The 20th anniversary of Buffy The Vampire Slayer gives us so many wonderful elements to remember. The amazing character growth of Willow, Spike and many others. The genuine, heartfelt, pain-filled relationships between Buffy and Angel, Willow and Oz, Willow and Tara. The tremendously symbolic writing, always using the monsters to tell a personal story about Buffy and the trials and tribulations of growing up.
But one element that really made Buffy stand out was the losses – the deaths of fan favorite characters, often leaving us with a gaping hole in our hearts. Joss Whedon’s habit of killing off main characters became infamous, long before Game of Thrones did it. And, as entertaining as Thrones is, the dearly departed characters never reached the level of humanity gifted to people like Anya Jenkins, Jonathan Levinson and Joyce Summers.
When Joss killed someone off, it truly stung. And it was never meaningless. The deaths on this show always helped to push the stories in new and often more interesting directions. Not just the deaths, but the losses too. The break-ups, like with Willow and Oz; and the departures, such as Giles. Such moments were often just as devastating as the deaths, because they made us feel the same thing – that sensation of terrible missing, the knowledge that a person we love is just… gone.
So, to honor the 20th anniversary of Buffy, we present the 20 Most Memorable Losses of the Buffyverse. Yes, I’m including Angel too. Why? Because many of the characters we lose on Angel originated on Buffy, and the spin-off series employed the exact same emotional resonance whenever a major character went. It’s all part of the cruel genius of Joss Whedon.
Monkeys Fighting Robots proudly presents, in order, The 20 Most Memorable Losses of the Buffyverse.
20. Principal Flutie’s Death
Many forget that before the insidious Principal Snyder came to Sunnydale, there was a different sheriff in town. Principal Robert Flutie presided over Sunnydale high for exactly 6 episodes before meeting his untimely end at the hands (or teeth) of some students possessed by ravenous hyena spirits.
While we didn’t exactly have a great big emotional attachment to poor old Flutie, this death was significant. It was the first time a recurring character was killed. We all assumed that Principal Flutie would play a semi-permanent role of “annoying obstacle to our protagonists.” And that’s the role he played, up until the moment he was eaten.
Flutie’s death was an important precedent set by Whedon. No character in this universe was safe, not even bumbling, innocuous comic relief. Flutie’s death taught us to expect the unexpected, and served to cement that this still-early series would be anything but a regular high school show.
19. Jesse’s Death
Much like Principal Flutie, Jesse was a character than no one thought would die – especially not in the second episode of the series.
At first, it seemed like Jesse would be every bit as important as Buffy, Xander and Willow. They all started on equal footing, high school friends in the same group. In fact, Whedon specifically intended for Jesse to be “just another member of the gang.” He’d even planned to list Jesse actor Eric Balfour in the main credits for the first 2 episodes – just to give it that extra punch when he’s killed and “sired” by Darla.
Despite the lack of main crediting, Jesse’s death had exactly the effect Whedon intended. It threw viewers for a loop, and interestingly created a permanent imbalance in the group dynamics. At first, we had Xander, Jesse, Buffy and Willow. Two men and two women making up the Scooby gang, keeping the see-saw balanced. But Jesse’s death tilted that see-saw to the other side, permanently giving all the weight to the women of the Buffyverse.
I haven’t heard Whedon speak about this particular effect, but I’m convinced it was no accident. Xander becoming marginalized in the group dynamics helped enormously to center the series from a feminine perspective, and allowed Buffy’s girl power to blossom. So in addition to setting a precedent of expendable main characters, Jesse’s death helped to boost the status of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a feminist thrill ride – an action-packed series that could include a majority of women and still kick ass.
18. Darla’s Death
Slightly more impactful than Jesse’s death was the death of the vampire who killed him. Life just comes full circle, doesn’t it?
Darla was never exactly the most sympathetic character on Buffy or Angel. But when she was resurrected on the spin-off, the writers gave her some humanity by instilling a soul inside her. But unlike Angel, Darla rejected her soul, and became a ravenous killer once more.
That didn’t stop her from having Angel’s love child though. Despite Darla’s dubious tendency to want to eat her own baby, little Connor nevertheless gave Darla an ancillary soul, a soul-by-association, if you will. This soul is what allowed Darla her most human moment. Stuck in the middle of a rainy alleyway, the baby’s heartbeat fading, Darla stakes herself in order to save Angel’s child.
