I admire many other shows. Certainly some are more consistent — Buffy has had a few pretty dismal installments, let’s be honest. Invisible fight scene? Drunk cave-Buffy? No thank you!
But like sex and pizza, even bad Buffy is better than no Buffy at all — better than 98% of everything else that has ever been on television. When she is good, she is very, very good. And “When She Was Bad” is one of the episodes that comprises my “Best Of Buffy.”
So for five weeks, every Tuesday, I’m dusting off five of Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s best episodes. Why Tuesday? Because that’s when Buffy aired, of course! Why five? Because that’s five weeks by five episodes — “five by five,” yo. (If you don’t get that reference, then you have no business reading this.) In case you’re very terrible at math, that will come out to the Top 25 Episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.
(I know. That’s a lot. And yet there are still a couple it was painful to leave off.)
So here they are.
The Top 25 Episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Part Three
“I want you… to get out… of my face.”
So this is how Sunnydale ends — with a bang, some whimpering, a bunch of vampires disintegrating, and the slayer perched atop a school bus. After seven years, numerous apocalypses, many near-death experiences (and two actual-death experiences) for our heroine, it was time to say goodbye to the Scooby Gang. If “Chosen” felt a bit anticlimactic, you can blame “The Gift” (Season Five’s finale) for stealing much of its thunder — a seemingly unstoppable villain, Buffy delivering the plan off-screen only to flash back to it during the climax, Willow’s spell saving the day. This territory has been covered before (and “The Gift” went so far as to kill off Buffy, too). However, Season Seven did manage to raise the stakes (ha) by giving us The First Evil and its Nosferatu-esque Uber-vamps, taking out Xander’s eye, and bringing Faith back into the mix. Even moreso than other seasons, pretty much all of Season Seven led up to exactly this. (Plus, it was the first Angel-Buffy reunion since Season Five’s “Forever,” which let us observe his reaction to the Spike romance.)
Though Season Seven had its ups and downs, never matching the greatness of Buffy’s middle years, “Chosen” was not a disappointment. It was hard to imagine a new way that Buffy could feel climactic after so many showdowns and near-misses with the world’s end, but Joss Whedon found it — by allowing girls all over the world to partake in slayerness. “Chosen” contains a bit too much chatter from the Season Seven peanut gallery (Andrew, the Potentials, Principal Wood) and perhaps not enough focus on the core Scoobies, though there is a nice (if slightly forced) moment featuring Giles, Willow, Xander, and Buffy doing some Season One-like banter about shopping, with Giles again predicting: “The Earth is definitely doomed.” Also of note: Anya gets offed in brutal fashion and The First taunts Buffy using her own likeness: “This mortal wound is all itchy!” It’s a brilliant touch, having the Season Seven villain played, in essence, by the hero herself. All in all, a fitting end to a seven-year masterpiece.
Star Player: The Chosen One, obviously. (And all the other slayers she chooses to join her.)
Why It Matters: Well, it’s the series finale. All of Sunnydale falls into the Hellmouth. “Chosen” also brings Buffy’s character arc full-circle — once a popular cheerleader, she became the slayer and felt isolated, with the weight of the world on her shoulders. Now, here, Buffy makes scores of girls around the world just like her. She’s not alone anymore.
Best Moment: Buffy gets a sword through the belly, and we wonder briefly if our slayer might actually die for good this time. But when The First taunts her using her own face, Buffy rises and kicks ass with a scythe, resulting in Lord of the Rings-style epicness.
“Hi, Mr. Beech. I was just wondering, were you planning on killing a bunch of people tomorrow? It’s for the yearbook.”
Talk about timeliness. Buffy found itself on an even more cutting edge than usual with “Earshot,” which features a character planning to take out an entire school’s worth of teenage “vermin,” and a character toting a high-powered rifle to school. (Though, in typical Buffy-twist fashion, they’re not necessarily the same person.) The episode was set to air less than a week after Columbine. (Instead, it was delayed until September — because it makes sense to pull an episode because it’s about a school shooting, then wait until everyone’s back in school again to air it. Right?) “Earshot” was the first of two Buffy episodes pulled during Season Three due to school violence — which is a shame, since, as usual, Whedon & co. handle the material with sensitivity and insight to spare. “Earshot” subverts expectations by having the supposed “shooter” turn out to be suicidal rather than homicidal, yet still manages to highlight all the hurt and humiliation that drives Columbine-like killers to commit such atrocities. And after all that gut-wrenching stuff, “Earshot” ultimately lightens up and goes for laughs by making the lunch lady the real killer. Leave it to one of Buffy’s most realistically tragic episodes to be one of its funniest, too.
