[Article by Mike Marinaro]
#25. “Pangs” [4×08] – An episode with a notably hokey plot, but also stuffed (pun intended) with hilarious dialogue! This is the funniest episode in the entire series for me. You’ve got Anya’s usual frankness, Buffy’s cute cooking obsession, Willow’s crazy over-reaction, Xander the butt-monkey victim, and Spike being laughably lonely but acting as a dispenser of reality and hilarity. The quotables-per-minute (QPM!) is simply unmatched. “Pangs” is flawed as heck, even sporting a pointless cameo from Angel, but boy does it put a smile on my face each and every time.
#24. “The Wish” [3×09] – The Wishverse isn’t the show’s reality, which means that its darkness isn’t earned ‘as is.’ It largely makes up for this by being a fun alternate reality episode that takes a look at what Sunnydale would be like if Buffy never showed up in [“1×01”]. We get a glimpse of what reality could have been like for everyone, and because of that “The Wish” is allowed to go all-out on old characters being alive again and existing characters getting killed off left and right. Not the most important episode, but a lot of fun nonetheless.
#23. “Earshot” [3×18] – “Earshot” is one of those solid stand-alone Buffy episodes that manages to talk about some dark subject matter while remaining extremely fun. It comments on school shootings, loneliness, and suicide, which reverberates back to the main characters. Buffy gets telepathy and it’s not all fun and games (although there’s plenty of that too). Jonathan also becomes a more pronounced character in the tower scene — one that establishes a troubled personality that will become relevant again later in the series.
#22. “Villains” [6×20] – My favorite of the Dark Willow episodes ending Season 6. With an icy cool detachment we see Willow migrate from shock to desperation to vengeance to all-out fury. The music, acting, and directing all come together to create an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty. This is an important episode in Willow’s journey as it solidified that magic is not Willow’s problem; her lack of control and being able to deal with loss in a healthy way are her problems. From Season 3 to now, this is the payoff we’ve been waiting for.
#21. “Doppelgangland” [3×16] – The first time the show really takes a deep look at who Willow is — her strengths, her flaws, and who she wants to be. While Willow knows emotional control is key to using magic responsibly, we don’t actually see her pull it off very often. With a lack of self-confidence, healthy coping mechanisms, and emotional control, Willow allows Anya to bait her into a spell that goes dangerously and hilariously wrong in what amounts to a clever, witty, fun, exciting, and fascinating Season 3 outing, by Whedon himself. This is a memorable one.
#20. “I Only Have Eyes for You” [2×19] – A great example of Season 2 at its most operatic. This is a potent episode dealing with the difficulty and importance of forgiveness. It is not only beautifully constructed, but it has one the the most awe-inspiring scenes in the series when Buffy gets possessed by the spirit of a man who killed his older lover, while Angel gets possessed by the victim, which perfectly parallels Buffy’s guilt over accidentally setting Angelus loose. It is thematically rich, character-centered, and emotionally powerful.
#19. “Lies My Parents Told Me” [7×17] – A complex and rousing episode that gets at the very nature these characters, analyzes them, and then evolves them. Buffy, Giles, Wood, and Spike are all never the same after what transpires here. Although this is a huge episode for Spike as he completely regains full control over himself and his destiny, it’s an even bigger episode for Buffy as we see her step completely out of the shadow of her youth (Giles) to take on full leadership of her army; for good or bad, success or failure, it’s now clear she’s the one running the show.
#18. “Graduation Day Pt. 2” [3×22] – In a satisfying finale to the high school years, Buffy forces Angel to drink her blood to save his life, the Mayor tries to choke Buffy while unconcious in a hospital bed, vampires get killed by flaming arrows, Principal Snyder gets eaten, the high school gets blown up, Angel heads off to L.A. and, oh yeah, “counting down from 7-3-0.” While lacking the high stakes and emotional high of many of Buffy finales, “Graduation Day Pt. 2” still holds its own with a nice blend of the funny and the thrills.
