Considering last month was a huge time of appreciation for writer/director Joss Whedon with not one, but two hugely successful movies bearing his name being released -- blockbuster juggernaut "The Avengers" and his wickedly clever take on horror in "Cabin in the Woods" -- it's a good time to look back and celebrate Whedon's mastery of the tragic and some of the most subversive things he ever snuck into his writing.
Many might believe death would dominate the list (and it does, to a large degree), so we toyed with the notion of combining those deaths into one entry. Unfortunately, that wouldn't have done justice to some of the individual scenes and storylines. Without further ado, here is the top ten list of cruelty across the spectrum of Joss Whedon's work.
SPOILER ALERT: Major spoilers ahead! Only read this list if you are very much familiar with all things Joss Whedon!
10. The End of "Angel": "Angel" - "Not Fade Away"
Personally I have no problem with the way "Angel" ended, but the amount of ire from fans feeling they were robbed of a real resolution or a big battle is why it makes number 10. Sure, we glimpse a huge, seemingly unstoppable army complete with a dragon and seeing Angel trying to slay that thing would have been pretty cool (or as the later comics tell us, his befriending of it) but let's be honest, they had to go out this way for a number of reasons.
First, it fit the ethos of the show. Unlike it's parent show, "Angel" navigated murkier waters and it lacked a through-line outside the very abstract, i.e. Angel helping the helpless and fighting evil. Buffy always had life milestones: the pitfalls of puberty, the onset of adulthood, but Angel was already an adult -- hell, he celebrated a bicentenary! It was the mutating nature of the show that gave it a unique flavor but also made it messy. Across the show's life, the premise went from Noir-ish detective show to a splintered group, an increase in supernatural soap opera elements, 24-esque intensity and decompressed storytelling to finally working at an evil law firm. Phew. A tidy ending for such a deeply conflicted group of characters and such a winding journey would have seemed too pat. "Angel's" core message was redemption never ends, it's an ongoing daily struggle.
Second, on a television budget, such a battle would only have been a let down. Some fans might feel letting things to peoples imaginations can be a lazy writing device, but it's fairly justified here. It never could have met our expectations. The stakes were too high because they had to be. Anything less and Wolfram and Hart would have seemed weak. Also those four words, "Let's go to work" and the clang of sword and the grit of action. That's Angel. Comics aside, suspended in a never-ending fight just suits the guy.
9. Bennett Halverson gets shot: "Dollhouse" - "Getting Closer" It would be easy to make a "worst moments" list for "Buffy" or "Angel," but here's a shout out to the great unloved Whedon baby. "Dollhouse" had a very shaky start which almost lost me, but the man himself promised from the sixth episode on, there would an improvement. Sweet Fanciful Moses, did he deliver! The show took an upswing in quality which rarely faltered and while not his finest hour, it gradually insinuated itself into the affections of the Whedon loyal.
"Dollhouse" was always a tough sell; the premise ran the risk of becoming dreadfully formulaic and the characters were not the most likable, but this began to change in its second year. Topher, who was a generally obnoxious element, began to soften and slowly rose in estimation to be a fan-adored Whedon character. While the favoritism didn't begin during his painfully chaste romance with Bennett Halverson (played by Summer Glau), it certainly added to humanizing him. But in typical TV style, happy couples make for boring non-drama and in a haste -- perhaps borne of looming cancellation -- the beautiful Bennett was dispatched in a moment of shocking brutality just as the simmering attraction between herself and Topher had finally revealed itself. Fans should have gotten used to it, but it still shook me up on first viewing. Despite all the things "Dollhouse" didn't get right, it nailed that budding romance, as Topher tells himself describing Bennett, "Librarian energy through the roof!" Its very brevity only adds to the tragedy -- a metaphor for the show itself.
8. Penny: "Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog"
Building from #9, the eighth entry is another attempt at thinking outside the Whedon box and highlighting something with an even shorter run than "Dollhouse" -- just three fifteen minute installments. However, in its scant 40 minutes, "Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" made the audience care about two characters and subsequently screwed them around in the name of pathos. Pop-song-tinged pathos it may have been, but still a bleak ending all the same. "Doctor Horrible" was the best thing to emerge from the Writers' Strike that afflicted Hollywood over the 2007-2008 schedule.