But even without the accidentally “ripped from the headlines” social consciousness, “Earshot” is a damn solid hour. A demon oozes on Buffy, threatening to give her a demon “aspect.” That turns out to be telepathy, which at first is a boon for the slayer — she succeeds in English class by reading her teacher’s thoughts on Othello — but gradually, begins to creep her loved ones out. This leads to such hilarity as hearing exactly how often Xander has sex on the brain (always), discovering salacious details about Joyce and Giles’ band candy shenanigans, and confirming that Cordelia is just as shallow inside as she appears on the outside. (While everyone else is concerned about Buffy after a collapse in the cafeteria, Cordy thinks: “I’m cold.”) Eventually Buffy becomes overwhelmed by her classmates and teachers’ inner anguish; for a show that’s all about high school being Hell, “Earshot” drives that home by letting us actually hear what’s running through everybody’s mind. It also pulls a neat hat trick by having two red herrings. Well played, Buffy.
Star Player: Jonathan (Danny Strong)
Why It Matters: Before he became a supervillain (of sorts), Jonathan was just a nerdy kid hanging around Sunnydale High, spouting off a funny line every episode or two. He was a punchline — it’s exactly the way Buffy tells it. “Most of them never think about you at all.” That includes us. We’d never imagine it’d be him up in that tower with a gun. But “Earshot” shows that there’s a wealth of depth inside everybody, even the most throwaway side character; we can never assume to know anyone else’s inner turmoil (unless we get infected by a telepathic demon, of course). If every high school student who ever “idly thought about taking out the whole place with a semi-automatic” watched “Earshot,” Buffy might actually save some real lives.
Best Moment: Buffy’s acrobatic, last-minute save of Jonathan’s life in front of her classmates (paving the way for the award she gets at the prom in a following episode), plus the heartfelt chat between them after.
“Mom… Mom… Mommy?”
By Season Five, Buffy had killed off a couple supporting cast members — always via a vampire or demon or whatnot, as expected. These were sad moments, but Buffy was never rocked by death like this until “The Body.” (Was any show?) In this experimental, Joss Whedon-directed episode, Buffy takes a time-out from supernatural hijinks to deal with Joyce’s sudden natural death from an aneurysm. Maybe we expect that, after all that grappling with impending doom, the Scoobies would be immune to such heavy-handed grief. But in “The Body,” there’s almost no mysticism. For the first time, a show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer gave us stark, unflinching realism, with nary a reminder that they live on a Hellmouth until the very end. It’s surprisingly devastating to watch these folks go through the motions of mourning Joyce, given how heightened Buffy‘s reality could be at times. Could one woman’s death really have so much impact after they’ve faced monsters of every shape and size and multiple apocalypses? The answer, of course, is yes.
“The Body” is self-consciously arty, masterfully directed in four distinct real-time segments, absent any score to convey an unsettling sense of reality. In the first, Buffy finds the titular body on the living room couch, calls 911, and talks to the paramedics. It doesn’t sound like much, but “The Body” immerses us in mundane details to give us the full death treatment, without any time cuts. That’s how it goes. We want it to be big and dramatic, with swelling music and a downpour of rain. Instead, everything is quiet. Next up is a day in the life of Dawn, interrupted by her big sister coming to break some very bad news. From there, we see the other Scoobies struggle to contend with this loss, resulting in a particularly poignant moment from Anya, of all people. And finally, we visit the morgue, as “The Body” reminds us what show we’re watching when a vampire rises to attack Dawn. Naturally, Buffy must do her routine slaying — life goes on, after all — but there’s something cold and cruel about watching her dust a demon with her own mother’s remains within reach. “The Body” marked a turning point for the slayer as a character, creating a ripple effect that would haunt her throughout Season Six; now, not only is she the Chosen One, but she also has to act as mother to Dawn and breadwinner for her household. “The Body” got us ruminating on death as a warm-up to Buffy’s own demise in the season finale. Dark times indeed.
Star Player: R.I.P. Joyce (Kristine Sutherland)
Why It Matters: From the beginning, Buffy dispatched all kinds of humans willy-nilly without a second thought. It would be easy for a show about the undead to never deal with the reality of the situation, but instead, Whedon gives us yet another unprecedented surprise. Who would have thought a show called Buffy The Vampire Slayer would provide one of the grittiest, most realistic hours ever on television? (Well, anyone who’d been watching it up to this point, that’s who.)
