Just a few short years ago Brian and Noah embarked on the adventure that was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. They knew it was supposed to be good, they knew they needed to trudge through the first season, what they didn’t expect was how much it would come to mean to them. Buffy Summers and her Scooby Gang have become to them, like many others who watched all seven seasons, family. Choosing a top 10 list of one of your favorite shows is difficult. Choosing the top 10 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is nearly impossible. But here we have it. This isn’t an anniversary of an episode or a birthday of anyone associated with the show, this isn’t the perfect moment to put out a list. But it’s the moment we choose, because it’s Buffy and that’s enough worth celebrating.
We being with number 10 …and spoilers…
10. Conversations with Dead People
S07E07 – November 12, 2002 – written by Jane Espensen and Drew Goddard – directed by Mick Marck
When people talk about horror in Buffy in the Vampire Slayer, the conversation inevitably turns to “Hush,” and not without reason – The Gentlemen are downright creepy. “Conversations With Dead People,” though, is secretly the scariest episode in the Buffy catalogue. Only a quarter of this four-part bottle episode – Dawn’s time trapped in her house – is actually devoted to scares, but those scares all land big. A terrifying shot of Joyce’s dead body lying on the couch behind an unaware Dawn alone would be enough to get this episode in the conversation for Buffy’s best, but “Conversations With Dead People” has so much more to offer. From the very beginning, between the title card and the original song, the episode has a style about it that lets you know you’re watching something different, something special. Thematic seeds about loneliness and responsibility are sown big time, both for the season and the show as a whole. Throw in a great guest performance from Whedon favorite Jonathan Woodward as a newly-sired, psychoanalyzing vampire Buffy kind of knew in high school, and you’ve got just enough to crack this Top 10 list.
9. The Zeppo
S03E13 – January 26, 1999 – written by Dan Vebber – directed by James Whitmore, Jr.
Not only does it start with the best “previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer” – seriously, it’s the best – but “The Zeppo” manages to preach the one of the mantras of the show: everyone is special and important. Xander, the “heart” of the group, gets his turn in the spotlight as we follow him from misadventure to misadventure. His night includes, but is not limited to: humiliation, raising the dead, getting threatened with a knife, getting the girl, and saving the day (though not the world, mind you. That’s still Buffy’s domain). Prompted by one of Cordelia’s usual barbs – “You’re the useless part of the group,” she rubs in his face. “You’re the Zeppo.” – Xander goes down his own road, attempting to find his purpose. “The Zeppo” acts as both a wonderful showcase for Nicholas Brendon and a startling deconstruction of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer mold. As Xander goes on his bogus journey, we are treated to what would be the main plot of any other episode: Buffy and pals (minus Xander, duh) are dealing with the worst threat they have ever faced. They react, as they so often do, as if this is the be-all-end-all, and every character dials the drama up to 11. What’s most brilliant about this side plot is that, slightly silly though they are, none of the characters’ reactions would seem the least bit out of place in any other episode. As great a show as this is, and it’s one of the best, it can at times tend a little toward the dramatic side, especially when you know you’re on episode 13 of 22. But this is Brendon’s show now, and he relishes in it. All his comedic talents are on display as we see him squirm his way through everything Sunnydale can throw at him, including his sexual awakening with Faith, but at the end of the day he finds it in himself to be the hero. He’s happy, even if nobody knows it happened. Xander doesn’t need the spotlight; he’s just fine being the guy who brings the jellies.
– Brian Surber
8. Becoming (Part 2)
S02E22 – May 19, 1998 – written and directed by Joss Whedon
Near the end of the climactic fight, Angelus stands over Buffy and taunts her. “No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away, and what’s left?” He has no idea. “Becoming (Part 2),” the second season finale, represents a particularly dark turn for Buffy (the character, not so much the show). One of the greatest struggles Buffy faces as the Slayer (arguably even more so than the actual slaying of vampires) is the sheer weight of her calling. She constantly faces the burden that no matter how many of her friends and loved ones she surrounds herself with, she is the slayer; the buck stops with her, and nobody else. Few episodes could illustrate that burden better than “Becoming (Part 2).” Her friends are occupied caring for Willow, and Giles has been captured by Angelus and the gang. When her mother discovers her calling as the Slayer, she throws Buffy out of her own home. She’s forced to face the big bad on her own. Say, remember those seeds I mentioned a couple blurbs back? Even if the face of all that, Buffy knows where her responsibility lies. She can’t be there to comfort her friend. She can’t take the glory of saving her mentor. She can’t even consider shirking her duties to keep a roof over her head. She has to face one of the most horrible demons she ever will, a demon in the body of her first true love. She has to run him through with a sword and send him to hell, and she has to do it immediately after his soul is restored, turning him back into Angel and leaving him with no memories of the atrocities he’s committed. And she does. Because she has to. So what’s left when you take away Buffy’s friends? When you take away her hope? Principal Snyder would tell you a criminal. The Sunnydale Police Department would tell you an extremely dangerous female, blonde, approximately 16 years old. Buffy would just tell you, “Me.”
