AND NOW, THE MOMENT YOU’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR…
Maybe I’m the only one that’s been waiting for this moment, but still. It’s a fun moment. In case you can’t tell, I’m totally fanboying out about all of this Buffy stuff. Let me bask.
Okay, I’m basked.*
Well, I don’t think there’s much else to say, except: ON TO MY TOP TEN FAVORITE BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER EPISODES OF ALL TIIIIIIME! (Oh, and: SPOILERS ABOUND.)
10. Season 6, Episode 17: “Normal Again”
What, you think this isn’t real just because of all the vampires, and demons, and ex-vengeance demons, and the sister that used to be a big ball of universe-destroying energy? (Xander)
While you can find a lot of the episodes from my list on just about any run-of-the-mill Buffy Top Ten ranking, I have a few unique favorites, and I think this is one of them. “Normal Again” is Buffy’s existential crisis: she is poisoned by a demon that convinces her she’s a patient in a psych hospital, that she’s basically been having one long psychotic break/schizophrenic episode since Season 1 (and, given the extremely creepy ending to the episode, we’re almost led to believe that Buffy’s sudden doubts about her reality may not be entirely wrong—it’s awesomely terrifying).
But what timing makes this episode truly effective; it comes at a point in Buffy’s life where it seems most plausible. Everything seems off to Buffy, out-of-sync, especially since her resurrection from death (which is explained brilliantly on the psych ward side of things as a summer in remission)—the “big bads” of the season are three nerds she knew from high school, her love current love interest is Spike of all people(/demons), and Buffy literally wishes she were dead. She’s in a bad place, disillusioned with her life. Not only that, but no one else is happy around her, either. Willow and Tara have broken up (and Willow’s been having some serious magic issues), Xander just left Anya at the altar, Giles is away in England, and Dawn is…well, Dawn. Basically, the episode chronicles very effectively one of the lowest points in Buffy’s life.
This is also an ideal time to introduce a theme recurring in many of my favorite episodes: Buffy’s loneliness. In “Normal Again,” Buffy has the opportunity to shirk that inevitable solitude that comes from being the Slayer—her friends make her life easier, of course, but they can never really help her with that responsibility, and in this episode it’s no wonder Buffy has second thoughts about staying in her “Slayer” reality.
The big conflict of the episode comes from Buffy’s increasing desire to “snap out” of her delusion; she wants to live a normal life, where her parents are still alive and not divorced. She is tired; she wants to give up the mantle of Slaying and be coddled, become her parents’ daughter once more and let them “take care of her.” Her desire is hardly surprising, given the choices Buffy has had to make as the Slayer (choices I’ll talk about a lot in the following episodes). Ironically, it’s psych-ward Joyce’s admonishment that Buffy believe in herself that gives Buffy the impetus to stay in her “delusion”—or, if we’re being positive, to continue being a hero.
As Buffy herself says: “Cause what’s more real? A sick girl in an institution…or some kind of supergirl chosen to fight demons and save the world? That’s ridiculous.”
9. Season 1, Episode 12: “Prophecy Girl”
Giles, I’m sixteen years old. I don’t want to die. (Buffy)
The first season of Buffy, as many people say and I will reluctantly agree, is not the greatest. It’s choppy, the actors and writers are still exploring the roles of the characters, and yeah, it’s totally campy. But this episode ties the season together. All of the characters come into their own. It’s the first apocalypse Buffy ever faces, and sets a precedent that remains true throughout the series: Buffy would be dead in the water without her friends (see what I did there?). But, at the same time, there’s an interesting qualifier to that truth: Buffy carries a mantle that no one else can bear. She is the Slayer, and it’s her responsibility and hers alone, and that responsibility necessitates loneliness (see what I mean with the recurring theme?). So, while Buffy needs her friends to stay alive—and to save the world—she can never quite be one of them. The dilemma courses through the entire series, and it’s heartbreaking.
