'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Turns 20: Look Back at the Classic Series' Best Episodes!
By Rachel McRady
Grrr arggg! Into every generation an excellent TV show is born: One show in all the world. The Chosen One.
It’s been 20 years since Buffy Summers, Mr. Pointy, The Bronze, and Giles’ always-smudged spectacles graced our small screens, and the world has never been the same (mostly because she saved it… a lot).
There were plenty of quips (“Out. For. A. Walk. B**ch.”), tears (Spike’s undying devotion, sob), and frights (bunnies, plus demons and stuff), but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was so much more than that.
The Joss Whedon masterpiece created several feminist icons, spoke to addiction struggles, portrayed the first lesbian sex scene on broadcast television, showed that vampires were sexy long before Twilight and made it ok to wear pink leather pants in public… well, sort of.
Whether you were Team Angel, Team Spike or kind of just wanted Giles and Joyce to get together, the show had a character and a moment for everyone. So to look back on the 20th anniversary, ET has compiled a list of the 20 best episodes to enjoy once more with feeling! And if you don’t like them, blame Dawn. Everyone else does.
20. Season 1, Episode 12: “Prophecy Girl”
Let’s be real: Season one wasn’t exactly Buffy’s best (seductive praying mantis teacher, anyone?). The special effects were circa 1997 and villains had fruit punch mouth. But the show really reached its heart in the freshman season’s finale, when Buffy died at the hands of the Master. You see Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) once again carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, Xander (Nicholas Brendon) saving her life and her final quip, which launches the Slayer’s soon-to-be signature comebacks: “I may be dead, but I’m still pretty, which is more than I can say for you.”
19. Season 3, Episode 16: “Doppelgangland”
When Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Anya (Emma Caulfield) accidentally transport evil vampire Willow from another dimension into their own, the real Willow is forced to don a leather catsuit and convince a team of vampires that she’s running the show. Hilarity ensues. Plus, it was the first indication that Willow is “kinda gay.”
Spike (James Marsters) certainly knows how to make an entrance, and he proves it the very first time his peroxide-covered head comes hurtling onto the show. The leather coat-wearing badass bursts into town with his beloved and insane Drusilla (Juliet Landau) by his side. Determined to add another Slayer to his kill list, Spike hijacks Sunnydale High’s parent-teacher night, and Buffy is forced to once again save the day, this time earning the respect of her mom.
17. Season 6, Episode 16: “Hell’s Bells”
We’re still not over Xander and Anya’s breakup, especially considering… well, how the show ends. This painful episode was supposed to be their wedding, before Xander wigged and left a tear-stained Anya at the altar. Before that devastating moment, Whedon forced us all to watch the doe-eyed Anya recite her blunt, sweet vows while a torn Xander trudges through the rain -- as if season six wasn’t filled with enough pain.
16. Season 4, Episode 9: “Something Blue”
Long before Buffy and Spike hooked up for real, fans were given a hilarious little taster. A heartbroken Willow’s angry words accidentally come true in this hijinks-packed episode, which make Buffy and Spike fall in love, Giles go blind and Xander become a demon magnet. Mostly it was just nice to see Riley get turned down so Buffy can plan her wedding to Spike. “Honey, we need to talk about the invitations. Now, do you wanna be William the Bloody or just Spike? Because either way it’s gonna look majorly weird.”
15. Season 3, Episode 18: “Earshot”
This controversial episode aired out of order due to its similarities to the real-life Columbine shootings, and one can see why. When Buffy gets touched by a demon, she gains the power to read minds, only to learn that someone is planning to kill the students at Sunnydale High. She finds lonely nerd Jonathan (Danny Strong) alone in the clock tower with a rifle and has to talk him down from using the gun. No Slayer strength, no training, just human interaction. The honest, quip-free moment was oddly reminiscent of Xander’s moving speech in the season six finale (but more on that later).
Sure, season seven is the season that brought us Kennedy (ugh), way too much infighting and Nathan Fillion as a creepy preacher who likes to murder girls. But it also gave fans one of the best series finales in history. Willow is able to harness her Wiccan powers for good this time, giving Slayer strength to all of the Potentials and helping Buffy and co. defend the Hellmouth from the First Evil. In the end, it’s Spike who saves the world, hoping (new soul and all) to help repent for some of his many sins. The episode was filled with tears (why, Anya, why???), nostalgia and lots of vampire slicing and dicing. And Buffy’s triumphant smile at the end was the perfect way to say goodbye.
