#7 – Graduation Day 1-2 – season 3, episodes 21-22
Every season finale of Buffy, with the exception of season six, was designed to function as a “series” finale if the show was never renewed. Had the show ended after a season, I would have found the finale frustrating in that it seemed to finally figure out what it was trying to be right as it was canceled. Had it ended after season two, I would have been sad because it would have ended right as it was great. Season three, however, had an ending that would have been a perfect send-off if need be. The ending of the Big Bad’s plot is of secondary importance here. Everyone graduates high school. The school blows up. Buffy’s class assists her in fighting the monsters that have been terrorizing everyone. All the Scoobies get great moments to shine. Angel rides off into the sunset shadows to start his own show. There’s closure everywhere you turn. It’s a beautiful ending at the end of a phenomenal season. Thank goodness there was more.
#6 – The Gift – season 5, episode 22
Had the show never been picked up by UPN, this would have been Buffy’s series finale. Unlike the previous three years, this is a single episode installment, but it wraps up the arc of the season and sends the heroine out in the most beautiful and poignant way imaginable. “The Gift” is all about Buffy’s willingness to do anything to save the day, even if that means dying. That’s how the first season ended, except Buffy wasn’t trying to die on that occasion; she lost a fight. The second ended with her being willing to sacrifice her lover to save the world. This one ends with her sacrificing herself to save the world…something she did “a lot,” as her gravestone said. The final two shots of the episode, which occur quickly to fit them into the allotted runtime, almost happen too fast for the viewer even to process. Buffy dies, and we see everyone surrounding her body, silently wailing in agony. The camera cuts quickly to her tombstone, lingering over her freshly laid grave, and then fades to black just as rapidly. The hurried nature of it works to its benefit; everything else to be said was already said in the moments leading up to her sacrifice. This is who she is: She saves the world (a lot), even if it means dying for it. What a hero.
#5 – Surprise/Innocence – season 2, episodes 13-14
These two episodes form the moment when Buffy went from an okay little show, on a little-watched network, to the show you were missing out on if you weren’t watching it. Buffy is a seven-season show that can definitively be divided into two unequal parts: There is the period before “Surprise,” and the period after. There is before Angelus took Buffy’s innocence, and after. From here on out, Buffy is not just a show about a girl fighting monsters; it’s a show about a woman wrestling with the weight of the world on her shoulders.
#4 – Becoming 1-2 – season 2, episodes 21-22
The two-parter “Becoming” combine to be the best finale of the show. Despite, as said, the somewhat average-feeling run of episodes (other than “Passion”) leading up to the finale, the stakes and the showdown that was looming were never forgotten. It was clear, especially after “Passion,” that the Buffy/Angelus feud would come to a head in the finale of the season. A first-time viewer would not be thought a fool for thinking it would end with Angelus’ death and the subsequent removal of David Boreanaz from the series. Indeed, the finale did end with Angelus’ death, but what was not expected was the fact that Angel was re-souled in the moments just before Buffy “killed” him.
It would have been easy to play it more conventionally, to have Buffy slay the hero-turned-villain and then mope about it for an episode or two. It would have been even easier and safer for Buffy to save Angel and the two of them team up to defeat someone like Spike. It even would have been easy for Buffy to save Angel after dooming him to the hell dimension or to have Angel be saved and killed without Buffy ever realizing it. Instead, Joss and co. went for maximum drama: Buffy saved Angel and then, because the world was still on the line, killed him.
If Surprise/Innocence is the two-parter where Buffy’s “girlhood” was stolen away from her, then “Becoming” is the two-parter where she forcefully claimed her adulthood on her own terms. If Surprise/Innocence is the two-parter where Buffy (the show) turned the page to become something greater than what it started as then “Becoming” is the two-parter where the show solidified that change and told everyone this show was here to stay.
