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? Inebriated 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 Four
“Can’t even shout… can’t even cry… the Gentlemen are coming by…”
Yet another cherished hour written and directed by Joss Whedon that experiments not just with Buffy‘s own formula, but the television medium at large. Actually, “Hush” was the first of these; apparently, once Buffy and the gang were out of high school, Whedon felt comfortable breaking the show’s mold in other ways, too. Thus a show worshipped for its witty banter and clever quips silenced its whip-smart characters, ratcheting up the horror — but not toning down the laugh factor, thanks to some priceless visual gags. Curiously enough, it’s both the closest cousin to Buffy‘s beloved musical episode and its polar opposite — once again, all of Sunnydale is afflicted with a mysterious enchantment that seems harmless but quickly turns deadly; instead of bursting into song, though, it renders our Scoobies mute.
Following a dream sequence containing a chilling sing-song premonition of what’s to come, “Hush” goes for straight-up horror in a way that few other Buffy episodes did. A gang of floating, suited “Gentlemen” steals all human voices in Sunnydale, then prowls around cutting out hearts looking like Freddy Kreuger going to the prom. (“They need to take seven and they might take yours,” a figment of Buffy’s imagine warns helpfully.) It could easily be a full-length horror feature on its own; it’s already better than most B-grade monster flicks out there. As Giles discovers, the Gentleman have their roots in fairy tale lore, which might be why the episode feels so mythic (even though they were invented by Whedon for this episode). They’re truly creepy, and the lack of dialogue allows the visuals and score to set the skin-crawly mood. “Hush” is also notable for the striking introduction of Tara, who doesn’t have much to say even before a bunch of sinister suits have stolen her pipes; upon first viewing, the way she reaches for Willow’s hand to give that vending machine a shot of lesbian witch power is a “whoa… am I reading too far into this?” (nope!) moment. (Season Four continued to toy with this gay subtext long before making it explicit.) It seemed like Tara was offered up just to be a victim of the Gentlemen — instead, she stuck around for another two years as a major character.
Star Player: Tara (Amber Benson)
Why It Matters: As the first of the formally groundbreaking Buffy episodes (leading to even more experimental ones like “The Body” and “Once More, With Feeling”), “Hush” garnered the show its only major Emmy nomination (for writing, as well as cinematography). And since it’s essentially a self-contained episode, it’s a good gateway drug for those unfamiliar with the show. After “Hush,” they’re always hooked.
Best Moment: The hilarious, dialogue-free scene in which Giles catches the gang up to speed on who the Gentlemen are using a slide projector. The entire cast relies on hand gestures and facial expressions to get across the same level of humor found in Buffy‘s sharp dialogue. It’s a silent comedy mini-masterpiece.
9. “FOOL FOR LOVE” (Season 5, Episode 7)
“Death is on your heels, baby. And sooner or later, it’s gonna catch you. And part of you wants it. Not only to stop the fear and uncertainty, but because you’re just a little bit in love with it.”
Season Five had a lot of pipe to lay before its big finish, and it did so very shrewdly. “Fool For Love” got us mulling over the slayer’s mortality, and we didn’t even know it. Following a routine patrol through the cemetery, Buffy finds herself nearly chomped on by a not-particularly-threatening vamp. (He looks like Joan Jett — a funny nod to Spike’s Billy Idol get-up.) She decides to do some reconnaissance and talk to the only monster in town who’s actually bagged two slayers — William the Bloody. Over drinks and wings at the Bronze, Spike shares the sordid tale, which takes us back to Ye Olden Days when he and Dru were still palling around with Darla and Angelus. Of course, we’ve blasted to the past on Buffy before to glimpse Angel’s siring — this one showed us Spike’s, at the fangs of Drusilla (who was herself sired by Angelus, who was sired by Darla — how incestuous!). Before he was a bleached-blonde killer, we learn, William was a meek, “bloody awful” poet pining after a woman he could never have. (Sound familiar?) After a particularly humiliating night, William wanders into the streets, meets a charming (if obviously loopy) lady named Drusilla, and the rest is grim history.
From there, “Fool For Love” shows us the Boxer Rebellion in China and 1970’s New York, with a kick-ass blaxploitation slayer in a long leather coat that — you guessed it — becomes Spike’s once he offs her. This is all interwoven with Buffy and Spike’s heated chit-chat — she’s both intrigued and disgusted by his tales of carnage. (Unfortunately, it’s also intercut with a lame subplot involving the rest of the Scoobies tagging along with Riley on patrol, acting uncharacteristically obnoxious. No one who’s been hunting vamps for four years now would be this incompetent at it, but I guess they had to work the supporting cast in somehow.) In the end, Spike tells Buffy that every slayer has a death wish, and he’d like to be the one to snuff her out when the time comes. “It would never be you, Spike,” Buffy fires back. “You’re beneath me.” (Echoing his painful rejection a couple centuries prior.) As she stalks off, leaving him crouched and broken in a pile of scattered money, a curious thing happens — we pity this cold-hearted killer for the first time in three seasons. “Fool For Love” is a riveting portrayal of a man becoming a monster becoming a man again.
