It’s not the demon in me that needs killing, Buffy, it’s the man.”
There’s going to be one dark horse on every list. This episode as a whole was good, not quite on the same level as the other episodes on this list, but it made the cut primarily for the fight scene between Buffy and Angel at the end. Joss Whedon cited the above-quoted line as the best line of dialogue he’d ever written, and with good reason. This episode was the first to set up Angel as a protagonist worthy of his own spinoff; every good hero has a tragic flaw, and Angel’s hamartia is revealed to be weakness. Angel the man may not be evil, but he isn’t always strong enough to fend off the demons within, both literal and figurative. Buffy wisely tells him that everyone is weak to some extent, and the only nobility anyone can possess is in the struggle to fight against it. (Angel repeats this back to her in “Gingerbread,” another great episode that didn’t quite make the cut.) This statement is essentially what Angel was all about. Angel knew that his various struggles- the struggle to fight evil, to defeat his own demons, to achieve redemption- were ultimately futile. There will always be evil in the world, any one person will never be devoid of evil, and no redemptive act can ever take back an evil one. But real strength comes from fighting even when you know you’ll never win.
And yes, the ending was contrived and sappy, but let’s face it, those two deserved at least one happy ending.
A quiet grace note following “The Body,” this episode is heartbreaking to watch, and the supernatural elements serve as a metaphor for how we deal with death. It explores the idea that the nitty gritty of moving on with life after a death is almost harder than the initial devastating impact. Buffy tells Angel after her mom’s funeral that “it’s tomorrow [she’s] worried about”, the day that she’ll have to live without her mom, learn to take care of Dawn, pick up the pieces and be a grown-up. This is very symbolic of this episode’s tone in relation to the previous episode’s; where “The Body” had that sucker gut punch of a tragedy, this episode was like the empty ache that follows, which might be worse. Beautiful moments abound, from Dawn wondering if Joyce would like her coffin, to Spike leaving flowers without a card, to Buffy making a throwaway comment that her dad’s number isn’t even in service. But nothing beats that moment in the end where Buffy opens the door, expecting to find her mother, but finds an empty doorstep. We all hope that our passed loved one will somehow come back to us, and we all have to realize over and over that they’re really gone. It helps that Sarah Michelle Gellar absolutely kills it in this episode, but unfortunately Michelle Trachtenberg was not quite up to the challenge and she brings that amazing scene between Dawn and Buffy down a bit. That said, it’s still a great and underrated episode.
8. Normal Again
What’s more real? A sick girl in an institution, or some kind of supergirl, chosen to fight demons and save the world?”
For all the flack the sixth season gets, it had some great standalone episodes. This episode has us wondering if Sunnydale and the entire idea of the Slayer is a fabrication, if Buffy is actually just a troubled young girl who invented an entire world in order to escape from the real one. We share Buffy’s sinking feeling when the doctor recites the details of Buffy’s world in the context of mental illness, and it happens to make perfect sense. Many people with schizophrenia have delusions of grandeur, and thinking you’re literally the savior of the world would fit the bill. Although the “it was all a dream” or “they were crazy the whole time” gimmicks have been done many times over, this episode was interesting because Buffy actively chooses Sunnydale, despite how miserable it often is, without knowing if it’s just a fantasy. She doesn’t seem to make a decision about which world is “real” in any objective sense, but decides that Sunnydale is the world that’s real to her. I’m embarrassed to admit, when I briefly met Nicholas Brendan at the Comic-Con a few years ago, I asked him which world he thought was real. Unsurprisingly, he hadn’t watched these episodes for a few years and didn’t have an opinion (although he did tell me that he would re-watch the episode and tell me the next time we saw each other), so you’re stuck with mine. It’s clearly meant to be an ambiguous ending; however, we see a scene in the mental hospital after Buffy has already taken the antidote, which eliminates the possibility of the hospital being a hallucination caused by the demon’s venom. So it would seem that the mental hospital is the “real world.” In that case, this episode could be interpreted as saying that fantasy can be more “real” than reality.
7. Once More with Feeling
They got the mustard out!”
Of course you knew this was coming. This is one of the few examples of a musical episode done right. It has catchy songs, great character development, and advancement of the plot through an increase of truth-telling and feeling-sharing typical of musicals. The tone was light, but the writing had substance. The little musical numbers in the background about mundane things were particularly brilliant, such as “The Mustard” and “The Parking Ticket”. The quality of the voices varied widely, however. Anthony Stewart Head, Amber Benson, and James Marsters had lovely voices, pretty much in that order. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Nicholas Brendan clearly weren’t singers, but acquitted themselves fine. SMG especially was impressive, since she was required to do a ton of singing and to sing relatively challenging songs. Emma Caulfield had a strange voice; it sounded like she might have had some training but it wasn’t particularly pleasant to listen to. Alyson Hannigan seems to have a pretty terrible voice, although she managed to avoid singing for most of the episode. Michelle Trachtenberg’s voice was absolutely pitiful, but her dancing was beautiful.
Best song: Rest in Peace
Best voice: Anthony Stewart Head
Best dancing: Michelle Trachtenberg
6. Lie to Me
Well… I asked for the truth.”
This was arguably the first episode that went way beyond relatively silly monster-of-the-week stuff; the tone of this episode was much darker than anything that came before. The idea that lost, lonely souls would worship vampires was very psychologically realistic, but more importantly, Buffy begins to question whom she should trust and whether she really wants to know the truth about the world. Granted, the truth of her world is much more gruesome than it is for most of us, but at its core hers is still the same conflict every adolescent goes through. As she gets older, she realizes more and more that the world is a scary and unfair place, that people are almost never exactly what they seem, and that ignorance can easily be bliss. After all, ignorance is essentially the difference between children and adults. Before she became the Slayer, the demons were out there, but her life never got darker than a fall at cheerleading practice simply because she didn’t know. The final conversation between Buffy and Giles is extremely poignant. I’m just going to transcribe it because it’s one of the best scenes of the show:
Nothing’s ever simple anymore. I’m constantly trying to work it out. Who to love or hate… who to trust. And it’s just like the more I know the more confused I get.”
“I believe that’s called growing up.”
“I’d like to stop then, ok?”
“I know the feeling.”
“Does it ever get easy?”
“You mean life?”
“Yeah, does it get easy?”
“What do you want me to say?”
“Lie to me.”
“Yes, it’s terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, we always defeat them and save the day, no one ever dies, and everyone lives happily ever after.”
If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank… without passion, we’d be truly dead.”
By the end of the series, the second season was still the best and the Angel-losing-his-soul plotline was still the most tragic. The most memorable moment of this episode was the brutal murder of Jenny Calendar, the first death (or permanent death at least) of a major character on the show. And it was a neck-snapping, no less, which makes it even more sudden and shocking. But the rest of this episode is equally well-written; in the conversations between Buffy and her mother the writers liken the Buffy/Angel relationship to a typical abusive relationship. He was sweet and perfect, but he happened to be older and have something of a dark side. He would never hurt her, though. Until something changes and his behavior becomes destructive and obsessive. In this case we’re supposed to believe to some extent that Angelus is actually a different creature rather than a different side of the same person, but the episode actually explores the psychological similarities between Angel and Angelus, which strengthens the analogy. This episode showed us that Angelus meant business, and that the writers weren’t going to pull any punches.
I’ll just let it burn.”
All of the moments that make me want to cry: Buffy’s deer-in-headlights expression when her mother says that she looks different. Buffy insisting that her first time having sex was “a big deal” while Angel mocks her. Buffy looking at her Claddagh ring and realizing that her boyfriend is dead to her. Giles refusing to shame Buffy even when she invites it. Buffy letting her birthday candle burn because she no longer believes that wishing does any good. It’s one of my favorite episodes but I hardly ever watch it because it’s just too painful. Granted, for a show that’s usually so progressive about gender, the metaphor for men becoming “monsters” once they have sex with a girl is playing into stereotypes a little bit, but it’s so well-written I’ll forgive it. Similar to “Lie to Me”, this episode demonstrates that Buffy is trying to decide whether she wants to grow up and realizing that she has little choice in the matter. At the beginning of the episode, she shrinks from her mother’s touch, because she made a decision that feels adult to her and her mother’s affection feels too innocent for someone who’s just had sex. Then Angel berates her for thinking that sex can be meaningful and becomes a murderous monster, and all she wants to do is curl up in bed and cry. She’s still a child in many ways, but after this incident she can’t “stop” growing up as she wanted to in “Lie to Me”. This is beautifully demonstrated at the end, when she won’t blow out her birthday candle, but she still wants to cuddle with her mother.
3. The Gift
The hardest thing in this world is to live in it.”
Starting with Faith, continuing with Dracula, and ending with this episode, Buffy spent two seasons exploring the darkness in a Slayer’s power. The first Slayer told her that “death was [her] gift,” and she interpreted that to mean that she was only good for killing things. But then in this episode she realizes that her own death would be a gift. And we agree with her, because for five seasons we’ve watched her deal with her father’s abandonment, constant violence, a brush with death, her first love’s death at her own hands, an attack by a giant snake at her high school graduation, her mother’s death, attacks on her sister by a god and a religious army, and the impossibly heavy responsibility to keep evil at bay only to watch it come again and again. She’s suffered so much, and the world is such a cruel, violent place, she would be better off having the peace of death.
This episode also explored different ethical philosophies; Buffy refused to kill Ben or even harbor a thought of killing Dawn, because she believed killing humans is wrong, even though she knew the world would suffer for it. Giles tells Ben that Buffy spared him because “She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us,” and then kills him. Giles is a consequentialist; he’s willing to do something that he believes is wrong in order to prevent future suffering, while Buffy is a deontologist and doesn’t believe that the ends justify the means (see a more detailed explanation of deontology versus consequentialism in my Gone Baby Gone Review). It flies by, but it’s one of the most morally complex moments in the show. The line “She’s a hero. She’s not like us” is the predecessor for the Operative’s assertion in Serenity that through evil acts, he’s trying to create a more perfect world, but “[he’s] not going to live there.” Buffy is not only trying to create a more perfect world, but is trying to be a utopian citizen at the same time, while Giles believes in doing the best he can with the world we have.
2. Becoming pt. 1 and 2
She’s gonna have it tough, that Slayer. She’s just a kid.”
I know I’m cheating by putting these two episodes in one spot, but thematically they are more like one episode. In the first part, we see how both Buffy and Angel came to be: we see Buffy called as a Slayer, we see her first kill, and we see the beginnings of her picture-perfect life in L.A. falling apart. We see Angel become a vampire, torture a human Drusilla, get his soul back, and then decide to be a force for good. Angelus says that he’s “strayed” and been “lost” by regaining his humanity, but the structure of the episode tells us it’s not that simple. Two of the moments involve his becoming evil, and the other two moments involve him getting on the path to redeem that evil as much as possible. Just as Buffy is still growing into the person she’s going to be, Angel is still oscillating between different parts of himself. Whistler tells us at the end that the “big moments” that change your life are going to come, and it’s how you deal with it that shows who you are. “You’ll see what I mean.”
And we do. In Part 2 Buffy arguably has two “big moments”. The first involves a theme that runs throughout the show: ultimately, the Slayer is always alone. Buffy’s friend and fellow Slayer is dead, she’s accused of murder, she gets kicked out of school, her best friend is in a coma, her mentor and surrogate father gets kidnapped, and her mom finds out she’s the Slayer and tells her not to come back home (in a conversation that’s meant to be analogous to coming out of the closet). Her conversations with Whistler are enlightening; he tells her, “In the end you’re always by yourself. You’re all you’ve got. That’s the point.” Later in the episode, she says she’s got nothing left to lose, and he responds that she has one more thing. Actually I could think of a lot of things at that point, even if she thought her mom and Willow were lost to her she still had Xander, Giles etc. But thematically, we’re supposed to think he means herself. And then when she fights Angel, the big moment comes. She’s lost her weapon, and he’s about to kill her. He says, “That’s everything right? No weapons, no friends, no hope. Take all that away… and what’s left?” She catches his sword in her hands and says, “Me.” At the end of the day, all she has is herself. Then, of course, the next big moment comes when Angel gets his soul back. We see who she is when she does what she has to do and kills the person she loves. Then at the end, it makes sense that she runs away and leaves Sunnydale alone, because even when she’s lost everything she still has herself.
1. The Body
It’s not her.”
This episode featured the first death by natural causes on the show, and it’s painfully realistic. Whedon made no effort to make death pretty, or romantic, or even philosophical. There’s no dramatic goodbye scene, no music playing in the background. It is what it is. It’s just a body. Each character grieves differently, corresponding to the five stages of grief; Dawn goes into complete denial, Xander takes out helpless anger on a wall, Buffy expects herself to be strong to the point of numbness, Willow displaces her grief onto insignificant things like what shirt she should wear to the funeral home, and Tara gives Buffy solace by being a role model for eventual acceptance. Even the usually unsympathetic Anya gets a truly poignant speech about the senselessness of death. The episode is rife with symbolism; for example, Dawn is told by her art teacher to draw the empty space around a body rather than the body itself. When Dawn finds out her mother is dead, there is a close-up of her drawing because that’s what the body is. An empty shell. Some thought that the scene in which Buffy kills a vampire was out of place in an otherwise realistic episode, but the fight looked and sounded different than in any other episode of the show. The lack of music and fancy staging makes even the vampire fit with the overall tone, and the fight itself symbolizes that life goes on after a loved one’s death, whether you want it to or not. And the last shot is also brilliant; Dawn reaches out for her but the episode ends before she can touch her. She can reach all she likes but she’ll never touch her, because as Buffy just told her, the body is not their mother.
Can’t even shout, can’t even cry, the Gentlemen are coming by
Looking through windows, knocking on doors, they need to take seven and they might take yours
Can’t call to Mom, can’t say a word, you’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard…”
This was the only episode to get a writing nomination at the Emmys for the entirety of the show’s run. And it’s very good; it’s an achievement in itself to write a good episode of television with hardly any dialogue. But it’s also a little gimmicky, and there were many other episodes (see above) that were more deserving of accolades.
Want. Take. Have.”
These episodes didn’t quite make the cut on their own merits, but I felt I had to give some kind of recognition to the Buffy/Faith dynamic. Faith is fascinating because she represents Buffy’s path not taken: what Buffy could have been if she had had a more troubled childhood or was just generally less inhibited. Faith is the pure id to Buffy’s superego; she is a force of wanting and hedonism while Buffy is concerned with the social and moral consequences of her actions.
Graduation Day pt 1
What’s the matter? All that killing and you’re afraid to die?”
I actually tend to like Part 1 better than Part 2, because it contains the resolution (temporarily at least) to the Buffy/Faith relationship. The choreography of their final fight is amazing; you can tell that they are so on par that very little is actually getting done, but it’s still very exciting. And then when Buffy stabs Faith we see real darkness in her for the very first time; she doesn’t exactly “become” Faith as Faith predicted in “Enemies”, but it’s possible that we’re supposed to believe she would have if Faith had actually died, and the show capitalizes on that burgeoning darkness in Buffy’s character later in the show with great and complex results. That was the beauty of Faith’s character; she showed Buffy, and therefore the viewers, that even if you think you’re hands are clean because you’re killing the “right” people or things, the nature that allows you to kill things for a living is inevitably dark and probably somewhat unclean.
Number of Episodes Written by Joss Whedon
Top Ten: 8/11
Honorable Mentions: 3/5
Episode Count by Season
0 for seasons 1 and 7
Honorable Mention for Season 4
One for season 3 and two honorable mentions
Two for season 6
Three for season 5
Four for season 2
This is a relatively good microcosm of how the seasons fared in general, but that’s a story for a different post.