Just so you know: you’re going to disagree with this list. I’m rereading it right now and I already disagree with it. I know that the top 3 entries belong up there in some sort of order, but that’s it. The wonderful thing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that it’s a teen TV show about a girl that isn’t just for teens, or girls. Different episodes can speak to you in different ways at different times of your life.
Anyway, let’s get started with my poor decisions. I’m going to stick with stand-alone episodes for this list. I know that a lot of the season finales are phenomenal, but they’re the product of a season’s worth of buildup. These are ones that can blow you off your feet all by themselves.
[Warning: There are major spoilers below of a show that ended ten years ago. The warning is that you are seriously out of touch with pop culture. Fix that by watching these episodes.]
10. Earshot (Season 3, Episode 18)
There are so many great episodes that this entry was almost a 3-way tie alongside “Tabula Rasa” and “Something Blue” because they’re all funny, mix-it-up episodes with an underlying sadness to them. I went with “Earshot” because it revealed the most about character while still giving the show a good shake.
In “Earshot”, Buffy becomes magically endowed with the ability to hear others’ thoughts, which quickly turns out to be more of a hindrance than an advantage. This episode gave us our first dramatic look at Jonathan, who had previously been used, not even as comic relief, but as a backdrop. It reminded us that other people are starring in the brilliant epic that is their own life, and maybe you should pay attention to that sometimes.
Really, though, I just love this episode for the funny moments of insight into others’ minds. We learn that Xander does math badly to keep from thinking about sex, Oz is the embodiment of Hemingway’s iceberg theory, Cordelia says the first thing that drifts through the vacuum of her cranium, and Angel literally has no thoughts (or they just “make no reflection in your mind”, as though that should mean something.)
Best Line: Oz: [Thinking] I am my thoughts. If they exist in her, Buffy contains everything that is me, and she becomes me. I cease to exist.
[Out loud]: Hm.
Best Moment: Buffy mentions that she knows that Giles and her mother had sex and Anthony Stewart Head uses this opportunity to walk into a tree.
9. Intervention (Season 5, Episode 18)
Season 5 is all about growing up and while it’s still witty, there are far fewer fun and funny episodes in this season than in others. It’s sort of a downer when the main character loses her lover, finds her mother dead on the couch, gets her ass kicked every time she meets the Big Bad and gets saddled with the world’s worst genetic bag of hormones.
And then “Intervention” comes along. And it’s classic, oh-shit-topsy-turvy-let’s-make-Spike-and-Buffy-kiss magic and fun. Spike gets a Buffybot for lascivious purposes, but everyone mistakes it for the real Buffy. Hilarity ensues. And then it ends on a surprisingly serious (and astoundingly tender) note. I actually enjoy watching Sarah Michelle Geller in this episode.
Spike is easily the most interesting character in this show, because he is victim to some really contradictory feelings. There is nothing more wonderful than seeing him be gentle and loving. When Buffy rebuffs him (leave that pun alone and I will too and we’ll just keep soldiering on here), it’s funny. When she responds with enthusiasm, it’s hot. When she’s touched by his loyalty and kisses him for real for the first time in the show, it melts your soul a little bit.
Best Moment: Probably a tie between Spike convincing the minions that Bob Barker is The Key and getting to see post-coital Spike with mussed-up hair (I’m a fangirl, shut up, I squee sometimes.)
Best Line: Xander: No one is judging you. It’s understandable. Spike is strong and mysterious and sort of compact but well-muscled.
Buffy: I am not having sex with Spike! But I’m starting to think that you might be.
8. Chosen (Season 7, Finale)
I said I wasn’t going to include finales, but I lied. I have to talk about this episode. I loved “The Gift”, which was a great way to end Season 5, but deep down I always had a problem with the heroic sacrifice. Although Buffy chose to give her life for the cause, she always had to play the game that other people forced upon her. She was forced to be a Slayer, she was forced to take in Dawn, she was forced to kill. She chose to die, but she had limited options there.
