With All Hallows’ Eve fast approaching, it seemed only natural to take a look back at a television show where the Halloween specials were never the most bone-chilling episodes of the series and where monsters walked the streets with considerable regularity and endless amounts of witty banter. The place was Sunnydale, California, the time was 1997 to 2003, and the show was Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
However, the heart of Buffy was never the monsters to which we were introduced week after week. It was, instead, a story about Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a regular, teenage girl who also happened to be a superhero. Though Buffy may have been chosen to stand alone against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness, she had her Scoobie gang of Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendon), Willow Rosenberg (Alyson Hannigan), and Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) by her side, and no matter what came up against her, Buffy always managed to fight back.
Created by Joss Whedon way before Firefly and The Avengers as an attempt to get his spin on the helpless blonde girl in the horror movie trope right, Buffy is still considered to be one of the greatest cult television shows of all time, and it manages to stand the test of time, broadcasting the message to young girls everywhere that they can be strong. The show blended humor, horror, and drama and became a series that helped shape the lives of many fans – young and old – and will likely continue to do so for a long time.
That said, here are Screen Rant’s 20 Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
PROPHECY GIRL (Season 1, Episode 12)
Buffy started out as a midseason replacement in March of 1997. It was Whedon’s second stab at telling the story of female empowerment in a horror setting (after the 1992 film version with Kristy Swanson was badly mishandled), and he managed to sell what we know as the tale today: horror and monster stories as metaphors for the teenage experience. While the first season introduced us to the characters and the lore, the show really takes off in this season finale.
Giles finds a prophecy that states Buffy will die at the hands of The Master (Mark Metcalf), the Big Bad of season one. When she finds out, Buffy breaks down the most real and vulnerable moment of the show thus far, deciding instead to renounce her calling as Slayer and telling him, “I’m sixteen years old. I don’t wanna die.” As always, though, Buffy rises to the occasion and completes her mission, even if it does involve dying for a bit in the middle (only to be brought back, thankfully).
INNOCENCE (Season 2, Episode 14)
The relationship between Buffy and Angel (David Boreanaz) is responsible for much of the drama and romance of the early seasons of the show, and it all culminates after the two finally sleep together for the first time. Because Angel is a vampire cursed with a soul for whom one moment of true happiness would break that curse forever, his night with Buffy turns him back into the demon he once was and he begins to terrorize her, rising as the surprise villain of the season.
The episode is often considered one of the greatest of the series, and Whedon has called it his own personal favorite. Though heart-wrenching, “Innocence” captures an important moment in the lives of many young women: the time when their boyfriend, who seemed to love them, becomes moody, distant, and cruel, usually after they finally sleep together. For Buffy, though, this means she must kill Angel. And while he accurately states that she isn’t able to do it after their intense fight in a movie theater lobby, she delivers a swift kick with perfect accuracy before murmuring, “Give me time.”
PASSION (Season 2, Episode 17)
Angel (now Angelus) has promised to hurt one of Buffy’s closest friends since he was turned, but has failed to make good on that promise. It is in this episode that he finally kills someone close to her. Jenny Calendar (Robia La Morte), Giles’ love interest, translates an old ritual that will allow the Scoobies to save Angel and restore his soul, but Angelus snaps her neck when he finds out. What follows is a gruesome sequence where Giles, having made plans with Jenny, is lured up to his bedroom, in an elaborate trick set by Angelus, only to find her dead.
Narrated by Boreanaz with words about passion – “Maybe if we could live without passion, we would know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow,” the episode explores the aftermath of a major character’s death, as well as the moment where the series becomes truly unpredictable, in true Whedon fashion, as to who will live and who will die.
I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU (Season 2, Episode 19)
“I Only Have Eyes for You” begins as a monster-of-the-week episode, but soon builds into something more when the ghosts of two lovers who died on the Sunnydale High School campus begin possessing living people and forcing them to act out their murder-suicide. When Angelus and Buffy end up in the school together, one of the most brilliantly acted scenes in the series takes place, with Boreanaz as the woman and Gellar as the man.
Whedon stated this was the episode that convinced him Boreanaz was capable of taking on his own series, which he did in the five-season spin-off Angel. But the episode itself is poignant and strong, especially in the moment where Buffy finally forgives herself for her actions that led to losing Angel.
