Buffy: Best of, 25-1

SPOILERS FOR A…21 year old show, I guess. I talk about the episodes in both lists like you’ve actually seen the series. You’ve been sufficiently warned.

And we’re back! Read The Worst of Buffy first before we go any further.

Let’s dive right into my favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer! First, some honorary mentions:

Welcome to the Hellmouth, Angel, School Hard, Halloween, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, Band Candy, Helpless, Bad Girls, Graduation Day, Part 1, Superstar, Checkpoint, Bargaining, Part 1, Lessons, Help, Conversation with Dead People

Worst was way easier to pick. Best of? Goddamn, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, Checkpoint and Helpless are *so close* to getting on the list, to the point where I’m tempted to just extend it! But I shan’t, but damn this was so hard to narrow down!

With that, on with the list. Starting with:

25. Chosen

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Chosen has issues. Most of these stem from season 7 just being terribly planned out with nothing really coming together in a nice little package. However, the episode itself has some pretty glaring issues. The amulet and scythe come way too late into the arc to not feel like contrivances, Spike saving the day by just standing there is a cheat and completely robs the final battle of any deserved victory, the Turok-Han are way too depowered, and Buffy’s plan to just barge into the Hellmouth before Willow cast the spell is idiotic beyond words. And, with all that said, I love it. It feels like a celebration of the show I love. The scenes feel finite, everyone feels more in character here than they have all season, Whedon’s dialogue crackles with the feeling that this is over.

I love the metaphor of Buffy breaking the line and making everyone a Slayer. It fits her metaphor of reaching adulthood beautifully and her speech is so full of wisdom and strength. I love the cookie dough speech, I love the call-back to The Harvest, I love ‘floppy, hoppy bunnies’, I love Dungeons and Dragons, I love Angel’s face on the punching bag, I love ‘I want you to get out of my face’, I love killing a violent misogynist by cutting him in half balls first. There’s such a great sense of ease and calm passing through, that we truly are at the end. There’s some wonderfully framed shots, a beautiful and energised score, and an amazing final scene at edge of the crevice that once held Sunnydale. Buffy ends the series with a smile, and that’s how I choose to remember her.

24. The Zeppo

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Season 3 is all about our gang finding their identity coming into adulthood, so I think it’s great that this episode is all about poking fun at the show’s own identity as a coming-of-age melodrama with sexy vampires and weird, doofy creatures we’re meant to take seriously. What makes all this better is the solid foundation of character building; this is Xander’s story, through and through. He truly is a different man by the time the episode closes, and it’s such a wonderfully wild romp as he dashes around another apocalypse he has no part of.

While it’s definitely weird that they are only now considering that he doesn’t bring much in terms of fighting prowess to the gang (they try to make up with this by having him nearly die in the opening, but it’s flimsy), I think why this works is that we’re seeing the show as Xander sees it. He is the constant outsider to the supernatural and really to the show’s lore, so of course everything is strange, off-kilter, really over the top and it’s all out to get him. Seeing stuff like Bangel speak or the sombre coda is so goddamn hilarious by how the tension is utterly broken by Xander really not having a clue what’s going on, and because we’re not meant to take the Hellmouth opening seriously it doesn’t ruin the tone at all. I don’t think the show has ever as accurately poked fun at itself more than in this one. But it’s Xander’s story through and through, and we see a man who rises above his inadequacies by being cool, resourceful, clever and liking the quiet. A great tale of reaching adulthood by just embracing the ridiculous and realising your place in it is to add a little more heart.

23. No Place Like Home

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Doug Petrie is the ‘set-up’ guy. He’s usually the one who has to wind things up for the pitch. And that isn’t an insult, I actually think he’s a very talented writer, and has done scripts that weren’t about setting up part 2s or the season’s arc, but it tends to mean his episodes don’t have the highs that the ones that follow end up paying off. This one is an exception; it not only gets season 5’s main arc off with a bang, it really gets you sucked into Buffy’s personal journey that continues one arc, and then turns into something different entirely.

The misdirection of who Dawn is is great throughout. We seriously begin to doubt whether she is a benevolent force or not, and we end up finding out she’s an innocent person created to harvest the Key. Buffy’s overly responsible role of caring for her mother and eventually Dawn is perfectly contrasted with the introduction of Glory. She’s vain, shallow, superficial, selfish, but also incredibly tuned in and observant, and her imbalance really makes her an unpredictable force. She’s rarely written better than she is in this introductory episode.

