The Body, the 19th episode in Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s fifth season, is one of the most emotionally affecting, disturbing hours of television ever broadcast.
Transcending the cult fantasy of the show’s origins, The Body is a harrowing descent into grief and loss, where Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar – in the performance of her life), used to saving the day, discovers the corpse of her already-dead mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland).
There is no last minute reprieve or deus ex machina to take away Buffy’s pain. Joyce’s death is final and absolute, like Uncle Ben or Harry Potter’s parents.
Speaking exclusively to Metro.co.uk, Buffy’s creator and showrunner, Joss Whedon, opens up on how his own experiences of loss informed his decision to create what is, still, most probably the greatest example of the power of television in modern times.
‘You know, [the episode] did a lot of stuff I didn’t mean for it to do,’ Joss admits. ‘In the sense of, I just wanted to tell a story about grief, in particular its dull eccentricities. I didn’t want any lessons, I didn’t want any catharsis.
‘And then, so many people were able to deal with their own grief because they watched it and I was so shocked by that.’
Ultimately, like other great fantasy epics, Buffy is a moral fable, about resilience and hope in the face of evil and of the power of women. But all these lessons, as Joss says, are stripped bare in the Body. This is not a comfortable watch for the viewer. Once you watch it, you do not have the urge to watch it again.
‘It doesn’t give you anything,’ the writer explains, ‘Death is the thing [Buffy] cannot fight, but it also renders her meaningless. She’s not on a lot of committees, she doesn’t have a lot of hobbies, it takes away her identity.’
And, indeed, Buffy’s grief does change her. In a way, we connect it to Ari Aster’s 2019 horror film Midsommar, where Florence Pugh’s Dani is quite literally transformed by her trauma. Although there are no weird Swedish cults in The Body, Buffy’s loss does inform her decision, in the finale of season five, to sacrifice herself in the fight against goddess Glory (Clare Kramer).
If the episode feels personal, well, that’s because it is.
‘My mother died when I was 27 in a car crash,’ Joss reveals to us. ‘But I didn’t really think about mining [the experience] until around season three. This is the moment [Buffy] says “I don’t know,” she hasn’t [dealt with this] before.
‘There is a good kind of pain created from her situation that was particularly personal.’
And, whether Joss realised it or not at the time, this loss permeates every scene and every line of dialogue in The Body, not in the least thanks to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s awe-inspiring performance, which should still be looked at today as the bench-mark for the kind of mastery actors can achieve through long-running stints on a TV show. At this point, Gellar had been playing the titular slayer for five years, and The Body utilises every one of her powers.
‘I knew Sarah could do it all,’ the Avengers director said. ‘When you have been working with a cast for a long time, you know their abilities.
‘It’s still beautiful every time I watch it and my heart breaks.’
The most visceral peak of the episode is at the very start, where Buffy comes home to discover her mother lying dead on the floor. With little to no music accompaniment on the soundtrack, we’re left to watch our heroine slowly drown in her own grief.
‘It’s not just a crying scene,’ Joss says on the discovery, the emotional lynch-pin of the experience. ‘It’s so much more primal and less forgiving, she didn’t have any music either. She just had to experience it.
‘The day we shot the stuff with her in the house and Joyce’s body, that was a single take for a really long time. She was, and like the cameraman and everybody there, brought their game so hard.’
The loss of non-diegetic music – the soundtrack that would normally play over particularly emotional or scary moments in an episode – also came about from Joss’ conversation with his lead actress on a previous day of shooting.
‘The no music thing partially came from me saying to Sarah after a scene with her and Giles “That was so beautiful, I can hear exactly when the music is going to come in.”
‘She said to me, “you know that’s not exactly what an actor wants to hear.” And then I was like, oh yeah, I rely too heavily on music.
‘There is something extremely important about this episode not having music because music tells you where to go, it’s like, what’s happened? You don’t know where we’re headed, or what to think.’
Joss says that the ‘experience of this grief is, you know, a band-aid in the process of being ripped off And once it’s off, it’s off. It’s so airless.’
The Body is the ultimate example of the power of television. Transcending genre and demographic, Buffy – a show already setting a legacy for innovative story-telling and performances that still influences shows such as Doctor Who today – becomes timeless through this 60 minutes.
‘I think [The Body] is probably the best thing I’ve done and the best thing I will ever do,’ Joss admits.
‘And I’m OK with that. You know, there are worse epitaphs.’
Buffy The Vampire Slayers seasons 1-7 are available to stream now on Amazon Prime Video.
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