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).
108. "As You Were" (Episode 6.15)
One of the poorer Season Six offerings, "As You Were" drags us kicking and screaming back to Riley-land—when, a scant year after leaving Sunnydale, he shows up, married, hunting a demon. This is yet another offering in which the implications for the season’s arc are more compelling than the main story of the episode, and if I sound like a broken record it’s because, while BtVS was a groundbreaking show with characters that will live forever in our collective memories, it had one glaring weakness: its individual episode stories. Far too many of them were mediocre, held together by great characters and dialogue and an overall arc/mythology that elevated the weak main plotlines.
107. "Real Me" (Episode 5.02)
I know, I know. Everyone hates Dawn. She whines too much. She’s useless, she’s Cousin Oliver with a second X-chromosome, etc., etc. Well, I didn’t hate Dawn—at least not all of the time. Part of the problem was that Dawn was originally conceived of (and written as) a 12-year-old, and once they hired the 14-year-old Trachtenberg it was jarring to see a teenager acting like such a little brat. This took some getting used to. Also, the ensemble was so large that Dawn’s "Zeppo" moment never materialized. It was planned for Season Seven, but once the First Evil storyline got big, Dawn’s life had to take a backseat. That said, by the last 15 or 20 episodes of the show, Dawn had become a young woman (the same age as Buffy was in Season One) and a valued member of the Scoobies. But not in this episode: Here, she’s just a brat.
106. "The Weight of the World" (Episode 5.21)
To paraphrase Willow from a later, much better episode, I think this one’s mostly filler. It would have worked much better as part of a two-hour finale with "The Gift," especially considering how often the concept of Buffy’s gift is thrown around. As it stands, this is another one of those "sit down and take a breath in the middle of a pending apocalypse" episodes, and honestly, they make me almost as angry as when I see characters walking instead of running in an emergency. Sure, there are a few emotional gut punches, and I’m always a fan of Joel Grey’s Doc, but do yourself a favor and watch it as part of a season-ending double feature.
105 "When She Was Bad" (Episode 2.01)
While I’m not a big fan of pouty Buffy, I guess I can chalk up her attitude to a lack of closure and a bit of PTSD, and this one certainly gives her the closure she needs. However, it also suffers from one of those weird problems that shows set in high school or college often deal with, i.e., what did Buffy do on her summer vacation? She died in "Prophecy Girl," and while I can’t pretend to know what "getting over dying" is like, I can’t imagine the best way is by going away to L.A. for two months to be with a father you never see and buy shoes. While I still have an issue with clinical death vs. true death (we’ll get to that in a later episode) my real problem with “When She Was Bad” is that the Slayer gets a two-month vacation. So, what, she leaves her friends in basically constant mortal peril to go shopping in L.A.? If this episode had been set, say, a week after "Prophecy Girl," I might like it a lot more than I do.
104. "Dead Man’s Party" (Episode 3.02)
By now it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m not a huge fan of the episodes where everyone is angry at/mean to Buffy. It’s not that I’m being protective (she doesn’t need it), nor is she my favorite character (I’m not sure I have one). It’s that every time the show does this, it comes off in one of two ways: petty and shortsighted or just plain mean. This one’s the latter. I get that they’re only teenagers, but the adults aren’t much better. The good thing is, there’s a lot of other stuff to like here. (Oz’s dissertation on "gathering" vs. "shindig" vs. "hootenanny," for example.) The topper, for me, is Giles threatening Snyder (Armin Shimerman), making sure the latter allows Buffy back into school. Ripper returns, if only for a moment.
103. "Same Time, Same Place" (Episode 7.03)
There’s something about flesh eating that makes me super queasy. Not regular queasy, but almost-throw-up-on-my-couch queasy. That alone makes Gnarl one of the scariest MoTW in the Slayerverse and Poseable Dawn ("Plees, stp tking abt vomt!") is what every little Buffy fan wanted for Christmas that year. It’s a slight dip after "Lessons" and "Beneath You," but all in all, a pretty solid episode.
102. "The Replacement" (Episode 5.03)
Have I mentioned that I like the Xander-centric episodes? I have a sneaking suspicion that there’s more than a little of Joss in Xander, and of course that’s my way of saying that there’s more than a little Xander in me. One of the many points of genius in BtVS is how indispensible every member of the team is: Sure, some are more important on a regular basis (Willow) than others (Dawn, Anya) but everyone does their part, even if it’s just keeping morale up. For much of the series, Xander has been the comic relief or, as he so eloquently puts it two episodes prior, the butt monkey, but Season Five marks the emergence of the new, improved and more mature Xander Harris: still funny, but clearly moving into adulthood. Much influenced by the Star Trek: TOS episode "The Enemy Within," "The Replacement" shows that it takes all sides of a personality to make a whole and that, Anya’s disturbing end-of-episode threesome suggestion aside, you shouldn’t always try to separate the wheat from the chaff.
101. "Ted" (Episode 2.11)
I think the only reason I’ve ranked "Ted" as high as I have is the affection I have for John Ritter. He was a truly gifted actor and one of the nicest celebrities I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend time with. It’s actually an interesting spin on the MoTW genre, and while it’s the first time we see a robot pretending to be a human, it’s certainly not the last. Probably the most important aspect of the episode is that it’s the first time Buffy has to deal with the repercussions of killing a human. It doesn’t matter that Ted turns out to be a robot because, for a while, the 16 year-old Buffy wonders if she’s taken a human life without the benefit of it being in self-defense. "Ted" is also one of the many episodes of the first two seasons in which Joyce should have gotten a big old clue that Buffy wasn’t like other girls, something that Buffy confronts her with in "Becoming." It’s also the rekindling of one of the shortest, saddest love stories on the show: Giles and Jenny. Sigh.
100. "All The Way" (Episode 6.06)
Another episode where the subplots are more engaging than the main plot—except, for the first time, the A plot doesn’t suck! I fear we’re getting into the area of Buffy where the bad episodes are done and now it’s just shades of good, gradually moving to great, followed by brilliant, which is going to make this so much harder. In many ways, this is a pivotal Season Six episode, as virtually every character’s arc is either directly impacted or thoroughly foreshadowed: Buffy’s reliance on Giles increases (much to his dismay), Xander’s feet start to get a little chilly regarding the wedding, Willow crosses the magical Rubicon with Tara (building to the events in "Tabula Rasa," eventually leading to Dark Willow), Xander dons an eye patch (sad face) and Dawn’s klepto phase kicks into overdrive. Plus, Dawnie has her first kiss! Too bad it’s with a vamp. Keep an eye out for Amber Tamblyn as Dawn’s oft-mentioned/once seen bad influence, Janice Penshaw.
99. "After Life" (Episode 6.03)
Picking up right where "Bargaining" leaves off, "After Life" gives us defensive Willow (I did not fuck up that spell!), suspicious Anya (She’s broken!), supportive Tara ("If you’re worried, you can be worried.") and a stunned and loving Spike ("147 days yesterday. 148 today."), but as Spike says (and many have before him), magic always has a consequence. (Yeah, Buffy brought back a little hitchhiker of a demon.) This is one of the scariest episodes of the series, so much so that it was edited for broadcast in the U.K. The look on Spike’s face when he sees Buffy for the first time is heartbreaking, and the end, where she admits to him that she was in heaven, sets the tone for their relationship throughout the rest of the season.
98. "Life Serial" (Episode 6.05)
Season Six starts pretty weakly. OK, very weakly. "Bargaining" doesn’t completely suck because, well, Yay! Buffy’s back! But "Flooded" and "Life Serial" pack a pretty rough 1-2 punch of "Waaahhhhhh, I have no money!" But where the former is insanely dull and depressing, this one has… KITTENS! Kittens and Clem. Kittens, Clem and "Come on, someone’s gotta stake me!" Kittens, Clem, "Come on, someone’s gotta stake me!" and "You’re insane. You’re short and you’re insane." It does melt down into drunk, depressing Buffy, but at least she’s "...going to marry Bob Dole and raise penguins in Guam," right?
97. "End of Days" (Episode 7.21)
I’m not sure why, but there’s always a bit of a let down before the big finale. “End of Days” is more or less a collection of good bits taped together (Andrew and Anya’s bonding, the discovery of the "scythe," the Guardian’s reaction to learning Buffy’s name) and one spectacularly bad one (you wait until NOW to tell us about the ancient society of Guardians and then kill the last one a minute later? Ugh.) Kind of like Frankenstein’s Buffy episode, but without the torches and angry villagers. But I digress. "End of Days" is ranked this highly mostly for yet another instance of Joss’s Anglophlia. As an admitted Jaffa Cakes addict myself, I always loved the idea that Andrew would find them in a California supermarket on the eve of the apocalypse, and Giles’ reaction is identical to what mine would have been. Also ? is not a scythe, it’s a battle-axe. I don’t know why they kept calling in a scythe. And I learned what a glottal stop was.
96. “Showtime” (Episode 7.11)
"Showtime" has some of the best moments of Season Seven, which was, admittedly, hit or miss. Granted, there was no Riley, but the "Spike is crazy" arc went on far too long, as did the "How are we going to hurt the First Evil?" discussions. I almost feel like the season would have been better with two Big Bads, like Season Six. I can’t be the only one who found himself (literally, on occasion) shouting "Get on with it!" at the TV. All of that said, this one kind of kicks ass. Sure, Beljoxa’s Eye is a bit of a deus ex machina, but it’s great to see Buffy, Willow and Xander working together to create an important teaching moment for the Potentials. The closing scene, with Buffy freeing Spike, is an emotional highpoint of the season.
95. "Hell’s Bells" (Episode 6.16)
If this episode doesn’t make you profoundly sad, you’re an asshole. Seriously, you have no heart. Xander’s been the most loyal, steadfast and true of the Scoobies, and despite her awkwardness and occasionally being a demon, Anya is one of the more compelling and, at the heart of it, funny and lovable characters on the show. After a thousand years as a vengeance demon, all she wants is to be a real girl. She’s like an adult, female, vengeance demon Pinocchio. In one 42-minute stretch, they both have their hearts shattered. It’s not like we didn’t see it coming, but it still sucks. Not only that, but the look on Buffy’s face when Spike asks if he made her jealous is gut-wrenching. We all know how tough Buffy is (get a load of her against Caleb or a Turok-Han), but sometimes we forget that she’s still a young (mostly) human woman, albeit one who can basically bench-press a truck. “Hell’s Bells” does get points for showing that D’Hoffryn, despite his witty one-liners, is an evil, opportunistic son of a bitch. Bottom line? I get it. Conflict and sadness make for good drama, and that’s important. I just felt that "Hell’s Bells" was a little too mean and the repercussions of this one are pretty brutal. Both Xander and Anya deserved better.
94. "Goodbye Iowa" (Episode 4.14)
I’ve spent enough time pillorying Riley, so now I’ll do the same with Adam who, let’s face it, was terrible. Sure, he was better than The Anointed One, but an angry Min Pin would be better than that pipsqueak. With hindsight, this one should probably be ranked lower, but when it aired, we didn’t yet know that Adam was one of the series’ worst villains. This was his first full episode, and if you’re going to introduce a Big Bad, I guess having him kill a little kid is the way to do it. When he drops the body in The Initiative? Pretty great. The really good part of this one is Tara and Willow’s failed spell and its connection to one of my favorite episodes of Season Five, "Family."
93. "Never Leave Me" (Episode 7.09)
In virtually all ways, Season Seven plays much better as one long story than as stand-alone episodes, and writing this guide has made me realize that I want to visit an alternate reality in which BtVS is a Netflix series. As much as anything, Season Seven is Spike’s Tale. Don’t get me wrong, it’s always Buffy’s story, but Spike’s re-ensoulment at the end of Season Six and his continuing attempts to prove himself worthy of Buffy finally start to pay off as she once again refuses to kill him, citing her belief that he is a good man. Figuring out that Spike is being controlled by the use of a post-hypnotic trigger à la The Manchurian Candidate is a key piece of information, but it pales in comparison to Buffy’s realization that they’re dealing with the First Evil. Alas, almost all the information on The First is destroyed (along with most of The Watchers) when the Watchers’ Council goes boom, leading the gang to start from square one. Say what you will, but Season Seven’s list of top-notch final scenes continues with this humdinger, our first look at a Turok-Han. As an aside, let us not forget that Joss and co. are very adept at working the funny in with the death and destruction, and Xander and Anya’s interrogation of Andrew is the stuff of legend.
92. "Sleeper" (Episode 7.08)
While "Sleeper" is a comedown from the near-triumph that is "Conversations with Dead People," the reality is that, from here on out, there really are no more truly bad episodes, and this one is pretty emotionally resonant. As I’ve mentioned, the "crazy Spike" arc was rather ponderous, and while it goes on a little longer, at least we now know why he’s gone ‘round the bend—and, more importantly, so does he. That makes it easier for him to deal with what’s coming: I’m sorry to say that, for poor Spike, the torture isn’t over. I know he’s done some terrible things (and does a few more in this episode), but if there’s any show that gets deep into the concept of redemption, it’s Buffy (and, of course, Angel), and if there’s anyone who suffers for his sins, it’s our William. Aimee Mann gets not one but two songs in “Sleeper,” and also earns the honor of being the only musical guest with a speaking line when she says, "Man, I hate playing vampire towns."
