Usually in 5 To Watch, five writers from The A.V. Club each make the case for a favored episode of a particular show. For this very special edition of 5 To Watch, in honor of the 20th anniversary of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, we bring you seven episodes of Buffy perfectly suited to an all-night binge.
Late last year, the Sydney Opera House invited three A.V. Club staffers to participate in its inaugural BingeFest. Our task: Curate and host a Buffy binge that would start at 10:30 p.m. and end at 6 a.m. We fought for weeks over not just the episodes, but the order: What episode would play well 2 a.m.? Could anybody really watch “The Body” at 4 in the morning? (No.) How much would people hate us for including an episode from season seven? Although the seven episodes below are indeed some of our favorites from across the show, we also picked ones that highlight a variety of characters, that showcase Joss Whedon’s playfulness with storytelling as well as his embrace of searing heartbreak, and that feature some of the greatest (and creepiest) villains on television.
When introducing someone to Buffy, it’s hard to know where to start. Season one can be a tough sell. Aside from the novelty of the concept, the show is spending most of those first 12 episodes just finding its affordable-but-stylishly-clad feet. Which is why “School Hard” isn’t just a great introduction to Buffy, but one of the great episodes, because it’s a distillation of everything the show does right in those first couple of seasons. It’s explicitly about the difficult balancing act Buffy Summers has to maintain between being the slayer and being a high school student, as the backdrop of parent-teacher conference night shows her struggling to both keep her mom happy and also in the dark about her staking-related activities. Plus, it’s got one of the all-time intros to one of the all-time characters: Spike’s arrival in Sunnydale, his undead love Drusilla at his side, opens a tone new for the show, one that embraced a nihilistic and fun-loving punk-rock ethos on the part of one of season two’s three Big Bads. By the time Buffy and Spike engage in their first rough n’ tumble throwdown, the show’s signature mix of humor, horror, heart, and action has gelled into an addictive treat.
“School Hard” sets up a figure who’s both terrifying and hilarious—one that was perhaps done with unintended consequences, since Spike was never meant to become a permanent character. “Becoming Part 2” pushes at those twin narratives, edging Spike toward a relationship with the slayer that later becomes affectionate but also violent. This episode features some of the show’s funniest deadpan dialogue, between Spike and Buffy’s mom, Joyce (Joyce: Have we met? Spike: You hit me with an ax one time), without loosening the grip of terror that Spike could hold. This mix of humor and terror was something that Joss Whedon and the other writers perfected over seven seasons (see our next pick, ”Hush”), and they surface in a single moment near the end, when Spike sees Buffy fighting to her presumed death, and then shrugs and leaves.
“Becoming Part 2” is also one of the most soul-shattering episodes of the earlier seasons, and one of the most pivotal. In a single episode, a hospitalized Willow finds the strength to do her first real spell, giving Angelus his soul back; Buffy tells her mom that she’s the slayer; we see the roots of Spike and Buffy’s affection, as they strike a deal to keep Angelus from turning the world into an actual demonscape; and Buffy is forced to shove her one true love into the depths of hell. It’s also a rare episode in which, during a seemingly dire moment, Buffy has only herself to rely on, instead of the Scoobies.
“Hush” isn’t merely one of the great Buffy stand-alones. It’s one of the best episodes of the show, period, and proof that, yes, you could do spine-tingling horror and hilariously lewd mime on a broadcast network in the 1990s.
A slight detour in the fourth season’s Initiative subplot—in which it’s revealed that a branch of the military devoted to paranormal research has set up shop beneath the University of California-Sunnydale—“Hush” introduces The Gentlemen, grim, grinning fairytale demons who steal the whole town’s voices to as part of a mass organ-harvesting scheme.
Played in part by future Pale Man Doug Jones, The Gentlemen are uniquely fearsome adversaries, combining elements of two modern-day boogeymen: the fashion sense and anatomy of The Slender Man meets the unnerving risus sardonicus of a creepy clown. Whedon was reportedly inspired to write “Hush” because he felt he was becoming too reliant on witty dialogue; in an irony greater than The Gentlemen’s one weakness, “Hush” wound up being the first and only Buffy script nominated for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.