I don’t know what else to say, really. It’s just an excellently paced, constantly intriguing episode that solves the Dawn mystery adequately, sets up a new threat, piles onto Buffy’s problems further, makes even minor characters sympathetic, has a glorious Buffy/Giles moment when he opens the Magic Box (the Magic Box under Giles is properly introduced!), and it just really gets the season going in high gear. We’re up for some of the best the show has to offer, and we set that up with a bang.

22. Prophecy Girl

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Season 1, while again not as terrible as people make it out to be, doesn’t really have a lot in terms of solid episodes either. There are just two that people bring up, and while I think Angel has some flimsy pacing issues, superfluous characters and some really damn fine conveniences to keep it going, Prophecy Girl is almost rock solid. The first foray into directing that Whedon took, it presents Buffy with her fist challenge of growing up; facing death.

Capturing the metaphor of adolescence and taking it to its natural place, we see Xander move somewhat passed his crush (though it comes back here and there), Willow find some self-reliance to fight the good fight, and even Cordelia breaking down her barriers in front of our gang. The Master feels like an actual threat, and it’s great to see Mark Metcalfe really get into the role before they killed him off. We get interesting plot shifts, I really love where they take Buffy and Giles’ bond, and you really see the seeds being sewn for where their relationship would end up. It’s the end of the world, but only because we have to face our responsibilities and accept the fact that the old days, the old ways, are behind us. We do what we have to to make it in this world, even shown by Buffy following an eternal child to her doom.

There’s some cheese thrown in there, but cheese that feels earned and quite mature in its own sense. It’s a dynamic, emotional and quite fulfilling script with actors really finding a gel with those they are playing, and it’s great to just see exactly where Buffy the Vampire Slayer was going from this point on. Cheesy theme song interlude and all (though I’m not unhappy they never put that in the show again…)

21. Fool for Love

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Spike is a frustrating character for me. a lot of the times, he just does not fit with the series, and the character has nowhere that great to go only being artificially kept around because the writers really love him. Other times, he creates some of the best goddamn stuff in the show. And this is Doug Petrie sans set up, all pay off.

Spike’s past is an interesting tapestry that truly paints the picture of the monster that was made out of the man. I love the intercutting with the Bronze conversation, and Buffy learning a little bit more about herself through what we learn about Spike. It’s got gorgeous costume design and cinematography-probably one of the best-looking episodes they’ve ever done. There’s some really damn clever editing, I love how it pushes Buffy into uncomfortable places, which makes her push Spike to the reality that she sees him as nothing, while he’s still dealing with his complex feelings of her.

It’s a gritty, gothic tale of a vampire born through his love of the women in his life, and his understanding of Slayers, framed excellently Anne Rice-style with great atmosphere, character and world building, thematic ideas of death, rebirth and interwoven paths, and it’s just fun to see two really strong actors with great chemistry bounce off each other. This is some of my favourite interaction between the two, and it’s a shame a lot of that goes once their feelings become a lot more sexual and romantic.

The subplot with Riley doesn’t really fit well with what’s happening here, but it’s small potatoes compared to just how good the stuff with Spike and Buffy actually is. It’s a wonderful character study that adds well to the thematic arcs of the season and gives us Buffy as it should be. Clever, fun drama with a twist of the mundane, the comedic and the macabre. A fan favourite for a reason.

20. Doppelgangland

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Heyyyy, speaking of fan favourites! Cause how can you go wrong with two Willows?

This is probably one of the funniest goddamn episodes of the show. Every joke lands, from Vampire Willow hitting on her human doppelganger to Buffy, Xander and Giles mourning Willow, to Xander shaking the cross, to Willow waving at Oz. Big jokes, small jokes, one liners, gags, everything that makes the show work comedically is right here. And it’s not just the comedy that makes Doppelgangland such a joy. It’s an insanely clever fantasy twist to follow up The Wish in an inventive and though provoking way. Bringing Vampire Willow into the Scoobies’ reality is just genius, it takes the story in a lot of fun directions and really shows off how great Alyson Hannigan is at both parts. Definitely the precursor to her turn to villainy at the end of season 6.

