The episode begins with the final scene from I Was Made to Love You. Then we see the gang having Christmas dinner prepared by Joyce. As Giles and Buffy help Joyce get dessert, Anya tells Dawn that Santa Claus is real. Or at least a demon who disembowels children, flies around on a reindeer pulled sleigh on Christmas night, and comes down chimneys. Joyce's pie is burnt and Buffy tries to help her with it. The pie falls to the ground and we're back in the present, Buffy staring at her mother's body. She rushes to her and tries to awaken her, but it doesn't work. She calls 911. They send an ambulance and the operator tells her to try CPR. She doesn't remember how, but as the operator explains it, she recalls. She starts doing it, but hears a crack - she's broken one of Joyce's ribs. She gets back on the phone and the operator tells her it's alright. She says Joyce is cold and the operator starts referring to her as the body. She tells her to wait for the paramedics. Buffy stares out the window. She calls Giles and just tells him to come. She opens the door for the paramedics. She notices Joyce's skirt is bunched up and straightens it. The paramedics start working on her. Joyce revives, is rushed to hospital, and is fine. Only it's just Buffy's imagining. The paramedics cannot revive her. They declare her dead. They tell Buffy she will have to wait for the coroner and she shouldn't touch the body. They leave and she wishes them luck.
Alone, Buffy walks slowly through the house. She suddenly falls to her knees and vomits on the carpet. She goes outside for a moment and stands in the sunshine. She gets some paper towels and puts them on the carpet where she was sick. Giles arrives and Buffy tells him she is waiting for the coroner, that she has to tell Dawn. He sees the body and rushes to it. Buffy yells at him that they are not supposed to move the body, then covers her mouth in horror at having used that word. They hug.
The coroner's people arrive and bag the body. Dawn is in school crying. She's with a friend who says it isn't that bad. A boy at school, Kevin, called her a freak, although her friend says he only said she was freaky - a distinction which doesn't mean much to Dawn. Apparently one of the girls, Kirsty, is spreading rumours about Dawn being suicidal and into cutting herself - a reference to her self mutilation in Blood Ties. Dawn and her friend blame Kirsty for all this, who is also spreading a rumour Dawn is adopted. They go to class, passing Kirsty in the hall. The class is art and Dawn ends up at an easel next to Kevin. It turns out he actually empathizes with her and they start talking about how crazy things get sometimes. Her friend thinks Kevin likes her. As they talk, Buffy enters the room and talks to the teacher. She approaches Dawn and asks her to leave. But Dawn won't go further than the hallway, she demands to know what happened. As the teacher and students watch helplessly, Buffy tells her and Dawn falls to her knees crying.
Joyce's clothes are being removed for the autopsy. Tara and Willow are in her apartment and she's trying to decide what to wear. Xander and Anya are driving there. Tara looks out the window, sees them, and says she thinks they are there. Willow has a huge pile of discarded outfits on her bed. Xander asks Anya if she wants to come up. He's double parked, but doesn't care if he gets a ticket. Willow wants to wear her blue top, because Joyce liked it, but cannot find it. She keeps choosing and discarding clothes. She begins to cry. Tara holds and kisses her, comforting her. Anya and Xander are walking up the stairs. Anya keeps asking what they will do, but Xander doesn't have an answer. They enter the room and Xander and Willow hug. Willow says she is afraid she'll start crying again. Anya says Xander cried. She asks what will happen. Willow says they'll go to the morgue. Tara says Giles has gone there with Joyce and Buffy went to get Dawn. Xander knows how to get to the morgue, the gang spends a lot of time there. Willow says she has to change. Xander wonders whether Glory was responsible, but Tara says Giles doesn't think so. Willow says Glory wouldn't have done it so secretly, but made her actions obvious. Xander starts blaming the doctors, saying they didn't take enough care of Joyce, letting her out too soon. Willow says it just happened and Xander finds this hard to believe. Willow pretends to be ready to box Xander and this calms him down.
