Into every generation, there is a chosen one… and to my generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a major cultural touchstone. Even though I’ve had to reckon with some aspects of the show that haven’t aged well–especially Joss Whedon’s alleged behavior–I still love this show.
It’s easy to name the worst-ever episode of Buffy: “Beer Bad,” the ill-advised tale of cursed beer that turns college kids into cavemen. Everyone can agree that it’s the nadir of the series. But with 144 episodes to choose from, narrowing the list down to just twelve of my favorites was difficult. As with my roundup of the best episodes of The X-Files, most of my top picks come from the show’s first five seasons.
I Only Have Eyes for You (Season 2, Episode 19)
This underrated season two episode is one of my favorite early monster-of-the-week episodes. It takes place after Angel loses his soul and becomes Angelus, and their tragic story is mirrored by the tale of two ghosts haunting Sunnydale High.
It reminds me of another underrated favorite of mine, the 1991 film Dead Again. The ghosts of James and Grace are trapped in a cycle where they relieve the violent ending of their affair–and force the living to reenact their tragedy. But when The ghosts possess buffy and Angel, they end up gender-flipped. It’s a bittersweet episode that doesn’t offer a tidy little happy ending but promises a future where Buffy can forgive herself for what happened to Angel.
Superstar (Season 4, Episode 17)
Did you know that Jonathan was in the unaired pilot of the show? Technically, he was on the show for longer than Alyson Hannigan. In season four, Danny Strong’s nerdy background character finally got a chance in the spotlight in Superstar. Similar to “The Wish” or “Doppelgangland,” “Superstar” imagines an alternate reality where Jonathan is the main character of the show and Buffy is nothing but a sidekick.
But even in a magically altered Sunnydale, Buffy’s instincts as the slayer can’t be beaten. She eventually figures out that Jonathan isn’t a superhero who also somehow starred in The Matrix. Instead, he used a spell to make himself into a person that other people admired. He didn’t know that it would also create a monster as a side-effect, and he’s genuinely sorry for what he did. Buffy and Jonathan give each other some good advice about how real healing takes time.
The best part of this episode might be the opening credits sequence, which was recut to feature shots of Jonathan doing heroic things.
Fear, Itself (Season 4, Episode 4)
Buffy normally steered clear of Halloween; apparently, most monsters take the night off. In season four, Buffy is deep into a case of self-pity after getting mixed up with no-good Parker, the worst rebound guy in the known universe. Her friends try to cheer her up with a haunted house party. Unfortunately, the frat brothers used an actual magic sigil as part of their decor and summoned a fear demon.
The demon makes everyone who enters the frat house live out their worst fears. For Willow, it’s losing control of her newfound magic. For Xander, it’s being ignored by his friends. And for Buffy, it’s being all alone. The best moment of the episode is when Anya (dressed in a “scary” bunny costume) goes to Giles for help, and he uses a chainsaw to bust into the house. When Buffy finally confronts the demon, it turns out to be about six inches tall. It’s a little heavy-handed in showing that your fears always seem bigger than reality, but I still really like this episode.
Doppelgängland (Season 3, Episode 16)
Buffy always had fun imagining alternate versions of Sunnydale. Not quite as grim as “The Wish” or as goofy as “Superstar,” this episode showcases the fan-favorite character Vampire Willow. The switcheroo is kicked off by Anya, who is desperate to get her powers back, after she convinces Willow to help her do a dark magic spell. The spell unleashes a vampire version of everybody’s favorite geeky witch.
Alyson Hannigan seems to be having a great time playing the evil version of her character, who also might be “kind of gay.” Eventually, Vampire Willow gets to return to the alternate reality created by Anya and Cordelia in “The Wish,” where she gets immediately staked, and regular Willow gains a much-needed boost to her self-confidence.
Once More, With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)
Hey, it’s the musical episode! Some Buffy fans rank this one much higher on their list of all-time greats, but honestly… any episode with Dawn automatically gets docked points. Sorry, but I’ve never been a fan of Buffy’s little sister. Then again, it’s an excuse to hear Anthony Stewart Head sing again. I’m so conflicted!
For sheer ambition, “Once More, With Feeling” is one of the boldest episodes of the series. And unlike “Hush” or “Something Blue,” it makes zero effort to explain what’s happening before it goes full Broadway. Not every cast member has the most pitch-perfect voice or best dancing skills, but everyone gives it their all.
School Hard (Season 2, Episode 3)
Can you believe that Spike and Drusilla were supposed to be one-off villains? James Marsters made such a huge impression on viewers that Joss Whedon was essentially forced to keep him around.
“School Hard” is a pun on Die Hard, something that flew right over my head when I first saw this episode. During parent-teacher night at Sunnydale High, a gang of vampires led by Spike decides to go after Buffy. She’s freaking out about what Principal Snyder will tell her mother, but in the end, Joyce Summers realizes that her daughter is a hero. She wouldn’t find out that her daughter is the slayer until the end of this season, but “School Hard” marks a turning point in their relationship.
