If for some inexplicable reason you have somehow managed to escape the cult phenomenon that is Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, then let me tell you now, you have really been missing out. With its debut episode airing twenty years ago on 10 March 1997, it has since become a cult classic and favourite of Gothic fans and scholars alike. Receiving both critical and popular acclaim, the series is often (and correctly!) listed as one of the greatest TV shows of all time, and its sheer success and popularity can be seen through the expansion of the Buffyverse. Buffy ran for seven seasons, and in 1999 Whedon also launched a spin of show, Angel, which itself ran five seasons, while novels, comics, and video games have further developed and expanded this supernatural universe. If that’s not enough, Buffy can attest to a huge fandom that is still thriving today, and critical interest in the show is showing no sign of slowing down with the seventh Biennial Slayage Conference being held at Kingston University, London in 2016 (which was also the first time the conference was held outside North America).
So, you might ask, what is all the fuss about? Before diving into what I think are the best Buffy episodes, it is probably a good idea to explain what the series is about. Essentially, the show is about a teenage girl (Buffy Summers – and yes, we’re all aware that Buffy is a weird name) who just happens to be the Slayer; we follow Buffy as she slays vampires and other monsters while also trying to survive high school, university, and the general transition between teenager and adult life. If you’ve seen the not so successful film of the same name (1992), then the first episode basically picks up where the film leaves off: following a vampire-related incident at her previous school, Buffy’s mum moves the Summers family to Sunnydale hoping for a new, vampire-free start.
|Xander, Giles, Buffy, Cordelia, and Willow|
However, thanks to the new librarian Giles who identifies her as the Slayer and soon becomes her Watcher – a sort of mentor who helps to train and guide the Slayer – and the fact that Sunnydale is conveniently located right above a Hellmouth, Buffy cannot escape vampires of her identity as the Slayer. It might be worth mentioning here that there can only ever be one Slayer at a time, and she is always female (#GirlPower). When the Slayer is killed, the abilities of the Slayer are awoken in another potential Slayer, and another Watcher steps in. Of course, it wouldn’t be high school without friends, and at Sunnydale High Buffy also meets Willow and Xander, who will become part of the Scooby gang with Buffy, and Cordelia, the typical popular girl; in their own way these characters help Buffy slay a lot of Vamps and other creepy monsters whilst also battling the horrors of high school and then adult life.
Whedon’s initial concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was to ‘twist Horror movies’ and empower the young girl who is typically killed off in the Horror genre. Rather than creating another film where a young, typically blonde girl gets trapped in some dark alley, only to be killed (often violently) by a monster, Whedon inverts the formula and creates a story where the girl fought back. And, as he explains in the video below, in the TV show he expanded this narrative to explore the fact that high school is essentially a Horror movie. It is this foundation, and the fact that the show was constantly pushing boundaries and conventions, that set Buffy apart from other shows and has ensured its impact and influence is still being felt and discussed today.
So, without much ado (Whedon pun intended), here’s my list of the ten best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the order they aired.[i]
Welcome to the Hellmouth, Season 1 Episode 1
What better place to start that at the beginning. Ok, so in many way this is the typical pilot episode: we meet Buffy on her first day at Sunnydale high, and through her we are introduced to Xander, Willow, Jesse, Cordelia, and of course the librarian Giles, who also happens to be new (what a crazy random happenstance!). Although its clear that Buffy is trying to leave behind her vampire-slaying past, Giles’ not-so-subtle hints – candidly offering her a book titled Vampyr in the school library – and the discovery of a dead guy in the locker room with puncture marks on his neck quickly reveals that this is not an option. This episode marks the first, and very mysterious appearance of Angel, who is in no way sparkly but definitely very, very sexy. This episode also has one of the best opening scenes which immediately sets the tone for the whole series: watch out for the young blonde because she may not always be as defenceless as she first appears, and I’m not just talking about Buffy. So ultimately, this is not exactly your typical pilot. Welcome to Sunnydale, and welcome to the Hellmouth.
