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Monday, September 3, 2012

The Body

[Updated May 1, 2013]

There’s a lot of television I’ve never seen, so I can’t say The Body is the very best episode of any show ever. I can’t even say that it’s the very best episode of Buffy, because it has close competition (IMO) from Passion and OMWF. It’s a real tribute to the show, in fact, that an episode as incredibly good as The Body can have competition for “best” and that still others are nearly as good. What I can say is that The Body has to be on a very short list among the greatest television episodes of all time.


It’s also among the hardest to re-watch – viscerally painful and raw. No matter how often I see it, I find myself tearing up during at least 4 scenes (“Mom. Mommy?”; “We’re not supposed to move the body.”; Dawn’s meltdown; Anya’s monologue). The complete absence of background music heightens the effect. So does the absence of metaphor. In a show devoted to metaphor, the very lack of it here emphasizes the realism and makes the events that much harsher. From Joss’s commentary:
“And so what appears to many people as a formal exercise, no music, scenes that take up almost the entire act, without end, is all done for a very specific purpose, which is to put you in the moment, that moment of dumbfoundedness, that airlessness of losing somebody.”

The Body is so powerful and so well done that there isn’t much to offer by way of commentary. I’ll just make a couple of points.
I’ve said many times before that I believe the school lessons always relate to the episode in some way. The art lesson was to draw “negative space”:
TEACHER: Okay. Remember, we're not ... drawing the object.
TEACHER: We're drawing ... the negative space ... around the object.

I think Joss uses Joyce’s body as the object and draws the negative space around it throughout the episode. He notes in his commentary that every act begins with Joyce’s body as the focus of the camera. We then see the way the events surrounding it serve to define it. The scene in which Dawn breaks down is a smaller example of drawing negative space within a single scene.
Groovypants made a great point in comments: “The one thing that really hit me that I never noticed before is that the first thing Anya says to Buffy is "I *wish* that Joyce hadn't died." It's like, for a thousand years, wishes had made things happen for Anya and now that she doesn't have that anymore, she has no way to actually deal with anything serious, but she says the wish anyway because it’s the literally only thing she knows.”
Also in comments, deidre asked whether I thought the vampire in the morgue was distracting. Here’s my response:
“I remember thinking on first watch that it was kind of distracting. Joss explains it in his commentary like this:

"But the idea of the vampire is that it is an intrusion, it does belong here the way Tara finds herself the only one sitting with Buffy and not feeling like she belonged. But she actually she had something to offer. But life goes on, and on BtVS, that means horrible things happen.

And this fight was done differently than any other fight I've done before. I made it as much of a gross wrestling match as I could, you know, hands in the face, and of course, pulling the sheet off of Joyce, in the worst way possible. But rather than a great cool kickboxy fight I made this like a genuine struggle. I wanted to stress the reality of it."

I get what he's saying, even though the scene did pull me out of the moment, so to speak, at first. Now I accept it as part of the episode. It's kind of like sitting down to deal with the bills after your mother dies -- a grinding reminder that life doesn't stand still.”

