Spoilers, Sweetie! In our new spoiler-ific subset of blog posts, we’ll consider interesting units of our favorite media — tv episodes, comics issues, single podcasts, songs, etc. We’ll dive into these pop culture favorites and, in doing so — you have been warned — we’ll be spoiling them. This week, Emily looks at the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Body” — to be followed shortly by a post in which she considers the Angel episode “A Hole in the World.” This post, then, spoils heavily episode 16 of season 5 of Buffy and makes some comments about episode 15 of season 5 of Angel.
In the fifth season of each Buffy and Angel, Joss Whedon himself wrote and directed an episode which focused on the death of a major series character.
(Seriously. This is the point of no return. If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of watching these series and don’t know who I’m talking about, this is probably where you should stop reading. Go watch all twelve combined seasons of Buffy and Angel — or at least the two fantastic episodes that I’m talking about — and then come back. You have been warned. Caveat lector.)
When I got around to reading Noel Murray’s wonderful rundown of Angel last week on The AV Club, I finally noticed just how fascinatingly similar these two Whedon episodes are. First off, “The Body” is the sixteenth episode of the fifth season of Buffy; “A Hole in the World” is the fifteenth episode of the fifth season of Angel. So we start out with two episodes that take place in virtually the same place in the overarching runs of their respective shows. In each, Whedon comes into his flagship show, which is in the midst of a pretty awesome season. He then kills off a beloved female character and uses the occasion of her death to craft an elegant study of mortality, community, and humanity as rest of the main cast attempts to come to terms with this monumental event. Both episodes are beautiful — they each rank high on my internal list of Every Whedonverse Episode Ever — with series high points in writing, acting, and general fantabulousness.
But they’re also surprisingly different when you put them next to each other, and this past week I’ve gotten really preoccupied by how “The Body” and “A Hole in the World” work in conversation with each other. They’ve got different priorities, different narrative structures, and different ways of going about realizing their thematic concerns. Yet when you put them next to each other, there is a great deal of continuity with regards to how Whedon addresses death and how he uses narrative to articulate our emotional reactions to it.
So this week, I want to walk through “The Body” and talk about how it’s an amazing episode and, specifically, how it comes to terms with mortality through its use of narrative structure. Then, in about two weeks, I’ll return with a Part Two in which I’ll talk about “A Hole in the World” as a sequel/companion/response to “The Body.” Because honestly, they’re two of my most memorable episodes from one of my favorite tv creators.
About halfway through “The Body,” we see a high school classroom. An art teacher instructs her students to paint canvases based on a nude female statue placed in the front of the room. But, she says, “We’re not drawing the object. We’re drawing the negative space around the object. Give me a sense of the spaces around — the space in between.”
That’s really the raison d’etre of this episode: to see a central inanimate body — in this case, the body of Joyce Summers — but to come to understand it through the spaces and movements around it. To understand death — and the difference between an animate, human self and a suddenly inanimate, self-less body — by focusing on everything that frames it and everything that happens around it. The episode tries to understand the sudden object-ness of the eponymous body by tracing the people who circulate around it. And also, to invert that structure, the episode works to understand the relationships between the core cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer by focusing on how those people and interactions are outlined by the human mortality at the center of this story. Perhaps it’s a bit neat to have the art teacher actually give us these directions which sound so much like instructions for how to read the episode. But I find that it doesn’t bother me: sometimes it’s helpful to get a nudge in the right direction by a thematically helpful high school teacher!
Anyway, “The Body” isn’t a particularly plot-heavy episode. In brief, Buffy comes into her house, and sees that a bouquet has been delivered to her mother from an admirer. In a wonderfully mundane moment, she begins to tease her mother about this guy, but then sees Joyce Summers lying motionless on the couch. Terrified and helpless, Buffy calls 911. EMTs pronounce Joyce dead from a brain aneurysm, and Buffy is horrified and upset in a way that even the threat of impending apocalypse has never made her. Buffy tells Dawn about Joyce, while the grief-stricken Scoobies gather at the morgue. In the last moments of the episode, Buffy battles a vampire.
Honestly, not a lot happens. It’s a really quick episode to recap — we don’t have ancient prophecies and Watchers’ Councils and demon assassins and Billy-Idol-wannabe vampires and all of the other Hellmouth-adjacent accoutrements that have come to define Buffy as a show. Given just how much this show is based around Monsters of the Week and all that jazz, it’s really striking just how much DOESN’T happen in this episode.
Instead, this is an episode defined by stasis. We spend much of the first act just watching Buffy cradle a phone as she moves slowly and aimlessly through her house, trying to do something but utterly unable to find something helpful or meaningful to do. Buffy’s good at battling demons. But when faced with human mortality, she’s paralyzed and helpless. Joyce didn’t die because of the demon goddess who serves as this season’s Big Bad, but rather because sometimes death just happens.
This paralyzed helplessness — this need of a good, beatable Monster of the Week to fight — follows the Scoobies through the episode. When Xander and Anya meet up with Tara and Willow to go over to the morgue, Xander’s trying so desperately to find a scapegoat that he ends up punching his fist through a wall.
