It’s been 20 years since the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired, so we’re hitting the Bronze to celebrate the show’s absolute best installments.
Trust us: Picking just 20 episodes was no easy feat for a show that helped pave the way for genre fare in the mainstream. But luckily we weren’t under the threat of Olaf’s hammer as we challenged ourselves to make the brutal decisions below.
Despite the fact that two decades have passed us by (just thinking about that is enough to give us the wiggins), Buffy remains as pertinent as ever. So we assembled our in-house gang of Scoobies to look back at all seven seasons of slayer-y goodness, and revisit the woman who died twice while saving the world and still lived to tell about it.
Every season is represented below (with a higher focus on Seasons 2 and 3, because duh), including the biggies you know we’ll be, uh, singing praises for, and some under-appreciated gems that belong side by side with the crème de la crème.
So put on your yummy sushi pajamas and get cozy as we take a trip down
Revello Drive memory lane to discuss Buffy‘s bloodiest, boldest and best episodes of all time. After you read through our picks (or watch the video embedded above), be sure to stake your claim in the comments section and let us know which ones land in your Top 20!
‘The Wish’ (Season 3, Episode 9)
What would happen if Buffy Summers never came to Sunnydale? Cordelia got to see how that wish played out, and like most happenings in town, it wasn’t a pretty sight. It sure was entertaining though, watching all hell(mouth) break loose. “Bizarro Land” not only gave us our first glimpse of a vamped and villainous Willow (more on her later), but also introduced us to Emma Caulfield’s future fan favorite Anya, a vengeance demon who also went by the name Anyanka. And if all of that wasn’t enough for this darker, scarier Sunnydale to make the cut, the freakin’ Master himself was still alive and ready to battle Buffy in yet another fight to the death, only this time, Buffy wouldn’t win. Luckily, Wishverse Giles was able to save the day and restore the Scoobies’ regular timeline, but the many “what ifs” presented here stayed with us long after Anyanka lost her powers.
‘Storyteller’ (Season 7, Episode 16)
Season 7 was rife with lengthy monologues, grating personalities and terrifying ubervamps, so we were relieved and fascinated by reforming villain Andrew’s perfectly timed slayer documentary. Andrew chronicled his life inside the Summers household as an attempt to leave behind a record of the apocalypse for those who actually survived it. Handing the mic (err, camera) to the last remaining trio member broke format in a big way. The movie-within-the-show also allotted for some big comedic swings (see the above photo), and gave us further insight into Andrew’s (and the show’s) unique voice. Watching Buffy and a shirtless Spike serve looks in front of a roaring wind machine? That certainly didn’t suck either.
‘Prophecy Girl’ (Season 1, Episode 12)
The show didn’t fully blossom until Season 2, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge Buffy’s first brush with death when she finally faced the series’ first Big Bad: The Master. We felt her struggle as a 16-year-old carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders… her fear, her sacrifice, her yearning to just be a kid. We couldn’t blame her for being overwhelmed, but watching her find the strength and confidence to conquer her greatest foe thus far was riveting and inspiring, even if she did kinda die in the process. But at least she did it all in a killer ‘fit!
‘Checkpoint’ (Season 5, Episode 12)
In order to gain access to the watchers council’s intel on Glory, Buffy had to play nice and pass a test showing off her abilities. Unsurprisingly, the former was much more difficult for her to pull off. In this pivotal Season 5 show, not only did Buff’ have a run-in with the Knights of Byzantium, a military operation seeking to destroy the key, but she harnessed her power, both physical and political, and flipped the script on the council who, let’s be serious, was a thorn in her side for years. The result was wowing to watch and a key step toward our slayer calling the shots and freeing herself from their control. Hooray for Giles being reinstated as Buffy’s official watcher, and a big “huh?!” to learning that Glory’s actually a god. Talk about a mic drop!
‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ (Season 2, Episode 19)
Every time we hear that Flamingos classic, we think of the halls of Sunnydale High. When a tortured spirit haunted the school, Buffy and Angel(us) became pawns in the afterlife of two star-crossed lovers (a male student and female teacher from the ’50s) whose love affair ended in a murder-suicide. And the timing couldn’t be worse! Angel (having recently lost his soul) and Buffy replayed the ghosts’ final moments, which included a passionate argument, a disturbing act of violence and a heartbreaking slow dance to cap it all off. Not only was it a gut-punch for Buffy who had just lost the love of her life, but seeing BAngel reunited under such false pretenses drove a stake right through our hearts.
‘Earshot’ (Season 3, Episode 18)
An episode about a threat to the Sunnydale student body still terrifies to this day just as it did back in ’99. When a creepy, mouthless demon bled on Buffy, the slayer acquired telepathic powers. But a high school full of hormones is not an ideal place for someone who can’t shut off her newly gained power, and in the midst of going mad, she heard someone make a ghastly threat: “This time tomorrow, I’ll kill you all.” The episode brought back recurring geek and rifle-holding Jonathan, but in a twist, took a comedic 180: It was actually the lunch lady! Even still, “Earshot” was (and still is) unsettling. The threat feels real, the action’s intense and Buffy being crippled by her affliction made for one gripping watch.
‘Family’ (Season 5, Episode 6)
What is the Scooby gang if not a found family of lovable misfits? The show’s only Tara-centric episode foregrounds this theme, as her evil biological kinfolk — including guest star Amy Adams (!) as Cousin Beth — shows up in Sunnydale to drag her back home. It’s a public service, you see, because women in the Maclay family “have demon in them.” (LIES!) As Spike deduces, that’s just “a bit of spin to keep the ladies in line.” Tara must be protected at all costs, so in a stirring scene, the Scoobies close ranks around Willow’s girlfriend and send the intruders packing. “We are her blood kin,” sputters Evil Maclay Dad. “Who the hell are you?” Buffy responds simply and perfectly: “We’re family.” That’s what the series is about after all… and Tara isn’t the only one with tears in her eyes.
‘Normal Again’ (Season 6, Episode 17)
Another alternate reality pops up in our Top 20 list, only this time, Joyce is alive! Buffy’s tango with the demon-of-the-week exposed her to a chemical that caused her to hallucinate that she was actually in a mental hospital. Doctors (and her mom) try to convince her that Sunnydale is just a figment of her imagination, but things got extra dicey when our hero tied up her friends right next to the demon they had stashed in the basement. The slayer eventually decided that her vampire-strewn reality was the real deal, but we’ll never forget Buffy’s tearful goodbye to her mom as she sat crumpled on that hospital floor, or the doctor telling a heartbroken Joyce that they lost her. Was everything we’ve seen in the last six seasons just the product of a mentally ill young woman? Was Sunnydale real? That Twilight Zone-style ending still chills us to the bone.
‘Who Are You?’ (Season 4, Episode 16)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer always delivered incredible two-parters, and this Season 4 Faith-centric story was no exception. When Faith finally woke up from her coma, she stumbled upon a gift left to her by her late mentor, the Mayor. The magical doodad called the Draconian Katra allowed her to switch bodies with Buffy. Not so good for our slayer, but great for Sarah Michelle Gellar, who absolutely shined while running amok, fully encapsulating the deranged lunacy of Buffy’s counterpart. Gellar’s acting alone is enough to make this one notable, but the episode’s end fight between Faith and Buffy was also one for the record books.
‘Tabula Rasa’ (Season 6, Episode 8)
Willow, Willow, Willow. She knew girlfriend Tara had misgivings about her magical dabbling, but in an effort to make Buffy forget about the glorious afterlife she experienced after she died (the second time), she accidentally erased everyone’s memories. The episode brings the funny, with Spike thinking Giles might be his dad and Buffy naming herself “Joan.” Watching Anya freak out over her fear of bunnies is always a plus, too. “Tabula Rasa” is a riotous affair, that is, until its sad conclusion that saw Tara finally leaving Willow. Can’t say Will didn’t have it coming!
‘Doppelgangland’ (Season 3, Episode 16)
As promised, the fully fanged Willow is back to secure another spot in our Top 20. This time, a magic spell gone wrong [pretends to be shocked] causes the evil doppelganger from the Wishverse to be transported into Sunnydale proper. Hilarity ensues, especially when Willow changes clothes with her villainous self in an attempt to control the vampire’s minion brigade that had taken over the Bronze. Willow also notes that she thinks her twin is “kind of gay,” foreshadowing the story to come for the redheaded Scoob. The juxtaposition from Alyson Hannigan’s villainous form to our beloved, cutesy Willow is a treat to behold. Not only are both performances memorable, but they bolster one of the best episodes from perhaps the series’ best season.
‘Passion’ (Season 2, Episode 17)
What a game-changer. After “Passion,” anyone and everyone was expendable. Watching Angelus stalk Jenny Calendar was like watching a cat toy with its prey. As if snapping her neck wasn’t horrendous enough, stashing her dead body in Giles’ bed (and lighting candles all the way up the stairs, as if he was in for a dalliance) was downright sadistic. We lost our minds wondering if anyone would ever find Jenny’s spell-filled floppy disk (remember those?) that accidentally fell in between her desk and filing cabinet. Edge of your seat action, relentless horror and story for days. Yes, yes and yes!
‘Fool for Love’ (Season 5, Episode 7)
How did Spike, aka William the Bloody, bag two slayers all by himself? That’s exactly what Buffy wanted to know after a sloppy night of combat nearly gets her killed. After bribing him with cash, Spike filled her (and us) in on some crucial backstory, including bits of his life from China’s Boxer Rebellion and 1970s New York City. The wisdom he passed on to her: Each slayer has a death wish. A piece of them wants to experience death after causing so much of it. Not only are the flashbacks excellent in this episode (chock-full of scenes featuring Drusilla, Darla and Angelus), but it also served as the precursor to the polarizing coupling of Spuffy. She went on to humiliate and degrade him, only for him to turn around and console her minutes later — a toxic relationship in the making! In one fell swoop, “Fool for Love” colored in some canon from the past, while cracking the show’s future wide open.
‘The Prom’ (Season 3, Episode 20)
Proms are such an important time in a young person’s life, but unfortunately for our hero, it also signified her greatest heartbreak. Knowing that being with him would stunt Buffy’s life forever (he had a spinoff to get to anyway!), Angel broke up with Buffy just days before the special dance. So much of this episode just works. The break-up, Xander paying for Cordelia’s dress, the monster of the week — hell-dogs trained to attack people in formal clothes (oh, hey Andrew’s brother, Tucker!). Then Buffy’s classmates gift her with a Class Protector award? And Angel comes to the prom dressed in his finest for one last slow dance to the most perfect cover of “Wild Horses”? It’s a nearly perfect installment of Buffy that we’ll watch again and again from now until the (next) apocalypse.
‘Becoming, Part 2’ (Season 2, Episode 22)
Cue the Sarah McLachlan tune! If we were ranking the Big Bads of Buffy, Angelus — and this particular season-ending fight — would surely top the list. Once Evil Angel put his plan to awaken the demon Acathla into action, Buffy was left with no choice: She had to kill her former lover in order to prevent the demon from destroying the earth. Never before has a moment on this series been so earned. From Xander not telling Buffy about Willow’s plan to restore Angel’s soul (“Kick his ass”? That bastard!), to Drusilla transforming into Jenny to trick Giles, the writing was so tragic and so beautifully executed. But we never fathomed even for a moment what was to come. The fact that Willow restored Angel’s soul just seconds before Buffy had to off him rubbed so much salt in the emotional wound, it had us counting down the summer days until Buffy was back on our screens.
‘The Gift’ (Season 5, Episode 22)
Buffy’s second death was one to behold. After Glory used Dawn’s blood to tear down the walls between dimensions, Buffy knew what she had to do. It was her ultimate sacrifice. (After all, death was her gift.) In order to save her sister and the world, Buffy had to give her life… again. And talk about a tense finale! Hell literally broke loose, as Buffy rushed to save her sister, cementing the fact that Dawn wasn’t just a key or a tangible object. She was Buffy’s blood. Bonus points for the return of the Buffy Bot and Giles being an absolute savage and suffocating Ben! Even despite the first slayer’s ominous warnings, the outcome still caught us entirely off-guard.
‘Restless’ (Season 4, Episode 22)
No, we don’t know WTF was up with that cheese man either, but all hail the cheese, we say! After taking care of Big Bad Adam in the penultimate episode, the Scooby gang was haunted by the spirit of the first slayer in their dreams. This dark and twisted episode (which is just how we like our Buffy) led to some outstanding, outlandish and dare we say Lynchian turns of events. “Restless” was unlike anything we’d seen on the show. It was daring, mysterious and flew completely off the rails. Plus, the first slayer’s final warning — “You think you know, what’s to come, what you are. You haven’t even begun.” — was the perfect tease for what would transpire in Season 5. Brazen across the board.
‘Once More, With Feeling’ (Season 6, Episode 7)
Musical episodes on TV can sometimes get a bit wonky, but when the cast of Buffy took the stage, we were cheering for an encore. Nearly every song in this hour-long masterpiece is an earworm and performed flawlessly — or at least with a lot of enthusiasm — by the cast. The demon Sweet (a bravo performance from guest-star Hinton Battle) made it all make sense, while loads of Whedon-esque lines made us grin ear to ear (See: “I think this line’s mostly filler,” and “They got the mustard ouuuuuuut!”) Not only were we all up in our feelings whenever Amber Benson or Anthony Head sang a single note, but the show saved some huge reveals for it’s biggest episode yet: That Buffy was actually ripped out of heaven by her friends. And how about that jaw-dropping final moment that saw Buffy and Spike finally lock lips? It’s safe to say that this soundtrack is one we’ve still got on repeat more than 20 years later.
‘Hush’ (Season 4, Episode 10)
The nearly silent “Hush” delivered a combo platter of horror and fun that proved the show is far more than just its snappy dialogue. (Only 17 minutes of talking can be heard throughout its entire 44-minute run!) If this was a list ranking the show’s many creepy-crawlies, the Gentlemen would come out on top as some of the show’s coolest and scariest monsters of all time. (They float!) If that wasn’t enough to chew on, Willow meets Tara, and Buffy and Riley finally learn each other’s big secret. It’s innovative, it’s gross (they cut people’s hearts out!) and it’s a nightmarish fairy tale that only Buffy could deliver.
‘The Body’ (Season 5, Episode 16)
Buffy‘s monsters were always a metaphor for growing pains, but in “The Body,” life’s truest and most inescapable horror is death itself. And what a devastating blow it was when Buffy came home to find her poor mother Joyce dead on the couch. Joyce’s natural passing rendered Buffy completely powerless, which is one thing our hero was not accustomed to. With its long silences and even longer takes, the episode fully captured the shock and numbness that a loved one’s death brings, setting up Sarah Michelle Gellar for her series’ best performance. (Her being shunned by the Emmys for this episode was a gross oversight.)
But all of the actors had their time to shine here, as each scene added new layers to the group’s collective grief. Alyson Hannigan’s Willow struggled to find the perfect hospital outfit, worrying excessively about how to act around her friend, while Emma Caulfield tore our hearts right open as Anya was traumatized by the very meaning of mortality. The entire hour was a gut-punch that felt so real and relatable. We’ve all lost people we love and we’ll continue to experience loss as life passes us by. “The Body” was a reminder that no one, not even an all-powerful slayer or witch, can ever avoid it or the empty, hollow feelings that follow.
This story originally appeared on TVLine