|Angel: 'Don't worry, I don't bite'|
I, Robot…You, Jane, Season 1 Episode 8
Ok, so on its own I probably wouldn’t have included it on this list, although I do love the premise that you can upload a demon onto the Internet. The main reason I’ve included this episode is that its essentially Ultron, and yes I do mean The Avengers: Age of Ultron also directed by Joss Whedon (again, what a crazy random happenstance!). In this episode, Willow accidently scans a book from Giles private collection rather than an ordinary school library book, and in the process uploads and then releases the demon Moloch onto the internet. Being a power hungry demon (now in love with Willow and talking to her in an online chat using the name Malcom - cue lessons about the dangers of online dating), Moloch starts to take over the internet. With the help of some helpful Sunnydale residents, Moloch builds himself a robot suit into which he uploads himself as part one in his scheme to take over the world (and Willow). Sealing him into the suit and destroying him is the only way Buffy and the Scooby gang can put a halt to his plans. So an evil entity uploaded onto the Internet, planning world domination, and building a robot suit to physically house him and allow him to fight and destroy the world - sound familiar?
|The demon Moloch in his Robot suit|
Halloween, Season 2 Episode 6
Halloween is the first of three Halloween episodes in Buffy, and what’s not to love about an episode where the characters turn into their Halloween costumes. I discuss the episode in more detail in a previous post, but its still worth mentioning here as Buffy transforms from the slayer that we have all grown to know and love into an eighteenth century Gothic heroine. With Buffy confused and helpless, it falls to Xander, now a soldier, Willow, now a (sexy) ghost, and Cordelia dressed as a cat (not everyone transforms into their costume) to set things right – with the help of Angel, your friendly neighbourhood vampire.
|Ghost Willow, Eighteenth-Century Buffy, and Army Xander|
Doppelgangland, Season 3 Episode 16
As we follow Buffy through her journey as the Slayer, what’s great about the series is that other characters and their own unique, individual journeys are also depicted, including Willow’s journey into witchcraft and discovery of her own self and sexuality. This episode is one of several that follows Willow’s spells gone wrong: helping former Vengeance demon Anya, Willow and Anya accidentally release Vampire Willow from an alternate dimension (see previous episode The Wish, Season 3, Episode 9). A lot of confusion occurs regarding Willow and her vampire doppelgänger – to say nothing of the other doubles that are explored in this episode – and at one point Willow even plays the part of Vampire Willow: if you’re at all interested in Gothic doubles then this is really the episode for you. Although Vampire Willow is eventually returned to her own dimension (and then quickly staked), our Willow has learnt a lot about herself, and how to be assertive with what she wants. And, of course, she realises that Vampire Willow is ‘kinda gay,’ providing a great piece of foreshadowing.
|Seeing double: Willow and Vamp Willow|
Hush, Season 4 Episode 10
Hush is quite simply a beautifully terrifying episode. Following critical praise of the show and in particular its dialogue, Whedon set out to challenge himself and construct an episode almost entirely devoid of speech. In the whole 44 minute episode, there are only 17 minutes of dialogue, and you don’t need to take just my word for it that Whedon succeeded in his aim: not did Hush receive high critical praise, but it is the only episode of the series to be nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. This episode is truly brilliant, and without giving too much away, it features what series writer Doug Petrie states were ‘the creepiest villains we’ve ever done’: The Gentlemen[ii] The Gentlemen, their accompanying straitjacket-wearing minions, and their mythology are fashioned in the style of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Having stolen all the voices in the town, The Gentlemen smile unsettlingly as they cut out their victims’ hearts; without a voice, their victims are unable to scream.
|'Can't even shout, can't even cry. The Gentlemen are coming by.'|
Fool For Love, Season 5 Episode 7
Like all good vampire fiction, the mythology of the fictional world is an integral part of the narrative, and in this episode we learn a lot about the mythology of the Slayer from a vampire who has killed two of them: Spike. We also learn a lot about the history of Spike himself – who was an unsuccessful and quite terrible poet before he was made into a vampire – and in turn we learn more about the show’s vampire foursome, Darla, Angel, Drusilla, and Spike, as they travel the world indulging their sexual, vampiric, and murderous desires. Although Buffy pays Spike to tell her what he knows about killing Slayers (and we learn exactly how he acquired his trademark leather coat), she is unhappy with what he reveals and, after insulting him, leaves. Spike eventually follows her home intent on finally killing her. However, finding her upset at her mother’s illness, we are instead presented with a touching scene as vampire comforts, rather than kills, the Slayer.
