Every single entertainment website has a “Top 10 Buffy The Vampire Slayer Episodes” listicle, and truth be told, they all look pretty much the same with only some minor variations. “The Body,” “Hush,” “Restless,” and “Once More With Feeling” are commonly featured, and while those episodes are undeniably among the best in Buffy canon (if not in the vast history of broadcast television), there are numerous other episodes that should have made the cut, but are often overshadowed by the show’s frequently acclaimed standouts.
The following list represents Buffy’s B-Team. Episodes that don’t get the attention they deserve in entertainment media, but absolutely warrant your attention and a place on your “Best Of Buffy“ playlist. These are the Top 10 Underrated Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes. Let’s get started!
“When She Was Bad” (s.2, E.1)
The season 2 premiere “When She Was Bad” might be the most important episode in the Buffy canon. Fans are willing to overlook season 1’s flaws, but whenever I talk to Buffy fans and ask them how they introduce newcomers to the beloved series, they mostly admit to liberally skipping through the first season and promising their friends that if they’re patient, the second season will deliver. “When She Was Bad” is exactly why.
Buffy was a risky network move, and a risky move by Joss Whedon. It was his first network show, and he promised a teen-centric vampire horror. He played it safe, and once the first season wrapped and found a following, the team started taking creative chances. “When She Was Bad” is the first episode where Buffy truly finds its rhythm.
The cinematography is elevated and the characters become slightly more layered as Buffy returns to Sunnydale struggling with her post-traumatic stress following the conclusion of “Prophecy Girl.” We’re treated to an unfamiliar, unavailable, and occasionally abusive version of our heroine, whose questionable behavior masks a deep pain. As she finally confronts the Master’s bones in the episode’s poignant ending, one of the most poignant and character-heavy in the series, you get the sense that this show has “grown up” a little bit.
Indeed, the quality and consistency of “When She Was Bad” carries through the rest of the remaining seasons. This was the turning point. The episode where Buffy found her groove.
As a bonus, the episode features music from Cibo Matto, a criminally underrated indie band from the late 90’s and early aughts. Check them out, you won’t regret it.
“Seeing Red” (s.6, E.19)
The season 6 tearjerker “Seeing Red” occasionally makes Top 10 lists here and there, but primarily because of the death of Tara, Willow’s longtime girlfriend. That scene was absolutely gut-wrenching, and Tara’s death is remembered by fans as one of the most tragic in the entire series, second only to Joyce’s death in “The Body.”
However, media folks often overlook another incredibly important character moment in the episode — Spike’s controversial and disturbing attempted rape of Buffy.
Coming at the boiling point of their complicated relationship this season, and coinciding with an injury that leaves our heroine less than Slayer-iffic, Spike’s attempted rape of Buffy marked a turning point for the Billy Idol lookalike. Horrified by his actions, he is inspired to seek out a way to restore his soul; not just so Buffy will love him again, but because he recognizes that he needs to be a better man who deserves that love.
On the DVD commentary, James Marsters, who portrays Spike, admitted that it was a difficult scene to film and that he’s unlikely to ever agree to a scene like it again in his career. The writers were equally divided on the necessity of the scene, as are the fans. Among Buffy academics like Gwyn Symonds, the scene is especially disturbing because it is shot in such a way as to elicit sympathy for both the victim (Buffy) and the attempted rapist (Spike). Buffy writer Rebecca Rand Kirshner also found herself sympathizing with Spike, which disturbed her greatly.
Regardless of the controversy over the attempted rape scene, “Seeing Red” is an important entry in the Buffy canon, and for a daring show that addresses real-world horrors couched in a horror B-movie aesthetic, the controversial scene stands tall alongside other gripping and disturbing entries on “Best Of” lists.
“Beer Bad” (s.4, e.5)
“Beer Bad” is almost universally reviled by Buffy aficionados, and for good reason. It plays like a ham-fisted, puritanical public service announcement on binge drinking, and some have pointed out that the episode’s themes contain a secondary moral judgment — that casual sex is bad, bad, bad. Maybe not as bad as beer, but bad nonetheless.
By now, you’re probably wondering what the hell “Beer Bad” is doing on our list. Hear me out.
To truly appreciate “Beer Bad,” you have to understand a little bit about the episode’s production. Namely, that it was specifically designed to take advantage of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which basically gave networks money to produce “very special episodes” that focused on drug use among youth, and the consequences thereof. You’ve seen those anti-drug episodes in practically every 90’s TV show you love and adore, and this was Buffy’s.
Even the best “very special episode” entries in other TV shows amounted to federally-funded propaganda, but they did their job. They made an impact. If you’re anything like me, they kind of scared the crap out of you. Again, “Beer Bad” was Buffy’s. Are you seeing where this is going yet?
Every other show on every other network made an honest attempt to take drug use seriously, and to produce episodes with uncharacteristically heavy emotional consequences. By comparison, this kind of makes it look like Joss Whedon and producer Doug Petrie were up to something on “Beer Bad.” The episode starts to look like a meta-commentary on “very special episodes.” A purposefully bad hour of TV propaganda. A massive inside joke.
Did Buffy brass make “Beer Bad” to troll network and government bureaucracies? Who knows. The episode didn’t get Buffy any of ONDCP’s funds because they thought, like you, that the episode was “nonsense.”
For my money, “Beer Bad” is an episode of television that defies common sense and good taste, and the fact that it is still reviled to this day is evidence of its inherent qualities as an unprecedented masterpiece. At least as far as government-sanctioned TV propaganda is concerned.
Watch it again. Try not to enjoy it this time.
Oh, and fun fact, “Beer Bad” is one of the few Buffy episodes ever nominated for an Emmy. Episodes like “The Body” weren’t nominated at all. You can’t make this stuff up.
“Buffy Vs. Dracula” (S.5, E.1)
You can’t tell a long-running vampire story without bringing up Dracula at some point. By waiting until 5’s season premiere to pit Buffy against Bram Stoker’s Prince of Darkness, Whedon’s cult hit assured audiences that it was still capable of delivering great storylines five years into an experimental, high-concept genre show. Season 5 is considered by many to be the best Buffy season, and it all started right here with “Buffy Vs. Dracula.”
The novelty of introducing Dracula into any vampire story can go one of two ways. Either it elicits groans as an established literary baddie is shoe-horned into a contemporary setting, or some unexpected alchemy happens and you’re left with a great take on an iconic, familiar character. “Buffy Vs. Dracula” is the latter, and I’d argue, one of the finest adaptations of the Dracula mythos ever.
Buffy accomplishes this by getting in front of the potential “jumping the shark” criticisms and pretty much adapting the Bram Stoker novel for its purposes, and with its tongue-in-cheek humor. Only a show so finely engineered as Buffy can pull this sort of thing off. What they’re doing with the Dracula mythos isn’t itself terribly innovative, but the episode’s strengths lie in its execution, and its ruthless prioritization; Dracula is there to serve Buffy’s emotional arc, not the other way around.
And who can discount that hilarious, post-modern, ridiculously meta ending?
“Buffy Vs. Dracula” also has one of the best episode codas of the entire series. Though the introduction of Dawn was hinted at during “Restless,” she is completely absent for the premiere of season 5. Until, of course, she just waltzes into Buffy’s room at the very end of the episode like she’s been there the entire time. In retrospect, you can see the exact moment that the Buffy timeline changes, adding Dawn to the roster.
If you had any reservations about season 5 while you were watching “Buffy Vs. Dracula,” that ending hooked you in for the entire season. Joss Whedon is great with “cold” endings. This one is a Rembrandt.
“The Zeppo” (s.3, e.13)
“The Zeppo” occasionally makes Top 10 Buffy lists, but is rarely treated with the exception that it truly deserves, even among fans. The narrative curiosity that is “The Zeppo” features a subplot featuring Xander Harris elevated to the A-plot while the regularly-scheduled season apocalypse takes a backseat.
