by Daniel Suddes
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had no business being as good as it was. At first glance, it is about self-absorbed teenagers fighting monsters that look like they belong in a Godzilla film. But it manages to transcend its material by being downright imaginative in the way it explores themes ranging from fatherhood, to teenaged angst, to self-worth. The monsters were not real, but manifestations of the demons that we all fight. The show revolutionized dramatic television (the current reboot of Doctor Who would not be nearly as good without the Buffy template to follow) and still survives in syndication.
This list attempts to examine the top episodes of the show. It was very difficult to narrow it down, and I am sure that many will comment on how I could leave out certain episodes. They will all be right. The strength of the show was how much information and development was present in each episode. There are very few “bad” ones, but to me, these episodes help explain more about that development than any other. Also, is it wrong to select ones that showcase characters I liked? This is, after all, my list.
By the way, yes, I am excluding the famous musical episode. Everyone’s seen it and declared it the greatest thing to air on television or the greatest piece of art in the history of civilization. In other words, I cannot really add anything else about it. I’d rather explore new territory than talk about the subtlety present in getting the mustard out.
10.) Chosen (Season 7, Episode 22)
What better place to start than with the series finale? Season Seven had ended a lull that the previous two had, and the finale to it and the show was a memorable one. Yes, the episode borrowed heavily from the Lord of the Rings films, but it also left a satisfying conclusion to each of the characters. Some old ones (such as Angel) returned, and other characters finally found the redemption that they crazed forever. Even the universe seemed to be changed (in ways that would be explored in the comics…with mixed results).
Most finales have a very difficult time dealing with their endings. They either leave plot points open, or spend so much time reveling in the past that they forget to tell a story. Chosen managed to be both a nostalgic romp and a glorious send off to the characters, showing them triumphant over their greatest foe yet. Indeed, it was even hopeful – the last shot of the episode (and the series) has Buffy smiling as she contemplates her future. I was sad to see the show end. But I am glad that it ended this way.
9.) Nightmares (Season 1, Episode 10)
Most people complain about how weak the first season of the show was. Most people are correct – those shows are often childish compared to the major arcs that were created for later seasons, and introduced some of the silliest villains Whedon has ever concocted. Still, there were some great moments – like this episode, which was the first real “event” episode that worked. It is also one of the first that really attempted to explore the psyche of the characters, foreshadowing their maturity and growth through later seasons. In case you could not tell by the title, this episode involves every single character experiencing their worst nightmares. Rather than dealing with monsters and images (as most nightmares due) these seem to be authentic. The then shy Willow, for example, is forced to sing in front of a large crowd. Giles finds he is illiterate. And Buffy is told by her father that he does not enjoy visiting her.
These are real problems that teenaged kids would face. Some seem trivial to us (especially Cordelia’s nightmares involving joining the chess club) but each is revealing about the state of mind of those experiencing them and even more about how they respond to the things that have haunted their psyches for years. Ironically, Xander seems to be the only one who can stand up to his nightmare – which foreshadows the many times that he will be the one who bails his friends out of a jam. This episode was surpassed, but this was the episode that made many realize what a memorable show Buffy would be.
8.) This Year’s Girl & Who Are You (Season 4, Episodes 15 and 16)
Faith was introduced in season three, but had very few episodes where she was allowed to stand out. Usually, she was just a henchwoman to either Buffy or Mayor Wilkins. These allowed for great conflicts, but we didn’t learn much about Faith as a person. That finally came in this two parter, where Faith and Buffy switched bodies. This not only allowed for Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku to flex their acting chops, but demonstrated more about both. Faith was always meant to be a foil for Buffy – demonstrating how her life could have been if she had made a few more choices. One of those, naturally, was whether or not she chose to enjoy her role as the Slayer. Faith felt it made a superhero. Buffy acted like it was a curse. Now, with both in that position, we can see Buffy (the body, at least) acting in that alternative role.
