The year was 1997, and it was quite a time for girl power in the pop culture zeitgeist. The Spice Girls were on top of the (spice) world. Ellen Degeneres made history by coming out via her television alter ego (and subsequently in TIME magazine). And a little show premiered on a itty-bitty network that would take the world by storm.
On March 10, 1997, The WB network (still in its infancy) took a chance on a weird little teen horror show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Created by geek extraordinaire Joss Whedon, the show detailed the common trials and tribulations of high school adolescence through a unique genre-tinged prism.
All the things that make our teen years horrific were now literal horrors befalling our group of Californian youths. Young love, newfound responsibility, and questioning sexuality were just a few of the topics explored with a supernatural twist. Originally conceived by Whedon as a feature film, he handed his script over to director Fran Rubel Kuzui. Placing more emphasis on comedy than Whedon had originally intended, the result was a lackluster film dripping in camp.
Five years later, he received a call from a producer with a potential TV gig. The WB had just launched their network in January of 1995 and were looking to procure a hip new fanbase to build their brand. Whedon saw this as a perfect opportunity to resurrect the idea he held close to his heart for so long. If it didn’t work as a 90-minute movie, perhaps an episodic structure spanning a longer time period would be more fitting.
SPOILER ALERT: he made a good choice. by embracing the premise’s inherent silliness, and simultaneously treating its characters with care and respect, the show hit a tonal sweet spot. Starting as a mid-season replacement in its initial run, the show was quickly picked up for a full 22-episode second season. And then a third… and then a fourth…
Now let’s take a look at some of the most notable episodes, showcasing the series’ remarkable talent of navigating multiple different genres while never losing sight of its own identity.
7. Innocence (Season 2, Episode 14)
Original air date: January 20, 1998
Men are trash. We all know this. It’s one of life’s most important lessons, and one Buffy learns the hard way in this season two episode. She and Angel finally do the deed after one and a half seasons of simmering tension. After which, Angel – an already established vampire – literally loses his soul, turning into a careless bad boy far removed from the brooding gentle giant he was before.
It’s one of the more obvious metaphors of the series, but no less engaging for it. Buffy is of course traumatized, staring in disbelief with tears in her eyes as her first love suddenly treats her with the regard of a used tissue. Not one to revel in self-pity, she later sternly announces to her watcher Giles “I know what I have to do… kill him.” Thus inspiring a generation of girls and boys not to put up with any man-related bullsh*t.
Rating: 3/5 Stakes
6. Bad Girls (Season 3, Episode 14)
Original air date: February 9, 1999
The third season introduced us to fan-favorite Faith (Eliza Dushku). With dark hair, dark eyeliner, and a dark personality, she was the anti-Buffy. And like most of us “good kids” in high school, Buffy was tempted to cross over to the dark side. And that she did, in this aptly-titled episode detailing the “bad girl” antics Faith lures Buffy into joining. Reckless antics like *gasp* dancing at the local bar, and *bigger gasp* skipping class by hopping out the classroom window.
The behavior soon takes a turn for the serious, however, as the two get picked up by some cops and subsequently end up knocking out the cops and crashing the car. Not only that, but a few nights later the two are attacked in an alley and Faith ends up accidentally stabbing and killing an innocent human with a stake. It’s a sobering moment for a freaked out Buffy; but in the chilling final scene, she confronts Faith about coming forward. “You don’t get it Faith, you killed a man,” to which a disaffected Faith replies, “no you don’t get it. I don’t care,” and walks away, leaving us with the last shot of a dumbstruck Buffy standing in disbelief.
Rating: 3/5 Stakes
5. Buffy vs. Dracula (Season 5, Episode 1)
Original air date: September 26, 2000
A show about a vampire slayer can’t possible ignore the most famous vampire to ever exist, and Buffy’s inevitable meet-cute with the notorious Count went down in the season five opener. It’s patrolling as usual for the Buff-ster one night when she comes across the charismatic creature. When he formally introduces himself, Buffy’s face morphs from one of stunned silence to giddy fangirl. “Get out!” she says excitedly, and we cut to commercial. One of the finer examples of the show’s cheeky humor.
The rest of the Dracula-centered shenanigans were rather underwhelming, to be frank, and aren’t even the reason I chose this episode. At the end, a flustered Buffy walks past her mom and into her bedroom. “What are you doing here?” she asks an off-screen character. Then we cut to a pre-teen girl (played by Michelle Trachtenberg). From the other room, Buffy’s mother Joyce yells out “Buffy, if you’re going to go out, you might as well take your sister!”
And bam. Just like that, the show pulls a rug right out from under us that we didn’t even know we were standing on in the first place. It’s a twist that’s borderline brilliant in it’s complete randomness. What sister?!?!?! Who?!?!?! Where the hell did she come from?!?! Did I miss an entire season?!?!
Even better was the fact that the show refused to acknowledge the elephant in the room for a good chunk of episodes, only clueing us in to the truth halfway through the season.
