For those who haven’t heard, Buffy the Vampire Slayer turned 20 last week. And as such, everyone’s been celebrating and looking back at one of the most seminal shows of the 90’s and early 2000’s. I’ve finally recovered from binge-watching the series, and I wanted to talk about the best twenty of the series. But since we all seem to have the same top five (Becoming, Hush, The Body, The Gift, & Once More With Feeling), I figured it might be more interesting to talk about the OTHER best episodes of the series. SPOILERS BELOW, so you’ve been warned. And heads up, super fans of season 2 –School Hard, Halloween, Lie to Me, The Dark Age, Phases, and Passion all made good attempts to make the list, but this is just how these things go.
15. Chosen (Season 7, Episode 22)
The series finale might be a weird place to start this list, but it’s because this episode barely slips into the best of the best. It still has the same problems that the last season overall suffers from – namely the melodrama being amped up to a painful degree and some anti-climatic decisions deflating great set-up. But this second finale (The Gift was intended to be the final episode initially) features some of the most powerful imagery of the entire series. Willow using her magic to expand the powers of the Slayer to girls around the world is one of the most inspirational moments in a show that has LOTS of great inspirational moments. I still get choked up every time I think of that little girl during a softball game nervously taking the plate and looking up with the confidence of a Slayer. And while the episode might feel very by the numbers overall (you don’t ever really think the good guys are going to lose this fight), it still manages to find ways to surprise you. Anya’s death still stings, but the moment when Andrew lies about it to spare Xander’s feelings on the matter? After an entire episode earlier this season about Andrew learning NOT to lie and embellish for his own sake? That’s one of the most subtle bits of character development in the show, and reminds us about the kind of strong, unique writing that gave us Buffy in the first place.
14. The Wish (Season 3, Episode 9)
I love me a good Elseworld story, where we can see an alternate universe for a moment, and watch how things may have played out in a time and place where things happened differently. Shortly after introducing us to the character who will eventually become Anya, Cordelia is flung into a world where Buffy never came to Sunnydale and the Big Bad of season 1 (aka the pretty forgettable Master) managed to just straight up win. It’s a hellscape, with Giles leading the few remaining humans in town against the army of vampires (led by evil Willow and Xander) with Angel stuck in a cell being tortured for giggles and Buffy in the most hellish place on Earth… Cleveland. It’s one of the darker episodes of the series, especially when we see the Master’s true plan – blood cappuccinos! And also a processing plant that treats people like cattle in a slaughterhouse. That’s pretty damn dark. Plus, this is the episode has one of the best cold opens of the entire series (where Xander and Willow set up a picnic while Buffy tries to kill a particularly tough demon) no matter what anyone says.
13. Doppelgangland (Season 3, Episode 16)
A direct follow up from The Wish, Doppelgangland opens with Anya trying to restore the world that was created by Cordelia’s wish. This inadvertently lands the evil vampire Willow in our reality, and hilarity ensues. While Evil Willow was genuinely unsettling in her previous appearance, she’s much more of a comic presence in this one. Her disgust with the cute pink sweater Willow has for her is palpable, and her trying to play along with Cordy’s drama is fantastic. The episode features some of the best gags from the entire series (I will never stop laughing at the deadpan delivery David Boreanaz gives the line, “I don’t know how to say this, but Willow’s dead. Oh, hi Willow. Wait.”) and even manages to foreshadow a major development with Willow. But in the end, it’s just really fun to see Willow trying to pretend to be Evil Willow. This episode basically exists just for that element, and I’m perfectly fine with that. Plus, when Giles finds out Willow is alive and all he can think to do is hug her? That is all kinds of adorable.
