Joss Crossroads Buffy David Boreanaz, Sarah Michelle Gellar

May 11, 2015

So, here’s a story secret for you. One I deduced from watching all the Joss Whedon stories. And with the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron it seems an opportune moment to share because for the first time I was looking for a Joss Crossroads and it wasn’t there…

Joss Whedon writes brilliant stories (no, that’s not the secret). I have no doubt there are college courses on this man’s writing and what he does with characters; how he manages to rip your heart out while making you love him more for it. It’s a trait he shares with Melina Marchetta. The question I found myself asking one day is how.

How does he manage to find that exact spot of precise, excruciating pain? Then Loki told me.

Well, it was the scene with Loki and Black Widow in The Avengers. When he’s threatening her with making Hawkeye hurt her and then waking him up at the last minute to realize what he’s done. That’s the moment Joss does again and again in his stories. How does Loki know how to hurt her so deeply and so precisely? The way that Becoming Part 2 hurts so beautifully. And then I got it.

The Joss Crossroads isn’t just about hurting the characters – it’s about drawing the audience into that moment and that pain but somehow make it more terrible and more beautiful all at once. He achieves that by taking the best thing that could possibly happen (the happy ending the audience is waiting for – the moment they’re expecting eventually). And the worst thing that could possibly happen (the single way it could all go horribly, terribly wrong). And you make them both happen. At the same time.

Well, not precisely at the same time. But the order you serve them in depends on the moment.

BUFFY David Boreanaz as Angel Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers the WB
BUFFY | David Boreanaz as Angel, Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers (the WB)
here there be spoilers for Buffy s2 »

Buffy in Becoming Part 2 gets her happy ending first and has it ripped away by the worst possible outcome. There are probably a dozen other Joss Crossroads moments in those seven seasons. Spike has to have at least three all his own. But Becoming Part 2 is the first Joss Crossroads – perhaps ever. And it’s the one that’s always stayed with me.

ANGEL Origin 5x18 Alexis Denisof as Wesley Wyndam Pryce, Amy Acker as Winifred Burkle Illiyria (the WB)
ANGEL Origin 5×18 Alexis Denisof as Wesley Wyndam Pryce, Amy Acker as Winifred Burkle Illiyria (the WB)
here there be spoilers for Angel »

Angel also probably has a few Joss Crossroads in five season. Illyria is the one I remember most, though. It isn’t a single moment, so perhaps it’s not a fair example. But there’s something incredibly painful about Wesley and Fred getting together and her being ripped from him. Except not really. He has to live with her body and her voice and Illyria there reminding him every day and every moment of what he’s lost.

SERENITY Summer Glau as River Nathan Fillion as Mal Universal
SERENITY | Summer Glau as River, Nathan Fillion as Mal (Universal)
here there be spoilers for Serentity »

There isn’t really a Joss Crossroads in Firefly. Perhaps they were building to one somewhere in the second season. Serenity has that moment… and if you’ve seen the movie you know the one. But that’s not really a Joss Crossroads only because you don’t know what the bad outcome is until it happens. It’s a moment of a happy ending and then shocking, horrible sadness. Effective because you don’t see it coming, but there’s something in the Joss Crossroads about knowing the terrible outcome beforehand; something about failing to avoid it that makes it more heart wrenching.

DOLLHOUSE Man on the Street 1x06 Tahmoh Penikett as Paul Ballard (Fox)
DOLLHOUSE Man on the Street 1×06 Tahmoh Penikett as Paul Ballard (Fox)
here there be spoilers for the end of Dollhouse »

There is (barely) a Joss Crossroads in Dollhouse. Which is partly because it was difficult to connect to the characters for a variety of reasons. But Epitaph Two delivers a moment when everything seems to have been sorted out for Paul. Which of course means… You could make the argument that it’s something of a reverse Joss Crossroads – the unforeseen happy ending in the wake of tragedy. It feels halfhearted but for all the cool things in Dollhouse, a lot of it felt halfhearted.

THOR THE DARK WORLD Tom Hiddleston as Loki DisneyMarvel
THOR THE DARK WORLD | Tom Hiddleston as Loki (Disney/Marvel)
here there be spoilers for Avengers... that I've already alluded to - my bad »

Loki threatens to deal up the pain first and then make it that much worse by giving Black Widow the thing she wanted all along, making them both conscious of the pain and destruction that’s been wrought upon them. It doesn’t just hurt, it tarnishes the moment you’re looking for; makes the happy ending something more awful than what you thought was the worst possible outcome. But The Avengers never delivers that moment. While it softens the blow of the overall movie, it’s a great moment as Loki defines for us how the Joss Crossroads works.

But Age of Ultron doesn’t have that moment. It’s got dark moments. It has good things. But it doesn’t have that intersection of the two and so things don’t hurt quite as much as we’ve come to expect.

Here’s the thing… you didn’t really want to know this. You want to be surprised by how terrible it all becomes. You want to hope for that happy ending no matter how impossible it seems. You don’t want to expect the Joss Crossroads. Because then it doesn’t work anymore.

And what’s the fun in that?

