There's this episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" called "The Body." It's one of those episodes that always gets mentioned when talking about the show because it's so well done, and so impactful. It, and many of the other commonly-mentioned-by-name episodes ("Hush"; "Once More With Feeling"; "Tabula Rasa"), stands out in part for all the ways it breaks from the regular format of the show.
In every generation a Slayer is chosen, a girl called to defend humanity against vampires and demons, gifted with incredible strength and agility. "Buffy" is a show about the supernatural. The fantasy elements are usually allegorical, standing in for some challenge of young adulthood, but it's still a show where people come back from the dead and soulless ex-boyfriends get sent to hell dimensions. It runs on the mythological. But in "The Body" Buffy and her friends have to contend with something they're not equipped for — mortality. Buffy's mother, Joyce, dies. Not from a vampire bite or a ritual sacrifice, but a brain aneurysm. Unpredictable, unstoppable, mundane.
All the show's characters struggle with the loss, but it's Buffy that really gets thrown into the unknown. Part of the conceit, and the appeal, of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is that being the slayer takes its titular character from what's usually depicted as the ultimate position of weakness (an attractive young woman - always the first to die in the horror movie) and puts her a position of power. She's nearly invulnerable and always an agent of action. But her mother's death renders Buffy intensely vulnerable to forces outside her control.
From the second she discovers her mother's body, Buffy is off balance. “Mom, mom, MOM,” she shouts— like she'll be able to wake her from her motionless, blue-lipped state. Buffy spends the episode largely directionless, her eyes wide and searching. Death has a particular finality, a kind of discontinuity, that action heroes rarely have to actually deal with. For action heroes, there's always someone to avenge, some big bad to chase, some shadowy organization to topple. A mission, a revenge quest, a higher calling, are what masculine (and masculinized) paragons run on. But Buffy's robbed of that drive. She can't conquer natural death, not really. She doesn't know what to do without a mission.
It's moving to watch Buffy stumble through the ramifications of mortality. Her grief humanizes the superhuman.
Interestingly, the episode shifts to find elements of the status quo in its final moments when someone goes into the morgue to see Joyce's body. The scene is cold and sterile, the room dim and full of grey steel. There's no score or music playing underneath, just eery silence. It's off-putting, like waiting for a jump scare you know is about to come at any second (it never does). A sheet is draped over Joyce's body, a thin partition between life and death. In the background, a vampire slowly rises and prepares to attack.
We get a muted bit of sound when Buffy busts through the door. She grabs the vampire and ends up grappling with him on the floor. It looks like he has a leg up on her but then, true to form, she regains the upper hand. She grabs a bone saw and uses it to sever his head from his body.
There's a moment after the vampire disintegrates where Buffy, shot from above, just lays on the floor and catches her breath. She doesn't look relieved, but there's a certain familiarity— a coming back to herself. Dispatching the undead is the kind of death Buffy knows, the kind she excels at. She's still off-balance, but she's closer to equilibrium than she was before.
For most of the episode, the primary emotions Buffy expresses are confusion and despair. Her uncontrolled aimlessness is the most human reaction to the impenetrability of death. But rather than end with that aimlessness and leave us the image of Buffy as a fallible, vulnerable figure, she gets a challenge she can concur— a vampire. Wielding physical strength puts Buffy in control, compartmentalizing her emotional pain and weakness. While natural death might be harrowing, unnatural death is controllable, and it staves off the emotional and philosophical weight of death and grieving.
The thing about "Buffy", and other stories like it (e.g. "Veronica Mars"), is that the line between commentary and concession can be blurry. The show is playing with gendered attributes, which sometimes reinforces them as much as it undermines them. Buffy is a girly-girl that loves the mall and also saves the world on a regular basis. For a certain brand of feminism, that's the dream -- to do everything a man can do, and do it in heels. But while Buffy oozes femininity in all the superficial ways, the more time she spends as the slayer the farther she gets from deeper feminine attributes. It gets harder and harder for her to do things like be in touch with, and express, her feelings. She compartmentalizes and sublimates. Buffy always looks like a woman, but in most ways she's expected to act like a man— to be in control, calculating, aggressive.
What does it mean that we can't just stay with Buffy in her grief, that she has to score a win before the episode can conclude? Is that commentary on the way she might want to avoid her own feelings, on how she might use duty to supplant her emotions, or is it a product of discomfort at letting her stay in a vulnerable, highly feminized state for too long?
There's no real answer, of course. Like any piece of media (especially long forms) it's too simplistic to say that it's always this or never that. Anyway, I'm less concerned with coming to a conclusion than I am in wrestling with the questions. "Buffy" has many flaws and much to recommend it. It's interesting though, how a departure in formula can highlight exactly what the formula is. "The Body" is beautifully human and singularly sad in a way its heroine so rarely gets to be.
I rec’d “Buffy” back on the “Veronica Mars”episodes of Casually Obsessed.