The Best Episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Part 3

07/22/2012

Episodes 16-20

See Also
Part 2: 21-25

Part 1: 26-30

20. Spiral

Season 5, Episode 20
Writer: Steven S. DeKnight
Director: James A. Conter

For most of season five, Buffy teased a big “swords and sorcery” epic. Yet the few brief flashes of knights and goblins and evil gods were drowned out by the more intimate story of Joyce’s death and its aftermath. Don’t get me wrong, that was absolutely the right decision. The epic is only as good as the emotions behind it, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t really excited when Glory figured out that Dawn was “the key” at the end of Tough Love. Because I knew that finally all bets were off. You want more doomed romance stuff where Buffy gives Spike a chance to redeem himself and win her love? You got it. You want a frantic, hopeless chase into the unknown? Check. You want a bloody standoff against a superior force that takes place in an empty gas station in the desert? Of course you do! What a stupid question. You want the potential unexpected death of beloved main characters? Well, nobody really wants that, but that never stops Joss from giving it to us anyway.

Spiral is the moment where everything, um, spirals out of control; where all the understated sadness and pain starts to pay dividends in choreographed violence; where Whedon’s endgame finally kicks in and reveals itself as one of the most compelling conclusions to any TV show ever. And what’s most impressive is how flawless the transition is. Through all this chaos, the story remains every bit as much about Joyce’s death and Buffy’s grief as Glory’s plot to create hell on earth. This episode certainly feels more like the Vampire Slayer show I know and love than, say, The Body, but when the captain of the Knights of Byzantium explains Dawn’s importance and Glory’s evil plan (an epic “big reveal” type moment) Buffy’s pained expression also hearkens back to the moment when she discovered “mommy” on the couch. Another great intimate moment comes between Dawn and Buffy in a bedroom (which is nice because it’s where they had all their arguments earlier in the year, even though this bedroom is located in a Winnebago during the aforementioned frantic chase). Dawn looks Buffy in the eyes and, unable to find the words to express her overwhelming love for her sister, simply states, “This is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.” My tears hadn’t even cleared by the time Buffy was sword fighting medieval knights atop the Winnebago.

BEST LINE
Giles: “Everything’s going to be alright. We’ll wait here — calmly — and as soon as Buffy arrives we’ll —
A battered Winnebago with trash bags taped over the windows pulls in front of the crew, and the side door pops open.
Giles: “– feel oddly worse.”

19. Conversations with Dead People

Season 7, Episode 7
Writers: Jane Espenson/Drew Goddard
Director: Nick Marck

Because of the odd structure of this episode — which basically is chopped into four different episodes — this write-up turned out a little longer. Sorry. I tried the whole brevity thing and it just didn’t work.

As I understand it, this very peculiar episode was conceived in response to major scheduling and budgeting limitations during season 7. For a stretch of time the actors weren’t available together, so showrunners Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon teamed up with writers Jane Espenson and Drew Goddard (recently of Cabin in the Woods) to write a series of vignettes about Buffy, Dawn, Willow, and Andrew and Jonathan on their own. Or not entirely on their own, I suppose. They’re all having — wait for it — Conversations with Dead People!

Joss takes the Buffy vignette which begins with her in the graveyard on a typical night of slaying. But the vampire she’s hunting turns out to be Holden Webster, a guy she went to high school with. He’s been spending the last three years as a psych major at Dartmouth and Buffy has some things she needs to get off her chest, so they wind up having a chat while she lies back on a couch-length coffin and he asks her questions (“Buffy, I’m here to kill you. Not to judge you… I think you’re in some pain here. Which I do enjoy because I’m evil.”)

Espenson’s contribution is about Dawn, who settles in for an uneventful night. (which for Dawn apparently means watching a horror movie, dancing alone to salsa music, and ordering a pizza which she gets on one of Buffy’s blouses. “Oh well, she’ll just think it’s blood.”) But suddenly the house starts to go insane (in the slightly more classic sense of supernatural communication) and after a lot of very traditional horror movie freak outs, the crazy talking radio and weird visions reveal themselves as a message from her deceased mother.

