Episode: Season 2, episodes 21 and 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
Episode: 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 6 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
Episode: 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.
Episode: 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
Episode: 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.