In a season about identity, Willow gets her biggest challenge, and it’s seeing herself with a mass amount of confidence. With some added clever foreshadowing to her sexuality, it acts both as a cautionary tale and in its own way allows Willow to find her assertive side, becoming a lot more empowered and self-assured. It takes the character in an important direction, and does it in a tightly written, self-contained and gloriously witty script. Also, it brings back Anya, which opens the door to her being a mainstay of the show. Yay for that!

19. Afterlife

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From perfect comedy to perfect horror, that leads to perfect tragedy. Despite having the label of being a horror show, especially when it started, Buffy was always too kitschy and campy to really ever be scary (also it doesn’t take itself seriously enough), but this is one of the few times the show actually pulls off horror. The creature and its possession is seriously unnerving, and its unpredictability combined with the effects it has on our characters really amp up the tension. I love when it haunts Willow and Tara when they sleep, it’s such a privacy violation that feels like perfect terror, albeit scaled down for TV.

It’s definitely a great way to ease into the status quo for the new season after the roller-coaster 2-part premiere, as well. Because of our monster of the week more attacking in the shadows, it allows a lot of character moments and interactions to set into the season’s main arcs. They never really capture this dour yet active atmosphere again, where everything feels slow and contemplative but not too drab or dull. The monster being created by the spell that brought Buffy back, combined with Buffy’s heartbreaking revelation at the end, truly make. everything come together. It eases the characters and us back into Buffy getting back into life after her death, before flooring us with the final scene.

This episode does a lot that season 6 had the ambitions for, but sadly never reached quite to this level. It’s atmospheric and morose, but constantly feels on the mood and truly reflects on our heroine’s inner pain. It truly gets us ramped up for a pretty tumultuous and disconcerting year.

18. Selfless

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Anya’s Fool for Love is better than Spike’s Fool for Love. Just thought ya should know.

Being the first script from superfan Drew Goddard, this is an absolute treat that not only celebrates a beloved character, but the series as a whole. It’s just oozing with great detail, like Willow using D’Hoffryn’s talisman she got in Something Blue. It gives us another song from Once More with Feeling, it shows us the origin of Olaf the Troll, it even pays off the ‘Kick his ass’ line briefly in one of the best written fights in the show. This one really understands the characters and the journeys they’ve been on. But, most importantly, it shows us how far our Anya has come.

Showing how the different facets of Anya’s personality were formed throughout her history is not only amusing as fuck, it’s fascinating and quietly complex considering how simply the episodes flows.She may define herself through different men, different philosophies, and burying herself in different phases of her life. But for the first time in 1100 years, she has to define life by just being her, and that loneliness terrifies her. She grasps onto her humanity Sadly the show basically pushes her into the sidelines until the last two episodes, but this really is her coda, and I love it for that.

 Rich with character, intriguing dynamics, clever exploration via historical flashbacks, a genuinely effective tone shit with the usually doofy D’Hoffryn, and some great moral dilemmas and personal choices made in order to be an adult. This is the season 7 we deserved. Sadly, we never got that one, but at least we have Selfless.

17. The Freshman

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This seems to be a weird one to put up so high, especially over fan favourites like Doppelgangland, Foo for Love and Selfless. And while not every moment works (Buffy being yelled at by the lecturer is such horseshit), I dunno, I really love this one. It’s one of those episodes that truly captures a feeling I don’t think is replicated all that much in television-college, a lifestyle change in general, is overwhelming and easy to get lost in.

In a season that explores isolation and detachment, we get that rolling right away with Buffy really not handling college life all that well. Her emotional disconnect even has her losing to a vampire (one of the best one-offs the show has ever done, too-I fucking love Sunday!). it’s so disheartening to see her so lost and unsure, but really puts you in that headspace of being in college for the first time and trying to adjust to something a lot different. It’s got a great, slow ambiance as we mostly are exploring the new ways with Buffy, as it’s a transitional period for the show too after losing the high school setting. Her different reactions with her friends really show us where her head is at, until a speech from Xander (one of his best) pulls her out of her funk.

It’s triumphant to see her (somewhat) get her mojo back, we get two of the best dustings in the series, it gets us prepared for what’s to come then hits us with an intriguing cliffhanger which…doesn’t pay off let’s be honest. It’s Buffy feeling human, with dorm-stealing vampires standing in for how college can suck you of your personhood if you let it. Great way to head into one of the most interesting seasons of the show.

16.Hush

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I think it’s a cardinal sin to make a favourites list of Buffy and not include Hush. And, to be honest, it took me a while to come around to this one. But come around I did, this episode is a masterpiece.