The best part of this episode is, of course, the moment when Spike shoves the Anointed One into a cage and lets him burn to death in the sunlight.
Lie to Me (Season 2, Episode 7)
Controversial choice incoming! “Lie to Me” is a criminally underrated episode. When a boy from Buffy’s past suddenly appears at Sunnydale High, it causes tension with her new friends. Angel is especially concerned about Ford–and not just because he’s jealous.
It turns out that Ford is dying and has come to Sunnydale to make a bargain with a vampire. He promises Spike that he’ll deliver the slayer in exchange for being turned. Ford also dishes up a club full of vampire wannabes, including the recurring character Chanterelle, as food for Spike’s gang of vamps. Buffy threatens Drusilla, and Spike backs off long enough for the innocents to escape–but she leaves Ford to his fate.
At the end of the episode, Buffy struggles with the morality of what she did. As she and Giles wait on Ford’s grave for him to rise, she asks her mentor if life ever gets easier. When he’s not sure what to say, she tells him, “Lie to me.”
Something Blue (Season 4, Episode 9)
Season four is my go-to when I need premium background TV. It might be the show’s most uneven season, featuring both the best and worst episodes of the series, but I still love it. This season has the lowest stakes, the least emotional upheaval, and the biggest number of experimental episodes. “Something Blue” is just fun. Willow’s magic creates chaos (again) when she does a spell that makes everything she says come true.
The result is Giles going blind, Xander becoming a literal demon magnet, and Spike and Buffy getting engaged. Good times. I could watch an entire TV show about Spike and Giles as mismatched roommates. “Something Blue” also features significantly less Riley than the rest of the season, which is a welcome relief.
The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)
“The Body” deserves to be ranked in the top five episodes of Buffy, but it’s not an easy one to rewatch. The harrowing loss of Joyce–not to a vampire or demon, but to an aneurysm–is one of the most painful deaths of the series. Sarah Michelle Gellar turns in a heartbreaking performance in this episode, especially the moment when she tells Giles that they can’t move the body.
Buffy’s relationship with her mother was one of the most grounding elements of the show. Early on, Joyce has no idea that her daughter is a vampire slayer and tries to parent her like a well-meaning single mom with a troubled kid. When she finally learns the truth, it brings them closer in a way that feels very real. For anyone afraid to be their authentic selves in front of a parent, Joyce was proof that things could turn out okay.
While her death is heartbreaking, I’m relieved that she wasn’t killed as a plot device. (Ahem, Tara.)
Graduation Day (Season 3, Episodes 21-22)
The two-part finale of season three pitted Buffy against Faith in an epic showdown. Sadly, it ends with the defeat of the show’s best villain, Mayor Wilkins. Sure, he might have been evil and hellbent on becoming a demon, but the mayor was so gosh-darn nice!
What makes this season finale the best of the series is the complexity of the bad guys. The mayor genuinely loved Faith, and his grief and rage when Buffy tries to kill his protege are real. There are many great moments throughout the two-parter, including Principal Snyder finally getting eaten and the ultimate cathartic moment of seeing Sunnydale High destroyed. It’s also a turning point in the series, with Cordelia and Angel departing for the spinoff. High school is over, and nothing will ever be the same.
Prophecy Girl (Season 1, Episode 12)
Joss Whedon got a second chance to realize his vision of a teenage vampire slayer after the feature film starring Kristy Swanson didn’t turn out the way he wanted. “Prophecy Girl” is much closer to Whedon’s original screenplay. And you can’t tell me that Buffy wielding a crossbow in her white prom dress and black leather jacket isn’t a whole mood.
This is only the first time Buffy dies and comes back. Her brief drowning “activates” a new slayer–something that would be very important for the rest of the series. It’s early season Buffy, so expect a little extra cheese. But honestly, my only real complaint about this episode is how hideous Buffy’s prom shoes are. What are those?
Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)
My favorite episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show renowned for its clever dialogue, is mostly silent. Without the usual rapid-fire quips, the characters have to learn to communicate in a different way. For Xander and Anya, not being able to talk is actually an improvement in their relationship. Willow and Tara (who was introduced in this episode) have an instant connection and trust that requires no words. But Buffy and Riley? Yeah, even when they can talk, they don’t.
The Gentlemen are Buffy’s spookiest villains. Led by actor Doug Jones (The Shape of Water, Hellboy, Hocus Pocus), the floating posse with their corpse-like leers and crisp suits is the stuff of nightmares. Far more than just “the silent episode” of Buffy, “Hush” is an artistic achievement and a showcase for the ensemble cast. That’s why it remains my favorite episode of the series.