“I mean, what if she’s not a demon or sorceress or spirit or whatever these books cover? … Something old. So old it pre-dates the written word.”
There are very few Buffy episodes that I am not on intimate terms with. In the years since it went off the air, I’ve lost track of how many rewatches I’ve burned through, or how many times I stopped to watch the syndication episodes on FX or Logo. But when we sat down to watch this week’s episode, I realized I was totally at a loss for what to expect. “Shadow”? That’s the one with the bounty hunter from outer space? Nope, that’s “Listening to Fear,” which will be next week. It’s season five and has something to do with Joyce in the hospital, and that was about all I could dig out of my memory banks. I assume I just overwrote that sector with Death Clique or Mother, May I Sleep with Danger. Lifetime rots your brain, kids.
Unfortunately, there’s some excellent reasons I’ve forgotten most of “Shadow.” It’s because it’s an eminently forgettable episode, notable only for the Giant Foreshadowing of Joyce’s fate, the gang’s unknowing encounter with Glory, and Spike getting caught sniffing Buffy’s sweater. It’s not “Bad Eggs” bad; it’s just there, the very definition of filler. When you have to produce a 22 episode season, sometimes you just have to scrape together the change under the couch cushions, whip up the world’s worst snake demon, and call it a day.
We pick up immediately after the events of “Fool for Love.” Macho Riley blew up a crypt full of vampires, Buffy and Spike explored the complicated relationships between Slayers and death, and Joyce revealed that she needed to head to the hospital for a CAT scan.
The gang discovers that Riley commando’ed the vampire nest, complaining that he took them all on after giving them the slip. They do their complaining at the The Magic Box where Giles has taken out his first ad in the Yellow Pages, a scene which I cackled through before feeling really old. He didn’t even have a web site! Giles would have made a lot more money and suffered less bodily harm if he just took online orders. I’m just sayin.
Several episodes ago, Tara wished she could be more useful to the group and gets her first big chance to do so by speculating their fruitless efforts into researching Glory may be because she’s not something they’ve encountered before. Perhaps she predates the concepts of demons or witches, which is a nice bit of foreshadowing there. During the Tara/Giles philosophic exchange, Glory herself saunters in. None of the gang has met her yet, so Giles does what any good shopkeeper would do — sells her two objects of power which can be used to create terrible snake monsters that will terrorize the town. Later on, Anya berates him for his stupidity, but as far as we know, Giles never bothers to adjust his policies on selling dangerous mystical bric-a-brac.
Over at Sunnydale General — a missed opportunity for a soap opera if there ever was one — Joyce’s CAT scan reveals the presence of a tumor, the “shadow.” You can see Buffy’s whole world crashing down around her as the doctor explains what the test results mean, including the gut wrenching “good” news that 1 in 3 patients with this same tumor survive. I was one of the viewers blindsided by the events of “The Body” when it initially aired; in retrospect, there are so many hints seeded throughout the first part of the season. It should have been evident that was the way the show was going. “Shadow” even takes the time to explain why they can’t just cast a healing spell on her and make the tumor go away — the mind is a delicate instrument and mucking around with it could cause more harm than good. It’s a pat hand wave. I find it difficult to buy the line of reasoning given that we’ve seen entire universes shifted due to magic spells, but we’re stuck with this as events unfold.
Buffy reacts in the way she’s conditioned to respond to stress, by taking it out on demons. She’s not a particularly warm and cuddly girl, even though she has strong emotional ties to her circle. Riley should know this, but his own difficulties in dealing with his demoted “status” in the demon-fighting world is undermining his entire sense of self. He finds out that Joyce is in the hospital through Spike, whom he catches in Buffy’s bedroom, sniffing her sweaters. (Riley misses Spike stealing a pair of her panties.) Instead of ovarying it up and just dealing with his hurt feelings, Riley goes a-drinking, picks up VampSandy (who, incidentally, is the former Sunnydale student killed by Vamp Willow in Dopplegangland), who he lets bite him before staking her, which has all sorts of weird slut-shamey overtones. “Thanks for getting me off, baby, but now you got to die.” Bye, Vamp Sandy.
Later, he babysits Dawn, who casually mentions how much more torn up Buffy used to be over Angel, while Riley is her nice safe boyfriend, and then literally tries to get Buffy to cry on his shoulder so that he can get further hurt when she reacts in her normal “got to keep moving or I’ll die” mode. I’m pretty hard on Riley for well documented reasons, and I think he’s being a colossal douche, but I am sympathetic to his sad puppy faces in the episode. He’s already decided Buffy doesn’t love him, but that’s got a lot more to do with what’s going on inside his head than hers. Every choice she makes is interpreted solely in this light, so he can justify the looming breakup.
Somewhere else in the episode, Glory’s retreated to the set of “The Pack” to make a snake demon out of Giles’s toys, using the fakest rubber snake ever faked. It could have looked more real if they had just used one of those stuffed snakes you win as carnival prizes. It gets worse from there when the fake snake transforms into a giant rubber snake suit that is so clearly mounted on a dolly that I had to wonder what the fuck was going on in the special effects department that week. (There’s also several bizarre shots of Buffy “running fast” in way that’s incredibly obvious that she’s running very slowly, but is supposed to look like she’s zipping along.) The CGI version of the monster is somehow worse, in a clearly misguided effort to just keep one upping bad decisions, and later Buffy rides the ridiculous, phallic shaped snake monster into the ground. I’m just too tired to make any jokes about it.
In the end, the week’s monster is killed, Joyce’s illness is finally identified, and we’re one step closer to Riley’s power play break up move.