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7 responses to “the Joss Crossroads

  1. *Avengers 1 & 2 spoilers below*
    Oh, this is good insight! I think you’re right… it doesn’t happen in Ultron. I think that could be a reason why the movie, while I enjoyed it, did fall just a little flat for me. (In my review I just posted today I attribute it to a lack of emotional resonance in the death of a character as well as the stakes not seeming high enough/the villain not seeming threatening enough.)
    Though Loki defines the Joss Crossroads nicely, I think the Crossroads moment in that movie is actually Coulson’s death, or at least it was for me. I was waiting and dreading the death of someone in that movie and boom, there it was. But it’s also the moment the Avengers come together.
    (Now Joss is saying that’s why Coulson should have stayed dead instead of resurrecting him, but too bad, you already did it, buddy, so just accept it and acknowledge the canon of you own TV show for crying out loud. Ok, rant over, ha ha. :))

    • Annie

      *this is totally a spoilerific conversation 🙂 *
      I’m excited to read your review and see more details of your thoughts! But I agree, Ultron had good moments but overall less emotional resonance than the first Avengers. I particularly noticed it in the fight scenes. I didn’t feel anything in most of them where I was connected to them in the first movie.
      I was totally waiting to see who Joss would kill too! Since Fury announced it offscreen, I kept waiting the rest of the movie for the end credit tag to show that Coulson wasn’t really dead. And I hadn’t thought about it, but it’s true. It’s the tragic moment that brings them together.
      And, yeah Joss, don’t go back pedaling on Coulson. I didn’t know he said that but I totally had to go look for the interview now that you mentioned it. If he hadn’t been the one to bring him back from the show, that’d be one thing. But you killed him – you brought him back – you don’t get to then decide it shouldn’t have happened unless you say, “I wish I hadn’t done that.” If he phrased it in a way that acknowledged it was all his doing, then it’d be fair game. But I haven’t read the whole interview, just the extracted quotes so I probably shouldn’t comment without reading the whole thing 🙂

  2. I have such a lack of Joss Whedon in my life so far – I haven’t seen many of the things you talk about in the spoilers, so I’m not going to read it yet. But I hope to at least watch Buffy after I finish watching the Star Trek series. I think your theory sounds amazing though – it fits what I would think would be heartbreaking – just knowing that the characters are so close and then everything gets taken away. Quite brilliant of Joss! I suppose I will have to prepare myself for all the heartache when I watch Buffy! 🙂

    • Annie

      I think that would be awesome if you went through Buffy after Star Trek 🙂 Because it’s awesome and also because I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and to get to reminisce as I read your posts. There is plenty of heartbreak in Buffy, but also a lot of fun!

  3. Eva

    The only problem I have with Joss is that the most obvious things are missing.
    I love the Firefly series but it was glaringly obvious how there weren’t a lot of Chinese people on that show. The Alliance won: the Americans are everywhere, speaking a strange and incoherent mix of Mandarin and something Asian, but where are the Chinese civilizns & citizens? I noticed some Asian women but they were exotic-fied. Stereotypes. *sigh*
    They promoted Avengers 2 by hinting that a hero will die. I thought it was either Hulk, Hawkeye, or Captain America. The moment that hero dies (SPOILERS), I was like, “THAT”S IT?! THAT can’t be it!” Hawkeye leaves the aircraft to save that little kid. If that lil kid wasn’t just hiding in the stairwell and Hawkeye was saving another hero, yes, there would be more emotional reasonance. Kids are worth saving, but the gravity of that situation was a huge let down.
    Those family scenes with Hawkeye’s family dragged on too.
    My favorite part of the movie has to be the nightmares. It didn’t work on Hawkeye, but Black Widow’s hallucination was the worst. Everyone else saw things that COULD happen. She saw things that ALREADY happened and they continued to haunt her. That was the only scene that I connected with in Avengers 2. I’m still mad that Marvel hasn’t planned for a Black Widows movie.
    Let’s not even talk about how they brought back Shield. For a 2+hr long movie, THAT felt rushed. “hey guys! we’re back and we have some aircraft carriers with us.” I know Fury was there at Hawkeye’s house, but Fury’s character was interesting and really developed in Captain America 2. I’m not going to talk about Thor 2 or Iron Man 3. They have nothing to do with Joss but they certainly didn’t add ENOUGH to the Marvel universe or make me hyped up for Avengers 2. I’m just going to pretend that those movies were never produced and I didn’t spend $12 each on them.

    • Annie

      There was definitely a lack of Chinese citizens for being the other dominate culture in Firefly.
      I didn’t even hear about the rumors of a hero dying in Avengers 2 (I avoid spoilers at all costs) so that’s definitely interesting. I didn’t feel it was emotionally resonant either – though a) I liked the reaction to it and b) I liked that they had to turn him into a hero before he could do that. Overall, though, I’d have like more emotional depth in the whole movie and then I think that moment would have worked better. Personally, I liked the scenes with Hawkeye’s family. He’s already the most normal guy in the Avengers so to have a storyline that made him even *more* normal instead of less was interesting to me, even if there wasn’t a lot of action during that section. I wasn’t a fan of Shield reappearing either. It was pretty unsubstantiated and stood too far apart from the tv show to fit into their concept of the MCU well.
      It’ll be interesting to see what Joss does next as he moves into smaller projects that he has more control over.