August 5th, 2010
You can follow along with the Cultural Catchup Project by following me on Twitter (@Memles), by subscribing to the category’s feed, or by bookmarking the Cultural Catchup Project page where I’ll be posting a link to each installment.
One of the qualities about the Cultural Catchup Project which many of you seem to enjoy is the ability to witness someone experience the show for the first time. However, you’ve likely all noticed to this point that, in my case, the emotional side of that is largely obscured by critical analysis: in fact, you need to read between the lines to find a true “personal reflection” in the majority of my reviews.
This isn’t a purposeful attempt to keep myself out of these reviews, nor is it a sign that I am a soulless automaton. Rather, it’s simply the way I approach television: Cultural Learnings tends to operate in a solely critical capacity, and the Cultural Catchup Project has been no exception.
However, I could tell from the response to my tweets about watching “The Body” that separating myself emotionally from the episode would be impossible, both because of how affecting the episode was and because of the admonishing I’d rightfully receive from the regular readers. I do intend to offer a few critical insights, and it is quite likely that those critical insights will end up being quite elaborate, but I also want to make sure that my experience watching “The Body” is collected as part of this project. While I think that this is a truly fantastic piece of work from Joss Whedon, even more important than the text itself is the text’s influence on its audience, and I hope to try to do both justice.
I had a guest lecturer in my undergraduate Shakespeare class one day – I don’t remember which play we were discussing (although my gut says As You Like It), but I remember him drilling home one point in particular. He said that we need to pay careful attention to silence: it’s not only about what is being said, but about who isn’t speaking, what isn’t being said. I think I remember it because it was a cogent point that no one in the class was paying attention to, everyone having tuned out (and wishing they hadn’t bothered to attend the class) the second they realized that our professor was still out with an eye infection.
Obviously, “Hush” already dealt with the notion of silence and its relationship to these characters, but there they had no choice: unable to communicate through voice, they had to resort to other means. The characters were trapped in silence, the aural equivalent of negative space, and so they had to use white boards, and overhead projections, and any other methods available to them. The episode is Whedon’s evidence that the show can work without its signature dialogue, and that in some ways certain character interactions are only possible without the awkwardness surrounding our normal modes of communication. While the inability to speak seemed at first to be a hindrance, it eventually formed the basis for Willow and Tara’s first interactions, and it also helped Riley and Buffy overcome the initial shock over learning the other’s identity in banding together to take out the Gentlemen. Silence was something that could be overcome, a problem that the Scooby Gang could band together and solve.
However, silence in “The Body” is less awkward and more unsettling: in silence lies the cold truth of Joyce Summers’ death from a brain aneurysm, and in silence lies the absence of what you’re supposed to be saying, how you’re supposed to be responding to a particular crisis. While The Gentlemen were meant to represent the terror of silence in “Hush,” and their actions did demonstrate how the inability to cry for help endangered the citizens of Sunnydale, there is no need for demonification of silence in the wake of this tragedy. When all is silent, each character starts to think about the gravity of what has happened, and each character begins to break down; for the audience, meanwhile, Whedon’s purposeful use of silence throughout the episode forces the same reflection, delivering a statement about the power of that which is unheard or unsaid.
Technically speaking, this is achieved through the complete lack of score as well as some really evocative sound design: acts open with complete silence until the moment when a single object breaks through, whether it’s the zipper on Joyce’s body bag, the scissors cutting off her blouse, or the doctor’s gloves snapping as he finishes his examination of the body. Note that Whedon also uses sound, rather than image, to capture the outside world as Buffy opens the back door almost to check to see that the world hasn’t stopped around her (or, more simply, to get some fresh air after throwing up in the hallway). It is as if Joyce’s body so captures our attention that our ability to use our senses properly is crippled in its presence, the initial shock of its image so arresting that it takes a few moments to adjust to the image on our screen before the complete experience, complete with sounds, comes into perspective.
Whedon transports the viewer into the negative space created by this involuntary response, emphasizing its existence within each of the setpieces. There’s the shot of Willow’s dorm room from above, the characters’ excruciating silence echoed by the seeming openness of a space that in the handheld camera shots is almost claustrophobic. In the final sequence, Dawn is so isolated in her desire to see her mother’s body that she tunes out the rest of the space, the vampire’s rise registering only as footsteps – the episode explicitly avoids referencing the series’ usual demonic dangers before that point (beyond Giles’ presumption Buffy’s call was about Glory), but the silence – as well as the visceral nature of Buffy’s struggle, hacking off the vampire’s head rather than staking it – perfectly integrates the scene into the story. However, this use of negative aural space is perhaps most prominent in the stunning sequence when Buffy goes to Dawn’s school, as of yet unseen (which means it was likely designed around this sequence), and we witness Dawn’s reaction as her class does: through the plate glass windows, they see a horrified teenager in a state of shock, and we see how the silence is even worse to witness. You see every bit of pain in their actions and movements, and your mind fills in the sound in such a way that you can’t help but feel her pain.
