The Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Part 1

07/19/2012

 Episodes 26-30

So I realize I’ve been writing a lot about Buffy recently. Too much, a rational person might say. Well… I don’t really have a good response to that. Just that I’m not sure I’ve ever loved a TV show this much and, as I have with all my past relationships, I’m trying to soak in every last moment of bliss before it all goes away and I wind up bored, sad, and alone.

What follows, then, is part one of an epic list of my favorite episodes of the series. This is not meant to replace my viewing journals — seasons 6 and 7 are still on the way — but I just felt like an episode by episode analysis could be just as interesting as a season by season one, and this gives me a chance to comment on the show with fewer spoilers (and my re-watches made me want to set straight my last Twitter top episodes list). Of course, I can’t promise no spoilers. I personally think revealing any plot details at all is semi-spoilery on a show like this. If a character features prominently into an episode in season 6, it might betray that they didn’t really die in that big moment back in season 2. The same thing goes for relationship developments, major seasonal plot twists, and any changes in the sexual orientation of major characters. Thus my recommendation is still to watch all the way through the show before you read anything; but if you really, really don’t think you can take my word for it, then maybe my many, many words can convince you otherwise.

As for the existing fans, thanks for reading. Of course, if you’re as obsessed with the show as I am right now, then you really don’t have a whole ton of say in the matter, now do you?

30. The Wish 

Season 3, Episode 9
Writer: Marti Noxon
Director: David Greenwalt

It seems like every TV show, no matter how much I like and respect it, eventually feels like it needs to build an episode around It’s A Wonderful Life — never mind how lazy these knockoffs feel or how poorly they typically play in the context of the rest of the series. Occasionally they are well-intentioned or knowing in their exploitation, but they still always bother me. Unless the show is Buffy, whose showrunner constantly uses well-known pop myths for his own purposes; and unless the episode’s intentions are so distinct from It’s a Wonderful Life that the writer can undermine essential components of the formula to surprise and upset the audience. Then such an episode could be a delightful, even compelling look at a different direction the mythology could have taken: like a vampire holocaust, per se.

But let’s go back to “surprise” and “upset”: two words that are telling of The Wish’s specific charms. The way they’re drawn from a well-worn premise reminds me of a failed experiment from season 2: Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, also from writer Marti Noxon. There she riffed on another seemingly predictable television cliche — the love potion — but instead of providing a bawdy romantic farce, she focused on the violence and brutality inherent in love. To take a disposable premise and nearly drive all the protagonists to the point of death many times over is interesting, but to take an idea seemingly ripe for comedy and give it serious, almost sadistic undertones is a flawed approach at best. It works better here because, first, “What if Buffy never came to Sunnydale?” has a little more dramatic potential than, “What if all the women in the world fell in love with Xander?” And second, the love potion thing isn’t quite as pervasive or loathsome as the It’s a Wonderful Life thing. To undermine a Xander comedy episode is legitimately cruel. To undermine an It’s a Wonderful Life knockoff is heroic.

So when the character who needs to learn the lesson (Cordelia) is killed mid-way through the episode and never winds up discovering anything, we applaud instead of balk. And when the Clarence figure (a vengeance demon named Anyanka) doesn’t fade away at the end, but rather gets stuck in her surrogate teenage girl body and eventually winds up dating one of the show’s protagonists, it’s just another instance of Whedonverse world-building. It also helps that the show was a lot better at blending comedy and drama in season 3 than in season 2, so the presence of something serious like a genocide doesn’t get in the way of the laughter as much as it once did. And I think we can all agree that can only be a good thing.

BEST LINE
Buffy: “World is what it is. We fight, we die. Wishing doesn’t change that.”
Giles: “I have to believe in a better world.”
Buffy: “Go ahead. I have to live in this one.”

 29. Fear, Itself 

Season 4, Episode 4
Writer: David Fury
Director: Tucker Gates

Fear, Itself is an odd little Halloween special. My first instinct was that it didn’t work, but the overall package was so darn entertaining that failure was an easy thing to forgive. But when I watched it again, I realized that the episode isn’t really supposed to work — at least, not on the levels I expected it to. I know that sounds like a lame, fanboyish defense, but the more I think about it the more convinced I am that it’s true. Consider Buffy’s fear that everyone she knows will desert her. That’s a legitimate sentiment coming from a new college freshman, less valid as it stems not from a major rift in her family or tight-knit friend group but from a one night stand with a jerk named Parker.