Telling most of the story without any dialogue is such a ballsy move for network television to do, especially at the time. Making it this really unnerving, farytale-esque nightmare, and using it to teach the characters about miscommunication and how our ability to connect with how we express ourselves, really solidifies Hush as one of Whedon’s great triumphs. The Gentlemen are so creepy, with the way they float, and how freakishly polite they are, how they represent high society by even having grunts do their busy work. They’re fantastic monsters-an excellent creation.

It’s not just, hell, yet another episode in this horror show that feels like horror! The exposition scene with the slides is oozing with character and great gags, the way Whedon uses this supposed one-off to actually progress the arc is smart as hell, Tara makes her first appearance and immediately makes us fall in love with her earnesty and bashful charms. it gives us our usual great Whedon humour with his ability to mine complex ideas out of really simple premises.

The show is rarely as imaginative or as daring as Hush, and while this won’t be the last risky experimental episode to make the list, it’s definitely one that is remembered for all the right reasons. Even if what you remember is a guy getting his heart cut out where he cannot scream.

15. Innocence

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This was such a huge game changer, it’s hard to put into words. One of the funnier changes is that it moved Buffy’s airing schedule from Monday to Tuesday night, a time slot it kept for the rest of its runtime even after switching networks. Everything about the show changed after Innocence.

I go back and forth on how I feel about David Boreanaz as an actor (he’s a lot better on his own show, admittedly), but he is excellent as Angelus. He revels in how cruel and underhanded he is, and that bit in the bedroom where he talks down and humiliates Buffy is just soul destroying. It’s a very ugly realisation that life will not always deal you a fair hand, and part of growing up is grasping that.

Outside of that, it’s got an excellent tone and a sense of foreboding as everything falls into place. I love the lighting on the confrontation with Angel in the hallway, realising Jenny’s part puts a part of the tragedy onto Giles, we see a bit of Xander’s ingenuity and quick-thinking, and Buffy killing the Judge with a rocket launcher is one of the most triumphant moments in the series. Like, it’s up there with the greats.

Innocence is remembered for a reason. It’s incredibly affecting melodrama and well-placed action beats complement each other perfectly, and swing the series from this shaky but well done teen horror drama into something truly special. I always get excited when I get to it in my rewatches, then my heart is just crushed by its conclusion.

14. Fear Itself

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This may just be me, but I love episodes that break characters down in specific ways in order to explore them all separately. I’m sure this will be the only time the series does this, huh? Definitely the season.

As a treatise on fear, Fear Itself takes a pretty well-worn horror trope and does something unique with it. The decorated frat house setting is inspired, as it hides when the creepy stuff starts playing and starts attacking the gang’s fears all at once instead of all of them discovering it one by one or whatnot. It’s exactly how fear attacks, all-encompassing in a disorienting way. There are some really fun visuals here, like Willow’s green orb turning wasp’s nest-esque and attacking her, and Buffy discovering the graves. It’s also nice to give Oz a bit more dimensions considering what happens in a few episodes. Speaking of, this is really where Anya solidifies herself as a Scooby mainstay and gets some really goddamn great laughs. We discover her bunny fear and it’s the first time she starts interacting with Giles, one of my favourite relationships in the series. Giles with a chainsaw is, of course, excellent.

It’s a really great exploration of our characters and how their neuroses tend to isolate them in their fear. While it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it’s not dark, it’s got a lot of hidden depths and a really cool aesthetic considering the show never really suffered from an amazing budget. Seeing the actual size of the fear demon is not only an amazing reveal, it’s a perfect metaphor for what fear really is, and a lesson we call could take to heart.

12. Normal Again

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Well. Isn’t this one all kinds of fucked up?!

What Buffy does best is to take a typical horror trope and put it on its head to explore something about ourselves. While the idea that you are hallucinating your reality is not new to speculative fiction, how it links to Buffy’s depression explores something really harsh and kind of uncomfortable. That being locked in a padded cell, free from all her baggage and responsibilities but confined and mentally ill, is a comfortable alternative to her life.

We never really see Buffy pushed to the extremes she is here. Watching her try to kill her friends it not easy, but the episode does a great job at buying for the audience that she would get to this place. With some light jabs at the series’ own mythos, they deconstruct just how ridiculous the series can be and how kind of lame this season is as proof that Buffy is just some sick girl in LA. It’s inspired writing, encapsulated by this truly being the lowest point she has gotten to in the series thus far, coming after the disaster of Xander and Anya’s wedding.

