Trigger Warning: This article (Buffy Big Bads Ranked) makes reference to rape, sexual assault, misogynistic violence, suicide, addiction, and gore.
Big Bads appear in many television shows, especially fantasy ones, but they’re a staple in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The show was actually the first to coin the term ‘Big Bad’ to refer to the primary antagonist in a television show, usually of a particular season. From powerful vampires to actual hell-gods, from a bunch of nerdy humans to the personification of evil itself, Buffy brought us a range of wonderful season villains. Here’s my personal ranking of them!
Oh, Adam… He’s the only Big Bad that I actively dislike in the show, but he could have been so good! A combination of human, robot, and different demon parts, Adam was created by Initiative leader Maggie Walsh. This mish-mash of body parts, him being the result of a dodgy government scientific experiment, the whole Frankensteinesque narrative with Maggie—it’s all super intriguing stuff. Part of the reason why it doesn’t work is that the Initiative plot was very weak, another part is Lindsey Crouse leaving the show relatively early so Maggie was killed off as soon as Adam awoke, neglecting the Victor/monster dynamic, and the rest is that he was just plain boring.
To say Adam was supposedly a perfect soldier, incorporating advanced technology, the strength and emotional detachment of demons, and the adaptability and intelligence of humans, he sort of just… sat around and didn’t do much until the finale? One of the most interesting scenes for me was when he talks to a young boy in the park and later dissects him along with some demons. Gaining an understanding of biology was a unique motive for killing, but there wasn’t really anywhere to go with that.
Killing Maggie was nothing more than a shock (and removed that oh-so-crucial dynamic with Adam), killing Forrest didn’t make much of an impact since he was such an unlikeable character, and working with Spike was only interesting because Spike is interesting. Bringing back his victims as reanimated human-demon hybrids was, again, a cool concept, but it was so short-lived (plus the prosthetics were so bad, it distracted from the idea). As goes for Season 4 in general, the introduction of science and the real world into the fantasy of Buffy inevitably failed.
Unlike his successor, Glory, who was a genuinely invulnerable and hard-to-kill villain, Adam had one obvious weakness (the uranium core) that was removed by Buffy under the influence of the enjoining spell. The final battle was underwhelming on Adam’s part, since all the nifty moves and tricks were from Buffy as a result of the spell. All-in-all, Adam was quite a disappointment.
7. The Master
Just to clarify, the Master being this far down the list doesn’t mean I don’t like him—I think he’s fab! The only real reason why he’s here is that he just doesn’t compare to the other, more complex and nuanced Big Bads. To be completely fair to him, none of the other villains would have suited Season 1 in the way that the Master does. His status as a superior vampire, his campy leather outfit, his classic villainous monologues and general demeanour are all perfect for an opening season Big Bad. Buffy needed a standard villain like that to fight in her first proper year of being a Slayer. It also matches the cheesiness of the early seasons.
Due to his old age, the Master looks closer in appearance to the Turok-Hans than regular vampires. He already looked that way in 1609 when he turned Darla. He was the leader of the Order of Aurelius, a vampire cult that worshipped the Old Ones and intended to release them by opening the Hellmouth. While conducting the ritual to do this in 1937, the Master ended up trapped inside the Hellmouth by a mystical barrier. After sending minions such as Luke and Darla to do his dirty work for him throughout most of Season 1, the Master manages to escape imprisonment in the finale ‘Prophecy Girl’ after drinking some of Buffy’s blood. Props to him for actually killing Buffy as well! Even though she defeated him not long afterwards, Buffy died at his hands, fulfilling the Pergamum Codex.
Even after his death, the Master very nearly comes back due to his minions digging up his bones and attempting a revival ritual. The emotional scene in ‘When She Was Bad’ when Buffy smashes up the Master’s skeleton with a sledgehammer is truly cathartic. Past this, Mark Metcalf still returns for a couple of cameos throughout the show as the Master: in an alternative universe in S3E9 ‘The Wish’, and as the First Evil in S7E1 ‘Lessons’.
Really, it’s unfair to judge the Master based on the greater impact of other villains, because as a standalone Big Bad, everything works for him. But this is a ranked list after all, so he’ll have to settle here.
6. The First Evil
Part of my issue with the First Evil boils down to it being the Big Bad of Season 7, an uneven and occasionally weak season compared to the others. In concept, it’s amazing—the manifestation of evil itself that can appear as people who have died in order to psychologically manipulate the heroes. Its motive is to destroy the Slayer line, allowing it to become corporeal and essentially take over the world. Disappointingly, the execution just doesn’t quite cut it for me.
We actually first meet the First Evil in S3E10 ‘Amends’, when it latches onto a fresh-from-Hell Angel. Materialising as Jenny Calendar among other people he killed, the First tortures Angel by reminding him of his past sins and nearly causing him to commit suicide. In Season 7, it uses similar tactics, this time succeeding in making one of the potential Slayers, Chloe, commit suicide by manipulating her for a whole night. At one point, it masquerades as Eve, a potential Slayer who was killed by the Harbingers of Death before arriving in Sunnydale, in order to infiltrate the group and convince the other potentials that their cause is worthless. These are the most impactful aspects of the First Evil’s villainy for me, since it really showcases its psychological power and cunning.
