Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not the type of show that many people have lukewarm opinions about, thus any kind of ranking list is going to inspire some pretty fierce debate. Like any great work of art, Buffy operates on a lot of different levels, means different things to different people, and a decent argument can be made for various points of view on what its stronger and weaker elements are.
I start with this disclaimer because there will invariably be someone who won’t see their favorite episode anywhere on this list and will wonder why. Well, it’s partially because I’m human and thus subject to my own point of view and biases, and that’s going to inform whatever’s written here. That doesn’t mean this list was assembled haphazardly. I spent nearly a week paring it down to 25 episodes, and then rewatching each of them to determine their order.
By what criteria did I make these assessments?
First is narrative cohesion: Which episodes show a high level of quality in both concept and execution? Is the writing tight? How well does the story flow?
Second is memorability. Are there individual moments and one-liners that stand out and get quoted at parties by the kind of people that quote Buffy at parties? A great line or moment isn’t enough, mind you, to get an episode on the list or affect its ranking, but enough of them in one place certainly counts for something.
Third is uniqueness, how these episodes stand out from the crowd. How are they different? What elevates them above the rest?
Last would be emotional resonance. How strong an emotional response did the episode in question evoke?
Before proceeding with the proper list, here are a few Honorable Mentions that almost made the cut but didn’t quite.
CHOSEN (Season 7, Episode 22)
As far as series finales go, “Chosen” is not the best. Its beats were rushed, the defeat of The First made absolutely no sense, and the less said about the unceremonious dispatching of Anya after keeping her around a whole season past her expiration date, the better. That said, it had some really cool moments.
Buffy’s final coda with Angel, the Scoobies’ echoing the final scene from “The Harvest,” the completion of Willow’s healing and spiritual journey, and Spike’s sacrifice—deus ex machina as it was—inspired some seriously strong feels. Most of all, though, it ended the show in the best possible way by having a woman break the limitations on the Slayer line, limitations placed on it by a patriarchal system, so that both the power and the responsibility of the Slayer could be shared with all girls who held the potential. Talk about female empowerment!
CONVERSATIONS WITH DEAD PEOPLE (Season 7, Episode 7)
Aside from being a rather interesting look at Buffy’s psychology, this episode features Holden “Webs” Webster, one of the best one-shot characters not just in this show, but any show. Jonathan Woodward’s performance is a tour de force of comedy and latent menace that is just as fresh on the tenth viewing as the first, and not enough compliments can be given to it or him.
Also of note is the final speech delivered by Jonathan (the real Jonathan, not the First as Jonathan), which shows just what a sweet if misguided character he was. It’s a testament to his empathy as a person and just what a contribution he made to this ensemble over the years. A lot of characters on Buffy die suddenly and violently, but few get the honor of a final bow like this one.
ANGEL (Season 1, Episode 7)
While not a particularly strong episode next to many of the other classics, “Angel” deserves plenty of respect for setting in motion a lot of elements that would factor heavily into the rest of the series. It’s the episode where the show really found its voice and the standard to which the rest of the first season was held, so credit where credit is due.
And now, gentle readers, without any further ado, the Top 25 Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
25. SELFLESS (Season 7, Episode 5)
We finally get to see how Anya first became a vengeance demon and how that choice shaped her past and present. We see where she started and how far she’s come, not just from her origins in Scandinavia, but from where we met her in the series. The Anya of Season 3 would never have been self-aware or compassionate enough to make any of the choices she does here, and it’s evidence of her growth. It was a serious gut punch when Halfrek was killed and it reminded us that, despite his disarming affability and charm, D’Hoffryn is one cold, evil motherfucker.
Lastly, aside from another grace note or two later in the season, this marked the resolution to Anya and Xander’s break-up. Anya finally owns her flaws, takes accountability for her choices. The teary vulnerability of her question, “What if I’m really nobody?” make this episode a must-see. As does, of course, a flashback to the musical episode, complete with a brand new song. Win.
