It should be noted that apart from the intro and end credits, there is no music in this episode whatsoever.
This is also the only episode that doesn't show James Marsters (Spike) since becoming a regular cast member.
The first scene is the same as the last in the previous episode. Buffy walks in the door, and calls for her mom. She goes into the living room, where Joyce's body is lying on the couch.
While the credits run, we get a flashback scene to the previous Christmas. The whole cast is there apart from Spike. The gang enjoys dinner as they discuss the horrifying truth about Santa Claus. Buffy and Joyce head into the kitchen to find the pie has burnt and Joyce curses the oven.
Jump Scare back to the present, Buffy tries to wake her mom up. When this fails, she calls 911. The dispatcher sends paramedics and instructs Buffy to perform CPR. This doesn't work either, and even worse, Buffy, with her super strength, accidentally manages to break one of her mother's ribs. The dispatcher tries to assure Buffy not to worry, but when she tearfully explains that Joyce feels "cold," the demeanor of the dispatcher changes and she begins to refer to Joyce as "the body," which upsets Buffy. The dispatcher finally tells her that the ambulance will be with her soon, leading her to hang up and call Giles, telling him only, "She's at the house." The paramedics arrive, and start using equipment to try and revive Joyce. Joyce wakes up suddenly. In the ambulance, Buffy stands beside her mom as the paramedic pronounces it a miracle. In a hospital room, Joyce cradles Dawn as the doctor gives Joyce a clean bill of health...
Buffy snaps back to reality to discover that Joyce, despite the paramedics' efforts, still isn't moving. The paramedics eventually take note that Joyce is cold, surmise that their revival attempts will be useless, and officially pronounce Joyce dead. One of the paramedics explains to Buffy, who at this point is only capable of numbly mumbling in response, that her mother may have died from a complication relating to her recent brain tumor and that he will place a call for a coroner. The paramedics then receive a call for assistance and have to leave. After they leave, a dazed Buffy tries to contemplate everything that has just happened, and ends up vomiting on the carpet. Giles arrives, thinking Buffy's call was about Glory. When he sees Joyce's body, he tries to revive her. Buffy shouts at him, "We're not supposed to move the body!" It takes a brief moment before the realization of what she just said hits her. Buffy breaks down crying, and Giles tries to comfort her.
The coroner arrives, zipping Joyce's body into a black body bag. At school, Dawn is crying her eyes out. A friend comforts her, saying that it isn't that bad. Dawn disagrees, saying that Kevin called her a freak in front of the whole class. They eventually decide to blame Kirstie for spreading rumors that Dawn has been cutting herself, and head off to art class, where the art teacher tells the class not to draw the object, but the negative space surrounding it. Dawn is working next to Kevin, who is actually quite friendly, dissing Kirstie and telling Dawn he has also felt the need to do something extreme before. Dawn starts to tell an embarrassing story about Kirstie, only to see Buffy arrive. Buffy takes Dawn outside the classroom. Dawn, confused by what is happening, wants to know where Joyce is, since she was supposed to pick her up after school. Buffy responds that she would rather explain this somewhere more private, but this only prompts Dawn to get upset and demand to know what is going on. The camera stays with the students, who watch through the window. We don't hear Buffy actually tell Dawn, but we see Dawn break down in tears, and we hear her sobs and screams. The camera shows Dawn's negative space sketch, which looks like a crime-scene body outline.
Joyce is on a slab in the morgue, as the coroner starts cutting open her shirt for the autopsy. Willow and Tara are in their dorm room at UC Sunnydale, sorrowfully waiting for Xander, as Giles by now has contacted everyone and explained what has happened. Willow is fixating on what shirt she should wear—she can't find the blue one that Joyce liked. She starts hyperventilating and crying, and Tara calms her with a "Shut Up" Kiss—their first onscreen kiss. Xander and Anya double-park outside the dorm, and come inside. Xander and Willow hug. Anya asks what they are going to do. The plan is to go to the hospital, where Giles, Buffy, and Dawn are. Xander asks about what Giles said, trying to determine if the death was natural. He first blames Glory, then the doctors. He needs someone to blame. Willow holds up her fists, challenging Xander to a mock fight. Xander calms down a bit, and kisses Willow on the forehead.
Anya asks if they're going to see the body. The consensus is that they will support Buffy and Dawn, no matter what. Tara leaves to look for Willow's shirt. Anya asks if they're going to cut the body open. Willow yells at her to shut up. Anya breaks down: "I don't understand! I don't understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she's... there's just a body, and I don't understand why she just can't get back in it and not be dead anymore. It's stupid. It's mortal and stupid... And Xander's crying and not talking. And I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever. And she'll never have eggs or yawn or brush her hair. Not ever. And no one will explain to me why!"
Xander moves to comfort Anya, while Willow answers that, "We don't know how it works. Why." Xander puts his hand through the wall. The girls come over, and find that he's stuck. Willow asks if it made him feel any better. "For a second there." "A whole second?" Willow looks at him, envious of that second of comfort. Xander switches into construction-man mode, commenting on the crappy wallmanship. Tara returns as they manage to extract Xander's fist. It's bleeding. Anya gets bandaids. They leave. Willow returns to change sweaters. Outside, a meter maid tickets Xander's car.
