Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer continues to find new fans through streaming services and DVD/Blu-Rays. We are highlighting 15 essential episodes that’ll help viewers understand why it’s considered a cult classic without having to watch the entire 144 episode series run. These aren’t necessarily the best episodes and the show is definitely worth a longer look. If you are short on time, consider this as a quick way to get to know Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is “the thing that monsters are afraid of”. Yes, she slays demons and vampires using her Slayer strength. She’s also a teenage girl facing everyday adolescent problems that can’t be overcome with punches and kicks. It’s how Buffy navigates morally complex situations and stands up for what she believes in that shapes her into an iconic heroine.
Buffy could easily fit in with the popular cheerleader clique and hang out with the resident mean girl/queen bee Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) on her first day at Sunnydale High. However, Buffy identifies with the school’s social outcasts. She quickly makes friends with book smart Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and self-effacing Xander (Nicholas Brendon).
Training and guiding Buffy is her Watcher, the knowledgeable Mr. Giles (Anthony Head), he’s also the school librarian. Together, with a little help from the mysterious Angel (David Boreanaz), Buffy and her friends fight the forces of evil and save the world a lot.
The episode descriptions below are intended for beginners and focus more on the themes and underlying story points. However, if you want to go in completely spoiler free, check back after watching the episode.
Welcome to the Hellmouth (Season 1, Episode 1)/The Harvest (Season 1, Episode 2)
Written by creator Joss Whedon, the two part pilot doesn’t quite foreshadow how great the show would later become, but it’s evident there is a solid foundation to build from. More than that, Buffy Summers is a modern heroine, depicted in a relatable, identifiable way which hadn’t been done before for its generation and there hasn’t been many new iconic female superheroes who have pushed through into pop culture since then. Buffy uses metaphors to convey it’s ideas and a couple of them are immediately established. One is how high-school is hell and the other is that vampires represent isolation. Vampires exist in the world but do not live in it which is literally the predicament of the season’s big bad villain.
Prophecy Girl (Season 1, Episode 12) (Season 1 Finale)
Buffy’s struggle to balance life as a teenage girl with her calling as the Slayer comes to a head in Prophecy Girl. What Joss Whedon got right is that superpowers alone do not produce a heroine, it’s the acceptance of responsibility and the sacrifices one is willing to make. The best heroines are made through trials and tribulations, not born as fully formed saviors of the world. Buffy is torn with what must be done in the face of fate and it makes for compelling drama. Sarah Michelle Gellar perfectly captures Buffy’s heart-breaking emotional vulnerability. The season’s format which features an overarching story arc, character relationship arcs, central themes and conflict with the big bad is used as a blueprint for many other televisions shows to come after.
Surprise (Season 2, Episode 13)/Innocence (Season 2, Episode 14)
Season two centers on romantic pairings and through these new relationships, different sides of our core characters are explored and developed. The other primary driving force are our character’s journey into adulthood or rather how their experiences change who they are as they grow up. Both these of aspects come to a series defining moment in Surprise and Innocence, which was originally aired as a back to back two night event. This two-parter is both intimate and emotionally brutal. Innocence hits hard because it’s not a mere cautionary tale nor a be careful what you wish for story. It’s a painfully heartfelt coming of age experience. Take away the supernatural context, Buffy’s relationship remains true to what can happen in real life. Our adolescence experiences mold us into who we are, shaped by what is lost and what we hold onto.
Becoming parts 1 & 2 (Season 2, Episodes 21 & 22) (Season 2 Finale)
Becoming parts 1 & 2 is exceptionally written, it could almost be viewed as a mini-movie. The Season 2 finale is even stronger for those who have been following several story threads, including Willow’s growing self-confidence and Buffy’s star-crossed romance. Season finales often mean facing the end of the world which raises the stakes for every decision made. What also gives Becoming it’s epicness are Angel’s flashbacks, tying together things we know and didn’t know about how he came to be. At the same time Angel’s past is pieced together, Buffy’s support system and normal teenage life is stripped away from her bit by bit. At this point, after episode 13’s Innocence and episode 17’s Passion, Buffy shows it excels in darkly poignant moments and this finale’s climatic ending doesn’t pull punches either.
Earshot (Season 3, Episode 18)
In Earshot, Buffy is infected with a mind-reading ability, leading to hilarious, cleverly written moments and ultimately landing on a powerful truth. It’s hard not to talk about Earshot without mentioning that it was pulled from its intended original air date the week after the Columbine High School massacre. The network and show’s producers rightly preempted this episode until many months later, yet it’s important to note that Earshot is clearly against gun violence. Earshot distills Buffy’s strongest metaphor about the high school experience. Because Buffy can eavesdrop in on everybody’s thoughts, it’s an earned moment when she states, “If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening.” As much as Buffy is a work of supernatural fiction, the high-school troubles portrayed are sometimes all too real.