Anya asks if they will see the body. Willow wants to change again. Tara goes to the laundry room to see if she left her blue top there. Anya asks if they will cut the body open. Willow tells her to shut up. She asks if she should be changing her clothes. She says she doesn't understand what she is supposed to do or what has happened. She starts to cry. Xander goes to her, but she pushes him away and sits by herself. Willow says they don't know why these things happen. She sits. Anya finds the blue top on the chair she sits on, she stuffs it in a drawer and no one notices it. There's a noise and we see Xander has slammed his fist into the wall, it's stuck. Anya and Willow help get him free. Tara returns. His hand is all bloody. They wash it and go to leave. Xander says they have to help Buffy. Anya asks how will they help. Willow rushes back to get another top. Through the window, we see Xander getting a ticket.
We see Joyce's body as the autopsy is finished. The doctor covers her and leaves. The gang have arrived and there is a lot of hugging. The doctor talks to Buffy, Dawn, and Giles. Dawn wants to see the body, but Buffy says no. The doctor says it was an aneurysm. He says it was undetectable. He tells them Joyce died quickly and with little pain and even if they had been there they could not have helped. Buffy has an image of herself at her mother's side as she falls, saving her life. She asks if he is sure about the pain and he says he is. She imagines he says he has to lie to make her feel better. Giles goes with him to do the paperwork. Buffy and Dawn go to be with the gang. Dawn starts saying something, then stops and says she has to go to the bathroom. She goes and Buffy tells them that Dawn is mad at her, that she didn't believe her when she told Dawn Joyce was dead and she think she still doesn't believe her. Anya says she wishes Joyce didn't die because she was nice and now they all hurt. Buffy thanks her. Willow thinks Buffy should eat. She, Xander, and Anya go to get a snack. Tara talks to Buffy about her own mother's death and how it affected her. She talks about the weird things that go through your head.
Dawn comes out of the bathroom and goes to the morgue. She enters and locks the door behind her. She walks to the draped body of her mother. Behind her a vampire rises from one of the tables. Anya. Willow, and Xander return - their arms full of snacks. They wonder where Dawn is and Buffy goes looking for her. She suspects she may have gone to the morgue and walks there. She sees the vampire attacking Dawn and breaks through the door. She fights and, with some difficulty, destroys the vampire by cutting its head off. In the struggle, the sheet covering Joyce comes off. Dawn and Buffy both look at the body. Dawn asks where she went.
This was not the best ever episode of Buffy. But it was a unique episode and there was an awful lot to like in it.
Some people believe that in the past, when life expectancy was so much lower and half the children born died before they were 5, people weren't as disturbed by death. Some people believe that the omnipresence of death lessened its impact. I guess a lot of those same people believe that if you keep seeing violence and death on tv it comes to mean less to you. Those people are wrong. Dealing with death is just as difficult no matter how many you've had to deal with. Buffy has been destroying demons and watching lots of humans get killed by demons, for 5 years. We've all been watching all that mayhem for 5 years. It doesn't make Joyce dying any easier for the characters or any less meaningful for the viewers. And what made this a particularly powerful episode was the absence of any magical cause. This wasn't about demons or spells or godlike creatures. This was about the natural order of things. It was about people getting sick and not really getting better. About parents dying and leaving their children to mourn. It's something we pretty well all go through and that just makes it all the worse. The episode looks at how the various characters come to accept and deal with Joyce's death. And it's amazing that in a series so much about death (vampires after all are created through death) there really hasn't been such an episode until now.
It takes Buffy some time to accept that Joyce is really dead. When she tells the operator Joyce is cold, the operator starts referring to Joyce as the body. But Buffy stills calls her mom. She calls Giles and says she's here. At first I thought she was talking about Glory, but I realize she meant Joyce. Joyce is still a person, still there. She pulls down Joyce's skirt - because it would embarrass Joyce to be seen that way. She imagines Joyce magically revived, good as new. Her acceptance doesn't really begin until Giles arrives and she yells that they are not supposed to move the body. The word stuns her - she has begun to think of her mother as gone. It isn't until the final scene, in the morgue with Dawn (and Buffy didn't want to look at the body - this was something she was still putting off) that she fully accepts that Joyce is gone. That whatever was Joyce isn't there anymore and just a cadaver remains. This reality is brought home on the viewers by each successive view of Joyce. We see her body get paler as the blood drains. We see her being treated as an object - put in the body bag and having an autopsy performed. Bit by bit, her humanity vanishes.