I should add that my metaphorical reading of the series, Buffy slays vampires in the course of growing up. Dealing with her mother's death is, of course, a major step in forcing her to adopt an adult role.
The very last scene – Dawn with her finger poised like that of God in the Sistine Chapel – had some fans speculating that her “keyness” would enable her to bring Joyce back to life. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this is not the case. Here’s Joss’s comment:
“The fact of death being physically real and physically unreal is expressed here in the last shot after Dawn says those words, words that cannot be answered by anybody, and reaches out to touch her mother in a show that's all about physicality. This girl needs to know, to understand. But never touches her. And that was done very specifically. And some people were like "oh that means next week Dawn's going to heal her with her key powers!" and I was like what show were you watching? It meant - we want to touch it, but it isn't there. And to go out just before she touches it was just to express that, to express what I've been talking about the whole way. There is no resolution there is no ending, there is no lesson, there's just death.”
Trivia notes: (1) Joss had Joyce’s death planned far in advance. He told Kristine Sutherland before S4 began that he would kill her character in S5. (2) Joyce died of an aneurysm. Compare this line from the opening episode of S4, The Freshman, which Joss wrote: “Buffy: Can't wait till mom gets the bill for these books, I hope it's a funny aneurysm.” (3) Joss will work again with the “negative space” theme in the Firefly episode Objects in Space.  (4) This episode is the first time we’re shown Willow and Tara kissing. Joss fought a long battle with the censors over this issue, and even threatened to quit if they cut this scene. (5) The sentence “strong like an Amazon” comes from the song “Amazons” by Phranc. Joss liked the song. (6) Xander mentioned Glory’s threat to come after Buffy’s friends and family, which Glory made in Checkpoint. (7) Joss’s fascination with the Avengers appears again in Xander’s line “the Avengers gotta get with the assembling”.  (8) Myles McNutt had a terrific review of the episode which you can read at http://cultural-learnings.com/2010/08/06/cultural-catchup-project-the-body-buffy-the-vampire-slayer/  (9) If you’re interested in technical stuff, this description by Joss of the scene when Buffy tries to resuscitate her mother may interest you:
“Now this shot this is one long take and it bears watching exactly how long it is especially because Alan Houston the camera man had his camera on his shoulder the whole time and was running around. It wasn't a steady cam. He had no harness because I wanted the urgency of handheld. So he kept recreating frames, recreating frames. This is a very difficult thing to do, kneeling down, getting up. It was an extraordinary piece of camera work, and of course, an extraordinary piece of acting from Sarah, where I made her do this about seven times. To go from the extremity of first finding her, the helplessness of not knowing what to do, all of the things that Sarah had to go through in this, she had to go through many many times. And you know, every take was extraordinary.”

15 comments:

  1. Interesting reflection on the "negative space" concept. I hadn't thought about it that way but it makes a lot of sense.

    The one detractor for me in this episode is the vampire in the morgue - how do you feel like this scene fits with the rest of the brilliant episode? For me it's a jarring distraction.

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    1. I remember thinking on first watch that it was kind of distracting. Joss explains it in his commentary like this:

      "But the idea of the vampire is that it is an intrusion, it does belong here the way Tara finds herself the only one sitting with Buffy and not feeling like she belonged. But she actually she had something to offer. But life goes on, and on BtVS, that means horrible things happen.

      And this fight was done differently than any other fight I've done before. I made it as much of a gross wrestling match as I could, you know, hands in the face, and of course, pulling the sheet off of Joyce, in the worst way possible. But rather than a great cool kickboxy fight I made this like a genuine struggle. I wanted to stress the reality of it."

      I get what he's saying, even though the scene did pull me out of the moment, so to speak, at first. Now I accept it as part of the episode. It's kind of like sitting down to deal with the bills after your mother dies -- a grinding reminder that life doesn't stand still.

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    2. I should add that my metaphorical reading of the series, Buffy slays vampires in the course of growing up. Dealing with her mother's death is, of course, a major step in forcing her to adopt an adult role.

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    3. I can see how the vampire can "take one out" of the episode - after so much intense, affected realism, it can seem out of place.

      I've thought about it a lot - and, despite the painful nature of this episode, I've watched it several times - so I don't really remember my reaction on first viewing. I was so choked up with tears at the time, anyway, that the whole experience is a bit of a blur.

      But I think the vampire is vital to the episode for at least a few reasons. First, there's the reason that Mark quotes Joss giving above - the intrusion of "real life." There's also the vampire's representation of the physicality of death. We almost always see vampires rise from the grave, fully clad - but here, he's in a morgue, naked - so much closer to an actual human death. There's also the brutality of the vampire's death (as Joss also gets at) - that beheading with a surgical saw is just nasty.

