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.
I’ve been going back and forth about whether or not to talk about TV on this blog. While film is my main passion, television obviously has a lot of transferable properties to it, and there are a lot of show I would fucking love to tackle in my pompous overanalytical way.
This probably isn’t the best time for a project I have planned in a couple of weeks (…hopefully), but for now, I decided to take a break from my usual content to talk about my favourite show of all time.
I’ve been a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer most of my life now. I have just completed a rewatch of the entire series and, as always happens when I catch the series again, it was an incredibly rewarding experience.
As it’s now 21 years (?!) since Welcome to the Hellmouth premiered, I thought it’d be fun to look over my best and worst episodes of the series overall. Yes, as you likely guessed from the title, it’s a listicle. But hey, I want to talk about Buffy ‘cause I love Buffy.
Let’s start with my most hated episodes, because I like getting the negativity out of the way!
First off, some dishonourable mentions. These were episodes I didn’t like, but were not retched enough to make the final cut. They are as thus:
Teacher’s Pet, The Puppet Show, Some Assembly Required, Reptile Boy, Dead Man’s Party, Gingerbread, Beer Bad, Primeval, Listening for Fear, The Weight of the World, Smashed, As You Were, Beneath You, Never Leave Me, Showtime
Yes, Teacher’s Pet AND Beer Bad didn’t make the main shitlist. How do you like them apples?!
So, my picks for the worst episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Starting us off:
I’ll refrain from making the obvious joke with the title. You’re welcome.
Some of these picks will be on here because they represent a direction they took the show in that was for the worst, and man is this one ever an exemplar of that! Not only does it fail to live up to any of the intrigue the previous episode set up, it brings this writers’ rather annoying obsession with Spike up full force. Nothing that’s set up here ever really comes into play, the episode has a really tired and passionless mood that really showed just how at the end of the ropes this series had gotten, there’s a gratingly annoying cliffhanger, Spike being a sleeper agent is not as remotely interesting as the show tries to make it out to be, even the comedy with Anya (one of the show’s funniest characters) feels really half-assed!
If there was ever a sign that this show was at its end, Sleeper was definitely it. Thank God this did trigger the beginning of the end.
14. Bad Eggs
Bad Eggs gets kind of hard a rep from the fandom at large, hence why it’s so low on this list. But don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty bad. It’s one of the best examples of the show not really knowing how to handle Joyce in the early years, as she is a tad insufferable in this one, and you completely get why they just have her find out about Buffy in the finale. There’s some dull Bangel melodrama as well, that raises some interesting ideas but never fully explores them, because frankly the show had a better place to take them soon enough. We were heading for probably the biggest turning point the series ever took, so this was just shaking off the early show weirdness, but that still doesn’t make this any bit interesting to watch. It takes forever to get going, with an act break that is just there to scare the audience, the Gorch brothers add fuck all to the story, and they introduce the Invaders of the Body Snatchers-plot so late that there’s nothing to really get it going. It’s a silly, strange and really off-kilter kind of story, and thankfully we were gearing up for better things just around the corner.
13. Buffy v Dracula
The guy who plays Dracula sucks (heh), alright?! I don’t care if him and Sarah Michelle Gellar were on another show before, he’s a charisma vacuum and terribly cast here.
The ending of this is great and leads into one of my favourite arcs in the show. The rest of the episode, however? Tacked on, lame, way too self-referential and tonally fucked. It begins to make Riley look insanely unlikeable and pettily jealous that will lead him down a bad path, Giles’ own story has very little impact as it’s just there to set up Buffy’s arc, and again they really don’t know whether to play this comedically or dramatically. While the show is great at balancing these disparate tones, this episode kind of just flip flops at the drop of a hat!
Marti Noxon is probably one of the most polarising writers on the show. A lot of her episosdes will appear both on my best and worst. I think she’s best suited for heightened melodrama, so her attempts at straight comedy really don’t do a lot here. It’s a silly and on-the-nose premise with some really naft execution, unfunny skits with Xander and boring romance drama with Buffy/Riley, and being honest it goes too camp even for this goddamn show, and that is saying something! Season 5 will give us some of the best stuff Buffy has to offer, but it seriously got off on the wrong foot here.
