In 1997, we watched as a young teenage girl became the slayer. It was her job and only hers to keep the town of Sunnydale, and the world, safe from the beasts of the night. Vampires, demons, ghosts and even gods stood in her path through the show’s seven year tenure and all were vanquished. We watched as Buffy defeated foe after foe but also as she herself grew from confused teenager to a young woman, with a job to hold down and people to take care of. She was surrounded by friends who grew along with her, and some who were lost along the way. Seven years passed and one of the greatest and most influential television shows to grace the landscape finally came to a conclusion in 2003.
Fast-forward many years and we arrive to today. I watched through Buffy for the first time back at the end of 2010 and it didn’t take long for it to eclipse all other shows I had watched up until that point and even beyond. Few television shows can even think to compare to Buffy and its incredible wit, humour and exquisite character development, writing and direction that catapulted it into people’s hearts. During this Summer, I watched through all seven seasons for the second time and I have compiled a list of the twenty episodes that are my favourite (and picking just twenty from a show with episodes as consistently fantastic as Buffy is no easy task!).
Throughout the four parts to this series, you may see episodes being mentioned that you’ll either strongly agree with or can’t fathom how they’ve even been included. That is fine, but please remember that this is a list developed entirely from my own personal feelings. An episode you may have adored may not have had the same impact on me and vice versa. I’m comfortable with this final list but your thoughts on it are completely welcome.
20 – The Prom
Season 3, episode 20
Season three had its fair share of magnificent episodes, whether they were focusing on the continuous relationship troubles of Buffy and Angel, the Mayor’s rise to becoming an all-powerful demon capable of ripping the world apart or new slayer Faith and her path down to darkness. However, in the background of all of that, it was the gang’s final year at high school and to say it ended with a bang would be an understatement.
The Prom kicks off the final three episodes of the season and in some ways, it’s the proverbial calm before the storm. The gang are facing a tremendous battle, one that they’ll either live through or get eaten during, and their brief respite before the fight comes in the form of the traditional high school prom. Buffy’s upset at not having anybody to go with but is determined to give her friends a night to look back fondly on, unaware that she herself would be in for a few surprises.
While the episode itself isn’t hugely different from other monster-of-the-week outings, the episode sort of represents a turning point for me. It’s in this episode that, in my eyes, the gang grows up a little. High school is nearly over and the question about what lies next looms. Plus, one of the finest scenes of the whole show comes in the form of Buffy receiving the umbrella as a token of appreciation from her classmates for how much she has protected them over the years. Up until that point, Buffy had been thinking that her life was destined to be saving person after person with no recognition for her efforts, and there she was holding something that was given to her based on her job. It was sweet, ‘human’ and incredibly emotional and there were few scenes, if any, that took place afterwards that showcased the same level of collective human compassion in a similar way. Anybody that can watch that scene, and the subsequent events that made excellent use of ‘Wild Horses’ by The Sundays, without getting a tear in their eye must surely have a heart of concrete.
19 – Villains
Season 6, episode 20
Many people have varying opinions on Buffy’s sixth season. It was quite possibly the most polarising one of them all and while my opinion on it is more positive than negative, I can understand why some would feel the way they do about it. It was mostly depressing, extremely dark and remained that way all throughout. However, the last three episodes represent a particularly strong part of the season, beginning with Villains.
After Tara’s tragic murder at the hands of villainous Warren at the end of the previous episode, Willow gives in to the dark side of magic that had been growing since the beginning of the season when she resurrected Buffy from the dead, going against all of the moral laws surrounding magic. The sudden explosion of grief, rage and the lust for revenge turned the familiar and friendly Willow that we all knew into a dark-haired witch bitch intent on getting gruesome revenge on those responsible for Tara’s death, and ultimately turning her into the big-bad to conclude season six with. Villains saw the beginning of that transformation and ended with Warren being viciously skinned alive in one of the show’s most brutal and graphic scenes of its entire seven season run.
Villains is the first part of the three episodes that bring season six to a conclusion and it stands out for multiple reasons, most of all being the emergence of Dark Willow. I particularly enjoyed this storyline as it had been coming for the entire season and although the use of magic being used as a metaphor for drug use didn’t quite have the effect on me that was intended, Willow’s presence as the big-bad for Buffy to go up against didn’t disappoint. After all, Buffy couldn’t really lay the smack-down on Willow as much as she did with other foes could she? It put all of the characters in an unfamiliar situation and for that, it had to make this list.
18 – Family
Season 5, episode 6
Through thick and thin, through hell and high waters, the scoobies stuck together regardless of what threatened to take them apart. This episode may seem like a strange inclusion in this list but it brought forward and elaborated on a concept that had been in the background for the entire show – family.