Star Player: Spike (James Marsters)
Why It Matters: “Fool For Love” is the first time we got a full portrait of who Spike (née William the Bloody) really is underneath the leather and peroxide. Like all Buffy backstories, it feels like this was the plan all along. It’s also the moment when the Buffy-Spike romance stopped being a punchline and actually became something we kinda wanted to see happen, though it wasn’t until Season Six that it made sense on Buffy’s end. “Fool For Love” whet our appetite for a love story that would eventually rival Angel’s, and for the first time let us truly sympathize with the former Big Bad (in the same episode we see him slaughter two slayers). Only Buffy could do such a thing.
Best Moment: After being demeaned by Buffy yet again, Spike grabs a rifle, determined to do away with her and end his suffering. But Buffy’s just learned some bad news about Joyce’s health, so when she sees him pointing a gun at her, she doesn’t even react. Seeing the slayer in tears, Spike joins her on the porch, cautiously and awkwardly offering a hand on her back as solace. Buffy looks completely bewildered by this unexpected kindness but lets it happen, as two mortal enemies sit in comfortable silence, having a moment.
“Passion — it lies in all of us. Sleeping… waiting… and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir… open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us, guides us. Passion rules us all and we obey. What other choice do we have?”
And here is the episode that proved Joss Whedon & co. weren’t just fucking around with that whole “Angel is evil” thing. In some terrible alternate universe, the loss of Angel’s soul would have been resolved within a two-parter, allowing Buffy to happily jump back into her undead lover’s arms. Instead, “Passion” raised the stakes by having him kill off a cast member — Jenny Calender, who was never an integral part of the Scooby Gang but, by this point, had become a fixture in the series, mostly thanks to her romance with Giles. The WB’s promo leading up to this episode promised one of Buffy’s friends would die. And yes, it was obvious that it wouldn’t be Xander or Willow or Giles — Cordelia, maybe — but Miss Calendar was fair game, especially after the revelation in “Innocence” that she’s a descendant of the gypsies that cursed Angel with a soul in the first place. Still, Jenny’s death was far from the cheap throwaway moment that it could have been. It was a poignant, game-changing one. Joss Whedon made her matter, and we mourned the loss.
Like many of my favorites, “Passion” is most notable for what sets it apart from a standard hour of Buffy. Here, not only does a major character meet her maker, but the episode is hauntingly narrated by the villain himself — his poetic words offset by demonic actions throughout. It’s wicked fun to see Angelus become an increasing menace, stalking and toying with his ex-girlfriend — first by killing Willow’s fish, then by going after Jenny just before she’s about to restore his soul. The hunt is a fantastic chase scene, capped off by the brutal snapping of poor Jenny’s neck. From there, “Passion” demands multiple tissues handy when Buffy and Willow get the tragic news and Giles decides to avenge her death, which will clearly only get him killed. Buffy has to literally knock some sense into him, tearfully exclaiming, “I can’t do this alone” before standing by Jenny’s grave, with Buffy apologizing for not killing Angel when she had the chance. All in all, it’s one of Buffy‘s most emotionally wrenching episodes, ending with a delicious cliffhanger — the disc with all the info needed to restore Angel’s soul lost in a dark crevice in Jenny’s classroom, where it would stay until the season finale.
Star Players: Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) & Giles (Anthony Stewart Head)
Why It Matters: “Passion” was the first time Buffy proved its willingness to kill off favorite characters, as well as cementing Angelus as a formidable foe that Buffy’s really going to have to do something about before season’s end.
Best Moment: Giles returns home to find chilled champagne, rose petals scattered, and swelling opera music setting a romantic mood. Is Giles about to get it on with Miss Calendar? Alas, no — because we saw Jenny coldly murdered moments earlier. Upstairs, Rupert finds Jenny’s lifeless body on his bed — Angel’s latest valentine to the slayer.
“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live… for me.”
“Chosen” was a standout enough series finale to come in at #15 on this list, but one reason it may have felt a little anticlimactic is that Buffy had already given us a series finale, of sorts — “The Gift,” which went so far as to kill off the main character. (She had a headstone and everything!) Season Five departed greatly from the standard vampire lore of Buffy‘s first couple seasons, centered on a brain-sucking hell-god with multiple personalities and the squadron of knights determined to stop her. (By this point, Buffy was more Everything Slayer than Vampire Slayer.) But here, the opening scene nicely reminded us of its roots in a standard Buffy-versus-vampire showdown that felt perfectly quaint compared to all the big drama of this season. “You’re just a girl,” the helpless victim says, in awe of the superhuman abilities we’ve grown so accustomed to over the years. Buffy replies: “That’s what I keep saying.”
