Spoilers: From Welcome to the Hellmouth to Chosen and back again.
Email: dolores_l at hotmail dot com
Website: Thrown With Great Force
"You get the hell away from my daughter!"
If ever there was a moment that was the making of Joyce Summers, that night in the school was it. Blazing with the utmost fury and looking utterly fabulous in a long, burnt-orange, paisley-patterned blouse and bilious black pants, she saved her daughter from Spike by braining him with the blunt end of a fire axe. At one fell swoop (quite literally), she was elevated from mere half-mother, half-Penelope Pitstop cipher to a proper three-dimensional character.
Perhaps I'm overplaying the importance of the scene a little, but it was nevertheless an important stage in that process. Earlier in School Hard, Principal Snyder had snottily remarked that he detected "a certain mother-daughter resemblance" between Joyce and her scion. He was quite correct in this observation, but it was not nearly the slight he imagined.
For Buffy was most definitely Joyce's daughter, and without Joyce there would have been no Buffy. In fact, without Joyce, there would have been no Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Which is not to suggest that any character was bigger than the show, not even Buffy. It was an ensemble piece that proved far greater than the sum of its parts. What should be recognised, however, is that Joyce Summers was as integral to that success as was Willow, Giles, Spike or Cordelia.
She provided crucial support to many of the characters, particularly Buffy, and her relatively normal life helped anchor the series in the real world. She was a presence that was, as with so many things, only truly valued once it was gone.
When Welcome to the Hellmouth was first screened that role was not immediately obvious, and the strengths of her character less in evidence. Joyce started out as a slightly flaky mother, who seemed rather unsure how best to raise her daughter. Certainly, she had a lot to contend with at the time. Bad enough that she was moving to a new town, starting a new business, and dealing with the fact she was newly divorced and that her ex-husband had been unfaithful; but Buffy had been expelled from Hemery High for blowing up the gym and Joyce must have been wondering where she had gone so very wrong as a parent.
It would be enough to knock anyone's self-confidence, and in Fear, Itself we learn that she didn’t make a single friend that whole first year. No wonder she used self-help tapes as a crutch and seemed to change her style of parenting from one episode to the next.
Ultimately however she did grow as a character, and relatively quickly became the Joyce we know and love: gentle, kind, wryly amused by Buffy's behaviour more than anything else, and surprisingly willing to let her daughter get on with the business of growing up without too much interference, though she still offered guidance and some discipline when required.
That relationship was crucial because, more than anything else, Joyce was Buffy's mother. Indeed, there were only a handful of episodes where she appeared in scenes without Buffy present. Their relationship was often exploited for a range of purposes, from comedy to tragedy, and its flexibility as a plot device proved how strong it was. As much as Joyce loved her daughter, she was loved in return, and there were few if any whose wellbeing concerned Buffy more.
Of course, the same was true in reverse, and most everything Joyce tried to do was for the benefit of Buffy. Unfortunately Joyce was as often as not rather hampered by the fact that she found it difficult to communicate with her daughter, and a leitmotif of the earlier seasons was her frustration that Buffy was constantly so secretive. Naturally, this had much to do with Buffy's double life as a Slayer and her need to keep Joyce in the dark about same, but even after Joyce discovered Buffy's true nature this secrecy continued as Buffy now sought to protect her mother from the dangers and realities of the life she led.
However, Buffy underestimated her mother: Joyce was much stronger than she imagined, as was illustrated by Joyce's behaviour during her illness in season five, and her reaction to the discovery that Dawn was not human, something she accepted far more calmly than might have been expected given the circumstances. Even her fumbling attempts to be supportive mom in Gingerbread proved that she wanted to be a part of her daughter's life in all its aspects however disturbing she must have found them.
She was also strong enough to exercise her parental authority from time to time, and make difficult choices in relation to her daughter. She did not shy away from telling Buffy some home truths in private (Bad Eggs, Passion) or from public confrontation (Dead Man's Party). Whilst she was, confusingly, never really given any screen time to explain her actions, she was nonetheless also unafraid to intervene in Buffy's relationship with Angel, turning up at the mansion to lay down the law to the besouled one in The Prom. It was a terrible risk considering Buffy's probable reaction if she were ever to find out, but Joyce felt she was doing what she had to do.
Such applications of motherly concern and discipline did not always go down well amongst certain viewers. Indeed, there were more than a few fanfic authors in the early years who would brutally murder Joyce in many of their stories because she prevented Buffy from doing exactly as she pleased (usually running off to marry Angel) and there were probably times when Buffy herself idly contemplated just such an action.
We did not see quite the same relationship with Dawn, partly because Dawn was younger, and in any case did not have the same pressures as Buffy, but also because the Summers family dynamic changed with her arrival. Joyce became more put-upon referee between the girls than either side in an argument. But of course, she loved Dawn as much as her elder sister, even when she discovered Dawn was not technically her real daughter. If anything, this only made her more protective.
