Hey, a Season 9 issue that contains excitement!
We start with the preview pages, the gang planning to jailbreak Connor's loyal dog cult. On the next page, they're spotted, and the battle begins. One of the dogs jumps up, ready to die for Connor, and he angsts about it, leading him to think about Angel and how he can't let go of his past either. (This includes a clear reference to Twilight - "Grand gestures that'll never work, hoping to fix everything.")
Demons flee before Connor, screaming about the return of the Destroyer and his mad father. Angel explains to Faith that they're mistaking him for Holtz, and they talk (while fighting enormous electric blue creepy-crawlies) about Holtz and his obsession, as compared to Angel and his own goal of resurrecting Giles. She grants that there's a difference, citing Angel's willingness to drop the quest for Connor's sake, and says he's making progress. He tries to return her focus to the battle, directing Connor and Willow to break out the prisoners while they continue to hold off the demons, but she adds that Holtz was about revenge while Angel is about redemption, and that she'd sell her soul to have her dad love her as much as he loves Connor.
He smiles and starts to apologize for what he said to her in LA, but she tells him to forget it, these are stressful times, and he's still crazy (this is in an affectionate reconciling way, with smiles). Willow magicks through the jail bars, and the pack jumps out, throwing themselves at Connor's feet. As Willow is concentrating on gathering the energy to open another rift, Faith sees something and asks the original dog what he meant by fighting "Quor'toth itself".
Quor'toth turns out to be an Old One, a hideous mountain-sized demon. It's coming for them.
Next thing, we're back at the Giles house with Lavinia, Sophronia, Nash, Pearl, and Whistler. L&S and N&P apparently know each other - they reference some previous shenanigans involving a broken engagement, stolen "Rings of Narcissus", and the agonizing deaths that Nash says he owes them. Whistler is nonchalant, but tells his pals not to kill the sisters, because he wants them to deliver a message to Angel. Nash, irritated, threatens to burn his hand to a stump, and Whistler reacts...unpredictably. His eyes turn black. The room goes dark. Black energy is crackling around him and his voice font gets bigger, more chaotic, as he shouts at Nash and Pearl and knocks them into the ceiling, cracking it.
Before he calms back down into his normal font, he grabs them by the lapels and tells them he's trying to save the world and the future, and not to waste his time with schoolyard crap. They're visibly frightened, and cling to their throats when he drops them. Whistler addresses the sisters, telling them that he's taking their family heirlooms for a good cause. Lavinia asks what he's going to use them for, and he responds with his spiel about maintaining balance and evolving. Sophronia inquires, "Isn't that what you were trying to do when you ruined magic and made a dog's breakfast of everything?" Lavinia facepalms, and Whistler looks deadly serious - this is dangerous.
However, on the next page he simply tells her she's got moxie, winks, and cheerfully explains the difference: it's now about survival, not improvement, and last time it was Angel who went off the book, not him. He doesn't like to be the one driving, but this time, he has to, and now he issues commands, not requests. He demonstrates by hauling Nash and Pearl to their feet and telling them to get the swag bags. Finally, he hands Sophronia a slip of paper, telling her to tell Angel to be at that address on "our anniversary". The three depart, leaving the house a mess but the sisters unharmed.
Back in Quor'toth, Quor'toth is angry. It asks who disrupts its feast. The team stares up at it, terrified, and Angel reaches for Connor, who says "I love you too, Dad." Angel is not too terrified to notice the moniker he used. Willow makes big magic, either shooting at the thing or protecting the team or both. Connor's got no info about this one; he thought it was a myth, but the dogs claim that it's angry about being unable to corrupt him, so it's come to destroy them all.
As Willow holds up the shield/beam, Angel tries to help her find the strength to beat back Quor'toth so they can run for the rift to Earth. She's giving it her all, but the only thing he says that seems to help is that she can't let herself be helpless again. There's a big flash and Quor'toth stumbles. They run, but they don't have much of a lead.
When they get to the rift to Earth, Willow cancels the protection spell she put on it so all of them can get through, but then hesitates. If she goes back to Earth now, she says, the entire trip will have been for nothing. She and Angel argue about it, and then Quor'toth has caught up. Its voice shakes the world, seeming to leave everyone in pain. Angel asks Willow if she can hold it off. She doesn't answer, and Faith sees her hunched over and asks if she's okay.
On the final page, Willow says, "Guys...we've got a problem." She looks up. Her face is veiny and her eyes are black.
Well, I am not displeased. Last things first, that's a great cliffhanger. Dark Willow might not be as huge a deal as she should be - I'm pretty sure there were multiple black-eye occurrences in Season 8, and none of them came to much of anything - but just the fact that she herself is freaked out by what's happening is a good indicator that this time we'll see something spectacular. Can Dark Willow face off against Quor'toth? Will she turn on her friends, or have a hard time returning to her real self? Is this finally going to get her Illyria's number so they can plan their first date?
