“The Body,” written and directed by Joss Whedon
We’ve all known this was coming, folks, and we’ve talked about it quite a bit. You’ve debated whether it’s all Dawn’s fault. We’ve talked about this life change being necessary both for the overall story arc and for Buffy’s growth as a (super) human being.
So how do our beloved Sunnydale Scoobs deal with Joyce quietly passing away while everyone’s busy doing their own thing?
The Girlfriends: Anya and Tara are on opposite ends of the experience curve here. The childlike quality of Anya is ascendant here, without its usual bratty overtones, because she hasn’t been through loss or grief in at least a millennium, and has no clue what to do or how to express her feelings. She has known Joyce awhile, and she’s in pieces, just as the others are. Her attempts to find out what to do and how to deal, her breakdown when nobody has any good answers and her later attempt to comfort Buffy are all very affecting.
Tara, on the other hand, is the only member of the gang (besides Giles, one assumes) to have lost a mom, and she knows what Anya doesn’t—there’s not much anybody can do besides be there. She’s mostly silent, and when she’s needed she offers up, comforting Willow when she’s freaking out over sweaters, being the one to point out that they’re going to have to take over patrol, and giving Buffy the benefit of her experience and the offer of an ear if she needs it. The scene between the two of them is marvellous; looking at Amber Benson, I completely believe that all of this has ripped the scab off her own loss. And the image of the two young women sitting at a distance from each other, isolated by grief, is a powerful one.
The BFFs: What struck me most during Willow’s meltdown over the missing blue sweater is how much it reminds me of her interior monologue during “Earshot.” That need to be there for Buffy and to get “it” right, that sense she has that being the Slayer’s bestie is like an ongoing final exam in a course with no textbook—one she’s failing—seems very strong. She’s so upset; it’s hard to watch. Whether she’s weeping, backsliding into the comfortable old habit of snarking at Anya, rallying to support Xander the first time his anger gets the better of him, or letting Tara help her pull herself together, we are right there with her.
She’s also a pretty good version of Willow in this moment. Which is to say, there’s no talk of reaching for magic to fix things.
As for Xander, there’s not much he can do. He pitches in, he looks for someone to blame, and generally feels every bit as terrible as Willow. Except for that one moment where rage takes over and he puts his hand through the apartment wall, he’s very much at a loss.
Boy Two: Riley is M.I.A. and apparently on the rebound.
Boy One: Angel is coming soon to a guest appearance near you.
Boy Now: Spike, as Elizabeth Bear sometimes says, is “Sir Not Appearing in this Episode.” Given the events of the previous two, this makes perfect sense. Presumably he’s off with Warren, field-testing the Buffybot. And nobody on-screen is missing him but, perhaps, some of us in the audience might be. Because I don’t know how you’d fit it in tastefully, or at all—and I’m not saying anything in this episode is broke or needs fixing—but I still can find it in my heart to wish we had a spoonful of hilarious sugary B-Story to make this particular dose of woe go down.
Also not appearing: any music at all. Many have talked about how effective this was. Man, yeah. It really heightens the tension.
Giles: Joyce and Rupert had such an interesting relationship, didn’t they? For two years, all she knew was he was just that daffy librarian who seemed to be around a lot—around Buffy a lot—at odd moments. Then Joyce found out about the slaying, and she spent a good number of months blaming Giles for Buffy’s departure, and maybe for having usurped a unspecified chunk of her parental role.
There were times when they worked together to ensure that Buffy’s slaying and home life were balanced, and times when they fought for her limited resources, and then there was magic candy, with bonus crime and sex! (Twice! On the hood of a you know what!) Lately, Giles has had an oddly physical presence in the Summers home, meeting Buffy there for Slayer/Watcher confabs and even keysitting Dawn.
Joyce and Giles were indisputably friends, and losing the only other grown-up in the mix brings a much heavier load onto our favorite Watcher from the moment he arrives at the Summers home to find Buffy dazed with loss and Joyce on the floor. More than any of the young Scoobies, he sets his feelings aside, supporting Buffy by taking on the peculiar workload that comes with a death: making calls, getting people from place to place, and offering to handle the paperwork.
Joss: Claimed at least once that Joyce was the lovable harmless character death he felt worst about.
The Key: Dawn was already having a crappy day, for various mean girl cute boy reasons, before Buffy showed up with the horrifying news. At the hospital, she’s furious and in denial, and—in what might have been a funny moment in any other episode—she locks herself in the morgue with a newly rising vampire.
(Also, I feel I should note she’s pretty good at drawing negative space. I’d give her an A on that project. Not that I am an art teacher. Of course, I am just enough of a marshmallow that I might give a student an A on the day’s homework just for having lost a parent before lunch.)
Joyce: is pretty calm, even low-affect, throughout.
Okay, sorry. I must make light where I can this week! Kristine Sutherland is briefly delightful in the flashback scene right after the credits, where Buffy recalls the last big Scooby Thanksgiving—the food, the booze, the family togetherness and burnt pie. It is a lovely farewell for an actress who carried both the happy mother-daughter scenes and the early authority figure you love to hate moments with warmth and conviction.
Then we’re right back where Buffy started, staring into her blank eyes and sucking wind.
Ah, Buffy, poor Buffy! everyone is amazing in “The Body,” but Sarah Michelle Gellar is carrying so much of this episode. She finds Joyce, and we see it sink in that she’s dead. Even as she’s calling for help and trying to convince herself she can CPR life back into a cold body, she already knows. She’s far too corpsewise to doubt that her mother is gone.
The nightmare of losing a parent suddenly is compounded by everything that follows. Being left alone by the paramedics to wait for the coroner is bad enough. Having to break the news to Dawn is even worse. In one terrible moment she is no longer just responsible for that part of Dawn’s well-being that is her safety bound to the fate of the world. Suddenly she also must be everything to Dawn the Human: parent-figure, financial support, the whole shebang.
It’s impossible not to hurt for anyone who’s going through something so sheerly awful. And that’s even before work intrudes, before it turns out there’s a vampire parked two gurneys over from Mom and his favorite meal is mystic sibling.
The episode ends right after the vampire beheading: in the skirmish, Joyce’s sheet has been pulled away and Dawn, who can see at last that this terrible thing is really happening, is reaching out to touch the body.
You: How was it this time? How was it the first time? Did you get spoiled?
Next time: Willow says no to raising the dead. On this day.
A.M. Dellamonica has tons of fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales.