Five By Five: The Best Of ‘Buffy’ (Part Five)

I remember when I first learned that Buffy The Vampire Slayer was now a TV show. My mom said I might be interested in watching it, and I thought: “Why would anyone watch a show based on that mediocre Kristy Swanson movie? Especially five years later?”

I didn’t watch the premiere. But several weeks later, I did happen to randomly catch the Season One episode “Puppet Show” (because it was on after 7th Heaven; I was a kid, okay?). At first, it seemed like a Goosebumps book rip-off — ooh, killer dummy wreaks havoc at the school talent show, how creepy! How cliche!

But then there was a twist: it turned out that the dummy was also some sort of demon hunter. He was on Buffy’s side! I must admit, I didn’t see that coming. Even in that largely forgettable episode, Whedon and his writers were way ahead of me. It was rather clever.

“Puppet Show” is not one of my “Best of Buffy” episodes. Not even close. But it did get me to watch the show the next week — and every week after. By the time I saw Season One finale “Prophecy Girl,” I was hopelessly hooked.

I haven’t been a nerd about that many things in life, but when it comes to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, I certainly was. I didn’t mind. I had pictures of Sarah Michelle Gellar decorating my binder in junior high. I had a life-size cut-out of the slayer in my bedroom. And now I have adorned my blog with a five-part series devoted to the best episodes of a show that ended nearly a decade ago. It’s sure been fun for me, since I got to rewatch a lot of favorite episodes and moments and revel in all things Buffy in a way I haven’t often gotten to do much since high school.

Easily there are 25 more episodes I adore enough to include on some other list of Buffy‘s best moments, but alas, I’d better stop. All good things must come to an end, like the show itself. So here is the very very best of Buffy.

The Top 25 Episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Part Five

5. “THIS YEAR’S GIRL” & “WHO ARE YOU?” (Season 4, Episodes 15 & 16)

“I could ride you at a gallop until your knees buckled and your eyes rolled up. I’ve got muscles you’ve never even dreamed of. I could squeeze you until you popped like warm champagne and you’d beg me to hurt you just a little bit more. And you know why I don’t? Because it’s wrong.”

This list is called “Five By Five,” and Faith is my favorite Buffy character besides Buffy herself, so I’d be remiss if Miss Lehane’s showcase didn’t end up high on this list. (I apparently have some weakness for hot girls with superpowers. At least I’m not alone in this.) When last we left Faith, she was in the hospital in a coma following a knife-in-the-gut by Buffy herself. (She had it coming, though.) Once straddling the line between good and evil, Faith made a seemingly irreversible turn near the end of Season Three; a lesser show would have written her out (as Buffy seemed to) and forgotten her completely, out of fresh ideas for her character. But not Joss Whedon. Season Four unspooled with no mention of the girl Willow calls “a cleavage-y slut bomb walking around going ‘Oh, check me out. I’m wicked cool. I’m five by five.'” Some of us began to wonder if Whedon & co. truly had given upon the rogue slayer. (Buffy did occasionally leave a few loose ends untied; but not often.) But we needn’t have worried — Whedon wanted us to forget about Faith so he could bring her back when we least expected — with a big ol’ bang.

“This Year’s Girl” starts off predictably enough — Faith awakens in the dimly lit hospital, asks a passing girl what year it is, then promptly punches her lights out. (That answers any questions we have about whether Faith’s down time has changed her for the better.) Faith makes her presence known while the Scoobies are busy trying to contend with Big Bad Adam; Faith is a pesky distraction in the wake of another impending apocalypse, but Buffy is significantly worried because she knows Faith knows her better than almost anyone; when Faith wants to hurt Buffy, she hits her right where she lives. Quite literally, this go-round, as it turns out — things come to a head when Faith pays a visit to Season Four’s little-seen Joyce and promptly punches her lights out. Eliza Dushku is at her bad girl best in this episode, playing up Faith’s sadistic side while easily letting us see the vulnerable subtext underneath. Unlike all those soulless demons, Faith’s misbehavior is quite complex. Plus, we’re treated to one of Joyce’s very best scenes in the series — yes, she’s in jeopardy again, but this time she throws attitude right back in Faith’s face. Even the bad slayer has to admire her balls. At the last moment, of ocurse, Buffy crashes through the window to save the day. That’s where things go from great to mind-blowing.