S04E22 – May 23, 2000 – written and directed by Joss Whedon
The most psychedelic episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Restless” also represents a daring bit of storytelling. And after a traditional “season-finale” typing ending to the episode before, “Restless” comes at you like a potent shift in the air. After performing a ritual to defeat Adam (he’s a Frankenstein-like monster, not just some guy) the gang is fairly tired. They claim to be exhilarated but just as soon as they hit the couch it’s lights out (which kinda sucks cause the movie they were going to watch, Apocalypse Now, is fantastic). As they sleep we visit each of their dreams as does the First Slayer. The dreams are surreal to be sure, what dream isn’t, but they also hide deeper meaning and then even deeper meaning. The camera moves in fluid motions, traveling with each character as they discover all is not what it seems. The framing varies as parts are left empty and tracking shots are used to full advantage. Color is used for effect also, appearing saturated and strong or non-existent. A scene involving Willow navigating her way through the bright red curtains of her high school theater not only shows her attempt to find who she truly is but furthers her deep feelings and relationship with her girlfriend, Tara. Xander’s dream consists of him constantly ending up back in his basement (evoking the fear that he won’t make anything of his life), they camera takes great fun in how Xander continues to end up there. In one sequence he travels from a different room, going through the closet, down a dark hallway, only to end up back in the basement. It’s done in one shot and the camera glides along behind him steadily almost representing what he is running away from as much as what is chasing him. Its technical achievements are practically enough to put it on this list, but what makes “Restless” the 7th best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is how relentless it is in visually telling us what we might not yet know. While everyone’s dream carries their inner thoughts on themselves and their relationships currently, writer/director Joss Whedon gives us glimpses of things to come. We see in these manifestations thoughts, ideas, and events that have yet to come to fruition. Whedon brilliantly layers the episode so deep that it demands to be watched not only in order but first thing after the series finale. “Restless” proves, as many of the episodes on this list do, that Buffy has more on its mind than sticking with the conventions of storytelling. “Restless” demonstrates clearly how Buffy the Vampire Slayer wears the cheese, the cheese does not wear Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
S02E17 – February 24, 1998 – written by Ty King- directed by Michael Gershman
The strongest part of “Passion,” and the biggest reason for its inclusion on our list, is the vivid picture it paints of Angelus’ demented psyche. Far too often (in both Buffy and storytelling at large), a villain will be played up as pure evil, the likes of which our hero has never seen. Inevitably, most of those villains simply can’t live up to that kind of hype. Not Angelus, though. He’s the real deal. And it’s not because of what he does (any old vampire can kill people) or how he does it (like I’ve never seen anybody’s neck snapped on this show before); it’s all in the why. He lives to enjoy other people’s pain. He spends the entirety of the episode taunting the Scoobies with pictures of them sleeping or envelopes of their dead fish, as if to say, “Yeah, I can get in your house. I can kill you anytime I want, and you’ll never see it coming.” The pinnacle of his evil, of course, comes with the murder of Jenny Calendar. Now, I liked Jenny fine, but I wasn’t particularly sad to see her go. The real devastation comes from the effects her death has. After killing her, Angelus arranges her body in a morbid tableaux at Giles’ house (and good lord, poor Giles). That would normally be enough for him, but in this case, he’s got bigger, more Buffy-related emotional fish to fry. He camps outside of Buffy’s house, just waiting for her to get the call. It hits her, hard. Willow cries. He takes that all in, smiles, and leaves. It’s so casual to him, no different than anything else he does. Of course, it’s easy to sit here and judge Angelus and his perverted, psychotic idea of fun, but then where does that leave us? “Passion” is sitting pretty in the #6 spot, after all, and it’s largely because of him. We enjoy watching him terrorize Buffy and Co. through our window to their world just as much as he enjoys watching Willow collapse into Joyce’s arms through his window into theirs. Are we really so much better than Angelus? Clearly and objectively, the answer is yes. But maybe not by as much as we’d like.
