November 18th 2016
In a world where magic and monsters lurk in the shadows of human society, there is also the Slayer – one lone girl bestowed with superpowers and destined to fight back against the forces of darkness. Upon the death of each Slayer, the powers and duties are passed on to a new girl; Californian teenager Buffy Summers is the latest to inherit this burden, reluctantly accepting her fate as she battles evil alongside paternal mentor Rupert Giles, and best friends Xander Harris and Willow Rosenberg. Known as the Scooby Gang, together they face demons – both literal and metaphorical – and protect the world from apocalyptic threats, while simultaneously enduring the pressures, adversities and tribulations of everyday life.
One of the most important, acclaimed and enchanting television shows of the late nineties and early noughties, supernatural drama Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a cultural phenomenon, building a legacy of influence and adoration that still burns bright well over a decade after its conclusion. At first glance, the show may appear to simply be a two-dimensional exhibition of gratuitous comic-book-esque fight scenes featuring vampires and gothic imagery, however these facets are merely a backdrop for something far more complex, intelligent and profound. Buffy The Vampire Slayer explores an expansive range of themes – the power and danger of love; the strength and importance of friendship and family; coping with the tragedy of mortality, heartbreak and loss; struggles with addiction, isolation and depression; coming of age and accepting responsibility; sacrifice and courage; hope and resilience; choice and consequences; forgiveness and redemption – but it’s recognised and esteemed in particular for presenting (at the time) progressive social ideologies concerning gender roles and sexuality, challenging taboos and subverting the status quo of the era.
Fusing action, fantasy, comedy and horror, Buffy The Vampire Slayer succeeds in seamlessly blending dark, serious narratives with playful, light-hearted humour, offering great versatility and delivering everything from laugh-out-loud hilarity to sincere, heartrending sentimentality. The strongest elements are lovable, relatable and well-developed characters, and stellar writing; constantly evolving personalities, relationships and group dynamics formulate a fascinating rollercoaster as the story progresses, while the sharp, quirky dialogue is delightfully creative and memorable. The show certainly has its flaws; plot contrivances, logical inconsistencies, dubious lore and incohesive worldbuilding are all apparent if you look too closely, and some plots – particularly among the earlier seasons – are bizarre, outlandish and cheesy, but these drawbacks are largely outweighed by the positive aspects and easily overlooked in the big picture, especially since even the worst episodes contain valuable tidbits.
My own personal introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer came in 2010; I was intrigued by its reputation and aesthetic, and already familiar with the extraordinary capability of creator Joss Whedon via legendary space western Firefly, so I decided to investigate. I was enthralled by the inescapable charm of the show and it rapidly became one of my all-time favourites, luring me back regularly over the years for repeat viewings and every time revealing new details and subtleties I had previously missed. Overall, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is an outstanding achievement; electrifying, provocative and engaging, it’s well worth your time and I highly recommend checking it out if you haven’t already.
Beyond this point I will be ranking the seasons from worst to best, and summarizing my thoughts on each. Although I will try to avoid the details of anything too major, this will contain moderate spoilers. Consider this your warning – if you have not yet watched the show you may wish to stop reading now.
7th – Season One
The debut season is frustratingly inconsistent and unquestionably the weakest of the seven, defined by an archaic low-budget horror movie feel, and tiresome monster-of-the-week stories including the notoriously awful Teacher’s Pet and I, Robot… You, Jane. Several episodes are noteworthy and enjoyable despite unremarkable plots, however, as they launch important themes, concepts and characters – Witch brings magic to the table for the first time; Never Kill A Boy On The First Date introduces Buffy’s struggle to balance her responsibilities as the Slayer with her desire to live a normal life; and Out Of Mind, Out Of Sight shines the spotlight on Cordelia Chase, illuminating previously unseen depth and vulnerability in the vain, self-centred cheerleader.