Buffy and Faith have another of their knock-down, drag-out girl-on-girl fights (they never get old, I swear), then Faith pulls out a kooky device bequeathed to her by the dead Mayor. Seemingly, Buffy wins. But when Joyce asks Buffy if she’s alright, she responds, “Five by five” (Faith’s phrase!) with a cuckoo grin on her face. It tells us everything we need to know — slayer body switch! Cliffhanger! (It’s Buffy‘s very best, I think — and that’s saying something.)

The Joss Whedon-directed “Who Are You?” takes it from there, beginning with a few delectable moments as Faith acclimates to her new Buffy body (mimicking her self-righteousness in the mirror: “You can’t do that! It’s wrong!”), then heads to the Bronze to party. Buffy’s friends notice something off about the slayer, but she’s been moody before. (Faith knows the ins and outs of this gang well enough not to be too conspicuous.) Faith/Buffy also seductively toys with Spike (this was before sexual banter between the two became commonplace in Season Six, of course), then heads over to Riley’s to give her rival’s boyfriend a test-drive. (Ouch.) It’s great fun to watch Sarah Michelle Gellar cut loose in a way that Buffy never would. But what saves this from being just a bad girl fun-fest (not that I’d complain if that were all it was) is the pathos — when Faith makes her first slay as Buffy, the victim is genuinely, truly grateful, and Faith finds herself curiously touched by that. And a bit disgusted with herself for being so moved.

Again, later, “Fuffy” gets her chance to play heroine when a gang of vamps descends upon a Sunday morning church service, during which Faith herself sees the light — she goes from mocking Buffy’s gallantry to kind of digging it; it’s the first time Faith has gotten to be the hero. It’s short-lived, however, once “Baith” escapes from the Council and shows up to reclaim her rightful body. The episode ends with Faith-in-Buffy beating “herself” and calling herself a murderous bitch. I wouldn’t have minded seeing Faith remain in Buffy’s body for a few more episodes (it might’ve livened things up leading to the season finale), but luckily, Faith scampers off to Los Angeles for a two-parter on Angel in “Five By Five” and “Sancutary” (which happen to be the best episodes of Angel’s first season, too). Faith always was, essentially, Buffy’s dark side; the girl she’d become without Giles, Joyce, Willow, and Xander to steer her right when need be. “Who Are You?” took this one step further by letting the girls actually step into each other’s shoes. As devastating as it is for the both of them, they come away with a deeper understanding of and respect for one another. (But no less animosity.)

Star Player: Faith (Eliza Dushku and Sarah Michelle Gellar)

Why It Matters: Buffy could have written Faith off when she rounded the corner into killer territory; she easily could have become just another villainous goner. Instead, the Buffy writers used this arc to restore her soul and portray a morally complex character in this universe. On a show in which evil tends to be of the pure, irredeemable, apocalypse-loving variety, Faith is something entirely different — a baddie with a human side.

Best Moment: Everything with Faith in Buffy’s body is pretty ingenious, but that “Five by five” cliffhanger is, like, a hundred by a hundred.

4. “ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING” (Season 6, Episode 7)

“Life’s a song you don’t get to rehearse… and every single verse… can make it that much worse…”

Oh, you’ve heard of it? Like “Hush” and “Becoming,” “Once More, With Feeling” is almost certain to end up on any fan’s list of best Buffy episodes, and for good reason. It’s not just an exemplary bit of Buffy, but also a pretty damn good musical in its own right. The story, though simple, is typically Buffy-clever — a demon called Sweet soft-shoes into town enabling citizens to express their innermost feelings through song and dance; harmless, right? Unfortunately, this causes some to spontaneously combust thanks to too much raw feeling. “Once More, With Feeling” jumps right in with Buffy on patrol, slaying vampires while crooning the Disney-esque “Going Through The Motions,” her ambivalence put to melody. From there, Buffy neatly parodies its “let’s hit the books!” scenes at the Magic Shop with “I’ve Got A Theory” (and a rockin’ solo for Anya about the evils of bunnies). No, not all the cast is pitch-perfect on every note, but there’s a reason for that — they’re regular people enchanted with a singing bug, so it’s only natural that not everyone would be an American Idol.

