The following article contains spoilers for the Angel episode “Smile Time”, and is fair game for spoilers of any episodes preceding it, as well as the entire run of Buffy: the Vampire Slayer.
When Joss Whedon and the Buffy team announced that they’d be doing a musical episode, people were skeptical. I mean, how can you make a musical about slaying vampires?
Oh we of little faith. “Once More, With Feeling” was one of the best hours of television made in the last quarter-century*.
As I began watching Angel a few months ago, I heard rumblings that there was an episode centered around puppets sometime in the fifth season. I finally got there and my tweet**, no lie, was: Oh crap… it’s the puppet episode. Now, I knew there were some big story pieces coming up — the arrival of Illyria, the coming apocalypse, and the series finale, just to name a few of the things to be crammed into the next eight episodes. I’ve just been waiting to get to that part. The one I watched prior to this was a World War II-era submarine story where Angel and Spike are caught on a captured U-boat, and it… wasn’t that great. So I didn’t have high hopes for “Smile Time”.
Should’ve learned my lesson from OMWF: trust in Whedon and his team, and he will never lead you astray.
This is part three of a three-part fifteenth-anniversary retrospective of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It contains spoilers for the entire run of the show.
Continuing with my top 25 episode countdown, here’s the top ten. You’ll notice that I cheated a little and did a couple of two-parters as single episodes. Well, I did say that 20 percent of the show was 28.8, so if I have 27 favorites, you’ll have to forgive me.
Now, on with the show.
10: Becoming, Part 2 (Season 2, Episode 22)
Angelus – “I want to torture you. I used to love it, and it’s been a long time. I mean, the last time I tortured someone, they didn’t even have chainsaws.”
Synopsis: Buffy, now a fugitive, joins up with Spike to stop Angelus because, while Angelus is trying to destroy the world via a demon called Acathla, Spike actually kind of likes the planet the way it is. Buffy is also expelled from school and confronts Whistler, an agent of the Powers That Be, to find out what she’s supposed to do. She tells her mother she’s the Slayer, and her mother delivers the classic “if you go out that door, don’t come back” line. Buffy goes out that door. Xander lies to Buffy, saying that Willow told him to tell her to kick Angel’s ass, but really Willow is working to restore Angel’s soul. She successfully completes the spell just as the fight between Buffy and Angel reaches a climax. She kisses him goodbye and then kills him, sealing the vortex that would have destroyed the world. Spike and Drusilla escape, and Buffy leaves Sunnydale for parts unknown. (It turns out to be Los Angeles.)
Notable Guest Stars: Richard Riehle as Merrick, since Donald Sutherland probably would’ve been too expensive; Julie Benz as Darla, the vampire who turned Angel.
It Made The List Because: Which is more important to you? Do you save the man you love, or do you save the world? Buffy chose the world, and the pain of it is writ large on her face. Everything she knows is collapsing — Xander and Willow are hurt, Giles was tortured, Angel is dead, and, worst of all, her mother has turned her back on her. Gellar plays it beautifully.
9: Graduation Day, Parts 1 and 2 (Season 3, Episodes 21 and 22)
Anya – “When I think that something could happen to you, it feels bad inside, like I might vomit.” Xander – “Welcome to the world of romance.” Anya – “It’s horrible. No wonder I used to get so much work.” Xander – “Well, I’m sorry I give you barfy feelings.”
Angel – “Well, he’s not crazy about germs.” Cordelia – “Of course, that’s it. We’ll attack him with germs.” Buffy – “Great. We’ll get him cornered and then you can sneeze on him.”
