[WARNING- CONTAINS SPOILERS]
Few shows grabbed me as immediately as Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even in its shaky, skin-deep first season, it displayed enough quirky wit and character development to keep me interested. But from that campy, American horror version of Doctor Who came one of the greatest character dramas ever put on television. While I prefer the darker tone of its spinoff Angel, I cannot deny that Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the bigger beast, and one of the greatest shows of the modern era. But unlike Angel, picking the best episodes of this series is fairly straightforward; I imagine my top 25 would not differ wildly from any other fan's, and I'm almost certain the top 10 I came up with contains the exact episodes in everyone else's, give or take one or two and with differing orders based on the ranker's preference. Of course, this doesn't mean that there are only 25 good episodes, but that the payoffs of this show are more apparent than the more subdued tone of Angel. And even though most of us pick the same episodes, the best of Buffy varied considerably in tone, where Angel's highlights tended to be the ones that plunged it to knew depths of existential despair. But enough talk, let's get down to business:
25. Villains (6x20)
While the Dark Willow arc occasionally seeped into the realm of the overly melodramatic, it remains a high point of the show, and "Villains" is the single strongest of the four episodes. Willow's been building to this all season, and she really comes unhinged in a terrifying way in these 42 minutes. Alyson Hannigan was, like most of the actors on both Buffy and Angel, so effortless and natural in her acting as to almost pass under the radar, but here she unleashes with fine fury. I never thought someone so cute and unassuming could be so terrifying -- not even her alternate reality vampire-self pointed to this level of horror. The final scene with Warren must be one of the two the most shocking of the series.
24. The Zeppo (3x13)
This has no lasting importance to the third season arc, but it is one of the more brilliant high concept episodes of the show. In it, the typical A/B plot structure is turned on its head, pulling Xander's quest to figure out his importance to his friends and his own sense of self-worth while shuffling a (presumably) action-packed apocalypse prevention story to the background. It is likely the series' most instantly quotable episode and remains my favorite of that short but oh so sweet list of Xander-centric episodes.
23. The Wish (3x09)
Hi Anya! "The Wish" introduces what would become one of my favorite characters in a fantastic alternate reality episode in which Buffy never came to Sunnydale. It is equal parts disturbing and disturbingly hilarious, though the character deaths at the end are rather sobering and show just how close their real-life doppelgangers come to death at every moment. I actually felt my heart skip when the Master snaps alternate-Buffy's neck.
22. Doppelgangland (3x16)
Of course this would have to come right along with "The Wish." Seeing Vamp Willow interact with the real Willow is both funny and foreshadowing ("I think I'm kinda gay"), but it also gets across a deep level of character development and arc advancement. While it bears little importance to the bigger arc, this episode stands as likely the best example of Season 3's impeccable ability to move things forward without ever letting on.
21. Earshot (3x18)
What starts as an amusing concept (Buffy can read minds and thus hears the salacious simple-mindedness of the men around her and learns just what Joyce and Giles did under the influence of band candy) turns into a harrowing post-Columbine drama, even though it was written before that terrible tragedy. It takes yet another twist at the end which, though it moves away from a school attack, is every bit as relevant to examining the mindset of kids who snap. A true gem.
20. I Only Have Eyes For You (2x19)
One of the big sleeper hits of the series. It starts off seemingly as a disconnected, kooky concept and ends up eerily holding up the mirror to Buffy and Angel's relationship when the spirits of two dead lovers -- a teacher who incurred the wrath of the student she loved when she broke it off -- imbibe them. The possession ends up bringing out Buffy's guilt in unleashing Angelus while serving to remind us that Angel is still buried in that demon, even without his soul.
19. After Life (6x03)
The opening salvo of season six immediately put to bed my fears in reviving Buffy after her noble death in the last season's finale. This early mini-arc culminates in the darkly atmospheric "After Life," in which Buffy confesses to Spike that they did not rescue her from Hell, but tore her from Heaven. Many complain that Buffy went too dark this season, but thank God they never shied away from the implications of this episode.
18. Superstar (4x17)
Probably the funniest spin on fanfic ever. Watching little Jonathan make himself into a combination of Buffy, Superman, James Bond and Bill Gates was a riot and a half, and then you mix in everyone's fawning adulation and you've got a winner. You can see a lot of the initial antagonism of Season Six in this episode, what with a nerd manipulating others in an unethical yet pitiable attempt to fit in. Bonus points for finally turning Marc Blucas' lack of talent into intentional comedy (they also managed this in the season finale).
