Ginger Nuts of Horror
1997 was twenty years ago, apparently. Which means so was the dawn of a new show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It wasn’t a new idea, exactly. The concept had already been used to make a not-so-brilliant movie, but creator Joss Whedon was quick to point out that the failings of the first adaptation of his idea were down to studio interference rather than his own work. Which, anyone who knows anything about Hollywood will surely agree, is entirely believable. So Joss had another crack at it, this time in the form of a television show. The result became a pop-culture phenomenon, playing a huge part in the lives of many people’s adolescence, myself included.
There’s still a lot of supernatural drama shows on television today, but I don’t think any of them drive their way to the heart in quite the same way that Buffy did. Yes, that’s a staking joke. Live with it. Buffy managed to make you care about the characters aswell as the situations. To make a relationship breakup seem as tense as the possibility of the world ending is no mean feat, yet Buffy managed it time and again. The writing was tight, the cast was perfect, and even the special effects hold up. I personally feel that the latter is due to the reliance on practical effects, which always date much more slowly than their CGI cousins do. That’s why horror films like The Thing and Evil Dead still look alright, whereas more recent CGI-Heavy films from the nineties look dreadful. Buffy managed to try a lot of things like this and get most of them right.
With this being the twenty year anniversary, you’re sure to see a lot of articles like this, each trying to tell you something you don’t know and reveal that your favourite cast members actually hated each other. So I’m not going to do that. Instead I’m going to list my five favourite episodes and the reasons for each one, and then you can all argue about it in the comments section until the next apocalypse comes along. The following list isn’t in any particular order, it’s just the five that I’ve always thought of as being my favourites. Also, I’m not going to explain the mythology of the show or who the characters all are, I’m basically assuming prior knowledge for anyone who’d bother to read this far. Also, incase it’s necessary to point out, there will be spoilers (if you can still call them that when the show came out two decades ago.)
I never think of Buffy as being the sort of show that had Christmas episodes, and for the most part I don’t believe that it did. This one stands out in that regard, but also because it’s really powerful. It introduces the closest thing in the series to the Devil himself, but more importantly than that, it really drives home the concept of forgiveness. Particularly how, more often than not, the hardest person to forgive is yourself. Here, tormented by visions of his past, good-guy vampire Angel decides it would be better for his love Buffy (and everyone else) if he was no longer here. To that end he goes to the top of the tallest hill in Sunnydale and waits for the sun to rise. The whole episode is great and leads up to him standing on this hill at the break of dawn, with Buffy desperately trying to convince him that he matters, that suicide is never the best way. That strength is carrying on, not giving up. What happens next remains one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen on a television show.
Throughout the first season and a half of Buffy, we’re constantly told how Angel was pure evil before he got his soul back. But we don’t really see anything that makes us believe it until this episode, where having recently lost said soul once again, he goes back to his old ways. And how. It’s not simply that he kills more people, including Giles’ girlfriend Jenny. We’ve seen him kill people by now, we get the message that he’s not our Angel anymore. No, it’s not the murder itself, it’s the display that goes along with it. Candles, roses, romantic music, all setting the scene for a moment of horror that leads Giles to foolishly launch his own attack on Angel (which goes pretty well, actually.) Here we see the true Angelus for the first time. The passion he puts into his work, how he treats it as an art. He makes us hate him when previously all we wanted was for he and Buffy to work things out. That’s an impressive feat of writing and acting, and it makes for a glorious episode.
Spike (everyone’s favourite vampire) comes back to town looking for ways to win back his old flame Drusilla. The method that presents itself is to get up-and-coming witch Willow to cast a love spell. Of course, Spike being Spike, he doesn’t just ask politely. This episode is a perfect example of what Buffy does so well, which is to balance action with drama and humour, without it all getting muddled. There’s some great one-liners from Spike as always, but also some genuinely insightful comments that are difficult to argue with. In later seasons we see a lot of this from Spike; he becomes the guy who cuts through the naïve American Teenager bullshit and tells it how it is in true British fashion. The episode also features Buffy, Angel and Spike back to back in a fight for the only time in the entire series’ run, which is fantastic but also a bit of a shame. We get a lot of Angel and Spike fighting together once Spike moves over to his grand-sire’s own series, but we never have the three of them on the same side of a battle again after this. Of course, this only serves to make this episode all the more special as a result.
Bit of an obvious choice really, since this is often voted as the best Buffy episode ever. Expected or not, though, I stand by it. The plot is that a group of fairytale monsters steal the voices of everyone in town, so they can’t scream when their hearts are cut out (of course.) This means the entire cast has to do the entire episode without speaking. Or grunting, or making any kind of noise with their vocal chords. Which, according to behind the scenes featurettes, was incredibly difficult for all concerned. We may all think it’s the one of the best episodes, but the cast apparently remember it as the most stressful. All that effort pays off though, because it’s a master-class in story telling. Again, strong writing and acting come together here and the result it something that’s worth watching whether you’re a fan of the show or not.
“Becoming, Part 2”
I acknowledge that choosing one half of a two-part episode is a bit odd, but really the first half of this double is all set-up, the payoffs are in the finale. And what a finale it is. So much happens here, but what really stands out for me is that it can be summed up as “consequences.” The things that happen here have a lasting effect, in particular for the first time you see the hard choices Buffy has to make and how that can impact her life. Sure we’ve seen her die, but that was resolved in about five minutes as are most of the things that happen in season finales. But this one stands out. Angel would never move to LA and kickstart the apocalypse were it not for the events of this episode (he goes to Hell so the Powers That Be bring him back, which makes him realise he has a grander purpose, so off he goes to LA where he learns his part in a prophecy etc etc). Spike and Dru breakup for good which leads to Spike having a very different role in the show than anyone might have anticipated (and also being side by side with Angel at the start of said Apocalypse.) Buffy’s mother learns what her daughter does at night, Kendra dies which gives birth to Faith, Willow starts using magic. There’s probably more moments I’ve missed, but even after another five season finales, I don’t think any have the lasting impact that this one does. It really does change everything.
So that it, my top five. And now I am just glancing out of my window to see the approaching villagers marching up my hill with the chants of “why did you miss out Once More With Feeling?” Well, this is only going to get said villagers to raise their flaming torches all the higher, but here’s the answer; I don’t like it. It’s a novelty episode, like the puppet one on Angel. And whilst yes, they are both fun and memorable, I take both shows pretty seriously and episodes that are clearly done as a “why not?” rather than actually adding anything to the series don’t sit well with me. I totally understand and respect that I am probably in a minority here, as the other polls of this type that I’ve seen would seem to suggest. And that’s fine, I’m just saying that for me, I don’t think of a musical episode or one where the main character becomes a puppet can hold a candle (or a stake) to the ones I’ve listed above.
There’s a comments section below so feel free to list your own top fives, and we’ll see what kind of crossover we all have. Get it? CROSSover. Because vampires don’t like crosses. Alright I’m not a pun person. Like most things, Buffy did those the best.
Lex H Jones is a British cross-genre author, horror fan and rock music enthusiast who lives in Sheffield, North England.
He has written articles for websites the Gingernuts of Horror and the Horrifically Horrifying Horror Blog on various subjects covering books, films, videogames and music. Lex’s first published novel is titled “Nick and Abe”, and he also has several short horror stories published in anthologies. When not working on his own writing Lex also contributes to the proofing and editing process for other authors.