The One Buffy Episode Sarah Michelle Gellar Can't Bring Herself To Watch

One of the scariest scenes in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has nothing to do with the supernatural. It's the cold open to "The Body," an episode that devastated viewers when it first aired on The WB on February 27, 2001. To this day, the episode still touches a raw nerve for Sarah Michelle Gellar, who played the titular Slayer for seven seasons.

"The Body" was the 16th episode of "Buffy" season 5, the last season before the show's move to UPN. Its title refers to Buffy's mother, Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland), who dies of natural causes — a brain aneurysm — after surviving a tumor.

The episode hits the ground running as Buffy walks in the house and calls upstairs to Joyce. Over her shoulder, the viewer can see Joyce's blurry body, sprawled out on the couch. When Buffy turns around and sees her mother staring up, lifeless and unresponsive, she devolves into a scared kid, bubbling, "Mom? Mom? Mommy?!" It's a horrifying moment that sets the stage for a memorable yet heavy episode.

In 2017, at a 20th anniversary reunion for the first season of "Buffy," Gellar told Entertainment Weekly that she "was not happy about" the decision to kill off Joyce. "The Body" was written and directed by series creator Joss Whedon, who drew from the experience of his own mother's death in a car accident. Though Whedon floated the possibility of this creative decision in advance, it is Gellar's relationship with her own mother that made her try "to talk him out of it." Even now, she said of the episode:

"I'm so proud of it, but I can't watch it. It's too hard for me. I'm an only child. It's just me and my mom. That was just a hard concept to grasp."

The Body isn't a vampire victim with all life drained

Rewatching "The Body" in the 2020s with knowledge of some of the behind-the-scenes problems that occurred on the set of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" makes for a different viewing experience. In the same way that Gellar has a hard time watching this one episode, the entire show might now hold a fraught mixture of emotions for fans who are still wrestling with its complicated legacy.

Structurally, "The Body" remains effective in how it utilizes Christmas flashbacks and fantasy flash-forwards to heighten the stark reality of Joyce's death. The camera seems intentionally misaligned at times, as Buffy focuses on a paramedic's mouth and the words coming out of it, to the exclusion of his eyes. Elsewhere, the perspective disorients by lingering on objects like a telephone keypad, a paper towel soaking up Buffy's stress vomit, and a half-finished drawing on an easel.

Buffy's younger sister, Dawn, played by Michelle Trachtenberg, has done the drawing in her art class at school, where Buffy arrives with news of Joyce's death. The sound drops out here and at other moments throughout the episode, a tactic that worked well for "Buffy" in its famous part-silent episode, "Hush."

Trachtenberg is one of the actors who spoke out against the toxic work environment that Whedon allegedly fostered on set. Another is Amber Benson, who played Tara, the doomed girlfriend of Willow (Alyson Hannigan). Knowing their resilience in the face of real-life adversity, their presence in "The Body" provides a strong emotional anchor.

For her part, Sutherland told EW:

"Most fans end up talking to me about 'The Body.' There's so many people all over the world who lost a parent and weren't able to process, and it helped them. And that's amazing."

The Body forces the viewer to confront human mortality

For the bulk of "The Body," there are no vampires in sight. Toward the end of the episode, however, arrives a bookend scene where a blurry background body in the morgue sits straight up behind Dawn, who has snuck into the morgue to see Joyce one last time. The reanimated corpse removes the white sheet over it, revealing itself to be a fresh-turned vampire with a caveman brow. It then creeps up on her from behind.

This is an example of a more conventional horror scene where a girl is in peril — there's a monster right behind her! — but she doesn't know it. The audience is one step ahead of her, watching the scene play out with dread. In "The Body," however, the dread is compounded because the horror is coming at the worst possible moment for Dawn. She's still reeling from the loss of her mother, and now this fiend comes along to try and sink its teeth into her neck and desecrate Joyce's corpse.

Buffy comes to the rescue, but even as the older Summers sister grapples with the vampire, the younger one remains more transfixed by the sudden exposed sight of Joyce's body. In "The Body," the viewer is forced to confront their own natural mortality and that of their loved ones.

For some among the living, there are undoubtedly elements of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" that will give it a retroactive coat of taint, enough so that it could render the whole series unwatchable over and above this one episode. In "The Body," however, the viewer is also reminded that everyone who made this show and everyone who ever watched it will one day go the way of all flesh. If we're lucky, maybe we have a Scooby Gang to help give comfort and keep us company along the way.