I admire many other shows. Certainly some are more consistent — Buffy has had a few pretty dismal installments, let’s be honest. Invisible fight scene? Drunk cave-Buffy? No thank you!
But like sex and pizza, even bad Buffy is better than no Buffy at all — better than 98% of everything else that has ever been on television. When she is good, she is very, very good. And “When She Was Bad” is one of the episodes that comprises my “Best Of Buffy.”
Certainly I’ve seen more episodes of Buffy more times than any other series — I can’t even guess how many times I’ve seen some of my favorites. What can I say? In high school, I had a lot of free time on my hands — since I wasn’t called as a slayer. (Unfortunately.) So I’m pretty well qualified to weigh in on what the series’ best moments were. Trust me.
When you’ve seen so many episodes of the series as many times as I have, certain episodes shine even more than they might’ve initially, while others may not hold up as well as you’d think. There are a number of episodes likely to show up on any Buffy fan’s list of favorites — and many of them will make appearances here — but there are also a few that go unsung. (Clearly I’m not talking about the musical “Once More, With Feeling.”)
So for the next five weeks, every Tuesday, I will bust out five of Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s best episodes. Why Tuesday? Because that’s when Buffy aired, of course! Why five? Because that’s five weeks by five episodes — “five by five,” naturally. (If you don’t get that reference then you have no reason to still be reading this.) In case you’re very terrible at math, that will come out to the Top 25 Episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
(I know. That’s a lot. And yet there are still a couple it was painful to leave off.)
So here they are.
The Top 25 Episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Part One
“I can just see him in a relationship. ‘Hi, honey. You’re in grave danger. I’ll see you next month.’”
Why not kick “The Best Of Buffy” off with a classic? This, of course, is the episode in which we find out why Angel is so broody and mysterious — because he’s the notoriously twisted vampire Angelus, cursed with a soul. While the doomed romance between Buffy and Angel took a great many more complicated twists and turns in Season Two, you can see how nicely all that is set up right here. It really is an epic love story for the ages, and in a way, it’s surprising that Joss Whedon waited until more than midway through the first season to bring it to the forefront. (Then again, that’s one of Buffy‘s strongest suits — taking its time to set up storylines; so untrue of so many other TV shows, which hurtle through storylines so fast that you’ll miss them if you blink.) Already by Episode 7 the Buffy/Angel dynamic is more compelling than the ripped-off version in Twilight, which is the exact same story except with watered-down mythology and a weak, useless heroine. Heresy!
But even setting aside what’s to come, “Angel” has plenty of pleasures as a stand-alone episode. Buffy mistakenly believing that her sweetie is making a snack of her mom (along with the ever-in-denial Joyce’s classic response to the puncture wound on her neck: “We don’t have a barbecue fork!”). Plus it’s easy to forget how early in the series Darla was killed off, given how long she lingered in flashback episodes and her subsequent resurrection on Angel. “Angel” is the first hands-down good episode of Buffy, solidifying it as more than a “Monster of the Week” camp-fest and giving us our first taste of all the delectable things to come.
Star Player: Darla (Julie Benz)
Why It Matters: The first non-”Monster of the Week” episode, hinting at a deeper mythology for the series.
Best Moment: Angel goes vamp-face while making out with Buffy; Darla sinks her teeth into Buffy’s mom and then passes her over to Angel for a taste just as Buffy walks in. Awkward!
“Weird love is better than no love.”
In Season Five, Buffy went to some truly dark places. “Intervention” is the light at the end of that tunnel — the first episode after the shocking death of Joyce in which it was okay to be funny again (before the show plunged back into some heavy stuff for season’s end). Leave it to Buffy to book-end two heavy-handed episodes like “The Body” and “Forever” with comedic hijinks involving robo-women. And while “I Was Made To Love You” certainly has its bittersweet charms — including that shocking cliffhanger — it is “Intervention” that ups the comedy by having the Scooby Gang mistake Spike’s sex-bot Buffy as the real Chosen One. And if that weren’t enough, Buffy’s vision quest meeting with the First Slayer lays a lot of important groundwork for things to come. (Season Five was nothing if not masterfully plotted the whole way through.)