#17. “Hush” [4×10] – One of the most structurally daring episodes in Buffy‘s run by having a long stretch of no spoken dialogue. It is arguably the creepiest episode in the show as well. What makes the experimental episode really come to life, though, is that it offers solid character development by way of a strong metaphor: using silence to emphasize the nature of communication; how sometimes words get in the way of communicating thoughts, feelings, and ideas. “Hush” isn’t without the funny, either, which rounds out an understandably well-loved episode.
#16. “After Life” [6×03] – I feel this is one of the most consistently underrated episodes in the entirely of Buffy. It is intelligently dark, creepy, ominous, and oozes atmosphere. Excellent follow-through from previous stories is a rare thing to see in the television world, but “After Life” puts its foot in the ground and makes the case that Season 6 means business in addressing the fallout from Season 5. I find the episode to be thought provoking, weighty, and haunting, and is one of (if not the) best episodes Jane Espenson’s ever written.
#15. “Chosen” [7×22] – As a finale to the season’s plot, “Chosen” suffers from sloppiness and convenient last-minute devices. As a finale to the whole series, what “Chosen” has to say as metaphor, through the season’s consistent themes, proves to be quite stunning and is actually near perfect. After learning the hard way how not to lead this kind of army, Buffy comes to the realization that the key to the Slayer’s isolation and power isn’t hoarding it, but rather sharing it. Buffy’s final solution makes all kinds of sense when thinking about what Buffy is all about.
#14. “No Place Like Home” [5×05] – An episode that’s not as much underrated as it is overlooked. Beginnings are rarely as exciting as conclusions, but “No Place Like Home” pulls a “Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] type performance in the shape of an arc starter. It deftly merges action, comedy, and drama and is a case study in smart writing, misleads, introductions, and foreboding atmosphere as Buffy finds out that Dawn more closely resembles an adopted daughter than a sister, and that she’s left powerless to help solve her mom’s mysterious illness.
#13. “Who Are You?” [4×16] – This is another great example of Buffy‘s ability to take what initially appears like a goofy gimmick (body swapping! OMG!), and turn it into a masterful character study that lays open Faith’s ever increasing struggle with her identity. “Who Are You?” sports some really fabulous writing, beautifully constructed scenes, wonderful music, moving themes, great humor, and overall impressive development for a secondary character. When Faith, in Buffy’s body, unleashes resentment and disappointment on her own body, I’m left to simply look in awe.
#12. “Normal Again” [6×17] – This episode showcases Buffy‘s ability to take a common genre trope (it’s all not real!) and twist it into something intensely intimate and personal. This show has a lot of intimate moments, but “Normal Again” is the one that might just tear me up the most. In Season 6, Buffy’s going through the most difficult time in her life, and this episode represents a pivot point for her: will she give into hopelessness, or will she find that strength to whether storm and find joy in life again? Sarah Michelle Gellar turns in a fabulous performance here.
#11. “Conversations with Dead People” [7×07] – A quintessential example of a tight episode of television — it’s got solid action, penetrating dialogue, tons of creepiness, a unique structure, and serves up a thrilling setup to the season’s plot. There’s also strong characterization in which Buffy makes some key realizations about the flaws that have been holding her back. Willow sees the season’s villain targeting her recent fears, while Dawn gets mystery and creepiness. Jonathan and Andrew round things out with a conclusion that is sad as much as it is surprising.
[#2-10 (by Air Date)]
“Innocence” [2×14] – The episode that defined the direction the series wanted to go in. “Innocence” represents the first time that the characters’ emotions exploded out into the open (something we’ll see again in the future), and shows us that Buffy will be a show with incredible intimacy in its character/viewer relationship. Angelus rips Buffy apart emotionally by abusing his knowledge as her first lover while Willow discovers Xander’s confounding relationship with Cordelia but gains a ton of respect for Oz. To top it all off, Buffy gets to fire a frickin’ rocket launcher!
“Passion” [2×17] – While “Innocence” [2×14] changed the direction, it wasn’t until “Passion” that the direction was sealed. This episode has a crackling dark atmosphere and earns that tone by having Angelus continue to one-up himself with creative yet cruel psychological torture. It represents the show taking another huge step forward in being able to follow through on the setup it got. Between an intense emotional experience and permanent character ramifications, this is easily one of the best episodes the show ever put out. I get chills just thinking about it.
