The chosen ones
It's been almost 13 years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer finished its seven season run on television, but we wouldn't want the characters to think we've forgotten them. Next week marks Buffy's 35th birthday, so what better gift than reminding her of our favourite outings for the Slayer and her Scooby Gang?
It's no easy task to whittle down 144 episodes of the show into 20 of the best, so we decided on a mixture of episodes that were crucial to the development of the series and standalone episodes that best displayed the genius of Joss Whedon's career-defining show. If you don't have time for a full re-run of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you can't go far wrong with a playlist of these episodes.
20. Welcome to the Hellmouth - season 1, episode 1
It's never easy starting a TV show, let alone when audiences still have a pretty terrible movie of the same name fresh in their minds. Yet Whedon made it look effortless with 'Welcome to the Hellmouth'. Setting up the show's distinctive blend of pop culture references and witty dialogue, the pilot makes us care straightaway for Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her soon-to-be Scooby Gang, as well as establishing the season's Big Bad in the form of The Master. It even has the audacity to end on a cliffhanger, confident that viewers are already hooked. Whedon was right. We were.
19. Something Blue - season 4, episode 9
Comedy episodes of otherwise serious shows often spell disaster, but rarely so in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Case in point: 'Something Blue'. One of the most purely enjoyable episodes of its entire run, it sees Willow (Alyson Hannigan) cast a spell to make her desires come true. Cue weird things happening such as Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) going blind and demons suddenly becoming obsessed with Xander (Nicholas Brendon). For Buffy fan-fiction writers everywhere though, the real selling point of the episode is Spike (James Marsters) and Buffy kissing for the first time, setting the foundations for season six's relationship. And despite being a comedy episode, it also provides a glimpse at the Dark Willow to come.
18. Surprise - season 2, episode 13
Don't you just hate it when having sex with someone makes them lose their own soul and become a vicious killer? That's the gut punch 'Surprise' leaves Buffy with after she finally gets it on with Angel. We don't fully see Angelus for the first time, but we're fully aware that something bad has happened thanks to David Boreanaz's terrific performance. It would lead to Angelus becoming season two's Big Bad, alongside the deliciously evil duo of Spike and Drusilla (Juliet Landau). And, on a happier note, Oz (Seth Green) and Willow have their first date. Awww.
17. Villains - season 6, episode 20
Previous episode 'Seeing Red' may have ended with the shock death of Tara (Amber Benson), but we've chosen 'Villains' for our countdown as it marks the point of no return for Willow in season six. It's the moment she fully becomes Dark Willow as she tracks down Warren and tortures him, including sewing his lips shut before flaying him alive. Hannigan clearly relished the role after being the good guy for the majority of the show. Her delivery of "bored now" before killing Warren is absolutely chilling, topped only by the prophetic "one down" after the execution.
16. Angel - season 1, episode 7
Angel had appeared in other episodes of season one, often brooding in the shadows, naturally. Episode seven, however, saw him finally reveal his true colours - and slightly less handsome face - to Buffy, kickstarting the show's main love story as well as showcasing its numerous difficulties. Poor Joyce (Kristine Sutherland) gets in the middle of the Angel, Darla (Julie Benz) and Buffy love triangle and gets bitten (one of the first main characters to do so), which eventually prompts Angel to dust Darla. And it doesn't just set up the relationship; we're also given enough hints of his dark past to foreshadow the traumatic events of season two.
15. Fool for Love - season 5, episode 7
Buffy getting stabbed with her own stake leads into a Spike-centric episode that fills in his backstory and of Slayers like Buffy. Marsters is excellent throughout, whether quietly comforting Buffy at the episode's end or in a vicious fight on the subway with a previous Slayer. There are several fun nods for fans (the episode could be titled 'how Spike got his leather coat') and it even remembers to hint at the season five climax with Spike's belief that all Slayers want to die eventually. For the full story, make sure to watch Angel's season two episode 'Darla'.