Remember back in Season Five, when a Buffy/Spike romance was a punchline? Before things got hot and heavy for the odd couple in Season Six, Whedon & co. still found ways to put them together for comedic purposes, here and in Season Four’s enchanted engagement “Something Blue.” It’s obvious that Sarah Michelle Gellar has a ton of fun playing the Buffy Bot (and acting opposite James Marsters, hence their offbeat chemistry), and the addition of the robotic slayer allows the show to poke fun at its supporting cast (via on-screen tidbits prompting the Buffy Bot to matter-of-factly ask Anya: “How is your money?”) and its dutiful heroine (as the automaton delivers self-serious lines like “Vampires of the world, beware!”). “Intervention” adroitly advances the plot by reminding us of Buffy’s prescient dream in “Restless” and lays pipe for the season finale, but offsets it all with comedy hijinks aplenty. Oh, and that last scene with Spike? Bloody brilliant.
Star Player: Buffy Bot (Sarah Michelle Gellar)
Why It Matters: Both the Buffy Bot and her chat with the First Slayer figure heavily into the season finale. Also, Buffy learns that she can trust Spike.
“I’m Buffy, the vampire slayer. And you are?”
Following Season Two’s game-changing finale, it was torture waiting an entire summer to find out what happened after Buffy was expelled from Sunnydale High, kicked out of her mother’s house, and had to drive a sword through the love of her life in order to save the world. The Season Three premiere finds Buffy living in Los Angeles under her middle name, Anne, slaving away as a waitress. (The episode is prescient of its spin-off, which also takes place in LA; the tone and storyline of this episode feel like something right out of Angel — which even recycled the Lily character.) Meanwhile, Xander, Willow, Oz, and Cordelia struggle to hold down the fort as far as slaying in Sunnydale goes while starting senior year Buffy-free, and a repentant Joyce blames Giles for mentoring Buffy behind her back. Plenty of drama all around.
What elevates “Anne,” though, is the way it gives us one of the series’ many glimpses at who Buffy would be without her Scoobies — frankly, kind of a bitch. (Not that we blame her — the girl has some serious coping to do after all that went down in Season Two. See also: “When She Was Bad,” “The Wish,” and so on.) It’s always fascinating to see the Chosen One without her support beams, trying to stave off any human contact — particularly when Lily recognizes her from that vampire cult incident in “Lie To Me.” Primarily, this episode succeeds on the appeal of seeing Buffy, for the first time, truly on her own, living as an adult (albeit a miserable one). It’s a pretty tame, drama-fueled episode until that showstopping finale, with the action kicked up to high gear for a new season as Buffy battles Nazi-like slave drivers in an underground Hell dimension. I’ll never tire of watching Buffy kick some oppressive ass — and what’s not to love about the Ghandi reference followed by a brutal killing? After trying to flee from her slayer duties, it’s incredibly satisfying to see Buffy rediscover her strength and purpose. Sometimes you have to lose yourself to find it all over again.
Star Player: Anne (aka Buffy)
Why It Matters: Buffy makes a go of going it alone, only to discover that she’s “no one” without her calling.
Best Moment: Buffy decides she’s had enough of being the unremarkable waitress Anne, introduces herself as the slayer, and takes a summer’s worth of loneliness and misery out on some unsuspecting demons in what was probably the series’ best action sequence to date.
“Bunnies frighten me.”
For a show that’s all about vampires, witches, and werewolves, you’d better believe that Buffy‘s Halloween episodes would be a cut above the rest. Buffy actually gifted us with two primo installments set on All Hallow’s Eve, and while Season Two’s “Halloween,” with the gang transforming into their costumes, may be the conventional favorite, I prefer this Season 4 go-round set at a haunted frat party. As one-off horror episodes go, “Fear, Itself” is aces — featuring Buffy, Oz, Xander, and Willow trapped in a haunted house, each facing their own personal demons manifested as haunted house frights (clever). Sure, some of the moments are a little corny — like the fake bloody head that bellows “I can see you!” — but “Fear, Itself” owns that by having all these nightmarish entities turn back into plastic once they’re done spooking. It also boasts a memorably eerie score.
