Don’t worry. I realize I’ve now posted about Buffy the Vampire Slayer on two consecutive days. But this won’t become a habit. I promise I’ll stop after this…at least until I get to Season 6’s musical episode.
But I just finished watching an episode that I had to blog about. Of all the TV shows I watch, I can’t think of an episode that’s struck me harder, touched me more. There were times I simply felt like someone had punched me in the gut. The realism was unparalleled. I’m tempted to call it THE greatest episode ever, but I figure I might be forgetting a few in my post-viewing haze. So I’ll keep it at “one of the”.
SPOILER: This is your official warning. If you’re currently catching up on Buffy, and haven’t yet reached Episode 16 of Season 5…stop now. Do not read on. That means you, CJ.
The episode (S5:E16) is “The Body.” It’s the death of Joyce. Or more accurately, everyone’s reaction to Joyce’s death. A devastating occurrence both to the characters and the audience. And Joss Whedon decided to give it that attention. Unlike the death of Jenny Calendar, or Doyle in Angel, Joyce’s death wasn’t just a part of the episode. It was the episode. There were no other storylines, from beginning to end. Except for a short scene at the end, there was nothing supernatural about it. A demon didn’t kill her (so far as I know at this point); she died of an aneurysm. A normal medical condition that Buffy with all her powers couldn’t have prevented. She was powerless, just like all of us. There was no “big bad” in this episode. No puzzle that needed to be solved. No villain to be defeated. It was just about Buffy, her sister, her friends and how they cope.
From the very start, the episode felt different. No music. No time jumps, except during a commercial. Extended scenes. Often single shots. It made you feel like you were in the room, like this was really happening. And every single emotion from every character compelled you to relate. Buffy’s panic, confusion, calmness, sickness, and ultimately short breakdown all flowed naturally into one another other in just that initial scene. There was no action (again, minus the last scene), but it never dragged. You wanted — needed — to know what happens next…even though you already knew. Everyone is familiar with the reactions associated with losing someone. I’ve just never seen it conveyed so pitch-perfectly as Joss Whedon did in this episode.
Sarah Michelle Gellar wonderfully expressed the challenge of being thrown into the parental role, as the only one left to care for Dawn. Except the one cry in Giles’ arms, she carried on, doing what she needed to do. Each character displayed other elements of the grieving process…and did so without effort. Dawn broke down. Willow consumed herself in tiny details to avoid thinking of Joyce’s death, as she tried to pick the right shirt to wear to the morgue. Xander expressed rage, wanting answers and vengeance…for an evil that can’t be seen. And Anya, as the literal and naive one, delivered the heartbreaking monologue that got to me most. The words that every grieving person wants to but can’t scream.“But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid, and, and Xander is crying and not talking, 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.” -Anya
Every moment seemed almost unscripted. There was no fear of long silences. There wasn’t even a concern over perfect shots. Where in a normal episode, they’d do a quick frame of an important detail, in this episode, those elements were left unhighlighted, just as in life. The only times the camera played with your mind was when it entered Buffy’s. Showed you what she was hoping for, what she was seeing. Looking at a doctor’s chest instead of his face, so she could ignore the truth. Subtle decisions that made this episode phenomenal.
The one thing I want to leave you with: this is not just an episode for Buffy fans. Even the one scene with a vampire is done quickly and without “Super Buffy.” Her fighting seemed natural and unimportant. The first 40 minutes without the vamp…that’s where the strength of this episode lies. A perfect stand-alone drama. The hokiness, most of the humor, the sci-fi…all left behind. I almost thought I was watching a different show, right there in the room with them. And isn’t that the point of television? Escapism. Usually it’s to escape from the things that bring you down. The day-to-day realities. But this episode was cathardic in its own way. Kristine Sutherland (Joyce) got a perfect sendoff. And her fellow characters delivered it. I wish every series had just one episode like this. But it’d be nearly impossible to recreate.