In Joss Whedon’s world, death is an absolute certainty, but it may not always be permanent. If you’ve watched any of Whedon’s works, chances are you’ve seen a beloved character die. And if you’re a Buffy fan, you may have even seen the same character die more than once. Whedon has never shied away from killing off his babies, which has resulted in some of the finest emotional gut-punches in television history. What follows is my personal ranking of the best deaths featured throughout all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
5. The Anointed One: “School Hard”
A major plot point early on in the series centered around the Anointed One, a child-turned-vampire who was prophesied to lead the Slayer “to Hell”. While he didn’t do much in season one, the kid was poised to take on a much bigger role in the second season following the death of the Master. It came as quite a shock when only three episodes into the next season, the Anointed One met a quick and unexpected end at the hands of Spike. Never one to take orders, Spike didn’t appreciate being bossed around by a snot-nosed brat, so he did what any sensible villain would do: he tossed the kid into a cage and hoisted him up to be exposed to sunlight, thereby incinerating his would-be master.
While we never got to see what this so-called Anointed One was capable of, his death serves as a great example of how the show would defy convention and play with audience’s expectations. While major character deaths and plot twists are more commonplace now, this was not the norm when the show first aired, and indeed killing a child is still taboo even by modern standards, even if the youth in question happens to be an evil vampire. While the Anointed One’s role was less significant than anticipated, his early demise planted the seed for the rise of the season’s true big bad, one who wouldn’t emerge until much later in the season…
4. Angel/Angelus: “Becoming Part 2”
Angel was introduced early on as the show’s dreamy bad boy, a vampire with a soul, who, thanks to a gypsy curse, managed to suppress his demonic urges and use his abilities to help the innocent. Despite their differences, he and Buffy would eventually fall in love and it is during a moment of passion that Angel experiences true happiness, the only caveat that can lift the curse. Post coitus, Angel reverts back to his soulless, evil persona called Angelus, goes on a murderous rampage and decides to usher in the end of the world by conjuring a demon who will literally bring Hell to Earth. Buffy learns that the only way to defeat Angelus is to kill him, as the spell to conjure the demon must be stopped with the blood of he who conjured it.
During their confrontation, Buffy is about to defeat Angelus, when, thanks to Willow’s own spell-casting, the vampire’s soul is restored and Angel is back to his old self, sans any memory of his time as Angelus. However, because it’s Whedon, they can’t have a happy ending and Buffy impales her lover with a sword, sending him into Hell. Once again the Slayer has saved the world, but at what cost? Angel would eventually return, but his death at the hands of the woman he loved would change their relationship forever and remains one of the greatest emotional beats of the entire series.
3. Spike: “Chosen”
If Angel’s story arc seems complicated, take a look at the saga of William the Bloody. Debuting in season two, Spike was essentially a punk-rock Lestat with a Billy Idol complex. He was originally supposed to die early on, as his sire Angelus had become that season’s Big Bad, but he quickly became a fan favorite with his cynical demeanor and dark sense of humor. He took on a permanent role in season 4, after a government agency put a chip in his head preventing him from harming any human. This led to occasional team-ups with the Scooby Gang before discovering he was actually falling in love with Buffy, much to her increasing annoyance. He even goes so far as to act as caregiver to Buffy’s sister Dawn after her death (more on that later) and eventually confronts his own demons, so to speak, by entering the trials necessary to win back his soul.
Spike’s absolution comes during season seven when he takes an active role in helping Buffy and the others prepare for the final battle with the First Evil. Angel presents Buffy with an amulet that could turn the tide in their battle and must be worn by a champion; she later gives the amulet to Spike. During the final battle, the amulet begins to glow, causing the Hellmouth to close in on itself. Despite Buffy’s insistence, Spike remains behind to ensure the Hellmouth is destroyed and ends up going out in a literal blaze of glory as the former villain is slowly incinerated. Spike’s heroic sacrifice allowed the others to escape and allowed him to, once and for all, prove his love to his one-time enemy. Though his death proved temporary, it was nevertheless a grand finale for an epic series and an amazing character.
2. Buffy Summers: “Prophecy Girl”, “The Gift”
Our titular heroine had the distinction of dying not just once, but twice. While she wasn’t the only character to have multiple deaths, killing off the main character of your TV series was certainly unique at the time. Buffy’s first demise would come in the season one finale, “Prophecy Girl,” in which mentor Giles learns of a prophecy(!) in which the vampire Master would rise and the Slayer would die. Confronted by her own mortality, Buffy sees no escape from her destiny and after an emotional breakdown, finally accepts her fate and goes to the Master, dying by his hand. The prophecy, however, did not describe the exact length of her death and so, after being only legally dead for a few minutes, Buffy is resuscitated and sets out to finish her enemy once and for all. While somewhat silly by today’s standards, this was a very unconventional plot-twist, and her “first” death would prove to have lasting ramifications, as well as a catalyst for many jokes regarding death’s seemingly revolving door.
After averting several apocalypses and living to tell the tale, Buffy would be forced to make the ultimate sacrifice yet again in season five. This time, the Big Bad is demented hell-goddess Glory, who wants to open a dimensional gateway to Hell so that she may return home, subsequently unleashing hell on Earth (funny how often that happens). To do so, Glory kidnaps Buffy’s little sister Dawn, whose blood will allow the dimensional gateway to open. Glory succeeds in opening the portal, but after learning only Dawn’s blood can close the gateway, Buffy chooses to sacrifice herself (knowing that she and Dawn share the same blood) and plummets to her death, closing the portals and once again saving the world. While this death would also prove temporary, it was almost not the case. “The Gift” was the last episode to air on the WB network and had it not been picked up by UPN, the series may have ended right then and there, with the titular vampire slayer remaining six feet under. As it stands, her sacrifice cemented her selflessness and devotion to her loved ones.
1. Joyce Summers: “I Was Made To Love You”, “The Body”
What could possibly top Buffy’s heroic sacrifice? Only one of the most painful, depressing, emotional hours of any television series ever. Early into the fifth season, Buffy and Dawn’s mother Joyce is diagnosed with a brain tumor. This sub-plot carries through much of the season until she undergoes brain surgery, after which she is seemingly in remission. Viewers, and indeed the characters, were in for a sudden shock when Buffy returned home at the end of an episode to find the lifeless body of her mother. After an incredibly long week, “The Body” aired, revealing that Joyce had succumbed to her tumor. Over the course of the episode, we see the effects her death has on each of our characters, eliciting different emotions from all, rage from Xander, confusion from Anya, and so on. We see the characters at their most vulnerable; each week, they fight monsters and demons, but this is something they’re not prepared for and aren’t sure how to cope.
What sets Joyce’s death apart from so many others is how quiet and real it all seems. The episode featured no musical score and was shot with odd, out of focus angels to capture the sense of disorientation the characters would be feeling. The episode is brutal in so many ways, particularly in its honesty and how it represents everyone’s pain. Joyce was a pillar of the show since the beginning and was a vital part of how grounded it felt, even at its most ridiculous. Buffy and Dawn were now orphans and would have to rely on each other more than ever. Their lives, and indeed the show, would never be the same again.