“Prophecy Girl” establishes something else that remains constant throughout the series: Buffy’s courage. She goes to face the Master knowing she’s going to die. She makes the decision no one else can make, because she knows it’s what she needs to do. She does it without friends, without family, without her boyfriend. She does it herself. And yet this is the hardest decision she has had to make, and will ever have to make in some ways, because it’s the first one. She chooses to sacrifice herself, and many things and people she loves, in subsequent episodes and apocalypses. But this is the first time that decision is forced upon her, and the weight of it is clear.
Oh—and the theme song. I think this is the only episode where the theme song is used for anything other than the opening credits, and here it’s used twice to great effect. Nerf Herder, you rock.
8. Season 5, Episode 22: “The Gift”
She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us. (Giles)
Glory is probably the single most powerful foe Buffy ever faces, so this episode is bound to be epic in nature, and it does not disappoint. It’s the only other episode besides “Prophecy Girl” in which Buffy chooses to sacrifice, literally, all she has for her friends, Sunnydale, and for the world. So, epic times two.
How gratifying is it to see Buffy finally beat the living hell out of Glory, though? And almost as gratifying (in a nasty, sort of horrible way) to see Giles kill Ben, and therefore kill Glory, when Buffy chooses not to—hence the quote at the beginning of this section—only emphasizing further the widening gap between Buffy and her friends. See? Loneliness.
“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it,” Buffy says to Dawn, at the end. “Be brave. Live.” Buffy knows, because she has lived in the world as the Slayer for more than five years, and made some incredibly difficult decisions in the process. In a way, Buffy’s death is not only a “gift” (“Death is your gift”) to her friends, and to the world, but to herself: she is finally relieving herself of her immense duty, fulfilling her measure and reaching her highest potential. She’s finally letting go of that solitude.
7. Season 2, Episodes 13 & 14: “Surprise”/“Innocence”
Angelus: “You can’t do it. You can’t kill me.”
Buffy: “Give me time.”
“Surprise” and “Innocence” are where Joss Whedon’s use of metaphor really takes off in the series. A few episodes in the first season (“Nightmares” and “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” come to…mind…) and “Ted” from the second do a fair job of it. But “Surprise” and “Innocence” are masterful. They take the idea of a boyfriend spurning his lover after finally getting her to have sex with him beyond a whole new level. I think that’s really one of the strengths of the early seasons of Buffy: the show manages to express regular teenage experiences through supernatural metaphors, and in the process opens up those experiences to all different types of people.
This two-parter has some great moments, what with the fantasy elements and heroics: it’s Angelus reuniting with Spike and Drusilla (and the introduction of Angelus, a truly despicable specimen and a perfectly horrifying foil to Angel is awesome in and of itself), it’s the Judge getting bloweded up by a rocket launcher, etc.
But the best parts of “Surprise”/“Innocence” are where things get real: it’s Buffy coming home after the night she spent with Angel and having that awkward encounter with her mom (“I don’t know, you just look…” W hat, Joyce? How does Buffy look??); it’s Angelus being absolutely awful to Buffy, insulting her love and affection in the worst way possible; it’s Buffy crying on her bed because of what’s happened; it’s Oz and Willow and Xander and Cordelia having relatively functional relationships when Buffy’s world is crashing down around her (Oh, and it’s Oz being about the coolest guy on the planet: “See, in my fantasy when I’m kissing you…you’re kissing me.” Oz, thou art the man.); it’s Buffy and Angel, together, finally—and then, oh so suddenly, not. And it’s Buffy and her mom watching a movie in their pajamas together, at home, after everything is over: “You look the same to me,” Joyce says, rebutting her line from earlier in the episode, reassuring Buffy that she is still Joyce’s daughter, the same girl she has always been—even if she is a bit older, a bit wiser, a bit less innocent, and a bit more inclined to kill her boyfriend.
6. Season 7, Episode 5: “Selfless”
Xander, you can’t help me. I’m not even sure there’s a me to help. (Anya)
I originally thought “Selfless” would be a lot lower on my list, around the nine or ten slot, but in watching these episodes again…I just really really love this episode. It isn’t one I see on many Buffy top ten lists, but it definitely belongs on mine. In case you haven’t caught on yet, Anya is one of my favorite characters of the series. And “Selfless” belongs to Anya (Or should I say Aud?).