24. ENEMIES (Season 3, Episode 17)
While I often find the trickster archetype grating for a number of reasons (which, to be fair, is more my issue than anything), I can’t deny that it is really fun and satisfying when the good guys get sneaky and take a break from playing fair and acting honorably to, well, be more effective. And it works.
How do you improve upon an episode that’s all about Faith playing the Scoobies? Reveal that they were playing her the whole damn time. Aside from drama of exposing Faith, you have the whole “how deep undercover is too deep” thing going on with Angel, topped off with the revelation of Buffy and Giles’ cunning and the true drawing of battle lines. Outstanding work.
23. PROPHECY GIRL (Season 1, Episode 12)
It’ll come as a shock to some people that this episode falls so far down the list, and I can see why. It has a lot going for it. It’s superbly written, directed, and acted. It managed to fulfill the prophecy of Buffy’s death while still subverting it with the use of CPR, and it sets up some key elements like the activation of a second Slayer that would play out over the course of the series.
Its problem comes in its rewatch value.
Much of the episode’s impact derives from the tension of not knowing where it’s going or how Buffy and the others will possibly make it out of this one. Once you know how it ends, it’s still a solid episode, but a lot of the air goes out of that balloon.
The Anointed One, despite being built up for most of the season and technically fulfilling his function, doesn’t really do much to justify his existence or the importance placed on him by the narrative, and Buffy’s final fight with the Master is not particularly memorable. It ends with a great finishing blow, but it’s over in the blink of a eye and feels like a rather disappointing end to a character to whom so much importance was assigned.
While plenty of episodes are about the journey and contain memorable moments that can be enjoyed over and over again despite knowledge of the outcome, “Prophecy Girl” doesn’t really feature any. This story’s purchase is really found in its first telling, and after that it loses a lot of its luster. Still, a classic’s a classic.
22. SCHOOL HARD (Season 2, Episode 3)
There is just so much good about this episode. It made the list based on the flawless introduction of Spike and Dru alone, but it also boasts some incredibly well-timed comedy—“Mice who were smoking?”; “Cordelia. Have some lemonade.”—not to mention that Joyce gets to go all mama bear on Spike’s ass with a fucking axe. Not too shabby, show. Not too shabby.
I could gush in further detail, but that would mean commenting on nearly every scene in this gem, and y’all get the point.
21. HELPLESS (Season 3, Episode 12)
There’s something really interesting about taking a major aspect of a character away to see how they define themselves without it. For Buffy, that’s her powers. Now that her identity as the Slayer has rooted itself in nearly every aspect of her life, who is she without it? Giles’ identity is also challenged when he is fired by the Council for interfering in the Cruciamentum on Buffy’s behalf. Who and what will he be now that such a defining aspect of his character has been stripped away?
As if all that weren’t enough, we get the introduction of the arrogant douchebaggery of Watchers Council and the open acknowledgement that Giles has essentially become Buffy’s father figure and loves her as such. His entire life is pulled out from under him, and the first thing he does is take care of her. Now that is love.
20. LOVERS WALK (Season 3, Episode 8)
The true value of this episode is in all the little things. Spike’s pathetic lamenting throughout the episode is both so relatable in its generalities and absurd in its specifics that it stands out as some of the best comedy in the show’s entire run. “She didn’t even care enough to cut off my head or set me on fire. I mean, is that too much to ask? Some little sign that she cared?”
Joyce making Spike a cup of cocoa and lending him a sympathetic ear continued the thread of one of the most enjoyable relationships in the series, and Spike’s “love’s bitch” speech has become a favorite amongst die-hard romantics. That little speech also set up one of the cardinal rules regarding Spike: Give the devil his due. The guy may be a soulless, murderous agent of chaos, but he also tends to have a very good point.
19. BAND CANDY (Season 3, Episode 6)
After hearing about what Giles was like as a teenager, we finally get to see ol’ Ripper in action when some tainted chocolate bars cause the adults of Sunnydale to mentally revert to their teenage selves. Buffy and company get a very memorable lesson in being careful what you wish for when they realize that their parents thinking more like them is a lot better in theory than in practice.
