I feel like my latest modus operandi in writing these reviews a bit late and splitting it on character related parts is working better than trying to do a full-scale narration, so I will stick to it for now.
I liked this issue a lot – and for reasons different from the last installment. It is basically a penultimate installment of the Quar’Toth arc and it pushed all the right buttons and prepared the ground for the final showdown. Unlike the previous arc – this one deals mostly with the characters I am genuinely interested in, and their dynamics is working wonderfully, if only because the writer finally decided to allow Angel to act like adult and show a bit of expertise ‘in the field ’ while at the same time keeping an eye on other members of the group and their complicated tangle of relationships.
Is basically leading the charge on the Quar’Toth prison that is holding the doggy demons. The moment the group sees the enemy he takes the lead, comes up with a basic and relevant plan, then continues to direct everybody’s actions until the deed is accomplished. I have to say he is quite good at being a commander – as he manages to keep an eye on everybody in the group, and at the same time be at the most dangerous place at any given time. No ordering team members to go and shoo away dangerous demons while he lingers behind, and as result no stampede of withdrawal and no losses – up until the final twist. He is also very good at staying cool and calculating in the middle of Apocalyptic-scale chaos – but he has had plenty of experience. The few last issues of AtF spring to mind when one looks at the panels of the Quar’Toth Older One rising. The subtle humor that the artist managed to convey does not hurt either.
Angel has a few brief but funny and meaningful exchanges with both Connor and Faith, and overall it seems like he is in his best element when directing a battle – maybe because he forgets to worry over things that he cannot undo. Yet the writer did not shy away from showing his more dangerous and calculating side – which happened right before the final cliffhanger. More about it later.
Shadows his father. The little retrospective moment that he has when thinking about all the ‘good’ demons who died because of following his ‘teachings’ might be a bit of an overkill in sensitivity – but it suits well with overall ‘Hipster Jesus’ theme that the boy has going for him in this arc. I am beginning to worry for his survival, to be completely honest. On other hand, I doubt that Angel would go back to London and pick up his resurrection quest if anything seriously bad happened to Connor, so maybe it is Joss giving us a little bit of relief before upcoming final few arcs. By the way the whole ‘resurrection’ plot goes well with Hipster Jesus theme as well, in an inverted sort of way : a powerless former would-be-God looking for a miracle.
Has the funniest lines in this issue. On the side note: Faith is so much more enjoyable character when she is not playing at ‘being Angel ‘, because existential angst does not suit her. As the series progressed, she might have lost some credibility as a co-lead, but gained a lot as a supporting character. She still does not have much of an internal conflict or a storyline of her own that does not rely heavily on Angel’s, but at least for now, with other characters thrown in the mix to expand the group, Faith has plenty of spank to offer and to be an enjoyable cast member.
Is the star of the current arc. Seriously – she is supposedly a guest on a sister-book. But in all honesty she had had more character development and interesting things to do in the last 3 issues of A&F than she had had in all of Buffy’s . Last issue we saw her feeling joy at regaining her magic – in this issue she is not only battling an Older Hell God and holding her own ground – she is also being torn apart by internal conflict between wanting to continue her quest for magic( and personal power) restoration, and feeling responsibility for the lives of her comrades whom she brought along with her into the Hell dimension to guard her back. I assume Quar'Toth most important secret is the Older One's ability to feed on the energy of negative feelings - so when the giant beastie Hell God wakes up complaining about its feast being disrupted - it is because the emotional field of the whole dimension is being 'poisoned' with too many beings feeling gratitude, happiness and love. Thus Willow's comment about their presence being minor indigestion to it. Willow's personal conflict with Angel is brought up to the front, his priority being the group ( and especially Connor's) survival, which makes his dangerous and reckless side resurface. As the beast attacks the group with bursts of negative energy, Angel forces Willow to seek power in the negative side of emotional spectrum, goading her to remember of how bad she felt about being powerless before entering Quar'Toth and comparing her current inability to fight the Old One to her feeling of misery over her loss of magic. Once Willow opens herself to the darker side of Quar'Toth magic she is able to hurt the Old One back enough to slow it (him?) down - and I kind of liked the giant thing discerning her 'Alien' power that hurts him. Unfortunately the head start being bought with that first blast is not enough, and as the group reaches the rift leading back to Earth the Old One catches up with them, even as Willow is being overcome with the Dark Side. On the positive side - nobody seem to be willing to abandon Willow to her fate. On the negative side - Dark Willow is back and it looks like she might be powerful enough to defeat the Older Hell God. Since the original Darth Rosenberg was supposedly capable of destroying the planet I suspect that her new incarnation is no less powerful - or dangerous. The point though is that she has all the memories of her past downfall, and her personal quest of restoring magic on Earth. The question is - will that be enough to make her seize control of her own powers? I am also curious if Angel being haunted by parts of Giles' soul is going to play a role in the outcome? It would be a terrible waste of plot if Giles' personality is not going to surface at least a little in the next issue. Especially taking into account presence of the Scythe. Btw, I started to suspect that the beastie on Willow's cover #2 might be Quar'Toth - which might mean that her mini's entire issue #1 is going to be a retrospective of sorts.
