After yesterday's post, I decided it would be a good idea to pick another scene featuring a character dealing with high emotions. Because I like punishing myself, I chose one of the most depressing and intense episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "The Body." This is the season five episode that deals with the death of Buffy's mother, Joyce. I picked it in part because it's available via Netflix Instant Viewing, so many of you should be able to get it. It's on Disc 5 of season 5 and was written and directed by Joss Whedon.
The episode opens as Buffy comes home and finds her mother dead on the couch. Her first reaction is to become very agitated, bordering on hysterical as she shakes her mother, saying "Mom? Mom!" A call to 911 offers little help beyond walking her through CPR and when it has no effect other than the Slayer's strength breaking her mother's breastbone, the dispatcher advises Buffy that the paramedics are on their way. Clearly in shock at this point, she calls Giles and asks him to come immediately.
And again, Buffy's still not crying at this point. Just numb shock.
Then, despite a truly evil tease showing a fantasy where Joyce Summers is miraculously revived (Screw you, Joss), the paramedics can't do anything for her. "I'm sorry," the paramedic says, "But I have to tell you that your mother's dead." (Yes, I know this is completely not the way it would go in real life. Paramedics don't stop until an MD takes over for them.) Worse, they get a call that pulls them away, leaving Buffy alone with her mother. Their last words to her are "Try not to disturb the body."
Through all of this, Buffy doesn't yet cry. This actually has the effect of making the scene even more agonizing for the audience because they - and Buffy - are denied that emotional release. Gellar's portrayal of Buffy in shock is truly unsettling to watch. Buffy wanders down the hall, then drops to her knees and vomits. The ambient sound of wind chimes outside is disturbingly loud, making the whole scene feel eerie.
And still she doesn't cry.
Giles comes in and finds Buffy in shock, muttering about how she should go to school to tell Dawn - her sister - what happened. Unable to make sense of this, Giles casts an eye to the living room and spots Buffy's mother, "Oh my god, Joyce!" He moves to help her as Buffy says, "No, it's too late.... We're not supposed to move the body!" Her voice at last breaks with emotion, and Gellar again proves that she was robbed of at least one Emmy as we see Buffy process how she just referred to her mother.
Now it hits her, and just as it hits us, Giles is across the room in a shot, taking the Slayer in a hug. Eyes wide, Buffy sobs - no tears - and we go into commercial.
That is how you construct an emotional release. That's how you handle a crying scene. Show the character fighting the emotion, denying the emotion, unable to feel the emotion - then really kick them in the gut and go out on that release.
Don't make a scene of someone crying - make a scene of someone about to cry, or trying not to cry.
Tomorrow - another act of "The Body" features a different technique.