What a gut punch of an episode. Last week, Maya seemed so immature, worrying about how expensive of a gift to give a frenemy while her bestie struggled with the infinite. This week, she is the intersectional victim of how America deals with growing up, sexuality, and race. She’s stuck in the most liminal of liminal spaces. Not a girl, not yet a woman; not American, not Japanese. No identity fits her, and all she wants is one place where she can feel safe and at home.
“Shadow” starts with Maya going to her room to take one of her “naps.” It’s nice that she’s found a balance between self-pleasure time and doing literally anything else. However, this particular j/o sesh is interrupted by Ume — Maya’s friend from back in Japan — who has been hiding in her room under a pile of stuffed animals. Lucky for Maya that she sensed the presence in her room before totally going to town on herself.
Meanwhile, Anna spends time in her dad’s new depression apartment, trying to make the best of it. Curtis is still a walking wound from the divorce, and he doesn’t even try to cover it up. He blames the remote not working on his ex keeping the “good” remote, his temper is on a hair trigger, and he keeps trying to win Anna’s affection. Kathy and Curtis are making Anna decide which house she will live in, a horrible thing to put on a child. It’s especially heinous because Curt says stuff that heavily implies — if not directly states — that he thinks whoever Anna lives with is the parent she loves more.
Maya calls Anna and asks her to come over and act as a buffer between her and Ume. Friend groups meeting never goes the way you want, does it? Maya says that she and Ume could be twins, but Anna counters that Ume looks more like a little sister because her skin is lighter. Big yikes. Anna doesn’t know that she’s feeding into a gross colorist narrative, but Maya is painfully aware of what features America deems attractive and who society considers pretty (hint: It’s whoever looks whitest).
It is decided that Ume will shadow Maya at school the next day. Anna and Maya assume that the racist assholes at this hell school will eat her alive. They don’t consider that Ume’s cutesy presentation will hit different with their classmates. The middle school treats Ume like the Tamagotchi she carries: exotic, adorable, and not really alive. Oh, and Mr. O is a weeb, so that’s not great.
Maya has always kept her Japanese heritage at a distance. It’s something Erskine has talked about in interviews, how she lumped her Japaneseness in with her mother and kind of shit on both as a teenager. She’s not as fluent as Shuji, and she avoids speaking Japanese whenever she can. Now, suddenly, Ume is being praised for her “exotic” qualities. People keep yelling in her face and touching her hair like she’s a perfect little doll. Maya can’t see that fetishization also sucks to experience because she’s only ever received scorn for being Asian.
In her one day at school, Ume gains an admirer in Hector. He and some of the girls come over to Maya’s to play Dance Dance Revolution. Notably, the two girls who come over are the same ones who kicked off the events of “Posh” in season one. Surprise surprise, they’re still racist toward Maya, even as they orientalistically fawn over Ume.
This episode serves as a companion piece to “Posh,” with Maya still floundering about how to navigate her minority status in school. We get the added nuance that Maya is biracial, as opposed to Ume and Shuji. Too Asian to be accepted, too white to be a novelty to the popular girls. (Side note: I wish there were more Shuji in this episode. The way he deals with racism is an interesting counterpoint we got in “Posh,” and it’s kind of missing here. Anyway.)
That night, Anna and Maya privately confide about how it’s not fair that people praise Ume for things they’ve bullied Maya for. One of the episode’s few comedic light points comes as Maya and Anna start every horrible thing they say about Ume with “I love her, but …” An overwhelmed and miserable Ume turns off the lights and forces them to go to sleep. Maya, whose masturbatory habits were interrupted by Ume’s visit, sneaks off to a bathroom to get some alone time. Unfortunately for her, Ume winds up catching her fully nude, jerking off. Every fear Maya’s had about her burgeoning sexuality looks as though it’s going to come true.
At breakfast the next morning, things come to a head. Maya wants Ume out of her life before she can tell anyone what she saw. What’s more, she’s projecting all her self-loathing onto Ume because of their language barrier. Anna tries to get the girls to hug it out, but Maya is too full of self-hate to make that work. Because she can’t understand Ume, she assumes her former friend must be as repulsed and hateful toward Maya as she is to herself. Ume cowers at Maya’s misdirected rage, and Maya just keeps going. When she yells, “I hate you,” it’s not at Ume. It’s in a mirror. The shock of finally admitting how much she hates herself right now is enough to snap Maya out of her rage blackout and comfort the younger Ume. Anna goes home, her work done at the Ishii-Peters residence.
Unfortunately for Anna, the misdirected anger outbursts aren’t going to stop for her. When Anna accidentally melts a plastic casserole dish, Curtis flips out at her. It ruins the surprise gift he’s gotten Anna, a pet hamster. Anna seems less than thrilled with being gifted a furry little burden, but she is stoked when Steve calls. Between the nascent thing with Steve and the squashed beef with Ume, it seems like Maya and Anna are finally gaining the emotional resources to pull themselves out of the mess their lives have become since entering middle school. Maybe? Or maybe the next episode will upset the apple cart all over again.