13. Season 3, Episode 6: “Band Candy”
This gem of an episode gave fans the best relationship that never happened! When the school’s band candy is bewitched to make adults behave like teenagers, Buffy and the Scooby Gang are forced to defend Sunnydale on their own (but really, what else is new?). The best part of this episode was the hysterical and kind of perfect hookup between Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) and Buffy’s mom, Joyce (Kristine Sutherland). Sadly, this romance never panned out, but one can dream.
Is it wrong to be attracted to evil Angel, aka Angelus? (Asking for a friend.) The soul-free villain/mega hottie took things up a notch in this episode. No, he’s not taking jabs at a post-virginal Buffy’s lovemaking or casually trying to destroy humanity with an ancient demon. This time, Angelus goes straight for the jugular (literally) and kills Giles’ teacher love, Ms. Calendar (Robia LaMorte). Using his own twisted brand of torture, Angelus leaves her dead body in Giles’ bed covered in rose petals. This devastating moment, combined with Angelus’ poignant narration, proved to be some of the show’s finest writing.
“It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow, empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.” Chills, you guys, chills.
11. Season 6, Episode 8: “Tabula Rasa”
Introducing: Randy Giles! Turns out that when Willow’s spells go wrong, things get sticky for the Scoobies, but it makes for great TV. In this episode, a magic-addicted Will is trying to make her girlfriend Tara (Amber Benson) forget that they ever fought and Buffy forget that she went to heaven. Naturally, things go awry and the entire group wakes up in the Magic Box with no memory, trying to piece together their identities and connection to one another. Spike and Giles decide they must be related (all Brits are related, right?), Buffy opts to be called Joan (another feminist icon, solid) and Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) is just as annoying, despite having no memory of her previous annoying nature.
10. Season 3, Episode 13: “The Zeppo”
While Xander is the one member of the Scooby Gang with no real powers, he still gets a few moments to shine. His best came in this often underrated season three classic, where the rest of the group was battling an apocalypse (yeah, that again), leaving Xander to his own devices. He ends up tangling with a group of undead bad boys who want to roam Sunnydale wreaking havoc. After losing his virginity to Faith -- whaaaaat!?! -- it’s up to Xander to save the school from the homemade bomb his zombie gang created. It was a truly heroic moment made even sweeter by the fact that the always overlooked Xander kept every bit of it to himself.
9. Season 3, Episode 22: “Graduation Day (Part 2)”
Few seniors get to watch their obnoxious principal get eaten by a giant demon or blow up the school on graduation day, but Sunnydale High isn’t like most schools. After the mayor turns into an enormous demon in the middle of his commencement speech, the whole school fights back, brandishing weapons and making a last stand. It was a triumphant moment after three seasons of watching innocent students get killed by the Hellmouth’s worst residents. The best quote of the finale goes to Oz (Seth Green), who, in his mellow way, summed up the entire senior experience.
“Guys, take a moment to deal with this. We survived,” Oz says as they stare at the burning school.
“It was a hell of a battle,” Buffy replies.
“Not the battle. High school,” he says. “We’re taking a moment… and we’re done.”
Where’s the Vitamin C song when you need it?
8. Season 3, Episode 9: “The Wish”
Turns out, one person can make a difference, especially if she’s the Chosen One! Shortly after Xander cheats on Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) and breaks her heart, she meets the new girl, Anya, and makes a dangerous wish: that Buffy Summers had never come to Sunnydale. Unfortunately for Cordy, Anya is actually a vengeance demon who grants the wish, spinning Sunnydale into an alternate dimension where vampires rule the town and no one is safe. In this world, Xander and Willow are sexy vamps working for the Master, who is killing off the human population one by one. It ends with Anya’s wish being broken and her powers stripped forever (or at least for about three seasons).
The show’s 100th episode was also the season five finale, and was filmed before Whedon and the rest of the crew knew whether Buffy would be picked up for another season. So, naturally, they went all out in Buffy’s epic battle against the god Glory (Clare Kramer). It all ends with Buffy literally giving her life to save the world, dying for the second time on the show, but this time without anyone there to save her. Thanks a lot, Dawn.
