The Body (5x16)

Death is not a new concept for the characters of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," even among people close to them: as Xander pointed out, they've put in a fair amount of morgue time during their time in the Scooby Gang. This time, though, the villain wasn't someone they could play catch-up with, just a broken blood vessel that none of them could have done a damned thing about, and Buffy and Dawn will have to go on without their mother. Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the episode, devotes it to the differing ways in which Buffy, Dawn, and their friends deal with this heartbreaking loss.

The teaser repeats the final scene from "I Was Made To Love You": seeing the scene again is far more haunting when we know in advance that Buffy's momentary cheerfulness at her mother's good fortune is about to be brutally yanked from under her.

Act I begins in a flashback scene to last Christmas at the Summers house. Everyone is having a good time and behaving normally, a stark contrast to what is to follow. Whedon, when asked about this scene, explained that he had to have a scene to run the opening credits over, and that the contrast heightened the impact of what was to follow. It certainly served both those functions; furthermore, it added more credibility to the obvious grief felt by Buffy's friends by adding context. Some have suggested that some of the grief expressed by the others was without an obvious source, since Joyce didn't really have all that much contact with Buffy's friends. If we were to judge only by onscreen time, that would be a reasonable conclusion. Looking back, though, it seemed like Xander and Willow spent a lot of time at the Summers house, both before and after Joyce found out that Buffy was the Slayer. Joyce made obvious efforts to reach out to Faith, even after some of her early conflicts with Buffy. Also, considering what we've seen of Xander's, Willow's, and Tara's families (except for Tara's deceased mother, who she obviously cared for very much), it's not stretching things to think that Joyce had become the major mother figure in their lives, just as Giles is the father figure (significantly, Hank Summers is not mentioned once in the entire episode). The flashback scene reminds us of this and confirms that someone important to all of these people has just been ripped from their lives, and the abrupt termination of the flashback and cut to Joyce's dead stare adds an exclamation point to that statement.

The rest of the first act centers on Buffy's reactions, and Sarah Michelle Gellar, who has always excelled at portraying Buffy's volatile emotions, has never been better. As Buffy tries to help her mother, calls and waits for the paramedics, then watches their futile efforts to revive her, she is feeling panicked, frantic, and numb, and sometimes both or all three at the same moment, and the tug of war is naked on her face. Anyone who has been in a similar situation will probably recognize it: the restless pacing, obsession with trivial things, saying things that seem horribly out of place (Buffy calling out "Good luck" to the paramedics as they leave her alone with Joyce's body was a nice touch). By the time Giles arrives, not knowing what is happening, Buffy is clearly in shock, operating on automatic pilot. It is only when she unthinkingly refers to Joyce as "the body" that it really hits her, and the act ends with Giles trying to console her and the camera going back to Joyce staring at the ceiling.

Act II focuses on Dawn: in the opening shot, we see Joyce being put in a body bag, then an immediate cut to Dawn crying, implying that she has heard the news. As it turns out, Dawn is having what qualifies as a fairly normal day for a fourteen year old girl, including being upset by nasty peers and discovering that the cute guy next to her in art class kind of likes her. It seems that in spite of the recent revelations about her past, Dawn is managing to go on with her life. . .which makes Buffy's sudden appearance rather jarring. Buffy is more composed than in the last act, but her voice and expression make it clear to everyone in the classroom that something is terribly wrong. Whedon cuts away from the dialogue just before Buffy breaks the news to Dawn, bringing the perspective inside the classroom where the students watch Dawn start crying and fall to the ground, and ending the scene by showing the "negative space" drawing that Dawn had been working on, which disturbingly resembles the outline of Joyce's body as it lay on the floor in the Summers house.

Act III (which begins with another shot of Joyce staring upwards as the clothes are cut from her body in the morgue) focuses on Xander, Anya, Willow, and Tara, who all have their own problems in dealing with the tragedy, largely based in their particular natures. Willow, who is used to thinking things through to find a solution, becomes obsessed with finding the right thing to wear and becomes hysterical, causing Tara to soothe her with kisses on the forehead and mouth (apparently, this raised some eyebrows with the WB censors before they signed off on it, but the kisses were appropriate and perfectly natural for the scene). Xander, who would walk into Hell itself to help save a friend, desperately tries to find someone or something to blame for Joyce's death, and eventually loses his cool, putting his fist through one of the walls. Anya, who has been making strides in personal growth this season and has proven a definite asset to the group, is totally ignorant about how to act in this situation and inadvertently provokes Willow into telling her to shut up: Anya responds with confusion and a plea for some help in understanding what has happened and why it has to be like this (excellent job by Emma Caulfield here. . .she sounded exactly like a bright three year old trying to grasp the concept of death might). Tara, who had lost her own mother three years back (and who later tries to help Buffy by relating some of her own experiences), is the most focused one there, and helps to comfort the others, but she cannot spare them the pain. In helping Xander deal with his wall-punching induced injury, the four realize that all they can do is try to help Buffy. . .which gives them a measure of comfort, since they pretty much do that all the time.

