I’m not going to lie to you. This was really difficult.
In my first draft, I went through every Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode and wrote down the ones that were either legitimately great or some of my personal favorites. There was some overlap, but I found that episodes I thought exemplified my favorite aspects of the show didn’t cross over with the ones that are typically considered excellent. So there were a lot listed–32 to be exact. Needless to say, that’s way too many episodes to write about.
When I was thinking about which episodes to include I took into consideration two things: whether the show was essential in regards to continuing the overarching story and its characters, and whether it illustrated the best parts of the series. There’s a lot of Buffy to get through, and the difficulty I had narrowing this list down is a testament to how good the show was. My list had 32 episodes, but there were a lot more I could’ve included. There’s a reason why this show is a cult classic, a must-see among fans of fantasy, and why Joss Whedon has his own “Whedonverse.”
Surprise/Innocence (Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14)
Whether you liked the Buffy/Angel coupling or not, it made up the crux of the first few seasons. The bond between the two was only heightened by David Boreanaz and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s chemistry. But it was never meant to be–a Slayer and a vampire. Sadly, if you’re not a fan of the melodrama that is the Buffy/Angel relationship, you’re not going to enjoy the first half of this two-parter. However, the final minute of “Surprise,” another one of Buffy’s traditionally depressing birthday episodes, is important. It all leads up to “Innocence,” in which we see the thing that dooms Buffy and Angel forever, but also makes Angel a more interesting character to watch.
The Wish (Season 3, Episode 9)/Doppelgangland (Season 3, Episode 15)
“The Wish” is the show’s It’s a Wonderful Life: what if Buffy Summers didn’t come to Sunnydale? Apparently, the place becomes overrun with vampires and monsters. Your favorite dogooder characters become evil versions of themselves, and it’s eternally night. Cordelia uses a wish on vengeance demon Anya (her first appearance) to ensure the Buffy reality never exists, and she spends the rest of the episode trying to fix it in probably the most Cordelia thing to ever occur on both Buffy and Angel. The follow-up, “Doppelgangland,” brings the best part of that other world, evil Willow, into Sunnydale and hijinks ensue. The episodes show off Alyson Hannigan’s range as Willow, showcases Buffy’s dark sense of humor, and solidifies the importance of Buffy in her world. Without her, everybody is fucked.
Graduation Day Part 1 & 2 (Season 3, Episodes 21 & 22)
Mayor Richard Wilkins wasn’t the best villain the show ever had, but he was the hammiest. Season three was this perfect contrast between the supernatural and mundane suburbia, and no villain represented that better than a man who succeeded in putting on appearances but also wanted to be a powerful demon. This season finale two-parter wraps up everything nicely that was going on throughout the episodes, but those last few minutes, in the final battle with the Mayor, a pack of hungry vampires, and the Scoobies, the show lets loose. The special effects don’t hold up that well (or at all), but the show is having a blast (literally) and all the actors are having fun fighting the demon while also trying to survive graduation. It’s the end of high school, but it went out on a high note.
Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)
This is one of the show’s most famous episodes for a good reason: Demons come to town and take away everybody’s voices. That leaves the Scoobies to try and fix things without the use of dialogue. It’s a successful experiment in alternate storytelling that allows the actors to stretch their physical comedy chops and for everybody behind the scenes to play around with sound. It’s definitely a gimmick, but like other episodes, it still services the plot and never gets gratuitous. Plus, the Gentlemen–led by Doug Jones in one of his first full-makeup roles, are legitimately terrifying.
Superstar (Season 4, Episode 17)
This is another gimmick episode, but it’s one of the most entertaining ones. It even includes an alternate opening credits sequence, which you can watch above. This one is probably the toughest sell on this list since it’s more monster-of-the-week, but let me explain. Jonathan (played by Danny Strong) is one of the most memorable supporting characters. He uses his mannerisms and small stature to really portray this pathetic, good-intentioned weasel and make him relatable and exasperating. This episode depicts a world where he is essentially the Gary Sue: loved by everyone, always the smartest and most capable person in the room, and where he gets everything he wants. But as we know as media consumers and Buffy watchers: nobody likes somebody who gets everything.
