We’re finally here. After going through this list of my all-time top twenty episodes of cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s finally time to reach the top of the list and explore the five episodes that, in my opinion, showcase the absolute pinnacle of the show’s excellence. It was difficult to actually create a list containing just twenty episodes from a show with enough episodes to fill a list triple that size but it all comes down to this final part of this series.
For the final time, the choices displayed in this part, and of this series as a whole, are not based on anything other than my own personal opinion. I would love to hear your views on what you agree with, disagree with or think should be elsewhere and vice versa. So far I have had none of this so please try for this final, and most important, part!
5 – Grave
Season 6, episode 22
Dark Willow, the nasty, black-rooted and juiced-up-on-magic-and-grief version of the regular Willow, has come to the point of no return. She’s beaten her friends to smithereens, vowed to put an end to all suffering in the world (literally) and not even Buffy can stop her from carrying out her plan. Luckily, the unlikeliest of heroes comes to the rescue to bring back the friend he loves.
I’ve stated before of my enjoyment for the Dark Willow saga because of how built-up it was throughout season six and even before, as well as how Willow’s turn to the dark side permanently changed the character after her transformation. However, one of the strongest elements of the story was that it gave the rest of the characters a new kind of threat to face; one that they hadn’t faced before or knew how to deal with. The previous installments in the short story arc to conclude season six mostly showed Dark Willow in all of her villainous glory while Grave reels it back in and allows for a fantastic episode that used the opportunities it had to tremendous value.
With most BtVS season finales, the big-bad of the year had to be defeated via violent or supernatural means. This had been the rule of thumb for all five previous season finales before it. However, Grave dealt with things differently. Instead of murdering Willow and ending the threat she posed, Xander reached through her emotional barriers using love and compassion, also furthering his position as the ‘heart’ of the group. It was a brilliant scene with both Nicholas Brendan and Alyson Hannigan providing sublime performances and for once, it wasn’t Buffy’s physical prowess that saved the day. It was Xander with his lack of special powers – the one who the audience could relate to the most.
As well as the excellent way in which the Dark Willow arc was dealt with, Grave also provided huge turning points for many of the other characters. For example, Buffy, after spending the season is a state of disarray after her own death earlier on, finally accepts the chance she has at a life, both for her and for Dawn. Elsewhere, the Magic Box is completely destroyed and at the end, Spike gets his soul back, signalling the start of a journey that the character would progress through in season seven and then in Angel’s fifth season. Most, if not all, of the characters experience huge developments in their stories during Grave, making the episode more than worthy of a placing in the top five of this list. For the only season finale not written or directed by Joss Whedon, it still packed an incredible punch.
4 – The Gift
Season 5, episode 22
There’s a God planning to obliterate the world, a sister taken prisoner and the threat of total extinction should she fail to stop the most powerful foe she has ever encountered before. It takes all that Buffy has to stop Glory, including her own life.
The Gift is the 100th episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it was originally billed as the series finale. Had it been that, it would’ve concluded the show on a strong, albeit heartbreaking, note. It’s a good job that it was not, however, because what occurs in The Gift has enormous repercussions in the proceeding sixth season, specifically for Buffy and those closest to her.
The biggest focal point in The Gift is clearly Buffy’s death. It’s not a ‘faux-death’ either, with Buffy having pulled a trick to make her death seem real to save the day. It’s a full, proper and conclusive death with the slayer’s grave being shown at the end to further that point. Part of me believes that such a daring move for the main character may not have been on the cards had a further two seasons been planned at that point but nevertheless, it was a huge step to undertake, for both the characters and the story.
The Gift also made good on bringing season five’s villain Glory to an end in suitably brutal fashion. I still consider her to be possibly BtVS’s strongest and most memorable villain alongside The Mayor and Angelus, and she certainly provided a challenge to the slayer throughout the season, along with providing countless moments of pure hilarity. It’s interesting that at the end, it’s not Buffy that kills her; it’s Giles, who knows the problem needs to be dealt with but also knows that Buffy cannot do it herself while she exists in human form, despite the threat her existence provides.
