*credit to Entertainment Weekly for the cover photo*
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show which occupies a unique place in both pop culture and television history. While it began its life as a second-tier, mid-season replacement on the struggling WB network, by the end of its life cycle it would be home to one of the most ravenously devoted fan bases on the planet.
Buffy, like The X-Files, was a cultural touch point that helped to pave the way for horror to become a genuine successful television genre outside of anthology shows like The Twilight Zone or Tales from the Crypt. Instead of going for the all or nothing horror of those shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer opted for a focus on characterization, and an increasingly well-established world where it really felt like almost anything could happen.
Through its deliberately subversive writing, its relentless questioning of social and storytelling tropes, and its talented cast, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has stood the test of time for 22 years as one of the best reviewed and most beloved television shows of all time.
With that in mind, we’re here to catalog the 22 best, most representative, and most essential episodes of Buffy across all seven of its seasons. Obsessives and newbies alike will find plenty to love in our collection of the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes below.
The Best Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes:
22) “Prophecy Girl”
Season one of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is by far it’s most hit or miss collection of episodes. With several downright silly episodes (“The Pack”, “I Robot, You Jane”) and only a few that are stand-outs (“Welcome to the Hellmouth”, “Angel”), season one can make for a tough entry point for outsiders and newcomers.
Still, Buffy’s showdown with The Master in the season one finale, “Prophecy Girl”, is the absolute high point of this middling collection. Being the first time that Buffy feels downright out-matched and the first time she fails in her slayer duties, “Prophecy Girl” is also notable for giving every central character a purpose, and uniting them as the Scoobies in the final shot.
With high stakes, top-notch writing, and a genuinely thrilling battle as its centerpiece, “Prophecy Girl” re-wrote the rules for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and helped it to grow into the show it would come to be.
21) “Something Blue”
Some of Buffy‘s most charming episodes are also some it’s goofiest. Being set in a world where magic can wreak endless amounts of chaos and havoc allowed Buffy the Vampire Slayer to take a break from the heavy stuff for some truly funny episodes like “Something Blue”.
The premise of the episode (random phrases Willow says become reality at a whim) is so silly that the episode could have been an absolute flub, but thanks to some sharp writing and a lot of imagination, “Something Blue” is memorable as one of season four’s best episodes.
From the Spike and Buffy pairing (a scene-stealing notion that would have major implications for the future) to Xander becoming a literal demon magnet, “Something Blue” is an episode that embraces its wacky premise in a way that is supremely admirable.
20) “The Zeppo”
Another extremely silly outing, “The Zeppo” finds a season three Xander feeling like the only one in the Scooby squad who has nothing to offer. With that in mind, when Xander finds himself roped into a crime caper led by gang of undead classmates, he opts to handle it himself rather than ask his friends for help.
While this might easily turn into a tired message episode about learning to rely on those closest to you, “The Zeppo” instead doubles down by having Xander eventually come to terms with his weaknesses and even overcome them as the hour winds down.
Bonus points here for Xander’s short sexual encounter with Faith and a subplot where the rest of the central characters battle an unfathomable evil force and save the world in a collection of scarcely commented upon background scenes.
19) “Lie to Me”
The first truly great episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t arrive until well into the second season of the show. “Lie to Me” sees an old friend of Buffy’s come back into her life while harboring a dark secret. As Xander and Willow begin to suspect Ford is more than he appears, Buffy is blinded with nostalgia and affection.
The grim twist of “Lie to Me”, that Ford is dying of brain cancer and has cut a deal with Spike to become a vampire, isn’t revealed until late in the episode, making this knife twist all the more brutal. The thematic mirror between Spike and Buffy, as they are the only characters not to lie in this episode, is especially interesting when you consider where the show ultimately takes the two of them.
Finally, the tragic ending, which sees Buffy forced to stake her newly undead friend, cements the surrogate father/daughter relationship between Buffy and Giles, when she asks him to lie to her about how dark this world really is.
18) “A New Man”
Any time Ethan Rayne comes to town, Buffy fans generally know that they’re in for a fun episode. “A New Man” is no exception. Centering on an increasingly lost Giles feeling untethered to his life (with no job to do, no kids to teach, and no slayer to watch) and making a series of poor decisions that have dire, if hilarious, consequences, “A New Man” is a ridiculous hour of television.
After a night out drinking with his rival, a chaos warlock, Giles awakens to discover he’s been transformed into a demon. Only able to speak in grunts and roars, and having torn up his home in shock and frustration, Giles is now being confused for a monster and hunted by his own slayer.
The buddy cop style hijinks that unfold between Giles and Spike, the only one who can understand Giles’ demon grunts as a language, are just the cherry on top of this ridiculously silly and undeniably entertaining episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
17) “Two to Go”
Though viewers had already seen the beginnings of Dark Willow, it wasn’t until “Two to Go” that Willow went all in on the villain arc. As she continues to reel from the murder of her girlfriend, Tara, Willow goes after the people she holds responsible.
As Buffy, Xander, and Giles try to stop her, they also find themselves in her cross hairs, and as Willow grows increasingly unhinged, the stakes are raised considerably.
It’s a testament to the writing team of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that they could actually make this arc, in which the show’s meekest, nicest character turns into the surprise big bad, work. While there are some clumsy mis-steps along the way in season six, the pay off of seeing Buffy and Willow go toe to toe is well worth the price of admission.
The two-episode arc of “Surprise” and “Innocence” is one of the most daring moves a teen drama has ever had the audacity to pull. Buffy the Vampire Slayer began with the mission statement of using the supernatural as metaphors for real life issues, and “Innocence” brings this thesis to a chilling reality.
After losing her virginity to Angel, Buffy awakens to find that Angel is acting like a totally different person. What she doesn’t know is that through an elaborate confluence of events, he has lost his soul. The metaphor, however, probably rang horribly true for the many, many teenage girls who had given themselves to an older boy, only to be tossed aside and treated like trash.
While Buffy is initially destroyed by Angel’s cruelty, she eventually hardens her pain into a steely resolve when Angel attacks a movie theater full of innocent bystanders. Though Buffy is unable to kill Angel in the final moments of “Innocence”, she does emancipate herself from him with a very satisfying kick to the nuts. “Give me time,” she promises as she leaves him on his knees. It’s one of season two’s best moments.
One of the most memorable episodes in the entire series emerged as a result of, and answer to, some of Joss Whedon’s most outspoken critics. They contended that Buffy the Vampire Slayer only worked because of its snappy dialog, questioning Whedon and co’s ability to tell a good story.
Enter “Hush”, an episode in which everyone in Sunnydale is struck silent by demons right out of a fairy tail. The delightfully creepy gentlemen hover about town in the silence, murdering women and stealing their hearts as part of a grand ritual.
Of course, outside of the main plot is where a lot of the fun is had, as the Scoobies make goofy gestures, draw pictures, and write on little erasable whiteboards to communicate with one another. A scene in which Giles stages an elaborate slide show, complete with music, in order to explain the results of his research remains one of the funniest scenes in the entire series.
Further, “Hush” has real implications for the story, as Tara and Willow come together for the first time and Riley and Buffy discover each other’s hidden lives. “Hush” is an all-around great episode and certainly the best hour of season four.
14) “Seeing Red”
Some of the most traumatic moments of the entire series emerge in the troubling and contentious final act of season six, which sets Willow up as the villain. The worst of these both occur here, in “Seeing Red”.
The trio, a group of man baby villains who grow to be a real and dangerous threat at last, is headed by the misogynistic and sociopathic Warren. In “Seeing Red” Buffy shuts down their plans at last, but at a deadly price. When Warren shows up with a gun and shoots Buffy in the chest, this is only the beginning of the damage he will do.
Unwittingly, he also shoots Tara threw an upstairs window as he fires wildly. The chilling final scene of the episode sees Willow look up to the camera, her tearful eyes red with rage.
“Seeing Red” also features a truly hard to watch scene in which Buffy and Spike’s incredibly unhealthy relationship comes to a head when Spike tries to rape Buffy in her upstairs bathroom. In terms of implications, this one episode sets up two major arcs: one in which Dark Willow is born, and the other in which Spike attempts to redeem himself by getting his soul back. It’s an unforgettable hour.
13) “Band Candy”
As was mentioned above, the Ethan Rayne episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are among the silliest and most fun the series has to offer. “Band Candy” is no exception.