Unable to produce television Whedon and co. (including brothers Jed Whedon and Zach Whedon and sister-in-law Maurissa Tancheroen) made a three-part online musical, an absolutely winning blend of hilarity and harmony. In its central doomed love pairing of titular character Doctor Horrible (Neil Patrick Harris) and the lovely Penny (Felicia Day), it gave viewers a heartbreaking finale. Doctor Horrible attempts to gain membership in the Evil League of Evil to boost his social status among villainy and to give himself the means to woo a girl he has a crush on. Unfortunately, one of the ways of achieving this goal is by murdering someone in an evil scheme. Although murder isn't really his style, he does attempt to take out the oafish and wholly smug Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), but for his sing along show stopping number, his machine explodes with Penny as the victim.
Again, this scene borders on Whedon cliché, but viewers still didn't see it coming because of just how frothy the whole enterprise had been. It was a spry and charming musical. Even if we didn't expect a tidy romantic ending, we assumed all parties would live through it. The fact that this accidental death gives Doctor Horrible all the respect and power he craves is delicious irony and a really sad note for the otherwise bouncy internet phenomenon to end. We eagerly await the sequel to see how the character will deal with his newfound fame at the cost of the object of his affection.
7. Spike's attempted rape of Buffy: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - "Seeing Red"
The sixth season of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has many detractors, but it's easy to see why fan loyalty was tested during that year. The fracturing of the group became far too great as the big bad that is Normal Life with it's inherent pressures came to bear on the Scoobies. The entire gang was going through huge angst while cutting themselves off from each other, making the spat they had when they first went to college seem positively breezy in comparison. Buffy, traumatized from being expelled from Paradise and hating every second of her resurrected life, began a very unhealthy relationship with Spike. The vampire had, due to external forces, been rendered harmless to humans -- but Buffy's unique status post resurrection made her an exception. This thoroughly miserable relationship founded on pure base desire and on a need to escape the bleak situation in which she found herself curdled, until finally Buffy decided she had to break it off. Spike was never a character to take rejection lightly and in easily the most uncomfortable scene ever given to us by the series, he attempts to force himself on the Slayer.
Carefully choreographed and shocking in its execution, fans still have a huge problem with this moment and some find it completely unnecessary. The writers argue it was the final push for Spike to go on and reclaim his soul, knowing he had gone too far. For me, it placed the character in a very strange place for the audience. Spike had already changed once he fell for the Slayer, but here he was in no man's land. He could never return to being our favorite villain. Could we ever accept him as a hero after this? Now we know Spike and Angel did horrific things during their evil tenure, and during the course of the show, viewers saw them murdering people while causing plenty of pain and destruction -- but not only were the gristly events of their pasts off-screen, it was all very much in a more comic-book-like vein; fantasy horror, if you will. This very real and graphic attempt at a heinous crime just seemed tonally off for the show and a step too far.
Some may laud the episode's attempt to convey a horrible act people have to face in real life, much to our eternal regret, but is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" really a forum for such things? It felt like the true end of innocence for the show. The following season, Spike came back, first incredibly crazy and eventually redeemed to a new paradigm; a soulful and more measured character. He's the only one who doesn't turn against Buffy the General in that grandstanding scene of group characterization madness when the Scoobies elect to follow Faith over Buffy (Still the worst scene in the whole show for my money, including "Beer Bad"). Some attempts are made to justify how getting his soul back made him a better person and demonstrate his guilt over his actions, but to be honest the show tip toes around this moment. I'm not sure they justify a total redemption. It's a telling statement that actor James Marsters (who plays Spike) was so disturbed by the scene he has put a clause in his contract to ensure he never has to film anything like that again.
6. Angel's post-coital put down to Buffy: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - "Innocence"
This scene is not only psychologically cruel but it's also a perfect encapsulation of what makes this show so perfect. It is the episode where "Buffy" ascended to being one of the all time great television shows. "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" has always been seen as a metaphor for the teenage experience writ large in a fantasy horror milieu. In "Innocence," we had that most elemental of teenage drama tropes, the loss of virginity and its ramifications. In most shows, a character just becomes a jerk, but here the "boy" in question literally turns into a monster. This arc was extremely well-handled and culminated in the show's greatest season finale. However, it's the very cruel and low-key moment where Buffy unknowingly first encounters evil Angelus. He criticizes her performance in bed and dismisses the huge importance of the moment to her in a scene excruciating in its nastiness. The slayer is left stunned and heartbroken. For all the fights, all the injuries, all the apocalypses, this is arguably the worst scene and a huge moment of development for the character. Boreanaz's swagger and arrogant delivery is perfect, as elsewhere he tends to get a bit hammy when playing Evil Angel. Here it is a perfectly measured with heartbreaking delivery. This is the moment Buffy came of age in all meanings of that phrase.
