Lists

Top 15 Joss Whedon Episodes – aka Our Obsessive Compulsive Need to Catalogue Via Lists

Let’s face the facts. Lists of  the best episodes of television, movies, novels, Broadway musicals, burgers and fries- you name it- are completely subjective and irrelevant. Favorites, especially pop-culture favorites, are in constant states of fluctuation. Depending on the time of day or the mood one is in, a list of favorites may alter entirely. However, lists are fun and they do, at least for that particular moment, allow you to really decide, once and for…well, the time it takes you to create the list, what your favorites really are.

joss whedon

Few television writers enjoy a more passionate or (at times annoyingly so) rabid fan base than Joss Whedon. For the initiated, everything he undertakes is met with initial excitement, more than likely critical praise, and a devoted cult following. Last summer, Joss Whedon finally attained massive mainstream exposure and critical adoration with the highest grossing film of 2012, The Avengers. The film, at its best, displayed the facets of Joss Whedon’s writing style that give him such an appealing, distinctive voice: genre-skewering humor, an emphasis on character and character dynamic, and incredibly witty, articulate dialogue. Joss Whedon is now a mainstream name, and the fact that the release of the trailer for his adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing was discussed on pretty much every entertainment website (including us) demonstrates that.

Joss Whedon is now a successful filmmaker, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows his best hours of television. Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly all produced brilliant hours of television (The less said about Dollhouse, the better). I love Joss Whedon. In fact, this began as a top ten list, but I had to make it a top fifteen list because I was leaving out too many episodes I really loved. The pain was unbearable. So, in honor of the recent release of the Much Ado about Nothing trailer, I present you with the top ten fifteen episodes of the Joss Whedon catalogue.

(Note: I’m going to try to be as spoiler-free as possible, as my hope is, intrepid readers,  that you will seek out these episodes. However, there are moments when I feel discussing the plot is necessary to tell you why the episode is so amazing. So, be warned, there may be spoilers, but only when the spoilers are essential.) Also, two- or three-parter episodes are going to be paired (trioed?) together, because they don’t really work without each other. You call it cheating. I call it story completion.

15) ” Waiting in the Wings” (Angel) – in which everyone goes to the ballet, new romances are discovered, and romantic hopes are dashed

Whedon-Angel Waiting in the Wings

Beginning as a character on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. Angel was Buffy’s vampire love interest in the forbidden fruit romance that drove some of the most interesting episodes of Buffy’s first three seasons (You’ll hear a lot about Buffy on this list- just wait). He had been a brutal killer as a vampire until a Gypsy curse gave him back his soul, and he functioned as a guilt-ridden, trying to atone for his past, romantic partner for the three seasons he was part of the series, and for five seasons on his own self-titled spin-off show. Angel is by far Joss Whedon’s most schizophrenic show. It seemed to shift its focus every season. Season 1: Hey, he’s a vampire detective. That’s fun, right kids?! Season 2: He’s a dark, driven, rogue supernatural warrior. That’s compelling, huh? Season 3: Oh, forget it. Give him a kid. He’s lovable and adorable now, isn’t he? Season 4: We’re now driven and mythology heavy. That’s cool, is it not? Season 5: Hmmm . . . we’re a legal show now? How about that? Huh? Huh? JUST TELL US WHAT YOU WANT!!  And that’s not just coming from me.  That’s coming from Joss Whedon.  These constant shifting tones made the show feel freakishly confused. However, it was still capable of fantastic hours of television.

From season 3, we have “Waiting in the Wings.” The plot sounds completely absurd. Angel takes his friends to the ballet and discovers they are watching the same dancers Angel saw over 100 years ago. However, the ridiculous plot allows Angel to establish two romantic triangles that continue throughout the season and parallels them with the dangerous obsession at the heart of unrequited romance. It’s an episode that feels like a standalone until it ends, and you see every character has been altered by the evening’s events.