91. "Potential" (Episode 7.12)
I actually like a lot of this one. Dawn was underappreciated by both the audience and her friends and family. While part of that blame has to go to the writing staff for failing to adjust for Trachtenberg’s age—she certainly got the short end of the stake in the character development department—the whining would have still been annoying even if they had cast a 12-year-old. They just consistently failed to find anything useful for her to do. Finally, in Season Seven, Dawn comes into her own—don’t get me started on the Season Eight comics (What? They’re canon!)—and what happens? She gets rooked by a misdirection. That, however, was a smart move. Dawn as a Potential would have been far too obvious, but it still sucked for her. And once again, Xander is the heart and soul of the Scoobies, coming through with that end-of-episode speech. Just perfect.
90. “I Was Made to Love You” (Episode 5.15)
Leave it to Joss and episode scribe Jane Espenson to successfully use a sex robot to illustrate the frequent futility of looking for love. In his first appearance, Warren Mears (Adam Busch) heads pretty much straight to Creep Town and, well, you know he just gets worse. While it is sad that Warren couldn’t find a woman to love him and it’s especially sad that he felt so alone that he had to make a girlfriend, it’s also exceptionally creepy that he actually made her, and while he tries to explain it away with "She wasn’t just for sex"... yeah, no. While Warren is all kinds of ick, Shonda Farr as April the Not-Just-For-Sex Robot manages to infuse some real sadness into her artificial being, and the scene on the playground is quite touching. A robot with a soul, perhaps? Interestingly, the episode draws a pretty clear parallel between April and Spike, and while Buffy feels sorry for April, she feels nothing (at least consciously) for Spike but disdain. While it’s the weakest of the lot, this one is part of a pretty strong string of Season Five episodes. The last shot is legendary.
89. "Bring on the Night" (Episode 7.10)
One of a string of Season Seven episodes that are far stronger when viewed en masse than they are on their own, "Bring on the Night" is most notable for Giles’ return with the first three Potentials and Buffy’s attempt at a Henry V-style St. Crispin’s Day speech. It’s not quite as rousing and it’s significantly shorter, but it’s exactly what the Scoobies needed. This episode also serves as perhaps Buffy’s worst beating of the series. It’s brutal and so very hard to watch, but combined with her speech, it can’t help but rally the troops. Spike also continues to be a thorn in the side of The First, as it continues to underestimate him and his love for/faith in Buffy. It’s clear that Dru (Juliet Landau) no longer has any hold over him. His redemption stock ticks up every episode he resists The First. A few extra thoughts: How many times did Xander repair the Summers’ front window? How do you torture something that doesn’t breathe (Spike) by dunking its head under water? For that matter, how do vampires smoke? Oh, and will Kennedy (Iyari Limon) please shut up?
88. "Smashed" (Episode 6.09)
While I love the Trio for comic relief (Warren’s the only truly evil one of the three) and they have some fun episodes this season, “Smashed” is really all about addiction. Spike learns that his chip doesn’t zap him when he gets rough with Buffy and thus begins the S&M arc, as Spuffy literally fuck the house down. Meanwhile, at the Bronze, it’s clear that Willow has a problem and is rapidly descending into a full-blown magic addiction. Amy’s not exactly a stable influence (three years as a rat will do a number on your mental health) and grief does funny things to a person. Some people crawl into a bottle, Willow takes up residence in a grimoire. As far as Spuffy goes, Buffy lecturing Spike on how much he likes the rough stuff ventures deep into Hamlet territory (methinks the lady doth protest too much). After all that, what bit do I most often quote from this one?
Buffy: "Hi. How’ve you been?"
Amy: "Rat. You?"
87. "Bargaining" Parts 1 & 2 (Episodes 6.01 & 6.02)
While many of the events of "Bargaining" are important and I want to like it more, this really should have been a better episode. So while I’ve ranked it higher than some of the mid-Season Six or Seven episodes, I’m disappointed with it overall, since I expected better from the "Holy crap! Buffy’s alive!" offering. Sort of like when a really smart kid gets a B and the class jerk off pulls a C and you feel better about the kid with the C? That’s me and "Bargaining." That said, there are some important character moments here, especially for Willow and Tara, as the gulf between their respective views on magic begins to widen. It was also nice to see Dawn figure out that Buffy might be alive and where she was likely to be. The scene between the two of them at the top of Glory’s tower is almost worth sitting through that insanely stupid demon biker gang.
86. "Get It Done" (Episode 7.15)
This one packs a wallop, and as Slayer lore goes, it’s pretty loaded, complete with the origin story of the Slayer line (which, of course, involved a group of men abusing a scared girl and forcing the essence of a demon upon her). It also marks the beginning of the painful mutiny of the Scooby Gang that culminates in "Empty Places," although here it seems almost justified, as Buffy, one by one, insults almost everyone. All the goodwill and energy gained at the end of "Bring on the Night" is seemingly torn away by Buffy’s lecture, while the vision she received from the Shadow Men strips her of much of the confidence that she’d been building. The last shot is one of the more arresting ones of the series.
85. "The Yoko Factor" (Episode 4.20)
Damned almost as often as it is praised, for me "The Yoko Factor" lies somewhere in between. It’s a clever title, and Spike and Adam’s divide-and-conquer strategy is basic, but ingenious. I just wasn’t a fan of ending an episode the way this one does. I’m all for the cliffhangers, but come on, we knew the gang was going to make up. Buffy breaking up the fight between Riley and Angel was funny, but I also felt like Angel’s return to Sunnydale was a little unnecessary—a crossover for crossover’s sake. They could have used that time to move past the Yoko aspect of the story and complete that mini-arc. This is also the first appearance of Miss Kitty Fantastico, who may have come to an untimely crossbow-related end, as mentioned in "End of Days.”
84. "The Puppet Show" (Episode 1.09)
Wow. Our first Season One episode since No. 124. Gives you an idea of how uneven the first season was, doesn’t it? This one marks the first appearance of one of my all-time favorite villains, Principal Snyder. What a marvelous little turd that guy was. A standard MoTW episode for much of its duration, "The Puppet Show" is actually a nice bit of misdirection, and Snyder’s appointment of Giles to oversee the talent show and his insistence that Cordelia, Willow, Xander and Buffy participate certainly helped them solve the mystery and slay the demon. Of course, the show itself was as glorious a disaster as one might have hoped and the Oedipus coda is sheer brilliance. Am I the only one who thought Sid the Dummy was a dry run for Angel the puppet?
83. "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" (Episode 1.11)
A superior episode and a "feast" in the Season One "feast or famine" cycle, it features the exceptional Clea DuVall as Marcie Bloom, one of those gray area baddies that Joss develops so well. Sure, there are some Big Bads that are pure evil, but the far more interesting ones are those with two sides to their coin. Sure, Marcie’s flipped her wig and is looking for some over-the-top pay back, but the metaphor here is pretty apt, albeit less-than-subtle. Alas, this one leaves us with a bit of a Raiders of the Lost Ark ending, as we’re left to wonder what became of Marcie and her classroom of invisible assassins-in-training. This one also has one of my favorite early dumb-but-funny Xander lines ("Maybe it’s a vampire bat"), and huge kudos for Cordelia’s mention of the “Twinkie Defense,” although I highly doubt Cordy would have the slightest idea what that was.
82. "The Killer in Me" (Season 7.13)
A pale shadow of "Seeing Red," "The Killer in Me" feels like it’s trying to replace Tara with Kennedy. I know that wasn’t the intent, but that’s how it felt. Bringing back Amy, a great, underused character, was a nice touch. Honestly, she was a pretty terrible human being, but being a rat for three years will do that to a person. I do also love the "Is Giles The First" misdirect. However, there’s a rare but massive plot hole here. In light of the events Giles explained in "First Date," the idea that Robeson would call Buffy makes no sense. If Giles killed the Bringer, and decapitated him, why didn’t he then get Robson to a hospital and let him know he was OK? He just left him there? And finally, thank the Goddess Hecate that they finally got that damned chip out of Spike’s head. As plot devices go, it had run its course long ago.
81. "The Initiative" (Episode 5.07)
An underground demon research facility run as a black-ops site by the U.S. government was rife with possibility, but alas, it went and got dumb (Riley) and then went and got dumber (Adam). At the beginning, though, it was all possibility. Possibility and Riley punching Parker Abrams, which is good. "The Initiative" also has some of the best comedy scenes in a season not filled with them—Xander and Harmony’s slap fight and, most of all, the Impotence Scene. Sure, it’s an obvious metaphor for Spike’s chip, but it’s hilarious all the same, and writer Doug Petrie pulls out all the stops. It’s too long to reproduce here (and there are literally no clips of the episode online) but the crowning glory is Willow’s last line in the scene: "You’re being too hard on yourself. Why don’t we wait a half an hour and try again?"
80. "Touched" (Episode 7.20)
This is one of the better but still middling Season Seven offerings, as it ties a lot of threads together. While on the surface it might seem to be notable mostly for the rampant sex that occurs, it’s actually the sex that doesn’t happen that’s more interesting. While the principal puts the Wood to Faith (see what I did there?), Xander and Anya make sweet sweet kitchen-floor love, and Willow and Kennedy are in the groundbreaking first-ever lesbian sex scene on network TV, Buffy and Spike… cuddle? It’s a perfect note. It’s sweet and sad and after the palace coup of "Empty Places," Buffy’s an emotional wreck. Spike’s speech and a little TLC is exactly what she needs to get back in the game and make Caleb look like a tool. Faith’s tactical disaster underscores the team’s need for Buffy and Andrew is once again a scene-stealer. "Oh, the bananas!"
79. "Beneath You" (Episode 7.02)
This one’s huge in BtVS lore for the last scene alone, five minutes of Spike weaving back and forth between crazy and poetic (and occasionally poetically crazy) before ending on one of the most jaw-dropping visuals of the series: Spike draped over a large stone cross, slowly burning. Anyone who thought the trials at the end of Season Six were all Spike needed was sorely mistaken. Buffy learns what Spike did on his summer vacation and this sets Spike on his path to redemption, which will be a season-long, occasionally very painful, process—one that mostly pays off. While the Sluggoth demon did devour (a Yorkie) from beneath, it was a red herring for the real meaning of "From beneath you, it devours." The title instead refers to Anya’s attempt at getting back in the game after Halfrek mentioned in "Lessons" that the other vengeance demons were referring to Anya as “Miss Softserve" due to her recent penchant for mild curses. ("Waitress downtown wished her husband was a frog? You made him French.") Three episodes later ("Selfless"), Anya makes the Sluggoth look like a baby sea otter.
78. "Faith, Hope & Trick" (Episode 3.03)
"Faith, Hope & Trick" is a pivotal episode with a title that, in the grand scheme of things, in pretty irrelevant. While Faith is one of Joss Whedon’s all time best creations, Scott Hope (Fab Filippo) and Mr. Trick (K. Todd Freeman) are pretty much afterthoughts, although the latter’s death in "Consequences" is one of the funnier stakings in the show ("Oh, no. No, this is no good at all."). And Faith, how do I love thee? The Buffy-Faith-Mayor Wilkins (the always exceptional Harry Groener) relationship was one of the most compelling in the series, and while that’s a short arc, it’s one that changes them all forever. Buffy’s "relationship" with Scott was doomed from the start (obvious to Scoobies and audience alike): Sure, he’s nice enough, but he’s so bland he makes Riley seem rough and tumble. That said, he had the strength of character to break up with her when he realized she just wasn’t into him. Introducing a prominent black villain only underscored the general lack of color in Sunnydale, as Mr. Trick was one of only four fully realized characters of color in BtVS. It remains one of the series’ very few glaring weaknesses.
77. "Revelations" (Episode 3.07)
This one’s all about the secrets. Buffy’s secret about Angel, Gwendolyn Post’s (Serena Scott Thomas) secret about being evil and Willow and Xander’s massive secret about, well, Willow and Xander. Some of my favorite moments between Buffy and Angel are in this and the previous episode, "Band Candy," when they’re practicing tai chi. There’s something so intimate about it, and since we know they can never get truly physically intimate again, scenes like these have to suffice. As for the rest of the gang, despite her overall unpleasantness in Season One and parts of Season Two, no one deserves to get blindsided like Cordelia does in the next episode, "Lovers Walk," and this one continues the set up. Meanwhile, Faith begins her steady push back from the Scoobies, setting the stage for her alliance with Mayor Wilkins. While more Wilkins is great for fans, it’s not so good for poor Faith.