“Restless” [4×22] – A beautiful, complex, intelligent, and textured masterpiece. “Restless” fittingly comes in at around the halfway point of the show and takes the time to explore the past, present, and future. It is Buffy‘s ‘nexus’ in the truest sense. All of the primary struggles of the four core characters are subtlety dropped into a dreamscape where they are hunted by the First Slayer, who in of herself represents exactly what Buffy is subverting throughout the show. “You think you know what’s to come, what you are. You haven’t even begun.”
“Fool for Love” [5×07] – Spike as a character is often a walking enigma. Without a soul is he capable of genuine love and compassion, or is he only doing the occasional good deed for entirely selfish reasons? For the first time we really delve into Spike’s mind and see a new window into which we understand him in a beautifully directed and acted episode. It’s not only revealing for Spike, but his insights into the nature of the Slayer (as he sees it) give Buffy a lot to be concerned about, particularly the lines “death is your art” and “every slayer has a death wish; even you.”
“The Body” [5×16] – An episode this raw and painful will always have a tough time on a favorites list. “The Body” fits perfectly within the scope of Season 5’s excellent tapestry, but it’s not exactly one I ever really want to load up on its own. The quality is so high, though, that I can’t not include it in the top ten. What we have here is easily the most realistic depiction of the aftermath of a sudden death I’ve ever seen put to screen. It channels pure pain and raw emotion without any sensationalized elements. No music; no manipulative writing; no distractions. It’s Whedon directing at his very best.
“The Gift” [5×22] – In a season very much with death on its mind, “The Gift” manages to still thrill, surprise, and satisfy. It handles the lofty build-up of Season 5’s impeccably rendered arc with impeccable grace. All of the season’s themes — sacrifice, family, death, and others — come to a climax that is tender yet powerful, subtle yet shocking. In typical Buffy fashion there are moments of humor, moments of pathos, and moments of tears, often all at the same time (e.g. see the final scene). This is not only a satisfying conclusion to Season 5, but to the entire show up until this point.
“Once More, with Feeling” [6×07] – What’s so impressive about this episode isn’t just that it’s a clever musical, but more so that it remains about the characters and their ongoing arcs. The actors really get it done here. The songs are used in the best way possible in forcing the characters to reveal their deepest secrets. Most of the songs sound happy and upbeat, but there’s a consistent disturbing subtext underneath them all. Fun, smart, deep, and emotional, “Once More” has everything I could want out of an episode, plus more, and with style.
“Dead Things” [6×13] – An incredibly daring, ambitious, and potent episode that ends on an admission of undiluted guilt, but thankfully offers no easy reprieve, quick solution, or clear path forward for Buffy as she struggles to find herself and regain a sense of joy and beauty in life again. It’s quite possibly Buffy‘s finest example of intensely complex psychological exploration, diving into what’s making Buffy so confused, why Spike is all-too easy to sympathize with, and what lies beneath the Trio’s innocuous exterior. While tough, it lays a vital foundation for Buffy’s recovery.
“Selfless” [7×05] – A wonderfully textured episode that not only fleshes out Anya in the way “Fool for Love” [5×07] fleshed out Spike, but it packs a punch of great continuity and ensemble character moments to boot. We discover that Anya has always simply latched onto whatever was in front of her rather than paving her own road, whether that was being a vengeance demon or wanting to become Xander’s wife. Anya finally realizes she must find out who ‘she’ is by going through the scary struggle to find her own identity… even if it takes a sword through the chest to get there.
“Becoming Pt. 2” [2×22] – This is a perfectly balanced episode of television. It’s got massive laughs, fabulous action, and heart-breaking, gut-wrenching drama. Thanks to all the fabulous build-up in the latter half of Season 2, the stakes couldn’t be higher. “Becoming Pt. 2” satisfies on every level I could ask for, both setting up future stories while concluding this one with a heart-breaking ending for Buffy. I also applaud Whedon for his ability to give us what we want (Angel getting his soul back) right before giving us what we need (Buffy having to put him down anyway).