14) “The Zeppo” (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) – in which Xander saves the world, and no one notices

buffy zeppo

Unlike its spin-off, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer followed the same basic theme throughout its seven-season run: Killing demons is a difficult task, but not as difficult as surviving daily life. This episode from Buffy’s third season presents an apocalypse that is about to engulf the world– something that happens at least once a season. Except, this apocalypse is the episode’s B-plot. The main thrust of the story centers around non-supernatural, friend of the vampire-slaying Buffy, Xander Harris, who is presented as the least capable fighter of the group. He ends up single-handedly stopping an attack on the high school at which they all attend, while everyone else is attempting to avert the apocalypse that unfolds around the story’s edge. It’s a perfect reminder that Whedon’s characters, even those who do not have self-titled television shows, are complex, well-rounded individuals who are always worthy of the spotlight.

13) “Fool for Love” (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) – in which we learn how Spike came to be the Spike we all know and love (to hate?)

buffy fool for love

Buffy’s first season was competent but unremarkable programming. The main characters were sharp, but the villains were lackluster. That all changed during the show’s second season when Whedon gave us vampire couple Spike and Drusilla. They were strange, compelling and groundbreaking. It was one of the first times that vampire villains appeared more wryly amused by their evil plans than simply mustache-twirligly evil. After Drusilla departed and Spike was implanted with a chip that prevented him from attacking humans, he found himself aligned and in love with Buffy, the slayer he had spent the last two seasons trying to kill.

This episode presents Spike’s origins story, showing him in a pre-vampire state–romantic, pathetic and vulnerable and gives the viewer his life story. By the episode’s conclusion, the viewer sees he remains just as romantic, pathetic, and vulnerable as a two-hundred year old vampire. It reminds the viewer of a facet of Spike’s character present since the second season: he is guided by emotional impulses, for better or worse, and feels his emotions very powerfully.

12) “Our Mrs. Reynolds” (Firefly) – in which Mal gets a wife and…well, what else is there to say ?

Whedon-Firefly Mrs. Reynolds

Joss Whedon’s tragically short-lived space western features a remarkably strong run over the course of a single, uncompleted season. Like Buffy and Angel, it presents an eclectic mix of likable misfits, except here they are living on the fringes of space in a broken-down ship.

In this particular episode, ship captain Malcolm Reynolds finds himself married to a pretty young woman (a pre-Mad Men Christina Hendricks) due to a misunderstanding of cultural rituals. What follows is an incredibly sharply written, cleverly plotted hour of television. Firefly may never really hit the emotional highs of Whedon’s other television shows, but it excelled at clever games of cat-and-mouse interspersed with fantastically funny dialogue, as well as creating likable, well-drawn characters.

11) “You’re Welcome” (Angel)- in which Angel apologizes for everything it did to the character of Cordelia Chase

Whedon - Angel You're Welcome

Angel’s last season may have been its most unexpectedly plotted, but it produced the show’s most fantastic episodes, including this one. Cordelia, who spent the entire fourth season either under the influence of an evil entity or comatose, suddenly awakens and confronts Angel about the choices he has made in his life. It may sound like a fairly simple plot, but what gives the episode its power are its perfect, devastating final moments.

10) “Passions” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)- in which a main character dies, and everyone grieves

Whedon - BtVS S02E17 Crying Giles

During the second season, Buffy and Angel consummated their relationship, resulting in Angel losing his soul and reverting to the brutal killer he had once been. It was the perfect supernatural version of the “girl sleeps with a guy, only to discover the guy is not the same towards her afterwards” plot of many lesser teenage programs.

In this episode, Angel finally confirms that he is not the character the viewer had known since the pilot episode by brutally killing a series regular and leaving this person in the bed of his/ her (I’m not telling you which) significant other.

This was the episode that drove home the idea that actions on Buffy the Vampire Slayer had consequences, some of them deadly. Watching the remaining cast members grieve, including one of whom crumbles against a wall and looks on in stunned silence, reminds the viewer how much affection is felt towards these characters, how incredibly addictive the series had become, and what an emotional punch it could pack.

9) “Hole in the World” (Angel)- in which a major character dies in slow, devastatingly brutal fashion

Angel - Hole in the World

Joss Whedon has never shied away from killing off major characters see above). However, those characters usually die in swift, abrupt fashion, In “Hole in the World,” the death of a main character unfolds in the course of a slow, torturous day. The central characters have the option to save their friend, but at a cost that’s too great. Instead, they are forced to helplessly stand by, letting the tragedy unfold. In a show that usually presented its characters as victims to forces greater than themselves, its a bitter, perfect ending.