Rating: 2.5/5 Stakes
4. The Gift (Season 5, Episode 22)
Original air date: May 22, 2001
This one is an interesting episode to take in, in retrospect. The WB had canceled the show part way through its fifth season, thus making The Gift the intended series-ender. It’s obvious when you watch, given the raised stakes of Buffy’s “sister” Dawn being prepped for sacrifice by the evil Glory (a wonderfully unhinged Clare Kramer), and her ultimate decision to sacrifice herself in place of her sister.
Complete with a sappy voiceover waxing poetic about the journey of life, and a closing shot of Buffy’s gravestone. In case we had any doubt, she was, in fact, dead. “She saved the world. A lot” it read, and the screen went to black. The end?
Rating: 4/5 Stakes
3. Once More, with Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)
Original air date: November 6, 2001
Surprise! Turns out one network’s trash was another one’s treasure. UPN swooped in and took the jilted series under its wing after The WB left it for dead. The first few episodes handled her resurrection with as much charm and pizazz as one would expect from Joss Whedon, but then Buffy was back in action. And a few episodes in it had the audacity to take the well-worn risk of a musical episode.
There’s a time and a place for such a thing, and seven episodes into your mercifully-revived series didn’t seem like the right choice. But somehow they made it work, putting out a surprisingly charming chapter complete with old-timey opening & closing credits, and some well-written tunes, to boot.
Rating: 4/5 Stakes
2. Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)
Original air date: December 14, 1999
Widely regarded as the worst season of the show, the fourth batch of episodes navigated the tricky waters of maintaining a show’s dynamic when the characters graduate high school and do their separate things. It doesn’t always work (lookin’ at you, The OC), and that was mostly the case here. Not only was it too disjointed having the characters in different places, but we were also cursed with Buffy’s most boring and basic love interest to date, Riley. He can flaunt those impossibly broad shoulders all he wants, but in the end he’s yawn-inducing. And don’t even get me started on The Initiative. (Seriously, I refuse to even get into it. Google it if you must.)
But, while the fourth season is home to some of the series’ worst offerings, it also snuck up on us with one of the very best- Hush.
The Gentlemen were the baddies here, with their dapper black suits and skeletal faces betraying the most frightening smiles you’ve seen outside your nightmares. These little freaks float around Buffy’s college town, knocking on people’s doors and stealing their voices. Once The Gentlemen come to visit, no one can hear you scream. Or talk. (FUN FACT – physical actor, and frequent Guillermo Del Toro collaborator Doug Jones plays one of The Gentlemen)
Soon, the whole town is left voiceless and scrambling to defeat the creepily polite visitors. Aside from acting as a nice showcase for some effective visual gags (Buffy’s suggestive motioning of stabbing herself with a stake is a highlight), it’s also one of the better examples of metaphor use in the show. It comes at a time when certain characters are having trouble communicating with each other. And at the end of the episode, when The Gentlemen are defeated and everyone’s voice is returned, Riley sits on the bed across from Buffy.
“Well I guess we have to talk,” he says. “I guess we do,” she replies. Then about 20 seconds of silence follow as the two struggle to find the words to say, then we cut to black. The episode was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing.
Rating: 5/5 Stakes
1. The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)
Original air date: February 27, 2001
Just as easily as the show can make you laugh with its silly shenanigans, it can rip your heart to shreds with total despair. The Body isn’t the first time the gang was faced with realities of life, but it’s far and away the most effective. Buffy comes home one sunny, unassuming day and finds her mother Joyce lying on the couch, cold to the touch.
A tough-as-nails Buffy is suddenly reduced to a childlike state of shock. “Mom? …Mommy?” she says with tears in her eyes (Sarah Michelle Gellar was rightfully nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance). The next 5-10 minutes are the same uninterrupted scene as she runs the gamut of emotions and stages of grief while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
Wandering the rooms of the house that once seemed so full, and now so empty, she stares out the window at the beautiful sky. The world is still turning, but hers isn’t. And that’s when you notice it, there’s not a shred of music to be heard. The entire episode, in fact, is devoid of any type of score, a brilliant creative choice to mirror the unspoken mundanity of the situation.
“What I really wanted to capture was the extreme physicality, the extreme – almost boredom of the very first few hours,” Whedon stated in the DVD’s commentary.
Excluding the theatricality of a score also emphasizes the weight of the situation for the characters. Here they are, in this world filled with vampires and fantasy, suddenly being faced with something so… unremarkable.
It’s an episode so unexpectedly devastating you’d be forgiven if you chose not to watch it again. But I’d suggest you do, because it’s one of the most honest portrayals of grief you’re likely to see on television.
Rating: 5/5 Stakes
In addition to launching the careers of Gellar, Alyson Hannigan, and Seth Green, among others, Buffy the Vampire Slayer became a cultural phenomenon that’s still, 21 years after its premiere, being referenced and reflected upon. It’s one of the most notable examples of feminism in pop culture. A story of empowerment and coming-of-age. Of love, and of loss…. And also vampires and demons.