It was an emotional moment, and while it didn’t exactly redeem Darla, it did allow her one final act of goodness. Julie Benz is such a great actress, her death scene actually became a bit of a tearjerker, making us forget all of her evil deeds for a few brief moments. Darla may have been a cold-blooded killer, but we still missed her when she went.
17. Giles’ Departure
Okay, this is kind of cheating, since it’s neither a death nor a real loss. But it was still really, really sad!
After Season 5, actor Anthony Stewart Head decided to depart the series as a regular, to spend more time with his family in England. This necessitated a way to write him out of the show while still leaving the door open for his return.
Luckily, the writers had the perfect opportunity. Season 5 ended with Buffy’s “death” (more on that later) and left the Watcher without a Slayer. So Giles decides to pack up and move back to England, much like Head himself.
This enabled a tear-filled goodbye scene in the Sunnydale airport. And when I say tear-filled, I mean BIG. FAT. TEARS.
Giles has a touching little moment with each member of the gang, even Xander, his greatest nemesis. By the time he gets to hugging Willow, his favorite pupil, it’s just too much to bare.
The scene might be number 17 on this list, but it ranks in the top 5 for me in “Most I cried while watching a sad scene in Buffy.” While I knew Giles wouldn’t be leaving forever, there was still an undeniable, heartbreaking reality in watching the kids say goodbye to their father figure. Giles was always there for the Scooby Gang, to solve their mysteries and pull them out of trouble when they most needed him. And now he was leaving. It really did feel like we were watching the father of the Buffy family leave forever.
And then he came back two episodes later.
Oh well. The effort was still appreciated.
16. Anya’s Death
I love Anya Jenkins. The former vengeance demon turned Xander-obsessed “normal” girl was always a hoot to watch. Anya’s literal comedy was delivered to perfection by Emma Caulfield, and she helped to carry the show during many of its darker moments.
It therefore really stinks that her death was so underwhelming.
Whedon, usually the master of killing characters we love, really misfired here. I get what he was going for. Anya dies in the final episode of the series, in the middle of the epic battle against the First Evil. The hallways of Sunnydale High are so stuffed with battling mini-slayers and ferocious uber-vamps, that the camera barely has time for Anya when she gets an axe through the chest. The camera also forgets to pay much attention when we see her mangled body a few moments later, and none of the fleeing Scoobies notice at all, except for Andrew.
Again, I get it. It’s the whole “horrors of warfare” angle. Casualties happen in war all the time, and sometimes we aren’t allowed to grieve. But in this case, we should have been.
It’s the same mistake J.K. Rowling made in Harry Potter and the Death Hallows. Harry randomly finds Lupin and Tonks dead in Hogwarts, and he’s too shocked to grieve or really even give it much thought. This would have been fine, if those characters had not been extremely important in Harry’s life, particularly Lupin.
The same is true of Anya. She was Xander’s girlfriend and almost-bride for 3 seasons. She was a valued member of the Scooby gang, and she more than proved her loyalty time and time again, despite her often flippant attitude towards humanity.
Anya was charming and hilarious, and damn it, I wanted to shed some tears for her. But the way her death was handled made it impossible. There was no time to feel anything for her. The only slight moment of release we get is when Xander learns of her passing from Andrew. But even then, the moment is too brief. So much has happened since then, with all of Sunnydale having been destroyed. There’s so much sadness and catharsis bouncing around, that any sense of mourning for Anya is totally lost.
Anya’s death was so emotionless that it really shouldn’t even be on this list. The only reason I included it is becomes she was such a great character, with so many wonderful moments. Her death SHOULD have made a huge impact. But it didn’t. So instead, we’ll remember Anya for her fulfilling life on the show, rather than her lackluster death.
Sorry Joss. You get it right nine out of ten times. But this was the one. And boy was it a big one. Anya and Emma Caulfied deserved better.
15. Jonathan’s Death
In a more fair universe in which Anya had died a great death, Jonathan would never have claimed a more emotional farewell scene. Then again, in a fair universe, poor Jonathan wouldn’t have died at all.