Chances are, you already know the innumerable reasons why “Once More, With Feeling” needs to be on this list. Every musical number is a standout in its own way, laying pipe for future Season Six conflicts between Willow and Tara (“Under Your Spell”), Xander and Anya (“I’ll Never Tell”), and Spike and Buffy (“Rest In Peace”), plus Giles’ abrupt departure (which never really makes sense, but at least makes for a nice ballad here). Plus, in a nice nod to all the fans tired of Dawn’s whining, she only manages to warble two lines of her own number before she’s kidnapped by Sweet’s lackeys. Conspicuously absent from all the sonorous soul-baring is Willow, who only has a couple pitchy moments in “Walk Through The Fire” and “I’ve Got A Theory.” (Maybe she’s mostly immune ’cause she’s a witch?) And speaking of “Walk Through The Fire,” it’s the episode’s final three numbers that really make “Once More, With Feeling” more than just a delightful carefree romp, as these songs really cut to the dark heart beating beneath Season Six, particularly Buffy’s death wish. If I may quibble, I’d like to propose that the resolution with Xander revealing he summoned the demon is a cop-out; I guess they didn’t have time in this overstuffed episode to actually have this make any sense. But as Buffy herself might sing: “whatever.” This episode alone has its own cult following apart from Buffy‘s, including a number of musical theater fans who haven’t otherwise seen the series; let’s face it, most shows that make it to Broadway these days don’t have half as many catchy tunes as “Once More, With Feeling.”

Star Player: The whole cast (except Willow)

Why It Matters: A musical episode sounds like a lark, something that would have no real effect on the season’s overall story. But that’s not the case. “Once More, With Feeling” is actually a turning point for Season Six for two reasons — first, Buffy’s friends find out that they pulled her out of a heavenly place, not a hellish one. With her secret out in the open, Buffy’s post-mortem moping shifts into high gear from here on out. And even bigger — Spike and Buffy kiss! For real this time! A long-hinted-at dalliance between the two finally becomes reality. Like “Hush,” “Once More, With Feeling” is a terrific gateway drug into the world of Buffy, an episode that transcended the show itself. It’s undoubtedly the most well-known Buffy episode.

Best Moment: Well, all the numbers are pretty fantastic in their own way, though the lesbwitch love song “Under Your Spell” was never my cup of tea. For me, the scene-stealer is “Something To Sing About,” in which Buffy offs some baddies while crooning (unconvincingly) about how “wishes do come true”; soon she’s dancing so furiously she’s about to burst into flame. Everyone else just looks on, but Spike manages to come to her rescue. It’s a musical representation of the way Spike will “save” Buffy from herself in a larger way as the season progresses.

3. “THE WISH” (Season 3, Episode 9)

“This is the real world now. This is the world we made. Isn’t it wonderful?”

The best non-season finale episode, and the best neither written nor directed by Joss Whedon. On Buffy, Cordelia tended to be either comic relief or bait — how many times was she the damsel in distress? Rarely was Cordelia the catalyst for an entire episode, but “The Wish” gives her her due. “The Wish” follows the painful conclusion of “Lover’s Walk,” in which Cordelia spied her man Xander locking lips with Willow, stormed off, and got impaled, to add injury to insult. (That’s one of my favorite Buffy moments absent from this list, by the way — it cuts from a severely wounded Cordelia to a somber funeral, briefly teasing us by implying that she’s dead. A masterful fake-out.)  In the follow-up, Cordelia is still hurting physically and emotionally when she runs into new girl Anya, making her Buffy debut as Villain of the Week. (Who’d have guessed she’d become a series regular?) In typical Cordy fashion, the scorned woman decides to place all the blame on Buffy instead of where it belongs and decides: “I wish Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale.” But, oops — Anya’s a vengeance demon, and Cordelia gets her wish.

