Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Death is not a gift: why "The Body" is still one of the best 45 minutes of TV drama about bereavement

It's draining.

Is it allergy season? Because I seem to have a little something in my eye. Could be cat dander, I suppose. Let me just make sure to pull the box of tissues a little closer.
When George was being tutored in the ways of Buffy, it actually ended up that he watched this episode whilst I was away at a BAAS conference (we were watching them pretty much in order, from the first, finishing on the final one - "Chosen", episode 144 - the day before he moved out: awesome). I called home on the Sunday, I think, to talk to Cloud only to find he was still in bed and it was George who answered. Pretty soon he said "I watched it" and despite not even being in each other's presence, we both started choking up.

"The Body" comes just past the centre of Season 5, and focuses on the death - or rather the immediate aftermath - of Buffy's mother, Joyce from a brain tumour. Nothing spooky, demony. A natural death, ordinary in it's mundane cause. Written and directed by programme creator Whedon, it's pretty much an episode that subverts the usual wasys in which genre TV drama deals with death.

What is it about the episode that makes it work? Well, there's no incidental music (no music at all in fact, apart from the opening titles) which gives it a rather strange edge of surreality, in the sense of beyond the real. Whedon wants to avoid there being any sense of emotional support or guidance for the viewer. It creates a feeling of being set adrift; the emotional numbness of bereavement. The acting is pretty fine too, and avoids many of the usual cliched pitfall depictions of characters dying on TV. The moment when Giles arrives and tries to revive Joyce and Buffy yells at him to stop because the paramedics "said not to move the body" just gets to me everytime. When the words come out, she gasps in horror at her own words: she has just described her mother as "the body" and the reality of the moment begins to sink in. Whedon drew on his own experience of bereavement - of his own mother's death - to go through some of the numbed responses a person can go through. Willow changing her clothes, struggling to find an 'appropriate' outfit, frantic and frozen, focused on this seemingly banal action. On "TelevisionWithoutPity", Sep's recap provides a really good example of how real this action can be:
To my dad's funeral, I wore mismatched shoes and ankle-zip, acid-wash jeans. Shudder. Let me repeat that. I wore acid-washed denim to my father's funeral.Yes, I was grief-stricken. Yes, it was 1988. Yes, I was thirteen. But still. But still.
And as for Anya's rant: Anya. Ex-demon. Not really with the whole 'human emotions' thing. And yet.

It's the kind of episode that makes you feel. And I don't care if it's genre-stuff. It works.

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