See who lands on top. Warning: Spoilers abound.
1. Season 7
Pros: Spike with a soul is a joy to watch (and not only because James Marsters was arguably at his most gorgeous here). His struggle highlights the fine line between sanity and madness and also touches on the shock of change and depression. Marsters is probably the finest actor of the season. Xander hits full maturity and becomes the true hero we all knew he could be. Andrew Wells makes for some pretty quotable one-liners (“Where have you been? This funnel cake is kicking my ass!”). And finally, we got one of the greatest, most moving series finales in television history. Ladies, we know we have the power.
Cons: With the exception of two or three actors, everyone felt very bored and tired. It’s understandable, especially from Sarah Michelle Gellar’s point of view, but it still hurts to watch a show that used to be filled with such joie de vie fade out like that. Plus, “The Killer in Me” and “Him” were actual episodes.
Best Episode: “Chosen” (7×22)
2. Season 1
Pros: Lots of fans are really down on Season 1 and often call it the worst season, but it’s really not that bad. Buffy and her new friends tackle vampires and demons alike, but the stories are representative of things much greater than fantasy adventure. By episode three, we’re deep into mentally abusive parent-child relationships, and by the season finale, Buffy performs her first Christ-like sacrifice to save the world. It’s a solid foundation for the series to come and contains great bits of clever writing. Plus, Buffy’s dress in “Prophecy Girl” is legendary.
Cons: The makeup for the demons is pretty bad, and the soundtrack is the musical equivalent of Velveeta macaroni. The quality of the film is worse than even season two, which premiered only a few months after this season ended. “I Robot, You Jane” was an allegory for Internet safety so obvious, it may as well have been a public service announcement.
Best Episode: “Prophecy Girl” (1×12)
3. Season 4
Pros: Buffy’s in college! This transition was handled realistically – well, as realistically as a show about slaying vampires could be. The drift among the Scoobies was written and performed so naturally, it feels like you’re drifting right along with them. That’s how it happens in real life, too, isn’t it? This is also the first season in which Spike is added to the main cast, and his sudden inability to harm people is one of the show’s best bits. Willow and Tara got together this season in the first female-female romance of network TV, which is still a colossal deal in television history. This was also the only season where the writing was nominated for an Emmy. Cool stuff!
Cons: The way Buffy acted around her new boyfriend, Riley Finn, felt a little hollow and un-Buffy. Seth Green’s Oz departed from a show in a terrible cheating scandal. The overall arc of the Initiative and Franken-esque Adam was a little weak and underdeveloped. Of course, the reason behind this was probably because no one wanted to apply that much makeup to the guy… or look at the finished product for very long.
Best Episode: “Hush” (4×10, the series’ landmark silent episode), but “Restless” (4×22) is an honorable mention.
4. Season 6
Pros: THERE WAS A MUSICAL EPISODE. Better, there was a musical episode that actually tied in with the themes and character hardships and strengthened the sentiment that where words fail, music speaks. Also, the stages of grief and depression that Buffy went through were written poetically and portrayed beautifully by Gellar. The theme of addiction was addressed in Willow using too much magic, which is probably the best and most honest performance Alyson Hannigan gave on Buffy. The fact that Willow turned out to be the Big Bad of the season was shocking yet natural, and it’s still in the top ten most heartbreaking moments on the show to me. Spike and Buffy made for some pretty hot stuff. And the overarching theme that sometimes, the scariest demons are inside you was handled in a way that felt real, not cheesy or forced. Applause, applause!
Cons: TARA DIED. Worse, she got shot by Warren Mears, a villain more horrible than Caleb the preacher (Nathan Fillion) from Season 7. She died, and nobody really reacted to her death except for Willow and Dawn, which was a rude testament to the lovely character. Spike tried to rape Buffy in the same episode that TARA DIED. Xander left Anya at the altar when that seemed like the last thing he would ever do. Honestly, Season 6, it’s just depressing.
