Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Gratuitous Lists: The Twenty Best BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER Episodes

I recently rewatched Joss Whedon's 1990s supernatural drama Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its entirety for a pub quiz (our team came fourth, so that wasn't quite as successful as hoped), which was a great chance to re-appraise the show from the distance of twenty years or so. As a result, here's a Gratuitous List of (in my opinion) the twenty best episodes of the series.

The stories are not presented in quality order because at this level, there's not much between these episodes. This is the show firing at its very best and frankly all of these episodes are worth watching.

Prophecy Girl 
Season 1, Episode 12

The first season of Buffy had mostly contained “monster-of-the-week” episodes, linked together by a vague story arc about the evil Master trying to escape his prison under the town of Sunnydale. In the Season 1 finale, he succeeds, killing Buffy in the process.

Joss Whedon’s first time both writing and directing an episode is notable for elevating the entire feel of the show, both in scale (this is an epic-feeling episode, despite the low budget) and emotional power. Killing Buffy is a surprising move, as is the straightforward method of bringing her back (CPR; she was unconscious just for a minute or two). But the episode wins through Sarah Michelle Gellar’s powerful performance as a 16-year-old girl abruptly told she is going to die and there’s nothing she can do to stop it, and how she deals with it. This is the moment Buffy elevated itself to the next level, and started becoming a very interesting show indeed.

School Hard
Season 2, Episode 3

At some point almost every show tries to “do Die Hard” and Buffy’s answer is to do it in the high school, which is besieged by vampires led by newcomers Spike and Drusilla. The episode is notable for introducing those two iconic characters, who would go on to wreak havoc across both Buffy and spin-off show Angel for the next seven years, and also for its humour and its action. Particularly interesting are the first hints that the authorities of Sunnydale are well aware of the supernatural craziness in town and are working to suppress all knowledge of it, foreshadowing the main story arc of Season 3.

Season 2, Episodes 13-14

It was easy to dismiss Buffy early on as cliché: the teenage female protagonist falling in love with a vampire was hackneyed even by the late 1990s, let alone a decade later and the Twilight phenomenon. But Buffy upended that cliché when Buffy finally slept with her vampire boyfriend Angel…causing him to lose his soul and revert back to being an undead killing machine.

According to Joss Whedon, this is the moment when realised it was okay to “be a dick” to his characters, and the cruel taunting of Buffy by Angel after his transformation – David Boreanaz showing his acting range beyond "brooding handsomely" for the first time – and Buffy’s subsequent guilt-ridden sorrow is an example of this. But Buffy is made of sterner stuff and the epic finale to the story, involving rocket launchers, dismemberment and a water-drenched battle almost to the death sees her dish out some payback. It was also bold of Whedon to keep Angel evil for the rest of the season, setting the scene for a lot more angst and anger.

Season 2, Episode 17

With Angel turned evil, the question arises if Buffy had done the right thing by allowing him to live based on emotions and the hope he might be turned back. Passion pulls no punches whatsoever as it answers that question in the cruellest way possible, with Angelus embarking on a murdering spree culminating in the brutal murder of a regular character, the near-deaths of several others and the long-awaited sight of Giles fully cutting loose with his “Ripper” persona (which results in yet more mayhem and a major conflagration).

It’s a beautifully-written episode, but a brutal and gruelling one with the entire cast on fire (special props to Anthony Head for channelling Giles’s utter murderous rage at Angel) that asks some pretty damn hard questions and doesn’t offer easy answers. 

Season 2, Episodes 21-22

The Season 2 finale sees the final confrontation between Buffy and Angel, but it also throws in a whole load of curveballs, from Drusilla taking down a second Slayer to Willow discovering she can use magic to Xander betraying Buffy’s trust in a key moment (sadly, only paid mild lip services to later on) to a deep exploration of Angel’s backstory, which gave Whedon the idea of a spin-off show focusing on the character. Also in the mix is Buffy’s mother finally discovering her true job and Spike teaming up with Buffy for the first (and a very long way from the last) time.

But the focus of the story is firmly on the tragic battle between Buffy and Angel and the moment when Angel is finally cured…but Buffy still has to kill him to stop events he’s set in motion from destroying the world. It’s a harsh moment (Whedon being a dick to his characters again) and one that’s sold by the actors and especially Christophe Beck’s excellent score.

Band Candy
Season 3, Episode 6

Buffy was many things over its run, from romance to tragic relationship story to intense drama. But something it did on a reasonably regular basis was comedy, finding the ridiculous in every situation that emerged and sometimes just going outright silly. Bandy Candy – in which cursed chocolate turns Sunnydale’s adults into teenagers again – is the silliest of such premises, but is also brilliantly whimsical. It’s funny with terrific performances from the adult cast relishing the chance to behave like their younger cohorts. And whilst it’s silly, it does further the season arc and explores more of Giles and Joyce’s characters in a very amusing fashion (which pays off in the later episode Earshot, when Buffy finds out what they got up to).

