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Where Do We Go From Here?
A Top 10 Buffy, The Vampire Slayer TV Episodes
by Cristopher Hennessey-Derose
S P O I L E R A L E R T !
As the sun sets over the crater that used to be Sunnydale, California a place whose property values plummeted even as its residents decided to stay despite the fact its Mayor turned into a giant demon snake, the new kid in
town blew up the school (in order to get rid of the snake, you see), had a
bodycount that would dethrone Los Angeles, and was subject to any number of Big Bads invading its
borders only to be dispatched with anything from a piece of wood clutched in hand to a rocket
launcher, those who look on as a school bus of Slayers and Scoobies blows past are able to spare a
few moments and reflect on what has transpired over the past seven years as what started out as a
mid-season replacement became a dominating force, both in popular culture and genre.
This list, which was much harder to assemble that I first figured, is to give the nod to the best of the bunch within the tropes of speculative fiction, which is to say if you remove the element of the fantastic, the entire plot would fall apart. For that reason, we are short of episodes such as the superlative episode The Body. But there are plenty of others to choose from. Let's explore the history of Sunnydale before the departure of its inhabitants, both living and (un)dead before we go and bronze Mr Pointy.
The Gift (season five) written and directed by Joss Whedon
The ultimate sacrifice - Buffy's life - is required in order for the evil god known as Glory to be conquered and the life of Buffy's sister to be spared.
The 100th episode of Buffy, The Vampire Slayer contains everything but the proverbial kitchen sink; paranormal tropes, snappy dialogue, and a couple of psych-outs for the audience that actually work. For example, the Buffy-bot going in before the actual Slayer to weaken Glory, and Giles killing an innocent, Ben, who shares Glory's body in order to ensure victory.
While the tension of the death of Buffy is in reality, not terribly effective since Sarah Michelle Gellar's contract was active for two seasons further, the death of the "Warrior of the people," as Willow would come to call her, was still compelling and effective. It was not overwrought and as drawn-out as a Cagney death scene. Sacrifice is required, that is what happens with all the honour Buffy Summers has to offer to not just the small world of her friends, but the world as a whole, something the Scoobies seem to have lost sight of. The reactions of the Scoobies upon discovery of her body is the capper here rather the actual action. For a few moments, we are with them more than ever before as Willow is reduced to agonising tears and Spike, the Big Bad himself, is literally brought to his knees with grief.
The dark side of Giles, always an intriguing aspect of the character comes out in spades as he calmly kills an innocent Buffy would never be able to herself. He finds a creepy as hell serenity in the murder, as if this was what he was more destined for as a Watcher and he had been merely waiting for the terrible inevitable occurrence for his old self to come burbling to the surface.
This is the genre answer to the stunning episode, The Body, complete with some of the best fight sequences in the history of the show. The ending shot is of the headstone of one Buffy Anne Summers, and would have provided the best example of a genre show going out on top had artistic endeavours taken precedence over contractual agreements.
Hush (season four) written and directed by Joss Whedon
The fairy-tale Gentlemen, heart-thieves at large, come to town, stealing the voices from the entire town of Sunnydale so there are no screams to call alarm to their victims, who are very much alive when the Gentlemen remove the heart of their intended.
It's easy to dismiss this episode as nothing more than a gimmick. But the fact remains that it was aired at a time that the show was hitting its creative stride, carrying over from season three, which had considerable strengths not only in storytelling, but in the field of speculative fiction still being relevant on television, something refreshing especially when viewed in the light of The X-Files was at that time, heading straight into the ground.
The Gentlemen stand as the best monster in the Buffy universe, hands down. That includes the vampires. One of the most important elements in a villain, the walk, is handled in its own unique way - they float. They also appear to communicate in a vaguely effeminate kind of sign language. They don't suffer from cheap makeup, which many of the creatures on Buffy sport. It doesn't matter if it's done for the sake of humour. Cheap is cheap.
The score, something that is overlooked (sometimes for good reason), is in full 'creepy mode' here. It's rare when a chorus of ghostly voices doesn't make horror fans wince from the sheer cliché of it all (or make one think of any given Enya album). The disembodied chorus is present here, though, and it works fine enough. The Suite featured in the episode was eventually issued as a bonus track on the Once More With Feeling soundtrack, although it would have been interesting to have no score of any kind for the episode.
It's not all melodrama, though. There are moments when the characters slip back into the 'real-life' kind of comedy they have become known for. When Giles shows a hastily drawn series of pictures to communicate to the Scoobies, he has a recording of Danse Macabre playing in the background, Anya munches on popcorn as the graphic drawings flit past, and Xander has nothing but boobs on his mind. Oh, yes. Riley Finn is also featured. That noted, let's press on.
Tara makes her first appearance here, and helps establish two primary things; together with Willow, they have a power that more than borders on the scary, and that it seems, albeit in retrospect, that even this early in her Wiccan pursuits Willow is not above using another to amplify her power, and that further growth in the character of Willow Rosenberg will change as her sexual preference does a 180. A Whedon masterpiece, and one that would have fallen apart completely if it had been done in say, season six, or even the latter part of season five, when it became clear the show had seen much better days.
