Joss Whedon's genre screenwriting, ranked
Presented by: Matthew Jackson
If you think about it, 2017 is kind of an auspicious year for the work of beloved nerd icon Joss Whedon. It's the 20th anniversary of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of course, but it's also the fifth anniversary of The Avengers and the 15th anniversary of Firefly. Add in the news that he's joining DC Films for the next phase of his career with a Batgirl movie and you could start to get pretty reflective if you're a longtime fan.
As I got reflective about Whedon this year, it seemed like a look back at all of Buffy might be the way to go, but that's been done before. Then, when I realized the confluence of other Whedon anniversaries this year, I started thinking: What if you ranked the Buffy episodes and the Firefly episodes at the same time? But why would you do that if you didn't also consider Angel, Dollhouse and the movies?
Which pretty much brings us to now, and a deranged assignment I somehow volunteered for: a definitive and highly scientific* ranking of all of Whedon's genre screenwriting, from TV episodes to movies and beyond (beyond pretty much meaning Dr. Horrible).
Yes, I really did do that, and yes, it really is as ludicrous as it sounds.
The full list is below, and beyond that lies a comments section via which to share your thoughts. First, though, a few notes on parameters:
1. This list is genre screenwriting only, so we're not including episodes of Roseanne or his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.
2. This is credited screenwriting work only, so films for which Whedon did uncredited rewrites (like Waterworld) are not included.
3. Credited screenwriting work includes Whedon's contributions as co-writer or story contributor. I have noted those contributions whenever they apply. Any entry that does not include a specific contribution notation indicates that Whedon is the sole credited writer.
4. In some cases, Whedon was credited even when his writing contributions were either altered or not used. I have taken this into consideration whenever possible.
5. By "genre screenwriting work," I mean the writing as it appears in final form when presented to the consumer. That term is used for simplification purposes and does not mean this is a ranking arrived at simply by reading scripts. Such a thing would be tedious, and besides, we're all really here to talk about the final product.
6. As this is a ranking of writing work, things like bad special effects and wooden performances are, whenever possible, not held against the writer.
Well, that about covers it. Now, come with me on this insane adventure, and let us know your thoughts in the comments.
*NOTE: This ranking is neither definitive nor highly scientific. It's also possible I went insane while putting it together. Wheeeeeee!
56. "Vows" (Dollhouse Season 2, Episode 1)
Well, something had to be at the bottom, so here we are. I must admit to always having a bit of a blind spot for Dollhouse, despite several attempts to really soak it in. It's got an interesting high-concept hook and a great cast, but the execution has always felt a little lifeless to me, and "Vows" is the best example of that as far as Whedon's own writing for the series is concerned. I honestly can't tell if I'm bored because I have trouble following the story or if I have trouble following the story because I'm bored. Either way, this episode just doesn't work for me.
55. Titan A.E. (2000)
This famously rushed animated flop is interesting when viewed in the context of Whedon's overall body of work, because there are certainly a few echoes of Firefly in it. That said, interesting ideas do not make a good story, and for all of this film's good intentions, it's just riddled with problems and, to a certain extent, cliches.
54. "Nightmares" (Buffy Season 1, Episode 10)
"Nightmares" is one of those simple concepts from the early years of Buffy that latches onto a basic high school concern (nightmares and secret fears you don't dare share with classmates) and elevates it to a supernatural level. It's a good idea, but the reveal of what the monster is and why could have packed more of a punch. Chalk it up to a show still finding its feet.
53. "I Fall to Pieces" (Angel Season 1, Episode 4)
Speaking of shows still finding their feet, this early episode of Angel suffers some of the same problems. The central threat is incredibly creepy, but I keep wanting more from it. There's a deeper thematic nerve this episode just never quite managed to hit.
52. "Ghost" (Dollhouse Season 1, Episode 1)
The series premiere of Dollhouse is solid, but that's kinda all I can say about it. The concept is fascinating and I'm drawn in by it, but this story as the lead-off batter for the series doesn't strike me as all that powerful. It's the weakest of Whedon's premieres, but it still managed to spawn a two-season series, which tells you something about the caliber of talent and influence we're dealing with.
51. Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)
Whedon claims no part of the final version of this Disney adventure which he worked on in its earlier stages. He's credited, though, so it's on the list. There's a good movie in here somewhere, I just know it, but interesting design and some amusing characters get bogged down in a convoluted plot that takes perhaps one turn too many.
50. Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Whedon has blamed not bad rewrites but bad execution of his script for this famously despised (and occasionally defended) fourth Alien film, and he's got a point. So much of the film just feels tonally off base, trying to be funny and then dramatic in the span of mere moments but doing neither as well as either Aliens or Alien, respectively. Still, there are some good ideas here, particularly the character of Call and the way Ripley responds when she happens upon a lab full of her failed clones.
49. "Pilot" (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 1, Episode 1)
The S.H.I.E.L.D. series premiere only feels more underwhelming when viewed now through the prism of all the ambitious things the show has tried since in an effort to be its own thing in the MCU. The pilot has its charms, particularly in the realm of new characters like Fitz and Simmons, but in the end it suffers too much from being the servant of two masters. It's not big enough for the MCU and it's not intimate enough to be a successful TV show launch on its own.
48. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)
The final product might not be what he had in mind and the film pales in comparison to the power of the TV series, but Whedon's first attempt to do Buffy is actually pretty fun in its own campy way. There's just enough subversion of classic tropes to make it more than just another horror comedy and it's fascinating to see all the prototypes of the later TV characters at work here.
47. "Happy Anniversary" (Angel Season 2, Episode 13)
The plot of this particular episode always makes me feel a little icky (which is kinda the point) and the lack of a cohesive Angel Investigations team really makes this one suffer. It does have one particular redeeming quality, though: Angel and Lorne, who was still pretty new at the time, get to have their own little adventure, and that's actually quite fun.
46. "Welcome to the Hellmouth/The Harvest" (Buffy Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2)
You might be thinking this is too low on the list for Buffy's debut, but go back and watch it again. It's entertaining enough but honestly it's not really the show we'd grow to love yet. The characters feel more like templates than people and the story is surprisingly stripped down for something that would later get so nuanced.
(Note: Though they have different titles, these episodes aired on the same night and therefore are functionally one two-part story.)
45. "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" (Buffy Season 1, Episode 11)
This is another episode with a very obvious high school metaphor that isn't quite as clever as it might like to be, but that's kind of OK. The payoff is fairly obvious ... and yet I have to adore how the episode just goes all the way with it. It's so literal, almost in a wacky way, that it can't help but be entertaining.
44. "Epitaph One" (Dollhouse Season 1, Episode 13)
Part of me wishes the entirety of Dollhouse took place in this post-apocalyptic world with only a few flashbacks to show how we got there. It's just so much more earnest this way. As it is, this interesting jump forward is a good idea that never fits quite as well as it should with the rest of the first season.
43. "Ted" (Buffy Season 2, Episode 11)
I never really liked when Buffy decided to go full sci-fi, which is probably just nitpicking on my part. "Ted" is pretty entertaining in its way, but I think a supernatural evil stepdad metaphor might have gone over a bit better. The episode's title character is a wonderfully nasty creation, though.
42. In Your Eyes (2014)
There's a lot of charm in this indie romance, particularly when the central characters finally start to really connect and get to engage in some great Whedon dialogue. The tricky thing is that when you tug at a thread or two in this conceptual weavework, certain things start to unravel. Sometimes the central conceit of the film feels less like a means of supernatural connection and more like an unwieldy device that just does whatever the plot needs it to do at that particular moment.. Still, if you haven't seen it, check it out. You might be surprised how much you enjoy it.
41. "Man on the Street" (Dollhouse Season 1, Episode 6)
This is what I really wanted from Dollhouse all along. This episode takes the concept and really flexes it, getting some solid action and an emotionally substantive plot in at the same time. It still can't touch the best stuff on this list, but it's pretty damn entertaining.
40. "The Message" (Firefly, Episode 12)
I was never that big a fan of the wartorn backstory of Firefly, which might explain why this episode doesn't land that well for me. It's still entertaining, but the emotional payoff isn't quite as substantial as it seems to insist it's supposed to be.
39. "Judgment" (Angel Season 2, Episode 1)
"Judgment" takes too long to get where it's going, so it doesn't really succeed as a story on its own, but wow does it have so many moments going for it. We get the introduction of Lorne, Angel assuming he has to kill a demon who was actually one of the good guys, and that mid-L.A. joust to top it all off. Plus, Angel has to sing Manilow. That alone makes it worth watching.
38. "City Of ..." (Angel Season 1, Episode 1)
The Angel premiere's chief flaw seems to be that it's trying too hard to set itself apart from Buffy, so you get a villain living in a mansion surrounded by armed guards like some kind of drug kingpin. Again, this is a case of a show still finding its feet, though it's certainly not a bad debut by any means.
