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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Episode Rankings -- Top 15

In a comment recently, Allison suggested that I add some posts ranking such things as my best/favorite episodes, etc. I’ve gone back and forth on whether to do this, but her comment kind of pushed me into doing it.

The big reason for my previous reluctance was that my attitudes about these things change over time. Any ranking I give today would probably differ substantially from one I gave 10 years ago. However, I’ve decided that enough time has passed that my evaluation of the episodes is reasonably stable. I might still switch an episode from 8th to 15th, but it’s very unlikely that I’d switch one from 103rd to 15th or even to 41st. Still, don’t take the exact order too seriously. There’s a real risk of being more precise than accurate when making up these lists, and in any case I might change my mind again next week.

I’m going to rank the top episodes in two different posts, one today and one next Thursday. The distinction I’m making between these two lists is between “best” and “favorite”. To illustrate the distinction, consider The Body. As you can see below, I rank it no. 1 on my “best” list (no surprise there). However, I can’t consider it a “favorite” because it’s simply too painful to re-watch. The “favorites” list will be those I enjoy watching the most.

I created today’s list by putting on my critic’s hat and trying to evaluate the “best” episodes. Don’t be fooled into thinking this list will be “objective”; I’m certainly under no such illusion. All it means is that I’m trying to put some constraints on my own subjective views, not that I’ve succeeded in eliminating subjectivity (which is, in my view, impossible).

As you’ll see very quickly, the “best” list contains mostly dramatic episodes rather than comic ones. This is consistent with my comments about the relative longevity of drama and comedy in the Introduction. However, my “favorites” list will be much more heavily weighted towards funnier episodes – or at least those less dark and disturbing – for reasons which are probably obvious.

In two cases below I treated a two-part episode as one for purposes of the rankings. That may seem unfair, but I find it hard to separate the relevant episodes and I don’t know how I’d rank them if I had to split them.

SPOILER WARNING: There’s at least one major spoiler below and any comments will likely include more.

T1. The Body
       Once More With Feeling
3.    Passion
4.    Becoming 1 & 2
5.    Lies My Parents Told Me
6.    Storyteller
7.    Normal Again
8.    Dead Things
9.    Hush
10.  Fool For Love
11.  Surprise/Innocence
12.  The Gift
13.  Smashed
14.  Restless
15.  Chosen

I couldn’t do just 10. It was too hard for me to separate out 11-15 from the top 10. For that matter, it was pretty hard to separate 11-15 from the ones I’d put at 16-20, but I felt a little better about breaking it at 15. Purely arbitrary.

Many of these episodes appear on lots of “best” lists, and their appearance won’t be a surprise, though some will disagree with the ordering. I’ll just comment on three of them, in reverse order of their ranking. Chosen is on the list because I was on line obsessively before it aired and I’m confident that nobody, except those who were spoiled, saw the twist coming. Changing the whole nature of the show like that was daring, in my view, and I loved it.

I know plenty of viewers who hate Smashed. From what I read, a lot of that is associated with the story line: they just don’t like the decision to have Buffy have sex with Spike. That’s ok. I’m not critical of that decision, but even if I were, I’m trying to base my judgment more on the execution than on the plot. Overall, I have to judge the episode as well-executed, and the final 15 minutes or so (the whole fight plus the ending) as brilliant.

Storyteller is the third one which gets, well, less love in fandom. A lot of that comes from dislike of Andrew. Andrew doesn’t bother me, and I think my post on that episode explains why I rank it so high.

Feel free to tear my list apart in comments and/or to post your own.


  1. I'm pretty close to your list, actually, but I have one glaring difference in Conversations With Dead People. I'd like to hear your reason for not including it higher, if possible (I know that's a very broad question, sorry!)

    1. CWDP, Selfless, and Tabula Rasa would probably be 16-18, and probably in that order. It's nearly impossible for me to draw lines at this level, so I'm not sure I can give a good reason for including, say, Smashed at 13 rather than CWDP. The best I can do is say that I rate the ending of Smashed very highly (as I'll post in a couple of weeks), both for its shock value and for its execution, so that moved it up.

  2. Yes!! I was so excited to see this post. Thanks so much for sharing.
    (& the possibilities for more top 10 lists are endless.... ;) )

    In the spirit of list-making I've compiled one as well. Admittedly my knowledge of the show is far less than your own (& probably much of fandom), so I had a tough time distinguishing between personal favorite vs. what's truly considered the best. The Prom ranks so highly for me because Buffy's "perfect high school moment" & Angel's appearance gets me every time.

    1. Becoming 1/2
    2. Once More, With Feeling
    3. The Prom
    4. I Only Have Eyes for You
    5. Fool for Love
    6. Surprise/Innocence
    7. Hush
    8. Graduation 1/2
    9. Tabula Rasa
    10. This Year's Girl/Who Are You


    1. When I look at a Top 10 list, the important thing to me is not the specific episodes or the specific order. It's whether the list has actual top-notch episodes on it. If I see a list with I Robot, You Jane on it, well..... that's what I'll call quirky. But there are lots of really good episodes to choose from and your's does that. It's just as respectable a list as mine. Thanks for sharing.

