March 10, 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the iconic television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. On this occasion, we look back on how THE WEEKLY STANDARD’s Jonathan V. Last acknowledged the final episode of the ground-breaking program:
Where Do We Go from Here?
“BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” is the best show in the history of television.
This is an arguable proposition, of course. M*A*S*H, Mary Tyler Moore, Seinfeld, Cheers, The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy–they’re all great shows. They’re also all half-hour comedies. Besides Buffy, what other hour-long drama belongs on the short list? Probably Homicide: Life on the Street. That’s about it.
What makes Buffy so good? For one thing, it’s got layers. Unlike ER or Hill Street Blues or St. Elsewhere, Buffy isn’t just a straight drama. It deals with larger themes–good and evil, honor and duty, faith and disbelief. And then there’s the acting and the writing and the satire and . . . well, you get the point.
Tonight Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends its seven-year run. The final episode will probably be a disappointment because an honest appraisal of the last few months would admit that the show has been uneven and at times downright embarrassing. While this may be a sign that Buffy is leaving at the right time, it’s more likely a consequence of economics. The first half of season seven was as good as Buffy has ever been. Then the show’s star, Sarah Michelle Gellar, decided that she was leaving the series when her contract expired at the end of the season. While her move wasn’t entirely unexpected, the show’s staff seemed taken aback and the writers had to construct a concluding arc in the space of a few weeks.
Series mastermind Joss Whedon has said that he normally plans story arcs one or two years ahead of time, so it’s not unreasonable to give the show the benefit of the doubt. And it would be unhinged to allow the lackluster last dozen episodes to affect a final reckoning of Buffy’s place in the firmament.
I’ll leave that job to the wise souls at Entertainment Weekly, but for now it’s worth recalling the ten best episodes of Buffy.
1 Amends (3.10): Buffy’s worst hairstyle, Angel’s finest moment, the show’s greatest triumph. In one of the most explicitly religious hours of television ever aired (second only to “The Crossing,” the James Cromwell-centered episode 7.15 of ER), Angel, the vampire with a soul, is haunted on Christmas Eve by the First, a thinly-veiled version of Satan. In a suicide attempt, Angel climbs the hill overlooking Sunnydale and waits for the sun to rise. Overpowered by guilt, he tells Buffy, “It’s not the demon in me that needs killing, it’s the man.” And then he asks her, “Am I a righteous man? Am I a thing worth saving?” In response he gets a Christmas miracle: Sunnydale’s first-ever snowstorm, which blots out the sun for a day, saving Angel and allowing him to stroll through town on Christmas morning.
“Amends” deals more smartly with the ideas of evil, faith, and redemption than any Christian drama–which is all the more remarkable since Whedon, who wrote the episode, appears to be a studied agnostic.
2 Once More, with Feeling (6.7): As triumphant as it is audacious, “Buffy: The Musical” doesn’t just have great song-and-dance numbers, it contains a pivotal revelation for the series as well. Buffy lets drop to her friends that, while they thought they were rescuing her from a demon dimension when they resurrected her at the beginning of the season, they had actually ripped her out of heaven.
And if that wasn’t enough, Whedon–who not only directed the episode but wrote the script, score, and lyrics–gives us this line in a lovers’ duet as Anya worries whether or not Xander will still love her “When I get so worn and wrinkly / that I look like David Brinkley.”
3 Becoming I/II (2.21/2.22): Pure, old-fashioned superhero drama for the second season finale. Buffy fails her chemistry final, gets expelled from school, and has to kill her boyfriend in order to save the world. It’s comic-book stuff, executed with verve and precision. There’s adventure, tragedy, true love, and a sword fight.
4 Hush (4.10): Demons come to Sunnydale and steal everyone’s voices. It’s the scariest episode of “Buffy” and, remarkably, has almost no spoken dialogue. The characters communicate by scribbling on little dry-erase boards. With a score including Camille Saint-Saens’s “Danse Macabre,” “Hush” is a reinvention of the silent movie.
5 Something Blue (4.9): Willow casts a spell causing her wishes and spontaneous exclamations to come true: Giles goes blind and Xander becomes a demon magnet, while Buffy and her nemesis, the vampire Spike, fall in love and get engaged.
It’s the funniest episode in a series that’s often hilarious: In full-on sorority-girl mode, Buffy throws herself into wedding planning. She brings home a plastic bride and groom for the wedding cake and proudly shows them to Spike:
Buffy: Aren’t they a perfect little us?
Spike: I don’t like him. He’s insipid. Clearly human.
