Here's why we're doing this.
And here are #s 30-26. And #s 25-21. And #s 20-16. And #s 15-11.
Season 3, Episode 5
Written by: David Greenwalt
I feel like this list hasn't properly represented the strength of David Greenwalt or Cordelia Chase, a writer and character who would both come into their own on Angel. But they sure had their fun in "Homecoming." Greenwalt builds a strong skeleton for the story, which first takes place on Cordy's turf, as she tries to fend off a Homecoming Queen challenge from a suddenly jealous Buffy, and then moves on to Buffy's turf, as Cordy is mistaken for Faith and ends up side-by-side with Buffy as they endure "Slayerfest '98." This episode also featured the first forbidden Xander/Willow kiss (a story development that both made sense AND felt a bit contrived, to be honest) and the debut of the Mayor, but for my money, this was all Buffy and Cordelia being hilarious and bitchy and resourceful and awesome.
Season 5, Episode 12
Written by: Doug Petrie & Jane Espenson
So the Watcher's Council is back, and Buffy needs to be tested (...again) if they're to give her the intel on Glory. I guess I really get into the episodes where Buffy has to prove herself. (In fact, I've got a half-formed thesis about how after the end of Season 5, Buffy stopped having to prove herself, leaving herself adrift in Season 6 and self-satisfied in Season 7, neither of which were as compelling as Buffy with something to prove.) Anyway, great blend of comedy (Anya babbling about her apocryphal all-American upbringing; Spike and Joyce bonding over "Passions") and rousing drama. Seriously, that speech/smackdown Buffy delivers to the Council always makes me want to stand up and cheer.
Season 7, Episode 5
Written by: Drew Goddard
Goddard was rightfully celebrated as a shining bright spot in Season 7, and it was largely because of this, the shining bright episode of Season 7. By this point, Anya was beloved by the fanbase; an episode dedicated to her would've been well-received anyway. Credit to Goddard, then, for throwing everything into this one episode, from flashbacks to an epic showdown with Buffy, even to a lost musical number from "Once More, With Feeling." In the process, the series' silliest character becomes its most tragic. The abrupt cut from the end of "I'll Be Mrs." to Anya at the business end of Buffy's sword is one of the all-time best moments of the whole series. Bonus point: after nearly five seasons, the truth comes out about Xander not telling Buffy that Willow was planning to re-ensoul Angel in "Becoming." That is one slow burn.
#7: "Once More, With Feeling"
Season 6, Episode 7
Written by: Joss Whedon
For all the obvious reasons -- catchy-as-hell songs, brilliant comedy, devastating revelations. The best thing about this episode is how essential it is. I remain thoroughly impressed that Joss took the already daunting task of a musical episode (it wasn't the first of its kind, but this was well before every other show decided on musicals as the sweeps stunt du jour) and actually tied it to the three biggest revelations of the first half of the season (Buffy was in heaven! Willow maniplulated Tara! Spike kisses Buffy!). I am now and forever will be singing its praises. Hopefully better than Alyson Hannigan.
Season, 4, Episode 10
Written by: Joss Whedon
At this point, I feel like I should be explaining why episodes like "Hush" and OMWF didn't rank as #1. In the case of "Hush," it's certainly not that the monsters weren't unspeakably (heh) terrifying. Or that the wordless gimmick wasn't handled incredibly cleverly. Or that the comedy wasn't razor sharp. All true. But it's a smidge too removed from the greater story (and when it's not, the story it ties to is Riley/The Initiative). Yes, Willow and Tara first felt The Magic in this episode. I'm not saying this is anything less than an astounding episode. I just like five better.