Xander’s character is often considered to be Joss Whedon’s own self-insertion. He’s just a normal, plucky guy who makes no superficial contribution to the team. He has no superpowers, isn’t especially intelligent, and often winds up the damsel in distress. But he’s the heart of the show, and episodes like “The Zeppo” show that Buffy’s creators aren’t willing to let Xander serve at our pleasure as a comic relief. He has dimension, too. And that an entire episode can be carried by the show’s weakest (again, superficially) character is a testament to the team’s ingenuity and versatility.
It’s an interesting narrative touch, too, that the B-plot (the Scooby gang’s attempts to stop the apocalyptic re-awakening of the school library Hellmouth monster) serves as the comic relief in this episode. We’re treated to bits and pieces of the former A-plot, and the juxtaposition of emotionally charged scenes that we’d normally take with grave seriousness with the misadventures of one Xander Harris make for a unique and wonderful reversal. The Scooby Gang’s peril this episode is treated with the same gravitas as “Prophecy Girl” or “The Gift,” but because of the narrative structure, we’re invited to both laugh at the plot, and laugh at ourselves for taking Buffy so seriously sometimes.
“The Zeppo” has also had a unique influence on other TV shows, as well. Doctor Who fans are familiar with the “Doctor-lite” episode that occurs every season, though they may not realize that it’s a tradition that has roots in Buffy homage.
“Superstar” (s.4, e. 17)
Everyone loves Jonathan, at least that’s the theme of the season 4 episode “Superstar.” In it, a pre-Emmy winning Danny Strong plays Jonathan Levinson, whose character can probably be best described as “mostly wallpaper” up to this point in the series.
The twist is that Levinson is inexplicably the star of Buffy, right down to a hostile takeover of the opening credits.
Levinson frequently saves the day, cavorts with beautiful women, lives in a giant mansion, and even lends a sympathetic ear to Buffy while she attempts to work out her relationship issues. It’s all presented without explanation until it is discovered that Levinson performed a magic spell that would make him the beloved hero of Sunnydale.
Like “The Zeppo,” Levinson’s character-centric “Superstar” thrives by taking Zeppo logic one step further and turning over an entire episode to a fourth-tier character with the show’s usual flair and panache. That it stands as, at least, one of the more memorable Buffy episodes, and one that shook up the monotony of a pretty dull season in terms of the central threat, gives it a lot of credibility, and it’s a shame that this episode, for all its narrative merits, often goes unsung.
It’s also noteworthy that Jonathan, whose major contribution to Buffy lore to that point was almost becoming a school shooter, could be reformed from “Earshot’s” dark tone into a very sympathetic character. As Buffy fans well know, Jonathan evolves in a couple of different, and interesting, directions after season 4.
“I Was Made to Love You” (s.5, e.15)
The season 5 episode “I Was Made to Love You” is often overshadowed as the 40-minute lead-in to its somber follow-up “The Body,” but the episode pulls a lot of weight for the season and its themes in its own right.
In this episode, we’re introduced to a number of crucial continuity pieces. First and foremost, the character of Warren Mears, who goes on to be a major villain in season 6 (and the canonical comic continuation season 8) is introduced as a bumbling, selfish, but otherwise harmless douche in this episode. Additionally, the technology behind the fan-favorite “Buffybot,” which goes on to play a major role in season 6, is introduced.
The episode is also a pretty significant entry for Buffy’s character. After four and a half seasons of watching her struggle through relationship after relationship, her final confrontation with the robot April helps her realize that she doesn’t need to be somebody’s girlfriend to get by in the world. It’s a huge moment, not just for Buffy, but for anyone in the audience who is invested in her emotional development.
Too bad it’s all overshadowed by what comes next. Talk about Rembrandt endings, the coda introducing “The Body” at the end of this episode is almost more chilling than the following episode itself.
