20 years ago today, Joss Whedon unleashed a TV show that would go on to become one of the most beloved series of all-time. Based on the corny but fun 1992 movie of the same name, Buffy the Vampire Slayer would go on to define a generation. For those of us that grew up in the ’90s, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was not only a staple of our television diet, it was there for us as we grew as people, with the trials and tribulations faced by the characters not unlike our own. Sure, we might not have been out there battling monsters and saving the world (at least not every single night), but the magic of Buffy was that it touched on themes and issues we’ve all related to at some point in our lives, and it’s more than likely – if you watched the show – there was at least one character you saw a lot of yourself in. Plus, there were monsters galore! Let’s not forget about the monsters.
Here we are two decades later and Buffy and the Gang are still beloved denizens of pop culture. In the year 2017, people still love this show – and rightfully so. It doesn’t feel like 20 years has passed anyway; replays are still a regular fixture on television and through home video releases and stream services, the series is still being revisited and holding up spectacularly well. We won’t see another show like it, and looking back on it feels like becoming reacquainted with old friends and foes.
To mark the occasion, we asked some of the staff to pick their favourite episodes. As you’ll see from the selection, the show resonated with different people for different reasons – from its quirkiness, to its bad ass monsters, to its moral messages and catchy musical numbers, the show really was one of a kind. Let’s celebrate it.
Rachel Bellwoar – “What’s My Line, Part Two” (Season 2: Episode 10)
“What’s My Line, Part Two” is an episode of Buffy that secretly contains iconic scenes and story developments but, as the second half of a two parter, is doomed to go unrecognized. This is the episode where Spike calls the Order of Taraka on Buffy and inadvertently creates the pressure chambre of invading larvae needed to make Cordy and Xander kiss. There are worms in Dru’s baguette, mythology completely trampled, after Kendra allows for the existence of two slayers, and future story lines dependent on that alteration to the rules. But if we’re being honest, there’s one reason “What’s My Line, Part Two” is my favorite episode and that’s Oz taking a bullet for Willow and proceeding to deliver the show’s best speech about talking animal crackers. If you don’t have hippo dignity, then get ready to be mocked by pants-wearing French monkeys.
Nat Brehmer – “Fool for Love” (Season 5: Episode 7)
Buffy nailed character-centric episodes exceptionally well. It was also amazingly continuity-conscious. “Fool for Love” is the best of both worlds. It’s not an obvious choice for favorite, but it gives a long-awaiting look into Spike’s character in a way that simultaneously explains and questions everything we thought we knew about him. On top of that, this episode is a film.
There are amazing stylistic choices that slowly merge the flashbacks with the present narrative as we work through the episode, until what we thought was a rigid framework is shattered completely so that Spike in the past can talk to Buffy in the present, solely because it’s the choice that is necessary for that moment. It’s an episode that’s perfectly representative of the show’s ability to embrace new ideas and new forms of storytelling, while also being a tightly focused history of Spike as a character, giving us glimpses into his past for the sole purpose of explaining his actions in the present.
Michele Eggen – “Dirty Girls” (Season 7: Episode 18)
The season seven episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer “Dirty Girls” is my favorite specifically for two reasons: Faith and Caleb. Eliza Dushku as Faith is an incredible contrast to Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Buffy–she is a tough-as-nails Slayer with a brash, yet charming, attitude to boot. And over the course of her time on Buffy and Angel, Faith went through an amazing character arc from good, to bad, and back to good again. When she arrives back in Sunnydale in “Dirty Girls” to help Buffy and crew fight The First Evil, she is still experiencing that arc. She hit her rock bottom, and is now willing to pay her penance. She accepts that she is not immediately welcomed back into the fold by everybody, and doesn’t cry about it, or constantly go around trying to convince everyone that she has changed. Because while she has definitely changed since the last time the gang saw her, the same old Faith that we know and love is still intact. She is still going to be herself, and it is going to be up to everybody else whether they can accept her or not.
“Dirty Girls” also saw the introduction of Caleb, played by Nathan Fillion. As yet another charismatic Buffy villain, Caleb is so terrifying because he is a truly evil, (semi-)human monster. Fillion is able to turn on a dime with his acting, and portray equal parts Southern good ol’ boy and remorseless beast. He is fascinating to watch. Fillion puts his incredible comedic timing to work here, and it is charming yet very, very chilling. The scene where he has The First take on the form of his previous victims shows how cold and callous he is. He is unlike any of the other villains Buffy has faced in the past, which she learns is all too true at the end of this episode. He may have hurt my beloved Xander, but Caleb is still one of my favorite characters in the Buffyverse.