The Wish
Season 3, Episode 9

What starts off as Buffy-by-the-numbers – a humiliated and hurt Cordelia lashes out at her friends – suddenly transforms into a dystopian nightmare as Sunnydale is plunged into an alternate timeline where Buffy never came to town. Most of the regular characters are dead or have been transformed into vampires (most memorably Willow), the Master is still alive and Angel has been tortured for years on end as the Master’s plaything. The first appearance by later series regular Anya is certainly memorable, epic and downright disturbing.

The Zeppo
Season 3, Episode 13

This episode is weirdly experimental. The main threat is the reopening of the Hellmouth and the destruction of the entire world, representing the greatest threat Buffy has faced since the Season 1 finale and arguably the greatest she’ll face again until the end of Season 5. However, this story takes place entirely in the background, relayed through snatches of dialogue. Instead, the focus is on Xander as he gets dragged into a very weird side-story involving an undead bromance, an unexpected liaison with Faith, an awesome car and a huge bomb. A key episode for establishing Xander’s character and for showcasing the meta-awareness of the series of its own tropes, and its willingness to mercilessly mock itself.

Season 4, Episode 10

Given that TV and film revolve a lot around dialogue, the idea of making an episode that has very little dialogue in it was challenging for both cast and crew. But the episode brilliantly handles it, using character expressions, drawings and occasionally obscene hand gestures to allow the characters to communicate with one another.

Also remarkable is this episode isn’t just a gimmick, but a key part of the show’s mythology, bringing the Initiative out into the open and introducing the fan-favourite character of Tara. But a key selling point is the makeup of the Gentlemen, possibly Buffy's most iconic and memorable monster design (including Star Trek: Discovery actor and regular Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones as one of the monsters).

Season 4, Episode 17

Arguably the show’s finest outright slice of comedy, this episode recasts the series as being about the exploits of Jonathan Levinson, actor, government agent, genius scientist and all-round good guy, complete with its own title sequence. It’s clear early on that Jonathan has cast a spell to make himself cooler, but the fun comes from seeing how his status as superhero has been integrated into the season’s ongoing storylines. In retrospect the episode is also a little tragic, foreshadowing as it does Jonathan’s later return in Seasons 6 and 7 under less humourous circumstances. 

Season 4, Episode 22

Buffy goes full Twin Peaks in the Season 4 finale, an episode set in the shared dreamworld of the four core characters as they are hunted by a mysterious creature. The episode is steeped in mythology and metaphors, some of them highly portentous and significant, others…not so much. The episode features a mixture of whimsy, comedy and horror, expertly combined by Joss Whedon into something offbeat, strange but enjoyably compelling. 

Season 5, Episode 6

Tara is, arguably, Buffy’s most popular low-key character. Introduced in Season 4 as a love interest for Willow and a fellow witch, the writers seemed to struggle a little to find her stuff to do that wasn’t tied in with Willow. The response was to make her the conscience and most empathetic of the Scooby Gang, always willing to listen and not judge. That makes this episode – where Tara’s family come to town and turn out to be manipulative and abusive – all the more tragic as Tara is unjustly subjected to persecution by her own supposed loved ones (including an early role for Amy Adams). But the actors do great work and the resolution, where Spike saves the day more in exasperation at how stupid everyone’s being than out of altruism, is memorably entertaining.

Fool for Love
Season 5, Episode 7

After promoting Spike to series regular, the producers struggled to find something for him to do, having to go to some lengths to “defang” him and make him an ally of the Scooby Gang. This episode is one of the very best uses of Spike in this period of the show, with Buffy tapping his knowledge of how he killed two Slayers to improve her own fighting style. Instead, Spike lays bear her soul and exposing the key weakness of every Slayer: their death wish. The result is a psychological battle between Slayer and vampire, undercut by extensive flashbacks and filled with excellent dialogue. Possibly James Marsters’ finest hour on both series (which is saying a lot). 

The Body 
Season 5, Episode 16

Bloody hell.

The Body is the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, frankly, one of the twenty best episodes of television ever made. It’s also an episode that is very, very hard to watch. The premise is incredibly simple: Buffy comes home to find that her mother has died of natural causes some hours earlier. There is no hope of saving her – in the Buffyverse magic can only be used to save or resurrect someone who’s been killed by magic, not mundane illnesses – so the characters have to deal and process their grief.

The result is 44 minutes of genuinely upsetting television. There is no musical score and each act is just one long scene as different groups of characters try to process what has happened. Whedon’s attention to detail is heart-breaking, from Buffy’s brief fantasy that she’s come home in time and everything will fine, to Willow getting upset because she can’t find a top that Joyce complimented her about one time. Anya’s confusion over mortality, having only recently become human, results in a startling monologue about not understanding the stupidity of death which ranks as one of the series most memorable dialogue scenes.

