Who is the greatest Big Bad in Joss Whedon’s 7-season television opus, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer?” A question that has plagued the sages. For ages.
This week and month and year, stake-shaped cakes will be eaten across the globe as the Land of the Internet celebrates Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 20th Anniversary. In seven seasons a vast array of monstrosities, both physical and emotional, crossed paths and did battle with Buffy and her Scooby Gang. But each season featured one major threat, colloquially known as THE BIG BAD.
What makes a villain great? The pants? The panache? The various p-words that imply all kinds of peril? It’s a mixture of all the goods. The darkness draws us in — you find yourself rooting for them, but you know in your blood-drenched heart that they’ve gotta go. Their final and inevitable defeat tastes super sweet, because it was hard-earned. But most importantly, they had a good reason for being such a jerk. This isn’t going to be easy, because all of these villains are great.
What follows is my deeply scientific look at which Buffy Big Bad is best, by season. In the name of the immortal Michael Jackson: “Who’s bad?”
7. SEASON FOUR: Adam/The Initiative/Maggie Walsh
Season 4 had it tough. The first three seasons of Buffy are a battering ram of plot and character momentum. And then they blew up their high school.
The Initiative starts as an interesting mystery, but ends looking like a half-finished science project. In the season’s infancy the Initiative are hinted at with whispers and strange asides. Out of sight, the shady government monster hunting agency seems potentially badass. But as we get to see more of the institution, the sense of wonder fizzles. And then there’s Riley…
We meet Maggie Walsh, who manages to be a tough-as-nails college professor by day and also a tough-as-nails government-sanctioned mad scientist by night. She is ably played by Lindsay Crouse, who functions better as an interesting matriarchal counterpoint to Giles as opposed to an evil mastermind. Then she gets gutted by her evil-robot-demon-man-baby, Adam.
Adam is a solid idea, and he is well-realized by Georg Hertzberg. But Frankenstein’s monster meets Hannibal Lechter just lacked the human touch we needed at this point. His goals are murky — apparently because he is so smart he wants to make more robot demons? Or he’s mad at his Mom? And he underscored a bigger problem with Season Four, wherein on-screen characters react with scripted awe to the Giant Scientific Compound or Very Cool Monster Robot only to have it look like a set or creature was glued together using a ton of tin foil and a broken Commodore 64.
Two of Joss’s greatest episodes are tucked within this uneven season, “Hush” and the epilogue, “Restless,” both daring pushes against the scripted form. But the fact that they touch so little on the main threat of The Initiative leaves you wondering if Mr. Whedon had his own reservations about this Big Bad’s effectiveness.
Let’s face it, the real villain here is Riley.
6. SEASON SEVEN: The First Evil and Caleb and Their Bringer Buddies and Uber-Vamps, too!
Season Seven had its own unique challenge: to end a legendary television show. What better way to go out than with the Biggest and Baddest Evil that started it all? The First. A creepy head-game playing amalgam of all the evils we’ve ever seen, represented by an endless (and eyeless) force of super tough zealots who are out to kill not just Buffy, but every potential Slayer they can find. Theoretically some nice and tall stakes. It’s a strong premise, and it definitely maintains the momentum necessary to get us to the inevitable final throwdown. But we also see shades of Season Five and Six re-emerge without enough of a new spin, wherein Buffy’s real foe is her own self doubt, and some of that territory feels re-tread.
Much like with Season 4, the threat starts strong. Before we know what’s messing with the Scoobies and all the other potential Slayers, it’s a creeping unknown force, and it’s effectively off-putting. But the unknown never quite formulates. It’s a shape-shifting jerk, it’s the eyeless bringers, it’s an evil “uber vamp.” By the time Caleb re-invigorates the threat-level by being super creepy and taking Xander’s eye him it’s a little too late, and we’re left wondering why Big Evil doesn’t just show up and take care of business itself.
On paper it all looks swell, and the Season as a whole does deliver, The First ably doing its job to build towards a deeply satisfying conclusion. But The First’s agenda of ambiguous Ultimate Evil pinned against its lack of an actual corporeal form leaves you wanting more from the Biggest Bad Ever. Put on a skin suit, already!
