Attention, Scoobies! Spoilers for all seven seasons of Buffy lie ahead.
20. Chosen (season 7, episode 22)
I did not love the final season of Buffy, which was the most disposable, largely because it laid waste to much of the humour and spark that had made the show so fun. But wrapping up the whole series by binning the central idea of a chosen one, and turning teenage girls all over the world into a collective chosen, was a neat and satisfying note to end on.
19. Prophecy Girl (s1, e12)
The early episodes gave only hints of the greatness to come, but the first season finale showed that Joss Whedon was willing to go to dark places – killing off the lead character. It was only temporary, of course, which is something of a Whedon trope nowadays. Plus, without this, there would be no Faith (Kendra, we hardly knew you).
18. The Zeppo (s3, e13)
Poor Xander tended to be Buffy’s clown, a serial if accidental trouble-maker who did things such as falling in love with a giant praying mantis. This episode rounded him out and saw him go it alone as he defeated a milder, more human evil, while the rest of the Scoobies were distracted by yet another apocalypse.
17. Innocence (s2, e14)
As metaphors for nightmarish teenage experiences go, Buffy’s boyfriend immediately turning into a bloodthirsty killer after they have sex for the first time is up there. David Boreanaz really ramped up the brood for his first outing as Angel’s soulless alter-ego, Angelus.
16. New Moon Rising (s4, e19)
There were many break-ups in Buffy, but Oz and Willow’s werewolf-related split was one of the most gutting. Throughout season four, all of the characters failed to communicate, again and again; Oz’s brief return led to some of the best heart-to-hearts in the series for everyone.
15. I Only Have Eyes For You (s2, e19)
This is classic early Buffy: on one level, a self-contained story of a ghostly doomed affair between student and teacher, but written so cleverly as to move on to the bigger story of Buffy and Angel/Angelus.
14. Halloween (s2, e6)
For all of its experimentation, sometimes the most straightforward conceits worked best. Here, the gang turned into their Halloween costumes, but even when it was wrapped up, it set storylines in motion that would play out until the 144th episode.
13. Band Candy (s3, e6)
Pesky Ethan was back to cause more Halloween-related mayhem. I am a sucker for characters acting out of character, and this was one of the most fun incidents of it, with Giles and Joyce getting the ultimate munchies and regressing to their teenage years.
13. Doppelgangland (s3, e16)
The vampire Willow, first introduced in The Wish, makes another appearance in Sunnydale. For all of Willow’s evil iterations, this was easily the most jolly – and it gave the world of The Wish another brief outing.
11. Normal Again (s6, e17)
This divisive episode played out to an uncertain “was it all a dream?” premise and it showed Buffy at its bleakest. But the setup – that Buffy might be in a psychiatric hospital and that Sunnydale could be a figment of her disturbed psyche – was a haunting one, not least because the ending was outrageous enough to keep the possibility of it open.
10. The Gift (s5, e22)
Hey, she died twice: the 100th episode saw Buffy make the ultimate sacrifice, again, in order to save the world and her sister/the key, Dawn, while sending Glory, the show’s campest big bad, packing at last. It could have been mawkish, but it got its levels of sentimentality just right.
9. Becoming (s2, e21 & e22)
It is almost sacrilegious to admit it, but often I could take or leave most of the Angel-centric episodes, with the exception of this season two closer. This was the first time Buffy really flexed its dramatic muscles and proved that, while it was a teen supernatural show, it was as emotionally sophisticated as the best dramas. It was so good you could even forgive the flashback accents.
8. Graduation Day (s3, e21 & 22)
This two-part finale marked the closing chapter in the first half of the Buffy story; it was the last of the old guard. It started small and intimate, as Buffy and Faith squared off, and ended as big as it gets, with the mayor’s ascension and the students of Sunnydale High banding together to defeat him. While the final-ever episode destroyed Sunnydale itself, destroying the school was a good place to start.
7. Tabula Rasa (s6, e8)
For all the darkness of season six – and this is horribly bleak, at the episode’s start and end – this memory loss episode managed to harness the perfect Buffy silliness that buoyed everything. Considering it had to follow Once More, With Feeling, it showed that season six certainly had its moments. I would watch a whole season of the adventures of Alex, Umad and Joan the vampire slayer.
6. Restless (s4, e22)
While previous season finales built towards a grand finish, this bucked the trend, dispensing with the big bad in the penultimate episode and leaving the gang to dream their way out of a tumultuous season. Few shows can pull off dream episodes, but this had the perfect balance of surreal silliness and profundity – and, of course, it neatly foreshadowed the arrival of Dawn.
5. The Wish (s3, e9)
This is one of the most rewatchable episodes of the whole series. Of all the forays into alternative realities, this was by far the best. Cordelia wishes that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale, a wish that a new vengeance demon is happy to grant. Cue apocalyptic chaos, good characters turned evil and the arrival of the brilliant, bunny-hating Anya.
4. Who Are You (s4, e16)
I am a sucker for Faith-heavy episodes, and this body-switch saga showed Sarah Michelle Gellar and Eliza Dushku acting their socks off as each other’s character. The only downside of all the lovely chaos was that Mean Buffy, as played by Faith, didn’t get to stick around for nearly long enough.
3. Once More, With Feeling (s6, e7)
This remains one of the most extraordinary episodes of any TV show, never mind Buffy at its peak. This musical entry – made long before musical episodes were a thing – seemed to crunch down every facet of the show into its purest essence, from its humour and its playfulness to its increasingly tortured sensibilities. Most importantly, the songs were not imitators of a musical style, but worthy bangers in their own right.
2. Hush (s4, e10)
The secret underground military bunker did not do much for the reputation of season four, but even against that backdrop this was an astonishing feat of creativity. Although not the toughest enemies Buffy battled, the Gentleman were by far the scariest, stealing voices as they eviscerated victims, and this was a genuinely frightening mini horror movie. Given that the show made its name on quick, witty dialogue, to put out a near-silent episode and still have it be phenomenal was just showing off.
1. The Body (s5, e16)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a witty show: funny, dry, sometimes silly and perfectly at home with embracing the absurdities of its supernatural setting. It evolved to become a brilliant show, though, because it was also capable of tackling the big stuff with tremendous skill and ingenuity. Joyce’s death is the first time a major character dies, and the ordinariness of it – an aneurysm, nothing supernatural and, crucially, nothing to be done – is utterly wrenching. There is no music, just the confusion and panic that follows a catastrophic event; it remains one of the most honest depictions of grief that I have ever seen on screen. It is certainly the most difficult episode of Buffy to watch, but in terms of the writing, the performances, the direction and the sheer emotional impact, this episode is peerless.