On March 10th 1997, television history was made. Joss Whedon's iconic Buffy the Vampire Slayer launched to critical acclaim, soon establishing itself as a whipcrack-smart, genre-savvy show like no other. Known for strong character-work and narrative innovation, Buffy has become a television legend. But today, it's time for me to look at the high points of each of the series's seven seasons...
Season 1: "Nightmares"
My first choice may be a controversial one, but there's something about the concept of "Nightmares" that I really like. The idea is that a child, Billy, is in a deep coma; but he's somehow broken through into the real world, and the nightmare realm is leaking through. It's a fascinating idea, one filled with very real terror, as each member of the cast confronts their own personal demons. Perhaps the best character moment goes to Anthony Stewart Head's Giles, as he sees the object of his nightmares - Buffy's grave.
It's a very busy episode (it was criticised for being too busy back when it was first aired), but everything ties together in a fascinating way. I particular enjoy the "Lucky Nineteen" plot.
Season 2: "I Only Have Eyes For You"
There's something absolutely magical about "I Only Have Eyes For You", in which the spirits of two former students attempt to re-enact their love. Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy and David Boreanaz's Angel are drawn into the magic, a wonderful twist given that Angel's demon has taken control and the two are currently mortal enemies. The performances are absolutely stellar, and Joss Whedon has claimed Boreanaz's performance in this episode was what convinced him to work towards an Angel series.
Season 3: "Doppelgangland"
The episode "The Wish" introduced us to an alternate reality where Buffy had never visited Sunnydale. In this reality, the vampires had taken the town, and the Master threatened to bring an end to the world. That episode ended with the power of the demonic Anya (played by Emma Caulfield) being broken, and Anya was trapped as a mortal girl.
In "Doppelgangland", Anya attempts to persuade Alyson Hannigan's Willow to perform a spell that, unknown to Willow, will restore Anya's powers. It backfires, and the vampiric Willow from "The Wish" is brought into this reality. What follows is a fascinating episode, digging deep into questions of identity, and giving the first hints at Willow's homosexuality. Joss Whedon himself ranked "Doppelgangland" as fifth in his favourite episodes, stating "one Willow is certainly not enough".
Season 4: "Fear, Itself"
There's something remarkably powerful about "Fear, Itself"; like Season 1's "Nightmares", it faces the cast with a reality where everything they fear is coming true. By this point, though, the characters have grown to the point where we can see what's coming. There's a beautiful twist at the end, with the demonGachnar's actual arrival isn't half so monumental an event as it had seemed it would be. Although anticlimatic, the psychological point - that when your fears become reality, they are often far less terrible than the fear itself - is well made.
Season 5: "The Body"
How could a list of top episodes not include "The Body"? In a world of demons and vampires, "The Body" brings home the sorrow of death like no other episode. Buffy arrives home to find her mother, Joyce, has died suddenly; the whole episode orbits around this traumatic discovery, and every character shines through. Perhaps the most emotional moment is when Anya, struggling to deal with the reality of loss after centuries as a demon, can't understand what's going on. After putting her foot in it, she expresses her heartache so poignantly that it's absolutely heart-wrenching.
This is Buffy the Vampire Slayer at its best. Perhaps the reason it's so emotional is that both Gellar and Michelle Trachtenberg, who played Buffy's sister Dawn, were raised by single women. Filming the scenes was practically an emotional ordeal, but it led to an episode of drama at its finest. One scene, where Willow desperately tried to find the right clothes to wear, was inspired by Joss Whedon's memories of his own mother's death. Whedon - and the crew - were reduced to tears.
It's generally viewed by critics as one of the finest episodes of television ever broadcast.
Season 6: "Once More, With Feeling"
Another episode that couldn't be avoided, "Once More, With Feeling" is an episode that couldn't work, shouldn't work, and yet becomes one of the most enjoyable of the series. A demon has been summoned who casts the whole of Sunnydale under a spell of song and dance; but the emotions will build, until finally people begin to die. Like any musical, "Once More, With Feeling" strips away the characters' masks, exposing them to truths they have desperately tried to avoid. Every song - the lyrics and music written by Joss Whedon himself - is deep and emotional, and the result is technically the most complex episode of Buffy ever.
I've never seen a TV show take such a risk, but I've also never seen greater proof that risks can pay off.
Season 7: "Conversations With Dead People"
Let's end with a terrifying episode! In this shocking episode, the First Evil manifests itself in the form of those who have died. While Buffy is dealing with an unusually chatty vampire, the First haunts Dawn in the form of her mother, planting seeds of doubt that will pull her away from Buffy's side. Meanwhile, the First almost brings Willow to the brink of attempted suicide before she realises she is being manipulated. With character arcs for almost everyone (although two of the major characters don't appear), the episode is rich in emotion and terror.
Ironically, the beauty of this episode came about due to severe time constraints. The characters are separate because their scenes are each written by a different writer! Amber Benson's Tara was initially intended to return for the Willow scenes, but Benson didn't like the idea of Tara being bad.
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So there we have it - the pick of some of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer! It's sad to think that it's been thirteen years since the show aired, but amazing to realise that the episodes have as much power and beauty as when they first aired.