"Buffy"'s stars excel during a tragic plotline. The loss of the WB's heroine's mom was more than a sweeps month stunt, says Ken Tucker
Last Tuesday, President George W. Bush gave a prime time address to
the nation that, according to the Nielsen ratings, helped boost
viewership for the networks that didn't carry his speech; ratings were
up, for example, for the WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I can't
imagine what people who'd never seen the show before may have
thought if they were idly channel surfing and came across that
remarkable Feb. 27 episode, "The Body," in which Buffy's mother,
played by Kristine Sutherland, died of a brain aneurysm.
Even if you'd heard that there was a quality show lurking beneath its
intentionally flip series title, this "Buffy" broke with its own
conventions. "The Body," written and directed by series creator Joss
Whedon, was at once a departure from and a culmination of everything
the show has been, and the fact that the Mar. 6 episode is a rerun of
"Family" (which revealed Tara's unhappy origins) may just be giving
its regular viewers a good chance to collect their thoughts about it.
In "The Body," Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy came upon her mother,
Joyce, lying on the living room sofa, dead. As I noted above, her life
wasn't taken by the show's usual culprit -- some sort of supernatural
evil force -- but that made Joyce's death by natural causes all the
more shocking. Whedon signaled his serious intentions by giving the
episode a strict construction: no background music; each segment
returned from its commercial break with a shot of Joyce's corpse laid
out in calm repose.
While there were more subdued versions of the joking that goes on
between Buffy's friends Xander (Nicholas Brendon), Willow (Alyson
Hannigan), Tara (Amber Benson), and Anya (Emma Caulfield), the
humor was drenched in grief. The scene in which Buffy goes to the
school of her younger sister Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) to tell her
the awful news was cunning.
Coming out of a commercial, it began with Dawn in tears -- we at first
assumed she already knew. Then Whedon made it clear that Dawn was
bawling because she'd been the victim of a classmate's teasing, so
when Buffy appeared, we realized, with renewed dread, that Dawn had
something far more serious to be upset about, which made her crying
all the more poignant.
Gellar's performance reached beyond what she'd ever been called
upon to do before in "Buffy." She expressed shock, shame (that she
hadn't been able to save her mother, the way she saves every other
character in the cast from demonic threats), disbelief, acceptance, and
exhaustion with equal subtlety.
If you're a fan of the show, you'll understand what I'm going to say
next; if you don't watch regularly -- sorry. I hope Joyce is truly dead;
that is, that this isn't part of the Dawn as The Key subplot, that Joyce
will somehow be resurrected or even found to be living in some
alternate universe in which Dawn (a new addition to the show this
season) does not exist.
Because Joyce's death was so effective in rattling the souls of not just
every character in the show but of every viewer who gave him or
herself over to it, that to make it a mere sweeps stunt would be a
betrayal of Whedon's audience. And I don't think he's the kind of artist
who'd do that.