One reason his death is so effective is because it happens at the hands of his best friend, Andrew. Thanks to the manipulative efforts of Fake Warren aka the First Evil, Andrew is coerced into sacrificing Jonathan for a “Greater purpose.” It’s gut wrenching because of how innocent and likable these two characters were. They had flirted with evildoing, but unlike the real Warren, they were never truly bad.
In a way, this death is a double loss. We lose Jonathan literally, and Andrew loses his innocence. Being convinced to kill your best friend isn’t something that you get over easily, and this act rightfully haunts Andrew for the remainder of the series. It’s a difficult, gut-wrenching loss that we won’t forget about any time soon.
14. Spike’s “Death”
In retrospect, Spike’s self sacrifice at the end of Buffy would have held a lot more weight if his resurrection on Angel hadn’t been immediately advertised. There was never any real time to grieve, because no one thought Spike was actually gone. Still, this doesn’t erase the poignancy of Spike’s sacrifice.
Spike had one of the greatest character arcs on the show, going from a soulless monster, to a conflicted demon with feelings for Buffy, and eventually to an en-souled vampire ready to sacrifice anything for love. Buffy and Spike went through so much drama, including a very naughty, self-hate filled love affair. By the end, Spike knew Buffy didn’t truly love him, which made his sacrifice for all of Sunnydale even more selfless and heroic.
It was a hell of a way for Spike to go out. Even if he was only gone for the summer.
13. Cordelia’s Death
Cordelia too went through some pretty incredible changes, though they weren’t always for the best. Starting in Buffy as the typical gorgeous yet mean-spirited queen bee, she evolved into a heroic half-demon warrior on Angel. This turn did lead to some problems in Angel’s 4th season, when Cordelia became possessed with a self-birthing evil Goddess (don’t ask), basically driving her character progress into the dirt.
Luckily, Cordelia received some redemption in her final appearance in Season 5, when she awakens from a coma to help Angel return from the darkness of hell-spawned law firm Wolfram and Heart. This culminates in Angel and Cordy finally realizing their long-held love for each other with a passionate kiss… Only for Angel to receive a sudden phone call from the hospital. He picks it up, and discovers that Cordelia had never woken from her coma. She’d passed away in her sleep. The Powers That Be had sent Cordelia’s spirit to help Angel one final time, and now her task was done.
This was a genuinely shocking and saddening departure, reminding us of all Cordelia and Angel had been through. From barely acquaintances to allies, from good friends to almost-lovers, they’d had a tumultuous haul together. Buffy/Angel shippers never liked the Angel and Cordelia romance, but I think it worked.
After several close encounters, ending their time together with their first real kiss (discarding that time they were possessed by the spirits of dead ballet dancers) seemed like the way to go. It closed the Angel and Cordelia romance with a melancholy goodbye, and redeemed all of Cordelia’s demon-goddess shenanigans. It was the emotional send-off Cordelia Chase deserved.
12. Giles’ Death (comics)
So this is cheating a little bit, because Giles never died in the show. But he did die in the Season 8 comic book continuation. And since it was written by Whedon himself, i’ll consider this about as canon as you can get.
Giles’ death is every bit as shocking and emotional in the comic as it would have been in the show. Season 8 was filled with way too many wacky twists and turns to dive into here, but basically, his death happens at the hands of a possessed Angel — right in front of Buffy. There’s nothing quite as emotionally wrenching as watching Buffy writhe on the ground, sobbing in agony next to the glassy-eyed body of her would be-father. That this is accomplished through a still comic page makes it even more impressive.
Comic books don’t often make me cry, but this was one of those rare times. Losing Giles sort of feels like losing your own dad. Of course, Giles is eventually resurrected as a 12 year old boy, which awkwardly makes it feel like your dead dad suddenly became your son. But that’s a whole lot of weirdness that’s probably best not getting into.
Bottom line, Giles died. It was heartbreaking.
11. Losing Connor
One of the biggest shockers of the third season of Angel was when Darla showed up pregnant with Angel’s baby. After she sacrificed herself to save baby Connor, something incredible happened – Angel had a son. Not only that, he was happy. Angel and the gang fell in love with baby Connor, just like we did. We marveled at Angel’s newfound affinity for fatherhood. For a while, it seemed like Angel would finally achieve some joy in his life through Connor.