Only four of the twelve episodes are completely essential; Welcome To The Hellmouth and The Harvest form the two-part pilot, beginning with a clever cold opening that sets the tone and acts as a mission statement for the show before moving on to establish the characters, setting and premise in a solid, satisfying opener. Angel is another strong instalment, piercing the veil of secrecy surrounding the eponymous enigma and escalating sizzling tension, ambivalence and lust between he and Buffy. Finally, the excellent Prophecy Girl marks a pivotal moment for the Slayer as she is forced to confront her destiny in the thrilling season climax, ultimately relinquishing her childhood, accepting her fate and bravely proceeding as a woman rather than a girl.
6th – Season Four
Buffy The Vampire Slayer can be separated into two distinct eras; the high school years, and post-graduation. The fourth season inaugurates the latter but has difficulty finding its feet, deficient in drive and urgency while supplying a relatively lacklustre story. Military monster-hunting organisation The Initiative could be far more overbearing and insidious with greater emphasis placed on their odious authoritarianism to generate conflict and hostility; instead they are made to look foolish as their credibility and competence are repeatedly undermined by the protagonists, and as a result feel more like an annoyance than a legitimate threat. Villainous biomechanical demonoid Adam is physically imposing but dry and clinical, lacking a personal connection to our heroes and falling disappointingly short of other primary antagonists.
The return of Spike is bright and refreshing, and his reluctant allegiance with the Scooby Gang is a highlight of the season; his odd couple pairing with Giles is particularly brilliant, while his engagement to Buffy in Something Blue is an amusing component of an all-round good episode. Faith’s comeback and mini-arc is terrific as well, displaying significant character development for the rogue Slayer as she is able to see herself from a new perspective and begins to feel shame, remorse and self-loathing for her actions. However, the finest element of the season is experimental masterpiece Hush; predominantly devoid of the show’s trademark dialogue, the episode is revered by fans and especially memorable for its sophisticated thematic focus on communication, the frightening and iconic Gentlemen, and the charmingly humorous overhead projector scene. Unconventional season conclusion Restless is hit-or-miss depending on your appreciation for surreal, esoteric symbolism; some will love the deep, artistic style, whereas others – myself included – find it too abstract and pretentious. In contrast, the cringeworthy Beer Bad and Where The Wild Things Are have few redeeming qualities at all, earning comprehensive contempt and condemnation.
5th – Season Seven
Bloated and overblown, the seventh and final season is satisfactory but ironically fails to reach its full potential, coasting through an adequate storyline and salvaged by an imperfect but nonetheless exhilarating last episode. Lifeless antagonist The First Evil is basic, unimaginative and desperately in need of a more dynamic purpose and personality, while its incorporeal nature limits any direct menace or intimidation leaving mostly flavourless lackeys to bridge the gap. Creepy, misogynistic preacher Caleb is exceptional, stealing the show with his sinister presence each time he appears; the Harbingers are painfully dull though, and the Turok-Han – initially portrayed as deadly, near-indestructible foes – are hastily and awkwardly downgraded into weaker opponents for the finale, breaking continuity as the protagonists easily cut through legions of the supposedly-dominant übervamps like hot knives through butter. The climactic final battle is also cheapened via deus ex machina – the sudden appearance of the powerful battleaxe and mysterious amulet late in the season – saving the day. However, Chosen is a tremendous episode overall despite its flaws; the mood is palpable and fittingly epic, while sweet, funny and rousing moments are littered throughout.
Depicting a series of grippingly unsettling encounters with deceased acquaintances, Conversations With Dead People is another standout instalment, as is Storyteller, centred on self-styled reformed supervillain Andrew Wells. The breakout star of the season, endearingly dorky Andrew is a goldmine of comedy whenever he’s on-screen and is by far the strongest addition to the Scoobies. Principal Robin Wood is arguably superfluous, yet likeable and alluring with an interesting enough backstory to justify his inclusion; unfortunately, the same cannot be said for most of the Potential Slayers. The girls are virtually indistinguishable from one another, blurring into a singular mass and failing to establish personality and inspire sympathy on an individual level. The sole exception is Kennedy; although she’s widely unpopular among most fans for her brattiness, cockiness and mismatched relationship with Willow, I personally love her unapologetic confidence, brazen attitude and fearless determination.
