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10 best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes, ranked

buffy the vampire slayer
Warner Brothers / WB/Fox

We’re sure we could debate all day about whether or not Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a superhero show, but if it is, it’s the best one ever. The saga of high school student (and later, college dropout) Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her double life as the magically empowered Slayer still holds up as one of the great action-adventure series in American TV history. The show broke ground in several ways, including its user of carefully plotted seasonal arcs, its explorations of gender and sexuality, and its unique and quirky dialect.

As Buffy and her best friends Willow (Allyson Hannigan) and Xander (Nicholas Brendan) grew up, so did the series, becoming more emotionally and structurally complicated. It’s a formative text for an entire generation of viewers and storytellers, to the extent that its pervasive influence has actually become a problem. (Must all heroes be superintelligent quip machines?)

Its legacy has also grown more complicated, as allegations of creator Joss Whedon’s casually cruel and unprofessional behavior toward his cast — particularly its female actors — has tarnished his legacy as a television innovator and feminist ally. TV is a collaborative medium, but Whedon is impossible to separate from his work — he wrote and directed the entire top half of our list of favorite episodes and a lot of the bottom half, too. Make no mistake: There is no level of quality that Whedon’s work could attain that would excuse his alleged mistreatment of his subordinates and co-workers. However, speaking for ourselves, the work still holds up incredibly well, and it’s a series we can’t help but revisit again and again.

Editor’s note: Spoilers ahead.

10. Chosen (season 7, episode 22)

Buffy swings her scythe through a vampire in the final battle of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
20th Century Television

While no season of Buffy is front-to-back perfect, every single one of the show’s yearlong storylines ends on a high note, and it’s this ability to consistently stick the landing that has cemented it as one of the best shows of its time. Audiences will forgive a lot of muddled or middling installments if the finale can reward their investment, and in this regard, Buffy never fails. This is never more true than in its seventh and final season on television, which brings the show full circle and gives the story of Buffy Summers a firm and definitive ending.

Here, Buffy rallies the potential Slayers she’s been training (alongside fellow Slayer Faith and the rest of the Scooby gang) for a final battle against the First Evil. The brawl takes place inside the Hellmouth itself and boasts Lord of the Rings-level scale (if not Weta-level visual effects), the likes of which the series had never shown before. Beloved characters meet their end (at least, for now), and the survivors are offered a new beginning.

Appropriately for Buffy, the epic scope of the finale goes beyond the practical or visual to speak to grander themes about life and womanhood. Throughout the series, Buffy Summers has struggled with the burden and isolation of being the Slayer, “one girl in all the world” who is magically endowed with the power to fight the forces of darkness. Most seasons have ended with Buffy powering through some painful emotional trial that saves the world, but costs her more of herself.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - 7x22 - Chosen - Speech

In the series finale, Buffy breaks this cycle, enlisting Willow to alter the very rules by which Slayers have operated for 1,000 years. The subtext of the series becomes text as, rather than suffer under conditions set by long-dead old men, our heroines set their own conditions and strike a blow for a more equitable world. Buffy’s fight may not be over (as illuminated by the sequel comics series), but everything has changed. For the first time, Buffy has a choice in the matter.

9. Earshot (season 3, episode 19)

Willow, Cordelia, Xander, Giles, and Oz stand in a circle, looking down at the camera, concerned.
20th Century Television

At its core, early Buffy is about the awkward, undignified process of adolescence, or more specifically, of American high schools. Many a monster of the week was the personification of some teenage hang-up, whether it be a student feeling so ignored that she becomes invisible or a nasty swim coach who is turning his team into literal fish men.

Buffy’s finest fantastical study of high school life comes shortly before graduation, when an encounter with a telepathic demon grants the Slayer the power to read minds — a power she can’t turn off. Though the peek into the psyches of her family and classmates is initially exciting, Buffy is shocked when she “overhears” someone promise that tomorrow, the entire school would be dead.

The subject of deadly school violence is not approached lightly, and the episode’s airing was even delayed for months in teh aftermath of the 1999 Columbine shooting. Still, writer Jane Espenson masterfully manages Buffy’s balance of humor and pathos, telling a story about teenage angst and universal human empathy. Meanwhile, the audience gets to share in Buffy’s new insights into the rest of the cast. Buffy dropping a bomb on Giles (“That is, if you’re not too busy having sex with my mother!”) might be the all-time best line.