Which is what made it all the more devastating when Connor was taken from him.
The vengeful Holtz, who’s family Angelus murdered in the 1800s, stole Connor and transported them both into Quartoth, an unreachable hell dimension… And that was it.
There was no getting Connor back. He was just… gone. It was the kind of emotional shocker you rarely saw happen on network television. Up until the moment Holtz leapt through the portal, you convinced yourself, “No WAY. This show will never go THERE.” But it did. And it left Angel, and viewers, with a gaping hole in our hearts.
Of all the cruel, vile things Whedon did to his characters, this was perhaps the cruelest and vilest. Angel, burdened with immortality and the knowledge he could never fall in love without losing his soul, finally had one chance at happiness. And it was ripped away from him.
Eventually, Connor returned from Quartoth, but by then he was 16 years old and kind of an emo-jerk who made a lot of moronic decisions, including sleeping with Demon-Cordelia (much to his dad’s horror). Still, Connor was back, and Angel was a father again. For a little while. Which brings us to…
10. Losing Connor (Again)
Of course Whedon, being the sadist that he is, couldn’t leave Connor with his father for more than one season. Season 4 saw an increasingly confused and unstable Connor sleep with Cordelia, father a demon-Goddess, bow in blind subservience to that demon-Godess, and then eventually kill said demon-Godess.
Connor’s actions were frustrating for many viewers, but they led up to a harrowing confrontation in a department store in the season 4 finale, “Home,” in which an unhinged Connor sets explosives to blow up the store and everyone else inside. A devastated Angel tries to talk him out of it, but to no avail, and he’s forced to take Connor out. The scene leaves us wondering if Angel killed his own son. But the reality is so much more heartbreaking.
As Angel leaves his shiny new Wolfram and Heart office, we learn that Fred, Gunn, Lorne and Wesley have no memory of Connor. Angel drives way out to the country-side to a lonely cabin, where he quietly approaches the window. Inside, Connor sits having dinner with a new family. He’s making college plans, joking around with his siblings, and telling them all how grateful he is for their love. Angel smiles, and leaves his son behind.
That’s right. Angel erased his son’s memory and planted him with a new family and fresh memories of a loving home. Angel gave Connor the life he had been deprived when he was stolen as baby. At the expense of his own happiness, Angel gave Connor the life of a regular young man.
Big. Fat. TEARS.
Seriously. I cried my eyes out during this scene. It was the most simultaneously touching, heartbreaking and uplifting thing I ever saw on Angel. So many emotions at once.
Of all the selfless acts Angel has performed over the years, this was by far the most selfless and meaningful. As far as I’m concerned, those damn gypsies should have made Angel mortal right then and there. Angel came full circle, from murdering his entire family, to giving his only son a real family. If that doesn’t qualify as redemption, then I don’t know what does.
Shanshu Prophecy be damned.
9. Tara’s Death (and Losing Willow)
This is a big one, because it actually marks two losses in one. First, we lose Willow’s girlfriend Tara in the most shocking method imaginable for Buffy – a bullet, fired by hateful, misogynistic regular guy Warren. Nothing mystical about it, just a plain old bullet through the heart. And as terrible as it was to lose Tara this way, the second loss, and the one that really stung, was Willow’s humanity.
After a season of Willow trying to cope with a magical addiction, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Filled with hatred and vengeance, the former bright-spirited shy girl became Dark Willow, an evil witch with the power to destroy the planet. So many emotion-filled moments followed from this. Willow’s brutal murder of Warren; Willow’s confrontation with Buffy; Giles’ near-death at Willow’s hands; And the touching sacrifice of Xander, who nearly lost his own life in order to bring his best friend back.
Each of these moments rounded out Season 6 with an emotionally captivating handful of episodes. And it all spawned from Tara’s shocking death. Tara herself lacked the character weight for her demise alone to really impact the series. But because of how her death affected Willow, it became a landmark moment, the reverberations of which were felt through the rest of the series.
8. Losing Oz
The only thing more painful than the end of Willow’s relationship with Tara was the end of her relationship with Oz. And nobody even died.