Buffy: Oooo–red paint. We could smear a little on his mouth . . . the blood of the innocent!
6 Passion (2.17): While it features the first death of a major character, “Passion” is most notable for the pitch-perfect writing of Buffy’s relationship with her watcher, Giles. Although Giles loves Buffy like a daughter, he knows that he isn’t her father. There are no Hallmark moments, only subtle, underplayed beats–a look here, an averted glance there. In “Passions” Buffy comes into conflict with Giles’s love interest, Jenny Calendar. Without either hesitation or fanfare, Giles makes clear that his allegiance is to his slayer.
7 Who Are You? (4.16): In a coda to season three, Buffy and the rogue, bad-girl slayer Faith switch bodies. The charm of seeing the two actresses impersonating the impersonations of one another and riffing on each other’s acting tics is worth the price of admission by itself. It’s like an entire episode of the last scene of Boogie Nights where Mark Wahlberg does Dirk Diggler doing Robert De Niro doing Jake LaMotta. Anyone who loves Inside the Actors Studio will love “Who Are You?”
8 The Body (5.16): People die all the time on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And not just extras, either. Sometimes beloved featured players are dispatched. In “The Body,” Buffy’s mother dies and the result is grim and tragic because there’s no demon involved, no supernatural powers at work. Joyce Summers dies of an aneurysm while lying on the sofa in her living room. Buffy comes home to find her mother’s body and calls 9-1-1. There’s nothing the paramedics can do. Buffy vomits, calls her friends for help, and then has to pick her little sister up from school and break the news to her.
“The Body” is the series’ most difficult episode because it’s real–and not real in the way ER or The Practice or Law & Order, all hyper-versions of reality, are real. At some point, most of us will experience a day like Buffy has in “The Body” and we sense that the writers have gotten nearly every detail of that day–right down to the absence of a musical score–right.
9 Help (7.4): A stand-alone episode about a girl who can see the future, “Help” is more touching and beautiful than it has any right to be. Cassie is a student at Sunnydale High who tells Buffy that she knows she’ll be dead by next Friday. Buffy suspects suicide until Cassie tells her “Believe me, I want to be here, do things. I want to graduate from high school, and I want to go to the stupid winter formal. I have this friend, and it would be fun to go with him. Just to dance and hear lame music to wear a silly dress and laugh and stuff. I’d like to go. There’s a lot of stuff I’d like to do. I’d love to ice skate at Rockefeller Center. And I’d love to see my cousins grow up and see how they turn out ’cause they’re really mean and I think they’re gonna be fat. I’d love to backpack across the country or, I don’t know, fall in love, but I won’t. I just never will.”
Buffy, who spends her life helping others, fights desperately trying to save Cassie. She cheats death over and over until destiny brushes her aside.
10 Prophecy Girl (1.12): The first season’s finale also dealt with fate and free will. Buffy uncovers a prophecy that she will die if she confronts the demon trying to take over Sunnydale. She frantically tries to give up her job as the slayer. A remarkable episode about duty and fear and choice that hinted at the series’ long-term promise.
Fool for Love (5.7)What’s My Line? I/II (2.9/2.10)Conversations with Dead People (7.7)Halloween (2.6)Selfless (7.5)
WHEDON and his writing staff started out by making a series grounded in the comic-book world–everywhere you look in Buffy there are superhero overtones (I’m personally convinced that season three was drawn from the Teen Titans series “The Judas Contract”). As she grew up Buffy went from a scared, reluctant hero to being, in her own way, a small blonde Batman–a loner trying to mete out justice and save those innocents she found along the way.
But while Buffy takes its operatic themes and moral sensibility from comic books, its humor and lightness of touch are more akin to BBC fare like As Time Goes By. And at every turn the show gives the audience what they need, not what they want. Buffy’s mother and watcher are two sympathetic, single adults? Give them an adversarial relationship. The series is widely acclaimed for its witty dialogue? Shoot an episode in silence. Buffy and Angel have a tormented love affair? Banish him to another show.
And it is this, finally, which brings us the secret of Buffy’s success: Despite the vampires and Satanic priests, the mermen and possessed ventriloquist dummies, Buffy is a classical format with a tragic heroine at its center. Buffy can see happiness, but never be truly happy. She can have friends, but never have intimacy. She can fight for a world she wants to live in, but will die before she gets much of a chance. All of which makes her a hero; that she’s self-aware, that she understands her lot, makes her tragic.
That Buffy the Vampire Slayer showed us these tensions, the fears of loneliness, the power of redemption, the fleetingness of faith, makes it the best show ever on television.
This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard