After six issues that were essentially standalone stories, some of which were very experimental one-off character or thematic explorations, Jane Espenson’s five-part “Retreat” arc is a vital turning point in Buffy Season 8. In fact, with its self-contained setting and story, solid character arcs and numerous little “Whedonesque” moments, issues #26-30 are a true high water mark in Buffy’s comics adventures.
In fact, it’s reminiscent of nothing so much as The Empire Strikes Back, not in its narrative specificity, but the general tenor of the story. The Slayer Army is at a truly low point, but, unlike the far flung activities of the previous issues, this time they’re all together, united in a common battle (there’s literally a battle) against impossible odds. But they also have to deal with very old and long-festering personal issues, make important character revelations and pinpoint what’s going to be the central struggle from here until the end of Season 8.
At the beginning of the story, Buffy, Xander and Willow are still holding down the fort with the Slayer Army in Scotland, but things aren’t going well. They’re facing increasingly monstrous threats and Twilight knows where they are. Faith and Giles are holed up in a bunker in Berlin (Faith points out the irony), also hiding from human and demon forces. And Andrew leads a contingent through the catacombs in Rome, where Slayers are being hunted. It seems as if everyone is going to have to do some relocating, and fast.
The entire gang eventually finds its way back to Scotland, where Buffy and Giles, for one, have a tearful reunion. But there’s no time to savour their status as demons driving tanks and sporting Medieval Siege Engines are soon storming the Scottish castle, under the leadership of Twilight. It turns out that Twilight has been tracking Willow’s magic use, and the magic use of the other wiccans she has recruited. What Willow perceives as their greatest strength has led the enemy right to their gates. Willow, by the way, has been enjoying magic a bit too much and this has made everyone nervous, given her history with the forces.
Buffy eventually just orders retreat, and the entire army takes refuge in the submarine (appropriated from North Korea and introduced a few issues back). Now it’s up to Willow to perform, as Buffy sees it, one last big act of magic. She teleports the submarine and everyone in it from the North Atlantic to a field in Tibet. Where Oz, meditating peacefully in a temple overlooking the valley that now contains the sub, gives his trademark thoughtful “huh”.
The relationship between Oz and Willow, the honesty with which the writers committed to their emotions, was one of the things that made Buffy the TV series so much better and more insightful than so many of its contemporaries. Buffy seemed to understand, in a way that most other shows and many people do not, that sexual orientation is a lifelong journey for some people and that individual circumstances and emotions are very much a part of that. A lesser show would have had Willow realize one day that she wasn’t straight, have an affair with Tara and just leave Oz out completely, since he wasn’t a major character. Instead, Whedon and company allowed Oz to break Willow’s heart in a very human way, allowed her time to grieve and when she met Tara it wasn’t so much a case of “deciding to be with a woman” as deciding to be with that woman. Similarly, when Oz returns and expects him and Willow to pick up where they left off, no one is the “enemy” and no one is “wrong” in that situation. Tara is scared and hurt and Willow is confused. They muddle through, imperfectly. But Oz is emphatically not a homophobic “bad guy”. Whedon is too smart for that. Which is why it’s impressive to see that dynamic, and that very mature approach to the subject, continued here.
The Slayer Army arrives to find that Oz has married a wonderful woman named Bayarrma (or “Bay”) and they have a little boy named Kelden. Bay helped Oz deal with his affliction (he’s a werewolf) through meditation and spiritual exercises that help him redirect the magical energy into the earth itself. This is, as she tells it, an old Tibetan trick. It isn’t long before the Slayer Army, and Giles in particular, hits upon the idea of directing all the group’s magical energy into the earth, allowing them to “hide” from Twilight’s magic detecting abilities. It would give them time to think and rest and heal, at least, so goes the logic.
Healing is very much on Willow’s mind, who is the most conflicted and confused in this new situation. Her challenges are on a number of fronts. For one thing, she’s now being forced to “give up” her magic and direct it back into the earth. Although she sees the logic of it, it isn’t easy for Willow to lose the one thing that makes her special and powerful. She’s also struggling personally, bitterly jealous at seeing her former lover happily married with a child, just as she always dreamt for them. Whereas Willow’s personal life, with Kennedy and all the drama of the Slayer Army, seems difficult and painful next to Oz’s idyllic life. In Star Wars terms, Willow is ripe to be tempted by the dark side.
Giving up the magic isn’t easy for anyone, by the way, including many in the Slayer Army. Slayers are by their very nature “magic all day every day,” as Buffy puts it. Giving up their strength to avoid detection leaves them weak and vulnerable. They try their best to occupy themselves being useful to their hosts, planting crops and milking the Yak and such, but frustration and fear grow. And then, of course, the inevitable happens and Twilight finds them.
Before getting to the epic battle between Twilight and the newly-weakened Slayer Army, there’s more significant character developments. Buffy and Faith get to spend some time together and find much of their former hostility is gone in the face of a new enemy and a more grown up sense of themselves. Buffy starts to realize that she’s attracted to Xander, but is shocked and confused when she finds that Xander and Dawn are “together”, and very affectionate with each other. (Georges Jeanty makes masterful use of eye-lines, here, playing out many scenes of kissing etc between Xander and Dawn with Buffy sneaking a peek out of the corner of her eye.)
And we shouldn’t forget that Buffy’s ex Riley Finn is ostensibly working for Twilight. Riley is one of many soldiers that contribute to the massive battle involving Tanks, Jeeps and military equipment. The Slayer Army also has to resort to that most dreaded of weapons: the gun. They don’t have their normal powers, and they don’t have Willow’s magic, so they use whatever Chinese weapons are available. And, of course, the submarine.
Here is where the Empire Strikes Back or even the Return of the Jedi elements come into play. The long battle (spread over two issues, it could easily fill one) is far more interesting than the repetitive yelling and clanking of most battle sequences, playing out in a series of vignettes that are sometimes heroic and sometimes quite funny. The best consisted of a group of Slayers rigging one of the now-abandoned submarine’s torpedoes on a sled and sliding into the enemy forces, only then asking themselves, “Do torpedoes work on land?” The next frame, with the army celebrating and yelling, “torpedoes work on land!” reaches almost Archer- level satire.
Two big plot points emerge during the epic Buffy “war movie” that forms the last part of “Retreat”. One is that Riley is revealed to be on the side of the Slayer Army the whole time, working undercover in Twilight’s organization. Buffy saves him and nurses him back to heath at the Slayer’s improvised hospital. The second involves the forces that Willow, her witches, the Slayers and Oz (as well as some fellow werewolves) have been pumping into the earth. With a very mild spell, those forces are pulled back out with a vengeance, taking the forms of ancient Asian Goddesses and tearing the Twilight army to pieces. Unfortunately the Goddesses aren’t that easily controlled and Buffy finds herself in the hands of one during the final skirmish.
Dropped to the earth by a giant blue Goddess (we should point out that this would probably not be the way they would go on TV), Buffy is knocked unconscious but wakes up floating high in the air, watching the battle unfold beneath her. The next two major arcs, “Twilight” and “Last Gleaming”, will bring us to the epic and tragic end of Buffy Season 8.