(Major spoiler alert!)
Written and directed by Joss Whedon, ‘The Body’ in season five is probably the most heart-wrenching of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 144 episodes. Although Buffy’s mom, Joyce, rarely played a central role in the series, actress Kristine Sutherland always made her presence felt. As a single mother, she was a key figure in Buffy’s life. She welcomed the whole Scoobie Gang into her home, eventually becoming somewhat of a motherly figure to them all. She came to accept her daughter’s very unique role as slayer, despite all the complications it presented. But she also had a life, and troubles, of her own. She struggles to make her art gallery a success. Her relationships with men included evil android Ted (John Ritter), and an occult-induced roll in the hay (or on the hood, at least) with Giles. She developed some serious health issues. And her daughter–and, later, daughters–definitely threw her some curveballs. As Whedon says in his commentary for the first-ever Buffy episode, ‘Welcome to the Helmouth’, Joyce was searching for something in her own life. Like so many others, she was still searching when she died suddenly in season five, and fans felt the blow of a life cut short.
This episode is one that I did because I wanted to show not the meaning or catharsis or the beauty of life or any of the things that are often associated with loss, or even the extreme grief, some of which we do get in the episode, but what I really wanted to capture was the extreme physicality…the almost boredom of the very first few hours. I wanted to be very specific about what it felt like the moment you discover…you’ve lost someone. (00:00:55)
The finished episode has the same devastating emotional impact of the best episodes of HBO’s Six Feet Under, which is especially impressive considering Buffy aired on the WB.
In order to achieve this effect, Whedon made some very deliberate stylistic choices which distinguish this episode from almost any other. “So what appears to many people as a formal exercise–no music, scenes that take up almost the entire act, if not the entire act without end–is all done for a very specific purpose, which is to put you in the moment,” he says on the commentary. “That moment of that sort of dumbfounded shock, that airlessness of losing somebody” (00:01:45).
One necessary element of the show threatened to get in the way of that: the opening credits. The episode’s teaser (the scene before the title sequence) features Buffy finding her mom’s body on the couch. Whedon knew additional credits would be superimposed on the screen after the title sequence, and he “couldn’t bear the thought of having them over…the long take of Buffy first dealing with the body” (00:02:10), so he found a work-around. After the opening title sequence, rather than picking up where the teaser left off, we’re shown a flashback of the gang having dinner at Buffy’s place with Joyce. In part, this was an artistic decision, because he “wanted to see what they had [together], and happier times, and to see Joyce” (00:02:10), but on a practical level, he “added this scene to be the exact length of those credits, so that [he] could get them out of the way” (00:02:10) without breaking the moment.
But Whedon is quick to admit that his idea wasn’t perfect. “I made a mistake,” he says. “I put Joyce in the kitchen at the top of the scene. I should’ve had her coming back all during this [scene] and taking dishes away so she was a constant presence in all their lives. But of course I didn’t think of that until after the show had aired…” (00:02:10).
When Whedon does return to Buffy’s discovery of her mother’s body, he almost immediately emphasizes the physicality of the experience that was the impetus behind the episode. As Buffy performs CPR, she cracks one of her mother’s ribs. “[A]gain, this is part of what you’ll see a lot of in this episode, which is sort of almost obscene physicality–a little more physicality than we necessarily want or are used to, that expresses itself periodically throughout, because death is a physical thing,” he explains. “There is a body, and apart from the sense of loss that you inevitably feel, there is the fact of a body, and dealing with that is an experience that really does kind of stop time” (00:04:45).
This concern with time is reflected in the shooting and editing style of the whole episode, but particularly so in this scene. Buffy realizes what has happened in a long, continuous shot that draws out the moment, while her actions within that shot vary from frantic scrambling to stunned stillness. In terms of the passage of time, the scene plays out very naturally: she finds the body, calls 911, waits for the paramedics to arrive, watches them declare her mother dead, calls Giles while she waits for the coroner’s office to come for the body. “I didn’t want time cuts that let you out of the moment,” Whedon says. “I wanted to do everything…step-by-step as it would happen, [although] some time things are truncated–Giles gets there pretty quickly, but we all know how small Sunnydale is” (00:11:45).
It’s a moment that hurts, that stays with you, and that reflects with uncomfortable realism a moment that many of us have–or will–experienced in our own lives.
This is such a powerful episode that we’ve only discussed the first twelve minutes in this post. Next time, we’ll find out what Whedon has to say about the other twenty-eight.
To be continued!
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 5, Episode 16, ‘The Body’ | Written & Directed by Joss Whedon | Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, Nicholas Brendon, Anthony Stewart Head
What do you think? How does ‘The Body’ compare to other Buffy episodes? Did it hit you as hard as it hit me? Leave some comments below and let us know!