12. Band Candy (Season 3, episode 6)
I realize that’s three episodes from season 3 in a row, but what can I say? Season 3 is arguably the best year of the show, and even lightweight fluff episodes like this one can provide a great deal of development in the overall arc. Plus, Anthony Steward Head being a terrible teen. The episode centers around a drugged candy bar that, when consumed by adults, reverts them to their teenage states. The most prominent of the two happen to be Buffy’s mother (who turns into a bit of an airhead) and Giles, who turns back into his old rebellious ‘Ripper’ persona. The episode subverts the usual roles, and forces Buffy into being the responsible one – a position she’s not terribly great at yet and no one ever wants her in. And punk Giles is a delight to watch, whether he’s messing with cops or being too out of shape to keep up with Buffy. Sometimes all you need is a solid silly premise to turn out a genuinely hilarious episode of television.
11. Triangle (Season 5, episode 11)
After Riley (Buffy’s white bread boyfriend who’s so boring he can’t even make a vampire heroin house exciting) ingloriously ends their relationship and rejoins the army, Buffy is a little on-edge. And Giles is heading back to Britain for a while, leaving the Magic Box in the care of Willow and Anya. The two end up butting heads within literal seconds of learning this, dragging Xander into the middle of the fight. The bickering accidentally results in the summoning of Anya’s ex… who is a viking troll. The episode highlights the testy relationship between the two women, and works as a great character piece for both of them – Willow and her empathetic but darker side, Anya in her thoughtful but inclusive patter. Everything from their little pet peeves about each other to just plain messing around with magic to even their fundamental differences as people ends up in the talk/fight – while also being a great showcase for how much Xander means to Willow (she’s insulted by the idea that she would ever hurt Xander) and Anya (and how much Buffy thinks they have a beautiful love! A miraculous love!). Also this episode has Spike practicing giving Buffy a box of chocolates with a mannequin in a blonde wig and ending up in a hypothetical argument/fight with the mannequin, and it’s as wonderful as it sounds.
10. Selfless (Season 7, episode 5)
Anya is one of the best characters in the series (if you hadn’t noticed from my selections being pretty Anya heavy), partly because of how silly and enthusiastic she is. But over the course of the series, she ends up in a rough patch, what with Xander leaving her at the alter and her turning back into a vengeance demon and all. But we get a deep hard look at her in the last season episode Selfless, and it’s amazing. After she murders an entire fraternity, Anya ends up on the run from a reluctant but determined Buffy. Meanwhile, we’re presented with Anya’s origin, told at some of the most important moments in Anya’s life, revealing another side of her while asking us to try and defend her. We’re in the same boat as the rest of the Scoobies in this one: what she did was terrible and horrible and apparently unforgivable, but we like Anya. We don’t want her to end up the same way all the other demons we’ve seen on this show do, dead and forgotten. And the final kicker? The secret song from Once More With Feeling showing up to just dropkick you in the emotional solar-plexus? It’s a genuinely amazing dramatic turn, and probably the best jump cut the series ever does (and when you think about it, they do it a lot). It’s one of the greatest tragedies in the series, and watching Anya cry and walk away in the ending is a hall of fame Whedon tearjerker.
9. Lover’s Walk (Season 3, Episode 8)
Spike is at his best when he’s a wrecking ball in vampire form, a drunk brawler hiding the heart of a poet and destroying expectations, relationships, and people. His return to Sunnydale after the somewhat chaotic end of season 2 ends up leading to new complications for all of our heroes, while giving us some of the funniest Spike moments in the series. Sad drunk Spike is one of the best versions of Spike, full of prat falls and shocking ferocity. Plus, seeing him give a reality check to Angel and Buffy about their attempts at “friendship” in one of the best monologues in the series:
“You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love ’till it kills you both. You’ll fight and you’ll shag and you’ll hate each other ’till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood. Blood screaming inside you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”
8. Taubla Rasa (Season 6, Episode 9)
Six seasons in, our cast of characters have transformed and morphed into different people than how they were in the beginning. Their interactions and evolution is part of the reason we love them so much. So getting to see all of them start at point A again and try to figure out their relationships is a delight for long term fans. Buffy is strong, Willow in inquisitve, Xander is silly, Dawn is scared, Giles is befuddled, Anya is excited, and Spike is Spike. And while I may not gush as hard for the later seasons as much as I do for the earlier high school/college years, there are still a lot of great elements to the interpersonal drama later in the series. The relationship between Tara and Willow is fully thrown into whack by decisions Willow makes over the course of the episode, and the dread we’re feeling only makes us want the comedy to last longer. We want to see more of Randy Giles trying to be a vampire with a soul (no matter how lame Buffy thinks it is) or Anya summoning an endless horde of bunnies, because we’re afraid of what’s coming when it all ends – and when it does, we’re just as broken as Willow is.