    2. I recently discovered your blog and was quickly astounded by your impressive and prolific analyses. We have very similar views of the series - I was particularly happy to see how well you articulate the brilliance of season 7 and (especially) season 6, which attract so much vitriol on the internet. Another site that you may want to check out which also does episode-by-episode analysis of BtVS, as well as some other deserving shows, is Critically Touched.
      As far as my own rankings go (which extend all the way to 137, as I took two parters as single episodes), here is my top 15, about 70% what I feel to be the best and 30% what my subjective favorites are -
      1) The Gift
      2) Normal Again
      3) Once More, with Feeling
      4) Fool for Love
      5) Passion
      6) Restless
      7) Becoming
      8) Dead Things
      9) The Body
      10) Surprise/ Innocence
      11) After Life
      12) Helpless
      13) Lies My Parents Told Me
      14) This Year's Girl/Who Are You?
      15) Seeing Red
      Seasons are 6, 5, 2, 7, 3, 4, 1.

    3. Thanks for the kind words and the suggestion about Critically Touched. I'll check it out.

      Your list seems very reasonable to me. The exact order is never important IMO, it's recognizing good episodes and having them at the top. Your list does that.

    4. Thanks, that means something coming from someone so knowledgable and bright! Would you consider doing season-by-season rankings/analyses?

    5. Do you mean ranking the seasons? I waver on that. On a given day 2, 5, or 7 might be at the top. 1 would always be at the bottom, though that's a bit unfair. 6 probably rates ahead of 3 and 4. That puts my top 4 the same as yours, but in different order.

      My basic view of ranking is something I picked up from baseball hall of fame discussions. When we rank players, we talk about "peak value" (how good were his best seasons) and "career value" (how much value did he produce over his career). For example, Sandy Koufax is a classic "peak value" player, because he was truly great for only 5 or 6 years. In contrast, a pitcher like Don Sutton never had a season anywhere near that good, but pitched much longer and thus had more value over his career.

      The most important thing to me in ranking a season is the number of great episodes it had. S2 had 3 or 5, depending on how you count two-parters. S5 had 3, S7 had 5 or 6 (I tend to include Beneath You because of the final scene). They get top ranking because they had few poor episodes and lots of great ones.

      In contrast, S3 was very consistent, with no episodes as weak as, say, Reptile Boy or Go Fish, but had no episodes to match the very best of other seasons (while Helpless is excellent, I don't rank it quite as high as you do). S6 had 5 great episodes but also some I don't like at all, while S4 has 2 or 3 great episodes but the storyline isn't as solid as S3.

      All this makes it pretty subjective, but I vote for Koufax over Sutton, so S3 gets ranked lower than many people have it.

  3. What Koufax did with his eviscerated arm will never cease to leave me in awe...let's hope for greatness' sake that Kershaw can maintain his current level (although I can't believe I am saying that as a Mets fan :D).

    I find it interesting that you rate season 3 below several other seasons since your work on analyzing it frequently left me completely electrified and is to me some of your best work, along with your reviews of season 7...those two are eerily similar in their ready employment of subtext and general thematic/philosophical ideation, which must have made them especially compelling to analyze.

    If I may ask as well, what season do you find most emotionally resonant, and which one do you find most intellectually engrossing?

    1. Hey, I used Koufax as the example even though I'm a Giants fan.

      I still today find S2 the most emotionally resonant. I might say S6, but then I get distracted by the magic/drugs issue and that.... doesn't resonate. S5 also rates high on that score.

      Thank you for your comments about my S3 and S7 posts. In retrospect, I found seasons 3, 4, and 7 to be the most intellectually engrossing. It wasn't until I sat down and went through those seasons carefully that I really understood Joss' worldview. I had definite "Aha!" moments, especially when I realized the connection between Amends and The Myth of Sisyphus.

  4. I don't know how exactly I'd rank mine, but from your list I would remove Chosen, Lies My Parents Told Me, Storyteller and Smashed (the last 10 or so minutes are brilliant, but the rest of the episode is a bit boring, namely all non-Buffy/Spike scenes) and wouldn't count Surprise with Innocence since I don't find it as good.

    In their place I'd put Conversations with Dead People, I Only Have Eyes For You, The Wish and either Lie to Me, Intervention, or maybe Something Blue (comedy gold) or Tabula Rasa. Prophecy Girl and Consequences, which I recently rewatched and reviewed, are also pretty great.

  5. I'm admittedly cheating in lumping Surprise with Innocence. I just find it hard to separate them so I rate them together like I do with Becoming. It's pretty arbitary, since I don't have any problem separating GD1 and GD2 when rating them.

    All of your suggested replacements would be high on my list as well, even if not top 15. As for LMPTM and Storyteller, read my S7 analysis and you'll see why I rate them so highly.

  6. I love storyteller, I'm glad it's in your list