I think that may have been the most flawless piece of genre TV I have ever seen.
...was what I said to myself after watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 episodes 16 and 17.
Buffy completely passed me by at the time. I've been working my way through the DVD boxed sets and I have to say that the Great Big Plot Development in Season 5 hit me like a bolt from the blue. Whether this would have been the case if I'd been watching them on the telly, I can't say. I know the Beeb censored the scary and violent bits: maybe they also felt the need to print "JOYCE DIES" on the front of that week's Radio Times?
It probably wouldn't have mattered very much if they had. "A surprising twist" is a twist which has the quality of being surprising – not necessarily one which you didn't know was coming. "Surprise" is a function of how well the writer wrote it, not how much the read knew in advance.
Joss Whedon handles the Great Big Plot Development like a master. Half a dozen episodes back, there'd been a soapy plot in which Buffy's mother had suffered from headaches, gone to hospital, had a brain tumour removed and been given a clean bill of health. Several episodes have been allowed to pass. We have been given time to forget that she ever had an operation. No Chinese mystics from parallel universes have popped up and said "Someone close to you is about to die, and when I say 'die' I mean 'suffer amnesia and be transferred to a parallel world with Zeppelins and Cybermen and stuff which they can't every come back from until they do.' "
In fact, Whedon sets up the tragedy with a rather a clever feint: Joyce (a divorcee) has been on a date with a new boyfriend. The last time she appeared, her daughters had been simultaneously teasing her and encouraging her about it. We probably expected that the boyfriend would turn out to be a robot, demon, vampire, or at the very least, under a gypsy curse. That's the short of thing which happens on Buffy. When she walks in (in the cliff-hanger from ep 15 and the pre-cred recap from ep 16) Buffy's attention is on the flowers that the boyfriend has sent: neither she nor the viewer initially sees that her mother is sprawled out (in plain sight, but out of focus) on the sofa. We're surprised becase Buffy is surprised. Her reaction ("Mum? Mum? Mummy?") may be the best single line of script ever to appear in anything, ever.
If one takes two steps back from "The Body", we can see that Whedon is engaged in some clever structural games. How far can you go in producing an episode in which nothing actually happens? The first "Act" (i.e up to the first advert break) pointedly contains no action : we see Buffy calling an ambulance; trying ineffectually to give her mother mouth-to-mouth; waiting for the paramedics to arrive.."Act" 2 begins with Buffy's sister Dawn crying in the girls' room at her school, which Whedon describes as a "classic misdirect": she hasn't yet heard the news and is crying because another girl has been mean to her. This is pretty much the first time we've seen Dawn as an independent character, among her peers, out of the context of Buffy: it's monumentally cruel of Whedon to show us Dawn as a normal, happy little girl at the exact moment when he's going to emotionally destroy her. The whole of Act 3 – perhaps 12 minutes of screen time - consists of Buffy's friends engaging in pointlessly inconsequential dialogue while preparing to meet her at the hospital.
The answer to the question "Can we have an episode of Buffy in which nothing happens?" turns out to be "No": but the brief intrusion of a supernatural element fits perfectly into the structure of the episode. The set-up is the episode's one weak point: it isn't really believable that an unaccompanied 14 year old could find her way into the hospital morgue. But the scene is absolutely necessary. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always been mock-gothic. Coffins, graveyards and dead bodies are part of the paraphernalia of the setting: cool, stylish and spooky if you are a goth of a particular age, but not remotely frightening. But this time, when we see a corpse in the morgue come to life – in the background, with no scary music to signify what's happening – we perceive it as a horrible desecration. Vampirism isn't just a fashion statement but something appalling and blasphemous; a monster stealing the remains of someone's loved one. When Buffy comes along, in the nick of time, to save the day, as she always does, a much more mundane point is made (but not hammered home) about the banality of bereavement: only a few hours after her mother dies, Buffy has had to go back to work.
But however admirable these structural pyrotechnics may be, they aren't what the story is about. It's about characters, a set of well drawn – not necessarily realistic, but eminently believable – people. They've been developed over around a hundred episodes, and now they're given free rein to respond emotionally to this crisis situation. The episode is happy to show us, rather than tell us, at some length, what they are felling. Willow (the nerdy gay witch) fusses about what to wear; Tara (her girlfriend) humours her; Xander (the base-line normal guy) randomly directs his anger at "fricking doctors" and ends up making a fool of himself. Anya, the reformed demon, takes her accustomed role as the group's Spock: she doesn't understand bereavement and asks inappropriate and unanswerable questions about the nature of death. When they reach the hospital she blurts out "I wish your mother didn't die, because she was nice" which is, of course, the kindest and most helpful thing that anyone could possibly have said.
The follow-up episode, "Forever", re-asserts the supernatural element of the series: Spike (an imperfectly and unwillingly reformed vampire) introduces Dawn to a demon who he thinks may be able to bring her mother back from the dead. This is a rather brave attempt to confront head on an important problem in this genre: what does the death of a loved-one mean in a world in which ghosts, vampires, demons and magic are an everyday reality? (It's a question which J.K Rowling completely and repeatedly fudges). Dawn has to steal a magic book from Giles; and there's a rather cute scene in which she and Spike have to steal the egg of a rather unconvincing dragon that just happens to live in a convenient sewer. The monster is pretty un-threatening, but the scene is played with just enough conviction to make the point that "magic is hard: Dawn has to work quite hard to cast the spell." (Had Spike said "Oh, didn't I bloody mention? I have the power to bloody resurrect people using the bloody big red button on my bloody magic screwdriver," the message would have been "resurrection is easy; death is trivial; nothing in this universe really counts for very much.")
We understand, of course, that within the rules of this magical universe, bringing people back from the dead is a very bad idea. The obvious resolution would either be for Joyce to come back as a vampire, or for Dawn and Spike to inadvertently raise some terrible demon who Buffy would defeat in the nick of time. In fact, the episode's climax is another character-piece. Dawn's spell appears to have worked. We hear footsteps coming from the graveyard to Buffy's house: a rare example of a ghost which is genuinely uncanny and therefore frightening. When Buffy realizes what Dawn has done, they have a very realistic sisterly fight – not about the misuse of demonic forces but about how Buffy is so wrapped up in her own grief and responsibilities and the practicalities of funeral arrangement that Dawn feels she's being ignored. When Dawn undoes the spell, it's a perfectly satisfactory conclusion to the Monkeys Paw storyline: but it's much more importantly and convincingly "about" the internal development of the character: a young girl accepting the permanence of death and that her mother is gone for good.
And when it happens, we feel it is precisely what Dawn would have done under those circumstances. At no point while watching these episodes did I have any perception of characters being manipulated by the writer; of events occurring because of their impact on the Buffyverse - let alone because of their capacity to generate tabloid copy or sell action figures. I felt that I was observing people who I knew quite well, not watching puppets having their strings yanked. When Buffy hangs up on the paramedics and makes another call, I did not find myself thinking "I wonder what clever point Joss Whedon is going to make here?" I thought "I wonder who Buffy is phoning?" Each event is linked to the next by a believable chain of cause and effect; by characters doing what those characters would, in fact, do, granted what we know about them. Spike liked Joyce; Dawn has a crush on Spike; Spike wants to get off with Buffy; Spike likes being evil; Dawn is slightly irresponsible, so of course Spike and Dawn are the ones who try to make a Faustian pact to raise the dead.
What does Buffy have which Doctor Who lacks? The smart answer would be "good writing". But I think the truth is that Joss Whedon is always, at all times, trying to tell a story about a set of characters. Russell T Davies is only ever seeking to manufacture a product.
Oh, and Firefly rocks. Obviously.
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