Best Episode: “Once More with Feeling” (6×07)
5. Season 3
Pros: Enter Faith, dark Slayer and one of the best examples of character foil I’ve ever encountered. Eliza Dushku has to be one of the best actors the show ever had because when you hate Faith, your blood boils, and when you love Faith, your heart swells. That’s performance, baby. This season featured Mayor Richard Wilkins, the coolest and perhaps funniest villain of the seven seasons. It was also the culmination of the show’s main message: High school is hell. The show was starting to explore more mature themes while also staying in touch with its light, funny reputation, and it was executed well.
Cons: Does anyone remember “Bad Girls”? The episode where Buffy embraced her darker side, and she had to try and defeat McDonald’s… I mean, that really fat demon in a Jacuzzi? Yeah, that’s probably season three’s weakest point. That, and Xander and Cordelia broke up when they could have been a Lily Evans and James Potter-type romance. RIP, Xandelia. It’s 2014, and I still have strong feelings about this pairing.
Best Episode: “The Wish” (3×09), but “The Zeppo” (3×13) and “Doppelgangland” (3×16) come very close.
6. Season 2
Pros: Although not the first season, season two of Buffy was where it all really began. The Scoobies became stronger friends and better fighters of evil. Romances heat up when Willow met taciturn musician/werewolf Oz and Xander and Cordelia finally gave into their sexual tension. Giles fell in love with technopagan Jenny Calendar (RIP). Plus, this was when we were introduced to Spike, who would eventually make the show the legend it is today. The dialogue is on point this season. It’s both witty and emotional, with just as many Buffyspeak quips as truly heartfelt moments (Let’s talk about Whistler’s speech at the end of “Becoming, Pt. 1”, for instance.). The overall plot of the season about Buffy sleeping with Angel and consequently losing his soul is both terrifying and a hyper-realistic portrayal of accuracy. Seeing Angel turn to Angelus is scary, but it’s also kind of fun – props to David Boreanaz in this character.
Cons: Because it was the second season and many things were still rough, there were some filler episodes where essentially nothing happened. “Killed by Death”… Buffy gets sick and can only fight while sick. Counterproductive! “Reptile Boy”… Buffy and Cordelia get taken advantage of by a bunch of fraternity boys when they should have been able to tell they were bad news by their frosted tips. I would say “Go Fish”, but at least that was kind of about how attractive Nicholas Brendon is/how well he can pull off a Speedo. Amen.
Best Episode: “Becoming, Pts. 1 & 2”
7. Season 5
Pros: All of it. Primarily the writing. Season five was the season Joss Whedon and Co. was meant to write. While not my personal favorite season, I can still argue that season five is the most finely crafted year of Buffy that ever was. Everything on the show led up to this season. Let’s zero in on the foreshadowing, shall we? In season three, Faith says to Buffy in a dream, “Little Miss Muffet counting down from 730.” In 730 days, Buffy would willingly give her life to save her sister, Dawn (who in 5×02 is referred to as “curds and whey”). In a season four dream, Faith and Buffy make a bed for “little sis” and in another dream, Tara carefully remarks, “Be back before dawn.” The scrutiny and the detail of this are insane. If anyone tries to tell you that Buffy was just a silly action show, point out these careful details and how well they actually played out. Additionally, season five gave us “The Body”, which according to some critics might be the finest hour in television history (and yet neither Whedon or Gellar received even nominations for their brilliant work). Bravo, Buffy season five. Your writing and acting are phenomenal, bordering on flawless.
Cons: Very few, but it was a little difficult at first to accept the Dawn thing. It was that shocking. Once the show made it clear, it was all too easy to hop on board with little Summers. Also, the fact that Riley turned out to have a vampire bite fetish was, for lack of a better term, really gross. And Xander’s hair. It just seemed mean to wear it that way.
Best Episode: Since “The Body” (5×16) is TV’s finest, it’s “The Gift” (5×22).