Buffy the Vampire Slayer was no ordinary TV show. Twenty years later, Joss Whedon’s landmark series remains impossible to classify. After all this time, BtVS continues to endure as one of the most groundbreaking and influential shows ever created.
While the series is known for its excellent cast, witty dialogue and clever use of metaphor, it is also remembered for Joss Whedon’s near unendurable cruelty. On any show helmed by Whedon, it was a pretty safe bet that if two characters were happy and in love, one of them was going to either die or turn evil. This is partially because content people are fairly boring to watch, but also, because television isn’t just about escapism. It’s also about catharsis.
Whedon created a host of amazing characters, made all the more endearing by how easily we related to them. There are so many soul-crushing moments to choose from on BtVS. The series definitely ran the gamut of emotions. We laughed and cried alongside the Scoobies, and in the process, we grew up together.
Here are the 18 Most Heartbreaking Moments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
18 Drusilla kills Kendra - "Becoming Part 1"
There was a bit of musical chairs before the cast of BtVS was set in stone and Bianca Lawson was originally cast as Cordelia. However, due to contractual obligations, she was unable to accept the role. Charisma Carpenter went on to become the Cordelia that we all know and love and Lawson made a handful of appearances as Kendra, the Vampire Slayer.
Much like Faith later in season 3, Kendra explored an entirely different side of what it means to be the Slayer. She had no friends, was taken from her family at a young age, and being a slayer was really all she knew. Sure, Buffy’s life was pretty much the worst, but at least she had family and friends to support her. The friendship she and Kendra were developing was the only one that the other Slayer actually had.
When Drusilla killed Kendra in “Becoming Part 1”, it was tragic for a number of reasons. For one thing, it felt like a bit of wasted potential, because Kendra was a cool character. The larger reason, though, was what it meant for Buffy. This was another person close to her who she'd failed to save and once again, Angel tricked her. Buffy arrived just moments too late to save her friend Kendra, who'd fought valiantly to protect everyone else that Buffy held dear.
17 The Scoobies cast Buffy out - "Empty Places"
As much as we all love BtVS, there were, of course, plot points here and there that we disagreed with. Every single one of Buffy’s friends turning on her in the season 7 episode, “Empty Spaces” is a moment many fans never got over. We weren’t given much time to come to terms, what with the series ending three episodes later.
Yes, Operation Evil Vineyard didn’t go according to plan. It actually went horribly, but kicking Buffy to the curb after one botched mission seemed pretty extreme. Buffy wanted to go back in and no one was onboard, so their collective reaction is to ask her to leave her own home? Seriously, of all the times that Dawn was the actual worst, this is probably the biggest example of her awfulness. She actually had the audacity to tell Buffy that she had to leave her house – which by the way, Dawn never worked a day in her life to help pay for.
It was one thing for everyone to disagree with Buffy. Obviously, it went better when she returned to the vineyard herself anyway. However, kicking out the person who spent the last seven years defending them, sacrificing her life and happiness to save not only them, but also the entire world, was excessive and ultimately inexcusable. They’re just lucky that Buffy was classy enough to forgive them and come to their rescue anyway.
16 Oz cheats on Willow - "Wild at Heart"
Considering Oz was a werewolf, his relationship with Willow was surprisingly drama-free. For a while, these two sustained the healthiest relationship on BtVS – although that’s not really saying much. After pining for Xander for years, Willow finally found someone who recognized her awesomeness. Willow and Oz loved each other and the audience loved Willow and Oz.
Originally, Whedon planned a love triangle between Willow, Oz, and Veruca in season 4. However, when Seth Green suddenly decided to leave the series to pursue a film career, Whedon was faced with the daunting task of breaking up, at that point, the show’s most beloved couple. We all have a beast inside us that sometimes breaks free and although we’d seen this literally happen to Oz, we’d never seen his dark side-- without a full moon being to blame. Willow's realization that Oz wanted someone else more than he wanted her was incredibly difficult to watch. Let’s face it, no one is better at making you cry along with her than Alyson Hannigan.
While it is true that Oz came through for Willow in the end, the damage had already been done. There are so many heartrending moments in “Wild at Heart”, but the most painful is definitely when Willow asks Oz if he loves her. He replies, “My whole life, I’ve never loved anything else,” but he still leaves, breaking our hearts along with Willow’s.
