Happy Birthday Buffy: The 13 Best Episodes Of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

Today is the 30th birthday of TV character Buffy Summers. To honor this fictional person, Devin runs down what he thinks are the 13 best episodes of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Debate it in the comments!

Today is Buffy Summers’ 30th birthday. No, not the birthday of  Sarah Michelle Gellar but rather the fictional character at the center of Joss Whedon’s amazing television show. It’s been a long while since Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended, and with a reboot on the horizon it seems unlikely that we’ll ever revisit the Scooby Gang in a live action format. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep enjoying the seven spectacular seasons of the show; if you love modern genre television, you probably owe a big debt to Buffy. The show changed the way genre stories were told on TV, and it’s one of the pivotal shows in the modern trend of serialized storytelling on television.

In honor of Buffy’s 30th I’ve compiled a list of the 13 best episodes of the series. I could have done 30, but that would have felt like overkill. Ten, it turned out, was just not enough. 13 feels about right. You’ll notice that I left out some episodes that others might think were the best of the series, and that I haven’t tried to balance the seasons. While I like every season of Buffy - and while I’m a huge defender of season 6 as a complete story - some seasons just have better episodes than others. And an attempt to shoehorn a season 1 episode just to represent season 1 would have meant that an objectively better episode would have been left off. Believe me, I’d like to have The Puppet Show on here - this would be the only ‘Best of Buffy’ list to ever include it!

And here are the top 13, in chronological order. Two parters are counted as one episode:

Season 2
Written by Marti Noxon/Joss Whedon
Directed by Michael Lange/Joss Whedon
Until halfway through the second season Buffy the Vampire Slayer had been about the concept that high school is hell. Various episodes used horror and fantasy metaphors to explore the trials and tribulations of growing up, and it usually worked. But it wasn’t until this two-parter that the show found the profound depths it could explore in metaphor.
Buffy had been dating Angel, the much older (by a few hundred years) vampire with a soul. In  this two parter they finally consummated their relationship, with Buffy losing her virginity to her beau. And just like a man, as soon as he got the pussy he turned into a real jerk. Except that it was literal here - the curse that had saddled Angel with a soul could only be broken if he experienced a moment of ‘true happiness.’ Which he apparently experienced deep inside Buffy Summers. Angel became Angelus, and all of a sudden Buffy found herself faced with the fact that her boyfriend wasn’t just a nasty, murderous vampire - he was a nasty murderous vampire who was mad at her for making him feel the way he had. It almost would have just been better if he had stopped returning her calls and ignored her at parties.
Besides that there’s a great story where a demon, The Judge, who is supposedly unkillable, is brought to Sunnydale. Buffy figures out that even an unkillable demon gets turned to mush when hit with a rocket launcher.
Season 2
Written by Ty King
Directed by Michael Gershman
Joss Whedon has called Innocence the mission statement of Buffy, but Passion is the episode where the show really announced what it was willing to do. Whedon wanted his drama to matter, and he wanted to make it clear that characters - even beloved ones - could and would die. Also, he needed to establish that Angelus wasn’t just a bad guy, but that he was an out and out villain, someone who couldn’t simply be forgiven. And so Angelus killed Jenny Calendar, a fan favorite character and the love interest for Buffy’s Watcher, Giles. But that wasn’t all - Angelus left Jenny’s corpse in Giles’ bed, arranging the house to look like she had set everything up for a romantic evening.
This is one of the show’s first really ‘holy shit’ episodes, and it remains one of the best. The death of Jenny doesn’t feel like a cynical attempt to be dark but rather a natural upping of the stakes. And many of the show’s best moments involve Giles shedding his librarian persona, and his suicidal assault on Angelus’ lair is one of the best of those.
The Wish
Season 3
Written by Marti Noxon
Directed by David Greenwalt
Alternate reality stories are always fun, and The Wish is one of the better What If…? stories told on television. When Cordelia wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale, her wish comes true. At first Cordy is excited to be free of Buffy, but soon discovers that without the Slayer stopping the Harvest at the end of season one Sunnydale is an apocalyptic nightmare town. Xander and Willow are vampires serving The Master, Angel is his tortured captive, and Giles, Oz and gay football player Larry are the ‘White Hats’ who try to keep the vampires at bay.
In the best tradition of What If…? stories, everything goes terrible, and most of the characters kill each other before the normal reality can be restored. In true Buffy style the episode is fun, exciting and most importantly sheds new light on the characters. Later the vampiric Willow would come to our reality, sowing the seeds for Willow’s lesbianism. This episode also introduced Anya, a vengeance demon who went on to be a fan favorite and Xander’s fiancee.
The Zeppo
Season 3
Written by Dan Vebber
Directed by James Whitmore Jr
This clever episode reverses the usual storytelling practices of television. Normally the A story is the big, exciting plot that drives the episode while the B story is something smaller, possibly funny and more character oriented. In The Zeppo (a Marx Bros reference, of course) Buffy and the Scoobies are fighting a Lovecraftian horror trying to escape from the Hellmouth, but that’s the B story. The A story is Xander - the only normal human in the group, and thus often useless - having his own escapades in Sunnydale. The two stories collide, with the Scoobies never realizing what Xander is up to, which includes stopping a gang of zombie punks and losing his virginity to Faith.
Humor was always one of the show’s defining elements, but the best Buffy episodes balanced gags with emotion and humanity, and The Zeppo is no different. While very funny The Zeppo is an almost moving look at Xander and his constant feeling of disconnection from his supernatural friends.
The Prom
Season 3
Written by Marti Noxon
Directed by David Solomon
Look, I’m going to make a confession here. Some episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer have made me cry. This is one of them. The A story of The Prom isn’t that amazing - a disgruntled student plans to unleash hellhounds on the senior prom at Sunnydale High School - but everything else is amazing. Angel, returned and resouled, realizes he can’t be with Buffy anymore and they have their final moments (before he went off to get his own TV show). But more than that is the unexpected wonder at the end of the episode; after three years of being secretly protected by Buffy, the students of Sunnydale reveal they know what she does for them and they give her a silver umbrella, naming her ‘Class Protector.’ It’s a really beautiful little moment that only works because the incredible writing on the show has allowed us to become so invested in these characters.
Graduation Day 1/2
Season 3
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
The finale of season three is, until the series finale, the biggest and best. The ambition on display is thrilling, and while Buffy’s budget didn’t quite allow everything to be fully realized it’s still a terrific and engaging two hours of television.
The season’s Big Bad, The Mayor, plans to ascend into demonhood at the Sunnydale High School graduation and eat all the students. On his side is Faith, a Slayer turned bad. Standing against him isn’t just Buffy and her friends but the entire senior class, armed and trained to defeat the monster The Mayor becomes. The two parter includes an epic fight scene between Buffy and Faith, as well as the rousing (if cheap) finale. And because this is Buffy it’s filled with wonderful character moments. The Mayor remains the best Buffy Big Bad, and the scene where he has Faith get into a nice dress, telling her that his ascension is her day as well, is hauntingly sweet.
In the end the bad guy is defeated and the high school is blown up, a fittingly symbolic way to move Buffy on to the next phase of her life.
Season 4
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
This is the only season four episode on this list. Season four saw the show really stretch beyond its bounds, trying to introduce a science fiction element in the government Initiative that was studying the Hellmouth. The concept is strong but the execution stumbles a number of times, as does the show’s attempts to move Buffy from high school to college. The show eventually figured out that Buffy needed to just jump to adulthood - college adventures felt like a rehash of high school.
The season four finale was an epilogue; the Scoobies had defeated the cyborg Adam in the previous episode and in Restless they have a sleepover movie marathon, during which they all fall asleep and find themselves attacked in their dreams by none other than the First Slayer. Each of the character’s dreams are in turn funny and revealing, and a revisit of Restless reveals that it’s filled with clues of things that are to happen in the next three seasons.
