“Shadow” opens with the grim spectre of Joyce getting a CAT scan while her daughters wait for news and contemplate the many frightening possibilities. Dawn tries to distract herself with some whimsical wonderings about who put the cat in the scanner, and what I notice most here is that there’s no doubt that Buffy loves her, even now that she knows the truth. Somehow, that makes this all easier to take.
Back at the Boogety Box, the new phone books are in! Giles has taken out an ad in the Yellow Pages—today he’d be asking us to like the store’s Facebook page! He’s hoping to drum up some non-demonic, cash-paying customers. It’s all chatty, beginning-of-the-workday stuff, with Anya wondering why she isn’t featured in said ad while Xander kvetches about how Riley caught a bad case of the recklesses and killed off that nest of vampires solo. All that’s missing is an official Scooby Gang water cooler.
Dreg, Glory’s named minion, has also made an appearance in the story. He’s offering her creamy coolness a key-finding spell. (Seriously. He says that. And I’ve been saying it to my wife for a week now.) I’m happy to see Dreg—scabby though he is, I like him. Maybe it’s the devotion.
Anyway, recovered ancient spells require ingredients, which means Glory needs a magic shop. Way to go with buying that ad, Giles!
And to complete the morning roll-call, let’s look in on Riley and Spike. The former Riley finds the latter over at Casa Summers, doing some ewwtastic sweater-sniffing. Nobody’s saying Spuffy is a hearts and flowers relationship in the making, are they?
Caught with his nose in the cashmere, Spike covers as best he can: “It’s a predator thing!” When that fails to convince, he does what he does second best, now that he can’t kill Slayers for fun with his bare hands. That is to say he turns the crank on Riley’s feelings of being irrelevant and unneeded within his own relationship. There’s plenty of ammo lying around ready to hand, since Riley didn’t know about Joyce’s latest medical woes.
So, the CAT scan. Joyce has a pink-slip shaped shadow on her brain pictures. It needs biopsying. It’s all very depressing over at the hospital. But there’s a lot of commuting in this episode, so let’s head back to the store, which is less depressing, even though the search for Glory has borne no fruit. Tara has a intriguing theory that her elaborate marvellousness (yes, that’s from Dreg again) may be older than language. If that’s true, the gang has no idea what Buffy’s fighting. It’s time to break out the cave drawings!
And they really do have no idea, as it turns out. The woman herself shows up to buy her spell components, and nobody but Buffy has seen Glory before. (And she’s really only gotten a good look at the smashing portions of Clare Kramer’s fists.) Giles packs up an amulet of badness and a bloodstone of now you’re really screwed and asks her extremeness (Dreg has a whopping case of Burly Detective syndrome and, in the absence of other humor in these episodes, because of the brain tumor situation, I plan to milk it for all it’s worth!) if she found everything she was looking for. Cha ching! Have a nice day. Remember, The Magic Box cannot be held accountable if these items are used to unleash any doom, localized or general, or even The Apocalypse.
Riley appears at first to have taken the right lesson from his encounter with Spike: he’s shown up at the hospital prepared to be Supportive Boyfriend Man. Buffy is happy to see him. He’s groomed, he listens, and he’s ready with a warm jacket for covering up the sleeping, adorable Dawn. All Buffy can do is marvel, but Riley doesn’t notice her quietly grooving on his sweetness.
It is a short moment, to be fair. Then a Doctor Isaacs shows up and says Joyce has a brain tumor, and that “things” are going to happen pretty quickly. They have to figure out if it’s operable. The implication is either they can fix it or she’s not gonna last very long.
Since the oncologist is displaying all of the empathy of mold-infested particle board, Ben shows up to give Buffy a break from the questions. And also to remind us he’s in the season, possibly waiting to be killed by monsters, but otherwise probably not serving any great purpose.
Buffy delegates. She decides to see if her handy team witches can cure Mom. That would so be my first move, too! Riley attempts to console her and instead is offered babysitting and lying to Dawn duty. “Whatever you need,” he says, still appearing to be on board. He takes Dawn off to eat ice cream by a carousel (did he just decide not to take her back to school?) There, Dawn picks up the sledgehammer Spike was using to demolish Riley’s confidence. Hey, she says, you rock so much! You’re boring and never make Buffy cry. She was always worked up over Angel. We love how you can’t even get a rise out of her.