|Spike killing his second Slayer|
The Body, Season 5 Episode 16
This episode needs to come with a warning. It is a beautiful episode, brilliantly written, directed, and shot, but it will also leave you emotionally ruined for days. Broken into four distinct ‘acts,’ each beginning in total silence and with a close up shot of Joyce’s face, The Body follows Buffy’s discovery of the dead body of her mother at home, her journey into the acceptance of her mother’s death, and the grief of other characters as they learn of her death and struggle to come to terms with what this loss means to them. Devoid of music and incorporating many disorienting effects, The Body depicts what Whedon has termed ‘the black ashes in your mouth numbness of death.’[iii] You should definitely watch this episode, but be prepared to have an avalanche of uncontrollable emotions when you do.
|Buffy discovering her mother's body|
Once More, with Feeling, Season 6 Episode 7
I believe that a fundamental part of the Gothic is its campness, and the performative aspects of the Gothic go hand in hand with its dark and gloomy elements; so, what’s more camp and performative than a horror TV show musical? That’s right, this episode of Buffy is a musical, complete with song and dance numbers such as ‘Going Through the Motions,’ ‘Rest in Peace,’ ‘Under Your Spell,’ ‘Walk Through the Fire’ and the unforgettable ‘The Mustard.’ Of course, this isn’t your standard musical, and in fact the residents of Sunnydale are being compelled to break into song and dance and express hidden truths by a demon, but it totally works. The success of this episode has inspired other shows to incorporate the musical episode format, and yes, you can still buy the soundtrack.
|Once More, With Feeling poster|
Normal Again, Season 6 Episode 17
This is another episode where Whedon yet again pushes the boundaries of the TV show. What if every crazy, unbelievable, vampire or monster or witch related event that has happened throughout Buffy was actually a hallucination taking place in Buffy’s head? What if there is no such thing as vampires or Slayers or monsters, and instead, Buffy has been in a mental hospital the whole time. In this episode, Buffy is poisoned and starts to hallucinate an alternate reality where for the past six years, and the past six seasons, she has been living in a mental hospital. Or, perhaps she has been hallucinating the Buffyverse as we know it all along and she really is in a mental hospital. As the episode falls and jumps between each reality, we are never presented with certainty either way, and, as Whedon says, ‘if the viewer wants, the entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles.’[iv]
|Alternative reality: Buffy in a mental hospital|
Chosen, Season 7 Episode 22
With the final episode of Buffy Whedon takes us back to its beginning, and back to the heart of the show: empowered girls and women who can and will fight back. This episode is not so much about one girl, the Slayer, the Chosen One, as it is about relationships, friendships, and community. It is up to Buffy, the Scooby gang, and a group of potential Slayers, along with Spike, to stop the approaching apocalypse brought on by The Big Bad of the season: the First Evil. The First is using a group of creepy monks called the Bringers and the Turok-Hand – Ubervamps who are ridiculously strong and definitely not sexy in any way – and where else would you choose to start the apocalypse but the Hellmouth conveniently located under Sunnydale High. Angel returns as well to offer his help, providing plenty of hilarious Angel/Spike jealousy. Not only is this a great episode, but it is a great show finale.
|'Where do we go from here?'|
Do you agree with our list? Are there any episodes you think we have missed? Or do you have your own favourite that you want to share? Let us know what you think in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.
Mary 'Slayer' Going is a PhD Researcher at the University of Sheffield and member of Sheffield Gothic. her research focuses on representations of Jewish figures in Romantic and Gothic fiction. She is our vampiric expert, especially when it comes to Buffy.
[i] Disclaimer: these are not necessarily my favourite episodes, which involve a lot more Spike including Pangs, season 4, episode 8, Something Blue, season 4 episode 9, and Tabula Rasa, season 6, episode 8. #TeamSpike
[ii] Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fourth Season; "Hush" Featurette. [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
[iii] Whedon, Joss (2008). Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth Season; DVD commentary for the episode "The Body". [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.
[iv] "10 Questions for Joss Whedon". New York Times. May 16, 2003.