Seth Green’s departure from the series necessitated a way to write out Oz, who had been Willow’s boyfriend for 2 seasons. As unfortunate as it was to lose Green, it was ultimately worth it, because it enabled Joss to write one of the very best episodes of the series.
“Wild At Heart” told the heart-wrenching story of Oz’s inability to conquer his animal desires. When Oz meets Veruca, a fellow werewolf, he is immediately drawn to her. He tries to resist, but when the moon turns full, he can’t help but give in to feral temptation. In the end, Oz realizes he can’t control himself anymore, and decides to leave Willow, in one of the series’ saddest scenes. Simply watching Alyson Hannigan cry was enough to make me sob buckets of tears.
It wasn’t just Willow’s sadness that made Oz’s departure so emotional. Buffy is always at its best when the the plot works as an emotional metaphor. In this case, Oz’s seduction was the perfect metaphor for “the guy who gives in to temptation.” Oz was the good guy with the great girlfriend, who still couldn’t help but fall for the bad girl. It’s the kind of story that anyone can relate to. There might be werewolves and wiccans involved, but in the end, it’s a very real story, and that’s what makes the loss feel so raw and personal.
7. Angel’s “Death”
Way back before Angel came into being, there was a very different destiny in mind for the character. Angel’s popularity gave Whedon the idea for a spinoff, but it came at a bit of an awkward time, considering that Angel was kinda-sorta-extremely dead.
Season 2 of Buffy saw Angel losing his soul and wreaking destruction on everything that Buffy held dear. It was perhaps the greatest arc of Buffy, and brought up all kinds of amazing emotional metaphors. Indeed, the very end of the season brought us one of the most devastating moments of the series.
Angelus opens a portal to a hell dimension, and the only way to close it is for Buffy to kill him. Despite Angel being the love of her life, Buffy had finally come to accept that this demon was no longer him, and she was prepared to do what was necessary. And then, Willow restores Angel’s soul. Of course.
As the portal continues to suck in everything around it, we, the viewers, realize in horror along with Buffy, that the only way to close it is for Buffy to kill him anyway, soul and all. And so they share a final kiss, Buffy tells Angel to close his eyes — and she rams him through with a broadsword, sending him straight through the portal to hell.
It’s a testament to the truly shocking nature of this scene, that I cried like a baby even though I knew Angel would come back the following season. It’s not so much Angel’s “death” that did it for me – it’s that Buffy had to be the one to do it, even after he turned good. She murdered her boyfriend in order to save the world! It’s a moment of such noble self sacrifice, and it helps to cement Buffy as not just a Slayer, but a true hero.
The sense of loss Buffy feels after this is palpable. She even leaves Sunnydale without a word to her friends, deciding she wants to find a new life for herself. And we completely understand.
The emotional reality of this ending works so well, that even though we KNOW Angel isn’t really dead, and even though we KNOW Buffy is coming back, the loss still feels so complete. That’s some great writing for you.
6. Buffy’s “Death”
In a show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer, you’d never really think the girl named Buffy might get killed off at the end of the show’s 5th season. But that’s exactly what happened.
During the 5th season, WB canceled Buffy. Whedon, who was unsure about whether or not Buffy would get picked up by another network, decided to cover his bases, and gave the series a possible ending. This ending saw Buffy climb to the top of a construction tower to save her sister Dawn from sacrificing herself. With a portal to hell opened above the tower, only the blood of the Key (Dawn’s original mystical status) could close it. But as it turned out, Buffy, being the key’s sister, possessed the exact same blood.
And so she leaps from the tower and into the portal, closing it and killing herself in the process.
Whedon had become notorious for killing off main characters by then, but to kill off THE main character? This was beyond shocking, beyond devastating. The sight of Buffy’s body on the ground, surrounded by her closest friends weeping in despair — Not to mention the following shot of Buffy’s very own gravestone…
Was this for real?
As it turns out, no, it wasn’t. The announcement of Buffy’s pick-up by UPN came shortly after. But that didn’t change the emotional resonance and complexity of Buffy’s death. It wasn’t just that she died, it was the fact that this noble self-sacrifice came at the end of a season that saw Buffy reaching a newfound maturity. She grew from a teenage girl reluctant to accept her calling, to a full-blown Slayer discovering the full breadth of her lineage and accepting her responsibility to the world.