I know the bit with Buffy being in the clinic when she was younger is a retcon, but I don’t think it hurts what the episode achieves. It’s dense, personal and deeply uncomfortable in a way that’s rarely reached before, and it really does capture perfectly what it’s like to be in that state of mind. I love that it’s Joyce herself that gives her the strength to carry on, anyone who has lost a parent can relate to that, and the ending still gives me chills. It’s a triumph for the season, and a mindfuck that fits perfectly within the lore of Buffy. Even if it’s claiming it’s all a fiction within a fiction.

12. The Gift

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Buffy is a hero, you see. She saved the world, a lot. And she’s never more heroic, brave or amazing than she is at the end of this episode. It’s one of the greatest and most real acts of heroism I’ve ever seen on TV.

The Gift really ties everything season 5 is working towards in this really great package. Not only to various excellent plot points sprinkled throughout the year get brought back, it cements Buffy’s growth as an adult and as someone who is truly connected to the people in her life, and her place in the world. This is her ‘gift’ in a way-she makes the ultimate sacrifice and dies in order to save the most important person in her life, her sister. Season 5 explores a lot about connection and the ties we have to life, and Buffy’s realisation of who she is as a Slayer is a long line of warriors doing what is right, and what makes her rise above the rest is her friends and family.

Outside of that, it’s got some great action with the Buffy/Glory battle, some really excellent pacing with one scene after another of great characterisation until we get into the final battle at the tower, an excellent appearance from Joel Grey, Giles getting some fantastically dark moments, Xander and Anya’s engagement, Tara coming back, some brilliant misleads and a powerful score that really culminates all that this was leading up to. This was a gift we were all glad to receive.

11. Dead Things

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This, in my humble opinion, is a seriously underrated episode. It’s one of the show’s darkest, and explores the toxic masculinity, the consequences of violence and how far you can be pushed by your own self-loathing. A couple of episodes after Buffy comes to the realisation that she doesn’t want to die, she gets brought back down a couple of pegs by some awful manipulations by the Trio, where we see Warren go from entitled dick to violently dangerous misogynist.

Warren is a great character because he’s so loathsomely real. There are men out there who would do exactly as the creeper did if they had access to mystical forces or sci-fi tech, and how he plays on Jonathan’s fear and Andrew’s idolatry is creepy and despicable. The attempted rape and death of Katrina is so unnerving, and really lets us know that these three are not just a harmless joke.

Outside of that, Buffy has to deal with how she’s allowing Spike to drag her into a darker place. The scene in the Bronze is deeply uncomfortable, another form of sexual coercion in a very troubling way. How she breaks down at the end is devastating, as is her taking out her self-loathing in the man she’s using to make her feel anything. It’s naked and deeply unsettling, but it makes for such compelling television and really highlights the darker edge the season is going for.

Dead Things just perfectly gets what season 6 is aiming for. It’s morose and uncomfortable, and comes out of nowhere, but it takes its characters to places not really seen before, and I admire it for having the stones to break her heroine in such a way. Definitely underappreciated.

10. Earshot

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Kind of the finale of the ‘high school is hell’ episodes, Earshot not only manages to achieve telling a really fun and compelling story, but it gives us the best lesson that anybody in high school can learn; everyone is lonely. In their own way. Even if you do not realise it.

Again, turning a fantasy trope on its head, the mind reading story is a classic trope, and giving Buffy access to people’s thoughts really opens her up to some home truths. It also ends up nearly killing her. There’s so much to love here, from her snarky derision at the weird shit people think, to the excellent scene where she starts reading the Scooby Gang’s thoughts, it really helps build up the world in a ways we had no real access to before and has some fun stuff thrown in. I love how the tone shifts after she hears about the murder plot and the thoughts get too much, as well.

The setting for the murder mystery is great-we have a bunch of new characters introduced just to be red herrings, Xander correctly guessing who the actual killer was, the Scoobies having to interview everyone to find out who may do it, and the clock tower scene. The beautiful, sweet, incredibly inspiring clock tower scene. Yes, it has some silly shit (how WAS Jonathan going to kill himself with a rifle exactly?), but that just makes it even more perfect Buffy. Funny when it wants to be, profound and beautiful in other places, it’s definitely a probing and important lesson for me growing up. Though I guess it sucks if your mom slept with your high school’s librarian…

9. The Body

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The reason this isn’t higher is pretty simple; this episode is not very entertaining to watch. Getting to it on a rewatch is gruelling work, and that’s what makes it so amazing. It’s honest, it’s striking. It’s grief, and it really fucking sucks. Pun likely intended.

