"Zelda realizes there are too many good episodes to make a top ten or even a top fifteen, but tries anyway, her heart breaking with each episode that doesn't make the cut. Except Go Fish. Fuck that episode."
So as Daniel said, this was a very difficult challenge, because Buffy is just such a freaking good show. I want to talk about allllll the good episodes and how much I love them. The good news is, THIS IS OUR BLOG so we will talk about all of them eventually. And that made me feel a little better about some of the ones I had to cut. And there are some episodes Daniel included, like Checkpoint, which I did not but hey they still got represented, so I don't feel so bad.
Zelda's culled-down list in chronological order (if you ask me to rank them, I might have a funny aneurysm):
Prophecy Girl (1.12)
It's just such a good hero arc, this whole episode. From when Buffy learns about the prophecy and rejects her destiny (breaking our hearts along the way), to realizing that only she can fight this fight, to protect Willow and everyone else from the horror that could be unleashed, to actually meeting the Master and getting killed ... to getting un-killed and then being the baddest badass in Badassonia, dusting vamps and sassing the whole time. It's just ... so much perfect. The moment when the theme song makes its cameo, as she marches along, in evening gown, leather jacket, wet hair, and awesomeness and says calmly, "Oh look, a bad guy," pretty much sums up everything Joss wanted to do with this show.
Lie to Me (2.7)
I've said it before, but watching this the first time is when I fell in love with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's a really well-constructed episode, the funny is funny, the tragic is tragic, and it's when I really realized how gifted Joss is at busting storytelling cliches. Ford reveals his sob story (in the extremely meta scene of his wanting Buffy to give him the standard replies), and rather than us granting him any sympathy, Buffy points out that his suffering gives him no right, ever to take someone else's life. Buffy's morality is firm and so rare on TV, and it was just a thing of beauty. And ... her conversation with Giles at the end. Oh man oh man. Perfect moment is perfect.
If I keep using the word perfect you're going to stop reading. I know that and you know that, so maybe we should just take that as given. This episode was such a game-changer, in terms of Buffy's and Angel's relationship, and even Angel as a character. This was entirely new territory, while still embracing the high school trope of "sleep with a boy, he loses interest and is awful to you." But - BUT - the show did not condemn Buffy. It was an unwise move, but there was no way for her to know, and bless Giles, our voice of reason, for reminding us of that. Have we noticed that my first three picks were written by Joss? Coincidence?
Gah! I was so surprised when I saw this the first time. The trope was so familiar I didn't even think about it - one of our principal characters is being terrorized by the bad guy, and leading him on a merry chase through an empty building, but she's gonna escape. She'll escape by the hairs of her chinny-chin-chin, it'll be close, but she will escape. And then she didn't. He caught her. And he snapped her neck. And left her as a gift-wrapped present for Giles. And none of us saw it coming. It's so beautifully acted and heart-breaking and oh man, Buffy's embrace with Giles after the fire. A great example of one of Joss's favorite favorite stunts to pull on his audience: "NO ONE IS SAFE."
Becoming, Parts 1 & 2 (2.21&22)
One of my favorite themes to explore is identity - who we are, whom we want to be, how we become whom we want to be, or how we become whom we never wanted to be. And this episode is all about that - it's about how Liam became Angelus became Angel became Angelus becomes Angel again. And it's a bit about Buffy becoming the Slayer, and maybe only now realizing what that means (I'm thinking of the moment when she stops Angel's sword and says, "Me." She's realizing just how powerful it is to be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, even if she's all she has left). Beyond that, there are just so many moments that are now classic in my head - from Buffy running in slow motion to discover Kendra's corpse, to Spike and Joyce being THE BEST EVER, to "Someone wasn't worthy," to Xander's BIG TERRIBLE LIE, to Buffy's and Angel's epic sword fight, and the moment she realizes she still has to kill him, even though he's finally back. And then that song ... as her face crumbles, as she watches her friends, as she leaves ... what? No. I'm fine. It's dust. Terrifying Space Monkey Dust in my eyes. Shut up.
The Wish (3.9)
Gosh I feel like we were just writing about this. This episode is a strange little gift, since it hits a reset button at the end, and the only arc-moment that matters is Anya losing her power. But it gives all our actors a chance to stretch and do something different, and it gives us such a fascinating perspective on how easily things could have gone very, very horribly. Giles's stubborn belief that things must be better in this other world just wrenches my heart, and then we have that fight montage, as each of our Scoobies (except Oz. Yay Oz!) dies, ending with Buffy, falling slowly with a listless expression. This episode is a thing of beauty.