The autopsy is done. The Scooby Gang assembles in the lobby. Hugs all around. The doctor shows up. Buffy, Giles, and Dawn go to talk to him. He confirms that she died from an aneurysm, probably a complication of the surgery. He says that there was probably very little pain, and even if someone had been there (shot of Joyce collapsing on the couch, Buffy rushing to her side, her safe in the ambulance), there was nothing they could have done. Buffy asks if he's sure that there wasn't any pain. "Absolutely." His lips move out of sync with the next words: "I have to lie to make you feel better." Giles volunteers to take care of the paperwork. Dawn goes to pee. Xander, Anya, and Willow go to get food. Buffy and Tara sit together. Tara reveals that her mother died when she was 17. She doesn't go out and say it, but the message is there: Tara is proof that Buffy can get through this.
Dawn walks to the morgue, finding her mother's body. Behind her, in what's only there to remind the viewers what show this is, one of the bodies rises from the slab—a vampire. Dawn turns around.
In the lobby, Xander, Willow, and Anya return with a ton of food. They notice that Dawn's not there. Buffy goes looking for her, and arrives at the morgue just in time. She grapples with the (naked) vampire, decapitating him with a bonesaw. Dawn stares up at Joyce's body. "Is she cold?" she asks. "It's not her," Buffy says.
Dawn reaches her hand toward the body's face. "Where'd she go?"
The episode ends before her hand makes contact.
Tropes featured in this episode include:
- Absentee Actor: This is the only episode after he joined the main cast in Season 4 not to feature Spike.
- Adult Fear: The Episode.
- Alpha Bitch: Kirstie, though that might just be from Dawn's POV. She actually seems sympathetic to Dawn's breakdown.
- Anywhere but Their Lips:
- Xander kisses Willow on the forehead.
- Finally averted with Willow and Tara—even subverted, since Tara first kisses Willow's forehead before abruptly going for the lips.
- A Shared Suffering: Tara tells Buffy of how her own mother died when she was young.
- Bad Santa: Anya reveals that Santa Claus is actually a demon who disembowels children in their sleep.
- Bottle Episode: No soundtrack, mostly set indoors, and exactly one instance of special effects (the vampire turning to dust). A solid contender for "most depressing example of all time."
- Brick Joke:
- Anya finds Willow's blue shirt. Unaware that Willow's been desperately searching for it, she tucks it in a drawer.
- Anya tells Xander that he's double-parked when they visit Willow and Tara. Xander says, "Let them give me a ticket." As the quartet leaves the dorm, we see a parking enforcer doing just that.
- Calling Your Bathroom Breaks: Dawn says she has to go pee (actually because she wants to see her mother in the morgue). Buffy offers to go with her, and she replies coldly, "No, I still remember how to pee."
- Comfort Food: The Scoobies come back with armloads of soda, chips, chocolate and sandwiches.Willow: We panicked.
- Continuity Nod:
- During the Christmas dinner flashback, Giles asks Joyce if it's safe to open a second bottle of wine (that only the two of them will be sharing). Buffy says she's fine with them getting tipsy, as long as they don't have any band candy.
- Xander reminds Willow, Tara, and Anya that Glory had previously threatened Buffy's family, insisting that she may very well have killed Joyce and covered her tracks. Willow shoots that possibility down, pointing out Glory would want them to know she did it.
- CPR: Clean, Pretty, Reliable:
- Averted. Not only is Buffy's attempt far too late, but Reality Ensues and she breaks one of her mother's ribs thanks to her Slayer strength.
- Buffy also tries to perform CPR on a soft surface, and the paramedic barely looks like he's trying—he's probably doing it just for Buffy's sake and knows it's pointless.
- Daydream Surprise: The paramedics' CPR is successful and Joyce makes a quick and full recovery in the hospital—Smash Cut back to the living room, where Joyce continues to be unresponsive.
- Daylight Horror: Joyce died on a bright sunny day. The scene of Buffy wandering around the kitchen after the EMTs leave is so bright that it's almost overexposed.
- Death Is Such an Odd Thing: The long pauses and fragmented dialogue give the whole episode this feeling, but Anya's bewildered reaction most clearly demonstrate this trope.
- Dies Wide Open: Buffy finds Joyce lying on a couch after her sudden death with wide-open eyes. The episode makes a point of not having anyone close Joyce's eyes for her; they remain open throughout the episode. The episode also opens each act with a shot of Joyce's corpse in which her eyes are staring right at the viewer.
- Foreshadowing: Intentional or not, next season we'd see another example of a main character dying of non-supernatural means, one just as if not more tragic.
- Full-Frontal Assault: The vampire rises in the morgue post-autopsy, and naturally goes after Dawn without bothering to put anything on first.
- Getting Crap Past the RadarDawn: Uh, this one time in history, she had this book called Annals of History, and she didn't know how to say the word "annals" so she kept saying—
- The Glomp: Seeing everyone else giving supporting hugs, Anya suddenly glomps Giles. He's surprised, but returns the hug.