#3 – The Body – season 5, episode 16
I don’t know what I can add to my previous comments on “The Body.” There isn’t another episode like it in the entire series. There’s no music score. There’s no monster of the week. There are no quips. There are no gags. “The Body” is the episode that rips our characters away from their fantasy playground and reminds them—and us—that they are mortal people living in a world where people sometimes just die. They don’t all get eaten by demons. They don’t all get sucked into a portal. They don’t all get stabbed dramatically in the heart with a stake or a sword. Sometimes people have brain aneurysms, and they just drop dead.
Joyce battled a brain tumor all season long, the ultimate red herring. For the multiple episodes she struggled with the malady, we watched Buffy struggle to hold it together. We watched her at the hospital, bloodshot as she worried over her mom. We watched her at the kitchen sink, crying silently in front of the running water while she tried to do dishes. We watched her gripped with fear as she waited for news of her mother’s surgery. And then, when it was all over, we watched relief overtake her. Joyce is fine. Everything is okay. And it was. The problem was resolved.
And then she died anyway.
And it was the needlessness of it, the senselessness of it, the randomness of it, that makes everything about it so beautifully captured on film. It’s a death that wouldn’t work on a normal dramatic show. On the other hand, this is fantasy; something as mundane as dying of an aneurysm is the most shocking way someone could die. Watching the characters—who had previously witnessed hundreds of “deaths” (of a sort)—try and fail throughout the episode to process what happened was like being a parent forced to watch your child crying and being unable to console them. You feel helpless.
For forty-some-odd minutes, Joss Whedon turned off the fantastical show and gave us a short film on grieving, loss, trauma, and the frustrated feelings of unfairness that come with losing a loved one to death. It’s Emmy worth. Under a different format, I’d say it was Oscar-worthy.
#2 – Hush – season 4, episode 10
The ranking difference between #3 and #2 is so razor-thin it might as well be a tie. These are two distinctly different episodes, so putting “Hush” one notch above “The Body” is purely because, while I appreciate “The Body” more, I enjoy “Hush.” I’m not supposed to enjoy “The Body.” I admire it, but I also admire “Hush.” This is Joss’ silent film. This is the episode where the guy everyone said was a one-trick pony (“he can write good dialogue and that’s about it”) decided to challenge himself to craft a good episode of TV without any talking (once the plot kicks in, at least).
I don’t know if there is a “best thing” about an episode that is flawless from top to bottom, but at least the thing I love the most about it is that the episode is not just content with being a “special attraction.” This isn’t just an episode you can throw on and admire for its technical achievement while enjoying a story detached from the rest of the narrative. No, the happenings of this episode are integral to the arc of season four. This is the episode that plants a dozen seeds for the future (Willow and Tara meet here) and reveals major plot points (namely Buffy and Riley discovering each other’s secrets). All the while, the backdrop is the show’s best-looking and acting villains by a mile.
They’re just so darn polite as they cut you open and eat your insides!
What makes “The Gentlemen” such amazing one-off villains? Is it the fact that they’re silent? Is it their giant, frozen smiles? For me, it’s the way they glide along the ground, moving from point A to point B with only their gently swaying arms or gently bobbing heads to hint at life.
Once everyone in town is voice-deprived, the real fun of the episode kicks in. Whedon uses every trick, every possible gag, every innuendo, everything he can employ to get every bit of creativity from the premise. This could have been a ninety-minute special feature, but instead, it’s a forty-minute, rapid-paced, horror short. It’s probably the scariest episode of the so-called “horror fantasy” series, but it knows how to intersperse the thrills and chills with plenty of…
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You might rank this one below “The Body” but, as I say, they’re both 10/10 to me. You might even rank it #1, or you might put “The Body” at the top spot. Wherever you slot it, the odds are good it is placed around the very very top of the charts for Buffy episodes, and with good reason. While “The Body” proved Joss Whedon didn’t need jokes to tell a great story, “Hush” proved he didn’t even need dialogue.
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That’s it. Only one episode left. We’ll be back next time to consider why “Once More with Feeling” is the greatest episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.