15 Buffy admits she'd been in Heaven - "Once More With Feeling"
This heartbreaking moment happened twice and, although the first may have had a larger impact on the audience, the second was the one that shattered life as the Scoobies knew it. When Buffy came back from the dead, fans spent a couple of episodes watching her attempt to adjust and wondering what was really going on. Her admission to Spike at the end of “After Life” was a true gut punch, but also made sense of her behavior.
It also began the process of Buffy becoming isolated from her friends, while growing closer to her former enemy. Notably, Spike was also the only one in the group who actually knew what it was like to claw out of a grave.
Buffy meant to keep the truth from her friends, presumably forever, but in “Once More with Feeling”, the truth came pouring out of her in song. This was an incredibly poignant moment, as we watched Buffy admit to her ersatz family that they hadn’t saved her life, so much as destroyed the only peace that she had ever known. Rather than bring her closer to her friends, this painful admission only served to further alienate Buffy from them.
Life may not be a song, but somehow Spike managed to save Buffy with one, as he was the only person who could stop her from dancing herself to death.
14 Buffy confesses her relationship with Spike to Tara - "Dead Things"
“Dead Things” was probably the darkest episode of BtVS ever. Aside from the misogyny and murder – which the Trio gets away with no less – there is Buffy’s bottomless self-hatred. Sarah Michelle Gellar has actually stated that this episode was the most difficult one for her to shoot, because she felt that much of it was out of character for Buffy. Really though, most of that season was out of character for Buffy. That was kind of the whole point.
Many people hate on season 6 because it’s so dark. How could it not be? The Scoobies brought Buffy back from the dead! That had to be earned, in order for death to retain meaning in the Buffyverse. The ramifications of it needed to be felt. If we stick with the show’s use of metaphor, let’s consider that many people get lost in their early 20s. This was Buffy's version of that, with a healthy dose of Hellmouth.
“Dead Things” may not be the series’ finest installment, but it contains not one, but two heartbreaking moments. First, there was Buffy taking out her hatred on herself by beating Spike to a pulp. Then, there was Buffy’s agonizing confession to Tara about how her destructive relationship with Spike. This admission was really more about Buffy’s unprecedented misery. She desperately needed answers from Tara that, sadly, didn’t exist. It was a brutal scene, which ended with Buffy begging Tara not to forgive her, ultimately, because she could not forgive herself.
13 Xander leaves Anya at the alter - "Hell's Bells"
“Hell’s Bells” led to the dissolution of another much beloved Buffy couple: Anya and Xander. Sure, there were warning signs; it was troubling that Xander never seemed to want to let anyone know about their engagement. However, considering that he was basically dragged into the relationship kicking and screaming, this didn’t seem too alarming. He obviously loved Anya and theirs was certainly one of the more fun relationships to watch. What no one could have foreseen from Anya’s initial appearances was how much the fans would grow to love her.
The way that their relationship ended wasn’t just difficult to watch because Xander left Anya at the alter, but because he seemed to do it so easily. Yes, it’s better to not get married if you aren’t ready, but what’s better still is to warn your bride-to-be before she makes it to the altar.
Xander undoubtedly loved Anya, but him leaving her to walk down the aisle alone was certainly one of Buffy’s saddest moments. It also led to a downward spiral for Anya. These two would never get over other for the remainder of the series, which makes it especially depressing that they were unable to tie the knot.
12 Tara leaves Willow - "Tabula Rasa"
"Tabula Rasa" is remembered as one of the few fun episodes in an otherwise bleak 6th season. Lighthearted though it may have seemed, it had one hell of an upsetting ending – even if we all saw it coming. Willow had been starting to misuse magic and it was only a matter of time before that blew up in her face.
Sure, killing that baby deer was hideous, but we could write that off as Willow going to any lengths to get Buffy back. Telling off Giles was out of character, but perhaps she was just being defensive. However, there was nothing that could excuse Willow erasing Tara's memories. That was Willow's first truly unforgivable act; the point where we could no longer deny that she had a problem.
