My favorite episode is a new feature for this blog in which I look at my favorite episode of a TV show I like. Some of the shows will be classics – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, etc., and others may be shows that I personally loved, even if they haven’t endured or stood the test of time, like Ugly Betty, for example. I won’t go into the history of the show too much, but will give some context if needed – and I’ll also go into the show’s historical significance and if the episode is a much-beloved classic, I’ll also discuss that.
I didn’t watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the show was originally running from 1997 – 2003. Like most shows I love, I started watching on DVD some six years later, and have become a fan. Creator Joss Whedon’s show was a deliberate take on the horror genre, upending popular gender tropes: instead of a handsome male hero, his hero was a young girl, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar). She was flanked by a group of close pals – the Scooby Gang – we call them the Buffys in my house.
Unlike a lot of genre television, Whedon’s Buffy went out of its way to complicate expectations of horror fiction: he included romance, fantasy, elements of soap opera, and even sitcommy humor.
Having a favorite episode of Buffy is difficult because the show’s quality remained consistent throughout its whole run – even in the latter seasons, there were moments of solitary brilliance. Because of that reason, I may have more than one entry for Buffy in the My favorite episode feature.
For this week, I will be looking at “The Body” from the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The episode was written and directed by Joss Whedon. Even though Whedon was an important presence on the show, he didn’t write every episode of the show, but when he did, one could see his ambition. With Whedon’s involvement, the episodes took on larger, more epic themes and he injected a sense of gravitas and grandeur.
In “The Body” Buffy must contend with the unexpected death of her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland). Usually a capable and quippy warrior, Buffy’s confidence and self-confidence is completely obliterated because she’s dealing with forces far more complex and frightening than the supernatural: she was dealing with reality. In fact, there is very little of the fantastic in this episode – aside from a brief fight between Buffy and a vampire in the hospital’s morgue – yet, the episode packs a lot of suspense and tension.
What Whedon does in “The Body” is he breaks out of the rigidly stylized tone of the program. Because of the serious subject matter, our characters aren’t throwing out one-liners and puns. Nicholas Brendan who plays Buffy’s male confidant Xander Harris, and Emma Caulfield who portrays his love, Anya, both are usually reliable for laughs, but the death devastates them; Xander’s attempts at sarcastic humor merely hide his pain and anger, while Anya’s patented inability to read social cues aren’t played for laughs, but show a confused and startled young woman who doesn’t have the resources to grieve.
Alongside the writing, another important aspect of the show is the direction, and in “The Body” Whedon does some interesting visual work. When Buffy discovers her dead mother, lying on the couch, we are intentionally placed in the slightly buzzy chaos that Buffy feels internally – the camera is pitched just slightly-off. Confusion sets in even further when the action cuts to red herrings of Buffy successfully saving her mother. The viewers are confused just enough (“Oh, maybe Joyce wasn’t really sick”) but we’re cruelly brought back to reality when Buffy is on the phone to 911, and attempting to perform CPR in vain – another interesting and disturbing detail has Buffy crack Joyce’s sternum when she loses control of her super strength.
Whedon also stages his actors in deliberately stagey ways – often characters will be staring off in a sad daze. When we see Willow (Allyson Hannigan) for the first time, she’s standing, hypnotized by grief. She is suddenly stirred by her girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson), who is on hand to comfort Willow.
And speaking of Tara, she has an interesting, though limited role in “The Body.” She and Anya are part of the Scooby Gang, but because of their late inclusions, they aren’t in the tight knot of the original core four: Buffy, Xander, Willow, and Buffy’s mentor, Giles (Anthony Stewart Head). They are purposely held on the peripheral because their relationship with Joyce was far shorter than that of the others.
The running joke with Anya is that because she’s a demon who recently is reformed and joins the human race, she is unaware of societal niceties and social cues. She doesn’t understand why certain topics are taboo, and cannot seem to adapt to polite society, often spouting inappropriate comments at awkward moments. Often these moments are played for comedy, especially when Anya’s healthy sexuality prompts her to share intimate details of her sexual relationship and desires.
But being a demon, she also wasn’t privy to the human process of grieving. But Anya’s also part human, and feels pain and grief, but cannot seem to figure out these feelings and what they mean. Mortality is a new and irrational concept that she doesn’t know how to address. She sees the pain in her friends’ face, and her human impulse moves her to want to alleviate their hurt, but cannot sort these feelings out because they’re too alienated.
With Tara, though, we see something a little more key to later plot developments. She acts as a calming effect on Willow and even Xander, who shares a moment with Tara after he punches a hole in a wall in frustration. Later on Tara shares details about her mother’s death with Buffy, commiserating on their shared pain, but she’s also careful to allow Buffy’s feelings to remain dominant.
All of these details with Tara will lead to her becoming the maternal figure for the group. Her preternatural wisdom, kindness, and sense of calm will make her a natural source of unconditional love and affection from the other members of the Scooby Gang. She later on becomes a surrogate mother figure to Buffy’s little sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg), helping to raise the teen when Buffy temporarily dies.
As a recurring character, Joyce went through character development from being the slightly daffy parental figure of the first season to a much more interesting and complex character by the fifth season. She’s not a perfect mom – her attitude toward Buffy vampire slaying was that of maternal nerves and over-protectiveness; in an earlier season, Joyce reacted badly when she learned of Buffy’s secret identity, leading Buffy to run away from idyllic Sunnydale to the gritty streets of L.A., in a not-so-subtle storyline that parallels gay kids being thrown out of their homes.
But Joyce still had a strong presence in the other character’s lives – to Xander and Willow, she was a consistent mother – both were drawn to her because their family lives were dysfunctional: Willow’s mother was a one-note college professor who was dismissive and neglectful, while Xander’s parents were warring alcoholics that made his home life a nightmare.
If the Scooby Gang was a composed family unit, Joyce was the matriarch and Giles was the patriarch. But he, like every other character on the show, had a special relationship with Joyce – the two bonded when they searched for Buffy during her disappearance to Los Angeles, and in “Band Candy” in the third season, they even had sex when under the spell of charmed band candy.
Even evil Spike (James Marsters), the vampire who is in love with Buffy, had a special friendship with Joyce, and showed up to the Summers house with flowers for the dearly departed.
The characters all feel discombobulated when Joyce dies. It’s easy to forget because of their heroics, that underneath all their crime fighting, bravery, and super powers, these are just ordinary kids (which is a big draw of the show and why viewers respond positively to the characters). When Whedon decided to write “The Body” he eschews the noble bravery that often marks the characters and instead he shows just how vulnerable they are – none of Willow’s or Tara’s magics, nor Buffy’s super strength can help them because they are confronted with an evil that cannot be explained away in one of Giles’ musty old books.