The most frustrating thing about being a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which turns 20 this Friday, is that friends I respect still write it off, sight unseen, as some silly teen show—and when you try to explain, they look at you like you just shouted “I’m drowning in footwear!” at them, so hopefully this list will add to your ammunition. For example, I would bet that there have been more scholarly treatises and academic symposia involving Buffy than any other show in TV history. Its lack of recognition by the Emmys is also a schande.
At the risk of being accused of hyperbole by a whole bunch of people who have never seen it and thus haven’t the faintest idea what they’re talking about, in addition to being high quality entertainment (its lead cast members are all astonishingly good actors), the show is one of the most culturally relevant and profound socio-political statements in media since the invention of the cathode ray tube. I’d argue that during its 1997-2003 run, there wasn’t a single major issue of the time that it didn’t address. For one, it’s the most feminist show of all time (best “F-word” ever). It also routinely addressed rape culture, economic strife, militarization, cultural insensitivity, addiction, gender, sexual and family roles, death and loss and a slew of others—and, to top off its culture significance, it featured the first use on TV of “Google” as a verb (Season Seven’s “Help”).
A few notes before we start counting down to the best Buffy the Vampire episodes of all time:
• According to Alyson Hannigan, Sarah Michelle Gellar started to get tired of the show around Season Three. Assuming that’s true, ask yourself if you wouldn’t be tempted to start phoning it in after a year in a job you wanted out of. SMG didn’t. Not once.
• Do not, under any circumstances, watch this show on Netflix. I love the platform, but their version of BtVS is unwatchable. It’s in the wrong aspect ratio, poorly mastered into HD and “Once More With Feeling” is the edited, syndication version. Just don’t.
• Yes, I know I missed some great stuff and I am sorry. Please tell me how stupid I am on Reddit. Seriously. I will feel like a failure if I don’t get excoriated on a Buffy board because we’re family and getting shredded by your family is what it’s all about, right?
To that end, a note on my ranking method:
This is an incredible show, so the vast majority got a passing grade. The relationship between episodes is not constant and #67 is not the qualitative midpoint. Think of it as a class where 35 students got an A/A+, 80 or so got a B or C and the rest got a D or F.
Make sense? Then we shall begin, from the worst to the best episode of Buffy.
135. “Bad Eggs” (Episode 2.12)
I’m tempted to say that there’s literally nothing good about this episode. Well, OK: There’s literally nothing good about this episode. Yes, there’s some funny dialogue and I’m sure Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) takes off his glasses at least once, but really, it’s terrible. The vampires are lame. The monster of the week (MoTW) is derivative and nothing much happens. There’s some foreshadowing, but when is there not foreshadowing in this show?
134. “Beer Bad” (Episode 4.05)
This episode is simply terrible. It’s a super dopey 44-minute “say no to drugs” ad. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), still deeply wounded after being dumped by über douche Parker (guest star Adam Kaufman), buries herself in booze. We’ve all been there. But think about how much more powerful this could have been without the silly Neanderthal business. I get that sometimes a show needs a filler episode, but man, this one was phoned in.
133. “Teacher’s Pet” (Episode 1.04)
I know, in retrospect, it’s a little obvious to be harping on how bad Season One was, but seriously, four of the 12 episodes are legitimately terrible. Like, never-watch-again bad. That’s 33% of the total Season One output. While I do love when the show focuses on someone other than Buffy for the A-plot (sneak peek: I loved “The Zeppo”), this one falls flat. Sure, the “teenagers are awkward about sex” aspect is good for some fun. The idea that your teacher might be a giant mantis is pretty terrifying and yeah, every 16-year-old boy wanted a teacher as hot as Miss French (guest star Musetta Vander), but in general… meh. It’s also one of the early examples of hanging plot threads for which BtVS is somewhat famous: What happened to the hatching mantis eggs?
132. “Doublemeat Palace” (Episode 6.12)
I don’t entirely know why I hate this episode so much. It’s got a fair amount of arc significance. It has the first appearance of Halfrek (Kali Rocha), who I love, a Soylent Green reference and even some sweaty back alley Spuffy sex, but still—I hate it. Maybe I was bored with the MoTW always being a penis metaphor, or maybe I didn’t buy the idea that the Vampire Slayer was reduced to working fast food. But hey, at least the only person who could kill the penis monster was a lesbian! Chalk one up for the obvious (but still awesome) metaphor about the patriarchy.