Buffy is, at its heart, such a silly and funny show, that to strip it of all its humour is ballsy to the point of insanity. Also, while it was a horror/fantasy series focused on vampires and monsters, for the most part recurring characters didn’t really die with few exceptions. If you managed to make it into a second season or you’re not in a major story arc, chances of your survival are good. So to kill off Joyce, Buffy’s mother and character who has routinely featured in the show since the first episode, was honest and brave. Honest because she died in such a natural way, a brain haemorrhage. An ordinary death for the most grounding presence in the series. And a tough lesson about growing up.

I could go into spiels about how brilliant this episode is. The lack of background music, the deliberate, achingly slow pace and hyper-focus on everything, the really guttural way the vamp fight goes, how everyone reacts in such different ways that rings true for their characters. But it’s not really worth it to just talk about the episode, you have to watch it. it’s the single best depiction of the immediate aftermath of losing someone I have ever watched, and maybe you can find comfort in this pure depiction of pain.

8. I Only Have Eyes for You

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An honest-to-goodness ghost story with twists and turns and deliberate reflections on our heroine as we learn an important life lesson that she’s forced to learn herself?! Trust Buffy to give us some of that!

A great moral dilemma of a horrible situation where we’re forced to empathise with a murderer and offer him forgiveness. It’s the perfect metaphor for where Buffy was at that current time, but also it’s just a really awesome horror story in of itself. The initial incident that kicks it off is really well written, it’s slow burning but then starts offering whacky stuff like snakes, snakes everywhere. We get some awesome character growth from Willow as we see her magical powers growing, and even more from Giles as we see him for the first time irrational because of grief.

I absolutely love the climax-it’s an intimate and powerful moment, and reversing the genders of who the ghosts possess who was a stroke of genius and a really clever way to break the curse. It teaches us that sometimes we don’t have to understand the need to forgive in order to give it; people do horrible things, and it’s impossible to keep going in a perpetual state of punishment. It teaches hard lessons and is just a really compelling, atmospheric ghost story, an excellent addition to one of my favourite periods of the series.

7, The Wish

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I love alternate universe stories. And, of course, Buffy’s spin on a dystopian alternate timeline is to make us think we’re going into it for a completely different reason and come out really appreciating the bonds these characters have with each other.

The Wishverse may not exactly align with the idea of Buffy never coming to Sunnydale and the show’s history, but it’s a minor gripe compared to what we got. I love Vampire Xander and Willow, showing us a completely different side to them, being kind of Spike and Dru-ish but in their own way. It’s always nice to see Mark Metcalfe return as The Master. He’s got such an imposing presence and yet manages to be so charming. Buffy is great, a little rugged  and kind of Faith-like, and it really just displays how much of her identity is buried in the life she made at Sunnydale.

There’s some really great horror here, from Anya’s appearance to the bloodsucking factory. The gut-wrenching, absolutely spellbinding ending is just one of the most memorable moments in the show. Buffy walking through Angel’s dust, Oz killing Willow, Buffy getting her neck snapped by the Master as per prophecy. It’s not a tale built to make our characters learn anything (outside of Anya none of them remember anything about it), but it teaches us the importance of bonds and how they make us who we are and carry us forward. It sucks that the episode doesn’t focus more on Cordelia like it promises, but it’s a great twist and really opens the story up to be more gothic, desperate and powerful. The show is never as good taking itself so seriously as it is during The Wish.

6. Once More, with Feeling

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While I cannot say I’ve watched a lot of them, I will proudly say that I fucking love musicals. I love the art of telling stories through the emotion of song. Buffy is such an over-the-top emotionally wrought romp most of the time, the fact that it took them six years to make a musical is frankly a crime. But holy hell, is it ever so worth it?!