7. Fear Itself (Season 4, Episode 4)
Buffy has a tradition of great Halloween episodes, and it was really tough not including the season 2 Halloween or season 6’s All the Way. But Fear Itself is the best episode of the three, providing some of the straight up scariest material in the “horror” series. The fears that our heroes are forced to confront are actually frightening over the course of the episode, as is the ruined corpse that our villain gives life too and speaks through. But this same tension helps magnify the hilarious jokes throughout. There’s Giles in the sombrero, there’s Anya in a pink bunny suit (the scariest thing she could think of), there’s Willow showing up as Joan of Arc with Oz as God (you can tell because he has a name tag and everything), there’s Giles WITH A CHAINSAW, and it closes out on the great subversion of the terrible demon being about six inches tall. It manages to be scarier than most horror episodes AND funnier than most comedy episodes, and the fact that it does both at the same time is incredible.
6. Graduation Day (Season 3, Episodes 21 & 22)
Alright, fine, I’m counting this two-parter as a single entry, so sue me. It’s a phenomenal season finale, featuring some of the best climatic battles in the entire run of the series. In Part 1, we get to watch Buffy and Faith finally finally finally have their big confrontation, a no-hold full on fight to the death that manages to get away without killing either of them and NOT being anti-climatic. And the second half sees the consistently enjoyable Mayor finally realize his plan of turning into a giant snake demon monster thing – only to be met with the graduating class coming together as a single army to fight him. It’s thrilling and inspirational and funny and romantic (we get one of the cutest moments between Oz and Willow, the beginning of something great between Anya and Xander, and the hysterical and realistic sinking of the Cordelia and Wesley ship). It’s the end of the high school era, arguably when the show is at it’s creative peak, and it’s a hell of a way to see the high school seasons off.
5. Checkpoint (Season 5, Episode 12)
I should have probably put the sweeping tragedy of Innocence/Passion here or the beautifully written monologue from season one finale The Prophecy Girl. But it’s my list, so instead, let’s talk about how great Checkpoint is. By this point in the series, Buffy has been without a formal Watcher for over a season. But when they dangle information on current Big Bad (and my controversial pick for the best baddie in the series) over head, Buffy is forced to play along with their inane testing. It’s one of the strongest examples of Buffy being Buffy – refusing to listen to these old men posture and debate her fate WITHOUT her say. She’s strong, she’s independent, and how dare the Watchers forget that. And it never tries to force the point, it just makes it. It’s one of the most cathartic moments in the series, and a nutshell of the message of the series. Buffy is the master of her fate, and if you disagree? Get out of her way.
And then it’s followed by the amazing revelation that Glory isn’t just a demon, she’s a God. Some of the best work Sarah Michelle Geller ever does in the show is in that little moment when you can see all the confidence in her face drain at the reveal, and it’s a wonderful teaser to leave the episode on.