If this episode were really about fear that would be a damning flaw. But Buffy has faced fear time and time again over the years, up to and including the fear of being all alone in Becoming, the fear of abandonment in Nightmares, and the fear of death in Prophecy Girl; so I don’t think the Parker situation is about real fear. It’s about self-pity. Buffy is drumming up the Parker thing to mean more than it actually does, just like Willow is making a bigger deal out her magic than she should and Xander is more worried about being left out than he ought to be. They’re not just dressing up for Halloween as Red Riding Hood or Joan of Arc or James Bond (who Xander goes as just in case everyone gets turned into their costumes again like in season 2). They’re also pretending to be afraid of things that aren’t really all that big of a deal. The only thing they have to fear is… well, yeah, maybe I was a little slow in the uptake on that one.

Admittedly this is a tough balance to strike. The characters’ fear needs to seem real — because to them it is — but also a little contrived, which could easily come across as the episode itself being contrived. Xander might even express some of the writers’ frustrations in the opening line of the episode, when he says, “I don’t know. I was going for ferocious scary, but it’s coming out more dryly sardonic.” Fortunately to assuage my doubts there was Giles in a sombrero and Anya in a bunny costume and Oz dressed as “God” answering everyone’s declarations of “Thank the Lord,” with an understated “You’re welcome.” And there were also some great moments that reinforced the main point. Giles says he needs to “create a door” to get into the house, and Anya looks on curiously expecting some extravagant door spell only to see Giles pulling a chainsaw out of his bag and cutting through the siding. Oh yeah, and Anya’s greatest fear is bunnies. People who’ve seen the episode know the big boss battle also solidifies this sentiment in a broad visual metaphor, but while that moment is delightful, it’s so delightful I don’t want to risk ruining it. Not obviously at least.

BEST LINE
Xander: “Who’s a little fear demon? Come on! Who’s a little fear demon!?”
Giles: “Don’t taunt him.”
Xander: “Why? Can he hurt me?”
Giles: “No, it’s just tacky.”

28. Tabula Rasa 

Season 6, Episode 8
Writer Rebecca Rand Kershner
Director David Grossman

This goofy memory loss farce (another conceptual screwball that immediately followed Once More With Feeling) isn’t quite as clever as it thinks it is; but considering how pleased everyone involved seems to be with themselves, there’s still plenty of room under that umbrella for an exceptional romp. It’s a premise that’s pure Buffy: Willow concocts a spell to make Tara forget a big fight but accidentally wipes the long-term memories of the entire Scooby gang — and just as a hoard of vampires attacks the Magic Box! So the team is left trying to piece together who, where, and what they are, all the while avoiding a hoard of undead killers (which would be pretty terrifying if you had no memory of that kind of thing happening over and over again for the last six years). Spike and Giles are both British, hence Spike assumes Giles is his father. And Anya has a ring and she and Giles own the Magic Box, hence they assume they must be engaged. And Willow is wearing Xander’s jacket, so they decide they must be dating. (Finally! Am I right?)

The big lesson learned is that while it might be tempting to forget the baggage in  our relationships, (this episode arrives as Giles is planning to leave Sunnydale and Buffy has revealed to the group they actually removed her from heaven and Tara is considering leaving Willow) those painful experiences also shape our identities. Also, when we disregard the less pleasant aspects of people/life, all we have to go on are stereotypes and cliches (Spike comments on the transportation situation, “Dad can drive. He’s bound to have some midlife crisis form of transportation. Something red. And shiny. And shaped like a penis.”) Of course, it’s also nice to see the nuanced things that don’t change. Xander still demonstrates incredible bravery and gets his butt kicked by undead baddies. Willow and Tara still fall in love. Buffy and Spike still end up in an on and off relationship where he insists he’s a “good vampire”. And Giles and Anya argue incessantly. (although that bit never previously ended in a passionate kiss)

And even if it’s only half as witty as it wants to be, cleverness and twists and turns are only a small part of Tabula Rasa’s charms — the real draw is simplicity. With their memories erased, these essentially become new characters taking part in a new story for the first time. It’s like the first season (or the beginning stages of any relationship), when everything felt more mythical, more new, more adventurous in some way. These resemble the Scoobies we’ve come to know and love, but they aren’t about to make the big, life ruining decisions those characters seem poised to make as season six progresses. And so this is a tantalizing reminder of the core of these characters and their story; even while we know that such a return to familiarity is a lie. It’s a great elucidation of Willow’s increasingly difficult arc, not to mention a brilliant exploration of the emotions involved in long-term friendships and, perhaps, the difficulties of keeping such a long-running show afloat. In short, it’s one of those great, perfectly executed manifestations of a nuanced conflict that make the somewhat ill-conceived sixth season such a mixed bag for me. Sometimes it tries too hard to be clever. But sometimes, perhaps simultaneously, it touches on something downright brilliant.

