The death of Buffy's mom

An amazing, buzz-heavy episode takes the most daring show on TV to a new level.

Published March 12, 2001 8:38PM (EST)

You can keep NBC Wednesday -- TV's best night of drama is the WB's Tuesday, and no, I'm not kidding. To those of you who've never seen "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel," well, I'm sorry, but you are beyond my help. To those of you who have been watching this sublime two-hour package of passionately original storytelling, my advice is this: Enjoy it while you can, because "Buffy" may not be back on the WB next season.

The WB and 20th Century Fox, the studio that produces "Buffy," missed a mid-February deadline for reaching a compensation agreement that would have kept "Buffy" on the WB for another season. The network and the studio were reportedly far apart on a price, and the show is now up for grabs to the highest bidder. Fox, UPN and ABC are all rumored to be interested, although the WB could still come around.

As a longtime "Buffy" watcher, I admit that it's hard to imagine our Slayer doing her staking anywhere but on the Frog. That said, if "Buffy" does end up on a more established network like ABC or Fox, maybe the show would finally gain legitimacy in the eyes of Emmy voters. Because if the fierce, soulful work of star Sarah Michelle Gellar (not to mention the rest of the show's ridiculously talented cast) ever deserved some Emmy notice, it's now. Not only is "Buffy" having one of its strongest seasons ever, there hasn't been a finer hour of drama on TV this year than the Feb. 27 "Buffy" episode, "The Body."

Written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, "The Body" was a soul-shaking portrait of death and grief, with Buffy having to face the unexpected passing of her mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland). On another series, the death of Buffy's mom might have been an excuse to pull out all the Very Special Episode bells and whistles. But "Buffy" is the ultimate anti-VSE show. Every episode is special, every episode is momentous, every character matters, every feeling, big or small, is meaningful. On "Buffy," stuff happens -- things change, people change, people die, and sometimes, arming yourself with a big pointy stake just won't do you any good.

I have to laugh when TV snobs dismiss "Buffy" as cheesy kid stuff, because, in many ways, "Buffy" is the most daring show on TV. It's daring because it defiantly and lovingly takes its tone and shape from oft-dismissed genres like daytime soaps, gothic romances, Grade-B horror flicks and supernatural fantasies, and it elevates -- no, celebrates -- these misunderstood and mistreated pop art forms. "Buffy" is an ode to misfits, a healing vision of the weird, the different and the marginalized finding their place in the world and, ultimately, saving it. And "Buffy" never takes advantage of viewers' suspension of disbelief; strange things happen in Buffy's universe, but Whedon and his writers don't screw with the mythology for the sake of convenience. Nothing ever happens here without a darned good explanation, which is more than you can say about "The X-Files."

But what's truly extraordinary about "Buffy" is how the show keeps moving forward, how its characters continue to evolve. Now four and a half seasons old (it premiered at midseason in March, 1997), "Buffy" is as whip-smart and unpredictable as ever.

Lately, Whedon and his writers have found some terrific ways to explore the show's central themes of female empowerment, destiny vs. free will, the search for identity and the many varieties of families. The show's most audaciously wiggy plotline this season was also the one that required the most patience on the part of viewers: Buffy suddenly had a bratty 15-year-old sister, with no immediate explanation. We'd never seen or heard about "Dawn" (Michelle Trachtenberg) before, but there she was, and Buffy, her mom and everybody else acted as if her presence was perfectly normal.

As it turned out, Dawn isn't really human; she's an orb of pure energy called "the Key," and she supposedly figures into an evil recipe for disaster. The order of monks that had been protecting the Key for centuries sent it to Buffy in the form of something she would protect with her life (obviously, those monks never had a bratty little sister) and put everybody under a "veiling spell" so they would accept Dawn as human. Only the mentally ill and certain animals are able to see Dawn for the empty shell she is. But, listen, the "my sister, my energy orb" plot line isn't all good vs. evil mumbo-jumbo. The fact that Dawn is "negative space" is a breathtaking metaphor for an adolescent's lack of self-esteem -- Dawn feels completely overshadowed by her so-important, bossy big sister.

As for Big Sis, Buffy is no longer the perky high schooler who pouted when her Watcher (mentor) Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) made her patrol the graveyard for vamps and miss the big dance. Buffy is now 20, a college sophomore (still a mediocre student, alas), and she's come to understand some hard truths about herself. For instance, deep down, she likes all the fighting and slaying -- she needs it. If given a choice, she'd rather be a normal girl than a predestined vanquisher of evil, but she's past feeling sorry for herself; this is her job, and she's focussed on being the most ass-kicking demon-killer she can be.

