In the eighth episode of the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy’s life begins to collapse around her as she gets a double dose of bad news. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
This is not going to be easy for me to write about.
My mother was first diagnosed with cancer when I was an early teenager. My father died from Alzheimer’s, brain cancer, and lung cancer. About forty-five seconds into this episode, the first thing I thought was, “OH, GREAT, THIS IS GOING TO BE DEPRESSING.” I wasn’t wrong! I can’t think of a plot I want less than this one, but not because it’s uninteresting or poorly written. It’s quite the opposite, really; this is one of the best written episodes of season five to date. But it’s written so well that it’s impossible for me to even see anything else but my own experience with disease. There’s a good bulk of “Shadow” that replicates one experience of mine rather well, and that’s silence. That opening scene of Joyce getting her CAT scan is gorgeous, both because the lighting and colors used give a sense of hope, and because it shows up what a sobering thing it is to go through something like this. My own mother’s struggle with cancer was not a ridiculous, overblown affair, at least not at first. She quietly accepted it was real, then quietly told us what was going on, and our reactions to it were much like Buffy’s or Dawn’s. We reacted in private, and part of that was because we were taught not to be emotional with anyone else.
But one particular thing I remember each of us doing in our own way was questioning all of the little absurdities we kept finding after our mother told us she had Capital C Cancer. You can see that here when Dawn begins to ask where the word CAT Scan even came from, and I remember telling a biology teacher of mine that cancer cells didn’t even make sense, that it was ridiculous that a body would even produce something like that, and didn’t the body want to survive? But the trauma that comes with this sort of experience causes most things in your life to not make sense anymore. Hell, and I wasn’t even the one with cancer!
My mother eventually did fight the cancer, and she fought it hard, but my father reacted in stunning contrast to how my mother did. He gave up. He pursued almost no medical care, and resolved that it was his time to exit this world. Even though I’m fairly sure my father was an atheist (albeit one who never, ever spoke openly about his beliefs), he was raised a Buddhist, and there was something both calming and terrifying about how he passed on. It was remarkably helpful that he didn’t freak out like my mother did after her first surgery. It’s easier as a son to deal with your father dying when they’ve accepted it. But at the same time, it was frightening because I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My father was dying, and there was nothing that I could do about it.
I think that’s what I’m dreading most about this season, now. Obviously, Joyce could either live or die from having a brain tumor. I’m going to have to deal with it. I’m going to have to watch the characters on this show deal with it, too. What’s even more upsetting to me is that this might be the only death Joss Whedon gives us on Buffy that’s prolonged. I’ve become used to the thought that any character that’s not the main four stars could be disposed of at any time during the narrative. I expect suddenness, even if that still doesn’t really prepare me for what’s going to happen.
This is not sudden. Whatever happens to Joyce – and let’s be honest, I’m not prepared for that moment, whenever it does arrive – will not have been a quick and painless process. This episode isn’t about rushing through the story with Buffy, Dawn, and Joyce, and how the Summers family copes with Joyce’s brain tumor. It’s more about exploring the trauma of it all in a respectful, poetic way.
I use the word “poetic” because there’s a visual lyricism to the way that the writers frame Joyce’s journey. Obviously, the opening images are almost saint-like in composition. Then we have Buffy’s reaction to the news from Dr. Issacs that she has a very specific kind of brain tumor. I adored the way that we were shown how overwhelming the moment was for Buffy by having the doctor’s dialogue drop out as Sarah Michelle Gellar’s face becomes numb and frozen. It’s really a brilliant thing to witness because I know what that moment feels like. I am familiar with the sensation of detaching from reality so fully that the world around me disappears. I did that when my mother first told me about her lung cancer, and I distinctly recall ignoring all of the technical terms used to describe it all. The words didn’t help for the first time in my life. God, do you know how terrifying that is? Words give me comfort. I know them, I love utilizing them, and suddenly, they didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t comforted by them.
It’s interesting to me that there’s another plot tied to this, and that it, too, is done tastefully. It’s now more obvious than ever that Riley’s time as a love interest to Buffy is coming to an end. That’s not surprising to me, and, like Joyce’s illness, it’s not a sudden, quick thing. We’ve been moving towards this since the beginning of season five. I’m just glad that we’re getting to see the dissolution of a relationship in this way, though. Well, okay, I’m not glad that Riley and Buffy are moving apart. I mean that it’s satisfying to see a story about people growing apart not because someone did something horrible and terrible, but because of bad timing and chemistry. It happens! Not every break-up is dramatic and traumatizing. In this case, no one’s being an asshole. (Well, there’s that one thing, and I’ll get into that in a second.) Buffy’s overwhelmed by Glory (OH MY GOD GLORY OH MY GOD), her mother’s illness, and balancing the two with… wait, is she still going to school? Are any of the Scoobies in class? Huh, I sort of forgot about that. Anyway, it’s not that she doesn’t want Riley in her life, and it’s not like she doesn’t care for him. But the timing of this all is just so unfortunate. Buffy isn’t rejecting Riley’s closeness because of who he is, but at the same time, I imagine it’s hard for him to see the situation any other way.
Basically, it’s awful. It sucks, but at least the show is being honest about this fact. Of course, now there’s Sandy. So. Okay. I was kind of irritated that the show might have Riley cheat on Buffy, and now I’m just confused. Never in a million years would I have guessed that Riley was going to stake her. And after he let her drink his blood. So, what, is this some new fetish of his? Is he going to do it again? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON.
Also, Spike, for real, you’re being incredibly obvious. It’s both adorable and kind of gross.
So let’s talk about Glory. I kind of adore her with every ounce of my existence? I’m consistently shocked at how often this show is able to give me villains and antagonists that are absolutely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Mayor Wilkins, Angelus, Faith, Adam, and now Glory: all of them are twists on what we expect from the archetypes attached to who they are. Glory is the eternal goddess in corporal form, aiming to get what’s hers. Why can’t she talk like a rich Valley girl and have a thing for designer shoes? It’s that contrast between her expressive femininity and her penchant for violence that I love so much. Hell, in a way, she’s kind of like Buffy in that regard, isn’t she? I can’t say that I found the cobra demon part of the story all that interesting, especially since the special effects are… well, they’re kind of distractingly bad. But I did love every other scene with Glory. I loved that she just bought the elements she needed for her spell. I love that, for the most part, she never once doubts that she’s the best and that no one in her life is a challenge to her. I’m sure she’ll discover that Buffy killed her reptile conjuring and that will make her angry, but will she now view Buffy as a threat? I mean, Glory’s kicked Buffy’s ass twice now. How is Buffy going to take her down? I am full of questions, full of feelings, and devoid of any answers or comfort. What is this show doing to me?
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