Well, here we are, season five’s masterpiece. “The Body” presents much the same problem that “Hush” did in that, while I have much to say, little of it hasn’t been covered elsewhere. As one of the best known Buffy episodes, it’s also one of the most discussed, a fact that strikes me as somewhat ironic as I write it in that it’s decidedly unlike a Buffy episode. Not “unlike any other Buffy episode,” in a series this diverse there are a dozen that warrant such description, eg: “Once More With Feeling” is unlike anything else on the show while still feeling like Buffy. “The Body” doesn’t. This episode isn’t just singular in it superb writing, acting, directing; it’s set apart in that it sheds itself of virtually all of the vibe by which we recognize this show. Much of the genius stems from the fact that this isn’t a Buffy episode at all.
The cold open’s a pure repeat of last week’s chilling finale, so the episode really begins with Joyce and the Scoobies at a holiday dinner. It’s an everyday, happy scene that’s full of very specific characterization (Willow and Tara, Xander and Anya) as well as continuity allusions (“Band Candy”). The scene is there as a contrast to what follows, a reminder of what we and the characters understand this world to be. The point, that the death of a loved one is the cessation of our own everyday life, is no less powerful for being straightforward.
This episode’s most basic technique for pushing us out of our Buffy-comfort zone is giving the music team the night off. Music serves as emotional signposting and, without it, we don’t know what to feel. This is one of those points that has already received a lot of attention, so I won’t dwell on it, particularly when so many of Buffy’s other usual components are also missing. The only set we’re familiar with is the Summers living room, which is promptly left behind as we end up in Willow and Tara’s dorm room, Sunnydale Junior High, and the Hospital. The dialogue lacks that trademark Whedon-wit. There’s no monster of the week. No season arc. There are probably more that I’m missing.
The gaps between “The Body” and what we normally expect of Buffy aren’t the only thing that prevent us from feeling grounded. We get Buffy’s flashes of saving her mother, her surreal focus on minute details, the quick-cuts as Willow frantically changes her clothes, and Anya’s articulation of how lost we’re all feeling. It’s a powerful stuff, and Whedon’s voice and eye can be seen in any number of points, but that’s not enough to make it seem like Buffy. This could be an exceptional episode of any show.
We don’t get a sense of familiarity until the gang assembles at the hospital. Hugs and tears are generic to any episode involving death, but the emotion we feel here is rooted entirely in what we know and love about these characters. There’s a sense, briefly, of being grounded, “This is what this episode is.” Yes, it’s sad, but there are people we know and love the who’ll get us through it. And then a vampire shows up.
I’ve read some reviews that point to this episode’s Slaying as a fatal flaw, a removal from the brutally realistic portrayal of grief we’ve seen up until this point. I strongly disagree with that. The vampire’s arrival is an essential part of the grief; it’s Buffy’s life intruding upon her pain. Much as the death of a loved one might make us feel like the world has ended, it hasn’t, and this fact will confront us in a way that feels… wrong. The vampire won’t even allow us to slip into the world of the Vampire Slayer as the fight scene is like nothing we’ve seen before. The absence of music, constant enough to be forgotten by this point, is particularly present here, as is the lack of Buffy-banter and the usual thrilling stunts. This fight is quick, nasty, and… wrong.
The core element of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is painfully out of place in this story and yet, of necessity, present. “The Body” creates it’s own unique space within the Buffy universe, one which forces a new perspective on every other element of the series. Death isn’t a part of the story we tell about ourselves; it’s an event that forces us to realize that we aren’t living in a story.
Well, there’s my contribution “The Body” discussion. A lot of it’s probably already been said elsewhere, although most of it hasn’t made it’s way to me yet.
There are an awful lot of moments to choke you up over the course of this hour, favourites include: Giles’ arrival at the Summers home, Buffy telling Dawn, and Anya’s speech. Love that speech.
I also really like the scene between Tara and Buffy.
Kudos to Joss for sneaking in the first on screen kiss between Willow and Tara into this episode.