76. "Lessons" (Episode 7.01)
Season premieres always make me giddy. (I’m the TV nerd that kept TV Guide’s New Shows and Returning Shows issues all year.) This one was no different, it being the first of the last and all. While not the deepest episode—Dawn’s first day of high school, yawn—much like "Beneath You," this one’s all about the final scene, in which we get to see The First torture Spike by cycling through all the Big Bads from seasons past. It’s a pretty powerful scene, and one that, as we all know, augurs no good. Plus, it had Giles on horseback in a long duster like some sort of a nerdy Aragorn.
75. "Choices" (Episode 3.19)
In a bit of an homage to heist films, the Scoobies tire of waiting to see what happens and decide to take the fight to the mayor, while one of my favorite props, The Box of Gavrok, arrives in Sunnydale. As with any decent heist film, things go wrong and Willow gets nabbed, but her (short-lived) escape is one of the coolest early uses of her magic. (I always knew No. 2 pencils were good for more than filing in ovals.) Of course, Willow can’t just grab the Books of Ascension and run with them, she has to sit down and read—thus getting re-nabbed. Not for nothing, however, as that gives her the chance to very deftly lift a few key pages from the books. Score one for the witch! I can’t say enough about how fantastic Harry Groener is as Mayor Wilkins. Here he has one of his best speeches of the show, laying down the truth on Buffy and Angel as to the futility of their relationship, which leads to some of the events in "Graduation Day." Speaking of happenings that come to a head in (or after) said Season Three finale, Cordelia’s arc makes a major move forward, as it turns out that she’s working in a fancy dress shop (rather than shopping at one), setting up her revealing news in "The Prom" that her family lost all their money and she can’t afford to go to any college, much less the (random) four she rattles off to Xander. (Colorado State? Really?) Thank God for spinoffs.
74. "Lies My Parents Told Me" (Episode 7.17)
Finally, finally we get rid of crazy Spike. It’s been a long time coming, but here we come to the denouement of this particular (seemingly interminable) arc. I’m happy to see it end so the gang can really get to the job at hand. Spike was a fan favorite, and while his behavior veered from the truly gallant to the truly abhorrent, you could always count on him to never be boring. While "Fool For Love" (the other main look back at Spike’s pre-Sunnydale life) is a superior episode overall, and contained more detailed flashbacks, "Lies" gets to the crux of the matter: If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother. This goes double for our favorite peroxided vamp. Part of what makes Spike so different from the regular, "everyday" vampire is his capacity to feel love and appreciate art. Unfortunately, mum wasn’t nearly as evolved, so it was a stake to the heart for her, something that’s been gnawing (get it?) at him for over a century. Who knew vamps were so Freudian? While I like this episode quite a bit and its structure is unusual (unlike most other episodes, this one has no secondary or tertiary plots) the second half of the final season seems a little late to be adding the pretty significant storyline of Principal Wood, his Slayer mother and Spike.
73. "Gone" (Episode 6.11)
Sandwiched in-between the duds of "Wrecked" and "Doublemeat Palace," “Gone" is one of the series’ funnier offerings, while still managing to work in some important season and character arc points. As mentioned above, Spike isn’t your ordinary vampire, and by this point it’s pretty obvious that, while he’s in love with Buffy, she’s not quite there—she’s (mainly) using him for sex and, in this case, to ignore her real life. I get it. Life can suck and Buffy’s having money issues, back-from-the-dead issues, social worker/custody issues and Slayer-sleeping-with-a-vampire-but-none-of-her-friends-know issues. In short, she’s got a lot of shit on her plate. Problem is, she’s not dealing with any of it, so when The Trio zap her with an invisibility ray, she sees an excuse to continue to blow off life (and have hysterical sex with Spike). Granted, she does, rather unethically, deal with the social worker issue and gets a spiffy new ‘do, but she’s still got a lot of work to do. As far as The Trio goes, right now they’re still bumbling idiots, but they can do some damage. The chat between Buffy and Willow at the end might be the most adult, real life exchange between the two to date.
72. "The Freshman" (Episode 4.01)
Upon further reflection, this is actually a pretty solid episode. I think in my mind I had it conflated with "Living Conditions," which is as thoroughly average as this outing is enjoyable. As always, each member of the Scooby gang does a great job of embodying his or her own "next chapter," with Buffy (as usual) getting the worst of it. While not by any means stupid, she doesn’t have the rabid intellectual curiosity of Willow and is having a hard time adjusting to college life. So it must have come as a real relief when she found out there was a nest of vampires at the school, one run by Sunday (Katharine Towne), arguably the best single-episode vamp in the show. Imagine if The Initiative was only a half-season Big Bad while Sunday and her crew were more present? I mean, who wouldn’t want to hear more of insights into freshman dorm décor ("Big score for Klimt! Monet still in the lead, but look out for team Klimt, comin’ from behind!") from SpicoliVamp?
We also meet Giles’ "orgasm friend" (God, I love Anya’s malapropisms), Olivia (Phina Oruche). Later seen (and severely terrified) in "Hush," here she’s introduced via David Bowie’s "Memory of a Free Festival." I have always imagined that the 15-year-old Rupert Giles attended the Beckenham Arts Lab in 1969, to which this song is an homage.
71. "Doomed" (Episode 4.11)
Picking up shortly after the events of "Hush," "Doomed" is a pretty solid episode, with a major character point for Spike: He learns he can hit demons. (Whee!) That one little tweak changes everything. While fluffy bunny Spike was funny (see: "The Initiative"), it was getting old pretty quickly, and the ability to kick demon ass definitely starts him on the long and rocky path towards redemption. He’s also still not so bright. Spike displays a little of his early series less-than-genius-level IQ when he throws the Vahrall demon into the Hellmouth, bringing them one step closer to Armageddon. But, hey, baby steps. Besides, he was excited! His end-of-episode call to action (and Xander and Willow’s reactions) is hilarious. Physics quibble, here: I hate it when the laws of physics are ignored without some sort of supernatural excuse. So when Buffy jumps into the Hellmouth and catches up to the Vahrall demon, it makes me insane. Shout-at-the-TV insane.
70. "Amends" (Episode 3.10)
It’s Christmas time in Sunnydale and you know what that means, right? Tortured souls and a preview of Season Seven, as we meet The First. Talk about playing the long game, Joss! Holiday episodes rarely live up to the billing (unless they’re Doctor Who, of course) but this one’s pretty solid, even with the ridiculous first-in-a-lifetime Southern California snowstorm ending. Angel’s been bad before (twice) and we’re always ready for it to happen again, so the horror is real. Willy the Snitch (Saverio Guerra) is one of my all-time favorite characters (Cheers with demons, anyone?), and the exchange between Xander and Willy presages Season Seven pretty hard:
Willy: Well… I heard a few things, you know, from the underground.
Xander: The underground?
Willy: Yeah, you know. From things that live under the ground. Apparently there’s been a lot of migration out of Sunnydale from the lower inhabitants. Something’s scaring them off, and these are things that aren’t easily scared.
Once again, Joss proves his mastery of mixing the funny and the deeper emotions with Willow’s Barry White seduction setup. And man, is Oz a good guy or what? All in all, this is an important entry in the canon.
69. "Normal Again" (Episode 6.17)
I feel like almost every series that runs long enough has a "What’s reality?" episode, and while the good ones are really good (Newhart, St. Elsewhere) the others can be mediocre (Dallas). “Far Beyond the Stars,” from Season Six of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, is pretty close to "Normal Again" in terms of plot and quality, but "Normal Again" ends on a significantly more iffy note, with Buffy in a catatonic state and the audience left waiting six weeks to learn the answer to the central question: Is BtVS real or imagined? The thing is, we never did learn the truth. Not really. A year after it aired, Joss gave an interview to the New York Times in which he said, "If [the audience] decide[s] that the entire thing is all playing out in some crazy person’s head, well the joke of the thing to us was it is, and that crazy person is me." Which seems to answer the question, but later in the same piece he says, "[U]ltimately the entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles, if that’s what the viewer wants. Personally, I think it really happened." Really, this one’s just a total mind fuck and it disturbs me deeply, every time I re-watch it.
Fuck you, Buffy is not a delusion! You’re a delusion!
68. "Dead Things" (Episode 6.13)
But for the balcony scene, this would be ranked significantly higher. It’s a deeply dark episode (like, "Entropy" dark) with some serious significance, but all of that is overshadowed by the 50 Shades of Grey moment. It’s also one of those rare cases in which Joss and co. are untrue to their heroine and to Spike, if you think about it. While I loved the envelope pushing on this show, sexually and otherwise, this one bugs me. If I’m honest, it bothers me far more now than it did then, but I like to think I’m wiser than I was. Yes, Buffy was struggling to connect with any emotion other than pure Id. She was also still worried that she’d come back "wrong." And yeah, she and Spike had indulged in what some might call light (for supernatural beings) S&M play. Then again, he’s a vampire, she’s a Slayer, so what did you expect? This is different, though. While I appreciate that Buffy is still figuring out what happened to her and who she is, resurrected, I emphatically do not accept her in the role of bottom/submissive/what have you. Not that one can’t play multiple roles. It’s just that this is out of character.
I also recognize that Spike is still a vampire sans soul, and while he may be in love with Buffy, he’s still, at his core, evil. However, Spike has proven over and over again that he’s capable of overcoming that particular limitation. After all, as Dru says in "Crush," "[Vampires] can love quite well. If not wisely." And if there’s any emotion that has power in the Whedonverse, it’s love.
Of course, this is also the episode in which The Trio cross the line from complete tools to murderous fiends—although, to be completely fair, Warren is the only one of the three I’d punch in the mouth/incarcerate for life. I actually feel sorry for Jonathan and Andrew (flying monkeys notwithstanding) far more often than I hate them. Warren’s a murderer and sexual predator. While no one deserves what Willow does to him in Season Seven, he comes damned close.
67. "Anne" (Episode 3.01)
And here’s Joss, breaking from tradition once again. While season premieres are often splashier affairs, all style and no substance, Joss tends not to do that. The sub-par "When She Was Bad" aside, Buffy’s season bows tend to have more emotional oomph than razzle-dazzle, and this one’s actually pretty gutting. Sure, Buffy’s a superhero, but she’s also a teenager, and the last words she heard from her mother were "You walk out of this house, don’t even think about coming back." Well, if you think being a teenager and breaking up with your first love is tough, imagine having to kill him in order to save the world. As a result, Buffy skips town and finds herself alone in Los Angeles, trying to escape who she is and what she’s done, but of course she can’t. As a wise man once said, "Remember, no matter where you go, there you are." "Anne" is a deeply melancholy episode, but it’s quietly important for Buffy’s growth and is actually a subtly pivotal episode. Lily (Julia Lee) adopts a new name (Anne, natch) and plays a significant role in the spinoff, Angel.
66. "Entropy" (Episode 6.18)
To put it plainly, "Entropy" is goddamned depressing, even more so given that we all know what happens in the next episode. As Tara says, "Things fall apart," and man, she’s not kidding. For one thing, until I started on this list, I had actually forgotten how many truly sad moments there are for Anya in this series. As with all good drama—and by this point pretty much everyone knows that BtVS is great drama—no one escapes unscathed. I suppose when you’re fighting the forces of evil on a daily basis, that’s to be expected, but still. Seriously, almost everyone except Dawn gets shit on in this one and even she has to confront her kleptomaniacal past. Willow and Tara actually have a great episode, but we all know where that one is going, don’t we?
Of course, as with most Buffy episodes, this one has its light(er) moments, and here Dawn gets in most of the good lines. Her enthusiasm about syrup having different varieties is adorable, and the idea of her jamming goldfish into her a pocket is amusing. I also like that Dawn’s rather odd origin has become fodder for jokes:
Dawn: Why don’t I come patrolling with you tonight?
Buffy: Oh! And then? Maybe we can invite over some strangers and ask them to feed you candy.
Dawn: Well, you guys went out patrolling every night when you were my age.
Buffy: True but technically, you’re one-and-a-half.
65. "Triangle" (Episode 5.11)
This one really brings the funny. I mean, except when Xander gets his wrist broken by Olaf the troll. Otherwise, it’s HIGH-larious. Buffy considers becoming a nun. Anya has finesse coming out of her bottom. Spike flips out and beats his mannequin with a box of chocolates and Buffy beats the crap out of a troll because he insults Anya and Xander’s love. Needless to say, he’s dead right on that account, and there are a few other bits of that famous Whedon foreshadowing, especially with regard to Willow turning evil and Anya reverting to being a vengeance demon. "Triangle" may also be the first use of the phrase "insane troll logic" (though I can’t seem to source that) and might have the weirdest last line of any episode: Joyce reacts to Dawn being the Key with "I’ll get some more milk."
64. "The Harsh Light of Day" (Episode 4.03)
Kicking off one of my favorite crossover parings (with the exceptional Angel episode "In the Dark"), "The Harsh Light of Day" brings all sorts of people back to Sunnydale. Spike returns (Yippee!!) with Harmony, perhaps the dumbest but possibly second most-entertaining vampire on Earth. I mean, "I’m writing ‘Spike loves Harmony’ on your back"? DYING. Also returning is Anya, she of the constantly changing hairstyle (a running gag on the show). The fantastic visual reference to The Graduate (see above) is one of those little "blink and you’ll miss it" moments that help make Buffy so brilliant.
