This past week Buffy the Vampire Slayer fans worldwide were deep in their feelings, commemorating the show’s 20 Year Anniversary with the hashtag #buffyslays20. Sarah Michelle Gellar, the titular hero herself, had this to say. There are very few shows that can claim relevancy 20 years after their debut, nor boast a direct influence over the aesthetics, conventions, and pace of shows currently in production.
I was one of those nostalgic fans rewatching key episodes of Buffy Summers’ saga as she traversed a world full of literal and figurative monsters, emerging triumphant on the other side. Below is a countdown of my favorite Buffy episodes by season. I hope you enjoy!
At just 13 monster-of-the week style episodes, this season is slim pickings. The establishment of the Hellmouth and the season’s overall arc with the Master and his flock of deeply religious vampires was actually quite well done despite that.
2. Welcome to the Hellmouth / The Harvest
1. Prophecy Girl
Excellent summation to the season arc. Explored Buffy’s vulnerability, tested her resolve, and severed her line of Slayer succession. This leads to series-long consequences that get carried over into the spinoff, Angel.
This is the first full season. Ironically, nowadays seasons are often capped at 13 episodes or fewer, but back in the 80s, 90s and aughts we could look forward to anywhere from 22 to 26 episodes a year. Ah the good old days! This season had some fairly stupid monster-of-the-week episodes. But the overall arc, especially the way it zigs when you think it will zag is awesome. And the devastating, gut wrenching season finale was the first indication that this show was headed for iconic status.
5. School Hard
Buffy’s version of Sid and Nancy come roaring into town and become major players in the Buffy/Angelverse from then on.
4. I Only Have Eyes For You
A clever way to play out trauma from earlier in the season suffered by Giles and Buffy. Incredibly painful reversal in the end. Great overall story.
3. What’s My Line Parts 1&2
A great fake me out introduces us to Kendra the Vampire Slayer played by everyone’s favorite ageless beauty, Bianca Lawson. It also had Buffy and the gang pondering their future. Lots of fights and hijinks this episode.
2. The Becoming Parts 1&2
A finale that expertly ties up the season’s arc, creates an interesting set up for the next season, and maximizes the pain so that viewers could carry it in their hearts over the summer hiatus. It also features one of the best fight scenes (fencing!) and power lines of the entire series:
Angelus: “No weapons… no friends… no hope. Take all that away and what’s left?”
The only downside is the way they did my girl Kendra. This will not be the last time Whedon and Co do some fucked up nonsense with regard to a Black character. For peak Mutant Enemy whiteness you have to dig up on Charles Gunn in Season 5 of Angel. Whooo boy!
1. Surprise & Innocence
Probably one of the most ‘on the nose’ metaphors of the series, but also one of the most impactful. The balance of the season is actually elevated by the angst that starts during this two-parter and the fallout reaches far into the Angel spinoff. The curse parameters are almost nonsensical in their cruelty to those who surround Angelus, but even that is a masterstroke of revenge. Clearly, those who bring him happiness are deserving of the Roma clan’s wrath as well, and should suffer the consequences of befriending such a beast as Angel(us).
This is a beloved season, and with good reason. They got a little budget boost which can be immediately felt in the remastered opening song. The arc is compelling and well paced, utilizing the senior year theme beautifully. It pays off the Principal Schneider/Mayor Wilkins story handily. It introduces us to Faith the Vampire Slayer, an ally turned nemesis for Buffy. Willow continues to develop beyond a sidekick in a very lovely way. Many of the episodes are classics with very few clunkers. This top 5 was legitimately hard to narrow down. Seriously, my ‘short’ list was 12 episodes long.
Starts off super into Faith/Buffy femme slash territory and ends with the first major rift in their relationship which sets the tone for the (many) conflicts to come. The gang finds out about Angel being alive and understandably freak out. Giles gives Buffy the disappointed father voice. Buffy can’t keep her hands off her dead not-boyfriend. It’s a mess. To top it off, a rogue Watcher wants to unleash holy hell on the world.