And then it’s off to the races, with a recently brain-sucked Tara leading the way to a tower where Dawn will be bled dry, thus opening a portal back to Glory’s home dimension. Here’s where we learn how carefully Season Five has been plotted out — Buffy distracts Glory with the Buffy Bot (from “Intervention”) before beating the shit out of her with Olaf’s hammer (“Triangle”); Doc (played by Joel Grey, from “Forever”) returns to cut up Dawn, which reminds Buffy that they’re made of the same DNA (“Blood Ties”) and that her death wish (“Fool For Love”) is “The Gift” mentioned by the First Slayer (“Intervention” again). So Buffy gives her own life to save her sister. (Ultimately, probably not a wise move, since it leaves Sunnydale without a slayer; all Dawn does is complain anyway, and since she isn’t really a person the world wouldn’t miss her anyway. But whatever. It works.) It all culminates in what is probably the most epic-feeling episode of them all; iIn “The Gift,” Buffy goes big and doesn’t disappoint, though actually ending the series on this note would’ve been a real downer.
Star Player: Glory (Clare Kramer)
Why It Matters: Though it wasn’t officially the series finale, it felt that way — Buffy‘s 100th episode, and the last to air on the WB, it was preceded by a “Previously, on Buffy The Vampire Slayer” montage that featured brief, accelerating clips from each of the show’s 100 episodes (see video below). The finale ends with our heroine dying a noble, self-sacrificing death, something Whedon foreshadowed way back in the Season Three finale.
Best Moment: Our slayer has been put through the ringer this season — charged with the protection of the sister she never had, getting dumped by Riley, losing her mother, having to drop out of college. Most of that isn’t even the Big Bad’s fault, but Buffy’s more than willing to take it out on her, anyway. And thus we get Buffy brutally beating the unstoppable hell-god in the face with a giant hammer… repeatedly. When Glory objects, Buffy retorts: “You’re a god. Make it stop.” If that isn’t catharsis, I don’t know what is.
“We’re taking a moment. And, we’re done.”
Buffy had its work cut out for itself, topping Season Two’s doozy of a finale. “Graduation Day” is equally epic. Once again, the slayer faces not just an intimidating, apocalypse-wreaking adversary, but also a much more personal conflict — she has to kill someone she cares for deeply. In this case, it’s Faith, the rogue slayer. (Like “Becoming,” the first part of Season Three’s finale also closes on the supposed demise of a slayer; both finales also culminate in Buffy losing Angel.) As if the pomp and circumstance of graduation day weren’t enough, the Scoobies learn that their guest speaker is the polite but evil Mayor Wilkins, who intends to make his Ascension during the ceremony and snack on the students once he becomes a giant snake demon. (Welcome to the real world, kids!) To distract Buffy, Faith shoots Angel with a toxin that will slowly kill him, and slayer blood is the only cure — resulting in an icky/erotic scene in which Buffy offers her own neck for Angel to guzzle from. And that he does — excessively enough to land her in the trauma ward. Before True Blood made such things commonplace, there was “Graduation Day.”
What makes “Graduation Day” soar as a send-off to Sunnydale High, though, is the way it involves Buffy’s classmates as never before. Obviously, we can only buy for so long that Buffy’s superpowers will go undetected by her peers; both “Earshot” and “The Prom” clued us in to her fellow students taking notice of her slayerness. “Graduation Day” uses that to great effect with a nifty twist — when the big showdown comes, Buffy has forewarned the Class of ’99 and even provided them with weapons to fight back. In the mass hysteria, we see some rise to the challenge as never before (Cordelia stakes her first vamp!) and others meet unhappy ends (R.I.P. gay Larry and bitchy Harmony, good riddance Principal Snyder, eaten by the giant snake). It’s a fitting finish. “Graduation Day” also brilliantly set up the sisterly vibe between Faith and Buffy, echoed two years from now with an actual (sort of) sister, Dawn. In a dream sequence within her coma, Faith riddles Buffy: “Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0.” What’s that about, you say? Well, “Miss Muffet” is Dawn’s code name, and 730 days from the Season Three finale brings us to Season Five — Buffy’s selfless suicide. Also of note: cast members David Boreanaz, Charisma Carpenter, and Alexis Denisof peace out for Buffy spin-off Angel.
Star Players: Mayor Richard Wilkins (Harry Groening), Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman), and the Sunnydale High Class of 1999
Why It Matters: Buffy and her pals graduate from high school (and blow it up), which basically does away with the show’s entire “high school is Hell” premise. Though the Scoobies went on to college and then young adulthood with plenty of great stuff ahead, “Graduation Day” was the end of an era — after this, things would never be the same.
Best Moment: When Buffy learns that the only way to heal Angel of Faith’s poison is the blood of a slayer, she tracks down her fellow Chosen One “all dressed up in big sister’s clothes” (sexy red leather pants!). The two go for some serious girl-on-girl action before Buffy stabs her old pal in the gut — just before Faith jumps off the building and into a coma.
And with that, we’ll finish off the Top 5 next week. Catch the rest here:
See you next Tuesday!