From issues #32-40, the climax of Buffy Season 8 plays out on an epic scale. We have yet to have a visit from Spike and Angel, for example, and they’ll both make appearances as circumstances unfold. But before we dive headlong into the swirling action-drama of “Twilight” and “Last Gleaming”, Joss Whedon himself steps in to write a curious, singular, character-driven issue #31, titled “Turbulence”. Its main function is to clarify where all the characters are, in terms of their individual arcs in the season, and remind us of where they all stand as they enter endgame.
The battle in the Tibetan field is over, as the Slayer Army summoned from the ground all of the magic they had been pushing down into it to avoid detection in the weeks leading up to the confrontation. Twilight and his forces have been momentarily routed by three giant Goddesses, and magic continues to leak upward out of the ground. Sometimes all at once, as Willow experiences in a conversation with Oz. When she is struck by a powerful cloud of green magic energy, Willow senses that it is somehow from the future, that it was an aftershock from some cataclysmic event yet to occur. And ominous bit of foreshadowing if there ever was one, as Willow’s dark but magic-deprived manifestation did appear to be active when Buffy visited Fray some issues ago.
Twilight, in the meantime, has his three prisoners, transported to him from the battlefield. Faith, Giles and Andrew lie unconscious and helpless at his feet, but he does not harm them, only ruminates that from here on things “will start to happen very quickly” and Buffy will find out. It must be said that up until this point, Twilight, despite his cool suit, has had about as much character development as Cobra Commander. We, as an audience, are aware of Warren and Amy’s motivations because we remember them from the series, but Twilight is very much as a “stock villain”. He prances and pronounces but reveals essentially nothing about his plans or his motivation. There are good answers coming, of course, but for the first time reader, to go 30 issues without a compelling villain is a hard road.
Back in more cliched but effective “war movie” territory, Buffy comforts a dying soldier in the makeshift hospital they’ve erected in a temple near Oz’s house. This good-natured soldier, though he fought for the other side, receives the tenderest of care from the Slayers, including Jack Daniels when the morphine runs out. There’s a wonderful bit of dialogue in which he asks Buffy if she is a witch. She responds, “I’m a Vampire Slayer.” The soldier asks, “What’s that?” to which Buffy replies, “Just like it sounds.” One of the great things about Whedon mythology, as the fans know, is that he deliberately and in a quite matter-of-fact fashion simply calls a spade a spade.
But Joss knows that the fans also need to see some resolution of the growing romantic interest Buffy has developed for Xander. This is too important a relationship to be glanced over: Xander has always dreamed of being with Buffy, and Buffy is lonely and confused and looking to him as the best guy in the room. (He’s also often the only guy in the room, but that makes him no less good.) So, we spend seven full pages, nearly a third of this issue, in one conversation between Xander and Buffy. Here is where Georges Jeanty really shines, allowing his drawings to do the acting work that Gellar and Brendon would no doubt have brought to the scene. Buffy’s big, sad eyes have been a highlight all the way through Season 8, and Jeanty also draws a sad, world-weary body language for her in this scene. It’s a brilliant piece of comic art.
Buffy approaches the subject by looking up lovingly, but sadly at Xander and saying simply that she’s “too late” for him. Although she is happy, albeit confused, about the relationship that has grown between Xander and Dawn, in a heartbreaking moment she has to ask, “What about me?”
Though it goes without saying, I think it deserves at least a mention: we’ve all been there. Xander is extremely flattered by Buffy’s feelings, and says that it would be great to hear that she’s attracted to him, “If it was a bunch of years ago and you actually meant it.” He points out that her last lover was a woman, which illustrates Buffy’s explorative nature lately, and also that Buffy went “through gay” to him. And that somehow Buffy didn’t feel like saying any of this to him until she saw him kissing her sister. At that small bit of truth, Buffy deflates.
It’s such an important moment because it shows us how far Xander has come, and what his role is within this large and potentially extremely socially complex world of women in which he finds himself. The younger Xander would have jumped at the chance to finally have his dream girl, but Xander is a grown man, and though he may not act like it all the time, the events of his life have taught him something after all. And as a resolutely straight and resolutely feminist guy, he has long since learned that he can be friends with women without ever considering a sexual relationship with them. Except Dawn, who interrupts their conversation with a Dawn-esque moment where she sees them hugging and says, “Uh, cough. Noise of cough.”
And Dawn, rather than getting into a long conversation about the potential awkward moments or the potential joy of having Xander really in the Summers family where he has always belonged, redirects their attention the fact that there are three powerful Goddesses still roaming the fields outside the window who need to be dealt with. Dawn’s sudden switch of subjects speaks volumes to her maturity, as well.
Buffy, loaded up with super-strength in her own injection of power that was released from the earth (and possibly the future), goes outdoors and promptly deals with the Goddesses as if she were a WWE wrestler. Cleaning up the wreckage and both flying (they can fly now), her and Willow have a brief chat about the Xander/Dawn relationship and Willow just laughs. “I thought they’d never figure that out.” No conflicted emotions for Willow. Buffy, on the other hand, is now the only single member of the original Scoobies.
By taking the time to address long-standing character issues, Whedon shows a great deal of control and skill in this issue. The climactic finale of Season 8 is coming up, but taking the time to develop and maintain the characters makes it all so much more meaningful.