Against her better judgment, Tara gave Willow one shot at redemption. All asked was for Willow to go a week without magic, but any addict will tell you that even a minute is far too long. Willow proved this by casting a spell almost immediately after promising that she wouldn't.
Even though we all knew that Tara had every reason to leave Willow, it was still incredibly difficult to watch her go. They had been the show's most loving and supportive couple for two seasons until Willow's addiction tore them apart. No one wanted to see this relationship end.
11 Angelus kills Jenny - "Passion"
Giles and Jenny were able to conquer some pretty insurmountable odds. First, they were torn apart by Giles's past, and then again, by Jenny's betrayal. Yet somehow, they were moving past all that. After almost an entire season of buildup, it seemed that these two would get their happy ending. Then again, this is a Joss Whedon show.
When Angelus snapped Jenny's neck, he did more than kill her: He also destroyed Giles's hope of finding happiness – seriously, the guy never loved again – and proved, unequivocally, that Buffy's beau was bad news. This was no ruse. Angel was truly gone and the demon wearing his face was all that remained.
Angelus relished the pain even more than the kill. He didn't simply murder the woman that Giles loved; he created the cruelest of possible scenes for him to walk in on. The series had already established that Angelus had been a most vicious creature before getting his soul back, but "Passion" was the first time that it was show rather than tell. Giles would've sacrificed himself for the sake of avenging Jenny, but Buffy, who couldn't bear the thought of losing him as well, refused to let that happen.
10 Spike tries to rape Buffy - "Seeing Red"
Spike had been a problem for the show since he became a series regular in season 4. It became obvious that more James Marsters was never a bad thing, but there was that whole quesiton of "why hasn't Buffy killed Spike already?" Season 5 began tackling this by giving the character a more heroic arc. His infatuation with Buffy, although entirely creepy, did lead to him doing some good.
Cut to season 6 and, much to Buffy's chagrin, Spike is basically her closest confidant. When she ended their relationship, Spike could not accept it and attempted to force himself on Buffy. After building Spike up to be such a sympathetic character, this was a huge blow to fans, especially those who had been rooting for him. Not to mention, seeing our hero attacked in her own bathroom by someone she'd been intimate with was incredibly disturbing.
So, while this heinous moment may not have been the tearjerker that the other moments on this list were, it was still heartbreaking. As much as Buffy had come to rely on him, Spike was still more monster than man. He may have had more access to his emotions than say, Angelus, but that didn't mean he had a soul. Buffy wasn't the only one guilty of forgetting this. James Marsters made Spike so lovable that many fans had forgotten as well. "Seeing Red" made this unfortunate truth abundantly clear.
9 Buffy and Angel break up - "The Prom"
Whether you are of the mindset that Buffy and Angel were the Juliet and Romeo of the Buffyverse or feel that Spike was the better choice for her, there is no denying the chemistry between Gellar and Boreanaz. Buffy and Angel may not have had the most stable relationship, but it was the show’s central romance. It also perfectly encapsulated what relationships feel like in high school: everything is life or death. Of course, on BtVS this was literally the case.
The slayer and the vampire with a soul had been together on and off for three seasons and they'd been through a lot. By the time that Angel broke up with Buffy, even though fans knew that it was for the right reasons, they were just as heartbroken as she was. “The Prom” packed a major punch, featuring not only their gut-wrenching sewer talk, but also the most romantic moment between the two.
Despite the fact that Buffy had gained some pretty serious self-acceptance, a part of her always wanted to be a normal girl. Angel gave her one perfect moment by showing up at her prom for that one last dance. The two-part finale, “Graduation Day” piled on the heartache by putting Angel’s life in peril and showcasing the lengths that Buffy would go to save him. The final glance that they shared at the episode’s end was rife with longing, just as their relationship had always been.
8 Tara's brain gets scrambled - "Tough Love"
Tara and Willow pretty much never fought, but they had their first proper row in "Tough Love". It wasn't that big of a deal. They would've made up. Unfortunately, they were not given the chance. Glory, the hell god that was hell bent on finding her precious key, mistakenly believed that Tara was the key she had been searching for. It was a truly frightening moment, but one that everyone was hoping would turn out differently.
