In every generation there is a chosen one.
She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness.
She is the Slayer.
It was twenty years ago today that ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ first arrived on our TV screens. Introduced as a midseason replacement on the WB, ‘Buffy’ was an adaptation (of the concept more than anything else) of a then-five year old movie that hadn’t exactly set the box office on fire. But if that was all there was to it, we wouldn’t still be talking about it twenty years later. Over the course of its seven year run, the show would build an unforgettable world populated with too many beloved characters to count, before finally lowering the curtain on what is arguably creator Joss Whedon’s magnum opus.
In celebration of the show’s twentieth anniversary, we thought it was the perfect day to take a look back at all the times the show took time out of its apocalypse-laden schedule to honor Buffy’s birthday (which actually falls in January, lest anyone stake me for failing to make the distinction). So join us as we take a look back at the series and rank Buffy’s birthday episodes, starting with…
I want to start off by making it clear that none of these episodes is bad. And ‘Blood Ties’ in particular is quite good, offering an intense hour of television. And more so than some of the other episodes we’re covering today, this arguably could have ranked higher than it did. But the reason I placed it at the bottom is that one of the things that makes it such a strong episode is also something of a weakness in this context. Namely, ‘Blood Ties’ is so deeply connected to the larger arc of the fifth season (both in terms of what it builds on and what it foreshadows) that it makes it difficult to judge as a standalone episode.
In fact, while the episode is set around Buffy’s birthday, the occasion itself is almost an afterthought, with the episode more focused on dealing with the recent revelation that Dawn is in fact the Key (the season’s central mystical MacGuffin), with which the gang is still coming to terms as Dawn learns the truth for herself. This understandably tosses Dawn into an existential crisis (perhaps the single most justified case of “moody teenager” in history) and in doing so gives Michelle Trachtenberg a chance to really show off her acting chops after a somewhat rocky start earlier in the season. Indeed, the episode represents a turning point for both the character and the season, taking what had been a fairly standard “bratty kid sister” role and turning it on its ear even as it begins to set in motion (at roughly the halfway point) the season’s climactic showdown. But all of this means it’s virtually impossible to discuss without getting into the larger context of the season as a whole. And honestly? If you watched this episode without having seen anything else from the fifth season, I have to wonder how much you’d actually get out of it.
‘A New Man’
As Buffy becomes more involved with the Initiative (a special forces unit dedicated to researching and combating the supernatural), Giles is feeling “neglected and out of the loop-y”, especially after some it turns out that Buffy had withheld (without even realizing it) some major revelations about the Initiative. When warlock and old friend Ethan Rayne returns to Sunnydale, having heard a number of unsettling rumors in the demon community. After a night of drinking with Ethan, Giles awakes to find himself transformed into a Fyarl demon. Between his apparent absence and the fact that the spell causes him to speak exclusively in the Fyarl language, Buffy and the others assume the worst. Thanks to this language barrier, Giles is forced to turn to Spike as he hunts down Ethan. Buffy and Giles independently locate Ethan, who wastes no time in setting the pair at each other’s throats. As Buffy gains the upper hand, she realizes who she’s fighting and turns her attention to Ethan. With the spell reversed and Ethan in custody, things return to normal, give or take a stab wound.
Another year in which the actual birthday is incidental to the larger plot of the episode. Despite falling on Buffy’s birthday, this is actually a Giles episode. And like ‘Blood Ties’ it also deals fairly inescapably with some of the season’s major themes, principally the nature of the Initiative, Giles’s feelings of uselessness, with a brief stop to highlight the mounting innuendo between Willow and Tara. But unlike that episode, ‘A New Man’ does so in a way that is much more standalone-friendly. Season four was a year in which virtually every character underwent some major transition in their lives, and this episode highlights that very well. Though the focus is on Giles, several other arcs also get some incremental advancement. Ultimately, though, this is a fun standalone episode and little more.
‘Older and Far Away’
Buffy’s birthday is just around the corner, and her sister is feeling neglected. On top of planning a party for the elder Summers, everyone is too wrapped up in their (unusually mundane) issues to notice what’s going on with Dawn. It’s business as usual until the guests at Buffy’s birthday party realize they can’t leave the house. This, it turns out is because of a wish Dawn expressed (that people wouldn’t be able to leave her) to someone she thought was a school guidance counselor. Of course, this “counselor” turns out to be a vengeance demon, and an old friend of Anya’s, allowing for a convenient resolution to the immediate crisis. The underlying wounds, however, linger on…
In contrast to ‘Blood Ties’, this is not Dawn’s finest hour. There’s a much more soap operatic turn to Trachtenberg’s performance this year, with the best example of this (and simultaneously one of the episode’s more frustrating moments) coming as the Scoobies try to figure out a way to escape the house, only for Dawn to make it all about her abandonment issues. (To be fair, this comes before we find out that it actually is all about her abandonment issues.)
