ProFiled is a feature wherein we take a group of items and rank them based entirely on subjective material and editorial viewpoints.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was created to subvert the cliché horror trope that saw countless young women running and screaming into alleyways and being murdered. Female empowerment was the key component to Buffy; its heart and soul, but the series became so much more than just a girl and her wooden stake.
The themes it presented were simple and relatable: growing up, responsibility, love, loss, identity, and family, to name just a few. Clever metaphors involving supernatural creatures, such as vampires, were used to convey these themes, allowing internal demons to be represented externally by literal demons. The show effortlessly combined horror, drama, and comedy – specifically with its flair for witty dialogue – making for a very unique and engaging style.
Buffy will never go down in history for its visual effects – remember it was only 1997 when it debuted. However, the remarkable character development, the ever-increasing complexity of its plotlines, and the richness it achieved in its world building certainly earns it a place in the top TV of all time.
I love Buffy and I could talk about it all damn day, which is why I was honored to be the chosen one in the assignment of ranking every season from worst to best. I don’t take this mission lightly; it’s hard to define what’s better or worse because for me, all Buffy is good Buffy! I fully expect that my ranking will be at odds with many of yours, and I anticipate debate. In fact, I welcome it just so that I can talk about Buffy some more. So without further ado, here we go!
#7 – Season One
It’s not an easy decision to put season one of Buffy in the last place standing. Without it we wouldn’t have this series at all, and I don’t want to imagine that kind of world. From the first moments of the first episode, Buffy proved that it was going to be the type of show to challenge and go beyond one’s expectations.
Our main characters were almost instantly fully realized individuals, and their chemistry was palpable. The Master, the first Big Bad, was humorous and diabolical and set a precedent for future villains. The most significant story arc of this season was Buffy’s struggle between her desire to be a normal teenage girl and her inescapable obligation to save the world. Over 12 episodes, we saw her change from taking a passive role in her destiny, to actively participating in it and accepting her identity as the Chosen One. Also, she died for at least a few minutes and that would forever change her.
But season one had its fair share of missteps; like that episode that foreshadowed the perils of online dating, where a demon is released into the Internet, gains a loyal following, and is transferred into a robot that wants to kill Willow. The only thing worse than its plot was its title, ‘I Robot, You Jane.’ Or how about ‘Teacher’s Pet’ where a science teacher, who’s actually a praying mantis, is targeting virgin boys to use for her mating ritual. Yes, Buffy was still finding itself in these early stages and working out all the kinks in its mythology. This season made an excellent foundation for what was to come but after seeing the entire series it feels more like the outline than the fully finished product.
Standout episodes: “Angel” and “Prophecy Girl”
#6 – Season Four
There are elements of season four that have their merits. Certain episodes such as “Hush” standout as series bests, and the secondary character developments are quite enjoyable. Willow lost Oz, found Tara, and became more confident with herself. Xander struggled to find his place now that the girls had gone off to college, and he began dating Anya. Spike was implanted with a chip that rendered him essentially harmless to humans, making him the unlikely ally of the Scooby gang. It’s one of the funnier seasons thanks in part to Spike’s presence and the addition of Anya.
Ultimately, though, where season four succeeds as individual parts, it fails as a whole due to its lack of both a strong story arc and a cohesive bond. The lack of focus is especially evident when considering the Initiative storyline, which had great potential but ultimately flopped. The mystery of who those camouflage men in fatigues were, was unfortunately, more fun than the actual outcome. They were utterly incompetent next to Buffy and the Scooby gang, making their credibility hard to believe. The conversation of magic vs. science could have made for interesting exploration but it ended up being a missed opportunity. Professor Maggie Walsh would have been the better Big Bad with Adam as her lackey.
Though it was strange to have the Big Bad defeated in the penultimate episode – even if it was oddly fitting for a villain like Adam – I must say that the season four finale, ‘Restless,’ was fantastic. It foreshadowed countless events for the final three seasons and acted as a coda to the first four.
I suppose I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Riley Finn. Sure, he was easy on the eyes, until he made you want to gauge them out due to his supreme dullness. There, I mentioned him.
Standout episodes: “Fear Itself”, “Hush”, and “Restless”
#5 – Season Two
The back half of this season is great and there’s no use disputing that the Angel/Angelus arc was a defining one for the series and for Buffy herself. Willow and Oz shared some of their sweetest moments. Xander and Cordelia finally gave into the sexual tension that had been building between them. Giles’ backstory began to flesh out. Buffy met Kendra, another vampire slayer, and was given a deeper sense of appreciation for her unique circumstances – the fact that she has a life and friendships. We got Spike, undeniably one of the best characters in the entire series, and Drusilla the most loveable unhinged mad woman, and through their relationship we were given a new perspective on vampires.