I WOULDN'T CARE IF THE REST OF THE EPISODE WERE OUTTAKES FROM GO FISH AND DOUBLEMEAT PALACE, so long as we get Buffy's and Angel's confrontation on the hill. Thankfully, the rest of the episode is much better written than GF or DP, but still ... that scene at the end. We've also done this episode very recently, so I'm not sure what more I can say beyond ... sofreakinggoodyouguys.
This is just ... I love it all. I love the random cheese guy, I love Snyder, I love their version of Death of a Salesman, I love Anya's stand-up, I love Xander's dream where all the rooms are connected as he wanders from place to place, unable to find where he fits, I LOVE WHEN GILES SINGS. It's such an interesting meditation, as well as a check in on each character's insecurities and foci, some of which we explored in Nightmares. And I especially love how integrated the episode became into the rest of the series. Some things were planned, like Dawn, and some things were just happy random callbacks given to us later, as gifts for those who pay attention - the shark with feet and much less fins, Spike as Giles's son, ummmm I know I'm forgetting some but it was just this goldmine of random stream-of-consciousness writing that the writers were able to pick from for the rest of the show's run.
Fool For Love (5.7)
I loooooooooove this kind of backstory/flashbacky thing. It's part of what made S1 of Lost so wonderful (that and the polar bear). Daniel already dealt with Anya's one of these, so I get Spike's. One of the deceptively cool things it does is we thinks it's telling us about Spike, and how he came to be Spike, but it becomes clear in his final alley/subway car speech to her - it's about Buffy, and who she is and what she is. It's about her death wish, about her dance with death, and it's our big clue for the S5 finale, if we know to listen for it. Outside of that secret mission, I just love getting the backstory on Spike, particularly because it's not what he would have us believe of him. I like it because of that, though - that Spike got to decide who he wanted to be, and made himself in that image. Even if that image was ... you know .. a psycho killer. As I said in Becoming, one of my big themes is Identity, so this episode was a gift to me, in that way.
The Body (5.16)
I can't. I can't. I - what Daniel said. I cry through so much of this episode. Every single time I watch it. From Buffy's "Mom? ... Mom? Mom? ... Mommy?" through to Dawn's "Where did she go?", I'm just a messy wreck. It's just so terribly, horribly honest and real and, bless its heart, addresses all aspects of being inside or around a tragedy. So we get the true horror of Buffy's and Dawn's grief, but also the slightly separate confusion and frustration of Anya, and the more-distanced Tara, who's been here before and who didn't love Joyce like the rest do. They're all true. They're all painful. Just thinking about it as I'm typing this, I'm crying again.
The Gift (5.22)
Oh, speaking of crying ... Even though I very recently fantasized with friends about how much less angsty and miserable S6 might have been if Dawn had died and Buffy hadn't ... I still wouldn't change this episode. Even the "previouslies" are beautiful, taking us through the whole series to this point. And, like all good finales, it gives our Scoobies moments to shine - Xander the glorified bricklayer, Giles the - gasp! - murderer for the greater good, Anya and the Troll God Hammer, Willow and her magicks, Dawn ... sorry, I wasn't paying attention, Spike willing to lay down his life to save Dawn for Buffy, and even the Buffybot gets in some cool stuff before her decapitation. And I'm with Daniel, every time I hear the score from this episode, I cry. Because I remember Buffy's speech, and everyone's faces as they see Buffy, dead but so unbruised she might be sleeping ... but truly, irrevocably (until she's not) dead. She saved the world. A lot.
Once More, With Feeling (6.7)
I like musicals. A lot. I like when people burst into song. Hell, I'm still watching Glee (though that's probably going to change once the season ends). Even if the songs aren't as polished as Sondheim, even if the singers aren't as gifted as Audra, I'm willing to concede a lot when my characters start singing to me. But I didn't have to concede that much here. Joss tailored the songs to the singers' talents (or lack thereof), and the choreography has a very charming old-school "let's put on a show" vibe to it. But this is way better than the nonsense we get on Glee - these songs are not pop songs shoehorned into contrived "plots" - they are fully context-driven songs in the true tradition of (good) musical theatre. Even outside of the stunt that was clearly crafted specifically to win my cold, dead heart to watching this show, important plot things happen here, and continue to arc through the rest of the season. Buffy was ripped out of heaven, and now everyone knows. Also, Willow is messing with Tara's memories and Dawn's a liar and Giles wants to leave town and Xander and Anya are having doubts and PLOT. Also mustard. Also Hinton Battle. Can we talk about Hinton Battle?