Synopsis: Throughout the season, Faith and the Mayor have been growing closer, becoming almost like father and daughter. Oz and Willow consummate their relationship. Faith poisons Angel, a poison which can only be cured by the blood of a Slayer. Buffy and Faith fight, and it ends with Buffy stabbing Faith, possibly fatally, and Faith falling onto a moving truck and escaping. The Mayor is quite upset over the fight — he really does care about Faith — and sends his minions to find her and Buffy. Buffy allows Angel to drink her blood so he can be cured. In a prophetic dream, Buffy and Faith seem to reconcile, although that’s only on a subconscious level. The Mayor, speaking at graduation, turns into a demon and starts wreaking havoc, including eating Principal Snyder. No one really complains. Buffy’s master plan — mobilizing the graduating class with weapons and using Xander’s military knowledge from Halloween — saves most of them. The other part of her plan is to lure the Mayor, now in demon form, into the library, where she detonates a large amount of explosives. The Mayor is killed and the school destroyed. Angel, as he promised, leaves Sunnydale (to get his own spin-off).
Notable Guest Stars: Alexis Denisof as Wesley Wyndham-Pryce; Harry Groener as the Mayor.
It Made The List Because: The conflict between Buffy and Faith comes to a head and we finally see who is the better Slayer. Also, Angel leaves Sunnydale despite the fact that he and Buffy are still in love. It was just a good season finale, satisfying in every regard… which makes sense, given that the main characters are now about to move onto the next phase of their lives: college.
8: New Moon Rising (Season 4, Episode 19)
Willow – “Tara, I have to tell you –” Tara – “No, I understand. You have to be with the person that love.” Willow – “I am.” Tara – “You mean…” Willow – “I mean. OK?” Tara – “Oh, yes.” Willow – “I feel horrible about everything I put you through. And I’m going to make it up to you, starting right now.” Tara – “Right now?”
Synopsis: Oz returns to Sunnydale having learned control over his wolf side. He and Willow talk for the whole night, but when Tara arrives, she becomes uncomfortable and leaves before Willow can get back from the bathroom. Willow admits to Buffy that she’s getting serious with Tara. Spike makes a deal with Adam to get the chip out of his head. Oz is captured by the Initiative, but Buffy gets him out. Oz leaves Sunnydale again after talking to Willow — the two of them confess that they will always love each other — and then Willow goes to Tara. Tara blows out the candle.
Notable Guest Stars: Leonard Roberts (Heroes) as Forrest Gates; Bailey Chase as Graham Miller; Amber Benson as Tara.
It Made The List Because: It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the Willow/Tara relationship. Willow loves Tara because she’s Tara; it doesn’t matter that she’s a girl, or that she’s a witch, or that she’s a college student, or that she thought she was going to turn into a demon someday (don’t ask). Since I was a teenager I’ve always believed that you love who you love, regardless of what parts they have in their pants, and this relationship is about that. Plus, we get lots of Alyson Hannigan’s goofy smiles as a result — always a positive.
7: The Wish (Season 3, Episode 9)
Buffy – “Your logic does not resemble our Earth logic.” Xander – “Mine is much more advanced.”
Synopsis: Cordelia is pretty upset after Xander and Willow are discovered kissing — at the time, she was dating Xander — and she makes a wish while speaking to the new girl, Anya. Anya is really a vengeance demon, and Cordelia’s wish — that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale — becomes reality. We’re then shifted to an alternate reality where the Master won and Xander and Willow are vampires. Giles figures out that they’re in an alternate universe and they call in Buffy, who was in Cleveland (location of the other Hellmouth). Although Buffy, Angel, Willow, and Oz are killed, Giles defeats Anya by destroying the source of her power and trapping her in human form. The alternate universe disappears.
Notable Guest Stars: Emma Caulfield as Anya, in her first appearance on the show.
It Made The List Because: Mostly because of Willow’s “bored now!” line that comes back with horrifying consequences in the sixth season. Also because alternate universe episodes are cool, and while this one does center on Cordelia a little too much, it’s still pretty good overall.
6: Chosen (Season 7, Episode 22)
Buffy – “So here’s the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power, now? In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
Synopsis: The series finale. Buffy kills Caleb, minion of the First Evil. The Slayers and the Potentials go to the new Sunnydale High School for the final battle. Willow works a spell that activates all the potential slayers around the world, giving the Potentials the power to win the battle. Anya is killed in the fight. Spike, wearing a mystical amulet, calls down the power of the sun and sacrifices himself to save everyone else. Buffy barely makes it out, running along the roofs of Sunnydale’s buildings (in poorly-done CG) until she can jump for the schoolbus with everyone else on it. In the end, Sunnydale is nothing but a crater and the Hellmouth is closed. As the series fades to black for the last time, Buffy smiles.