37. "Anne" (Buffy Season 3, Episode 1)
Buffy frequently dealt with the idea of the title character trying to duck her destiny, or at least mask it, in an effort to protect those around her. "Anne" might be the most extreme version of that, and therefore a powerful reminder that doing good is just in Buffy's blood. The thing is, the impact is muted by the audience's knowledge that she's obviously not just going to stay a diner waitress in L.A. for the rest of the series, and the episode's entertainment value is dimmed by the lack of the Scoobies.
36. "Restless" (Buffy Season 4, Episode 22)
This might be the first truly controversial ranking on this list but you're just going to have to deal with it because I think "Restless" is just plain frustrating. Yes, the foreshadowing is great, the stylistic variations are fun and I do find the recurring bit about the cheese to be amusing. Extended dream sequences are almost never as clever as the writer thinks they are, though, and there's just too much obfuscation in this episode for how little actual story we get.
35. "Lessons" (Buffy Season 7, Episode 1)
"Lessons" has the unenviable task of putting the pieces back together after a chaotic Season 6, but while that works well for characters like Willow it doesn't work as well for Buffy. I like the idea of Buffy taking on the dual role of Watcher and surrogate mother for Dawn a lot, and I like the idea of the adult Scoobies facing a resurrected Sunnydale High even more. The execution leaves something to be desired, though this episode is still better than most of Season 7.
34. "The Freshman" (Buffy Season 4, Episode 1)
Buffy prospered for three seasons by taking the idea of high school as a painful hellscape to its literal extreme, and taking that same metaphorical approach to college was bound to deliver a few diminishing returns ("Beer Bad" is probably the best example of that). The show needed to evolve, and "The Freshman" definitely didn't push it as far as it could have. It's a fun episode, though, and the college vampires keeping a running tally of which cliched posters the doomed freshmen had on their walls is still hilarious.
33. "The Train Job" (Firefly, Episode 2)
"The Train Job" is Firefly in its simplest form, which means it's both easy to digest and lacking in some of the depth that other episodes bring. Its legacy now is as the pilot that shouldn't have been the pilot, and you can see why that was a problem. All the moving parts are there, and they're all working, but it's not the show at its flashiest or most impactful. It's just a fun way to kill an hour.
32. "Amends" (Buffy Season 3, Episode 10)
"Amends" is, I've learned, a bit of a matter of debate for Buffy fans. You either like all the focus on Angel at his most angst-ridden, period flashbacks and all, or you think it's just silly. Here's the thing, though: This is an episode of television where the chief conflict is solved by a full-on Christmas miracle. That moves just about any hour of TV up a few slots in my book.
31. "Our Mrs. Reynolds" (Firefly, Episode 6)
One of my favorite things in Firefly is what happens any time Malcolm Reynolds gets knocked back on his heels not by violence or a challenge to his authority but by something that makes him hilariously uncomfortable. This episode has that in spades. It's funny, but it's also adventurous, and I love the interplay between Inara and Saffron.
30. "Who Are You?" (Buffy Season 4, Episode 16)
I'm actually a little surprised that it took the show as long as it did to do the Buffy/Faith body switch, but it's tremendously entertaining when it finally happens. My biggest complaint is that it could have been used to allow each character to take a harder look at who they really are as a result of the swap, but some of that got shuffled off to other episodes.
29. "Doppelgangland" (Buffy Season 3, Episode 16)
This episode is best remembered now for its apparent foreshadowing of Willow's Season 4 development, and that's definitely there. While you're getting that, though, you're also getting the delicate but very entertaining interplay between the two extremes of her personality and some nice adventuring to go along with it.
28. "Sanctuary" (Angel Season 1, Episode 19)
The big emotional payoff of "Who Are You?" comes here, at least where Faith is concerned. This also happens to be the episode where I think Angel really comes into its own in terms of being a show about the fight going on forever and about learning to live with your own past. It seems kind of odd that it took Angel to bring that out in Faith ... until this episode fully unfolds, and then you realize it's a perfect fit.
27. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Age of Ultron has a lot of classic sequel problems: It tries to go bigger and more intimate at the same time, it spends too much time on the connective tissue of the rest of the universe, and it tries to do too much for each character, leaving some (Vision) lacking while others (Hawkeye) get to really shine. For all its flaws, though, I admire the film's reach and its confidence. I also admire how concerned Whedon is with making this a story about heroes helping people, even as the bonds between them start to fray.
26. "Spin the Bottle" (Angel Season 4, Episode 6)
This episode features Whedon doing one of those things he does best: Taking a sort-of-silly concept (in this case, the gang magically reverting to their 17-year-old selves) and using it to hit at something extremely emotionally devastating. "Spin the Bottle" ends up being one of Angel's best pivot points, and it's made even better by the use of Lorne as a smooth-talking Greek chorus.
25. "Lie to Me" (Buffy Season 2, Episode 7)
Buffy is a show about the supernatural intruding on real life, or even becoming real life, which means that well-executed episodes about "real life" intruding on all the supernatural shenanigans can have a huge impact. "Lie to Me" is one of those great Buffy-growing-up episodes, still rooted in supernatural fun but with a devastating twist capped off by one of Giles' finest moments in the series.
24. "Waiting in the Wings" (Angel Season 3, Episode 13)
Whedon made a magnificent habit of coming in to his shows midseason and writing a single solo episode that got a lot of interpersonal stuff done in just one hour with commercials. This is one of Angel's best, a story that moves Angel and Cordelia's complicated relationship forward and furthers the Gunn-Fred-Wesley triangle all while delivering a captivating little magic vignette enhanced by some truly creepy villains.
23. "When She Was Bad" (Buffy Season 2, Episode 1)
By the end of its first season Buffy had coalesced into a series with a strong central cast and a great sense of chemistry, so naturally Season 2 had to kick things off by picking that apart a bit. "When She Was Bad" is a great examination of those moments when teenagers just, for whatever reason, get mean. But it also works in the context of Buffy's self-destruction in the wake of a traumatic experience. The eventual payoff of Buffy smashing the bones of The Master is one of the show's most powerful moments, and by the end of this hour every character seems to have leveled up in complexity.
22. "Smile Time" (Angel Season 5, Episode 14)
You would really think that Angel as a wee little puppet man would've lost some of its shine in the 13 years since this episode premiered. Nope.
If anything, "Smile Time" has only grown on me more in the intervening years. It's just so much fun to watch, and as ever with these kinds of goofy concept episodes, it actually gets a lot of delicate character stuff done in the process. Sure, this time some of that character stuff was just a set-up for ripping our hearts out (more on that further down the list), but still.
21. "Prophecy Girl" (Buffy Season 1, Episode 12)
"Prophecy Girl" is where Buffy hits the next level: it pays off a season-long arc, it hits all the right emotional notes and it really brings the team together to the point that even Xander gets to be a hero. Plus Buffy's tearful speech about the burden of her destiny, as she pleads to Giles and Angel that she doesn't want to die, is one of the show's all-time best moments.
20. "Family" (Buffy Season 5, Episode 6)
Season 5 is Buffy's adulthood years at their best, and "Family" is one of the best parts of that. At its heart are two very clear metaphorical concerns -- being accepted by a new friend group and coming out to your intolerant family -- and both are executed wonderfully. Until this point it was very clear how Tara fit with Willow but not how she fit with the rest of the Scoobies. This episode leaves all that doubt behind with one of the most heartwarming final acts in series history as the whole gang rallies around their newest member.
19. "Conviction" (Angel Season 5, Episode 1)
To say that Buffy often struggles to find its footing post-school is a bit of an understatement. That show never did quite decided what it wanted to be in its final two seasons. Meanwhile, for Angel's final season, the show just fully commits to a hard left turn, setting the team up at Wolfram & Hart and utterly shifting the power dynamic at work. That level of commitment to a new status quo is kind of astonishing on its own, but it's made more astonishing by just how seamless it feels. "Conviction" is the reason why. It's a hell of a narrative gymnastics trick.
18. "Serenity" (Firefly, Episode 1)
Many Firefly fans still argue that, had this episode aired first as it was intended to, the show would have had a longer life. That's not a hard case to make. "Serenity" is a fantastic pilot, setting up backstory, world-building and some great character chemistry while still pivoting the show to a new status quo by episode's end. Not only do we feel we know these characters by the time it's over but we feel we've also already seen them change some. It's quite an achievement.