Angel’s character never sat well with me, though; he’s hundreds of years old and yet acts like he’s 17, he stalks Buffy and hangs around in her room while she’s not there, but he’s not treated like a total creep for it. Angelus was far more realistic and enjoyable to watch. I also take issue with the mechanics of his curse and its many flaws. It’s unfortunate that Buffy was just the collateral damage in its loophole. I can’t help but feel like she was being punished for having sex – which is something we would see again.
Overall, the arrangement of the episodes was strange and it made for ineffective pacing. For example, two episodes away from the two-part finale there’s a storyline that packed so much punch and emotional weight that would have been excellent had it carried through to that finale. Instead we got a filler episode in between where the swim team members are all turning into fish monsters. Sure, Xander did walk around in a speedo for a few minutes but that only barely makes up for the blunder.
Standout episodes: “Halloween”, “Innocence”, and “Becoming Part 2”
#4 – Season Six
There’s no denying this was the darkest season of Buffy; no one can say they made it through unscathed. Buffy dealt with ongoing depression and self-loathing. Willow and Tara’s relationship fell apart, and even though they managed to make peace, it was only a brief period of solace before Tara’s death. Xander broke Anya’s heart, and arguably his own, in leaving her at the altar. Life was the Big Bad of season six and though it was a psychological roller coaster, it ended with hope. It’s beautiful to watch Xander save the world with only his words and the strength of his love for Willow.
This season has some of my favorite Buffy moments of all time, not least of which is the musical episode. It could have easily been the worst thing to come out of Buffy but it never feels out of place. The songs our gang sings feel completely within character, and they manage to capture the tone of not just the season but also the entire series so perfectly. Spike and Buffy’s relationship was also a high point. Yes, it was a bit grim and mutually abusive but their passion and intensity for each other was unparalleled. It sets up their final arc perfectly.
The function of one’s soul was a major element in the Buffyverse; Angel was a different kind of vampire because he had one. I like that this season played around with that concept. Willow, Warren, Andrew, and Jonathan all have souls and yet they made choices to commit evil acts. Spike has no soul and yet he made choices to commit acts of good. Granted his acts were largely selfishly motivated because he wanted to look good in Buffy’s eyes, but they were good acts nonetheless. In a show about good vs. evil I enjoyed the effort put into exploring the very real grey areas of life.
Season six had a very strong beginning and ending but it wandered aimlessly through its middle, and the lows of this season were really low. I’ll never make peace with Xander and Anya’s breakup. It’s obvious that the writers were trying to show them growing apart, but it never felt like enough buildup for the final outcome. Dawn’s arc of dealing with abandonment issues wasn’t given the emotional attention it deserved and ended up making her seem like just an annoying afterthought. Giles’ absence altered the atmosphere of the show in a very regrettable way. The lowest of the low however, was the magic-as-drugs storyline. It had immense promise but ended up being so heavy handed that it felt like a smack in the face.
Standout episodes: “Once More with Feeling”, “Tabula Rasa”, and “Grave”.
#3 – Season Seven
The final season of a TV show automatically has higher stakes. Closing up character arcs and plotlines must be done in a way that feels both satisfying and natural. While the last season of Buffy wasn’t perfect, it managed to end in a place that felt complete and yet open to possibility. The season finale itself was very impressive. Its finest achievement was in bringing the focus back to the Hellmouth and explorations of power, allowing the story to truly come full circle.
Most of the main cast was given a nice resolution to their story. Willow was able to move on from Tara and she overcame the dark magic plaguing her. Spike earned his redemption and died a hero. Dawn greatly matured and found her place within the gang. Buffy’s ultimate moment of leadership in sharing her powers with all the other potential slayers was so badass, the kind of badass that makes you cry because it’s so damn moving. Some of the characters however, specifically Xander and Giles, deserved more polishing than they received.
For its final season, there weren’t enough original Scooby gang scenes. There were some great moments in the first half, but as the show came to a close, it felt like that central bond was lacking. The idea that Buffy’s friends and sister would throw her out of her own house and take Faith on as their leader is ridiculous. After all these years of fighting side-by-side, that is how they treat her? That kind of thing may have been tolerable in an earlier season, but honestly, it doesn’t feel right coming from those characters after all they had been through.
The First Evil made for a very entertaining villain. Its ability to embody anyone who has died gave it a significant psychological threat. It could instill fear in people and turn loved ones against each other. Plus, we were able to see all the previous Big Bads one last time, and we got to see “Buffy” play for the dark side, which was pretty cool! Its inability to make physical contact was however a fairly large weakness. Even though it was the root of all evils, it still had to send lackeys in to do the job, making it much less daunting.
