Spike was arguably the best-developed character on Buffy, going from trashy antagonist to a neutered vampire facing his own nature to soulful antihero, all while having excellent hair and an amusing British accent. In this episode, Spike’s origins are revisited as we’re shown his disturbing relationship with his mother, while Robin Wood confronts the blonde vampire about his past actions – specifically, the murder of his mother, the slayer Nikki Wood, from who Spike acquired his trademark jacket. Powerful stuff, and its denouement reminds us of just how much Spike evolved as a character in the five seasons since his debut.
The best Halloween episode of Buffy, in which a party goes horribly wrong when all the guests’ fears come to life, leaving Anya (dressed as a bunny) and Giles to try and save the group. ‘Fear, Itself’ is Buffy at its funniest – particularly the shock ending where the embodiment of fear turns out to be a few inches in height.
Formerly evil ‘supervillain’ Andrew shows us the world of Buffy through a camera lens, tracking the Slayer and her entourage through a quiet period in their battle against the First Evil. Tom Lenk’s performance as the narrator is superb, particularly the spot-on Masterpiece Theatre parody in which he dubs the protagonist “Buffy, Slayer of the Vampyres”. This charming episode is actually a great reminder of why Buffy’s varied cast is so engaging after seven years, even when they’re doing a lot – it also scores points for the fan-treasured non sequitur where Andrew recalls himself, Jonathan and Warren as Gods, dressed in robes and dancing across a field.
One of the strangest chapters of Buffy, ‘Restless’ is composed almost entirely of dream sequences involving the main characters. This well-edited, intriguing episode is packed with bizarre imagery and, as such, is quite open to interpretation, although Joss Whedon’s commentary for the episode helps point you in the right direction. Who is the cheese man? Why does Xander dream he’s peeing in front of the army and getting it on with Buffy’s mum? It’s one of the best season finales of the show, perhaps because all the standing plotlines of Season Four were wrapped up the episode before, as well as a great prelude to the remaining three seasons.
How do you kill a vampire slayer? Ask the vampire that’s killed two of them. This Spike-centric episode is an exciting venture into the show’s mythology, as we watch the bleach-blonde vampire recall the sad moments of his history, particularly his unfortunate tendency to be manipulated by the women in his life. Despite Spike being a bloodthirsty killer throughout the majority of his existence, this is one of the instances in which we’re shown how victimised and pathetic he can be, in spite of his inhumane past.
The final episode of Buffy is an all-out war against the First Evil, a much more traditional approach to a finale in terms of style than ‘The Gift’. It’s not quite as slick, but it’s a tough call, since this episode has more than a few poignant moments and impressive visual effects. From Spike’s sacrifice to Anya’s demise until the ultimate moment when Sunnydale is destroyed by the Hellmouth, it’s exactly the kind of big-budget finale the show needed to go out on a bang.
Well, Buffy does die in this one. We had to include it, really, didn’t we? Even if she did come back in the next season, the final moment where Buffy prevents the end of the world by sacrificing herself to close a world-consuming portal is poignant. Behind the scenes, this was created as a series finale since no deal could be closed to bring Buffy back for a sixth season on The WB network, yet the show was soon picked up by the emerging UPN network and the heroine was revived. As great as ‘The Gift’ is, from Buffy’s sad acceptance that her end is near to Spike’s futile attempt to save Dawn, we’re very pleased the Slayer came back for another couple of years.
We all know the genius of ‘Hush’ – it’s the fact that over 25 minutes of it has no dialogue at all, relying solely on crafty acting performances and visual storytelling. What more is there to say?
A heartbreaking episode, and the strongest demonstration of Buffy’s capacity to make human drama absolutely compelling.
Nobody could anticipate quite how on-the-money Buffy was in taking the simple idea of a musical episode and making it such a hit among fans and critics. All of the musical numbers are perfect – the seeds of doubt in Xander and Anya’s marriage are planted in I’ll Never Tell, James Marsters gets his rock on with Rest In Peace and the gloriously over-the-top Walk Through The Fire sees everyone singing their hearts out. Guest star Hinton Battle may well be the highlight of the whole affair, playing Sweet, the demon who can make people dance to their deaths. High concept it may be, but ‘Once More With Feeling’ encapsulates the sheer creativity that powered Buffy through seven excellent years.
And the rest…
I realise there aren’t a lot of early episodes on this list – it’s a subjective thing, but I actually think Buffy improved exponentially when Angel left. Not that it was bad before, but I think Season Four marked the time the writers started turning experimental ideas into truly classic episodes (particularly with ‘Hush’ and ‘Restless’). Having said that, I have a lot of love for early episodes, many of which you’ll find in these honourable mentions, which are in no order whatsoever:
‘Graduation Day’ (everyone likes a big fight and a bad CG snake), ‘Normal Again‘ (contentious, but I like that it got people talking), ‘Grave’ (Season Six gets a lot of hate, but Willow and Xander’s conversation at the climax highlighted just how much we cared about these characters), ‘Dirty Girls‘ (Buffy at its darkest, though BBC2 ruined this for terrestrial viewers in the UK by censoring the episode and not making it clear Xander had been blinded in one eye), ‘Conversations With Dead People’ (great concept), ‘Doublemeat Palace’ (I still loved fast food after watching this), ‘As You Were‘ (crap, maybe we do like Riley!), ‘Buffy Vs Dracula’ (a pleasant oddity), ‘The Yoko Factor‘ (Riley Vs Angel! I swear the writers had comic book fans in mind when writing this), ‘Superstar’ (Danny Strong is one of the show’s all-time best supporting stars), ‘Lovers Walk’ (captures all the messed up stuff that comes with romance in a Whedon show), ‘Tabula Rasa‘ (amnesia spell was a funny idea, but the ending is SO downbeat), ‘Anne‘ (Buffy grows up some more, with a superb high concept at the centre of the ‘aging’ in this episode), ‘Band Candy’, ‘New Moon Rising’, ‘Amends’, ‘Earshot‘, ‘The Prom’, ‘Lie To Me’, ‘Innocence’, ‘Faith’, ‘Hope And Trick‘, ‘Becoming Part 2’, ‘Selfless’ (which very nearly made the top ten), ‘Hell’s Bells’…
Alright, we pretty much like them all (except Season One – Principal Flutie being eaten by hyenas was a creative low point, and in comparison to later Big Bads, the Master isn’t in the same ballpark – still love the episode ‘Angel’, though).