Synopsis: Buffy can’t revive Joyce and Paramedics soon arrive to confirm that she has died. Buffy goes to school to tell Dawn while Willow and Xander fret over how to deal with it all. Everyone meets at the hospital (where the morgue is) and Dawn slips away to try and see the body.
The Good: The first twelve minutes of this were brutal and unforgiving. It was a peerless exploration of grief as Buffy experienced it. The change in directorial style, the absence of music and the use of objects and sound effects to distort reality were all very effective. Buffy was as good as you’d expect as the writing took her through a personal but also universal journey. The desperate cries as she shook Joyce and the strange choice to tell Giles simply “She’s at the house” were both quite effecting. Personally the two tear jerking sequences were the fantasy that Joyce would recover once the paramedics arrived and then the speech one of them gives to her. It’s one of the most important moments of her life but to them it’s just another day. They have to leave immediately, only logical in Sunnydale and it gave us a sense of perspective on Joyce’s passing while also leaving poor Buffy alone again. She then throws up and takes a minute to get her thoughts straight before Giles arrive.
The movement of Joyce from person to body was entirely un-glamorised. We returned to her three times in dead silence as she was zipped up into a bag, undressed at the morgue and then later given an autopsy. The decision to have no music at any point in the episode was inspired as it drew attention to moments of drama and made them seem more serious. The focus on other objects throughout was another interesting choice. It allowed certain moments to exist in the background so that we could just drink in the atmosphere rather than focus on the actors as they tackled this most difficult task.
There was no way the episode could really match its own first half. The action was done and now the mourning was all that was left. Some of the character moments were very good. Tara stood out as being wise and mature as she allowed Willow to fret over her clothes choice rather than try to interfere. Later she sensitively shared her own past with Buffy when no one else knew what to say. We also got an on screen Willow-Tara kiss which seemed like consciously clever timing. In an episode which did such a tremendous job of portraying human mortality it really did seem silly that anyone would be upset about a kiss.
Anya was able to be supportive simply through expressing her literal thoughts to Buffy and Willow and Xander’s sadness was believable. Dawn’s reactions were solidly portrayed. The decision to show her dealing with high school “cool” arguments contrasted well with the reality that was about to hit her. Her subsequent collapse was sad to see and her desire to see the body made sense as she had “missed out” on saying goodbye.
The Bad: Nothing.
The Unknown: I felt like the Willow-Xander-Tara-Anya scene should have been shorter. Her fretting and his anger were fine on their own but both seemed so manufactured compared to the unyielding reality that Buffy had just been exposed to. Anya’s venting about mortality made total sense for her character. But again it was hard to empathise with a fictional emotion in the midst of this.
The slow pace of the second half of the episode may have influenced the writers in deciding to have a vampire pop up behind Dawn in the morgue. He appeared too quickly for any tension to build and it wasn’t really the best idea anyway. After Joyce had died for real there was just no way anything bad could happen to her daughters. It also felt a bit flat to end the episode on Dawn about to touch the body. Again I think that desire made total sense for the character but it was abrupt.
Best Moment: The conversation between Buffy and the Paramedic was very moving. We never saw his eyes as Buffy tried to absorb all the information he was giving her. Then he had to leave. It was so sad to realise that she would be left all alone to deal with this and she instinctively calls out “Good luck” as they head off to deal with another tragedy.
The Bottom Line: Understandably this is one of the most memorable episodes of Buffy. It’s certainly one of the most effective episodes of television I’ve ever seen at getting you to empathise with a character’s situation.
However my personal taste is not to elevate this above others just because Joyce’s death feels so much more real than anything involving the science fiction elements on the show. To judge it purely on the quality of the forty five minutes I would say it was excellent but far from the best the show has produced, mainly because it is dealing with a singular event and can’t take you on a journey that many of the great episodes do. That is not a criticism, it is merely a ranking.