Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still a cult phenomenon, despite ending nearly twenty years ago. The series ran from 1997 until 2003 and became a mega franchise with a spin-off, video games, toys and a comic franchise sequel created by Joss Whedon which displayed the sort of team-focused narratives that would mark his career. Buffy followed a teenager, Buffy Summers (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar), who is chosen by fate to become the Slayer, the one person who can kill the demons and vampires that plague the town of Sunnydale, situated above a portal to hell. Along with her friends witch Willow (Alyson Hannigan), geek Xander (Nicholas Brendan) and her faithful watcher Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), the team would see themselves go up against all manner of monsters and nasties, and an expansive supporting cast that endeared them to the world.
For its twenty-fifth birthday we present twenty-five essential episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer:-
(There will be spoilers ahead)
Season 7, Episode 22
Let’s start where it ended, shall we? Whedon’s finale to the show saw the hellmouth erupt and the First Evil that infests the world unleash an army of mega strong vampires. Buffy, along with everyone she can muster, fight them off. As a finale it’s action packed with enough bloodshed to make an impact. It’s satisfying narratively if more on the action side than character. Still, the sight of a weary Buffy looking out into the world, at an army of potential slayers there to take the load, makes the modus operandi of the show clear – women lifting one another up is the future.
24. Prophecy Girl
Season 1, Episode 12
The season one finale saw Buffy take on her first season long “big bad” The Master (Mark Metcalf), which sees her lay down her life to stop him, only to be saved by her friends. The showdown between Buffy and The Master is suitably epic and while this season finale would never reach the heights of other ones, it still feels satisfying in its own right, as a mid-season replacement the first twelve episode season was made so if it wasn’t renewed it would be a suitable ending.
Season 3, Episode 11
While often forgotten, this monster-of-the-week episode is particularly scary for its subtext. All the strongest episodes of Buffy use the horror elements to comment on the terror we feel growing up. In this episode the ghosts of two children manipulate the adults of the town into becoming an angry mob. Using the myth of Hansel and Gretel, the episode explores how seemingly rational people lose their collective minds when children are put in danger. The sight of Buffy, Willow and fellow witch Amy being put to death at the stakes is a hauntingly scary image.
22. Wild at Heart
Season 4, Episode 6
Seth Green’s often comically calm Oz was put to good use when his werewolf nature was introduced into the show. The usually collected and kind natured guitarist would become, once a month, a vicious monster. This Oz-centric episode shows the underlying worry people have, that if you’re too different from a partner they will inevitably seek out people more in line with themselves. Green’s departure in the episode does leave a certain hole in the series, but since it laid the groundwork for Willow to find Tara and form one of television’s most high profile same-sex relationships, maybe Green was right to do so.
Season 3, Episode 17
The premise of Earshot is one many people have pondered – what if we could hear people’s thoughts? After being infected by a pair of demons with the power to hear everyone’s thoughts, Buffy begins to suspect someone is going to try and kill students. The episode is cleverly written by regular scribe Jane Espenson with the ability to throw in mind reading jokes including Oz’s existential crisis “my thoughts make me who I am, if Buffy knows my thoughts, she becomes me. I cease to exist.” The real genius of the episode is the building to a comment on not being seen or heard and the toll it takes on people. Jonathan Levinson as played by Danny Strong is given a moment of true catharsis. A funny but ultimately haunting episode.
Season 2, Episode 11
Anyone who ever had a parent start dating again might know the feeling on not quite clicking with them. Here Buffy’s mum Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) begins dating the too-good-to-be-true Ted (John Ritter) and Buffy suspects something might be up. Taking Buffy’s feelings of disconnection and the tension of a is he / isn’t he, Ritter provides the series with one of it’s best monsters of the week and an all time delivery with “I won’t have this malarkey in my house!”
19. The Prom
Season 3, Episode 20
As season three began ramping up to the foretold ascension of the evil Mayor (Harry Groener), the series took a moment to reflect on its emotional side. A disgruntled teen has taken several hellhounds and tortured them into hating proms to get revenge on being snubbed. As everyone prepares for the night Buffy has to contend with her boyfriend Angel (David Boreanaz) dumping her. The episode is fun for its comments on the series but it’s when Buffy is presented with an award by her peers for protecting them, crystallising that she isn’t invisible to them and her work is appreciated, that it really comes together.
18. Band Candy
Season 3, Episode 6
Cursed candy turns the adults of Sunnydale into their teenage selves. This episode is an often funny look at how age mellows us and gives both Anthony Stewart Head and Sutherland a chance to show different sides to Giles and Joyce. Giles as an impulsive, angry, cockney teen and Joyce as a gum-chewing doe-eyed teen are both great. Perhaps best of all is the decision to show sinister Principle Snyder (Armin Shimmerman) as a nerdy, uneasy geek. Seeing how Giles was as a teen gives his buttoned down demeanour all the more weight and Head owns the episode completely.