As the students of Sunnydale High begin selling candy for a fundraiser, logically, their parents end up purchasing most of it. However, Rayne has cast a spell on the chocolate which reverts the parents to their teenage selves. As Giles becomes a dangerous rebel, Joyce becomes a swooning school girl, and Snyder becomes the world’s biggest dork, it falls to Buffy to keep them safe while getting to the bottom of their newfound youthful attitudes.
Filled with great gags, hilarious writing, and a certainly memorable tryst between Joyce and Giles, “Band Candy” is a season three stand-out for its strong comedic chops.
12/11) “Becoming Pt. 1 & 2”
If “Innocence” introduced us to hard new realities concerning Angel, “Becoming” is the ultimate expression of this new dynamic between the slayer and her former lover.
While the first part showcases more of Angel’s past, as told by an enigmatic demon named Whistler, it also features the untimely death of Kendra (complete with Buffy’s epic blue trench coat run), a moment that will pave the way for Faith’s arrival in season three.
In the second part, as Angel seeks to bring hell on earth, it falls to Buffy to finally step up and take him out for good. However, the many moving pieces in the background of the plot give this already difficult task an even crueler edge. As Willow cracks the spell to restore Angel’s soul, at last, Buffy must finish him off anyway, as the portal to hell must be closed using his blood. As if this weren’t heartbreaking enough, the sappy tones of Sarah McLaughlin hammer the stake in even further as Buffy leaves town a shattered wreck of her former self.
Further, “Becoming” also features Spike flipping the script on Angel and working with Buffy, a moment that will have huge ramifications for all three characters for the rest of the series.
10) “Lover’s Walk”
Though Joss Whedon originally planned to kill off Spike, he loved James Marsters’ portrayal of the punk rock vampire so much that he let him live through the season two finale… and good thing he did. Had he followed through with the original plan for Spike and Dru, we wouldn’t have a fantastic episode like “Lover’s Walk.”
As a despondent Spike returns to Sunnydale a shadow of his former self, he seeks out Willow to help him with a love spell to get Dru to come back to him. His decision to confine Willow and Xander together has several unintended consequences, including the two of them hooking up, which leaves the Scoobies shattered and separated by episode’s end.
Worse still, he delivers the nail in the coffin for Angel and Buffy’s second try at a relationship. The shot of truth he offers, that they will never be friends, no matter what they say, is the first of many final blows that will separate them once and for all at the end of season three.
Luckily, “Lover’s Walk” isn’t all doom and gloom. Spike, Buffy, and Angel have some truly funny moments, including Spike playing up Angel’s evil turn for laughs, and the endless bickering the three get up to when forced to work together. Rich with drama and laughter, “Lover’s Walk” is one of season three’s best episodes.
While the aforementioned “Innocence” established Angel as a villain, it wasn’t until “Passion” that fans were sent down the dark path for good. After Angel murdered Jenny Calendar, the audience knew that there was no coming back for him… and so did Buffy.
While much of the episode plays out like a standard season two episode of Buffy, the overarching voice-overs and bevy of flashbacks establish the fact that “Passion” is going for something more dynamic. As Ms. Calendar struggles to give Angel back his soul, and right the wrong she participated in, Angel becomes aware of her plan and arrives to stop her.
Though we’d seen Angel chase and threaten Buffy’s friends before, the chilling moment when he catches Jenny out of nowhere, before abruptly snapping her neck, was a total shock to our collective system. Ms. Calendar was the first main character death of the entire series, and as such, no one saw it coming until we heard that fateful crack.
From Giles discovery of his beloved, arranged like a come-hither date night, to his suicidal revenge attack on Angel, to Buffy and Giles collapsing in tears in the alley, “Passion” is a non-stop tour-de-force that not only makes irrevocable changes to the characters but also goes a long way toward explaining who Angel is and where he came from.
8) “Fool For Love”
As “Passion” made us aware of Angel’s history as a vampire, “Fool for Love” did the same for Spike. As was mentioned earlier in the show, Spike has killed two slayers, and after Buffy almost dies in active duty, she corners him to ask how.