From Anya’s flashbacks to her quirky honesty and raging capitalism, “Selfless” crown-bejewels her character wonderfully. (Confession: there’s a part of me that wishes she would actually die at the end of this episode, just because it would make that beautifully jarring transition at the end that much more powerful. But I acknowledge she does have a role to play in the season, and that’s okay. It still works incredibly well.) This episode chronicles Anya’s entire character arc: Aud, the humble village weirdo and, apparently, communist —> Anyanka, the fierce Vengeance Demon who lives only for her work —> Mrs. Anya Christina Emanuella Jenkins Harris (or Mrs. Anya Lame-ass Made-up Maiden-name Harris, whichever you prefer—that song is so perfect), the raging capitalist who defines herself completely by her boyfriend and friends —> just Anya, who realizes she still has a lot to figure out about herself. Ugh. It’s so good.
“Selfless” also has some interesting conflict in the Xander-Willow-Buffy arena (“I am the law”), going back to my theme of Buffy’s loneliness vs. her relationships with her friends. This episode, too, isolates her even further. When Buffy finds out Anya has gone back to her Vengeance Demon ways with a…er, well, with a vengeance, Buffy knows she has to kill Anya. Xander, and Willow, to an extent, vehemently opposes this decision. But in many ways, Buffy is right, as she (almost) always has been—like when she gave up her life (twice!), or when she had to kill Angel. This episode, and much of Season 7 in general, throws Buffy’s morality into doubt, but I really think she’s justified, and, as always, is willing to make the decisions that no one else can even fathom.
And man, that transition at the end, from Anya’s singing (a great throwback to “Once More, With Feeling”) to…well, you know what I mean. And if you don’t, you need to watch this episode.
5. Season 6, Episode 7: “Once More, With Feeling”
All those secrets you’ve been concealin’—say you’re happy now, once more with feelin’. (Sweet)
In contrast to “Selfless,” “Once More, With Feeling” actually ranked sightly lower than I thought it would. I thought the famed musical episode might be 2 or 3 on the list, but here it is at a solid five. Of course, being #5 of 144 episodes ain’t nothin’. Anyway, there is so much to love about this episode. It’s the MUSICAL episode, for crying out loud! Buffy and Spike’s kiss, Alyson Hannigan totally failing at singing, Tony Head and Amber Benison totally succeeding at it. But the great thing about this episode is that, while it is fun and musical and a complete change from the norm (and the complete opposite of the #3 episode on my Top Ten list in many ways, but that’s a whole other can of very interesting worms), it still does what Joss Whedon does best: gives us amazing characters.
“Once More, With Feeling” is all about revelations. Every character—and couple—get a spike in conflict from this episode: Tara discovers that Willow is manipulating her—and with magic, no less; Anya and Xander realize they both are having second thoughts about the whole wedding thing; Dawn’s kleptomania goes public; Giles decides Buffy is relying on him too much, and chooses to leave to allow her to grow; Spike doesn’t want to be around Buffy if she can’t reciprocate his feelings just as Buffy proves to him that she may actually be thinking about some semblance of reciprocation in the feelings department; and, of course, Buffy reveals to her friends that they did not in fact pull her out of hell, but rather, heaven. (In a lot of ways this episode marks the beginning of the downward spiral that leads to “Normal Again.”) And all of this is done through some really great songs! This is where Joss Whedon shines: escalating conflict in strange, unexpected, and fascinating ways. “Once More, With Feeling” does that so wonderfully.
And, as long as I’m keeping with my “Buffy = lonely” theme, the song “Walk Through The Fire” is yet another example of Buffy’s inevitably isolation, despite what her friends do or do not do to the contrary. “Understand we’ll go hand in hand, but we’ll walk alone in fear.” That’s Buffy’s theme throughout the series: her friends are always close, are always helping, but Buffy is the Slayer. No one can take that from her, or do it for her.
