A friend decided we are going to have a Buffy the Vampire Slayer marathon this weekend with two other like-minded teachers at my school. I suggested that, in order to select which episodes we watch, we should all come up with a short list of our favourite episodes. Obviously there will be considerable overlap—who isn’t going to put “Once More, with Feeling” on their top 10? We can watch the ones we all agree are the best, then each champion one or two of the favourites remaining.
So tonight I sat down and took some time to consider what my favourite Buffy episodes might be. This is a challenge. Buffy is one of those shows where individual episodes might not be great, but their contribution to the show’s overall plot and character arcs is significant. The value of the show, to me, is the way the characters change and grow over the course of the seven years we are with them. Like many shows, season 1 is not great—none of its episodes made my list, as you shall see, although I considered several—but it is formative. It lays the foundations for the Scoobies, the starting points from which they grow throughout the rest of the show. However, the nature of the show means that it’s difficult to identify specific episodes that show those changes. A lot of these episodes are “favourites” because of specific gimmicks in writing, acting, or storytelling that make them memorable and enjoyable.
I approached this task by looking at the list of all episodes and adding memorable or favourite episodes by season order. Then I went through and tried to rank them, occasionally referring to their Wikipedia articles to job my poor memory. So my list might not be entirely reliable, in the sense that I might have missed an episode because its brief description didn’t ring bells or resonate with my memories of that season.
Oh, just a note: there are spoilers for major events in this show, so if you don’t want certain things revealed, don’t read the list. Mmmkay?
The Top Eleven
11. “The Zeppo” (Season 3, Episode 13)
I love Xander. He is my favourite Buffy character, no doubt. I identify with Xander—however, not exactly in a “he is me” sense, because I’d take a Jungian approach to the cast and assert that each character represents certain archetypes—I have a Buffy, and a Willow, and a Giles, etc., inside me. Xander, though, is my favourite character because he is normal, and he remains so throughout the series. In a series all about the supernatural, where almost every character has some kind of superpower or supernatural condition, being normal is the real challenge.
This episode deviates from the typical show format in that it doesn’t follow the rest of the cast for the main plot. Xander falls in with a different group, who turn out to be into some pretty dark stuff. He drifts away from the Scoobies, whom we see dealing with an apocalyptic situation, but only from a distance. I love this focus on Xander, because it allows us to see the Buffy experience from his perspective. He is always the companion, always the one who is there to support and research but never central to the fighting, slaying, or solving of the problem.
10. “Something Blue” (Season 4, Episode 9)
Spells gone wrong is a common theme in Buffy, particularly as the consequences of Willow’s increasing reliance on magic escalate in season 6. This earlier episode foreshadows that, while also providing some comedic relief to the somewhat serious issues that the gang has dealt with during the first part of the season.
Season 4 is a difficult season for me to love. I don’t like the Initiative as a villain, and Adam comes along far too late. And I don’t like Riley. I really hated this season when I first watched it, when I was much longer. In recent re-watches of the show, my opinion towards it has softened. Having gone through high school myself, I now recognize season 4 as a strong attempt to address the anticlimactic feeling that most people experience after graduation. Season 4 is all about the characters attempting to create an individual narrative after having been forced to be together by dint of being in the same school. Willow suddenly realizes she can be more than just Buffy’s sidekick; she can be a witch! Xander struggles with the knowledge that he can’t hack it in the academic world. And Buffy, of course, wonders if she can ever balance being the Slayer with more mundane activities.
This episode is almost entirely straight-up comedy, which lets us see the actors ham it up even more than usual. In particular, it allows us to have some great moments between Buffy and the newly-innocuous Spike.
9. “Restless” (Season 4, Episode 22)
You love it or you hate it. This episode is unconventional, so it doesn’t work for some people. I admit it isn’t a favourite in the sense that it has a great plot—but it’s just an amazing work of art. And for fans who have really come to care about the characters, it is an excellent forty minutes of reflecting on their states of mind after saving the world yet again.
8. “Family” (Season 5, Episode 6)
I love this purely for the ending, where Buffy and the gang (even Spike!) stand up for Tara. It’s a moving tribute to Tara’s place, which has been ambiguous up until this point, with them. I think it also makes explicit the theme of family as something you create around yourself, a theme that has been present from the beginning of the series.
