Portrait of a Slayer at Fifteen: the 15th Anniversary Buffy Retrospective (part 2 of 3)
This is part two of a three-part fifteenth-anniversary retrospective of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It contains spoilers for the entire run of the show.
How do you review an entire seven-year run of a television series? How about by picking the top twenty percent of episodes?
Let’s see… 20 percent of 144… 28.8. Let’s go ahead and round that down to the top 25.
So, here you go: the top 25 episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At least, in my opinion. Big thanks to everyone who edited the Wikipedia pages for these episodes, because that’s where I got the summaries and cast lists.
25: Wild at Heart (Season 4, Episode 6)
Willow – “How come you didn’t tell me I look like a crazy birthday cake in this shirt?”
Buffy – “I thought that was the point.”
Synopsis: Spike is captured by The Initiative. Oz meets another werewolf, Veruca, who seduces him to the dark side of werewolf-dom (to this point, he has been locking himself up during the three days when he is prone to change, to keep everyone safe). She also sleeps with him. This understandably upsets Willow, Oz’s girlfriend. Willow plans a revenge spell but doesn’t go through with it; Veruca catches her at it, but Oz rescues her. The episode ends with Oz leaving Sunnydale.
Notable Guest Stars: Seth Green as Oz, in his final appearance as a regular; James Marsters as Spike, in his final appearance as a guest star (before becoming a regular).
It Made The List Because: Throughout the series, and despite her witchcraft, Willow sort of represents the everygeek, even more than Xander. She’s hyperintelligent (and pretty hyper), and has trouble integrating socially in a way that Xander really never did. But she’s grown by this point, and has found love, and she and Oz have overcome that… or so she thought. I picked this episode because it’s a pivotal change in Willow’s character: she’s known love, knows what it feels like, and it makes it that much more special for her when she finds it again.
24: Lie to Me (Season 2, Episode 7)
Buffy – “Does it ever get easy?”
Giles – “You mean life?”
Buffy – “Yeah. Does it get easy?”
Giles – “What do you want me to say?”
Buffy – “Lie to me.”
Giles – “Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.
Buffy – “Liar.”
Synopsis: In addition to building up Spike and Drusilla as the season two Big Bads, this episode focuses on Buffy and her relationship with her old friend Ford. It’s later revealed that Ford has a disease which will kill him, and in return for handing over the Slayer, Spike will turn Ford and his friends into vampires so they can live forever. After a fight which Spike escapes from, Buffy goes to Ford’s grave and stakes him as he rises.
Notable Guest Stars: Juliet Landau as Drusilla the insane vampire; Jason Behr (Roswell) as Ford.
It Made The List Because: This is the first time in the series where someone has a good reason for wanting to become a vampire. If you’re going to die, wouldn’t you want to do anything possible to keep on living? Is it so bad to have to drink blood if it means you don’t die of a debilitating disease? Also, it showed that Buffy doesn’t always want to slay the vampires, even though she has to, and it worked toward building the father/daughter relationship between Buffy and Giles.
23: Buffy vs Dracula (Season 5, Episode 1)
Dracula – “You are strange and off-putting. Go now.”
Synopsis: Buffy and the Scooby gang face Dracula. Xander becomes Renfield, Giles becomes Jonathan Harker, and Buffy becomes a combination of Lucy and Mina. Eventually Buffy defeats Dracula and admits to Giles that she really doesn’t want him to leave.
Notable Guest Stars: Michelle Trachtenberg as Dawn, her first appearance on the series.
It Made The List Because: Last night, someone linked me to a hilarious fanfic story where Buffy and the Scoobies take on Anita Blake and her harem. This episode is somewhat similar, in that Buffy is taking on another well-known vampire icon, and really, who doesn’t want their favorite character taking on someone famous… and winning? Also, this episode introduces Dawn.
22: Faith, Hope, and Trick (Season 3, Episode 3)
Oz – “I’m wondering about your position on werewolves.”
Willow – “Oz is a werewolf.”
Buffy – “It’s a long story.”
Oz – “I got bit.”
Buffy – “Apparently not that long.”
Synopsis: A new vampire slayer, Faith, arrives in Sunnydale, having been activated after Kendra was killed by Drusilla. She brought with her Kakistos, an evil vampire with a bone to pick with her. There’s some conflict between Buffy and Faith before the big showdown, in which Faith freezes up and Buffy fights the vampire before Faith kills him with a very large wooden pole. Mr. Trick escapes — he becomes important later in the season — and, at the very end, Angel returns from Hell.
