First up on "The Rewatch" is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that had a lot of ups and downs over its seven seasons. When it was good, nothing else on the air at the time could match it. When it was bad, you'd wonder if television characters could ever be this annoying again. The show had plenty of standalone episodes, and plenty that advanced a seasonal arc, usually revolving around the particular villain (or "Big Bad" in the show's parlance) threatening our intrepid Slayer and her gang of Slayerettes. Oh, and the world. Shall we dive in? Obviously, there are massive spoilers ahead.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 1
Big Bad: The Master
Episode 1: "Welcome to the Hellmouth"
Introduces: Buffy Summers, Rupert Giles, Xander Harris, Willow Rosenberg, Cordelia Chase, Angel, Joyce Summers, The Master, Principal Flutie, Darla
It takes balls to kick off your brand new series with a two-parter. In this first hour, Buffy arrives in Sunnydale and we meet the whole gang. Buffy isn't thrilled to leap back into slaying, since it led to such trouble in Los Angeles, but between Giles' nagging and a warning from the mysterious Angel about the Hellmouth under her feet, she reluctantly takes up her stake. I'd almost forgotten about Principal Flutie, since Principal Snyder was much more of a presence, but it tickled me to get reacquainted with this you-can't-spell-principal-without-PAL kinda guy. The episode thankfully doesn't waste much time bringing Xander and Willow into the supernatural fold, as Xander overhears Buffy discussing vampires with Giles, and Willow is attacked by one. And of course, who doesn't get a kick out of the bitchy Original Recipe Cordelia? Original Recipe Joyce is a lot more forgettable. They really had no idea what to do with her at first, did they? Naturally, there's a lot of exposition which comes across as padding on a rewatch, but all in all, this isn't a half-bad introduction to the series. The Master is awakened and sends his acolytes out to get some blood, and the episode ends as his main henchman corners Buffy in a crypt and goes in for the kill.
Episode 2: "The Harvest"
Introduces: Harmony Kendall
We pick up with Buffy escaping Luke (the main vampire henchman) via a silver cross that Angel gave her, and then it's back into exposition as she and Giles give Xander and Willow an introductory lesson in Slayer lore. This is the moment Willow happily slides into her role as researcher/computer whiz, a position she will occupy for several seasons. Buffy makes an effort to save Xander's friend Jesse from the vampires, but finds that he's already been turned, and has been used as bait to lure her to the Master's lair. She escapes with Xander's help, and Giles informs the group that during the titular Harvest, the energy from anyone that Luke drinks will be transferred to the Master. Luke, Darla, Jesse, and some other vampires attack the Bronze, and in a rather anticlimactic fight, Buffy dusts Luke and Xander accidentally stakes Jesse. This was another important episode for establishing the show's universe, but for rewatchers who already know the backstory, it doesn't really distinguish itself.
Episode 3: "Witch"
Introduces: Amy Madison
The first standalone episode of the series, and one that I really enjoy. Buffy continues her efforts to live as normal a life as possible by trying out for the cheerleading squad, alongside Cordelia and Amy Madison. Elizabeth Anne Allen does a great job as Amy, and I'm chuffed that a character who could easily be written off in one episode was later rewoven into the series. A series of mysterious calamities befall the cheerleaders, from spontaneous combustion to mouth removal, which bumps the rejected Buffy and Amy up the list. Buffy manages to save Cordelia yet again after the latter is struck temporarily blind. Giles figures out that a vengeful witch is at work, and Amy is the top suspect. Buffy, already established as the leader, is rendered useless by a spell, so Willow, Xander, and Giles must take point on putting a stop to the mayhem. Joyce is finally put to good use, as the episode trades heavily in the often-fraught relationships between mother and daughter. Amy's mother is the real witch, you see, and swaps bodies with her daughter to recapture her past glories. Working together, the gang (plus Amy) is able to fight back, and Catherine Madison's final spell is reflected back onto her. This leads to one of the coolest episode enders of the series, as we see her imprisoned forever in the cheerleading trophy that bears her name.