4th – Season Six
While Buffy The Vampire Slayer often uses demons as metaphors for real-world obstacles, the penultimate season shifts to a more literal approach as mystical monsters take a backseat and life itself becomes the true big bad of the story. Turbulent circumstances and the taxing pressures of adulthood wreak havoc on the Scooby Gang, creating a multitude of issues – Buffy’s depression and twisted relationship with Spike, Willow’s abusive dependence on magic, Xander’s stress and self-doubt over his future with Anya, Dawn’s alienation and kleptomania – resulting in a smotheringly bleak, sombre mood. It’s often unpleasant to watch, but ultimately induces rewarding catharsis once you reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Nefarious supervillain wannabes The Trio – led by reprehensible, domineering misogynist Warren Mears – are a constant thorn in the Scoobies’ side, initially providing comic relief but taking a darker turn as the season progresses. The only truly evil member of The Trio, Warren is a fantastically loathsome character, committing heinous acts with casual irreverence and eliciting unmitigated disgust with his spiteful, malicious and cowardly temperament.
Two of the best episodes come back-to-back; marvellous musical Once More, With Feeling is ingenious, inspired and one of the greatest accomplishments of the entire show, delivering exciting and affecting plot advancement through expressive and superbly-crafted songs. This is instantly pursued by Tabula Rasa, an uproarious and wonderfully fun narrative with an overwhelmingly melancholic ending. These outstanding gems are mostly surrounded by unspectacular mediocrity though, including mid-season abomination Doublemeat Palace – an unwanted throwback to the dire monster-of-the-week plots of the early years – marking a low point but at least capturing the soul-destroying despair of dead-end, minimum wage employment. Sudden, distressing tragedy eventually launches a spellbinding final act revolving around the shocking rise of a dark force fuelled by uncontrollable grief and rage; it’s an interesting twist on the usual formula, and leads to a deeply touching resolution.
3rd – Season Five
Although season five feels underwhelming in places, its inconspicuous quality becomes apparent once you reach the astonishing conclusion and recognise the significance of the slow, steady build that led up to it. Buffy endures substantial pain in season two, but her suffering now reaches unprecedented levels as a result of annihilating loss and an exponentially stronger threat than she has ever encountered. The bitchy, arrogant Glory is a terrifying antagonist, her attractive and glamorous appearance clashing with her psychotic fury and immense power to create a frightfully disturbing aura. An unstoppable force and immovable object rolled into one, she imposes paralysing dread and despair, representing the first big bad that feels hopelessly unbeatable.
Buffy Vs Dracula is a poor opener to the season, oddly contradicting established mythology in a cheesy episode that adds nothing of value besides the brief introduction of Dawn, Buffy’s enigmatic younger sister. The casual disregard of Dawn’s sudden emergence is temporarily puzzling but the confusion and curiosity pays off once addressed, initiating the main story in absorbing fashion. Family is the first great episode, concentrating on the bonds of close friendship surpassing ties to blood relatives, and specifically focusing on shy, good-natured witch Tara Maclay; a fringe member of the Scooby Gang for some time, her place in the group is firmly solidified and embraced in a rapturously heartwarming tale. Fool For Love is also immensely gratifying, detailing Spike’s history in an enlightening examination of his personality and origin.
A bitterly unexceptional mid-season run precedes The Body, a spectacular and highly-praised creation dealing with death and mourning in unforgettably poignant style. Reeling from her most excruciating blow yet, Buffy is further disheartened by a cryptic and ominous message in Intervention, another fine instalment that succeeds in elevating tension and peril heading into the endgame of the story arc. Scintillating finale The Gift is the ultimate showdown, single-handedly transforming a decent season into a great one. A suffocating atmosphere of solemn desperation surrounds the protagonists as they face seemingly impossible odds leading into a thrillingly dynamic final act, tying everything together in a staggeringly epic culmination of not just a single season but the entire show up to this point. The dying moments are especially amazing, with a hauntingly beautiful score accentuating the sensational climax to complete an all-round breathtaking scene.