17. The Cabin in the Woods (2012)
Honestly, this movie has no right to be as clever as it is, but just when you think we've run out of ways to irreverently subvert horror tropes we all know and love, along it comes to blow us all away. It's fun, funny, smart and scary all at the same time, and it's made even more refreshing by remaining unpredictable even amid its deliberately telegraphed unpredictability. This is a film that tells you it's going to use the rules of a horror to show us how to break said rules. It's a movie that tells us almost immediately that it's about to work against type, and yet you still can't see where it's going.
16. Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (2008)
I hope we never get a sequel to Dr. Horrible.
Don't get me wrong, I'll watch it if it happens, but in this case the original feels like a perfect little gem that you really don't need to go and polish again. It's an example of a group of writers working within very specific constraints to be creative and come up with something original. It succeeds, doesn't overstay its welcome, and leaves you with a surprisingly powerful ending that keeps you thinking about it even as you can't get the Bad Horse song out of your head. This piece is brilliant without any further adornment.
15. "School Hard" (Buffy Season 2, Episode 3)
"School Hard" isn't exactly the most profound Buffy episode around but it is the high-school-as-hell metaphor played for about as much fun as you can reasonably expect. It's the ultimate story of how messed up things can get when your home life and your school life overlap. Oh, and I feel I should highlight this point: This episode is Die Hard with Spike playing the role of Hans Gruber. That's amazing.
14. "Objects in Space" (Firefly, Episode 14)
"Objects in Space" is kinda hard to watch as it reveals the even better show Firefly could have been in Season 2. The episode succeeds by stripping all of the crew's "jobs" away and instead giving us one quiet ship, one scary villain and a whole hour to figure out how to beat him. You can feel the show evolving over the course of the episode, getting more complex and promising as it does. Then it's over, and while that's bittersweet, this is just a damn good piece of television.
13. "Graduation Day, Parts 1 & 2" (Buffy Season 3, Episodes 21 and 22)
After three years of trotting all manner of terrors through Sunnydale High, it wouldn't have been right for the characters to just pack up and move on. Buffy's farewell to high school is exactly as bombastic and massive as you want, laying the groundwork for a new chapter while also gleefully resolving a villain plot and giving Buffy herself a new appreciation of life after she comes all too close to taking it from another human. This two-parter is still a delight to experience.
12. "Becoming, Parts 1 & 2" (Buffy Season 2, Episodes 21 and 22)
Just as "Graduation Day" bids high school farewell, "Becoming" kills (almost literally) Buffy's metaphor for that one super toxic relationship we've all either experienced or been close to in our teen years. Angel sticks around for another season, but the end of Angelus signals a big shift for the show, placing Buffy on more mature footing as a character while also allowing the whole series to shift to its high school endgame. Add to that a very powerful character death and a gut-wrenching climax and you've got something incredibly potent.
11. "Chosen" (Buffy Season 7, Episode 22)
Season 7 was a very, very rocky thing for Buffy, but "Chosen" is just pitch perfect. It's everything you could want from this particular series finale, full of amazing moments for a number of characters, triumphant and bittersweet in equal measure. The best thing about it might be that the ending is never really in doubt but it still keeps us hanging on every moment. Buffy was never the kind of series that could end the same way Angel does, so we never expect defeat or even compromise. That doesn't lessen the triumph, though, and Buffy's monologue revealing her intention to grant all Potential Slayers their share of the power is a Whedon all-timer.
10. Toy Story (1995)
Though much of the story structure was already there when he came onboard, we apparently have Whedon to thank for punching up much of the script for Pixar's first feature, as well as for the character of Rex the dinosaur. I really don't know what to say about Toy Story that hasn't already been said. It's an absolute masterpiece, and even a small contribution from Whedon would be enough to call it a monumental achievement for him.
9. "Once More, With Feeling" (Buffy Season 6, Episode 7)
I can feel some of you preparing to charge at me with pitchforks right now because Buffy's beloved musical episode is only number nine on this list. Stay your hand, though, because I have nothing bad to say about "Once More." It's the kind of thing that probably shouldn't have worked at all, and even if it did it should only have worked as a novelty. Whedon dug deeper, though, and made this gimmick-laden hour into a storytelling wonder, moving Season 6 forward more than any other single episode in that run. It's genius.
8. Serenity (2005)
Serenity is not ranked above all of the Firefly episodes on this list because it's the movie version. Indeed, it's here almost because of what it isn't. Other writers might have leapt at the bigger budget and decided to do some kind of gargantuan space battle movie or left the characters fighting a ludicrous alien menace. Instead, we get a slightly gussied-up story that we could have seen on the small screen with fewer FX shots. It retains the Firefly intimacy, digging deep to find the heart of its concept, and that's what makes it so effective. It could have been corrupted but Serenity ended up being something incredibly pure.
