‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ hits the big 2-0 today. To celebrate, Joey Moser looks at 10 of some of the best episodes the series offered.
Well drive a stake through my heart! Buffy is all grown up!
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my all-time favorite shows, and today marks its 20th anniversary. I personally started watching the show because I was a massive Sarah Michelle Gellar fan, but I couldn’t have imagined what a huge following it would amass through the years. It was one of the first real hits for the fledgling WB network, and it was always received positively by critics despite an almost nonexistent major awards presence.
So what makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer so special? Creator Joss Whedon was able to create a different type of drama when it debuted in 1997. He melded three different genres together to form a teen horror action series that just so happened to deal with pertinent high school teen issues. Think Dracula but with quippy dialogue and a lot more Noxema. Whedon’s dialogue might be his staple. After watching a few episodes of Buffy, go back and watch how he created a different type of Scooby Gang with his work on The Avengers. Nobody takes people from different cliques and forms them into families like he does.
To celebrate Buffy’s 20th anniversary, we wanted to take a look back at 10 classic episodes. Some are scary and some are strange, but all of them are unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a teen soap before.
“Welcome to the Hellmouth”
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is true to itself from the very first episode. Buffy Summers arrives in Sunnydale eager to start her life over (burning down the gym at your last school can put a damper on your academic life), but it doesn’t take long for vampires and evil beings to find her. In order to fully immerse yourself in Whedon’s world, Hellmouth is essential viewing. Like most pilots it serves as an introduction to all of the tone and to the cheeky vibe of the show.
One of the strongest elements throughout the series’ history is when they manage to mix in the teenage drama with the supernatural scariness. For most of the beginning of “Surprise” you almost forget that there are demons running around Sunnydale, because Buffy is anxious over the idea of losing her virginity to Angel. The horror aspect to the plot (concerning a dismembered demon named The Judge) pales in comparison to the nervousness Buffy feels over giving herself to her boyfriend on her birthday.
What’s worse than breaking up with your first love? Having to kill your newly souled vampire boyfriend with a sword just so he becomes sucked into a vortex and die to save the world. Buffy’s relationship with Angel will always be a complicated one. It’s another example of how Buffy deals with a lot more than the normal teenage girl, and it’s one of the first times the audience is allowed to see how she deals with death. Her relationship with Angel will resonate with her throughout the rest of the entire series. If this season finale doesn’t get you weeping, you probably don’t have a pulse.
Lesson number one: never trust the creepy new girl with an amulet. At some point, it seemed that every show does an It’s a Wonderful Life spin to its story, and this might be a frivolous entry to this list. When Cordelia tells Anya (in her first appearance) that she wishes that Buffy Summers never came to Sunnydale, Anya grants her wish and transforms the town into a world where Cordelia’s social status is restored…but everything else is run by The Master and other vampires. It’s obviously a more standalone episode, but a lot of Buffy fans dig this entry.
This is one of Whedon’s personal favorites. Up until this point in the series, we had only seen Willow play an entirely different persona in “The Wish” when she and Xander were evil vampires wreaking havoc on Sunnydale (thanks, Anya), but she comes back with a vengeance in this episode. Alyson Hannigan gets to pull double duty in a classic good vs. evil episode, and you can tell she’s having a blast doing it.
One of the best things about “Earshot” is that the finale isn’t what you’d expect. The episode garnered attention because it was pulled from the WB’s lineup a week after the Columbine school shooting. Buffy gains the ability to read minds, and she overhears a student saying he’s going to kill everyone at the school. As Buffy deals with some jealousy issues between her, Angel, and Faith, it’s a race against time to stop whoever plans on going on murder spree. There is some humor when Buffy reads the minds of her friends, and Danny Strong, as nerdy Jonathan, has a nice scene with Gellar after he reveals that he was contemplating suicide.
My personal Buffy favorite barely features any of Whedon’s trademark chatter. “Hush” provides the only Emmy nomination for Writing in a Drama Series, and I still remember the commercials for this highly publicized episode.
Whedon wanted to create an episode almost devoid of speech after he kept reading that the dialogue was being heralded as the best thing about the show. This particular episode features on of the scariest bad guys in the history of the Buffy universe–The Gentlemen. These ghoulish, yet dapper, baddies silence everyone in the town of Sunnydale, so they can’t scream when they cut your heart out. These gents glide a few inches off the ground if that doesn’t scare you enough! It’s a truly frightening and eerie episode.
No one saw the death of Joyce Summers coming. Could you imagine the death of such a loving character if the show aired today? We would have seen her death publicized and announced weeks before it happened, and the shock of losing her so abruptly makes the episode so effective. The beginning of the episode hits you hard when Buffy comes home to find her mother unresponsive on the couch (“Mommy…?” she whispers before the credits roll), and then Buffy becomes the role of head of household from that point on.
In one of the best dramatic moments of the season, Buffy goes to Dawn’s school to break the news to her, but we don’t hear Buffy say the words, “Mom’s dead.” The scene plays from the perspective of Dawn’s classmates, and you can even see the art teacher in the scene has he hair styled sort of like Joyce’s. Season 5 stands out, and this episode provides perfect evidence to that claim.
“The Gift” might be the best episode of the entire series, and that’s because it feels like a series finale. I honestly could’ve had the series finish here and be completely fine with it. This is actually the last episode of the show on The WB before it switched to the final two seasons on UPN.
The arc of Dawn being The Key for Glory perhaps proves too complicated to summarize in a few sentences, but I’ll just say that it’s one of the most satisfying ones I’ve ever seen. The Scooby Gang really goes to battle to save the world (hey, they did it almost every week), but it’s Buffy who sacrifices herself to save her sister, and, ultimately, the entire world. Clare Kramer was a great villain for the show–she was the perfect mix of violent entity and sassy beauty–and the epitaph on Buffy’s tombstone sums up the tone of the series. It’s heartbreaking and satisfactory as an ending of the show.
“Once More with Feeling”
People burst into song in musicals because the emotions inside them are too huge to express in any other way. That’s how a plot is furthered by a musical on stage, and that’s certainly what happens in Whedon’s extravaganza, “Once More with Feeling.” This episode alone has a cult following. No Buffy list is complete without it.
A demon wreaks havoc in Sunnydale by making everyone sing about their innermost feelings, and then they dance so hard they spontaneously combust (Is that how Gwen Verdon died? I think so). Anya and Xander express their concerns with their marriage, Spike longs to not be under Buffy’s spell anymore, and Willow and Tara sings a flowery love song to Willow. But not everything is COMING. UP. ROSES! Giles wants to literally fight Buffy’s battles for her (full disclosure: I tracked down the sheet music for “Standing” to sing during voice lessons in college), and Buffy feels inhuman after returning to Earth from heaven. Hey, I’d watch this episode over La La Land in a heartbeat.
The entire cast does their own singing, and some of the results are better than others (I suspect that Alyson Hannigan wasn’t really asking for more music to sing). Like the best episodes, it’s hilarious, sad, and awesomely strange.
What are your favorite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Sound off in the comments below!