Up until Family, Tara had been nothing more than Willow’s girlfriend, sitting at the side and making attempts not to get involved. Then her family comes to town, tries to manipulate her for their own selfish desires and she experiences a dilemma of which family she sides with. In the end, the scoobies make the choice for her as they welcome her into the fold in another scene that showcases the close bond the group has, regardless of mistakes. Also, the episode itself wasn’t too bad either. We got an insight into Tara’s background as well as the opportunity to see where she came from and how it changed her character. All while this was happening, Amber Benson put in a sterling performance as her loyalties were tested.
Perhaps Family’s biggest accomplishment for me is how it highlighted something that had always been in the background of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The scoobies created a family of their own and almost left behind their tumultuous, real families at the same time: Xander’s parents were always drunk and arguing; Willow’s largely ignored her existence; and of course Buffy’s parents were split. The group accepting Tara for who she is and bringing her closer changed the character for the better after that point, and also solidified a concept that was, and had always been, at the centre of BtVS’s cast.
17 – The Wish
Season 3, episode 9
Cordelia’s heartbreak at seeing Xander smooching with his best friend Willow caused her to harmlessly speak a wish to a mysterious student that she wished Buffy had never gone to Sunnydale. From that point on comes an episode showing just what would have happened had the slayer not gone to Sunnydale, and what an experience it is.
The Wish takes all of the characters, flips them on their heads and says “here’s what could have been”. Both Xander and Willow are vampires (Alyson Hannigan played the vamp side of her character amazingly well), Giles and Oz play their part in protecting the town from the Master (who survived given Buffy’s non-presence), Angel is a helpless captive and Buffy is nowhere to be seen. By the episode’s end, nearly every member of the cast is killed off before normality is restored, including the leading lady herself. The sequence that leads to this event is extremely well done, making particularly good use of slow motion effects to make the deaths of each character more potent.
The Wish also marks the first appearance of Anyanka, who would later lose her demon status, become human, call herself Anya and become a permanent fixture in the group. Most of all, The Wish gives us an answer to the ‘What if’ question that is asked after Buffy defeats an all-powerful foe. ‘What if Buffy never stopped the Master?’, ‘What if Buffy didn’t come to Sunnydale?’ and vice versa. The end result is a very entertaining, albeit dramatically different, picture of how life would’ve been for the denizens of Sunnydale had their protector not rode into town. Plus, the aforementioned Vamp-Willow was a very welcome addition that would later make a return in ‘Doppelgangland’, giving Alyson Hannigan much to do in terms of exploring her character’s naughty side in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.
16 – Tabula Rasa
Season 6, episode 8
While Buffy exceeded in its story, character development and wit, it also made good use of humour in a great deal of its episode. It’s for this reason that episodes that concentrate on using it to their advantage stand out above others, and one of said episodes would be Tabula Rasa.
After promising Tara that she would refrain from using magic for unnecessary purposes, Willow casts a spell that backfires, erasing the memories of the whole group and causing an hilarious predicament that consistently brings about raucous laughter. Particular stand-out moments of the episode are Giles and Spike’s realisation, and in Spike’s case the horror, that they’re of British origin, with Spike believing his name to be Randy and that he is related to Giles. Also, Willow’s slow recognition that she is gay comes in an amusing way as well as the group being horrified when they’re attacked by vampires. It’s a technique that’s been used in television before, whereby the characters are all put into the same room together and forget who they are, but it works incredibly well in Tabula Rasa and easily provides one of the show’s most amusing episodes.
While Tabula Rasa is humorous and entertaining for the majority of the episode, the mood switches rather dramatically once the spell is broken and ends with a tearful break-up between Willow and Tara, played out beautifully with Michelle Branch’s ‘Goodbye to You’ over the top with no dialogue to interrupt its emotion. It’s after this point that Willow begins down a destructive path of magic use. So, in some ways, Tabula Rasa is the episode that leads to Willow’s huge character development in season six, as well as Giles’ departure until the conclusion of the season. Regardless of its moody end, its humour is a nice break from season six’s dark atmosphere, even if it is temporary.
That brings this first part to a conclusion! I am aiming for there to be three further parts to this series and I wouldn’t expect them to take too long to work through, either. If you’re as big a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I am (and by big I mean massive), I would love to hear your views on this post and the ones that will proceed it. A show like Buffy has so many episodes that are worthy of making a list of this type and it’s guaranteed that people’s lists will differ from person to person. Therefore, get typing in the comment box and we’ll see whether our opinions match or differ.
For part two and positions 15-11, click here.