Welcome to the Hellmouth: Representations of Helplessness in Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “The Body”

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in 1997, fans and critics fell in love with the show’s witty banter, creative and insightful retellings of the average high schooler’s struggles and, perhaps most of all, its sharp, strong heroine. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was relatable—she fell for the wrong guys and wore questionable clothing—but she was also aspirational. Almost every episode featured Buffy battling it out with various vamps. “Patrolling,” in which Buffy, stake in hand, played one-woman neighborhood watch, was part of the show’s vernacular, and Buffy prided herself on punning while slaying. Watching Buffy land a perfect roundhouse kick or stake to the heart while her blonde ponytail bounced perkily was undeniably part of the show’s appeal. A sad rarity, viewers were treated to a woman with punch—literally.

Interestingly, one of the most lauded episodes of BTVS, Season 5’s “The Body,” focuses not on the human body’s capacity for strength, but its complete lack thereof. At the episode’s start, Buffy comes home to find her mother, Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland), dead on the family home’s couch, a shocking development given Joyce’s relative youth and good health. Throughout the episode Buffy’s friends and family grapple with the sudden death, but it’s Buffy who must deal with the reality of a lifeless human body, her mother’s body, in the living room. In his DVD commentary on the episode series creator Joss Whedon, who wrote and directed the installment, details his drive to explore the “obscene physicality” of death. “Because death is a physical thing. There is a body. And apart from the sense of loss that you inevitably feel, there is the fact of a body. And dealing with that is, is an experience that really does kind of stop time,” he says. The fact of Joyce’s corpse in the scene is horrific, but through camera movement, framing, editing and sound design Whedon emphasizes not just the atmosphere that the body creates, but the surprising powerlessness of Buffy’s own body. In this scene we see Buffy justifiably regress from the seemingly all-powerful slayer to a nearly childlike state; through Whedon’s stylistic exhibitionism we see the world, completely out of Buffy’s control for once, begin to fall in on her.

In his commentary Whedon points out that Buffy’s initial response to Joyce’s motionless body signifies her descent into “small-girlhood at the thought of losing her mom.” “Mom? Mommy?” Buffy says, reverting to a child’s nickname as she blinks in shock. She is framed in a close-up—the theme song rolls; a quick flashback scene follows—and we cut to a close-up of Joyce’s pale face. As Buffy rushes toward the body, panicked and shaking Joyce’s shoulders, we move into a remarkable handheld long shot, a marker of Whedon’s stylistic adventourousness. In his essay on stylistic crossover from cinema to television, Butler writes about the 1980s hit show Miami Vice’s unorthodox shot lengths and editing speed. Studying one of the show’s music-video montages, Butler recorded an average shot length (ASL) of 2.27 seconds, significantly quicker than the industry-standard six-second average shot length (98). Writes Butler: “..the ASL data and the quickness of the program’s music montages do signal its demand for an attentive viewer’s gaze. And that qualifies the program as anti-traditional television” (98). In “The Body,” Whedon too demands viewers’ attention, but by going the opposite route: his long take lasts almost three minutes, an eternity in television time. The shot tracks Buffy from the living room to the kitchen, then back again while she speaks to a 911 operator. Whedon says that he chose not to use a Steadicam because he wanted “the urgency of handheld.” The lack of cuts erases any barrier between the viewer and Buffy; we are squarely in her worldview. The camera follows her action: when she paces, we pace; when she shakes, we shake. At one point Buffy stands in one place, family photos on a mantelpiece in the background and a Band-Aid affixed to her pointer finger, as the operator asks her if she knows how to perform CPR. “No, I don’t remember,” Buffy replies helplessly, her tone high and childlike and her face crumpling. Even though she has paused the camera sways slightly. Through the framing we feel her restlessness, her overwhelming need to do something, to win back the control she normally has.

While the handheld work emphasizes Buffy’s helplessness, the lack of cuts spares us any distance from the ordeal. We follow only Buffy’s frame of reference, creating a distinct feeling of claustrophobia. There is no music, either—we hear only the sounds Buffy hears. Wind chimes jingle, children play, the world goes on around Buffy, but we never cut to shots of the sources of this noise. The sound design further brings us into her shattered, tiny world; she hears the sounds of life, but in this moment cannot fathom the world that houses them. Paramedics pull up outside, but when Buffy looks out the window there is no POV shot.

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There is no big picture, no exterior, insert or cutaway, no respite from the panic and grief. When the scene finally does cut away to a POV shot, it is an extreme close-up of the phone Buffy is staring at just before she dials Giles.

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Whedon used a special lens for the shot to create the feeling of “fixating on something almost meaningless.” For a moment we—the viewers and Buffy—are absorbed in the larger-than-life image. The phone seems almost inscrutable, again aping a child’s experience by depicting fascination over a common object.

In the last shot before the paramedics come in, Buffy steps onto the front porch for a moment. Whedon frames Gellar in a high-angle shot.

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This is not the powerful slayer who spins her stake handily at the end of the credits or hoists a rocket-launcher onto her shoulder to blow her ex-boyfriend to bits. The framing emphasizes Gellar’s slight stature, revealing even our slayer’s body to be jarringly frail. It seems almost impossible to imagine Buffy as physically powerless, but Whedon convinces us through his unconventional stylistic practice in “The Body.” The handheld camerawork emphasizes her shakiness and helplessness; the editing, sound design and framing trap us in Buffy’s isolation. In the wake of this loss her world is, like a child’s, only as big as her surroundings.

Butler, Jeremy. “Stylistic Crossover in the Network Era: From Film to Television.” Television     Style. N.p., n.d. 70-108.

Whedon, Joss. Audio commentary. “The Body.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth     Season. Writ. Joss Whedon. Dir. Joss Whedon. 20th Century Fox, 2003. DVD.

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