Best Moment: The opening act, in which Buffy discovers her mother’s body and goes through all the stages of grief rolled into one shattering scene.
“You’re that amped about Hell? Go there.”
Few Buffy fans would rank Season One amongst its better years. From the beginning, the show was great fun, with snappy dialogue and instantly iconic character. But there was also that lingering campiness, partially held over from the movie, and partially just because Season One was so silly. Hyena people? Living dummies? A demon in the internet? “Prophecy Girl” was the first Buffy episode to achieve greatness — the first that went straight for the heart. In it, Giles discovers that Buffy will die when she faces the Master. Nothing can stop it. This prophecy is not wrong. So our sixteen-year-old heroine prepares to meet the Master and her Maker. And she does.
Of course, Buffy is revived pretty quickly. But that’s not the point. “Prophecy Girl” gives us our first of many apocalypses as the Hellmouth opens up in the school library, plus plenty of early-season angst to make this one for the ages: Xander’s crush on Buffy finally comes to light, resulting in hurt feelings for all involved; an act of violence at the school hits Willow where she lives; Joyce buys Buffy a pretty dress, not knowing her daughter is about to wear it to her own funeral. You have to admire the straightforward simplicity of the storytelling in these early episodes, and Sarah Michelle Gellar gives the first of her many Emmy-worthy performances.”Prophecy Girl” gives us a nice taste of her range as she pulls off both the scared teenager who doesn’t want to meet her end and the post-mortem tough-girl who tells her mortal enemy: “You have fruit punch mouth” before impaling him. It would’ve been a fitting end, had Buffy not been picked up for a second season — but let’s not even think about such horrors.
Star Player: The Master (Mark Metcalf)
Why It Matters: “Prophecy Girl” nicely kicked off Buffy’s tradition of exceptional season finales (6 out of 7 of which appear on this list).
Best Moment: The Slayer-Watcher relationship gets tested when Buffy throws books at Giles, calling him useless, before ripping off her trademark cross necklace and briefly quitting her slaying gig.
“We could grind our enemies into talcum powder with a sledgehammer, but gosh. We did that last night.”
When Buffy The Vampire Slayer debuted as a mid-season replacement, expectations were not high. (Mine included.) Who wanted to watch a TV show based on a sorta-funny Luke Perry movie? However, following “Prophecy Girl,” an enormous buzz built over the summer. The show became a cult hit and Sarah Michelle Gellar was a breakout star who dominated teen magazines and landed primp roles in two upcoming Kevin Williamson slasher flicks, Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer. So when it came time for the Season Two premiere, Buffy had to deliver like never before. “When She Was Bad” sure did — naturally, by subverting expectations. You’d expect “When She Was Bad” to up the ante by giving us a new, formidable Big Bad for Season Two. Instead, Buffy returns from summer vacation looking sexy but acting distant, aloof. At first, it’s no biggie, but gradually we suspect something is seriously wrong with our slayer. Is she possessed by the spirit of the Master? No, nothing quite so straightforward.
We saw Buffy cop an attitude many more times throughout the series — “The Wish” and “Anne” come to mind especially. But even then, she’s more sullen and withdrawn than intentionally cruel. (See what I did there?) “When She Was Bad” gives our slayer a real mean streak as she takes her pain out on friends and enemies alike — merely because she feels like it. It’s a nice reminder that, underneath that ass-kicking exterior, Buffy is still a sixteen year-old girl. And kids can be cruel — isn’t this the way teens behave? “When She Was Bad” teased us with the possibility that Buffy was under a spell, because up until now, there’s was always a supernatural explanation for this sort of thing. In this episode, Buffy flipped that around and made it all about an internal struggle. It set Season Two off on just the right foot, paving the way for it to be deeper and more character-driven than its predecessor.
Star Player: Xander (Nicholas Brendon)
Why It Matters: “When She Was Bad” is essentially a “Demon of the Week” episode, but for the first time, this one’s an inner demon. That’s a nifty switch, and a promise of more thoughtful conflicts to come.
Best Moment: Buffy seduces Xander on the dance floor while Willow (who’s crushing on Xander) and Angel (who’s crushing on Buffy) watch, heartbroken. “Did I ever thank you for saving my life?” she coos. And when he says no, her response: “Don’t you wish I would?” She’s toying with all three of them, being uncharacteristically cruel. And it’s all set to the (non-clog dancing) Cibo Matto’s sublimely sexy “Sugar Water.” (I may have mentioned before how I feel about Buffy dancing.)And with that, we’ll crack open the Top 10 next week. Catch the rest here:
See you next Tuesday!