Death in Fiction - Part Two
Captain's Blog - Stardate 60511.1
SPOILER ALERT: I will be mentioning key losses in popular (and not-so-popular) fiction in this series of blogs. If you haven't seen "Angel," "Buffy," "Star Trek: The Next Generation," or Harry Potter, these might not be good entries for you.
The Death of Joyce Summers
There is no fan of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" who does not remember when they saw the fifth season episode "The Body." We learned in season two that creator Joss Whedon was not shy about killing off beloved characters for the sake of impactful storytelling. From the callous murder of Giles' girlfriend Jenny Calendar in season two we learned that no one was safe. Hell, Buffy died twice in the series. But there were few deaths on the show that hit fans harder than that of Buffy's Mom, Joyce Summers.
A prominent figure in the first three seasons, Joyce's role was significantly reduced when Buffy went to college. The actress went overseas during that season, but Joss reached out to her and let her know he planned to bring her back in season five in a big way.
Season five is when I really got into "Buffy." My college roommate and I, along with several of our friends, all moved to Las Vegas for graduate school. Unfortunately, we weren't as happy with the program as we'd hoped, so we bonded together and worked up the funds to leave by the end of the school year that May.
The character of Joyce had been ill all season, suffering a brain tumor that was successfully removed. I was auditioning for another program in Colorado when the episode before Joyce's death aired. "I Was Made to Love You" is a show about a robot girlfriend. It's got humor and a lesson for Buffy. In the last minute of the show, Buffy returns home to find her mother dead on the sofa. Cut to credits...cue waterworks.
The subsequent episode, "The Body," is absolutely devastating and is, perhaps, one of the best moments on television in my lifetime. This beautiful episode has no music, very little physical action, and only one vampire in the final act which is necessary only to reveal Joyce's body. It deserved Emmy recognition.
The moments that spoke to me the most were when Buffy, after the EMTs leave her home alone with her mother's body. She vomits, and then makes her way to the back door. When she looks into her yard, she hears the noises of everyday life continuing as if nothing happened. It's only when Giles arrives and panics that she blurts out "We're not supposed to move the body!" and she realizes what's truly happened and falls apart.
The other moment that many have said is the real crux of the episode is when former demon Anya is struggling to understand the nature of death. She's asking questions which finally piss off her rival/friend Willow until she finally explains that no one will tell her how to behave and she doesn't understand. It's beautiful.
This touched on so many fears for me at that time. Barely out of college, I was still learning what it meant to be an adult. Also, I was living in a different state than my parents for the first time (summer stock that year notwithstanding) and to see this character lose her mother hit home for all of us stuck in Las Vegas. During Willow's tears she gets frustrated and declares, "Why do all my clothes have to have stupid things on them. Why can't I dress like a grown up? Can't I be a grown up?" That's something we were all feeling.
Incidentally, that was the first episode where Willow and her girlfriend kissed on-screen. To many today that must seem like a non-issue but it was definitely huge sixteen years ago. It was a moment of comfort and solace that was perfect and beautiful and intentionally anything but sexual. It was a bold statement that their relationship was about love and support. I would argue it was one of the pivotal moments for LGBT presence on TV.
But I think what was so lovely about this episode for me was it's honesty. Seeing how all the characters reacted differently, seeing the moments with the corpse moving from body bag to autopsy table, and hearing all the sounds of the event with no musical distraction all felt very real and present. It gave permission to have a response to death that wasn't practiced or expected. In a small way, I think all of us that year grew up a little bit thanks to sharing that episode with each other.