This was a unique story that had Buffy doing a bit of damseling for a change. Angel saves her so she can save the day. Willow serves as a great general to the Scoobies.
3. The Wish/Dopplegangland
Intensely fun romp. Willow being a freak jawn. What’s not to love? “The Wish” and “Dopplegangland” are not technically a two-parter, but they’re continuity is linked. Cordelia’s wishing for a Buffyless Sunnydale and not surviving past Act 1 of her alternative universe is inspired. And it was clever to make Vampire Willow, the most vivid part of the Wishverse, the centerpiece of “Dopplegangland”.
As cliche as the runaway metaphor played, I loved every minute of seeing Anne unpack herself until she found her way back to being Buffy. The end fight scene is right up there with the opening fight scene of Final Fantasy 8 in terms of fights I’ve watched over and and over again. It felt really satisfying and earned, with gorgeous choreography. My pro-continuity sensibilities also loved Chantrelle from season 2 coming back as Lily and then later resurfacing in Angel as Anne.
1. Graduation Day Parts 1&2
Great way to bring all of the story lines to a head. Faith and Buffy’s epic fight. Buffy stepping over the edge and risking it all. Xander’s the Graduation Battlemaster. It’s maybe the one time in the whole series where I felt unqualified love for him. Angel’s swan song. Sunnydale High reduced to rubble. Buffy leaving the Counsel.
Wesley: “This is mutiny.”
Buffy: “I like to think of it as graduation.”
People didn’t like this one, but I really liked what it tried to do. Bringing in the Initiative as a patriarchal military organization trying to exploit forces they didn’t understand, and having the Slayer set things right was compelling. College as a place of discovery played really well for Buffy and tenfold for Willow. Adam was kind of whack but he had some genuinely chilling moments.
5. Wild At Heart
Oh the pain! Seth Green needed to blow that Popsicle stand because even then he was a veteran actor. Being like 6th on the call sheet for a TV show airing on an upstart network was cramping his style a little. Great angst that showcased the devastation of lost first love exceptionally well.
4. Something Blue
Funny as hell and the precursor to all that illicit boning (and twu wuv) Buffy and Spike got up to in subsequent seasons. The shenanigans that ensued after a spell went awry were responsible for some of the best moments in the series. This episode is a good example.
3. Who Are You
Admittedly, the Angel side of this crossover event was better. But doing a deep dive into Faith’s mind with its twisting nest of resentments was wonderful. SMG gave a crackling performance as Faith, and for the few minutes Eliza had to believably be Buffy, she did a pretty good job herself! Also the intensely sexual energy Faith projected at Buffy from day 1 was in full force and I, for one, approved!
The joining of Buffy with the Scoobies using the primordial energies of Sineya the First Slayer was one of the best thematic moments of the series.
So what was Buffy without the quips and hipper-than-thou dialogue? Apparently one of the most engaging and eery television shows with a cast skilled enough to convey nearly an entire episode’s worth of emotion without saying a word.
This was another solid season that took plenty of risks. It dragged a little, however. Without the container of a school year, seasons started to meander a bit. I appreciated that they paid off things foreshadowed in Season 4. Buffy’s search for identity and her place as a Slayer was pivotal, but of course the introduction of Dawn as a plot device was the centerpiece. I loved that it took them 5 episodes to tease out what the hell was going on. Dawn was a brat, but she was believable and giving Buffy a sister actually helped solidify her motivations.
5. No Place Like Home
Dawn’s origins, and the magnitude of what was afoot was revealed. I always get chills when I watch the monk tell Buffy about Dawn because SMG sells the confusion, horror, pain, and realization of the moment.
4. Fool For Love
William the Bloody… Awful Poet’s origin story. The production on this and the way it linked to the Angel episode, “Darla” are admirable. Spike was basically one of those murderous “nice guys” taken to the extreme. Looking back with new eyes, I was a bit too charmed by him, I think. James Marsters acted his ass off in every era.
