R.I.P. Joyce Summers

Joss Whedon’s Wisdom: ‘The Body’ Laid Bare (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S5E16) (Part 2)

(major spoiler alert!)

In part one of our write-up of the commentary on Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s season five episode ‘The Body,’ writer-director Joss Whedon explained that with this episode he was trying to convey the “extreme physicality” of death, a point that we’ll return to later. Considering that so many viewers felt the loss of Buffy’s mom, Joyce, and the gang’s resulting shock and grief, as a physical blow, it seems clear that Whedon succeeded.

‘The Body’ was an emotional episode of Buffy not just for the characters and fans, but for writer-director Joss Whedon and the other talent behind the camera. “Everybody that I spoke to when I was writing this has lost someone, has a story about it, has an attitude towards it, and it all fed into this,” he explains. “But a lot of this came from my own experiences of losing my mother, and of losing other people, and not just of my own grief but of watching everybody else’s” (00:24:10).

Angry Xander

Angry Xander

Perhaps it is because he has watched other people experience loss that Whedon knows everyone has a different reaction to death, and allows his characters to react in their own way. This leads to some unique contrasts and interactions, particularly when the characters come together for the first time after learning of Joyce’s death.

Tara deals the best, because she’s been through it before, which is a revelation we get to later. Xander gets angry, because he doesn’t know what else to do, and we see Tara reacting to his anger, and his desire to make it right…. Willow, of course wearing her heart on her sleeve and completely at sea about the clothing thing becoming just something to latch on to. And then his anger allowing her to be cogent enough to become the grown up, to comfort him. And of course Anya…. Her part in this is something that most people remember best of all, because she just seems to be Anya, asking just horribly inappropriate questions every five seconds. (00:24:10)

Willow gets tough

Willow gets tough

Although their reactions may not be unique–we’ve all seen portrayals of men who react to loss by getting angry, as Xander does–this is only natural. After all, though the reactions to death may manifest themselves in a variety of actions, there are only so many emotional responses at their core. Where Whedon leaves his mark is the inclusion of two perspectives that aren’t often seen.

Buffy and Tara share a moment.

Buffy and Tara share a moment.

As a character who has experienced the loss of her own mother, Tara has a genuine understanding of what Buffy is going through and is able to offer something more than the usual platitudes. The fact that neither her friends nor the viewers know this about her provides a turning point to the story, as well as to the development of her character, and her relationship with Buffy.

Even more unique than this is Anya’s perspective–a formerly immortal demon whose job was to inflict pain and suffering and death, and who is still learning about, and coming to terms with, her newfound humanity and mortality. Despite having over 1100 years of life experience, this is her first encounter with the permanent sense of loss that is entwined with this mortal coil, and her use of her adult language to express her childlike confusion and pain and sorrow at Joyce’s death is poignant and heartbreaking and couldn’t be said any better without trading raw impact for greater eloquence.

Aside from season seven’s ‘Conversations with Dead People,’ the story arc of this episode is arguably the most unique of the series. There is no baddie to battle, no disaster to avert, just a loss to discover and accept. In a series that has dealt with returning from death in the form of vampires, zombies, and resurrections, as well as contact with ghosts, demons, and other beings that exist beyond or outside of death, this is perhaps the only case of death, plain and simple and unavoidable, and from natural causes, no less. The only things here for the characters to confront are loss and grief, and they can’t be fought or defeated, only accepted.

Who knew Anya had it in her?

Who knew Anya had it in her?

But even in this, Whedon provides a clear story arc. Rather than pausing the story while characters express their grief, as too many shlock directors might choose, Whedon makes their reactions and interactions the focus of the story. Anya’s reaction is a perfect example of this. As Whedon explains,

Emma’s performance here [as Anya] is lovely, when she goes into her speech coming up. What people [respond] to besides the performance is the fact of it as a kind of a plot twist. That is to say, nobody expected that much sensitivity from Anya, so when she breaks down and expresses really the heart of the experience–the very very basic, ‘I don’t understand’–it moved people even more than I had predicted, and partially because it works as a plot twist, because you think ‘Oh, she’s just insensitive,’ and then this happens. (00:24:10)

Not only does this scene reveal something about Anya’s character that we haven’t seen before, but it gives her relationship with Willow a nudge in a more positive direction.

In addition to creating a very clear arc for a story that could have become a shapeless blob of schmaltz in the hands of lesser talent, Whedon intentionally created a sense of physical space within the episode’s environment. Although Whedon has often mentioned his love for, and reasoning behind, long shots as a director, in Buffy he is often restricted to one room–Giles’ library, Buffy’s living room or kitchen, the hideout of the Big Bad du jour. ‘The Body’ includes one of the few instances (that I can recall, anyway) in which two locations are connected by one long shot. We see the coroner alone with Joyce’s body in what appears to be an autopsy room, then follow him out the door, along a hallway, and into the waiting room where Buffy and her friends are sitting. Whedon explains that two factors motivated this decision. “I have to confess…that I am a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan, and that I had been watching Magnolia obsessively before I shot this scene, so these endless tracking shots probably owe something to that,” he says. “But what I was really trying to get at here was again the reality of the space. I wanted to see Joyce very clearly, and then I wanted to walk all the way over to where Buffy was, where her loved ones were, so that you understood she was down the hall, she was really there, she was in a shot with them. It was not a cut. We weren’t on a different set” (00:30:45).

Vampire rising.

Vampire rising.

The camera later follows Buffy in her search for Dawn, who has gone looking for her mother’s body, and she finds Dawn just in time to save her from a freshly risen vampire. Whedon says that some people questioned his decision to incorporate an attack in that scene, but Whedon wasn’t doing it just for thrills. “I was very specific about it,” he says. “I wanted a vampire, first of all, who looked more like a corpse than anything else, and here’s young Dawn confronted by not only a vampire, but a naked man. It’s an intrusion, it’s offensive, and completely physical…” (00:40:10).

This brings us full circle to the theme of the physicality of death that Whedon explained in part one of this article, which is reinforced by the episode’s final shot. Buffy has defeated the vampire, and she and Dawn are alone together with their mother’s body for the first time. Dawn rises from the floor and sees that the sheet that covered her mother’s body has been pulled away during the struggle. With a timid hand, she slowly reaches out to touch her mother’s cold skin, getting closer, closer, and just as she’s about to make contact, Whedon cuts to black, then rolls the credits.

The fact of death being physically real, and physically unreal, is expressed…in the last shot, after Dawn says [“Where’d she go?”]–words that cannot be answered by anybody–and reaches out to touch her mother, in a show that’s been all about physicality, this girl–who needs to know, to understand–never touches her, and that was done very specifically…. It meant we want to touch it, but there’s nothing there, and to [cut] just before she touches her [mother’s body] was to express…what I’ve been talking about the whole way: there is no resolve, there’s no resolution, there’s no ending, there’s no lesson, there’s just death. (00:43:05)

BTVS, S5E15, 'The Body' - penultimate shot

BTVS, S5E15, ‘The Body’ – penultimate shot

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? Did you like how this episode differed from the usual Buffy format, or were you disappointed by it? Throughout her whole time on the show, does Anya have any other moments that rival her speech here? Did you catch yourself letting out a sigh or making some other kind of noise when Whedon cut to black just before Dawn touched the body, like I did? Leave some comments below and let us know!

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