17. Lies My Parents Told Me (7x17)
Just when you thought you couldn't learn anything else about Spike. Buffy's most fascinating character gets yet another episode to shine, this time revealing the tragedy of his relationship with his mother and hammering home just how different a vampire he was long before he fought to win his soul. The juxtaposition between Spike's and Robin's relationships with their mothers is brutally effective. It also finally breaks Buffy of her dependency on Giles.
16. Chosen (7x22)
Season 7, though action packed and never really dull, too often neglected its characters at the expense of just making everything bigger. Funnily enough, the biggest episode of them all managed to make it all worth it. It ended up a stunning action climax mixed with moving character and story resolution, all of which remained true to the characters. And I dare you not to cry when you realize it's all over.
15. Conversations With Dead People (7x07)
After a season exploring the very depths of Buffy's constant inner turmoil, the writers let her really flounder throughout much of the final season, but she gets across some astonishing late-game progress in this episode, which also advances most of the other characters. Andrew and Jonathan reappear, only for the two more innocent members of the Trio to suddenly take a dark turn. And anything and everything to do with Dawn's segment (in which the First poses as Joyce) is just shiver-inducing. It also marks the first -- and one of the only -- time that The First Evil really unsettled.
14. Who Are You? (4x16)
"Face/Off" with hot chicks. I could stop there, but that would rob a superb hour of TV its due. Faith's body swap with Buffy could have been played up for laughs or just been unintentionally hilarious, but -- apart from a few amusing bits -- it mainly serves to get deep down into what they each think of each other and particularly brings out the more sympathetic and wretched side of Faith. It's also genuinely suspenseful and marks one of the few times the Watchers Counsel comes off as frightening instead of just a complete annoyance.
13. Normal Again (6x17)
Mix the finale of the show "St. Elsewhere" with the early alternate reality gem "The Wish," then add a dash of "The Twilight Zone" and you've got a recipe for the most fundamentally disturbing hour of Buffy ever produced, made all the more unsettling by the fact that you never know which reality is the true one. It's also darkly funny when the doctor lists all the plot holes and contrivances of the show to convince Buffy that Sunnydale and Slaying are just a hallucination. And, like any good piece of head-screwing, it leaves us totally unsure of whether or not it all really was just a fabrication.
12. Selfless (7x05)
I make no bones of my love for Anya, so this ranking might be biased. Then again, this whole list is because I made it and I can only speak for myself, so leave me alone. We finally learn what motivates Anya and we see her start to create her own sense of identity after so many centuries defining herself by that which is related to her (vengeance demon, Xander's gal). On the humorous side, there some nice winking references to her past as a virulent communist, and the scenes from 880 are only more funny as they're shot in the style of an old hand-cranked camera as if they were really in 50s America (which itself is a sly reference to how little a difference there is between the sexism of these medieval warriors and a moment of our own past we've yet to fully outgrow).
11. Innocence (2x14)
The episode that firmly established Buffy's direction. Before this, the series was little more than a subversive take on horror clichés with flashes of pathos and depth, but even Joss believes that this episode drew a line in the sand, establishing just what the writers could do and what the series could achieve. Even years later, he Angelus arc remains untopped for many fans, and it's not hard to see why even from this arc-opener. Also, it contains the best demon killing of the series ("What's that do?").
10. Graduation Day, Pt. 2 (3x22)
People say Season 3 was short on emotional impact, and they're right. But who can ignore the visceral thrill of this finale, which packs action on top of action and sends Sunnydale High out in the best possible way. For many (including myself), they never found a better villain than the Mayor ever again -- even though I prefer seasons 5 and 6-- and he goes out in top form. There may be no single episode of any of Joss' programs as exhilarating at this.
9. Fool For Love (5x07)
I've explained my Achilles heel for Buffyverse flashback episodes in my Angel reviews, so let's get right down to the meat: "Fool For Love" is a subtle gem that shows how Spike grew from a timid, awful poet into the killer of two Slayers. It does so in the form of slowly piecing together the modern physical appearance of Spike, from his hair (which goes from naturally brunette and wavy to blond and curly and finally to the streaked platinum we know) to his coat. As the pieces come together, we see why a soulless vampire might fall for a Slayer, and that Spike was always more than meets the eye.