Episode 4: "Teacher's Pet"
Another standalone episode, but this one is not half as good, in my opinion. Xander (along with the rest of the male student body) is smitten by Ms. French, the substitute biology teacher. What they don't realize is that she's kind of...a giant praying mantis. For some reason, her being a big insect terrifies the entire vampire populace. Her goal is to kidnap male virgins and have them fertilize her eggs. How this works biologically is never explored, but whatever. Angel is shoehorned into the episode to offer a cryptic warning, but serves no useful purpose. Xander and another student are imprisoned in Ms. French's basement dungeon, and are eventually rescued by Buffy, Willow, and Giles. Though Ms. French and her main cluster of eggs are hacked to death, the episode closes on a hatching egg cache at the school that our heroes missed. This isn't a wholly unenjoyable episode, but it is wholly unnecessary.
Episode 5: "Never Kill A Boy on the First Date"
Introduces: The Anointed One
The quest for normalcy continues! Buffy just wants to have a normal date with a normal boy (Owen), but slayage keeps getting in her way. Stupid Hellmouth! The Master tells of a prophecy in which the Anointed One will lead the Slayer to her doom. Giles is aware of the prophecy too, and when a charter bus is attacked by vampires, Buffy has to investigate the funeral home, dragging the confused Owen along. Xander, who's had a crush on Buffy since the series began, exhibits what is going to become his trademark jealousy that gets him in trouble before too long. Cordelia, Angel, Giles are also not thrilled with Buffy's new beau, all for different reasons. After Buffy roasts a vamp that attacked Owen, she realizes that although he's totally into the Danger Girlfriend, any relationship with him will likely end in his death, and she calls it off. The gang takes comfort in the fact that at least they were able to slay the Anointed One, not realizing their target wasn't the burly, tattooed religious weirdo that just got smoked, but the sweet-faced kid, who goes and joins the Master in his lair. This was a good episode in terms of balancing Buffy's desire to be a regular teen with her status as the Chosen One. It's a shame we'll never see Owen again; it would have been interesting to run into him later down the line after Buffy has gone through so much more.
Episode 6: "The Pack"
This would have been an isolated standalone episode, but for being the first instance of Buffy establishing its universe's stakes by killing off a (semi) main character. True, more important people will meet their ends as the seasons progress, but this was the first time the victim isn't an extra. First things first, though. Sunnydale High students go to the zoo, and whilst there, a group of bullies gets possessed with the spirit of demon hyenas. Xander, who's there to protect a weaker student from the bullies' harassment, also gets infected. He and the bullies all begin to get meaner and more predatory. At first, this is just shown through the lens of high school cruelty, from vicious insults to dodgeball attacks. Poor Willow gets the brunt of it from Xander, who is not only supposed to be her best friend, but who she's had a crush on since childhood. This is the first episode that Alyson Hannigan got to shine in an emotional breakdown scene; it certainly won't be the last, as she completely crushes every single one. Xander and the bullies get more feral, and wind up eating the school mascot (a pig). As Buffy and the gang attempt to deal with Xander, Principal Flutie calls the gang of bullies into his office for a good talking to. And... Well, goodbye, Principal Flutie (*buuuuuuurp*). The zookeeper turns out to be behind the possession, and attacks Willow to gain the power for himself - leeching it out of Xander and the bullies. It doesn't last long, as in the ensuing fight, he's knocked into the hyena enclosure, where he is eaten. Buffy often used supernatural stories as an allegory to examine social issues, but this episode's treatment of high school bullying was kind of weak. The bullies run off, and never get punished, while Xander feigns memory loss about the whole incident. Although this episode was cool in that it begins to reveal how far this show is willing to go, its main storyline lands with a thud.
Episode 7: "Angel"
So long, standalones! It's time to seriously advance the season's arc. The Master sends a group of vampires known as the Three after Buffy, and Angel helps her fight them off. The two of them begin to get closer and closer, and Buffy invites him to stay at her house. They kiss, and as Angel pulls away, his vampire face is revealed. Dun dun duuuuuuun! Buffy is horrified, and Angel vanishes into the night. Later, through Giles' research, we learn that Angel used to be a vicious killer (Angelus), but has not preyed on humans for years. Darla kills the Three at the behest of the Master, and asks for permission to take on Buffy as well. She cons her way into the Summers home, where she bites Joyce. Angel arrives and goes into vamp face, just in time for Buffy to come home and misconstrue what happened. Joyce recovers (meeting Giles for the first time in the hospital), and everyone else winds up at the Bronze for the big fight. Darla eschews traditional vampire attacks, and tries to gun Buffy down, while revealing that she was the one who sired Angel (that is, she turned him). Although Angel has had a bond beyond closeness with Darla for hundreds of years, he can't bear to see Buffy killed, and stakes Darla into dust. Now that everyone is safe, he explains his background - he once fed on a Gypsy girl, and as punishment, her clan put a curse on him, restoring his soul. He's still a vampire, but his conscience and morality have come roaring back, so he hasn't killed or fed on a living person since. He and Buffy realize that a relationship between them would never work, but they can't resist sharing one last kiss. Although it's not one of my favorites, I have to admit this was a pretty powerful episode, and I'm saying that as someone who never had much use for Angel.