As Spike unfolds the story of his life, he trades barbs and flirtatious remarks over pints of beer and games of pool. We see flashbacks to 18th century Britain, the Chinese Boxer rebellion of 1900, and 1970s New York, as Spike explains how he became a vampire, and how he would eventually come upon, and kill, two slayers in his lifetime.
As if this weren’t enough, the second fight sequence is interplayed with a mock fight between Buffy and Spike in the alley behind The Bronze. As things get more and more intimate, Spike goes in for the kiss at last, only to be left on his knees weeping in the alley. Though a humiliated Spike initially vows to kill the slayer, he manages only comforting her while she worries about her mom’s cancer diagnosis.
This is the real beginning of what will be a tumultuous but eventually loving and amicable relationship between the two, and for that, as well as a great many other reasons, “Fool for Love” is an absolutely essential episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
7) “Conversations with Dead People”
For a teen drama, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always more audacious and experimental in its structure than the majority of its ilk. Case in point, “Conversations with Dead People”.
Focusing on 5 separate, yet connected stories, in which Buffy, Dawn, Willow, Andrew and a nameless young woman converse with the dead, “Conversations with Dead People” casts a wide thematic net more reminiscent of something like The Sopranos or Six Feet Under… and points for the writers, because they pull it off.
As Buffy is out on patrol she meets a vampire who was actually in her psych class, and instead of fighting, they talk about the old days while waxing philosophical. Dawn finds herself attacked by a demonic force in her home, while Willow, for her part, speaks to a dead girl who claims to be there on Tara’s behalf. The final two stories concern Andrew being visited by the ghost of Warren and Spike out on a date with a young woman.
Of course, part of what makes this episode work is how the light interplay and snappy dialog eventually turn incredibly dark. Buffy is forced to kill her classmate, Dawn receives a foreboding message from beyond the grave, Willow is encouraged to commit suicide, Andrew murders his best friend, and Spike kills the girl he’s on a date with.
As it turns out, The First is behind most of this, and “Conversations with Dead People” is an excellent centerpiece that exposes the powers of this new, and different, kind of villain. It’s also one of the first season’s seven episodes that shows how brutal of a challenge the Scoobies will be facing in their final season of television.
6) “Once More With Feeling”
The famous musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is commonly cited as an all-time favorite, and with good reason. If you’re one of those people who hates how every show has to have a musical episode these days, you can blame this pioneering episode of television for your rage.
However, “Once More With Feeling” is anything but a lazy episode of fluff and bad music. Featuring a staggering 19 original songs for its 50 minute run time, the styles cross a wide range of genres, from rock ballads, to pop ditties, to old Hollywood yarns, to Broadway show tunes.
Further, the concept that makes this all possible, that a demon has come to town with the power to make people burst into song at a moment’s notice, actually works, mainly because they’re singing about their hidden feelings and desires.
While this sounds fun, and it certainly is, it can also be wildly sad, as when Buffy reveals that she wished she’d been allowed to stay dead, before trying to kill herself (for the second time in season six). Xander and Anya’s song about their hidden relationship concerns also has very real consequences for the remainder of of the show.
For all of these reasons and more, “Once More With Feeling” is well-deserved of its status as one of the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes of all time.
5/4) “Graduation Day Pt. 1 & 2”
Season three is home to Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s best villains in the happy go lucky mayor, Richard Wilkins, and the slayer gone bad, Faith Lehane. As such, the final showdown with these two baddies in the two-part season three finale goes down, without question, as one of the great Buffy arcs.
The first part ends with the knockdown, drag-out fight of fights between Faith and Buffy, as Buffy arrives quite literally out for Faith’s blood in order to heal Angel’s wounds. As the two slayers go toe to toe at last, they battle around Faith’s apartment, smashing and destroying the place as they go. As the battle finishes up on the roof, Buffy plants Faith’s own dagger in her gut, and sends her off the roof of her apartment building, putting an end to their rivalry… at least for the time being.
Meanwhile, part two sets the entirety of Buffy’s graduating class against the monstrous Mayor Wilkins and his vampire army. As an eclipse heralds the apocalypse on graduation day, the students reveal the weapons they have hidden under their robes, and the battle for Sunnydale begins. For her part, Buffy leads the mayor through the school, and escapes out the other side, triggering some explosives to take out the previously unkillable Big Bad for good.