For her part, Tara behaved just as heroically as we would all expect of her and refused to reveal that Dawn was the one that Glory was really looking for. This may have protected Dawn, but Tara was unable to protect herself when Glory decided to wiggle her fingers around in her brain. For the remainder of the season, we were forced to watch a lost, broken Tara exist as a shadow of her former self. Thankfully, when the Scoobies' plan to take down Glory came together, Willow was able to help Tara find her way back to herself.
7 Spike's church confession - "Beneath You"
When Spike underwent trials to be restored to what he once was, fans thought that this meant that he wanted the chip removed. BtVS pulled the rug out from under everyone when Spike got his soul back instead. Initially, it was even a bit unclear whether or not this had even been his intention.
The first time we saw Spike in season 7, he’d clearly lost his mind. Fans knew why, but Buffy didn’t and while she found his contradictory behavior confusing, she didn’t really care. The last time they’d seen one another, he’d attacked her. What more could she possibly have to say to him?
“Beneath You” wasn’t a great episode, but the last few minutes more than make up for what came before. Buffy and Spike had a heart to heart in a church, during which Spike not only came apart, but also came clean. James Marsters’s acting in this scene was some of his finest work in the entire series.
Spike’s anguish over his unforgivable actions was written plainly on his face and was evident in every syllable that he spoke. “Why does a man do what he mustn't? For her. To be hers. To be the kind of man who would nev – to be a kind of man.” Laying his body over a cross, we watched as Spike’s guilt consumed him in one of the season’s most tragic moments.
6 Angelus ditches Buffy - "Innocence"
Angel losing his soul was the cruelest twist of fate. It also kind of punished Buffy for having sex. Whedon was torn about this, because that horror movie trope was something that he’d been hoping to avoid. However, there is no denying that this was the Hellmouth equivalent of “I slept with my boyfriend and now he’s acting like a jerk.” Unfortunately, Buffy doesn’t get the luxury of tending to a broken heart, because meanwhile her ex would be out slaughtering half of Sunnydale.
This plot twist also subverted expectations of season 2’s endgame. Spike and Dru were painted as the season’s Big Bad, but it actually turned out to be Angel(us). What’s more heartbreaking than that? Of all the painful scenes in “Innocence”, none are quite as agonizing as watching Angelus – while pretending he was still Angel – quietly destroy what was one of the most important nights of Buffy’s life thus far. He completely unraveled her, tearing into the night that they shared together, until there was nothing left but pain. Then he ended it with the dreaded, “I’ll call you.”
Talk about soul crushing.
5 Anya's death - "Chosen"
Two unthinkable deaths occurred in “Chosen”. Spike was also on the chopping block and he did go out in a blaze of glory. That final moment between him and Buffy – “No you don’t, but thanks for saying it” – was incredibly poignant. However, news that Spike would be heading over to Angel for its 5th season had already leaked. As moving as that scene was, we knew that Spike wasn’t gone for good.
Anya, on the other hand, was unceremoniously sliced in two. Her death was quick and unexpected. Not much was made of it, as opposed to the way that the deaths of major characters were usually treated on the show. It was brutal and our hearts were slashed right along with Xander’s.
Strangely, Anya’s death allowed character development for Andrew, of all people. A divisive addition to the Scoobies, to say the least, Andrew was given an excellent arc for season 7 and his conversation with Xander about Anya’s death was a fitting end to it. He lied and told Xander that Anya was killed while protecting him, although that was not actually the case.
Sure, Andrew was a storyteller, but he had nothing to gain by telling this tale. He merely gave Xander peace of mind that the woman that he had loved and lost did not die a meaningless death. Still, to many of us watching at home, her death certainly felt that way.
4 Buffy's death - "The Gift"
Over the course of five unforgettable seasons, Buffy Summers had become one of the greatest feminist icons of this generation. She had acted as a beacon for so many young men and women who had grown up along with her. Buffy’s death was a loss grieved by all of us for so many reasons, not the least of which was because, none of us knew what would become of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
There were rumors that the series would return on a different network, but in 2001, the Internet wasn’t what it is today and no one was really sure what was going to happen. Word got out fairly quickly, but not all fans were reassured and with such a perfect ending, it was unknown how season 6 could even happen. Apparently, Whedon had all that mapped out before he even knew that they would be switching networks.