Seeing teenage Joyce and Snyder was also a treat, because it confirmed everything we’ve suspected about what an annoying little shit Snyder must have been in high school, and the little button at the end revealing that Joyce and Giles had sex gets a laugh every time.
18. CONSEQUENCES (Season 3, Episode 15)
Do the same rules that apply to ordinary people apply to Faith and Buffy? While the narrative seems to come down pretty heavily in favor of Buffy’s answer—yes—it never summarily dismisses Faith’s point of view and the questions she poses about the moral nature of the Slayer. Does all the good done earn you the occasional get-out-of-jail-free card? When looking at the big picture, is the occasional casualty of war really worth removing the Slayer from the front line?
This episode also serves as the bridge between harmless bad girl Faith and murderous villain Faith. Her descent occurs gradually over the course of this episode, and her turn to the dark side wouldn’t have been quite as convincing if some time hadn’t been spent showing her wrestling with her feelings underneath her cool, devil may care façade.
17. WHO ARE YOU? (Season 4, Episode 16)
Seeing Buffy acting out in such a way is something we wouldn’t buy from the character under normal circumstances, but with Faith in the driver’s seat, we get to have our cake and eat it too. Watching Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku portraying each other’s characters is a real trip, because they generally do a really good job of recreating each other’s mannerisms, but when they miss the mark, holy SHIT do they look ridiculous! Like, in the scene where Buffy (as Faith) shows up to Giles’ apartment and does this sort of hair sweep with her pinky that is clearly supposed to be some kind of atypical-for-Faith indication that it’s Buffy in there… what the hell was that? I have never seen Buffy do that, much less often enough for it to be some kind of tell.
All in all though, it’s a fun episode, not just for those of us who enjoy a good body-switch caper, but in terms of delving further into Faith, who she is, and what she can be. We see her first fumbling steps toward redemption and the re-emergence of her humanity made evident with the three uses of three simple words: “Because it’s wrong.”
16. EARSHOT (Season 3, Episode 18)
“Earshot” is as close to Agatha Christie as Buffy ever gets, boasting not just one, but two twist endings, first with the revelation that Jonathan is in the tower with a gun, and again when it’s revealed that his intention is to kill himself and that the attempted murderer is someone else entirely.
Buffy’s monologue about how every kid at Sunnydale High is in pain is probably the series’ clearest articulation of one of the overarching themes of the first three seasons—that when it comes to adolescent torture, we are all both victims and culprits, whether or not we intend to be or even realize it. Danny Strong’s performance here is just another example of how he’s the unsung hero of this cast. When Buffy tells him she could have taken the rifle from him at any time, his simple “I know” is so understated and heartbreaking, conveying so many different things. Bravo.
15. THE GIFT (Season 5, Episode 22)
Right from the teaser, which perfectly encapsulates the series’ original premise, this episode is a winner. Willow’s restoration of Tara relieved us, Xander’s proposal to Anya bewildered us, and Giles’ quiet, practical, dare I say altruistic murder of Ben unnerved us. However you might have felt about Spike falling in love with Buffy, seeing him utterly destroyed by her death made you feel for him, if only for a moment. And Buffy’s epitaph was so touching and perfect that it still gives me goosebumps every time I see it, especially with Christophe Beck’s transcendent score lilting in the background.
The only reason “The Gift” is so far down this list is because of how greatly its impact is lessened by the absence of build-up and context. Season 5, while possessing an incredible arc, does not play as strongly on an episode-by-episode basis. Very few of the episodes stand out as particularly memorable on their own merits; their greatest value is in their contribution to the overarching plot they buttress.
Quite simply, I have never known anyone in the mood for a quick Buffy fix to whip out “The Gift” for a spontaneous good time. It’s an amazing and moving finale, but it doesn’t stand very well on its own without any lead-in, and for that reason it sits here at #15.
