Learning the Lessons of ‘Buffy’ Again as It Celebrates 20 Years

Buffy The Vampire Slayer The Body Episode
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television

Our country is dead.

This has something to do with TV, I promise.

Twenty years ago today, “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” arrived on our TV screens, and that anniversary could be celebrated from an almost endless number of angles. But I’m picking one: Death.

I’m not going to make the case that “The Body” is the best “Buffy” episode ever, because that designation changes depending on the mood I’m in. (I could also argue that the best episode of “Buffy” is actually an episode of “Angel,” but that’s a TV-nerd argument for another day.)

But more importantly, re-watching “The Body” at this moment in time not only gives the viewer a chance to appreciate how adventurous and challenging the fifth-season installment was. It gives us the opportunity to think about why genre television is so important — seriously, and even monumentally, important.

In “The Body,” Buffy comes home and finds her mother, Joyce, dead on the couch. A brain tumor she’d had excised earlier left behind what amounted to a ticking time bomb, and she died quickly and without any warning.

One of the great things about “The Body” is its use of sound — or rather, how absolute silence cuts in and out of the episode. Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the episode, was clearly trying to depict the disjointed sense of unreality that often accompanies a trauma like the death of a parent. 

In some scenes, there is no sound at all; in others, ambient sound whooshes by, but it seems like a windy echo emanating from a dream. An art teacher in Dawn’s class refers to “the space in between” what the students are supposed to be drawing, and it’s the empty space of loss that “The Body” depicts so well. The lack of music, the lack of sound — they connote the emptiness where a person used to be, and the terror that accompanies knowing they will never come back. The silences, the long takes, and the strange, swinging camera angles in “The Body” perfectly depict the dividing line between normality and grief, and what it’s like to try to suspend yourself in the former state in order to avoid the latter.

Buffy can’t: None of the characters can. There’s a perfunctory fight with a vampire at the morgue, but Buffy’s powers can’t save her from the sight of her dead mother and her lifeless, staring eyes. The knowledge that she can’t escape this sight is the true horror cleverly embedded throughout the episode.

“The Body” reminded me of a recent death on “Jane the Virgin,” another show with a female protagonist that uses a ton of genre tropes to tell difficult, heartfelt and moving stories. The lessons that “Buffy” and “Jane the Virgin” try to convey with these death arcs are very similar: Sometimes people die and you can’t do anything about it, and yet you must go on. Because others depend on you, you have no choice but to survive what the lyrics in “Hamilton” call “the unimaginable.” 

Each show has only 40-plus minutes a week to convey those lessons, and so they use the magical condensing power of metaphors — vampires, evil twins, cunning villains, heightened stakes that sometimes involve wooden stakes, etc.

However outlandish the shows get — and that outlandishness supplies the fun that allows viewers to persevere through the hard stuff — I can’t think of two shows that are more respectful of the truth at the core of their stories: That growing up and gaining maturity is really, really hard. And both shows appeal far beyond their alleged core demographics, because that’s a lesson we all need to re-learn again and again. What better way to learn it than with colorful characters, witty dialogue and the inventive use of stakes (and stakes)?

After Joyce died, Xander wanted there to be a reason: He wondered if that season’s big bad, Glory, had done it. He wanted something to fight, something to punch. Things like this “don’t just happen,” Anya wailed, as she tried to understand how Joyce’s death made any kind of sense.

It didn’t make sense; “Buffy” and “Jane” and genre shows like it — when they work — have inescapable truths about the inherent instability of life woven into their core narratives. The thing is, even if there was a reason for Joyce’s death, whether she was killed by a supervillain’s machinations or a simple aneurysm didn’t really matter — she was still just as dead. Almost as heartbreaking as “The Body” is the subsequent episode in which Dawn tries to use supernatural methods to revive her mother. If these characters have to work so hard all the time to eradicate and fight evil, surely they get to outsmart death once in a while. Don’t they?

No, they don’t. Even Buffy herself died, and left her friends adrift at the start of Season Six. As “Buffy” entered into its home stretch, things got darker, more ambiguous, and at times, more exhausted. The Scooby gang was denied Joyce as a friendly adult in their midst, a rock to rely on in times of trouble (and there were many troubling times in Sunnydale).

And then, at the end of the fifth season, the woman who was supposed to save everyone exited the scene. Voters who didn’t want Trump elected in November can identify with the confusion and distress exhibited by everyone Buffy left behind.

Who is going to save us? Who will fix this mess for us? If you’ve ever thought it’s just too hard to endure, let alone fight, the evil that’s been unleashed by our own, all-American hellmouth, join the club.

One of the hardest but most enduring lessons of “Buffy,” “Jane the Virgin,” “Supernatural” and almost every other worthwhile genre show can be summed up in two words: Too bad. We have to save ourselves. If we band together, maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to defeat the big bad or complete whatever quest is on hand. And if we don’t, if we make an effort, at least we’ll go down as true defenders of the people we love. 

These shows are ultimately very compassionate toward their characters, but they don’t let them avoid the truth about how difficult the road can be. There are moments of victory and connection that make it all worthwhile, but there will be a cost. There always is.

Here in non-scripted reality, we’re already paying that cost, but that doesn’t mean we have the luxury of bowing out of the battle. We can’t stop fighting, or the Mayor of Sunnydale — er, I mean, the President of the United States — will win. If we have to go down swinging, so be it.

The reason “Buffy” (and “Angel”) are so worth re-watching is that they show how tedious and draining it can be to constantly fight encroaching evil while battling grief, confusion and sadness. But part of the reason the Whedon-verse shows are important and valuable is that they also demonstrate that embracing one’s true power (and the depths of one’s pain and anger) can be liberating, too.

When characters — and citizens — realize what they can accomplish when they band together and employ every ounce of their passion, creativity and energy to right wrongs, they end up building a different and often a better kind of life for themselves (witness the best parts of the Cordelia arc on “Buffy” and “Angel”). The purpose and meaning a person can find when rebuilding and re-imagining his or her life, even amidst a tragedy, is something that no big bad can take away.   

“We’ll go, we’ll deal, We’ll help. That’s what we do,” Xander said in “The Body.” 

Our country, like Buffy’s mother, is dead. The country we thought we lived in before Nov. 7 is gone for good. But we have a chance to build a new country. We can’t revive or retrieve everything that’s already been lost, but we can perform an exorcism and rebuild. If we’re lucky, if we have friends, if we find unexpected allies, we might just get through this. 

If we have other Scoobies beside us, all of us ready to use our pain and grief to build something better, we’re already lucky. And Joyce would be proud.