Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 20 Most Memorable Episodes
By: Biz Hyzy
Almost a week ago – Friday, March 10 – marked the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, also known as the “little show that could,” precisely because it flew under network radars. It first built a quiet then fanatic following, giving Joss Whedon, David Fury, and the rest of the talented staff, cast, and crew the power to transform television through a blonde, girly badass that saved her friends, and herself, from vicious vampires. Buffy broke barriers by taking a teenage girl’s problems seriously, experimenting with storytelling devices, and televising lesbian relationships. With some of the best zingers, villains, and season-by-season character arcs ever created, let’s celebrate twenty years of Scoobies by revisiting Buffy’s twenty most memorable episodes.
1. Angel (Season 1, Episode 7)
In every lasting TV show, a single episode stands out among fans as the one that “hooked” them. Oftentimes, these come right in the middle of the first season. Once Upon a Time’s “Skin Deep” enchants us with the unlikely romance between the bookish Belle and manipulative Dark One. (Whether or not you’re a Rumbelle shipper, you have to admit you were invested in that episode.) In Battlestar Galatica’s “You Can’t Go Home Again,” we first find ourselves nibbling our nails when Starbuck attempts to flee the moon she’s been stranded on. For Whedonites, it’s “Angel.” As Buffy grows closer to the handsome, brooding enigma that is Angel, she wonders why he, like her, is killing the undead. After they first kiss, he pulls back, face distorted, revealing that he is, in fact, a vampire. After sorting through mistakes and misinterpretations, she learns he has been cursed with a soul. From here, Buffy’s already complicated life becomes far more complex.
2. Prophecy Girl (Season 1, Episode 12)
In Buffy’s first season finale, she overhears Angel and Giles discussing an ancient prophecy that predicts she will die at the hands of the Master. But Buffy is sixteen. And she’s not ready to die. She renounces her title as Slayer and, after the goading of her mother, agrees to attend Sunnydale’s school dance. But when Willow tells Buffy that the AV club has been slaughtered, Buffy realizes she is destined to fulfill the prophecy even if she doesn’t want to. After the Master drinks Buffy’s blood, she drowns in a shallow pool. Xander revives her with CPR, and then Buffy defeats her first Big Bad.
This episode represents everything that makes Buffy an unforgettable hero: She’s lively, determined, and self-sacrificial. Although she’ll always prioritize the good fight over her own dreams, she still makes time to act like a “normal” girl. In a white gown and leather jacket, wielding a crossbow, she willingly confronts the Master. Feminine and tough, that image — that richness of character — is why she has thrived as an icon for two decades.
3. Innocence (Season 2, Episode 14)
Whedon’s decision to synthesize horror with the plights of being a teen girl works best when the first acts as an allegory for the latter. After Buffy and Angel have sex for the first time, that moment of perfect pleasure causes Angel to lose his soul and revert into the ruthless vampire he once was, Angelus. This echoes the fears a young girl can imagine or experience about having sex for the first time: the man she slept with is (literally) not the same person the next morning. Cruel instead of kind, he implies that he used her when she asks if she “did something wrong.” Since his transformation is a result of their intimacy, Buffy, filled with shame, blames herself. Thankfully, her father figure, Giles, reminds Buffy how much he respects her. Though she can’t bring herself to kill Angelus (yet), she knows she will have to someday soon.
4. Passion (Season 2, Episode 17)
For the first time, a beloved character – in this case, Jenny Calendar – dies on Buffy. Through her death, we witness how truly twisted and sadistic Angelus can be. As Jenny tries to find a way to turn Angelus back into Angel, Angelus intervenes, chasing her through Sunnydale High and snapping her neck. But killing doesn’t satiate him. Knowing that she has a date with Giles, Angelus not only leaves her corpse in Giles’ bed, but he first builds up Giles’ hopes for a romantic evening by decorating his house with a rose, candles, iced champagne, and violin music. Absolutely chilling. This episode taught us that even though this is a show for and about teenagers, no one is safe.
5. Becoming: Part 2 (Season 2, Episode 22)
This episode features what is arguably Buffy’s most empowering moment in the entire series. When Angelus disarms Buffy, knocking her down, he mocks her for having no weapons or friends. He asks, “What’s left?” Calmly, Buffy closes her eyes, awaiting his attack. When he thrusts his sword toward her, she clasps the blade with her palms, opens her eyes, and says, “Me.” They resume their duel, Buffy self-reliant and confident. Meanwhile, Willow casts a spell to revert Angelus into Angel. She succeeds, but Angel/Angelus still has to die in order to prevent the gate to a hell dimension from opening. Soul restored, Angel doesn’t understand what is happening to him. Tearful, Buffy kisses Angel, then stabs him into the hellish vortex, sealing it closed. In season one, we admire Buffy for sacrificing herself. Here, we realize how much more crushing it is for her to sacrifice the man she loves.