Dawn goes through a similar experience. But being younger, her denial is simpler and more direct. She just refuses to believe at first. She accuses Buffy of lying. The scene in the school is a great one. First, we get an insight into that part of Dawn's life. We realize that her school isn't that different from Buffy's. That the same kind of characters (Kirsty is clearly a Cordelia clone) exist there. And she has the normal concerns of a high school kid. She's devastated over something a boy said. It's the worst thing in the world - until the worst thing in the world really happens. In The Prom,Giles said he didn't realize children en masse could be gracious. There is more evidence of that sensitivity here. While some of the kids in school pick on Dawn and some ignore her and some probably think she really is a freak - they all sympathize. Because what's happening to her is what every kid is frightened of. It's why kids run screaming out of Bambi.
While Dawn's reaction is extreme, she has a clear idea of what she has to do. She has to see the body, realize that it is a body and her mother is really dead. This isn't something she can be shielded from or take on faith. I've heard a lot of people say the same thing to me about deaths of their loved ones. People seem to have a great need to have that concrete proof, to realize life really ended, that it can end. And that's just hard to believe. So Dawn goes into the morgue to look at her mother's corpse. And the thing we fear most happens. There's a vampire. But it's not Joyce, it's just another body - someone we don't know and don't care about. And this gives Buffy something to do, it gives her a chance to do her job and move away from grieving for a moment. But she finds that tough to do. It takes her a long time to kill the vampire. And there aren't the usual wisecracks. She seems tired, and sad, and weak. And she doesn't really want to have to see anything else die. But it has to happen, life and death have to go on.
The gang are in an equally tough situation. They find themselves awkwardly at the periphery of things. They knew and cared for Joyce, but they weren't her children. This isn't an experience they can share with Buffy and they don't know what to do - none of them do. Anya just articulates what is really going on in the minds of the others. She is so removed from humanity she doesn't know how to act and expects guidance from them. Actually, instead of humanity, one could say adulthood. Anya is like a child - facing mortality for the first time, pushed into an adult situation, and not knowing how to face it. And they are forced to realize they are in no better a situation. That Anya's awkwardness and outbursts really are no worse than what they do. Death is an impossible situation and there is no way to deal with it, no formula, no proper clothes and proper words.
Willow obsesses over what she is wearing. Not because it matters, but because it's the only thing she can control. She can't stop her tears, she can't bring back Joyce, she can't make Buffy feel better. But she can wear the right thing. She keeps changing because it gives her something to do. She talks about wanting to dress like a grownup, but in reality she wants to retreat into childhood - a time when then things like death were unthinkable and unknowable. It isn't until she realizes that the others are just as upset, just as unaware of what to do that she begins to calm down. Anya has her outburst about not knowing what to do - about the stupidity of being mortal and dying. And they realize what she says is true. It's interesting that at this point, Anya finds the blue sweater and no one even notices. It's really not what it was all about. Xander, who has been trying to blame someone so far - monsters or doctors - puts his fist through the wall. He needs to act, to feel, to do something. Anya and Willow understand that, like them, he just doesn't know what to do. They realize they have to be there for each other and for Buffy.
At the morgue (and I appreciated Xander noting that it was a place they were well familiar with), it's the outsiders Anya and Tara who seem able to empathize and help the most. Anya, not governed by social conditioning, simply blurts out what she feels. She talks about how Joyce was nice and they liked her and how she shouldn't be dead. And that does make Buffy feel better. It's the kind of honesty death sometimes brings out and which we are generally conditioned to avoid because it's messy. When Buffy is alone with Tara, Tara shares her experience. Tara's mother had been ill for a time, but she still calls the death sudden. Because no matter how much you expect it, it still surprises you. By sharing this with Buffy, Buffy realizes that she's not alone. And she also realizes that what she is experiencing (while unique and that's a point Tara makes) is not unusual. The hallucinations or dreams are part of what happens.