Whatever happens in the next issue, it's going to place Willow for her own miniseries, so I'm really curious about which rift she's going through, if any. Also, this seems as good a time as any to bring up my one point of plot confusion for this issue - at the end of the last issue I assumed based on the dialogue that the team was splitting up, so Connor and Angel could let the dogs out and Faith could watch Willow's back in the next dimension. The preview pages showed I was wrong, but now I don't get why they didn't do it that way. Okay, so it's a good thing they had Willow on hand for the attack of Quor'toth, but why did she choose to stick around when she had leave to pursue her own goal and no reason to be interested in Connor's side project? Same with Faith. Is this just a matter of loyalty to Angel?
There were a few panels/pages of reflection through dialogue or thought bubbles that I didn't think were strictly necessary. I recall feeling the same way in the first arc; I guess it's just a thing that Gage does to keep us focused on the underlying themes. I love it that Faith and Connor are considering how Angel feels and why he does the things he does, but it's a wee bit of a stretch to get from there to "Oh, that's why Twilight", so Connor helpfully brought us there himself.
Along with that instance, there's a huge load of explanation that I think the writers were trying to get across, which in the Buffyverse means inserting big action sequences so the characters can talk while still being visually entertaining. So, we hear Angel described a few times, we get a look at Willow vs. Helplessness, Faith has doubts and gets pissed about it (fav line: "This place makes me bitchy"), and then there's veritable pages of Whistler talking true motives. Oh, and a juicy lettercol, but I'll get to that later.
Because, like, truly? The scene in the Giles manor was absolutely the best part of the issue for me. Only one out of five characters was even a face from the show's canon, and they still had the best lines and most exciting plot advancement. How great is it that the baddies have a history with the Fairweather sisters? Am I going to be the only one who's massively impressed at how well the girls held their own? They really do have moxie. Especially when they seem to be totally aware of how powerful and volatile Whistler is, which, ekskoos me, I WAS NOT.
HOLY SCHNIKES DID YOU SEE THAT. DID YOU SEE WHISTLER FLIP OUT AND GO INTO DEMIGOD MODE. I have two things to say about that. Three if you include the capslocked part because I CANNOT GET OVER THIS THING THAT HAPPENED. First, I can't claim it supports the theory I've been crossing my fingers on, which is that Whistler is actually on Angel's side and playing double agent. On top of his reiteration that he believes in what he's doing and he'll stop at nothing to get it done, there's the lettercol where Scott emphasizes that Angel made a mistake (which presumably includes trusting Whistler), and finally, if there was a Whistler twist, I think we just saw it. I can't totally rule out the old theory, because the current intel doesn't paint him as bad or dishonest either, but there isn't much hope I can see for his anniversary meeting with Angel to include a hug. But that's okay, because the second thing I have to say is this: if Whistler is a villain, he's now an AWESOME villain.
I mean, if nothing else, wasn't it lovely to see someone mop the floor with Pearl and Nash? Someone's days are numbered. I wonder if Spike will be the one to finish them off?
Later on I'd like to try to interpret some of Whistler's balance talk. More and more in the three series currently in progress, we're seeing how everything is going to connect to everything, and I'm thrilled about that but also really want to lay it on the table with the Season 8 plot and see if it does make sense. Right now there's a huge hole near the end of S8 which Scott chalks up to vagueness, but with the new pieces of the puzzle, I'm hoping we can revisit it and maybe account for character motivation a little more than we've been able to so far. (Given up on hoping that someone will approach the concept of evolution sensibly, but as always, I can live without science. Had to twitch when Whistler brought it up as a counterweight to magic, though. Uh, no. In the comics I'd say they're essentially interchangeable.)
Another favorite line I found that could probably use more attention than I can give it at the moment is, "What is a metaphor?" First you laugh, then you wonder what it's like to live in a culture that has no metaphor, and then it gets meta. Like, hey, to the reader, Quor'toth is a metaphor. Isn't it?
Regarding Angel, Twilight, Whistler, and the new order, here's what my question used to be: did Angel save the world by going with the plan, or not? Here's what my question is these days: would Angel have saved the world by staying in Twilight with Buffy? It's important - if the world really is doomed by the lack of magic, Whistler's plan really was legit, and we can trust him. If ditching the plan was the right move, Angel's been a fool all along and the first thing he did right was not finishing his sentence when Buffy was worked up. If you feel like this question has been answered already, please, let me know, but I'm inclined to think it's going to remain the big mystery behind the season arc.