The 19 greatest episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," in honor of the show's 19th birthday
Long before Joss Whedon was at the helm of a big screen superhero mega-franchise and being a straight-up feminist hero on the reg, he created the single greatest female superhero of our time — the titular heroine of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
We thank our lucky stars every single day that The WB decided to take a chance and reboot the hideous original Buffy film and turn it into a series. Keep in mind, this was back in the days before anything and everything would be remade at least once, so rebooting a terrible movie into one of the greatest television series of all time was kind of a big deal.
In honor of the 19th anniversary of the beloved show’s premiere, we decided to take a look back at a few of the greatest Buffy episodes — the 19 best, to be exact. We’ve listed them chronologically because, honestly, trying to rank these 19 among one another is a little bit like trying to choose which of your 19 children you love the most.
“Prophecy Girl” (Season 1, Episode 12)
Okay, real talk: The first season of Buffy is not good. The show was finding its footing, so that’s forgivable. That said, the finale of the first season marked the first time that the show really got serious. After overhearing a prophecy saying she’d die at the hands of the Master if she tried to fight him, Buffy panicked and tried to quit slaying in a moment that perfectly captured the show’s early season theme. Sure, Buffy’s a slayer, but she’s also a teenage girl who just wants to go to a dance with her hot 200+ year old vampire sorta-boyfriend. She didn’t want to fight a powerful ancient vampire while decked out in full evening wear.
But she did it. And she won. And that’s what made Buffy, Buffy.
“School Hard” (Season 2, Episode 3)
Spike and Drusilla! Drusilla and Spike! Need I say more?
Bonus points for Joyce’s epic “stay the hell away from my daughter” and beaning Spike with an axe.
“Passion” (Season 2, Episode 17)
Maybe I’m alone in thinking season two Angelus was about 400 times more entertaining than brooding, soul-filled Angel, but either way, Angelus gave us one of the most eminently quotable speeches of the series in “Passion.” On top of that, he established himself as the first truly menacing villain on the show (all due apologies to the Master, because he and his fruit punch mouth fall squarely on the lower end of the Buffy baddie spectrum).
Angelus also scored the series’ first major kill by offing Jenny Calendar, Giles’ boo. Angelus stalking Ms. Calendar through the high school and Giles later finding her broken body, posed by Angelus in her bed, was a harrowing, memorable sequence. Basically every single episode of the second half of Season 2 was flawless thanks to Angelus’ reign of terror (except for that weird one where Buffy inexplicably wound up in the children’s ward at a hospital, and maybe that other weird one where Wentworth Miller turned into a sea monster).
“Becoming (Part 2)” (Season 2, Episode 22)
Buffy killed her first love Angel after he spent half a season as his maniacal, soulless alter-ego, Angelus, thanks to a moment of post-coital bliss. But as if that wasn’t bad enough, she had to kill him to save the world immediately after he’d been re-souled and reverted back to his old, innocent self. Yeesh. Talk about a bad break-up. It’s been well over a decade and even though we know he made it out alive in the end, we’re still weepy just thinking about Buffy whispering “close your eyes” to Angel and promptly shish-kebabbing him straight into a Hell dimension.
“Band Candy” (Season 3, Episode 6)
Enchanted chocolate bars made the adults of Sunnydale regress into their teenaged selves. Bad boy delinquent Teen-Brain Giles hooked up with Buffy’s valley girl-ish Teen-Brain mom and we’ll never stop loving Buffy’s hilariously horrified reactions, as she carted the two of them (and nerdy, pathetic Teen-Brain Principal Snyder) around town. “Band Candy” was easily one of the funniest episodes of the series. Bonus points for the reappearance of Ethan Rayne, one of the best recurring minor antagonists.
“The Wish” (Season 3, Episode 9)
What if Buffy had never moved to Sunnydale? What-if and alternate-universe standalone episodes are TV tropes that are always fun, and this Cordelia-driven episode was a great example. “The Wish” gave us evil-sexy vampire couple alt-Xander and alt-Willow, and introduced us to one of the show’s best characters, Anya. Bonus points for evil Willow and evil Xander vamp-style double-teaming Cordelia.