“Chosen” changed all that. It’s the most feminist episode I’ve ever seen. It’s about a woman who flies in the face of every patriarchal tradition, empowers a bunch of women, defeats evil, and then is free to do whatever the fuck she feels like.
It also has Nathan Fillion as the world’s creepiest preacher, Angel showing up and being shut down, Willow finally embracing the sacred side of magic, Spike’s heroic sacrifice and the brutal slaying of an established character. What more could you ask for?
Best Line: Spike: Most people don’t use their tongue to say hello. Or, I guess they do, but…
Best Moment: The “Welcome to Sunnydale” sign falls into the gaping pit that was once the thriving, demon-infested town. The sun is bright. Everything is still. The cluster of survivors survey the remains of their city uncertainly. Dawn turns to her sister. “Buffy…What are we gonna do now?” The camera pans in on Buffy as a slow realization sinks in. She smiles.
END OF THE FUCKING SERIES, HOLY SHIT, JOSS WHEDON
7. I Only Have Eyes For You (Season 2, Episode 19)
Marti Noxon was kind of a crap head writer (what was Season 6′s arc, again?), but good god the woman could write an episode into the ground, bury it, dig it back up, and turn it into the world’s greatest ghost story.
This episode is insanely clever. The ghost of a boy who killed his teacher/lover 50 years ago keeps reenacting their tragic murder/suicide by possessing other peoples’ bodies. He can never get the closure and peace he needs because the people he’s using will always die the same way, every time.
On a TOTALLY UNRELATED, NO FOR REALSIES note, Buffy is blaming herself for her “selfish” part in turning Angel evil.
What’s clever about this episode is the way it inverts gender roles and creates a simultaneously satisfying/unsatisfying conclusion. What’s lovely about this episode is the way it makes you ache for the way things were. It’s not enough to just ruin a relationship in this show; they have to remind you of how good it used to be. It reminds us that nothing is farther away than one minute ago. You can make an impulsive choice and then spend the rest of your life (or afterlife) regretting that one decision. Even in the end, even if you get to make amends and say you’re sorry, it doesn’t undo everything that happened.
Also? Angel makes a very convincing ’50s schoolmarm.
Best Moment/Line: Cordelia sums up the essence of Buffy in one, succinct line: “Okay. Over-identify much?”
6. Band Candy (Season 3, Episode 6)
There’s nothing to deconstruct in this episode. It is the purest form of distilled Buffy fun you’ll find, with no intriguing underlying meanings to weigh it down. There are some brilliant lines, the actors are clearly having the time of their lives, and we get to focus on the adults a little, which is practically progressive in a teen show. But that’s not what makes this episode great. There’s really only one good reason for this episode to be this high on my list:
Let me explain. Band Candy is about magical chocolate bars that make all the adults act like teenagers. It’s a whole thing. Most of the adult actors do what adult actors always do in these sorts of scripts: they portray teens the way that they see teens, not the way they felt as teens. There’s a lot of gum-smacking and exaggerated gestures.
Not Anthony Stewart Head. For the duration of this episode, he is 16. He uses his real accent (which is a gem) and gives off the arrogant, self-absorbed, I’m-too-cool-for-this attitude of every teenage boy that you once wanted to simultaneously be and bone. He didn’t just play this part. He owned it.
Best Moment: Giles enthusiastically egging Buffy to smack Ethan Rayne’s teeth through his weaselly little head. The way he punches the air when she finally does it.
Best Line: You have to imagine it in Giles’ phenomenal accent, but it goes like this: “Let’s find the demon and–and kick the crap out of it.”
5. The Zeppo (Season 3, Episode 13)
If you had a group of people with superpowers, who would be the most interesting? The one with immortality, super strength and healing, witchcraft or demon magic? The correct answer is “None of the above.” In a world where superpowers are the norm, what’s really interesting is to watch the Everyman cope without them.