131. “I Robot… You Jane” (Episode 1.08)
A run-of-the-mill MoTW submission, this episode really has nothing to offer, short of it being a Willow (Alyson Hannigan)-centric episode (always good) and introducing the oh-so-lovely (and oh-so-doomed) Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte). Unless a quaint look back at the Internet circa 1997 is your bag, of course. Considering how uneven the first two seasons were, we should all be super happy that Buffy wasn’t a “Big Three” network show. After “Teacher’s Pet,” “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date,” “The Pack” and this one (a run of duds saved only by “Angel”), it would have been cancelled before it began.
130. “The Pack” (Episode 1.06)
Two Xander (Nicholas Brendon)-themed episodes (the other being “Teacher’s Pet”) in the first 12 was an early indication of the trust Joss had in Brendon and how he wanted to spread the love. While Buffy was clearly the straw that stirred the drink, Xander, Willow, Cordy (Charisma Carpenter), Giles, Oz (Seth Green), Anya (Emma Caulfield) and Tara (Amber Benson) were the, um… gin, vermouth, ice, olives… uh… shaker, cocktail napkins… oh, you get the idea. While seeing the dark side of Xander was an important piece of character development (and showed what a gifted actor Brendon was), I’m pretty certain rape-y Xander wasn’t necessary. On the other hand, Buffy with a piglet!
129. “Killed By Death” (Episode 2.18)
This may be the most forgettable episode of the series. It’s always fun to see Giles and Cordelia bicker—and Angel and Xander, for that matter—but, really, the only things “Killed by Death” has going for it are its guest stars, including sci-fi legend Richard Herd (Supreme Commander John on V; Owen Paris on Star Trek: Voyager) and Willie Garson (Sex and the City, White Collar).
128. “Some Assembly Required” (Episode 2.02)
Another thoroughly blah MoTW episode: Buffy vs. Frankenstein’s Monster… sort of. “A” for effort—well done updates of classics can be great (see “Buffy vs. Dracula”)—but an “F” for final result. Although there’s some nice progression in the Giles and Jenny romance (as first dates go, this one was pretty cute, albeit interrupted) and Willow finally admits her feelings for Xander, overall, this one’s eminently forgettable. While there were fewer duds in Season Two than Season One (27% vs. 33%), this was one of them.
127. “Reptile Boy” (Episode 2.05)
While this episode has a few significant arc elements (Buffy and Angel eventually plan their first date; it’s the first in the recurring theme of “frat boys are bad”), overall it’s a little too one-note. While the “scumbags roofie the girls in order to sacrifice them to the evil phallus, a.k.a. Machida the snake demon” metaphor is solid, and I never tire of frat boys being the MoTW, the episode overall is lacking. Also, and I never thought I’d write these words, but thank goodness for the early days of CGI. Apparently, the snake demon was meant to be a recurring villain and the limitations of late ‘90s technology saved us from having to watch Machida ever again. But, of course, the “villain as penis” metaphor remained… as it should.
126. “Inca Mummy Girl” (Episode 2.04)
Another “Xander falls for the monster” episode. Normally, I’m all for the hijinks that ensue, but this is just not a very good example of that particular subgenre. By now, it’s pretty clear that Xander has a (mostly accidental) thing for bad “girls”—and it only gets worse (better?). As far as selfish, murderous, 500-year-old mummy girls go, Ampata (Ara Celi) isn’t all bad, but in general this was a sub-par outing. The biggest reason to watch this one is that underneath the goofy wisecracks and tendency to almost get eaten/brutally murdered by the demon he falls for, Xander is a romantic at heart. Something he proves with both Cordy and Anya… before and after he breaks their hearts, of course. Oh, Xander!
125. “Where the Wild Things Are” (Episode 4.18)
This one’s just dumb. I know that’s an imprecise word for something as complicated as a multiple-act piece of televised drama on a show as good as this one, but there you have it. Dumb. Basic premise: A frat house is haunted by a group of poltergeists who are being fueled by the sexual energy of Riley (Marc Blucas) and Buffy, forcing them to screw repeatedly until, when they are too tired to bone any more, they’ll die, thereby releasing the souls of the children… I guess? The only real redeeming aspect of this one is Head’s exceptional rendition of The Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” giving us our first glimpse of his singing talent.
124. “Never Kill a Boy on the First Date” (Episode 1.05)
Is this a better episode than “Inca Mummy Girl” or “The Pack”? Not appreciably. Is it appreciably worse than the next few? No, not really. It’s just sort of… there. It features a few funny scenes involving Christopher Wiehl as Owen, the aforementioned first date boy, and I always liked The Master (Mark Metcalf, a.k.a. Neidermeyer from Animal House) but good lord, was The Anointed One a letdown. Like Gachnar (“Fear, Itself”), without the funny.