BECOMING PART II (Season 2, Episode 22)
“Becoming Part II” is the conclusion of the second season, where audiences were ready to see if Buffy would be able to kill her evil ex-boyfriend. When Angelus and Buffy’s fight finally comes to a head, Buffy has everything stripped from her: her home, her place at Sunnydale High, and her weapon. After Angel taunts her, asking what’s left and proceeding to strike the final blow with his sword, Buffy grabs it between her palms and says, “Me.”
The moment is triumphant but short-lived as, when Buffy finally beats Angelus back and prepares to kill him, Willow restores his soul using Jenny’s spell. Buffy realizes, though, that he has already begun a ritual to destroy the world, opening a portal that only his death can close. So after telling him to close his eyes and kissing him one last time, Buffy stabs her true love in the heart to save the world and takes the next bus out of town. The episode taught all Whedon fans that no story would ever be free of gut-wrenching agony, and even Whedon’s production company logo was broken up over it.
BAND CANDY (Season 3, Episode 6)
Buffy may have a number of heartbreaking episodes, but the show also includes humor as often as possible. And hardly any episode was as hilarious as season three’s “Band Candy.” When evil candy is sold by the students of Sunnydale High to their parents and other community members, the kids soon find themselves surrounded by irresponsible adults who are experiencing their own second childhood. Chief among them: Giles and Buffy’s mother (Kristine Sutherland), who strike up a romance.
From watching forty-somethings grind on each other in the local club to the moment where the suddenly-nerdy Principal Snyder (Armin Shimerman) joins the Scoobie gang, the episode is one of the more hilarious moments of the show. In addition, the ending leaves fans with a jaw-dropping moment when Buffy expresses her happiness at having found her mother and Giles before they “did anything” and the two look flustered before quickly walking away from each other.
THE WISH (Season 3, Episode 9)
“The Wish” remained a Buffy fan favorite throughout the series, introducing both the eventual series regular, Anya (Emma Caulfield), and an alternate universe where Buffy didn’t come to Sunnydale in time to stop the Master from rising, leaving Xander, Willow, and many other characters to be turned into vampires. By the time Buffy does show up, the town is in chaos and it looks as though the characters may be trapped in this horrible reality forever.
The episode itself is beautifully filmed and written, but Alyson Hannigan’s Vampire Willow was so incredibly fun to watch that a later episode, “Dopplegangland,” revolves around her being sent to the show’s regular universe. What’s more, it’s one of Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter)’s best episodes, despite the fact that she dies twenty-five minutes into it.
EARSHOT (Season 3, Episode 18)
Buffy becomes infected with an aspect of one of the demons she kills, which turns out to not be horns or scales like she fears but, instead, telepathy. After she begins hearing the thoughts others, she is horrified by a malicious voice plotting murder. Eventually, she finds the person who she thinks to be the killer, an unpopular student named Jonathan Levinson (Danny Strong), but realizes he has come up to the clock tower to kill himself. Buffy tells him he thinks that everyone is ignoring his pain, but after she heard thoughts for several days, she assures him everyone is just too preoccupied with their own pain to notice. “It looks quiet down there,” she says “It’s not. It’s deafening.”
Though the episode is fantastic, and the first in which Strong (writer of the final two Hunger Games films) was able to give a dramatic performance, “Earshot” was preempted because it was originally scheduled to air a week after the Columbine shooting occurred. Instead, it aired two weeks before the premiere of season four.
THE PROM (Season 3, Episode 20)
In another of the show’s biggest tearjerkers, Angel (who came back from the dead for reasons too complicated to bring up here) breaks up with Buffy just days before her senior prom, leaving her absolutely devastated. And although she goes through one of the saddest experiences most teenagers can relate to – the end of a first relationship – she still manages to save the day from some Hellhounds and look amazing in her prom dress.
But the real memorable moment of the episode comes when Jonathan presents Buffy with an award that the senior class created just for her: Class Protector. It is then that Buffy realizes her work as the Slayer does not go fully unnoticed by her peers and finally gets to have her “one perfect high school moment.” And when Angel shows up in a tux and asks for one last dance, well… That’s just gravy.
HUSH (Season 4, Episode 10)
Still praised by critics as the most innovative episode of the show, “Hush” was created by Whedon after he heard the same opinion over and over for years: that the show’s success was all due to its witty dialogue. In order to avoid stagnation – and, one can probably assume, to stick it to everyone – Whedon wrote an episode that includes only seventeen minutes of dialogue, as the town is struck mute by some of the creepiest monsters of the entire series, The Gentlemen.