Notable Guest Stars: Eliza Dushku as Faith and K. Todd Freeman as Mr. Trick, both of whom recur through the season.
It Made The List Because: The first appearance of Faith cannot be ignored. Nor can Angel’s return from Hell, which leads directly to a major conflict through the season. And Mr. Trick is a delightful sidekick to the Mayor.
21: The Harvest (Season 1, Episode 2)
Willow – “Maybe you could blow something up. They’re really strict about that.”
Synopsis: Willow and Xander learn about vampires and such. The Master (season one’s Big Bad) gains power. Xander accidentally slays his friend Jesse when Jesse is turned into a vampire. Buffy kills Luke, one of the Master’s top lieutenants.
Notable Guest Stars: Mark Metcalf as The Master; Brian Thompson as Luke; Eric Balfour (Haven) as Jesse.
It Made The List Because: Pretty much for the scene when Buffy kicks Luke through a window, Luke thinks it’s daylight (even though it isn’t), and then Buffy kills him. Overall the pilot two-parter was pretty standard fare for a genre TV show, but that line was hilarious.
20: Dirty Girls (Season 7, Episode 18)
Faith – “Damn. I never knew you were that cool.”
Buffy – “Well, you always were a little slow.”
Synopsis: Faith returns from Los Angeles. Caleb, an evil preacher imbued by the power of the First Evil, arrives in Sunnydale. After a whole lot of talking, Buffy and the potential slayers take on Caleb, only to find out that he is more powerful than Buffy. Caleb kills two of the girls and gouges out one of Xander’s eyes, but Spike stops him before he can do anything more. Everyone still alive manages to escape.
Notable Guest Stars: Nathan Fillion as Caleb; D.B. Woodside as Robin Wood; Rachel Bilson as Colleen.
It Made The List Because: By this point, we’ve learned that Joss Whedon is not averse to killing off major characters — he did, after all, allow Tara to die, and Buffy herself died twice on the show. Angel died once too. So in the fight with Caleb, I was expecting a major character to die. I’d read somewhere that Xander ended the show with only one eye, but I wasn’t expecting something quite as gruesome and graphic as what was shown on-screen. This episode hammered home the fact that the good guys might not actually win this one, and even if they did, they wouldn’t come out unscathed.
19: Normal Again (Season 6, Episode 17)
Spike – “Oh, balls! You didn’t say it was a Glarghk Guhl Kashmas’nik.”
Xander – “‘Cause I can’t say Glarba …”
Synopsis: Throughout the whole run of the show, Buffy has merely been creating a fantasy world inside her head where she’s the hero and has to save the world. But what’s actually been happening is that she’s been locked in an insane asylum since she burned down her old high school gym in Los Angeles (the climax of the BtVS film). Inside the fantasy world, a demon has made her hallucinate being in an asylum, and the only way out is to kill her support system — her friends. She eventually fights it off, but then the episode ends with Buffy locked away again, back in the asylum.
Notable Guest Stars: Dean Butler as Hank, Buffy’s dad; Kirsten Nelson (Psych) as Lorraine, Buffy’s boss at the Doublemeat Palace.
It Made The List Because: Which reality is the real reality? Is Buffy dreaming up all of this, or is the asylum just the place where her mind retreated to try and defend itself from the demon’s hallucinogenic drug? Through the entire episode, I knew that, at the end, Buffy would be in the “real” world — Sunnydale, with her friends — but the way the episode was written left a lot of room for doubt. I was a fair bit shellshocked afterward.
18: Entropy (Season 6, Episode 18)
Tara – “There’s so much to work through. Trust has to build again, on both sides … you have to learn if you’re even the same people you were, if you can fit in each other’s lives, it’s a long and important process and… can we just skip it? Can you just be kissing me now?”
Synopsis: A lot of plot movement in this episode — the Trio grows closer to their ultimate goal, Dawn shows remorse for her kleptomania, Spike and Anya go to each other for comfort (Buffy left Spike, Xander left Anya), Willow discovers that the Trio has been spying on everyone, Spike reveals that Buffy used to be his lover, and Willow and Tara reconcile after a long breakup.
Notable Guest Stars: Kali Rocha as Halfrek; Danny Strong, Tom Lenk, and Adam Busch as the Trio.
