Saturday, November 15, 2014

Buffy Rewatch: Mom? Mom? ... Mommy?

A few thoughts on "The Body", the landmark episode in which Buffy's mom dies.

"We're not drawing the object. We're drawing the negative space around the object."

"The Body", for good and bad, is unlike any other episode of BUFFY. Its subject matter - the shock of Joyce's death, as felt separately by Buffy, by Dawn, and by the rest of the Scoobies - allows writer/director Joss Whedon to experiment with structure, tone, direction, and editing. Often, this works. But not always.

The famous, brilliant, proper first act of "The Body" (after the Christmas dinner flashback, which Whedon apparently added because he couldn't air the episode without opening credits) is probably the greatest sequence of the series. It's also a tour de force for Sarah Michelle Gellar, who really outdoes herself here. (Her work throughout season five is among the greatest season-long performances I've ever seen.) In one terrific, unbroken, shot that lasts about 2.5 minutes, Buffy finds Joyce on the couch, frantically calls 911, attempts CPR, and realizes there's nothing she can do. The urgency of the direction and the performance, even 14 years later, is still devastating. Throughout the series, Buffy was never smaller, more helpless, or more childlike than when she says "She's cold" to the 911 operator.

On its own, the first act of "The Body" is a fantastic short film. Whedon's directorial techniques (the 2.5 minute shot, the editing of Buffy's brief fantasy flash-forward that Joyce is ok, the framing as the paramedic tells Buffy that Joyce is gone) are a little flashy, but they all enhance the scene's power. There's a tremendous moment when Buffy opens the back door and briefly stands outside. She hears sounds of nature and of children playing. It's a a perfect, succinct representation of the rudeness, the audacity, of life continuing elsewhere when a loved one has died.

The episode runs into a couple of problems in its middle acts. The second act follows Dawn at school, as she deals with mean girl drama, a crush on a cute boy, and a thuddingly obvious thematic art class. Dawn's teacher uses the "drawing the negative space around the object" line, in case we didn't quite realize what the point of the episode was. Overall though, the second act is very strong, highlighted of course by the powerful scene between Gellar and Trachtenberg when Buffy shows up to tell Dawn the bad news.

The third act is even more problematic. In it, Xander and Anya meet up with Willow and Tara before heading to the morgue. None of them seems sure what to do, what comes next. Willow, the over-preparing perfectionist that we've known since season 1, can't find the perfect sweater to wear; Xander looks for someone to blame and punches a wall; Anya, simultaneously the oldest and youngest of them all, struggles to make any sense of death whatsoever. The more I think about it, the more I realize that "problematic" isn't the right word, but "unsatisfying" might be. It's not that the reactions are out of character; it's that I think I was hoping for more. But maybe that's on me, now that I'm (much) closer in age to Giles than I am to the Scoobies.

I had forgotten just how minor a character Giles is in "The Body". He shows up at the end of act 1, and briefly in act 4, before he's dispatched to deal with the paperwork. It's a sign that his position as Buffy's (and the Scoobies') mentor is fading, but it's also a reflection of what the episode's about. "The Body" is about the shock of death, yes, but it's mainly about a young person's response to death. That's why the episode is primarily about Buffy, and Dawn, and Willow and Xander and Anya. Anya's older than all of them (combined!), but she's never been more clearly "newly human" than in her brilliant "I don't understand!" monologue. (And Emma Caulfield plays it brilliantly.) Which brings me to Tara.

Tara reacts differently to Joyce's death than the other Scoobies do, and it's not because she's relatively new to the group. "The Body" features a terrific scene between Buffy and Tara, in which Tara explains that her mother died when Tara was 17. Buffy asks if it was sudden. Tara replies: "No. Yes. It's always sudden." Watching "The Body" at 40 was certainly a different experience than watching it at 27, but I'm not sure if I've ever heard a truer, more profound statement about death.

It's always sudden.

"The Body": A+

No comments:

Post a Comment