Erin Miskell – “Villains” (Season 6: Episode 20)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer had quite a bit of everything going for it when it came to life in Sunnydale: snark, cultural points of reference, time capsule-like abilities concerning dated post-90s fashion. Never one to shy away from the full experience of human (and demonic) nature, it tackled different facets of romance, ranging from same-sex love to inter-species romance, with equal parts respect, fan love, and shared experience. It didn’t shy away from the darker side of love and sex, leading me to my ultimate Buffy episode: 2002’s “Villains”.
Let’s back up a bit to get some proper lead-up. In 2005, the audience got to meet Warren Mears (played by Adam Busch, who, coincidentally, I got to meet while he was on tour with Common Rotation a few years ago. Shout out: he is the nicest fucking human being. He and his bandmates were exhausted and yet met every damn person that wanted to shake hands and wish them well, taking the time to ask questions and actually smile and interact. Anyone who is that passionate about performing and connecting with other people deserves love, and publicly at that.). Warren was a genius who worked tirelessly in pursuit of two things: taking down Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) in supreme supervillain style, and trying to get laid. Warren is pretty nefarious: he pursues and attempts to sexually manipulate women, uses mind-control devices to try to manipulate our heroine, and resorts to murder when a woman tries to gain the upper hand. Warren is every bit the piece of absolute scum that most women fear: that controlling jerk that will kill you over rejection. That’s what makes the character so brilliant – sadly, like it or not, we all know someone (male or female) who creeps us out like Warren, that makes our skin crawl, that thinks the world is owed to them because they’re smart and out for power. Out of every creature Joss Whedon and company throw at us, Warren is by far the most terrifying because he’s the one we’ve either encountered or are most likely to encounter – he’s the human monster we have a chance of running into in the waking world. His actions culminate in “Seeing Red,” where he attempts to kill Buffy, only to wind up murdering Tara (Amber Benson), the beloved girlfriend of fan-favorite Willow (Alyson Hannigan). Busch has previously commented on the incident of the episode, stating in 2002 (available on Reddit), “I think it’s really great that on a show that had monsters, that the scariest thing was done with a gun in broad daylight.” That’s really the meat of it: an unstable man walked into someone’s home base and opened fire. That’s absolutely terrifying, especially when placed in context of the current debate between gun availability and operator mind frame; add the dimension of domestic abuse (of which Warren fits that pattern with his creepy overtures), and the scenario is all too chilling.
This is where we pick up: the aftermath of Tara’s murder in the episode “Villains.” Willow cradles her dead girlfriend, sobbing and begging her to be alive. It’s wrenching. However, within minutes, we know exactly what is about to hit the fan. Eyes dark, she declares, “By Osiris, I command you to bring her back.” She is told by Osiris, “You may not violate the laws of natural passing.” Translation: Tara’s dead, there’s nothing Willow can do to resurrect her, and when the truth comes out that it was Warren, we all know by the look on her face that it is not going to end well for him. Even the demons seem to know this, as they telling him when he declares that “the town is ours”: “Ours, maybe. You? You’re screwed.” He’s cocky and bragging about his dominance, not realizing how bad this is going to be. Warren shot the slayer on his terms and thinks he’s won, and when he believes that it’s Buffy coming after him, he panics. At this point, Warren misdirects his fear of death onto Buffy. Everyone else knows better: it’s Willow he needs to fear. She’s blowing through town telepathically, seeking the man that killed her girlfriend. His response? He runs, he hides, he attempts to wheel and deal to get out of being killed.
As the episode progresses, we watch big man Warren get hunted down. The best part of this stems from the gender issues stemming from this power dynamic. Warren has routinely tried to prove how much smarter, more powerful, and stronger he is than everyone else. He’s the guy that has to be the top dog in the room. He gets reduced to hiding like an animal as Willow hunts him. He’s warned by demons that Willow is full of rage and he doesn’t stand a chance. When she finally confronts him, he’s no match for her supernatural powers. In a turn of tables, she ties him to a tree and rips open his shirt, taunting him with the threat of being penetrated by a bullet. She slowly digs in the bullet, explaining how much the process of his death by gunshot will hurt. When he attempts to protest, she sews his lips shut, finally releasing them only for him to attempt to appeal to her softer side. “You’re not a bad person like me,” he tells her. The appeal doesn’t work: she ultimately flays him, then incinerates his dead body.