5. The Gift
S05E22 – May 22, 2001 – written and directed by Joss Whedon
First off, this is the episode where Glory dies. So that’s great news. Second off (? That doesn’t sound right), this is the episode where Buffy dies. Third off (definitely not right), this is the episode where Anya was suppose to die. “The Gift” is not only the 5th season finale, but it was almost the series finale. The last episode to air on the WB, “The Gift” feels like a series finale; epic battle, life and death, then major death, and the perfect ending shot that sums up Buffy Summers wholly and completely. The episode gives everyone a moment to shine; Spike tells Buffy he knows she will never love him but is grateful she treats him like a man, Xander and Anya get engaged, Willow and Tara by their powers combined provide a major assist in the battle, Buffy comes to the realization that what the First Slayer told her (that death is her gift) might actually be true, Dawn gets to wear an old-fashioned outfit, and Giles gets to straight up murder somebody. Oh, boy, that scene with Giles. Buffy has beat Glory so bad to reverts back to the human she inhabited, Ben (it’s okay, Ben sucks, don’t feel bad). She lets Ben/Glory go telling them to leave Sunnydale forever. This is a really stupid idea. Giles walks up to wounded Ben who is astonished he is not dead, “She could have killed me,” he says. “No, she couldn’t. Never…She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us,” Giles replied before suffocating Ben so that Glory will never be allowed to remerge. It’s some cold shit. And it’s brilliant. He knew that this evil could not be allowed to continue, that it would only come back to hurt Buffy. But he also knew Buffy could never kill a human, so he made the choice himself. It’s just brilliant writing. And that’s just one part of this episode. In addition to Giles being a badass, “The Gift” also gifts us with Buffy realizing her destiny and making the ultimate sacrifice for her family. The portal is open and the only way to close it is the blood of the Key/Energy/Dawn, well, Buffy being her sister has the same blood. So to save the world once again Buffy whispers something to Dawn before jumping to her death. The episode ends with all her friends gathered around Buffy mourning her. And the final shot is of her gravestone with that perfect sentiment. Buffy never understood what it meant to be the Slayer until she was faced with this choice. And knowing she went feeling like she completed her purpose, why, it almost makes you want to smile as we fade out on her comical/correct headstone. It would have been a fitting finale but we got 2 more season of Buffy saving the world a lot. What a gift.
S07E22 – May 20, 2003 – written and directed Joss Whedon
A series finale is a difficult beast to rank. It’s practically impossible to separate it from the series as a whole and judge it on its individual merits, especially when that show, as a whole, is one you particularly love (and boy, do we love Buffy). After thinking on this long and hard, though, the conclusion became obvious: who cares? “Chosen” is a nearly perfect end to Buffy’s story, and it comes preloaded with the full force of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and that’s just the way it is. Fortunately, that little bonus isn’t exactly unearned. That ever-present thread of Buffy trying to overcome the loneliness in her calling is addressed again in “Chosen”. On the last night before their climactic showdown, the First makes one final attempt to get into Buffy’s head: “There’s that word again,” it tells her. “What you are. How you’ll die. Alone.” As far as plans go, it’s not a bad one. Buffy’s not exactly immune to mind games, and as we all know by now, this one in particular is pretty well-tailored to hurt her, especially considering she had been banished by her friends and family only a few episodes prior. But this time, it just doesn’t work. In fact, it inspires in Buffy a plan that both leads to the defeat of the First and to Buffy finally making peace with her isolation – by eliminating it. This is hammered home with one of the series’ most satisfying scenes: moments before the final battle with the First’s army begins, having dispatched the troops throughout the school, the Core Four is left alone to talk about hanging out the next day, as they have hundreds of times before. In the face of literally the greatest evil they’ve ever seen, friendship wins out. Sure, we’ve seen this before, but we won’t get to see it again, so this one has to stick. It does, 100%. It’s a delightful little scene, and knowing it’s the last one we’re likely to get makes it fairly emotional as well. Then the big battle happens, and Buffy’s smiling out over the ruined crater that was the Hellmouth, and suddenly it’s over. The credits roll, the trusty theme music plays, and it’s practically impossible not to say, “Man, that episode was the best.” But “Chosen” knows better; it knows we’re just caught up in the moment, overwhelmed by everything happening around us. “No, I’m not. Not quite,” it would reply, swirling with magical energy. “But thanks for sayin’ it.”
