Yes, I know that this is an item based on a show that finished well over a decade ago, but hear me out. Since the 20th anniversary of the first airing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, SyFy have been running the series from the beginning, and we’re getting close to the end. Again. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched this show, but this time around, with 2 episodes airing every weekday, for some reason the parade of death from Joss ‘Overlord of Pain’ Whedon’s legendary show has been hurting my heart even more. This brings me to today’s cheerful topic: which Buffyverse death hurts the most?
It’s hard to measure. Plus, you may have changed your minds over the years — I think I have. Let’s have a look at the Big Deaths in Buffy and Angel, see how big their emotional punch is now, and try to figure this out. I’ve omitted deaths of demons and vampires that don’t at least try to be good some of the time, so there are no Big Bads unless they were only bad part-time. And some of the human deaths don’t make the cut either. We might have been shocked or troubled by their deaths, but I’d wager no viewers shed a tear over people like Warren or Holland Manners. You could make a case for being hurt by the dark side of Giles when he killed Ben/Glory, but I bet you didn’t have a cry about it.
To make it easier to try and whittle it down to a winner, I’ve sorted the Big Deaths into categories. Winners from each category go into the semi final, then I’ll narrow it down again. Easy, right?
Who am I kidding? This is going to hurt. And it’s going to be impossible. I fully expect you to disagree with me, and for there to be a lot of sad gifs in the comments. I’m braced.
Need a refresher? Here’s a montage to remind you of some of the Buffyverse legends we lost along the way…
1: ‘First Soldier Down’
‘How can you have more than one first soldier?’ I hear you ask. Because I make the rules, and there are different types of soldiers: civilians and slayers, for instance. Plus, Buffy and Angel get to set up their own ‘first soldiers’. The ‘First Soldier Down’ death is a warning shot for the audience. It’s a reminder not to get too comfortable, not to take anyone for granted. It should be sudden, shocking and violent. It won’t be the focal point for a season, and it won’t necessarily be the main character, but there are no guarantees. Kendra’s death? That just reminds us that slayers can die, for real - without a handy resuscitation from a nearby Scooby. It’s a death that ups the stakes. Jenny Calendar belongs here too. Her death shows us that Angelus isn’t mucking about.
But the winner of ‘First Soldier Down’ goes to Doyle. There is an argument for Doyle’s death to go in the sacrifice category, but he belongs more neatly here. He went down fighting, and protecting those he cared about. Besides, killing off one of the three main characters before you’re halfway through your first season? Bold. And Cruel. ‘First soldier down’ became his eulogy in the 100th episode. So he has to win this category, really.
2: ‘Kill One Off To Make Another Grow’
Now this one’s particularly annoying, because it’s not about the dying character’s arc so much as the impact their death has on those around them. And in Buffy, the characters that were killed off to encourage others to grow were perhaps the most missed: Joyce and Tara.
Tara’s death, which didn’t really affect me so much the first time, stings more each time I watch it. I don’t think I ever gave Tara enough credit. In a post-Joyce world, she was the warm and loving mother figure that the Scoobies needed. She was so kind, non-judgmental and sensible in season 6. But ‘Bury Your Gays’; in order to bring on Dark Willow, Tara had to go. That was not a fair exchange.
Winner: Back then, definitely Joyce. Now? I’m just mad about Tara.
3: ‘Nowhere Else To Go’
This is where Xander’s ex-girlfriends both hang out forever, getting on surprisingly well, considering. Cordy and Anya both went through massive transformations — from human to demon (and even back again), from reluctant Scooby to full on members of the gang. They are occasionally evil but ultimately on the side of good. They can be self-involved and narcissistic, raging capitalists, warm, snarky, flirty; they are usually in research mode, but are pretty good with a sword as well. They have as many hairstyles as they do moods. I freaking love these two, can you tell?
When it came to their deaths, there was simply no more road for them to travel. Both of them went out fighting, somehow managing to go down quietly but simultaneously in a blaze of glory. That’s pretty hard, folks. Anya dies fighting Bringers, but her death was so sudden that it almost gets forgotten. Plus it was so violent that it is almost always cut out of the daytime screenings. Cordy has her return to glory in the 100th episode before literally disappearing as Angel is told over the phone that she died in her coma. Quiet, but epic.
Winner: I’m kind of mad on Anya’s behalf. Give the girl some credit and some tears, please. But Cordy’s death makes me sob like a baby, so she wins; sorry, Anya.