      MILD SPOILERS

      One metaphorical aspect of the vampire is that he represents the way death intrudes - unexpected and unwanted - into our lives. The show changes completely in noticeable, drastic ways after this episode. Joyce's death hangs over the rest of the series - think about it, there's only a little over two years to go, and death can take much longer than that to deal with. As we discussed in reference to last week's show, Buffy's whole "which kind of guy do I like" issue gets put on the back burner for ages. But more than that, the darkness of S06, I think, has as much to do with Joyce's absence as it does with what happens to Buffy in The Gift and Bargaining.

      Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition, nobody wants to see a vampire at the end of such a "realistic" episode, and nobody wants their mother to die at such a young age.

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  2. My grandfather died of a stroke two months ago today. I was an absolute wreck watching this episode again. So many little things I never paid much attention to before just really hit me, like the way when the paramedics tell Buffy that Joyce is dead and the camera is on her, its angled down, she's slightly out of focus, and the paramedic's back is taking up 80% of the shot, and how Dawn just instantly knows that something's really wrong as soon as she sees Buffy's face and kind of tries to get Buffy to let her stay in class so it can't have been anything too bad.

    The one thing that really hit me that I never noticed before is that the first thing Anya says to Buffy is "I *wish* that Joyce hadn't died." It's like, for a thousand years, wishes had made things happen for Anya and now that she doesn't have that anymore, she has no way to actually deal with anything serious, but she says the wish anyway because its the literally only thing she knows. Something about that really got to me, even more than her "I don't understand" monologue.

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    1. That's a great point about Anya's use of the phrase "I wish". I wish I'd thought of it.

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  3. Two thoughts:

    1) I don't recall Joss' exact words in the commentary, but I remember him saying that one thing he regrets is not having Joyce in the room during most of the Thanksgiving scene. And I have to say, I completely disagree with him. Joyce isn't a Scooby, you couldn't even really say that she's the surrogate mother of the Scoobies (though it is arguable considering all of the Scoobies come from fragmented, troubled, and/or nonexistent families). But her motherly presence and her warmth fill the Summers' home, both very personally for Buffy (thinking back to that touching moment at the end of Innocence, when Joyce doesn't even know what her daughter is going through yet manages to say and do the right thing) and for the SG (thinking back to Restless, when she opens her home to the gang, smiles fondly before going upstairs, prepares them hot chocolate after their crazy night). Having her in the room would disrupt the negative space theme running throughout this episode. The Thanksgiving scene establishes how even her almost peripheral role in the gang still creates the necessary homey atmosphere, which is why her absence, her death, is so jarring.

    2) The performances in this episode are remarkable, to put it lightly (SMG and AH in particular, for me). Every time I watch this a line hits me, resonates with me in a different way. This time what struck me was Buffy saying, "I know this. I can do this" before administering CPR. Because the Slayer doesn't have to psych herself up when faced with a challenge. The Slayer enters a fight with a kind of assuredness, with complete confidence that she's going to win, that she's doing the right thing. Who knows what's goes on in the Slayer's head when she enters a battle except that she's going to kick the opponent's ass. But in this moment Buffy Summers, who relies on her strength and self-assurance, has to actually convince herself that she can handle this. Maybe I'm reading too much into that simple little line, but it affected me this time around because in any other show, with any other character, saying "I can do this" would be typical and expected, but it's not with Buffy.

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    1. Very nicely, in fact eloquently, said.

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    2. Thanks :) Although I wish I could edit this to say Christmas instead of Thanksgiving, whoops...

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  4. I find the Christmas flashback to be quite interesting, and following on from comments about intrusion. The most notable moment in this flashback is when Buffy and Joyce abruptly drop the pie whilst trying to cut into it, to which the scene cuts back to Buffy after she discovers Joyce. This moment is an intrusion of reality into otherwise joyful scene.

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  5. I always thought Tara and Willow were talking about Wonder Woman with the "strong like an Amazon" line, heh.

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    1. Heh. Joss was always Marvel, not DC.

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    2. True, true. He seems to have switched teams now, though :D

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