Oh, and for the record, I’m on board with Anya about the bunnies—what do they need such good eyesight for, anyway?
4. Season 7, Episode 22: “Chosen”
In every generation, one slayer is born—because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule…. 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…every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong? (Buffy)
This episode just has all the feels. I know a lot of people aren’t in love with the final episode of the series, but I guess I am. From Buffy’s cookie dough spiel—
Ok, I’m cookie dough. I’m not done baking. I’m not finished becoming whoever the hell it is I’m gonna turn out to be. I make it through this, and the next thing, and the next thing, and maybe one day I turn around and realize I’m ready. I’m cookies. And then, you know, if I want someone to eat m—…enjoy warm delicious cookie me, that’s fine. That’ll be then. When I’m done.
—to her final, beautiful speech about power; from the Angel-face drawn on Spike’s punching bag to Anya’s horrible, sudden death scene; from to Buffy’s loneliness, emphasized by the First—
There’s that word again—what you are, how you’ll die. Alone.
—to the fact that Buffy can finally share her power in order to save the world, this episode is an incredible climax to the series. And, really, that might be my favorite thing about the series finale: Buffy’s loneliness finally shatters. She’s no longer alone in her power or her responsibility. She is still the first among Slayers in many ways, of course, but that loneliness that plagued her throughout the series, the loneliness that her friends only barely keep at bay (and if they hadn’t been there, it’s easy to see that Buffy’s life would have ended long ago—back in “Prophecy Girl,” if not earlier), fades. After a horrible death at the end of Season 5 and being ripped from heaven in Season 6, Buffy finally finds her place, and connects with the world and with her friends.
And Buffy’s smile, at the end…it’s wonderful.
3. Season 4, Episode 10: “Hush”
can’t even cry,
the Gentlemen are coming by.
Looking in windows,
knocking on doors,
They need to take seven
and they might take yours…
Can’t call to mom,
can’t say a word,
you’re gonna die screaming
but you won’t be heard. (Girl in Buffy’s dream)
I have a lot of Buffy t-shirts, and two of them are actually inspired by this episode, so that alone makes it pretty awesome. “Hush” is a bright spot during one of the less interesting seasons of Buffy (that said, a “less-interesting” season of Buffy is still pretty damn good television IMO). The Gentlemen may be the most horrifying baddies to ever grace the Buffy screen. That line, “Can’t call to Mom, can’t say a word, you’re gonna die screaming and you won’t be heard,” is genuinely frightening. That loss of control, that lack of ability to connect with others, it’s horrifying, and this episode plays on that fear beautifully.
“Hush” starts like any normal episode, but from the moment the cast goes silent, things get real. Also, they get awesome. One of the great things about television is that you can do “concept” episodes—you can take risks, do strange things, experiment a bit, and in general get away with it. Film is a less forgiving medium; I don’t think audiences would be nearly as open to an “all-silent” film in this day and age as they would be to a single episode of television (The Artist, of course, is an exception, but at the same time proves my point—the stakes are that much higher in film)—we can endure any kind of episode for forty-five minutes, plus the cost isn’t as up-front as a movie theater. I think this actually makes television the more powerful medium, and we’re seeing the reality of that today with shows like Breaking Bad, Lost, The Good Wife, and Game of Thrones, just to name a few. Anyway, that’s something of a tangent, but “Hush” really succeeds because it’s a risk. That’s the real heart of “Hush” (pun intended—ha!): it’s a concept episode, but it uses the concept of silence to further character and plot. Buffy and Riley, Willow and Tara (Tara! So great to see her in this episode! When she and Willow perform that spell together it’s magical.), Anya and Xander (and Xander thinking Spike was feeding on Anya, and Anya’s suggestion afterward…so good); “Hush enhances each of their character arcs. The silence that takes place in this episode isn’t a fluke or a gimmick, but has real consequences in the world.