14. Prophecy Girl - season 1, episode 12
If we weren't sure of the consequences of Buffy's life as a Slayer before, we definitely were after the season one finale 'Prophecy Girl'. Put simply, Buffy dies. Granted, she comes right back, fulfilling both the prophecy that she will die and managing to defeat The Master. Gellar does some of her finest work of the season as Buffy takes in the prophecy, before going to her presumed death anyway. The finale also lays the groundwork for the appearance of Faith (Eliza Dushku) later in the series when a second Slayer is activated on Buffy's 'death'. Season one had its dodgier moments, but it sure ended strongly.
13. Tabula Rasa - season 6, episode 8
As with 'Something Blue', 'Tabula Rasa' is peak comedic Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In an episode that allows the whole cast to let loose to winning effect, Willow casts a spell that causes the entire Scooby Gang to wake up with no memories, a tad unfortunate given a demonic loan shark decides to come to Sunnydale. The reactions of the gang reacting to vampires is brilliant, as is Gellar's expression when she dusts a vampire. What we really fell in love with though was Anya's (Emma Caulfield) spell that conjures rabbits. Now that's the type of magic we want to master.
12. Doppelgangland - season 3, episode 16
As with 'Villains', season three's 'Doppelgangland' gave Hannigan the chance to showcase a different, more vampiric, side to Willow, and she takes full advantage. A disrupted spell with Anya summons vampire Willow from 'The Wish' (more on that in a bit) to Sunnydale to wreak havoc, which leads to a surprisingly deep character study of Willow. It's predominantly just extremely entertaining though, from Willow's assertion that her vampire self is "kind of gay" to Willow pretending to be vampire Willow. Little did we know that vampire Willow's "bored now" line would come back in darker fashion in season six.
11. The Wish - season 3, episode 9
We love an alternate reality storyline, and there's few better examples of it in television than 'The Wish'. After deciding that Buffy is the reason for all her woes, Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) gets her wish of a Buffy-less Sunnydale granted by a demon (Anya's first appearance, fact fans), leading to all manner of weird things. Xander and Willow as a vampire couple? Check. An espresso blood machine? Check. A scarred, battle-hardened Buffy? Check. It's everything a 'what if' scenario should be and, what's more, even packs some emotion in there despite the fact we know it's not real. Buffy's death (again) is so brutal, you can't help but recoil in anguish.
10. Grave - season 6, episode 22
Season six had its problems in that it never really felt like it knew where it was going post-Buffy's sacrifice in season five. It's an issue rectified with the emergence of Dark Willow, allowing Willow and Xander to take centre stage in a finale instead of Buffy. We feel every bit of pain as Dark Willow tortures Xander who just repeatedly says "I love you", and we break down as Willow finally realises she can't kill her best friend and cries in his arms. Hannigan and Brendon absolutely knock it out of the park.
9. Chosen - season 7, episode 22
'Chosen' always had a high benchmark to aim for given that Buffy the Vampire Slayer sort of already had its series finale in season five. And while the episode doesn't live up to 'The Gift', it still does a sterling job of ending Buffy on a high. It's about as happy an ending as Buffy and the Scooby Gang could hope for, despite the death of Anya and the noble sacrifice of Spike. What's best about it though is its message that anyone can be the chosen one as Buffy rebels against the Slayer lineage to create a whole army of Slayers. And to top it all off, the final shot is just perfect.
8. Innocence - season 2, episode 14
Following directly on from 'Surprise', 'Innocence' is where we get our first full look at the complete bastard that is Angelus. Boreanaz has a blast at just how evil Angelus is, including completely destroying Buffy emotionally with a traumatic conversation when she doesn't realise just what he's become. It's the dark side of the show's central tragic romance and a showcase of how unpredictable the character's relationships can be. The episode is also lifted by a terrific speech by Giles, showcasing his softer side in comforting Buffy. Go Giles!