Whereas “Seeing Red” presented the unhinged powerplay of a persistently controlling, dominant abuser, “Villains” worked to reinforce a concept with which many of us can identify: the ends to which someone is willing to go to avenge you. We see this trope all the time in action films, in everything from Taken to John Wick to The Crow: someone threatens/kills a loved one, resulting in a murderous rampage. That impulse is dark and yet satisfying – it appeals to one’s sense of honor and justice. “The one person who should be here is gone, and the waste like you gets to live,” Willow hisses in her judgment. That’s what makes this episode: it taps into that dark revenge impulse when someone we love has been wronged beyond the point of return. It’s largely unspoken by polite society: we want to let law enforcement deal with it, pursue the proper channels, and go to sleep at night still knowing that we’re good people. Warren, though… he’s past that point, and as an audience, we want to see him punished. We can’t act on it, but Willow sure can. And it’s her torture and mutilation of him prior to his painful death that really gives the audience their closure surrounding this scumbag’s death. We’ve watched him treat women as sex objects, scheme and kill in the name of dominating the game. We get to see him get knocked down a peg. We get to see him afraid. Suddenly, that very real boogeyman we encounter on the streets isn’t so scary anyone.
While terribly dark, “Villains” is a reminder to the Buffy audience that there’s always a price to pay for pushing people too far. We may not act upon it, or want to admit that we’ve even thought about acting upon it, but it’s there. It’s acknowledging that dark side is within you, waiting to be pushed once the wrong person or thing has been taken from you. It’s punishment of the worst kind of monster out there: the rotten human being. Whereas the ending of “Seeing Red” scares us with its casual, brutal violence, “Villains” lets us know that someone will be the bad guy for us, keeping us safe and avenging that which we may not have the means to avenge. It’s the judge, jury and executioner for the little guy. And that’s what makes it great.
Ryan Larson – “Once More, With Feeling” (Season 6: Episode 7)
Early on in season six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, things are a little rough for the Scooby Gang. Buffy is freshly resurrected, Willow is starting to use her magic just a little too much, and Xander and Anya are deep into the throes of a stale relationship. Joss Whedon took the reigns to do what he does best: explore the relationships of the cast while still exhibiting the humor and quirkiness that Buffy fans had grown to love and expect.
The show itself is a spectacle, perhaps the most technically complex of the entire series, and is able to explore the inner worries, concerns and thoughts of every main cast member through song and dance. Whedon explores numerous styles of song, from ’50s golden age Hollywood to rock opera, each as perfectly fitting for each cast member as the next.
It has a lot going for it and even with this list of strengths, this is not why the episode is not only my favorite episode of the season, but my favorite episode of the series. The episode is full of charm, sure, but it’s really the little additions and nuances that make it truly stand out. The whole cast is singing their way through but the windows of instances of the rest of Sunnydale remind us why Joss Whedon is one of the best at what he does. Xander, Giles and Anya walk down the street, conversation drowned out by a woman fighting against a parking ticket, to only continue their stroll and off-handedly witness a troupe of street sweepers dance gaily around in the background.
Season six of Buffy, is perhaps, the most difficult season to get through. Buffy is melancholy and saccharine after her return from the afterlife and it’s felt throughout the episodes. Events have become much more heavy handed than seasons one and two. Gone are the days of fighting misfit vampires, the Scoobies are more often than not facing some sort of apocalypse. “Once More, With Feeling” assures the viewers that Buffy has not lost its footing. It breathes a much needed breath of fresh air into the series but it does so in such an impactful way. It hides a punch to the gut behind the gloss and glamour of a musical number. The episode is truly a showcase of why Buffy is so well remembered and cherished: it explores and surgically inspects the dynamics of the characters on an episode-by-episode basis. We have seen the same occurrence so often in television history: the show has been serious and brooding for a few episodes so the showrunners offer us a reprieve with an episode that takes the characters out of the situation and reminds us how fun it can be. “Once More, With Feeling’’ does this but without taking the viewer out of the storyline. In fact, Whedon takes this opportunity to reveal hidden truths that have been troubling the characters for episodes, even seasons, at this point. It is hearty and poignant exploration of it’s characters that is damn near perfectly executed by the cast.
Celebrate 20 years of Buffy, run to your closest streaming service and watch this episode once more. With feeling.