Besides, it was an interesting choice to resurrect an old villain for a new season – indeed; the characters seem just as unable to deal with it as the writers were. Still, it resurrects the best of season three into season four, at a time when it was desperately needed for the season to continue. These episodes usually don’t make too many “best of” lists. But it was the best Faith episode for some time and showed us a new side of Buffy. That is the best that any episode can do.
7.) Fool For Love (Season Five, Episode 7)
Season five is probably my least favorite Buffy season. The villain was weak, Dawn was pathetically annoying, and the characters just seemed to be at a period of transition (for the most part) with nothing to relate to. Even the seemingly powerful ending was rendered moot by the next season’s opening. It still leads to a great crisis, granted, but we would have to wait for next year to see any sort of pay off.
With the overall arc diminished, there were many stand outs amongst the individual episodes. This is one of those episodes, which finally puts to rest many ideas about Spike’s origins. We knew who he was, we knew how he was created, and we knew that he was a particularly nasty character who had killed two slayers before. But now, we actually get to see it and see what makes Spike tick – and what can save him. He even explains, in his own words, how Slayers choose to end their lives.
Usually, prequels destroy the mystique around characters. This one manages to only make Spike seem more fearsome and his transformation more dramatic. Spike would continue to change over the next few years, and truly earned his dramatic end. This episode shows why, more than any other in the series.
6.) The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)
This episode is cited a lot as the greatest on the show – not for what it shows, but for what it does not show. For those not in the know, this is the episode in which Buffy’s mother dies of a brain aneurysm. That’s right – no mystical curse, no vampire bite, nothing that would ever indicate she could come back (not that she didn’t make a cameo in one episode in season six…but that’s another story).
There were many notable aspects of this episode. For one, never before had such a major character been killed off so definitively. They always, for the most part, came back. Only one (Jenny Calender – see #5) was killed off permanently in the show. And in that episode, there was a dramatic build up to the death scene. Joyce’s death occurred off screen. There was also very little music, almost no vampires appeared (including then series regular Spike) and even the resourceful Giles seemed lost and confused by what was happening. This was something that neither Buffy nor anyone else on the show had ever experienced before. It brought out a completely different side to the characters and made them seem…well, exactly like the rest of us who have seen the same thing happen to a loved one.
5.) Passion (Season 2, Episode 17)
Most people tend to cite the first episode in which Angel turns evil (Innocence) as the best of the series. But I prefer this one, which really explores the psychology of the evil monster that the reliable Angel can become. Innocence mostly depended on the shock of seeing a good character go bad. Passion depended on that same characters psychology. We found out how he deals with people in his life – people that previously made him happy and feel like he was welcomed.
Naturally, as with every other monster in the series, the evil Angel was symbolic – of how terrible guys can be to women in a relationship. It also shows how that character can reject the things that made him good to begin with. The episode also has the second most shocking death scene in the series. However, up to that point, murder and death had never been so sudden, especially with a major character. For a teen television drama, such a scene must certainly have been out of place. Heck, a death scene which such shock and emotion would have been out of place in most Hollywood films. I don’t know of any other show that could be as brave as this one is. Luckily, at least one show in history tried to make those emotional stakes that high.
4.) Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)
This was the episode that demonstrated Buffy was not a one trick pony. Most critics had responded positively to the dialogue present in the show (to the point where some academics have examined the show as a landmark in modern linguistics) but little else. So, Whedon decided he would take away that strength and see if the show still worked. Yes, this episode (as many know) was almost completely silent – not even subtitles or title cards were used in place of dialogue. That gimmick alone made the episode worth a look. But it also managed to demonstrate the acting skills of the cast – all of the characters managed to get their points and personalities across without speaking. Spike used rude gestures, Anya was forever obsessed with earthly delights, and even Buffy demonstrated her sarcasm to her life (in which she answers a ringing phone and tries to say hello – her facial expression says more than any dialogue could).
It was moments like that rather than the gimmick that made this episode stands out for as long as it did. The show was special even without its “strength” (I put it in quotations because I don’t believe that dialogue was the only weapon in its arsenal) and was a forum for experiments that were usually only present in art film theaters. Indeed, there is a film called La Antena that uses the same gimmick in an attempt to appear like an art film. It works, but it seems so outside of the entertainment mainstream that it is impossible to categorize. But Buffy managed to accomplish this lofty task – making an artistic point for as many viewers as possible. Very few TV shows ever get to that level.