Graduation Day parts 1 & 2 (Season 3, Episodes 21 & 22) (Season 3 Finale)
For Buffy, graduation day has a double meaning as a high-school student and as a slayer. Season 3 explores Buffy’s darker self, a path she might have gone down if she didn’t have her mom, Giles and the rest of the Scooby gang supporting her. Dusting vampires is part and parcel of being a Slayer, taking a human life isn’t. Graduation Day part 1 sets up the scenario where Buffy can believably cross a line she can’t return from with the consequence that she might lose herself in the process.
Part 2 gives closure to a couple of on-going story threads; a passionate, loving romance that isn’t meant to be and the school classmates coming together. Graduation Day marks a time of change for both the characters and the show itself. The high school experience is a rite of passage and the show is arguably at it’s most powerful in this era, telling stories that resonate with its core younger audience. However, rather than stretching out the high school years, Buffy pushes forward in life, into college and adulthood.
Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)
“Hush” is what you say to noisy, misbehaving school children. It’s also Joss Whedon’s response to misguided critics who believe that Buffy is only as good as the show’s witty wordplay. Take away the clever dialogue, what do you have left? Hush is an episode which encapsulates the best of Buffy: witty, humorous, spooky, perceptive and filled with memorable character interactions. For the uninitiated, what’s also an understated strength is how Buffy works on different levels. There’s the visceral experience, in Hush the monsters are living nightmares made out of nursery rhymes, and then there is the deeper conversation to what’s going on beneath the story. Hush has something to say about how people start communicating when they stop talking.
The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)
A significant character passing away is not new for Buffy which has seen its share of fan favorites get killed off over the course of the series. But it’s how The Body deals with death which sets it apart. The Body is arguably Joss Whedon’s best work. Specific choices in the writing and direction have carefully thought-out intentions. The Body is more than an intellectual exercise, it’s a very personal and meaningful work. Whedon reflects on ideas, thoughts and feelings from his own experience of a loved one passing. The Body resonates because of the raw and real emotions many viewers can identify with.
The death in The Body, which was actually revealed in the closing seconds of episode 15, is not designed to be a shocking twist. Death is a natural part of life, it happens all around us and the world continues on. For living, it’s about how we each may react, process and deal with grief differently and The Body captures that brilliantly. The Body is claustrophobic, emotionally numbing and an uncomfortable episode to sit through. It can also reduce you to a puddle of tears.
The Gift (Season 5, Episode 22)(Season 5 Finale)
After spending Season 4 exploring college life, Season 5 examines how family is blood and at the same time are the significant people we choose to live our lives with. Having Buffy’s “love interest” be her family is important in that she isn’t defined exclusively by her romantic relationships. Much of the season also delves into what it means to be a Slayer and mortality. These two concepts go hand in hand especially in exploring why Buffy has outlived the previous slayers. The Gift bookends with what could be a series finale level scenes. Where as most episode begins with a scene which layouts the theme to the upcoming hour, this season finale’s cold open is the literal depiction of Buffy’s central idea: subverting the horror movie cliche of what happens when a blonde girl goes into a dark alley. Season 5’s heavily serialized narrative makes it a bigger challenge for casual fans who aren’t watching every episode to follow along because elements in seemingly standalone episodes all come together in this finale.
Once More, with Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)
Every fan loves to talk about the musical episode where characters burst into song and dance. It is essential viewing not only because it’s an excellent episode with catchy, memorable tunes but just about every conversation about Buffy will probably mention it. If you haven’t watched Once More, with Feeling, you haven’t really watched Buffy. Joss Whedon puts so much heart into writing songs that’ll make you laugh and sing-along. The musical is all about characters revealing their innermost feelings and builds up a pairing that’ll be a focal point for the rest of the season.
Chosen (Season 7, Episode 22)(Series Finale)
“Into every generation a slayer is born: one girl in all the world, a chosen one. She alone will wield the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness; to stop the spread of their evil and the swell of their number. She is the Slayer.” The brilliant turn of events in “Chosen” is in rewriting the core concept in a way that is actually truer to the show’s mission statement. Buffy has a message of empowerment that is as uplifting over a decade later. Season Seven returns to Buffy’s most powerful metaphors and in exploring the nature of leadership. What a great leader like Buffy knows is that having real power is not to defend or to claim it for yourself, it’s about sharing it. Buffy concludes on a feeling of measured hopefulness which perfectly suits a series which wasn’t afraid to dive into darker terrain as well as finding the humor in life.
If you are already a Buffy fan, which episodes do you recommend for beginners?