As with all my top tens, these items would likely change depending on what day you asked me. But here's what I've got today:
10. Buffy Vs. Dracula. Okay, I know I could have chosen a better episode to make the list. But on a vampire show, at some point they had to tackle the Dracula legend, and this quasi-parody of Stoker's novel delighted me. Best quote was Xander's outburst after his turn in the Renfield role:
Xander: Damn it! You know what? I'm sick of this crap. I'm sick of being the guy who eats insects, and gets the "funny" syphilis. As of this moment, it's over. I'm finished being everybody's butt-monkey.
Buffy: (keeping straight face) Check. No more butt-monkey.
9. Becoming, Part Two. Heck of a season finale! We have Angelus torturing Giles, Spike playing double agent, Willow getting into the hard-core witchcraft, and Buffy sacrificing Angel to save the world. With time for some goofy awkward social moments, like Joyce meeting Spike:
Spike: You hit me with an ax one time. Remember? Uh, 'Get the hell away from my daughter'.
Joyce: Oh. ...So, do you, uh, live here in town?
8. The Gift. Another amazing season finale, this time a heartbreaking one. Thinking of Spike and Giles in tears after Buffy's dive to save the world (again) still makes me ache.
Buffy: Remember: The ritual starts, we all die; and I'll kill anyone who comes near Dawn.
Spike: Well, not exactly the St. Crispin's Day speech, was it?
Giles: We few, we happy few...
Spike: ...we band of buggered.
7. Smashed. I became a Spuffy shipper at "Fool for Love", so this consummation episode necessarily holds a cherished spot on the list. Bringing down the house with your smoldering selves, you pretty blonde couple you...
Spike: Thought you might be up for a little grunt work.
Buffy: What? No. No grunting!
Spike: I was talking shop, luv, but if you've got other ideas... You, me, cozy little tomb with a view...
6. Wild At Heart. I loved Oz, and his relationship with Willow was one of my top two or three favorite relationships on the show. In this episode he cheated on her, killed the other wolf/woman, and left Willow--all without ceasing to be poignantly adorable. Possibly the series' most heart-rending breakup:
Willow: Oz, don't you love me?
Oz: My whole life, I've never loved anything else.
5. Fool For Love. Spike's backstory was surprising and by turns funny and gritty, and wove effortlessly into his current obsession for Buffy--who in one insulting move reduced our tough evil guy to tears. The death-as-sex (or sex-as-death) metaphors ran wild!
Spike: Come on, I can feel it, Slayer. You know you want to dance.
Buffy: Say it's true. Say I do want to. It wouldn't be you, Spike. It would never be you. (flings cash at him) You're beneath me.
4. Band Candy. There are many an episode in which magic goes wrong and sends the whole town into temporary madness, and they're usually pretty good, but this one cracked me up. I give most of the credit to Snyder, Giles, and Joyce. (Hood of a police car, eh? Classy, you two.)
Buffy: Mom, look at your car. Look at that dent the size of New Brunswick. I did that.
Joyce: Oh my God! What was I thinking when I bought the geek machine?...
Buffy: Listen to me--
Giles: No, you listen to me. I'm your Watcher so you do what I tell you. Now sod off!
3. Passion. "Innocence" and pretty much all the rest of season 2 explored the evil that is Angelus, but this episode was the shocking stand-out. Angelus as stalker and killer is one of the scariest baddies on the series, and what he did to Giles (by killing Jenny Calendar) took the show up a notch on the "horrifying and distressing" scale. And poor Buffy has to walk around feeling like she's a harlot and it's all her fault.
Willow: Well, it went fine until Angel showed up and told Buffy's mom that he and Buffy had--well, you know, that...they had...you know...you do know, right?
Giles: Oh, yes, sorry.
Willow: Oh good, 'cause I just realized that being a librarian and all, you maybe didn't know.
Giles: No, thank you. I got it.
2. Once More With Feeling. They took risks doing a musical episode, but no worries, cast and choreographers: it rocked! Watched it over again, bought the soundtrack, hummed the tunes for, like, a month...need to do the Buffy Horror Picture Show version someday!
Life's not a song / Life isn't bliss / Life is just this / It's living...
1. Hush. Art in horror-movie form, in a nearly stand-alone episode that's truly and genuinely scary. The characters' resorting to gestures provided clever comedic relief: Giles's overhead presentation, Xander picking up the phone only to figure out the phone is no help when you can't talk, Anya making the crude "let's go have sex" sign to Xander. But never fear, there are still quotes to be had!
Giles: I have a friend who's coming to town, and I'd like us to be alone.
Anya: Oh, you mean an orgasm friend?
Giles: Yes, that's exactly the most appalling thing you could have said.
Now...where's, say, "The Body"? That was a stunning episode, but simply too painful for me to want to watch again as entertainment. The ten above, however, I'd happily rewatch. Over, and over, and over...
So: what are your top ten?
(My "Angel" choices will come sometime in another post.)