It also introduces us to the part of college life that was hinted at in a throwaway line from "The Freshman" ("Party at Alpha Delt. Free Jell-O shots for freshmen women.") and brings us back to "frat boys are bad." Except in this episode, pretty much all the boys are bad, as Xander breaks Anya’s heart (for the first time), Spike tries to stake Harmony, and Parker—well, the less said about that dickwad, the better. Thankfully, the Parker Abrams era is short-lived. Buffy’s "romance" with him is awkward and unpleasant. But much as in "Anne," from time to time the audience needs a little reminding that The Slayer is also a human college freshman and is going to make her share of mistakes. Speaking of Spike and Harmony, I always wondered why, if he was willing to stake her in this episode, why didn’t he do it in any of the others? As with quite a few of Whedon’s titles, "The Harsh Light of Day" has a double meaning, referring to both the gem of Amarra and Anya, Harmony and Buffy’s (metaphorical) feeling of abandonment.
63. "Crush" (Episode 5.14)
The title’s a bit of a misnomer. While Dawn does have a crush on Spike—it’s kinda cute, actually, but poor Xander—this one’s mainly about love and obsession. Here begins, in earnest, the insane and rocky road that is Spuffy, and here ends, once and for all, Sprusilla and The Whirlwind. Dru’s still batshit crazy, of course, but that look she gives Spike when Harmony calls him her "sweet Boo Boo" is priceless. Alas, for Dru, try as Spike might, he just isn’t her William the Bloody anymore. He’s also not yet the man he will become. He’ll fail more than once along the way, but he’s trying. The look on his face when he realizes that Buffy’s revoked his invitation speaks volumes.
62. "Tough Love" (Episode 5.19)
The last seven episodes of Season Five are about as uneven a stretch as there is in the series. From the highs of "The Body" and "The Gift" to the depths of "Spiral" and "Forever," it’s really a ride. "Tough Love" lands pretty much in the middle. Given the events of "Intervention," Spike’s back in Buffy’s good graces and will generally stay that way until next season’s "Seeing Red." This is also the first time Tara and Willow fight about the latter’s use of magic and, not coincidentally, the first time we see Dark Willow. When Glory fries Tara’s brain, Willow goes after her, not to protect Dawn or the world, but for revenge. And as we all know, there are serious consequences for that sort of thing.
61. "New Moon Rising" (Episode 4.19)
This is the farewell to Oz that we deserved. While the show obviously recovered and Willow’s sexuality was one of the better character development arcs of the last four seasons, Oz added a great dynamic to the team and always brought the funny. That said, it would have been awkward and disruptive, not to mention reactionary, for Oz and Willow to get back together. This one’s loaded with jealousy and a soupçon of bigotry, showing a more unpleasant side to some of our heroes. Of course, it’s no surprise that Riley turns up his nose at Willow dating a werewolf. In addition to being boring as hell, Riley’s also a terrible species-ist. The one-episode Oz/Willow/Tara triangle, while rough on Oz, cements the two women’s relationship and allows Willow to finally put her first love behind her. It’s a bittersweet but necessary point in her life, and the last scene is just lovely.
60. "Older and Far Away" (Episode 6.14)
Buffy’s birthday episodes are all pretty great. And while poor Richard (Ryan Browning) gets a demon sword to the chest, as birthday happenings go, this one’s relatively lighthearted. Well, sort of. Sure, it’s got dancing and the comedy stylings of Clem. But it’s also a pretty heavy episode for Dawn, as her kleptomania is revealed to the gang. That’s something’s that’s been building for a while and was used as a red herring in "Once More With Feeling." It’s also got a great little "Easter egg" moment as Halfrek recognizes Spike, calling him William—hearkening back to her time as Cecily, the woman who broke Spike’s heart in 1880. I have a soft spot for Hallie, and here she serves as the advocate for Dawn and her pain, shaming the hell out of Buffy and the rest. Ah, good times!
59. "Storyteller" (Episode 7.16)
While it may seem awkward to have such a bizarre and (mostly) comic episode so close to the apocalypse, it’s actually yet another example of Joss using different methods to advance the story and explore characters. We all know that Andrew’s a bit of an idiot and has some issues with embellishment, but in his heart, he’s actually a decent, albeit weak, person. Using him as the main point of entry into the story allows us to see the gang from a new perspective and, in turn, transforms Andrew from eighth-banana comic relief into a fully fleshed out human being, someone of value. This episode does call attention to a major issue with the season as a whole, however, with the seemingly rushed randomness of the Seal of Danzalthar and why it’s active at some times and not at others. It’s a bit of a deus ex machina, really. It’s a relatively minor quibble, I guess, but it’s part of the hasty feeling this season has at times.
58. "Dirty Girls" (Episode 7.18)
It’s an indication as to how good Nathan Fillion is as Caleb that I was actually surprised to realize he didn’t show up until the last five episodes of Season Seven. Really, no character has a more shocking intro. He’s an absolute psychopath with a deep and unrelenting hated of women, and in a mere four episodes he gets us so worked up that his eventual demise is one of the most cathartic moments of the series. Faith’s return is welcome to us, but not so much to Giles and Dawn. However, Spike is visibly relieved that he’s no longer the only one around who stirs up decidedly mixed feelings in, well, everyone. The dialog between Faith and Spike in the basement is just one long double entendre (with a few singles thrown in), and I won’t lie—it’s hot. As for the fighting evil bits, while the failed raid at the winery understandably upsets everyone and you can make an after-the-fact argument that it was ill advised, I still say the events of the next episode ("Empty Places") weren’t justified. On a lighter note, for a (formerly) evil genius, Andrew’s an idiot.
57. "The Dark Age" (Episode 2.08)
Our old "friend" Ethan Rayne (Robin Sachs) returns to Sunnydale, this time bringing with him dark memories of Giles’ past and having a profound effect on the nascent romance between Giles and Jenny. In our first inkling of Giles’ past, Rayne consistently calls him "Ripper" and intimates that perhaps Giles wasn’t always the bookish librarian type. Of course, Ripper comes out to play in "Band Candy," and I still have hope that Fox, the BBC and Joss can work it out, as Fox owns the rights to the character of Rupert Giles. The Scoobies’ view of Giles as a stuffy old man is contrary to the fact that he’s much tougher than he lets on. That will continue pretty much through to the end of the series, even after he proves himself to be a more-than-capable badass on several occasions, including "Two to Go" and "Grave." Since all of the other parents or teachers are either absent, evil or less-than-nurturing, Joyce notwithstanding, Giles’ continued presence as the father figure for the group is of paramount importance and his patience at the (mostly) good natured jibes is saintly.
56. "Nightmares" (Episode 1.10)
This, one of the superior Season One offerings, is actually quite chilling at times. The child abuse reveal and Buffy’s scene with Hank (Dean Butler) are particularly effective, with the latter underscoring Buffy’s issues with being abandoned and doing the abandoning throughout the series. The episode is an early example of Joss and company’s deft ability at mixing horror and comedy: While Buffy and Giles’ nightmares are horrific and Willow, Cordelia and Xander’s nightmares are generally funny. (Except for the clown. Clowns are never funny.) It’s also loaded with both real-life and in-show foreshadowing, including Giles’ loss of sight ("Something Blue"), Willow’s fear of performing ("The Puppet Show," Hannigan’s lack of a song in "Once More With Feeling") and Buffy’s line in the musical’s "I’ve Got a Theory" about being trapped in a "wacky Broadway nightmare."
55. "No Place Like Home" (Episode 5.05)
A pivotal episode in both Season Five and the overall arc of the series, "No Place Like Home" introduces Glory and gives us Dawn’s origin story. I vividly remember being blown away by the last shot of "Buffy vs. Dracula" and then watching "The Real Me," "The Replacement" and "Out of My Mind" with a thin veneer of "Huh?" covering my brain because.. Buffy has a sister?!!? Of course, by then, I had faith in Joss et al., but was still completely flummoxed about where they were going with this. Like, how the hell did everyone remember Dawn? Sure, Joss dropped in hints almost immediately with Joyce’s "Who are you?" and "You don’t belong here" from the Curds and Whey guy, but man, he really turned the "Cousin Oliver Syndrome" on its head. Issues with Dawn’s character aside, it was a stroke of genius from the master. Writing this list required me to re-examine a lot of episodes and characters, and I think this one partially answers the Superman query I made in No. 116, above. Glory’s weakness is her personality. Even though she’s a millennia-old hell god, she’s also a spoiled brat with an ego bigger than the cosmos. Those two things, along with her overall misunderstanding of humanity, will be her undoing. She’s kind of like Donald Trump, if you think about it.
54. "Phases" (Episode 2.15)
The first of a handful of episodes that focus on Willow and Oz, "Phases" begins the bittersweet arc that is Woz (way better than Willoz or Wiz): an adorable couple with a pesky problem. Tolerance and acceptance are recurring themes in Buffy, and here we get a two-fer, as Xander inadvertently pushes Larry into admitting he’s gay. And seeing that the gang has (save for Xander) more or less accepted a vampire with a soul and will, in later episodes, do the same (again, save for Xander) with a vampire with a chip, an ex-vengeance demon (I guess Xander is only OK with the ex-evil females) and a formerly glowing ball of energy, Willow’s reaction to Oz’s news pretty much says it all: "I mean, three days out of the month I’m not much fun to be around either."
Oz: Aunt Maureen. Hey, it’s me. Um, what? Oh! It’s, uh… actually it’s healing okay. That’s pretty much the reason I called. Um, I wanted to ask you something. Is Jordy a werewolf? Uh-huh. And how long has that been going on? Uh-huh. What? No, no reason. Um… Thanks. Yeah, love to Uncle Ken.
Even when he’s been cursed with lycanthropy, Oz defines laconic.
53. "Blood Ties" (Episode 5.13)
This is a big one, lore-wise, and it’s deeply touching on a number of levels, both within the Summers clan and without. Much has been made of Dawn’s whining; she was originally meant to be younger, so some of her early storylines infantilize her. But this is one where she’s totally allowed to act out. What would you do if you found out that you were actually only six months old but had the body and memories of a teenager? She proves her toughness and brains in the scenes with Glory (any other 14-year-old would likely just start in all a-quivering). She’s also put in considerable jeopardy here and Spike steps up, earning his Scooby badge by protecting Dawn and calling her ‘niblet," one of the many pet names he has for her. He also (not for the first or last time) calls Buffy on her bullshit, pointing out that she should have told Dawn she was The Key. Buffy and Spike’s relationship here almost seems normal, though it’s shattered again in "Crush."
On the heartstrings side, the looks on everyone’s faces when Dawn gives Buffy the framed photo made me misty-eyed, as did the "Summers blood" speech, a concept that will come in very handy when it’s once again time for Buffy to save the world. Oh, and "Crap-gnats?" One of the series’ best insults.
52. "Lie To Me" (Episode 2.07)
"Lie to Me" has one of the more ominous cold opens of the series, as Dru’s crazy leaks out all over the roundabout and "What will your mummy sing when they find your body?" sends chills up, down and across my spine. Until Angel shows up, we’re pretty certain that the boy’s a goner, which sets the tone for this rather dark Season Two episode that speaks to mortality and the age-old wisdom of "Be careful what you wish for." It’s also a sharp look into friendship with Angel and Dru, Buffy and Ford (Jason Behr) and Giles and Jenny.
Another example of how good this cast was at delivering Joss’s wittier lines is exemplified in this exchange:
Ford: "Would I be imposing?"
Xander: "Oh, only in the literal sense."
It’s a throwaway line, but perfectly delivered.
51. Welcome to the Hellmouth" / "Harvest" (Episodes 1.01 & 1.02)
And so it begins. As weak as much of Season One is, this two-parter is far better than most of that season’s offerings. The setup is perfect, as we meet all of the original Scoobies as well as Angel, Darla, The Master and poor, poor Jesse. Unlike many pilot episodes that royally suck (The 100, Seinfeld, Star Trek: TNG) this pair hits the ground running and establishes many of the themes we’ll see throughout the series. Perhaps it helped that they shot an unaired pilot, as maybe that got all of Joss’s bad ideas out of his head. It’s interesting to note that Buffy starts out the series openly resisting her calling, while at the end she embraces it by rewriting the rules, a tactic she employs throughout the series. Another nice moment of synchronicity: Giles’ last words in "The Harvest? "The earth is doomed." Giles’ last words before the final battle in "Chosen?" "The earth is definitely doomed." Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose!
