Covering from “Shadow” to “Into the Woods,” in which well, that’s one way for the show to deal with the Riley situation.
Another rather dubious string of three. “Shadow” exists mainly to give us more time with Glory, which, ugh. “Listening to Fear” introduces an element I find really bothersome. And “Into the Woods” is sort of okay, but also perhaps a harbinger of issues to come. When I speak of the weird affection I hold for this season, I’m generally not talking about this stretch here.
I mean, there’s hardly anything to “Shadow,” AKA “The One Where Glory Makes a Big Snake,” but the snake isn’t even Mayor big. Mostly, it’s about slowly developing the Joyce story. Very slowly, with a deliberation that feels true to life, but at a pace wholly new to the show given the significance, and one that isn’t a particularly good fit. Most of the larger storylines proceed incrementally, but they did so in the background of or alongside a dominant single episode adventure. “Shadow,” though, crams in both larger storylines when neither is in the mood to proceed all that much. In the case of Joyce’s tumor, well, I won’t criticize the choice to have Buffy grapple with that uncertainty for a bit while learning that there isn’t a magical cure for a purely medical condition. However, this is also a big Glory showcase, and one in which we learn practically nothing of note. Tara says she might be really, really old, hence their problems researching her (or it could be that they have nothing to go on, as Giles noted several episodes ago), we learn she’s powerful which we already knew, she has some crusty minion beasts who fawn over her to excess, and she’s real, real, real fucking annoying, and that’s it. There’s some overly-obvious talk of Buffy needing a problem she can beat up, and then the snake conveniently shows up, she chases it down, kills it, and keeps beating it, a moment that fails to resonate, either because it is so obvious and telegraphed, or because the snake is so abrupt, or both. Whatever.
All three of these episodes form something of a medical melodrama, which is interesting, but not something the show feels particularly well-equipped to handle and this becomes most apparent in “Listening to Fear,” which focuses on perhaps the season’s most poorly thought-out element, the crazy people. There’s a “rash of mental illness” (pretty sure that’s a direct quote) in Sunnydale, you see, except here’s the problem—from their word salad, to their sudden onset, to their resistance to all forms of treatment, to their uncanny ability to see something amiss about Dawn’s existence, they don’t act in any way, shape, or form like someone with mental illness, and their theatricality and inauthenticity stands out like the sorest of thumbs in the middle of everyone waiting pensively in hospital waiting rooms to get diagnoses. Increasingly prominent presence Ben the Intern, representative of the medical establishment, rather dismissively says something about how there are no beds in the psych ward, so people are being sent home, as if people going overnight from fully functioning and competent people to the absurdly raving lunatics we see here was no big. Granted, Ben has some reason to treat it as though it were no big, but there’s no indication that anyone, anywhere thinks a sudden plague of “mental illness” that doesn’t look like anything in the DSM-IV-TR is worth noting. This gives the show a very ugly vibe, like it believes crazy people just do things because they’re crazy, very much including Joyce, which robs much, if not all, of the possible resonance of the goings on in the Summers’ home of their power. Buffy and Dawn aren’t dealing with their mother losing her facilities, they’re dealing with their mother becoming a very silly trope of a crazy person. The Queller, at least, looks better than the snake, though its design doesn’t led well to fights.
If Riley was feeling a bit extraneous all season, the drama of Joyce’s affliction seals that sense, particularly when he has to learn Joyce is in the hospital from Spike, and that sense takes over “Into the Woods” once its declared surgery has led Joyce out of them. There isn’t any sort of supernatural threat in the episode, beyond a bit of world-building in the form of vampire flop houses where willing humans, including Riley, let themselves be fed upon. As such, there’s a lot of talking in this episode, and the movement occurs in a series of heart-to-hear talks that vary in their degree of histrionics and melodrama, but aren’t actually all that bad, even if there is some really damn cheap ploys for shocks leading into commercial breaks—for example, Riley’s fake staking of Spike is even more baffling than Buffy letting him live after “Out of My Mind.” The aftermath, however, is a nice little scene where the two share a drink as commiserate over how they’ve been differently spurned by love. Riley’s choice to let a vampire feed off him only makes sense when he talks it through with Buffy (though “makes sense” is a bit generous). After several episodes of gentle nudging, Xander comes right out and says what she needs to hear.
Xander turns out to be the unlikely hero of “Into the Woods.” Plenty assert that his growth stops at “The Replacement,” and while his role here might not constitute growth to all, I do think it’s a worthy affirmation of his growing maturity, as he sees what Buffy is about to lose, intervenes, and bears her rebukes long enough to get his point across. More importantly, though, while it seems over the course of the episode his dedication to fixing Buffy’s relationship is about to cost him his own, he instead gives us the last heart-to-heart of the episode, going to Anya and telling her exactly what she means to him and why he won’t take her for granted.But that’s the last heart-to-heart of the episode. Buffy made up her mind a few seconds too late.