As usual, the episode title applies to multiple plots. In this case, Buffy is also processing the revelation that Dawn is a new addition to her family. With an absentee father, a mother who doesn’t always understand Buffy’s obligations and stresses as the Slayer, and now a sister who hasn’t always been her sister, Buffy has a strange family indeed. But she also has friends who are as much her family as her blood. Both the notions of family and blood continue to grow in importance as the season progresses towards its climax.
7. “The Body” (Season 5, Episode 19)
Done entirely without a score, this episode is intense. It is definitely one of the most serious Buffy episodes, given that the characters deal with the death of a major figure in Buffy’s life. The genius of this death is that it occurs for entirely mundane reasons; there is no supernatural malice behind the event. As a result, Buffy must confront the truth that no matter how hard she fights the forces of evil, there is some suffering that just happens.
Buffy’s mother was always a pivotal character in Buffy’s life, but she was less important to the show itself. In recent seasons, because the emphasis had shifted towards Buffy’s independence as an adult, Joyce was even less present. Thus, her death creates a sense of finality, one last way for this character to contribute to Buffy’s development instead of becoming increasingly irrelevant.
For me, the centrepiece of the episode is Anya’s speech. I love Anya’s speech. I show the clip to friends who haven’t even watched Buffy. It underscores how despite inhabiting a human form for two years now, she still doesn’t comprehend the range of human emotion. More importantly, it lets Whedon express certain thoughts about grief in an economical yet evocative way. Because—and this is the truth that her speech reveals—even those of us who are humans don’t understand grief; we’re just too polite to speak our minds like Anya does.
6. “Storyteller” (Season 7, Episode 16)
I don’t like season 7 that much. It depresses me. It’s dark, dealing Buffy far too many setbacks, and even the humour feels a little indulgent, a little too much, “We’ve done this before.” As with season 4, my opinion has softened a little in subsequent viewings.
Still, one of my favourite parts of this season is the return of Andrew and what he brings to the mix. In this case, his relentless attempts to chronicle the exploits of Buffy and the gang are endearing and hilarious. It’s an interesting device that allows Whedon to say stuff about the show he couldn’t otherwise do without completely breaking the fourth wall, and it’s a perfect type of episode to include in the seventh season of a series.
5. “Hush” (Season 4, Episode 10)
I like this episode because I don’t have to listen to Riley talk.
Seriously, though, this episode and “Once More, with Feeling” are the obvious pair of great Buffy episodes that inevitably make anyone’s top list. One is done (nearly) entirely without dialogue; the other is almost completely done through song. In both cases, the writers and actors are working in a very different format, and the results are two of the highest-quality episodes in the series.
In the case of “Hush”, I particularly love the scene in which Giles explains the monster of the week through a series of overhead projections. From the fumbling with upside-down transparencies to the cheesy music to Buffy’s awkward hand motions, it’s a good way of getting some humour out of an otherwise scary episode.
I was kind of kidding about the Riley joke at the beginning of this section. Kind of. But don’t discount the significance of Riley learning that Buffy is the Slayer in an episode where neither of them can talk about it.
4. “Lie to Me” (Season 2, Episode 7)
Like Season 1, Season 2 has lots of obvious rough edges that make its individual episodes harder to appreciate when compared to the amazing ones that follow. It has a more delicious Big Bad, Angelus—more on that in a moment—and with a full 22 episodes, Whedon gets a lot more done with the characters.
I think the reason I like “Lie to Me” so much is twofold. Firstly, it lets Whedon talk about what makes Angel, as a vampire with a soul, so special without giving anything away about what is coming later in the season. By establishing why being a vampire sucks so much here, he gives us a better understanding of the awful significance of Angel’s transformation. Secondly, it is one of the earliest examples of the sense of nihilism and futility that will haunt Buffy later in the series. At the very end of the episode, Buffy asks Giles to lie to her (hence the title), and he replies with a snappy little speech:
Yes, it's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true. The bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats and we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
It’s a light moment, but a light moment tinged with the loss of innocence that will become one of the hallmarks of this season.
3. “Innocence” (Season 2, Episode 14)
Seven episodes later, Buffy has sex. Then her boyfriend turns evil.
