Five By Five: The Best Of ‘Buffy’ (Part Two)

It’s no secret that Buffy The Vampire Slayer is my favorite television show of all time. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s the best.

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.”

So for five weeks, every Tuesday, I’m dusting off 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,” yo. (If you don’t get that reference, then you have no business 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 Two

20. “NO PLACE LIKE HOME” (Season 5, Episode 5)

“Why can’t I ever be lil’ pumpkin belly?”

Season Five got off to an uncertain start — there was that comedic confrontation with Dracula in the season premiere, then they dropped Dawn into the picture without explanation and carried on. Those of us who’d watched Buffy for years knew Whedon & co. wouldn’t be so dopey as to seriously pretend there’d been a pesky kid sister in the picture all along, but they certainly bided their time clearing that up. It wasn’t until this fifth episode that we finally got some answers. Season Five is far and away the series’ mostly tightly and intricately plotted — seeds for the season finale had been planted way back in a dream sequence in Season Three, and little pieces of info dropped throughout the fifth season all factored into the big finish. Those first four episodes felt aimless and unimpressive, making “No Place Like Home” all the more satisfying when Season Five hit the ground running with its enthralling storyline (and it didn’t let up until it buried our heroine).

And sure, Dawn is kind of annoying — probably more irksome than she’s intended to be. Still, the overall conceit worked for this season, at least — allowing Buffy play mom while her own mother suffers from a life-threatening brain tumor. What’s great about “No Place Like Home” is the way it lets us believe Buffy’s little sister may be sinister — playing Dawn’s petulance as potential malice. Buffy’s trance is the episode’s showpiece, as she begins to “see through” the reality that’s been constructed for her and glimpse the Buffy we saw before — minus one Michelle Trachtenberg. (Fun fact: Season Four ended with Buffy peering into Joyce’s gallery, which this episode reveals has been replaced by Dawn’s bedroom.) And let’s not forget that “No Place Like Home” introduces us to Glory, a Hell-God who, for awhile there, really did seem unstoppable. It’s plenty fun to see Buffy face up against another hot chick with super strength — and get her ass royally kicked. By the end of “No Place Like Home,” Season Five finally has set all its pieces in place for this stellar story arc.

Star Player: Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg)

Why It Matters: It introduces the most formidable Big Bad to date and explains why Buffy suddenly has a whiny brat hanging around, causing all sorts of trouble.

Best Moment: Buffy trips out and sees all the ways the monks have altered her life to include Dawn. There’s also a confrontation with lovelorn Spike, who is only just beginning to reveal his obsession with the slayer; when she asks him to explain why he’s lurking outside her house in five words or less, he says “Out for a walk” before tagging a “bitch!” onto the end for good measure. Funny stuff.
19. “BAD GIRLS” (Season 3, Episode 14)

“Want. Take. Have. I’m getting it.”

Season Three was tantalizing in so many ways, but what really allows it to stand out and shine is Faith. She breathes new vitality into a series that otherwise had reached such a peak in Season Two, it was hard to imagine anything that could possibly top it. Then, enter Faith, the other vampire slayer — the one who does whatever she wants with her superpowers and doesn’t care what anyone thinks about it. Whereas much of Buffy‘s Season Three was doomed to repeat the past — more Buffy/Angel melodrama, love and lust amidst the Scooby Gang, another Big Bad planning the impending apocalypse — having a bad girl slayer going rogue is what helped it feel fresh. Faith is the anti-Buffy — but not too far removed. Essentially, she’s Buffy’s id, embodied in a rough-and-tumble hot chick from Boston; the yin to her yang; Buffy’s dark side, come to life, and “Bad Girls” is the episode that finally divided the two.

“Bad Girls” is also notable for introducing Wesley, the other Watcher, following Giles’ firing in “Helpless.” And Buffy’s not having it, which drives her to act out in increasingly naughty ways. First, there’s ditching school for a mid-day slaying; then some girl-on-girl dancing at the Bronze (I love it when Buffy dances!); then a break-in to some sort of Weapons ‘R’ Us for “supplies,” resulting in a little entanglement with Sunnydale’s ever-impotent police force. The obese demon-in-a-bathtub Balthazar is one of Buffy‘s more memorable one-off baddies (he’s ridiculous), but what makes “Bad Girls” such a keeper (in addition to the dancing) is Faith’s accidental slaying of one of the Mayor’s (human!) lackeys. While it’s great seeing Buffy take a walk on the wild side once a season or so, ultimately, “Bad Girls” turns the blonde slayer back toward her righteous calling while sending the brunette spiraling into true bad girl territory. Unlike other Buffy Big Bads, Faith is human — and the only person in the world who shares Buffy’s responsibilities. It makes the wedge driven between them here all the more complicated, as Buffy begins to realize just how bad a situation this could be.