Apologies for the time jump—we’re treating momentum as seriously as continuity here. From The Big Bag Of Buffy High Concepts comes “Storyteller,” a Jane Espenson-penned installment from the show’s divisive seventh season. Buffy was always exceedingly kind to its second bananas (more on that in a moment), and here reformed wannabe supervillain Andrew (Tom Lenk) takes the spotlight, hosting a camcorder documentary melodramatically titled Buffy, The Slayer Of The Vampyres. In a series suffused with mythology, temporarily switching to Andrew’s POV is a clever comment on self-mythologizing, as seen through Andrew’s unreliably narrated flashbacks and Spike’s attempts to appear more menacing for the camera. But it’s also a sign of how Buffy could invest emotion and stakes in even the most insignificant of characters, as Andrew’s time as a fly on the wall yields some difficult truths about the wrongs he’s committed, and his role (and fate) in the big, apocalyptic battle to come.
Xander Harris is generally the most hapless of the Scoobies. He’s easily flustered, uncoordinated, and as Cordelia cruelly points out at the beginning of “The Zeppo,” not at all supernaturally gifted. So when he’s cut out of the gang’s battle with the doomsday cult the Sisterhood of Jhe, he’s disappointed—but he shouldn’t be that surprised. The supposedly exciting stuff is all happening offscreen in “The Zeppo,” but the main action counts as the funniest Buffy’s ever been, as Xander’s separation from his friends leads him to fall in with a bad crowd—and “bad” here means “dead.” Things often go wrong for Xander, but it’s the ways in which his night goes pear-shaped that make “The Zeppo.” An episode about the least-exciting, least-essential member of the main ensemble ought to abide by those characteristics, and “The Zeppo” gets its laughs by cutting things short, interrupting dramatic beats, and straight up not showing things. And in proving Xander’s true worth to his friends and the show, the Xander of episodes turns out to be an indispensable hour of Buffy.
Leave it to Joss Whedon to write a sing-along musical that’s also utterly heartbreaking. “Once More With Feeling” has been much-chronicled and imitated since it first aired 15-plus years ago, but Whedon knew that its success turned on it actually advancing the plot–it couldn’t just be a songbook. And so it does, from the gang’s realization that it must be a singing, dancing demon, to the irreparable tears in Tara and Willow’s relationship, to Giles realizing that he has to let Buffy go it alone in the midst of a training montage from an ’80s movie. The episode provides some nice cameos for the trained singers who were usually behind the camera, with writer David Fury singing about mustard stains and producer Marti Noxon about parking tickets. The demon, played by the inimitable Hinton Battle, forces Sunnydale residents to sing their deepest fears and secrets (and sometimes tap dance to their deaths). By the end of the episode, not only have you sung along to a nice retro pastiche, but Xander and Anya have revealed their fears about marriage, Buffy told her friends that they had ripped her out of heaven, and Buffy and Spike share their first kiss.
A strong contender for the greatest villain the show ever had, season three’s Mayor of Sunnydale, Richard Wilkins, isn’t the usual bad guy. A stickler for manners and a fan of Family Circus, the man balanced his kindly sensibilities with an insatiable bloodlust for immortality and power. As such, he was the ideal nemesis for a season that was all about confronting the end of high school. The back half of this two-part finale foregrounds all of our characters confronting their impending graduation while prepping for a massive battle to stop the Mayor from becoming a super-powered monster hell-bent on devouring everyone in school. The show draws on three seasons’ worth of backstory pathos to make all of the drama feel as significant to the viewer as it does to our heroes. The series can be divided cleanly between seasons three and four, as Buffy The Vampire Slayer became a somewhat different show, about the pressures of growing into adulthood, during its second half. But “Graduation Day” is a fitting conclusion to the first part of an epic, ongoing story. Consider it a richly fulfilling diploma for those who attended to classes at Sunnydale High.