Three scenes define the episode, I think:
- Buffy and Riley’s “babble-fest” conversation--filled with words but no meaning--at the beginning,
- the moment where Buffy and Riley encounter each other, in forced silence, as they’re fighting the Gentlemen’s henchmen in the clock tower, and then
- that moment in the end, where they sit across from one another in Buffy’s dorm room, and simply don’t know what to say to one another, despite having their voices restored. Filled with meaning, but no words. Ending with that silence is powerful stuff, and great television.
Also: Giles’ overhead presentation! Delightfully gory, and Buffy’s response to Xander’s question “how do we kill them” is hilarious. In fact that whole presentation might be one of the funnier sequences in the series. Also: BUFFY WILL PATROL TONIGHT. (That’s one of my t-shirts, by the way. The other is the Gentlemen.)
Anyway, if this episode taught me one thing, it’s this: if I’m ever near a “laryngitis outbreak,” I’m getting as far away from that place as possible.
2. Season 2, Episodes 21 & 22: “Becoming, Parts 1 and 2”
Bottom line is, even if you see ‘em coming, you’re not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can’t help that. It’s what you do afterwards that counts. that’s when you find out who you are. (Whistler)
Remember my aforementioned recurring theme? Buffy making difficult choices, because of, despite, or sometimes in spite of what her friends may suggest? Yeah, that’s happenign big time in “Becoming.” This entire series is very much about Buffy’s connection with her friends, but there’s almost always a certain point where Buffy transcends her friends and everything boils down to just her. (Two notable exceptions to this are “Primeval” in Season 4 and the end sequence of Season 6, but the theme recurs far more than it doesn’t.) This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, after all, not Buffy and All Her Friends. Her friends can only do so much; in the end, Buffy always has to be the one to make the choice.
And, in “Becoming” (just like in “Prophecy Girl,” and “The Gift”), she makes one hell of a choice. “In the end you’re always by yourself. You’re all you’ve got. That’s the point.” Whistler, the random sort-of-good demon whose purpose seems to be exposition and mentor-y stuff, emphasizes Buffy’s loneliness. And, when Buffy goes to face Angel, she really is alone. Xander gets Giles out of there ASAP; Spike and Dru take off; Willow, Oz, and Cordelia are busy spell-casting. In the end, it’s only Buffy. But, in the end—and this is the beauty of these episodes, that’s all she needs. “That’s everything, huh?” Angelus asks, having cornered Buffy, a sword at her throat. “No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away, and what’s left?”
“Me,” Buffy says, in what might be the defining moment of the entire series. And, then, she kicks Angelus’ ass.
1. Season 5, Episode 16: “The Body”
I don’t understand. I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s…there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid, and, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch, ever. And she’ll never have eggs, or yawn, or brush her hair, not ever and no one will explain to me why. (Anya)
Being honest, this episode is the reason it’s taken me a week to write another Buffy post. I’ve been dreading watching it, and when I finally did…yeesh. To say it’s emotionally draining is an understatement.
There is so much I could say about “The Body,” but now that I’m trying to say it, I don’t think I should say any of it. There are some media experiences that capture life in all it’s horror and beauty in the most accurate, painfully perfect ways possible, and this is one of them. The writing, the cinematography, the sound/music (or lack thereof), the incredible acting (spearheaded as always by incredibly performances from SMG, Alyson Hannigan, and Emma Caulfield) all come together for a genuinely moving, beautiful, and haunting episode.
I’ll be up front with the fact that my love of Buffy is completely subjective, dependent on my attachment to the characters and how what they are going through relates to what I was going through at various times when I watched the show. I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but you may not, and that’s okay. But I feel absolutely confident in saying that “The Body” is, hands down, the best hour of television ever produced. It’s incredible. It’s worth watching the Buffy series just to get to this episode—which, by the way, is at full effect when you’ve watched all the episodes that lead up to it, so I highly suggest you do that, and not just watch “The Body” on its own. It’s worth it—trust me.
I must’ve seen it five or six times, now, and it still makes me cry.
* If you got that reference, I will love you forever.