Originally published on The National Student on 10/03/17.
As Joss Whedon’s seminal vampire hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer turns a ridiculous 20 years old, we look back at the show’s most lasting episodes.
It seems almost painful to admit that Sarah Michelle Gellar’s late-90s star vehicle, the same cheapo network show, a movie spin-off that has since become a total cultural phenomenon, is now over two decades old. Running for seven incredible seasons from 1997 to 2003, it’s an irreplaceable slice of barnstorming TV that totally changed the face of the medium for good.
As you’d expect there’s obviously been whispers of everything from reunions to reboots in the many years since the show bowed out, and a long-running comic follow-on from Dark Horse, at first fronted by Whedon himself (who later disappeared to work on a cute little indie film called The Avengers) pretty much took its place. But nothing beats original Buffy.
So without much further ado, to celebrate 20 years of the greatest vampire slaying gang in the history of well, vampire slaying, here are all the best bits to sink back into:
Teacher’s Pet (Season 1, Episode 4)
A testament to just how bonkers early-Buffy was, ‘Teacher’s Pet’ saw one of Sunnydale High’s newest substitute teachers turning out to be a gigantic demonic praying mantis, trapping the loveable Xander with plans to both mate with, and eat him. It’s not exactly high-art, but it’s easily one of the show’s most memorable first season adventures and remains one of the weirdest bits of fantasy-driven TV to date too.
Prophecy Girl (Season 1, Episode 12)
It’s easy enough to fill a list like this with season finales, but ‘Prophecy Girl’ is a worthy one in many, many ways. Not only is the genuinely freaky-looking Master finally dealt with in both a badass and orderly fashion, but Buffy herself actually dies, introducing one of the show’s longest and most genre-defining themes: mortality and Buffy’s frequent lack of it.
Surprise (Season 2, Episode 13)
Whilst Season 2 wasn’t exactly the show’s peak, it did have a few defining moments, the biggest of which coming at the very end of ‘Surprise’. Sure, the episode itself is fairly standard, cut and dry Spike and Drusilla stuff (early Spike is still great though might we add), but the final moments see Buffy and Angel not only finally giving in to their long-term romantic urges, but also their sexual ones too. And in doing so, the Buffy writers actually explore a major part of adolescence that too many other teen-focussed TV shows often shied away from.
Killed by Death (Season 2, Episode 18)
On the other hand, the second season also provided one of the show’s best bottle episodes and one of its greatest single-serving demons full-stop: the Kindestod, a scary old man-looking entity who strolls around hospitals in an old-school coat and hat combo, sucking the life out of sickly children. Directed by Deran Sarafian, who went on to shoot stuff for both The Strain and Hemlock Grove, it remains one of the eeriest and most unsettling episodes to date, leaning on Buffy’s consistent connection to not just fantasy, but horror too.
The Zeppo (Season 3, Episode 13)
More of an exercise in brilliant writing than anything else, ‘The Zeppo’ flips the show’s point of view completely, relegating the usual core Buffy-lead adventure to the (literal) background, and giving Xander the spotlight as he uncovers and solves his own mystery, alone. It’s just familiar enough to still ring true with die hard fans, but still hugely innovative and in many ways, could even be seen as the influence for the likes of Star Wars background adventure Rogue One all these years later.
Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)
Widely considered by many to be Buffy’s strongest single episode, ‘Hush’ is the best example of a killer premise, executed to perfection. Driven by a ghostly race (simply called The Gentlemen) who steal all of Sunnydale’s voices, the episode is almost completely told in mime, without any speech whatsoever. And yes, it’s exactly as good as it sounds. In fact. ‘Hush’ was so well praised, it alone was nominated for a Primetime Emmy and remains one of Joss Whedon’s finest pieces of work to date.
Restless (Season 4, Episode 22)
Another fan favourite in a whole season of series highlights, this one’s arguably one of the oddest finales to any TV season ever. With the exceptionally twisted Frankenstein-esque villain Adam vanquished in the episode before, ‘Restless’ instead taps into the show’s underlying mythos, jumping between the dreams/nightmares of Willow, Xander, Giles and of course, Buffy, and featuring everything from the original Slayer, to a man covered in cheese and a totally spot-on Apocalypse Now parody starring none other than early-season alumnus Principal Snyder. Quite possibly the most accurate interpretation of dreaming ever, too: Inception included.
The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)
You’ll only ever watch it once, but ‘The Body’ remains the absolute height of the show’s quality and maturity. Few cuts, little score and no demons; it’s a distinctly empty-feeling episode that solely charts Buffy and her friends’ attempts to deal with her mother’s sudden death, a total removal from the usual structure, but one that doesn’t feel even remotely out of place. Not only is it a huge turning point for Buffy in particular, marking her finally as a fully-fledged adult, it’s also a nod to the fact that TV needs to dwell on the moments that matter; connecting with real emotion and real experience and Whedon does that here better than anywhere else.
Once More, With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)
For many fans though, the most memorable and technically marvellous has always been the 50-minute musical episode ‘Once More, with Feeling’ that not only manages to juggle lasting character arcs – Buffy’s return from Heaven, her doomed romance with Spike, Willow’s pull towards the dark – but also delivers some of the most incredible original music and lyrics ever to grace either stage or screen. It’s a bold and totally insane undertaking, pulled off flawlessly, that represents the very peak of what Buffy had become; much, much more than your average fantasy-driven TV show.
Tabula Rasa (Season 6, Episode 8)
It’s rare to have two of the show’s best episodes even in the same season, let alone back-to-back, but it just so happens that ‘Tabula Rasa’ picks up the pieces from the entire series’s emotional pinnacle beautifully. A spell gone wrong causes the whole gang to suddenly lose their memories with both hilarious and telling results, not only bringing back the Trio but simultaneously marking the final time the whole gang are together in one adventure. And what a send-off it is.
Seeing Red (Season 6, Episode 19)
Joss Whedon’s known for being a bit of a bastard and killing off a whole bunch of much-loved characters, but nothing could quite prepare fans for ‘Seeing Red’s climax. With the Trio’s only real villain Warren on the run – now with a gun because magic can’t solve every problem – Willow’s beloved Tara ends up taking a bullet completely out of the blue, signalling a huge shift in the Buffyverse and the final reveal of Dark Willow, a character who would go on to shape the rest of the show’s (albeit short) lifetime.
Chosen (Season 7, Episode 22)
And finally we end with the finale to end all finales. Despite taking something of a downturn in quality, Season 7 capped things off with a rather insane farewell, wrapping up the TV-wing of the Buffy world beautifully in a gigantic demonic war at the place where it all started: Sunnydale High School. Now realising that she’s not the only Slayer, ‘Chosen’ saw our favourite vampire-staking-badass teaming up with a bunch of other vampire-staking-badasses to close the Hellmouth once and for all; losing fan-favourites Spike and Anya in the process.
The end itself was much more of an open book than a fully-fledged finale, but in doing so Whedon opened up his seven seasons of world-building to further life beyond the TV screen. From here onwards it was less about Buffy the vampire slayer, and more about Buffy, leader of the vampire slayers, and considering the direction things then headed in the sequel comic series, it was about time for Buffy and her friends to take the jump beyond the realms of production budgets and practical shooting issues, to a place where none of that really mattered.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Seasons 1-7 is available on DVD now.