8. Becoming, Parts 1 & 2 (season 2, episodes 21 & 22)

Buffy catches an oncoming sword in Becoming, Part 2
20th Television

Season 6 is usually touted as the show’s most dour and depressing year, but let’s not forget that season 2 is brutal to our beloved Buffy and the gang. Buff has to stake one of her childhood friends, then is led to believe she murdered her mom’s boyfriend, and that’s all before Angel loses his soul and goes on a vindictive killing spree. All of Angel’s schemes come to a head in the two-part season finale, Becoming, which sheds light on the vampire’s origins while seemingly demolishing the Slayer’s future.

By the halfway point of the story, fellow Slayer Kendra has been murdered and Buffy is on the run from the police. Before long, Joyce finally learns the truth about what her daughter’s been up to at night, Giles is being tortured for information, and it appears that the only way to save the world from an ancient, apocalyptic demon is for Buffy to kill the man she loves.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer 2x22 "Becoming (Part 2)" - Buffy and Angel Sword Fight

Of course, it’s when all seems lost that people find their truest selves. In an effort to restore Angel’s soul, Willow takes her first serious steps into the world of witchcraft. Xander, ever the petty, insecure sad sack, chooses not to tell Buffy about this last-ditch effort to save Angel (a slight for which he never truly atones). For her part, Buffy proves that she has everything it takes to be a superhero all on her own when she defeats Angelus in battle and then, after he transforms back into his benevolent, ensouled self, still sacrifices him in order to prevent the entire world from being sucked into Hell. She’s a true hero, and it’s absolutely awful to be her. By the time the end credits roll, even the Mutant Enemy mascot is depressed.

7. The Wish (season 3, episode 9)

Vampire Willow snarls as Vampire Xander bites Cordelia in "The Wish"
20th Century Television

We loathe the term “filler episode” for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which is that stories that don’t advance a serialized myth arc can be just entertaining or as revealing of character as those that do. But in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it’s particularly egregious to dismiss any episode as skippable, as characters are developed gradually across seasons, not just in episodes with must-read Wikipedia summaries. Further, characters or concepts introduced in episodes that are initially conceived as standalone often become important much later, as storytellers realize that they’ve struck gold unexpectedly and should keep digging. There’s no better example of this than The Wish, a monster-of-the-week episode that introduces two fan-favorite characters — Anya (Emma Caulfield) and Evil Vampire Willow — neither of which were expected to appear again.

The Wish is also a cool twist on a tried-and-true “dark timeline” trope, in which one character finds themselves in a version of their show where everything has gone terribly wrong, and the rest of the series regulars are playing totally different spins on their roles. For one thing, in such an episode, no one expects the viewpoint character (in this case, Cordelia) to get murdered halfway through, and for the rest of the story to follow what is essentially a new group of protagonists.

The rest of The Wish relishes in how troublingly different this universe’s versions of Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Angel are from what we’re used to (Giles is mostly the same, just more tired), as are their relationships to each other. Buffy’s indifference during the climactic battle toward the people we know to be her closest friends is legitimately disturbing. Above all, this story canonizes the impact that Buffy has had since she arrived in town, and the ways that the people of Sunnydale have kept her from slipping into total darkness.

6. Surprise/Innocence (season 2, episodes 13 & 14)

Buffy the Vampire Slayer aims a rocket launcher at the Judge in "Innocence"
20th Television

Originally airing on two consecutive nights in November 1998, Surprise and Innocence mark an emotional pivot point not just for Buffy’s second season, but for the entire series. Things had gotten heavy on the show before (Prophecy Girl and Ted come to mind), but this is the moment when the story’s personal stakes both intertwine and overtake the physical stakes. In the midst of a potentially world-ending struggle against Drusilla and Spike, Buffy and Angel finally sleep together for the first time, unwittingly lifting Angel’s curse and transforming him back into the psychotic killer Angelus.

The experience of a young woman losing her virginity is already loaded with cultural import and complicated feelings of guilt and transgression, but in Buffy’s case, having sex with her boyfriend has literally transformed him into a monster who intends to make her and everyone she loves suffer, just for the fun of it. It’s not really Buffy’s fault, of course, but that won’t keep her from punishing herself over it, and from this point on, she never really stops.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer S02E13 - Surprise (love scene)

At the peak of these heightened emotions, Innocence also features one of the coolest action beats in the entire series. Spike, Dru, and now Angelus have teamed up with the Judge, a demon who “no weapon forged can kill.” In a stroke of brilliance stemming from the most unlikely place (Xander!), Buffy stares down the supposedly indestructible demon in the concourse of a shopping mall … and then blasts him into a million pieces with a rocket launcher. It’s a pyrrhic victory, as Angelus is still at large and Buffy’s heart is still broken, but this much-needed fist-pumping moment elevates the two-parter out of its depression for just long enough to assure viewers that, as grim as the series would get, it would always be equally as fun.

5. Restless (season 4, episode 22)

The First Slayer confronts Buffy in the desert in Restless
20th Television

Of all of Buffy’s experiments in form, Restless may be the most audacious. First, it’s the sole Buffy season finale that is not the big finish for a grand storyline, but rather a coda, a deliberately opaque tease of what’s to come. For another, it’s operating at a much higher cinematic literacy level than the rest of the series, or than most television series at the time. (Twin Peaks was treading this territory a decade earlier, and The Sopranos episode Funhouse — which may be the greatest “dream episode” of all time — aired mere weeks before Restless.)

Restless consists almost entirely of dense dream sequences, digging into the psyches of Willow, Xander, Giles, and Buffy while offering very little in the way of actual plot. The four heroes are being stalked in their dreams by the spirit of the first Slayer, but that’s not really what the episode is about; it’s about exploring what makes the show’s most beloved characters tick through dream logic and visual poetry. It’s not supposed to make literal sense, but it can be picked apart endlessly for symbolism and is open to a variety of interpretations.

Giles' Exposition Song - Good Quality (Buffy the Vampire Slayer S04E22 "Restless")

While it hints at a number of storylines from the following season (“Be back before Dawn!”), Restless is not a mere puzzle box for viewers to pry open. Each of the episode’s chapters helps us to see its focal character as they see themselves, both consciously and subconsciously. Willow is coming to terms with her sexuality, but also struggling to see herself as an adult. Xander’s famous horniness belies a deeper desire to feel at home somewhere, anywhere that isn’t his parents’ basement. Giles mourns the personal life that his duties as Watcher has denied him.

As for Buffy, Restless marks the beginning of her exploring the Slayer’s predatory nature, and the intense isolation of her duties. Or do these dreams mean something else entirely? Writer and director Whedon has clarified his intentions via the episode’s audio commentary, but the episode has a life of its own, and every viewer may have their own interpretations, informed by their own imagination and baggage, which is what makes this episode of Buffy, more than any other, a work of art.

4. The Body (season 5, episode 16)

Buffy speaks to paramedics on the phone, shocked, in The Body
20th Television

To begin with, we hope that no one reading this misinterprets The Body’s placement this low on the list as a sign of disrespect. Like Restless before it, The Body is an art piece, a complete outlier in the canon of “young adult television.” Set in the immediate aftermath of Joyce Summers’ death, The Body is a quiet, uncomfortable, relentlessly realistic meditation on loss. Its first act, which follows Buffy in real time as she tries and fails to resuscitate her mother and then waits for paramedics to arrive, is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, and holds up against any depiction of death on television. If we were to pick a single greatest scene in Buffy or from the entire Whedon oeuvre, that would be the one, without question.

Working against The Body is the fact that the rest of the episode, while still powerful and poetic, can’t quite measure up to the incredible drama of its opening act, but this isn’t what landed the episode at No. 4. When selecting our top 10 episodes, not only did we find stiff competition at the top of the pack, but we also determined that respecting the series meant giving priority to the candidates that best represented Buffy as a whole.

Buffy Finds Her Mom - BTVS HD

Four out of our top five picks are outliers, experiments that break from the normal format of the show to do something daring on a production level. After all, Whedon and company’s willingness to take such risks are part of why we love the show. However, if we were to try and encapsulate the series in a single story, there’s no way we’d pick this one. Since the top half of our list was so tight, this is the criteria we’ve chosen to break up the tie.

3. Once More, With Feeling (season 6, episode 7)

Anya, Buffy, and Dawn sing at the Bronze in Once More, With Feeling
20th Television

Buffy’s musical episode may not boast the cinematic expressionism of Restless or The Body, but on a technical level, it is squarely the show’s most challenging hour. On a normal week, producing a television drama is both a marathon and a sprint, particularly in the days of the 22-episode season. It takes a crazy person to look at that workload and ask himself, “What if I learned to juggle?” In an astounding display of arrogance, Whedon challenged himself to compose a musical episode of Buffy, despite having never written a song before. He asked the cast, some of whom were not experienced singers, to perform their own vocals. This, frankly, should have been a disaster. Instead, not only is it one of Buffy’s finest hours, it’s still the “musical episode” against which all others are judged.

Once More, With Feeling is as witty, fun, and clever as any of the show’s best comedy episodes, as the Scoobies and the rest of the people of Sunnydale find themselves spontaneously breaking into song and dance. But, beyond being a delightful novelty, each of the songs offers its characters the opportunity to express themselves more honestly than they ordinarily would. Sometimes that’s played for laughs, as in Xander and Anya’s duet I’ll Never Tell, but just as often, the songs represent a moment of reflection or a difficult decision.

Buffy - Once More, with Feeling - Something to Sing About

The musical format allows characters to externalize their private thoughts and feelings with a clarity that might otherwise feel cheap or hurried, leading to heartbreaking moments like Tara’s decision to leave Willow and, of course, Buffy’s confession that she wasn’t rescued from Hell, but dragged out of Heaven. As with any of the show’s high-concept episodes, the gimmick serves the story and the characters rather than vice versa.

2. Hush (season 4, episode 10)

One of the Gentlemen smiles down at us in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush."
20th Television

Buffy the Vampire Slayer was acclaimed for its snappy, distinctive dialogue that captured the way teenagers mess around with language. “Buffyspeak” became one of the show’s signatures, but to Whedon, that also meant it risked becoming a crutch. In an effort to push the boundaries of the series — or perhaps, to prove something to himself — Whedon conceived of an episode in which no one would speak for most of the runtime.

In Hush, Sunnydale is visited by the Gentlemen, a group of slim, grinning ghouls in dapper suits who steal the voices of everyone in town so that they can cut out the hearts of silent victims. Beyond the practical challenge of defeating the monsters without speaking to each other, Buffy and the gang find that the inability to deflect or obfuscate with a clever turn of phrase forces them to communicate more honestly and directly. Words can be clumsy, but actions are clear.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer | The gentlemen

Though definitely falling into the category of “gimmick episode,” Hush is also quintessentially Buffy, excelling in every area the series is known for. It’s among the show’s scariest episodes, thanks to the Gentlemen’s eerie, understated makeup design and the masterful mimery of their performers (including the legendary Doug Jones). The simple conceit of being unable to scream for help evokes childhood nightmares better than any of the Buffyverse’s more complicated villains, and Christophe Beck’s score fills out the soundtrack’s negative space brilliantly.

The story is emotionally complicated, with Buffy and Riley (Marc Blucas) discovering each others’ double lives without the capacity to explain themselves, Giles inviting girlfriend Olivia (Phina Oruche) into his complicated life, and Willow and Tara’s wordless, totally PG yet absolutely steamy first team-up. Of all the show’s groundbreaking, format-shattering hours, Hush is the one that best represents Buffy as a whole.

1. Graduation Day, Parts 1 & 2 (season 3, episodes 21 & 22)

Buffy stands up with her entire graduating class behind her in Graduation Day, Part 2
20th Television

Why did Buffy the Vampire Slayer take so many wild swings in its later seasons? Why was it necessary for the storytellers to keep challenging its formula with flashy high-concept experiments? Because, put simply, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer starter kit peaks right here. The two-part finale of Season 3 is a structurally perfect ending, not just to Buffy’s senior year of high school, but to the entire series up to this point. She faces down the Mayor, the man who built Sunnydale on top of the Hellmouth and sets the entire series into motion. She defeats Faith, her dark reflection, reestablishing herself as the one, true Slayer. She quits the Watcher’s Council, asserting herself as an adult who makes her own choices. Buffy is a coming-of-age story, and this is where she comes of age.

Graduation Day ratchets up its tension perfectly over the course of two episodes, escalating the jeopardy at every turn while also offering characters ample time to reflect on the road behind them and the battle ahead. At the same time, it pays off years of investment in the student body of Sunnydale High at large, the people whose lives Buffy has spent the past three years saving over and over again. There is no greater fist-pumping moment of triumph in the entire series than when the entire graduating class pulls off their graduation gowns to reveal that they’re armed for battle, ready to fight alongside Buffy to save the town from a giant snake demon and his army of vampires.

Graduation Day Battle - BTVS HD

Yes, Buffy stayed good after this first era of the show came to an end. Half of the episodes on our list were made after Graduation Day. But take a look back at those picks, at Nos. 2-5, and consider just how much harder Whedon and company had to work to move the needle after this point. Every one of those episodes had to temporarily break the show to be great. This is the show; it’s why we came back to watch it week after week. In our book, that makes it the best Buffy episode of all time.

All seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are streaming on Hulu.

Editors' Recommendations

Dylan Roth
Dylan Roth [he/him] is a freelance film critic, and the co-host of the podcast "Are You Afraid of the Dark Universe?"
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