Buffy the Vampire Slayer has had an almost comically expansive cultural reach. Every day more exploration and extrapolation of the show appears. It is the most studied popular culture property in academia, and the competition is not even close. Academics, like tweens, sci-fi/horror fans, Whedon fans, and cultivators of good taste in general all agree: Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a dynamic, revelatory, unique and strange television experience.
Though 10 years have passed since the finale, it didn’t take a decade for all of this to become clear. Writing in the NY Times in 2003, upon the series end, TV critic Emily Nussbaum described the sadness and relief that accompanies the conclusion of a beloved show, and the opportunity that Buffy the Vampire Slayer will offer fans for endlessly rewarding returns.
“Few shows reward rewatching as much as ”Buffy,” a series which might appear campy at first sight, but over time reveals as many layers as Tony Soprano’s Oedipal complex…Now that the show is over, fans can explore such connections with a sense of perversely satisfying closure.”
Nussbaum has been proven more than correct. Few shows have been discovered, explored, and revisited as frequently as Buffy. The depth and layers Nussbaum noted are evident in Buffy to every new viewer. And 10 years later, eagerness to reach the series’ conclusion has not waned. Finally looking back at the whole and beginning the work of puzzling out the details of what started as a campy teenage girl show and ended as an iconic television landmark that has motivated untold articles, blog posts, and arguments, is a palpable joy.
Into this massive cultural space, The Stake is entering our own directional signposts. If you care about justice and compassion and goodness, or just smartly crafted superhero stories, Buffy is worth the effort.
The point of this endeavor is to look back and appreciate Buffy, but also, like all Whedon fans prior, to encourage others to take the plunge on Buffy, and see what wonders are to be found.
And if you’ve already done so, or just want to cheat, here are the 10 best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Be sure to let us know where we went wrong.
**Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead (obviously)
10. Fear, Itself (Season 4 Episode 4)
Buffy lends itself perfectly to Halloween one-shot episodes, and all of them are delightful. But none more so than Fear, Itself. The haunted house episode allows each of the Scoobies to realize their worst fears, while leading the gang towards a confrontation with a demon of Lilliputian dimensions who was accidentally called by a Frat-boy without a clue.
Very funny and at times quite scary, with excellent costume (Oz as God and Anya the bunny standout), Fear, Itself contains one of the best episode-closing gags in the entire series.
9. Earshot (Season 3 Episode 18)
The world is a complicated place, and growing up is hard enough without demons and vampires and the ever nearing apocalypse to contend with. It’s not easy being young, a loner, an outsider. And like too many others, Jonathon finds himself with a gun looking for a solution.
Buffy is not an after-school special. It does not package lessons tidily to aid the growth and maturation of its audience. But art and life are intertwined, at times accidentally so. That Earshot was delayed from its original airing by the actions of a young and isolated kid and his guns at a school in Columbine, Colorado is not, in hindsight, all that surprising. There are the real moments captured in our television and books and movies, purposefully or not. Earshot is not a lesson in coping; it’s just the case: the impact of guns is real, it cannot be stopped in Buffy’s or our world by magic or superpowers. That Jonathon does not carry out his purpose I suppose is a victory. Not in the Slayer sense, but in the human one.
8. The Gift (Season 5 Episode 22)
Rest in peace.
BUFFY ANNE SUMMERS
SHE SAVED THE WORLD
7. Surprise and Innocence (Season 2 Episode 13, 14)
It was here, the midpoint of season 2, when I realized how brutal Buffy’s world would be, and how complex and layered the show really was. Buffy’s first time, Angel’s lost soul, the troubling experience of lost virginity and lost love. The evil Angel is as dark a character as one can possibly encounter, and he sets about tormenting Buffy for sport. And she holds herself responsible for it all.
The encounter that occurs between the two, after he’s changed and she remains in the dark, is as cold and hard as any of the show’s demons and deaths. He’s distant but responsive; hugs her and kisses her and leaves ice in her veins. She gave in, and drove him away.
“To kill this girl,” Angel later tells Spike, “you have to love her.” The kind of utterance one can only expect from a soulless demon.
6. Chosen (Season 7 Episode 22)
The requirement of a successful finale, be it TV show, movie or book series, is to adequately allow audiences a satisfying emotional exit from the experience that has been endured. History has proven that this task is extremely difficult to accomplish. Most series span years and gather highly devoted followers, only to crumble under the pressure when forced to bring it to an end.