Notable Guest Stars: David Boreanaz as Angel.
It Made The List Because: Truthfully, I found everything after the activation kind of weak. I really felt as though there should’ve been something bigger in terms of a one-on-one fight between Buffy and the First, but then, the First is completely noncorporeal. And Anya’s death was kind of a throwaway, sadly. However, we did have “are you ready to be strong?”, an immensely powerful sequence in the show, and of course Spike’s redemption. Oh, and an appearance by Trogdor the Burninator, who is defeated by Amanda the Potential Slayer.
5: Grave (Season 6, Episode 22)
Xander – “The first day of kindergarten you cried because you broke the yellow crayon and you were too afraid to tell anyone. You’ve come pretty far, ending the world, not a terrific notion, but the thing is, yeah, I love you. I loved crayon-breaking Willow and I love scary veiny Willow. So if I’m going out it’s here. If you wanna kill the world, well then start with me. I’ve earned that.” Willow – “You think I won’t.” Xander – “It doesn’t matter. I’ll still love you.”
Synopsis: Willow, wracked with grief over the death of Tara, has become Dark Willow, using magic for evil. Spike completes his ordeal in Africa, regaining his soul. Buffy and Dawn are trapped in a pit by Willow, forced to work together to fight against demons Willow raised. Andrew and Jonathan escape to Mexico. Willow, who feels all the pain in the world, attempts to cast a spell to end everything. Only Xander, her oldest friend, can stop her, and despite being attacked he keeps on coming, telling Willow that he loves her and that he’ll be right there with her when she destroys the world. She can’t do it, and she turns back into regular Willow. Anya is quite shocked to find out that Xander saved the world.
Notable Guest Stars: Danny Strong as Jonathan; Tom Lenk as Andrew.
It Made The List Because: Dumbledore was right: love is the greatest power there is. It stopped the most powerful witch in the world from destroying everything. When Willow finally gives in to Xander, it’s the capstone: an intense, emotional moment in a season full of roller-coasters.
4: Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)
Spike – “We’re out of Weetabix.” Giles – “We are out of Weetabix because you ate it all. Again.” Spike – “Get some more.” Giles – “I thought vampires were supposed to eat blood.” Spike – “Yeah, well sometimes I like to crumble up the Weetabix in the blood. Gives it a little texture.”
Synopsis: Demons called The Gentlemen steal the voices of every person in Sunnydale. Then they start stealing people’s hearts, killing them in the process. Giles figures out how to defeat the Gentlemen, and Buffy and Riley release the voices of the townspeople. Buffy screams, and the Gentlemen are killed. At the end, Buffy and Riley face each other… and say nothing. Also, we meet Tara.
Notable Guest Stars: Phina Oruche as Olivia, Giles’s on-again-off-again girlfriend; Doug Jones, Camden Toy, Don W. Lewis, and Charlie Brumbly as the Gentlemen.
It Made The List Because: Do not, under any circumstances, watch this episode in the dark. It is by far the scariest of the series, and one of the best. I actually stayed up and watched a second episode the night I saw “Hush” because I was so creeped out.
3: The Gift (Season 5, Episode 22)
Buffy – “You have to be strong. Dawn, the hardest thing in this world … is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me.”
Synopsis: Buffy asks Spike to protect Dawn, because she now trusts him implicitly. This is important next season. Spike’s Buffy-Bot is used as a decoy to distract Glory. The fight continues until Buffy turns Glory back into Ben, her human host, and tells him to leave Sunnydale (she’s shown in the past that she won’t kill a human being). However, the rift Glory created is still there. With everyone distracted, Giles kills Ben. At the top of Glory’s tower, Buffy tells Dawn she loves her and flings herself into the rift to destroy it. At the end, we see Buffy’s grave. Her epitaph: “She saved the world. A lot.”