Indeed, just about the only time we ever saw Joyce argue with Buffy after she left high school was in Blood Ties, defending Dawn when Buffy made some ill-advised comments suggesting Dawn was something less than a full member of the family.
But then that was Joyce. If I had to use just one word to describe Joyce, it would be "compassionate". Joyce was a woman without enemies (with the possible exception of Principal Snyder), and there was barely a resident of Sunnydale who did not seek or receive solace from her at some point.
Though her raison d'être was Buffy and Dawn, Joyce only became a truly rounded character through her interactions with everyone else, and as often as not she came to mean a very great deal to those who knew her.
Xander and Willow, neither of whom had much of a relationship with their own parents, unsurprisingly came to view Joyce as something very close to an surrogate mother. There were hints of this throughout the show, most notably in Killed by Death and Restless, but it was in the grief that they expressed after Joyce's death that this was made truly explicit.
Later, both Tara and Anya became part of this extended circle, and the Christmas of season five saw Joyce cooking for eight amid the atmosphere of a proper family gathering. By natural evolution and especially the situation with Dawn, it was clear that she had begun to integrate with the Scoobies like never before. Had not fate intervened this process would no doubt have continued.
Her maternal instinct even extended to Faith, particularly in season three when Joyce saw in Faith a means of allowing Buffy to retire. And, despite being held hostage by a violent and dangerous Faith in season four, she continued to be concerned about the poor girl's welfare. Verily, her compassion truly knew no bounds.
Of her non-Scooby friends we knew little, although "a small circle" is briefly mentioned in Fear, Itself. The only one we ever meet is Pat, a deeply annoying woman from Joyce's book club who had evidently designated herself chief moral support whilst Buffy was missing following the events of Becoming. Mercifully Pat met with a timely demise in the same episode in which she appeared (Dead Man's Party).
The only other friend of note was perhaps the most unlikely. Spike's introduction to Joyce was violent, and perhaps he sought a little revenge when he turned up at her doorstep a year or so later, but despite his murderous intent he only had to experience Joyce's legendary sympathy and, of course, her hot chocolate and marshmallows, before any thoughts of making her lunch were dispelled, and ultimately she became just about the only true friend Spike ever had. It was equally clear she had a soft spot for him, and they remained close right up to her death. And those, like Xander, who doubted Spike's sincerity in this only had to listen to his poignant speech in Forever to realise just what she meant to him.
However, as much as she did like Spike, Joyce was not terribly happy with the idea Spike might be in love with her daughter. After all, she had her own experiences of dating a homicidal maniac, and knew such relationships could come to no good.
In fact, of all the main characters in the show, the least successful romantically was poor, benighted Joyce. Though she was "a little gun shy" by the time we met her, in her youth she was apparently quite vivacious, and succeeded in parting Hank (Buffy's father) away from his original date at their prom, in that much funnier story that neither we nor Buffy ever got to hear.
We were given a glimpse of this sassy nature when she was returned to her teenage years (in spirit if not body) thanks to the eponymous confectionary in Band Candy, and she spent most of the episode batting eyelashes at or having sex with Giles, the only character in the entire run of the show to get so far – that we know of, at any rate.
Xander too was on the receiving end of Joyce's attempts at seduction, once in reality after his love spell went wrong in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, and once in his dreams as a sultry Joyce heaved her not inconsiderable bosom and invited him into her bedroom. Alas, his subconscious took him elsewhere, but the sequence did suggest that if he did view her as a surrogate mother then there was a hint of Oedipus to him too.
Her only other on-screen dalliance was with the psychotic robot, Ted. He kept her happy by feeding her food laced with tranquillisers and but for her daughter saving the day Joyce would probably still be in some Stepford-esque nightmare even now. She may have also courted danger by allowing Dracula entry to her home, but whether he courted her in any other way we must leave to the insinuation of the episode and our own twisted imagination.
What was most disturbing about Joyce's lovelife was that between splitting up with Hank and going on her last, lovely date with the unseen Brian in I Was Made to Love You, she seemed entirely unable to have any romantic contact without being under the influence of something: magical chocolate in the case of Giles, Ted's poisoned food, Xander's misfiring love spell and (possibly) Dracula's sinister mojo. It seemed a little harsh on the poor woman.
That said, dealing with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune was something of a recurring theme for Joyce, though usually this was more to enhance Buffy's angst-ridden existence than because the writers wanted to make her mother inherently unlucky. Even so, it wasn't too much fun. Not a season went past without her being in peril like the aforementioned Ms Pitstop, usually more than once. She was attacked in various episodes by Darla, Ted, Angelus and a Queller demon, turned into a drone for the Bezoar in Bad Eggs, possessed by evil children in Gingerbread, held hostage in Helpless and This Year's Girl, and forced to batter a zombie into submission with a baseball bat in Dead Man's Party.