123. “Empty Places” (Episode 7.19)
Occasionally, there’s an episode of one of your favorite shows that flat out pisses you off. This is one of those times. Appropriately enough, it only has a one-paragraph plot summary on Wikipedia because, well, not much happens. Except, that is, for everyone besides Spike (James Marsters) and Andrew (Tom Lenk), who are off on a mission (how amazing would that spin-off be?), turning on Buffy and kicking her out of the house. Not only should seven years of repeatedly saving their lives (not to mention the world) entitle Buffy to the benefit of the doubt, but their choice of a leader is… Faith (Eliza Dushku)? Absurd. Proof that even the shitty episodes have great moments? Spike and Andrew’s onion blossom chat and Clem bringing the Yiddish. So, are cats kosher?
122. “Flooded” (Episode 6.04)
How is an episode that sees Giles return to Sunnydale, establishes The Trio as the (pre-Dark Willow) Big Bad for Season Six, foreshadows Willow’s “issues” with magic and has “Mmm… Fashnik. Like mmm, cookies!” perhaps Dawn’s (Michelle Trachtenberg) best joke of the series (not saying much, I know) so damned boring? Well, nothing says “Slayer” like witty banter about full copper re-pipe and mortgage payments.
121. “Go Fish” (Episode 2.20)
I guess the big takeaway from this pretty ordinary MoTW is Xander in a speedo. That and before-they-were-famous guest stars Shane West (Once and Again, ER) and Wentworth Miller (Prison Break). Really, it’s not a terrible episode, but it’s something worse: completely forgettable. One and done.
120. “Shadow” (Episode 5.08)
Another episode where the whole doesn’t quite equal the sum of its parts. On the one hand, it sets off arguably the most emotional arc of the series, as it introduces us to Joyce’s (Kristine Sutherland) tumor. Not only that, it also highlights both Riley’s vampire kink and his lack of any real importance in Buffy’s life. He knows she loves him, but it’s pretty clear that she doesn’t love him. “Shadow” also moves the needle on Glory, thanks to Tara—who’s gaining in confidence and thus usefulness—and introduces us to Spike’s latest incarnation as a knickers thief. So why, with all that, do I still hate this episode? Oh, right: big, dumb snake monster. Again. What is it with the Buffy writers and snakes? Pretty much the entire second half of the episode is Buffy chasing a transmogrified snake. Yawn.
119. “Into the Woods” (Episode 5.10)
There are three pretty great things about this episode: Giles and Willow teasing Anya about her holiday chicken feet promotion idea (teasing Anya never gets old), the scene with Spike and Riley and the fact that Riley is gone after this episode (save for a return visit in “As You Were” in Season Six). That said, it’s also a perfect example of one the great things about BtVS: Its tendency to drop in incredibly important bits of dialogue, almost as an afterthought, often requiring multiple viewings for them to sink in. This time? “The girl needs some monster in her man… and that’s not in your nature.” Truer words.
118. “Forever” (Episode 5.17”)
Joss and co. generally avoided the post-epic-episode trap of having a distinctly subpar outing follow an exceptional one, but not this time. Spike’s concern for Joyce (“I liked the lady. Understand, monkey boy? She was decent. Didn’t put on airs. Always had a nice cuppa for me… And she never treated me like a freak.”) and Joel Grey’s first appearance as Doc are generally the only things about this one that save it from being a major letdown.
117. “Spiral” (Episode 5.20)
Whenever a show brings a “god” into the mix, it runs into the same problem DC Comics had with Superman: Stronger than anything, invulnerable to virtually anything, etc. For Superman it was, “How do you make compelling storylines and villains for a character that can only be hurt by Kryptonite?” With Glory it’s, “How long do you keep punching something you can’t hurt before the situation gets absurd (and boring)?” The answer, it seems, is a little more than eight episodes. Color me skeptical, but I was pretty sure running away in an old Winnebago wasn’t going to work.