Notable Guest Stars: Clare Kramer as Glory; Charlie Weber as Ben; Joel Grey as Doc.
It Made The List Because: I added this mostly because of Buffy’s speech to Dawn at the end. Whedon has a habit of doing speeches in retrospect — you don’t hear them until afterward, as a voiceover. Unlike in the first season, when you really don’t know Buffy well enough to care that she’s dead, you feel it in full now, and you see the reactions of her friends and family. A worthy death for a warrior like Buffy… but it doesn’t last. It never lasts.
2: The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)
Anya – “I don’t understand. I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it and not be dead any more. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid, and, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever. And she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever and no one will explain to me why.”
Synopsis: Some episodes ago, Buffy’s mother had a brain tumor removed. Just before this episode, Buffy came home to find her mother dead on the couch. An aneurysm in her brain killed her quickly and painlessly. The main characters attempt to deal with this loss.
Notable Guest Stars: Kristine Sutherland as Joyce Summers.
It Made The List Because: One of the most powerful hours of television. Ever. No music, no traditional arc of exposition/rising action/climax. Just all of the characters dealing with death. It’s not even so much about Buffy and Dawn’s grief of a child losing a mother. It’s about Willow, who can’t decide what to wear to the hospital; it’s about Xander, feeling powerless in the face of death; it’s about Anya, who doesn’t understand how to react since she hasn’t been a human long enough to face death; it’s about Tara, who’s been through this before and knows that nothing will make the pain go away. Masterfully written, shot, edited, and acted, this episode is probably near the top of every “Best of Buffy” list on the planet.
1: Once More, With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)
Anya – “It has to be stopped. It was like we were being watched, like there was a wall missing from our apartment. Like there were only three walls and not a fourth one.”
Synopsis: After returning from heaven, Buffy has felt increasingly disconnected to the world around her. She expresses this in the form of a song, much to her surprise. The Scoobies vow to figure out what’s going on. Xander and Anya, soon to be married, sing a duet about what they think is wrong with the other person. Tara serenades Willow. Spike tells Buffy to leave him alone if she’s not going to love him the way he wants her to. Giles says he’s going to leave Sunnydale. Dawn is kidnapped by a demon called Sweet, who is the cause of all the singing. Buffy vows to fight Sweet even though she doesn’t feel the emotions she should be experiencing. After revealing to her friends that Willow pulled her out of heaven, Sweet forces her to dance, almost to her death, but Spike stops her in time. Xander admits to invoking Sweet — he wanted to know if he and Anya would have a happy ending. At the end, Spike and Buffy kiss.
Notable Guest Stars: Hinton Battle as Sweet; David Fury as the mustard guy; Marti Noxon as the lady with the parking ticket.
It Made The List Because: A musical episode is hard enough without having to advance the plot; one that advances the plot should be spotlighted. Whedon wrote and scored the entire episode (Adam Shankman choreographed it), and every actor on the show actually sings his or her songs. Amber Benson is particularly good in this one, and she’s given a nice little naughty verse at the end of her solo song, as I mentioned in my review of the soundtrack some time ago. Watching this episode after seeing the entire series only underscores just how much viewers care about these characters. From Buffy’s emptiness at being taken from heaven to Spike’s unrequited love, from Dawn’s fear of being unnoticed to Tara’s depth of love for Willow, from Xander and Anya’s odd-couple relationship to Giles’s fatherly feelings toward Buffy, every character on the show receives full attention in this episode, and every one of them is allowed to be funny, or sweet, or sappy, or angry. Between this and “The Body”, you have two of the best hours of television you’ll ever see. Log into Netflix and watch this one right now.
And there you have it: my top 25 episodes of Buffy. If you don’t have 144 hours to watch the entire show, you can probably find “must-see” lists all over the internet, but seriously… I made the mistake of not catching this when it was in first-run. I was lucky it was on Netflix and I didn’t have to buy the DVDs. Take advantage, take half a year’s worth of lunch breaks, and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
It’ll give you something to sing about.
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.
This review contains spoilers for the Buffy: the Vampire Slayer television series.
