It’s hard to believe it’s been over a decade and a half since Buffy the Vampire Slayer broadcast its series finale. The show remains a pop culture touchstone and seems to pick up more and more fans every year.
The continued interest in Buffy has also kept fan debates alive. And one of the biggest fan debates of all revolves around which episodes were the series’ best… and worst. We’ve done the nearly impossible and compiled a list of the five episodes that fall into each category. This isn’t to say there aren’t other amazing episodes, or additional not-so-great ones.
Buffy’s seventh season is widely regarded as one of its weakest, and the reason largely comes down to the way the show handled the arrival of the Potentials. These would-be Slayers were being hunted down by the First Evil, so they come to Buffy for protection. She takes them in and attempts to mentor and train them, leading to many of the episodes from the middle of the season having a sameness that doesn’t advance the plot. Even Buffy seems bored by her inspirational speeches after a while.
"Empty Places" brings this storyline to its logical, if ridiculous, conclusion. Buffy gets angry after discovering that Faith has taken the Potentials clubbing. In response, the group kicks her out of her own house. The whole thing makes no sense, especially the part where Buffy’s sister and all her best friends side with the Potentials over Buffy.
"Restless" was unconventional in all senses of the word. The show wrapped up the fourth season’s story arc in the prior episode and used this season finale to dive into the Scooby Gang’s dreams. It’s a remarkable episode, using surreal dream-logic to explore the psychology of Xander, Willow, Giles, and Buffy.
Like many dreams, it was loaded with meaning far beyond the surface. Not only did the episode foreshadow several future plot points, including the arrival of Buffy’s sister Dawn the next season, it also introduced us to the First Slayer. Plus, the Cheese Man showed up in everyone’s dreams. Because cheese is what truly brings us all together, right?
Fans never really got on board with Buffy’s romance with Riley. Buffy's pairing with the Iowa native just couldn't live up to the grandeur of her other romances. So it wasn't a surprise when he left the show in this episode. It’s the nature of that exit that puts "Into the Woods" on our worst list.
Riley, who up until that point had seemed like a fairly supportive and patient boyfriend, decided Buffy doesn’t truly love him. So he takes out his frustrations by going to a vampire brothel in the middle of the night and letting a female vampire feed on him. It’s a ham-handed metaphor for cheating that’s only made worse when he gives Buffy an ultimatum: he’s leaving Sunnydale unless she gives him a reason to stay. Then, Xander inexplicably makes the case for Riley being the love of Buffy's life. For some reason, Buffy buys into Xander's logic, only to arrive moments too late to intercept Riley. She may have been disappointed by the demise of her relationship, but after all that, we certainly weren’t.
Willow’s girlfriend Tara hadn’t received a ton of character development prior to this fifth season episode. "Family" started to correct that oversight. In addition, its plot seems even more relevant today than it did when the episode premiered in 2000.
"Family" sees Tara’s father, brother, and cousin Beth (in the form of a pre-fame Amy Adams) arrive to bring Tara home. They claim the women in their family have a demon in them that manifests itself when they turn 20. With Tara’s birthday fast approaching, it’s just days before she goes evil. The Scooby Gang quickly call Tara’s family’s bluff. Recognizing the men of the family have concocted this story to keep the women oppressed, the Gang rally around Tara, making it clear that they won’t let her suffer the same fate. It’s a poignant display of solidarity that officially makes Tara a member of this chosen family.
There’s very little to redeem this season 4 episode. It’s a stand-alone story that is most noteworthy — and not in a good way — for featuring Buffy and Riley going at it for most of its run-time. They’re compelled by the mystical forces awoken during a frat party. The disturbing thing is those mystical forces are the repressed ghosts of abused children.
It’s a serious subject that is only a minor plot point within the larger titillation of the episode. At least we get to see Anthony Stuart Head as Giles singing “Behind Blue Eyes.”
The Buffy fandom has long debated the merits of Buffy’s two vampire love interests, Spike and Angel. But you don’t have to be a Buffy/Angel shipper to understand why this episode is considered one of Buffy’s best. The plot centers around Buffy’s final showdown with the evil Angelus, who’s planning to pull the world into hell using Acathla. After spending half a season working up the psychological fortification to take him down, Buffy’s finally ready. Yet, just as she’s about to run him through and end their fight, something comes over him and suddenly he’s her boyfriend, the be-souled Angel, again. Buffy still has to make the heartbreaking decision to let him go in order to save the world.
If that was the only event included in this episode, it would be enough, but it was also full of other unforgettable moments. Drusilla takes out second slayer Kendra, Angelus tortures Giles, Buffy is expelled, Spike and Buffy form an alliance for the first time, Willow does her first spell, and Buffy’s mom discovers she’s the Slayer and kicks her out of the house. It’s a real showcase of everything Buffy could be.
While Buffy’s second season had some of the best episodes of the series, it also had several monster of the week episodes that just didn’t capture the magic of the show’s serialized story. “Bad Eggs” is one example. The episode used a health class assignment gone wrong to introduce a parasitic monster for Buffy to fight.
Unfortunately, the episode came off more like an unsuccessful Aliens rip-off than an interesting exploration of the consequences of coupling up. Buffy’s exploration of real-life issues through metaphorical monsters was often one of its strengths, but that didn’t extend to this episode.
"Once More with Feeling," Buffy’s infamous musical, can still gets fans' toes tapping all these years later. And it remains one of the most successful musical episodes from a non-musical series to ever grace TV screens. The reason for the singing worked perfectly within the rules of the show and each cast member had their moment to shine — even if they weren’t the best singer.
In addition, the individual songs were perfectly calibrated to each character and the larger plot of the episode, while also covering a wide range of musical genres. On top of all that, the episode actually moved the storylines of many of the characters forward. Through song, they found a way to sing the things they couldn’t speak.
There’s something to be said for an episode that shows Buffy’s struggle to make money so she can support herself and her sister. After all, slaying doesn’t exactly pay the bills. Without too many options, Buffy takes a job at a fast food restaurant and soon stumbles into a possible demon mystery — or it could just be the drudgery of the service industry. This is Buffy, so, naturally, it’s the former.
Still, this episode doesn’t quite work. What was supposed to be satire came across as more depressing than insightful or funny. Plus, when the demon was finally revealed, it was an icky combination of little old lady and... something a little unsavory. No thanks!
In today’s binge-happy culture, an episode like "The Body" would stop many in their tracks. It’s one of the most difficult episodes of television to get through and it also may be one of the most truthful ever produced. The episode centers around the immediate aftermath of Buffy's discovery of her mother Joyce’s deceased body on their living room couch. Buffy was a show that dispatched vampires and risked its characters’ lives on a regular basis. Yet, Joyce passed away from natural causes. So for once there was nothing Buffy could do — no one to fight, no spell to cast — to bring her back.
The episode is a potent meditation on grief, from Buffy’s shell-shocked discovery, to Dawn’s inability to believe her mother’s gone, to Willow’s quest to find the perfect outfit, to Anya voicing the questions we all have about why we die. The episode does a masterful job of capturing the shock and helplessness of losing a loved one. In a show that’s all about the supernatural, this episode rang painfully, heartbreakingly true.