This is an absolutely GUT-WRENCHING portrayal of the shock and trauma of sudden death - it leaves the viewer completely speechless for its entire duration and features some of the very best acting this franchise will ever display - and I'm going to call out Emma Caulfield in the teaser, something I never do, because she was that brilliant - alongside a direction that is as unique as it is beautiful.
The full description of this masterpiece can be found at BuffyGuide.com.
I'm going to raise my own objection to this episode first and get it out of the way before I pour a gallon of Gatorade over Joss Whedon's head in celebration of his hitting a game winning walk off grand slam in game seven of, say, the American League Championship Series. No...it's not the world series, but it's close.
Whedon's beliefs regarding the existence of God are well known. In the commentary track to this very episode, he calls God "the sky bully" and mocks those of us who would deal with death in a manner consistent with the many religious faiths that dominate western culture. This episode would have been a perfect 10 for me if Whedon's arrogant atheism hadn't leaked into the teleplay. When you're dealing with an issue as important as death and grief, you've got to leave it a little more open to the interpretations of your viewers. The final moments between Buffy and Dawn - after every cast member (finally including Dawn) has let it sink in that Joyce is well and truly gone and expressed their grief in some way, Joss had an opportunity to leave the viewers with something a bit more meaningful than this exchange:
DAWN: Is she cold?You could argue that this is open ended - Buffy obviously doesn't have the answers when it comes to the afterlife, but I viewed the silence as a condemnation of the very idea that there could be an answer. The episode's theme is the power of those silent moments in the presence of a corpse, so I want to be generous, but I think we could have heard something at the end there that left room for the possibility that Joyce is in a better place. It all seems very odd to me since the whole show pervades with a message that the soul is a real thing and that there exist hellish and heavenly dimensions into which we travel after death. As always, YMMV.
BUFFY: That's just a body now, Dawn. Mom's gone.
DAWN: Where did she go? (silence ensues)
As for the rest...Emma Caulfield - just for this one episode - deserves a lifetime achievement Emmy. That one hour of performance could compete with any hour ever delivered by any actress at any time. Hugh Laurie could actually take lessons from Caulfield on expressing grief. And you know how much I love Hugh Laurie in his tragic role on House. On top of that, there are some jarringly good performances from the likes of Michelle Trachtenberg, SMG and Alyson Hannigan...and not to be forgotten, there is the understated work of Nicholas Brendan. I just don't know how a 10-point rating scale can accurately register how powerful these performances really are. Anya's emotional collapse and Xander's decision to blame the wall for his feeling of inadequacy in the face of death leave me bawling like an idiot every single time.
The direction choice - the decision to focus on the body for an unnaturally long time (because that IS what death leaves us in the physical world and that IS the imagery we remember when it's over)...the decision to go without a soundtrack other than the sounds of nature (adding a dimension of gritty reality)...not to mention the cruel mental misdirections they played out (the kinds of things that go through our own heads when we are confronted with loss as we deny the truth for that one moment or try to bargain our way out of it - all brilliant.
I'm just not sure there's ever been an episode of a genre show that pictured death in this manner and yet it was a complete success. They're not operating from a playbook...they trust their own artistic vision...and it rarely misses.
The script is nearly flawless (minus my own minor objection) above.
Acting: INFINITY! (no really...we'll call it a 10)
Seriously...10 points are not enough.
Although I do not agree with Joss's anti-faith initiative here, I most certainly do agree with his exquisite understanding of the grieving process and I think this show shines as a beacon lighting the path to true friendship - revealing just how close the Scoobies really are.
Just watch the danged episode...the highlights don't do it justice.