There’s a too many cooks aspect to this episode. This the only time three writers are credited for an episode. Looking at this, I get why.
The idea of this is honestly really clever-a cynical and bored reaction to the apocalypse because they’ve faced them so much, used to reflect the consistent threat Buffy’s life is and it’s why Riley being in it is dangerous. This would probably work better if she just didn’t discover he’s a secret agent who’s trained to kill demons. This episode is a structural nightmare that hops from point to point, exploring Willow’s insecurities, Spike’s suicidal depression, Buffy’s doubt about getting into another relationship, going back to what remains of Sunnydale High, and while they strain to create a coherent throughline for all of these, they’re just too disparate and rushed to leave an impact.
One of the great things about Buffy is that each writer has a distinctive voice. You can hear David Fury speak when he writes an episode, same with Jane Espenson, etc. Cram them all together like this, and you get a badly plotted (note there’s barely any time to whatever the demon threat is supposed to be?), oddly cobbled together story that honestly just feels like they made it the fuck up as they went along. They were struggling to follow up one of the show’s most celebrated episodes, and man does it show.
11. Goodbye Iowa
Another terrible episode focused on Riley! And not the last. Goodbye Iowa takes the Initiative arc in a pretty poor direction, and while I think the latter half of season 4 has some really damn strong episodes, is part of the reason why people have such a poor perception of it.
Adam, right from the get-go, is bland, uninteresting, charmless, has no real connection with any of the other Scoobies until a tacked on one with Riley in Primeval, his plans and motivations remain somewhat ambiguous despite being introduced 9 episodes before the end of the season and 8 before he dies, and all to play on this tired existential Frankenstein cliché that does absolutely nothing to endear us to the character in any way.
Outside of that, Riley’s breakdown comes out of nowhere and isn’t reflected on any of his behaviour sans another episode that made this list, it’s trite and slow with deeply over the top moments, the cast are particularly awash with nothing to do and with the episode not adding enough meat to make the drama with the characters it does hone in on all that compelling. It’s a mess of a way to build up the season’s arc, and one of the strongest examples of how lacking plot-heavy episodes can be.
10. Hell’s Bells
Season 6 is definitely a controversial season, and it’s one of my favourites because of how audacious and how far it pushes its characters. But oh man, did they go a step too far with this one.
Xander and Anya’s wedding seemed doomed to failure from the off, but what’s weird is that this episode brings up insecurities and doubts from Xander, which fit naturally to his character, but were never adequately explored to make this moment feel earned. It also has the trappings of season 6 with some pretty gauche and off comedic parts, which absolutely skewer whatever deep or contemplative tone they were shooting at. Xander truly makes some awful decisions here, but none of them ever feel earned.
It’s a poorly conceived pay-off to nearly a full season’s worth of story, and while there are some gems in the next few episodes, we get this demure, sour taste that feels as far removed from the series as we’ve ever seen it. Outside of that, it’s full of dead character beats, pantomime-esque performances from Xander’s oft-talked about but never seen family, and tries its hardest to make pretty awful behaviour in some ways sympathetic, mostly failing to do so.
But hey. Least Buffy can juggle.
9. All the Way
Another season 6 dud! And another one rushed out because of a defining episode of the show taking up all its resources! It’s okay, though-I don’t think they could make this idea work even if they had all the team on board and fully attentive.
We rarely get to explore Dawn’s social life, and we quickly discover that it’s kind of boring. Great mystery solved, I guess. The twist with the toymaker is way overplayed, and took what could have been a spookier Halloween story and stuck us with two boring asshole vampires. They play up this thing with a somewhat sexual awakening for Dawn, and the vamp she macks on is just the blandest person; the actors have very little chemistry. The rest of the cast deliberately have nothing to do because of them working on Once More with Feeling, so they just kind of meander or lightly develop other plot points.
It’s a tired, well-worn story that doesn’t have any momentum or interesting characterisation, intrigue or tone. I never skip Buffy episodes, but you’re really not missing much not giving this one a gander. Unless you really wanna see an early role from Amber Tamblyn. I guess.