This responsibility was channeled into protecting Dawn, allowing Buffy to understand what it’s really like to take another human being into your care. This new understanding brought Buffy to the point where her early fear of dying was put aside, and she was able to let everything go to save her little sister. Not to mention the entire world.
As emotionally unbearable as it was to lose Buffy, this was the perfect end to her story. In a way, it’s kind of a shame that they brought Buffy back, as this would have been one of the most powerful series finales of all time. To the credit of Whedon and his writers though, Buffy’s resurrection was not a cheap cop-out. The emotional ramifications of coming back from the dead were felt for the entire 6th season, and we got some truly wonderful episodes as a result.
But for a few brief moments, we thought Buffy was truly gone. And her sacrifice left a mark on us all.
5. Jenny Calendar’s Death
Yup, this was the big one. The one that started it all. The one that made you say “Oh my God they KILLED HER!”
Jenny Calendar was Giles’ love interest at Sunnydale high. They were an on-again off-again pairing, almost lovers but never quite. Their relationship involved a lot of mistakes and betrayal, culminating in Jenny’s revelation that she was part of the tribe of gypsies that had cursed Angel with the return of his soul. Jenny had been sent to Sunnydale to watch over Angel, and when he lost his soul again, Giles felt betrayed by Jenny’s secret-keeping. Eventually though, Giles felt ready to forgive her, and they were finally prepared to start over. Unfortunately, Angelus had other plans for Jenny.
Tracking Jenny down to Sunnydale High, where she was working on a method to restore Angel’s soul, Angelus destroys her work, chases her through the school, and snaps her neck in front of a large window.
As though this brutal death weren’t enough, the sadistic Angelus had to add insult to injury. Giles comes home that night to find a trail of rose petals leading up the steps. Excited, Giles follows the petals upstairs to find a candle-lit bedroom… and Jenny’s corpse on the bed.
This death accomplished several things. It proved that Angelus had truly gone to the dark side, and might be beyond redemption. It drove Giles into a rage, tearing him to pieces and allowing Buffy to save him, deepening their relationship. Perhaps most importantly, the death proved that this show wasn’t afraid to kill characters we liked in favor of the story. Jenny’s death elevated the stakes of the 2nd season considerably, driving Buffy to the point where she might actually be willing to kill her former love.
Jesse and Flutie’s deaths had been surprising, but we didn’t care about those characters. We cared a great deal for Jenny, particularly through Giles. Watching him break down in tears over Jenny was heartbreaking, and this was the first time Whedon showed the complexities with which his characters would handle death.
Giles’ first reaction was rage, shown through his reckless attempt to kill Angelus. Buffy brought him back from the brink of despair, and he was able to begin to grieve. It wasn’t the end of his damage though. A few episodes later, when a restless spirit invaded the halls of Sunnydale High, Giles became convinced it was Jenny’s ghost trying to reach him — despite all evidence to the contrary. It took Giles a long time to move past Jenny’s death, and this was the first such example of many realistic spells of grief in Buffy.
Unlike other series, the deaths on this show truly meant something. The other characters felt them, remembered them, and grew from them. The deaths on Buffy became a central motif for wondrous character development, and it all began here, with poor Jenny Calender.
4. Fred’s Death
Of all the deaths in Buffy and Angel, Winnifred Burkle’s may have been the most tragic. The most effective deaths on either series were those that most impacted one specific character. Giles with Jenny, Willow with Tara, Fred with Wesley. In this case, the damage was particularly painful. When Fred grew ill from the essence of an ancient Goddess hollowing her out from within, it was right after Wesley and Fred had begun a long-gestating romance. Theirs was a fan-approved pairing years in the making, and it felt too good to be true to see them together and actually, y’know, happy. So of course, Whedon had to tear them apart in the cruelest way imaginable.
Fred’s death was particularly surprising, since Whedon clearly was in love with the character. Most fans were too. Fred was so likable, enthusiastic, clever, dorky and a total badass. Basically, Wesley’s perfect match. It seemed unthinkable that Whedon would kill her off. But of course, he had something trickier in mind.