I love how Whedon links the two experiences, drawing on the pain and uncertainty that surrounds adolescent sexual maturity while simultaneously exploring Buffy’s vulnerability as a Slayer who loves a vampire with a soul. The way that Angelus toys with her, from the start of the episode to nearly the end, is painful to watch.
Tragedy is also always more poignant when it’s directly linked to a character’s actions. Buffy’s death at the end of the first season was moving, but at no time was she ever really responsible for the Master’s evil plans. Here, she feels a gross sense of responsibility for unleashing Angelus on the world. Now she has to fight—and hopefully kill—the man she loves in order to save the world. Twisted!
The shortened season 1 is all about introducing Buffy and her friends to the audience and laying the ground for the basic mythology. Season 2 shows the characters beginning to mature and realize that theirs is a world of shadows. The seemingly effortless, glib humour that Whedon and his team imprint on every episode is the light that allows such shadows to exist. In season 2, Buffy loses her innocence, and this episode is the strongest example of that theme on multiple levels.
2. “Once More, with Feeling” (Season 6, Episode 7)
I almost made this my number 1 pick, but that would be silly. As I wrote my encomium of “The Gift”, I realized there is no way I could say that “Once More, with Feeling” is better. But it is quite good.
On one level, of course, this show is purely a gimmick. However, as far as musical episodes go, it is one of the first, and it has influenced most that have followed. Viewed in this light, the episode seems to have little to offer except some good fun (such as Anya’s amazing solo about bunnies).
There’s never one level with Buffy, though, and “Once More, with Feeling” has more layers than ogres do. Where does one begin? It’s a simple idea: all of the characters are singing their feelings, and they literally cannot stop from singing about their deepest thoughts, fears, and desires. Giles is worried that he has done everything he can for Buffy and that it isn’t enough. Anya and Xander both have cold feet about marriage. Buffy has realized that, since her resurrection, she does not feel like she belongs here any more, and she is resentful of those who dragged her out of “heaven” to this dirty, mortal existence.
It’s an exquisite, alternatingly pleasurable and painful episode. My favourite song is “Walk Through the Fire”. In addition to being a nice ensemble piece, it has the best line: Buffy sings, “These endless days are finally ending in a blaze”. Later in the song, the group sings, “We will walk through the fire—and let it burn” and fire trucks race across in the background, creating one of the series’ best visual moments.
I have the soundtrack, and I listen to some of the songs regularly.
1. “The Gift” (Season 5, Episode 22)
I consistently cry when I watch this episode.
“The Gift” and “Graduation Day” are my two favourite Buffy season finales. The latter almost made this list—it was such a tough call—because it pretty much embodies everything that students think and feel upon graduating high school. “The Gift”, though, is more mature; it’s coming from a slightly different place. It is a far more personal experience for Buffy.
This episode has one of my favourite ever quotes from this series (and I have so many). As Buffy hugs Dawn just prior to throwing herself into the gaping portal that threatens to swallow the Earth, she leans in and whispers, “Dawn, the hardest thing in this world—is to live in it.”
It’s somewhat trite in isolation. As usual, you need that context of the entire show behind it to realize its awesome power. Season 5 consists almost entirely of Buffy experiencing setback and setback; she seems to be stuck in a feedback loop of epic fail. Glory is the first enemy that Buffy realizes she cannot defeat. Suddenly being the Slayer isn’t enough. And on top of that, she has lost her mom, making her the de facto head of the family and caretaker for her little sister. She is feeling the pressure. The episode immediately prior to “The Gift” explicitly has Buffy admitting that she has given up, that she thinks she can’t win.
This episode also features Giles showing off that edgier side of his character. He kills Ben in cold blood in order to prevent Glory from returning. He does this because he knows that, as a hero, Buffy can’t—fortunately, he isn’t a hero. It is one of the darkest, most significant examples of how Giles has always made tough choices in his attempt to watch over Buffy.
Finally, the episode emphasizes the power of family and the significance of blood. Buffy affirms her love for Dawn, despite Dawn’s supernatural origins, telling Dawn that her blood is “Summers blood” and realizing that means she can take Dawn’s place in order to close the portal. Again, it might seem hokey. In the grander scheme of the series, however, it is an example of how Buffy is at her best when she embraces her humanity and all the things that makes her human. It hearkens back to last season’s climax, “Primeval”, where Buffy succeeds by relying on her human companions for their strength. We are stronger because of our blood, because of our ties.