After seeing her role diminish with each successive season, Buffy’s mother Joyce returns in a big way in season five. Obviously, there was a plan at work from the beginning of the year, so giving her more screen-time made sense, but we didn’t know about any plan at the beginning of the season. And yet, Joyce’s return to semi-regular status makes perfect sense for a couple of different reasons. For one, Buffy is no longer living at the dorm (another not-so-subtle allusion to the failures of season four), so of course, we would see her mom around more with Buffy at home more. For another, with Dawn coming into the family, it made logical sense for Joyce to be there, mothering (helicopter-parenting) the younger sibling just as she once did Buffy.
Buffy’s perspective toward her mother was different this year as well. She was much warmer toward her, less put-out by her out-of-touch and naïve ways. Again, there was an endgame to all this, but we didn’t know it at the time. At the time this all made sense considering where Buffy was as a character: She was graduated and transitioning into proper adulthood. Naturally, she would see her mother differently as her mother would treat her differently. They would start to become more sisterly, each sharing the responsibility of raising young Dawn (something Dawn herself would naturally resent). It all fit together, neat and tidy, and if that’s all that came of it, it still would be regarded as solid writing.
But, as you know, there was more to it.
Early in the season, Joyce starts suffering from headaches and fainting spells. A trip to the hospital (and a chat with the new doctor character Ben, who has nothing to do with Glory or anyone so let’s forget about him) informs us that Joyce has a tumor in her brain. Instantly—knowing that Joss Whedon derives more pleasure out of making audiences cry than anything else in his life—fans took to assuming the worst, counting down the days until Joyce would bite the dust. What’s great, and I mean it’s a masterstroke of patient writing, is the way Joss stretched out the inevitable to the point where fans started to think everything maybe was going to be okay. In the meanwhile, fans at the time frequently joked about the prospects of Joyce’s death, not because the character was unliked (not anymore; season five brilliantly rehabbed her character), but just because it was fun to think about all the ways Joss would torture the viewers. We weren’t emotionally invested in the idea of losing Joyce, and when the brain tumor ended up being benign and Joyce started to mend, viewers were quick to move to the next plot device, letting their guard down…
And then we lost Joyce.
Once again, and this too was a masterstroke, is the way they landed the first reveal of Joyce’s death. It happens at the end of a light-hearted, silly, one-off episode. Do people even remember that? Do you remember the one where some rando nerdy robot-builder saw one of his creations (a robot girlfriend) go wild on Sunnydale? It’s a funny but slight episode. I rank it almost in the exact middle of the series, #65 out of 131. It’s good but hardly memorable, especially when compared to the episode that came next. We may forget, that the episode ends with the sight of Joyce lying dead, out of focus, on the living room couch, as Buffy comes home from saving the day yet again. It ends with her pained, fragile, pleading of “mom…mom…mommy…” before the screen fades to black.
To this point in the season, if not the whole series, Buffy has won every battle. She was killed by the master but shrugged it off and came back. She had to kill her lover, but he returned a few months later. She stopped the Mayor, took out the Initiative, defeated Dracula, has kept Dawn safe from Glory, and on the list goes. Even when it comes to her mother, we’ve already had the tumor scare. Buffy was powerless and helpless there but, in the end, Joyce recovered, making the heroine no doubt feel like a champion all over again. She’s a winner. Everything’s going her way. And then…
The episode is called “The Body,” and it’s one of the most gut-wrenching, raw, and realistic depictions of the whirlwind that follows the death of a family member that you’ll ever find on any TV series, in any genre, anywhere, ever. It holds up so brilliantly today that it can be appreciated by someone who has never seen an episode, has no context or background in the series and just turns this on without any set-up. It is essentially a short film by Joss Whedon, made to explore grief, loss, and the frustration and helplessness one feels when faced with the finality of death.
The whole structure of the episode is perfect. Joss Whedon (writer/director) knew the best way to sell the impact was to show how Joyce’s death affected everyone, so he gives everyone not only a big moment but a mini-arc for how they process it…
Willow is self-conscious about how to help Buffy, Anya is frustrated because as an ex-demon that’s lived for countless ages but has never been close to a mortal before, she doesn’t understand the feelings of loss she’s experiencing, Giles leaps into “parent mode” and refuses to process her death so he can focus on Buffy (until the next episode when he’s shown playing records that he and Joyce listened to in the episode “Band Candy”), Tara thinks about how best to use her own mother’s death to help the grievers, Xander looks for something to get angry at, and Dawn remains in denial throughout the episode, insisting on seeing the body because it’s not real till she does. Buffy is actually given the least to do once you get past the absolutely devastating opening. After that, she withdraws entirely within herself, which we later learn is her way of dealing with the loss: As long as she’s planning the funeral and making decisions she never has to say goodbye and move on.