BEST LINE
Giles: “Magic! Magic’s all balderdash and chicanery! We don’t know a bloody thing. Except, I seem to be British, don’t I?”

27. The Pack 

Season 1, Episode 6
Writer: Matt Kiene/Joe Renkenmeyer
Director: Bruce Seth Green

Season 1 of Buffy has more than a few issues. It relies a lot on high school and horror cliches, occasionally shows a wanton disregard for human life, and doesn’t really have the whole “balance of tones” thing down yet. But every now and again those very flaws enable it to do something later episodes could rarely pull off: a legitimate, standalone horror film. That’s what The Pack is. It’s arguably the show’s scariest episode until Hush three seasons later, producing a number of chilling moments and earning a few even more terrifying fake-outs. (including the first time I ever believed a TV writer was really gonna kill a baby)

It begins with a group of stereotypical 90’s TV bullies picking on an even more stereotypical 90’s nerd. Xander follows them into a hyena cage where some kind of magic transforms everyone — Xander included — into more animalistic versions of themselves. At first it manifests itself in more acceptable, if unnerving ways, like the gang beating a weak member of their own team in dodge ball and Xander telling Willow he never wants to see her “pasty white face” ever again. But if that isn’t enough, soon they’re attacking and devouring cute animals and sympathetic members of the regular cast. It’s all terribly brutal, but shockingly effective. I half-believed Xander was going to kill Willow by the end, or maybe Buffy might have to kill Xander. (seriously, I knew nothing about the show going in, and from what I’ve discovered from Angel and Serenity, these things happen on Joss TV shows) It’s not all that funny. It’s not all that insightful into the nature of bullying. But boy is it chilling! I think that counts for something.

BEST LINE
Xander: “I just don’t see why I have to know any of this stuff.”
Willow: “You remember. You fail math, you flunk out of school, you end up being the guy at the pizza place who sweeps the floor and says, ‘Hey kids, where’s the cool parties this weekend?’ We’ve been over this.”

26. Him 

Season 7, Episode 6
Writer: Drew Z. Greenberg
Director: Michael Gershman

This episode is as disposable as Buffy the Vampire Slayer gets, but it’s also one of the series’ best pure comedies. Dawn’s crush on a football player named R.J. leads her to do irrational things — not typical teenager irrational like writing his name over and over again in a notebook, but more amoral psychotic stalker irrational like pushing the starting quarterback down a flight of stairs so R.J. can play in the big game. The other women in the group soon follow suit. Buffy tries to seduce him in her office and Willow plans a spell to turn him into a woman (because she’s gay and all). Anyway, Xander — who had a similar experience back in season 2 — recognizes the supernatural forces at work and sets out to figure out the cause (a magical letter jacket) and stop the women before they do anything rash (for instance, Buffy decides R.J. might be impressed if she kills Principal Wood with a rocket launcher).

Again, I realize this is a blatant rehash of Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered, and I’d guess there are at least a hundred episodes of Buffy that have more going on thematically and conceptually, but I think this is the most I’ve ever laughed at this show. And this is a really, really funny show. Maybe it’s the general lack of great episodes in season 7 that confused me, but I just love everything happening here; from the way Dawn accuses Buffy and Spike of “Doing it like bunnies” to the incredibly random post-titles intro of Buffy fighting a demon while Anya hides under a table yelling, “Maybe I’m not even the right Anyanka! Ever think about that?” to Dawn standing sheepishly in the high school hallway after Anya says, “and Dawn, she’s not really good for anything,” to the ludicrous split-screen of all the women prepping their plans to impress R.J., to Spike and Xander fighting off Buffy as Principal Wood sits in the foreground completely unaware of his potential demise, to Xander responding to the accusation that he considered taking R.J.’s magical letter jacket for himself by saying, “I refuse to answer on the grounds that it didn’t fit.” It’s just all gold. I don’t know what else to say.

BEST LINE
Willow: Hand me back my crystals! I don’t have much time!
Xander: Much time before what?
Willow: Before Buffy and Anya and Dawn have a chance to prove they love R.J. the most!
Xander: And how are they gonna do that exactly?
Willow: Well, Buffy’s gonna kill Principal Wood —
Xander: Fine! Okay! Let’s start there.

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