Through compelling character development and whip smart dialogue, Joss Whedon gave us heroes for the ages with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly proving themselves better with each rewatch (despite the dated fashion choices). However, nothing ever comes easy in the Whedonverse, with nearly every character undergoing a devastating amount of loss, some more than others. And yet his audience thanks him for it. No matter how much emotional pain Whedon has handed out, they still show up every time while remembering the lost characters. And so, because Whedon fans are all so used to being sad when thinking about the Whedonverse, let’s take a walk down memory lane and recall the most devastating moments that came from the mind of Joss Whedon.
Also, it should go without saying, but spoilers ahead.
12. The Battle Of Serenity Valley — Firefly
Before they ran the crew of the Serenity, Captain Mal Reynolds and Corporal Zoe Washburne were members of the rebel Browncoat army fighting in the Unification War. As the tide of battle turns against them, Mal, Zoe, and their company are abandoned by their reinforcements. The desperation in Mal’s eyes will rip your heart in two as you realize that this is the exact moment that Mal lost his faith in humanity and the cause.
11. Topher’s Sacrifice — Dollhouse
Whedon has a knack for redeeming previously despicable characters (looking at you, Andrew from Buffy), and Topher Brink might have one of the best redemption arcs in Whedon’s entire body of work. As the creator of the tech that wipes the mind and replaces it with another, Topher is directly responsible for the worldwide breakdown after the destruction of the Dollhouse, leading to his madness. However, before his mind is totally gone, he figures out a way to destroy the tech and right the world. Ultimately, this results in his death, but not before he atones for all of the pain he caused.
10. Post-Soul Spike — Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Spike is the ultimate problematic fave. After being one of the big bads of season two, Spike becomes a regular player again in season four, but is rendered harmless by the implant from the Initiative. When he can’t actively try to harm Buffy and the other good guys, Spike finds himself in the awkward position of actually falling in love with her. While his kindness towards Buffy’s family and general charm work in his favor, his Buffybot and attempted rape are very serious strikes against him. Feeling remorse for the evil things that he’s done, Spike undergoes the painful process of getting a soul at the end of season six. The ordeal nearly kills him and drives him mad for a short time.
9. Priya’s Backstory — Dollhouse
Dollhouse had a lot working against it. The entire premise requires many of the main characters to be blank slates for much of their screen time, making it difficult for audiences to connect. A talented cast kept things afloat for a while, especially Dichen Lachman’s Sierra/Priya. While most of the Actives entered the Dollhouse of their own freewill, Priya was forced into it by a man who wanted to control her after she refused his advances (Whedon is always one to call out toxic masculinity), and is then rented out to him for various sexual encounters. While she is eventually given the agency to exact her revenge, her helplessness at the hands of a wicked man and the wiping of her memory was nothing short of devastating.
8. The Death Of Anya — Buffy The Vampire Slayer
The quick death of the cutest Scooby just felt extra unfair. As Buffy and the Scoobies go to war against the First Evil and an army of Turok-Han, there were sure to be casualties. But to come following her struggles adapting to human life after centuries spent as a vengeance demon and the emotional pain dealt to her by Xander, it seemed cruel for Anya to suffer such an offhanded death. She deserved better in every sense.
7. Buffy’s Sacrifice — Buffy The Vampire Slayer
The season five finale “The Gift” is easily one of the best episodes of the entire series run, and it is heartbreaking for a number of reasons, but Buffy sacrificing herself to save Dawn is a tragically beautiful moment. After a season of confusion and heartbreak, Buffy finds herself oddly at peace with her decision. After fighting for so long, Buffy finally found some peace in death. This tragedy is compounded, though, when a well-meaning Willow and Dawn rip Buffy out of heaven and back to the hell of the living world. Season six is so dark, you guys.
6. Everything Relating To Winifred Burkle — Angel
Remember, she wasn’t scared. Fred felt like Angel‘s kid sister and then Joss Whedon took her from us all in a heart-rending moment that honestly makes you question whether Whedon is some kind of grief demon. From the tears to the kisses and pronouncements of love, nothing about this is okay, especially not Fred’s last words: “Why can’t I stay?” And then to make it so much worse, we have to feel for Wes as he deals with someone else inhabiting Fred’s body almost immediately after he lost his love.
5. Buffy Kills Angel — Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Before we had Game of Thrones to kill off major characters, we had Buffy. Sure, Angel came back (and got his own spinoff), but the pain was still real as Buffy ran a sword through her beloved in order to save the world. After Angel lost his soul after a moment of true happiness with Buffy, his pre-soul self, Angelus, took over and did terrible damage to the gang and the rest of Sunnydale. When Angelus tries to summon the demon Acathla and destroy the world at the end of season two, the only way for Buffy to close the portal is to kill him and send him to a hell dimension. However, right before she runs him through, the spell to restore his soul works, and Angel is himself again. Just in time for Buffy to kill him to close the portal.
4. The Death Of Tara — Buffy The Vampire Slayer
Almost everyone on Buffy The Vampire Slayer had blood on their hands, but Tara was innocent. When she was killed by an errant bullet when that coward Warren went after Buffy after she had outsmarted him one too many times, the oxygen left the room. While she and Willow had just started to be on good terms again as Willow tried to beat her addiction to magic, it just wasn’t meant to be for them. The actual death was devastating enough, but the fallout and Willow’s descent into darker magic just compounds the misery.
3. The Death Of Wash — Serenity
Technically, the saddest thing to ever happen in the Firefly ‘verse actually went down in the sequel film, Serenity. Firefly, itself, wasn’t around long enough to cause any real emotional damage, with the most devastating thing about it being that it ended too soon. The death of Wash in the film is almost too painful to process, though. Let’s just pretend it never happened and that he and Zoe got to wander the universe together for years and years to come. Curse your sudden yet inevitable betrayal, Whedon!
2. Angel Is Mortal For A Day — Angel
If you want to make a Whedon fan weep, mention “I Will Remember You.” In this crossover episode of Angel, Buffy goes to pay Angel a visit after she catches him skulking around Sunnydale without notifying her. When the blood of a Mohra demon makes Angel mortal, the former lovers get to spend a brief window of time together, making love, making plans, and waxing poetic about the wonders of chocolate and peanut butter. But alas, Angel is a hero, and part of what allows him to be heroic is his immortality, so he goes to the Powers That Be to be restored to his former state. While Buffy may not remember the day they had together, Whedon fans surely do. “I felt your heartbeat” remains a crying trigger for many to this day.
1. The Death Of Joyce — Buffy The Vampire Slayer
There are so many supernatural deaths on Buffy, but the death of Joyce in season five’s “The Body” was so profoundly human that it had even more emotional heft. Not a demon, not a vampire, not from some curse. An aneurysm. She was alive and then she wasn’t, and the visceral reactions from all of the Scoobies is enough to to make anyone weep. Buffy and Dawn dealing with the death of their mother is heartbreaking on its own, but Anya’s painful misunderstanding of how Joyce could be alive one minute and then gone the next stuck with Buffy fans for years to come.