The beauty of The Gift is how conclusive it really is, both for the season it belongs to and the show as a whole. The way in which it brings things around full-circle was done in a way that the season finales before it didn’t, most likely due to its original purpose as the series finale. Some people believe the show should’ve ended with The Gift but then we wouldn’t have seen what happened when such a finality was used as a plot point rather than a plot ender. The concepts of being a slayer and death are synonymous with each other so seeing what happened when both had been experienced was something I’m extremely glad we got to see.
3 – Hush
Season 4, episode 10
Silence falls across Sunnydale as the voices of its inhabitants are stolen and a terrifying set of suit-wearing creatures prowl the town looking to carve out the hearts of its helpless victims.
As we come to the top three positions of this list, it should come as no surprise that Hush is here. What the episode did differently, as well as what it achieved because of it, easily stand amongst the show’s finest ever moments.
The most obvious factor surrounding Hush’s success it the fact that 27 minutes of it contain absolutely no dialogue at all. With language and typical communication taken off the table, the characters had to rely on hand gestures, often humorously misinterpreted, and other forms of communication to relay their thoughts to the others, and to the audience. For a show that is so widely praised for its snappy and witty dialogue, removing that for over half of the episode was an extremely risky move that could’ve failed miserably had it not been for the actors involved and the genius of Joss Whedon.
Outside of the complete change in character communication, the Gentlemen (the villains of the story) are easily among the creepiest that the show ever offered. Their horrific grins and the way in which they get absolute glee out of butchering their victims made them scary even for adult eyes, and would traumatise children of a nervous disposition. It is perhaps their unique demeanour and the way in which the victims don’t have a way to call for help or defend themselves that makes them such a memorable force for the scariest of reasons.
Hush is also the first episode in which the viewer can see something developing between Willow and Tara, relying solely on eye contact and body language to display that rather than spoken English. Again, it comes back to the removal of dialogue as one of Hush’s defining factors. The cast had the added difficulty of portraying their characters without using language and making the audience understand what they were trying to say without saying it and it proves their gravitas that they accomplished it with such ease.
When somebody says that BtVS is ‘for kids’, Hush is the episode you show them to disprove them. When somebody says that the show wasn’t ‘anything special’, Hush is the episode you show them to tell them otherwise. There were fewer moments of pure creative genius in the show, or in the vast majority of the television landscape, that can be compared to what was achieved with Hush. It really was just that exceptional.
2 – The Body
Season 5, episode 16
After finding her mother dead at the end of the previous episode, life is turned upside down and inside out for Buffy and the rest of the gang as they face something that cannot be defeated and is inevitable for them all.
There are so many incredible aspects of The Body to talk about that I could sit here and write about it until Christmas. Whether it’s the phenomenal acting by all members of the cast, the exquisite and delicate direction and production, the script that all television writers should be envious of or the ultra-realistic portrayal of death and grief, The Body stands proud and tall as one of the finest episodes of television ever broadcast in the history of the medium.
Up until The Body, the gang had obviously encountered death numerous times, often hitting them hard. However, they had not experienced a raw, un-supernatural death like Joyce’s and when it happened, it knocked them with enough force to completely unsettle everything they held together. Buffy was dealt the worst blow with having to find her mother’s lifeless corpse, inform her teenage sister in the school corridor and then withstand a complete mental breakdown as her entire world collapsed around her. While this was happening, Sarah Michelle Gellar put in possibly her strongest performance of the show’s seven season run, balancing pure devastation, anguish, confusion and horror to perfection. She was not the only one, either.
Alyson Hannigan’s emotionally charged confusion about what to wear to visit the hospital packs an incredible punch all while sticking true to the character’s nature. Nicholas Brendan also provided an exceptional performance whilst Emma Caulfield gave possibly the most emotional and heart-wrenching monologue of the episode when Anya expressed deep confusion at how somebody can be so alive and then so dead in a matter of seconds. Her confusion resonates with the viewer and makes them think about the concept of death themselves, heightening the emotion to terrific effect. All of the scenes taking place between these characters at Willow’s dorm room were simply incredible.