Though Fred died (slowly and painfully) she was replaced by the Goddess Ilyria, who inhabited her body. This allowed Amy Acker to stay on the show, and to give an incredible performance unlike anything we’d seen from her. It also served to traumatize Wesley further. As though losing Fred weren’t bad enough, Wesley was forced to continually be around her form, inhabited by the very entity that killed her. Over the course of the series’ last few episodes, Illyria and Wesley, somewhat sickeningly, grew closer together, his love for Fred bleeding over and making Illyria more human. Wesley became a hollow shell of his former self, with no purpose other than to protect the body of the thing that looked like his dead love.
The twist and turns of this predicament were so disturbing, so hauntingly tragic, complex and beautiful. The shock waves of Fred’s death impacted the characters on Angel like no other. Illyria became a physical manifestation of Whedon’s thesis on death. For the characters of Buffy and Angel, death lingers, it pervades, it consumes… and it stays with you forever.
3. Wesley’s Death
The only thing sadder than Fred’s death was Wesley’s. I may be a bit biased in that statement, since Wesley Wyndham-Price was my favorite character in the Buffyverse. Going from bumbling nerd to heroic badass, he was the ultimate wish-fulfillment character. Watching the way Fred’s death tore him to pieces was utterly gut-wrenching, and it spurred a terrific performance from Alexis Denisoff. Fred and Wesley were so tied together that her departure was ultimately what made Wesley’s death possible in the series finale of Angel.
After being stabbed in the gut by one of Wolfram and Heart’s senior members, Wesley lays dying in Illyria’s arms. Illyria, who had grown fond of Wesley because of his affection for Fred, chooses to give him one final gift. She assumes the form of Fred one last time, and assures Wesley that they will be together soon. Wesley, a smile on his face, tells her he loves her. “Fred” tells him she loves him too, and he dies in her arms.
Heartbreaking. Utterly heartbreaking. But in a way, appropriate. With Fred gone, Wesley truly had nothing left. At least in death, Wesley and Fred would finally be together. In a series that made death so intrinsically important, there’s a touching substance in the knowledge that death, after tearing these two apart, finally brought them back together.
Wesley’s death also had a striking impact on Illyria. After 8 episodes of gradually becoming more human thanks to Fred’s shell, Wesley’s death is the push that finally causes her to feel. She feels remorse, she feels despair, she feels anger, and she takes it out by punching a hole in the head of the demon who killed Wesley. Death brought Illyiria to life, and ultimately, death gave her humanity.
For viewers, Wesley was the ultimate audience-participation character. He’s the character we all would have liked to be if we lived in Whedon’s world. A pompous stickler for the rules who grows into a rule-breaking warrior, with moral convictions and unshakable goodness. He demonstrated the power of Whedon’s character growth like no other. His death put me in denial for a very long time. Losing Wesley was so completely saddening — but it was meant to happen. Wesley died saving Los Angeles from hell, and he was finally allowed to be with the woman he loved. Wesley will be remembered as the final character to die in TV’s Buffyverse. We won’t forget him anytime soon.
2. Angel Loses His Soul (And Buffy Her “Innocence”)
When it comes to losses on Buffy, there were none quite so powerful as the double loss of Angel’s soul and Buffy’s virginity. They were so beautifully intertwined in the series first truly successful use of metaphor.
The losses happened in the episode aptly titled “Innocence.” After a night of lovemaking, in which Angel experienced a moment of perfect happiness, his soul was expelled due to the gypsy curse. Angel was then revived as Angelus, a soulless demon. Angelus did many vile things in the series 2nd season, but his first act was not particularly evil – he was just a huge jackass.
Following his soul’s removal, Angelus decides to return to his apartment to torment Buffy. Still pretending to be Angel, he dismisses the extremely vulnerable Buffy, curled up in his bed, as though she meant nothing to him. She was just a one night stand, and all of Angel’s love talk had apparently been a ploy to get her into bed.
Such sickening cruelty. Whedon mentioned in his DVD commentary of “Innocence,” that he believed this to be the most perfect scene he ever wrote. I tend to agree. This was the scene in which Whedon found the tragic voice of Buffy. Prior to this moment, Buffy still felt like a “monster of the week” show. This multi-layered scene demonstrated that Buffy had so much more to offer, and had become something considerably deeper.