8. Out of my Mind
This may have some special something in people’s hearts because it’s the real beginning of the Spuffy storyline that dominates a lot of discussion about the show. But it happens at the end, is not the main focus of the story, is pretty badly set up at that (he just hates her sooooooooooo freaking much, they have to beat this into your skull), and everything elese just sucks.
Riley…really cannot hold an episode together, can he? This one is just clearing out a lot of the baggage from the previous season they didn’t wrap up because it was boring, and pushing the Buffy/Riley story for this season. What are my problems with this one, then? As usual, uninteresting or basic plot, more focused on arc-progression than actually telling a compelling story in of itself (and yes, arc episodes can be satisfying stories in of themselves), and a conflict the viewers will have no interest in if they are smart because removing Spike’s chip compromises his durability as a regular character. And yes, this really only reflects on your initial watch of the episodes, but man does this conflict not work in any context with the episode’s A-plot, or remotely create tension!
Riley’s dosing drama is just not interesting or well-written. Or really add much, because he doesn’t seem that above the status of a well-trained soldier, which is clearly not the angle the series was going for. The fact that the episodes that focus on it are so freaking terrible is ample proof of that, and I’m glad the series dealt with this really quickly. Even if it sacrificed an episode to do it.
7. Beauty and the Beasts
Bringing up Marti Noxon again, as I’ve stated before she works best with melodrama. And that’s not a bad thing-Buffy is a very melodramatic show-what I mean is when the drama is over the top and really emotionally overwrought, I think she’s great. She does tragedy and heightened sexuality really well, and I’ll talk a little more about that in my best list which she features prominently (guess I should point out that she alongside Jane Espenson has the most credited episodes to her name outside of Whedon, could also be why she features so much). Unfortunately, dealing with stuff a little more real is not something she is built to do, at least in this show. Even with the metaphor, this is an episode about toxic masculinity and domestic assault. It doesn’t do a great job with these themes.
Pete and Debbie are not portrayed effectively at all, and they are the main reason the episode suffers. It does some really awkward victim blaming shit with Debbie, and while the Hyde-monster aspect may have been interesting, they just try to connect it to stuff that just doesn’t really gel as well. The episode just juggles so much shit that it never really lands a bullseye; it’s not a great way for Buffy to discover Angel is back, and Oz’ stuff barely fits in here outside of restating the thesis that ‘all men are beasts’ and have him be a red herring. I think there’s a great way to explore toxic male entitlement without the weird tacit implication that men are predisposed to be abusive, and it’s not a juggling act the story handles very well. It ignores the idea of choice, which the show brings up a lot.
There’s really good stuff in here (I really wish they hadn’t left the school’s shrink to be a shock death, though), but it’s bogged down by a really confused and kind of offensive message and execution. Buffy can explore complex themes in a deft and easily digestible way, this really isn’t one of them.
6. The Killer in Me
Nothing in the Buffy fandom rings quite as much controversy as Willow and Kennedy. It’s a good thing, then, that the episode getting these two crazy kids together is a big pile of shit.
How the show derails Amy’s character entirely with very little build-up is one thing (and, despite her status as being one of two non-credited recurring characters to appear in six of the shows seven seasons, she doesn’t have that much impact on the series). But the way it just forces Willow and Kennedy into this predicament and expects them to come out a fully-formed couple is just so flaccidly written. This has zero of the build-up and interest that any o the previous relationships have had, never mind Willow’s ones! Turning Willow into Warren is actually a really interesting idea, and I think Alyson Hannigan and Adam Busch do great imitations of one another, but the pathos feels unearned and the idea that she just gets over Tara (she’s never mentioned again after this episode) because she cries about moving on is so insulting. Her character deserved better.
On top of that, we have the insulting ending to the ‘Why the fuck has nobody so much as shake Giles’ hand in weeks?!’ arc, which seems to only be there to give the gang something to do, which is a good reason to do an arc for 6 episodes. Spike’s chip finally gets removed in a throwaway manner with a deflated bum note, a return to the not-filled with concrete Initiative, and a fight with a monster you don’t care about. It’s an example of season 7 just rushing it’s way to the finish line, at the point where the show’s arc had pretty much stopped, and exemplifies everything that’s wrong with the season. The fact that these plots and characters barely align all episode is perfect proof of that.
