Breaking Down: "The Body," Buffy the Vampire Slayer

| Friday, June 1, 2012
Today's Tune: Funeral Dress

In case you don't follow Mark Watches, let me explain the inspiration for this post: Mark is currently watching the entirety of Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the first time, and yesterday's episode was "The Body." If you are unfamiliar with the show or that episode, I'm going to be spoiling it bigtime in this post. Just so you know. Also, you might consider watching the episode. It's routinely lauded as one of the best episodes of television ever filmed, and is an excellent exploration of death and grief.

That said, let me also forewarn you that it can be very difficult to watch, especially if you've lost a parent. I have not, but I have lost close friends, and I can tell you that you will almost certainly see some of what you went through reflected in this episode in some way. It's for this reason that I wanted to explore the episode today and talk about how it captures the emotion and pain of death so well.

A poorly written death scene can destroy the momentum of a novel and nullify what should be an incredibly emotional moment. At worst, it can be unintentionally comical. Think of (ugh I hate even typing it) Episode 3 of Star Wars, in which Padme dies of a "broken heart" and Anakin responds to the news of her death with his infamous, emotionless "NOOOOOOOOOO." You do not want that. Ever.

It's incredibly easy to substitute melodrama for realistic emotion. Hair pulling, screaming "no" to the heavens, declaring you will join your love in the black abyss, et cetera. While an intense meltdown is a very realistic reaction to the news of death, the audience needs to feel the emotion, not be distracted by the focus on over-the-top, cheesy cliches.

Here's how the episode "The Body" created one of the most visceral fictional portrayals of death and grieving written in modern memory.

The death is incredibly personal and final. The character who dies is the protagonist's mother, who the audience has come to know and love over the course of many episodes. In the previous episode, before Buffy finds her dead, she is portrayed as bright, vivacious, full of life. The stark contrast of her alone and cold is shocking, as death often is. This is a death that matters. And it is a death that Buffy, who routinely saves lives, never could have prevented. A natural death, with no chance of resurrection. There are no outs or do-overs here. Dead is dead.

The mental and emotional state of the title character is portrayed through careful writing and direction choices. The detail and nuance featured here are impressive. I've read many a death scene where I couldn't get a grasp on the protagonist's state of mind because they're too distant, or melodramatic, or the scene is structured awkwardly. Here, we see the decisions of the writers and directors to portray Buffy's shock, grief, and sorrow. The camera follows her closely to indicate her panic. Her voice flickers in and out like a little girl's. Once it's verified that her mother is truly dead, we see her pull inside herself and watch the world slow. She stares at the phone for several seconds before calling her Watcher. The distant sound of people and life is far away, strange. She doesn't look the paramedic in the face as he speaks to her, but lets her eyes focus on her mother instead. She vomits, then places a paper towel over it and stares. Everything is so muted.

All these small details convey the numbness and horror she feels. Obviously the film medium offers options we can't recreate on the page, but we have other options available to us. Have you ever been through this? What are your memories? What are the things you focused on? How did the world feel? In college, a friend of mine died. I remember the shock of finding out, of my brain not processing the information right away. I said something stupid. I hugged my friend. Sobs felt yanked from my belly. I stared at random objects for what felt like hours. Time lost meaning. My heart throbbed in my chest like it was afraid it was next.

A variety of reactions and metaphors for grief are conveyed through the various characters. We have Willow, who's at a complete loss about what to do or how to be there for her friend when she feels so messed up. Tara, who's been through the death of her mother and understands on some level what it's like. Xander, who's angry and needs someone to blame, something to do to make it right. Anya, an ex-immortal being who's facing the death of someone she liked for the first time and is in turn exploring her own mortality. Dawn, who has the loud, screaming, denying reaction. Buffy, who moves from viewing the body as her mother to seeing it as only a body and knowing her mother is really and truly gone.

All of these characters are displaying realistic, personal reactions to this loss, and yet each response is a larger metaphor to the storyline as a whole. They are trapped inside their own grief, trying to be together while inexplicably being forced apart, because you can't share your grief. It's yours alone.

Life moves on. Nothing grinds to a halt. When we're faced with a loss, we often can't understand why the world doesn't just STOP. Doesn't it know this person we cared about isn't here to see it? That they will never see that bright sunlight, or hear those children playing, or be happy or sad or scared again? Many writers allow a death to halt the narrative. That's not the way it works. You still get parking tickets. Vampires still attack. The world doesn't care that you're mourning. It's a painful thing to realize.

The protagonist's hopes and inner doubts leak through. We see an image of her mother during the holidays, smiling and serving an enormous meal. Cut to her lifeless body. Buffy imagines a miracle recovery, which the audience hopes for as well, but it's not reality. She hears the doctor telling her that her mother didn't feel any pain, and her own mind fills in "I have to lie to make you feel better." Her mindframe continues to break through throughout the episode, reminding us that even as she's putting on a brave face, she's broken inside.

The isolation is shown, rather than told. The characters stand awkwardly apart, even when they're together. The silences are prolonged, uncomfortable. The humor is there, but the usual spirit behind it is weak. All of this is compiled with the metaphor about negative space around objects from Dawn's art class. No one says they feel alone, but they are. They're all alone, even when they're not. And no one is portrayed as more alone than Buffy's mother, who is so far beyond their reach that she's essentially become the negative space between them.

For these reasons, this episode stands out in the narratives about death. YA literature is well-known for its "dead parents" tropes, and they do become fairly tired. It's important to figure out how to make the audience care when a character dies, for them to feel that loss as if they're the protagonist.

Are there death scenes that have struck home for you? What were they, and why do you feel they hit you so hard?


{ Jen } at: June 1, 2012 at 5:27 AM said...

I have Buffy on DVD but I don't think I've watched this episode more than once...simply because it is so intense. The numbness, the buzzing in the ears, the weird off-kilter shock.

Exactly like real life.

{ Magan } at: June 1, 2012 at 9:33 AM said...

Now I have to cry all over again about t he death of Buffy's mom.

{ prerna pickett } at: June 1, 2012 at 10:37 AM said...

this episode made me cry all those years ago. Such a fantastic show! Love Joss Whedon.

{ Dracula } at: June 1, 2012 at 4:24 PM said...

Hey, spoiler alert! Some of us haven't watched Buffy before, you know!

But seriously, there's nothing like a good, strong, powerful character death. The most memorable ones, in my eyes, are those where you know it's coming, you know these characters are going to be hurt, that you wish you could jump inside there and shake them and make them see. It's hard to pull off, and you need to give your reader some well-rounded, dimensional characters to care about, but it can be done. And it can be great.

{ mollyspringwrites } at: June 2, 2012 at 6:27 AM said...

Great post!

I first saw that episode as a teenager not long after losing my father, and it was such a powerful, moving show, for all the reasons you've stated.

{ .jessica. } at: June 3, 2012 at 8:59 AM said...

I don't think any episode of anything, EVER, has made me cry like this episode made me cry. Anya's speech in particular is just devastating. And you're right, the lack of melodrama is one of the things that makes it so powerful. It would have been easy for everyone to sob and rip their hair out and for the world to come crashing down around them (literally, actually, because it's Buffy.) But instead everything was so muted - even Dawn's reaction, which was to dissolve into tears, happened behind glass so we didn't really hear it. The overall effect was this sort of numb horror, that something so terrible could happen and yet, the wind is still blowing in the wind chimes, the sun is still shining, people have to be notified, the body has to be taken to the morgue. Wrecked me.

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