5. Tara's death: "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" - "Seeing Red"
Already this list has been strewn with death and here we add to the body count with an extremely controversial moment, again from the sixth series (and the same episode). This a hugely important event for the character of Willow Rosenberg. Her relationship with Tara McClay had had its ups and downs: Willow's abuse of magic (in reality a rather heavy-handed drug allusion which, despite yielding strong material for actress Alyson Hannigan, never really worked for me as a concept) pushed Tara away. Just as the rift was mended in a very tender and loving scene, a stray bullet from bad guy Warren struck Tara, giving her a natural and truly tragic end.
The Willow and Tara relationship had been a hugely effective story which gave viewers another strong in-show relationship, which was a leading light in gay relationships on television. Moreover, it was an adorable love story which developed organically over time. Tara's death sent huge ripples through the fan community, especially due to the fact she died in the very episode where actress Amber Benson was featured in the opening credits for the first time, a gag Whedon had wanted to do with the very first episode but instead used it for Tara's exit, salting the wound further. The randomness of the event was a bit forced with certain elements not quite adding up -- the angle of the shot for one -- but its intention was clear, to send Willow to a place of anger and allow her to become the season's Big Bad, leading to a great run of episodes to close out the year. I just wish we didn't have to sacrifice such an important character to get there.
How the writers brought Tara gradually into the group and how she always felt more mature and grown up gave her an often overlooked sophistication as a character. She will always, by her nature within in the show, be divisive, but I think the character was a modest addition to a great crew and anyone who watches "Under your Spell" without feeling a sense of sadness knowing her final fate is a harder person than I.
4. Pryia's back-story in Dollhouse: "Dollhouse" - "Belonging"
For a man so strongly identified with empowering women in Fantasy, Joss Whedon explored the manipulation of people (and in particular women) in "Dollhouse" to a frightening degree. Whether or not your view of humanity is inherently optimistic, most would agree if the Dollhouse technology existed, it would likely be used for the exploitation of people, emotionally and sexually. This was no better, or more disturbingly presented, exploitation than in the background of Pryia, who became the Doll designated "Sierra."
Pryia's bohemian and relatively care-free existence came to an end after she met and subsequently rejected the creepy advances of a rich Doctor named Nolan Kinnerd, who used his influence and knowledge of drugs to convince the Dollhouse that she was a paranoid schizophrenic suffering from visual and aural hallucinations. Pryia was then stripped of her identity and turned into a Doll. Kinnerd then fashioned a doting and besotted version of Sierra and over the years purchased her many times over the years. It is a truly twisted background for a character and the most vile thing Whedon has ever given us, due not only to the physical violations, but the idea of abject subjugation to which it subscribes.
While Kinnerd does get a long overdue comeuppance, and Topher and DeWitt are seen as shaken by the revelation of Pryia's story, we are well aware that these types of engagements and the murky concepts of corruption and power are the very areas for which the Dollhouse exclusively caters.
This conflict at the heart of the show may have been one of the reasons it never fully connected with an audience. It's an icky and morally bankrupt concept, which was played across the series both for laughs and tragedy. This was the most heartbreaking example of the latter and probably the most affecting episode of Dollhouse in its whole run.
3. Wash's death: "Serenity"
What a blessing second chances are, even if they don't lead to exactly what we want. Fans were delighted when Whedon's cruelly curtailed Space Western "Firefly" was allowed to soar one last time on the silver screen with "Serenity." Any fears that the quality might take a hit moving from Television to Film were quickly rebuffed by the sheer awesomeness on display. Alas, Browncoat adoration and strong critical notices weren't enough to secure a continuation of the series. It's huge shame, but we must admit even fans half expected it.
Despite the movie being newbie friendly, the overall tone and concept of the series is too niche to ever find a big mainstream audience. The fact that "Serenity" ever got made is a miracle in and of itself -- a great cause for celebration as we got to revisit those fantastic characters one last time (as of the time of this article being written). Alas, not all the characters made it through their big screen outing intact. There is a feeling throughout the film that this could be the crew's last adventure with a tension that permeates the whole production, leaving the viewer unsure of who might live. For a split second, I thought Whedon was going to give us a "Blake's 7" style bloodbath to close out the space opera in a fatalistic and permanent manner, which would be a ballsy and unrelentingly grim finale. Granted, there are times when it seems like the characters are in pretty dire straits -- including the shocking and completely unexpected death of Serenity pilot Wash, a devastating moment coated in trademark Whedon irony, impaled after declaring after a particularly difficult landing that he was "a leaf on the wind."