Buffy has also realized that her perfectionism and self-reliance -- useful traits for a well-oiled Slayer -- kind of get in the way of romance. She tried to be all girly and yielding for her last boyfriend, macho soldier Riley Finn, but he complained that she didn't need him enough. He was right; she never felt the same soul-deep passion for Riley that she did for Angel, the good vampire cursed to turn evil when he felt "perfect happiness." (Unfortunately, Angel got really happy when he was sexually initiating Buffy, and that was the end of that.)

There's also an S/M streak in Buffy that comes with the Slayer territory. And this season, she's working overtime to keep it in check. Recently, Buffy's old nemesis, the bleached-blond punk vampire Spike (James Marsters), has fallen daffily, perhaps dangerously, in love with her. But Buffy's "you repulse me" responses to Spike's declarations of love seem overly harsh, even cruel -- maybe because she's trying so hard not to relive l'affaire Angel. Or, maybe, she fears that little bit of darkness curled up inside her.

Each season, the writers have given Buffy a character-building crisis to deal with. She lost her virginity to Angel and he turned on her. She had to lead an apocalyptic battle with evil at her graduation ceremony. She was almost beaten to a pulp by Faith, a vicious, thrill-killing Slayer who represented what Buffy could become if she lost sight of her nobler purpose. Riley dumped her (he was last seen flying off to lick his wounds in a secret jungle military operation). But they were only dress rehearsals for what she's facing now.

You have to hand it to the writers; Joyce's demise came as a complete surprise. She'd had surgery for a brain tumor, but had seemingly recovered, and Buffy was starting to relax again. She'd nursed her mom and maternally soothed Dawn's worries, but you could sense that she was happy to only be playing the role of mom, confident that the world would soon slide back onto its proper axis. And that's why "The Body" was so devastating. In the very first scene, Buffy comes home and starts chattering to Joyce, who she thinks is upstairs. When she sees her mother lying face up on the couch, she casually calls, "Mom? Whatcha doin'?" But then she comes closer and sees her mother's lifeless, staring pose. "Mom? Mom?" she calls, and then the concern in her wide eyes turns to terror: "Mommy?" In that instant, Buffy's childhood officially ends. (Even if "Buffy" gets stiffed in every other Emmy category this year, "The Body" should convince the nominating committee that Gellar is for real.)

In last season's hair-raising "Hush" episode (which unexpectedly received an Emmy nomination for best writing), Whedon experimented with the power of silence as a storytelling device. Grinning, skull-headed, eerily gliding demons had stolen the voices of everyone in Sunnydale (to prevent screams when they cut people's hearts out), so Whedon staged the second half of the episode like a silent movie, using pantomime and notes written on cards, chalkboards and computer screens in place of dialogue. In "The Body," Whedon played with silence again; there was no background music in the episode and only a few ambient sounds, like wind chimes and sirens. The effect was almost Bergmanesque in its starkness. The spooky stillness and the long, spacey pauses in conversation as characters struggled to articulate their feelings exaggerated the sense of time elongating and standing still. I can't remember the last time I saw a more wrenching portrayal of the shock of loss.

In one scene, Buffy listened numbly as a paramedic told her Joyce was dead, but the camera was focusing on him from Buffy's disoriented perspective -- all we saw was his face from the nose down, as Buffy tried to grasp the meaning of the words coming out of his mouth. And in a heartbreaking depiction of the discomfort people feel as they grope for the "correct" response to death, Buffy's friends Willow, Tara, Xander and Anya tried to pull themselves together before going to see Buffy, but they were uncertain about how they were supposed to act. Anya, a formerly immortal vengeance demon newly made human, is always asking childlike, tactless questions about the ways of mortals, so it made sense that she was the one to voice what the others were too embarrassed to say.

"What will we do?" Anya asked. "What will we be expected to do?" When the others remained speechless, she cried, "I don't understand! I don't understand how we go through this. I knew her. And there's just a body. And I don't understand why she just can't go back in it and not be dead anymore!"

Drastic as it was, killing off Joyce was the logical way to bring Buffy and Dawn closer together, sever Buffy's last ties to girlhood and emphasize Buffy's inability to accept the limits of her power, a recurring theme this season. (She believes, of course, that she could have saved her mother if she'd been home when Joyce was stricken with the brain aneurysm.)

And killing Buffy's mom was the right way to make the distinction between the cartoonish daily stakings Buffy doles out and the awful permanence of "real" death. In the episode's haunting final scene, Dawn sneaks into the morgue to see her mother's body and is attacked by a vampire that has just risen from the dead. Buffy bursts in to fight the vampire just a few feet away from where Joyce lies on the gurney with her eyes open poignantly wide, as if caught by surprise. After the vampire is vanquished, Buffy looks at Joyce and it finally sinks in that she's gone. "Where did she go?" murmurs Dawn, who reaches a tentative hand towards her mother's face. Vampires, the undead, zombies -- they're all just make believe. But when somebody that you care about dies, it's forever.