Doppelgangland (season three) written and directed by Joss Whedon
The vampire Willow we met in The Wish is transported into the current Sunnydale by a spell gone awry. Hilarity and�uh, death, ensues...
A kind of sequel to The Wish, Alyson Hannigan simply walks away with every scene she's in. The plot balances superb pacing and of course the trademark Whedon dialogue as well as spinning humour into the yarn.
Nice bits involving 'vampire Willow' recognizing Oz and some of the others as 'white hats' and similar throws to The Wish round out the edges nicely. It glimpses a darker aspect to Willow that no one except Whedon saw within the character all the while ignoring this kind of corrupt person when it came time for Willow to really lose it and go on a bloody rampage. The 'good Willow' maintains to Buffy that she doesn't want to be like the 'vampire Willow', as that version of her destroyed lives and that she doesn't want to turn out like her. It's curious as to whether Whedon had plans for the characters to go headlong in the direction of villainy in a later season (in this case, it would be season six).
It's small touches like that t that steer the stronger threads of the show the hell away from the edge of cliché, or worse, writer's malaise.
Graduation Day Part Two (season three) written and directed by Joss Whedon
As the Scoobies prepare to graduate, Buffy allows Angel to feed off her to save the life Faith tried to take. With the rogue Slayer in a coma, the Mayor's ascension to demon-hood has some personal vendettas attached to it. But Buffy still has some tricks left up her sleeve.
Okay, the CGI snake just doesn't match the background it's fitted to, and Principal Snyder going down reprimanding the Mayor (a man or thing he has obviously been in fear of) as the former morphs into the aforementioned digital snake is a bit much, but there are elements to this season three finale that make one forget about such things in retrospect (unless you're writing one of these things and Joss Whedon still won't return your phone calls).
Harry Groener as the Mayor had some of the best lines this side of Willow Rosenberg during this season, and in this episode in particular, he steals moments away from the regular cast, especially during his speech at the graduation. Would Buffy win the battle coming over the course of season three? Of course, but in Whedon's universe, there is such a thing as collateral damage. In this, we find Harmony falling to an attacking vampire, and Larry being killed by the ascended Mayor in the blink of an eye.
I don't mean to put too much stress on the last ten minutes where the students face the demon the Mayor has become as their parents run for their own lives rather than to their children, but it's where the genre effects their lives the most in quick cuts: Buffy commanding the student body in their ambush of the Mayor (great teeth-gritting from Hannigan there as she hefts a spear-gun), prissy Cordelia mixing it up face-to-face with a vamp, when the students charge their enemy's soldiers, evil vampires, into an ambush led by Angel... just great, soul-stirring stuff without the Whedon dialogue, something he proved here and in the episode Hush that he needn't rely on.
Passion (season two) written by Ty King, directed by Micheal E. Gershman
Angelus continues his torment of the Scoobies, showing himself as if not a master of psychological warfare, certainly an apt pupil of it. Jenny Calendar attempts to restore his soul, thereby returning him to his old self, but Angelus wants none of it, going so far as to kill Jenny in the halls of Sunnydale High and leave her body in Giles' apartment.
Angelus' reign of evil continues to manifest itself, sending the viewer (specifically the seasoned horror buff) through twists where one wholly expects one thing, then another happens. The element of the computer disk containing the key spell Jenny has translated falling between the cracks to simply sit there, a delicious tease.
This also marks a turning point for the series as well as the characters; the death of Jenny Calendar is brutal, quick, and heartrending. It allowed the series to differentiate itself from television dreck. Further, Angelus' positioning of Jenny on Giles' bed, preparing the living room... everything... a being of utter evil, one without fear of consequence.
Here we find world building, population, and ultimately, destruction. By the by, while my Latin is spotty at best, the recovering Catholic in me thinks the Latin Willow speaks means 'With these words permission is revoked.' The use of Latin in the show is more accurate than one would expect from something dismissed as a 'monster of the week show.'
Buffy's secret identity to her mother is blown as the police mistakenly pursue her for the death of Kendra. The Slayer must ally herself with Spike in order to head off Angelus' activation of Acathla. During a swordfight, Buffy must make the decision to kill Angel even though his soul is restored via Willow's spell.
This explores the effect of genre on relationships, namely the one that exists (or doesn't) between Buffy and Joyce. The truth of her being a Slayer has ill effects on their closeness and tips Joyce's hand to exactly how much of a blind eye she has turned to her daughter's activities, and one presumes, Sunnydale's growing bodycount.
The use of foreshadowing season three's arc with the Mayor and Snyder's connection to him is hinted at quite nicely, then never brought up again. Because of circumstantial evil, Buffy has two decisions - kill Angelus, then, when Willow's spell restores him to his old lovable wounded-poet self, she understands to kill him anyway is to destroy a terrible liability that Angelus may indeed return. It's genre-heroine and sacrificing what one wants for the greater good.