5. I Robot, You Jane
Yeah, okay, not the most original pick. Everybody picks on this episode, and the fact that it’s so high on my list should not come as a surprise to anyone. But…like, it’s really bad. Like, really really bad.
Outside of the hilariously, awfully dated computer lingo and just outright inaccuracies that I think even a show made in 1997 shouldn’t have made, it’s just a terribly boring episode. The villain’s plot is nonsensical, Willow and Buffy act pretty out of character in certain moments (Moloch/Malcolm’s powers to ‘seduce’ people are not all that clear either), it’s a lot of sitting around talking terrible exposition about how little the plot makes sense, and starts off with a silly low grade staging of Medieval history. Their depiction of history would absolutely get better as it goes on.
It’s a shame, as it could have been used to flesh Willow’s character a little more, as the first season was more focused on Buffy and Xander, and none of this really comes back in later episodes. Thankfully, she ends up getting buckets of development later and becomes one of the most well-rounded characters in the show. Season 1 is usually ridiculed for being some of the show’s weakest parts, and while I think these are overblown, the growing pains of this series are ready to see. This episode absolutely exemplifies all of them, it’s a good thing Buffy found its voice later on.
Also, this episode sports probably the worst actor in the entire show. He plays Fritz, and while the character is pretty awfully written, holy shit does this guy ham the fuck out of every scene he is in. He is transcendent, he is magnificent. He is Fritz, and he is jacked in.
4. Where the Wild Things Are
Sex is…something. Don’t do…that. Actually, that’s unfair. It’s more on the backdrop that sexual repression can lead to disastrous and unforeseen consequences, but would really would have gotten that from this trainwreck of an episode?
This was one of the episodes that had to be written around Sarah Michelle Gellar being unavailable for most of the block as she was shooting her second appearance on Angel, so their solution to write her out was to…have Buffy and Riley’s monster fuck rally session possesses Riley’s frat and make weird things happen. And by that, I mean…weird, semi-connected things. Like an orgasm wall, and vines and the like. Apparently, nobody in this fraternity of, let’s face it, pretty attractive and confident guys have never had major sexcapades in their dorm before this. On top of that, we get painful banter between Xander and Anya who have a fight literally only there to give the episode some emotional stakes, even if it leads to one of its two only good scenes with Spike and Anya bonding over their former demonic ways. None of this fits with the plot of the episode, of course. Same with Giles’ singing, while really comes out of nowhere. But Tony Head does have a lovely voice.
It’s a well-intentioned message, but gets lost in how it frames the sex as causing the destruction. It’s terribly paced, has nothing in the way of compelling conflicts, doesn’t know what to do with its remaining cast, and only redeeming moments have absolutely nothing to do with the anti-fuck frat. But hey, least Riley used a condom. Good man. Always use protection, kids.
3. Empty Places
Buffy fans are a divisive lot. I don’t think there is a lot the fandom universally agrees on. If you think you’ve found that point, inevitably you’ll get people who completely disagree with your assertions. But there’s one thing I think all Buffy fans agree on, and I’ll be proven wrong for saying this you will see, but nearly every single one of them I’ve come across since I’ve been a fan of this show agrees that Buffy getting kicked out of her own house was fucked up.
the ending of this episode is the worst scene of the show. No competition. Badly written, staged, acted in parts. Fails to cohesively follow up the story I think they were aiming for, makes every character look like an idiot or an asshole, has some raging hypocrisies and lack of gratitude, and absolutely sours the rest of the show so much that, despite this happening three episodes before the finale, it’s mostly ignored after the beginning of the penultimate episode because they just cannot deal with the ramifications of how shitty what the gang did here was. That’s how bad it is!
I mean the rest of the episode is pretty crap. Buffy acts isolationist and standoffish, not just over the fight with Caleb, but because the plot really needs her to be at a place for the ending. That includes treating the Potentials and Faith like shit, though Faith also makes some pretty terrible low blows at that. Giles continues his awful characterisation from the last few episodes (I’ll get to that), Spike and Andrew get a subplot because this episode doesn’t want me to hate it enough. There’s a really goddamn sweet scene with Willow and Xander that shows what the season could have been, but instead we get all this maudlin war shit that’s impossible to connect to.
