The 10 Best Episodes of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’
Time has been very kind to ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer,’ a show whose cult of rabid fans has grown steadily as the profile of its creator, Joss Whedon, has gotten larger. Blending fantasy, horror, adventure and comedy into one witty and weighty package, the saga of Buffy Summers is one of television’s greatest accomplishments, a show with such incredible highs that it makes most serialized storytelling look downright stagnant. Few casts have been this lovable and have shown so much growth. Few seasons have showcased such an incredible sense of how to pay off a lengthy arc.
In short, picking the 10 best ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ episodes of the whole seven-season, 144-episode run is a difficult task.
These 10 are our personal favorites and we feel that they represent the show at its absolute best. However, there are a couple dozen more that deserve to be here just as much. Cutting it down was a difficult task, but hey, we’re experts. We know how to make those tough decisions.
And, of course, SPOILERS for the entire show lurk below…
'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' may have more gravitas than its goofy title would suggest, but it never shied away from getting downright silly when an episode called for it. Season three's 'Band Candy' is probably one of the goofiest episodes of the entire series, but it's also one of the funniest, showcasing the writing staff's tremendous wit and the range of the show's supporting cast. The episode deals with a dark enchantment forcing the adults of Sunnydale to revert to their teenage mentalities, transforming the likes of Giles, Mrs. Summers and Principal Snyder into hilarious alternate versions of themselves. As awesome as it is to see Anthony Stewart Head pull off a "bad boy" thing, the episode more than earns its place on its list for Armin Shimerman's sad, pathetic and totally endearing take on his normally cruel character.
Fool For Love
Everyone loves an anti-hero, so its no surprise that James Marsden's Spike managed to gracefully transform from evil Big Bad to sympathetic and noble hero. However, the greatest gift the show gave the character was never losing sight of his grim origins. We love the character enough to try to forget that he's a mass murdering vampire, but the show always reminds us of what he is, letting him keep his edge. In season five's 'Fool For Love,' Buffy asks for his firsthand account of the two occasions where he murdered previous Vampire Slayers, resulting in flashbacks that manage to be simultaneously badass and horrifying. With characters who are immortal, 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' was always free to play fast and loose with its timeline and it was never used to better effect than here.
Two to Go/Grave
Season six of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' is famously controversial among fans, with many viewers calling foul on the darker tone and more realistic and unsettling situations that Buffy and her friends face. However, all of the desperate and less fantastical horror eventually builds to one of the show's greatest arcs. Yep, we're talking about the episodes where Willow's girlfriend is murdered and she goes evil and attempts to destroy the world. Rather than a cackling supervillain, the show forces the characters (and us!) to confront a newly minted bad guy who was (and deep down, still is), the sweetest and gentlest character in the ensemble. The results may not be as epic as other season finales in scope, but it's about as emotionally devastating and moving as anything the show has ever done. Can anyone look at crayons the same way after Xander's big speech?
In addition to being one of the scariest episodes of TV ever produced, 'Hush' showcases everything that makes 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' one of the best shows of all time. It's a high concept idea anchored by genuinely likable characters. It's terrifying while maintaining its wicked sense of humor. It's built on a gimmick (No dialogue! Villains who look like they came out of a silent movie!) but it works overtime to actually move the plot forward. Few shows have the raw nerve to make a seemingly jokey episode pay off dividends in a season's overarching story, but 'Buffy' did it, did it often and did it better than anyone else.
'Passion,' or as it's more commonly known among fans, "HOLY S**T! This is the one where Angel kills Jenny Calendar!", is the moment where 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' officially announced that it was done taking prisoners. From this point on, Joss Whedon and his team of geniuses made it clear that even the most lovable, fan-favorite characters had big X's on their chests and that they were all marked for death. Find us someone who was shocked or upset by the death of Sunnydale High's delightful computer lab teacher and we'll show you a liar. The "Evil Angel" arc in season two is one of the show's strongest stretches, but you don't get more gut-wrenching or memorable than this.
It's hard to end any show well, so it's all the more impressive that 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' managed to end brilliantly. Although coming at the end of a hit-and-miss season, 'Chosen' ends the story of Buffy Summers with grace, humor and, of course, a deep sense of melancholy (rest in peace, Anya). Even on a tiny TV budget, the episode feels just plain epic, incorporating a 'Lord of the Rings'-style final battle and more epic sacrifices, action beats and tearjerking moments than any 45 minute stretch of entertainment has any right to. It may be the end, but 'Chosen' leaves you wanting more. That's how every show deserves to go out.
Once More, With Feeling
More non-'Buffy' fans have seen 'Once More, With Feeling' than any episode of the series. This is, of course, the infamous musical episode, where a nasty demon named Sweet arrives in town and everyone finds themselves breaking into song and dance numbers at the drop of a hat. On one hand, it's a perfect introduction to the show. Every character gets their fair share of great moments and the songs, while certainly goofy and overblown, are a blast. However, what elevates it into one of the best episodes of the entire series is how it takes the absurd premise and uses it to have characters make important decisions and drop massive revelations that they normally wouldn't. Like 'Hush,' this is a gimmick episode that uses its high concept to propel the story forward in unexpected ways. In this case, they use the musical formula to send Buffy and her friends down a path so lonely and devastating that you just have to do it in a poppy musical to keep it from getting too depressing. As overseen as this episode is, it remains astonishingly good.
The strange thing that fans of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' always agree on in secret is that Buffy isn't the best character on the show. Every one of her friends and mentors is a more interesting than her in just about ever way possible. So whenever her friends get the spotlight, it's a reason to celebrate and few episodes are cause for bigger celebration than 'The Zeppo.' Easily the funniest and most cleverly structured episode of the series, 'The Zeppo' focuses on the wisecracking but otherwise completely ordinary Xander as he gets involved in a convoluted (but surprisingly mundane) adventure involving zombies, bombs and werewolves. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast literally saves the world from an ancient evil in the background. Nicholas Brendon is a treasure of an actor, bringing the perfect mixture of smarm, charm and humanity to the show's comic relief. He may be sidekick, the "Zeppo" of the group, but there are few characters we'd rather spend an hour with.
For its first 40 minutes or so, you'd be forgiven for thinking 'The Prom' is just an ordinary filler episode of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer.' After all, it's a break from one of the show's craziest arcs, a step away from the gang's battle with the evil Mayor and the rogue slayer, Faith. The villain-of-the-week that she battles seems ordinary enough and the events don't seem to have too many ramifications. Until the end. Once she finally saves the day and arrives at Prom, Buffy is presented with a special award from the student body, a little umbrella that acts as their acknowledgment that she's spent the past three years continuously saving their lives. No one said anything, but they certainly noticed. Suddenly, Buffy's wasted day of monster-fighting takes on a new context and three seasons of suffering is given new meaning. Try to hold back the tears. Just try.
'The Body' may seem like an odd choice for the best episode of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' since it's so unlike every other episode in the entire series, but it has to be here. After all, this isn't just one of the best episodes of this show, it's one of the most astonishing hours of TV ever made. By stripping out almost every supernatural element and devoting an entire episode to the cast reacting to Mrs. Summers' sudden and natural death, we're allowed to see how each individual character responds to death. There are no jokes, no quips and each scene runs agonizingly long, forcing everyone to dwell on the horror of a situation that's all-too-real. 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' was always a show whose cast of characters were so much deeper and more wonderful than the outlandish situations they often faced and 'The Body' lets us see into their souls. This may be the least fun episode of of the entire series, but it's the most important and the best.