Previously: We met the epic bag of dicks that is Warren. Once Spike saw his robot-girlfriend-manufacturing skillz, Spike decided he wanted some of that.
Sweeney: THIS EPISODE. Hush was a weird one to recap, but this is kind of on another level. This episode is also included with Hush on many best-of-the-series lists, with good reason. I’d also argue it’s the single hardest episode to recap because of a combination of feels and simply the way the episode is done. I mentioned in a Segue Magic video that there was another episode, aside from Hush, that made brilliant use of sound. Obviously all of you who have seen the series knew what I meant, but I’m going to acknowledge it now for the sake of our first-time watcher. It’s a brilliant device whose impact is greater on the whole of the episode than in any particular moment. Hush was the only Emmy nominee, but that seems a shame, because this episode certainly deserved one too.
The episode doesn’t have music which has an eerie quality on television, while also making it that much more real. Actual traumatic events don’t get a tinkly orchestra of feels to guide us through them and soothe us. Given how present music is on film — and how much we joke about that feels orchestra in the Buffyverse — it was one of many brilliant decisions made in the production of this episode. This episode manages to go for the feels in every way imaginable.
Now that I have done all the stalling I can do, get your tissues ready, Traumateers. This badge doesn’t even do it justice, because this shit is FEELS PLUS. I’m not sure how much commentary I can even have on this. Like, I don’t know how I’m supposed to do this. But I am. So.
Having dispensed with all the stalling I can do, the episode skips the “previouslies” and begins with the final scene from the previous episode – Buffy comes home, calling out to her mother only to find her lifeless body on the couch. Roll credits and the episode’s only music.
Lorraine: I would never otherwise describe the credits of Buffy as cheery, but they were perhaps the most cheery portion of today’s episode. Womp.
Sweeney: After those “cheery” opening credits we jump to the whole gang sitting around the Summers table for Christmas dinner and the effect is jarring (probably intentional.) I hear very light Christmas music in the background of this scene and it’s got the faintest hint of a hazy glow to it that I might be imagining or maybe that’s my eyes tearing up already. IDK. The gang light-heartedly joke about being full and Dawn accidentally drinking eggnog with rum and LOL Anya tells them Santa’s totally real!
In the kitchen, Joyce laments a burnt pie to Buffy and Giles. Buffy references Band Candy to tease her. As Buffy proposes a pie-fix solution, she accidentally drops it and her crying out in reaction to that is cut short as we jump back to Buffy finding the body.
K: In all the times I’ve watched it, I’m still not sure if that’s meant to be a flashback to the Christmas that they would have just had or if it’s Buffy’s brain trying to establish a sense of normality…
Sweeney: I like that it really could be either.
She runs to Joyce, crying, “Mom, mommy,” over and over again and shaking her. She runs to the phone and places a frantic 911 call. The dispatcher gives her over the phone instructions on giving CPR. “I can do this,” she says and gets to it. After a few attempts we hear a cracking sound as she presumably cracks one of Joyce’s ribs. She explains this to the dispatcher and adds that Joyce is cold. “Should I make her warm?”
K: The cracking sound is horrific in so many ways, even though broken ribs are a totally normal part of CPR. In part, it’s because it makes it real in a way that CPR so often isn’t on television, but also the lack of music means that every single sound is so much louder than it otherwise would be. Also, the “Should I make her warm?” line is about the point where I start crying.
Sweeney: Buffy calls Giles, and tells him that he has to come and then hangs up. She opens the door for the paramedics and makes a point of pulling Joyce’s skirt back down before they enter. They make with the life-saving attempts and suddenly Joyce is breathing. Quick clips of an ambulance and the hospital where Joyce says, “Buffy, thank god you found me in ti-” before we are back in the living room with Joyce still motionless.
I had forgotten about the little quick cuts but the effect is jarring in exactly the right way. The “present day” scenes have an eerie quiet to them and the volume changes for the fantasy cutaways brilliantly conveys how disorienting this is. It goes a long way to add to the over all feeling that something very difficult to process is happening.
We watch with Buffy as the paramedics declare Joyce dead. The shots of the paramedic talking to Buffy are alternately out of focus and then framed so that he’s only visible from mouth to chest. He dispenses a lot of information and asks if there is someone she can call. She says that someone is coming. With that, he apologizes for her loss and leaves.
K: The paramedics leaving her there is one of the most horrific parts of the whole episode to me. I mean, I get that they have another call and they don’t have a choice, and Giles is on his way. But YOU JUST LEFT A TEENAGER ALONE WITH HER MOTHER’S BODY. WTF.
Sweeney: Buffy awkwardly wishes them good luck before walking through her house in a daze. She stops just short of the kitchen and pukes on the floor before continuing to the porch. She looks outside and we can see that she’s sweating as we hear wind chimes and the sound of playing children.
She’s back inside putting a paper towel over the vomit when Giles arrives. As he tries to figure out what is going on (he assumes it’s Glory) she calmly babbles about telling Dawn. Buffy gets anxious when she sees Giles notice and go to Joyce. Her voice rises in pitch as she explains that the coroner’s office are coming. “We’re not supposed to move the body!” she shouts, and at hearing herself say those words, she is taken aback. Giles immediately goes to her and hugs her.