The silence also increases the power of the things which are said, or the things which we implicitly say within silences. This speaks to Willow’s anxiety over what she was wearing: so much of her clothing makes a statement, one often involving some form of cute animal crocheted into a sweater, and so she becomes anxious about what her outfit will say for her even before she opens her mouth. No one knows what to say, which is why Willow is so concerned about how she will present herself when she’s not speaking: she doesn’t want to cry, and she doesn’t want to appear like a funeral parlor employee, because she is hyper-aware of how sensitive this situation is. She doesn’t understand it, but she has enough of an understanding to know which intangibles could theoretically come into play.
However, Anya doesn’t: for her, the silence is terrifying because she doesn’t have the same cultural background as everyone else, and she doesn’t know whether she should be changing clothes or punching walls or anything in between. Anya is the moment where many people, myself included, break down in the episode because she puts into words, in a truly spectacular performance from Emma Caulfield, what everyone feels in those circumstances but doesn’t often say: she doesn’t understand what’s happening, both in terms of what she’s supposed to do and what anyone is supposed to do when someone is taken away too soon. Anya, despite only recently becoming human, best captures the human response to this situation because she is the most uncomfortable in the silence; while Willow first pushes away her inquisitiveness by suggesting it is inappropriate, how else are you supposed to learn how to feel in a crisis without actually expressing those feelings? Silence and inaction may be easier, and may involve less risk, but you will drown in your emotions without some form of a release.
It’s why Willow and Tara’s first kiss comes not in a moment of romantic bliss but in a moment of emotional turmoil: Whedon, undercutting any scandal narratives surrounding the kiss, delivers a moment which feels entirely “real,” free from the choreography which would have surrounded the kiss appearing in “Family” or another episode. The handheld cameras make scenes like that one more intimate than any of the series’ sexual encounters, and the weight of the episode makes their expression feel that much more grounded in how two people who love each other would react in that moment. Tara, perhaps the character who seems the most comfortable in the silences, is the stealth MVP of that sequence: not only is she there for Willow through every up and down, but Amber Benson’s face during the conversation says more than any words could, even when you know that not knowing exactly what to say to make everyone feel better haunts her just as much as it haunts everyone else (the audience included).
It seems strange to have talked about the episode for 1500 words and barely discussed Joyce or Buffy, the two figures who are central to the episode. However, the whole premise of the episode is that it focuses on the negative space, analyzing how the characters deal with the loss of Joyce, dehumanized into simply a body, as opposed to memorializing her. It’s why the episode never evolves to the point of a funeral: for these characters, the idea of a funeral is entirely abstract, just as the past and future seem to largely disappear (Buffy’s drama with Glory and Spike completely absent, Giles off handling the paperwork). The episode is about finding Joyce, recovering her image from the sense of loss which they have experienced. Dawn needs to see her mother because she wants to reconcile what has happened, to see for herself that the mother she remembers (regardless of why she remembers her, which faded away in this episode) has become a body on a table. Joyce’s memory will continue to resonate with the series, and looking back the season was a sort of long goodbye: Sutherland earned herself an “As Joyce Summers” credit, Buffy spent more and more time at home, and her illness helped bring the Summers family together in order to reconcile the new, mystical sibling being added to the mix. In some ways her death is easy to understand from a narrative perspective, and yet it is so resonant for the characters that we’re instantly transplanted from a world where we could see it coming (especially when you know the general subject matter of “The Body”) to a world where it hits you like a ton of bricks.
As for Buffy, “The Body” captures the inherent conflict of her life: yet again, after having that initial moment of terror, her life becomes consumed by responsibility. Even thought she’s told that there is nothing she could have done, she can’t help but imagine what it would have been like if she had only been there. Her first words upon entering the house, after all, were an offer to take over Joyce’s responsibility of picking Dawn up from school: in the wake of her mother’s illness, and perhaps some residual guilt over not being around enough the previous year, she has added her to her list of people she feels responsible for – she has become the mother, which makes Joyce’s death tragic but also possible. Buffy does not enjoy the responsibility of telling Dawn, but she never for one moment considers passing it off to Giles (who was right in front of her when she made the determination); throughout the season, she has matured to the point where her responsibility as Slayer has comfortably merged with her role in the Summers household, allowing “The Body” to serve as a tragic, and yet powerful, ascension to the position of matriarch, a position she’s held in the series as a whole for a long time.