Cordy finds herself in a Bizarro Sunnydale. Bright colors are forbidden and students are afraid to be out past dark. There’s a noticeable shortage of kids at school (fang food, we soon realize) and to make matter worse, Xander and Willow are hot for each other here, too — except they’re also undead. Pretty soon, Cordelia realizes Sunnydale is a happier, safer place with a slayer present (duh, Cordy!); the lone opposition to the forces of evil, the ragtag “White Hats,” consists of Giles, Oz, and Larry. But Cordelia won’t be complaining for long. In a shocking moment, Willow and Xander lock Giles in the book cage and then feast on poor Cordy, draining and killing her. It’s our first sign that “The Wish” is really gonna “go there.”

Eventually, our slayer actually does make her (belated) entrance in Sunnydale, but she’s not the spunky Buffy we know — she’s pissy, no frills, no nonsense, and decidedly lacking a sense of humor except maybe of the very driest variety. (A scar on her lip allows us to forgive her that, implying that she’s had it rough wherever she’s been. Rougher than in Sunnydale? We shudder to think.) Now Buffy’s charged with stopping the Master from rising (he’s still around in this alternate reality, since Buffy couldn’t stop him); she’s aided by Willow’s “puppy” — the vampire with a soul she likes to torture. (How very Drusilla of her!) It all leads to a face-off at the Bronze that doesn’t turn out well for any of our main cast members; luckily, Giles saves the day by destroying Anya’s power source, returning us to the Sunnydale we know and love (with an unfortunately generic soundtrack choice).

Star Player: Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter)

Why It Matters: As if we needed proof that Sunnydale needs Buffy, here’s a pitch-black look at the town without our slayer (yet). It’s a tantalizing tease of how different the fates of all these characters would be if Buffy didn’t get the job done. (Basically, it’d be a lot like True Blood.)

Best Moment: The climactic showdown. Since this is an alternate universe, we get the rare glimpse of what happens when the good guys don’t save the day. Even in an alternate universe, it’s heartbreaking to see all your favorite characters get killed off one by one in succession — we briefly say R.I.P. to Cordelia, Xander, Willow, Angel, and at last Buffy herself. It’s a nice mirror of the emotional pain they’ve been through in the real Sunnydale — Xander killed by his former love Buffy, Willow dusted by Oz, Cordelia chomped on by Willow and Xander. Everybody dies. It’s bleak but spell-binding, thanks to another of Christophe Beck’s cut-above scores.

2. “BECOMING” (Season 2, Episodes 21-22)

“So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. That’s when you find out who you are. You’ll see what I mean...”

Okay, yes. This was predictable. But how can you not choose “Becoming” when discussing the best of Buffy? (Answer: you can’t. And if you try, you are hopeless.) “Becoming” arrived at that magic moment after Buffy‘s somewhat awkward infancy, but before greatness was expected, even demanded, by fans. The original Scooby gang is all together here — Buffy, Giles, Willow, Xander, Oz, Cordelia. The Big Bad is still of the fanged variety. The focus is the classic Buffy/Angel romance. All hallmarks of Buffy greatness. Yet “Becoming” took Buffy to the next level — first of all, by providing the series’ first use of flashbacks to show key moments in Angel’s “becoming” a vampire, as well as Buffy “becoming” the slayer. We see Angelus sired by Darla, tormenting Drusilla, then cursed with a soul; and finally, meeting the demon Whistler, who gives Angel a purpose after a hundred years or so of wandering aimlessly, eating rats. This gives us our first glimpse at Buffy, back in her vapid cheerleader (AKA Cordelia-esque) days. Turns out, Angel becoming part of Buffy’s life was part of the plan along. (The coitus leading to soul-losing, however, was an unforeseen snafu.)