This season is full of emotional tumultuousness and characters that will not communicate that well. The best way for them to display their pain but ignore it is to burst into song. I love them taking the framing of a musical to explore the character’s inner turmoil but still they refuse to address it. It works as a spiritual sequel to Hush, as Whedon himself as pointed out, in that when we remove language we communicate better. In this case, we heighten language by making it musical, and just make it all the harder to get our feelings across. Sweet feeds on the anguish of this town, and revels in how they’ll burn rather than open up. It’s what he forces Buffy to do, in one of the most devastating moments in the series when she admits to her friends in song they pulled her from Heaven.

While the depressing tone from the season does hang overhead, trust me when I say this doesn’t affect the tone! This is Whedon at his silliest and most self-indulgent. We have gags of random people in the background dancing, hilariously biting and out there dialogue, really funny images of apparently a night-time funeral. The songs are excellent, cleverly written and properly affixed to every character, it shows how well Whedon knew his cast by this stage. Tony Head, Amber Benson and James Marsters stand out in terms of vocal talent, but Sarah Michelle Gellar really sells the emotion here.

I don’t know what to say really-it’s just fun! It’s got a cool villain, the songs have great little moments and are well composed in of themselves, Giles and Tara’s joint reprieve of their songs is just pure Buffy at its best-well written and powerful. It’s silly, funny, tragic, action-packed and has people singing about mustard removal and parking tickets. It’s Buffy the musical! What’s not to love?

5. Who Are You?

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I really love when this show does a character study on its villains. We got that with Warren in Dead Things as well, but here we dive into someone who is essentially an anti-villain at this point who gets everything she wanted. And still hates it, because no matter what she gets, she cannot escape herself.

Faith is one of the most dynamic, layered and tortured characters in the series. While her actions are never really justified, the growth she gets in a relatively short space of episodes she’s in on this series and Angel kind of tells you how great the writing always is for her and how Eliza Dushku was born to play her. Now she spends most of the episode trapped in Buffy’s body, her intense jealousy finally coming to fruition as she can have everything she wants. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku play each other so perfectly, they really get specific character tweaks down and Gellar in particular captures that pathos and breakdown. Her final scene where Faith is wailing on her own face is just great despair.

On top of all that, we get some lovely Willow/Tara development (the hottest sex scene that never actually was one!), and some usual Whedon greatness. His scripts are always really well interwoven and dynamic, I love the repetition of ‘Because it’s wrong’. The plot’s as thin as paper, so this is mostly character greatness, and we have the joy of Faith teasing Spike, Buffy trying to convince Giles that she’s Buffy, and the mirror scene with Faith practising being Buffy as she slowly starts to lose it.

The body swap is another one of those well-worn fantasy tropes, but what makes this one so great is that it’s a perfect display of self-destruction. Faith doesn’t just want to ruin Buffy’s life, she subconsciously is trying to tear up her own. Once she realises how difficult Buffy worked to be who she is, and how genuine her connections are, she begins to crack and starts to learn that maybe she can’t keep blaming ‘big sis’ for all her problems. It’s one of my favourite explorations of a relationship where the two don’t actually interact, just with how Faith reflects on ‘being’ Buffy, and it’s this kind of subtly handled and surprising character exploration that keeps me coming back to this show. It’s just the right thing to do.

4. Becoming, Part 2

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How do you conclude a season? Becoming, Part 2. It’s just perfect in every way.

A note perfect conclusion to the Angelus story arc that sees Buffy more isolated than she’s ever been. Her friends are hospitalised or kidnapped or dead, she’s on the run from the law,  her mother kicks her out of her own home, she’s forced to ally herself with a demon she hates, the one thing she’s destined to kill. She strips all that away, and what she realises is that this is who she is. It’s not always pretty, it’s not always fun, it may not always feel right and it never seems easy. But she is always Buffy and she needs to deal with that.

On top of that, we have Angelus at his demonic best as he tortures Giles, some wonderful development from Willow as she does her first really big spell, that rage-inducing ‘kick his ass’ line, the beginning of Spike’s descent into being a Scooby. It’s moody, it keeps you on a knife’s edge, yet it’s got great comedic bits and Whedon’s usual wonderful dialogue. And, of course, Buffy’s big sacrifice; killing a newly-resouled Angel as the portal opens. Never has she been more heroic and tragic stabbing her lover with a sword.

Becoming Part 2 gives us who Buffy is as a character by giving what it is as a show. Subversive, emotionally resonant, witty, funny, messed up in places, well characterised and utterly distraught. It’s got everything I love in what makes the show work, and is a great way to close off the season that really made this show so goddamn memorable 20 years on.