Star Player: Faith (Eliza Dushku)

Why It Matters: “Bad Girls” finally brought Faith to the forefront as a full-bodied character, and let Buffy find solace in finding someone else who “gets” her (before ripping that away again with Faith’s reckless killing). We got the distinct sense that things would only get worse.

Best Moment: Faith’s chilling response to accidentally killing a man: “I don’t care.” (Also: did I mention this episode features two sexy slayers dancing together?)

18. “CONVERSATIONS WITH DEAD PEOPLE” (Season 7, Episode 7)

“This last year’s gonna seem like cake after what I put you and your friends through, and I am not a fan of easy death. Fact is, the whole good versus evil, balancing the scales thing? I’m over it. I’m done with the mortal coil. But believe me, I’m going for a big finish.”

Buffy‘s last season had its strong suits, but one of the drawbacks was the way all the episodes ran together — it’s one long story arc without a lot of memorable stand-alone episodes. “Conversations With Dead People” is one of the few Season Seven episodes that defies that, proving Buffy still had some tricks up its sleeve even this late in the game. Here, “Conversations With Dead People” establishes itself as something special right off the bat, putting the date, time, and title on screen over a musical montage that sets up a quintet of individual storylines — Willow studying in the library, Dawn alone in the Summers house, Spike grabbing a drink at the Bronze, Andrew and Jonathan returning from Mexico, and Buffy on patrol. Things are peaceful… but not for long.

Due to scheduling conflicts, “Conversations With Dead People” is really four short films, each written by a different Buffy writer, in which none of the Scoobies interact with each other. (Xander, Anya, and a few other usual suspects don’t appear at all.) Most of these scenes are dialogue heavy, particularly Buffy’s confrontation with a newly-risen vamp — which should be routine, except he recognizes her from high school. They catch up like old classmates do, except with the knowledge that it’ll end with a fight to the death rather than a friending on Facebook. As it turns out, vamp Holden was majoring in psych before he was bitten, allowing him to put Buffy “on the couch,” so to speak, giving us a delicious psychological analysis of the slayer — the inferiority complex she’s built up to cope with her “chosen” superiority complex. Joss Whedon’s writing here is simply sublime. But elsewhere, “Conversations With Dead People” is dark and disturbing, particularly in the Poltergeist-y sequence where Dawn communicates with her dead mother. Unlike many of Buffy‘s campy thrills, it’s truly scary. The First’s final moments with Willow are equally unsettling; if only Season Seven had been able to sustain this dreadful atmosphere all the way through and made The First as chilling as it is here. Clearly, it had the potential.

Star Player: The First Evil (played here by Azura Skye, Adam Busch, and Kristine Sutherland)

Why It Matters: “Conversations With Dead People” establishes a Big Bad unlike any other — non-corporeal, it uses the faces of dead people to manipulate and frighten its victims.

Best Moment: Buffy’s extended psycho-analysis at the hands of the vamp she’s about to dust, which is actually pretty revealing about her character. Also Joyce’s ghost being tortured by some sort of creepy black demon is likely to make your skin crawl.

17. “DOPPELGANGLAND” (Season 3, Episode 16)

“That’s me as a vampire? I’m so evil and skanky! And I think I’m kinda gay.”

And out of the darkness rises one of Buffy‘s finest comic moments. Following “The Wish,” in which we watched all our Scoobies get killed off in an alternate universe, “Doppelgangland” makes lemonade out of those pitch-black lemons by bringing vampire Willow to the real Sunnydale. Remember Anya? Before she became a fan favorite and series regular, she was that one-off demon chick with the enchanted necklace — and here, she returns (for what was probably intended be another one-off), diabolically attempting to retrieve her powers. Things go wrong, however, as they often do with magic spells in Sunnydale, and instead of returning to Bizarro-World, Anya summons evil Willow to this one. And bad timing — because the actual Willow has just had a little fit about being too predictable, too reliable, too “Old Faithful.” Bad Willow is about to fix that.