S04E10 – December 14, 1999 – written and directed by Joss Whedon
Our top three qualify as the three episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that aren’t like any other episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. We begin with “Hush,” which aside from being brilliantly funny is downright terrifying. The quiet town of Sunnydale is visited by a group of Gentlemen (hey, that’s their name!) who, in the dead of night, take all sound away. The Scoobies must try and stop these Gentlemen without being able to communicate vocally. What are the Gentlemen doing you ask? Why, they just sneak into your room hold you down and cut out your heart, all the while you try and scream for help but, oops, no one can hear you. Seriously, though, it’s nightmarish. Only about 16 minutes or so of this episode has dialogue. That’s it. Everything else is done with visual storytelling. From a call-to-action meeting conducted on an overhead projector to a biting misunderstanding to Willow meeting a new friend named Tara, “Hush” is filled with rich storytelling that is built on smart visuals and inspired performances. Not only does the silence work for the horror aspects of Buffy but it also works wondrously works for the comedy. Scenes of realization and miscommunication are played for some of the biggest laughs of the series. The central conflict aside the episode is lush with other larger storylines taking place; the aforementioned Willow and Tara first meeting and realizing they have a strong mystical bond, Xander furthering his commitment for Anya by trying to avenge her and Buffy and Riley finding out about each other’s “by night” jobs. In fact the ending shot of Buffy and Riley, voices restored, sitting with each other and not knowing what to say is biting satire at its best. After trying so hard to figure out how to say what they feel the entire episode, when presented with an opportunity to do just that, they aren’t sure how to proceed. The true standouts of the episode are the Gentlemen. Dressed in neat suits covering milky white skin and always wearing a grin, they literally glide around slowly moving their hands and arms about. They are terrifying, they are horrible, and they are absolutely one of the best villains in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer cannon. They even have their own theme song; SING ALONG – Can’t even shout, can’t even cry / The Gentlemen are coming by / Looing in windows, knocking on doors / They need to take seven and they might take yours / Can’t call to mom, Can’t say a word / You’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard. “Hush” makes this list, and more importantly the top three, because it takes what Buffy is more famous for, it’s witty dialogue, strips it away and revels in the opportunity to prove itself. Take away Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s biggest weapon, not a problem. All that’s left to do is shut up and enjoy.
2. Once More, With Feeling
S06E07 – November 6, 2001 – written and directed by Joss Whedon
With the exception of “The Zeppo” (and kind of “Hush”), our list so far has pretty heavily favored the dramatic side of Buffy. It’s kind of unfortunate, as Buffy really is a very funny and entertaining show, but that’s just the way it shook out. It should speak, then, to the sheer force of amusement “Once More, With Feeling,” Buffy‘s first and only musical episode, brings to the table. Even the most serious of sensibilities are no match for the jubilance, the excitement, the singing! And it’s not just any old Broadway-type singing, either. Joss peppers the episode with pretty much every genre you can think of: Spike gets a hard rock ballad, Xander and Anya get an old-fashioned vaudeville song, and Dawn gets a…ballet. Sure, it’s not a musical genre in the strictest sense of the word, but Michelle Trachtenberg didn’t want to sing, so we’ll let it slide. The episode may take place at the beginning of Buffy’s most depressing season, and a few of the songs speak to some of that depression to come (Giles’ in particular), but that’s nowhere near enough to bring you down. Even the villain, one of the stronger parts of the episode, is less threatening than he is…cool. Tap dancing has always been one of the less exciting forms of dance (just ahead of River), but Sweet brings something else to it. Like the Gentlemen before him, Sweet is one of the strongest villains in the Buffy canon. It’s hard to impress with your charisma in a show as full of it as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but far be it from that to stop Sweet. Still, “Once More, With Feeling” isn’t all cotton candy and rainbows and whatnot. Buffy has just been ripped from Heaven by her friends, after all, and that shoe has yet to drop. And drop it does, in glorious, heartbreaking, singing (naturally) fashion. Sweet, per the terms of his curse, forces Buffy to reveal her secret to everybody, and their reactions are just delicious. Willow, in particular, is horrified, devastated even. She’d had a kick in the pants coming since the beginning of the season, and here she gets it and then some. It’s pretty satisfying to watch. It’s fascinating to see everyone else’s thoughts and fears play out in a similar fashion. Giles is worried about his presence impeding Buffy’s maturation; Willow and Tara’s relationship continues its downward spiral; Xander and Anya avoid talking about their fears of marriage; Dawn mopes and whines about nothing of real importance. None of these people would ever feel comfortable discussing any of this normally (save for Dawn, who was very open about her moping at any available opportunity), but thanks to Sweet’s curse, they don’t have much of a choice. It’s a great catalyst for getting everything out in the open and for Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s most fun episode to lighten this fairly substantial and otherwise heavy load. And now, just as the curtains in “Once More, With Feeling” close on a kiss, we too must close the curtains on our Top 10 list with…