The episode weaves the themes of language and fairytales into a story about how silence affects the Sunnydale community and combines equal amounts of comedy, drama, and total horror. It was the only episode ever to be nominated for an Emmy award, and while it’s pretty much flawless, most fans would agree that the only thing they would remove is Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), Buffy’s college boyfriend and definitely the most unpopular choice in the fight for Buffy’s heart.
WHO ARE YOU (Season 4, Episode 16)
In the previous episode “This Year’s Girl,” Faith (Eliza Dushku), another Slayer who turned to the dark side, wakes from a coma and goes after Buffy, eventually using a device she obtained that switches their bodies. “Who Are You” provides the conclusion to this plot line, in which Buffy is played by Dushku and Faith is played by Gellar.
In addition to having one of the show’s most impressive performances, by Gellar as Faith, the episode sees several incredibly important interactions between a number of characters and some of the best dialogue in the show. At the episode’s climax, Faith and Buffy fight in a church, and when Faith begins to hit Buffy, she cries out, “You’re nothing! Disgusting! You’re nothing!” at her own image, which becomes a pivotal moment in the lives of both Slayers.
RESTLESS (Season 4, Episode 22)
“Restless” is one of the more out-there episodes of the show, and it still sparks analysis and debate within the Buffy fandom today. The episode centers around the dreams of the four main characters, Willow, Xander, Giles, and Buffy, where important pieces of information about these characters are revealed and a great deal of foreshadowing occurs. Oh, and the First Slayer also hunts them each down and tries to kill them in their dreams, as a ritual that they performed in the previous episode seriously pissed her off.
The dreamlike quality of the episode was heavily praised, and while it breaks the usual formula of the show’s season finale, “Restless” is one of the most important and enjoyable episodes of the show. That said, it also includes moments like The Cheese Man and the now-deceased Principal Snyder doing an incredible parody of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. What’s not to love?
FOOL FOR LOVE (Season 5, Episode 7)
Another fan favorite, “Fool for Love” centers mostly around Spike (James Marsters), a vampire who killed two Slayers in his lifetime before a secret government operation puts a chip in his brain, rendering him unable to kill. In the episode, he describes, at Buffy’s request, how and why he was able to kill the other two Slayers, explaining that every Slayer has a death wish.
Spike’s past is at once hilarious and chilling, as the audience sees his human days, the true reason why he was called William the Bloody, and the rejection he received from the woman he loved as well as the deaths of two Slayers by his hand. But the most incredible moment comes in the end when he decides that Buffy deserves to die for the insult she’s caused him, all the while actually being in love with her. Marsters plays the scene beautifully when Spike finds Buffy crying outside her house, and one of the most unlikely relationships in the series truly begins to blossom.
THE BODY (Season 5, Episode 16)
It is difficult to find a portrayal of grief in any medium more accurate than that of “The Body.” Buffy, who has spent her whole life saving people, cannot save her mother from a brain aneurysm, and Joyce Summers dies. The episode does not have a life-affirming ending or a flowery lesson but instead captures the minutiae of grief, and the small moments after the death of a loved one that often are not portrayed on television.
“The Body” is masterfully handled from start to finish. Whedon, who lost his own mother to an aneurysm, also insisted that Willow and her girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) have their first kiss in the episode, a moment that is at once mundane and extraordinary. But perhaps, the most well-remembered portion of the episode is Anya’s lament that, because she is newly human, she doesn’t understand how Joyce can be gone and, like a child, she cries, “And no one will explain to me why?!” In the end, it is how we all feel.
THE GIFT (Season 5, Episode 22)
In “The Gift,” Buffy fights one of the Biggest Bads the Scoobies have ever faced: Glory (Claire Kramer), a god from a hell dimension who wants to go back to where she came from. Buffy’s sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) is the Key Glory needs to open the hell dimension, and this means that Dawn will die.
“The Gift” faces not only the toll that slaying takes on Buffy but on all her loved ones as well. Buffy sacrifices herself in Dawn’s place, as they share the same blood, and dies for the second time in the series. While we see the other characters mourn her, her last words play over the scene: “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me.” We then see her tombstone with the epitaph “She saved the world. A lot.” Of course, she returns from the dead, though the episode was originally meant to be the series finale.
