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Buffy Episode Reviews – “Shadow” (5×08)

SPIKE: Least I still got the attitude. What do you got, a piercing glance? Face it, white bread. Buffy’s got a type, and you’re not it. She likes us dangerous, rough, occasionally bumpy in the forehead region. Not that she doesn’t like you. But sorry Charlie, you’re just not dark enough.

I’ll start this review with something that’s, perhaps, a little unorthodox.

I’m going to make a case for Riley Finn.

I can sense some of you pulling away from me. Please, come back.

I covered a lot of this in my review of “Out of My Mind” (5×04) so I won’t rehash too much. From Riley’s introduction in “The Freshman” (4×01) up to this episode, he’s never stood a chance with the fans. When Angel broke it off with Buffy to have his own spin-off adventures in Los Angeles, it gave her a chance to find someone with a permanent soul attached. But however problematic the Buffy/Angel relationship may have been, the fans demanded that and nothing else. Thus, they loathed every shot of smiling, aw shucks, Iowa-born Riley Finn. I remember reading comments praising the beatdown Angel gave Riley in “The Yoko Factor” (4×20).

Now we arrived at “Shadow,” and this ongoing Riley hate has taken on a meta quality. Joyce’s headaches and fainting spells have led to the traumatic revelation that she has a a brain tumor. With Buffy’s ensuing hospital drama, she forgot one thing: informing the boyfriend.

But Buffy did spend all night crying on someone’s shoulder. To Riley’s resentment it wasn’t his shoulder that gave her comfort but Buffy’s reviled arch-nemesis Spike. Completely broken and lost in the confusing dark, the Slayer turned to a soulless monster who, if you’ll recall, had dropped by the Summers residence with the intent of killing her, and has tried to kill or have her killed countless times. Though he is likely emphatic toward Buffy’s plight, Riley is consumed with nagging “why him and not me?” feelings.

This is a very bad time for such a crisis of self. It has been building all season long, and the tempo ups  at the precise moment of Joyce’s diagnosis. The show’s writing seems to be meeting the fans and their Riley hate halfway; as a result, Riley comes off as a monster. Over at the Buffyguide.com review of “Shadow,” Soupytwist and Jamie Marie both commented on Riley’s utter selfishness in this episode. Perhaps they have a point.  Or perhaps this is the fault of the writing. Perhaps human psychology and jealousy is just a bitch. Perhaps Spike’s comment to Riley is spot-on. Perhaps Buffy’s preference for bad boys is apparent to Riley but not her.

Or perhaps, just maybe, Riley’s acting out is a combination of all these things, and this show runs deeper than our immediate conclusions.

Now, onward to “Shadow.”

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always dealt with issues in the forms of monsters and metaphors, but a brain tumor is as non-metaphorical and real-life-monster as this show has ever gotten. “Shadow” is a chilling reminder that vampires, demons, wayward spells and apocalyptic beasts don’t come close to being as scary as the life-threatening conditions that exist on the other side of our television screens. To call this is a diverging direction would be an understatement. On any normal day in the Buffyverse, Joyce’s illness would be the result of some curse or supernatural occurrence. Not this time.

Nor is the supernatural a line so easily crossed to fix the problem. In one pivotal scene, Buffy’s friends all warn her away from utilizing potent magics. Not only is this a reminder about the dangerous nature of such powers, it’s the show sending a message: when it comes to dealing with issues such as cancer, an incantation and a sprinkle of powder is nothing short of an insult to viewers. This is not a Saturday morning cartoon. This is reality, and brain tumors can’t be swept under the bed or wished away with magic. This is an astoundingly brilliant move.

Stuff I Liked:

Glory’s Patronage – Though it seems unlikely that a mean-spirited entity like Glorificus/Glory would simply walk into The Magic Box and peacefully buy the ingredients she needs, she does, and pulls it off without incident. Buffy is the only one among the Scoobies who knows what Glory looks like. To Giles and the others she’s just another shopper amongst the multitude of customers.  I really enjoyed that scene, and the fallout that happens after Anya checks the receipts.

Buffy vs. the Snake – The plot threads continue to live on and congeal, and the Slayer’s savage side has not been forgotten. Nowhere else is this more evident than when Buffy catches up to the mutant snake as it’s returning to Glory with news of Dawn, the Key. Choking the thing to death is brutal enough but doesn’t end the monster. When it reawakens for round two, Buffy empties out her entire day’s turmoil with a furious beating so vicious and cringe inducing that I almost thought to myself, “poor cobra.”

Stuff I Didn’t Like:

The Snake Itself -

Maybe the art department was wise not to waste a budget on a creature with such short screen time, but good God ya’ll, that CGI is terrible, far below amateur for what was available in 2000.

The Final Word:

Initially I was tempted to call this episode a little dry and boring, Upon further reflection, “Shadow” does a great job of balancing out a great pileup of conflicts. We’ve got Riley’s inner turmoil, Buffy’s inner darkness, Joyce’s illness and the growing threat of Glory all coming together. It all works. Another hit for Season Five.

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