Yesterday afternoon, I watched one of the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes that I’ve seen in five plus seasons of the show: “The Body.” Originally airing on February 27, 2001, the episode revolves around the death of Buffy’s mother from an aneurysm after having surgery to remove a brain tumor earlier in the season.
Many episodes of different television shows deal with the death of a character, but the way Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy who also wrote and directed this episode, handles death is the best I’ve ever seen on television and rivals that of some of the best literary deaths.
The episode begins where the previous one, “I Was Made to Love You,” ends, with Buffy finding her Mom unconscious on the living room and meekly saying, “Mom? Mom? Mommy?” So begins the first of four acts the episode is separated into. The rest of the beginning stage is Buffy wandering aimlessly around her house, calling 911 and, while only being there in a physical sense, talking to the operator and later the paramedics. After Joyce’s body is pronounced dead, Giles, Buffy’s “watcher” and closest thing to a parent outside of her mother, comes to the house and he notices the body. While running over to it and not knowing that Buffy had already called an ambulance, he gets ready to administer CPR while Buffy screams, “We’re not supposed to remove the body!”—the exact thing the paramedics told her.
But the tone of the episode has already been shown. A rarity among television shows, there is, outside of a Christmas-themed flashback and wind chimes, absolutely no music in the whole episode. Whedon wrote the episode with the idea of the boredom and dullness after a death in mind. By this, he means that when you lose someone you love, you begin to feel dull in the mind and you walk around as if in a haze. This is fantastically shown in the episode by when the paramedic is asking Buffy questions, we don’t actually see his face but rather the point of view Buffy is staring absentmindedly at: the area around where his shirt pocket it.
This “nothingness” continues into Act II where the focus is shifted onto Dawn, Buffy’s sister. It begins with Dawn crying, which the viewer immediately thinks is because of her mother’s passing, but we later found out it’s because someone called her a freak in her school. At the time, these events seem so crucial (I can still remember certain moments in middle and high school that seemed monumental at the time, but are almost laughable with the benefit of hindsight) but really mean nothing when an event as large as your mother passing away happens. To me, this scene of Dawn tearing in the girl’s bathroom and extending into an art class where she pulls herself together and has to draw the “negative space” of a sculpture (a fitting choice considering Dawn herself is “negative space” due to her being “The Key,” which is something you’ll have to watch to truly understand) is especially powerful because it’s the first time the viewers has actually seen Dawn in school. The first three seasons of Buffy show the gang in high school and although there’s much saving-the-world events going on in the lives of the Scoobies (Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles), many of the scenes taking place within school walls were filled with laughter and, until it was blown up, almost a place of comfort—at least in Giles’ library. This is not to be in Dawn’s life because she’s already seen as outsider for supposedly cutting her wrist (an event that did happen) and after Buffy tells her of her mother’s death, she completely falls apart, an event that high school students won’t easily forget. Another first in the episode is a kiss between Tara and Willow, a lesbian couple. Whedon wanted to make sure that there kiss wasn’t the main focus of an episode and should be thought of as only an afterthought. Both of these tasks were accomplished and it takes place as Tara is trying to comfort Willow.
That scene takes place in Act III, which also happens to have one of my all-time favorite Buffy scenes. Xander’s girlfriend, Anya, an ex-demon but is now human and mortal, doesn’t quite understand the concept of death. Both she and Xander come to pick up Tara and Willow to meet Buffy at the hospital, and this exchange happens:
ANYA: Are they gonna cut the body open?
WILLOW: (horrified) Oh my god! Would you just ... stop talking? Just ... shut your mouth. Please.
ANYA: What am I doing?
WILLOW: How can you act like that?
ANYA: Am I supposed to be changing my clothes a lot? (looks from Willow to Xander) Is that the helpful thing to do?
WILLOW: The way you behave-
ANYA: Nobody will tell me.
WILLOW: Because it's not okay for you to be asking these things!
ANYA: (desperate) But I don't understand! (crying) I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she's, (sniffling) there's just a body, and I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead anymore. It's stupid. It's mortal and stupid. And, and Xander's crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she'll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.
No one ever taught me how to react around death, it just sort of comes naturally to everyone. But to not know how to respond to it at all is a frightening concept. Anya is trying to grasp what it means to never be able to breathe again or for her to never be able to talk to someone, and she just can’t do it. Emma Caulfield, the actress who plays Anya, does one of the highest acting jobs in the show’s history.
Shortly after her speech, Xander, out of pure frustration and pent-up rage, punches a hole in the wall. It always bugs me when characters on television shows don’t freak out and do something physical after an important death, because most real people do. I mean, I feel like hitting something when a CD skip, let alone having someone I love pass away.
This frustration continues into Act IV where we see the gang at the local hospital waiting to hear the results of Joyce’s autopsy. Just as they suspected, the doctor tells them it was because of an aneurysm and that she felt absolutely no pain. Soon after, Dawn goes into the autopsy room to see her dead mother and while doing so, a body rises from a sheet behind her; a vampire. When Buffy looks for Dawn and sees the vampire about to bite into her, it becomes odd watching Buffy fight with no music or added sound effects. It’s like real life: when people fight, it becomes almost sad to watch at times, and when music isn’t there to heighten the moment, it’s frightening how quiet the moment can become. Just like death.
In the second or third season, I told the friend who I’ve been watching the episodes with that I really hated Joyce’s character (maybe this was after the episode where Joyce tries to burn Buffy on a stake?) because I found her boring and very unlikable. But during “The Body,” I forgot about that and actually wanted Joyce to magically come back to like—something that Buffy imagines in the episode. That goes to show just how powerful of a writer Whedon can actually be. And the fact that he or any other Buffy writer only got nominated for one Emmy for writing, the fantastic episode “Hush,” is just a damned shame.
For all the Buffy haters or simply the people who have never watched the show, I implore you to check out “The Body,” and although it’s in the fifth season, you’ll become so engrossed that you’ll want to watch all the episodes. After all, my first episode was one in the sixth season, “Once More, With Feeling.”