With all of that said, there’s a certain extent to which that is perhaps the whole point. More so than any one villain, the Big Bad of season six is arguably life itself. The most obvious example is the fallout from Buffy’s resurrections, which casts a pall over the entire season. But it’s episodes like ‘Older and Far Away’ which remind us that Buffy is far from the only character struggling to cope with everything that life throws at them this year. And in keeping with that, this is an oddly low key episode. We reach the midway point before anyone even realizes there’s something amiss, and even then the conflict almost entirely comes in the form of interpersonal drama (there’s also a token demon, because this is ‘Buffy’ and we apparently need one of those) rather than a looming apocalypse. And really, that’s one of the show’s strengths. As melodramatic as it can get, that we can do an episode rooted entirely in human drama is a refreshing break from the assorted forces of darkness.
When you start working on a list like this, you always have some idea what the end result will look like, even if you don’t know exactly what shape it’ll take. That was definitely the case here. I knew going in that ‘Helpless’ would rank high on the list. And admittedly some of that is because of how perfunctory the birthday element is to some of the other episodes we’ve covered, here but until I actually sat down and re-watched it, I didn’t realize it would give ‘Surprise’ and ‘Innocence’ (which if you’re keeping score, has clearly claimed the top spot) such a run for their money.
Buffy’s eighteenth birthday is approaching, and on top of the usual calamities in her personal life, she finds her Slayer powers mysteriously on the wane. After much reflection on the “what ifs” and what her status as the Slayer means to her, it turns out that this is all the product of a rite of passage called the Cruciamentum, (from the Latin meaning “Watchers are tools”). Devised by the Watcher’s Council, it involves temporarily dampening a soon-to-be eighteen-year-old Slayer’s powers and pitting her against a vampire. As is tradition. Of course, despite the ritual goes sideways, Buffy is ultimately able to outwit her opponent, but not before Giles intervenes to reveal to truth of the ritual, an act that leads to his firing as Buffy’s Watcher.
This is a striking episode, and while it has any number of memorable moments, including Buffy’s defeat of the vampire and her contemplation of whether or not she could even go back to a normal life, knowing what she does. But the episode’s finest moments come in a pair of scenes toward the end. First, we have a beat in which the entire premise of the show is subverted as a powerless Buffy is catcalled on the street, to turn a corner and find herself running helplessly from a pair of vampires. Buffy is saved (which feels so weird to say) when Giles arrives and lets her into his car. All of this leads into what is easily the best scene of the episode, in which Giles breaks protocol to tell Buffy the truth. Buffy’s reaction to his betrayal is powerfully acted and the whole scene is all the more heart-wrenching for the fact that the audience has been far more privy to Giles’ objections to the test than Buffy herself. For a one-off installment of a show whose best material usually comes from the mythology episodes, this is powerful stuff.
‘Surprise’ / ‘Innocence‘
So here we are. The top spot. And despite the title of the first installment of this two-parter, I doubt anyone is surprised that this is where we ended up. Far and away the most important episode on this list, this two-parter represents a turning point for both the season and for the series as a whole. As the point in the show’s history at which David Boreanaz really started to come into his own as an actor, there is a direct throughline from these episodes (both behind-the-scenes and in-story) to Angel getting a spin-off of his very own.
Despite its length and importance, the plot is fairly straightforward. Spike and Drusilla work to resurrect the Judge (a dismembered – but far from dead – demon who can kill with a touch) while Buffy’s friends plan a surprise party. When they get wind of the vampire duo’s plans (by way of a severed arm in a box), the gang springs into action, but are too late in locating their hideout. After a close call with the Judge, Buffy and Angel finally spend the night together. And in classic Whedon fashion, this only makes things worse, as everyone involved learns the hard way that the curse that ensouled Angel can be broken if he experiences a moment of perfect happiness. That isn’t a euphemism, by the way, but it may as well be. From here, the show goes makes a point of establishing to spectacular effect that yes, Angel is evil again. Now back to his old self, our favorite vampire-who-until-recently-had-a-soul embarks on his newfound mission to make Buffy suffer.
So strictly speaking, ‘Surprise’ is the birthday episode, while ‘Innocence’ deals with the fallout. But if I were being that strict about it, I’d not only be covering half the story, but it would have also probably meant ranking this much lower than it really deserves, as the first part is essentially all setup. While some might see that as a flaw, I’d compare it to a roller coaster, with the first part taking you to up the first hill and the second rocketing you back down with a non-stop hour of dramatic payoff. Because of this, it’s essentially impossible to separate the two. In fact, out of every episode on this list, this two-parter may be the one that best encapsulates the series at its finest. It has everything. ancient mystical threats, Spike and Dru, human drama, Spike, Buffy and Angel at peak melodrama, and Joss Whedon’s singular ability to turn his characters’ suffering into riveting television (which sounds incredibly sadistic when you actually say it). In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that out of the six episodes we’ve covered today, only one of them (‘Innocence’) was written and directed by Joss himself. Though while he’s only credited with the back half of this two-parter, his fingerprints are all over the first. Make no mistake. This is just Buffy’s best birthday episode, it’s among the best of the series.
So there you have it, our ranking of Buffy’s birthday episodes. If you think I’ve done the show a grave disservice by not putting ‘A New Man’ at the top of the list, feel free to let me know in the comments! Either way, thank you for joining us at ScienceFiction.com for our twentieth-anniversary celebration of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, and here’s to the next two decades of slayage!