Sep 7, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer: The Body

I just watched Season 5's episode The Body, and it seems to me that it deserves a separate post, as it is too much to deal with in any other context.

WARNING! Obviously, this review has to contain a humongous spoiler, so if you are yet to see it, by all means do not read the rest of the entry, or even look at the picture below. You have been warned!

It is hard for me to figure out how I should go about such a profound work of art, perhaps because I have not experienced the situation described in the episode yet, thank God, or perhaps because it is so powerful, that in a way, talking about it feels a little inadequate. The death of Joyce Summers, Buffy and Dawn's mother, came out of nowhere, and the Whedon-directed The Body was as much a shock to viewers, as the situation was to the show's characters. A deep and tragic episode, filmed with integrity and painful realism, it has been described by both fans and critics as "one of the finest hours of drama in the history of television". The fact that the episode wasn't even nominated for an Emmy borders on the obscene, but the truth is that pop-culture isn't equipped to deal with this level of real.

Because Joss wanted to make this episode about the reality of losing a loved one. About the utter incomprehensibility of the first few hours. The Body is vastly different from any other episode in the show, not only in terms of story, but also in the way it was shot. For one, there is no music in it. Whedon thought - and rightly so - that a soundtrack to such an event would be cheating, it would "tell" people how to feel. He didn't want it to be that easy. After the opening sequence there is a cheery flashback Christmas scene with Joyce alive and all the Scoobies gathered around the table. It was put because Whedon wouldn't have the credits shown in the initial minutes of Buffy's reaction to finding her mother dead on the couch. The scene is painful to watch in this context, and cuts sharply back to reality.

Buffy's catatonic shock is perhaps the best performance in Sarah Michelle Gellar's career. The character literally ages a few decades in front of our eyes, and as the camera follows her around the house while she is waiting first for the paramedics, and then for Giles to arrive, you could physically feel reality crashing down on her, burying her under the weight of meaningless pain. In the opening sequence are established three key components of The Body. First, it centers on the mundane, the stupid little details - things that you would never notice in a normal day, but that suddenly become abstractly important, holding an almost timeless quality. Joss Whedon describes the feeling he wanted to capture as one of almost boredom. The tragedy drowning your sense of the real under a false blanket of the daily and the mundane.

Second, every scene in the episode is shot almost entirely in real time. There is no real plot structure to it, just four segments that show how the characters deal with Joyce's death. The prolonged scenes where nothing of seeming importance happens might be among the most meaningful comments on dealing with tragedy I have seen in my life.

And third, the camera. It deserves a special mention, as it - along with the absence of soundtrack - delivers most of the episode's unique atmosphere. A lot of strange angles are used to show Buffy's detachment from reality, while the scene where we couldn't see past the paramedic's mouth as he is telling her that her mother is dead, because she can't look at his face, is heartwrenching. There are a few dream-sequences in the episode - the first one being the Christmas flashback - and they all end in sudden cut-backs to reality. The second one - where Joyce suddenly responds to CPR and opens her eyes, followed by a few short cuts in the ambulance and the hospital - is particularly painful since there is no way to recognize it as fake until you are halfway through it.

Of course, such an ambitious work would fail miserably with a lesser cast, but everyone performs beyond their best. Emma Caulfield gives her greatest performance in the entire show, as Anya breaks down, confused and completely incapable to deal with the concept of mortality. Alyson Hannigan also acts beautifully as her Willow tries to anchor herself with mundane details like the choice of appropriate clothing, while the tears are threatening to burst out. Michelle Trachtenberg also deserves a mention, since she manages to give Dawn's reaction to her mother's death a very deep, very mature feel. The actress was fifteen at the time.

In an episode that was painful in every conceivable aspect, where even Joyce's eyes were intentionally left open because Joss didn't want the viewers to have a "she is just asleep" way of escape, it is just another stroke of genius that The Body is the place where we witness Willow and Tara's first kiss. Whedon felt that since they were living together, it could not be made to look special, and so he gave them a completely non-erotic moment of intimacy and comfort in the face of overwhelming tragedy.

A work of grace, power and tragic beauty, The Body is not only the single greatest episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but also among the most profound movie/television experiences I have had. It is hard to watch, and does not get easier with repeats. If anything, it gets harder. The brilliant acting, amazing shooting decisions and the painfully honest screenplay never go over the line, never oversell the tragedy. I do not think I need to trivialize this post with a score, as it is obvious what that would be. Despite Whedon's often-voiced protests, The Body is a cathartic experience, and one that has to be seen at any cost.

No comments:

Post a Comment