However, a large chunk of the plot is spent on messing around with Spike instead. The First turns him into a sleeper agent, making him kill again at the push of a trigger. It’s an interesting plot, don’t get me wrong, but I always think the First could have aimed higher than that. Hell, it could manifest as Spike himself to Buffy or the others since he’s dead! But it only ever does that around Spike himself, which felt like a waste.
Since the First Evil is incorporeal, it can’t participate in physical battles. Other entities such as the Bringers, the Turok-Hans, and Caleb are therefore used as agents of the First. They’re all incredibly powerful beings, but it does feel as though Season 7 is an endless sequence of different villains being thrown at Buffy. The Bringers quickly become irrelevant once the Turok-Hans are introduced, and priest-turned-serial-killer Caleb feels like a rather gimmicky addition so late in the season with his exaggerated Southern American accent and on-the-nose misogyny.
I also wish The First Evil had more of a presence during the final battle in ‘Chosen’—it appears to Buffy as Buffy to goad her when she gets injured, but it would have been nice to see a little more, at least. Despite it having such a presence throughout Season 7, I can’t help feeling a bit cheated by the final Big Bad.
5. The Trio
Maybe you’re surprised to see a group of human nerds above the manifestation of pure evil. To which I say, yep, that’s totally understandable. But hear me out: Warren Mears, Jonathan Levinson, and Andrew Wells make up one of the most insidiously evil and disturbing Big Bads in Buffy.
At the start of Season 6, when we’re introduced to them as the self-professed Big Bad, it’s laughable. Warren used to make sex bots as we saw in S5E15 ‘I Was Made To Love You’, Jonathan was bullied at school and effectively used for humour despite his magical prowess in S4E17 ‘Superstar’, and Andrew is constantly mistaken for his brother Tucker who released the Hellhounds at prom (“I trained flying demon monkeys to attack the school play. School play, dude!”). The three of them are pathetic geeks who, amongst making endless Star Trek and Star Wars references, decided to take over Sunnydale on a whim of boredom. They provide well-needed comic relief at the start of a season burdened with heavy themes and plots.
‘Dead Things’ is the turning point for them. Creating a Cerebral Dampener to turn any woman into their “willing sex slave”, the Trio (led by Warren) hold Warren’s ex-girlfriend Katrina hostage. When the effect of the magic fades, Katrina is outraged and rightly tells the Trio that what they planned to do was rape. Preventing her escape, Warren kills Katrina. Here is where Warren fully emerges as the Big Bad leader; although Jonathan and Andrew are complicit in sexual assault and murder, they are considerably more hesitant about their actions than Warren, who shows no remorse whatsoever. This escalates further when Warren ends up shooting Buffy and killing Tara.
What began as a bit of a joke very quickly evolved into a rather astute commentary on toxic male nerd culture and how these attitudes perpetuate violence against women. It’s easy not to take the Trio seriously at first, but this is part of what makes them so sinister—they’re just a bunch of mortal men, after all, men capable of committing rape and murder. It’s a lot more real and hard-hitting than fantastical demons and monsters.
From her explosive entrance in ‘No Place Like Home’, Glorificus (otherwise known as Glory for short, or The Beast) is an absolute powerhouse. Searching for the Key, disguised as Buffy’s younger sister Dawn, Glory simply wants to return home to the Hell dimension from which she originates. However, using the Key will dissolve the barriers between all worlds, causing cosmic disaster. Glory used to rule with two other Hell Gods, but surpassed them in regards to power and sadism. Fearful of her, the other deities declared war and cast her out. As punishment, Glory was forced to share a body with a human named Ben.
The split between Glory and Ben is a tense and captivating aspect to this Big Bad. Each time Ben changes back into Glory or vice versa, they don’t retain the memories of the other, and any mortal who watches them change instantly forgets what they saw. It leads to a lot of frustration on behalf of the audience, since we’re aware that Glory and Ben are the same person from S5E13 ‘Blood Ties’ onwards, yet Buffy and the Scooby Gang don’t find out properly until S5E21 ‘The Weight of the World’ due to the whole memory erasure trick. Although Buffy manages to defeat the extremely strong and invulnerable Glory in battle in the finale, Giles is actually the one to kill her by smothering Ben to death so she can’t come back.
One of the things I love most about Glory is that she’s always proactive in her villainy (which is a significant improvement from Adam in Season 4). If she’s not physically fighting Buffy, she’s wiping out the Order of Dagon, or mind-sucking humans to stabilise her own mental state, or relentlessly searching for the Key. Glory does not have a moment’s rest! Plus, she gets extra points for being the first Big Bad that Buffy genuinely thought she’d lose against—and in a way, she did. Glory hired Doc to help her out with bleeding Dawn so that the portal did open, and Buffy died to close it. Sure, Glory still died and never succeeded in returning home, but she briefly unleashed Hell on Earth and got the Slayer killed in the process. Clare Kramer brought a wonderful energy to the role.
