Friday, September 20, 2013

Whedon Week/The Canon #5: Buffy - "The Body" (2001)



The Canon is a recurring feature where I look back on movies, tv episodes, albums, books, etc. that I love; inducting them into my own imaginary canon of all-time favorite things.  (Inspired by the podcast, Extra Hot Great)

There's such a specificity in grief -- both in terms of the vivid emotions we feel and how it can vary with each individual case.  "The Body," the 16th episode of the 5th season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is the greatest expression of grief that I've ever seen put to film, and certainly my favorite episode of television.  I've never lost anybody in my life, yet I still feel such a deep connection with the Scooby Gang dealing with the death of Buffy's mother.  Stylistically, the episode is unlike anything the show had done before, and to this day it still feels different from every other TV episode I've ever watched.  Buffy and the gang have just experienced something that has shaken their world, and everything has been rendered slightly off because of it.  Sights and sounds that usually have no significance become vivid and bold -- the numbers on a phone, the patterns on the rug make their previously unobtrusive existence known.  But what strikes me the most about "The Body" is how quiet the whole thing feels.  The scene in Dawn's art class (where the picture up top derives from), which is about the negative space between objects, is kind of a description of the whole episode -- exploring all of the emotions that occupy the gaps between grief.

Not only is the episode masterfully directed, the script is just as raw and devastating, featuring several moving passages about death and how we deal with it.  The impressive thing is that there are only about 5 scenes that fill the episode, and as they go on deliberately, endlessly; we hope that they'll just cut away, much like the characters don't want to come to terms with the reality of the situation.  Loss can feel like such a singular, all-consuming thing, and Whedon does a great job of reflecting that sensation.  Just look at the scene where Buffy tells Dawn about their mother's death, and how all of Dawn's classmates seem to be drawn like magnets toward them.  But it also shows how in actuality, the rest of the world just keeps going, so regardless of whether Xander is grieving or not, he still gets a ticket for being double parked.  There's this hyper-real tone to "The Body," and it's so obsessed with the idea of processes.  What do I do?  What do I wear?  How do I act?  Anything to avoid thinking about the real question: why does this happen?  Season 5 of Buffy is about God in many ways, and Joyce's passing is major to the themes of the season, as it's the only death in the entire show brought about by natural causes.

Whenever something really bad happens to me, I get stuck in a stage that's a weird mixture of denial and bargaining.  I imagine it not happening, thinking that maybe if I formulate all of these elaborate alternative scenarios, one will eventually become true.  The minute you snap back to reality and realize that that's never going to happen, you're weighed down by an even heavier sense of pain.  That's why the parts that get me the most in this episode are the two or three scenes where Buffy imagines that her mom is actually alive.  You can see her thinking "If I could just do this one thing differently..."  But in the end, like Dawn in the closing scene, she's reaching for someone she can never truly touch again.  Joyce Summers is there no longer.  All that's left is the body.

"I wish that Joyce didn't die.  Because she was nice.  And now we all hurt." --Anya

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