I go back to the Hell Mouth every summer. As much as I love television, there are a lot of shows from the 90’s that I just can’t watch again– here’s looking at you Friends (fight me). But when it comes to Joss Whedon’s Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, each time I watch it, I see new things that the show was doing and how as I’ve grown, some episodes have taken on new significance.
I was 6 years old when I met Buffy. my older cousin (who was more of a sister growing up) introduced me to the Buffy-verse. Looking back on my early childhood experience with the Slayer, I just thought vampires were cool. It wasn’t until about season 4 when I started to get the themes the show was tackling. Buffy was my idol (along with Xena) and I wanted to be like her. She was strong, she was cunning, and she was feminine. I was a “tomboy” growing up and well into my teenage years. I wanted to play sports and be tough, which I thought I meant leaving femininity behind. Buffy was the first woman I saw who was tough but also embraced her feminine side. She loved, she hurt, and she kept on fighting. I can talk about how Buffy let me know that losing your virginity could go horribly wrong or how her stabbing Angel her vampire soul-mate, taught me how to make the choices I needed to make tough choices for the greater good. Instead, I’m going to talk about the most important episode of all 7 seasons. “The Body.”
Throughout the series, Buffy has a rocky relationship with her mom, Joyce. But when Buffy reveals to her the real reason she is struggling in school and disobeying orders, they bond. It is hard at first, but Joyce begins to understand her daughter’s position. As a mom, she’s never happy with the fact that her daughter is putting her life on the line, but she tries to help her daughter when she can. Joyce is never a full-fledged member of the Scoobies but she’s always there. She’s never a large character, but she’s always there. Joyce is behind the scenes and ultimately maintains Buffy’s sense of home.
In season 5, episode 16, Joyce dies. Buffy comes home at the end of episode 15 and discovers “the body.” Before the camera cuts to the credits, Buffy softly says, “Mommy.” As episode 16 opens up, we see the Slayer as a daughter. She shakes her mom, calling her: mom, mommy, mom, and then she calls 9-1-1. This isn’t Buffy’s first dead body. After 7 5 seasons, she’s racked up a body count and seen many victims, but we rarely see Buffy rattled. But as the operator tells her to perform CPR she forgets. In the three minutes long sequence, she says “she’s cold.” The operator responded, “the body’s cold?” to which Buffy corrects her:”No my mom is cold.”
As the Scoobies learn about Joyce’s death they all have different reactions. Here, we see how grief is expressed differently for people, each experience is validated. This is where I want to switch from Buffy to Anya, the vengeance demon-turned-human. There is a heartbreaking acceptance that Buffy goes through, but it was Anya that I identified with. I had seen this episode before. It was a hard watch because I cried. I had lost my grandma and we had all been around her, but because my grandma was always sick, I was prepared. I still cried. I didn’t talk. But I knew it was going to happen. Then, while re-watching the series the summer after losing my grandfather to Alzheimer’s disease, I saw it differently.
Anya, a newly turned human, rarely understands what is happening in situations. She has to learn the social cues and etiquette of humans, often leaving her out of the loop. When I first watched the series she was my least favorite character and in this episode, I ignored her. But watching after his death, Anya stood out. As an atheist in a very religious family, I couldn’t talk to anyone when he died. I didn’t really understand how people were doing things, and I was Anya. She asks questions like: are we going to see the body? are we going to be in the room with the body? and the other Scoobies become angry. You can listen to the monologue here, and I recommend you do. If not, I’ve provided the transcript below:
Anya: Are they gonna cut the body open?
Willow: Oh my God! Would you just… stop talking? Just… shut your mouth. Please.
Anya: What am I doing?
Willow: How can you act like that?
Anya: Am I supposed to be changing my clothes a lot? I mean, is that the helpful thing to do?
Willow: The way you behave…
Anya: Nobody will tell me.
Willow: Because it’s not okay for you to be asking these things.
Anya: But I don’t understand.[begins to cry] I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s- There’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And-and Xander’s crying and not talking, and-and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why.
She doesn’t know what to do. And no one will tell her. She’s grieving and alone because she can’t understand how everyone else is dealing with it. It resonated with me and in a dark moment, I felt okay. I felt like it was okay not to know, and to ask questions, because like Anya, I just needed someone to console me. So why does this matter? My grandfather passed in December of 2014. Buffy had been around for 17 years then, and yet, the lesson it taught about death and living was still as potent as it was in 2001.
Grief is hard to process, and with a show like Buffy and that pulls the viewer in to solve monster mysteries and emotional landscapes alike, it offers a look that is helpful. But, keep in mind this isn’t the only time the show handles grief. Living on the Hell Mouth, means that a lot of characters died. Each death (at least of major characters) offers a chance for the audience to see how these very different characters handle this fact of life in varying ways (yellow crayon scene anyone?).
There is 90’s cheese and camp, but there is also depth. I watch it every summer because depending on where I am in my life I feel the characters. I see my happiness or my pain on screen and that helps me conceptualize my emotions in a new way. Grief is not the only thing that the show deals with. As a high school drama, it deals with relationships, love, and acceptance. Willow, who is cheated on by her only boyfriend, explores her sexuality and finds love. In Willow’s love, you see the first representation of girlfriends on the small screen as something more than a plot point or shock. Xander deals with issues of feeling less than all the others in the group. He feels small when all the other characters are big, in his story we learn to see at the heart of contributions. I can go on and on about Buffy. But for this fan, 20 years later, Buffy still matters.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.