The 13 Best Episodes of the Whedonverse
Before Joss Whedon hit it big with Avengers, he made some of the most beloved cult hits of all time on the small screen, including 90's feminist classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the ultimate cancelled-too-soon series Firefly. His shows are so good, in fact, that I wasn't able to pick just ten best episodes, so here are my thirteen best episodes of the Whedonverse. Some widely beloved episodes will inevitably be missing, especially since I tend to favor darker episodes over funnier ones (sorry to all the "Once More with Feeling," "Smile Time," and "Jaynestown" fans out there, I like them too, but they didn't make the cut), but I have justifications for all of them, I promise. Enjoy, and disagree in the comments below!
Spoilers for Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse follow!
13. "Epitaph Two," Dollhouse
Dollhouse's series finale was uneven at times, and the Boyd-as-Big-Bad reveal was rushed to the point of ludicrousness, but its sheer ambition makes it one of the most significant and memorable Whedon episodes of all time. The series had spent two seasons exploring the ramifications of personality-wiping technology in a nuanced, morally ambiguous way, with a slow build towards condemnation of the Dollhouse's objectification of its voluntary slaves. Then, the finale took it to a whole new level, portraying personality-wiping technology as an apocalypse waiting to happen in a terrifying and emotionally resonant way.
12. "Forgiving," Angel
Angel was in top form in season three, as its increasingly serialized storylines and dark sensibility added more stakes and emotional weight than ever before. In "Forgiving," Wesley agonizes over the grueling decision to steal Angel's child, and Angel shows him no mercy in his retribution. Everyone in this situation is sympathetic, and Wesley's arc after this episode is nothing short of tragic. It served as a turning point for the previously bumbling, cartoonish character, and kicked off his unlikely transformation into one of the most complex characters in the Whedonverse.
11. "Vows," Dollhouse
The first season of Dollhouse was very hit-and-miss, with a whole lot of misses, but the second season premiere showed that it had finally gotten its act together. Echo's storyline in this episode raises the stakes considerably, as it definitively confirmed that the Dolls aren't "blank slates" when their personalities are wiped (plus, Jamie Bamber!). But the real meat of the episode involved Amy Acker's Claire Saunders, who has a heartbreaking and existential scene with her personality's creator, Topher, in which she reveals that she doesn't want to restore her original personality because she "doesn't want to die," which gets to the heart of Dollhouse's exploration of identity and the human condition.
10. "Bushwhacked," Firefly
While not as famous as "Objects in Space" or even "Jaynestown," "Bushwhacked" was historic for properly introducing the Reavers, the most deeply disturbing villains of the Whedonverse. The reveal in Serenity that they were the result of a government-sanctioned poisoning was a little bit of a letdown, but when we first met them in this episode, they were just people who had been driven murderously insane by the black. The fact that seasoned warriors like Mal and Zoe agreed that it was better to commit suicide than be raped, mutilated, and killed by the Reavers was terrifying, and their actual appearance didn't disappoint.
On the lighter side, the interrogation scenes with the Alliance also featured one of my favorite jokes of the series:
[Cut to Wash's interrogation]
Wash: The legs! Oh yeah, I definitely have to say it was her legs. You can put that down! Her legs, and right where her legs meet her back. That - actually that whole area. That and - and above it.
9. "Innocence," Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Honestly, almost any episode from Buffy's second season could go on this list, but I restricted it as much as I could. After a season and a half of relative fluff, "Innocence" was a devastating episode, and the first to establish the show as a darkly honest metaphor about the "hell" of adolescence. The notion of a man "turning evil" after sex is a little bit rote, but the general depiction of a painful relationship forcing Buffy to grow up was universal and affecting.
8. "Belonging," Dollhouse
Dollhouse often worked better on a big picture level than on an individual episode level, but "Belonging" was nearly perfect, demonstrating all of the most disturbing evils of the Dollhouse in one gut punch. The idea of people volunteering to have their minds wiped to fulfill sexual fantasies sounds fine in theory (sort of), but if this ever happened in reality, the corporation probably would take advantage of the mentally ill, and would have no compunction about selling a human being if the price tag were high enough. "Belonging" was Joss Whedon's view of human nature, and the place of women in society, at its darkest.
7. "Passion," Buffy the Vampire Slayer
"Passion" featured one of the most upsetting deaths in TV history (for a character we didn't even like that much! Why is Joss so good at death??), not to mention a now-famous voiceover speech from Angelus. Here it is, for old times' sake:
Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love, the clarity of hatred, and the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we'd know some kind of peace... but we would be hollow. Empty rooms. Shuddered and dank. Without passion, we'd be truly dead."
6. "A Hole in the World," Angel
But if there was one death that was more upsetting than Jenny Calendar's, it was Fred Burkle's. The fifth season of Angel was a study of corruption, as every single character was reduced to the worst and most cynical versions of themselves. Fred, however, was pretty much incorruptible, and may have served as one shining ray of hope that goodness exists in the world. But then, she's literally consumed by evil, making this season of television the most despairing I've ever seen (until The Leftovers came along, that is). 5. "Objects in Space," Firefly
"Objects in Space" would have had a place in Firefly fans' hearts regardless of quality, as it served as the series finale (unless you count Serenity), but it was all the sadder that it was cancelled so soon, because its last episode was also its best. Taking inspiration from Jean Paul Sartre's existential philosophy, Whedon and co. took the simple plot of a bounty hunter trying to capture River and turned it into a meditation on the pointlessness of human existence, right down to that famous final line from Jubal Early as he literally becomes an object in space, "Well... here I am."
5. "Objects in Space," Firefly
4. "The Gift," Buffy the Vampire Slayer
"The Gift" was supposed to be the series finale, and it probably should have been, because Buffy's heroic death was the inevitable ending to a perfectly thematically cohesive season. "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it," Buffy famously says, and after five seasons of watching her suffer, we can't help but agree that "death is her gift." Everything about the final scenes is heartbreaking, from Giles's reaction to Buffy's body to the grave that says "She saved the world a lot." Of course we were all secretly happy to get two more seasons, but this would have been a hell of an ending.
3. "Becoming pt 2," Buffy the Vampire Slayer
This was the episode that made every Buffy fan cry (if you have a heart, at least). Buffy is something of a reluctant hero, but she always comes through in the end, and in the second season finale she made the ultimate sacrifice and killed the person she loved, just when he had reverted to his old self again. The tragedy of this episode was so acute, it couldn't even be undercut by the fact that Angel was promptly brought back to life in the third season. Even so, that Sarah MacLachlan song is just as devastating every time you hear it.
2. "Not Fade Away," Angel
When I first saw Angel's series finale, I was completely let down by the decision to end on a cliffhanger, but now I think it's the best series finale I've ever seen, bar none. After a season of pretty much unmitigated despair, the finale got back to the heart and thesis of the show: it's worth it to keep fighting for what's right, even if you know you can't succeed. Especially then.
1. "The Body," Buffy the Vampire Slayer
"The Body" is widely considered to be one of the best hours of television ever, and with good reason. Aside from one short sequence with a vampire near the end, it plays like a straight drama, which makes it all the more devastating. Unlike the other significant character deaths, Joyce died of natural causes, in keeping with the season's theme that death itself is the most insurmountable villain. Joss (who directed and wrote the episode) made no effort to make death pretty, or romantic, or even philosophical. There's no dramatic goodbye scene, no music playing in the background. It is what it is. It's just a body.