3.) The “Dark Willow” saga (Villains, Two to Go, Grave. Season 6, Episodes 20 – 22)
It is no secret that Whedon draws most of his inspiration from comic books. In this case, the famed writer borrowed heavily from X-Men. Of course, those themes are so universal and frightening that they work in any format. In this case, the nerdy Willow becomes a monster that threatens to destroy all life. Like the Angel arc mentioned in previous entries, this theme of the pure going evil is something that resonates with every person. But then, these three episodes seem to work more than that one. There is the added layer of drug addiction, and the shock of seeing someone that is better known to us all. This makes images from these episodes do not escape the censor’s scissors – the skinning of Warren has often been censored around the world. But those images help the episode and never appear gratuitous.
Even the finale manages to be far better than the other villains defeats – without giving too much away, it involves speech and kindness rather than fighting. Even after six years, the show could still surprise us, using characters that we thought we had known. That is all well in good, but how do these episodes become the second best of the series? Because they manage to revive a series that many critics were willing to write off at that point. I thought season five was the worst, and season six (besides a few moments) seemed to be heading in that same direction. But this finale demonstrated there was still life in the show, something that most TV can’t claim after six years on the air.
2.) Restless (Season 4, Episode 22)
This episode almost did not have a purpose – the arc of season four was done, and the villain was defeated. But this episode managed to be more important than any other of the season, and maybe of the series. Buffy never had a clip show, but came close with this episode. Each character has a nightmare, and we see their dreams in real time as a mystical presence stalks them and threatens to kill them. The episode is packed with information about previous developments (that had not been mentioned in some time, like Willow’s nerdiness) and even provided a glimpse into the future (it foreshadows the arrival of Dawn).
It is also one of the few television episodes that actually feels like a dream. Media referenced is farcical and cheesy (who knew there was a flapper girl in Death of a Salesman?) and time seems to be meaningless. It is about emotion and fear rather than logic. It even manages to be emotionally investing, as many of the nightmares resemble ones that we have had. At least, I hope I am not the only person who has ever dreamed in a foreign language. This episode should not exist on any show – it resembles a David Lynch short film as opposed to anything on network television. I am not sure how Joss Whedon could get away with this episode. Network executives were probably scratching their head at it. But to their credit, they let it go on. Oh, and Cheese Man means nothing, so quit asking.
1.) The Wish (Season 3, Episode 9)
Season Three is actually my favorite season of the series. Each episode leads into the next and contains so much significance that it is impossible to separate them. Problem is, this makes it difficult to pick out one particular episode. Single shows do not make as much sense until you see them in context. Still, there is one that manages not only to stand out against the other episodes, but demonstrates the cleverest recreation of the Buffy universe in the show’s history. It does deal with an arc, in which the relationship between Xander and Cordelia ends very badly. Cordelia then blames Buffy, and makes a wish to a vengeance demon that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale. This does not work out at all – the town has become hell, the Master (the villain from the first season) lives and has conquered the town, and Xander and Willow have become vampires. Only Giles seems to be able to make any headway against them, but who knows how long he will last.
This episode may seem like nothing but a pointless gimmick, one that only observes a parallel universe for no point other than to indulge in some writer’s fantasies. But it is actually the most revealing episode about the premise and the characters. The fact of the matter is, most shows often ignore supporting characters and view them more as fodder than as people. The Wish is one of the few responses to that complaint, while simultaneously expanding on the supporting roles. Certain characters are thrust to the center, while others become weak and seemingly worthless. It takes every character back to square one, showing how much they have changed over the show’s run. For one of the few times in history, audiences saw what was at stake, because they observed what would happen if the characters were not there to save the world. It certainly added drama to the rest of the show – we had seen failure and it was not pretty.
Also, this episode introduced us to Anya, officially the most beautiful woman in history. Xander was a lucky man.