It Made The List Because: After the emotional roller-coaster of last week’s episode, it was time to advance the plot. Finally, we see that Spike and Buffy used to have a relationship, but more importantly, we see Willow and Tara get back together. No matter what parts you have or who you prefer to sleep with, I guarantee your heart warmed to see them move past their troubles. Unfortunately, it would be short-lived.
17: Seeing Red (Season 6, Episode 19)
Andrew – “I can’t wait to get my hands on his orbs.”
Synopsis: Warren (leader of the Trio) uses a powerful relic to become super-strong and nigh-invulnerable. Buffy, injured from an earlier patrol, just wants to relax and take a bath but Spike, furious with himself and with her, breaks into her bathroom and attempts to rape her. Later, Buffy fights Warren, destroying the relic; Warren escapes, but Jonathan and Andrew (his henchmen/partners) are apprehended. At the end, just as Buffy and Xander reconcile (Xander was quite angry about Buffy sleeping with Spike), Warren surprises them in the backyard and shoots Buffy. One of the shots goes wild, breaking a window and killing Tara.
Notable Guest Stars: No one new, but this is the first and only episode in which we see Amber Benson in the opening credits.
It Made The List Because: I thought the worst thing I would see in this episode is Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy. I was wrong. I finished watching this episode, closed my iPad, and actually found myself near tears. This is what I was talking about in the first part of this retrospective: Joss Whedon makes you care about his characters… and then he kills them. Also, Spike leaves for his journey of redemption, which leads to an important story arc in the next season. But still… Tara, man… *shakes head*
16: Showtime (Season 7, Episode 11)
Kennedy – “How’s evil taste?”
Willow – “A little chalky.”
Synopsis: The Potential Slayers are feeling pretty down because the uber-vampire Turok-Han is taking them down with ease. Buffy realizes that she has to do something about this, so she arranges a fight where all the Potentials can see her defeat it, one-on-one. Also, we learn that Buffy’s resurrection made it possible for the First to carry out its plan, and in the end, Buffy rescues Spike from the First, who had been using the Turok-Han to torture him.
Notable Guest Stars: Felicia Day as Vi; Iyari Limon as Kennedy, who would go on to become Willow’s lover.
It Made The List Because: There was a hell of a lot of speechifying in season seven, but it was all right, because most of it was good. The episode had Buffy showing the Potentials that they could be powerful enough to win, and it also had Spike’s first major redemptive moment in his reunion with Buffy. It was the end of the first major arc of the season as well.
15: Restless (Season 4, Episode 22)
Cheese Man – “I wear the cheese. It does not wear me.”
Synopsis: After defeating Adam and the Initiative, the core Scoobies (Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles) take an evening off at Buffy’s house. One by one, their dreams are invaded by the spirit of the First Slayer. The First Slayer kills everyone except Buffy (in their dreams, not in real life), but Buffy defeats her by ignoring her.
Notable Guest Stars: David Wells as the Cheese Man, who I put here because it’s a funny character name; Armin Shimerman as Principal Snyder, back from the dead in dream form; George Hertzberg as Adam, seen for the first time without his makeup.
It Made The List Because: “Restless” was unlike any Buffy episode filmed or aired, before or since. There’s an exhaustive write-up of it on Wikipedia. It’s interesting to me that, about a week before I saw this episode, someone in my writing group mentioned it in reference to the use of dreams in fiction. Overall it was a weird, interesting episode, but for more, I’ll leave you to the wiki.
14: Prophecy Girl (Season 1, Episode 12)
Xander – “You were looking at my neck.”
Angel – “What?”
Xander – “You were checking out my neck. I saw that.”
Angel – “No, I wasn’t.”
Xander – “Just keep your distance, pal.”
Angel – “I wasn’t looking at your neck.”
Xander – “I told you to eat before we left.”
Synopsis: Buffy faces off against The Master, despite the fact that a prophecy has her dying at his hands. Well, it happens; he drinks her blood and throws her face-down into a pool of water where she drowns. Xander brings her back with CPR, and she goes on to kill The Master and end the season.
Notable Guest Stars: No one not already mentioned.
It Made The List Because: Buffy’s death in this episode reinforces Joss Whedon’s predilection for killing main characters, but it also sets up several interesting storylines, most notably those of Kendra and Faith.
13: After Life (Season 6, Episode 3)
Buffy – “I was happy. Wherever I was … I was happy …at peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time…didn’t mean anything. Nothing had form. But I was still me, you know? And I was warm. And I was loved. And I was finished. Complete. I … I don’t understand theology or dimensions, any of it really… but I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. I was torn out of there. Pulled out, by my friends. Everything here is hard and bright and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch. This is Hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that. Knowing what I’ve lost.”
