Joss Whedon turned 52 this week, and we’re choosing to celebrate the anniversary of his birth by focusing on the first medium the writer, director, and showrunner had an indelible effect on: TV. Though Whedon has made his mark on the film world with major franchises like The Avengersand smaller, art films like the glorious Much Ado About Nothing, television would undoubtedly not be the same without Whedon’s contributions to it.
From Buffy the Vampire Slayerto Firefly,Whedon has not only created some of the most beloved genre shows in TV history, but has championed female-driven, found family, genre-mashed TV at the birth of the second golden age of television. In honor of his birthday, we’re looking at some of the best epidodes that Whedon himself has written. In the spirit of not rambling on forever, we’re limiting ourselves to one episode per TV show.
Here are five of our absolute favorites…
“I like my scars. They bring out my eyes.”
Dollhouseis a divisive show, even within the Whedon fandom. Personally, it is one of my favorites — a show that only got better (though, also, far fewer viewers) once it dropped the formula of a personality-of-the-week and embraced its strength as a highly-serialized, character-driven ensemble drama about the perils of using other people’s bodies more or less without their consent. It’s an episode of Black Mirror, but stretched out over two glorious seasons and one that addresses so many of the murky, topical issues we still need to get better at discussing on a pop culture level.
That being said, the Dollhouseepisodes written by Whedon himself are not my favorites of the series, though he undoubtedly had some influence over the ones that were. Out of the few episodes Whedon did write, the season 2 premiere, “Vows,” is the best. Like most episodes of Dollhouse,the highlights don’t come in the Echo-centric plot, but in the exploration of the relationship between Topher and Dr. Saunders. Saunders, continually struggling with the knowledge that she was once a doll and her original personality has been lost forever.
Is she still a doll? She pranks and psychologically tortures Topher because she can’t answer this question. No one can, really, though — in one of the best lines from the episode — Topher tells her: “You don’t know me. That’s the contract. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. Not fully, not ever. I made you question. I made you fight for your beliefs. I didn’t make you hate me. You chose to.”
Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
“Give my regards to St. Peter — or, you know, whoever has his job… but in hell.”
OK, so this isn’t technically a TV episode, given that it was made during the TV writers strike and first “broadcast” over the world wide web. But our definition of TV has stretched a lot in the last ten years, and I think Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blogdeserves a spot on this list. Not only is it a tragic, hilarious, thought-provoking exploration of what is heroism and what is villainy, but it was also a new form of television-tangential storytelling in a period when Netflix had only just begun streaming and had yet to create any original content.
Also, the soundtrack is so darn catchy.
“We’re still flying.” “That’s not much.” “That’s enough.”
As much as it pains me not to give this spot to “Objects in Space,” I will always be impressed with Firefly‘s original, two-hour (or 86 minutes, without commercials) pilot for how it immediately throws its viewers into a new world and makes us care about these characters. It plays like a movie in so many ways, but, come the end, we have a whole (though, sadly, far too short) TV show to watch. It’s glorious.
Fireflywas special amongst Whedon’s many, lovely shows for the ways in which it knew exactly what it was from the very beginning. That hasn’t happened with any other of his shows so far. It happens with so few TV shows, to be honest. From the first, tragic moments that showcase Mal’s defeat at the Battle of Serenity to the final moments that show a new, complicated, reluctant found family, “Serenity” is something special and utterly unique.
“Waiting in the Wings”
“I don’t dance, I echo.”
One of those special episodes that Joss Whedon both wrote and directed, Angel‘s “Waiting in the Wings” is a relatively quiet episode of the supernatural show, but no less powerful for the limits it sets for itself. Plot-wise, the episode is about the gang at Angel Investigations going to the ballet. While there, they free a prima ballerina (played by Summer Glau, in her first TV role) from a century-old curse that makes her repeat the same performance every night, because of course.
More that that, though, it is about the roles these characters play in their own, complex social group. It is a highly romantic episode, with Cordelia and Angel becoming possessed by the spirits of the ballerina and her lover and passionately tearing each other’s clothes off. Meanwhile, both Gunn and Wesley explore their romantic interests for Fred. It is an episode about fate and the choices we have in our own stories. It is an episode about the power of performance and narrative. And it is an episode that is just beautifully written, directed, and acted.
“Graduation Day, Parts 1 and 2”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
“We survived.” “It was a hell of a battle.” “Not the battle. High School.”
Choosing a Joss Whedon-written episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to feature is like choosing a family member to save in the face of the apocalypse. Bad metaphor, you say? Well, I just wanted to segue into the subject of the apocalypse, which was a thing Buffy & co. so bravely foiled in two-part season finale “Graduation Day.” Now, seeing your favorite TV characters preventing a giant snake-monster that used to be the mayor from eating the world might not seem so novel, but we live in a glorious time where pre-apocalypse, apocalypse, and post-apocalypse TV stories are a dime a dozen. Buffywas ahead of its time in this way.
Famously postponed a month due to a perceived insensitivity of showing it following the Columbine massacre, “Graduation Day” was more than an excellent, scary, fast-paced, character-driven episode, it was the installment that wrapped up the first three seasons of Buffy.Following “Graduation Day,” Angel, Cordelia, and Wesley would leave to launch Angel.The rest of the Scooby gang would go off to college. Things would never be the same, and “Graduation Day” recognized that in a way that is necessary if you’re trying to pull off a satisfying graduation-themed episode (or high school-based show, for that matter).
“Graduation Day” also more or less brought to an end the epic relationships between Buffy and Angel and Buffy and Faith, both of which largely contributed to season 3 arguably being Buffy’s finest (again, it’s a pretty tough competition). Faith in particular was one of the most fascinating, complex, and frustratingly sympathetic characters in Buffyhistory (and I haven’t even mentioned that Mayor Wilkins is probably one of the most delightful villains in TV history).
The episode ends with Buffy’s graduating class helping her to take down the mayor. Many of them die, but they fight together, and there is something magical about that choice given that a) Buffyhas always been about the thematic importance on relying on a family and community and b) in so many ways, Buffy always felt like an outsider. Some of them die. Some of them are turned into vampires. Most of them graduate. Eventually, Buffy blows up the school. It is the perfect ending to this season and this first arc in the Buffyseries.