Don’t skip over this episode and go straight into “The Body.” If anything, the track laid in “I Was Made to Love You” only enriches and underscores the tragedy of what comes next.
“Bargaining” (s.6, e.1/2)
Like “When She Was Bad,” the season 6 premiere “Bargaining” represents a major tonal shift in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Showrunners have since admitted that they thought season 5 would be Buffy’s last, and seasons 1 through 5 do have a nice, full-circle harmony to them.
So what do you do when you kill off your main character and get renewed for season 6?
“Bargaining” is an elaborate actioner that leaves a sour taste in your mouth. At the beginning of season 6, nobody really knows what to expect out of the future of Buffy, and the creators smartly take advantage of that uncertainty in the narrative (particularly in the cold open).
The Scooby Gang is not doing so hot without their star Slayer, and act like beleaguered war vets. The humor hasn’t gone dry, but it has a slight cynicism to it. A darkness. Thematically, while you’re watching a mostly-functional Scooby Gang as they wisecrack through the resurrection of their fallen friend, you can’t help but wonder “is what they’re doing ethical? Hell, is it a good idea?”
The centerpiece is the conclusion. Unlike most resurrection scenes (i.e. “I was dead for a while, I got better”), we see a scared, violent and confused Buffy returning to the site of her death in “The Gift.” As she is confronted by an overjoyed Dawn, she wonders aloud if she has woken up in hell.
“Normal Again” (s.6, e.17)
While we’re taking a tour of season 6, we’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about it’s biggest brain-wrinkler, the eerie, game-changing “Normal Again.”
Season 6 is remembered as the darkest in the series. It’s a hell of a lot heavier than everything that came before it as it demands both its characters, and its audience, to ask tough questions. Questions that may not have answers.
Questions like, “is this entire show in some crazy person’s head?”
At Buffy’s lowest, most vulnerable point in the series, she’s hit with some demon poison that causes her to hallucinate an alternate timeline where she’s just a crazy girl locked up in an asylum dreaming up vampires and demons. Or, depending on your interpretation, it causes Buffy to wake up to reality.
A lot of fans tend to dismiss “Normal Again,” and indeed, it is arguably the darkest episode in the entire series. Here we see Buffy ready to sacrifice her friends in order to reunite with her mother and father in the “real world,” and the viewers doubts are at a fever pitch.
It’s an important episode because your interpretation of it can completely alter your perception of the entire series. Is Buffy just a paranoid, catatonic schizophrenic rotting away in an asylum somewhere? The episode makes a convincing argument, especially by ending on our hero in the “real world” slipping deeper into her psychosis.
For Joss Whedon’s part, he has joked that the entire series does indeed take place in the mind of some crazy person in L.A. “[And] that crazy person is me.”
“This Year’s Girl/Who Are You?” (s.4, e.15/16)
If you’re a fan of the Slayer antihero Faith, then the season 4 two-parter “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You?,” along with the direct follow-ups “Five By Five” and “Sanctuary” on Buffy‘s sister show Angel, are your Holy Grail.
These episodes are Faith-centric, and put the once-villain on an unlikely character track toward redemption. A redemption that, you might argue at this point, she doesn’t deserve.
The episodes provide Eliza Dushku and Sarah Michelle Gellar with an unprecedented range to explore, and they don’t disappoint. While Faith is the star of every episode, Gellar gets her own chance at a creepy turn as she, as Faith, impersonates Buffy in a chilling bathroom mirror sequence.
You can’t watch “This Year’s Girl” and “Who Are You” without immediately following up with the Angel episodes, but its a micro-saga in the long, complex mythology of Buffy that has far-reaching ramifications for its main characters, particularly Buffy, Angel and Faith. It’s the only story arc that shakes up the status quo of both TV shows in such a dramatic way, and can be used as a great introduction for new fans not just to Buffy, but to its companion series Angel.