After a Not Commercial Break, we see Joyce’s body bag being zipped up before cutting to Dawn crying. We quickly realize, though, that she’s actually crying in the girl’s bathroom because a boy thinks she’s a freak. (And some “primo biotch” named KIRSTI spread some gossip about her. Rude.) (Distraction sidebar: forget Harriet the Spy — Georgina Sparks is not someone you want to fuck with, KIRSTI.) She finally calms down enough to go into the hallway where that dumb whore KIRSTI glares at her and they have a stare down.
K: Excuse me. I’m like a thousand percent sure that the dumb whore’s name is spelled Kirsty or Kirstie. Also, that bitch needs to get the fuck out of my name. This episode is traumatic enough already.
Sweeney: I’m going to keep putting your name in all capslock anyway.
Dawn goes to art class where she is painting next to Kevin, the boy who she was crying over. They have a flirty teen conversation about the tragedies of being a teen and what a bitch KIRSTI is. Buffy arrives just as Dawn’s getting into a story. Again, perfect timing because they carried this Dawn moment out just long enough.
Buffy pulls Dawn out into the hall where bitch KIRSTI is inexplicably not in class and where all of Dawn’s art room can see them because it equally as inexplicably has all windows. Buffy isn’t sure how to get the words out, but we cut to a view from the windowed art room as we see Dawn sob and collapse. The entire class looks on and has all the feels.
Lor: This is where I officially started crying. Tears streaming down my face sort of crying.
Sweeney: This episode is impossible to get through without big ugly crying.
Another Body Break. She’s at the morgue, her clothes being cut open. We get feelsy shots of each of the other Scoobies. Xander and Anya arrive at Willow and Tara’s dorm building. Inside the room, Willow is freaking out to Tara about what she should wear. She analyzes what each outfit says and we see a pile of clothes on the bed. She really wants a blue top that Joyce always loved. She sobs about all of her shirts having stupid things on them and how not a grown-up that makes her. I feel a little bad about that badge thing now, Willow; that was utterly heart-breaking. A millionty points to Alyson Hannigan.
K: YES. I lost my shit all over again when I noticed that there’s a wet mark on her shirt from the tears. It’s one of the million little details that make this episode feel so real.
Lor: It’s a brilliant line because death often causes you to grow up.
Sweeney: Tara kisses Willow — the first time we’ve seen that happen. A+ forever to Whedon for inserting that moment in this episode, where it’s not even a thing we’d acknowledge. I mean, yes, I am now, here, because we devote around 4,000 words to each episode so this is absolutely a thing we’d mention. I only mean that I appreciate that it was just a totally appropriate in character moment that was overshadowed by something much bigger so that it isn’t something to make a big deal out of unless you’re a blogger digging yourself a big talky hole because you don’t want to push play again.
K: Not only that, but when the network read the script and tried to pull the kiss from the episode, Whedon threatened to quit, and they backed down.
Sweeney: Anya keeps asking Xander questions about what they’re going to do, but he doesn’t know what to tell her. He hugs Willow and kas;dflkja;slfd show. SHOW. I’ve missed their BFFles time and this is not how I wanted to see that hug. Y U WRECK ME LIKE THAT?
Anya awkwards some more about how the crying is weird. Tara asks about getting to the morgue, and Xander assures her that the Scoobies know the morgue. Willow changes again and Xander rants about how maybe it was secretly Glory or maybe it was that the doctors fucked up. Willow says she thinks it just happened. “Things don’t just happen. I mean…they don’t JUST happen. Somebody’s got –”
This precious moment is interrupted by Anya asking if they’re going to see the body. Willow recoils at Anya’s general Anya-ness and finally snaps at her while Tara is checking the laundry room for the blue sweater. Anya’s response is probably her greatest moment on the entire series, and the one I remember when I think of what I love about this character:
K: ALL THE AWARDS TO EMMA CAULFIELD, BECAUSE THIS MOMENT IS PERFECTION. HORRIBLE, KNIFE TO THE HEART PERFECTION.
Lor: I swear to you just seeing that gif made me tear again. We’ve given a lot of crap to Anya for her whole “new human” schtick but here is a moment where it was perfectly used as a lens to view the grief and tragedy and loss. She wasn’t being insensitive. She wanted to know why. She wanted to understand.
Sweeney: There’s a long pause. Willow says she doesn’t know. Anya sits down and discovers what is probably the blue top Willow was looking for, though Willow doesn’t notice. We hear a loud crashing noise and the girls realize that Xander punched the wall in his rage. Tara returns as the girls are trying to help him get his hand unstuck.
We can all sob into our shots because Xander says that the Avengers have to get with the assembling.
K: Bonus points for using a gif featuring someone who starred in The Avengers for this moment.