When there weren't supernatural nemeses to face there was rogue shipments of Greek amphorae to deal with, and of course the brain tumour and related aneurysm which was the cause of Joyce's ultimate demise.
Joyce continued to be a source of pain for Buffy even after her death. She appeared in Buffy's unhinged subconscious in Weight of the World, tormented her by making her choose between Sunnydale and "reality" in Normal Again, and was one of the First Evil's many guises in season seven. On which subject I'd like to note that one of the biggest gripes I have about the show is that First!Joyce didn't make an appearance in Chosen, when it seemed perfectly obvious to everyone that to do so whilst Buffy was trying to save the world would be a far better distraction than pretending to be Buffy herself.
When faced with such terrible events, it was little wonder then that Joyce seemed permanently confused, or that she developed such an impressive ability to repress all knowledge of the trauma she faced and to accept whatever explanation allowed her to avoid the truth. This was partially because it saved the writers having to show Joyce properly coping with the events in her life, but it was also, as we were often shown, exactly how the "ordinary" people of Sunnydale coped themselves. Thus, it was also to remind us that, more than any of the other principal characters in the show, Joyce was "ordinary".
She had a life that had little to do with the vampires and demons, and she was the one who ensured all the mundane tasks were completed, such as paying the bills, repairing the house and making the hot chocolate. The extent to which she was a support to Buffy and Dawn – let alone anyone else – was only truly revealed when she died, at which point Buffy found herself having to take care of all these little problems that she had not previously had to worry about.
As Buffy herself said in Forever: "I'm trying, Dawn, I am really trying to take care of things. But I don't even know what I'm doing! Mom always knew."
In no other way was Joyce so ordinary. In a town where fashion never seemed particularly fashionable, Joyce was probably its most dependably glamorous resident, certainly so after Cordelia departed. She could be classy, business-like, playful and sexy all in the same episode and in Xander's dreams she could be drop-dead gorgeous.
Indeed, Buffy herself occasionally benefited from this unerring sense of style: that famous dress in Prophecy Girl was, after all, Joyce's purchase.
And I haven't even begun to address the subject of her bounteous bouffant, but this is probably not the time or place for that.
Ultimately, Joyce is a unique character. One of the great strengths of the show was that it didn't fall into the trap of resetting its characters at the start of each new episode. It allowed them to grow and change even when such a development was unpopular. With Joyce the writers had to deal with two competing imperatives: Joyce was to be a constant in Buffy's life, but she also had to evolve.
And evolve she did. Her journey was not perhaps as great or as troubled as the others, but compare the clueless, confused and fragile Joyce of season one with the strong and confident woman we saw in season five, fully a part of the Scooby Gang and not only aware of the supernatural dangers around her but willing to face them, and you realise just how far she travelled.
It is true that Joyce is not as difficult a character to understand as some of the more complex figures that we met in the show, like, say, Oz, Spike or Buffy herself. Frankly, she simply wasn't – and couldn't be – written that way. However, that lack of complexity should not be confused with a lack of depth.
The Body could not have been written about anyone else. No other character was as universally popular, and there were few if any whose departure could sustain not just one, but two full episodes. By just being there, being a dependable, comforting presence, Joyce wove herself so intricately into the fabric of the Buffyverse that her loss seemed unendurable.
And so we come back to my original contention: Joyce was integral to the show, and without her it could not have worked. Moreover, she passed many of her greatest qualities to her daughter, and so without Joyce we would have had a very different heroine.
For some reason I am tempted to compare Joyce to Judy Garland. Both were beautiful, vulnerable and tragic, unlucky in love and sadly taken from us far too young – yet also strong, talented, feisty when aroused – and something of a gay icon.
Admittedly, this analogy does mean Buffy is Liza Minnelli, but as she has a habit of getting involved with obviously homosexual men who don't treat her right, then, well, maybe, I'm not so far off the mark...
3100 words. I may have got slightly carried away.
Being Lois Lane by Yahtzee – absolutely outstanding look at Joyce as a character at the time of Buffy's disappearance.
Need to Know by Chelle – At her funeral the Scooby Gang reminisce about Joyce and what she meant to them. Lovely.
On Impermanence: Joyce by Dale – a beautiful, haunting piece as Joyce struggles to deal with her illness.
DeNile by Indri – Joyce as viewed by Spike late in season four.
Precious Things by Faithtastic – a moving piece centring on Joyce's thoughts after her operation.
If you want to read 'shipper fics, other essays and general frippery about Joyce then may I humbly suggest Joyffa as a starting point (a shameless plug, sorry about that). In terms of fic, look out in the archive for the work of wasabi_oni, faithtastic and Laura Shapiro in particular, all of whom are amazingly good.
There's also the Joyce section at the BFA to browse through.
Many, many thanks to glossing, wasabi_oni, katemonkey and j_crew_guy for their encouragement and ideas. Impossibly large amounts of gratitude and love to faithtastic for being my companion in Joyce-worship for the last four and a half years and for generally being unspeakably amazing.