Friday, January 11, 2013

"The Body" (Buffy 5.16): Simply a Masterpiece

This episode is not one I would usually list amongst my "favorites" of the series, because it is decidedly not an example of the "hurts so good" catgory of "Amends" or "The Prom." "The Body" is upsetting and uncomfortable and unfair. It's also moving and revelatory and very, very real. Jenn and I agreed that the typical Do's and Don't's format wouldn't be appropriate to discuss what writer/director (and demigod) Joss Whedon achieved with this episode. I decided to recap "The Body" by looking at how Whedon used the tools of his chosen medium, television, to explore and represent grief and loss.

Time. The forty minutes of "The Body" is shorter than the time span covered by the story, but not by much. The show opens with the same scene that closed "I Was Made to Love You," emphasizing the crystallization of the moment Buffy discovers Joyce's body.

It's just as shocking every time.

The same mental process, by which ordinary objects attain disproportionate significance in the moments surrounding a trauma, is visually represented in the lead-up to Buffy telling Dawn the news.

Including an unmoving woman's body. The man's a genius.

Sound. One of the most apparent, and most discussed, directorial choices made by Whedon was the exclusion of anything but ambient sound during the episode There is no instrumental music--only distant sirens, chimes, and a whole lot of silence. After the frenzy of Buffy's attempts to revive Joyce, the arrival of the paramedics, and the pronouncement of Joyce's death, there isn't a whole lot to say.

Script. But there are things that have to be said, obviously. However, the episode isn't very interested in the specifics of relating the news. Buffy's ambiguous phone call to Giles--"She's at the house"--could just as easily refer to Glory, which is what Giles assumes. The audience is placed behind a classroom window when Buffy tells Dawn,

and the details of how Willow, Xander, Tara, and Anya find out are elided completely. Jenn also has a smart reading of the Christmas flashback, the first of the episode: "This episode really seems to center on the futility of wishful thinking, especially when it comes to something (like death) which is so thoroughly beyond our control. So, having Buffy's first flashback / fantasy going to Christmas and the conversation about whether Santa's a myth is an appropriate introduction. The idea of a real Santa would be great. It would be some positive magic in a world full of so much destruction (both the Sunnydale world and our own). Granted, Anya revealing that he would eviscerate children squashes that idea. But, that's the point. Even when we find out something's real, that doesn't necessarily mean it will meet our ideal expectations or be good."

Character. But what does get expressed verbally are a lot of unanswerable questions. From Willow's desperate uncertainty over what to wear in order to express emotional support for Buffy and grief for Joyce,

to Xander's attempt to blame Glory, then the doctors,

then the wall,

and Anya's poignant confusion over not just the how but the why of death

everyone is struggling to speak about the unspeakable.

Tara emerges as the emotional center of the group even more than usual in this episode. She comforts Xander by suggesting she understands how the pain in his hand corresponds to the pain in his heart, and her articulation of the psychic cataclysm occasioned by her own mother's death is the only comfort Buffy receives in the episode.

I'm tempted to quote her speech in full, but then you'd miss the brilliance of Amber Benson's delivery.

Genre. We are watching a show entitled Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Whedon never lets the horror and fantasy elements of the show's modus operandi be trumped by the all-too-natural story of loss. For example, Anya's pleas for understanding, which at first read as her characteristic blunt insensitivity to the way people communicate due to only recently becoming mortal develops into a very human assault on the inescapable unknowability and brutal stupidity of death. This one I will quote in full. It's famous and it should be.

"I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she's, ... there's just a body, and I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead anymore. It's stupid. It's mortal and stupid. And, and Xander's crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she'll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why."

The closing scene, where Dawn encounters a vampire after sneaking into the morgue to look at her mom, has occasioned some debate as to whether the intrusion of the supernatural interrupts the dramatic power of the episode. It seems to me that this is just another version of the argument that fantasy and horror, especially if televised, are somehow less serious or important than other methods of narration. Whedon demonstrates how fantasy and horror are intrinsically human responses to the body blow of loss. Buffy's fantasies that she arrived in time to save her mother are just as unlikely and impossible as the notion that vampires live and walk amongst us.

It's called magical thinking for a reason.

And Dawn's slow approach to her mother's dead body is the kind of horror story that the appearance of a vampire intensifies, not negates.

The closing battle graphically illustrates that, though in some ways death stops time, time refuses to stop because of death. Buffy is still the Slayer, and can't absent herself from the world because of her overwhelming grief. But the episode doesn't give us any closure, or any easy answers. The closing shot is of Dawn reaching out to touch her mother's face, and collapsing into blankness.

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