Joss Whedon knows how to shock and awe. He is a master of the dramatic, the epic, and the apocalyptic. An average Whedon episode of television is filled with star-crossed love, heartbreaking loss, selfless heroism, sudden betrayal, bring-you-to-tears humor, looming suspense, and a healthy dose of kick-ass ass kicking.
And, of course, he’s known for his skill at the sudden and tragic character death, both major and minor.
*SPOILERS BELOW regarding character deaths throughout the Whedonverse (e.g., Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.)
There has been no shortage of devastating loss across the Whedonverse, but few deaths have carried more emotional lasting power than the death of Buffy’s mother, Joyce, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Season 5 episode, “The Body.” The comparison list is long and, more often than not, bloody. Wash, Tara, Fred, Wesley, Coulson, Anya…even Buffy herself. Sometimes sudden, sometimes drawn out. Sometimes random, sometimes destined. From heroic to senseless, they run the gamut of reasons to ugly cry in front of your TV.
None of these events, however, are depicted with the same level of audience emotional participation that is achieved in “The Body.”
In some ways, Joyce’s death is one of the more predictable character demises that Whedon has written. There is arguably a fair amount of foreshadowing earlier in the season, as the Summers family deals with Joyce’s diagnosis of a brain tumor and her subsequent treatment and recuperation. Whedon dupes us, however, with a double sleight-of-hand. We are relaxed by Joyce’s apparent recovery and distracted by the “Big Bad,” Glory, who is relentlessly threatening every aspect of Buffy’s world.
We can be excused for not paying attention to the significance of Joyce’s story in the early part of this season, because there’s so much else going on. It all seems so much more exciting, more dramatic, and important. All-powerful hell goddesses, mysterious new siblings, Buffy-bots, new and interesting love affairs…even a visit from the big guy himself, Dracula. It’s a virtual drama buffet.
All of which makes “The Body” stand out as particularly exceptional. This is not an episode filled with the dramatically supernatural, the looming threat of the end of the world, or even the nail-biting drama of the fight against ultimate evil. It is a story about the mundane.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing mundane about the death of a loved one, and “The Body” is arguably one of, if not the most, dramatic and emotional episodes of the entire series. But it is an episode centered almost entirely on the “not extraordinary” aspects of Buffy’s world. It is occupied with the real, not the supernatural. Most significantly, Whedon tells the story through an incessant focus on seemingly minor details.
As I’ve said, Joss Whedon knows how to shock. He also knows how to tell a story without relying on tricks and show ponies. He knows that the little things are what matter, especially when it comes to the emotional heart of his characters.
In the opening scenes of “The Body,” Buffy arrives home to find her mother lying dead on the living room couch. What unfolds in the immediate aftermath of this discovery are some of the most emotionally heartrending minutes of TV history. And it’s accomplished without swells of music, without unnecessary and overwrought dialogue, without any phony dramatic flourishes. Instead, the audience is pulled painfully into an agonizingly realistic experience of sensory shock.
We are pulled into Buffy’s disorientation and mental shut-down as she attempts to determine what is wrong with her mother, call for help, and wait for the paramedics. We stare uncomprehendingly at the overlarge numbers on the phone, trying to will our brain to remember how to make a phone call. We feel and hear her mother’s ribs crack from the force of CPR compression. We focus on unrelated sounds (children playing down the street) and can’t focus on what people are saying directly to us (the cutoff and shifted camera angle that obscures the paramedic’s face and eyes as he talks). We feel sick and dizzy as we watch Buffy collapse and vomit on the floor, her face pale and bathed in sweat.
All of this works together to depict Buffy’s state of shock in the most realistic way possible. The story pacing perfectly mimics how such events unfold as if they span hours even though they actually only take a few minutes. Even after repeated viewings, I still feel such a visceral state of shock through this opening sequence. It’s a tsunami wave of emotion that is all the more powerful because it’s not shouted at me. It’s an unrelenting, unavoidable whisper that permeates every word, every breath, every moment of staggering numbness until we finally reach a small measure of relief in the form of a commercial break.
When the story moves on, that same sense of quiet horror continues on with us. The obsessive focus on secondary details continues to highlight the emotional upheaval of the characters. Camera angles continue to isolate characters in half frames. Whedon repeatedly pulls us away from heightened emotional moments. We hear, rather than see, Xander punch his fist through the wall in Willow’s dorm room. Dawn drops out of frame as she collapses in grief in her high school hallway, and the audience is left to observe her pain in silence from a distant vantage point.
When we finally get the “ass kicking” we’ve come to expect in every Buffy episode, it comes as almost an afterthought to the scene where Dawn is working up the courage to view her mother’s body. The fight itself is methodical; it’s very clear that Buffy is going through the motions, working entirely from muscle memory, while her grief numbed mind struggles to catch up.
Much has been said and written about the critical success of “The Body.” It regularly lands on lists of the “All-Time Best Episodes of TV.” There is much to laud that I haven’t mentioned so far. The actors’ performances are fearless, raw, and skillfully controlled. The episode is perfectly paced and beautifully filmed. It is successful as a standalone treatment of grief and loss, while at the same time powerfully illustrating the season story arc and theme of Buffy dealing with forces that are beyond her control.
But for me, it always comes back to the brave decision to find the drama in the small, mundane details of grief and shock. Modestly pulling down Joyce’s skirt before the paramedics arrive, robotically getting paper towels to clean up her vomit, slipping from “Mom” to “Mommy” as she futilely calls her mother’s name. They are details that will stay with you long after the credits fade out.