If you follow me on Twitter (@listener42), then you know I use the app GetGlue to play a FourSquare-like game with the media I consume. And, for the last six months or so, you’ve observed many quotes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I finally got around to watching a series my college friends told me was something I should see.
This isn’t a review of the show — I’ve saved that for the 15th-anniversary retrospective that’s being posted this week. Instead, it’s a review of the soundtrack to the musical episode “Once More, With Feeling”, which I received last month and loaded onto my phone.
Yesterday*, I was having kind of a bad day, and I had a long drive ahead of me. So I figured I’d put on some music that had good associations. See, I really liked the Buffy series, and “Once More, With Feeling” was a really good episode — on Facebook, my friend Dave said, “to this day I consider this to be the greatest single episode of a series I’ve ever seen”, and while I’m sure I’ve seen great single episodes before, I can’t think of anything at the moment to contradict his statement. And, according to the episode’s Wikipedia page, the critics tend to agree.
I think the soundtrack works best if you have fond memories of the show, or were significantly affected by it. For me, one of the most emotional arcs of the show was Willow and Tara’s relationship — beginning with the episode she chooses Tara over Oz, and ending with Tara’s accidental death at the hands of Warren Mears. I was particularly moved in the episode following Tara’s death, “Villains”, when Willow invokes the god of death to try and undo what was done to the person she loves. Tara’s death occurred after she reconciled with Willow following a breakup, and that breakup happened shortly after “Once More, With Feeling”. (Trust me, all of this will be relevant in a paragraph or so.)
So, in the beginning, I got a few laughs out of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s opening number, “Going Through The Motions”, and I actually thought I’d have a nice Saturday afternoon drive. Although Gellar’s voice occasionally sounded thin, I remember being surprised at how good she did with the song — which explained how empty she felt about her life after being resurrected in the beginning of the season**. “Motions” was followed by a medley featuring solos by Anthony Head (Giles) and Emma Caulfield (Anya), and again I found myself laughing along with Caulfield’s rock anthem about her dislike of rabbits.
Bunnies aren’t just cute like everyone supposes.
They got them hoppy legs and twitchy little noses,
And what’s with all the carrots?
What do they need such good eyesight for anyway?
I guess you had to be there.
The third track was equally amusing — “The Mustard” — which is a 19-second declaration that the dry-cleaner got the mustard out of producer David Fury’s shirt.
And then things took a turn for the sad, because Amber Benson (Tara) began her first solo, “Under Your Spell”. The song is actually pretty happy on the surface, and if you haven’t seen the episode, you may not know that, just before it, Willow and Tara argued about Willow’s increasing usage of (and dependence upon) magic. Benson has a beautiful voice — an unexpected joy, given her character’s soft-spoken manner — and she spends several minutes serenading Willow. She ends with a verse that could be considered a little dirty, but is still kind of sweet:
The moon to the tide
I can feel you inside
I’m under your spell
Surging like the sea
Wanting you so helplessly
I break with every swell
Lost in ecstasy
Spread beneath my willow tree
Because of what happens through the rest of Season Six — the fight, the reconciliation, the death — I found my throat getting a little tight*** as I listened to the song, and I think that set the mood for the rest of the album.
On the heels of that song comes the duet “I’ll Never Tell”, where Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and Anya sing to each other about the things that niggle at their seemingly-perfect relationship. It’s a hilarious song which, among other things, rhymes the words “Scoobies” and “rubies” with the words “tight embrace”. Brendon isn’t the best singer in the group (by a long-shot), but Caulfield carries the song for him, and anyway it’s more about his lyrics than his abilities.
X: Is she looking for a pot of gold?
A: Will I look good when I’ve gotten old?
X: Will our lives become too stressful / if I’m never that successful?
A: When I get so worn and wrinkly / that I look like David Brinkley?
One more interlude follows that song — producer Marti Noxon lamenting “The Parking Ticket” she receives — before things get serious. There’s a great scene with Spike where he fights the urge to sing and dance before being forced to succumb — “Rest in Peace”, in which Marsters channels the rock gods of the 70s and 80s while still sounding like a small-theater performer. He’s not an amateur, but he’s no Anthony Head.