50. "I Only Have Eyes For You" (Episode 2.19)
Emblematic of the up and down nature of the first two seasons, "I Only Have Eyes For You" is sandwiched between two pretty terrible episodes but is itself one of the better offerings of the season. It’s more or less a MoTW outing, but for the last 10 minutes or so, with Buffy and Angelus possessed, respectively, by James (Christopher Gorham) and Grace (Meredith Salenger). While possessing a vampire enables Grace/Angelus to survive being shot, and thus stops James/Buffy from committing suicide, it’s also a brutal experience for Buffy and Angelus. While Buffy’s love for Angel is eternal, Angelus’ hate for The Slayer also knows no bounds, and each is horrified by what happens. I guess it’s a good thing they’ll each have to wait just three episodes for some closure then, isn’t it? The only real reason this one isn’t ranked higher is the ick factor of the student-teacher relationship being portrayed so romantically. Sorry, not cool.
Other items of note: Eagle-eyed film fans will spot Oscar nominee John Hawkes as George the janitor, and thankfully, Spike is out of that damned wheelchair!
49. "Superstar" (Episode 4.17)
Danny Strong makes this episode purr. He was so perfect playing the "short idiot" that the idea that he’d be some sort of a Matrix-starring, Internet-inventing, World Cup-winning superstar is completely ludicrous, and yet we buy it. I mean, not really. Clearly something’s wrong, but he’s so good that we can suspend disbelief just enough to remain engaged. There are a few niggling things that make me not rank this one higher, though. The gang doesn’t start to suspect anything until nearly the end, and given how well versed in the supernatural most of them are, you’d expect an inkling to creep in sooner. Also, while some of our heroes behave the way we’d expect them to in the alternate reality, others don’t. For example, Buffy is the most attuned to mystical forces, being one herself, essentially. So it makes sense that she’d be the first to realize that something is wrong; regular "butt monkey" Xander being the most susceptible to the augmentation is also consistent. But Giles and Willow show a surprising lack of confidence in Buffy, even as they start to learn the truth. I also think this one would have been better as a complete standalone, rather than actually having consequences in the real world of the series.
48. "Witch" (Episode 1.03)
Presenting an episode without vampires in only the third episode of the series is a gutsy choice, but it’s one that pays off. The use of magic by both the Scoobies and their enemies quickly becomes a regular aspect of the series, so it makes perfect sense that the non-supernaturally inclined members of the gang get accustomed to it quickly. "Witch" is an early introduction to several hallmarks of the show, including the writers’ facility with misdirection and the creative and terrible punishment for the villain. In Scooby Doo, bad guys get arrested; in Buffy, they get transported inside a cheerleading statue, a truly tortuous end. Joss and co. are also brilliant at remembering tiny details from year to year, as Amy’s mom/trophy makes another appearance in "Phases." It’s also the first use of the term "Slayerettes." Amy is yet another character that I wish got more screen time, although she’s a significant player in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight canon comics.
Giles’ deadpan wit is coming into focus as well, and his glee at living on the Hellmouth is hysterical: "But that’s the thrill of living on the Hellmouth! There’s a veritable cornucopia of fiends and devils and, and ghouls to engage. Pardon me for finding the glass half full."
47. "Buffy vs. Dracula" (Episode 5.01)
I really love this episode. It’s one of the better MoTW offerings, and despite the recurring mentions of darkness, killing and death, it’s often flat-out hysterical. Xander as Renfield would have been enough ("The Dark Prince… bator"), but Giles’ run in with the Three Sisters is classic. While it is, overall, a funny entry in the canon, the interactions with Dracula (Rudolf Martin) compound the events of "Primeval" and "Restless," leading to Buffy’s increased introspection about her darkness and her request that Giles once again become her watcher. That same darkness begins to become more apparent to Riley, as his suspicions of Buffy’s attraction to the dark side grow. The episode also has one of the best puns of the entire series: "You know, I really think the thrall has gone out of our relationship."
46. "Gingerbread" (Episode 3.11)
"Gingerbread" is one big allegory, and it’s one that never goes out of style. There are always, somewhere, people looking to demonize (ahem) some group that they don’t understand by accusing them of being a menace to society. Sure, there’s some irony in the fact that Amy and Willow actually are witches, but the point is that those in power often shun and oppress that which they don’t understand: Instead of using reason, they use emotion. (Here the parents calling for the burning at the stake are under the influence of a demon, but that’s just another allegory.) "Gingerbread" is one of the best examples of how BtVS introduced political, moral and ethical themes and applied them to the world of Sunnydale. Lest you think this one is all civics and bigotry, there’s always Xander and Oz falling through the ceiling and the irony of Amy turning herself into a rat, and thus unable to speak the words needed to reverse the effect. Oh, and it’s utterly ridiculous that the burnings at the stake take place inside.
45. "Earshot" (Episode 3.14)
The first big dramatic appearance for Jonathan, "Earshot" proved to be an important episode in the Slayerverse, both due to the canonical aspects as well as to the real-world implications. It was the first of two Season Three episodes (the second being the finale) delayed significantly due to the Columbine High School massacre, which occurred one week prior to the episode’s originally scheduled broadcast. As a result, "Earshot" was delayed from April 13, 1999 to September 21, 1999, two weeks before the Season Four premiere. Loaded with red herrings, "Earshot" is elevated beyond the standard "MoTW" formula by the subject, the setting and the moment between Buffy and Jonathan in the clock tower. It’s a rather beautiful and painful exchange, and an almost universal truth about teenagers that all too many adults either ignore or are oblivious to. It’s also yet another of the recurring themes that elevate BtVS far above standard genre fare. The gag at the end of the episode with Giles walking into the tree is a classic.
44. "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" (Episode 2.16)
This is a fun episode and one of the earliest "Xander’s an idiot" offerings, something Joss and co. never seem to get tired of. We also get more Amy Madison, which I never get tired of. Here we get an inkling of Amy’s willingness to use magic for personal gain, something of a slippery slope for the magically inclined. There’s some great foreshadowing here, too, with Buffy Rat, as it seems that’s Amy’s go-to transmogrification spell. As for Xander, I suppose if you took most 17-year-olds and suddenly told them that magic was real, they’d probably do something incredibly stupid like cast a love spell, so I can’t be too hard on him. But boy, can he be a dolt! That said, it’s one of the great sadnesses of my Buffy experience that Xander and Cordy didn’t last. I get the dramatic reasons, but the romantic in me really liked the two of them together, and the end of this one is terribly sweet, leading you to think that maybe there’s hope for them, after all. Alas, there’s hope for Cordy as a person, but as a couple—well, Xander fucks that one up, too.
43. "A New Man" (Episode 4.12)
Easily one of the best Season Four episodes, “A New Man” brings back Ethan Rayne for the final time, one of the villains I wish we’d seen more often. It’s not easy to be both evil and pathetic at the same time, but Ethan manages and he’s never less than entertaining. Another Buffy birthday episode, this is the only one that focuses almost completely on other characters. We also learn about 314, and Buffy realizes that she forgot to tell Giles about Riley or The Initiative and Professor Walsh’s involvement. There are very few Giles-centered episodes, and this one just re-enforces the need for a Ripper series. While it took another two seasons to manifest, signs are beginning to show of Giles’ feelings of being unneeded by the Scoobies. The wounded looks on his face during pretty much the entire birthday party scene are brutal, and Professor Walsh’s digs at him don’t help. Fyarl-demon Giles chasing her down the street is a genius comedic moment.
42. "Pangs" (Episode 4.08)
"Pangs" is both hysterical and dead on about the complicated issues surrounding Thanksgiving. Sure, the holiday started with a nice autumn harvest celebration, but the Europeans’ relationship with the natives went downhill after that, and the idea of celebrating the holiday without recognizing the toll that white Europeans had on the native population is pretty fowl. (Ouch.) As it relates to our gang, it’s important to recognize that, as Buffy says, "Look, pilgrims aside, isn’t that the whole point of Thanksgiving? Everybody has a place to go?" So when Spike, escaped from The Initiative and incapable of biting anyone, is starving to death, they of course let him in—to their credit, Buffy and the Scoobies rarely punish the helpless, even if they are evil. Also, "Pangs" needs Spike to talk some sense to the rest. His speech about Caesar points out an unpleasant fact: History is written by the victors. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s the truth. Spike, tied to a chair, riddled with arrows and facing a bear is possibly the funniest take of the entire series.
41. "Angel" (Episode 1.07)
As far as the BtVS canon goes, "Angel" is pivotal, and therefore I feel it has to be in the top 50. Nonetheless, it somehow looks out of place with the rest of the series, and the score is terrible: The direction and music cues make it feel like it was made in the ’80s. Thematically, however, it’s loaded with goodies, including a healthy chunk of Angel’s back story and the first time Darla dies. The scene in which Angel confronts Buffy at The Bronze and recounts how he was re-ensouled is critical to the series, and the last scene is the first of many between Buffy and Angel that define bittersweet. "Angel" does suffer from a sort of "early episode syndrome," though, in that there are far too many bits and pieces that seem like a big deal here, but don’t come up very often (if at all) later in the series. Like, say, Angel’s desire to bite Buffy. And Jesus, does The Anointed One suck!
40. "Wild at Heart" (Episode 4.06)
Sometimes an actor leaves a series suddenly and it throws everything into disarray. Plot lines suffer and audiences depart. But, at the risk of being trite, this time a new door opened. Oz was a favorite and the potential love triangle between he, Willow and Veruca would certainly have made for interesting and emotional TV; then again, so did his sudden departure, as Willow had her heart broken—and so did we. As a result, “Wild at Heart” nudges Willow closer to dark magic and creates a space in her heart for Tara. (Veruca deserved better, but clearly it all worked out for the best… except maybe for actress Paige Moss.) The other major event involves Spike, and as is often the case, his menacing language is punctuated by a big heap of funny. "Watch your mouth, little girl. You should know better than to tempt the fates that way. ‘Cause The Big Bad is back, and this time, it’s… Urrgh! Aaaahhh!" Poor Spike. Can’t even get a threat out without being captured.
39. "Villains" (Episode 6.20)
"Bored now." With those two words, Willow crosses the Rubicon and forever alters well… everything. While an argument can be made for Spike, I would argue that Willow has the most dramatic character arc of all, even more so than Buffy and while Buffy is the Slayer, Willow here becomes the Flayer (sorry!) and that is something from which she’ll never recover. The writers certainly upped their game at the end of Season Six as it’s bombshell after bombshell, where even the small reveals are shockers. Ordinarily Anya revealing that she’s once again a vengeance demon would be the big reveal, but here it pales in comparison. As for Spike, Joss and team created a big ol’ misdirect in this episode, leading many to believe that he didn’t want his soul back and that the cave demon tricked him. Nope. Always wanted his soul.
While not quite as great as "Seeing Red," "Villains" packs more than enough wallops and to be honest, we’re in the top 40. The quality of BtVS is not a slow, steady rise and we’re in the cream of the crop from here on out.
38. "Intervention" (Episode 5.18)
Not for the first or last time, Jane Espenson delivers an exceptionally funny episode with a poignant finale. While Spike commissioning (and using… ick) the Buffybot is creepy even for him, it’s also pretty damned funny, and given how useful the bot is in "The Gift" and "Bargaining," I almost feel like we should give him a pass for having it made. (Almost.) It also nearly gets him killed, as Glory’s homunculi mistake him for The Key. Filled with classic moments—Giles doing the Hokey Pokey comes to mind— "Intervention" is also Buffy’s second experience with the First Slayer (although here it’s just a spirit guide taking her form), and in it she learns Season Five’s most important lesson: Death is her gift. Speaking of which, am I the only one who thinks the music every time Buffy’s with The First Slayer is influenced by Peter Gabriel’s Passion?
37. "Enemies" (Episode 3.17)
Double Agent Faith is revealed, and she and Buffy have a teeny tiny mini-fight as a pre-cursor to the epic brawl in "Graduation Day." I do love a nice bit of dramatic legerdemain, and Joss and company are experts: While slo-mo reaction shots are almost always cheesy, here it works. Faith gets played but good, and I always have to let out a little snicker when she says, "I’m too smart for that." No, Faith, you’re really not. Like Nixon, the mayor’s hubris is what does him in. He’s certain everything’s going to go his way and can’t even imagine a scenario where it doesn’t. Also, much like Nixon, he’s batshit crazy. Your heart has to break for Buffy, though.
36. "Bad Girls" / "Consequences" (Episodes 3.14 & 3.15)
These two are the beginning of the end for Faith. By the end of "Consequences," she’s well and truly crossed over to the dark side. From the audience’s perspective, anyway; Giles and Buffy still have hope. The thing is, Faith isn’t evil. She isn’t even really inherently bad. She’s just running on pure id and damaged psyche and not getting the support she needs. Wesley is a tool and the Watchers Council is a clueless blunt instrument, and thus her fate is sealed, at least for the time being.
These two episodes are a great showcase of the differences between Buffy and Faith. While both are capable of cutting loose, even of bending and breaking rules, there are some things Buffy won’t do—and Buffy’s conscience is a significantly larger part of her overall makeup. You might say that Buffy veers between Lawful and Neutral Good, where Faith is Chaotic, through and through. At least this version of Faith, that is. If there’s anything Joss and co. tried to impart, it was that almost no one is immune to redemption. Faith is a supremely interesting character, and keeping her around was a wise choice by the Powers That Be.