The shocking apathy with which Angelus spurned Buffy set off a chain of emotions in her — exactly what you’d expect from a teenager in her position. She felt naked, guilty, abandoned, betrayed. She felt like it was all her fault. And in a way, it was. Angel lost her soul because Buffy had sex with him. Once Buffy discovered this, it added a whole new layer of reality to her guilt.
This emotional betrayal became the perfect metaphor for sex. Buffy’s pain was so perfectly tied into all of the guilty feelings a young girl can feel about having sex. Angelus dismissing Buffy was the perfect metaphor for “the guy who doesn’t call back.” Whedon’s writing worked on this incredible level of psychological depth, where Buffy’s torment was two-fold.
On one level, Buffy had to contend with her guilt over depriving Angel of his soul, and somehow stomach the idea that she might have to kill him. On a deeper level, there was the emotion-based but very human guilt of feeling tricked into having sex, of betraying her values. Buffy felt used and dirty – exactly how Angelus wanted her to feel. All of this worked together to create the perfect metaphor of innocence lost.
I was in awe of “Innocence” from start to finish, but I didn’t realize how deeply it affected me until the very end, when Buffy finally let herself go. All the raw emotions she felt finally poured out of her, as she allowed herself to feel exposed with Giles, in the safety of his car. This was such a moment of release, for Buffy and viewer alike. It was the moment that made me realize just how much had been lost. Angel’s soul. His humanity. Buffy’s virginity. Her innocence.
The characters lost a lot, but the series gained so much more. Buffy truly found its voice, and discovered what it could become.
1. Joyce Summers’ Death
Surprised? Didn’t think so.
“The Body” is one of the most stunning episodes of television ever created. It encapsulates the concept of death in a way no other show has ever accomplished. It put me in tears for nearly 45 minutes straight. It haunts us all to this day.
Buffy comes home to find her mom dead on the couch. No attack. Nothing mystical. Just a brain aneurysm. There’s nothing to be done, no monster to fight. Just a body lying on the couch.
What follows is a stunning portrayal of the numbing unreality that emerges after someone dies. This is what Whedon intended, to encapsulate in a 45-minute episode the feelings of helplessness that directly follow death. And he succeeded with horrifying beauty.
The camera is unusually close to our characters throughout the episode. We feel like we’re intruding into their private space. Buffy’s point of view is disoriented, unbalanced. Her shock is palpable. She has no idea what to do. Her instincts demand strength and conviction. But faced with her mother’s body, she finds that all she can do… is nothing.
As each member of the Buffy family learns of Joyce’s death, they each react in their own, perfectly human way. Dawn, the youngest, breaks down crying. Xander, the guy, punches a hole through the wall. Willow, the most playful, tries to disguise her agony in dress-picking. Anya, the most literal, delivers an emotional monologue about death that infuses exactly what everyone else is feeling, but can’t put into words.
Feelings. That’s what “The Body” truly embraces. With minimal dialogue, the episode is an exploration of raw emotion. It dives into each of the character’s feelings with stunning, almost uncomfortable intimacy. While the other deaths in Buffy romanticized the experience, this episode had no sugar coating, no filmic techniques to smooth over the pain. “The Body” was sheer agony. Utter devastation. Perfect loss.
“The Body” is considered by many to be the greatest episode of Buffy. Maybe even the greatest episode of television. The episode acts as a centerpiece for Buffy’s arc. Her mother’s death was the event that elevated her from a girl to a woman. For the series itself, “The Body” acted as the pinnacle of everything Whedon hoped to achieve. Whedon wanted to create a series about female empowerment, about women who could fight, who could lose, who could experience loss and come out stronger. He was writing a show about a girl with supernatural abilities, who was still a human being. “The Body” proved that no matter how powerful you are, when you lose someone you love, all you can do is accept it… and move forward.
It’s been 20 years since Buffy The Vampire Slayer began. And we’re still mourning for those we lost. Buffy and Angel stand as the highest pinnacle of television achievement — for the stories they told, the depth they created, and the emotions they made us feel. When we lost someone in the Buffyverse, it was exactly like losing someone we loved. We will never forget Anya, Jenny, Fred, Wesley, Joyce and everyone else we lost.
And we’re so grateful for that.
Thank you, Joss.