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10 Best ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ Episodes of All Time

From musical numbers to silent killers, romantic swooning to the most grief-stricken hour of TV ever, it’s the slayer’s greatest hits

Over its seven-season run, Buffy the Vampire Slayer pulled off some astonishing feats – particularly when you consider that when it premiered on March 10th, 1997, it would be years before the current “golden age of television” would be in full swing. It was impressive enough that Joss Whedon’s creation for the WB network managed to be anything other than a schlocky joke (given its title), or a campy genre piece (given its Girl v. Endless Parade of Hellspawn premise). Instead, it exceeded expectations and then some, bringing wrenching pathos, meditations on life and death, examinations of power and responsibility, formal innovations like a musical episode and a nearly silent episode, and kick-ass action seamlessly combined with biting humor to the small screen. A binge-watching classic, long before anyone thought to coin the term, was born.

And Sarah Michelle Gellar proved the perfect muse for Whedon, a delicately pretty girl with staredown of steel and solid acting chops that matured further over the show’s 145 episodes. Along with her group of slayer-helping friends, including future stars such as How I Met Your Mother‘s Alyson Hannigan and Robot Chicken‘s Seth Green among others, Buffy and the Scooby Gang would win over an intense fanbase, respect from critics and academics, and a place on just about every TV-canon round-up written in the listicle age.

Picking only 10 great episodes of the series is harder than stopping a season-finale apocalypse, but here’s a stab at recognizing some of Buffy’s best. [Spoilers obviously ahead.] Happy 20th anniversary, kid. You saved the world. A lot.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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10

‘Angel’ (Season 1, Episode 7)

Everyone’s favorite brooding bloodsucker Angel graduates from morose, older-guy crush to potential object of epic romance in one of the show’s key star-crossed-lovers episodes. He’ s a vampire, she’ s a slayer – how ever will they make it work? The chemistry between Gellar and David Boreanaz is scorching, the character are more doomed than Romeo and Juliet, and Buffy puts its first major piece of mythology in place. “Love makes you do the wacky.”

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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9

‘The Wish’ (Season 3, Episode 9)

The prevalence of magic in the Buffyverse allows the show to examine its lead character’s powers from multiple angles: One episode turns her into a powerless Southern belle via a magical Halloween costume; another has her temporarily losing her powers, requiring those around her to step up and help. In “The Wish,” Buffy’s enemy-turned-friend Cordelia, reeling from a breakup with fellow Scooby Xander, wishes the slayer had never come to Sunnydale. Lucky for her, she’ s just met a new girl in school, Anya – who would figure in the show more prominently later – and voila! The alternate universe depicted is something of an It’s a Wonderful Life moment for our heroine, with the town overrun by vampires who are completing a “factory” where blood is systematically sucked from humans. (It’s then poured directly into wine glasses for easy on-tap consumption.) Willow and Xander are now vamps and Angel is imprisoned until a much darker version of Buffy rides into town to save the day. Lots of fun scenery-chewing ensues before we’re whisked back to the comparatively sunny “real” version of Sunnydale.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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8

‘Hush’ (Season 4, Episode 10)

When some creepy fairy tale creatures called “the Gentlemen” blow into Sunnydale and steal everyone’ s voices – all the better for cutting people’s hearts out in peace – they also provided catnip for TV critics in the form of a mostly dialogue-less Buffy episode. It’s even more innovative than the beloved musical episode, and as is standard for the series, the silence also serves a purpose: in this case, the slayer and her love interest, undercover U.S. government operative Riley, do better at revealing themselves to each other through action and facial expressions than they ever could through talking.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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7

‘Becoming’ (Season 2, Episodes 21-22)

The second-season finale not only brings the entire series thus far to a head – it completely sets the tone for the remaining five seasons. This two-episode send-off tell Angel’s entire history, from 18th-century drunk Irish cad to notoriously sadistic vampire to tortured creature of the night. “Becoming” also forces Buffy to fight her now-soulless boyfriend once and for all, while Willow begins to flex her witchcraft powers. The message: Going forward, the show would not be a simple, monster-of-the-week tale of a slayer balancing school and vampire-fighting. It would weave a TV mythology for the ages.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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6

‘Once More With Feeling’ (Season 6, Episode 7)

Yes, other shows have done musical episodes. But few sell them as anything more than a stunt to perk up a show that’s sagging in its later years or to show off a cast’s Broadway-ready talents. That’s not how Buffy rolls. First, Whedon wraps the musical in a “realistic” – at least for the show – premise: A demon has cast a spell over Sunnydale that causes everyone to break out into song and dance, often revealing hidden feelings in the process. While the gang tries to figure out how to disrupt the spell and fight the demon, they, too, drag their secrets into the light. And in a brilliant climactic fight-scene/song-and-dance number, Buffy finally admits that she resents her friends bringing her back from her Season 5-ending death. It’s an epically weird, haunting song and a tremendous showstopping performance by Gellar. Once more, Buffy turns something conceptual into a way of getting inside these characters’ heads. And that’s not even counting the “Bunnies” tune.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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5