14. THE ZEPPO (Season 3, Episode 13)
Over the years I’ve made no secret of my disdain for Xander. He has some great moments, I’ll admit, but for every “yellow crayon” speech we’re treated to, we’ve got to wade through endless cheap shots, selfish tantrums, and appalling “Nice Guy” behavior from a self-righteous hypocrite whose delicate pride and petty bullshit not only annoy but regularly endanger the people around him.
So, why would the most Xander-centric of Xander-centric episodes make this list, much less rate so highly on it?
Well, because personal feelings aside, it’s a really great episode. This is partially due to its masterful application of an atypical point of view, the same gimmick that makes “Lower Decks” such a fan favorite episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but mainly it’s because “The Zeppo” is Xander at his best. He’s funny, brave, and relatable. He proves that his contribution to the fight against evil, while not as obvious as that of a Slayer’s strength, a Watcher’s wisdom, or a witch’s magic, is no less substantial given an opportunity to shine.
Mostly, though, it’s because he ends the episode on a note of legitimate maturity. When Cordelia tries to belittle him and push his buttons, he doesn’t rise to the bait. He doesn’t need to insult her back or even prove how wrong she is. He knows the truth, and that’s enough for him. I get the feeling that this is Xander as Whedon conceived of him, the character we’re constantly told he is as opposed to the one his actions generally reveal him to be.
13. THE WISH (Season 3, Episode 9)
Arguably the greatest “what if” vignette since It’s a Wonderful Life. Xander and Willow as a sexy vampire couple evoking a Spike and Drusilla vibe? I’m sure it’s no coincidence. Oz as Giles’ protégé in the fight against evil? And a physically and emotionally scarred Buffy who is harder and colder? Not only are these alternate versions of the characters at once striking and poetic, but their deaths resonate on a deeply metaphorical level.
If you haven’t before, take note of who kills whom and how they do it. The subtler stroke of brilliance in this episode is how differently the two jilted lovers react to being cheated on. While Cordelia lashes out and fixates on nursing her wounded pride, Oz doesn’t find things so cut and dry. He doesn’t dismiss the possibility of forgiveness, and ego doesn’t factor into his response at any point. In the same breath he uses to validate Willow’s own heartbreak and regret, he reinforces his own boundaries, stating kindly but firmly that it’s not his responsibility in this scenario to take care of her.
If it were possible to offer an example of how to cope with being cheated on, I don’t think you could find a classier, more mature example. As for the one set by Cordelia, what better way to illustrate that while taking care of oneself is important, lashing out as a response to being hurt never ends well?
12. DOPPELGANGLAND (Season 3, Episode 16)
I ask you, what is better than an episode depicting a sadistic, insane, depraved vampire version of Willow? An episode that puts her front and center.
This one is just plain fun. The mistaken identity, the inevitable meeting of the two Willows, Willow undercover as her vampire self, and of course, the foreshadowing that Willow is “kinda gay.”
Aside from just being a jolly romp just this side of a French farce, this episode is a keen exploration of Willow’s character, how she perceives herself, how others perceive her, and her perception of how others perceive her. Her disparaging commentary on herself while impersonating Vampire Willow is very telling.
And shall we praise Alyson Hannigan’s acting here? Watching her play Willow, then Vampire Willow, then Willow impersonating Vampire Willow… it’s just delicious.
11. NEW MOON RISING (Season 4, Episode 19)
While perhaps not the most obvious choice for this list, “New Moon Rising” deserves props for its insanely high rewatch value. The concluding chapter in what the Buffy writers refer to as “The Oz Trilogy” features the final appearance of Oz (at least in waking life) and the full resolution of his character arc. Both he and Willow get closure on their relationship while each dealing in very different ways with the reality of Tara. In the end, Oz handles things with his trademark maturity, but in the moment even the chillest guy in the Buffyverse isn’t immune to his primal instincts and emotions, especially when it comes to Willow.
This is also the episode that featured Willow’s coming out scene, possibly the best coming out scene I’ve ever watched. It was so organic and truthful. Buffy is thrown, which is to be expected, but sets it aside to bring the focus back to Willow and what she’s going through, affirming their friendship. On that front, I kind of love how Oz wasn’t angered or even taken aback by the fact that Willow was involved with a woman, but that she was involved with anyone. It was a subtle but incredibly in-character touch.
