Happy Anniversary BTVS: 10 Heartbreaking and Reflective Episodes
There’s no arguing that Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series) is still iconic and helped shape the landscape of horror and television as we know it. The Buffyverse overall has undoubtedly received its deserved flowers. Unfortunately things that are beloved don’t always have the best of people behind them. Think of the Scream franchise (including season 1 + 2 of the MTV series), up until Scream 5 (2022), and how the Weinsteins will always be attached to them. And both BTVS and its spin-off show, Angel, had a monstrous force behind them in Joss Whedon, who for years was praised for giving us the Buffyverse and Buffy as a character.
But rather than sour this anniversary piece by continuing to discuss Joss, below are episodes that are heartbreaking yet reflective in my eyes:
Prophecy Girl (S1E12)
Season 1 isn’t everyone’s favorite for many reasons as the show hadn’t fully found its footing yet. That being said, this finale has moments that put a stake right through your heart, particularly when Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) finds out she’s prophesied to die at the hands of The Master (Mark Metcalf). Sarah Michelle Gellar’s performance is top notch and having to watch Buffy react to her impending doom is horrible. There's a message there about how teenage girls are expected to live up to expectations and disregard their feelings as a result. While Buffy is successful in the end by defeating The Master and stopping an apocalypse, she does briefly die and has to be revived, essentially marking the first time she'll experience trauma like that.
Despite how, in the previous episode, Buffy losing her virginity to Angel (David Boreanaz) and having that be the cause of Angel losing his soul is slightly problematic, it's still gut-wrenching nonetheless. Her vulnerability throughout this episode is also hard to watch. Not because she's being vulnerable, but because of what she has yet to realize: that Angel is back to being Angelus and is hell-bent on destroying her mentally/emotionally before he finally kills her. While the concept that virginity means you're innocent, that once you have sex your innocence is gone, promotes slut shaming and other harmful ideas to young women, in this case there's still something to take away from Buffy's situation - having sex for the first time is something that can change you. And to have that be diminished by someone you love is painful.
Becoming (Part One) (S2E21) + Becoming (Part Two) (S2E22)
What a whirlwind two-part season finale that ends in heartbreak for Buffy. Both episodes have so much going on in them. From the return and death of Kendra (Bianca Lawson), Buffy being expelled and on the run from the police, Buffy's mom kicking her out of the house for being a slayer, Buffy having to fight Angelus, Angel getting his soul back, and then Buffy having to kill him to save the world. It's way too much for a teenager to be dealing with. Both episodes depict the unpredictable events people can go through. Some events rock your world so hard that you reach your limits. But a message that can be taken away from Becoming (Part Two) is Buffy's reclamation of power from Angelus and coming to rely on herself.
The Prom (S3E20)
Breakups aren't always easy to swallow or get through. They sometimes come out of nowhere (including before senior prom). Being superhuman never protected Buffy from experiences that just about anybody else can face. The episode's tone isn't completely torturous, but there's a finality that hangs over everything. Angel breaks up with Buffy out of selflessness and she has to keep an incel's hellhounds from attacking people at her prom. Buffy receives her class protector award and is recognized for keeping her high school somewhat safe from supernatural forces. And in the end, Angel does show up for her (as a cover of Wild Horses plays) just so they can slow dance. It's one of those moments that likely moves most fans to tears.
New Moon Rising (S4E19)
Season 4 isn't my personal favorite, though it has some fantastic episodes, including this one. Willow (Alyson Hannigan) puts her relationship with Oz (Seth Green) to bed and embraces a future with Tara (Amber Benson). Her scenes with Oz make the situation all the more realistic. Coming to terms with your sexuality and struggling with letting go of certain people/ideas of what your life may have looked like isn't simple for everyone. And Tara gives Willow the choice to choose what makes her most happy, leading Willow to make a hard decision in letting Oz go. It's an episode that pulls at the heartstrings; holding hearts in your hands, knowing you'll break one, can be one of the hardest things about a complicated situation.
One of season 5's most raw episodes is the episode that comes before this ("The Body"), where Buffy's mom dies suddenly after seemingly being on the mend from being ill. But that choice in regards to heartbreaking episodes is too obvious. And in my opinion this episode is more painful due to how grief is depicted, especially for Buffy's sister, Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg). Grief can make people do just about anything to avoid the inevitable, something that motivates Dawn’s attempt to revive Joyce with magic, as if that was a guarantee and wouldn't have dire consequences (sometimes dead is better, right King?). It’s especially hard to see Dawn’s desperation and Buffy needing Angel to come back to town for the night. Life rarely, if ever, stops after tragedy, and horror has a way of capturing that. The truth is grief is individual, and there's no one road map to follow in order to heal.
The Gift (S5E22)
warning: mentions of suicide
The score (you know the one if you're a fan), Buffy's speech to Dawn, the reactions to Buffy's death, and knowing what comes next ruins most fans every time they watch. Buffy sacrificing herself to stop yet another apocalypse and to save Dawn is one (if not the) moment that's most heart shattering for many new viewers. Glory as the Big Bad for the season was too much for Buffy to handle. It took the help of her whole gang and even then she couldn't stop the ritual that would break down the wall to other dimensions. With Summer’s blood being the only way to close the portal, her or Dawn must die. Watching Buffy slowly accept death in order for everyone, including Dawn, to live is beyond rough. It gets all the more tragic when considering Buffy is essentially committing suicide.
Once More, With Feeling (S6E07)
Musical episodes don't always warrant heartbreak. Some make people want to fast-forward and forget they even saw a minute of said episode. But this Buffy episode is without a doubt one of the best in the entire show. The main cast's songs vary in terms of tone, but they reveal everyone's internal turmoil. Buffy’s struggling the most due to her depression, difficulty to cope with being resurrected from heaven, and having to pretend she was in a hell dimension. Buffy being forced back into what she feels is hell (living on earth and dealing with the horrors she has no choice but to face as the slayer) is incredibly tragic. The depiction of mental health problems, even with the extreme circumstances the show provides, is right on the money. Self harm isn't always cutting, sometimes it's making self destructive decisions in spite of your well-being. Buffy knows it'll hurt or maybe result in death when she tries to dance until she spontaneously combusts. It's almost subtle that she's trying to die at that moment. And all you want to do is give her a hug.
Some things really do fall apart hard and aren't able to be fixed, a fact about life that isn't an easy pill to swallow sometimes. People make decisions that turn their lives upside down and secrets can spill out. With this Buffy episode, it's the beginning of the end for some characters. Relationships are pushed to the breaking point and at least one is mended before tragedy strikes. Almost everyone's heart is breaking one way or another, though the most notable moment in the episode is Tara and Willow's reunion (and how everything would change forever in the next episode). As Buffy has reminded its fans before, we can't always control what happens in our lives. Some tragic events are near unavoidable. That's the ugly part of regular life.
Seeing Red (S6E19)
warning: mentions of sexual violence + death
Infamous is one word to describe this Buffy episode. Some of the events that occur are ugly and painful for various characters. From attempted rape, gun violence, and shocking/traumatic death, Seeing Red is a big pot of trauma and the suffering can be felt through the screen. Buffy is almost raped by Spike (James Marsters), is shot by incel villain Warren Means (Adam Busch), and Tara gets fatally shot by accident in front of Willow. Queer hearts still break watching Tara die because of the senselessness and permanence of her loss. Her death still comes up in discussions about the "bury your gays" trope. And Buffy's sexual assault scene in her bathroom is still talked about by fans.