In case you’re living in a proverbial cave, you’ve probably heard that March 10th is the 20th Anniversary of the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, giving us a great excuse to watch this beloved TV series from start to finish! Pretty much all 144 Buffy episodes hold their own—even our least favorites weren’t the worst things we’ve seen on TV (here’s looking at you “Where The Wild Things Are”). And while we could extoll the virtues of nearly every aspect of the series, Buffy‘s seven season finales may be our favorite part of all.
Back in the heyday of weekly primetime broadcasts—before overnight Netflix drops—Buffy ended each season with a bang and planned accordingly. Sure, obligatory cliffhangers happened occasionally, but in the case of Buffy, these seven season finale are well-crafted events encapsulating where they’ve gone and what’s to come for our Scooby Gang. But how did each season finale do in accomplishing those goals? We’re ranking them all now to find out.
7. Season Six: “Grave”
After teasing the Trio—Jonathan, Warren, and Andrew—as the season’s Big Bad, events turned tragic and led to a Big Bad fans never asked for. Dark Willow emerged three episodes before “Grave” (and was briefly hinted at in season three with her vampire doppelganger), which left precious little room to build up an effective conflict between the Scooby Gang and their lovable witch pal. Dark Willow is vengeful, powerful, and feisty, but she is also the worse Big Bad in an already weak season finale.
Graves of the literal and metaphoric type were explored in season six, so the theme of death and grief was ripe for the picking. Killing off Tara (how dare you, Joss Whedon!) in order for Willow to question power and purpose in this world wasn’t the best route. Good Willow had already recognized these concepts through Buffy’s past world-saving moments. The impending showdown between Giles and Buffy vs. Dark Willow was cool and all, but the true moment of character depth in this finale was when Xander saved the world with his love for Willow—and their childhood memory of yellow crayons. In all honesty, “Grave” could have been just another episode in the season. But Buffy’s emotional reemergence and Giles’ return were key factors going into season seven, so it wasn’t a total loss.
6. Season Seven: “Chosen”
The ultimate world-ending apocalypse had to happen during Buffy‘s season and series finale. “Chosen” has all the finale tropes—inspirational pep talks, final goodbyes, big CG battles—and it almost relied on those tropes too much. The Big Bad took the form of The First, his finale minions, Caleb, and a never-ending horde of übervamps (which were interesting twists to the series lore, but weaker elements than other season finales). These Big Bads provided the main characters with little fuel to fire their development. Reminder moments—like Buffy’s cookie dough speech to Angel—were fun but not required because we knew who Buffy would choose in the end. (Although technically, the end still hasn’t happened since the series is ongoing in comic form, with Buffy and Spike still together.)
“Chosen” did succeed in flipping the series rules around. For the first time in slayer history, the chosen one became one of the chosen many in season seven. Awakening the power in every single potential slayer in the world made way for big events in the comic seasons to follow. The prophecy that started the Scooby Gang’s journey—”in every generation, a slayer is born”—was forever changed, but our heroes were in top form as strong and spirited warriors (nothing out of the ordinary though)! And it was a nice sentimental moment to end the series on a variation on the big question Willow asked Buffy in the first season finale: “What are we going to do now?”
5. Season One: “Prophecy Girl”
Our first tango with the apocalypse was the campiest season finale, “Prophecy Girl.” Season one’s iconic Big Bad, The Master, was a cranky old vampire who caused all sorts of mayhem and worked his way up to unleashing hell in Sunnydale. Also on board? Angel’s old girlfriend and vampire sire, Darla, and The Master’s little evil kid vampire, The Anointed One. In hindsight, these Big Bads were simple and generic, which doesn’t play well in its favor against other season finales. But the use of one prophecy that stated Buffy’s fate as the slayer was doomed the moment she entered Sunnydale was a powerful motivation for survival for our teenage heroine.
Nearly every episode in season one opened with the slayer’s prophecy being recited, and throughout the season finale, Buffy’s humanity proved that prophecies can change. Buffy dies for a few seconds in this finale (a significant recurrence for the series) only to be revived and kick bad guy ass. Also an important moment for this episode? After a shocking discovery in the high school, Willow asks Buffy, “What are we going to do?” to which Buffy boldly replies, “What we have to.” And that right there is the key to every single season finale—especially “Prophecy Girl.” Buffy doesn’t want to put her life on hold to save the world, she has to do it because she’s the slayer. Coming to that massive conclusion requires tons of maturity, which Buffy, even at age sixteen, could tapped into and look good doing it.
4. Season Four: “Restless”
Here’s a controversial season finale: it famously ranks as the least favorite amongst Buffy fans, but hear us out. “Restless” came on the heels of the actual victory against the season four Big Bad, Adam and the Initiative. But “Restless” proved that season finales didn’t have to rely on showing the toughest battles and CG moments. What if a season finale explored the inner workings of the main characters instead? AND what if the entire episode took place inside of a collective dream cycle with a reoccurring cheese man?
Borrowing from various influences in film and TV (notably with hints of Apocalypse Now in Xander’s dream), Joss and team dissected the main characters in complex and perplexing ways. Restlessness was experienced in spades throughout season four, so the theme for “Restless” made comprehensive sense, but the hidden beauty behind this season finale was the way the series managed to look to the future while referencing its very detailed past. Rewatch this underrated finale and you’ll notice moments that help shed new light on all the Buffy seasons before and after. In a way, it could act as a primer for newcomers to the series since it breaks down each member of the Scooby Gang—an impressive feat for a season finale!
3. Season Three: “Graduation Day, Part 2”
A subtle cliffhanger, “Graduation Day, Part 2” picked up where “Part 1” left off: Buffy’s slayer nemesis Faith has fallen off a building and landed in a coma, leaving Buffy with only one option for slayer blood to heal a dying Angel. This is important because “Graduation Day, Part 2” wasn’t just about saving the world from The Mayor and his impending apocalypse plans, it was also always about saving this one particular vampire with a soul and the limitations of trust. The entire season was wrapped up in his and Buffy’s complex relationship, which lead to Angel permanently ditching Sunnydale for L.A. but forever trusting in Buffy.
Of course, graduation was totally on every one’s mind throughout season three—the actual graduation day had to be the season finale game plan. It worked out pretty perfectly in each character’s favor as we saw Willow, Xander, and Giles expand as characters during this episode alone. The mini-war between The Mayor and the entire class of ’99 was a bit cheesy (perhaps attacking the Mayor with hummus would have been the funner option?), but in the end the overall theme that human weakness is in every single character placed this season finale high on our ranking.
2. Season Two: “Becoming, Part 2”
“Becoming, Part 2” obviously ends on a cliffhanger (like “Graduation Day, Part 2”), but we’re going to look at it as a standalone episode because it’s so damn strong on its own. Spike and Drusilla were originally the Big Bads in this season, but Angelus took the cake later on as the major Baddie, torturing Buffy’s friends and family with a cryptic smile on his face. Season two strategically posed Buffy’s first true love next to her duty to save the world from the apocalypse for the second time, ultimately reminded her that “she’s all she’s got”—which also gave us one of the most empowering scenes from the series.
“Becoming, Part 2” is in our number two slot because it heavily focused on the milestones of becoming a young adult—it was the crux for even more growing up into season three. Willow and Xander’s journeys to becoming more than just “the sidekicks” was jump-started in season two’s finale also with Xander lying to Buffy to try and save the world from Angelus while Willow delivered one epic spell to give Angel his soul back at the last moment. Oh, and Spike and Buffy’s first official team-up happened in “Becoming, Part 2” which was cause for much rejoicing.
1. Season Five: “The Gift”
This one’s special for many reasons. “The Gift” was the 100th episode of Buffy, and the season finale before the series switched over to another network for the remaining two seasons. To set the mood, season five’s stylish Big Bad Glory (a.k.a. Glorificus, The Beast, The Most Unstable One, Her Sparkling Luminescence, That Which Cannot Be Named, Sweaty-Naughty-Feelings-Causing One, etc.) planned on ending the world by opening her hell dimension using a mystic key in human form, Buffy’s kid sister Dawn. “The Gift” gave us the second death of our heroine in the most striking of ways: a swan dive into an open hell dimension following Buffy’s best inspiration speech ever delivered.
Buffy’s true gift was fully realized in season five as a literal gift to the world. The stakes were high after learning that Dawn’s blood would open Glory’s dimension. Blood—that age-old vampire life source—was definitely important throughout “The Gift,” but the true gift throughout the entire season (and basically the whole series) was Buffy’s ability to sacrifice herself for the greater good. Killing off the main character led to so many questions about the fate of the series. But for many fans, this season finale was the definitive nod to Buffy’s abilities as a slayer, sister, and friend. She saved the world… a lot. And we’ll always love “The Gift” because of its clever and emotional embrace of its leading lady and her Scooby Gang.
Relive all the Buffy the Vampire Slayer moments on Netflix and Hulu. And don’t forget season 11 of Buffy is on-going right now with its side comic book series, Buffy: The High School Years, continuing this year too. Which season finale is your favorite? Leave us your thoughts on everything Buffy related in the comments!
Images: 20th Century Fox