Sweeney: Body Break. She’s now got an incision on her head from the autopsy. This time we linger, though, and follow the doctor who performed the autopsy as he walks out to the waiting room where we see the gang hugging. He explains to Buffy that it was an aneurysm and that it happened rather quickly, probably without much pain. We get another fantasy cut as he tells her that it was unlikely that she could have been saved even if someone had been there. Buffy asks him if he’s sure there wasn’t pain. “Absolutely. I have to lie to make you feel better.”
Giles thanks the doctor and steps in to be the full-fledged paternal figure SUBSTITUTE NOTHING. He offers to handle all the paperwork for Buffy, who goes back to sit with the gang. Dawn excuses herself to the bathroom, somewhat coldly. Buffy says she thinks Dawn is mad at her, in part because she still doesn’t quite believe it.
Willow offers to get Buffy a snack and takes Xander and Anya with her, leaving Buffy and Tara on the couch. Buffy apologizes to Tara, and then proceeds to unload some of her trickier feels — how hard it is when everyone wants to help and she doesn’t know she’s there. Tara confides that her mother died when she was 17. She explains that there were all these thoughts and feelings that she didn’t understand and that confused her. “I know it’s different for you, because it’s always different for everyone,” but offers to be someone to talk to if Buffy needs.
Buffy asks if it was sudden. “No. Yes – it’s always sudden.” There are so many “YES, THAT LINE” moments in this episode, but this certainly ranks among them for me.
K: I love that this Tara moment was included, because there are so many little “Tara’s a Scooby, but not really” moments – much like there are with Anya. They’re part of the gang because they’re in relationships with people in the gang. So for Tara to be the one Buffy can talk to is fabulous.
Lor: And it’s an amazing next step from that (granted terrible) cry on Tara’s shoulder moment Buffy had post-Riley break-up.
Sweeney: We see Dawn walking unlit hallways in the hospital. She goes into the morgue and stops at her mother’s body. Hesitating over whether or not to lift the sheet. We see a body rise behind her. A vampire.
As it approaches her, we cut to the Scoobies returning to Buffy with snacks. Buffy suddenly gets a bad feeling and walks down the hallway eventually happening upon Dawn about to be killed by the naked vampire. She pushes Dawn aside and Dawn pulls Joyce’s sheet down as she falls. When Buffy finally defeats the vampire she looks to see Dawn gradually getting up to see Joyce’s body.
Dawn: Is she cold?
Buffy: It’s not her. She’s gone.
Dawn: Where’d she go?
As Dawn reaches to touch Joyce’s face, we roll end credits.
Watching that episode sucks so much out of me emotionally that I’m not sure what else there is to say. Recapping it is weird because of all the pausing and starting again. It felt a little like I was doing something disrespectful, and I’m not sure if that makes sense. Maybe it just sounds creepy and weird. It’s definitely in my list of best episodes of the series, though I’m not sure it’s one I’ll make a habit of watching, unless I randomly feel like getting emotionally destroyed. (Actually, yes, that is a thing that happens now and again.)
K: I hear you. It’s the same reason I periodically decide to watch Doctor Who’s Doomsday and then cry for an hour.
Sweeney: I think I mentioned most of the major production elements throughout the post. I love the way this episode was filmed. I also appreciated the introduction of the vampire at the end. The episode was nearly devoid of the supernatural, but I think it was a nice touch to remind us that some of the real! big! life! shit! can vastly outweigh the supernatural. The vampire (aside from nearly killing her sister) seemed almost innocuous set against Joyce’s death.
Lor: Props to you, Sweeney, because this episode seems less like the kind you can pick apart moment by moment, and more the kind that asks to be discussed in a larger scheme. Firstly, YES to everything you said about the excellent use of sound (or lack there of) in this episode, as well as all of the framing and blocking.
I think most of us can think to some moment of tragedy that we can relate to this. Here are some things that really stood out to me:
1.) In the middle of tragedy, no matter how devastating, life goes on. The paramedics receive another call. Children are still playing and laughing. If you are double parked, you’ll get a ticket. Vampires are still being made an born. Not the last one for us, but yes for Buffy. Her mother is dead, but she is still the Slayer and life goes on and on.
2.) When someone dies, it is always sudden. Their life is snuffed out, and what’s left is the body. The memories that come uninvited. The negative space around the body. What’s left is how everyone from near to far, from the daughters, to the best friend, to the girl who also lost her mother, to the girl who’s never encountered death– are all affected. What’s left is the sometimes strange ways you see life, you filter sound, you interpret language because grief is so all consuming.
3.) Xander’s moment of needing to blame someone and punch something. Because who do you blame? Especially when you live a life so marked by research and finding someone to blame.
4.) I remember thinking the moment of Dawn seeking out her mother’s body felt so in character to me. She found out she wasn’t real, and she cut herself to make sure. She hears her mother is dead, and she feels compelled to see the body.
It truly was a brilliant episode and I feel like if nothing else, all of my Buffy watching was worth getting to experience this episode.
Sweeney: Yes, to everything you just said, but particularly the last thing. I’d like to think that this episode would carry an emotional punch even if it were the only thing you watched in the series, but it’s all the more powerful when we have 4.5 seasons worth of attachment to these characters.
Next time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Dawn tries to bring Joyce back to life in S05 E17 – Forever.