6. Consequences (Season 3, Episode 15)
A character foil is one of the most commonly used tropes in literature, movies, and television. Even so, Faith stands out among the best. Like Buffy, she can be impulsive and rebellious. Unlike Buffy, she enjoys killing more than saving, power more than friendship — yet even that is an oversimplification of her desires. She lives for fun because she’s afraid of wasting her life, she craves power because she mistakenly believes it’s synonymous with love or control. After Faith accidentally kills a human, she tries to pin the murder on Buffy. Although Faith later saves Buffy from Mr. Trick, she switches sides yet again when she asks the gleefully malevolent Mayor if she can replace his assistant. Faith: so complex, so nuanced, so shrewd, so lost. Sometimes, we hate Faith, but often, we can’t help but feel sympathy for her.
(Also, R.I.P Mr. Trick, who should’ve lasted many more episodes. You can still catch the very talented K. Todd Freeman play a hilarious Mr. Poe in Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.)
7. Earshot (Season 3, Episode 18)
When Buffy gets demon blood on her hand, she inherits that demon’s telepathic powers. Although full of funny lines (Oz: “Buffy is all of us. We think. Therefore, she is.”), this episode also tackles the very serious subject of school shootings before it became the national crisis it is now. As outside thoughts swarm her consciousness, Buffy hears a single person think, this time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all. Deducing nerdy Jonathan as the would-be killer, Buffy (no longer telepathic) corners him and, after calmly talking him down from making a rash decision, takes his gun. He wasn’t planning on killing his peers, however; he was going to commit suicide. Having hindered one death, Buffy and the Scooby Gang then prevent a disgruntled lunch lady from poisoning Sunnydale’s students.
8. The Prom (Season 3, Episode 20)
When Angel breaks up with Buffy, she, at first, mourns her lost relationship. When the gang discovers someone planning to sabotage prom with Hellhounds, however, she makes it her mission to stop the perpetrator. In a very touching moment best paired with the episode listed above, Jonathan presents Buffy with the first ever Class Protector trophy. The seniors acknowledge that a bunch of strange things have happened at Sunnydale High, yet Buffy was always there to save them, giving class of ’99 Sunnydale’s lowest mortality rate.
9. Graduation Day Parts 1 & 2 (Season 3, Episodes 21 & 22)
The class of ’99 graduates, and the delightfully fiendish Mayor transforms into a demon. But what makes this two-part season finale stand out is how Buffy, once again, will do what is necessary to protect those around her. Even though her moral code prevents her from hurting humans, she views Faith as too much of a threat and stabs her, leading to Faith’s coma. Buffy also aggravates Angel into drinking her blood, the only antidote to the poison inside him. During graduation ceremony, Buffy, like a war general, coaches her class through an attack on the now snake-ish mayor. As pressures mount, she embraces the tough choices and, instead of working solo, learns how to lead.
10. Something Blue (Season 4, Episode 9)
Plot-wise, this episode isn’t super important, but it is one of the funniest of the series. Attempting to wish away her pain over her breakup with Oz, Willow accidentally casts a spell that makes whatever she says come true. Giles loses his sight, demons chase after Xander, but most hilariously, Buffy and Spike become engaged, cheerfully planning a wedding despite their mutual loathing.
11. Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)
Critics often cited Whedon’s snappy dialogue as the reason for Buffy’s success. To prove that he could write an equally worthy episode without dialogue, he created the near-silent “Hush.” When the creepy Gentlemen visit Sunnydale, they steal everyone’s voices, smiling manically and cutting out hearts. Although Sunnydale residents do get their voices back at the end of the episode, the Emmy Award-nominated “Hush” brilliantly explores the effectiveness of physical, visual, and musical storytelling.
12. New Moon Rising (Season 4, Episode 19)
Oz returns to Sunnydale, hoping to resume his relationship with Willow, but when he smells Willow’s scent on Tara, he realizes they’re romantically attached and involuntarily transforms into a werewolf. Dejected, he realizes that although he spent months controlling his transformation so that he could safely be with Willow, he loves her so much that he can’t turn off his protective instinct around her. They part bittersweetly. Afterwards, Willow visits Tara to “be with the person [she] loves.” For the first time, we see Oz get aggressively emotional — it’s surprisingly scary! — and this episode also establishes a relationship that became famous for mainstream lesbian representation.
13. Fool for Love (Season 5, Episode 7)
A nameless, utterly unimportant vampire uses Buffy’s own stake against her. Rattled and afraid she’s lost her edge, Buffy asks Spike to tell her how he killed two Slayers in the past. From here, we’re treated to a series of captivating flashbacks about Spike. As a human, he was known as William the Bloody because his love poems were so bloody awful; during the Boxer Rebellion, he kills a Slayer and drinks her blood, noting how it works as a powerful aphrodisiac; in New York 1977, he battles a Slayer on the subway, stealing her leather jacket. Taunting Buffy, he claims, like her, they all secretly had a death wish. He also attempts to kiss her, but she pushes him away, saying he is “beneath her.” Furious at the rejection, Spike decides to kill Buffy, but he forgets his rage when he sees her crying. Joyce, Buffy’s mom, is checking into the hospital. Comforting her, Spike asks what he can do to help. This episode is memorable because it sets the stage for a painful journey surrounding Joyce’s health. We also finally learn Spike’s (shocking) backstory while his feelings for Buffy solidify.