Noxon wrote the Willow exchange, which she has in the college library with Cassie (a girl Buffy tried to save earlier this season). “It’s kinda weird because we never really met,” Cassie observes. “It’s also weird because you’re dead,” Willow counters. It turns out Cassie has a message from Tara, which turns out to be more ominous than Willow expected: apparently Willow is going to try to kill all of her friends again unless she gives up magic for good.

The last true vignette was written by Goddard and follows the return of Jonathan and Andrew from Mexico. The two remaining Trio members are still upset about the loss of their leader (Jonathan subtly implies that Warren was just a little more important than the two of them when he reminds Andrew “33.34% of us were flayed alive!”) but they’re back on what Jonathan believes is a mission of redemption. In Mexico they had some prophetic dreams (Andrew has a Freudian mistranslation of The First’s catchphrase, “From beneath you it devours,” which apparently he dreamt in Spanish and decided was, “It eats you, starting with your bottom.”). Now Jonathan is intent that they find some kind of evidence and go to Buffy so she can save the world. And so he can join the Scooby gang like he’s always wanted. However it turns out that the ghost of Warren is secretly guiding Andrew, and maybe their mission is less about redemption than Jonathan believes.

These segments range from brilliant to serviceable. Buffy’s conversation with Holden is a lot of fun. It’s zany and unpredictable, and it gives her an opportunity to voice her concerns about her increasing isolation — even if it is to an undead stranger. The Trio reunion is also very touching. At once point, as Jonathan and Andrew make their way through the high school toward the hellmouth, Jonathan observes, “All the cruelty, all the pain, all the humiliation: it all fades away. I miss my friends. I miss my enemies. I miss the people I talked to every day. I miss the people who never knew I existed.” Andrew coldly responds, “Not one of them cares about you,” and to show he’s really grown, Jonathan rebuffs him with, “Well I still care about them. That’s why I’m here.”

These two conversations eventually intersect. Buffy feels alone because she thinks she’s better than everyone else because she’s the slayer. (something she also has an inferiority complex about) Andrew also feels alone because he resents the people who picked on him in high school (and perhaps he’s also developed the inferiority/superiority complex thing). It’s actually Jonathan and Holden who have it right. Jonathan feels connected to the people around him despite how they treated him. He knows they’re all essentially in this “isolation” thing together, or as Holden puts it, “Buffy, everybody feels alone. Everybody is. Until you die.”

The Willow and Dawn sequences have slightly more mixed results. Originally Amber Benson was supposed to return as undead Tara which would have made their moments pretty emotionally intense, but Benson ultimately couldn’t make it (which Cassie basically explains away with some supernatural mumbo jumbo and then a knowing “She can’t see you. It’s just the way it is.”) As things stand, I don’t have anything invested in the Willow/Cassie relationship so their back and forth only really works on an intellectual level. It’s hard to work up tears when I have to keep reminding myself, “This is what Tara would be saying and this is how Willow would respond to Tara.” And as the traditional horror part of the episode, the Dawn piece ranges from legitimately scary to a bit contrived. I felt like I’d already been there before with season 5’s Forever. Some of that is to be expected. It’s an episode that’s structured entirely around “conversations” which I know is the point — but still, it’s kind of a flawed way of creating drama. There’s bound to be some down time.

But the conclusions to all these stories (and occasional interludes with Spike picking up a woman at the Bronze) are pretty darn amazing. I have my beefs with season 7 (mostly related to its second half not at all working) but this plot ramp-up moment where The First reveals his ultimate plan is every bit as awesome as the ones from seasons’ prior. There’s also a memorable song that opens and closes the episode called Blue which was co-written by Joss Whedon (and makes the whole thing feel like a music video, which makes it even more unique). It’s funny that this is what the Buffy team did at their most restricted, because I like this episode more than anything else this season; far more than the big budget, effects-laden series finale Chosen that sucked up the rest of the budget.

BEST LINE
Holden: “Oh my God!”
Buffy: “Oh your God what?”
Holden: “Well not my God, because I defy him and all his works. Does he exist by the way? Is there any word on that?”
Buffy: “Nothing conclusive.”

