We are almost back to the main storyline of Buffy Season 8. Just some catching up to do with Faith and Giles, and dealing with Dawn’s boyfriend issues to get through, first.
Issue, #24, “Safe”, re-acquaints us with the adventures of Giles and Faith. Jim Krueger and guest penciler Cliff Richards concoct an entertaining and atmospheric Gothic-style tale, involving trains, castles, dark warnings and tentacles in an old library. With Faith as the hero in this kind of tale, the juxtaposition runs thick and is fairly delicious.
It also seems odd to note, but it is true, that we really haven’t seen much Vampire Slaying in this season of Buffy. There has been some, of course, but the old-fashioned one-on-one vampire fights that were a staple of the TV series are fairly uncommon here in the comic. (At least for Season 8.) That’s one reason why “Safe” has some nostalgia value for us long-time fans. In fact, all of the Giles/Faith stories so far have been much closer to the feel of classic Buffy than anything the Slayer Army is dealing with. The shift in focus is quite refreshing here.
Though their methods and ultimate goals may differ, the work that occupies Giles and Faith is the same as for the Slayer Army: find new Slayers, organize them. Giles has been specializing in finding rogue Slayers, but in this case it’s an ordinary girl who is chosen that leads him and Faith into a dark, Gothic scenario.
The chosen girl, whose name is Courtney, speaks of a “Slayer Sanctuary” after being rescued from some vampires and mistaking Faith for Buffy. (She calls her “Buffy”, to which Faith responds, “She’s calling me names, G.”) Neither Giles nor Faith has heard of the sanctuary, which is located in the European town of Handselstadt, presumably next to its sister city, Gretelstadt. Giles and Faith take the train through Eastern Europe just as in Dracula and the imagery is presented with all the irony intended, but it still manages to evoke something creepy and threatening amongst all the meta-references.
As any fan of Gothic literature (or player of King’s Quest) will know, small towns in Eastern Europe are always threatened by some sort of supernatural force. In this case, both Faith and Giles notice many vampires wandering the forests and fields surrounding the city, but not going in. Courtney simply explains that they’re “not allowed” in Hanselstadt. Immediately the veteran vampire fighters are skeptical – vampires don’t follow rules, as such – but it’s all part of the ritual. When they finally arrive at the requisite creepy mansion, they’re met by one Duncan Fillworthe: another former Watcher. Giles knows him, of course, as they may indeed be the last of the Watcher’s Council of England who survived the massacres in Season 7.
At the obligatory “dinner scene,” where Fillworthe explains his version of what’s happening in Hanselstadt. This is known as a Slayer Sanctuary, he says, because he collects Slayers, and its their presence that keeps the vampires at bay. Even if that were true, as Giles points out, it’s not really a lasting solution to their problem, only a stalemate. But even stranger is that there is no sign of these Slayers anywhere in the old mansion or in the peaceful but deserted streets.
Courtney leads Faith into a creepy old library (the tropes are piled upon ironic tropes in this story) where Faith finder herself first face-to-face with a vampire she met the night she was first “called”. Or is she? It turns out that the real monster is a tentacled demon that literally consumes Slayers, transmitting comforting hallucinations through its tentacles. The vampires stay away out of fear of this creature, not of the Slayers it eats.
And Fillworthe’s strategy is to keep feeding it Slayers. He justifies it by throwing some hard truths in Giles’ face: he allowed Buffy to break away from the Watchers council. He allowed her to create the Slayer army. And he supports their organization even though society at large has called them enemies. Fillworthe equates this to being in league with the vampires themselves, even dredging up the memory of Jenny Calendar to throw at Rupert. Giles doesn’t respond, and eventually helps Faith and defeat the demon. The townspeople will now have to fight the vampire threat the same way everyone else does: by entering into direct combat with them.
Other than the Gothic texts that are all over this story, it does serve the larger arc, showing how the line between good and evil, between security and freedom, gets blurry in desperate times. It also shows that no matter what disagreements Giles might have with Buffy, he will always support her decisions and her leadership. That, we are reminded here, is not the case for everyone. Sexism, ageism (Buffy is “too young” to be making world-altering decisions, after all) and a clericism that blinded many Watchers was one of the things that led to its fall in Season 7. Giles has learned from that experience, while Fillworthe hasn’t. It’s an important part of defining who Giles “is” in this new world.
Issue #25, “Living Doll”, brings the saga of Dawn the Transformed Girl to a conclusion. The idea of Dawn being a giant (or a centaur, or, in this issue, a doll) was always a rather creative way to “sideline” her character for the first part of this season. Since she was a physically extreme presence, she would be pretty much bound to the home base (her one teleportation to Tokyo aside) and she would be easily distinguished from the Slayers, and in her way, equally blessed with magic and power. Though it seemed as if they were making strides in that direction in Season 7, Dawn’s status as a relatively “ordinary” person in those later seasons carried some difficult narrative conundrums. She isn’t magical, nor is she particularly skilled in any specific way, like Xander or Andrew. Dawn instead became the repository for the oldest kind of metaphor in the world of Buffy: making points about coming-of-age lessons using supernatural monsters.
Dawn was supposedly a giant because she “slept with a thricewise”, a shape-shifting demon. Xander (and us, the audience) learned in an earlier admission that it wasn’t the thricewise that Dawn had bedded, but his roommate. In a spate of anger and hurt, the thricewise cursed Dawn into her various forms. Up until this point, the forms have been in some ways empowering for Dawn, making her physically large or imposing. This latest transformation, into a doll that literally lives in a Geppetto-style dollmaking workshop, is much more dangerous and puts her in a very vulnerable position.
Xander and Buffy don’t know exactly what happened to her but they know she’s missing, and the castle is threatened by vampires, and Buffy has had enough. Andrew, their undercover “stand-by” guy, is dispatched to an American college campus to pose as a student and meet Dawn’s ex-thricewise, Ken.
As Buffy and Xander follow the trail (literally) to the dollmaker’s house (some might say the… Dollhouse, but I’m of course above such cheap allusions to other Whedon properties), Willow transports the College thricewise from his dorm room to the castle. Rather than threatening the group, Ken, reverting to his monstrous form, follows Buffy and Xander to the Dollhouse and helps to rescue her. We then get one of the most curious love scenes since the glory days of Swamp Thing, in which Dawn and Ken work out their feelings for each other.
Dawn is ultimately returned to her family, and life goes on for the Slayer army. But for how much longer? The ideal retreat comes to them in the next issue, and it involves Willow’s living “ex”, butter tea and a submarine.