“Things don’t happen. I mean, they don’t just happen. Somebody’s… I mean, somebody’s got…”
But although Xander’s speechless in the face of this horribly unexpected tragedy, there’s nobody to fight. Nobody’s to blame: sometimes, people die and it’s no one’s fault and there’s no one to slay. Xander especially is trying to deal with death by reacting against it, as he and the Scoobies would do against any normal Monster of the Week antagonist. But death isn’t a Monster of the Week. Instead, this episode almost reads as a more YA variant on Linda Holmes’s excellent article about Pixar’s Inside Out: it’s a conflict without a true antagonist. Mortality is horribly confusing — and characters move very slowly through story beats as they attempt to understand it. But mortality isn’t a Great Evil that our protagonists can fight against. It just happens.
That’s the genius of the episode for me: very little happens because our characters are having difficulty finding their way in a conflict with a “foe” against whom they don’t have an active moral high-ground. This slowness and lack of narrative forward motion is exacerbated by the lack of a soundtrack: the only noise in this episode is diegetic. Just as the characters are slowly, almost aimlessly, trying to get through the episode, unable to find a Big Bad who might give them narrative traction, we don’t get a soundtrack that might pull us through the story beats.
The only times we escape this slow meander through the day is when we go into Buffy’s POV for fantasy flash-forwards, when we see her day-dreaming about hypothetical futures: one in which she saves Joyce, and another in which the Scoobies and the Summers family have a riotous Christmas dinner together. But the silliness and verve of these fantasy sequences (there’s even a moment where the Giles/Joyce relationship from “Band Candy” gets mentioned) only underscores the passivity and sadness of the main chronology of the episode.
Joyce’s death is unsettling and confusing for us, as well as for our main cast of vampire-fighting young adults. Indeed, it’s probably no surprise that one of my favorite moments in all of Buffy comes in the midst of this confusion, when ex-demon Anya can’t get her head around the ineluctability of death. Anya became a big character on Buffy in season four, when Cordelia had moved to LA and taken up with Angel Investigations (more on that next post), and Buffy needed a character who could wink at the fourth wall and undermine the seriousness of the show.
But in this episode, even Anya’s occasionally tactless directness can’t get enough of a handle on death to be able to make light of anything. Rather, she becomes the voice of the confusion that both the audience and the characters feel in the face of Joyce’s death.
“But I don’t understand. I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her and then she’s — there’s just a body. And I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. And mortal. And stupid. And Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever. And she’ll never have eggs or yawn or brush her hair. Not ever. And no one will explain to me why.”
Death in “The Body” is horribly confusing and powerful and unpredictable, but characters just have to accept it — they have to move through it and, through community and agency, to come out the other side intact. When the vampire shows up at the end of the episode, it seems to be signaling this possibility of returning to normalcy: Buffy has finally found something that she actually can fight. She can’t reverse her mother’s death — she can’t really understand what happened and why — but as long as there’s a vampire in the morgue, she can keep being the Slayer with her Scooby Gang. Slaying the undead won’t reverse her mother’s death, but it does give her agency, meaning, and purpose even in the face of existential angst.
Finally, “The Body,” fundamentally, is an episode that’s really light on the narrative thrust but really heavy on moments of community. When Willow and Tara share their first onscreen kiss, when Anya and Willow help Xander bandage his hand, when Giles stands near Buffy as a paternal presence, we are reminded that we can’t fight death but we also cannot be defined by our helplessness in the face of it. Buffy is always fascinated by the strength that comes from community, and that — plus vampires — is what finally ushers us out of the grieving process in “The Body.”
“The Body” is an expertly crafted — and beautifully acted — episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s horribly sad, but it’s also hopeful: life goes on after a death, but it’s also okay if you’re aimless and confused and not entirely okay when you’re grieving.
Also, there’s a very important moral that if you double park your car on a college campus, you absolutely will get a parking ticket. Take note, friends.
It’s really, if you ask me (or one of the many sites on the internet that rank Buffy episodes), one of the all-time great episodes of Buffy. It’s not a typical episode of Buffy — it’s not even a typical episode of tv. As much as it moves toward a sense of comfort, it doesn’t follow a traditional storytelling structure. But that’s important. The passivity, and anticlimax, and lack of an antagonist of “The Body” is crucial to the story that Whedon is telling about mortality: because life itself doesn’t follow a neat Three-Act structure with clear act breaks and bad guys.
That’s why it’s so fascinating that almost EXACTLY three years later, Whedon wrote another episode of television centered around a major female character death. An episode that did a whole lot of things very differently — and delightfully, unlike this episode, did not decide to remove the Billy-Idol-wannabe vampire from the equation.
So, in about two weeks, I’ll be back to write about “A Hole in the World” and Whedon’s return to both traditional narrative structure and supernatural bad guys. (And all of my emotions about Fred and Wes. And A Little Princess. And cavemen vs. astronauts.)
In the meantime, though, an eternally amusing video to help you deal with the trauma of Joyce Summers’s death: