Buffy The Vampire Slayer has turned 20 years of age – yes, we really are all that old. But you know what hasn’t aged as badly as our increasingly ailing bodies, Buffy! Josh Whedon’s cult show is still as witty, scary, genre boundary pushing and forward-thinking as it was back in 1997.
So as you ready up a Buffy binge marathon, here’s our rundown of the best 20 episodes of them all.
20. ‘Chosen’ (season 7, episode 22)
The final episode of Buffy just about makes our list, mostly because it does the almost unimaginable by actually producing a series finale that isn’t terrible. Good job, Joss.
Things are wrapped up neatly, we get closure. Buffy relinquishes the burden of being the Slayer, Spike enjoys a hero’s farewell and, most notably of all, Buffy sort of chooses Spike over Angel, which pretty much every fan was hoping for the whole time, bar myself that is. But hey, you can’t please everyone.
19. ‘The Body’ (season 5, episode 16)
One particular Whedon masterstroke was to kill off Buffy’s mother, Joyce, not due to the hand (or fangs) of a vampire but down to a much more real threat: a brain aneurysm. This episode also features one of the truest responses to death depicted in television, from Buffy’s pale, dazed expression and unwillingness to accept the facts to her not knowing how to do CPR (really, who does?). It’s pretty heavy stuff, but beautiful and powerful in its own way.
18. ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ (season 2, episode 19)
‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ tells the tale of a ghost haunting the halls of Sunnydale High, reenacting a murder-suicide every year since the 1950s. The episode blends all the best elements of ghost stories, soap opera and retro-loving drama, disavowing domestic violence in the process. We also get to see Buffy and Angelus (the name of Angel when he’s evil) kiss.
17. ‘Band Candy’ (season 3, episode 6)
You know when your parents tell you that they were actually really cool back in the day and you refuse to believe them? Well, ‘Band Candy’ is the physical manifestation of this and it turning out to be true. In it, all the elders eat special sweets that turn them into their youthful selves and shows us that Giles actually used to be pretty badass with great music taste. Once a badass, always a badass.
16. ‘Surprise’ (season 2, episodes 13)
Buffy and Angel finally have sex and he turns evil. If that isn’t a classic cautionary tale for you then I don’t know what is.
15. ‘Innocence’ (season 2, episodes 14)
You thought Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ was great payback? Well when Angel turns evil after they are “intimate” together, Buffy responds by packing a massive rocket-launcher. I bet she even nicknamed it “hot sauce” too.
14. ‘Enemies’ (season 3, episode 17)
‘Enemies’ includes one of the best (and most understated) twists in the whole of Buffy as we’re led to believe that Angel has turned evil again, only for it to be revealed to be a plot by Buffy to uncover Faith and the Mayor’s plans. “Psyche!”, as Buffy puts it. I’m okay with admitting that I didn’t see that coming.
13. ‘Doppelgangland’ (season 3, episode 16)
With a title that sounds like the name of a German rap album, this episode revisits the alternate reality world of ‘The Wish’ (more on that later) and brings back Evil Willow. Willow’s darker counterpart foreshadows a different side of the character that we see out in great force during the later season. Oh and there’s a pretty exciting showdown at the Bronze.
12. ‘Something Blue’ (season 4, episode 9)
A general rule of thumb is that if a spell is cast by Willow, you’re gonna be treated to a pretty funny episode of Buffy. ‘Something Blue’ delivers just that, living out viewers’ secret fantasies and desires without having to commit to changing the overall plot or narrative. Here, we find out what it would be like if Spike and Buffy had personality transplants and got engaged. Answer: really, really sickening.
11. ‘Lovers Walk’ (season 3, episode 8)
Despite not thinking that Spike and Buffy should end up together, I can see why everyone likes him so much and forced Whedon to keep him in the series (he had originally planned on keeping him for one or two episodes). ‘Lovers Walk’ is very much the start of Spike’s humanisation and sees him lamenting being dumped by Drusilla, leading him to kidnap Willow in order to cast a love spell on his ex. It’s classic Spike: doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.
10. ‘Witch’ (season 1, episode 3)
The only episode from the first season to make it onto our top 20 list, ‘Witch’ is also one of the only actually good episodes from season one at all. Hey, some things take a while to get good (or at least that’s what us 20-somethings like to tell ourselves) and Buffy was no different. This episode focuses on the pressures of high school life and one of the biggest villains of all: overbearing parents.
9. ‘Superstar’ (season 4, episode 17)
Fun fact: Danny Strong, who plays Jonathan in Buffy, has somehow managed to appear in every one of your favourite TV shows. He’s been in Gilmore Girls, Mad Men, Seinfeld, Girls, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Grey’s Anatomy, the TV series of Clueless and How I Met Your Mother. Someone tell us who his agent is, please.
In ‘Superstar’, the formerly unpopular Jonathan has cast a spell that creates a world where everyone adores him and quite literally sees him as a superstar. He fronts a band, has a book deal, signs autographs for adoring fans and possesses fighting skills to match Buffy’s. Now, we’re not saying that Danny Strong may have cast a similar sort of spell on the real world, but…
8. ‘The Zeppo’ (season 3, episode 13)
The joke behind the title may be lost on anyone under 50, but let’s put it this way: it’s pretty much comparing Xander to that member of Jonas Brothers that stayed super Christian instead of embarking on a successful solo career. Whedon has described it as “a very deliberate deconstruction of a Buffy episode in order to star the person who mattered the least”, and it sees Xander going off on his own as the rest of the gang plot to save the world without him.
In doing so, he manages to embark on a joyride and shop-lifting spree with a bunch of undeads, lose his virginity and kinda save the world a bit himself (well, he stops a bomb from going off, at least). What would be just another day at the office for Buffy is pretty much the best and worst day ever for Xander.
7. ‘Tabula Rasa’ (season 6, episode 8)
Willow casts a spell and everyone forgets who they are. Classic light comedy ensues: Spike thinks he’s Giles’ son because they’re both British, Xander and Willow assume they’re a couple because they fell asleep next to each other and Buffy, for no apparent reason, names herself Joan. Oh and they all have no idea that vampires exist…
6. ‘Halloween’ (season 2, episode 6)
It’s Halloween and everybody turns into the costume that they’re wearing. Xander turns into a solider because he’s dressed as a soldier, Willow a ghost and Buffy uncharacteristically becomes a damsel-in-distress after donning an 18th century nobel woman’s gown to impress Angel (don’t ask). It’s a plot so brilliant and simple that (without Googling) I’m surprised it had not been done before.
5. ‘Graduation Day Part 2’ (season 3, episode 21)
Probably the best season finale of probably the best season, featuring probably the best ‘big bad’ in all of Buffy. This episode has everything: explosions, sentimentality, Cordelia finally killing a vampire, the Principal getting eaten whole and a really terrible CGI lizard. What’s not to love?
4. ‘I Will Remember You’ (Angel, season 1, episode 8)
I have to admit something before we go any further: I’m Team Angel. I know, he’s wet, one-dimensional and basically a Twilight character. I can’t really explain why I like the broody bastard, but I do.
With that out in the open, I’ve broken the rules a little and included one episode of his spin-off show Angel in here. This one sees Angel become human again, allowing him to pursue a normal relationship with Buffy. The only crux is that it only lasts for 24 hours and then time is reversed without Buffy remembering any of what happened. It’s heartbreaking stuff if you’re unknowingly soppy like me.
3. ‘The Wish’ (season 3, episode 9)
The introduction of Anya (aka the most underrated character in the whole show) brings forth an alternate reality (dubbed in the Buffy fandom as the ‘Wishverse’) where Buffy never came to Sunnydale. Ever wondered what the world would be like without you? Well, without Buffy, Sunnydale is overrun with vampires, Willow and Xander are evil, Angel is chained up and treated like a dog and Cordelia has to wear only drab colours – it’s a nightmarish world alright.
All carnage ensues as Buffy finally does arrive in Sunnydale. Xander kills Angel, Buffy kills Xander, Oz kills Willow and Buffy gets her neck snapped right off. But then Giles manages to save the day. By reversing the spell, of course, Giles doesn’t do fighting.
2. ‘Hush’ (season 4, episode 10)
A mark of truly brilliant horror is when it delves into your subconscious and unearths fears you never knew existed. Like, who knew we were all similarly petrified of dapperly-dressed men that look like demonic Crystal Maze presenters coming in the night and pulling our vocal cords out, but at the same time not being able to call out for help? Not us. But now we do, jeepers, no we really do.
And, in amongst all that terror, there was still enough room for this bit of slapstick:
1. ‘Normal Again’ (season 6, episode 17)
One of things that sets Buffy apart from other good shows to make it great and what makes Joss Whedon such a great writer, is its ability to tackle grand subjects so flawlessly. ‘Normal Again’ proposes the theory that instead of a young woman fighting vampires, Buffy is actually a patient in a psychiatric hospital lost in her own delusions. At the end of the episode, we’re not sure what to believe. Is Buffy actually hallucinating? Is life itself just a hallucination? As Whedon himself put it: “The entire series takes place in the mind of a lunatic locked up somewhere in Los Angeles… and that crazy person is me”.