• Whistler and his subplot
My original reaction on the Whistler's 'dark' power-up was a mild annoyance at the 'dark eyes' trick being overused. Yet upon giving it some time I decided that his 'Enlarge self' spell was impressive enough to overcome my original dislike. At the very least Pearl and Nash deserved some solid trashing, and it was nice to see that with all his mysteriously disturbing balance talk Whistler does not go for gratuitous killing of somewhat sympathetic characters. (The aunts really rocked in this issue as their humorous cynicism is a perfect match to P&N's egocentric sadism .)
Here are a few points to the whole Whistler conundrum that I have not thought about before.
1. Whistler speaks of life or death - I assume of the world (?) here , and mentions that before (when Angel went off book) it was all about 'getting better'. While back in S8 he was talking of seeing 'no future at all' if Angel does not follow through with Twilight. Is this a retcon or does it mean Whistler was lying back in S8 ? Meaning that he goaded Angel into believing he is doing that thing to save the world - but in reality Whistler only cared about 'evolution' - as he is now? Remember that he complained about being cut off from the PtB's and their visions back in A&F #1. Does it mean that Whistler indeed saw visions of 'no future' and now he does not see anything? Apart from him being not very reliable and keeping P&N as handymen we now have this duality.
2. Does Whistler's 'evolution' mean finishing the Twilight business? If so - does it mean he is going to try and restore magic and reopen connections to other dimensions - and let the Twilight in to finish what it started - with no Angel as God this time around to ' bring all the people' over?
On other hand - Whistler is talking about taking all of the humanity to the next step. Does this have anything to do with elephantine growth hormone bottle that he got from P&N - combined with the artifacts stolen from Gile's estate? He also speaks about 'balancing science and magic'. Mysteries multiply, and I have a bad feeling about it - especially taking into account the Fray future mutated humans. It is quite probable that our dear balance demon is going to cause that promised 'magical disaster' - by poisoning water supplies maybe - in his would be quest of 'driving the bus' in the direction of evolution. One thing is clear - Whistler is to no good this time around and he is going to try and goad Angel into working for him again.
This is especially possible since the whole Faith's speech about 'you have gone months without trying to save the world' hinted that this season they are driving home the message of 'global plans of forced evolution - bad' vs 'saving little people one little man at a time - good'. See parallel with Buffy's current arc - as Kennedy is playing Faith on that side of the verse and getting hit on the face for her trouble. See also my speculations about Buffy being the agent of global change last season - forcing a change ( evolution) on the world and reaping chaos for her trouble of being a revolutionary. Are we really getting this 'compassionate conservatism' message from Joss this late in the game ? I guess everybody gets old eventually.
3. How does Willow's quest conflicts ( or not) with Whistler's present agenda? Have your guess at it. I am mostly curious about Willow meeting with Saga Vasuki again and figuring out what she really wants - her magic back or Earth world restored. If the latter - then she might be coming back and try to figure out how to heal the Seed of magic - and that might take her the whole next 200 years. If the former - all she really has to do is stay in the outer dimensions with her snake-lady-love goddess.
5. Finally, was going along with Twilight plan of evolution originally a very bad idea caused by delusions of grander, hubris , etc - or the only thing that preserved the future? I bet - both, but we will never get a clear answer. Unless Willow will make the full circle and get herself killed by Buffy to cause Twilight - because otherwise there will be no tomorrow.