Buffy: The Vampire Slayer was at its absolute best when its metaphorical demons were on point. The season-long baddies had their ups and downs (yay Mayor and Angelus! boo Adam and The Nerds), but nothing could beat a really good monster of the week to highlight whatever our favorite Slayer and her friends were going through during that episode. Because in the end, the monster didn’t matter so much as what it represented about their lives. (Except that one praying mantis teacher who tried to seduce Xander. We’ll take that one at absolute face value and not think about it anymore, at all, ever.)
With that in mind, here are my top ten (in no particular order) monsters of the week:
“Normal Again” (S6 E17)
I never remember much about this demon, other than that he had stabby needle things, because the demon didn’t matter. What did was that this attack causes a depressed and traumatized Buffy to wake up in another reality—one in which her mother is still alive, and her parents are still together, and she’s just a girl. A girl so lost in her own head that she’s institutionalized, but not the chosen one. Not a Slayer. Just Buffy. This situation—as bleak as it is—is still tempting compared to her post-death life, and for a few minutes she considers doing what is necessary to keep it: letting her friends and her sister die, thereby killing her connections to the life in which she’s Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. In the end, she chooses her found family over a reality in which she didn’t have to bear the weight of the world, and begins the difficult work of clawing upward from deep depression.
“Hush” (S4 E10)
Doug Jones does more acting with his hands than most people do with their entire bodies, and he’s put to exquisite good use in this landmark episode. We can talk all day about how losing their voices forces the Scoobies to finally communicate—including Buffy and Riley, who couldn’t take that final step to kissing without their tongues talking getting in the way—but there’s a reason The Gentlemen remain some of the most terrifying monsters ever to appear on Buffy. After robbing you of your voice, pale men in nice suits smile as they kill you. Yup.
“Innocence” (S2 E14)
In the one-two punch of Surprise and Innocence, Buffy has to deal with sleeping with her true love only to find he’s now a soulless demon intent on hurting her. (No symbolism there at all…) Still reeling, Buffy faces The Judge, a seemingly invincible foe. But Buffy knows just because it took an army to destroy something in the past doesn’t mean she can’t do it herself with a little luck and a rocket launcher. This glorious—and funny—moment leads to a Buffy versus Angelus fight that lets us know she’ll be okay, one way or another, eventually.
“Becoming” (S2 E21&22)
And speaking of Angelus, has any fight been more devastating than Buffy triumphing over Angelus, only to find herself face to face with Angel—and forced to sacrifice him to save the world? But as I’ve gotten older, this isn’t the moment that kills me so much as one that comes before it. Buffy’s getting ready to go. She knows that, whatever happens, it’s an ending. For her, or for the world. Her mother tries to stop her, but Buffy confronts her, finally forcing Joyce to admit that Buffy is not normal, and is not okay, and how could Joyce have gone so long without noticing? As a teen hiding depression (poorly) from my parents, this moment was huge for me to see. Now that I’m an adult and a mother, it hurts in a way I hope I never stop feeling as a reminder to always, always see my children.
“Gingerbread” (S3 E11)
Speaking of motherhood, in this episode two creepy dead children influence the parents of Sunnydale to join together with Buffy’s mom to form MOO—Mothers Opposed to the Occult. Though Joyce and Willow’s mom blithely ignored their daughters’ growing powers and problems for two whole seasons, suddenly they’re willing to acknowledge everything bad in Sunnydale…only to tie the girls up at the stake, hating them for what gives them strength to fight back against the darkness. Teenage girls being punished for being able to do things the adults around them can’t? Always and forever true. (Also, Willow’s mom conveniently forgetting everything except that she’s dating a boy in a band? TRUE AS WELL.)
“Doppelgangland” (S3 E16)
Aside from being one of the funniest episodes ever, plus giving us the iconic “Bored now,” line that we all wish we could employ daily, Vampire Willow did what the best episodes did: lay a foundation for what was to come. “And I think I’m kind of gay,” is delivered as a throwaway joke, but leads to some of the most groundbreaking representation on network television at the time. You were and you are, Willow, and we’re so glad.
“Living Conditions” (S4 E2)
The transition from high school to college is tough. As in life, so in television. Buffy was no exception to these growing pains, but this second episode of the college year is perfect. Kathy, Buffy’s roommate who never heard a Cher song she didn’t want to play on repeat forever (I’m looking at you, my own freshman roommate who ruined Michelle Branch for me—devastating for a fan of Willow and Tara!), is so annoying it’s demonic. Literally, in this case, but regardless, Kathy is one of the most relatable demonic foes ever. If only the rest of us were Slayers who could have vanquished our roommates by sending them back to their own dimensions.
“Buffy Vs. Dracula” (S5 E1)
Not only did this season five opener deliver a gloriously self-contained episode featuring none other than Dracula, but it used Dracula to expose the growing cracks—between Willow and Tara with magic use, Buffy and Riley with Riley’s Rileyness, Buffy and Giles with her need for a Watcher, and even between Buffy and her self-image. It was self-aware in the best possible way, giving us a delightfully tropey Dracula, but also setting the tone and conflict for the rest of the season. A perfect premiere with the best ending twist ever. “Mom!”
“Selfless” (S7 E5)
In a series filled with amazing side characters, Anya might be my favorite. And this episode is an incredible deep-dive into who and why she is. The demon featured? Anya herself, as she grapples with the metaphorical demon of being forced to create your identity around the men in your life. Also, there’s that big spider thingie and D’Hoffryn and the devastating cost for Anya doing the right thing. But mostly the demon of the patriarchy and what it does to women. (An essay for another day is how Anya’s chosen vengeance demon specialty—avenging women wronged by men—always hurts the women as much or more than it does the men. Oh, Anya.)
“The Body” (S5 E16)
Though there’s an almost perfunctory vampire attack in this stunning episode, the real demon is death. The finality of it. The banality of it. The absolute empty stretch of it, echoed by this episode’s brilliant lack of music. It is a travesty that Sarah Michelle Gellar wasn’t nominated for her performance in what remains one of the most harrowing episodes of television ever. I dare you to think of her saying, “Mom? Mom? Mommy?” without recoiling from the emotional blow.
And, like a monster, I’ll leave you with that image. Wishing you all the best with your demons, both personal and metaphorical, and if you need more Slayage in your life (who doesn’t?), you can fight new threats with Nina the Watcher-turned-Vampire Slayer in Slayer and Chosen.