“There’s way more important stuff going on right now. There’s a lot of crucial… you know… stuff.” So says Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s fifth-season episode “The Body.” At that moment, she is talking to a cute boy in her art class about a female peer they both consider superficial and stuck-up. However, little does Dawn know that her big sister, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), is about to break tragic news—the death of their mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland)—to her, which will embody that truth in a profoundly devastating way.
There are few things more crushing than the death of a mother—the woman who gave birth to you, who brought you into this world, who (hopefully) raised you to be the person you are. Even if you weren’t on the best of terms with your mother, there’s sure to still be something fundamentally stinging about her passing. Mother’s Day may be an annual celebration of motherhood, but being as imperfect as we human beings are, especially when it comes to taking things for granted, the sad truth is, we may not always be able to truly appreciate our mothers until they’re gone forever.
For Buffy Summers, the “Chosen One” who, as a vampire slayer, frequently carried the weight of the world on her shoulders, her mother Joyce offered a much-needed bedrock of normalcy. That’s not to say they didn’t have their disagreements, as all parents and their offspring inevitably do. After all, throughout the first two seasons, Joyce was oblivious to her daughter’s double life, until tensions became so high that, at the end of Season Two, Buffy was forced to reveal everything to her. Even after these revelations—and Buffy’s disappearance from Sunnydale, after being forced to stake her beloved Angel (David Boreanaz) to death—Joyce eventually came to accept her daughter’s dangerous side job. At one point, in the Season Three episode “Gingerbread,” she even went so far as to try and tag along with her daughter in order to get a sense of the slayer life. Not all sons and daughters are so lucky to have parents who will accept them for who they are, however difficult that adjustment process may be. Through the relationship between Buffy and her mother, Buffy creator Joss Whedon offered a realistic encapsulation of familial dynamics amid the supernatural intrigue.
All of which made it even more gut-wrenching when, at the end of the Season Five episode “I Was Made to Love You,” Buffy came home to see her mother—having just experienced the first stirrings in a few years of possible romance—lying on the couch completely unresponsive to her calls. “Mom?… Mom?… Mommy? ” Buffy beckons with quiet, mounting horror. This is where “The Body” picks up. One of the most searing depictions of grief and loss ever, the episode observes all of the major characters’ varied reactions to the death of Joyce Summers: not only Buffy’s own journey from horror, to denial to acceptance, but Dawn’s public breakdown, Willow’s (Alyson Hannigan) channeling of her grief by obsessing over which sweater to wear to the hospital, Willow’s girlfriend Tara’s (Amber Benson) patience and empathy, and Xander’s (Nicholas Brendon) wall-punching physical lash-out. Perhaps most affecting, however, is 1,000-year-old vengeance demon Anya’s (Emma Caulfield) reaction. A character whose uncomprehending reactions to human behavior were often a source of comic relief in the series, here she finds herself utterly clueless to the social norms of the grieving process, until her perplexed frustration mounts to such a degree that she can’t help but shed some tears.
To all these expressions of mourning, Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the episode, adopts a style that emphasizes long takes and numbing silences—a detachment that nevertheless exudes a quiet compassion, Whedon trying to respect his characters’ pain. There’s no music score in this episode, which only increases the power of such images, as Buffy’s vomit seeping through a paper towel. Each act after its first begins with an overhead shot of of Joyce’s corpse being prepared by a coroner—a recurring image that serves as a memento mori. Even Whedon’s usual brand of snarky humor is kept to a minimum, beyond the opening scene of its first act and a few jokey lines here and there, in which the laughter, within this mournful context, sticks in your throat.
But then, of course, humor would be inappropriate in this situation… especially because Joyce’s death means that Buffy is now thrust into the unenviable position of raising Dawn. A character suddenly introduced into the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe at the beginning of the fifth season, with all of the characters retroactively implanted with memories of her as if she had always existed, Dawn is the prototypical immature teenager, often whiny and impatient with her mother and older sister. Things only get more confusing for her, however, when she discovers her true nature: as a “key” to other dimensions that a group of monks turned into human form and sent to Buffy so she could protect her. Self-mutilation and attempts to run away from home follow Dawn’s realizations—actions that, if you look past the supernatural elements, aren’t that much different from the kind of behavior most troubled teenagers exhibit amid the fog of puberty.
With Joyce now gone forever, things are about to get even more difficult for Buffy: On top of trying to keep the world safe from vampires, she must also now care for the well-being of her sister. Not that that would be an easy task for anyone in her position, but, as the episode’s final moments show—in which Dawn, after sneaking away from the Scooby Gang in the hospital in order to try to see her mother’s body for herself, finds her life threatened by a vampire (until Buffy rescues her in the nick of time)—it’s going to be especially difficult with a character as volatile and confused as Dawn.
Joyce Summers may not technically have a speaking role in “The Body,” but she haunts the episode—and, in many ways, the rest of the series—with her absence, the way most real-life mothers tend to hover over their children, even when they’re not around.