6. Season 6, Episode 22: “Grave”
After the show’s harshest season, it was clear that the “Big Bad” in Season 6 was life itself. Buffy was resurrected by Willow and the other Scoobies and left to deal with the pain of returning to a cruel world after being in heaven. Willow began to delve deeper into magic, with her addictions costing her happiness with Tara and causing her friends harm. It all comes to a head when Tara is accidentally shot and killed by Warren, sending Willow into an evil spiral filled with dark magic. After she strips Warren of his skin, taking her first human life, Willow is set to end the world. Luckily, Xander reaches her in time, and her oldest friend is able to tap into her undeniable grief and suffering and find the one bit of humanity she has left. It also proved that we can totally cry over a story about yellow crayons.
5. Season 4, Episode 10: “Hush”
This Emmy-nominated episode is almost entirely silent as a group of fairy tale demons called The Gentlemen steal all of the voices in Sunnydale so no one can hear their victims scream as they tear out their hearts. Easily the creepiest villains in Buffy history, these finely dressed baddies terrorize the town and UC Sunnydale, where the Buffster is trying to make things work with her new man, Riley. Though the episode was definitely chill-inducing, the scene where Giles uses an overhead projector to explain what is happening was some of the best use of physical comedy on the show. And that’s saying something.
With one Slayer murdered, Willow hospitalized and an evil Angelus set to destroy the world, this was the season finale to end all season finales. While Willow desperately tries to work her minimal powers to restore Angel’s soul, Buffy is forced to battle her former lover to the death. It ended up being a pretty epic fight, Princess Bride-style swords and all. Hope seems lost when Buffy falls to the ground, losing her sword, but in the most Slayer-tastic, Nasty Woman, Beyoncé-approved moment of all time, Buffy catches the blade of Angelus’ sword in her hands and shoves it back in his face, leaping to her feet as Buffy fans did a collective fist pump. Sadly, Willow’s spell works and Angel regains his soul a moment too late, and Buffy is forced to kill her one true love (for the time being) in order to save the world. Romance + Heartbreak + Feminist Undertones + a Buffy-Spike Collaboration = Perfection.
3. Season 3, Episode 20: “The Prom”
Despite being the Chosen One in the mystical world, Buffy is rarely acknowledged by anyone outside of her inner circle. She lives her life not as a teenage girl, but as the Slayer. So when the entire senior class bands together to give her the “Class Protector” award, it’s a truly touching moment. That combined with the fact that she gets one slow dance with Angel at her prom despite their split was a sweet reminder that despite her many duties, Buffy was still allowed a few rites of passage, no matter how unconventional.
They got the mustard out! By far the show’s most creative episode, this entirely original musical showcased the extreme talents of the cast. Turns out, Giles and Tara have beautiful voices, Spike is a real-life rocker and Willow… well, Willow tries. This is also when Buffy and Spike have their first real kiss. Swoon.
1. Season 5, Episode 16: “The Body”
Honestly, this episode belongs on every major list of the best episodes in all of TV. When Buffy comes home to find her mom, Joyce, lying dead on the couch after suffering a brain aneurysm, she, her sister Dawn and the rest of the group are forced to confront their grief in an all-too-real way. It was the only episode of the show to not feature a score or soundtrack, and the harsh silences only add to the raw emotion felt throughout. The reality of a natural death in this fantastical world made for truly gripping television. From the panicked first moments where the Slayer scrambles to save her mother’s life to the heartbreaking monologue from a confused Anya trying to make sense of these sickening human emotions, this episode is a master class in acting, editing and writing.
Season 4, Episode 17: “Superstar”
Jonathan pulls a bit of magic to make the Scoobies think he runs Sunnydale like a nerdy James Bond. In real life, actor Danny Strong went on to have a recurring role on Gilmore Girls and a successful career as a writer for Empire, Game Change and more, earning him two Emmys. So what’s real and what’s fiction?
Season 6, Episode 9: “Smashed”
Buffy and Spike literally brought a house down by having sex for the first time. Sorry, Vampire Diaries, but your steamy scenes don’t even come close.
What’s your favorite Buffy episode? Tell us in the comments below or tweet me at @rachelmcrady!