc (issue #18) has possibly my second-favourite variant cover of the whole run, the subplot between Xander and Dawn running (or galloping) away from the castle after being attacked by Warren’s missile is cute but forgettable. The key character point is this: Xander’s now single, and he and Dawn, who have always been close, are becoming closer.
Willow, on the other hand, has managed to contact her demon advisor in the way described above (with Kennedy’s help between her legs) and is told that the cross-dimensional gateway that carried Buffy to the future will re-open that night. The demon Goddess is vague about other aspects of the future (she clearly doesn’t want Willow to realize that the evil force operating there is Willow herself) but she ends with a very Whedonesque pun, “Do come again.”
The arc ends with a knock-down, drag-out fight between Buffy and Fray, who is very suspicious of this Slayer from the past, in which Dark Future Willow is killed by the slayer scythe. Buffy returns to Willow’s arms, profoundly expressing her love (with Kennedy advising her to keep her hands above the belt). Xander and Dawn have successfully made it safety with the help of Tree spirits (as if the mix of metaphors isn’t already rich enough). A busy end to a busy arc.
But the main themes are worth repeating: somehow Willow is present in the future, devoid of magic. The castle has been destroyed. Dawn is a Centaur. And Buffy is only a little bit close to unraveling the meaning of all of this and what Twilight has to do with it.
In the next issue, all will be reunited in a creative diversion before setting about the business of finding a new headquarters for the slayer army, out of reach of Twilight’s ever-extending grasp. The next few issues, in fact, are standalone stories that creatively explore the comic book possibilities of Buffy, and we’ll look at them next time.