Joss Whedon managed to create one of the best representations of the heightened sense of reality one faces when dealing with a death of a loved one in 1997’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer television series. Hardly anyone expected a television series about monsters, monster hunters, and the supernatural in general to produce one of the most moving portrayals of grief and mourning ever depicted on television. Yet, episode 6 of the fifth season of Buffy, called “The Body,” remains one of the finest representations of five stages of grief television ever broadcast.
The episode opens up with Buffy, our titular Vampire Slayer, coming home to find her mother lying motionless and unresponsive on the couch. She calls 911, tries administering CPR, and responds to the paramedics, who later informed her that her mother has passed, likely due to an aneurism — which could be associated with a brain tumor Buffy’s mother, Joyce, had previously removed. The initial 13 minutes of the episode perfectly show the physicality and the heightened sense of reality one feels in the very first few hours of losing a loved one.
Whedon used all the possible directorial devices to convey the disorientation Buffy feels as she’s suddenly plunged into the surreal reality that allows her to hear just how noisy silence can be. There’s no music, which actively denies any comfort in the scene, forcing the audience to really focus on our titular heroine, as Whedon visually shows her confusion through distorted perspectives, such as huge buttons on the phone dial as she’s trying to call Giles, or the loss of focus while taking to the paramedic, as she’s trying to grasp the situation and circumstances of her mother’s death. There’s also a very short cutscene in which Joyce wakes up and heals to good health — representing denial.
However, that denial quickly dissipates when Giles appears in the episode, and Buffy utters the phrase “the body,” leading to a horrific realization that she has internalized her mother’s death. Dawn, Buffy’s younger sister, represents denial more extensively, as she doesn’t believe her mother is dead throughout the entire episode, leading to her sneaking into the morgue. She doesn’t accept her mother’s death until the moment she finally sees her body at the end of the episode. As for the rest of the Scooby Group, they have their own corresponding stages.
If Dawn is in denial, Xander is clearly angry. He needs someone to blame, either the season’s big bad or the doctors that previously operated on Joyce, and ends up punching a hole in a wall and injuring himself. Willow represents bargaining; she’s struck with grief but nervously flutters around, stressing over things that don’t matter, like what’s appropriate to wear to a morgue (not the funeral). Strangely enough, Anya, Xander’s girlfriend and a former demon, represents depression, the fourth stage of grief. Considering her demonic past, this might sound strange until she gives one of the most moving speeches in the entire series.
Being a former demon who’s not personally acquainted with mortality, Anya goes around repeatedly asking irritating questions and mimicking behaviors she observes from others. Finally, however, after being told that it’s inappropriate to ask such blunt questions, Anya breaks down and questions the very nature of mortality and how one goes from being a person to being a thing — a physical presence in the room that, in a sense, isn’t there anymore. She questions the nature of dying, how someone can be there one minute and gone the next, hurting everyone they leave behind, how to move on, why nobody wants to explain everything. She also helplessly bursts into tears, possibly despairing at the recognition of her own mortality.
Tara is the only one whose feet are on the ground through the entire episode. She’s quietly empathetic and supportive, clearly caring more about the living than the dead, signaling acceptance. She doesn’t get much exposure until near the end of “The Body,” where we find out that she had lost her mother at 17, so she understands what everyone’s going through, especially Buffy. When asked if her mother’s death was sudden, she responded that it wasn’t and that it was. The death of a loved one is always sudden, which pretty much sums up the entire episode.
Besides portraying the loss of stability and normality associated with losing someone we love, the episode also emphasizes Buffy’s response to forces she can’t fight — like a natural death. Joyce’s death was the first death by natural causes in the series, and it left Buffy, with all her powers, feeling truly helpless. However, we’ve seen her go from a childlike state of confusion and helplessness depicted at the beginning of the episode to the glimpses of acceptance when she tells Dawn that the body in the morgue isn’t their mother and that their mom is gone.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer concluded its final season in May 2003 as a critically acclaimed television series with over six million viewers who tuned in each week, which was impressive. In addition, it spun Angel, a spinoff series, and countless extensions in the form of comic books that are canonically tied to the television series. These releases created a Buffyverse, and as of 2018, another spinoff of the series is being developed for television.
We highly recommend anyone who hasn’t seen “The Body” to watch the episode, even if they’re not fans of supernatural dramas of the late 1990s early 2000s. Despite Whedon’s current embattlements with the media and some of the cast members of Buffy over harassment and toxic behavior allegations, the way he handled this brave, honest, and wrenching portrayal of death and loss is truly ingenious and should be better known among broader audiences.