While the cast all gave perfect performances throughout the episode, The Body also stands out for how well it dealt with its central concept. It was, and still is, the most realistic portrayal of death and its effects on those around it that I have ever seen on television. For a show that typically dealt with unrealistic concepts, such as vampires and the supernatural, to have portrayed something so real and human with such efficency is extraordinary. We see death all the time in TV but none have ever even come close to matching the sublime way with which The Body dealt with it.
Some people may be wondering whether the praise given to this episode is just or exaggerated. It’s not. There is a reason why The Body is considered one of the best television episodes in history and that’s because it simply is. It’s realistic, emotional, thought-provoking, story-developing and absolutely flawless. Like the aforementioned Hush, this is the episode you show to somebody that claims that BtVS isn’t dark or realistic. If you can watch it without shedding tears, you have a heart of stone.
1 – Once More, With Feeling
Season 6, episode 7
Sunnydale comes alive with the sound of song and dance as its residents are affected by a strange curse, turning everyone and everything into scenes from a musical.
This is it. We’re finally at the top spot and it goes to none other than Once More, With Feeling. Yep, that one with all of the singing and dancing. Putting this episode at the top of this list is even more remarkable considering I usually loathe musical episodes of television shows that wouldn’t normally appear to be capable of hosting such a thing. There is something quite special about OMWF, however.
Even though OMWF turns everything into a song and dance charade, it still manages to continue the story as easily as it would without it. It would’ve been easy for them to have simply abandoned the story arcs for an episode and just have everybody singing about meaningless things, but they used the opportunity they had to explore their arcs in a different way. For example, Willow and Tara’s blossoming relationship encounters problems when Tara discovers that her partner erased her memory to stop them fighting. Also, Buffy finally reveals to the gang that when she was resurrected, she was pulled from heaven, not a hell dimension as everybody previously believed. These are integral points in the story arcs that have significant repercussions afterwards and for them to have been done with everybody singing and dancing is brilliant.
As for the actual musical aspects of the episodes, the songs themselves are as catchy, memorable and fantastic as you could’ve expected them to be: ‘Under Your Spell’ is rather emotional with how it deals with Willow and Tara’s relationship; ‘Rest in Peace’ is typical Spike, with a rock-like vibe to suit the character and the nature of the song; ‘Standing Still’ showcases Anthony Stewart Head’s excellent singing voice and explores Giles’ patriarchal role within the group; and ‘Walk Through the Fire’ is an anthemic, epic and punchy tune that delves into the position of the slayer to great effect. Also, let’s not forget the short but sweet ‘Mustard’ and ‘Parking Ticket’ that are used in the background.
Everything about Once More, With Feeling just oozes creativity and the willingness to make it succeed. The script took Joss Whedon an age to write and inevitably the time taken to make the episode would’ve been substantially higher than a regular episode and when you’re watching it, you just get the feeling that so much effort was put into creating it. It’s hard not to be appreciative of what it manages to achieve. It is also one of the most re-watchable episodes of television I’ve ever watched. The urge to rewind and watch it all over again merely minutes after finishing is sometimes too overwhelming to ignore.
A musical episode of a show that doesn’t normally deal with the concept is always a risky move. It can either be a huge success or a catastrophic failure. For example, I would consider Fringe’s attempt in its second season to be of the latter. However, the combined force of Joss Whedon and the cast of BtVS made OMWF one of the most innovative, exciting, creative and brilliant episodes of all-time and definitely my favourite of the show. While The Body dealt with dark, human matters, OMWF dealt with the opposite side of the spectrum to astonishing success. Now, where did I put the soundtrack CD?
And that concludes this top twenty list of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes. You can’t even begin to realise just how difficult it was to pick out twenty episodes to formulate this post because some fantastic episodes were left out to make room for the others, such as the hilarious Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered from season two, Doppelgangland from season three and Pangs from season four. Despite that, I am happy with the list I have created and I would to hear your thoughts on what you think should/shouldn’t be here and why you think that.
To conclude, I have to say that I have really enjoyed writing these posts and of course I hope anybody reading them has experienced that same feeling!