18. Graduation Day

Season 3, Episode 21-22
Writer and Director: Joss Whedon

The cards are finally all on the table — or so everyone thinks. Faith is evil. Angel is leaving Sunnydale. The mayor is going to “ascend” at Buffy’s graduation. (and while the gang still doesn’t know exactly what that means, they do know that it will involve lots of death and possibly the end of the world. So they should probably stop it) And thus another season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer winds its way to a close. It’s arguably the most complex and ambitious year of the series, so it’s fitting that the last two episodes are packed with enough twists, inter-connecting story-lines, and complex dilemmas to fill an entire season. Giles and Wesley fight for leadership of the group while figuring out how to stop the ascension. Faith poisons Angel and the only cure turns out to be “the blood of a slayer”. Buffy decides she needs to kill Faith, even though doing so means delaying necessary world-saving preparation. The Mayor moves forward with the ascension but also seems willing to put the necessary ceremonies on hold when he discovers Faith is in trouble. Willow and Oz make love for the first time. Wesley and Cordelia finally kiss. Anya continues to court Xander and begs him to leave town with her when things get dangerous. The council refuses to help Angel so Buffy quits and asks Wesley to go back to England. And there’s some kind of plan involving all of Sunnydale High’s graduating seniors for which Xander is apparently the key (“Key? Me? Okay… Pride. Humility. And here is the mind-numbing fear. What do I have to do?”)

But maybe it’s also fitting that sometimes I found the results a little too academic to achieve the emotional payoff Whedon was looking for. There’s a lot of verbal discussion about things like moral ambiguity and elaboration of terms like “graduation” and “ascension” (Joss sure loves dissecting his words, doesn’t he?) — but I wasn’t always sure how to feel about it. Buffy attacking Faith, forcing Angel to bite her to save himself, quitting the council, empowering her classmates, and taunting the Mayor’s humanity are all individually powerful moments; but I’ll admit it took me a few hours of beating my head against a wall to figure out how it all gelled into one singular powerful statement. And I spent the first two just wrapping my battered brain around why being bit by Angel (albeit in a highly sexualized way with redemptive undertones) specifically made Buffy ready to be a general in a war. Of course it’s Joss, so it does. And it’s a Buffy season finale, so there’s no question that it’s awesome. And complexity can be — okay, definitely is a good thing. I just sometimes felt like the whole enterprise was a bit overstuffed. Maybe this was too much of a good thing, and maybe it would have been nice if Whedon had dialed back an extraneous moment or two to focus on making the biggest ones more visceral than cerebral. (maybe axing twenty or thirty minutes of Angel and Buffy arguing from each of the last five episodes would be a good start) But these small complaints don’t ruin this incredible two-parter. If anything, they just keep it from being among my absolute favorite episodes (or, two episodes I guess) like it otherwise would be.

BEST LINE
Cordelia: “So what’s her saga?”
Xander: “She’s freaking.
Cordelia: “About what?”
Xander: “The Mayor’s gonna kill us all during Graduation.”
Cordelia: “Oh. Are you gonna go to fifth period?”
Xander: “I’m thinking I might skip it.”
Cordelia: “Yeah, me too.”

17. Crush

Season 5, Episode 14
Writer: David Fury
Director: Dan Attias

“Whatever you think you’re feeling, it’s not love! You can’t love without a soul!” Buffy yells at Spike while chained to a wall in his crypt. “Oh, we can you know. We can love quite well… if not wisely,” responds Drusilla, who is tied to a post on the other side of the room. Even for Spike this is a pretty ridiculous situation. But considering the circumstances, I gotta say it’s hard to blame the guy. This is the episode where he finally declares his love to Buffy despite knowing just how badly it will go (she realizes what’s coming when he holds the door open for her after a slaying), and it’s also the one where Drusilla comes back to town and tells him she wants him back. Talk about bad timing, especially considering he still lives with Harmony who still has the crossbow he gave her in Out of My Mind.

