Thursday, 19 June 2014

BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, 5.16 & 5.17 - 'The Body' & 'Forever'

Thursday, 19 June 2014
BUFFY: She's cold.
OPERATOR: The body's cold?
BUFFY: No, my mom. Sh-should I make her warm?

A diamond in the fifth season's rough, THE BODY was nevertheless frustrating to me because it proves (like most other Joss Whedon episodes he writes and directs), that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is capable of much more than it usually provides its audience. I'm not saying the show needs more introspective and depressing episodes like this, but it would be nice to see the maturity and artistry more often. And if that's what Angel is supposed to be providing, it needs to study every inch of "The Body".

While I only saw a handful of BtVS episodes back when the show was first airing, you coudn't really escape the impact "The Body" had on genre fans. Any episode that deals with the death of a regular character few disliked, is going to pack an emotional wallop, but what set this episode apart was how Joss Whedon managed to communicate the sense of disbelief, sorrow, and confusion the death of a relative has on real people. And yes, while the show tends to treat its characters as wisecracking folk who only exist in TV Land, "The Body" brought them back down to earth with great skill and finesse.

Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) is found dead on her couch by Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who's thrown into a state of understandable numbness and shock: unable to focus on the faces of the paramedics who arrive at the house, vomiting on the floor and cleaning up on autopilot, managing a brief phone call to Giles (Anthony Head) while trying to keep herself together. For a character who deals with death on a daily basis (kind of), it was interesting to see Buffy contend with the harsh realities of death as the audience at home understand it.

The entire episode was one of beautiful reactions, as the enormity of Joyce's death from a brain aneurysm affected people in different ways. Willow (Alyson Hannigan) fussed about wearing the appropriate clothes to the morgue, Tara (Amber Benson) revealed to Buffy that she's experience the same thing in the recent past, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) had an outburst, and Anya's (Emma Caulfield) inability to handle the human emotions she's experienced caused her to get up everyone's nose, until a breakthrough moment of humanity that literally forced her to take a seat. And there was Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) being given the bad news by her sister, during an art class where the teacher was requesting everyone draw the "negative space" around a cold, motionless figurine. A good symbol of this whole episode, as everything occurred around Joyce's unmoving corpse.

It was an oddity to end the episode with a burst of action, as Buffy protected Dawn from a vampire that had awoken in a locked mortuary, but otherwise "The Body" didn't put a foot wrong. I also loved the directorial touches Whedon provided; particularly the fake-out sequence with Buffy imagining the paramedics resuscitating her mother and giving her a happy ending, which I must admit completely fooled me. The way the scenes (including a touching flashback to Christmas dinner) sometimes cut sharply back to Joyce's pale face was also very effective, as was the decision to ditch a soundtrack and let everything appear more like a tragic stage play. A few sound effects were also allowed to become more noticeable, which sometimes gave the whole hour a very unsettling feel (like the wind chimes tinkling in the Summers house in an open window).

Where do we go from here? (I know most people reading this know.) Obviously the death of a parent often acts as the catalyst for children becoming adults on a deeper level, so it'll be interesting to see how Buffy changes after this episode. My only concern is that when BtVS inevitably reverts back to being a slightly daft supernatural teen drama with vampires and snappy one-liners, I'll start to think back on more experimental episodes like "Hush", "Restless" and "The Body", and wish the show could recalibrate so they were the rule and not the exception.

ANGEL: What's tomorrow?
BUFFY: That's exactly what I don't know. Up until now, I've had a road map. Things to do every minute, having to do with mom.

"The Body" was nigh impossible to live up to, but FOREVER was a good attempt that utilised the supernatural side of the show in a way that didn't discredit the down-to-earth emotions we experience in the preceding episode. After a parent dies it's natural to start doubting your own strength, your family's future, and to start wishing you could turn the clock back and do things differently. Buffy had a nice heart-to-heart with ex-boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz) under a tree after Joyce's funeral, where she berated herself for not coming home earlier or starting CPR sooner. But it was Dawn who really took action when confronting similar feelings, and realised their everyday life involves witches and spells that may of some use bringing their mother back to life.

I was concerned after watching "The Body" that BtVS would feel a little silly when things revert back to type, but Marti Noxon's episode worked as a nice bridge between the two styles of storytelling. There were some nice character moments (Spike (James Marsters) getting angry Xander won't believe he feels genuine sorrow for Joyce's passing), and a fantastic end sequence when Buffy tearfully confessed she's as distraught as her sister but doesn't believe resurrecting their mother is the right thing to do. And this all meshed well with some more typical Buffy moments; like Dawn and Spike visiting a creepy man called Doc (Joel Grey) for a resurrection spell, or later venturing into the sewers to steal a three-headed Ghora demon's eggs it requires.

But it was the humanity of the story that stuck with you; so while this hour was less experimental and emotive than "The Body", it was nevertheless an effective look at the grieving process that rang true for characters living in spooky Sunnydale, just as last week's felt plausible for the real world. Oh, and Glory (Clare Kramer) discovered The Key's in human form, so... ooooh...

written by Joss Whedon (5.16) & Martin Noxon (5.17) | directed by Joss Whedon (5.16) & Martin Noxon (5.17) | 27 February 2001 & 17 April 2001