This is mostly here for Buffy’s speech to the Council. I tend to really like when my mystical protags flounder for a bit then come into their own and tell somebody unequivocally who the fuck they is. See also: the Doctor’s “Oncoming Storm” themed speeches.
2. The Body
I was Dawn’s age when my mother died. I’ve watched this exactly twice and cried myself physically ill both times. Let’s move on.
1. The Gift
They sure knew how to do a finale didn’t they? Buffy finally understanding Sineya’s message about death being her gift and saving Dawn, makes me cry every time. Gorgeous acting and music also. Giles handled Ben in exactly the way that was needed.
Another season people didn’t like, including Sarah Michelle Gellar. She was against Buffy getting this depressed, defeated, and down in the dumps. I was frustrated and disgusted that Giles got a salary for being a Watcher but Buffy risked her life sans stipend and had to work shitty jobs. I know it’s supposed to be a metaphor for being a college dropout and sudden caregiver, but it annoyed me. Incidentally, this is the season I became a fan. What can I say, I like angst and raunch and this season had it in spades. When I went back to watch from the 1st season, I completely understood why folks were displeased with the changes to Buffy’s characterization.
5. Bargaining Parts 1 & 2
Buffy’s pain was visceral. General Willow who started rearing her head way back in season 2 had become a bit scary with single-minded determination and secret-keeping.
4. Tabula Rasa
3. Two to Go
As I made this list, I realized that this show was almost as much about Willow as it was about Buffy. Willow having it out with Buffy, expressing her resentments and self loathing in this way, was–pardon the pun–spellbinding.
Darth Rosenberg, as Andrew dubbed her, was easily the scariest baddie of them all. She out menaced Angelus, even. “Bored now.” *shivers*
1. Once More With Feeling
I still know all the songs and can sing them. Loudly. Often. Sometimes in public. What a feat for this show! It wasn’t just a showy experiment either. Like “Hush” in season 4, OMWF did a unique thing but tied it to the world with stability, advancing the ongoing story lines.
“I CAN BRING WHOLE CITIES TO RUIN AND STILL HAVE TIME TO GET A SOFT-SHOE IN…”
I… didn’t really like this season. More clunkers than good episodes, but “Chosen” still stands as one of the best series finales I’ve ever seen. Way to bring the show home!
Anya was a loner, much like Spike, which led them both into the demon life. The humor didn’t work as well as the pathos, but the pathos was so very good, especially the inter-cutting between the Buffy vs. Anya fight and Anya’s origin story.
4. Get It Done
I always liked that the magic of the Slayer had African origins even as sloppy and shitty as they showcased this throughout the series. But they might have actually opened a credible book this time out to find believable costuming for the Shadowmen. My headcanon of course is that during the European Slave Trade, the Brits absconded with the Old Knowledge to form the Watchers’ Council.
In a better season almost none of these episodes would have made the top 5. Most of this episode was puerile, but the ending with Johnathan showing real remorse and fear was a good payoff.
I wish there had been some foreshadowing on that scythe a season or so beforehand like most of the really important elements of the lore… but they were all phoning it in by this time. This episode of Buffy boasts the first lesbian sex scene ever broadcast on American TV. Way to go y’all.
Chosen really showcased how this was a Buffy, Willow and the Others show all along. Willow partnered with Buffy to share the Power of the Slayer with all the Potentials. The Final Slayer Speech gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. That closing shot of Buffy smiling at the possibilities for her future–a future she didn’t seriously think she’d have–makes me clap and weep.
Big Thematic Gripe: At some point Sineya should have appeared to Willow during her spell or been included in some other way. How can this moment of triumph leave Sineya The Original Slayer out of the proceedings after evoking her several times as a guide for Buffy? Ugh.
So there it is, in all its long glory. I should have done a Top 20 to commemorate 20 years, but I’m clearly too extra for my own good. What’s your top 20? Leave them in the comments!