Buffy: Does it ever get easy?
Giles: You mean life?
Buffy: Yeah, does it get easy?
Giles: What do you want me to say?
Buffy: Lie to me.
Giles: 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, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies and… everybody lives happily ever after.
So, I do this thing where I re-watch particular shows and movies according to the season. In the Fall, I watch Gilmore Girls (yay for new episodes this fall!). Every Christmas, I watch all of the Harry Potter films again. Summers, though, are for Buffy.
Anyone who really knows me will tell you that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of my favorite television series. I’m a complete geek about it. I own the boxed set, the soundtrack for “Once More with Feeling,” a tshirt, the graphic novels, five academic books about Buffy, a Buffy edition Barq’s root beer can featuring Giles, and a t.v. guide featuring Spike and Angel on the cover (thanks, Jeff, for these last two items). I even named my German Shepherd after one of my favorite characters on the show. In addition, I teach at least one Buffy episode in almost every class I teach because the series works on so many levels and with almost any theme. Identity. Class. Monsters. Coming of Age. Fairy tales. Gender. Fear. Fantasy. I’ll stop there; you get the picture.
I came to the show after its run had ended and while I was in grad school, and I’ve rewatched the entire series every summer since. There is a lot to love about this show, but what makes it relevant thirteen years later is the show’s smart writing, universal themes, its ability to bridge the gap between highbrow and lowbrow culture, and ultimately its influence. There was a marked change in genre and television writing after Buffy. For example, while Buffy’s story arcs, in the beginning, incorporated the monster-of-the-week structure that many television shows use, Buffy focuses more on one “Big Bad” and longer story arcs. Joss Whedon specifically created Buffy as a feminist response to stereotypical portrayals of women in horror films, and the series influenced the roles of women in t.v. since.
“On a micro level, Buffy changed the paradigm for women in genre television. It was suddenly a lot easier to sell people on the idea that you could have a woman as a lead character, and she could be smart, kickass, funny, strong, flawed, dangerous and awesome (basically, all the things we were used to seeing in male characters and very much not used to seeing in female characters). It’s easy to take it for granted now, but in 1997 when Buffy started, that wasn’t entirely common,” he said. “But in a larger context, I think Buffy established that it was okay to have a show which was both fun and intelligent – that you could be engrossing, mainstream, pop entertainment while still having something to say, still having a specific point of view about the world. To me, that’s what we all took with us from the show, and I think it’s an example that’s been followed by lots of people who never even worked on Buffy: just knowing it could be done gave everyone license to create other fun shows with a voice if they wanted to. And as legacies go, I think that’s a pretty good one.”
The series even influenced language (used a noun as a verb lately?). I could write a book about Buffy and its influence (obsessed, much?), but many others have already done it and have done it much better than I could. (If you want to read some of these books, I suggest starting with Rhonda Wilcox’s Why Buffy Matters, and then you can fall down the rabbit hole scoping out related titles).
As much as I love Buffy (can you tell?), I haven’t watched the series this summer. I broke tradition. But, I just can’t leave summer and begin the fall semester without a little Buffy in my life. I decided that I would list ten of my favorite episodes here, and I plan to watch at least these before classes begin. Before anyone begins criticizing my list, I want to clarify. Choosing only ten was difficult, but I tried to choose those that capture the show’s spirit and those that would be good to watch for Buffy newbies. And, I do not necessarily think these are the best ten episodes (though many would make that list, as well). I haven’t ranked the episodes, preferring instead to list them in the order in which they appear in the series. Here it goes:
- Prophesy Girl (S1, ep. 12): Much of the first season of Buffy focuses on character development. This season’s early monster-of-the-week structure sets up character traits and flaws that don’t fully play out until much later in the series, and this is one of the many ways in which Joss Whedon is a genius. That said, there is a longer story arc even this early on: Buffy’s ultimate confrontation with one of the oldest vampires, “The Master.” In “Prohesy Girl,” we see the burden Buffy must carry as the chosen one (a significant theme throughout the series) and the ways in which her relationships strengthen her for the battles ahead.
- Surprise/Innocence (S2, eps.13 &14): I’m not technically cheating by including two episodes here. “Surprise” and “Innocence” can’t be fully appreciated without the other because episode 13 ends with “to be continued.” Not only does this episode explore the romantic relationship between Buffy and Angel, it also examines the darker side of their attraction. One of the strengths of Buffy, is the way in which the monsters both represent and aid in the characters’ growth and maturity. In other words, the monsters the characters face often signify coming-of-age moments in their lives. In this way, the show tackles issues like bullying, abuse, controlling relationships, loneliness, drug-use, etc. In “Surprise” and “Innocence,” the show addresses first-time sexual experiences and the consequences.