I have to talk a little about how this episode was staged and filmed. It had a number of silent sequences - Buffy alone in the house, Xander and Anya driving to get Willow and Tara - and the silence was very effective in conveying the inability of the characters to articulate the intense emotions they were feeling. I also liked the speed at which this episode moved - it was measured and far slower than the average episode. It moved inexorably on, like the realities of life and death.I liked the way the scene with the paramedic was shot. It was fuzzy and poorly framed and meant to represent Buffy's confused state of mind. The orientation shots focusing on Joyce - on the couch, being put in the bag, having the autopsy performed - brought home the reality of the situation in increasingly grim detail. The scene in the school was brilliant - it allowed us to hear part of the conversation between Buffy and Dawn and then moved to the vantage point of the other students - who, like the audience, find themselves at the edge of the action. They know what is happening, they care, but there is really nothing they can say or do. The closed captions indicate quite a bit of dialog in this scene, but I think it was wisely cut. Seeing Dawn cry and fall and not hearing what she was saying (claiming Buffy was lying and it wasn't true) made for a more effective scene. Finally, I was really impressed at the decision to have such lengthy scenes with so little intercutting. Basically, what we saw happened in real time (not the entire episode but each scene). No compression of events occurred and we never saw events happening at the same time (even the Xander/Anya and Willow/Tara scenes are actually sequential although there is some cutting between the two couples). Amazingly, although the pace of the episode was slow and the scenes long (except for the pretitle sequence which was the shortest ever), the episode whizzed by for me. I found it hard to believe it was over and that so much had happened. Which is a lot like life.
This all led to a kind of hyper reality - punctuated by everyday scenes like Xander getting the ticket. And that hyper real presentation both brings it closer to us and moves it further away. We're used to drama on tv, to people screaming and yelling and fighting. But here silence is the prime motif. And people are inarticulate. This is so like life that it stuns us when we see it on television and makes the horror of the situation more real by being such unnatural tv. The final scene, with the vampire rising and attacking Dawn, is a return to tv show reality. In some ways I found this scene disturbing, even jarring. It seemed to detract from the episode as a whole. But I think it was necessary in that it took us back to what Buffy was about. The show needs to returns to its centre just as the characters need to understand themselves. That self knowledge has been a theme of this season (we saw it explicitly referenced in Buffy Vs. Dracula and I Was Made to Love You) and this episode helps move it along. And knowledge always comes with a high price tag.
Some quick final thoughts. The scene of Buffy vomiting is meant to parallel the barf talk at the Christmas dinner. I was so happy Ben did not appear at the morgue. This was about the gang - not about demons or any of the other peripheral denizens of Sunnydale. Although I had speculated about Spike's reaction to Joyce's death, I'm glad we didn't see. There wasn't room for him. Neither was there room for anything about Brian and I'm even gladder he didn't turn out to be a murderer. It would have detracted from Joyce's death. I found Willow wanting to wear the blue top because Joyce liked it very interesting. It's a normal response, even though it makes no sense. Joyce won't be there to see it, but Willow is still coming to grips with that fact. There are a few minor nits this week which really didn't detract from my enjoyment of the episode but are worth noting. Paramedics don't determine death - at least not where I live. That takes a doctor. They would have taken the body with them. They definitely would not have left a body alone with a clearly overwrought, very young woman. Morgues are normally kept locked (I'd think especially in Sunnydale) and bodies aren't usually left lying around unattended over night.
Lines of the week:
"It's cajun pie." - Buffy trying to make the best of a burnt situation.
"We're not supposed to move the body." - Buffy starting to accept reality.
"It just happened." - Willow starting to accept.
"That's what we do. We help Buffy," - Xander finally figuring out what to do.
"I wish that Joyce didn't die. Because she was nice. And now we all hurt." - Anya being human.
"Anya, ever the wordsmith." - Xander agreeing."Thank you." - Buffy getting better.
"It's always sudden." - Tara explaining the reality of death.
"We panicked." - Willow explaining the cornucopia.Got a comment? Send me mail.
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