This is why most finales are such a tragic let down. How do you satisfy 7 years of emotional engagement in 42 minutes?
Somehow, though, the Buffy writers were able to bring everything together. Amidst the final battle between Buffy’s slayers and the First, leading to the destruction of Sunnydale itself and the loss of some dear friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer still manages to offer hope and a future to the Slayer–free at last–and to the world. That smile says is it all, and leaves us ready to depart Sunnydale alongside Buffy Summers.
5. Grave (Season 6 Episode 22)
Whatever one’s opinion of the Dark Willow Saga, its conclusion ranks among Buffy’s most satisfying climactic moments. Presented with the searing pain of a lost lover, Willow is poised to bring everything to an end. And the only way to save the world, to save everything, is to hear a loyal friend without fear express his love, and sympathy, and share an embrace.
Xander, defined by sarcasm and the easy joke, reveals his inner hero. Occupying the same role through all seven seasons, the unconditionally loyal Xander continually drives home one of the show’s most important themes: Not everyone needs superpowers to save the world.
4. Restless (Season 4 Episode 22)
The strangest and potentially the most important episode of the second half of the series, Restless is an epilogue to a season that felt a little out of place. But returning to the show a second time, one realizes that much of what is yet to come is tantalizing teased here, in the haunting dreams of Restless.
Broadening the mythology of Buffy considerably, the introduction of the First Slayer expands the world for Buffy to new and fully unexplored elements of her slayer powers. Restless is weird and funny (I would pay to see that version of Death of a Salesman) and, most importantly among all 144 episodes of Buffy, there’s nothing remotely like it. Also, Cheese Man?
3. Once More, With Feeling (Season 6 Episode 7)
Often considered the fan favorite, the famous Buffy Musical can be watched and re-watched endlessly. It is so funny and unassuming and well crafted that one simply can’t get enough.
But like any experimental episode, Once More, With Feeling could have been just a one-shot gimmick. What really makes this episode (and Joss Whedon’s episodes in general) special is the ability to avoid that fate.
As the experience of being stuck in a musical progresses, the humor gets darker and eventually the joke wears off as secrets are unwittingly revealed. The final reveal from Buffy on her death and afterlife is beautiful and shocking. It’s the kind of plot point that makes Buffy special, in the kind of episode that makes Whedon special.
The final lines are apt. After such a brilliant episode, ‘where do we go from here?’
2. The Body (Season 5 Episode 16)
The Body offers an entire episode exploring an experience I had never seen on network television: grief. Not loss, or sadness, or death–these things are everywhere on TV. But disorienting, mind-altering, breathless, terrifying and inescapable grief in the face of impenetrable loss.
Like Earshot, The Body returns Buffy to the reality of biological, physical life and death, as she discovers the lifeless corpse of her mother on a sunny afternoon. There’s no returning from a brain anyeurysm, no matter how much magic one conjures. The failure to accept a shocking loss and the distinct and varied responses to the death of a loved one compound an overwhelmingly emotional episode.
Brutally direct and raw in its emotion, The Body stands apart in Buffy due to the absence of the show’s trademark humor and wit. The episode portrays the full horrors of life in our world–and with almost no musical accompaniment to dull the pain, we feel it. The Body remains my favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But that does not make it the best.
1. Hush (Season 4 Episode 10)
I don’t think there’s any way around this.
Has TV ever produced a more nightmarish villain than the Gentlemen? The shoulder-raising creepiness of these voice-stealing ghouls is a chief part of what makes this the best Buffy episode of all time. There’s a reason Hush was the only episode of Buffy ever nominated for an Emmy in a major category (writing). It stands out as an achievement worthy of notice, even in a show as outstanding as Buffy.
The musical episode may have caught viewers by surprise, but the silence of Hush brings the highest marks of the show. Forcibly removing the ability of an entire town to speak, or scream, the Gentlemen are thus able to cut out the hearts of their victims in peace and quiet.
Exploring the limits of language, the fear of occupying spaces in silence, Whedon has said he wrote Hush because all the praise for Buffy seemed to focus on the snappy and memorable dialogue. Touche, Mr Whedon. Touche.
Can’t even shout. Can’t even cry. The Gentlemen are coming by. Still makes me shudder.