4: ‘Duty Before Love’
When Buffy has to kill Angel at the end of season 2, my god, at the time, I think I may have flooded the house with tears. It was so clear to her then. She could only save the world if she killed the man she loved. The waters were muddied later. At the time, she did the only thing she could. And it broke her. As someone who’s loved David Boreanaz for 20 years, it still breaks me too.
Winner: literally no contest. Angel for the win.
5: ‘Sacrifice Yourself For Love’
You might think of this as a place where duty and love are in alignment rather than in opposition. With these deaths, there is an emotional, familial duty that the characters will not turn away from; they will sacrifice themselves for love and duty at the same time. Some big hitters did this. First up, Buffy. Death was her gift, after all. When Giles told her that she might have to kill Dawn, she refused. This time, love trumped duty. The beautiful twist came when she realised she could save the world and save her sister.
She wasn’t the only vampire to choose sacrifice. In fact, what Darla and Spike have in common at the moment of their deaths is that they both have a soul. They have loved before, but this is a pure and selfless love that only comes with a soul in the mythology of the Buffyverse. Darla shares one with Connor, but Spike has one all to himself. And it is weaponised in the final battle.
Winner: Do you have to ask? Buffy’s death hurts the most, then and now. I’m giving Darla second place, with Spike in third.
6: ‘You Can Redeem Yourself But Then That’s It’
These are more ‘honourable mentions’ than serious contenders for the Pain Crown, but here are the short and occasionally-evil-but-probably-just-misunderstood characters, who just about redeemed themselves minutes before getting killed.
First up: Jonathan. He started out much like the Gunther of the show, always hanging on the sidelines wanting to be a proper part of the gang. But Jonathan’s story gets more interesting the more you think about it. Lonely, bullied and suicidal at school, resorting to the Dark Arts in college to try and get some power, but still ultimately kind-hearted underneath, Jonathan was vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation by Warren. He was the most moral of the trio, but this was almost always offset by self-interest and cowardice. He was torn between atoning and running away, but ultimately chose to seek Buffy out. Even though no-one else cared for him, he had decided that he should care for them. But then he was stabbed by Andrew, and quietly buried by Principal Wood. Poor Jonathan.
Lindsey in Angel went through a similar process, but with a chip on his shoulder rather than insecurity. He made the transition from bad to good to bad to good, until eventually being killed off by Lorne, much to his dismay. Plus, he was cute.
Winner: Jonathan. He’d actually made some real progress. Lindsey was pretty, but his redemption arc was much more ambiguous. If Whedon had killed Faith off in the finale like I expected/dreaded he would, she would have won this category hands down.
7: ‘Nothing You Can Do’
Sometimes, the world just sucks and there is absolutely nothing you can do. There is no hope. There is no comfort, no euphemistic platitude to soothe the pain. There is only the end. Cassie’s death teaches the Scooby Gang about this in Buffy. But Angel nailed the heartbreaking, purely tragic deaths with Fred and Wesley. Fred is destroyed to make Illyria happen, which breaks Wesley. Then Wesley, defeated and fatally wounded, dies in Illyria’s arms in the finale. She can’t save him; she can only lie to him, and avenge his death.
Winner: Fred. A thousand times, Fred. Because the bit that makes me cry the most at Wesley’s death is the return of Fred, and the lie that they will be together after death. They won’t — her soul burned up in her death, because it was SO BLOODY HORRIBLE. My god, she took two episodes to die and it was awful. I didn’t even like Fred that much. But she was sweet and harmless, and POOR WESLEY WAS A BROKEN MAN. I’m still upset about this, clearly.
So, my semi-finalists are: Doyle, Angel, Tara, Cordy, Buffy, Jonathan and Fred. Buffy and Angel came back, so let’s rule them out. Doyle wasn’t really around long enough for us to get too attached. Jonathan is only a finalist because he had an easy category.
Ultimate winner: Fred.
I think I can hear the dulcet tones of tea being spat out at my conclusion, so let’s hear your pick for the Buffyverse death that hurts the most! Because I’m nice/pure evil, I will even give you an extra option — do my semi-finalists pale into insignificance in the face of the following Whedonverse wildcards?
Wildcards: ‘They Don’t Even Go Here But You Can’t Talk About Joss Whedon And Death Without Mentioning Them’