Standout episodes: “Selfless”, “Lies My Parents Told Me”, and “Chosen”
#2 – Season Three
This was the first truly confident season of Buffy. The concept of identity was a major theme that unified the overall story arc quite strongly.
The most meaningful examination of which was the contrast between Faith and Buffy. Faith represented the “what if”, the flipped side of the coin. She showed us what could happen if all that slayer power went unchecked, and Buffy’s convictions were only strengthened after their experiences together. When Faith fell to the dark side and joined forces with the Mayor, the contrast only deepened. Their father-daughter relationship was the perfect antithesis to Buffy and Giles’.
There were more comical explorations of this theme as well. Like when Cordelia wished that Buffy had never come to Sunnydale, we see a different version of all our characters, including Willow and Xander as vampires. Or when all the adults in Sunnydale revert back to teenagers after eating some tainted chocolate. Giles also gets a chance to try on a cooler persona when Wesley takes his places as the stick-in-the-mud Watcher.
Buffy’s classmates’ acknowledgement of her as the class protector is also a nod to identity; one that Buffy thought went unnoticed. It’s a touching gesture and one that perfectly foreshadows the events of the finale when they all band together to defeat the mayor. Speaking of Mayor Wilkins, he made an excellent villain, he was just so much fun to watch! His charming and courteous façade was completely disarming.
Relationship identity was also explored; mainly through the brief, yet oh-so satisfying, affair between Willow and Xander, but also through Buffy and Angel’s eventual understanding that they could never truly be together. Brining Angel back was risky, it could have destroyed the emotional weight of season two’s ending but things were never the same for the star-crossed lovers. Honestly, watching them struggle with this realization was far more engaging in comparison to season two’s love-fest.
There’s not much that keeps season three out of the top spot. The biggest weakness was in how quickly Buffy returned to Sunnydale and how easily the fallout from her absence was resolved. These problems were addressed but never truly fixed because when the gang came to blows they were interrupted by a zombie attack. The conversation never resumed but everyone was happy again, which certainly wasn’t earned.
Standout episodes: “Band Candy”, “Doppelgangland”, and “Graduation Day (Part 2)”
#1 – Season Five
Without question, this is the strongest season of Buffy. Right out of the gate, its intent is very clear and each episode has an important part to play. Its major themes of family, love, death, and purpose are thoroughly explored, which drives some of the best character development in the series. Though the Scooby gang drifted slightly apart in season four, they are reunited this season in a way that resembles something much closer to a family than just a group of friends. Their individual arcs also help to solidify the central bond.
Xander is becoming more confident; he’s renting his first apartment, maintaining a good job, and ends up engaged to Anya by the finale. Willow’s command of magic is increasing; in fact, she’s basically the only one who poses a threat to Glory, and her relationship with Tara has never been stronger. The Magic Box was the first “headquarters” that truly felt like home since the loss of the high school library. It also gave Buffy and Giles a space to restore their Watcher-Slayer relationship. Once Spike accepts his love for Buffy he even becomes a worthy and almost respected ally. This is by far the tightest-knit group of main characters in the entire run of the show. Plus, Riley is basically a background feature until he leaves for good halfway through the season. His presence doesn’t overshadow better characters as it had in the past.
While Glory wasn’t the most fun villain to watch, though the interactions with her minions were always good for a chuckle, she was definitely intriguing. She was the most powerful evil that Buffy had ever encountered and she posed a very personal threat by way of Dawn.
As for the youngest Summers sister, I know she’s not universally loved, but the risk Buffy took with this character and storyline really paid off. Yeah, she was annoying, but I’m pretty sure most 14-year-olds are annoying.
Joyce’s arc is unforgettable and so emotionally significant. Buffy and the Scooby gang always have a plan of attack for supernatural baddies but how were they supposed to triumph over the natural causes of illness and death? More than ever before, this situation forced Buffy to grow up faster than most young girls and it had an enormous impact on her life. “The Body” is a heartbreaking hour of television; I’m pretty sure I cry more with each viewing.
The finale of season five is damn near perfect. Buffy makes the ultimate sacrifice, and she’s entirely at peace with it. She finally understands the message from the first slayer and realizes that this is her purpose, her destiny, and it will save everyone that she loves. This episode would have been a completely appropriate ending to the series. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy it wasn’t, but the fact it felt so definitive only speaks to the strengths of this season as a whole.
Standout episodes: “Fool for Love”, “The Body”, and “The Gift”
So, what does the Project Fandom community think? What’s your favorite season of Buffy? Sound off in the comments and let us know!