We move on next to “Dawn’s Lament” and “Dawn’s Ballet” — Michelle Trachtenberg, trained as a dancer, has a very thin soprano voice, but she dances her feelings instead. The Dawn songs are followed by “What You Feel”, where Tony Award-winning guest star Hinton Battle explains that he’s going to be taking Dawn back to Hell to be his bride, and that he’s the one who’s been making people sing and dance.
Next, we go back to the Scoobies: Anthony Head (Giles), who is a rather talented musician and singer, doesn’t seem to hit his full potential in “Standing”, although he definitely excels in his duet with Benson (“Under Your Spell/Standing — Reprise”). Again, Whedon’s writing to this point in the series strengthens the emotional connection viewers (and listeners) feel with the song: Giles is going to leave Sunnydale because he feels he’s standing in Buffy’s way, and Tara is going to leave Willow because she’s been lying about her addiction to magic usage****.
The next song, “Walk Through The Fire”, is an ensemble/”get ready to fight the villain” montage number, led by Gellar (again her voice is a little thin and her singing feels flat — although she’s supposed to feel unemotional so I guess it was a character choice). Eventually everyone joins in, and Hannigan receives the line of the day with “I think this line is mostly filler” — I wonder how long it took Whedon to come up with that. It’s followed by the most plot-filled song of the episode, “Something to Sing About”, when Buffy reveals to everyone (except Spike, who she already told) that, when Willow resurrected her from the dead, she pulled her out of heaven.
There was no pain,
No fear, no doubt
Till they pulled me out
So that’s my refrain.
I live in hell
‘Cause I’ve been expelled
I think I was in heaven.
So give me something to sing about.
Please give me something.
Spike, who over the past twenty or so episodes has been getting closer to admitting (to himself and to others) his feelings for Buffy, saves her from dancing herself to death, and then Xander admits that he summoned Sweet (the demon played by Hinton Battle) because he wanted to know if he and Anya would have a happy life together. Sweet reprises “What You Feel” and then disappears.
The episode ends with “Where Do We Go From Here?”, a final ensemble where everyone sings about the way their relationships have changed, and closes with “Coda”, where Spike and Buffy kiss for the first time.
Where do we go from here?
Where do we go from here?
The battle’s done
And we kind of won
So we sound our victory cheer
Where do we go from here?
Though the episode itself was excellent, the soundtrack was more effective (in my case) because of the emotional associations with the material. Fans of Buffy will definitely enjoy listening to this, although casual watchers may not get the same level of appreciation. As far as the material itself, the songs are arranged and ordered in such a way that the weaker offerings are interspersed with the stronger. If we could’ve had Benson knock it out of the park with the opening, I think that might have worked a little better, but it wouldn’t have been germane to the primary plot — that Buffy feels nothing since leaving heaven and can’t admit it to anyone except Spike, who she’s supposed to hate (but doesn’t, not really) — I can understand why Whedon didn’t go that route. Still, if for no other reason than to hear “Under Your Spell”, “Under Your Spell/Standing — Reprise”, and “Walk Through The Fire”, I am definitely keeping this soundtrack on my phone. I might get a little teary-eyed driving to work someday soon as a result, but you know what? I don’t care.
Because I am drawn to the fire. Apparently, some people will never learn.
Note to Parents: I’d rate this soundtrack a very light PG for mild language (mostly “hell”) and thematic elements (death and sex). Of course, you should use your own discretion when it comes to your children.
****I realize that pretty much every TV show has to have a character addicted to some kind of drug or behavior — alcohol, gambling, sex, painkillers, whatever — but I never really liked the “Willow’s addicted to magic” storyline. It seemed a bit forced in there just to give us some additional tension. The tension was necessary — up until the last quarter of the season, The Trio wasn’t really that great of a Big Bad in terms of villainy — but I almost wish we could’ve had something else (besides Dawn’s kleptomaniacal cry for help, which also was pretty annoying).