17. Killed by Death
Season 2, Episode 18
One of Buffy’s scarier episodes sees a flue-stricken Buffy hospitalised and forced to rest in bed when children start disappearing from the wards. The episode offers Buffy a little break from battling season villain Angelus but instead pits her against folkloric boogeyman Der Kinderstod, a creature whose old-time dress-sense belies its evil intent. Buffy’s trauma about hospitals tying into the creature offer her some catharsis emotionally, but the image of Der Kinderstod slowly prowling the halls of the hospital by night is nightmare inducing.
16. Bad Girls
Season 3, Episode 14
When season three introduced new slayer Faith Lehane (Eliza Dushku), things changed. Buffy’s preppy, quip-happy take on slaying was juxtaposed by someone who got a sexual thrill from her job. The episode mixes comedy – the huge demon Balthazar needing to be constantly bathed, and Giles and new Watcher Wesley (Alexis Denisof) being interrogated by him with high drama. The episode’s core – Faith killing the human deputy mayor, and her callous attitude towards it, shows that she is not just different from Buffy, she’s down right unhinged. Faith’s final comment to Buffy regarding her accidental murder of a human is haunting – “I don’t care.”
15. Normal Again
Season 6, Episode 17
Season six is controversial among fans, it’s darker, more stark than previous ones, marked by Whedon leaving show runner duties for Firefly. Even so, and as silly as the season big bad The Trio are, Normal Again is a good “what if” scenario. Warren Mears, Andrew Wells and Jonathan Levinson put a curse on Buffy to make her believe that her life is actually the insane hallucinations of a young woman in a psychiatric hospital. The episodes final shot of a catatonic Buffy in a hospital might be a joke from the writers, but it raises interesting questions about the nature of storytelling.
14. The Wish
Season 3, Episode 9
Demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) was just a twice recurring baddie of the week to begin with. Her vengeance demon nature allowed her to exploit the pain of scorned women. Here it-girl Cordelia (Charisma Carptener) wishes that Buffy never came to Sunnydale. This alt-reality episode where The Master created a town of vampires is a fun if dark natured episode that sees Willow and Xander as leather clad vamps that get off on cruelty. The sight of Willow sexually liberated is a theme that would continue throughout her time on the show.
13. A New Man
Season 4, Episode 12
Ever felt like people don’t understand you? You talk and they don’t get what you’re saying? A New Man captures that as an increasingly depressed and outcast Giles is turned into a demon by former friend Ethan Rayne (Robin Sachs). Unable to be understood by anyone but vampire Spike (James Masters), the two hunt for Rayne to reverse the curse, all the while Buffy is convinced a demon has killed her beloved father figure and seeks to kill it. At turns clever and very very funny, the episode offers a strong showcase for Head’s comic sensibilities, and his chemistry with Masters is a massive highlight.
Season 2, Episode 17
It feels obvious now that Whedon has zero qualms about killing off key characters in big franchises. It’s become his stock-in-trade but by season two of the series no one knew what Whedon’s quirks were. With the season villain revealed to be Angel’s soul-less vampiric form Angelus, the gang desperately search for answers on how to restore his soul and stop his reign of terror. The episode is notable for the killing of supporting character Jenny Calendar (Robia Scott), Giles’ former girlfriend who he begins to reconcile with after her connection to Angel is made clear. Her murder at his hands – and Angelus’ glee at doing it – showed this season was not going to end without emotion, and set a course for a series that would kill people without ever stopping to offer sympathy.
Season 3, Episode 12
Helpless sees Buffy turn eighteen and enter a ritual the Watcher’s Council has long prided itself on. Buffy is stripped of her enhanced strength, reflexes and agility and forced to face off against a particularly nasty vampire, a serial killer kept prisoner by the Watchers. Giles visible discomfort at what he must do, and head Watcher Quentin Travers (Harris Yulin) being so calm about it is what makes this episode so harrowing. That Giles pays for helping Buffy with his job shows his love for her.
10. Conversations with Dead People
Season 7, Episode 7
As the final season began to take shape it became clear this was a much more arc-heavy season than those before. Even so this real-time episode explores the idea of being alone as characters converse with characters who have died. The idea that The First is trying to divide and conquer is our first real inclination of what this evil can do, giving people visions and speaking to their deepest fears. Buffy’s conversation with a former classmate who has become a vampire offers a little light relief to the darker elements that plague the other four segments, but even that ends with an element of shock.
Season 4, Episode 22
Acting as a coda to the fourth season after the big band has been defeated, the main four gather at Buffy’s to relax after joining life forces to awaken the power of the first slayer. In their dreams their fears are realised. Buffy is confronted by the first slayer and must contend with her destiny even as cryptic messages are given to her. Giles, Willow and Xander all confront their worries, their feelings of inadequacy in the face of Buffy, Giles’ desire to be Buffy’s father and his own dreams. Willow’s burgeoning relationship with Tara, Xander’s feelings of being a third wheel without any power. It’s a trippy, Lynchian episode and offers a haunting resolution to the fourth season all the while setting up what’s to come later.
