In 1997, a blonde, stake-wielding badass made her debut on the WB and demanded that society rethink its perception of what a teenage girl is capable of.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer put the stereotype of a damsel in distress in a chokehold and flipped it. While plenty of Final Girls had survived the screens in the decades prior to the show’s release, our perky protagonist (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) took the opportunity to embody that archetype season after season.
Being a slayer is a full-time job but for Buffy Summers, so was being a student, sister, daughter, friend, girlfriend, and—for at least the first half of the series—teenager. Her world is a supernatural one, but the woes and realities of adolescence and young adult years are given equal prominence in Buffy’s story.
Sure, there were vampire love triangles with men centuries too old for her, giant lizard demons ranking highly in politics, and Halloween costumes with the ability to possess people, but Buffy was relatable. She wanted to fit cheerleading practice in with nightly patrols through the cemetery. She wanted to go on dates (even if not all of her dates had heartbeats). She had a job in the fast food industry. Her characterization was accessible and influential.
Even though it went off the air 18(!!!) years ago, the Buffy legacy lives on as one of the most popular TV fandoms. For those who did not buy the entire boxset as soon as it ended, the series is available to stream on Hulu and Amazon Prime. And while many episodes can serve as standalone monsters-of-the-week, it won’t have the same impact as watching the whole thing through.
So, if you’re a new viewer who wants to know which episodes to get excited for—or a vet trying to decide which episodes to revisit—I give you: 10 of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In chronological order of airing. Sorry. This is a “best-of,” not a ranking. Though you could say that I rank all 10 of these above the remaining 134.
1. Out of Sight, Out of Mind
I think many people slept on this season one deep-cut. It’s more sci-fi than supernatural, more drama than horror. It’s also a great opportunity to see the Popular Crowd get their comeuppance, likely putting smirks on the faces of outcasts everywhere. This episode deviates from the traditional perspective of the Scooby Gang and brings viewers into the unstable mind of an entity seeking revenge. It’s also the first moment we see resident mean girl Cordelia Chase get a real (though short-lived) taste of character development.
2. Band Candy
Do schools still make kids go around selling wrapping paper, or did that die out along with cursive in the early 2000s? In season three, Sunnydale High’s Principal Snyder forces Buffy and her friends to participate in selling chocolate to raise money for the school band. This being Sunnydale, the candy is cursed and soon enough, all the town’s adults revert to the unhinged, hormonal behaviors of their youth. Comedy outweighs the terror in this particular episode that spoofs an after-school special switcheroo. While there’s some overarching plot moves simmering in the background, the majority of the episode is devoted to the city’s kids getting to witness how obnoxious most teenagers are to people who aren’t them.
While most of the demons and vampires we meet in the Buffyverse are original creations, there are several episodes that borrow from folklore (Dracula eventually makes a debut as a much sexier alternative to Nosferatu). This season-three gem artfully combines Hansel and Gretel with the Satanic Panic, resulting in a chilling storyline in which two children are found dead in Sunnydale. The townspeople are quick to blame witches, requiring Buffy to defend her benign magical friends. Like “Band Candy,” this episode explores Buffy and her best friend Willow’s relationships with their mothers—not to mention the rest of the city’s residents—and the balance between their identities as normal daughters and supernaturally gifted demon-fighters.
4. Fear, Itself
I’ve always loved Halloween episodes. They usually offer shows of any genre the opportunity to dabble in the horror genre with standalone mysteries or ghost stories. But, Buffy does this all the time, so it really ups the ante on Halloween. By this point in the series, Buffy and her friends are college freshmen, attending a frat party (where one of the members obviously summoned something for One Hell of a Banger) and wind up trapped inside the house where all their deep-set fears have been unleashed.
That moment when you wake up only to discover it’s all been a dream . . . is such a painful trope that’s it even been banned in several story writing contests. But this episode gets away with it. The season-four finale takes us through a patchwork of dreams woven together through the sleeping minds of the Scooby Gang: some that foreshadow, some that revisit trauma, some that offer closure, and some that even Joss Whedon has admitted are hilarious—but meaningless. It’s unusual, unnerving, and ultimately a great setup for season five.
6. I Was Made to Love You
Those who worry that technology may lead to our demise at the hands of robot overlords will feel complacent upon viewing “I Was Made to Love You.” But if your main takeaway is that AI is out to get us, then you’re missing the point of the episode. The presence of April, a cheerful girlfriend desperate to find her missing boyfriend, is a source of both slapstick comedy and some heart-wrenching truth about emotional abuse.
7. The Body
Here we have it: the Buffy episode I only revisit when I’m doing a full series rewatch. I’m getting goosebumps just picturing the opening scene. It’s rightfully among the highest rated episodes of the show and brilliantly lacks any musical score. As the main characters struggle with loss in a rare way—natural death, one that can’t simply be fought and defeated—viewers are immersed alongside them into the painful quietude that comes with grief.
8. The Gift
As Buffy ages, so too, do the expectations that the universe has for her. She is the Prophecy Girl, after all. The show always retains its smart silliness but as it progresses, the storylines darken. Season five explores how our slayer must handle a sudden inheritance of adult responsibility while simultaneously fighting off a Big Bad of godly proportions. This all comes to a head in its finale, “The Gift,” a perfect culmination of the show so far and a test to what Buffy can—and is willing—to offer the entire world. With this episode, Buffy earns herself a place in Final Girl hall-of-fame.
9. Once More, With Feeling
Perhaps the most famous and favorited episode is “Once More, With Feeling” featuring the entire cast singing and dancing. Most shows I’ve seen attempt to do a random musical episode miss the mark, or just fail entirely. (Don’t @ me.) Whedon set a high precedent with his musical episode, complete with an original score and well-written lyrics. Every theatrical performance remains on-brand for each character, even though this is the first time we’ve witnessed most of them perform. (Except for the moment Giles won silver fox status with his rendition of “Behind Blue Eyes.”) Not only does this episode have a good reason for causing the cast to sing—a dancing demon!—but it also isn’t a departure from the main storyline; in fact, it’s when each character finally opens up about the secrets they’ve all been keeping through song. You could argue that Buffy steals the show when she breaks everyone’s hearts (including mine) by revealing the root of her season-long depression. But honestly, Willow’s cottagecore witch girlfriend, Tara, and that corset dress should have the standing ovation.
“Is he hot orrrr does he just leave me on read?” asked a TikTok user in a recent trend analyzing why people fall for guys that are, for all intents and purposes, shitty. What is it about them that convinces us to create an imaginary persona and run with it? “Him” offered a perspective on this, roughly seventeen years before it was voiced on the clock app. Buffy’s sister Dawn enters high school and—in a lovely callback to a season-one episode where Buffy tries out for cheerleading—dons her big sister’s laughably outdated uniform and attempts to score a spot on the team. But really, Dawn couldn’t care less about being one of the popular girls. She’s fallen in love with RJ, who lives in the shadow of his own football-playing big brother. Meanwhile, on the supernatural side of Buffy, every single woman in town starts to become obsessed with this cute but otherwise average teenage boy. Is he hot orrr….is he in possession of some enchanted fuckboi attire?
For seven seasons, Buffy dealt with demons and dudes. She loved both, slayed both, and saved the world on the side. This series is so dear to my heart that I sincerely hope it never gets rebooted. Luckily, Buffy’s fanbase is far too rabid to let even Joss Whedon’s terrible behavior mar the legacy of everyone’s favorite final girl.