Keep an eye out for the Mutant Enemy zombie at the end of the credits. Instead of the traditional "Grr... argh!" He is heard to whine, "I need a hug!"
A New Man (season four) written by Jane Espenson, directed by Michael Gershman
An old friend-turned-enemy of Giles, named Ethan Rayne, returns to Sunnydale, turning Giles into a demon that cannot speak English, only the native tongue of the demon, which is known as a Fyarl.
Monsters? Not really. Just one, by the name of Rupert Giles, and that's enough in this instance. After his transformation, Giles can only speak with Spike, who just happens to speak the Fyarl language in question. Spike helps Giles, for a price - cold cash. It lends some great chemistry between the characters that hasn't gotten much attention up until this particular season, and even still, not enough between Giles and the Slayer on Slayers, Spike. Pity.
The shtick of 'my friends don't recognise me' is one that had been done before on the show, and would be done again in various forms, but all of them have only benefited the show and has been done in ways different enough from one another that it doesn't show the seams of the creative team as well as the actors. Anthony Stewart Head is having fun with the transformation, despite being weighed down with what at least appears to be nothing less that 50 pounds of makeup. It's not for absolute want of drama, but this episode shows that humour can be used to great effect when in the right hands. It provides background into not only Giles, but of one of the best villains of the show in its entirety, Ethan Rayne, as evil is done not because he's evil, but because he's selfish and vengeful, something that more often than not, goes missing in contemporary genre fiction, leaving the audience to nibble at actors acting crazy because they're crazy. It allows a potentially cardboard rendering to leap to life. The texturing is done mostly in how the two go out to a nearby bar and commiserate over drinks. A simple thing, but the type of thing that separates the show from others like it, including its own spinoff, Angel.
Espenson displays the knack for dialogue, another lynchpin in the world of Buffy, particularly the exchanges between Giles and Spike. She seems to have a thing against Citroen automobiles, as well.
Who Are You (season four) written and directed by Joss Whedon
Having taken over Buffy's body, leaving Buffy to fend in her 'old' body, Faith wreaks havoc in Buffy's life.
The real treat here is not the Adam subplot, but the performances of Dushku and Gellar imitating each other perfectly. The episode doesn't necessarily deepen the mythology in the Buffyverse, but it adds a bit to it in how Faith interacts with those she despises, and as we come to find out, this means herself most of all. We learn more about Faith as well as how naturally intuition serves Tara.
While not the most serious of episodes, it's the slant that gives it the occasional humour and evades most of the bear traps and pitfalls of the body-switching tales both within and without the genre, mostly due to the growing shadow the presence of the Watcher's Council sheds across the show.
Innocence (season two) written and directed by Joss Whedon
Angel (now turned evil thanks to his cursed soul finding happiness in the arms of Buffy), Spike, and Drusilla have awakened the Judge, a demon of unspeakable power. Buffy and the Scoobies must stop the Judge as well as deal with their friend's fall to darkness.
It doesn't matter how telegraphed Angel's fall to darkness, alias Angelus, was. It's in the telling across several episodes, something Whedon & Co have set a standard in, both in and out of the genre. Not only does David Boreanaz find terrific footing as the villain, it also sets up the tension between Angel, Drusilla, and Spike. Spike has found not an ally in Angelus, but one more enemy, and watches helplessly as his lady love is swept away by Angelus, who proves smart enough to know that warfare (in this case, with not only the Slayer he has betrayed, but her friends) is largely psychological, and that he is eager to learn and exploit his lessons as much as possible, something Boreanaz obviously relishes.
Angelus is very much Buffy's equal in strength, and in the ways of emotion, her superior as he has no compunction about ending the Slayer's life despite their past ties. It is a lifetime away. There is also some down time with Buffy and her Mom as they commiserate while watching Stowaway on television. No dialogue between the two, just soundless comforting. Real life.
The contemporary take on the unstoppable Judge (using a rocket launcher) is a breath of fresh air. It answers a long-standing question in that how does one exactly fight a legend that hasn't been challenged in centuries?
Earshot (season three) written by Jane Espenson, directed by Regis Kimble
After absorbing some of the blood of a demon, Buffy is given the ability to read minds, a power that will slowly drive her mad.
Telepathy in the Buffyverse - oddly enough, a rarely visited topic in the world of the Slayer, outside of some on the part of Willow in later seasons, and, inexplicably, by Buffy herself in season seven.
The element of Buffy losing her sanity is par for the course here, but it's tempered with the real world pouring itself into her head via a plot to kill the student body, which provides a kind of red herring with Jonathan's suicide attempt. It's using speculative fiction to comment on alienation and the terrible things that can come along with it, but using a trope that allows us to enjoy the ride and not wince at something being spoon-fed to us.
The use of this phenomenon is effective especially here in that it is not used every few episodes later, or someone tracks down the same kind of demon to gain its ability or whatever. It's visited, and then left alone, and it's for the best.
Buffy, The Vampire Slayer - TV overview
Angel - on DVD: Season One, Season Two, Season Three
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