ONCE MORE, WITH FEELING (Season 6, Episode 7)
Love it or hate it, “Once More, With Feeling” is definitely one of the most memorable episodes of the show, and its ability to combine the culmination of major plot points and elaborate song and dance routines makes it one of the most impressive one-hour episodes of television. The entire cast performs their own singing and dancing, though there was talk of Gellar being given a voice double, which she declined due to the important character-driven moments in the episode.
There are so many great bits in “Once More, With Feeling,” but the impressive part is that the songs, written by Whedon, are actually good and that the episode can be considered one of the best among the series, even without all the spectacle – though there is a lot of spectacle. Plus, it’s hard not to love the moment where Buffy breaks the fourth wall to tell the audience they can sing along with her. The episode’s airing, and its critical praise, would also help lead to Whedon’s 2008 miniseries, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, which he wrote during the 07-08 WGA Strike.
TABULA RASA (Season 6, Episode 8)
Willow does a spell to make Tara and Buffy forget certain things and, in typical BTVS fashion, causes an insane problem instead. The whole cast suddenly forgets who they are, leading to several zany consequences where Anya thinks she’s engaged to Giles, Buffy decides to call herself Joan, Spike assumes he is Giles’ son and, to his outrage, that his name is Randy. Hilarity ensues.
It’s hard not to enjoy “Tabula Rasa,” which has all the whimsy of the show’s earlier episodes before much of the darkness of season six, but in the end, the clouds roll in as they often do. And while the episode does have one of the most ridiculous villains in Buffy history (a demon loan shark whose head is actually… a shark head), it has some of the show’s best dialogue, best acting, and best jokes – not to mention one of the best on-screen kisses – before the dark storylines really start to pile on.
GRAVE (Season 6, Episode 22)
In the shocking culmination of season six’s events, Willow emerges as the Big Bad, seeking vengeance when Tara is killed. Willow is set to destroy the world, and the only person who’s able to get through to her is Xander. In a climax similar to that of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic novel A Wrinkle in Time, Xander tells Willow that he loves her and brings her back from the brink.
“Grave” not only sees the defeat of Dark Willow but the return of Giles after Head briefly left the show. Though it is most remembered for the scene where Xander saves Willow, and the world. This episode also contains one of the show’s best moments when Buffy attempts to catch Giles up on everything that happened in his absence:
“Xander left Anya at the altar, and Anya’s a vengeance demon again, Dawn’s a total klepto, money’s been so tight that I’ve been slinging burgers at the Doublemeat Palace… And I’ve been sleeping with Spike.”
CONVERSATIONS WITH DEAD PEOPLE (Season 7, Episode 7)
“Conversations with Dead People” breaks the usual mold of the show in which several of the characters encounter a dead person who reveals something to them. The episode was written by four different writers of the show, each taking one of the important storylines. While two sweet or touching reunions seem to at first occur, the episode begins and ends with an ethereal song (“Blue” written by Angie Hart and Whedon) that intensifies the loneliness of each character while they are separated from one another.
Though Amber Benson was originally meant to return and speak to Willow as Tara, there is some discrepancy about why another character was used, with Benson saying she “didn’t want Tara to be bad” and the writers claiming she simply wasn’t available. Even with the odd way that the episode is presented, it is still one of the most haunting in Buffy history, as well as one of the most artfully arranged. And it’s the episode where the final Big Bad of the series, The First Evil, reveals itself.
CHOSEN (Season 7, Episode 22)
The final episode of the series does what all series finales should hope to achieve: it brings the story to an open-ended close while reminding its audience of the reason it began in the first place. Buffy and her friends enter an epic battle to fight The First with a group of scared potential Slayers who lack actual power. In order to defeat the first, Buffy reveals her final plan:
“In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule… So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be our power… From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
“Chosen” gives us a number of unforgettable moments, from its nod to the series’ second episode, to the destruction of Sunnydale, to Buffy’s cookie dough speech, but the moment where Buffy shares her power with every girl in the world who has the potential to receive it harkens back to the entire point of the show, as stated by Whedon: “Female power: having it, using it, sharing it.” And when Buffy smiles in the closing shot, the episode cements itself as exactly the ending the characters, the show, and the fans deserved.
Well, that’s our list for the 20 Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes. If you’ve got one you think should be on the list, be sure to let us know in the comments. After all, as Xander says, “What would Buffy do?”