While not the most plotty entry in the Buffy canon, it’s a smartly written, emotionally charged episode and a worthy send-off for Oz that hits home on every viewing.
10. INNOCENCE (Season 2, Episode 14)
This was the episode that broke our hearts. Whether it was seeing Angel turn from the noble, suffering hero we’d come to know and love into the cruelest, most vicious bastard we’d ever seen, whether it was seeing Jenny devastated by the reality of what she’d done or Willow crushed by the revelation that Xander would “rather be with someone you hate than be with me,” this episode just hurt. And it hurts so good.
Angelus, at least when written well, is an amazing villain. The level of pure joy he takes in his evil, the “song in his heart,” is just gloriously depraved, and it elevates him above someone like the Master with his religious convictions or even Spike and Drusilla, who act impulsively at the mercy of their passions. No, Angelus exults in physical and psychological torment, even more so of those close to him. He is, in every context, a complete monster.
While having sex with Buffy triggering his change could have been problematic, Whedon sidesteps this entirely by having Giles, the primary patriarchal figure in Buffy’s life, not only refrain from shaming her for her sexuality but declare his support and respect for her, affirming that she did nothing wrong. A world of yes.
9. PASSION (Season 2, Episode 17)
If “Innocence” was the episode where we learned firsthand how much pleasure Angelus took in destroying people, “Passion” was where we learned just how much of an artist he was about it. From the ecstasy he reached in snapping Jenny’s neck to the sheer artistry he displayed in leaving her in Giles’ bed for him to find, candles flickering gently and La Bohème swelling in the background, to the deliberate intrusion of telling Joyce he and Buffy had made love… the effectiveness of both his cruelty and what it wrought was truly the work of a master.
This episode also marked the first time a popular recurring character in the Buffyverse kicked the bucket. Jenny’s death took the show into a whole new zone for the audience as well as the characters, and cemented Buffy’s conviction that Angelus would have to die as soon as possible. And the dramatic irony of that floppy disk sliding off the desk and out of view in the episode’s final moments gave us a despairing, tragic pain every bit as exquisite as anything Angelus himself could have dealt out.
Damn you, Whedon.
8. WILD AT HEART (Season 4, Episode 6)
This episode does something that the series tends on the whole to do very well, have a character take a step outside themselves to really examine all the angles, both logistic and philosophical, to their situation. Oz is finally confronted with a completely different take on lycanthropy and what it means to live with it. Here Veruca occupies the same role that Faith did in “Consequences.” Whether or not you agree with her conclusions, all of her questions are worth asking.
This episode also burns in our memories because it’s one that few of us saw coming. We all knew Oz was building toward something major, but leaving the show because of it—and so abruptly—completely blindsided us. Sure, it was due to some behind-the-scenes renegotiations and wasn’t purely inspired from an artistic standpoint, but who cares? The ultimate result was perfection. Like Willow, we couldn’t believe it was happening, and we kept hoping against all hope that Oz would stop the van and walk back through that door, and he didn’t.
Whedon has said that there are very specific reasons behind when he chooses to fade out at the bottom of an episode, rather than the standard cut to black. I’ve always suspected that a fade out signifies the end of an era, the closing of a door, and in this instance, it was to say that Oz was leaving and it was for real.
7. FOOL FOR LOVE (Season 5, Episode 7)
Mythology episodes are almost always a treat. Seeing how Spike started as some simpering, foppish romantic, then grow into a vicious, brutal killer as layer after layer of his identity gets laid on, then finally realizing that underneath all the bleach and leather and blood, he’s still the same guy… it’s truly brilliant. James Marsters takes us on such a journey, and if that weren’t enough, we get to see two Slayers, both of whom are fucking badasses that I immediately wanted to know more about. Spike’s final monologue to Buffy is so, so good, and touches on themes that will play out over the rest of the season.