5. SEASON 5: Glory (and Ben) and The Knights of Byzantium(?)
Glory is fun. She’s a God who wants all her powers back, and she has to steal Buffy’s new magical sister to get them. Clare Kramer chews up scenes like she’s about to high five Pacino, and she’s a joy to watch every time she looks for the perfect pair of shoes to go with the brain she’s about to eat. The premise works pretty well, but her purpose doesn’t feel aligned with her wonderful characterization, and seeing her taken down falls flat (though Buffy’s sacrifice in “The Gift” in order to do so does not, delivering another high point for the series).
Season Five is a bit of a rollercoaster ride, and it’s hard to talk about it without regarding one magnificent episode dropped in its center. “The Body” deals with death and grieving in a clear-eyed and passionate manner, and is made that much more poignant for doing so in the midst of a fantastical television show about a teenage vampire hunter. It exerts a force on the rest of the season that it is hard to pull away from. It’s Joss Whedon’s finest work, and one of the greatest episodes of television ever created.
Tough competition. But Glory is fun.
Glory’s counterpoint of having a vulnerable human vessel in Ben turns out to be one of her most intriguing aspects, as True Evil emerges in his heart in the form of good old self preservation. And then we get to see one of Giles’s most telling and chilling moments as we witness Ben and Glory’s dark fate at his merciless hands. Guys, don’t mess with Ripper.
The sidebar that is The Knights of the Byzantium scarcely bears mentioning, other than to point out that they don’t do the season, or Glory, or any of us, any favors. They move the plot along a bit, but feel under-cooked and overlooked. Ren Fair gone useless (though you gotta love a good Spike-driven RV chase).
Glory is great, but the stakes don’t sink. Her motives smack too much of The Mayor’s, but without the grounding.
And when your Mom dies, there’s not much else to talk about.
4. SEASON 6: The Trio and Dark Willow
A personal favorite of the author’s, Season Six goes pretty dark, and the bad gets really good. In this season more than any other, it could be argued that Buffy is her own greatest enemy. But let’s save the Jung and stick with the external threats for this list.
We open with no Buffy at all. Because she’s dead. She comes back, and as it turns out heaven was really nice, and she’s left emotionally gutted and detached from all of humanity after having been ripped from perfect peace. No big deal. So in a brilliant turn, she has to face her most banal set of villains ever, three mostly regular nerds with some B-list bad guy prowess: The Trio.
The Trio goes on to evolve into something of a real menace, particularly in light of Warren’s sociopathic tendencies once he’s tasted blood. Moreover, they serve as an excellent back-drop and foil for Buffy’s inner struggles, and then an excellent catalyst for the surprise real villain, Dark Willow.
Dark Willow is another inspired move, turning Buffy’s best friend upside down and playing upon the greatest strengths and weaknesses of each of the show’s characters. And she’s taken to this point of darkness through a believable turn, that of losing the woman she loves to a senseless killing.
This season has some of my favorite plot moves, but my only issue with Dark Willow is in the mid-season ramp-up towards her darkness wherein her magic addiction gets out of control. While drawing the parallel of magic abuse and drug addiction into the conversation is fundamentally a good idea, the execution feels too obvious, particularly in this initial decline. The metaphor is so on-the-nose as to feel forced, and ends up more like a bizarre and out of touch after-school special (“Smashed” and “Wrecked” in particular).
But the end of Dark Willow’s tangled road of magic addiction and redemption re-emerges in the final few episodes and pulls it together well, and in the final notes the metaphor blossoms beautifully.
3. SEASON 1: The Master
Season 1 is a rocky start. As the show finds its legs and voice, there are some awkward moments.
Thank goodness, then, for The Master. He’s the Big Bad that Season 7 wanted back (and got to through The First Evil’s sometimes-confusing set of abilities). He’s more Dracula than Dracula. He’s a super-nasty and ultra mean Big Bad Vampire, and he sets the tone for all The Big Bads to come. He has every reason to want to tear down the waking world, and every reason to take down Buffy in the process. He wants to take it all over, and she’s built to slay him and his kind. His motivation is true, and we believe that he can do it. It’s simple and it works great.