Whether you watch “The Gift” knowing that Buffy will return or not, her sacrifice is still incredibly moving. It’s not just Buffy’s death, but also the effect that her death has on everyone around her.
The epitaph on Buffy’s tombstone read, “She saved the world a lot”. Perhaps this cannot be taken literally in the real world, but for many fans of the series it holds true on a personal level, which is why watching her take that final leap was so painful for all of us.
3 Buffy kills Angel - "Becoming Part 2"
Few fans can listen to the piece of music written by the brilliant and underrated Christophe Beck, entitled “Close Your Eyes”, without welling up. While “Becoming Part 2” was certainly one of the finest episodes of the series, Whedon ended season 2 in the most heartbreaking way possible. It’s not just that Buffy was forced to kill Angel. No, that would’ve been agonizing enough, but instead, she was forced to send him to hell… right after he got his soul back.
Following an epic swordfight, Buffy finally got Angel on the ropes – just in time for Willow’s spell to work. We all remember what happened next. Buffy was able to share a final kiss with her beloved, telling him to close his eyes, so that she could then drive a sword straight though him. Angelus had already opened up the gateway within Acathla and the world would've been sucked into Hell if she hadn’t. If you didn’t cry here, you might just be a sociopath.
The thing about Buffy’s excruciating season 2 arc with Angel, was that despite being depressing, it was actually incredibly empowering. At its core, so much of BtVS is about how we survive life on life’s terms. It’s easy to forget that Buffy is a teenage girl with the weight of the entire world bearing down on her tiny shoulders at all times. Such a heavy burden was placed upon her here and she managed to not only endure the pain, but also to recover from it.
2 "The Body"
“The Body” is not only one of the best episodes of BtVS, but also one of the greatest episodes of television period. It’s incredibly affecting-- anyone who's ever lost a loved one knows that it perfectly captured both the mundanities of death and the intricacies of grief. Whedon drew on the experience of losing his own mother and his deep understanding of the subject matter shone through in the most moving installment of the series.
Kristine Sutherland brought such warmth to the role of Joyce and for someone with limited screen time, gave an incredibly layered performance. In a way, Joyce had been a mother to this entire band of misfits and everyone took her loss hard.
There was the process of Buffy discovering Joyce and her heartbreaking attempts at saving her – not to mention her daydream of succeeding – in a sequence that was all too realistic. Then there was Buffy having to tell Dawn, which we saw, but didn't hear. Let’s not forget Xander’s wall punch, Willow’s sweater meltdown, and the kiss finally shared between her and Tara. Due to network interference, this was their first kiss onscreen and Whedon threatened to quit if it wound up on the cutting room floor.
However, the most poignant moment came from Anya. In a truly unforgettable monologue, she asked the questions that we all wonder about death, but never ask aloud, due to the fact that we feel that we should already know the answers.
1 Tara's death - "Seeing Red"
No moment hit fans quite as hard as Warren shooting Tara. We had months to adjust to the fact that Joyce might die, but Tara’s death came as a complete shock. What made it all the more heartbreaking was the reunion between Willow and Tara at the end of the previous episode. After spending half of the season waiting for Willow and Tara to get back together, it finally happened and it was awesome. We should’ve known it wouldn’t last. Again, this is a Joss Whedon show.
Whedon has been open about his dislike of guns and Buffy has always reflected that, with the Slayer calling them useless on more than one occasion. Tara’s accidental shooting drove home this point even further. She wasn’t even Warren’s intended target, but she lost her life in an instant.
While the loss of Tara was gut wrenching, it was also the impetus of Willow’s descent into darkness, which was the best arc of the season. People spent months complaining about the banality of the Trio – which was kind of the point – only to discover that Willow was the season’s true Big Bad.
Fans have never ceased clamoring for Tara to return but, although she almost did, bringing her back would’ve made her death lose all meaning. Buffy may have cheated death, but if everyone who dies can just return, the stakes disappear. Even still, the shot that killed Tara rang out through the entire series and remains its most heartbreaking moment.
Any heartbreaking Buffy moments that we forgot about? Let us know in the comments!