116. “First Date” (Episode 7.14)
While I understand that it’s hard to maintain a high level of excitement over 22 episodes (I’m a fan of the 13-installment approach) and I get that occasionally one needs a little filler, but this “Let’s go out on dates during the apocalypse” story is exceedingly stupid. I don’t always agree with Giles’ hysteria, but this time it’s dead-on. Also, Season Seven ought to be sub-titled “This Way Lies Misdirection.” While the Scoobies are still getting over their fears that Giles was The First, the writers start dropping hints that perhaps Principal Wood (D.B. Woodside) is in league with the Big Bad. Well, not “hints” so much as “revealing his bloody knives and giant cabinet of weapons and such.” Turns out he’s not, of course, but he’s certainly not been totally honest. While we’re at it, a secret restaurant in Sunnydale? Hidden down a dark alley in a town infested with vampires and demons? All of that aside, I really never get tired of Xander dating demons:
Willow: It’s a system we set up a while back… This is either the one for “I just got lucky, don’t call me for a while” or “My date’s a demon who’s trying to kill me.”
Dawn: If we play the percentages…
Giles: Something’s eating Xander’s head.
115. “Beauty and the Beasts” (Episode 3.04)
I love it when Oz gets off the sidelines for more than comic relief and Seth Green does a great job portraying one of the most tragic characters in the Slayerverse, but man, this one has way too much jammed into it. If they’d simply shifted Angel’s return to the end of “Beauty and the Beasts” instead of “Faith, Hope & Trick,” this would be a perfectly serviceable (albeit a bit too on-the-nose) MoTW/Oz-centered episode about domestic violence. Cramming Angel into it was unnecessary and muddied the waters. I did dig Faith’s Manimal reference, though!
114. “Wrecked” (Episode 6.10)
Boy, did I misremember this one. It’s pretty terrible. While the metaphor of magic as drugs is pretty apt, subtlety, thy name is most definitely not “Wrecked.” While it does a lot to move Willow’s addiction along (she starts to hurt the ones she loves and magic begins to take a more serious physical toll), it does it with a sledgehammer. It’s frustrating, since the world of magic addiction is rife with possibilities and this one ends up as a borderline “after-school special” cautionary tale.
113. “The I in Team” (Episode 4.13)
While Seasons One and Two likely contain a higher percentage of truly bad episodes, nothing leaves me with an overall feeling of extreme ennui more than Season Four. It’s like the turkey burger of Buffy seasons: Rarely great, occasionally terrible, but generally… meh. It’s got by far the worst Big Bad in Adam (George Hertzberg) and, of course, the world champion of milquetoasts in Riley. Perhaps the greatest crime of this episode is revealing the estimable Lindsay Crouse as a villain and then killing her 10 minutes later.
112. “Out of My Mind” (Episode 5.04)
Oh, goody, it’s Riley again. Thankfully, this is one of the last of the turgid Riley/Initiative arc episodes and at least has plenty of Spike and his dingbat on again/off again love interest, Harmony, who is somehow convinced that she is Buffy’s arch nemesis. It’s also the first in a series of very chilling Joyce’s tumor moments, and Spike’s end-of-episode epiphany will serve to shape much of the rest of the series. Once again, this is one of those frustrating episodes that has loads of significance but isn’t much fun to watch.
111. “Listening to Fear” (Episode 5.09)
Continuing this little run of episodes that just don’t gel as a dramatic whole, I bring you one of the worst demons of the series. While not as bad as the “Doublemeat Palace” penis demon (or all the other penis demons, really) the Queller is pretty lame. A space demon that lives inside meteors and kills only crazy people? Uh, OK. And while I realize that applying the logic test to a show about the supernatural is an exercise in futility, Joyce wasn’t actually insane, so why would the Queller attack her? In other news, Joyce learns that Dawn isn’t (wasn’t always?) human, but loves her as a daughter all the same. No one ever accused BtVS of being light on the metaphor, did they?
110. “Him” (Episode 7.06)
Sigh. How many more times will we see shows using that tired old trope, the evil letterman jacket? “None,” you say? But why? Because it’s an idiotic idea, that’s why. That said, I’ll accept a really dumb premise in exchange for the funny this episode brings. Xander-Spike team-ups are always fun (almost as fun as Spike-Andrew) and I generally dig the wacky hijinks the gang get up to while under the love spell. Spike and Buffy with the rocket launcher alone is almost worth your time. It’s a halfway decent palate cleanser, I guess.
109. “Living Conditions” (Episode 4.02)
For some this might be an accurate portrayal of meeting your first college roommate (minus the soul-sucking demon, of course), and I know Kathy’s supposed to be irritating, but the gang thinking Buffy’s possessed? Has she not earned their trust by now? Also, am I the only one that thinks a little “Hey. Sorry, guys.” from the Taparrich after he sends his daughter through the portal would have been a nice touch? Two key bits of foreshadowing here, in the persons of Parker Abrams (Adam Kaufman) and Veruca (an uncredited Paige Moss).