Buffy the Vampire Slayer might be just over 20 years old now, but its remains one of the freshest, most relatable, and all around best shows about the growing up experience. Joss Whedon’s central metaphor for the series that adolescence is a horror show made for some truly classic episodes over seven seasons—in fact, those devoted to illustrating this theme are what we’d call the most essential episodes of the entire series. While Buffy gave us plenty of terrific outings that dealt simply with fighting gruesome silent demons and sacrificing your life to save the world (“Hush” and “The Gift” come to mind), the show really lived and died on the “growing up is hell” eps we’ve laid out below. We’ve got plenty of other favorites, but these 10 episodes are what Buffy is at its core.
1. “Out of Mind, Out of Sight” (Season one, episode 11)
Fans tend not list first season Buffy episodes when making any”best of” lists like this one, but season one, for all of its very ’90s teen movie cheesiness, hammers the “growing up is hell” theme maybe more than any other season. And never better than in this episode, about a girl named Marcy who is so unpopular and ignored that she literally becomes invisible. This early episode rings true for many of us who felt the very same in junior high or high school.
2. “School Hard” (Season two, episode three)
3. “Surprise/Innocence” (Season two, episodes 13/14)
Many consider this two parter the point where Buffy really came into its own, and I totally agree. Buffy and her vampire boyfriend Angel have sex for the first time on Buffy’s 17th birthday, which undoes his Gypsy curse and takes away his soul. In other words, post coitus, Angel becomes a total jerk. Considering this is something millions of teenage girls sadly go through (minus the subsequent killing spree from said crappy boyfriend, we hope) few episodes of Buffy exemplify the pain of teen romance than this pair.
4. “Earshot” (Season three, episode 18)
In this often hilarious episode, Buffy temporarily gains the ability to read minds… and quickly finds out that most kids in her high school are thinking about sex pretty much all the time. A bit more dramatically, Buffy also soon realizes that the reasons that so many young people seem indifferent to the pain of those around them is that they’re just too caught up in their own.
5. “The Prom” (Season three, episode 20)
What truly resonates about this episode isn’t the titular prom, it’s that this is the one where Buffy’s longtime boyfriend Angel breaks up with her for her own good, finally admitting that these two have no future together. When Buffy goes to her best friend Willow and breaks down in her arms over losing Angel, you can’t help but remember how painful losing your first true love really was.
6. “Living Conditions” (Season four, episode two)
For many, going away to college and adjusting to your very first college roommate is one of the first experiences of having to live in close quarters with someone who isn’t family… and it can sometimes be absolute hell. In Buffy’s case, it was hell in the literal sense, as her perpetually perky and annoying roommate actually turned out to be a demon.
7. “The Body” (Season five, episode 16)
There is perhaps no episode in TV history that accurately portrays how we deal with our first major loss of a loved one, and all the feelings associated with it, better than “The Body,” in which Buffy and her sister Dawn discover that their mother Joyce has died suddenly from a brain tumor.
8. “Flooded” (Season six, episode four)
Buffy may know everything about fighting vampires and demons, but after her mother passes away, she has to learn to handle real world catastrophes, like getting her younger sister to school on time, getting a bank loan, or dealing with a flooded basement. Buffy quickly learns she would rather have to fight with a dozen vamps in the graveyard than have to deal with property taxes.
9. “Doublemeat Palace” (Season six, episode 12)
Part of growing up is getting a J-O-B, and like most of us, Buffy’s first paying gig involves saying, “How may I help you?” Buffy learns the ins and outs of a customer service job when working for fast food establishment Doublemeat Palace. Her stint as a fast food worker didn’t last long, as the network started getting complaints from real fast food advertisers when the show made working these kinds of jobs seem hellish. (And not Buffy‘s usual kind of “hellish,” either.)
10. “Help” (Season seven, episode four)
In the show’s final season, Buffy becomes a counselor at her former high school, and comes across Cassie, a troubled young girl who has the ability to foresee her own death. This is one of the last episodes to really deal with adolescence on the show, touching on the challenges of trying to navigate the highs and lows of school life, including pushy guys who won’t take no for an answer, bullies, and evil cults (remember, this is Sunnydale).
Which are your favorite Buffy episodes that speak to the pain of adolescence? Tell us your picks down below in the comments.
Images: 20th Century Fox