14. The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)
In what is quite possibly the most gut-wrenching 45 minutes of TV ever written, Buffy and her friends struggle to process Joyce’s sudden death. Lacking a musical score, this episode grounds itself in stark reality. Surprisingly, Anya’s monologue — not Buffy’s, not Willow’s, not Xander’s — incites the most tears. As an ex-demon, she doesn’t understand how death works, why no one will talk to her about it, and how Joyce is no longer a person, but just…a body. Flawless writing and acting. The less said here, the better.
15. The Gift (Season 5, Episode 22)
Lauded, deservedly, as the best Buffy season finale of all time, “The Gift” — which also happens to be Buffy’s 100th episode — takes everything we love about this series and heightens it to the extreme. Glory as our Big Bad is a joy to watch — spoiled, conniving, and energetically crazy. When the portal to her hell dimension opens, only Dawn’s blood can close it. Realizing that same blood runs in her veins, Buffy delivers an inspirational speech to Dawn about the strains of living and then dives majestically into the white, glowing orb. Dying at the hands of the Master was noble, killing Angel was heartbreaking, but here, Buffy’s powers as a Slayer culminate in a sacrifice of pure bravery, beauty, and peace. Perhaps the reason this moment is more striking than the others is because Buffy doesn’t hesitate the way she did in seasons one and two; here, she knows her purpose and accepts it. For the second time, Buffy dies. For the second time, her death is her gift to humanity.
16. Once More with Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)
Ahh, the pinnacle of all televised musical episodes! The inspiration for Scrubs’ “My Musical,” Psych’s “Psych: the Musical,” and Once Upon a Time’s upcoming, “The Song of Your Heart!” There are so many reasons for why this unique storytelling device works here: not only do the characters sing and dance, but part of Sweet’s spell entices them to reveal their feelings whilst doing so, thus advancing the plot. This episode evokes multiple musical styles: Buffy’s Disney-esque “I Want” opening, Tara’s love ballad, Anya and Xander’s classic duet, Spike’s rock song, Giles’ soothing acoustic pipes, and Sweet’s stellar jazz-tap number. Compulsively watchable, addictively sing-able. Besides, this ends with Buffy and Spike’s first real kiss. I’m not saying they’re good for each other, but I am saying that Whedon wrote an excellent, complex, can’t-look-away, secretly-rooting-for-them-even-though-it’s-toxic relationship here.
17. Doublemeat Palace (Season 6, Episode 12)
Remember, I didn’t say I was going to list the best episodes here — just the most memorable ones. How can you forget about a demon that eats fast food workers, or a Doublemeat Medley burger that’s made out of vegetables? This is also when Amy encourages Willow’s magic addiction, which eventually leads her to being the surprise Big Bad of the sixth season. The moment that stands out to me the most, however, is an unexpectedly pitiful scene where Buffy spends her break having sex with Spike in the back alley. Now that she needs to provide for her sister and is desperate to feel…anything, she forgoes her idealism from earlier seasons to work at a fast food restaurant and to spend time with the only person who’s as broken as her. This moment, more than any, shows how much she’s changed since she came back from the dead and how she’s struggling to return to who she thinks she should be.
18. Seeing Red (Season 6, Episode 19)
Tragedy strikes hard in this episode. Buffy and Spikes finally recognize the dire consequences for what has been a destructive no-means-yes relationship, which later leads to Spike — wracked by guilt — torturing himself to get his soul back. When Buffy defeats Warren and his new superpowers, he shows up at her house with a gun. He misses Buffy, but shooting over his shoulder while running away, he hits Tara. Her blood spurts on Willow, and she manages to utter a, “Your shirt…” before dying. Furious and grieving, Willow allows dark, vengeful magic to envelop her, becoming this season’s primary villain.
19. Conversations with Dead People (Season 7, Episode 7)
Once again, Whedon redefines the limits of storytelling in this strangely charming episode. For the first time, the main characters do not interact with each other. Also for the first time, their conversations with the guest stars occur in real time. Holden Webster, a new vampire and Buffy’s Sunnydale High classmate, fights. A former psych major, he psychoanalyzes her as he tries to kill her, which is both humorous and heartwarming. He’s genuinely interested in her problems, and she genuinely wants to unburden them on someone. As Holden, Jonathan M. Woodward oozes warmth and charisma — so much so that Whedon later cast him as Knox in Angel. A gem of an episode in a season many fans skim over.
20. Touched (Season 7, Episode 20)
Some fans don’t care for the potential slayers storyline. I think it’s a cool concept, but even so, it wasn’t as well executed as other Buffy plots. Instead, the real emotional weight for season seven rested solely on Spike. He’s no longer a villain, a puppy dog, or a plaything. In this episode, when Buffy’s closest friends have spurned her, Spike is the only one that reaches out, and that support allows him and Buffy to reach a new level of intimacy. With no ulterior motive, he delivers a moving speech about what he admires about her, why he loves her, and how the world — even though it has rejected her — will once again rely on her kindness, courage, and strength. All he does is hold her as she sleeps; even though he’s over a hundred years old, that becomes the best night of his life.
Here endeth the lesson. Go get your marathon on this weekend.