In “The Zeppo”, Buffy, Willow, Giles and Angel have to fight for their very lives and the safety of the world in order to keep the Hellmouth from opening and destroying mankind. And, like a good Greek play, it all happens offscreen. Instead we follow Xander, who is ignored and considered useless, and we watch him save the day.
This is a revolutionary episode just for its focus and structure. The thing we tend to forget about Sunnydale is that Buffy isn’t the only one going up against evil demons. Everyone who lives there is in constant danger. Xander exemplifies the common citizen who must rise above mediocrity and contribute in ways that will never be recognized by his friends or society.
Best Moment: The accidental decapitation of Bob via drive-by mailbox.
Best Line: Jack [holding the knife up to Xander's ear]: She’s called Katie.
Xander: You gave it a girl’s name. How very serial killer of you.
4. Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)
What do you do when someone gives you a compliment? Blush and duck? Thank them profusely? Or do you say “Shit, I rely on that strength too much! NO MORE TALKING.” If it’s the latter, you might be Joss Whedon.
Someone said that Joss Whedon relied on clever, witty banter for his success. He responded by making a dialogue-free episode. Because no one told him about these newfangled things called “Talkies,” presumably.
This episode was made to be analyzed. All it does is discuss our methods of communication and the way that words can clarify or obfuscate meaning. It starts with three characters’ three problems, all revolving around language: Buffy and Riley like each other, but never make it to physical romance because they have to cover up their lies about their secret jobs. Tara is the only other “real” witch in Willow’s Wicca group, but due to a stutter and over-talkative other people, they never connect. Anya wants Xander to elucidate and quantify his affection for her, and he simply doesn’t have the language to express himself.
Then, 15 minutes in, everyone loses the ability to speak. Enter the world’s most mind-bogglingly terrifying bad guy. While the humans must scramble and flail to be (mis) understood, The Gentlemen communicate through silent, precise gestures. They prey on the loneliness of silence, the way it victimizes everyone.
But lo, our heroes find ways to better communicate, even in silence. Buffy and Riley, without the inane bullshit that drips from their mouths on a bi-minutely basis, emote with tongue fencing instead. Xander proves his love for Anya by punching Spike in the face. And Tara and Willow make some sweet, sweet magic.
Oh, and a bunch of people get their hearts surgically removed. : (
Best Moment: Buffy tries to mime “slaying” and it looks like… Wait, hold on, this is the Internet…
3. Innocence (Season 2, Episode 14)
Joss Whedon called this his favorite episode with good reason. It’s brilliant. After finally having the world’s statutory-rapiest sex of all time, Buffy wakes up no longer a virgin and Angel wakes up without his soul. Now evil and with considerably more eyeliner, he immediately teams up with Spike and Drusilla to help reinvigorate the Judge, a giant evil Smurf that cannot be killed by any weapon forged.
The reason this episode isn’t higher on my list is that I agree with the argument that Buffy is punished too often for having sex in this show. However, I thought Joss was trying to get at something pretty honest to a lot of women: sometimes, when you’re young, you sleep with a guy because you think he’s sweet and loving and then suddenly the next day he becomes a total dick who murders your computer teacher and draws creepy pictures of you while you sleep.
What makes this episode great for me is the theme of innocence. The easiest way to read it is that Buffy lost her innocence sexually and Angel lost his literally. The deeper way, though, is that Buffy lost the innocent, child-like part of herself that believed in happy endings. This is the first moment of losing the delusion that she’s safe, of realizing that the world demands hard sacrifices.
Also? Oz. Oz.
Best Line: Oz: Sometimes when I’m sitting in class… You know, I’m not thinking about class, ’cause that would never happen. I think about kissing you. And it’s like everything stops. It’s like, it’s like freeze frame. Willow kissage.