8. The Gift
Season 5, Episode 22
Clare Kramer’s villainous hell-god Glory was a tough big bad to bring down, hoping to open up a portal between worlds and use Buffy’s “sister” Dawn (Michelle Tratchenberg) as a key. The episode looks at Buffy’s relationship to her destiny and her feelings for Dawn. While Dawn is revealed to be a ball of magic energy that was made into her sister so she would protect her with her life. Christoph Beck’s beautiful score underpins Buffy’s realisation that she can finally end all this and her gift will be to rest.
7. Seeing Red
Season 6, Episode 19
Seeing Red is controversial in the canon, perhaps the most controversial for its content. As the season long subplot of Buffy’s sexual relationship with Spike comes to a head with her telling him to leave, Spike attempts to rape her. His actions would make the episode infamous in and of itself since Spike was a reformed villain who was something of a fan favourite, but the episodes ending – member of the Trio Warren Mears (Adam Busch) shooting Buffy and in the process accidentally killing Tara (Amber Benson) is what cements it as Buffy’s nastiest chapter.
Season 6, Episode 20
Buffy is shot, and Willow’s long term beloved girlfriend Tara is dead, and that’s the opening moments of the episode. As Willow’s magic addiction returns with a vengeance she seeks the darkness of the mystical to bring Warren to justice. Willow’s transformation into the villainous Dark Willow offers an examination of what addiction and relapse can do to people and their loved ones. The horror of Willow stripping Warren of his flesh and deciding that the other two members of the trio deserve to die next is the downbeat final note that would lead to an ambitious finale.
Season 2, Episode 13
After Buffy and Angel consummate their relationship physically Angel is stripped of his soul; his soul having been given to him as a curse by people he massacred. Now free of that guilt the sullen, sensitive Angel becomes the gleefully nasty Angelus. His rampage is only marked by his utter joy in killing. Exploring the way in which sex changes relationship dynamics, Buffy’s conversation with Giles in which she blames herself and he offers nothing but support underpins the weight of what has happened. Buffy decides she will have to kill Angelus and lose the man she loves, but boy is it going to suck to do so.
4. Once More with Feeling
Season 6, Episode 7
Perhaps Buffy’s most famous episode “the musical one” is a fantastically silly and emotionally strong outing. The silk voiced Hinton Battle plays Sweet, a demon that forces Sunnydale to sing their true feelings aloud and if they refuse to dance they burn to death. The songs are catchy, marked by them still being sung at Rocky Horror-style screenings around the world. What’s most surprising isn’t that some of them can sing but how many of them can. Giles’ fatherly lament Standing and Tara’s love song Under Your Spell remain the highlights all these years later. But Buffy finally confessing to her friends that they didn’t rescue her from hell and instead pulled her from heaven is devastating.
Season 2, Episode 21 / 22
The two part finale offers Buffy at her most emotionally raw. Angelus must be stopped, and while Willow tries to restore his soul, Buffy resigns herself that she must kill him. As Angelus tries to awaken the demon Acathla, we learn more about Angel’s origins as an Irishman killed and turned into a vampire. Learning how Liam became Angelus and then Angel. The final fight between Angelus and Buffy is emotionally charged and her profession of love as she drives a sword through him so he can close the Acathla’s vortex is heartbreaking. Even the Mutant Enemy logo had a cry.
Season 4, Episode 10
The show at large, and Whedon in particular, were noted for snappy dialogue as the reason the show did so well. To prove the naysayers wrong the series gave us a near silent episode. Hellish creatures from folklore The Gentlemen descend on Sunnydale stealing the voices of the residents. After taking the voices they begin cutting out hearts to perform a ritual. The silent horror of the episode is underpinned by growing relations between everyone. Without voices people have to listen. Xander realises he has feelings for Anya, and a moment of panic shows a sexually charged magic between Willow and Tara. The Gentlemen are terrifying, the lead monster played with relish by Doug Jones. The episode has a clear inspiration on the Doctor Who villains The Silence. Spine-tingling stuff.
- The Body
Season 5, Episode 16
Joyce was never a main character, popping up to remind people that Buffy was a human being with a mum who loved her, but her sudden and unexpected death in season five offered the show its most profound moment. Devoid of metaphor, or of spectacle fights, The Body instead shows what happens when someone dies. From Buffy trying her best to bring her mother back to life, to Dawn’s disbelief at her going. The show encapsulates the listless nature of grief and pain. No better exemplified than by Emma Caulfield’s beautifully pitched monologue as Anya, not adept at human emotions after centuries as a demon, grapples with what grief is. Her not understanding the protocol or the concept that death is the end, her tear drenched ramble about how she can’t understand why Joyce can’t get up or why she isn’t there and it’s just a body, is one of the finest pieces of writing in fantasy fiction and Caulfield gives it weight with her nuance in sorrow. Cathartic for many, and easily Buffy and co’s finest hour of television.