His swift demise actually made me gasp in the theater, the only time I've ever had such a big reaction to a film. I was utterly thrown for the remainder. Seeing the character's wife, Zoë, shut herself off, broken by the trauma and attacking the Reavers with total disregard for her own life is a real gut punch in an already extremely tense battle scene. Wash was arguably the most unaffected character in the Firefly Universe. Ok, he had jealousy issues with Mal regarding Zoë, but he was pretty much angst free, the mouthpiece in the show for Whedon's brand of humor. He wasn't corrupt like Jayne, self-righteous like Simon or as optimistic as Kaylee. He felt like a worker who loved his job and a buddy you could drink with. It's this very relatability that makes his death sting all the more. As much as I would love this show and universe to continue, I'm not sure I could ever forgive Joss for getting rid of the plastic dinosaur enthusiast that was Hoban "Wash" Washburne.
2. Joyce's Death: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - "I Was Made to Love You" and "The Body"
While Joyce Summers' death was natural and there is no in-story villain except death itself, it's still a cruel thing for the writer to do. Buffy saved countless people, fought apocalyptic threats and lost people in the name of her calling as the slayer, but this is the first time she properly lost someone to a battle she could never win. Having Joyce be ill in the fifth season gave viewers a subplot of the Slayer having to cope with the helplessness of something that didn't have a face to punch or a heart to stake, cementing that real life can still be tough when all the monsters and magic recede. We saw Joyce improve and even begin to date again. Then suddenly at the end of a fluffy and dreadful episode about a robot, we get the horrific and indelible sight of Joyce dead in the Summers living room. No epic fight, no world shaking event, just an aneurysm. "The Body," the episode focusing on the characters' reactions to Joyce's death is a remarkable hour of television and is rightly recognized as one of the strongest episodes of the series. Almost art-house in it's odd approach, the grief on display is heart-wrenching, only made possible by just how much you care about the characters and their finely tuned reactions to the event. It is a stunning episode and really puts the characters through the numbing early stages of having to accept death in a way I've never seen captured on other shows.
Buffy, barely out of her teens, suddenly must accept adult responsibility, adding another set of pressures to her already hectic life. Joyce's end is so mundane and real, and thus ends up all the harsher. The vampire attack of Dawn at the episode's end is often cited as the only weak link -- a fair criticism. The show's central theme didn't need reiterating, but maybe for the audience it was a cathartic moment of violence to off set the all-too-familiar pangs of real life grief. Despite not being creatively required, the slaying here further displays how life goes on in the face of death. Buffy's life will always have violence and pain. Now, she must soldier on without the reassurance and comfort her mother (nearly) always provided. Joyce Summers. She saved the Slayer. A lot.
1. The fate of Winifred Burkle: "Angel" - "A Hole in the World"
This choice might surprise some fans but for my money, the fate of Winifred Burkle in "Angel" is the cruellest thing Joss Whedon has ever done to a character and the fans.
From her first appearance, Fred was a victim of incredibly bad fortune. Sucked into another dimension due to the machinations of a jealous college Professor, she spent years as a human slave, forced to wear a collar and serve demons. This took a toll on her mental health and when discovered by Angel she was living in a cave, a ramble-y mess of a scientific genius with a fairly tenuous grip on reality. After returning to Earth from Pylea, Fred settled into life as a valuable member of Angel Investigations. She had her ups and downs including a relationship with Gunn, which was soured by his murder of her college Professor to prevent her from succumbing to vengeance; a will they/won't they relationship with Wesley that had to endure his betrayal of the group; and at one point she was only member of the team and the whole city as the only person uncharmed by the demonic Jasmine.
Throughout her development, viewers saw this endearing and quirky character grow into a strong independent woman and authoritative figure within the Wolfram and Hart Science division, finally beginning a relationship with Wesley after far too many near misses.
"A Hole In The World" is a fantastic episode but deeply sad, showcasing writer/creator Joss Whedon at his most brutal. Investigating a mysterious sarcophagus (brought into the building through Gunn foolishly signing a document for selfish reasons, a even crueler aspect to the event), Fred's body gets possessed by an Old One, the Demon Illyria. Written as a love letter to the character as she dies, the story features the most united Angel team we've ever seen. Fred is the one character that every other person agrees on. She was the heart of the team in many ways and it was nice to have the entire team all on the same page, illustrated in a wonderful moment when all it takes is Angel saying, "Winfred Burkle. Go." to strengthen a group resolve to fix this problem.