Best Moment: I want to say the rocket launcher scene, but everyone says that. I’m going to go with the best avoidance of a TV cliche instead. Buffy is finally celebrating her birthday, alone with her mother, on the couch. They’re watching an old, heartbreakingly romantic movie. Her mom gives her a single cupcake with a lone candle and tells her to make a wish. You expect Buffy to blow it out as the screen goes black. But she doesn’t make a wish. She leans away, curls up like a child and says “I’ll just let it burn.”
2. Once More, with Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)
As my friend and fellow nerd astutely pointed out, Season 6 is extremely meta. The show actively calls Buffy’s life a ridiculous fantasy in “Normal Again” and “Once More, with Feeling” asks the question of why Buffy came back at all, when she had “finished” so well in the previous season.
The answer to that question is “This episode.” There is nothing in it that doesn’t work. Firstly, it’s a musical where everyone is aware of how strange it is that they’re all bursting into song. The musical genres vary from Disney to Astaire-and-Rogers to British rock. Buffy’s feeling that she is in hell is repeatedly underscored by a devil, spontaneous human combustion and a song about literally walking through flames. But the best part about it?
It’s so damn clever. I mean, purely from an English nerd standpoint, it’s gold. Let’s just take a stanza from the first song:
I was always brave
and kind of righteous;
now I find I’m wavering.
Crawl out of your grave,
you’ll find this fight just
doesn’t mean a thing.
Tight meter, good A-B-C-A-B-C rhyme scheme and–holy shit, did Joss Whedon just rhyme ‘kind of righteous’ with ‘find this fight just’? And it made sense?! He managed to rhyme 3/4 of two lines together and reveal something about character. At the same time. How is there not a religion devoted to this man yet?
The whole episode is like that. From the deliciously catchy duet between Anya and Xander to Marti Noxon arguing against a traffic ticket by singing “Hey, I’m not wearing underwear” to Tara’s surprisingly sweet and lilting voice, this breakaway pop hit is practically flawless.
Best Moment: When you think Dawn is going to sing some whiny bullshit but Pinocchio’s pedophile uncle kidnaps her instead.
Best Line: Spike: First I’ll save her, then I’ll kill her.
Willow [disappointed]: I think this line’s mostly filler.
1. The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)
The premise is simple: Buffy comes home and finds her mom on the couch, dead from an aneurysm. The audience is then treated to a study of grief that doesn’t fall back on insipid pseudo-religious sentimentality or faux-magical fantasy resurrections.
I could make a top 10 list within this one entry of all the ways that this episode is perfect, both in the writing and direction.
By taking away non-diagetic sound and by creating long shots, it isolates us in grief. By filming most of the first 12-minute scene in one continuous shot it denies us the possibility of escaping the most horrible moment anyone can ever live through. By letting petty problems and a little humor exist, it reminds us that life continues. By starting each of the four vignettes with a shot of Joyce’s lifeless face, it makes her less of a person and more of an object with each repetition.
I could go on.
But I would like instead to just note how this episode is not a typical Buffy episode, making it the greatest and bravest of them all.
It involves a main character death mid-season, and she died of natural causes instead of some evil that Buffy could fight. The dialogue is not snappy or particularly meaningful; it’s lost and confused and angry and scared. The one instance of supernatural evil is treated like the mundane occurrence that it is, made terrible and pathetic by the vampire’s nakedness and the lack of inspiring music.
This episode proves that audiences crave more than what we’re usually force-fed. We don’t just want easily digestible, one-hour soaps, or pithy morals and convenient plot wrap-ups. We don’t just want to escape every week.
We want the real, messy, confusing vortex of grief and love and happiness in our lives acknowledged. We want to know that even though we feel alone, other people feel alone in the same way, all the time.
Best Moment: Tara and Willow’s first onscreen kiss, which also defies traditional television narrative. Not sexy, not subversive, not shocking. You’d almost think that lesbians had relationships that were just like everyone else’s. Huh.
Best Line: Buffy: It’s not her…it’s not her. She’s gone.
Dawn: Where’d she go?