8. Dead Things (6x13)
For the first half of Season Six, the Trio dicked around and basically were like the Three Stooges of Evil (with a liberal dash of Kevin Smith-esque pop culture arguments). But with "Dead Things," we see the boys cross a threshold that forces them to finally confront serious consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, it gets to the core of Buffy's post-resurrection issues without letting her off with any simple solutions. Few episodes of this or any other series are as psychologically dark and complex. It got Season Six back on the track to excellence after a noticeable downturn in the middle.
7. Passion (2x17)
"Innocence" matured the show, but "Passion" showed just how dark Joss Whedon could go. Angelus' cold, swift killing of Jenny remains forever seared into my mind, and it is the most shocking moment of the show, even above Willow skinning Warren. This episode leaves me numb whenever I watch it. Yes, Angelus may have been little more than a mustache-twirling villain, but the greatest villain of all time (Iago) had no motivation, and look how scary he is. Boreanaz's acting throughout the first season was at the very least borderline laughable, but he brought his A-game when Angelus emerged, and this is the finest example of how far he could go.
6. Hush (4x10)
Some people say that Joss Whedon desperately wanted an Emmy and created his most out-there concepts to win one. I don't know if that's true, but if it is, I'm almost glad he never got one because it means we kept getting some of the best TV ever made. The first of these high concept pieces, "Hush," remains a deserved fan favorite and the episode that even non-fans know. Robbing the characters of the speech that makes them so funny was daring, but it resulted in a brilliant silent comedy with vital character and story development. Special props go to Giles' flashcards, which made a barnstorming reappearance in the seventh season.
5. Once More, With Feeling (6x07)
What better foil to an episode of silence than a musical? It's so funny that it's easy to miss all the rich character development, but there's a lot of pathos buried in these peppy numbers, the sort of narrative and character progression absent from nearly any other musical show or film. The Anya/Xander bit hints towards Xander's fears about becoming his father and points towards the dissolution of their engagement, while Spike gets to let off some steam over his confusion regarding Buffy's new attitude. And nothing can compare to SMG morosely admitting (through song, of course) to her friends just what they did when they resurrected her.
4. Restless (4x22)
Released a full year before David Lynch got back on the horse after a decade of misfires with "Mullholland Dr.," "Restless" is the best and worthiest successor to "Twin Peaks:" an endlessly deep, ambiguous, foreboding and complex dreamscape. After a season full of rich but sporadic character growth, it forces the heroes to find their footing and sets up the show to come. Each of the dream sequences has something that earns a good laugh, but soon it spirals into cryptic and disturbing warnings to the slumbering Scoobies. The fact that this is not number one should be telling you something about the fierce quality of the top three.
3. The Gift (5x22)
Really, only one season finale in the series ("Grave") was less than excellent, but "The Gift" stands out even among its brethren. As with the whole season, it manages to cram the action and character reaffirmations of S3 with the intense emotional force of the second season. The fight with Glory is spectacular (not to mention full of enough remembered continuity to make even the most examining viewer squeal with delight), but the final moments in which Buffy gives her life to save the one thing she has left in this world are devastating. If you don't cry when you see Buffy's tombstone you have no soul, and if you don't get out a teary chuckle when the camera zooms out to see the last line of the epitaph you have no sense of humor.
2. The Body (5x16)
Has there ever been an hour of TV more depressing than this? If there is, I don't know if I could withstand it. The greatest of those so-called "Emmy grab" episodes, it is the ultimate rumination on death from a man who gave us so many memorable character demises. Its simplistic, brutally realistic look at mortality reminds us that death can come at any moment and it doesn't have to be epic, even in entertainment. And to think that it was the first death of natural causes in the whole series. I tear up just thinking about it.
1. Becoming, Pt. 2 (2x22)
You don't know how much I debated with myself over the ordering of the top three. Any one of them would be the single most defining hour of any other program, and I have to choose between them. Ultimately, I picked "Becoming" over the others because, apart from being an emotionally draining, darkly poignant thrill-ride, it works as a self-contained, utterly frank coming-of-age story that strips Buffy of just about everything, until the fifth season showed just how much more she had to lose. By all accounts, the show could have ended here and it would have been utterly compelling (but thank God it didn't). Beautiful, haunting, and exhilarating: television doesn't get any better than this.
While Season 3 may have been short on emotion, the fallout from Faith unintentionally killing a human cut the core of her character and why she so completely envied Buffy. Anyone else would have made this into some growing up moment for her (and indeed it was...for Buffy), but the writers took a more realistic turn and threw Faith into her darkest area yet. This is pretty much what they wanted to do with "Ted" but couldn't risk with their star player.