However, let’s throw the critical analysis out the window for a moment. What really struck me about watching “The Body” was about how quickly it passed by, and yet how vividly it remains in my mind after the fact. Despite the fact that forty minutes feels like ten, I could tell you each individual moment in the episode, remembering individual shots as if they had just happened on the screen in front of me. When I posted on Twitter about how it was Anya that broke me, many others tweeted about how even the thought of Anya’s speech put them on the verge of tears, and I don’t even think you need to have watched the episode obsessively to have that sense of recall. Part of this comes from the fact that many of us have had experience with death and dying which allows us to relate to this material, but the other part simply comes from how much each performer threw themselves into the emotions of this piece: these characters have been emotional in the past, but Alyson Hannigan found a more powerful way to cry, and Sarah Michelle Gellar found an element of terror in the opening sequence which we’ve never seen before. The episode feels both singular and universal, intensely personal for these characters while easily transporting each viewer into that world and allowing us to be taken over by the emotion.
And we’re there for the ride, whether it’s the fakeout with Dawn crying in the bathroom or the horrifying moment when you see the sheet rise behind her in the morgue. The episode doesn’t rely too heavily on the element of surprise: the ending of “I Was Made To Love You” pretty clearly sets up the likelihood of Joyce’s death, and what uncertainty remained for viewers is thrown out within the first few minutes. Instead, surprise is there to disarm us, to remind us that grief does not run on a straight line: you don’t know what road you’re supposed to travel on, and you’re certainly not supposed to be able to see too far ahead of or behind you. It’s why the world around our characters stops while they grieve, and it’s why the episode works so hard to capture the negative space which highlights the moments of vulnerability which emerge after such a traumatizing event.
I think that’s why, as you might notice, I skipped over the entirety of Disc Four in order to write this piece. Somehow, after “The Body,” none of it seemed as important: yes, “Checkpoint” nicely captures the shift in power between Buffy and the Watcher’s Council, Trachtenberg does some fine work in “Blood Ties,” Drusilla’s return is fun in “Crush,” and “I Was Made To Love You” is a solid little standalone that maintains a light-hearted tone which is utterly shattered by its conclusion. It’s not that these episodes aren’t important, but rather that they feel so utterly insignificant after you watch “The Body.” You realize that the family unit threatened in “Blood Ties” has been devastated, and you realize that the confidence Buffy took from her confrontation with Quentin Travers has been tested in the most heartwrenching of ways. I actually think that it makes these storylines that much more potent, heightening Buffy’s sense of responsibility and adding further complexity to her relationship with her newfound sister, but those episodes leading up to Joyce’s death feel like an extended prologue when considered in the light of this hour of television – “The Body” becomes the body, and the season thus far becomes negative space which becomes uncomfortable until we as an audience are able to reconcile it in the weeks (or discs) ahead.
There was a comment on my Twitter feed from someone who was impressed that I was able to collect myself and keep watching other series after watching “The Body.” Admittedly, while Anya did break me, I was able to get through the rest of the episode just fine, and after jotting down some initial notes I went on with my evening. However, it stuck with me in ways I hadn’t expected: watching an episode of Louie about his relationship with his mother, in which some rather horrible words were exchanged, I thought about what would happen if she died before they got to speak on better terms, and when I sat down to watch HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack, their biopic on Jack “Dr. Death” Kevorkian, the discussion of death and dying immediately sent me back to that image of Joyce lying lifeless on the living room carpet. That it has become a point of reference in the short term is not a surprise, but I can already sense that it won’t stop being a point of reference anytime soon, both within Buffy as a series and within television as a whole.
And I can only hope that this piece reflects that.
- In case you were wondering, I still prefer “Hush” – “The Body” is a more pure emotional statement, but I have a great deal of respect for how much “Hush” manages to accomplish within a potentially gimmicky presence. The television critic in me is too impressed by its use of structure and its simultaneous subversion/inclusion of series norms to switch over to “The Body,” even if it was a work of genius.
- I know that there are numerous egregious Emmy snubs to complain about throughout the series, but that this wasn’t nominated for Sound Design honestly makes me the angriest.
- I really like Tara’s scene with Buffy as everyone else is off raiding the vending machines, both as a bonding moment for the two characters and a neat reflection of Dawn’s important position within Buffy’s dream in “Restless” (I didn’t go back to see if there’s any direct foreshadowing to this moment, but I suppose it’s possible). However, shouldn’t Buffy have known about Tara’s mother’s death from “Family?” I know that episode was apparently quite rushed, but it seemed strange that Buffy wouldn’t put two and two together (although grief might be a good excuse).
- Love the moment where Anya, still wary of how much should be said, finds Willow’s blue sweater and promptly puts it away where it’s supposed to be instead of announcing the discovery: she chooses order over chaos, and it’s just a beautiful little detail.
- Random thought: perhaps it’s my inner dramaturge waiting to be released, but I had a sudden image while watching the episode of a staged version of this script wherein Joyce’s body remains onstage at all times. The early scenes are all very contained, which is what I believe brought me to this conclusion, as it seems like it would stage well in such a fashion.
- It’s quite possible that Disc Four is often overshadowed by the sheer weight of “The Body,” and that one of those episodes is a favourite of yours which doesn’t often get enough analysis: as a result, if you’re looking for more, feel free to make a comment to that respect and I’ll be glad to expand in that comment thread.