“The Prom” (Season 3, Episode 20)
“The Prom” was quintessential high school Buffy at its finest. Buffy’s ongoing feats of heroism finally being acknowledged by her usually aloof classmates, who give her that silly Class Protector umbrella award, was such a satisfying and cathartic moment. And don’t even get us started on Angel’s surprise appearance post-breakup (in a tux, no less) and their slow dance to “Wild Horses.” Buffy’s one perfect high school moment really was perfect.
“Graduation Day (Parts 1&2)” (Season 3, Episodes 21 and 22)
This one is cheating a little bit because it’s both parts of a two-part finale, but it’s literally impossible to choose between Buffy and Faith’s death match and the awesomeness of Sunnydale’s graduating class of 1999 banding together to defeat the Mayor while he’s in his giant snake-demon final form. Go on, try to pick.
Plus “Graduation Day” (1&2) capped off what is probably the single best (or at least most consistently great) season of the show. Bonus points for Principal Snyder getting eaten. That never gets old.
“Something Blue” (Season 4, Episode 9)
Sometimes, Buffy is super serious and dark. Other times, a heartbroken and recently-dumped Willow accidentally casts a spell that allows every one of her casual utterances to be enacted literally, and it’s freakin’ hilarious. Then-enemies Spike and Buffy “fell in love” and nearly got married as a result of Willow playing fast and loose with magic, nicely foreshadowing their later relationship and Willow’s season six struggle with her magic addiction.
“Hush” (Season 4, Episode 10)
Season 4, uneven as it was, gave us one of the most innovative and daring episodes of the show. “Hush” had almost no dialogue and was apparently crafted in response to Whedon hearing that people thought Buffy was successful solely because of its snappy, pop culture-laden one-liners. Naturally, he accepted that challenge and created this visuals-heavy, dialogue-light episode as an answer.
Plus, the Gentlemen were, like, unreal levels of terrifying. Seriously, so creepy. They looked like Mr. Clean and Nosferatu had a baby and then that baby had all the fat sucked out of it. And their straitjacket-wearing minions reminded me way too much of those damn nightmare-fuel wheelers from Return to Oz. Bonus points to “Hush” for marking the first appearance of fan fave Tara Maclay, Willow’s girlfriend in the second half of the series.
“Fool for Love” (Season 5, Episode 7)
Spike is the best. There’s really no arguing with it. Unsurprisingly, Season 5’s Spike-centric flashback-heavy episode was also the best. Buffy, nearly killed by a run-of-the-mill vamp, recruited Spike to tell her about how he’d managed to kill two slayers in the past, so she could avoid the same fate. It was also the first Buffy-Spike heavy episode since Spike’s realization that he was in love with her, so the levels of chemistry in “Fool for Love” were sorta off the charts. Also, ‘70s flashback Spike? Hel-lo.
“The Body” (Season 5, Episode 16)
Joss Whedon is the damn guru of ripping your heart out and feeding it to you when you’re least prepared. While Buffy the Vampire Slayer had thrown major character deaths at us before, Joyce’s death was the first to be focused on in such stark detail, and it shifted the show into another gear entirely. With the completely natural demise of her mother thanks to a brain tumor, absent of any supernatural baddie for Buffy to overcome, the Slayer was forced into an adult role and to confront the reality that sometimes, people just die — and there’s nothing she can do about it. It was an astounding and resonating portrait of grief.
On top of being a big turning point in the series, it’s a practically flawless episode of television in general — the performances, direction, writing, and cinematography are all top-notch. Who can forget that shocking opening sequence of Buffy finding her mother’s lifeless body? Or Anya’s breakdown as she struggles to understand what Joyce’s death means? The complete absence of background noise in the entire episode? Shivers.