The blasts to the pasts are nifty, but the present-day stuff is even more riveting, considering that this is, in many ways, when the series reached its peak as supernatural soap opera. Jamaican slayer Kendra gets her throat slit by Drusilla in a downer cliffhanger (making way for Faith next season); Kendra may only have appeared a handful of times, but we grew a fondness for her no-BS approach to slayerness (and Mr. Pointy). “Becoming” is a game-changer, shaking up much of the show’s bedrock foundation — Buffy becomes wanted by the police for Kendra’s death, gets expelled from Sunnydale High, and Joyce discovers her daughter’s the slayer — kicking her out of the house for disobeying orders to stay in her room. (Apocalypse or grounded? Tough call.) It all culminates in Willow doing her first of many spells, restoring Angel’s soul a moment too late. Buffy plunges a sword through her lover’s heart and sends him to Hell to save the world. “Becoming” mixes both personal and global stakes so high, you wonder how it can all ever be set right again. For Buffy The Vampire Slayer fans, it’s pretty hard to have any beef with “Becoming.” It’s quintessential and perfect.

Star Player: Angel/Angelus (David Boreanaz)

Why It Matters: See above, re: quintessential. That’s all.

Best Moment: Tired of Angelus’ grandstanding, Spike betrays his fellow undead and teams up with Buffy instead. (In context of Season Two, it’s merely a clever plot twist. In context of the series as a whole, it’s a nice forshadowing of his eventual turn for good.) It leads to the incredible moment in which Joyce witnesses a vampire dusting, then has to make awkward small talk with Spike in her living room. (He recalls their brief interaction in “School Hard,” when Joyce threatened him with an axe.) After the show clearly delineated Buffy’s home life and work life, expertly playing the “parents just don’t understand” card time and time again, “Becoming” finally decided to let Joyce in on the action.

1. “RESTLESS” (Season 4, Episode 22)

“I walk. I talk. I shop. I sneeze. I’m gonna be a fireman when the floods roll back. There’s trees in the desert since you moved out, and I don’t sleep on a bed of bones. Now give me back my friends.”

And yet again, Buffy The Vampire Slayer does something television shows just don’t do. Supernatural or not, Buffy had some of the most relatable and multilayered characters on TV at the time (this was before premium cable, mind you). Following “Hush,” this was the second formally experimental hour of Buffy, breaking with the tradition of having the apocalyptic showdown with the Big Bad at season’s end; perhaps because Adam was the least formidable of the series’ villains (tied with the nerdy Trio, at least), Joss Whedon got that whole conflict out of the way an episode early in “Primeval,” freeing up the season finale for something more thoughtful and profound. Exhausted after battling the Big Bad, “Restless” finds the Scoobies gathering at the Summers home for movie night and promptly falling asleep. But bad timing — because the spirit of the First Slayer has decided to kill them off in their sleep.

What follows allows Whedon to create a unique dreamscape for each of the characters, starting with Willow, who returns to her ultra-nerdy Season One roots once takes us back to Sunnydale High. Apparently, her newfound lesbian coolness is just a “costume” she’s wearing in the atrocious production of Death Of A Salesman Giles has assembled, starring Buffy as a flapper, Riley as a cowboy, and Harmony as a milk maid. Not only does this jokily reveal the senseless way we misremember works of art in our dreams, but this first act also unveils Willow’s token insecurity (compounded by a recent sexual orientation switch), which eventually leads to her overreliance on magic. (Not surprisingly, Whedon once again uses dreams to foreshadow major events coming seasons ahead of time.) There’s also some body art hanky-panky with Tara, who’s quite the sex symbol in “Restless” (and a conduit for the First Slayer to speak through, too).

