Joss Whedon’s “The Body”

I was a casual viewer of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” back in 1998, when it was in its second season. I remember enjoying it quite a bit, if for no other reason than this line, delivered by the ditzy Cordelia: “If you’re not careful, one of these days you’re gonna wake up in a coma.” I never became a fan simply because the show has season-long (and sometimes longer) story arcs that require devoted viewing to fully appreciate, and I didn’t devote myself to TV shows back then. Also because I was embarrassed to like something called “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” no matter how good it was. Now, thanks to the wonders of DVD, I’ve been catching up on many shows, “Buffy” included. The second time around has been even more enjoyable, but nothing prepared me for what I saw last night…

I’d only cried once before at a TV show. It was the second season opener of “The West Wing,” where the White House staffers deal with the aftermath of the shooting from the first season cliffhanger. I held it together pretty well until Donna entered the picture. In a scene forever etched in my memory, Donna rushes into the hospital, fretting about relative trivialities, the only one in the room who has no idea the person she’s closest to in the world is on the verge of death.

I cried again last night. A lot. Really an awful lot. “The Body,” from the fifth season of “Buffy,” written and directed by show creator Joss Whedon, is not only a better hour of television than the West Wing tearjerker, it’s perhaps the most affecting episode of any TV show ever.

For those of you who haven’t seen it: stop reading and go see it. Download it, rent the DVDs, whatever. I don’t want to spoil anything. It helps tremendously if you’re familiar with the characters, but it probably isn’t necessary.

The episode starts with Buffy coming home to discover her mother lying dead on the couch, not killed by a vampire or demon, but by a brain aneurysm. Most shows would use the initial shock to take us to the next scene. Not here. After the opening credits and a quick flashback, we return to Buffy alone in the house with her dead mother. And we stay there for every painful moment of the ordeal, with several minutes coming from a single, uninterrupted, handheld shot. We see Buffy’s initial reaction. We see understanding set in. We see the panic. We see the irrational prioritizing. And we see it without any non-diegetic music. We only hear what the characters do for the rest of the episode. It’s unnerving, like something is missing and the rhythms are off, like the characters aren’t even allowed the small comfort of swelling, Sirkian strings in the background.

The rest of the episode shows the next few hours for Buffy, her sister, and her friends, following in the tone set by the first scene. Whedon uses a variety of directorial techniques: jump cuts, steady cams, lens filters, and so on, but it never comes across like Oliver Stone-style showing off. It’s always for a purpose. As a writer, he resists using his trademark snappy dialogue. There’s little of the usual humor or physical danger. No moralizing or melodrama.

This is what television can be, should be, what makes it a unique thing. Here we have a self-contained story, but one that will carry on, and one that is made stronger by the show’s history. Compare this with “Law and Order,” where the stories have no impact on the following week, or with “The Sopranos,” where the writers can’t be bothered to write episodes that mean anything on their own.

But forget TV for a second. “The Body” is the best illustration, in any medium, ever, of the first day after the loss of a loved one. The best illustration of the initial shock, the initial grief. Ever.

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3 Responses to “Joss Whedon’s “The Body””

  1. ranting2006 Says:

    This was a wonderful TV moment that I had forgotten about for a while. I saw it and don’t know if I can watch it again because it was so (for lack of a better word) intense. My favorite scenes are when Buffy discovers her mother and Buffy doesn’t want anyone to touch her mother’s body. The other is when the doctor explains what happened. Even talking about it here gives me the creeps because it feels so real to me. I don’t know how you managed to post about this. It is a great show, and I think people will be watching it for years to come.

  2. Roger Taylor Says:

    It actually wasn’t easy trying to analyze it all. I had to take a day to recover because, like you said, it feels so real. I’d add to the favorite moments list: Buffy first telling her sister; we watch it through a window, from the POV of the onlooking classmates. Great scene.

  3. YLlama Says:

    On your recommendation, I rented this episode. So that I wouldn’t be too out of the loop–I hadn’t watched a buffy episode since the first season–I also rented the preceding four episodes, which was about enough to get who Dawn, Glory, Tara, Anya and others are, and to understand Spike’s new role.

    You’re absolutely right that this is a great piece of work. The lack of music made it haunting, as opposed to sappy. Particularly the beginning sequence (everything up to Giles’s arrival) was effective. The only real complaint I had was the stupid fight scene at the end. I realize that’s what the show is ordinarily about, but if Whedon was able to stop himself from making with the sarcasm for an episode (for the most part), you’d think he be able to stop himself from making with the on screen vampires for an episode. Overall, though, definitely great. Above the other four episodes I watched at any rate, which seemed to descend into Power Rangers-style cheesiness at times. But not in a good way.

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