Aside from being a fun (probably the most fun) Spike episode in the entire run of the series, as well as a solid building block of Season 5, “Fool For Love” gave us more insight into the psychology of the Slayer in one episode than we’d gotten in the entire series up to that point. It is a true masterpiece as a character study, as mythology, and as just plain fun.
6. HUSH (Season 4, Episode 10)
Do I even need to say why this episode is amazing? It makes it onto every single Top 10 list of this kind, and for good reason. A deliberate exercise by Whedon in writing and direction, there is no dialogue for about 3/4 of the episode, forcing the actors to rely entirely on their physicality to convey all their thoughts and emotions. This of course was built upon the theme that language is so specific and so limiting that it gets in our way, and that it’s only once we stop talking that we start communicating.
The performances were top notch, the humor was on point (we all know which scene I’m referencing), the music and atmosphere were bone-chilling, and the Gentlemen themselves were so creepy and unsettling in how civilized their malice was that they inspired more than a few people’s nightmares. Throw in Buffy and Riley’s mutual identity reveal and the first appearance of Tara and all the Sapphic subtext she brought with her, and it’s no mystery why this episode is universally considered one of the best.
5. RESTLESS (Season 4, Episode 22)
This oddly low-key season finale is a grace note that really delves into the character’s psychologies, taking a look back at where they started, where they are, and where they’re going. Foreshadowing abounds in this episode, and events or qualities alluded to here resonate throughout the rest of the series. Everything from a mention of Dawn to Joyce’s death to Anya’s return to the vengeance fold to Riley’s departure to Spike’s redemption… I mean, there’s just too much to even list. Fifteen years in, and I’m still picking up on new levels of meaning with every viewing.
As a character study, the piece is flawless, most notably with Willow’s own perception of herself and her subconscious belief that all of her character development to that point is a lie, a disguise, artifice to hide that she’s really still an insecure nerd underneath it all. It’s truly brilliant. This episode also marks the first appearance of Sineya A.K.A. the Primitive or First Slayer, a character that was explored more fully in the Buffy comics.
But even beyond all that, this episode is a work of art on account of its presentation alone. Countless films and TV shows have attempted to depict the surrealism of the dreamscape, but none (with the possible exception of Twin Peaks, which gets a brief shout-out in Willow’s segment) has done it so successfully. The way the locations and scenarios drift into one another almost seamlessly, how imagery and behavior that would ordinarily seem out of place is just accepted as a given, the lighting, the music, it’s just art. There’s no other word for it.
4. ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING (Season 6, Episode 7)
There is a not small portion of the fandom that would rank this episode at #1, and it’s easy to see why. The plot is solid, the musical numbers are well-written and fun, and the episode manages to forward the storyline of nearly every character (as per usual, Dawn gets the shaft).
“Once More, With Feeling” wasn’t the first attempt by a TV series at a musical episode, but it is by far the most successful. And before anyone mentions Glee, that is a whole other story and you know it. In terms of a one-shot episode of a show that otherwise does not employ musical numbers as part of its premise, this one is the undisputed champion.
You don’t have to be versed in musical theater tropes to enjoy the hell out of it, but if you are, it is sublime on a whole other level. Each number represents a different genre of musical theater. “Going Through the Motions” is a standard Disney “I want” song. “I’ll Never Tell” is reminiscent of the kitschy fun of mid-20th Century screwball comedies (with the deliberately shitty high school choreography to match). Then, of course, there’s “Rest in Peace” and “Standing,” which pay homage to modern rock operas like Tommy and Rent.
It’s is simply mind-boggling not only how many moving parts went into making this episode work, but how well the finished product does. It’s crazy, it’s daring, it’s fun, and it holds up as both a viewing experience and an iPod playlist.
3. THE BODY (Season 5, Episode 16)
Never have I seen such a visceral and on point exploration of the initial shock that precedes the full emotional release of grief. The way that Buffy just stumbles in a daze through the first few hours of life without her mom, too in shock to deal… the way Dawn sees some stupid junior high crap as life or death until she’s confronted with a true matter of life and death… the coming undone of Xander and Willow, for whom Joyce was the warm, nurturing presence in light of parents that had so utterly failed them … and poor Anya, who had cast off her mortality before she ever had to face it finally coming to understand what it means and what it does, asking the others simple questions of a lost child.