Episode 8: "I Robot... You, Jane"
Introduces: Jenny Calendar
And then there's this. When I ranked the episodes of Season 1, picking the best required some contemplation. Picking the worst was simplicity itself. It's this one, dummy. While "Teacher's Pet" is kind of an ignorable episode, it was at least fun to watch. "I, Robot..." is just dumb. There is an ancient demon named Moloch who influences followers into willingly dying at his feet. A group of monks trap his spirit into a book, and centuries later, when that book is scanned into the Sunnydale High computers, Moloch is unleashed onto the internet. He mesmerizes the school's computer nerds (including Willow), who quickly fall under his thrall. Moloch also hypnotizes scientific engineers, all for the aim of putting his essence into a giant robot so he can wreck up the place physically as well as technologically. So the grand, evil force that Buffy must face is... A scientist, some sweaty nerds, and a robot. The one thing this episode is noteworthy for is the introduction of Miss Calendar, who plays off of Giles nicely. Their barbs back and forth about technology versus books are a fun setup for their eventual relationship, and this is one of the few episodes that suggests that modern conveniences are just as effective a vessel for evil (and the fight against it) as ancient tomes and rituals. Otherwise, though? Bleh.
Episode 9: "The Puppet Show"
Introduces: Principal Snyder
Here's a much better standalone episode. Sunnydale High is having a talent show (which the new discipline-obsessed principal forces Buffy, Xander, and Willow to join), and someone starts harvesting organs from its participants. Suspicion immediately focuses on the socially-maladjusted ventriloquist Morgan, who appears to be lashing out rudely via his creepy dummy, Sid. In a regular horror-style show, Buffy would learn that the dummy is sentient (and evil, of course), and would fight it to the death. In a Twilight Zone twist on the story, she would believe the dummy was sentient (and evil, of course), but learn that she was mistaken after violently attacking Morgan and Sid, winding up horrified at her own paranoia. This show is too smart for that, though. It turns out that Sid is, indeed, sentient, but even as Buffy is convinced he's the murderer, he's convinced that she is. Sid is actually a demon hunter, cursed to live in the body of a dummy until he kills off the last of the Brotherhood of Seven, who is responsible for the organ harvest. The real culprit is the talent show's magician, who kills Morgan for his brain, but rejects it when he learns that Morgan had cancer. Buffy and Sid are able to take him down before he manages to scalp Giles, and Sid is able to finally rest in peace. This is an extremely clever episode, and a welcome introduction to the snide, bureaucratic Principal Snyder, who despises all of the students, and Buffy in particular.
Episode 10: "Nightmares"
Introduces: Hank Summers
It's only visible in hindsight, but there comes a point in every good show where everything clicks into place, and you realize you've got something special. Though there were episodes before this one that I really liked, "Nightmares" marks the point in Buffy the Vampire Slayer where it turned from a good show into must-watch TV. Not only is it a fantastic episode, but it typifies a lot about what the show did so well. It blends comedy and stark drama. It blends a standalone plot with the season's arc. It takes a heavily-used entertainment trope (nightmares becoming real), and puts a fresh new spin on it. The episode's story originates with a mysterious boy that only Buffy seems to see. Every time he appears, someone's worst fear/nightmare manifests. Although the nightmares are kicked off with something physical (a swarm of spiders), plenty of the students' nightmares understandably revolve around panic or embarrassment. A "cool" guy is horrified by his mother showing up and showering him with love. Xander's clothes disappear. Buffy flunks a test she didn't prepare for. Cordelia's hair goes all frizzy. In one of the episode's funniest bits, Willow is dragged on stage as a opera soprano. These are just precursors to the darker fears that lie within the characters. In a wrenching scene, Buffy's distant father shows up, and blames her for his divorce and for being a huge disappointment in general. The fact that nightmares can now be incorporated into the real world gives the Master a chance to break the bonds of his lair and go up to the surface, where he buries Buffy alive. Her nightmare is thankfully counteracted by Giles', and she's able to survive because she has been turned into a vampire. All of this is being caused by the little boy, who is in a coma and is astral projecting. Sunnydale is on the verge of completely collapsing, but the gang is able to wake the boy up and help him face his fear - the little league coach who beat him into his coma. This is an outstanding episode from start to finish, and cemented my love for Buffy for all time.