- The Zeppo (S3. ep. 13): “The Zeppo” isn’t necessarily one of my favorite episodes, but I think it’s an important one. Buffy isn’t just about the titular character, Buffy Summers. In fact, many fans prefer Buffy’s friends or cast of superb secondary characters. This episode features Xander and highlights the insecurities he faces while also emphasizing his role in the group. These insecurities play out in important ways throughout the rest of the series. “The Zeppo” is also self-referentially funny and a bit cheesy, characteristic of the smart writing on Buffy.
- Doppelgangland (S3, ep. 16): “Doppelgangland” is another episode that focuses on one of Buffy’s friends (and one of my favorite characters),Willow. This is definitely a favorite of mine and, it apparently makes Joss Whedon’s list of favorites, too. In fact, he wrote this episode specifically for the character. “Doppelgangland” is character-driven and explores Willow’s insecurities and her role in the Scooby Gang, but it also foreshadows character plots fulfilled in the next few seasons of the show. And everyone loves vampy Willow.
- Hush (S4, ep. 10): Buffy often plays with tropes of fairy tales, but “Hush” is one of the best. It examines gender, communication, the power of language and silence, and relationships all through the lens of fairy tales. Specifically, I like the ways in which “Hush” acknowledges the patriarchal nature of many European fairy tales (hello, creepy, white dudes) and inverts it. “Hush” is the only Buffy episode that received an Emmy nomination for writing. Ironic, since one of the remarkable features of the episode is that there is barely any dialogue. It is a predominantly silent episode as fairy tale monsters called “The Gentleman” arrive in Sunnydale and steal everyone’s voices. It deserved more than a nomination.
- Fool For Love (S5, ep.7): “Fool for Love” was the first entire Buffy episode I ever watched, and it is still one of my favorites. Not only does it feature Spike (yay!), but it also includes what the writers of Buffy do best: good storytelling. The episode is, in fact, all about storytelling and the ways in which we learn from stories, especially those from the past. In this episode, Buffy also fully recognizes the dangers of being the chosen one and acknowledges her own mortality.
- The Body (S5, ep.16): “The Body” is one of the most intense episodes of the series. There is no supernatural threat (until the end). Instead, Buffy grapples with her own grief and helplessness when her mother dies. For me, it remains one of the most visceral and realistic portrayals of death on television. There is no musical soundtrack for the episode, only a few ambient sounds. The camera work and direction are flawless. The camera uncomfortably closes in and follows Buffy, making it hard to distance yourself from her emotional reaction. But, what is also remarkable about this episode is the way in which it explores multiple responses to death and grief. We see each of the characters deal with Joyce’s death in their own ways.
- Once More with Feeling (S6, ep. 7): Many television series have attempted (some successfully, some not) musical episodes. Daria, That 70s Show, Scrubs, How I Met Your Mother, and Gray’s Anatomy, to name a few. But, as in most things, Buffy’s musical episode, “Once More with Feeling,” is the best. The music makes sense in terms of plot, and Joss Whedon wrote not only the script, but also all of the musical numbers. This particular episode is not only a turning point in Season Six, but also a turning point in the series. The episode allows all of the characters to explore their fears, to reflect on where they’ve been, and to consider where they are going. Anyone can enjoy this episode, but to fully appreciate it, it’s really helpful to watch the previous seasons. Everything comes in to play here.
- Grave (S6, ep. 22): There are many people who don’t care much for the Season Six finale, but I think so many things work well. And the episode really brings together some of the character lines viewers have followed for six seasons. In this episode, Xander is the hero, Willow deals with her grief, and Buffy comes to terms with living. “Grave” also mirrors in many ways the first two episodes of the season and echoes the finale of season five. And, I admit, I still get choked up when I watch it.
- Chosen (s7, ep. 22): The final season of Buffy is not one of my favorites, but the series finale has to make the list as Buffy and the Scoobies change slayer history, stop the apocalypse (again), and go head-to-head with some of their greatest foes. Also, in this episode, Spike and Anya (two of the demon allies who initially seemed to be only minor roles in the show when they first appeared in seasons two and three respectively) defend humanity in the most amazing ways. Whatever fans may say about the final season and episode, the show goes out with a bang.
And that’s it. Now, I’m going to watch some Buffy.
What are your favorite episodes?