7. Graduation Day - season 3, episodes 21-22
OK, so we bent the rules a little bit with this, yet so much happens in the season three finale that it seems wrong to separate either part as being superior to the other. Effectively, it's Xander and Giles who save the day, but there are many other delightful character beats such as Cordelia's first dusting of a vampire and a beautiful ending for Faith. It really felt like a turning point for the show. Not only were its characters moving on from high school, it had finally managed to craft a full season with barely a misstep. Oh, and Angel drank from Buffy. No biggie.
6. Passion - season 2, episode 17
No one can break us like Whedon, and he gives the first painful glimpse of that in 'Passion'. Angelus is continuing his evil ways when he crosses paths with Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) and we see just how far he's gone. It's bad enough that he snaps her neck with glee, but then he leaves her in her lover Giles' bed in an otherwise romantic scene. Now we knew: no character was safe in the Whedonverse. Fortunately, Giles is saved by Buffy during his ill-advised revenge against Angelus, but it doesn't make the heartbreak afterwards any easier to watch.
5. Becoming - season 2, episodes 21-22
Rule bend, part two. We know Buffy has to defeat Angelus in order to save the world. What we don't expect is that she ends up sacrificing Angel once his soul gets restored. It's a gut punch that has no less impact even when you know it's coming, with all the elements coming together - Sarah McLachlan's theme, Gellar and Boreanaz's performances - to create a quietly devastating moment. What's more, it marks a turning point for Buffy, even more so than in 'Prophecy Girl', as she's had to kill her first love. No longer was she just putting herself in danger; her decisions had consequences for everyone around her.
4. Once More, With Feeling - season 6, episode 7
It shouldn't have worked and yet 'Once More, With Feeling' is an absolute triumph. Working not just as a fun musical episode with some killer tunes (hello, 'I've Got A Theory'), it also has the audacity to deliver some crucial developments for season six as a whole, especially in terms of the Scooby Gang's relationships. Even the most ardent pessimist ("Buffy as a musical? Yeah, right") will have been tapping their toes at the end - and with a stupid grin on their face. Every time we watch it, we get a little sadder that Whedon hasn't done a full-scale musical. Yet.
3. The Gift - season 5, episode 22
There are many fans who view 'The Gift' as Buffy the Vampire Slayer's true series finale. But then that would have meant no 'Once More, With Feeling'. Still, it's a pretty perfect closer as Buffy sacrifices herself to save Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) and the world in a flawlessly executed sequence. Before that, though, Giles gets his chance to shine as he kills Ben because he knows Buffy is a hero, "not like us". As Buffy's body lies prone after her jump into the portal, we see the Scooby Gang's devastated reactions and we still can't think about her final speech to Dawn ("the hardest thing in this world is to live in it") without welling up. When Spike cries, we cry.
2. Hush - season 4, episode 10
Even 'Once More, With Feeling' has nothing on the boldest of what Whedon set out to do with 'Hush'. With no dialogue for the majority of the episode and one of television's creepiest villains in The Gentlemen, it's a masterclass in terrifying the shit out of viewers. As brilliant as the idea is to have a monster that steals the voices of everyone, Whedon owes a lot to his cast who do so much purely just with expressions meaning we always know what they're feeling. What we were feeling was the start of a life-long trauma that brought a whole new meaning to the word Gentlemen.
1. The Body - season 5, episode 16
Quite simply, one of the best portrayals of grief on screen ever. It sees Buffy and her friends deal with the death of her mother Joyce, not from a vampire or demon, but a horribly real brain aneurysm. It's not just Buffy and Dawn we're feeling for, either, everyone's reaction is devastating, especially Anya's heartbreaking confusion over why it's happened. With no music, the episode captures the endless waiting involved in the aftermath of a death and, for all of Whedon's flourishes with unexpected deaths, this is the one that hurts the most given its ordinariness. It feels real, almost too real at times, and will move even a casual viewer of the show. Not just the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, 'The Body' ranks as one of the finest episodes of television ever.