Fool for Love (Season 5, Episode 7)
Things that are so great about Buffy: world building, the stories of reckless, violent vampires, and Spike. The show always shined when we got a flashback into the years before Angelus gained a soul and William the Bloody was still bloody. This episode is essentially one long flashback, where Spike tells Buffy how he managed to take out a number of previous Slayers. Seeing James Marsters in period dress is fun, and he always excels in the role, but the most shocking moment comes when he reveals the Slayer’s fate and her potential fate. It’s a heart-breaking realization for Buffy, showing the continuing conflict and pain behind the Slayer and the distraught history of the position, which acts as a running theme throughout the entire series.
The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)
I won’t say what happens in this episode since it’ll spoil the game-changing twist that occurs. It’s not a surprise considering it’s something that was being built up for a few episodes, but you never thought the show would actually go through with it. Whedon has a reputation for making his audience feel pain, and “The Body,” which is the only Buffy episode to not have any background music, is probably what started it all.
The Gift (Season 5, Episode 22)
Season five is probably the strongest Buffy season. It had the best villain, the greatest stakes, and the most consistent mix of humor, drama, and quality. This is the season finale, and Buffy is tasked with making what is the most difficult choice throughout the entire series. Whether you like Dawn Summers as a character or not, the relationship that builds between her and Buffy feels genuine. They do feel like sisters, and Buffy fully embraces her role as older sister and protector. Her eventual decision, and the emotional reactions of the faces of everybody watching can make this a proper ending for the series.
Once More With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)
Of course, if the series had ended, we wouldn’t have gotten “Once More With Feeling,” which might be the most obvious addition to this list. It’s the musical episode to end all musical episodes. It’s the gimmick episode that turns the pretense on its head. If you thought you were in for a happy, poppy musical with no connection to plot conflicts that had been building in season six, you were wrong. So very wrong. Revel in the singing talents/untalents of the cast, the great music (I still listen to the soundtrack), and how empty you feel when it’s over. It’s a masterpiece in television storytelling.
Tabula Rasa (Season 6, Episode 8)
This is the direct follow-up to “Once More With Feeling,” so I could’ve grouped the two of them together, but “Tabula Rasa” stands alone thanks to its humor and its narrative significance. A Willow spell goes horribly wrong, and everybody loses their memories (hence the title, which means “blank slate”). It allows the show to play around with the previously-established character dynamics (try not snickering at “Randy Giles”), but also continue with the feelings that were revealed in the previous episode. It’s an almost perfect balance of comedy and tragedy, something that most of the greatest Buffy episodes do so well.
Normal Again (Season 6, Episode 17)
What if everything you knew was a lie? What if a show you’ve been watching for six seasons was a lie? Well, of course, it most likely is, since you’re watching a show about demons and vampires and destiny. However, this episode twists audience expectations into a whole new shape. Was Buffy insane the entire time or is the reality she knows real? Its ending left ambiguous, then leaves the rest of the show in a peculiar space. You may have watched six seasons of a show that was just all in some person’s head. Well, it was since a writer wrote it, but… you get my point.
Conversations with Dead People (Season 7, Episode 7)
Season seven is generally pretty weak, thanks in part to its Big Bad. The First Evil, introduced much earlier in the series, peaks in this episode, but they leave quite an impression. The First Evil loves taking on the forms of the people the Scoobies love. It loves emotional manipulation more than pure violence, and you see it in full force in this relatively subdued and extremely dark episode. Five seemingly disconnected stories, which all involve dead people in some way, come together in the end, but not before giving a Big Bad one of the most terrifying introductions in the entire series. Watch Willow connect with a ghost and try not to feel your heart drop.
And because I couldn’t decide fully, here are some episodes that didn’t quite make the cut.
- Witch (Season 1, Episode 3): Evil cheerleaders and even more evil parents.
- Prophecy Girl (Season 1, Episode 12): One of the many satisfying season finales.
- The Zeppo (Season 3, Episode 13): Somebody dared to give Xander an episode, but it works.
- Bad Girls (Season 3, Episode 14): Buffy and Faith being one of the most interesting relationships in the entire show.
- Living Conditions (Season 4, Episode 2): I just really love the twist in this.
- Something Blue (Season 4, Episode 9): Spike and Buffy are getting married??
- Restless (Season 4, Episode 22): What’s with the Cheese Man, though?
- Family (Season 5, Episode 6): I love Tara. She didn’t get proper time to be a character.
- Bargaining Parts 1 & 2 (Season 6, Episodes 1 and 2): They should’ve just left her alone.
- Seeing Red (Season 6, Episode 19): Fuck this episode.
- Potential (Season 7, Episode 12): The pinnacle of Dawn’s character arc, which was one of the only redeeming qualities in season seven.