7. "Innocence" (Buffy Season 2, Episode 14)
Girl has sex with boy. Once-loving boy turns into huge, slut-shaming jerk. Girl's heart is ripped out. Girl bounces back stronger.
It's not hard to see the symbolism at work in "Innocence," but it doesn't need to be subtle. This is the highest expression of Buffy's many and varied high school metaphors. It's also the episode where Buffy shoots a demon with a rocket launcher.
6. "A Hole in the World" (Angel Season 5, Episode 15)
Joss Whedon is, infamously, a writer who gets a lot of mileage out of killing beloved characters, but even among that legacy "A Hole in the World" stands out. While characters like Tara and Joyce and Wash go quick, Fred dies slowly before our eyes, and while we're watching the men of Angel try to rescue their damsel, we're also seeing her live this moment too. Fred isn't the damsel, and not just because she can't be saved. She refuses to go quietly, refuses to not be part of her own failed rescue, raging against the dying of the light right down to her final, heartwrenching words. It's an entirely different take on death in the Buffyverse, and it's still one of the most beautifully tragic things in Whedon's ouvre.
5. "Not Fade Away" (Angel Season 5, Episode 22)
"Not Fade Away" might not be the ending Angel fans wanted but it turned out about as well as it possibly could given the circumstances of the storytelling. Even as the ending of the series kind of rushes up to greet you, though, there was a still a chance for Angel to go out with a bow on it. It still could have had the triumphant finale with all the cameos and callbacks that entails. That's just not the path this show ever took, though. So we got "Not Fade Away," an all-killer-no-filler blaze of glory full of loss and struggle and compromise all building to one amazing cliffhanger. On this show, the war never ends.
4. "Hush" (Buffy Season 4, Episode 10)
What more can be said about "Hush" that hasn't already been said? It's a great concept executed to perfection. What I will note, though, is that the episode is ranking this high on a list devoted explicitly to writing, even though it's largely silent and Whedon is known for his dialogue. Why? Well, it's brilliantly plotted and paced, but it's also hard to say enough about how much the episode allows for character development. It's another case of a gimmick being used for so much more than conceptual fun.
3. Marvel's The Avengers (2012)
I know I'm going to catch some hell for ranking it this high, but The Avengers is kind of a miracle. That the movie exists at all is incredible. That it exists and packs in so many characters and moments is its own achievement. That all of these characters have a distinct voice and point of view is even better. That the film contains all of that and allows for a cohesive narrative about a team coming together is an even greater accomplishment. But then it had to go and present itself as more than two hours of almost relentless superhero joy? Yes, it's flawed, but I don't care. The Avengers is a monster, and Joss Whedon is the guy who somehow tamed it.
2. "The Body" (Buffy Season 5, Episode 16)
"The Body" gets a lot of well-deserved attention for being the most "real" episode of Buffy, for being the story that deals with death not as some kind of wrath from a made-up monster but as something that could happen to anyone. That's all well and good, but that's not what makes it so great. What makes "The Body" great is that you could almost sub out the characters and insert it as an episode in an otherwise completely realistic drama and it would still be an utterly devastating portrait of grief. It's not brilliant, relatable writing for Buffy. It's brilliant, relatable writing for all of television.
1. "The Gift" (Buffy Season 5, Episode 22)
One of the key points of evaluation for this list, if not the key point of evaluation, is how well each piece of writing succeeds as what it is. You can't penalize The Avengers for not being more like "Smile Time," for example, because one is a comedic TV episode and the other is a superhero blockbuster. It's about achievement within the format, but also within the individualized narrative purpose. How well does each piece succeed as what it is intended to be?
"The Gift" is intended to be an emotionally challenging, narratively satisfying season finale for Buffy. It's intended to be one of the biggest gut punches, if not the biggest gut punch, of the show's entire run. It succeeds magnificently, from the setup to the triumphs of the early battle to the sob-worthy conclusion. It's the perfect end to the show's best season, it could have been a perfect series finale if necessary, and it's the story this show seemed destined to tell. At some point, whether it was final or not, Buffy had to put it all on the line. This episode shows us a near-perfect version of that sacrifice, gorgeous farewell speech and all. I don't know if Whedon can ever be this good again, but that's OK, because most writers only dream of getting here in the first place.