Joss has killed off characters before, many even more beloved, so why Fred? It's the moment when Wesley, our expert on mystical things, confirms that not only has Fred's body been altered, her soul was consumed by the fires of resurrection. Consider that for a moment. When Buffy dies she goes to the Buffyverse equivalent of Heaven, a nice place full of joy. We can imagine the other fallen characters getting this same peace. However, Fred's soul has been destroyed, an afterlife robbed for this perennial ray of sunshine for Angel and co.
There's also the insult of having the creature who murdered her continue to wear her body as a constant reminder of their slain friend. (Amy Acker has hinted in interviews that in the possible Season 6, aspects of Fred might have reasserted themselves and even rumors of her being split apart from Illyria.)
Joss said he wanted to give Acker something new to play and to shake up the dynamic but he took a character that had been seriously jerked around for years, killed her in a horrible fashion and denied her the everlasting peace even minor characters get. In one final moment of cruelty, Angel and Spike find a way to stop Illyria and possibly save Fred, but the result would cause the death of millions. So, they're forced to do nothing. Angel, Fred's "handsome man," couldn't save her and her last words to her true love, Wesley, are a desperate plea of "Why can't I stay?" Whedon, you bastard.
Jonathan's death: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" -"Conversations with Dead People"
Just when it looked like Jonathan was on the cusp of a mature understanding of growing up and leaving behind the juvenile and villainous pursuits he had allowed himself to fall into, he is killed by Andrew in a ritual to assist the First Evil. A sad ending to a fan-favorite background character who had lost some of his charm as he became more exposed, but at least his swan song was a classy and poignant piece.
Anya's death: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - "Chosen"
A swift death of the "blink and you may miss it variety," the longest-serving Scooby that could be killed in the finale is a odd beast of a death scene. I'm still not satisfied with it but I guess that was the point. And like the event itself I will keep analysis on it, very short and to the point.
Jenny Calendar's death: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - "Passion"
The biggest on screen display of Angelus' villainy (in the fourth season of "Angel" when he was unleashed once again, the writers seemed afraid to show him doing anything truly wicked.) A shocking moment and a somber end for a character who had huge potential. It was also a shame to lose a love interest for Giles.
Angel is betrayed by Wesley and loses his son to an enemy and a Hell dimension: "Angel" - "Sleep Tight"
An all-in-one awesome episode, "Sleep Tight" was like a C4 explosive attached to the "Angel" status quo and gleefully detonated. All this and it was in the middle of the season! One of the strongest and most eventful Angel episodes.
The Death Of Rupert Giles: "Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8" #39
If Rupert Giles had been slain in the Television series, it would have resonated deeply with me, as Giles was always a favorite character of mine, but the moment passed me by in the comics, almost as if I didn't really take it in. It's just sort of there and is probably my biggest criticism of the end of the "Buffy Season 8" arc. Giles' death is a tragedy but it's because it's so muted and not the ending such a rich role deserved. I'm glad the plot has been picked up in "Angel and Faith" and the consequences of his death have been given the room to breathe to at last make an impact.
Buffy pregnancy/abortion/is a robot: "Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season 9" - Ongoing Storyline
Three words I didn't think I'd ever have so grammatically close together when dealing with the Slayer, the currently running storyline in the much improved "Buffy Season 9" is still tricky to analyze in its ongoing state, but the shocks have been steadily coming issue after issue. A pregnancy story did honestly seem like the only thing that hasn't been thrown at the Slayer when it comes to personal issues and "Season 9" finally tackled it -- but after an issue where Buffy decides to have an abortion, which has understandably divided readers, she's revealed to be a robot.
I'm not sure if the abortion plot should have been broached (it is interesting to view through the character of Buffy) but it then seems odd to remove the element so soon with a real out of left field reveal. It's Whedon down to its bones, but it seems to now fall between two stools. It's too out there a twist to properly resolve the issue and too serious a story to dismiss with the tropes of fantasy.
Some more vague (or perhaps, yet to be properly explained) plotting around the character of Andrew seems to have given the readers the how but the overall picture remains ever cryptic. We'll see how this goes but regardless no doubt our characters will face even more angst and obstacles. To paraphrase Buffy's words to Dawn in "The Gift," the hardest thing in Whedon's world is to live in it.