There are a couple of dream episodes in the seven seasons of Buffy, but I think this is the best. It feels like the show is taking a moment to compose itself after stumbling, reestablishes the characters and then lays out the end game plan. It also begins the investigation of the deeper aspects of the Slayer mythology, which ends up being a key part of season seven.
The Body
Season 5
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
Remember when I said some episodes of Buffy made me cry? Yeah. I can’t imagine watching this episode with a dry eye (it’s the scene where Anya can’t understand death that really gets to me). Metaphors served the show well for five seasons, but with The Body Whedon removes all metaphor and has Buffy’s mom die. Suddenly, and without supernatural cause. She died, on the couch, of an aneurysm.
Stripped of all music and normal episode conventions, The Body simply goes through the hours after the death of Joyce, with Buffy waiting for paramedics and the group trying to figure out how to deal with the stunning loss in their own ways. There’s a brief vampire battle at the end, but it’s a distraction and an afterthought; The Body is more interested in making you feel the confusion and loneliness and surreality of the moments after a loved one suddenly dies. Whedon’s own mother died of a cerebral aneurysm, and it’s obvious that this episode - free of schmaltz or sentiment but nonetheless honestly shattering - comes from a very personal place. If this was a list ranked by quality, The Body would be right at the top. It’s one of the finest hours of television ever made.
The Gift
Season 5
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
As season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer approached its end, there was no clear idea if there would be a season six. And so Joss Whedon went full tilt in the finale, crafting an ending that is huge and epic and very, very final.
The last battle against mad god Glory is underway, and the only way to stop the impending apocalypse is to kill Buffy’s sister, Dawn. What’s complicated is that Dawn isn’t really Buffy’s sister - Buffy never had a sister! - but rather a supernatural force that has been embodied in Buffy’s sister and been written into history by powerful beings. As the battle rages, Buffy takes what she thinks is the only action possible and sacrifices herself in Dawn’s place, averting the end of the world but losing her own life. The episode ends with a shot of Buffy’s grave with the inscription ‘Beloved Sister. Devoted Friend. She Saved The World. A Lot.’
Once More With Feeling
Season 6
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
This is the single best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and not because of the gimmick that it’s a musical episode (although that helps as well). Once More With Feeling embodies the way the show, when at its best, juggles humor and action and character and emotion, and the way it became expert at melding standalone stories with big mythology stories. As a standalone, Once More With Feeling is a great blast of fun. As a chapter in the extended serial Once More With Feeling includes some of the most important character and emotional beats of season six, including Buffy revealing to her friends, who resurrected her, that they pulled her out of ultimate happiness in heaven, Xander and Anya beginning to come apart and Buffy and Spike sharing their first kiss.
And the music! Joss Whedon wrote all the songs, and even with a cast of non-professional singers they’re hummable and memorable tunes. I still listen to the soundtrack of this episode on a regular basis - Tara’s Under Your Spell, Spike’s Rest In Peace and the company’s Where Do We Go From Here are monumental tracks.
There are a lot of people who dislike season six, but I love it. I think the season’s darkness is earned, and it comes from the characters, not from some mandate to be gloomy. If high school is hell, adulthood is something much worse, and the metaphor of Buffy being pulled from heaven to have to deal with her friends’ petty bullshit feels correct.
Season 6
Written by David Fury
Directed by James A Contner
AKA, The Dark Willow Saga. A hero going rogue is old hat for Buffy, and by season six we know redemption is always around the corner. But Willow’s turn, while highly telegraphed and wrapped in a semi-unfortunate (and way too on the nose) addiction metaphor, achieves levels of comic book greatness in the last few episodes of the season. In reality the last four or five episodes of season six are one long story, with the death of Tara, Willow’s girlfriend, sending the once-shy witch way overboard. I could have included the episode where Tara is shockingly shot to death, or the one where Willow gets her vengeance on the shooter - formerly bumbling villain and nerd Warren - by flaying him alive, but to me the standout episode of the storyline is the last.
Willow, engorged with dark magic, is now a major threat. Tapping into the very life force of the Earth she seems to be all but unstoppable, and the end of the world seems to - once again - be imminent. Then But at the last minute Xander, her oldest and best friend, manages to confront her on a human level and Willow collapses sobbing into his arms. Xander finally gets a chance to save the world, and he does it with love.
It would have been easy to repeat Becoming Part 2, where Buffy is forced to kill Angel to save the world, but the show has come so far along the path of redemption that this feels more powerful. The solution comes from the characters and their relationships, and it feels real and true.
Season 7
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
I love season seven of Buffy, and many of the episodes are standouts. But Chosen isn’t just the best episode of the season, it’s one of the best of the series, bringing the show’s basic girl power concept to the next, inspiring level.
The Big Bad in season seven is The First Evil - sort of Lucifer, but meaner - and the final battle takes place under Sunnydale High School (which has been reconstructed) inside the very Hellmouth itself. Over the course of the season Buffy has been collecting and training girls who are potential Slayers - this army of Potentials descends into the Hellmouth to do epic, Lord of the Rings-style battle with an army of incredibly tough first generation vampires.
Yeah, the budget isn’t quite there, but it’s been seven seasons - we love that the show’s reach often exceeds its grasp. What is there, though, are amazing character moments as everyone steps up to their ultimate destinies. Characters live and characters die, and sacrifices are made. In the end the entire town of Sunnydale is destroyed, but more importantly the Slayer power is freed - every girl who could be a Slayer now is one. The episode ends with a wonderful montage of young women suddenly feeling an influx of newfound power. Buffy was always about girl power, so it’s fitting that the final thing she did in her TV series was share that power with girls all over the world.

Looking back at this list it’s interesting to see that the show really hit its episodic peak in season three, but it’s unfair to fault later seasons. I think seasons five, six and seven are all really great examples of longform storytelling; while fewer of the individual chapters are as grand as some of season three, the overall stories of these seasons are better and more coherent. Season six, especially, is a season that benefits with some distance from the original airings. I love this show, and am happy to declare it one of my all time favorite anythings. Just going through the episodes to write this was a blast; I look forward to pulling out my DVDs and revisiting the whole story.