8) “Graduation Day, Parts 1 & 2” (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer)- in which Buffy and the gang graduate from high school. . .and save the world, but mainly  graduate from high school
buffy graduation day

This season three finale marks the end of an era for Buffy. She and her friends leave their high school lives behind, Buffy says goodbye to her true love, Angel (who moves on to his own show), and they avert the end of the world (again). The next season shows both the characters and the show itself awkwardly transitioning to another phase of life, but this finale perfectly encapsulates everything that made the Buffy so amazing.  Plus, it features one of the best final lines from a villain ever.

7) “Out of Gas” (Firefly) – which we learn how the Serenity crew came together, and why Mal cannot survive without them

firefly out of gas

This episode opens with a severely injured Mal lying on the floor of his darkened ship. The rest of the episode centers around two distinct flashbacks: why Mal is alone on the ship and how he assembled the crew currently under his care. It’s an episode that perfectly demonstrates how important the crew is to Mal’s survival and how they have all became a family on their battered, second-class ship.

6) “Spiral/ The Weight of the World/ The Gift” (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer)- in which Buffy again saves the world and makes the ultimate sacrifice

buffy the gift

Season 5 marked the last season Buffy ran on the WB Network. Had the show not been picked up (which UPN did and ran for two more seasons), this would have been the series finale, and it would have been a fitting ending. Buffy must stop an ancient God from opening up a portal that will turn the world into a living Hell. She does, but she must sacrifice herself in the process. The season finale’s final moments– Buffy’s friends finding her body among the ruins of the now-concluded battle and a gravestone reading “She saved the world a lot”–sums up everything that made the series great: a girl who fought for humanity, because it was her destiny but knowing it was a destiny that would cost her everything.

5) “Once More With Feeling”/ “Hush” (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer)- in which the cast spontaneously breaks out into song and no one’s story ends happily and an episode in which everyone loses the ability to speak, but are finally able to communicate with one another

buffy hush

Whedon - Buffy Once More

I know. I’m cheating a bit here, but I think these two episodes go hand in hand, because they are both episodes about the way in which we communicate with one another. Both are episodes which could have been nothing but publicity stunts, but ended up being far more profound. In addition, they are both about the ways in which communication can be improved by having the characters’ control over how they communicate removed, so I am putting them together. It’s my list. I can do what I want.

Season 4 is not one of Buffy’s strongest seasons, as it features one of the series’ weakest villains in government-bred, Robot-Human-Demon hybrid, Adam. However, the season does some have incredibly strong episodes, and this is one of the series best. In “Hush,” some of the series creepiest monsters steal voices from the Sunnydale’s citizens in order to steal hearts from victims who cannot cry out for help. The monsters are fantastic, but what really makes this episode stand out is the way it explores how we communicate with one another and the way in which words can sometimes hinder our ability to express ourselves.

Season 6 has its detractors, among them my fellow WeMinoredInFilm writer Kelly, because the season feels so much darker than anything the show had previously done. However, whatever the season’s faults, I think the entire season was worth it for this episode alone. I was pretty skeptical when I first heard Buffy was doing a musical episode . How could it be anything other than a shoddy gimmick? I should have had more faith in Joss Whedon, because the episode is fantastic. It allows the characters to verbalize the secrets and anxieties that have been plaguing them for months. More than that though, the episode advances the plots of all of its main characters, and they are all in a more complicated place at its closing.  Plus, the Joss Whedon-penned songs are both tuneful and reflect the styles of the characters who sing them. It’s a perfect, brilliant episode.

4) “War Stories” (Firefly)- in which Wash becomes jealous of Mal’s relationship with Zoe, goes on a dangerous mission with Mal, and both end up captured

firefly war stories

Zoë’s realtionship with her husband, Wash, was one of the few stable, loving relationships in all of Joss Whedon’s programming. This episode examines the relationships she has with the two most important men in her life: Wash and her Captain, Mal. Feeling jealous over the relationship Zoë has with Mal, Wash decides to go on a mission with him and both end up held captive. It’s up to Zoë to choose which individual she will save. She chooses Wash and ends up saving both (of course), but what distinguishes the episode is the way in which it allows us to learn more about the dynamic that exists between these three characters.

3) “Surprise/ Innocence” (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer)- in which the Angel with whom every teenage girl watching the show had fallen in love goes away and leaves a ruthless killer in his place

buffy surprise

The romance between Buffy and Angel was a major driving force behind the success of Buffy. The chemistry between the actors was volcanic and the love story was freakishly compelling. However, it was the second half of the second season that shifted the series from well-crafted teenage viewing to unbelievably compelling, must-watch television.

Buffy and Angel consummate their relationship, but the moment brings Angel pure happiness, and he loses his humanity as a result. He becomes a cruel, cold-blooded killer and Buffy’s never-ceasing tormentor. This shift in character dynamic kicks the second season into high gear and leads to one of the series’ most devastating season finales. With the loss of Angel, Buffy became a more adult, well-crafted show. Viewers saw what the series could do and loved it for that.

2) “Smile Time” (Angel)- in which Angel becomes a Muppet. A Muppet!

Whedon - Angel Smile Time

Angel rarely relied on purely comedic episodes about as often as Buffy (who didn’t do it often either) did, but when they did do an overtly comedic episode it was usually brilliant. In this episode, from the series’ final (and best) season, Angel is turned into a Muppet and the show transitions from one ridiculous scenario (Angel the Muppet fighting Spike and winning) to another (Angel trying to repair himself with needle and thread with fingers that lack dexterity). It’s the last episode of the series in which the characters are still mostly at peace with their lives (except for Gunn whose deal with the devil lays the groundwork for the darkness that permeates the remainder of the season). It even provides Wesley (the character who become the embodiment of the individual for whom nothing ended well) a few moments of bliss before he loses everything in the next episode. It’s a perfect, funny, incredibly entertaining hour of television.

1) “The Body” (Buffy, the Vampire Slayer)- in which Buffy’s mother dies and everyone else is left feeling powerless and helpless

buffy body

As earlier stated, Joss Whedon has never resisted killing off main characters. However, this episode may be the most devastating hour of television he ever produced. The episode opens with Buffy finding her mother dead on the couch from natural causes (the only character that dies of natural causes on the show). The rest of the episode involves the rest of the cast grieving, trying to figure out how to comfort each other, how to act about the death of someone they all knew, and feeling powerless.

The episode, free of any music that could release the tension for the viewer, perfectly encapsulates the emotions one feels in the face of loss. For a show that so frequently featured death, it always treated these concepts with gravity. However, here the effects are so brutally heartbreaking, it’s almost difficult to watch. It may be one of the most perfect hours of television any series has ever produced.

Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly are readily available to purchase on DVD, with Firefly available on Blu-ray as well. All three shows are also available through the Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu instant streaming services. If you haven’t siught them out, I highly, HIGHLY recommend you drop whatever it is you are doing and watch them now.

What do you think guys think? Do you agree with our choices? What are some of your favorite episodes Joss Whedon has created? Leave us comments below!

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4 comments

  1. What?! No love for Dollhouse? I know, it’s kinda the red-headed stepchild (if you’ll forgive the metaphor) of Whedon’s ouevre, And yes, there aren’t many absolutely amazing episodes and the series as a whole suffers from a rushed feeling due to the ever-present fear (later reality) of cancellation.

    But how can you not at least give honorable mention to “Man on the Street” from Season 1? Or even “Belonging” from Season 2? My favorite part of Dollhouse, its narrative and execution problems aside, has been its ability to truly explore “grey” morality. In Man on the Street, we are treated to not only a framing discussion of the questionable morality of the Dollhouse and its technology, but also a truly squirmy-sweet heartbreaking-but-secretly-icky client situation with the Echo/Rebecca/Joel triangle. Plus, a gut-punch reveal that totally messed with a beautiful relationship (so, classic Whedon). The series was never the same after that episode – and for the better. Belonging is… so very hard to watch, because it is so visceral and raw and real. After setting up Topher actually having a conscience (in “Vows”, with a glorious set of scenes between him and Whiskey/Saunders/theincomparableAmyAcker) and deepening it here, it pulled the rug out from under him and us. Fran Kranz has amazing range, and got to show it off very well here. Plus it gave context and power to Priya/Sierra, while subtly moving the mythos forward. I loved it. “Belle Chose” was also a great ep in the second season.

    Dollhouse was a show with a brilliant premise but sketchy execution; however, it had a few amazing episodes that let us glimpse the promise of the series and the actors, rising above the limits of network TV.

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