Tomorrow, Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns 20 (having first aired on US television on 10 March 1997 – yikes!). To mark the occasion, I am presenting an annotated list of 20 of my personal favourite Buffy episodes, in rough order of preference (least to most favourite).
20. ‘The Replacement’ (5.3/81: Espenson/Contner)*
One of many identity episodes in my selection, this one concerning Xander, and making excellent use of Nicholas Brendon’s twin brother.
19. ‘Dead Things’ (6.13/93: DeKnight/Contner)
I originally went for ‘I Was Made to Love You’ in this slot, but went for this one instead. The darkest episode in my selection.
18. ‘Witch’ (1.3/3: Reston/Cragg)
The season 1 episode that I find most compelling as a standalone, and that for me best points to the shape of things to come.
17. ‘Lies My Parents Told Me’ (7.17/139: Fury&Goddard/Fury)
My only season 7 selection. I’m a sucker for elegant structures and intertwined temporal strands.
16. ‘Gingerbread’ (3.11/45: Espenson/Whitmore, Jr.)
A great story about stories.
15. ‘Halloween’ (2.6/18: Ellsworth/Green)
A spell makes everyone turn into the thing they’re dressed up as. What a device! And of course, the one-off device is used to drive forward personal, emotional plot arcs.
14. ‘A New Man’ (4.12/68: Espenson/Gershman)
Treasurable for so many reasons, but most of all for the scene where Giles visits Maggie Walsh’s office.
13. ‘The Gift’ (5.22/100: Whedon/Whedon)
I’ll just suggest that finishing Buffy here would both have left it with a higher batting average than it ended with, and wrapped things up impeccably.
12. ‘Earshot’ (3.18/52: Espenson/Kimble)
Part of the Buffy communication trilogy. A great vehicle for Espenson’s comic gifts and way with language.
11. ‘Enemies’ (3.17/51: Petrie/Grossman)
Marries the formal and the emotional perfectly: a very shrewdly constructed episode, worthy of Hitchcock in its quiet manipulations of point of view, and the high-point in the Buffy/Angel/Faith plotline.
10. ‘The Zeppo’ (3.13/47: Vebber/Whitmore, Jr.)
I criminally underrated this episode on a first viewing, because it had been missold to me as an episode entirely from Xander’s point of view. What it actually is is a masterclass in tone.
9. ‘Band Candy’ (3.6/40: Espenson/Lange)
I haven’t actually seen this episodes as many times as I ought to have, but it deserves inclusion both on its own merits and for the long humorous shadow that it casts across future episodes and seasons.
8. ‘Anne’ (3.1/35: Whedon/Whedon)
A great re-statement of the mission, and the start of peak Buffy.
7. ‘The Wish’ (3.9/43: Noxon/Greenwalt)
I love economical narration, and the two worlds and their characters are set up with an economy and resonance that are fit to at least be mentioned in the same breath as It’s a Wonderful Life.
6. ‘Who Are You’ (4.16/72: Whedon/Whedon)
This really is the show firing on all cylinders. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku swapping mannerisms is brilliantly done. The script is a supreme example of Whedon navigating his characters into emotionally-revealing situations and configurations. And the ‘Because it’s wrong’ motif crystallises the themes and emotions into standout moments. Genius.
5. ‘Intervention’ (5.18/96: Espenson/Gershman)
My most sentimental choice. The scene at the end where Buffy visits sexily-wounded Spike gets me every time.
4. ‘Once More, With Feeling’ (6.7/107: Whedon/Whedon)
Equal parts brilliance and cheese.
3. ‘Hush’ (4.10/66: Whedon/Whedon)
Yet another masterclass in knowing exactly how to develop a plot device over the course of an episode – for humour, drama, and emotional engagement.
2. ‘Doppelgangland’ (3.16/50: Whedon/Whedon)
My favourite of the episodes about my favourite character. I’ve written a whole post about it here.
1. ‘The Body’ (5.16/94: Whedon/Whedon)
Endlessly fresh, endlessly rewarding. The most rigorously structured and controlled episode of all. Withstands the closest scrutiny and emerges even more impressive.
— — —
Two episodes that I don’t like nearly as much as many other people do: ‘Restless’ (which I experience, I’m sorry to say, as a negation of the clarity, economy and immediate engagement that are at the heart of what I think makes Whedon a supremely important television artist) and ‘Normal Again’ (putting the main diegesis inside one extra fictional layer, or not, is ultimately not that interesting or important to me, which is where I’m at odds with other critical reception – but as a standalone episode, it’s certainly impressive).
Joss Whedon created Buffy, and in an important sense, Buffy created Joss Whedon: anyone with a decent familiarity with Whedon’s creative biography knows that this is the series that turned Whedon into a showrunner and a director, and honed his television screenwriting skills. If faced with the decision of having to preserve just one of Whedon’s television series for posterity, I would of course choose Buffy over Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse. But putting this list together has made me realise that my top 20 Whedon television episodes would probably be about 45% Buffy, 10% Angel, 25% Firefly and 20% Dollhouse. So, I’m grateful that 20 years ago, one of my favourite television series, which is also one of the most important and influential television series ever, and undoubtedly the most written-about television series ever, made its debut, but I’m yet more grateful that it launched a career that has gone on to give us so many other great series and episodes.
*Info in brackets: [season].[episode in season]/[episode overall]: [writer(s)]/[directors]