- Gut Punch: The whole damn episode. Not only is a major beloved member of the family Killed Off for Real, but the entire episode is spent with everyone else experiencing the realistic emotional fallout of a bereavement in excruciating detail.
- Imagine Spot: The coroner says that even if Buffy had been in the room for Joyce's collapse—flash to Joyce falling and Buffy calling 911 in time to save her—there probably wasn't anything anyone could have done.
- Instant Emergency Response: Averted; after dispatching the ambulance, the 911 operator stays on the line to guide Buffy through CPR for several minutes. After that fails, Buffy has time to hang up and call Giles before the paramedics arrive.
- It's What I Do: Xander says "the Avengers have to get with the assembly" to support Buffy. "It's what we do." Also a Call-Back to what Xander said in "The Freshman."
- Killed Off for Real: Joyce, and not via anything supernatural that the Scoobies might have been able to find a counter for.
- Life Will Kill You: After 5 seasons filled with all types of dramatic deaths, Joyce dies a quiet death from natural causes.
- Manly TearsAnya: [softly] Xander cried at the apartment. It was weird.
Willow: [Death Glare] I-i-it's a, it's a thing we do.
- Meaningful Background Event: Dawn goes into the morgue to look at her mother's dead body and a vampire silently rises from under a sheet in the background.
- Mood Dissonance: Seen with the Christmas flashback, and Dawn before she's informed of Joyce's death—where the episode uses several Buffy Running Gags (e.g. Getting Crap Past the Radar, Not So Dire, and Last-Second Word Swap) to heighten the tragedy that the audience already knows has occurred.
- My Dad Can Beat Up Your Dad: Dawn is upset about an Alpha Bitch at school and says, "You know, my big sister could really beat the crap out of her. I mean, really, really..."
- Not So Dire: Buffy says she'll have to tell Dawn about her mother's death. Dawn is then shown in tears... about something mean a classmate said about her. She rallies herself and returns to class, only for Buffy to enter with the news, whereupon Dawn breaks down completely.
- Nothing Is the Same Anymore: Doesn't get much more this trope than losing your mom (especially like this).
- Oh, Crap!: Again, played for drama. Also serves as a reminder that She Really Can Act—in the space of three words, Sarah Michelle Gellar transforms from an ass-kicking 20-something woman to a terrified little girl.Buffy: Mom? Whatcha doin'? [worried] Mom? [dawning horror] Mom? [terrified] Mommy?
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Probably the only time we see Buffy panicking in the entire series is when she finds her mother dead.
- The Oner: The entire first part of the episode between the Christmas flashback and the Daydream Surprise is filmed in one take.
- Previously On: Averted, at least involving clips from previous episodes. Instead the moment when Buffy walks in the door and finds her dead mother is shown again in full, with events proceeding directly from there.
- Punch a Wall: Xander puts his fist into the wall, gets it stuck and suffers bleeding knuckles when the Scoobies help him extract it.
- Reality Ensues: This is pretty much the realest episode of BtVS.
- Rule of Symbolism:
- The camera pans to Dawn's 'negative space' drawing in art class after she breaks down crying at the news of her mother's death.
- Negative space is also employed prominently in many shots. Most noticeable when Buffy cannot look the paramedic in the face, during the awkward silence before Tara tells Buffy of her mother's death, and in the last shot between Dawn and Joyce.
- Serious Business: Dawn freaking out because a boy she fancies said she was freaky.
- Shoo Out the Clowns: A possible reason for Spike's absence from the episode.
- Shutting Up Now: Tara starts to talk at the dinner table about how Willow likes to have her belly rubbed, then quickly realises she's getting into lurid territory.
- "Shut Up" Kiss: Tara kisses a distraught Willow to calm her down.
- Smash Cut: Several of these are used for Mood Whiplash effect.
- Stress Vomit: Buffy throws up on the carpet, halfway to the kitchen, after the paramedics leave.
- Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss: Noticeably averted. The first onscreen Willow/Tara kiss was neither advertised in advance nor played for fanservice.
- That Came Out Wrong: Again played seriously, with Buffy blurting out to Giles, "You're not supposed to move the body!" then her horrified look when she realizes what she just said.
- Title Drop: Done numerous times.
- Vomit Discretion Shot: Buffy ducks out of the bottom of the frame to Stress Vomit. As she numbly attempts to clean it up, all that is seen is what soaks through the paper towels.
- Waking Up at the Morgue: In what has to be a fairly regular occurrence in Sunnydale, a vampire rises post-autopsy and goes looking for his first meal in the buff.
- Wham Episode:
- The sudden death of Joyce Summers. The episode is structured such that you feel the Wham in every second of it.
- Also an aversion in a meta sense. While Nothing Is the Same Anymore after this episode, censors and the media initially completely missed the significance of Tara and Willow's kiss.
- Zipping Up the Bodybag: The second act begins with Joyce's body, once again staring into the camera, being zipped up and taken away.