It’s terrific fun to see vamp Willow react in disgust at how happy and alive everyone is in this slayer-fied version of the bleak town she knew (and Anya’s misery at being human is the cherry on top). It’s the perfect example of how Team Buffy took characters and storylines meant to last but one episode and recycled them ingeniously. (For that matter, bad Willow’s lesbian tendencies foreshadowed her Season Four sexual proclivities rather nicely, don’t you think?) “Doppelgangland” also mines some grim comedy out of Buffy, Xander, and Giles thinking the real Willow has been killed, and letting good Willow play bad in order to save yet another lineup of innocents at the Bronze. All in all, it’s one of Season Three’s many strong comedic episodes — Buffy at the top of its game. “Bored now”? Not likely.

Star Player: Willow (Alyson Hannigan)

Why It Matters: Whether intentionally or not, it gives us a nice hint at Willow’s upcoming lesbian awakening (and teases us with evil Willow before her dark turn in Season Six).

Best Moment: After the Scoobies believe Willow has been vamped, Buffy, Xander, and Giles learn the real Willow is alive and well — and give her a big giant hug.

16. “SURPRISE” & “INNOCENCE” (Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14)

“To kill this girl, you have to love her.”

Here we go. It’s not like Buffy was lacking in greatness by the time it got to the Angel-losing-his-soul story arc, but this is when the show truly became a vampire classic for the ages. In “Surprise,” Buffy’s seventeenth birthday comes loaded with surprises both good and bad — she loses her virginity to Angel (that’s good!), thus accidentally presenting him with the one moment of true happiness that will lead him to become the ruthless killer Angelus again (that’s bad). Buffy‘s penchant for metaphor is never more potent than in the “sleep with a guy, and he turns on you” allegory presented here, but unlike a few of the series’ clunkier metaphors, this one hits home and then some. As romantic melodrama goes, it’s as good as anything on TV has been. Ever. (Yep, I said it.)

What else? How about the performances? Sarah Michelle Gellar is stellar (duh) per usual as she grapples with the consequences of her forbidden love. The closing moments, when she curls up on Mom’s lap and decides to let her birthday candles burn, are particularly touching. (And as always, Kristine Sutherland gets “clueless but concerned” down to a T.) The real surprise, though, is the new Big Bad in town. As sensitive, soulful Angel, David Boreanaz can be a bit of a wet blanket. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing, but he’s just so damned earnest! Who knew he’d have so much fun playing the sadistic Angelus? Bad Angel is a ton more fun than loverboy Angel ever could be, and it’s a riot to see him re-team with Spike and Drusilla to form the ultimate vampire triumvirate, engaging in yet another attempt to destroy the world. And it’s a good two-parter for the rest of the Scooby Gang, too, as Willow finds out about Xander and Cordelia’s secret dalliances, we learn the truth about Jenny Calendar, and Oz witnesses his first vampire dusting (“Actually, it explains a lot!”). And even if this is one of the Buffy/Angel romance’s spotlights, I’d wager that another one all but threatens to steal its thunders; Oz’s shining moment, as he and Willow have their first date (after weeks of near-misses) and he turns down her offer to make out (to make Xander jealous: “See, in my fantasy, when I’m kissing you, you’re kissing me. It’s okay. I can wait.” (Swoon! What a gentleman.) “Surprise” and “Innocence” have all the elements that made Buffy great, and this was the moment when it became true appointment viewing, cementing its status as iconic entertainment. (Just see how it inspired everyone to wear those Claddagh rings.)

Star Player: Oz (Seth Green)

Why It Matters: Buffy sleeps with her devoted boyfriend, thus ridding him of a soul and turning him into a vengeful, apocalypse-seeking villain intent on emotionally devastating Buffy before he destroys the world at large? Yeah, kind of a turning point.

Best Moment: Angelus casually dismissing Buffy with an “I’ll call you” after implying that she’s bad in bed. And as quips to baddies about to meet their end go, “That was then, this is now” is one of the slayer’s best. (It doesn’t hurt that she’s holding a rocket launcher while she says it.)

*

And that brings us to the Top 15! See my #21-25 rankings “Five By Five: The Best Of Buffy Part One” and I’ll see you next Tuesday!

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