It’s just a fantastically put-together episode, presented without any soundtrack, with very very few jokes (and the ones we get are contextually appropriate, as anyone who has gone through this whirlwind will tell you, humor naturally slips out at unexpected times), and other than a moment in the morgue, without any grappling with the undead. This is the episode that slaps Buffy hard in the face with the realization that she is fallible, that she can’t win every battle and walk away with a shrug on her shoulder and a quip on her lips. to say that she is never the same after this is an understatement: This loss and the way she processes it will reverberate, especially throughout the rest of the season.
Because we still have a “rest of the season.”
The death of Joyce happens only two-thirds of the way through year five, and just as Buffy is only starting to move back to a kind of normalcy, Glory figures out that Dawn is the key and the heroes are forced to go on the run. By this point, Glory has already driven Tara insane and by the end of the two-parter “Tough Love/Spiral,” Glory has beaten Buffy and kidnapped Dawn, intending to kill her to open the portal that will unleash her dimension on earth. That’s a series of defeats that have hit our heroine in very short order. I didn’t even mention the departure of Riley earlier this year, which I suppose can be categorized as a loss (even if I see it as an absolute win). Never has Buffy been so outmatched and overwhelmed before. As a result, at the end of “Spiral,” she suffers a nervous breakdown and collapses, forcing Willow to enter her mind in the underrated episode “The Weight of the World,” and bring her back to fight again.
“The Weight of the World” is not regarded highly in the Buffy fandom, but it serves an important purpose, to explore the inner mindset of a hero that is only now forced to confront the reality of losing. It is both a perfectly logical result of everything that has happened thus far, and a critical set-up to what will happen in the finale. It’s also a reminder of the kind of TV content that is quickly going by the wayside: Most TV series of any acclaim are released in eight to thirteen episode chunks, featuring stripped-down, plot-heavy storylines that don’t allow much time for the kind of silly, trippy, or otherwise experimental one-off episodes that made Buffy so great. You couldn’t get an episode like “The Zeppo” in a Netflix season. An episode like “Restless” would never have been made to close out an eight-episode season on Disney+; they would have finished the arc with the Initiative, in all its “meh,” and swallowed the disappointment without ending on a high note. A protracted season allows you to have a higher budget and a tighter overall storyline, but you lose the small bursts of creativity that come from an episode like “The Weight of the World,” where Willow and Buffy have an existential conversation in the recesses of her mind, ending with Buffy confessing that, after all that’s happened, she finally has come to believe that she can’t win; she can’t beat Glory. Willow, however, shames her for refusing to try. That snaps Buffy out of it, and the episode ends with the hero ready to do whatever it takes, even losing, just for the chance of saving the day.
Which takes us to “The Gift.”
Not to spoil things, but it’s worth mentioning that five of Buffy’s seven finales rank in the top ten of my “every Buffy episode ranked” listing (coming early next year), and “The Gift” is the second-highest rated of those finale episodes (behind “Becoming 1-2”). It is another Joss Whedon episode but, unlike his more experimental outings like “Restless,” or “Hush,” or “The Body,” this one is more traditional, in the mold of “Graduation Day 1-2.” It highlights the writer/director’s ability to tie up loose ends, make effective callbacks, payoff long-awaited moments, and leave the audience both satisfied and begging for more. It’s a marvelous episode that has the most “final episode” feel of all the finales thus far, likely because, at this point, the team in front and behind the camera didn’t know if UPN would buy the rights to a sixth and seventh season, and The WB had all but indicated they were done with the show. This was, as far as they could plan it, the end.
And what an end it was.
Everyone gets a moment, including (1) Giles who brings out a bit of the old Ripper in him, (2) Xander, who proposes to Anya, (3) Willow and Tara, who have a killer moment where they wordlessly cast a spell that gives Spike an avenue to get to Dawn, and (4) Spike, who almost saves the day like the hero he didn’t know he was becoming…before he fails.
Spike fails, Buffy fails, everyone fails. Glory’s plan was to drain Dawn’s blood to open the portal and once it’s opened, the only way to stop it is to kill Dawn, something Buffy—having already lost her mother—refuses even to consider. Dawn might not have actually lived with her for all those years, but in her mind, she had, and at that point what’s the difference? Buffy thinks of Dawn as her sister so she is her sister, and now she stands on the catwalk, with Dawn dripping blood over a slowly opening portal and the only solution is to kill her.
And that’s when Buffy has her epiphany…
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The episode ends with Buffy, realizing she can’t win this one and walk away with a quip, deciding to win it by sacrificing, not her sister, but herself. The fact that this realization comes while she beholds the dawn (of a new day), just before dying to save her Dawn is too perfect for words. She leaps to her death, closing the portal and earning a tombstone whose engraving brings a hiccup of laughter and happy tears amidst all the ugly crying:
Buffy Anne Summers.
SHE SAVED THE WORLD,
Her final words to Dawn include this beautifully poignant line, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,” words that will come back to her when she again contemplates taking her own life, not as a heroic sacrifice, but as a desperate suicide to escape the hardships that had befallen her. But that’s a story for another season, and we’ll talk about season six next time.
In the meantime, Buffy wasn’t the only one going through big changes…