#24 – Lovers Walk – season 3, episode 8
The fact that Xander could score with someone as stunningly gorgeous as Cordelia is enough to strain credulity, especially when you consider how Joss Whedon viewed the character as a proxy version of himself. That said, when you consider that Xander had a great thing going but then blew it on a side-relationship with Willow, suddenly it all starts to make sense: Xander is exactly the kind of person who would fall back into an amazing thing and then ruin it by not using his head. Lovers Walk ends the Xander/Cordy romance, one which I loved for every minute of its existence. It also ends the Willow/Xander secret love, one which I found delightfully well-written, but did not enjoy as a lover of the characters. The episode’s great, too.
#23 – Seeing Red – season 6, episode 19
This is a hard episode to watch. Spike’s attempted rape happens here. Warren attempting to murder Buffy happens here. Tara dying in the most senseless and fluky way happens here. The latter was a bold choice, and it was really the best way to handle something as unexpected as a gun. Honestly, the moment Warren whipped out a literal handgun, I remember gasping. Buffy was a show with demon portals, with swords, with witches casting spells. It was not a show where someone pointed a gun and pulled the trigger. Making Tara’s death not be a noble sacrifice or the act of a villain purposefully trying to make the hero suffer, but instead having her be the victim of stray fire is a masterstroke. It doesn’t make it (or anything that preceded it) any more “enjoyable” to watch, however.
#22 – Halloween – season 2, episode 6
Buffy’s first Halloween episode is the most iconic of the three, and even though it has the silliest plot (put on a costume from the evil costume shop, and you are tricked into thinking you actually are that character), the premise is milked for every ounce of comedic worth. This is still the era of Spike being presented as a credible threat, so the climax, featuring the first proper Buffy/Spike brawl since the villain’s debut, is a real treat. The highlight, however, comes from the way the core trio is affected by the black magic at the heart of the episode: Buffy goes from the genre-twisting hero to the genre-cliched damsel in distress. Xander goes from bumbling damsel in distress to slick, in charge hero. Willow goes from the shyest and most insecure of the bunch, to someone free to be confident and outgoing (catching Oz’s eye as a result). The whole episode hangs a lampshade on the development of the Scoobies, and has a ton of fun in the process, too.
#21 – Two to Go / The Grave – season 6, episodes 21-22
Dark Willow was probably not the villain anyone predicted when season six started. That’s because, as has been said already, the true Big Bad of this year is the collective worst impulses of the Scoobies themselves. Buffy, Xander, and Willow are their own worst enemies. Xander wrestles with his own feelings of inadequacy. He loses the fight on the day of his wedding. Willow wrestles with controlling her lust for power. She loses the fight when she crashes the car with Dawn. Buffy wrestles with depression after being pulled out of Heaven and brought back to this miserable planet. Unlike the others, Buffy doesn’t hit a rock-bottom point midway through the season. Her lowest point comes here, at the end of the season, when she finds herself in a literal grave (right where she started the year). Meanwhile, Dark Willow is ready to blow up the earth as a way to escape the pain of losing Tara. Who saves the day? It’s not Buffy; it’s the Zeppo. It’s the failure. It’s the inadequate one. It’s the only one who could talk Willow off the ledge. Xander saves the world this time in a beautiful, tear-inducing scene. As the sun shines on a saved world, Buffy crawls out of the grave…again. Unlike at the start of the season, she does so this time with a renewed sense of hope. People can hate on season six all they want, but credit to Joss and co. for sticking with the theme of the year and bringing the arc to an absolutely fantastic moment of closure.
#20 – A New Man – season 4, episode 12
Also known as the one where Giles turns into a giant monster that only Spike can understand, leading to a buddy-cop episode that I can probably watch fifteen times in a row and never not adore. The greatest moment comes when Giles—ever the prim and proper gentleman—asks Spike to pull over so he can get out of the car and harass the annoying Mrs. Initiative lady. From beginning to end, this episode is wonderful.
#19 –The Wish – season 3, episode 9
Season three is such a relentlessly great season, it’s hard to pick one episode here and there and elevate them above the rest. It struck the perfect balance of episodic and serialized that the other six seasons never quite hit. Others had killer stand-alone outings (season four) or a great arc (season two), but none melded the two into one quite like the third year. The Wish follows the events of Lovers Walk, which ended with the breakup of Xander and Cordelia. Blaming all her recent misery on Buffy (because of course), Cordy makes a wish to a vengeance demon named Anya, wishing for a reality where Buffy never came to Sunnydale. The result is the Yesterday’s Enterprise of the show: An utter dystopia alternate reality where vamps rule the streets, fear grips the hearts of all, and life is a living nightmare. In the midst of this, there is humor to the nines. Everyone gets a chance to play their “mirror universe” selves, none better than Willow, whose turn as a vampire was so well-received, it led to a sequel episode later in the season…
#18 –Doppelgangland – season 3, episode 16
Really, I don’t rate this episode higher or lower than “The Wish,” but since they don’t occur in succession, I couldn’t combine them. They are spiritual siblings, though, and both hit the same comedic notes to great effect. The twist here is the Vamp-Willow from Cordy’s alternate reality switches places with good Willow, leading to our sweet and chipper heroine having to act evil. The results
are pretty much perfect.
#17 – Fool for Love – season 5, episode 7
Foreshadowing, set-up, subtext: You name it, this episode has it in spades. This is the one where Spike talks about the previous Slayers he killed and when he, in the heat of the moment, makes a pass at Buffy (having recently realized he had a crush on her). She rejects him in the most brutal of ways, harkening back to the pathetic love-sick loser man he once was before he was bitten and turned. This episode is the companion to Angel’s “Darla” episode, which aired the same night on the WB. Watching them concurrently features plenty of crossover moments and tells a complete story of the origin and early years of the Buffyverse’s resident Vampire quartet. Together they’re one of the best two-parters (of a sort) Joss and co. ever did.
#16 – This Year’s Girl / Who Are You – season 4, episodes 15-16
Here is a simple premise, done in different ways on different shows of similar genres. It’s the only Freaky Friday gag, only not between parent and child, but peers or, in this case, enemies. Faith and Buffy switch bodies, leading to some great acting from Sarah Michelle Gellar (pretending to be Faith in Buffy’s body) and Eliza Dushku (pretending to be Buffy in Faith’s body). The climactic fight, when Faith (in Buffy’s body) begins pummeling her real face, screaming about how worthless she is and how much she hates her, is an especially dramatic moment, executed flawlessly. Faith was never a character I could completely hate, unlike Angelus. It’s too easy to pity her, and this two-parter reminds us why.
#15 – Angel – season 1, episode 7
While “Prophesy Girl” was the first episode that really felt like it got Buffy, “Angel” is the first one to show that the series was more than just an episodic “monster of the week” series. The mysterious hunk from the opening episode finally has a bit of his past unearthed, taking him from mild curiosity to instant person of interest. Angel’s backstory, being a demon cursed with a soul and thus forced to endure the guilt of—and work to atone—his past misdeeds, makes for a wonderful arc, one which only begins here and doesn’t reach its apex until the character’s own final episode in his own spinoff show.