The "Buffy" spinoff "Angel," starring David Boreanaz as Buffy's former lover, the vampire with a soul, doesn't generate the buzz of the show that sired it. But it grows more satisfying and surprising all the time.

Created by Whedon and David Greenwalt and spun off in the fall of 1999, "Angel" moved the brooding, tongue-tied vamp from Sunnydale to Los Angeles, where the oracular "Powers That Be" directed him to his predestined calling as the owner of a supernatural detective agency. "Angel" is essentially a private-eye noir -- Whedon and Greenwalt had the inspired notion to make their depressed creature of the night into a black trench-coated avenging angel who helps evil-plagued innocents in hopes of atoning for his own centuries of blood-sucking mayhem. His reward, eventually, will be to become human.

"Buffy" cast members Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia Chase, and Alexis Denisof, who played British Watcher Wesley Wyndham-Price, also crossed over to "Angel"; Cordelia is Angel's girl Friday and Wesley, who fancies himself a "rogue demon hunter," provides the necessary knowledge of demons and spells. (Halfway through the first season, Wesley replaced Angel's beloved, martyred original sidekick, a half-human, half-demon named Doyle.)

"Angel" seemed a little soft and unformed in its first year, but this season, everything is clicking into place. Like "Buffy," "Angel" is concerned with predestination and personal choice. Angel, Wesley and Cordelia have come to L.A., like so many others, to remake themselves into the people they wish they could be. They've all got something to be ashamed of. Cordelia, the former high school bitch/fashionista, lost everything when daddy got into trouble with the IRS. Back in Sunnydale, Wesley was a pompous, ineffectual twerp, a complete failure as Faith's (and, after he usurped Giles position, Buffy's) Watcher. But working at Angel Investigations has made a man out of Wesley. And it has given Cordelia empathy for those less fortunate -- having searingly painful clairvoyant visions of people in need of Angel's help will do that to you.

As for Angel, he's still a work in progress. He is a tortured soul; he wants to be good, wants to help people, but so much evil seems to go unpunished that, sometimes, he just can't see the point. Angel backslid into badness this season after hooking up with his old vampire love, Darla (Julie Benz), who was used here in classic noir fashion as a damaged femme fatale. On "Angel," vampirism is a metaphor for addiction, and Angel isn't ready to graduate from the 12-step program yet.

"Angel" has also made more interesting use of its Los Angeles setting this season. If Sunnydale sat atop the mouth of hell, L.A. is a sunny hell on earth -- it's an evil place, run by a bunch of demon-worshipping lawyers, and it's lousy with greed and self-interest. To emphasize Angel's status as a feared and misunderstood outsider, the writers keep linking him with other "minorities" -- he has come to the aid of the demon equivalents of battered women, illegal aliens and refugees fleeing ethnic genocide.

But recently, "Angel" has replaced its metaphoric "persons of color" with an actual one (a first in the snowy "Buffy"/"Angel" universe), bringing in a young, unflappable African-American demon chaser named Gunn (J. August Richards) to work alongside Angel, Wesley and Cordelia. "Angel" has also taken on the other issue that keeps dividing L.A. like a recurring nightmare, police brutality. In this season's most ambitious episode, "The Thin Dead Line," which aired on Feb. 13, the LAPD was chillingly portrayed as a relentless tide of zombies raised from the ranks of dead cops. Although the zombie cops were shown using excessive force on Angel, Wesley and other whites for "resisting arrest," their brutal patrolling of Gunn's part of town, and their relentless attack on Gunn and his black friends, was what stuck with you.

Not that "Angel" is all heavy, weight of the world stuff. The horror is deftly mingled with snappy one-liners in the "Buffy" mode. There's a delightful new recurring character this season, a green, horned, gay host of a demon karaoke bar (Andy Hallett) whose sarcastic rejoinders are both suave and snappy. And the beefcakey Boreanaz remains a self-deprecating good sport about giving his fans what they want -- no matter how many episodes require him to strip off his shirt and fight like a gladiator.

"Angel" doesn't quite match "Buffy" in the emotional texture of the writing, though. And, let's face it, Buffy and her Scooby Gang are just more lovable than Angel's Angels. But "Angel" distinguishes itself by its sheer stamina -- it keeps working to perfect its heartfelt vision of souls struggling uphill toward a glimmer of redemption. "Angel" is decisively its own show; although it shares themes with "Buffy," it approaches them from a darker, more plaintive, place.

On Tuesdays, at the end of "Buffy," do you have a moment, like I do, where you think, Well, what more do I need? But then you watch "Angel" and there's always something so sly or lyrical -- Darla and the mad vampire Drusilla on a "Thelma and Louise" tear, the aching moment when Angel recognizes that hell isn't a place, it's the misery in your own heart -- that it just about blows you away? Every week, "Angel" makes you glad you decided to stick around for more. And I can't think of higher praise for a spinoff than that.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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