4. Restless (Season 4, Episode 22)
Restless, which closes out the very up-and down season 4, might be one of the strangest episodes in the entire run of the series. It’s also one of the most fascinating, playing out like a mad stream of consciousness (which helps solidify the dream like nature of the episode). After combining into a singular massively powerful force to combat “Officially Most Boring Frankenstein Ever” Adam, the Scoobies take a night off and all fall asleep watching movies. But something stalks them in their dreams, and we get glimpses into the fears, loves, thoughts, and feelings of our heroes. And it all leads to one of the best scenes in the series, the meeting between Buffy and the force, revealed to be the spirit of the first Slayer. This episode is one of the most technically creative episodes they ever end up doing, and one of the most visually impressive. And yes, the cheese guy is amazing and should show up in every dream sequence in everything forever.
3. Conversations With Dead People (Season 7, Episode 7)
Conversations With Dead People isn’t like any other episode of the series. But not in the way that episodes like Hush or Restless are different. It’s not an experiment – if anything, it’s the most play-like episode of the show. It actually has a pretty straight forward story – Buffy, Willow, and Dawn are confronted by different dead people, and each goes through a different story for it. Willow has a somber talk with a teen girl who committed suicide, and it explores guilt and pain and the reasons why someone would think taking their own life would be the right decision to make. Dawn finds herself in a fairly standard horror movie plot, albeit a very technically impressive one. But the best segment is the extended talk Buffy has with a former classmate who’s just risen as a vampire. Their talk is frank, funny, and feels like a real conversation between two people who barely knew each other but are more than happy to try and understand one another. It becomes a chance for Buffy to vent to someone without preconceived opinions about her and her decisions, and it offers one of the best windows into her psyche in the series – and one of the best examples of Whedon’s writing in the entire run of the show (a rushed production left each segment of the episode written by a different writer, and Whedon provides the Buffy section). It’s three strong short-films with a specific theme, and it’s easily the best episode in the seventh season.
2. The Zeppo (Season 3, Episode 13)
Poor Xander. The only member of the Scoobies to never receive a significant power upgrade (besides some brief army skills that fade after a few years) and therefore finding himself as the “normal” member of the team – aka the boring one – becomes a major force of his character development. And after one too many snide remarks from a vengeful Cordelia, he decides to prove his worth and manliness by standing up for himself. While the rest of the Scoobies spend the episode fighting some other end of the world prophecy (which we only see hints of whenever Xander runs into them – seeing Buffy and Angel’s melodrama from an outside perspective is one of the best moments of the show having fun with itself), Xander ends up on the wrong side of some zombie street punks, and has to figure out how to stop them all on his own. It’s a great growing up story for the guy who’s usually relegated to donuts duty, all leading to the best moment the character ever gets: standing up to his bully and calling his bluff with the bomb in the basement. It’s fantastic, and would be the best part of the episode if it wasn’t for the part where Xander tries to intimidate a henchman before accidentally killing him. That’s legit comedy gold right there.
1. Fool For Love (Season 5, Episode 7)
Yes, your love for this episode depends on how much you like Spike. Yes, this episode does little to advance the primary plot. Yes, it’s probably not as good as I think it is… but come on. The origins of Spike, played against a playful conversation he has with Buffy about the previous Slayers he killed after some rando vamp manages to get a lucky shot on her, is easily one of the best individual episodes of the entire series, and a personal favorite. It features two of the best fights in the entire show, both formally different but equally impressive. It shows us another side of Spike that we always suspected was real: a sad and pathetic romantic who just wants to be loved. His chemistry with Drusilla is real and harsh and painful, especially when we (finally) see the break-up alluded to in Lover’s Walk. But so is the connection he has with Buffy, which aches and ebbs and leads to a vengeful Spike bringing a gun to her house but putting it down so he can be there to support her. It’s intense, it’s romantic, it’s powerful, it’s funny, and it’s exhilarating – so pretty much all of Buffy in one clean package. It’s easily my favorite episode, and the best (other) episode of the series.
Disagree with any of my points? Have I lost all credibility by not having more Season 2 episodes (or really any season 2 episodes) on the list? Or do you think I’ve got the right picks for this list? Leave a comment – unless it’s that you think Chainsaw Giles isn’t the best thing ever, in which case you can keep that to yourself.