But what works best is Buffy‘s signature dose of terror and comedy — “Fear, Itself” is an exemplar of both. Notably, it gives us our first taste of Anya’s fear of bunnies, which becomes a running joke (and inspires its own musical number); there’s also some funny business with Giles wielding a chainsaw. And just when you think Buffy has pretty much exhausted its supply of one-off demon villains, here comes Gaknar. Teeny, tiny, adorably ferocious Gaknar. After all that horrific buildup, the reveal that Gaknar is pint-sized is priceless, hilariously killing all that suspense. Few episodes match this one at illustrating just what Buffy does best, alternating between chuckles, chills, and character-based drama.
Star Player: Anya (Emma Caulfield)
Why It Matters: Nothing major, but seeing the gang torn apart by their insecurities paves the way for this to happen again near season’s end in “The Yoko Factor.”
Best Moment: Buffy squashes the “not-so-Big Bad” under her foot like a bug.
“Buffy’s delusion is multi-layered. She believes she’s some type of hero.”
In its later years, Buffy averaged two “experimental” episodes per season – “Hush,” “The Body,” “Restless,” and so on. Following the musical extravaganza from Season Six, “Normal Again” is less showy, but in some ways one of the series’ bravest. Once you get past the Season Six romantic melodrama that bogs down the opening minutes (Xander and Anya, Buffy and Spike, Willow and Tara — heartbroken all), “Normal Again” finds itself in Return To Oz territory when Buffy gets attacked by a demon that injects her with a hallucinogen, soon finding herself flashing to an alternate reality in which the entire Buffyverse is just a delusion. Her mother is still alive, there’s no pesky little sister, and the misery of Season Six has finally forced her mind to want out of its own invented Wonderland. And ultimately, doesn’t that make a whole lot more sense than all this “Chosen One” business?
Yes, “Normal Again” asks Buffy‘s ardent fan base to reconsider just how plausible this lore really is, forcing us to confront what we love about it — the escape. We, like Buffy, find ourselves drawn to a fantasy world with clearly delineated heroes and villains and season arcs, with high stakes but decisive outcomes. Except now, in Season Six, the fictional Sunnydale is starting to look too much like reality (what with Buffy working in a fast food joint and all). The way “Normal Again” works its wonders is two-pronged. First, it offers a meta-commentary on the already self-aware series’ themes, pointing out just how mythic the show really is; hero stories about a “Chosen One” with special powers are as old as time, and we can easily believe Sunnydale might just be one person’s twist on all those other tall tales. (In this way, it plays like a psychological examination of Joss Whedon.) The episode uncovers a frighteningly good explanation for the more out-there twists and turns of the show, from the sudden appearance of Dawn to Buffy’s death and resurrection. It’s a unique self-critique, and unlike many of Buffy‘s later-season jabs at itself, it’s not played for laughs, but given serious and thoughtful examination.
And secondly, we’re used to seeing alternate-reality hallucinations broken up by “real world” elements, but in most of those, the split is 50/50. Here, we’ve had six whole years to grow as attached to this fantasy world as Buffy is; being told it’s all in her head isn’t just painful for her — it’s painful for us. We can’t help but be defensive when that cold, clinical doctor tells Buffy just how silly this “vampire slayer” BS is. (These are the exact kind of nay-sayings critics who haven’t seen the show would use.) Plus, “Normal Again” gives Sarah Michelle Gellar another showcase as an actress; watching her struggle to deny that another life is possible — a normal one — is all kinds of heartbreaking. Take the scene in which she explains how she was once institutionalized for two weeks. Such a revelation should feel wedged in and out of place (like that “oh, by the way, I watched my cousin get killed by a demon when I was a child” disclosure in “Killed By Death”). Instead, it actually makes a whole lot of sense in explaining why Joyce was so concerned back in Season One, and why Buffy can be so defensive. On multiple levels, “Normal Again” gives us plenty of heady food for thought.
Star Player: Crazy Buffy
Why It Matters: “Normal Again” offers a meta-commentary on why we watch escapist fantasy fare like Buffy, providing a psychological examination of us and our eagerness to lap up all the loopy twists and turns the series has provided (a dead-and-resurrected heroine, the sudden appearance of a little sister, and a musical, to name a few).
Best Moment: Buffy chooses her “delusional” world full of vampires, monsters, and heroism over the real world and slips back into a catatonic state. The episode ends there, leaving us to wonder which is real.
That’s it for now. Stay tuned for the Top 20!