35. "Primeval" (Episode 4.21)
"Primeval" is a major course correction after the terrible ending of "The Yoko Factor." While it starts off in the same vein, you know that’s not going to last: The gang is back together as quick as Giles can say "I’m very stupid!" The bonding that goes on while rappelling down the elevator shaft is one of those classically beautiful Scooby Gang moments that get to the crux of who our heroes are, and the show would be nothing without the Buffy-Xander-Willow core. The spell cast by Xander, Willow and Giles is risky as hell, but it sets up some of the most pivotal moments of the remainder of the series and starts Buffy on the path of controlling her own power—and her own destiny. It could easily have been the season finale (and would have made a decent one), but then we wouldn’t have the absolute genius that is "Restless."
34. "Checkpoint" (Episode 5.12)
Oh, those pesky Watchers! Quentin Travers and the pompous, stuffy and misguided Watchers Council return to Sunnydale to test Buffy (although not as brutally as they did in "Helpless") and judge her, Giles and the Scoobies. Well, it doesn’t go very well for the Council, does it? Clearly, they have no idea who Buffy really is or how strong her ties to friends and family are. At this point, the two are indistinguishable. Joyce, Dawn, Giles, Willow… Buffy would die for any one of them (and does), and while I always thought a Watchers Council spinoff would be great, they’d have to pull the sticks out of their ass first. This show is all about moments. The small ones might be just a line or a gesture, like Spike not leaving a card with the flowers in "The Body," while the big ones are often speeches, like the one Buffy gives at the end of this episode. It’s one of the best in the entire series.
33. "Help" (Episode 7.04)
On the surface, "Help" plays like a "mystery of the week," but Rebecca Rand Kirschner has written a poignant and touching episode that reinforces the simple fact that Buffy can’t save everyone, neither as the Slayer nor as school counselor. While it’s a lesson Buffy has learned repeatedly throughout the course of the show—hell, she learned it when Jesse (Eric Balfour) was turned in "The Harvest"—it’s also one that, in true Buffy fashion, she refuses to fully accept. Unfortunately, this season is where it becomes unavoidable. There will be losses, far more than she’s ever had to deal with before. I think it’s safe to say that Buffy does more growing as a person and as a Slayer in Season Seven than in any other year, perhaps more than in all prior seasons combined. While it’s easy to rate a season based on individual episodes or that year’s Big Bad, another way is to look at each character. Was Xander’s Season Five journey his most compelling? Does Willow come into her own most in Season Four or Season Six? Take the wide view, every once in a while!
32. "Homecoming" (Season 3.05)
While there’s plenty of action and comedy in this one—Cordelia slapping Kulak of the Miquot Clan with a spatula, for example—there’s also impending tragedy, as Willow and Xander kiss for the first time. While it had been building since the Season Two opener, "When She Was Bad," and probably long before that, it opens the door for some pretty serious repercussions. While there are some occasional missteps in the series’ character development—Buffy’s balcony behavior in "Dead Things" springs to mind—by and large, it’s pretty organic, and here Cordelia and Buffy take a big step forward. I guess being hunted like animals helps in the frenemy bonding process, and knowing what’s coming in "Dopplegangland" makes Cordelia’s confession to Buffy about her feelings for Xander all the more brutal. As for the rest of the gang, while Faith was one of the best villains in the show, early on she was a team player (well, mostly); it’s great to see her have Buffy’s back here. The look she gives Willow and Xander when she calls Scott a "sleazebag" is priceless, as is Buffy letting loose on Cordy with "Vapid whore!" Note to The Internet: Can someone please make a supercut of Mayor Wilkins? "After every meal and under your fingernails. Dirt gets trapped there… and germs… and mayonnaise."
31. "Lovers Walk" (Episode 3.08)
Everyone’s favorite peroxided vampire makes one of his (many) dramatic returns to Sunnydale in one of Season Three’s most emotionally resonant (read: tragic) episodes. While Oz and Willow’s relationship survives, if you were a Xandelia shipper like me, this one had pretty terrible consequences. On the good side, it led to Anya—one of my favorite characters—joining the series. But there was something oddly sweet about Xander and Cordy, and I missed it once it was gone. Despite her occasionally extremely acid tongue, she didn’t deserve this. Xander and Willow, on the other hand, were carrying on a pretty serious emotional affair and probably deserved the grief they got.
This one’s also about Spike and Dru, and as he often does when he needs a sympathetic ear in Sunnydale, Spike ends up drinking hot cocoa with Joyce. Their relationship is certainly one of the more peculiar ones on the show. While he was more than just a monster, he was still a monster; as so often happens in the early days of his arc, what crushes everyone else lifts Spike up as he rides out of town with a new lease on "life."
30. "Halloween" (Episode 2.06)
While not the most important episode in terms of overall Slayer lore, "Halloween" is pretty great and starts a string of five excellent episodes. It’s good, old-fashioned (occasionally scary) fun, and it introduces the under-used evil twat, Ethan Rayne. It’s an ingenious idea that takes Halloween to its illogical extreme. Wearing a costume is escapist, the chance to pretend you’re someone (or something) else for a night—and, thanks to Ethan’s curse, this time it’s literal and potentially lethal. As an ironic aside, Xander’s experience as "Military Guy" comes in handy for the rest of the series.
It’s also the second time Oz sees Willow—both of which the latter’s been in costume. And while she’s slowly moving beyond her super timid phase, she’s not quite ready for the bare midriff hottie phase… at least, not until the end. "Halloween" is, as much as anything else, about Willow shedding her insecurities. As the only one to maintain her personality and memories, she’s forced to take the lead, and her proud, confident walk across the street at the end is a big leap in her season full of baby steps.
29. "School Hard" (Episode 2.03)
Enter Spike. One of the most compelling and complicated characters in TV history comes to town and is immediately transfixing. I would like to know the exact moment that Joss decided not to kill him in "What’s My Line" (the original plan). If you didn’t know how it all panned out, you might think "School Hard" was a MoTW episode with slightly better monsters, but you’d be wrong. It’s loaded with subtext, sexual tension, foreshadowing and trademark Whedon wit (Giles: "Spike. That’s what the other vampire called him? That’s a little unorthodox, isn’t it?” Buffy: “Maybe he’s reformed.") and some superb reveals. The shot of Sheila behind Buffy with the axe is fantastic, and the final pan is inspired. The parallel with Die Hard is particularly clever, and the end—of both the episode and The Anointed One—is perfect. Spike instantly proves himself to be a breed apart ("From now on, we’re gonna have a little less ritual… and a little more fun around here.") and instantly raises the Big Bad bar to dizzying heights.
28. "Seeing Red" (Episode 6.19)
While not the best episode in terms of overall plotting and pacing, everything else pales before two events: Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy and subsequent introspection, and Tara’s death.
While Willow’s growth over the course of the series might be prodigious, Spike’s is beyond complicated. For centuries, he murdered, pillaged and probably raped his way across multiple continents, and is widely considered to be among the worst of his kind. He arrives in Sunnydale and finds himself developing a conscience of sorts. It starts as pure self-interest, but evolves to the point that his is virtually two beings in one: He’s a demon walking around in the body of William Pratt and he’s William Pratt with a side of demon. In “Seeing Red,” it all comes to a head. In that one moment, Spike realizes that he is both a rapist and someone who could never rape ("What have I done? Why didn’t I do it?") and begins to question his very nature. He’s a monster and a man, and that’s completely untenable. He blames it on the chip ("It won’t let me be a monster and I can’t be a man… I’m nothing"), but he knows that’s only part of it, setting up his journey to Africa and his re-ensoulment.
Meanwhile, Buffy confronts another rapist in Warren Mears, one that’s completely unrepentant and vile. He’s pure misogyny, and Buffy literally crushing his orbs (of Nezzla’khan) sends him over the edge. (Nice touch, guys!) I would argue that Tara’s death is among the most shocking in TV history, right up there with Joyce Summers, Will Gardner (The Good Wife) and Jon Snow (Game of Thrones), and the results are certainly more catastrophic than any of those.
27. "What’s My Line" Parts 1 & 2 (Episodes 2.09 & 2.10)
The first two-parter of the series is rich in Slayer lore, as we meet a trio of assassins that even Angel is worried about, the Order of Taraka. To be honest, they aren’t all that scary, but one is possibly the most disgusting villain our heroes will ever face, in the "person" of Kelly Connell as Norman Pfister, the mealworm killer. (My reaction was pretty much the same as Cordelia’s.) More importantly, we meet Kendra the Vampire Slayer, she who was called when Buffy died in "Prophecy Girl." I guess now is as good a time as any to pick nits, but I feel like if a new Slayer is going to be called, the previous one should be well and truly dead. Not "clinically" dead. I mean, if every Slayer who needed CPR triggered a new one, I imagine we’d be up to our necks in them by now, wouldn’t we? At any rate, it’s interesting to see how being called and growing up in different parts of the world create Slayers with a different outlook on life.
Main plot aside, this one gives us yet another tragically underused character in Willy the Snitch, the first use of "Scooby Gang" and the start of not one but two ill-fated couples whose destinies are tragically intertwined. "I mock you with my monkey pants!" will go down in courtship history.
26. "Something Blue" (Episode 4.09)
This one’s hysterical, but like many of the funnier outings ("Tabula Rasa" comes to mind), it’s bookended by reasonably serious events, and even the funny plots have acres of truth about them. Willow continues on her slow, inexorable march to magic abuse and her bathroom spell is pretty damned terrifying (once again… consequences!), while Buffy considers a relationship with Riley, leading to this gem of foreshadowing:
Buffy: "But I can’t help thinking—isn’t that where the fire comes from? Can a nice, safe relationship be that intense? I know it’s nuts, but… part of me believes that real love and passion have to go hand in hand with pain and fighting."
To be honest, the episode is riddled with portents large and small, all deftly inserted into the narrative. From Amy’s brief cameo as a human (it’s almost cute that Willow thinks she doesn’t have that kind of power) to Buffy’s "We may be into a forgetting spell later," this is a master class in pointing out that everything’s connected. It’s also one of the many episodes that are greatly elevated on re-watch. Knowing how everything turns out radically changes the Buffy the Vampire Slayer experience—for the better, I’d argue. And I never thought I’d say this, but poor Amy!
One relatively minor quibble, however: It’s a bit farfetched that Giles begins to lose his sight immediately after Willow says "...you don’t see anything" and doesn’t figure out the cause and effect.
25. "Band Candy" (Episode 3.06)
This one opens with some of the best Buffy "walk and talk," which we’ve come to know and love, and it’s also hugely funny—for which writer Jane Espenson is justifiably famous. The look Giles gives Joyce when she asks him if he likes Seals & Croft is perfect, and Snyder’s teen self is borderline cute. Of course, there’s really no such thing as an entirely funny episode of BtVS, and this one is no different. The Lurconis baby-eating bit is pretty harsh, but really, Joss? Another snake (read: penis) demon? As far as continuing storylines go, Buffy is still keeping Angel’s return close to the vest, while Willow and Xander’s flirtation reaches the "footsie under the table" stage. Speaking of which, was I the only one made really uncomfortable about that the first time around? I get the need for it now, and I understand the table-setting aspects for the rest of the show, but… sad, now! "Band Candy" is also another reminder of how much we need a Ripper series. Are you listening, Ted Sarandos?
24. "Two to Go" / "Grave" (Episodes 6.21 & 6.22)
One of the most compelling things about BtVS is its strong ensemble, full of intricate and essentially real people. We care for them as if they’re our friends, perhaps more so than any other show not created by Joss Whedon (Wash, RIP). This is why some of the non-Buffy episodes, like "The Zeppo," "Family" and "Doppelgangland," shine as brightly as "The Gift" or "Prophecy Girl." Choosing to end a season with a major two-parter in which Buffy is essentially sidelined is a bold move, but it pays off in spades. "Two to Go" and "Grave" are, when you get down to it, about Xander and Willow. Their lives have been entwined since the yellow crayon, and here Xander—the townie who got the "funny syphilis" and whose biggest fear was being useless—saves the world. Again.
One of the truly exceptional things about this show is that if you really look into it, there’s no center. Not really. Everyone bears the burden. Sure, Buffy does it most of the time, is The Slayer, she alone, yadda yadda, but the fact is, she really could not do it alone. There have been a few truly brilliant ensemble shows, and most of them had a core character, maybe a few. M*A*S*H had Hawkeye, ER had Mark Greene and Doug Ross, Mad Men had Don. But a large ensemble drama of true equals is rare, and this is where Buffy shines.
23. "This Year’s Girl" / "Who Are You" (Episodes 4.15 & 4.16)
Almost exactly a year after Buffy puts her in the hospital, Faith returns, and Lord, is it a humdinger! She’s had a good, long nap and is primed and ready for revenge. I guess the coma didn’t drain the crazy out of her, huh? In fact, it’s made her significantly worse. The timing couldn’t be worse, either, with Riley less-than-fit, Adam on the loose and Spike still looking to stir up some shit. Remember, in Season Four he generally only helps the Scoobies because it means he gets to hit something. If he can cause them pain some indirect way, he’ll do it.