Emma Caulfield not even getting nominated for an Emmy for Anya’s breakdown is just a crime. Even Giles is shaken. And then there’s Tara, the unexpected voice of comfort, who’s been through all this. She and Buffy aren’t very close and don’t have much in common, but now something bonds them that the others simply cannot understand, not completely.
There’s an odd air of violation in this episode, the way that Buffy’s world is completely crumbling beneath her feet and yet for the rest of the world it’s just another day. Life goes on. Children play. Parking attendants leave tickets. The world keeps on turning in a way that seems almost vulgar. Joss Whedon gets a lot of shit for killing off characters, often accused of gratuitous deaths, but this was one that, despite how much it hurt—and I felt this loss more deeply than any other Buffyverse character—felt completely justified, because it was handled so damn well.
2. GRADUATION DAY, PARTS 1 & 2 (Season 3, Episodes 21 & 22)
“Graduation Day” is simply a feast. It is a fitting, impeccably paced, and brilliantly written finale to what is arguably the most even and well-crafted season of the show. Every character finds a moment to shine, and every subplot contributes to the main story. Aside from the main plot, which features a lot of work on Xander’s part, thanks to his brief stint as a soldier during “Halloween,” we find him chatting up Cordelia, with whom he reconciled during “The Prom.” They’re not heading back toward dating again—that ship has sailed—but they are notably friendlier than they ever were before they hooked up, showing us that there is no returning to the status quo. These kids are different from who they were before. They’ve grown, apart perhaps, but growth is growth. Xander also brings Anya into the equation, and thus her firsthand account of what an ascension actually looks like, information upon which much of the story is predicated.
Willow and Oz end up having their first time together in a rather impromptu but no less welcome fashion. Their contribution to the finale is far more emotional than plotty, but given how pivotal Willow was in the previous season finale, giving Xander a chance to really shine this time seems only fair. Giles blows up the school himself, starting with his beloved library. As for our titular vampire slayer… well, where to begin?
There’s the final break with Angel, the rush to save his life, the to-the-death fight with Faith in order to do it. And while the fight with Faith was enormously fun, well choreographed, and certainly more emotionally charged than Buffy’s showdown with the Mayor-as-giant-demon-snake, the most poignant moment, and the one that kills me softly every time, is Buffy and Faith’s coda inside the dream.
It’s ironic that in order for them to find peace with one another, Faith had to end up in a coma. Everything about that scene—the dialogue, the bizarre imagery (a possible dry-run for “Restless?”), Christophe Beck’s simultaneously haunting and Zen score, even the first vague reference to Dawn—is just perfect and beautiful, and subtly underlines the quiet tragedy of Faith’s story. Even after everything that’s happened, Buffy’s compassion moves her to forgive Faith, even if it’s too late.
“Graduation Day” was a turning point for the series in so many ways. It was a transition from high school to college, from being one show two shows, and from Angel being Buffy’s one true love to the that mythic ex against whom all future boyfriends will be compared. Some much beloved characters (Larry) died, others (Harmony) were vamped, and yet others (Cordelia) walked away, never to be seen on Buffy again. And, of course, they blew up the school. And in the purest, most harmless desire to watch that hellish institution disappear, who among us hasn’t dreamed of that?
So, what could possibly top an episode where Angel drinks from Buffy, where the entire graduating class of Sunnydale High unites to claim victory over high school, and the school itself is blow to high hell?
1. BECOMING, PARTS 1 & 2 (Season 2, Episodes 21 & 22)
Of all the Buffy finales, this one was the most heartbreaking, even more so than “The Gift,” because sad as it was, we all knew Buffy was coming back to life. We had no such guarantees about Angel, at least until the nightly news that aired immediately after, which mentioned the prospect of a spin-off featuring him. But as we were watching the episode, all we knew was that Buffy had just killed Angel—not Angelus, but a freshly re-ensouled Angel—in order to save the world, and it destroyed her so profoundly that she left town. It was by far and away the most emotionally resonant big bad fight. I’d say the fight with Faith comes close in terms of emotional weight, but Faith was that season’s Dragon, not the Big Bad.
