The Body

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Season 5, Ep. 16, “The Body”

Original Air Date: February 27, 2001

Rare are the opportunities in life for one to experience a true epiphany. One such opportunity came to me in early 2002. As I often do, I was channel surfing one day when I stopped on an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” which as it happens had begun only a few seconds earlier. That episode was “The Body.” If you’re at all knowledgeable about this TV series, then you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute! You mean to say that ‘The Body’ was your introduction to ‘Buffy’?!” As a matter of fact, I do. Like I suspect many have done either because of the show’s bizzare-sounding name, or because the subject matter is unappealing, I had ignored Joss Whedon’s first major breakthrough in TV until it was well into the sixth of its seven seasons. Fortunately for me, FX was airing the reruns, so I was able to play catch-up within a few months. Had Netflix been around back then, I would have only needed a week or two. I wouldn’t find out until later, but “The Body” is perhaps the most atypical episode this series ever produced.

Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) comes home one day to find her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) sprawled out on the couch, unresponsive and with eyes wide open, staring at nothing. Buffy’s reaction is the same as anyone else’s would be: She dials 9-1-1 and tries to perform CPR. During this whole scene, including when the paramedics arrive and fail in their attempt to revive Buffy’s mom, the camera reflects the frantic and futile nature of the situation, tracking Buffy’s movements through the house, zooming in on various shots, choosing to focus only on the paramedic’s lips (as Buffy would be) as he delivers the bad news. As they are called elsewhere, Buffy (who by this time is emotionally shut down) wishes them good luck.

We stay with Buffy as she waits for Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) to arrive. She vomits on the floor, and then one of the more perfectly shot moments of the episode takes place. As Buffy opens the back door, her face is lit up by the sun and you can hear wind chimes, children playing and someone practicing on their trumpet. What this scene is telling us is that death occurs, and yet life moves on. Buffy still has yet to have any sort of reaction apart from losing the food in her stomach until Giles shows up and sees Joyce’s body. She shocks even herself when she blurts out the words, “We’re not supposed to move the body!”

Buffy’s next charge is to have to go to her sister’s school and inform Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). She’d rather face a cadre of vampires than have to do this. At that time, Dawn is only concerned with the bitchy girl in the class spreading lies about her, unaware of the tragedy that has taken place that morning. Buffy wants to go somewhere private because she knows her sister and how she’ll react. The camera shifts from out in the hall to back inside the classroom. We stand with her teacher and classmates, watching with sympathy as Dawn collapses to the floor in tears.

In the dormitory room of Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), one of Buffy’s two best friends in the whole world, we get another truly fantastic scene. Willow, in her grief, is rifling through her entire wardrobe trying to find a blue shirt that she says Joyce liked. She’s upset with herself for not having enough “grown-up” clothing. This was said to be the hardest scene for writer/director Joss Whedon to film, as it was based on his own difficulties in choosing the right tie to wear to a friend’s funeral. Understated because it was not meant to be the focus of this episode is the fact that “The Body” marks the first time that Willow and girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) kiss on-screen. It’s less passionate and more comforting, and that’s probably the only way it got by the censors… the same ones who wouldn’t bat an eye at this display of affection today. If only everyone were so tolerant.

Buffy’s other best friend, Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon) shows up at the dorm with his girlfriend, the formerly immortal demon-turned mortal human Anya (Emma Caulfield). Xander takes the typical male approach of expressing his grief through anger, first by vowing vengeance against Glory (the main villain of Season Five), and then blaming the doctors who had removed a tumor from Joyce’s brain earlier that year. You know that moment of pure frustration where you just feel like putting your fist through a wall? Xander actually does this, not through some sort of superhuman strength (that’s Buffy’s angle) but because of some rather shoddy plasterboard material.

The surprise of this scene comes just before Xander decides to blame the wall. It’s when Anya is asking seemingly horrible questions (“Are we going to be in the room with the body?” “Are they going to cut the body open?”) Being new to this whole mortality gig, Anya doesn’t know how she’s supposed to act in a situation like this. She doesn’t understand why Joyce can’t just stop being dead. Human death makes no sense to her at all, and it’s tearing her up inside. She’s already learning what it is to be human, and doesn’t even realize it. This was actress Emma Caulfield’s finest bit of acting in any of her episodes.

So abnormal was this episode that, looking back, it’s amazing to me that it’s the one that first got me interested in watching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which since grew into one of my favorite TV shows, if not my #1. One of the greatest choices Joss Whedon made was to film this episode without any music (except for the opening/closing credits theme). Had there been any hint of a soundtrack, it would only have served as a distraction. We don’t need music to tell us how to feel about the topic of death in the family. For Buffy and friends, this was brand new territory. For almost five years, they had fought and survived countless battles with vampires, demons and other creatures of evil. During that time, many fellow students, teachers and even friends had fallen victim, but it wasn’t until the death of Joyce that they felt completely helpless. Here Buffy was this young woman imbued with the strength to fight any enemy in her path, and she can’t even save her own mother from the natural conclusion of life. There were so many great episodes this show came up with, but none so easily relatable, none so grounded in reality, and none more well-written in the history of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Nice! I am especially struck by Joss’s opportunity in this episode to explore the effects of death on the living as seen through the eyes of newly human Anya. Also, no soundtrack would enhance the impact and the emotional drama in a “grounded in reality” sort of way. Very intriguing and quite a coincidence that it was the first episode that you saw!!!

  2. vinnieh says:

    This episode is so honest and moving in its examination of death and the feeling that comes for those left behind.

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