The final act (which shows Joyce's autopsy being completed and her body being covered with a sheet), takes place at the hospital, where everyone has gathered and hugs and condolences are exchanged (Giles is startled when Anya, watching the others for cues on how to behave, gives him a big bear hug). The coroner confirms that Joyce did indeed die from an aneurysm, and Giles does his best to take the brunt of the cold paperwork that one has to deal with in the wake of a death. Dawn is still in denial, and goes off to the bathroom, later sneaking down to the morgue. Anya blurts out, "I'm sorry Joyce is dead. . .because she was nice. . .and we all hurt." (once again, perfect delivery by Emma Caulfield here). Xander, visibly worried about Buffy, makes a quip about Anya being ever the wordsmith, but Buffy recognizes Anya's intent and thanks her. While Xander, Anya, and Willow are off getting food, Buffy and Tara talk, and Buffy is somewhat comforted by Tara's sharing of her own experiences with her mother's death. By the time the others get back with the food, Dawn has been gone too long, and Buffy goes looking for her. A vampire has risen inside the morgue and is attacking Dawn, and Buffy breaks in the locked door and fights it, though she is clearly way off her game before defeating it. In the struggle, the sheet is pulled off of Joyce, and Buffy turns to see Dawn staring at Joyce as she stares blankly upwards. Dawn wonders if Joyce is cold, and Buffy replies that it isn't her, and that she is gone. Dawn asks where she went, and the final shot is of Dawn reaching out to touch Joyce, the screen fading to black just before contact.

Aside from the basic plotline, Whedon throws in many small touches that make the episode ring true. Buffy has moments of visual and auditory hallucination, fantasizing that the paramedics have saved her mother, hearing the doctor say "I have to lie to you" instead of his actual reassurance that Joyce probably felt little or no pain before she died. As the paramedic tells Buffy that Joyce is dead, the camera focuses on his chest, increasing the sense that Buffy is in shock. There is no musical soundtrack, allowing everyday sounds to be more readily heard, increasing the sense that life goes on, even though Joyce isn't.

The vampire attack is a reminder that Buffy is going to have to pull herself together: she probably isn't going to get the time to grieve in peace, with Sunnydale being what it is and Dawn still being in danger from both Glory and the Knights of Byzantium. Most of all, Joyce's eyes being left open, which ruthlessly drives home the cold reality of Joyce being gone at the beginning of every act and at other moments during the show.

There has been some negative reaction to "The Body," and one of the major complaints has been that this kind of thing isn't really appropriate for the format of the show, that people tune in to watch "Buffy" to be entertained, not to be shown what is almost a documentary on the impact that a sudden death can have on a close circle of friends and family. I would say in response that by handling the issue of Joyce's death in this manner, Whedon is setting up the final episodes of the season, where Buffy does continue to face the ongoing threat to Dawn and to her friends. Even if she pulls herself together, she is walking wounded right now, as are her friends to a lesser extent. Buffy has weathered a lot of emotional damage over the years, but this may end up being worse than any of it, particularly if Dawn or one of her close friends is a casualty of resolving the Glory arc. Also, because we didn't see Joyce all that much onscreen in the past couple of years, portraying the characters' reactions in such a stark manner made the audience really feel the impact that her death had on them. Jenny's death in "Passion" can be seen as a less involved version of this: Giles quietly telling the police that he has to make a call; Angelus watching from outside as Giles calls with the news and Buffy and Willow break down; Giles calmly gathering his weapons and setting the Factory ablaze and attacking Angelus; and Buffy and Giles sobbing in each others arms outside the burning Factory. This time, there was no one to punish, no action to relieve the pain. . .only grief and the need to deal with it. One could quibble with the details of how Whedon dealt with it, but the episode as a whole served its purpose, and did it memorably.

To sum up, the performance of the cast was excellent here, the writing and direction worked perfectly, and the end result was one of the best episodes in the series thus far, easily rivaling "Becoming 2" and "Hush" as the benchmarks for quality "Buffy" episodes. I can't say I enjoyed the experience, but I did appreciate "The Body" for what it accomplished, and I will certainly never forget it.