In addition to the most climactic and tragic lovers’ spat of all time, This episode featured the torture of Giles, the sadistic (on both Angelus’ part and Whedon’s) first appearance of Jenny since her brutal murder, the death of Kendra, the first alliance of Buffy and Spike, Joyce learning that Buffy is the Slayer, and lest we forget… Willow’s first spell, the first step in a journey that would define her character for the remainder of the series. This episode had twists and turns, romantic drama, family drama, humor, grief, heartbreak, foreshadowing for the season to come, and just when you thought Buffy squaring off in a sword duel with the demon wearing her dead boyfriend’s face was the worst it was going to get… Willow’s spell works and Angel’s soul is restored. Buffy gets Angel back, and she still has to kill him.
And then… Sarah McLachlan. I was done, people, and I still am, 17 years later. Sweet. Fucking. God. This was amazing and in my book the all-time greatest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Now, I’m sure many are wondering, even those who agree, how “Becoming” made it to the top of the list when “The Body” was my favorite. The reason “The Body” or any of the other stand-out, artsy episodes of Buffy wouldn’t make it to #1 is simple. The #1 episode of any show should fully embody the spirit and tone of that show. It shouldn’t be a typical episode, because then by definition it wouldn’t be special. Rather, it should be the ultimate form, if you will, of a typical episode.
Now, the artsy episodes like “The Body,” “Restless,” and, yes, “Once More, With Feeling” are—and I can’t emphasize this enough—FUCKING INCREDIBLE. But if someone who knew absolutely nothing of Buffy asked you to recommend an episode that really encapsulated what the show was like and what it was about, an episode that successfully embodied the general tone, themes, and presentation, the same qualities that make those episodes so freakin’ amazing preclude them from ever being that recommendation.
“Graduation Day” and “Becoming” are truly Buffy at its best, so why did one win out over the other? Well, there are a few reasons.
One sounds pretty shallow, but does count for something. Angelus is a vampire. Now, it’s true that the series opened up the premise of the Slayer to fighting all demons and creatures of darkness, but the show ain’t called Buffy the Monster Slayer. Vampires are the default. When all else fails, vampires are there as the constant underlying threat. It’s where the premise began. Thus, an elevated vampire like the Master or Angelus will always be closer to that premise and thus more resonant. They also align with the gothic feel of the early seasons, 1 & 2 especially.
Then there’s the fact that with Angelus, the emotional stakes were far higher. The Mayor was a great villain, but his emotional ties and Buffy’s were with Faith, not with each other. Buffy wasn’t conflicted, damaged, or tested by fighting the Mayor the way she was when she fought Angelus.
“Becoming” is Buffy in its purest form: A girl fighting a vampire as she endures heartbreak. Nothing boils the premise down quite so well. This two-parter enchants you, seduces you, then rips your heart out and dares you to keep on going. It is gothic horror/romance and astute metaphor in equal measure, and it is sublime as both.
Both episodes are satisfying meals, but they’re different kinds of meals. “Graduation Day” is a hearty shepherd’s pie, delicious and nutritious. It’s got meat, potatoes, gravy, even a little veg. It’s filling, satisfying, it hits all the right notes, and you can pound that goodness with gusto; it’s comfort food you can share with the group.
“Becoming” is a cheese board with fine wine. You’ve got a modest variety of savory flavors: cheese, meats, maybe even some grapes. It’s a sparer meal, to be sure, but no less nutritious and satisfying. And paired with a nice Cabernet or Riesling, it’s a delight shared in more intimate company and stands as an example of just how much artistry can go into the simple joys. True, it may be an acquired taste for some, not as guaranteed a crowd pleaser, but it’s definitely better for your heart.
This article first ran on October 16, 2015.
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