15 years ago, on the 27th February 2001, the greatest episode of not just Buffy, but Television aired for the first time. Apart from being the most gut-wrenchingly sad TV experience I’ve ever seen, it’s also the most wonderfully crafted and carefully thought out hour of entertainment ever made, depicting grief in a realistic and thought-provoking way.
Joss Whedon certainly reduced us to a puddle of wet mush for this episode but it’s the details that make this the most brilliantly realised piece of TV ever.
Season 5 is in every way the shows best, part of that is due to the writers careful weaving of the storylines. Dawn/Glory, Riley leaving and Buffy’s Mom were all done with a deft touch and the story of Joyce becoming ill, discovering she has a tumor and getting surgery for it, are the shows most real and difficult to watch story arcs.
After a successful surgery, it’s all the more shocking when Buffy comes home one day to find her mother lying dead on the sofa. This brings us to The Body.
Season 5 would be still excellent if it weren’t for this storyline, yet with it, the theme of the season is nailed home perfectly. As Buffy struggles with the complex emotions of a Slayer, which constitutes an apparent death wish and lust for the kill, the sudden death of her mother, by natural causes no less, is the foundation for the emotional arc that Buffy takes over the course of the season, which takes her towards the greatest season finale.
The death of Joyce allows Buffy to become the adult, taking responsibility for her own life as well as her sisters, a decision which puts the season in sync with the central message of the show and how growing up is hard. Whedon, inspired by the death of his own mother, was able to inflict the story with genuine resonance and intricate detail, which when woven throughout the seasons themes, gives season 5 of Buffy a meaning.
Buffy has always had moments to make you cry, yet it wasn’t till this that you found it could make you weep. The utter sucker punch to the gut of seeing Dawn break down in tears as we watch through a window taps a raw nerve and when Willow, struggling with what to wear to the morgue, breaks down, it’s the first on-screen kiss of Tara and Willow.
Joss Whedon picked the perfect moment for this momentous kiss, not in some showy way, pointing at it and saying look how momentous we’re being, it’s done beautifully, as Tara kisses Willow to calm and comfort, a display of their love, not their sexuality. If it’s true that Whedon said that if he wasn’t able to get that kiss he would’ve quit, then that’s the sort of dedication that made the show great.
For me, Dawn breaking down is where I completely lose it, but for many it’s Anya’s speech about death that tears people apart. As an ex-vengeance demon, Anya simply didn’t understand the ways of humanity and this includes mortality. Her heartbreaking monologue, despairing over why humans just can’t not be dead is breathtaking writing and is the episode’s most poignant reaction.
The reaction of Xander and Giles are subtle, Xander is angry at the hospital and all Giles wants to do is help, in fact, the latter’s moment of heartbreak comes in the next episode as he quietly listens to a record he listened to with Joyce a couple of seasons ago. Tara is also given the position of calm when she talks to Buffy in the morgue, telling her that death is always sudden, as she continues to be the shows spiritual guide.
Joss Whedon makes multiple genius decisions as director, beginning with the absence of a score, as well as placing the shows titles at the very beginning, followed by a flashback scene, so as not to dive into the drama too soon after the exciting title sequence.
Many of his shots are carefully thought out and display the confusion of grief, the most obvious ones are out of focus or at odd angles, but are in fitting with the mindset of Buffy at that moment. A key shot at the beginning is done in one take, as we follow Buffy through different rooms as she speaks to a woman after dialing 911 and it’s an incredible performance from Sarah Michelle Gellar.
A moment where Buffy imagines that the paramedics have saved her mother is a shock but is in keeping with the portrayal of grief, feeding into the glimmers of hope that reside in her character.
My favourite thing though is the way in which we see everyday life continue just outside of the drama. Buffy gets some air out of the back door and we hear children playing in the distance, Xander’s car gets towed and at the end, Buffy ends up fighting in the morgue with a vampire, a normality for her and therefore, a clear sign that life carries on.
All of this contribute to my favourite episode of Television ever, a raw, powerful, beautifully made, weep-inducing 45 minutes that will leave any soul having person feeling drained. For this episode alone, Joss Whedon has won every ounce of my respect