‘Graduation Day’ (Season 3, Episodes 21-22)

A blessedly straightforward season finale full of pure Buffy fun. The double episode has the Scoobies battling to stop the catastrophic ascension of Mayor Wilkins, the sorcerer mayor of Sunnydale. On the way we get an epic fight scene between Buffy and slayer-gone-bad Faith, the politician’s transformation into a giant snake demon (any resemblance to folks currently in power is, of course, completely coincidental) at the class of ’99 graduation ceremony, the death of Buffy’s longtime nemesis Principal Snyder, and, naturally, the destruction of Sunnydale High in a massive explosion. The season literally goes out with a bang.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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4

‘The Gift’ (Season 5, Episode 22)

The hundredth episode of Buffy had to be a big deal, right? Buffy must save the world yet again, but this time the season ended in what appeared to be a definitive, no-turning-back way: She sacrifices herself to save her sister Dawn, and by extension, humanity. The WB called it a “series finale,” and it makes sense as an ending – the point of a slayer, after all, is to die in service to others, and the moment gives Buffy the heroic sendoff imaginable. But real-life TV business dictated that Sunnydale’s best and brightest live again on the rival network UPN, which Buffy‘s studio, 20th Century Fox Television, had recently bought a large stake (as it were). Significantly, Whedon isn’t content to simply use magic to revive his heroine for more fun and games with her friends; her eventual return to the land of the living haunts her through the sixth and seventh seasons, forcing the young woman question the nature and meaning of life. It was a bold gamble that paid off.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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3

‘Seeing Red’ (Season 6, Episode 19)

A seemingly typical Buffy episode – specific evil to fight, along with some soap-opera drama among Buffy and the Scoobies – turns unexpectedly heartbreaking in the last few seconds. Three high school classmates of the now-college-age Scoobies are bent on living out a real revenge-of-the-nerds scenario by stealing some magical orbs that impart strength and invulnerability. (The fact that the items in questions are “balls” isn’t a coincidence; the entire episode serves as a brilliant critique of modern masculinity’s dangers.) One of the villains comes to Buffy’s place with a gun; bullets end up killing Tara, who’s inside the house with her girlfriend, Willow. That such toxic dude-ness would ultimately take the life of the series’ beloved lesbian-witch character was both ironic and, in its own horrible way, a perfect commentary on our destructive bro culture. Hers is one of the great deaths of TV history, with the fan uproar to prove it.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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2

‘Innocence’ (Season 2, Episode 14)

Buffy loses her virginity to her vampire boyfriend Angel, only to find he’ s a different person the next morning – literally. He’d fallen in love with the slayer because he was cursed with a soul by a family of gypsies seeking vengeance. The catch: Once he finds true happiness, his soul will disappear. It’s not only a metaphor for the worst of teenage sexual experiences, it also sets up several seasons of romantic angst and longing for Angel and Buffy – the perfect depiction of how first real love often feels. This plotline also hints for the first time at how ruthless Buffy would be in seeking emotional truth. There would be no perfect, quick magical fixes for the spell-crossed lovers.

10 Best 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' Episodes

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1

‘The Body’ (Season 5, Episode 16)

While many bigger-budget, higher-profile shows since Buffy have tried to tackle existential truths – Lost, Mad Men, The Sopranos – this hour of television deals us nothing short of the meaning of life in one devastating blow. By this point, Buffy has saved the world from the apocalypse so much that it’s become a joke among her and her friends. Together, they have slayed scores of vampires, cast and reversed dozens of spells, played with the boundaries of life and death over and over. In “The Body,” however, they are powerless in the face of an unexpected aneurysm after Buffy’s mother has surgery to remove a tumor. In the first scene, she finds her parent’s lifeless body on the sofa. After years of handily dispatching with vampires and monsters, we suddenly see a regular young woman who needs paramedics, her father figure Giles, and her friends – not to help her fight, but to help her deal. Long takes and long silences, along with Whedon’s brilliance with everyday details – a lingering shot of a paper towel soaking up Buffy’s vomit on the living room floor, her friend Willow’ s obsession with getting her hospital outfit just right – make this whole episode a gut punch. And its conclusion is the most unpopular thought in popular culture: We all die, it’s no one’ s fault, and there’s nothing we can do about it.