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Joss Whedon has made a lot of cool stuff during his lengthy career, from a couple of The Avengers movies to cult hit sci-fi shows like Firefly and Dollhouse. But the thing he’s most proud of, even after bringing Earth’s Mightiest Heroes together for a billion-dollar blockbuster? A quiet, poignant, Season 5 episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In an interview with Metro, Whedon looked back at the legacy of “The Body,” the 2001 episode of Buffy that focused on the unexpected death of Buffy’s (Sarah Michelle Gellar) mother Joyce (Kristine Sutherland). Though the show was a critical hit and did plenty of daring things on a weekly basis, “The Body” focused on the heartbreaking moments just after Buffy discovered her mother’s body at home.
For a show that’s featured vampires, demons and other dimensions, Joyce meets a much more pedestrian end, having died of natural causes. Whedon wrote and directed the episode, and looking back, says it remains the work he’s still most proud of for the raw spotlight it shines on how we process death — and how even a supernatural warrior like Buffy is helpless to stop it: “I think ["The Body"] is probably the best thing I’ve done and the best thing I will ever do,” he said. “And I’m OK with that. You know, there are worse epitaphs.”
Whedon said the episode resonated with people much more than he ever expected. He said he based it on the helplessness and emotions he felt in the wake of his own mother’s death when he was in his late-20s due to a car crash. But in hindsight, realized the story was a universal one, focused on a “good kind of pain created from her situation that was particularly personal.”
“You know, [the episode] did a lot of stuff I didn’t mean for it to do. In the sense of, I just wanted to tell a story about grief, in particular its dull eccentricities. I didn’t want any lessons, I didn’t want any catharsis,” he explained “And then, so many people were able to deal with their own grief because they watched it and I was so shocked by that… It doesn’t give you anything. Death is the thing [Buffy] cannot fight, but it also renders her meaningless. She’s not on a lot of committees, she doesn’t have a lot of hobbies, it takes away her identity.”
One of the most uncomfortable things is the lack of music in the background during these scenes. It’s just uncomfortable silence lingering for minutes on end, forcing you to watch as Buffy falls apart, scrambles, then falls apart all over again.
“There is something extremely important about this episode not having music because music tells you where to go, it’s like, what’s happened?” Whedon explained. “You don’t know where we’re headed, or what to think. [The] experience of this grief is, you know, a band-aid in the process of being ripped off. And once it’s off, it’s off. It’s so airless.”
If you’re looking to weep openly in the middle of the day and revisit “The Body,” the full run of Buffy is streaming now on Hulu.