Probably television’s finest single episode to ever focus on mortality and the transience of life, The Body is Buffy at its best and its most human. 

Life Serial
Season 6, Episode 5

This episode has a very simple and low-key premise: following her death and resurrection, Buffy has to find a job to pay for the hour she has inherited from her mother and also look after Dawn, her magically-created sister. In this episode she applies for a number of jobs, but is being stalked by the Trio, three silly minor villains from earlier seasons (well, two and the relative of another) who are testing their skills against her.

The result is a comic riot in the otherwise fairly bleak sixth season, culminating in a Groundhog Day riff as Buffy is trapped in a time loop in the magic shop and can’t leave until she’s sold her customer a magical mummy hand…which she can’t do because the hand has become 1) animate and 2) homicidally psychotic.

Once you get over the comedy (the surprisingly endearing Evil Mummy Hand may be the greatest monster in the history of the show), the episode also has a lot to say about Buffy and how her view of ordinary life has become skewed by her status as the Slayer. The result is a great “standard” episode of the series, albeit one which falls apart when you start asking why the Watchers’ Council pays the Slayer’s Watcher but not the Slayer herself. Shouldn’t she be on the clock? 

Once More With Feeling 
Season 6, Episode 7
Yes, of course the musical episode is here. I’ve always found Once More to be vaguely overrated. It is of course great, but it is let down a little by a couple of dud songs and the revelation that Xander summoned the song demon for a giggle, which seems massively out of character. Get over that, and the result is quite entertaining, an old-skool Hollywood musical extravaganza with some great songs (apart from those duds) and the showcasing of the cast’s musical ability, with Amber Benson particularly destroying everyone with her Kate Bush-inspired love song. Contrived as hell but great entertainment, and clever in how it drives forward the main story arc for Season 6. 

Tabula Rasa
Season 6, Episode 8

Picking up after the musical and its huge character revelations, this episode sees Willow trying to use magic to fix all the relationships that have gone wrong, but instead things go cataclysmically awry and everyone’s memories are wiped. The result is darkly amusing as the characters try to figure out their names, motivations and abilities just from context (resulting in Spike concluding that he is Giles’s son) whilst also taking on a group of vampires with no idea of how to fight them.

Dead Things 
Season 6, Episode 13

If Season 6 is “the bleak season”, Dead Things is arguably when it turned the bleakness dial right up to 11. The Trio, a fairly ineffectual threat all season, suddenly turn lethal when they accidentally kill Warren’s ex-girlfriend (whom they’d been planning to turn into an actual sex slave because yikes) and then try to frame Buffy for the crime. By this point Buffy has started sleeping with Spike, rationalising what should be a repugnant act by the idea that she came back from death “wrong,” which is why Spike is able to harm her in combat when his Initiative implant should prevent that.

This episode is dark and troubling and delves deep into Buffy’s soul, and what it digs up is unpleasant (Buffy laughing at one of Spike’s jokes about murdering innocent people is a rather telling moment). But it also holds up a mirror to Buffy when Tara confirms that there’s nothing wrong with her: Spike can hurt her solely because her aura or psychic frequency was slightly changed by her death experience. Buffy realises that her relationship with Spike is rooted solely in her own psychology and problems and she suffers a full-on breakdown, not helped by Tara telling her her friends will forgive her. Arguably Sarah Michelle Gellar and Amber Benson’s finest acting moments of the entire series. 

Conversations with Dead People
Season 7, Episode 7

Buffy the Vampire Slayer would occasionally use standard TV tropes for its episodes as well as blazing its own trail. Season 6 gave us Normal Again, in which Buffy wakes up in a lunatic asylum and has to rationalise her experiences in the rest of the series as the result of a psychotic break. That episode didn’t work quite as well as it should (and suffered in comparison to Deep Space Nine’s near-contemporary Far Beyond the Stars). Conversations with Dead People gives us a lengthy discussion between each character and another character who has previously died, a device recently used by Neil Gaiman in his Babylon 5 episode Day of the Dead.

Conversations possibly works a little better, because it ties more firmly into the season arc by having the First Evil directly confront the key characters for the first time. Not being able to use Tara is a shame (although actress Amber Benson’s reasons for not returning – as she didn’t want to present an evil version of Tara – are sound) but the dialogue is pretty sharp in all of the exchanges and the episode is notable for introducing Joss Whedon to Jonathan Woodward, who would go on to appear on both Firefly and Angel in memorable roles. 

Season 7, Episode 22
The grand finale of the series and an echo of the original in some ways, with the four core Scooby Gang members reunited for one last battle against the First Evil and the Hellmouth. The scale is epic, with numerous allies and recurring characters brought in to help, and the stakes are high. The ending is perhaps a little more epic than the budget strictly allows for, but it’s certainly a satisfying ending on both an action and emotional level. Some character deaths are a bit perfunctory (barely anyone caring about Anya dying is startling) but overall Buffy goes out the way it came in, kicking and screaming.

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