What do you know, kid? You didn’t even exist last year.
Riley’s reaction is to feel sad that he’s not the cause of oceans of tears.
Buffy begs WillTaraGiles to magically cure Joyce and they say it won’t work. Then, with this obvious solution to the Slayer’s woes shot down in flames, Anya bursts forth with her discovery that Giles sold evil wares of wickedness to Glory—powerful stuff, for a big spell. The Scoobies have gotten as far as figuring out that she’s going to turn a snake into. . . something else.
Wahoo! If Buffy can’t cure her mother, at least she can go thump someone much stronger. In the Buffyverse if you can’t feel better, go on a big old monsterbash.
Which is what Riley did last week, I guess, when he went and bombed out that nest of vampires. He turns up at the Magic Box and Xander tries to call him on his behavior. This may seem double-standardy, but of course the point is that Buffy’s more likely to survive a foolhardy decision or two.
So Xander reaches out, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Well, that’s not quite true. It goes to the bar. Instead of sorting out his feelings or talking honestly to his girlfriend, Riley heads to Willy’s, has a few belts, and lets Sandy feed off him. Then he stakes her.
Poor Sandy. She really didn’t fare well in either life or unlife.
Fighting Glory isn’t actually the best idea Buffy ever had. She loses handily, again, and the snake is transmogrified and given its marching orders. Find the key, Glory tells it. Find Dawn, in other words.
And in time it does, turning up at the magic shop and getting all tongue-flicky and “Yay, mission accomplished!” Michelle Trachtenberg, whatever you may think of her acting abilities, can really really scream. I was impressed.
From there, it’s a race scene. Giles and his shiny red car help Buffy run the snake down before it can deliver the truth. Fortunately, the snake is vastly less tough than the most silky and effervescent Glorificus, so Buffy is able to not only kill but tenderize it.
Back in S2, you’ll remember, Buffy did something similar to the Master’s bones and it was all cathartic and marvellous. She must long for those days. Because this is the longest day in the Sunnydale history of ever. Once that snake is dead and the secret of Dawn is back-burnered for the moment, Buffy has to collect her sister, orbit back to the hospital, deal with the emotional fallout of OMG, TUMOR! and then presumably answer Doctor Isaac’s questions about whether the Summers home has power lines or toxic waste issues.
This gives Riley, clad in a fashionable just-got-bit turtleneck, a chance to comfort Buffy. She’s glad for a hug and not in a place where she can bawl. He takes that, as he’s been taking so many other things, as rejection. On the outside, he’s still Supportive Boyfriend Man. On the inside, he’s anemic and surly.
Okay. So I do understand the writers were shuffling Riley offstage, and there had to be some reason. TV couples go from Madly In Love!™ to Begone, Ye Bastard! for wafer-thin reasons all the time. Riley’s lack of monster, and Buffy’s need for darkness is a legitimate enough relationship issue in a supernatural series. It’s a thing well worth hashing out at some point.
And I even remember that he’s an imaginary person. But all that said, I have limited sympathy for Riley’s wankiness here. “My mom has a brain tumor, holy S@%##@!!” should buy Buffy a lot of patience. It’s a coupon or thirty for being distant, short-tempered, confused and not very giving, okay?
It’s rotten to be the partner of the person who’s got the critically ill loved one—and I speak from a place of experience here—but hey! It’s not nearly as sucky as being the person with the critically ill loved one. Expecting to draw a lot of Buffy’s attention or resources between hospital vigils? It’s downright vampiric.
So if Riley were a real person, I’d want to smack him around a little for all this wah wah poor me and drinking and Sandy-staking and all-around self-destructive behavior. You want to be supportive? Go clean Casa Summers and fill up the damned fridge with some damned casseroles!
Having said that, BuffRiley wasn’t bringing a lot of spark to the show. I’ve said I liked this long-running stable relationship, and that it was a boon to Buffy’s growing up process. But she’s got what she could from it. Like it or hate it, the sick sad Spuffy action is infinitely more interesting to us.
Or maybe it’s just hard to care about Marc Blucas packing up his soldier booties and marching his way into the shadows when someone we’re far more attached to is also on a countdown to her final days on the show.
Next: What’s that, Fear? We can’t hear you.
A.M. Dellamonica has kaboodles of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales.