Buffy the Vampire Slayer celebrated the 26th anniversary of its premiere earlier this year, per Today. Originally debuting as a mid-season replacement on a fledgling network called The WB, expectations of the series — which was set to star an Emmy-winning soap actress with three names and a former coffee company British spokesman — were understandably low. The network had no idea what was coming. Of course, Buffy the Vampire Slayer quickly became a cult hit with its unique combination of horror and heart. A smartly written take on the quintessential damsel in distress in horror movies, Buffy Summers, was whom things that go bump in the night feared.
For seven action-packed seasons, Buffy and her friends faced off against the forces of darkness while growing up in a town that literally sat on top of the mouth of Hell. The show made instant stars of its cast: horror actress legend Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, David Boreanaz, Nicholas Brendon, Charisma Carpenter, and Anthony Stewart Head. Naturally, the cast would change over the seasons, but the show never suffered because of it. Additionally, the writing only aged to perfection, with many fans considering seasons 2-5 the sweet spot of the series.
Update September 18, 2023: This article has been updated with even more great Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes.
The legacy of the show lives on today, still attracting new viewers all these years later. Buffy the Vampire Slayer irrevocably shaped the television landscape, proving that audiences were indeed interested in seeing strong female characters lead a show, which can still be felt decades later. And with a new audiobook sequel series set to be released in October 2023, now seems like a good time to look back at 15 of the most essential Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes.
15 “Doppelgangland” – Season 3, Episode 16
The character of Willow Rosenberg (played by Alyson Hannigan) is a fundamental element of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One of Buffy’s best friends and closest allies, Willow, experiences a journey of transformation throughout the show’s seven seasons, starting out as a mousy nerd and ending up a powerful witch. A sequel to the earlier season three entry “The Wish”, “Doppelgangland” is an important step in Willow’s transformation. When a vampire version of Willow is pulled to Buffy’s world from an alternate reality, Buffy and the gang initially believe that their friend, who had earlier that day become upset with the gang’s view of her as “good old reliable”, has gone and got herself turned into a vamp. Upon realizing that there are two Willows, the real Willow poses as her vampiric counterpart to trick the group of vampires that have taken over the local nightclub, The Bronze. Cue hilarious scenes of the real Willow attempting to act tough.
Buffy is often at its best when it is fusing poignancy with humor, and “Doppelgangland” is a perfect example of that. Not only does it work as a great exploration of the character of Willow and her role within the group, but it does so with plenty of comedic moments and witty dialogue. Alyson Hannigan herself (who absolutely nails the dual roles here) considers it one of her favorite episodes of the show.
14 “Prophecy Girl” – Season 1, Episode 12
This is the episode where Buffy the Vampire Slayer really became the show we know and love today. The show’s first season was a mixed bag of largely standalone episodes that hinted at how good the series could be. It wasn’t until “Prophecy Girl,” the season one finale that things went up a gear and gave viewers a proper taste of what was to come. In the episode, Buffy and the Scooby gang work to stop the evil vampire, the Master, from coming to power. However, Giles discovers an ancient text that prophesizes Buffy will die at the hands of the Master.
The production team didn’t know if the show would return for a second season, and,as such, all season one storylines are tied up nicely here. As well as the central story involving the Master, the romantic subplot between Buffy and Angel, and Buffy’s doubts surrounding her responsibilities as the slayer are both explored in exciting and dramatic ways. Because a second season was not guaranteed, Joss Whedon and his team threw everything but the kitchen sink at this episode to deliver something that is both epic and contained. The scene where Buffy walks towards her death while wearing a prom dress and carrying a crossbow as the theme music plays is iconic and is not only badass but acts as a perfect summary of what the show is.
13 “The Zeppo” – Season 3, Episode 13
Like “Doppelgandland”, “The Zeppo” is a season three episode with a comedic tone that focuses on one character. The character in this case, is Buffy’s best buddy, Xander (Nicholas Brendon). Due to the fact that he lacks magical abilities and/or knowledge of the supernatural, Xander is often viewed as the odd one out. In fact, the episode’s title is urban slang for a member of a friendship group who is often ignored or considered uncool. The episode takes the idea of Xander fulfilling this role and has fun with it.
The story is entirely told from Xander’s perspective and employs an offbeat humor and style. While the rest of the gang faces an apocalyptic threat (not for the first or the last time), Xander finds himself pulled into his own mini adventure that sees him reluctantly joining a group of undead hooligans for a night of crime. It culminates in Xander stopping a plot to blow up Sunnydale High School. The fact that the main world-ending action happens in the background is hilarious and makes for a unique narrative structure. Not only is the episode essential in understanding the character of Xander, but it’s also a good example of how, throughout its run, the show was always finding new ways to tell stories.
12 “Conversations with Dead People” – Season 7, Episode 7
Speaking of finding unique ways to tell stories, season seven’s “Conversations with Dead People” is up there with the most experimental of the lot. Told in real-time, the episode depicts four conversations, broadly on the subject of death, that take place on the same night. The interactions occur between the main and guest characters, with none of the main cast appearing on-screen at the same time. In a departure from convention, the episode had four writers, with each one taking on a different storyline.
“Conversations with Dead People” is often considered among the best episodes in the Buffyverse, and with good reason. By its nature, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was heavy on the action, and while it was never short on the dialogue either, prior to this, it had never dedicated a whole episode to characters simply conversing. Furthermore, with the main characters away from each other, it gives them the opportunity to speak more honestly than they do when they’re around one another, in turn offering the audience an unfiltered glimpse into their emotional states at this point in the story. Additionally, though the subject of death is a recurring one in the show, it is never explored as frankly as it is here. Different from anything else the show has delivered, “Conversations with Dead People” is, nevertheless, essential to understanding some of the fundamental themes of the series.
11 “Family” – Season 5, Episode 6
The characters on Buffy the Vampire Slayer are, for the most part, a chosen family. Whether their biological family members are aware of their world-saving shenanigans or not, they depend on each other to get through the next fight, as well as the trials of everyday life. This was never on display more so than in season five’s sixth episode, “Family,” which shed some light on Amber Benson’s character, Tara Maclay, who originally appeared halfway through season four.
A fellow witch, Tara, befriended Willow during the classic episode “Hush,” with the two eventually becoming lovers, becoming, per Refinery29, the first mainstream lesbian couple depicted on network television. In this episode, we’re introduced to Tara’s abusive family, who have convinced her that she is part demon in order to get her to leave Sunnydale and return home with them. It isn’t until Tara faces who she really is that she finally finds out where she truly belongs as a member of the Scooby Gang family.
10 “Earshot” – Season 3, Episode 18
Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer often tied real-world threats into its supernatural storylines, there were a couple of episodes that hit closer to home than others. “Earshot,” a standalone episode in season three, dealt with the possibility of a school shooter and was originally slated to air in April 1999 but was delayed until September of the same year due to the proximity of airing so closely after the Columbine High School massacre.
In this episode, Buffy temporarily gains the ability to read others’ minds and discovers that someone is planning on killing a bunch of students. As the gang investigates various suspects, Buffy confronts a student who is a victim of school bullying and plans on killing themselves. However, Buffy is able to talk them out of it by explaining what is going on in everyone’s heads at school, showing them that they are not as alone as they think.
9 “Chosen” – Season 7, Episode 22
Nothing good lasts forever, and in the final episode of season seven, titled “Chosen,” we say goodbye to the Slayer and all her pals. While the overall arc of season seven was a bit lackluster, the conclusion of the series definitely comes down on the side of being one of the best and more timely episodes.
Buffy and her friends gather once more at Sunnydale High to stop The First and seal the Hellmouth once and for all. However, in order to do this, Buffy enlists Willow to cast a spell that changes the Slayer line forever. Each potential slayer is imbued with the powers of the real one, helping to turn the tide in the final fight enough to defeat The First. Talk about female empowerment.
8 “Welcome to the Hellmouth” – Season 1, Episode 1
“Welcome to the Hellmouth” is where it all began. Without this episode, there would be no Buffy the Vampire, no epic story told over the course of seven seasons, and a pop culture phenomenon that took the TV world by storm. Though it’s largely noted for its significance in establishing the Buffyverse, “Welcome to the Hellmouth” is a strong episode in its own right. In fact, many TV shows would kill for a first episode this strong. The story follows Buffy as she starts her first day at Sunnydale High School after recently moving to the area from Los Angeles. She just wants the life of a normal sixteen-year-old girl, but everywhere she turns, she gets reminded of her responsibilities as the slayer. The episode also introduces the characters of Willow, Xander, Giles, and Cordelia, who would all go on to play significant roles in the series.
Straight out the gate, the show established itself as an energetic and cool supernatural series full of action, comedy, compelling characters, and interesting dialogue. While the show would go on to evolve quite a lot over the 143 episodes that followed, looking back, it’s surprising how fully formed it was from day one. There are better episodes of Buffy, for sure, but none are as significant.
7 “Passion” – Season 2, Episode 17
While Buffy the Vampire Slayer no doubt started out as a supernatural teen high school series, “Passion” was the episode that really set up a more grown-up tone for the series going forward. Following Buffy’s tryst with Angel, he loses his soul and becomes his sociopathic alter ego, Angelus. After spending some time taunting Buffy and her friends, Angelus eventually finds out that Jenny Calendar (Robia LaMorte) has discovered a way to restore his soul. Not wanting to rejoin the forces of good, you can imagine what happens next.
The death of Jenny Calendar was a heartbreaking event that resonated throughout the rest of season two, as well as into the beginning of season three. It was the first time that viewers learned that no one is safe, not even a popular character who had been with the show since its first season, developing ties to almost everyone else on the show. It’s also one of the first episodes that demonstrates just how intricate the caliber of acting is for each and every cast member.
6 “Innocence” – Season 2, Episode 14
Capitalizing on the electric chemistry between Sarah Michelle Gellar and David Boreanaz, the Buffy/Angel relationship was a pivotal part of the show, especially in the earlier seasons. “Innocence” sees that bond irrevocably changed as the two finally consummate their love, only for Angel to lose his soul in the process. An event that changes the trajectory of the rest of season two.
As a show that prides itself on using tales of supernatural terror as allegories for real teen angst, this episode is peak Buffy. In this case, the “sleeping with a guy who then turns into a creep” story that most straight women know all too well is heightened by the fact that Angel is now a murderous shell of his former self, forcing Buffy to grow up all too much in the span of just one episode.
5 “Hush” – Season 4, Episode 10
Absolutely one of the scariest episodes of the series, “Hush” is a commentary on the criticism the show received throughout the years that the dialogue was the most successful aspect of the show. So, an almost entirely silent episode was conceived, with only 17 minutes of dialogue over the course of the show’s 44-minute runtime. This provided an interesting exercise in how the cast could perform their roles with little to no words actually being spoken.
“Hush” isn’t just a pivotal episode of season four, but one for the entire series. Buffy and Riley finally discover each other’s secret identities, the character of Tara is introduced, the Gentlemen become the most visually striking villains featured in the series, and Xander and Anya discover just how deep their feelings are for each other.
4 “Once More, With Feeling” – Season 6, Episode 7
Historically speaking, musical episodes of drama series don’t tend to fair well with audiences, but “Once More, With Feeling” is one of the rare exceptions. As Sunnydale finds itself in the clutches of a demon who forces people to sing about their true feelings and dancing until they die, the Scooby Gang works double-time to get to the bottom of things. They just happen to be singing various genres of songs along the way.
Standouts from this episode include the beautiful voices of Anthony Stewart Head, James Marsters, and Amber Benson; along with Tara’s realization that Willow messed with her mind in the previous episode, and that Buffy wasn’t in an actual Hell dimension after she died, but rather in Heaven. It also features the first real kiss between Buffy and Spike, signaling the beginning of their toxic relationship.
3 “The Gift” – Season 5, Episode 22
“The Gift” is the show’s 100th episode, wrapping up the fight against Glory the Hellgod by showing us just how far Buffy will go to save the lives of her loved ones. It also serves as the season five finale and, with the move from The WB to UPN still an uncertainty at the time of airing, a possible series finale as well.
From start to finish, this is one of the most action-packed episodes of the series as the Scooby Gang tries to save Dawn along with the rest of their reality. There are several heartfelt moments, including Tara’s return to full mental health, Spike acknowledging how Buffy treats him like a man even though he’s a “monster,” and a touching exchange between sisters Buffy and Dawn at the end. As far as finales go, it would have been a superb way for the show to conclude.
2 “Becoming, Part 2” – Season 2, Episode 22
This is one of the first big episodes of the series in terms of having storytelling, acting, and visuals combine so perfectly. Buffy and the Scoobies face off against Angelus one last time in an effort to save the world. The intertwining of how Angel’s curse came to be, along with the attempt at doing it again, builds up the episode’s suspense in a climax that no one sees coming. Watching this episode originally air long before the days of spoiler-heavy social media turned it into a particularly tense nail-biter.
The entire cast comes together to deliver the best finale of the entire show. Everyone is firing on all cylinders in this episode, from James Marsters’ attempt to bestow Spike with humility, David Boreanaz pulling double duty, and Sarah Michelle Gellar bringing her A-game in a performance that leaves no doubt in anyone’s mind that she is the Slayer.
1 “The Body” – Season 5, Episode 16
One of the most powerful hours of television, “The Body” is an unflinching look at the stages of grief and shock in the wake of a loved one’s death. Buffy comes home to find her mother dead on the couch following an aneurysm. The Scooby Gang, who encounter supernatural death on a regular basis, gather and try to help Buffy and Dawn process their loss.
While the episode is widely praised by critics as one of the best episodes in television history due to its writing and acting, it’s also known for showing the first onscreen same-sex kiss between Willow and Tara. Each character grieves in their own way, but it’s Anya’s monologue about not understanding how to move forward that gets viewers crying every time.
This story originally appeared on Movieweb