The TDF Top 10 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
In a new series of features for The Digital Fix, our team of writers are selecting the 10 greatest episodes / two-parters from a whole host of TV shows. Kicking things off, we head to Sunnydale and we run down the top 10 from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It’s been 23 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered on our TV screens, and still to this day many people (including me) hold it up as the pinnacle of genre television. It's a series that has transcended its medium to give us an academic discipline, as well as a whole host of new phrases, such as Big Bad.
Like most shows, picking a top 10 is not an easy feat. There are so many possibilities, with episodes ranging from hilarious pastiche, to emotional gut-punches, to musicals. There were the episodes that shocked us with a major death like Seeing Red or Passion, that showed us the final defeat of a favourite enemy like Graduation Day or The Gift, that played with the formula like Tabula Rasa and Hush, or that were just pure comedy like Band Candy and Pangs.
It might be difficult, but it is my job to pick them, so here are my top 10 Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes...
10: Chosen (7.22)
By no means the best of the season finales, Chosen still deserves a place in this list. Yes the deus ex machina ending came out of nowhere, yes the uber vamps are suddenly not so uber, and yes Anya was done a massive disservice. But there is so much to like about what happened to our favourite characters in this episode. Buffy’s final scene with Angel, Spike’s ultimate redemption, Willow’s cleansing; all of them felt like wonderful conclusions for the characters. It also features Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s greatest girl power moment, as Willow’s spell overcame the patriarchal system that created the Slayers, leading to women everywhere standing up against oppression. That one sequence encompasses everything Buffy the Vampire Slayer has always been about.
9: Innocence (2.14)
Make no mistake, this episode is completely a heavy-handed metaphor for teenage sexual experiences; the once dashing and romantic lover turns out to be a monster the morning after. The episode features a wonderful heel turn from David Boreanaz, all the more impactful as it was the first time we really saw how the demon changed people. It’s Giles’ reaction to Buffy that really elevates this episode. It would have been so easy to turn this into a morality tale about abstinence, but Buffy’s father figure doesn’t do that. There is no shame, only love and support.
8: Graduation Day Parts 1 & 2 (3.21 / 3.22)
As well as being the finale of season three, this two-parter serves to close out Buffy’s high school years. It’s almost like the end of part one of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer saga, encompassing so much change. Angel has left for LA and his own series, Buffy’s long-term domestic nemesis Principal Snyder is dead, and, most symbolically of all, Sunnydale High itself has been destroyed. It also helps that the finale is heaps of fun, with Buffy getting the better of two of her most popular villains, Faith and Mayor Wilkins.
7: The Gift (5.22)
The episode that was originally written as the finale to the entire series, with Buffy’s sacrifice being the answer to all the clues that came before like “death is your gift” and "Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0". Giles’ calm dispatching of Ben showed a side of him we rarely saw, and Spike’s absolutely broken reaction to Buffy’s death brings a tear every time. To top it all off there’s Buffy’s epitaph, perfect in its simplicity: “She saved the world...a lot”.
6: Passion (2.17)
Ah Jenny Calendar, the first major heroic character to die in Buffy (sorry Jesse, but we hardly knew you). It’s not just the death itself, but the brutality with which Angelus calmly snaps her neck, and the way he uses it to inflict further pain on Giles. Even though we know what’s coming, the composition of that reveal scene - the roses, the candles, La Boheme - is masterful. This was the moment that the audience, like Buffy, realised that Angel was truly gone. Plus Angelus shows us a different sort of cruelty when he visits Joyce to tell her that he and Buffy had sex. And then the final kicker, the floppy disc that could reveal how to bring Angel back falling between the desks.
5: Hush (4.10)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always close to it’s best when it did something different, whether that was a musical episode or one with no music at all, but Hush tried something that few series would dare: an episode with virtually no speaking at all. What it creates is not only an interesting piece of television, but also one of the scariest episodes filmed. The creepy Gentlemen are some of Buffy’s most memorable villains, stealing voices and stealing hearts (literally). There's also a symbolism in the silence, as Buffy and Riley find that when it comes to being honest with each other, actions speak louder than words.
4: Fool For Love (5.07)
Spike was a hugely popular character, but it was quite a while before we got to learn more about his past beyond the fact he had killed two Slayers. In this episode not only did we get to see him take out those Slayers, but we finally got to see him as a human, and what a difference it was! It turns out that William was a foppish and romantic poet, whose first instinct as a vampire was to try and save his mother’s life. Bonus points that Fool for Love aired alongside the Angel season two episode Darla, which showed some of the same events from a different viewpoint. Spike’s monologue at the end of the episode shows he is perceptive as well as murderous when he articulates the harsh truth at the centre of Slayer psychology: all Slayers have a death wish.
3: Once More With Feeling (6.07)
Musical episodes have been a staple of long-running shows since forever, but they are generally considered to be gimmicky filler episodes. What makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s attempt stand out is that almost every character has a moment of evolution, and the premise of a musical demon making everyone reveal their innermost thoughts through song is an ingenious way of moving the season forward. Not only that but the soundtrack is genuinely good, full of homages to musical theatre such as an “I want” song, a rock ballad, a Golden Age duet, and more.
2: Becoming Parts 1 & 2 (2.21 / 2.22)
Season 2 is really when Buffy the Vampire Slayer came into its own, and the events of the season came to a head with this finale double episode. Most of the major players are given a moment to shine, and a step forward in their development. Angel’s past was fleshed out, as well as putting him on the path to leaving Sunnydale. Spike found himself on the side of good for the first time ever. It’s also the first time Willow really got to flex her magical fingers, which would inform so much of character going forward. Whilst the world ending plot is a little forgettable, it gives us one of the most memorable moments in Buffy the Vampire Slayer history. Willow’s spell to restore Angel’s soul works too late, and Buffy is forced to look her restored lover right in the eyes while she kills him.
1: The Body (5.16)
The Body is not only the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s arguably the best episode of television ever. The episode takes a lot of risks, with no music and long takes that give both the characters and audience nowhere to hide. It’s the emotional truth at the heart of the episode that makes it so special, and anyone who has experienced loss has no doubt seen similar reactions to Buffy’s what-if daydream, Xander’s anger, or Willow’s obsession with her outfit. One of the real highlights of the episode is Anya’s breakdown - probably Emma Caulfield's best acting in the entire series. Ultimately it is the most natural death of the entire run that is the most impactful, and the one that teaches us the deepest lesson: people die, and it’s no one’s fault, and you can’t fight it no matter how strong you are. Cinematic perfection.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add a few honourable mentions: Prophecy Girl, our first season finale and featuring that fantastic speech from Buffy; The Prom, mainly for that beautiful moment between Buffy and Angel; Who Are You?, it’s always fun when actors swap roles; Restless, just all out insanity; Tabula Rasa, probably the funniest episode; Seeing Red, hands down the most shocking death in the entire run; and Storyteller, I have a huge soft spot for Andrew, and this is easily his best episode.
So do you agree with the list above? Let us know in the comments below.