Keep in mind, by the way, that I think Buffy’s plan is idiotic, badly thought out, authoritative to the core and based on a really shitty hunch that the show proves her right later because it needs to (even then, she only goes AFTER she gets more evidence!), and I still think she’s unfairly treated over it. That’s how much the conflict at the end sucks! Nobody is reasonable and everybody is terrible! Whenever I hear people wish the show would come back, I think back to this episode, how tired and done everything feels, and I’m glad it isn’t. Buffy ended shortly after this, and thank God it did.
2. Lies my Parents Told Me
I haven’t really touched on the show’s obsession with Spike, and that’s because it really hasn’t been that relevant until this episode. Here, they try to make Spike’s evil retroactively fit around mother issues (they take this one step further in Angel, btw), and make him the unabashed right person in the story because he doesn’t murder a man because he killed his mother. it’s infuriating how the show bends over backwards to make Spike look good, and as a result everyone looks like an asshole. Even the guy who has deep-seated issues with his mother’s death. Wood, not Spike.
Giles is likely my favourite character in the show, and I absolutely despise what they do to his character. He ignores Wood’s emotional issues and manipulates Buffy’s trust in him to concoct a plot to murder Spike because, yes, he’s a legitimate threat, but he puts a bug in his head and then he’s all out of ideas. Wood doesn’t come out looking great either-letting his vendetta get in the way of the mission at hand. Buffy is also acting incredibly unreasonable and is exceptionally cruel to Wood, Spike is also an asshole to him. While the flashbacks are well designed, I don’t really get Spike’s relationship with his mother and it honestly makes the character feel less complete than more.
This one just leaves a sour, foul taste in my mouth and, like the previous one, lots of baggage and the ruination of one of my favourite relationships that cannot properly be repaired because she show ends shortly after this. All to placate their precious Spike. I don’t think Spike himself, as a character, breaks the show in a major way. I think the show’s obsession with him does. This episode perfectly encapsulates that, and it’s part of a larger reason I don’t really care much about the character outside of his first season on the show.
Tonight, on a very special Buffy the Vampire Slayer…
Willow is a character who had a fascinating descent for me, to the point where I don’t actually like her that much in the later seasons, but that that doesn’t ruin her character for me. Her overcompensating with strong personality and assertiveness through her magic to mask what a meek, powerless little girl she feels like is achingly real and very relatable, and well realised through her use of magic. This was a plot that was brewing for a very long time, and then…drug metaphor.
I mean, sure, the allusions of this being an addiction are all throughout season 6. But it still didn’t take away from the fact that this was Willow acting out her power trip and aggressive need to be seen as something she thinks she isn’t until this episode. Then…drug metaphor. Amy’s personality is completely changed to accommodate this, we get painfully on-the-nose drug comparisons-her dazed out reaction, her comedown, the off-kilter behaviour, the way she evades people, etc. They even go to a magic crack den with a ‘dealer’ called…Rack. His name is Rack (and goddamn, I really like Jeff Krober, he’s a really underrated TV character actor who pops up in everything, he even plays another character on a much better episode on this show, and now he’s Rack. His name is fucking Rack). What makes this even worse is that it’s offset with a painful Buffy/Spike morning after story where they are both at their most obnoxious. They at least connect the stories, kind of, but holy shit I want both of them to die every time they are onscreen together here.
It’s lucky Alyson Hannigan is such a great actress, and the final scene does reference the direction this was meant to go in, but the damage is done. This completely derails Willow’s character development for a cheap and boring drug metaphor (and a mixed one-they already used magic as a metaphor for her relationship with Tara, which was still there in this season just in a more negative context, so…mix your metaphors much?). I despise that they made a show so clever and incisive with its character study this painfully on-the-nose and unsubtly preachy, and completely took one of their most important characters in completely the wrong direction. This is the mode she’s in for most of the rest of the season, and while some of these elements kind of come into play in the final few episodes of season 6, they’re completely tainted with this terrible metaphor. And that’s the worst thing a bad Buffy episode can do.
And that’s the worst out of the way! This list got long, so I’m splitting it. Come back for the Best of Buffy, 25-1! Or just read it here. Whatever, man, I ain’t your supervisor.