Synopsis: In the previous two-parter, Buffy was resurrected after sacrificing herself in the Season Five finale to save her sister. Now she’s trying to get back to normal. Unfortunately, a demon followed her back from wherever she was, using Willow’s magic as a guide; Willow and Tara use magic to make it solid, and Buffy kills it. At the end of the episode, Buffy tells Spike that she was in heaven, not hell.
Notable Guest Stars: Amber Benson as Tara, although really she doesn’t count because she was more or less a regular by this point.
It Made The List Because: Glory, season five’s Big Bad, came from a Hell Dimension. The rift she was trying to open with the key (Dawn) should have led back to it, right? Well, not so much. This episode begins Willow’s downfall into magic addiction by showing the consequences of her actions and her selfishness (wanting Buffy back despite her friend having nobly sacrificed herself) and also strengthens the relationship between Spike and Buffy.
12: Halloween (Season 2, Episode 6)
Buffy – “A demon! A demon!”
Willow – “It’s not a demon, it’s a car.”
Buffy – “What does it want?”
Synopsis: Giles’s old frenemy Ethan Rayne comes to Sunnydale and uses a chaos spell to make everyone turn into what their costumes portray. Willow is a ghost, Buffy is an 18th-century noblewoman, and Xander is a soldier. Xander protects Buffy while Willow and Giles take on Ethan, eventually defeating him. Also, Oz is seen around town being interested in Willow.
Notable Guest Stars: Robin Sachs as Ethan Rayne.
It Made The List Because: This is the episode that launched hundreds of thousands of fanfics. Just go to any fanfic site, find the Buffy section, and search for YAHF. Also, it helped to set up the long-term courtship of Willow by Oz, which would eventually lead to Seth Green getting into the opening credits. So, y’know, good for him. Finally, by having been a soldier in his costume, Xander retains much of the knowledge the chaos spell gave him, which comes in handy later.
11: Surprise/Innocence (two-parter, Season 2, Episodes 13 and 14)
Angel – “Still, not every dream you have comes true. I mean, what else did you dream last night? Can you remember?”
Buffy – “I dreamt… I dreamt that Giles and I opened an office supply warehouse in Vegas.”
Angel – “See my point?”
Synopsis (“Surprise”): Spike and company are attempting to bring forth a demon called Judge to defeat Buffy. With the help of computer teacher Jenny Calendar (Giles’s love interest), Buffy figures out what’s going on. However, she’s unable to stop the rise of Judge. Later, she and Angel consummate their relationship — Buffy’s first time. That night, as Buffy sleeps, Angel wakes and runs, screaming…
Cordelia – “So does looking at guns make you wanna have sex?”
Xander – “I’m 17. Looking at linoleum makes me wanna have sex.”
Synopsis (“Innocence”): …and loses his soul, the thing that made him a good vampire instead of an evil one. He joins up with Spike and company, taking over as the season’s Big Bad, and begins terrorizing Buffy, who is pretty torn up over the whole thing. Somehow, in the middle of this, Oz and Willow begin their relationship. Anyway, Buffy uses a rocket launcher to kill Judge, then fights Angel (now Angelus) but doesn’t kill him. Buffy admits her mistakes to Giles, who forgives her because she loved Angel and he her.
Notable Guest Stars: Brian Thompson as Judge; Vincent Schiavelli as Uncle Enios; Robia LaMorte as Jenny Calendar.
It Made The List Because: For many people, losing one’s virginity is a watershed event that occurs in the high school years. It’s fraught with mystery, worry, and afterward, a profound sense of relief*. Buffy is clearly not the type of girl who sleeps around, as is referenced many times through the series (and the one time she does, she faces real-world consequences that any person might); she chose to be with Angel because she loves him, which is a good message: that intimacy with someone you love should not be avoided. Unless that person you love is an evil vampire who killed countless people before he was stopped. The episode shows just how much more evil than Spike Angel actually can be, which is quite powerful. And hey, they killed a demon with a rocket launcher. That was pretty darn cool.
The final part of the retrospective will hit my top ten Buffy episodes. Until then… “goodbye, Picadilly; farewell Leicester bloody Square.”
Note to Parents: Although BtVS is only rated TV-PG at its “worst”, the show does contain violence, sexual situations, adult language, and intense action and emotional sequences. I’d say it’s safe for middle-schoolers on up. Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.
* Or maybe that was just me.