3. Passion

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…and then we have the episode from slightly earlier on that tore it apart! Go fig.

Remember when I said I loved it when this show explored villains? Yeah, this is the ultimate example of that. Season 2 was about maturation, both for the show and characters, and taking about how people are driven by passion through a sadist’s point of view is both twisted and excellent. The way Angelus psychologically taunts his victims is cruel and really gets the show’s warped sensibilities out there, and this is even before we get to what he does to Jenny!

Jenny Calendar’s death was so shocking and, I imagine at the time, unexpected. She was an important character for the show’s growth and never did we get another adult character that interacted with Giles quite like that who was involved in the mystical world. She expanded the mythology offered a more dynamic presence given that she never fit in with the core dynamic. So her death was a great twist and truly helped raise the stakes. The way Angelus displays her body for Giles to find, watches Buffy and Willow break down over the news, and smiles about it? I’ve never hated a villain more on this show.

Passion is another giant step into maturity. It’s elegantly written and moodily shot, with some great cinematography and top notch acting from Tony Head and David Boreanaz. The show deals with tragedy in a blunt and unprecedented way, and while it never prepares its audience for the bad times to come, it certainly showed that they weren’t afraid to fuck with you either. If Innocence set us up for a different show, Passion cemented it.

2. Restless

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Heh. Speaking of different…

I don’t think Joss Whedon will ever write anything like Restless again. To be fair, he’s too literal and communal a writer to allow such fanciful flights of pretention and surreality like other creators do, and what’s funny is that he’s surprisingly good at it! Provided how much the budget could offer him, as dream stories rely a lot on visual composition and atmosphere.

What’s great about Restless, outside of the hilarious fact that this was a season finale, is that it’s not exactly an out there episode of Buffy. It still has everything you love, it just has freaky dream shit to deal with. This takes use of structure the same way Fear Itself took use of its sporadic nature-each character is explored in different dreams in very specific ways. I love the recurring motifs (and the Cheese Man) that connects their dreams to some semblance of a plot, because dreams tend to have those connections. They’re how we break down our own personal stuff. There’s wonderful use of space and colour, it has my favourite line in the show, the Lynchian touches really add a sense of distinctiveness from the rest of the series while being completely its own. It shows off our characters’ neuroses whilst hinting at things to come, and yet still expands the lore of the Slayer and how we shouldn’t worry about the destination, it’s all about the journey.

I love dream sequences, and seeing Buffy’s touch on it just makes this all the more special. It’s a dense and incredibly rewarding character journeys, and really pays off repeat viewings, especially after completing the series. It’s entirely its own thing in this bizarre world of Buffy, and shows off truly what Joss Whedon and Buffy the Vampire Slayer can do. One of the most impressive and fun of the series.

1. Lie to Me

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Why this, of all episodes? Well, it’s Buffy. Every core of its being.

Ford is not sympathetic, but he is complex. He comes across as the wayward teen who wants to be young forever, then you find out the horrifying truth that he will die either way. And Buffy, in that moment, tells him what he needs to hear, what we need to hear; he has a choice. It’s a shitty one, but it’s a choice. Because that’s what growing up is; it’s a series of choices that define who we become.

Lie to Me shows us the complex web that is human speech. We lie for our own self-interest, we lie because we do not want to face the truth, we lie because being upfront is inconvenient at that time. What’s funny is that the most honest character is the wayward, impetuous villain. But we also lie to comfort, we lie to make this embarkment we call life all that more bearable. Because it allows us to catch the wonders of our world.

The teen vamp cult is fantastic, a really cool element to the show that hints at Sunnydale being more in the know about the strange goings-on than they let on. It is the perfect metaphor-we want to remain young forever, so we come together and lie to ourselves to get this grand reward. Being an adult is not just taking the shit life throws at you, it’s making the choice to be the best person when it lands. Sometimes that’s in making the decisions that seem less obviously the best ones, shown in that absolutely perfect final speech.

Lie to Me has all the humour, the fights, the turgid romance and the afterschool horror people came to remember the show for. But more importantly it contains its heart. It set the stage for more complex things to happen in Buffy, not just to our guest stars, but to our characters themselves. Nothing can prepare us for what’s coming, but with good people, a good attitude and great fiction to help guide us, maybe it makes navigating through this planet a little easier. And that’s why Buffy is important to me.

Thank you for reading this tome.

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