“The Gift” (Season 5, Episode 22)
“She saved the world a lot.” That’s the inscription on Buffy’s tombstone because, yeah, that’s right, this show had the cajones to kill off its title character. Twice! Unlike her blink-and-you-missed-it death in “Prophecy Girl,” Buffy’s death at the end of “The Gift” was actually pretty final (she was buried and everything), as she sacrificed herself to save her younger sister and the world. Buffy’s choice encapsulated what the show (and the slayer) was all about, and “The Gift” did it all with a serious emotional wallop. Buffy’s speech to Dawn? Her swan dive into that weirdly beautiful ball of mystical energy? Her friends breaking down after seeing Buffy’s lifeless body? Spike sobbing after seeing her lying there, broken? Oy. Feels overload.
“Life Serial” (Season 6, Episode 5)
The Trio flew under the radar for almost the entire sixth season, starting out as “light-hearted” antagonists for Buffy to tangle with after her unhappy resurrection from the dead, during the show’s bleakest season of the bunch. Warren, Jonathan, and Andrew compete to see who can mess with Buffy the most in “Life Serial,” leading to a sequence of hilarious scenes. The Groundhog Day Magic Box sequence was one of the show’s funniest gags ever. Bonus points for Buffy’s tequila shot reaction face and her drunkenly calling Spike a neutered vampire who cheats at kitten poker.
“Once More, With Feeling” (Season 6, Episode 7)
Fans are pretty divided over the sixth season of the show, but majority opinion is very much in favor of “Once More, With Feeling.” Simply put, it’s the greatest musical TV episode of all time. There, I said it. Seriously, just try to name a better one off the top of your head. Bonus points for Whedon gifting us unworthy humans the classic song lyric “his penis got diseases from a Chumash tribe” and for that epic, episode-closing Spuffy kiss that gave us all the ‘shipper feels. And a tip of the hat to Sweet, snazziest villain-of-the-week ever.
Seeing Red” (Season 6, Episode 19)
Nobody was prepared for Tara’s sudden, pointless death. The sixth season did an incredible job of building Trio leader Warren up from a nerdy, misogynistic annoyance (basically the human equivalent of gum on the bottom of Buffy’s shoe) to an out-of-control, dangerous psychopath, culminating in Warren attempting to kill Buffy and accidentally shooting Tara instead. Tara dies almost instantly, kicking off Alyson Hannigan’s series-best performance in her arc as Dark Willow, the villain of the back half of Season 6. Bonus points for the show pulling a fast one on us all by finally adding Amber Benson to the main cast opening credits for this episode only, making her death even more unexpected and horrifying.
“Selfless” (Season 7, Episode 5)
“Selfless” stands out as the series’ only Anya-centric episode. Anya was easily one of the show’s best characters (one-liners for days), a surprise hit who went from one-off guest star to series regular because she was just that damn awesome (similar to James Marsters’ Spike). In “Selfless,” we finally get to see her backstory and how she became a vengeance demon. Buffy arguing with Xander about why she has to kill Anya and bringing up the parallel to killing Angel is low-key one of the show’s most powerful scenes.
“Conversations with Dead People” (Season 7, Episode 7)
It takes a lot for us to love an entirely Xander-less episode, which is exactly what “Conversations with Dead People” is. Somehow, the combo of Buffy getting psycho-analyzed by a baby vamp she went to high school with, Willow being goaded towards suicide by The First Evil pretending to be dead Cassie communicating on Tara’s behalf, and Dawn being terrorized in the legit most terrifying sequence of the entire series, made the lack of Xander bearable.
“Chosen” (Season 7, Episode 22)
How do you close out an epic, game-changing show? With an epic series finale, of course. Yes, Season 7 had its issues, and yes, we will never, ever forgive them for killing off our beloved Anya so suddenly and so unceremoniously — but who can argue against that amazing final battle against The First, and Buffy’s last-minute escape from imploding Sunnydale? Bonus points for Buffy’s “get out of my face” line, the best-ever use of that comeback.