1. The Body
S05E16 – February 27, 2001 – written and directed by Joss Whedon
There is no part of “The Body” that doesn’t hurt. It’s the most difficult episode of Buffy to watch and, as it turns out, the most difficult episode to write about. It’s the episode of a highly fantastical, fictional show that is so grounded in real feelings and truth it’s startling. The episode is both rooted in and explores the feelings, thoughts, and reactions that people go through following a tragedy. Each character is given a moment to embody a specific emotional outcome of great loss. It’s handled with care and aggressive examination by series creator Joss Whedon and Sarah Michelle Gellar gives one of the great performances seen on television. Buffy’s mom has died. From the onset, something is different about “The Body.” Despite having been around death so frequently, the Scoobie gang find themselves in tragically unfamiliar territory; not only was this someone close to them, but this was a death caused by natural forces. There is no avenging, there is no justice, and there is no reason. It just happened. It’s something that can happen and when put in the middle of a TV series so rooted in mysticism, something so normal can’t help but seem different. This is not just the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, this is one of the best episodes of television, ever. Mr. Whedon’s script is packed with a truly impressive range of emotions and feelings rarely explored in contemporary mediums of entertainment. But he doesn’t stop there. “The Body” is filmed with a gentle touch. The opening scene of Buffy’s initial discovery of her mother is filmed almost like a dream. Colors are overexposed; sounds are emphasized and specific. It’s done in one astonishing take that moves us through the Summers’ home. We have been through these halls before, but this is different. The camera moves slowly and patiently, as if giving the characters enough time to do what they must, like a comforting friend in a time of need. The ending shot is more haunting, beautiful, and devastating than any other we can recall. It’s the script, however, that gives “The Body” its power. A scene early on where we flash back to the family, happy and gathered around Christmas time, evokes something of a dream that is suddenly broken by a loud crash snapping Buffy back to the present and her mother on the couch. Using this episode as an opportunity to show Willow and Tara’s first kiss, not as a romantic gesture but as a comforting one, is refreshing and real. The viewer staying in the classroom while Buffy tells Dawn the news in the hall is necessary – we know what is being said, and this moment is for them. The most truthful bit of dialogue, in an episode created from truth, comes from Anya. Upon being snapped at by Willow for her constant questioning, Anya finally breaks down. The speech and Emma Caufield’s performance is sincere and tangible: “I don’t understand how all this happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s– There’s just a body and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s stupid and mortal.” This is a singular reaction that is most universal because it’s something all of us understand because we can’t. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always been about taking real situations and exploring them using other-worldly settings. “The Body” is the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer because it is dealing with a situation everyone must face; it’s saying that even in a fantasy world, this can happen because it simply does. There are no easy answers in “The Body.” There is no fixing what has happened. Even in a world of vampires and magic the inevitable remains inevitable. All we can do is be strong, be with loved ones, and find a way – a mantra Buffy Summers uses in every aspect of her life. “The Body” might be an obvious choice as the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but it’s the correct one. We end our list on a down note, but we can’t help but feel that’s what Joss would have wanted, and it’s what the Scoobies would have expected.
Buffy‘s best as a whole. There are probably several episodes that could sneak onto this list (like, oh say, “The Wish,” “Who Are You,” “Seeing Red.” Just as an example) but these are the top tier Buffy-s. It’s truly an incredible show that Joss and company crafted and a testament to it’s vitality that here we sit 18 years after its premiere ranking episodes. We hope you enjoyed reading and we also hope you comment on any changes you have or if you wanna just agree with us that’s fine too.
This isn’t the end of our journey with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but we can put to rest which episodes are among the elite.
Thanks for reading. Now, don’t even get us started on Angel.