Next up, Xander’s military know-how comes into play with a sprinkle of the Initiative thrown in, along with a helping of Apocalypse Now. (Buffy characters, like actual people, have plenty of pop culture influence when they sleep.) As revealed in “Earshot,” Xander has sex on the brain 24/7, and his dreams prove it — he schedules a MILF tryst with Joyce and attempts a threeway with Tara and Willow in the back of an ice cream truck (while Anya teaches herself to drive by “gesturing emphatically”). Locations bleed into one another, as they often do in dreams, including an impressive sequence that follows Xander from Giles’ house to UC Sunnydale to Buffy’s dorm and into his basement in one continuous shot. He attempts to evade the First Slayer but always lands back in his parents’ basement. (Again, “Restless” foreshadows Season Six, when Xander leaves Anya at the altar because he’s afraid of ending up like his miserable father.) Also included is a brief excursion through a French arthouse flick, a bizarre exchange with Principal Snyder in the jungles of Vietnam, and Giles and Spike gleefully swinging while Buffy plays in a sandbox. It’s the most surreal and dreamiest of these dream sequences, and one of Xander’s best episodes in the series.

The third segment is devoted to Giles — naturally, the one who actually figures out what the hell is going on. Too late. “You never had a watcher,” he realizes, as the First Slayer cuts his head open. But first, we traipse through his paternal feelings for Buffy, visualized in a carnival atmosphere. We also get hints of the musical episode to come when Giles sings a ballad called “We’ve Got To Warn Buffy,” hilariously adding melody to Ripper’s trademark dry exposition.

The final segment, of course, is Buffy’s, which finds her wandering the UC Sunnydale campus, encountering her mother hidden in the walls, knees tickled by mice (this dream logic randomness is what “Restless” excels at). After an ominous exchange with Riley (you can tell from his chilly all-business appearance in Buffy’s subconscious that their romance is doomed), Buffy confronts the First Slayer in the desert. They fight, and Buffy wakes up. The conflict is over, just as what seems so important and life-altering in our dreams quickly dissipates once our eyes open. The episode ends with Buffy remembering Tara’s words in her dream, staring into what will become Dawn’s room next season: “Get back before Dawn.” (There’s also a recall of the “Graduation Day” dream sequence, once again foreshadowing Buffy’s death in Season Five.) “Restless” could easily have been a mere gimmick, but the direction and cinematography coupled with Christophe Beck’s haunting score elevate it to one of Buffy‘s most cinematic hours. Not every show can tread into David Lynch territory and still keep the humor and irreverent tone that makes this series what it is. Buffy can, of course.

Star Players: The four core Scoobies (Buffy, Xander, Willow, Giles)

Why It Matters: As a Buffy episode, it takes us deeper into our favorite characters’ psychology than we’ve ever been. As dream analysis, it reveals so much without feeling didactic; we can all recognize one or more elements of our own nighttime visions in these characters’ nightmares. The fact that our subconsciouses work in such similar ways is a reminder of how similar we all are at the core (even to fictional witches, slayers, and watchers). How life-affirming! The Sopranos and Mad Men would subsequently use surreal dreams to delve into characters’ minds; maybe Buffy wasn’t the first to go there, but it was certainly the most entertaining. Explorations of dreams seem to be awfully heavy-handed (see Inception and the Lynch ouvre); “Restless” has some of that, but it’s also alternately whimsical and scary and a whole lot of fun; basically, everything that Buffy always is at its best, only here, a little moreso.

Best Moment: Really, the entire episode is magic, from beginning to end. But all four appearances by the just-for-the-hell-of-it Cheese Man are priceless.

*

Well, this has been fun, hasn’t it?

So that’s it. Not surprisingly, 7 out of my top 10 were written and directed by Joss Whedon. (Or should I say 6.5? Whedon did “Who Are You?” but not “This Year’s Girl.”) Fourteen of the overall 25 were Whedon’s, and all but one of the season finales made the cut. (Sorry, dark Willow!) With this list, I’ve attempted to compile the 25 episodes that give you a complete overview of the series, representing all the strongest story arcs and characters. (Still, in such a dense show as this, some have to fall by the wayside.)

And in case you missed ’em, here’s the rest of the 25:

“The Best Of Buffy” — Episodes #5-10

“The Best Of Buffy” — Episodes #11-15

“The Best Of Buffy” — Episodes #16-20

“The Best Of Buffy” — Episodes #25-21

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