Tabula Rasa (6.8)
Some people apparently hate this episode. They are incorrect. This episode is magic. This episode is joy on a stick. This episode is my best friend and dearest darling and I would totally rob a bank for this episode. It's a nice little lark away from the pain and misery that is lurking to take over the rest of the season, while still ultimately exploring who these people are, even when they don't know who they are - Joan's still a leader, Umad's still a brat, Willow is still Gay!Now, Annya's still afraid of bunnies, Rupy's still British, Randy's still British with a massive chip on his shoulder and also pretensions of grandeur. My one complaint? That freaking awful pun Loan Shark and his dreadful "acting."
Conversations With Dead People (7.7)
This is a great episode that I'll watch sometimes when I'm in just a general Buffy mood. It's got a little something for everyone - the genuinely scary Dawn plot, the sad-but-well-acted Willow plot, the witty and awesome Jonathan M. Woodward plot (er, I mean, Buffy and her shrink), and the Nerds, in a nice return, even though they fucking killed my beloved Jonathan (that's okay, he has Emmys and Golden Globes and the Hunger Games scripts to keep him warm, I guess). This episode was incredibly satisfying, in all its plots, and it was good The Big Bad of the season finally formally announced itself (though if memory serves, my sister and I had figured it out from the final scene of Lessons) and set the stage for the rest of the season. Regardless of the fact that the season didn't live up to its promise, this was a great set up for it.
Who Are You (4.16)
I sometimes wonder if Eliza was upset that Faith got such a great character arc on this episode, and she didn't get to act most of it (but then I remember she gets to have torture breakdown madness on Angel next, and I stop feeling bad for her). This episode would be great if it were just a body switch, because both actresses do great work imitating each other. But that's not actually what it's about. It's about a girl who hates herself so much she's convinced she hates Buffy, and so steals her life - and then realizes what it could be, to be someone people love and respect, and that she could learn to love and respect herself too. And then - it's about her coming back to her own heroism, when she realizes that she has to go be the Slayer, to save the hostages from Adam. She remembers what right and wrong are, and which side she's supposed to be on. She still has a long ways to go, but this was our glimmer that she could redeem herself.
I feel like this one gets forgotten a lot, because it's followed by the Restless stunt, and also because Adam is a shitty villain and S4 has many many problems, but this episode is a pretty badass mini-action movie directed by the awesome James A. Contner. Riley is immobilized, Spike is just ridiculously terrible at being a Big Bad, the Scoobies reconcile, the BATTLE IS REALLY WELL SHOT, and then they all join to be SuperBuffy and turn bullets into birds and rip Adam's power core out of him with Buffy's bare hands and just ... damn, y'all. This would have been a satisfying season finale, but they switched gears to not end the season on the epic battle, and give us Restless instead ... but we still got our epic battle, so it's all good.
One word: Buffybot. Game, set, match. Well, also "I'm not having sex with Spike, but I'm starting to think you are." Well, also also Buffy's scene with Spike at the end. SMG playing Buffy playing the Buffybot, and Spike's face when he realizes who she is. I do love that he can always tell, even when the others can't - god, that moment in After Life (not listed here, but it almost made the cut) when he recognizes Buffy coming down the stairs. YES I SHIP THE SPUFFY AND I DO NOT APOLOGIZE.
Normal Again (6.17)
Another one that some people hate, some people love. I can understand the hate, because the alternate-reality-in-a-mental-hospital thing has been done before, but here are the two reasons I love it: 1, it highlights how preposterous our villains have been this season (some people thought the meta wasn't enough of an apology), which is a very subtle indication that, despite their pretensions, they can't actually be our real Big Bad of the season (hi, Willow!); 2, If we go with the scenario that the mental hospital is not an alternate dimension, but merely Buffy's delusion (how I choose to read it), that means that when Joyce tells her how strong she is, and that she can fight this, that's actually Buffy's subconscious telling her to be strong, and to choose the correct world. It is right after this that Buffy leaves the mental hospital and returns to Sunnydale to protect her friends. She sent herself back to the world she's been avoiding all season.
We have to start with the fact that I love Azura Skye. She's so weird and interesting and I'm always happy when she shows up. Choosing her as a substitute for Tara in CWDP was delightful to me. What I liked about this is that Buffy, while sucking at solving teenage problems for the students she meets (oh my god, she's a bad counselor!), was presented with a problem she thought she could solve - saving Cassie from a threat to her life, whatever that threat might be. And she almost did, several times. And she still didn't get to save her completely. And that's the hardest lesson to learn, is when you can't fix the problem or save the person, what do you do with what's left? What do you get to take away from it?