But he isn’t just terrifying, he’s fun to watch, too. Mark Metcalf was born to have inconvenient teeth slapped into his mouth only to sound perfect and eloquent and just so damned wonderfully evil. The Master is smarter and better than everyone in the room, and he’s having a blast bringing on The Apocalypse.
2. SEASON 3: The Mayor (and his little pal Faith)
The Mayor. Nicest Evil Dad-figure ever. His characterization is spot on, abutting a 1950's-style happy-go-lucky germ-o-phobe with a beast of sadistic evil. Actor Harry Groener pulls in a nimble performance, switching between saccharine smiles and ghoulish murders. Harry nails it, but The Mayor’s actual motivation is a touch shaky, in that he wants to transform from being an invincible evil human into a vulnerable giant worm demon. Because that’s what he’s always wanted? And he misses his wife?
But through the whole season he menaces like a pro, and pulls Faith to the dark side with a convincing grin. Faith’s arc runs a powerful parallel with Buffy’s, and whenever they’re around one another, both Eliza Dushku and Sarah Michelle Gellar shine.
Season 3 delivers a ton of fun, and epitomizes the Scooby gang in action against a towering Big Bad who hits all the right notes. The Mayor embodies a sympathetic foe, and he’s a joy to watch menace.
There’s only one Big Bad that could possibly out-do him…
1. SEASON 2: Angellus (with a side of Spike and Dru)
Season 2 opens with Spike and Drusilla wreaking bad guy havoc, and they charm and terrorize in equal measure like an undead Bonny and Clyde. Just as their momentum sinks, the stakes are raised and Buffy’s True Love, Angel, turns from good guy to bad.
Witness the perfect Big Bad. Buffy’s True Love. Who is also a vampire. Upon consummating their delicate love, he turns evil. Plot perfection. She’s gotta kill her boyfriend.
Angellus is the bad guy we don’t just love to hate, we drink that hate down like hot tea on a cold night. And David Boreanz relishes getting a chance to tear down scenes and fellow cast-members with his dark side on display. There is a mad restraint to his sinister performance, and the glimmer and hope of humanity we know so well taints the evil further, leaving you chilled.
Bad Angel is as evil as they come, but he also brings the threat level of the show to new heights. He up and kills a cast member in neck-snapping cold blood, and the game is changed. The death of Jenny Calendar marks the first of many heart punching Joss deaths. Delivered gruesomely both in the moment, and then once again through Giles’s brutal discovery of her ghoulishly posed corpse, Angellus is a bad guy who delights in his own darkness. And we believe he wants to tear Buffy and everyone in her orbit down, and he wants to savor it.
His purpose is clear, and his evil menace is true.
Angellus is the Best Big Bad that ever there was. So Bad.
Post Script: Razor-backs, Razor-backs, rah rah rah!
This list was hard, and is of course, not definitive. For the record, I think this is THE BEST BAD. Angellus isn’t actually my favorite. Dark Willow (and The Trio) and The Mayor tie for that.
What is definitive is my deep love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I have watched the show (mumbles incoherently) times. I am never disappointed.
I watch Buffy and I believe in stories that matter.
In light of the Big 20, I wanted to put forth my own small tribute to this wonderful show that means so much to me.
Buffy, Joss Whedon, the tremendous cast, the amazing group of writers, and the talented creative crew behind this show of shows opened my eyes to what is possible in storytelling.
I can never thank you enough, Sunnydale.
Further thanks go to Jesse and Andy and Dan, who convinced me to try (and then stick with) Buffy. And to Casey and Gabe, who journeyed through the Hellmouth by my side. It was unforgettable fun.
I’ll see you guys at the Bronze.
Originally published at www.martystuff.com.
My name is Marty. This story originally appeared on my pop culture blog, Astronaut Island. You can follow me on Twitter via https://twitter.com/martystuff and on Facebooks via https://www.facebook.com/RealMartystuff/, and look at (or buy!) lots of the other stuff I make at http://martystuff.com. I’ve published four books (http://www.martystuff.com/writing/), recently made an internet cartoon about vampires and dinosaurs (http://vampireboywebsite.com), and often perform with a sock puppet/human/giant monster rock band (https://unclemonsterface.bandcamp.com). All for science! Which is real!