As the show progressed, its creator, Joss Whedon, experimented more with the boundaries of what Buffy could do. In season four, concerned that the show’s great strength—its dialogue— was overriding its other qualities, he wrote an episode, “Hush,” in which every single character lost their voice. In season six, he conceived a musical episode in which the characters found themselves spontaneously bursting into song. And in season five, he wrote what many critics and fans consider to be Buffy’s superlative moment: an episode in which a central character died from natural causes, and which showed everyone else experiencing the shock, anger, and grief of her death in real time.
“The Body,” which aired on February 27, 2001, opened by repeating a scene that had concluded the previous episode. Buffy returns home, walking through her front door, commenting on some flowers sitting on the hall table, and calling out to her mother, who’s lying on the couch. When Buffy sees that her mother is motionless, she pauses, and her expression shifts. “Mom?” she says. She repeats the word, more urgently. Then, quieter: “Mommy?”
For Whedon, the episode was born out of a desire to explore and expose the real emotional responses to losing a loved one. On television, death is usually cheap: a device that precipitates a narrative arc, or writes out an actor who wants to leave, or functions as a ploy for ratings. Although some of these factors were involved in “The Body”—the death of Buffy’s mother, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) marked a turning point for Buffy’s maturity into adulthood—Whedon wanted to focus not on the pain and catharsis of grief, but on how surreal and physically strange it can be. “What I really wanted to capture,” he later explained in the DVD commentary, “was the extreme physicality, the extreme—the almost boredom of the very first few hours.”
The first 13 minutes of the episode are set entirely in Buffy’s home. There’s a flashback to Thanksgiving, and then a swift and jarring cut to the present, where Buffy notices her mother’s body, calls 911, attempts to administer CPR, and responds to the paramedics. Joyce’s body—clearly and noticeably dead from an audience perspective—is visibly jarring, shown in close-up to have a grey pallor and an expression of shock. The title of the episode captures the impact of the physical presence in the living room, and the strangeness of Joyce’s sudden metamorphosis from a living entity into a dead one. Buffy, noticing that Joyce’s skirt has hiked up around her waist during her attempts to administer CPR, pulls it down before the paramedics arrive, conveying how wrong and obscene her mother’s death seems.
The sheer weirdness of this transmogrification from Joyce to “the body” is a theme throughout the episode. “She’s cold,” Buffy tells the dispatcher on the phone. “The body is cold?” the woman asks. “My mom is cold,” Buffy responds. Later, when Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) arrives and attempts to revive Joyce, not knowing the paramedics have already declared her dead, Buffy shouts, “We’re not supposed to move the body!” before clamping a hand to her mouth in shock, horrified at the consequences of what she’s just said. Stylistically, too, Whedon employs directorial devices to convey the disorientation Buffy feels. When a paramedic talks to her, the camera focuses on his chest below his head, and when Buffy picks up the phone, the buttons seem huge and distorted in perspective. There’s no music throughout the episode, with the few sounds that can be heard (children playing, wind chimes) marking the contrast between Buffy’s absurd reality and the world outside.