2nd – Season Three
Much more consistent that its two predecessors, season three is a grand effort overall with excellent pacing and structure. A striking foil to Buffy, new Slayer in town Faith Lehane excites with her wild behaviour and spirited attitude, driving the plot swiftly forward with her reckless, impulsive actions and eventually spinning out of control in a fascinating story. Her father-daughter relationship with Mayor Wilkins is impressively tender, and subverts standard expectations of antagonists; the Mayor himself is already the antithesis of a typical villain though, usually displaying a polite and cordial demeanour despite his underlying evil in a fresh, interesting take on the big bad role.
Most episodes are pretty solid, but particular highlights include Band Candy, bolstered by the audacious, rebellious attitude of a youthful Giles, in contrast with his usual mature persona; Lovers Walk, featuring an entertaining and insightful guest appearance from Spike; Doppelgangland, a lively escapade starring a vampire version of Willow from an alternate reality; Enemies, dominated by the engrossing return of a sadistic danger; and Earshot, a humorous entry that also manages to address a serious issue. The best are saved for last though; emotive tearjerker The Prom is melodramatic but astoundingly effective, countering crushing heartbreak with a gloriously warm, uplifting ending. Immediately following, the stunning Graduation Day carries an appropriately strong sense of occasion and finality, closing out both the third season and the high school era in style with a heroic battle that feels tangibly empowering, invigorating and triumphant, tying in perfectly with the theme of graduating and ascending.
1st – Season Two
Stormy and disquieting, season two is absolutely incredible but requires you to overlook occasional rough patches as the irksome inconsistency seen previously continues – albeit to a lesser extent, with the trashy filler episodes mercifully fewer and further between. Some Assembly Required, Inca Mummy Girl, Reptile Boy, Bad Eggs and Go Fish are all unfortunate but reasonably self-contained and inconsequential to the overarching story, thankfully meaning they can be easily ignored or forgotten and have limited diminishing impact on the season as a whole. Ted is saved by the eerie, imperious villain and Buffy’s shaken reaction when she believes she has taken a human life, creating intriguing disparity with Faith’s response to the same situation during season three. I Only Have Eyes For You is unimpressive on the surface, but becomes far more enjoyable once you recognise its meaning and connection to Buffy’s own guilt and struggle with self-forgiveness.
As the season proceeds the group dynamic is slowly altered as new relationships form, bringing minor characters into more prominent roles and adding a new layer of intricacy. Hilariously tactless Cordelia’s unenthusiastic involvement with the Scooby Gang leads to a shallow, lustful pairing with Xander that actually enjoys some surprisingly sweet moments – most memorably in fun Valentine’s Day episode Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered. Willow enters an adorable coupling with stoic guitarist Daniel ‘Oz’ Osbourne, whose calm personality and dry humour are thoroughly amiable inclusions; Giles meanwhile fumbles his way into a pleasantly cute romance with flirtatious teacher Jenny Calendar, which develops into a riveting new dimension of the main story.
Season two contains a number of notably admirable episodes; opener When She Was Bad supplies an uncomfortable vibe as Buffy struggles to process repressed feelings leftover from her chilling confrontation with vampire king The Master, building to a stirring release at its conclusion; School Hard introduces wildly charismatic couple Spike and Drusilla, establishing a lasting and seductively mesmerizing presence; Lie To Me is a well-written contemplation of secrets, deceit and the complexity of good and evil; and What’s My Line is a respectably action-packed two-parter with an exciting climactic feel. Forming the central core of the second season, the fiery romance between Buffy and Angel is the most captivating and intense storyline in Buffy The Vampire Slayer; the first dozen episodes of the season gradually set the stage for a sudden explosion in two-part bombshell Surprise and Innocence, blasting the suspense and emotional stakes into the stratosphere as blissful love is eclipsed by cruel, vicious destruction. The subsequent fallout provides some of the absolute best episodes the show has to offer – beautifully harrowing Passion is a gut-wrenching twist of the knife, and the magnificent Becoming is an awesomely devastating crescendo.