Episode 11: "Out of Mind, Out of Sight"
The core cast is generally the reason to tune in to Buffy. Plenty of one-time guest stars handled their roles competently, but I don't think anyone's doing backflips over how awesome the actors who played Ms. French or Morgan were. This episode is a notable exception. Clea DuVall has been amazingly good in everything I've ever seen her in, and that definitely includes "Out of Mind, Out of Sight". She plays Marcie Ross, a girl so ignored at Sunnydale High that she eventually became invisible. Buffy and the gang are sympathetic at first, but when Marcie starts launching violent attacks against the people who ignored her, they must fight to stop her. Cordelia is Marcie's main target (for what should be obvious reasons), and this episode marks the first time Cordelia drops the bitch veneer and starts working with Buffy's crew as an ally. Not that it lasts. In seasonal arc news, Angel drops by to offer Giles help in tracking down a book that contains a lot of lost Slayer lore. Marcie gets increasingly unhinged, and once Buffy stops attempting to apply super-strength to the problem, and just starts listening carefully, she's able to defeat Marcie with a single punch. Things don't end too badly for Marcie, though, as she's bundled off by FBI agents to a new life as a government assassin alongside other invisible, ignored teens. This would probably be a fine-but-ultimately-unimportant episode like "Teacher's Pet", were it not for DuVall's performance. As it is, it wound up being one of my favorites of the season.
Episode 12: "Prophecy Girl"
This season finale packs a wallop. The spring dance is coming up, and Xander finally acts on his crush, asking Buffy to go with him. She rejects him, as does Willow when he assumes she'd be happy to be his backup choice. Giles analyzes the book that Angel gave him in the last episode, and determines that Buffy will face the Master, and that she will die while doing so. Buffy overhears him telling Angel about this, and refuses to embrace destiny, "quitting" her Slayer duties in hysterics. Vampire attacks on the students are getting more vicious, and after they slaughter the guys setting up the dance, Buffy accepts her fate and agrees to face the Master. The Anointed One leads her to the Master's lair, where she puts up as much of a fight as she can before the Master bites her, then drops her face-down into a puddle, where she drowns. The Master is now free to leave his lair, and heads for the Hellmouth, which has opened into the school library. It spawns monsters that Giles, Willow, and Miss Calendar attempt to fight off. Xander, still stinging with jealousy and rejection, reluctantly enlists Angel's help, and the two of them head to the Master's lair, where Xander is able to revive Buffy with CPR. She heads back to the school, where she hurls the Master onto a huge, jutting chunk of wood, finally dusting him and closing the Hellmouth. The world saved (for the time being), the gang is free to head to the dance. It's a very strong finish to the season, and imparts the massive emotional weight that always rests on Buffy's shoulders. However, it also solidifies the group as a whole, so that emotional weight needn't be shouldered alone - Buffy is the first Slayer in history to have a genuine support system, and her quest to have a normal life is at least partially fulfilled.
Fun fact about Season 1: It contains four of the eight episodes to not feature a single vampire ("Witch", "The Pack", "I Robot... You, Jane", and "The Puppet Show"). In looking back at the full episode list, it appears that I prefer strong standalone episodes to the ones with a lot of character building, but that may be a symptom of this being a rewatch. After all, I already know where/how the characters end up, so of course I'd be more interested in plot-driven stories. I assumed going in that Season 1 would suffer in comparison to the ones that come later, because it needed to introduce the universe and all its characters, and I figured there would be a lot of bloated exposition. And sure, future episodes were able to go straight for the meat of the story, but I was still surprised at how deft this inaugural season was. And now, the inevitable rankings:
Best Episode: "Nightmares"
Worst Episode: "I Robot... You, Jane"
Must-Watch: "Witch", "Out of Sight, Out of Mind", "Prophecy Girl" (These are "Musts" from a rewatch perspective - they may not fill newbies in on the plot, but they're the most enjoyable.)
Free-to-Skip: "Teacher's Pet", "The Pack" (Converse here. Skippable episodes may be very important from a story perspective, but struck me as weak, entertainment-wise.)