In general, I’m not a huge fan of body-switching plot lines. They’re either poorly acted, played for wacky hijinks, or both. This pair revisits the subgenre and sets the gold standard. It’s also significantly better if watched as a two-parter. "This Year’s Girl" builds slowly, and if you treat it as the first hour of two, the pacing works dramatically. The body switch here essentially serves as therapy for Faith, enabling her to see how the world views Buffy and, in turn, witness how the world reacts to Faith. She finally can see herself through someone else’s eyes, and she essentially has an epiphany. It’s a pivotal and ultimately beautiful moment for the character, quite literally saving her life. The acting on display here from both Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dusku is remarkable, in that each embodies the other, and perfectly.
22. "Fear, Itself" (Episode 4.04)
Many of the show’s best episodes are a healthy mix of genres, and this one is both side-splittingly funny and downright terrifying, with each of the four main players confronting a core fear: Willow’s loss of control of her magic; Oz’s lack of control of his wolf; Xander’s fear of being a nobody; and Buffy’s fear of desertion. All will come to fruition or be explored in the remainder of the series, and all are represented pretty vividly here. The frat house set is one of the show’s most creative, and the episode is jammed with surreal and macabre touches, like, say, a lobster professing his love to a birthday present. We’re also introduced to one of the best running gags of the series, Anya’s pathological fear of bunnies, which pays off greatly over the ensuing four years. The moral of the story—don’t give in to your fears—is obvious, but it’s delivered perfectly, as Gachnar (Adam Bitterman) is one of the more amusing demons on the show.
While not exactly evil, the frat guys are certainly tools. Any white guy who dresses up like a Rastafarian needs a good smack or 12. Giles in a sombrero is something everyone should see before they die.
21. "Tabula Rasa" (Episode 6.08)
One would think that such a brutal mix of heartbreak and hilarity would be awkward, but once again this show achieves the unachievable. Where "Once More With Feeling" used songs as a plot vehicle, this one uses the funny, and what’s more hysterical than Anya being surrounded by bunnies or Giles sword fighting a mini skeleton? Perhaps a loan shark who’s literally a shark? That’s so crazy, it just might work! Bookended by profound sadness—the Scoobies digesting the fact that that Buffy was in heaven on the front end, Giles leaving Sunnydale and Tara leaving Willow on the back—the lightness in the middle third of "Tabula Rasa" perfectly counter-balances the emotional storm that is sweeping through Sunnydale… and we’re not done yet, fans! Michelle Branch’s "Goodbye To You" is a little too on the nose, though.
20. "The Prom" (Episode 3.20)
This one contains my single favorite moment of the entire series. But for that shining two minutes, "The Prom" would just be your standard excellent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So often, on TV—even on Buffy—there’s a letdown before the season finale ("Go Fish," "The Weight of the World" and "End of Days" come to mind), but not here. Season Three concludes with a solid string of episodes—an argument could be made that it’s the series’ strongest season, with the only weak links being "Dead Man’s Party" and "Beauty and the Beast"—and “The Prom” ties a nice bow on Xander and Cordy’s relationship when he pays for her dress. It’s a menschy move, one that Season Two Xander might not have made. Speaking of Xander, he and Anya were an insta-couple, for me. There’s just something about his "What, me worry?" demeanor that pairs nicely with Anya’s bizarre but endearing bluntness. Writing for her must have been a gas!
As for poor Buffy, this episode puts her through the emotional ringer. Even though she knows it has to happen and that she and Angel have no future, it’s still crippling to watch her collapse in Willow’s arms. Say what you will about Sarah Michelle Gellar, but no one cries on screen like she does.
19. "The Zeppo" (Episode 3.13)
Easily the best of the Xander episodes, "The Zeppo" firmly establishes him as indispensable in the audience’s eyes, if not yet to the rest of the gang. Especially with a second Slayer around, Xander has, of late, been relegated to fourth or fifth banana, and there’s only so far comic relief can take you. "The Zeppo" is the beginning of Xander’s true growth on the show, and the confidence he gains here will serve him well going forward—most notably, in the short run, in "Graduation Day." Where, prior to this episode, Xander was most often relegated to the goofy, bad joke-making sidekick who gets punched a lot, this is his moment to shine. He does it with (previously) uncharacteristic intelligence and courage.
It’s also an ingeniously constructed episode, with parallel storylines that intersect occasionally, but generally only for one of the "main" Scoobies to tell Xander to bugger off. While it’s not impossible that it’s a coincidence, I’d be surprised if Joss and writer Dan Vebber weren’t familiar with the Star Trek: TNG episode "Lower Decks," as well as the excellent Babylon 5 episode "A View From the Gallery." While not directly parallel, they’re in the same thematic ballpark. Actually, Babylon 5’s J. Michael Straczynski is among the very few TV creators that can hang with Joss, as far as universe creation goes. Oh, and Xander gets his swerve on for the first time and with Faith! "I’ve never been up with people before" may rank in my top 25 lines of the series.
18. "Helpless" (Episode 3.12)
The Watchers Council may be extremely powerful, influential and necessary, but they’re also archaic, cruel, sadistic, inflexible, reckless and dangerous—and have absolutely no idea what to get a girl for her 18th birthday. "Helpless" is a pitch black, brutal episode, riddled with betrayal and murder; it’s just about as dark and terrifying as the series gets, which is to say, it’s a fantastic 45 minutes of television. Quentin Travers is right on one thing: a Slayer does need more than her powers. But Giles believes there are better ways to test that than the Cruciamentum. (Ironically, Buffy and Spike use a similar method on several Potential Slayers in Season Seven’s "Potential.") While it works out in the end, with Buffy proving her guile and Giles demonstrating his love for his charge, his initial betrayal of her is exceedingly hard to watch. Gellar’s performance here is among her best work on the series.
Of note: Kralik, the psychotic vampire, is played by Jeff Korber, who also plays Rack in Season Six, and poor Blair is played by Dominic Keating, a.k.a. Lt. Malcolm Reed from Star Trek: Enterprise. Also, is it just me, or did Kralik turn Blair almost instantly? I thought it was supposed to take some time. And where did he get all that Polaroid film?
17. "Family" (Episode 5.06)
Making up bullshit reasons to control women has been the hallmark of society for millennia, and "Family" is an excellent exploration of female subjugation in the magical world, as well as of the true meaning of family (duh). Buffy is a complicated and involved show, loaded with recurring concepts and themes, and among the most frequently explored are the consequences of actions, especially magical ones. Here, in the series’ only Tara-centric episode, both action (Tara’s demon-hiding spell) and inaction (Tara not mentioning her supposed demon heritage) have serious consequences. It’s quite possible that Tara keeping the secret of her (actually non-existent) demon half was a wise idea; had she told Willow, it’s possible that their relationship wouldn’t have developed. Then again, not being honest with a lover is often fatal to a relationship. Of course, Tara compounds the lie by casting a spell to hide demonic evil, putting her friends in grave danger.
At the end of it all, the actual demons (well, one ex-demon) are the ones who save the day. The real consequence of the real lie is that Tara’s blood family loses her forever, while she realizes that The Scoobies are her true kin.
16. "Fool For Love" (Episode 5.07)
This one’s all about the subconscious, and it sets our Slayer on the path that leads to her death in the season finale, "The Gift." Her serious wound at the hands of a random vamp does a number on her noggin. In seeking out Spike, she hopes to get some sort of insight into how he killed two Slayers—and, by doing so, how she’s lived so long. Subconsciously, however, there’s much more going on. Buffy and Spike are doomed/destined to be with each other, only he’s the only one who knows it. The thing that has to be remembered is, Spike may be in love with Buffy, but he’s still a vampire, and his courting style leaves much to be desired. From here on, his relationship with Buffy gets increasingly complicated, bouncing back and forth from instinct to emotion, Id to Ego, monster to man. With a normal girl in a normal universe, that would be a non-starter, but none of that applies here. This is the best overall Buffy/Spike-centered episode. One might even argue that, when he pats her on the shoulder at the end and she doesn’t recoil, it’s the real start of Spuffy.
15. "Conversations With Dead People" (Episode 7.07)
On almost any other show, an episode this good this would likely be the best of the series. It’s a testament to Joss and the gang that this one is "only" in our top 15, despite being one of the series’ truly terrifying episodes. Well, terrifying with a healthy mix of introspection and a soupçon of deep sadness. It’s hard to believe Buffy got as far as she did without some serious couch time with a therapist, and considering how tough this season is for her, the session with Webs (Whedonverse vet Jonathan M. Woodward) was just what the doctor ordered. As for Dawn, she’s been growing up steadily: The adorable anchovies song notwithstanding, she’s turned into a pretty capable and brave member of the Scoobies. Willow’s story underscores just how vulnerable she is in her recovery and unsure of her powers, which, considering that flash of anger in "Selfless," is wise on her part. And poor Jonathan. The least evil and generally most harmless of The Trio gets gutted like a fish by his best friend. Of all the deaths in the series, this one might be the most unfair… next to Jenny’s, of course. As an aside, this episode was written in four parts by four different people, so major props need to be given to Peter Basinski for his incredible editing.
14. "Prophecy Girl" (Episode 1.12)
If there was any doubt that BtVS was more than a teen genre show, it was put to rest with this one. (For the record, I never had such doubts.) By far the best episode of the debut season, "Prophecy Girl" is an almost perfect mix of adolescent drama and horror, resulting in something the series became famous for: elevating the widely derided "teen drama" genre to something else entirely. Joss created a show that was far more than the sum of its parts, and "Prophecy Girl" was the first pure culmination of his efforts. Gellar’s work was always exemplary, but here she gives us a perfect glimpse into the insane dichotomy of the 16-year-old girl who has to save the world: "Giles, I’m sixteen years old. I don’t wanna die!" leads to, "I may be dead, but I’m still pretty. Which is more than I can say for you." That more or less sums it up.
One question, though… If Angel can’t do CPR on Buffy (“I have no breath”), how does Spike smoke?
13. "Selfless" (Episode 7.05)
Anya’s brutality here is made all the more horrible by its on-screen absence (although D’Hoffryn’s "It’s like somebody slaughtered an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog" is brilliantly funny). This was a hell of a way to relate Anya’s origin, and while I adore her, like an alcoholic hitting rock bottom she went way beyond the red line. Of course, dire consequences were involved. We also got the ruthless and pragmatic Buffy, one she shows more frequently as the series progresses:
"... at some point, someone has to draw the line, and that is always going to be me. You get down on me for cutting myself off, but in the end the Slayer is always cut off. There’s no mystical guidebook. No all-knowing council. Human rules don’t apply. There’s only me. I am the law."
It would be nice if Xander and Willow had remembered that speech when they kicked her out of the house in "Empty Places." In the Wikipedia entry for "Restless," some genius wrote, "Although Whedon does not often foreshadow events…" and I do not think that word means what they think it means. At any rate, this one foreshadows Anya’s eventual death (and Xander’s eyeballs of love), and aftshadows (go with it) her "outtake" from the musical, leading to maybe the most brilliant jump cut of the series. Oh, am I the only one that thinks a D’Hoffryn plush would be the best?
12. "Passion" (Episode 2.17)
This is one of the biggest, most brutal wallops of the series and the best episode to feature Giles. His romance with Jenny was one of the most well plotted and fully realized relationships in the early days of the show and, well… Giles deserves to be happy. This is also the beginning of the end (temporarily) of Buffy’s relationship with Joyce. Buffy is obviously dying to tell her the truth—and had she, the rest of the year might have gone easier. But easier is not Joss’s middle name. (It’s actually Hill, according to Wikipedia.)
Giles’ discovery of Jenny’s body is agony because we know it’s coming. While the shock of discovering Jenny’s body along with Giles would have been short and sharp, the tension and sorrow and stomach knots that build in the 90 seconds that elapse between his seeing the rose on the front door and his discovery of the body is a more painful experience by an order of magnitude. As D’Hoffryn says in "Selfless," "Never go for the kill when you can go for the pain." (Play this for any fan of the show and watch them tear up.) I’m tempted to say the episode should have ended with Giles outside his house with the police, but Buffy and Giles’ embrace and the scene at the grave are too beautiful to leave out.
11. "Chosen" (Episode 7.22)
To borrow from another pop culture touchstone, this Top 10 goes to eleven. I think if "Chosen" wasn’t the series finale, it would probably be ranked somewhere in the 30s, but so many of its moments take on added significance from it being The End that it’s elevated to godhood. Or at least demi-godhood. While it’s a rushed episode with failures in continuity and would clearly have benefited from being a two-hour event, Joss loaded it with so many perfect moments that it’s hard not to love it and impossible not to cry.
On a fundamental level, "Chosen" turns seven years of episodes on their collective head by way of Buffy’s last-minute stroke of genius. The vast majority of her life as The Slayer was spent in emotional solitude as the "only one." Despite what I write of "Restless" below, friends and family can only take you so far, and while she respected and at times relished her role, Buffy also often yearned for a normal life. "One girl in all the world" is a lot of pressure for anyone. After learning about the origin of the Slayer Line in "Get It Done" and finding the ax (it’s not a scythe), she gets an idea that fully coalesces the night before the final battle. In making every Potential a Slayer, she overturns centuries of male domination over the Slayer line and essentially creates a new normal. It’s the embodiment of both female agency and the primary driving force of the show.
What are some of the small moments that make this a great episode?
• The original trio of Buffy, Willow and Xander peeling off, one by one, just before the battle.
• "That was nifty!"
• Admit it… Just for a second, you were afraid that they’d killed Buffy and your heart stopped.
• Anya’s death. Not everyone gets a grand send-off. Sometimes we just get brutally cut down while protecting the weakest members of the herd. "That’s my girl. Always doing the stupid thing."
• Vi lived.
• The last shot.
10. "Doppelgangland" (Episode 3.16)
The perfect companion piece to "The Wish," "Doppelgangland" focuses on Willow & Vamp Willow (VW) and is significantly less bleak than the former outing. While Hannigan was great as VW in "The Wish," bringing her back was a masterstroke by Whedon. Here the pair take full advantage of the often overused "fish out of water" trope to great comedic and, at the end, melancholy effect, by showing that, really, vampires are people, too: To brutally paraphrase The Bard, if you take them out of their reality, do they not become sad and cranky?
Hannigan soars to new heights here, displaying uncommon frustration at being everyone’s trustworthy "go-to girl," foreshadowing her blossoming in Season Four, while as VW she gives us glimpses of what’s to come for the character. Joss and Hannigan do such a good job of humanizing VW that at the end of this mostly fun romp there’s a real touch of sadness as she gets staked exactly as she was in "The Wish." Oh, and it’s the first appearance of one of my all-time favorite baddies, D’Hoffryn!
9. "The Wish" (Episode 3.09)
"The Wish" packs one of the strongest emotional wallops of the series. The alternate reality is predictably nightmarish and The Master’s assembly line of bloodletting is horrific, but watching our heroes kill each other over and over again is brutal. The real genius in this episode is who kills whom and how it relates to the real world: Xander and Willow, the pair that essentially caused this brutal alternate reality in "Lover’s Walk," drain Cordelia, one of the injured parties; Xander kills Angel, the vampire he never truly trusted; Buffy in turn avenges her alt.lover by staking Xander, while Oz kills Willow. Finally, The Master snaps Buffy’s neck. The last five minutes are like watching all your friends die. It’s exceedingly tough to watch, but no less marvelous as a work of art.
8. "Graduation Day" Parts 1 & 2 (Episodes 3.21 & 3.22)
"Graduation Day" was essentially the dividing line between two shows, both called Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the speech by Mayor Wilkins nails it. It was a progression from one stage in life to another, and though you can’t say that Buffy’s life before graduation was all sunshine and kittens (it was hardly ever sunshine and kittens), it still had a certain amount of innocence left, while her life post-graduation got progressively darker (what with dying, and all… again). With the destruction of Sunnydale High, the departure of Angel, and the transition to college, Buffy (both the person and the show) grew up. Among many pivotal moments, Buffy has to deal with almost killing a fellow Slayer. No matter how bad Faith had become, that had to do a number on Buffy, especially after she spent some time inside her brain. Speaking of which, Joss dials the foreshadowing up to 11 when Faith says “Oh, yeah! Miles to go! Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0," directly (I think) referencing both the arrival of Dawn as well as Buffy’s death two years (730 days) later.
On the lighter side, the second part does contain perhaps the worst, most awkward on-screen TV kiss ever when Wesley and Cordelia have their library clutch. Also of note, this might be the longest wait between two season-ending episodes in history: The airing of the latter was delayed almost two months due to sensitivity over the Columbine High School massacre, which had happened four weeks prior.
7. "Surprise" / "Innocence" (Episodes 2.13 & 2.14)
While this two-parter is not my favorite, nor is it likely to rise to the top of many lists of the "best" episodes, I’m going to make a case for it being the most important pair of episodes during the run of the show. In terms of character arcs, you really can’t beat this for doing the most in pushing Buffy towards who she ended up becoming. While I’m certain many (most?) women have a story about how unfulfilling their first time was or how much of a jerk the guy was, the fact is, Buffy’s only loss wasn’t her virginity. While the milestone is often referred to, metaphorically, as a loss of innocence, Buffy’s is an all-too-real passage into adulthood. While Slayers always grew up faster than normal girls, Buffy’s 17th birthday (the first in a series of disastrous birthdays) pushes part of her from 16 to adult overnight, Mr. Gordo’s continued presence notwithstanding. Emotionally, the two episodes are almost too loaded, with Xander and Cordy progressing (Cordy’s almost like a real girl, by this point!) and poor Giles getting his heart crushed.
6. "Restless" (Episode 4.22)
One of the most surreal episodes in TV history, and by far the most bizarre of the series, "Restless" defies capsule review. It’s stunningly shot, and manages to appear both completely random and meticulously plotted, which is a Herculean task. It’s a testament to Joss that heads didn’t explode—oh, to be a fly on the wall when the suits at the WB first saw this one! It was so radically different from the rest of the series that I’m sure on first viewing there was temptation to write it off as some sort of a weird exercise, but it’s perhaps the episode most true to the core of who Buffy is and how she redefines what it is to be The Slayer.
As mentioned, The Slayer has been, for centuries, on a solitary path. Principal Wood’s mother, Nikki, is the only one known to have had any real attachments. Then, along comes Buffy: She’s got parents, a sister (eventually), friends, lovers… an entire support system of people for whom she would die and who would die for her in return. It’s a game changer, one that doesn’t compute for the First Slayer (Sharon Ferguson). But Buffy doesn’t care. Once again, she’s doing it on her terms. Virtually every frame and every line of this episode has significance; you could watch it a dozen times and still find more. It’s a masterpiece.
5. "The Gift" (Episode 5.22)
Honestly, on any given day I could hit shuffle on the top five and generally be OK with it, as they’re each brilliant in their own way. In many ways, "The Gift" could have been the series finale, and while Joss had had Season Six plotted out for a while (possibly since he was 15… seriously, the guy’s brain is scary), the fans weren’t sure. It would have been a perfect yet emotionally crippling and profoundly sad ending; it would also have been unforgivable. I like to think the Powers That Be mandated a pick-up by the UPN.
Even though he didn’t intend it to be the series finale, it’s significant that Joss wrote it like one. Literally everything that made BtVS great is here: Love, loyalty, family, teamwork, Xander pulling more than his weight, bunnies, inappropriately-timed sex and double entendres, red herrings, Shakespeare (Giles: "We few, we happy few." Spike: "We band of buggered.") and, yes, death. Just like her brilliant idea in "Chosen," Buffy gets some last-minute inspiration and calls an audible, leading to arguably the single most heart-rending moment of the series. It’s a testament to just how well constructed this world is, and to just how much we love it, that even when we know she lives again, we still sob when she dies.
4. "Hush" (Episode 4.07)
When I first saw "Hush" in December 1999, I was convinced that it was the single scariest hour of TV I had ever seen. While that position has been eclipsed by almost any hour of election night 2016, I’d still put this in the top three. Buffy was at its best when Joss and co. tried something new (see: "Once More With Feeling"). Here, it was silence. But, far from this being a truly silent episode—that would be a neat gimmick, some day—only the characters were silenced, making the episode’s other sounds all the more pronounced, so audiences couldn’t help but put themselves in the shoes of the Scoobies. What do you do when a passel of floating, grinning, nattily dressed undertakers with straitjacketed footmen knock on your door? Scream, of course… Except when you can’t. Often praised for his witty dialogue, here Joss received a writing Emmy nod (the series’ only one) for an episode almost completely devoid of speech. That said, there are very few episodes lacking in Joss’s signature wit, and "Hush" is no exception. Spike’s bit about blood in the Weetabix and Anya’s "orgasm friend" remark are particularly noteworthy, but for my money the prize goes to Willow’s "Nowadays every girl with a henna tattoo and a spice rack thinks she’s a sister to the dark ones."
3. "Becoming" Parts 1 & 2 (Episodes 2.21 & 2.22)
Many of the various lists out there have this in first place. I can’t fault them. "Becoming" changes the world of BtVS more than any episode before it and, quite possibly, after it, as well. It is so loaded with lore and significance that, much like maybe 20% of this list, I could go on about it for days. Where do I start? Origin flashbacks for Angel and Drusilla; Angel’s first sight of Buffy; the death of a Slayer; the near-death of virtually the entire Scooby gang; an interesting reversal of styles and temperaments for Angel and Spike.
Angelus: Since when did you become so levelheaded?
Spike: Right about the time you became so pig-headed.
Spike and Angelus are two radically different vampires: While Spike enjoys being a vampire and kills mainly for fun, Angelus has a long game and is actually trying to send the world to hell. Spike, on the other hand, has absolutely no interest in a world without blooming onions. In "Becoming," Angelus makes a series of rash decisions and Spike strategizes with Buffy in order to save the world.
What’s really important, however, is the final scene. Until "The Body," it’s the most gut-wrenching moment in the series. If you can, even for a second, put yourself in Buffy’s place, you break. This is a 17-year-old girl who puts a sword through her first love, mere seconds after his soul is restored. "Becoming" is a truly epic two hours of television.
2. "Once More With Feeling" (Episode 6.07)
Well this season got better all of a sudden, didn’t it? The period between the end of "All the Way," in which Willow casts a forgetting spell on Tara, through to the end of "Tabula Rasa" is among the most significant stretches in the series’ run, and "Once More With Feeling" is where everything changed. Joss’ decision to do it using the musical as the vehicle made it all possible.
Giles knows he has to leave or Buffy will never stand alone; Xander’s developing serious doubts about marrying Anya; Tara’s growing mistrust of Willow and her continuing abuse of both magic and her friends’ faith are coming to a head, and Buffy… well, Buffy is simply struggling to care about anything. That’s a tremendous amount of material to cram into a single episode, but the Scoobies are able to say things to each other in song that they never would have in dialogue, and thus pack a great deal of plot into a short space of time.
Take "Under Your Spell," for example: In just under three minutes, Joss manages to impart three disparate but important concepts: Tara is literally under an enchantment from Willow, was metaphorically lifted out of her shell by Willow’s love and is in the throes of a very powerful erotic experience. And that’s just one song. Virtually every number in this episode gets this deep, and that’s only one of the reasons this is my second favorite BtVSepisode of all time.
Oh, and can Amber Benson and Anthony Stewart Head please record an album together? Their duet moves me to tears.
1. "The Body" (Episode 5.16)
While "Once More With Feeling" is probably the episode I have seen the most, I’ve only watched this one all the way through two or three times. It’s a straight up gut-punch to anyone who’s ever had a mother. Or been one. It also goes above and beyond and reaches another level of artistic expression. The opening three-minute scene contains no cuts and no score, the latter of which continues through the entire episode, something that often goes unnoticed until it’s pointed out but subconsciously affects one greatly. Everything about this episode is flawless, from the framing to the camera movements to the script and especially the performances.
Meticulously plotted and visually presented, "The Body" is loaded with small touches that add to the emotional impact without being stagey or gimmicky. Things like Buffy protecting Joyce’s modesty by pulling down her skirt, the brief imaginary flashes Buffy gets ("I have to lie to make you feel better.") and the slow track to the art project Dawn was working on all add to the whammy. Watching Dawn learn of Joyce’s death without hearing the scene is particularly affecting, with "The Body" and "Hush" both being master classes on radically different ways to use both silence and the concept of silence.
Not enough has been said about the acting on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and "The Body" is the perfect showcase. Gellar, Benson, Hannigan and Caulfield are all standouts, with each responding to the death in different ways. Gellar depicts the numb sense of responsibility almost all of us display after the death of a loved one; Hannigan is all flustered indecision and the adorable "heart on her sleeve-ness" that we love about Willow; Benson spends the majority of the episode giving silent support until revealing that she lost her mother at 17; and Caulfield… Oh, Anya, she of the uncomfortable blurtiness. Sometimes the Scoobies forget that, for 1,000 years, Anya was immortal, so the concept of death is more or less foreign to her, and her meltdown in Willow’s dorm room is heartbreaking. She has no family but for them and sometimes this gets lost in the shuffle. Anya may be 1,000 years old, but in many ways she’s a small and vulnerable child. It’s hard to write through tears, so I’ll leave it here, except to say that Tara is right: It’s always sudden.
Mark Rabinowitz is a Louisville-based freelance writer, publicist, film producer and regular contributor to Paste. He is the co-founder of Indiewire.com and he wants to re-watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel with you and he’ll even provide the brie and mellow song stylings. Funnel cake has never kicked his ass and you can follow him on Twitter.