This is one of the goofier, but also one of the more charming episodes of Buffy: not just because Spike is my favorite character, nor because I could watch Marsters stammer and Gellar cringe until judgment day; but because it perfectly captures the chaos and confusion of love and the identity crisis Spike is having because of it. He’s always aimed wholeheartedly for the things he wanted, whether or not they made sense. It’s how he won Drusilla. It’s how he killed two slayers. It’s how he’s survived so long in a place like Sunnydale. Rarely if ever has he wavered in an action, unless he discovered something he wanted even more. But now the thing he wants most of all — Buffy’s love — is impossible to get and runs completely counter to his nature. Even someone as determined as Spike has to have second thoughts about that.

In a particularly chilling sequence, Drusilla breaks the neck of a college girl at the Bronze and hands her to Spike. He pauses for a moment, but in the end the temptation is too great. Buffy is right. He might have these real emotions, but without the chip in his head he is still just a monster. Like Tara says in a pretty on-the-nose conversation about The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “You can tell it’s not gonna have a happy ending when the main guy’s all bumpy.”

BEST LINE
Buffy: “These vamps have been here for a while. They’ve nested.”
Spike: “So you’re saying they’re a couple of poofters?”

16. Halloween

Season 2, Episode 6
Writer: Carl Ellsworth
Director: Bruce Seth Green

Apparently, as a general rule, demons don’t go out much on Halloween. No real explanation is given for this. Even Giles and Spike don’t seem to have a concrete answer. (Spike’s explanation to Drusilla for why nothing can happen on Halloween is “But nothing happens on Halloween!”) Buffy jokingly wonders, “Do the demons just hate how commercial it’s become?” but she gives a more legitimate answer later in the episode when she tells Willow, “Halloween is the night that not you is you! But not you. You know?” According to that logic, it would make sense that the one night where humans wander the streets dressed as demons is the night the demons stay in and nest.

Regardless, Buffy is relieved of her slayer duties for the evening and then promptly recruited by Principal Snyder to walk a bunch of kids around town Trick-or-Treating. She dresses up like a Victorian noblewoman because she thinks maybe Angel wants a more “traditional” girl. Xander, who is also recruited, dresses up as a soldier — a thinly-veiled metaphor for his bruised ego after Buffy “violated the man code” by rescuing him from a bully. And Willow is convinced by Buffy to go out dressed like a slutty rock star (I wonder how the parents of the children she chaperoned would have felt about that), but before anyone can see her she covers up in a conservative ghost outfit with “BOO” written on the front. Then a bad guy named Ethan Rayne creates a spell that turns everybody into their costume. Xander suddenly doesn’t remember anything except a life in the service. Buffy starts saying things like, “Surely some men will come and save us.” And Willow becomes the ghost of someone who looks like a slutty rock star (a non-specific persona that allows her to retain her memory). So it’s up to timid, conservative Willow (who also has no physical mass at all) to take charge of the dangerous situation. “The very embodiment of ‘Be careful what you wish for’” Ethan brags to Giles.

And even though Willow and Giles do manage to thwart the plan, Ethan does seem to earn his little pat on the back. He is, after all, a chaos worshipper, and this whole situation certainly qualifies as chaos. All kinds of ridiculous creatures are running around town wreaking havoc; Willow is herding an idiot noblewoman, a hardened soldier, a vampire, and Cordelia dressed like a cat all through said havoc; Spike is running around town with demon henchmen who used to be adorable six year olds (his response to the whole situation: “Well this is just… neat!”) It’s all pure, delightful anarchy. I really began to understand why a person might want to worship this kind of thing. Of course, the real winner here is actually Willow. Previously she had been relegated to the computer work and a few shy quips about how much she loved Xander. But while Xander and Buffy sort of learn valuable lessons about their flawed dreams and ideals, she conversely gets the thing Buffy insisted she deserved on a night like Halloween: her moment to finally get noticed.

BEST LINE
Victorian Buffy: “Demon! Demon!”
Ghost Willow: “It’s not a demon. It’s a car.”
Victorian Buffy: “What does it want?”
Soldier Xander: “Is this woman insane?”
Ghost Willow: “She’s never seen a car.”
Soldier Xander: “She’s never seen a car?”
Ghost Willow: “She’s from the past.”
Soldier Xander: “And you’re a ghost.”
Ghost Willow: “Yes. Now let’s get inside.”
Soldier Xander: “I just want you to know I’m taking a lot on faith here. Where do we go?”

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