There are terrible things in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they can make you tear your eyes out. Cry, scream, beg, they’re coming for you. Demons, dark gods, mummies, werewolves, the Gentlemen, and, of course, vampires. Running background gags and cold opens both involve random massacres. The world that it takes place in is a nightmare, to the extent that a sequence during Buffy’s senior prom has her receiving the “class protector award,” because they had the lowest mortality rate of any high school class in Sunnydale history. That’s perhaps why this episode is so impacting and so horrifying: Because it has basically none of that.
Quick Recap: Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a teenager/twenty-something who has been tasked by fate as “The Slayer.” It gives her some superpowers, but it also makes most of her life revolve around demons, vampires, and worse. She knows the plural of apocalypse, because she’s had to deal with enough. With her as the “Scooby Gang” are: Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), her watcher and mentor; Willow (Alyson Hannigan), her witch best friend; Xander (Nicholas Brendon), who is the normal guy; Tara (Amber Benson), a witch and Willow’s girlfriend; Anya (Emma Caulfield), a former demon-turned-human who has difficulty coping with humanity; and Spike (James Marsters), a vampire and Sir-Not-Appearing-In-This-Episode. Buffy lives with her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) and her younger sister, and mystical creation, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg).
This episode starts exactly where the last episode ended. Buffy arrives home, sees flowers from the guy dating her mom, and calls out asking if Dawn needs to be picked up. All routine. Then, she sees her mother on the couch, eyes wide, not breathing.
The next 10 minutes are difficult to describe. They’re intercut with flashbacks, fantasy sequences of potential happy miracles, odd exaggerations of distance and size, and they’re all intentionally jumbled with reality.
When a tragedy strikes suddenly, the mind can be overwhelmed, and few episodes of television have ever played it as straightforwardly as this episode. This is a character who has punched world-eaters in the face, struck dumb at the thought that she’s lost her mom to a stroke. When the EMTs arrive, and determine that Joyce is dead, they do so with professional detachment, while Buffy is left in the corner to struggle to grasp reality. They leave, telling Buffy not to move her mother before someone collects her. When Giles arrives, Buffy herself calls her mother “the body,” which causes her to break down again at the realization that the thing in her house is no longer her mother.
At Dawn’s school, she’s pulled out of class to be told by Buffy. We don’t hear the conversation, only the reaction as she breaks down. We are shown Willow panicking over trying to find the right outfit for seeing Buffy and Dawn, before pointing out that she can’t stop thinking about clothing and how that’s stupid and childish, before she starts crying and is comforted by Tara.
Xander just keeps finding things to be angry at, from the doctors, to the walls, to the Dark God they’re supposed to be fighting this season. Giles mourns privately. Anya, meanwhile, is scared because she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do. Demons don’t really care when other demons die, and she was previously immortal.
At the hospital, the Doctor tells Buffy that Joyce died painlessly. Tara then tells Buffy of losing her own mother, but it isn’t of great comfort. Dawn then visits the morgue, and is attacked by a vampire. Buffy arrives and quickly and unceremoniously kills the vampire, but in the process, the sheet falls off Joyce’s face. Dawn can only cry and touch her mother’s face, asking where she went as the episode ends.
Okay, the summary isn’t going to do much for why this episode is amazing, because it’s mostly the audio-visuals and the acting. Everything in the episode is disorienting. Sounds are exaggerated, camera angles are abnormal, silences are more pronounced, and there is absolutely no music within the episode. Perhaps most disorienting is that many parts of the episode just drift away from the main characters and feature normal sounds and activities. Children are heard playing outside as Buffy vomits when they take the body.
Wind chimes are gently ringing as the paramedics come. Xander is shown getting a parking ticket through the window. Life goes on, despite everything that is happening at that moment. When the doctor tells Buffy that her mother died painlessly, the line “I have to lie to you to make you feel better” is spoken at the same time. The camera was often hand-held during the episode to encourage the drifting feeling around the characters.
The characters, too, are shown at their most out-of-character. Buffy, who is typically the hero, repeatedly appears to be constructing her own narrative that this is all her own fault for not being there when it happened. Every time someone appears to say that there was nothing she could have done, she clearly doubts it. Again, she’s a superhero. She isn’t used to a problem she can’t out-punch. At points during the episode, she even starts to imagine alternate realities where this isn’t happening, but they are all destroyed by reality. It’s also noticeable that, contrary to how TV usually is forced to work, Buffy isn’t wearing her usual make-up and hair during the episode. She looks weary, tired, and like she’s been crying.
As for the other characters, they all have different reactions. Willow, who is literally capable of moving large vehicles with her mind, feels so powerless that she’s stuck trying to focus on the one thing that she can control at that moment: Her clothing. Xander wants to hurt everything and everyone, even punching a wall, which, contrary to most tv shows, both hurts him a lot, but also makes him feel better. It let him hurt something, even if it’s him. Anya, despite being the oldest character, responds much the way that a child does. She doesn’t really get “natural death.” Demons don’t have to deal with that. Children don’t have to deal with that (please, just let me have this one. I know it’s a lie, but I hate how much I’ve seen the truth). It’s so hard to explain to people why such a thing even happens, because it doesn’t have a real “reason” for something so devastating. Dawn just wants her mother back. It’s important to note that Joyce had been a parental figure not just for Buffy and Dawn, but also for Xander, whose homelife was shown to be alcoholic and abusive, Willow, whose parents are strict but often absent, and Anya, who hadn’t really had a mother figure before. To Giles, who is shown reacting more reasonably and calmly throughout the episode, but still shown to be deeply saddened by her passing, Joyce was a close friend and someone he’d once had sex with on the hood of a police car. Twice. Tara, however, is the outsider, as she didn’t really know Joyce. She just knows that she was very important to her friends and the woman she loves, and she tries to help however she can. Having all of these different levels of grief shown throughout the episode allows the audience to see all of the emotions, direct and indirect, that can come from dealing with the void.
Life is loss. You can’t have one without the other. But, no one deals with loss in the same way. This episode covers a huge range of those responses and, by filming it in an uncomfortable manner, makes sure the audience is as vulnerable to them as possible. Ultimately, this is less a viewing, and more an experience. Joss Whedon noted that a number of people wrote in telling him that this episode helped them cope with losing someone, and I fully believe this episode might help the grieving. It requires almost no knowledge of the show, so, even if you aren’t familiar with it, you should check it out.
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