Finally, season three wraps up with the appropriate melancholic mixture of Angel leaving Sunnydale behind, and the scoobies looking joyfully toward what the future holds… now that they have one, that is.
3) “The Gift”
Initially meant to be a last-minute series finale after the WB pulled the plug on Buffy the Vampire Slayer just in time for its 100th episode, “The Gift” isn’t just one of Buffy‘s best finales, it’s also one of its finest episodes.
As Dawn is taken away to be sacrificed in Glory’s ritual, Buffy and co. face their greatest challenge yet. As hope begins to seem fleeting, the scoobies come up with a last-ditch plan, using all of the tricks in their playbook in order to beat Glory down and scale her tower.
Unfortunately, by the time Buffy arrives, the ritual has already started, forcing Buffy to make a terrible choice. Suddenly all of the clues given throughout the fifth season come together (“it’s always the blood, blood is life”/”death is your gift”) and Buffy offers Dawn some final, touching words of encouragement before hurling herself valiantly from the tower and giving her life in order to close the portal.
As her friends gather around her body in heartbroken disbelief, we see her grave, marked with the entirely appropriate phrase: “She saved the world… a lot.”
Finally, extra points must be given for the best Giles moment in the entire series, when Ripper shows his dark side once again, smothering Ben in cold blood after Buffy spares his life. “She’s not like us.” An amazingly dark, and undeniably awesome turn for Giles.
While season seven of Buffy The Vampire Slayer definitely has its detractors, most can still agree that the final episode of season seven, and of the series, sends the scoobies out in fine style.
As Buffy and the potential slayers prepare to go to war against the demon hordes of The First, the stakes have never been higher than in “Chosen.” However, when Angel arrives with a last-minute pick-me-up, and Willow finds in herself the power to change the world, it finally looks like team slayer might have a fighting chance.
“Chosen” is filled with brilliant moments, from the last minute Dungeons and Dragons session, to Buffy’s cleaving domination of Caleb. The last walk that Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles take as the original scoobies, heading into the final battle is light and fluffy but filled with heart just the same. Buffy’s heartfelt speech about every girl in the world being a slayer is not only tear-inducingly powerful but also a gorgeous love letter to the fans and what Buffy has meant to so many people.
Finally, the epic battle in the hell mouth is Buffy’s biggest and best set piece ever. It genuinely feels, right until the moment that Spike’s necklace begins glowing, like this could be the end for every last one of our heroes. Further, many characters do die, including several of the potential slayers, as well as Anya and Spike. The gut punch of Spike’s death, and Buffy finally deciding she’s ready to live in the world again is affirming, and the episode’s closing moments, where Buffy is finally free to live as she pleases, make a beautiful send-off for her.
All in all, “Chosen” is a brilliant series finale, and would be the absolute stand-out of the series, if it weren’t for a certain stellar season five episode.
1) “The Body”
Inspired by the Joss Whedon’s real-life experience of losing a parent, the absolutely jaw-dropping quality of an episode of television like “The Body” cannot be overstated.
As Buffy arrives home from an otherwise normal day, she discovers her mother’s lifeless corpse, already cold, lying on the couch. As she flies into a tearful panic, the abject anxiety of what is occurring sinks in immediately. From this moment on, “The Body” is a total tour-de-force of emotional turmoil and the unmistakable pain of loss.
While the scoobies rally around their friend in her time of need, no one really knows how to handle a threat of death that isn’t supernatural in nature. Willow frets over her clothes, Anya struggles to understand mortality, Xander punches a hole in the wall, and Dawn reverts to a shattered state of being.
Making the drama even more palpable, the camera pans off occasionally to remind us how the world continues to revolve around us, unflinching and uncaring, even during a time when we feel it must stop. Parking tickets are still being given, lawnmowers are still going, and the gentle breeze of a summer day still rustles our hair.
It is this painstaking attention to detail that makes the grief and sorrow of “The Body” work so insanely well. Because Joss Whedon had experienced a similar event, the nuance and panic of it all never rings hollow. On the contrary, the cruel silence and lack of easy platitudes force viewers to join in this painful process with these characters in a way that feels almost too real.
An utterly perfect episode of television, “The Body’ is unquestionably the highest quality episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the beating heart of this series.