Buffy the Vampire Slayer had such an impact on me growing up that I was scared I wouldn’t feel the same when I re-watched as an adult. I was wrong, I felt it all. There were arcs that I thought were incredible that only seemed better as I got older. There were things I understood deeply that I maybe only understood on the surface when I was a teenager. There were episodes that made me feel emotions I’d never felt before that only intensified those emotions upon re-watching in my twenties.
The episode titled “The Body” was one of the most heartbreaking and incredible episodes of television I’ve ever seen to this day. I still rave about it and I’m sure it’s on every top episode list of any series anyone can ever find. This episode was a masterclass on how to make gut wrenching and compelling television. It’s been 16 years since the episode aired and it has stuck with me ever since. “The Body” humanized someone I considered so far beyond human that there was no way mortal horrors could touch her. I vividly remember the first time I saw this episode, I was a 13 year old latchkey kid whose mother often didn’t come home from work until long after I’d gone to sleep. I heated up whatever leftovers were in the fridge, sat down on the couch, and turned on one of my favorite shows of all time. I was excited! It was important to me to see how Buffy would deal with Glory, how she would continue to keep the key safe, to follow the “will they, won’t they” relationship of Buffy and Spike, to know that everything was going to be okay in Sunnydale. Except it wasn’t. It wasn’t going to be okay because Buffy’s mom had died and over the course of the episode Joyce stopped being “mom” and became just “the body”.
I was horrified after watching this episode. Obviously I knew that everyone would die at some point, as a spooky kid I never feared for my own death and have always thought death was pretty interesting. I researched serial killers after listening to my modem spend 10 minutes connecting to AOL. At that point in my life Hamlet was one of my favorite stories to read over and over again. Death shouldn’t have been shocking for me but Joyce’s death hit me hard. As a very selfish 13 year old child I was struck with the realization that, eventually, my mother would die. Despite being so secretly goth at heart, that night I stayed up and waited for my mom to get home from work, in fact, I stayed up every night for a week making sure she got home okay. I thought about her health, was my mom healthy? Did she see doctors regularly? I panicked when she was late. I waited by the phone just in case. I needed to make sure that my mom didn’t die. It was irrational, of course, to think that my waiting would make a difference, I wouldn’t be able to protect my mom from death by natural causes. My mom is alive and well but I feel compelled to check on her right now as I’m writing this. When I re-watched the series as an adult I worried about my dad who, like Joyce, had a brain tumor. While my dad is otherwise quite healthy and tumor free thanks to amazing laser ablation from fantastic neurosurgeons, season 5 of Buffy resonates with me in dealing with my dad’s health scare. When my dad told me the news, I immediately thought of Joyce Summers, what I would do, and what life would be like should something happen. I thought of my sister much like Buffy thought of Dawn and what I would need to tell her. It’s a painful thought and it is terrifying to imagine.
The Slayer was big and bad and superhuman and not even she could protect her mother from death. I watched the Slayer send vampires and demons to their death weekly from my living room, I watched her save the world through killing for the greater good. But there was no redemption in Joyce’s death. Sunnydale did not become a better place, Buffy did not feel joy like she did when driving a stake through an undead body. Joyce’s aneurysm wasn’t the work of Glory (the big bad of Season 5), her throat wasn’t ripped out by a vampire, a demon didn’t infiltrate Buffy’s home and kill her, no spell gone awry. There was nothing for Buffy to avenge, there was no one Buffy could track down and pay for what they did to her mother. Joyce was killed by her own body, her brain betrayed her, her brain was her boogeyman and it won. The boogeyman never won on Buffy, she was the winner, she was always victorious. Joyce’s death didn’t feel cheap, it didn’t feel forced, it felt natural and personal to me. There were scenes where I felt like I was intruding on someone’s moment. I felt voyeuristic watching through the classroom window with the other students as Buffy told Dawn the news. Her death was the focus of the episode, only one vampire showed in the morgue (which, to me, was a big “how dare you be there” moment). It was tonally different than anything they’d done in prior seasons, and rightfully so, Joyce Summers was an important aspect of the show and in Buffy’s life and now she was gone. The story is told over the course a single day … the immediacy of dealing with death, the process of trying to revive someone who has long since gone cold, of watching the body zipped into a black bag, of telling your/their loved ones, of stepping up and doing what is necessary was jarring for me as a child and heartbreaking for me as an adult. To see everyone else in Sunnydale unaffected when Buffy’s world was crumbling, to realise that no one felt halved by Joyce’s death, to learn that a single death might not mean anything to most people was a difficult thing to understand for me as a child. Everything felt so real. I watched as Buffy’s friends dealt with the Joyce’s death differently and wondered how much friends would comfort me. I watched as Buffy had to push how she felt to the side to allow Dawn to grieve, would I have been able to do that? It wasn’t slayer strength Buffy commanded throughout the episode, it was human.
I think what affected me the most is that there was no lesson to learn. The episode felt just as special then as it does now to me, painful and introspective. I was used to “very special episodes”, they always had a distinct message for me to learn from and I never really feared for the well-being of TV characters. I remember when Jessie Spano was so excited and so scared because of her drug use, when Emma met the creep from the internet on Degrassi (and every other Degrassi lesson), when Will cried and asked why his father didn’t want him on The Fresh Prince, and when DJ developed an eating disorder on Full House. “The Body” came after Shawn’s father, who we rarely saw, died from a heart attack on Boy Meets World mid-Season 6 but we don’t see the aftermath like we do with Buffy. We don’t see the mundane aspects of processing that death. We see him alive, cracking jokes, being himself and then we see him in a hospital bed, he doesn’t die until the end. A parent dying before their child is always horrible but “The Body” felt different. Maybe because Shawn was not chosen to protect the world and keep everyone safe from harm, maybe because he was not Buffy and maybe because his father was not Joyce Summers. Maybe it was because I didn’t think of Chet Hunter as much of a father considering how he abandoned his son and pawned him off on the Matthews family. All of these episodes had a balance that “The Body” didn’t have. We were reassured that the characters we loved had learned a lesson and that they would be okay. I didn’t get that when Joyce died, all I was able to do was question “who is going to take care of them now?”.
Thank you Joss Whedon who will obviously never see this. Thank you for showing teenage me that I could be the strongest person in the world, that I could do infinite good, and that I could still be vulnerable and human. I learned that no one was exempt from death and that I could feel empathy for a stranger, that I could care about mortality for once. I watched the Slayer, a pillar of strength and a physical manifestation of girl power, cry for her mother that day and I cried along with her.