No Place Like Home (5x05)
A terrific mix of humor, character development, and story advancement, NPLH gets to the bottom of just what's up with Dawn and sets her down as a character truly deserving of pity. It also sets up a more mature Buffy, although she's still not ready for what she's about to go through (could anyone be?).
The first episode that hinted that Buffy could be something more. Eventually, they took the Buffy/Angel relationship too far in their third season "just get me to my spinoff" section, but here Whedon got across with actual subtlety the doomed-but-maybe-it-will-work-after-all-OK-it-won't-but-it's-fine-for-now poignancy of their relationship. The final image of Buffy's cross burned into Angel's chest is one of the most iconic to me. This, along with "The Prophecy Girl" pointed to the Buffy we came to know and love.
The Five Worst Episodes of Buffy
Unfortunately for Buffy, just as picking out the top 10 takes no time, so too is it easy to pick out the duds. I had to really rack my brain to come up with 5 bad episodes of Angel, but I actually had to leave a few off this list. Buffy was a bold first show with a constantly evolving foundation, so slip-ups were inevitable. So, as we celebrate the finest the show had to offer, let us also reflect on the moments that were thankfully all too brief.
5. The Killer in Me (7x13)
What disappoints me so much about this episode is that it had not one, not two, but three potentially magnificent storylines and promptly wasted them all. Spike's malfunctioning chip was both funny and deadly serious, but they bring back the Iniative complex (which I guess wasn't totally destroyed when the Iniative shut it down, proving that they truly can do nothing right); Willow turning into Warren after kissing Kennedy could have been a great subconscious expression of her guilt and grief over Tara, but it turns out it was all the work of Amy, who had no reason to hex Willow; and the notion that Giles might be the First would have explained his off behavior as well as delivering a killer gut-punch to both the Scoobies and the audience. Instead, it all gets solved in one episode, hugs are had, and heads are placed in hands to absorb the shock of such bad writing. What a terrible waste.
4. Where The Wild Things Are (4x18)
The last of Tracey Forbes' three episodes and the first of two to appear on this 'worst of' list, "Where the Wild Things Are" took pretty much the exact concept seen in the season's earlier, vastly superior "Fear, Itself," only to remove everything interesting and fill the gap with incessant shots of TV sex between Buffy and Riley. Of course, considering how stiff Blucas is, there's really no better job for which he is suited. Plus, the subtext of a religious nutbag who left the children in her care sexually repressed was too over the top and bluntly overstated to be of any interest. Let us thank the TV gods that they banished her to permanent obscurity following this pile of tripe.
3. As You Were (6x15)
The fact that they brought Riley back is enough to gain my scorn, but the actress who plays his wife makes Marc Blucas look like '70s De Niro; her performance is so awful that she won an Emmy for it in a parallel universe. The Finns aside, the episode is still dumb and utterly pointless and throws off the momentum "Dead Things" gave to the season after that noticeable drag in the middle. Thankfully, things got back on track once Riley left for good and the season barreled magnificently towards its wonderful conclusion.
2. Beer Bad (4x05)
Aside from one or two admittedly funny lines, this is the worst episode I've ever seen to warn teenagers against alcohol. Think about all the terrible, pandering, condescending episodes of TV ever devoted to the dangers of underage drinking, and despair. Some lines are genuinely funny ("Fire bad!"), but everything is just so insulting to the audience and so much of the dialogue misses that the few bits that connect cannot hope to make up for it. At least it finally broke Buffy of her childish sulking after the Parker debacle.
1. I, Robot...You, Jane (1x08)
Even the worst episodes of Whedon television have something going for them. In fact, it's usually bad execution that makes them memorably weak. But not "I Robot, You Jane." No, it starts with a broad, uninteresting concept --the Internet is a dangerous place? Even for 1997 this was redundant-- and combines it with an inane MOTW villain, wheel-spinning character development (the last thing we needed to see even in this early stage was a nerdy, shy, helpless Willow), and just plain unfunniness and you've got the most insufferable hour of Whedonverse television ever produced. Thank God they got it out of the way in the first season of his first series.
So there you have 'em. Agree? Disagree? Feel free to post your own favorites and comments.
(See also: my picks for the 25 best (and 5 worst) Angel episodes)