3. The Mayor
As the founder of Sunnydale, Mayor Richard Wilkins III is not only influential in the demon world, but the human world too. He’s been around for over a hundred years by the time he becomes the Season 3 Big Bad, making gradual steps towards his Ascension at Sunnydale High’s graduation day. We first meet the Mayor in ‘Homecoming’, expressing germophobe tendencies and coming across very much as a suburban dad. A range of occult objects are soon revealed inside his office, and that’s when we know he’s something beyond human.
In the lead-up to the Ascension, the Mayor first completes the Dedication, a ritual to make him invincible. One of my favourite jokes is when we see him tick “become invincible” off his to-do list amongst everyday tasks such as “meeting with PTA” and “haircut”. The mundanity of the Mayor’s appearance contrasted with his simultaneous status as an evil warlock is hilarious but also makes him all the more threatening. Harry Groener’s performance is deeply endearing and nuanced.
Being in a position of political power, the Mayor associates with both humans and demons, using them to do his dirty work—Principal Snyder and the vampire Mr Trick are initially two of his closest accomplices. But by far the most interesting and complex alliance is with rogue Slayer, Faith. Despite using her for his own nefarious gain, the Mayor has a genuine fatherly affection and love for Faith. It’s a direct contrast to Giles and Buffy’s father/daughter relationship. After Giles drives a non-fatal sword through the Mayor’s chest at having his fatherhood insulted, I believe it’s no coincidence that Giles pressed the trigger to blow him up in the finale.
Even after being killed in giant post-Ascension snake-demon form (which, props to him for actually going through with that, after an authentically uplifting graduation speech no less), the Mayor cares for Faith enough to leave a video message for her, along with a magical trinket to help her wreak revenge on Buffy. He had such an impact on Faith that the First Evil appears to her as him. His legacy isn’t easily forgotten.
For a more detailed description of reasons why the Mayor is a wonderful Big Bad, read Cat Smith’s article!
Coming in at a close second is Angelus, one of the best plot twists in television and a delight to watch. Turning our hero’s love interest into an evil villain halfway through the second season was pretty genius. It taps into (though unfortunately also feeds into) teenage fears about losing your virginity by having Angel lose his soul right after having sex with Buffy, and then treat her awfully afterwards. Seeing Buffy’s betrayal and anguish is utterly crushing, but it gives her the best motivation to fight him. I mean, hello, rocket launcher scene?
It’s a lot more confusing than that for Buffy, though. While Angelus manipulates her, tortures her friends (literally in Giles’ case), and murders Jenny Calendar, Buffy is still grappling with the fact that she’ll have to kill the person she was in love with. It’s far too much responsibility for a seventeen year old to have to deal with, but then, so is being the Slayer. Things reach boiling point when Angelus uses Acathla to open the gate to a Hell dimension, intending to unleash Hell on Earth. Eventually, Willow manages to conduct a restoration spell to re-ensoul Angelus while Buffy participates in a boss fight with him. By this point, Buffy has to go through with killing a souled Angel since the gate has already been opened. The moment is deeply tragic, and impacts Buffy so much that she leaves Sunnydale for a while.
What’s interesting about Angelus is the clear split between this evil, soulless self and the righteous, souled Angel. The distinction isn’t as obvious with other vampires, such as Spike later on in the show, whereas Angel and Angelus are like two separate entities inhabiting the same body. This dual identity causes internal tension, as Angelus hates Angel for being weak and too human, and Angel resents Angelus for making him a monster. I’ll confess I found Angel boring in the first three seasons of Buffy for the most part, so Angelus really threw a spanner in the works. It gave David Boreanaz the chance to really showcase his acting skills and have some fun with the role.
As well as a fab Big Bad, the Angelus plot also gave us some great dialogue—the ‘Passion’ voiceover from Angelus, and the “Take all that away, and what’s left?” “Me” exchange between Angelus and Buffy in ‘Becoming, Part Two’ stand out to me. Not forgetting Spike and Drusilla, who were an absolute gift in Season 2 as secondary Big Bads. Their chemistry with each other was magical enough, but throwing Angelus into the mix made the dynamic even more compelling. Let’s be real, they were the iconic villainous trio before the Trio were the Trio.
1. Dark Willow
Anyone who knows me knows that Willow is one of my favourite characters, so I’ll admit I’m biased here. But her journey from being a shy nerd at school to gaining confidence through practising magic and dating Tara to becoming one of the most (I’d personally argue the most) powerful people in the Buffyverse is incredible to watch. One of the most brilliant yet heart-breaking parts of this is her shift to full-blown supervillain in the Season 6 finale.
We get the sense that Willow is seriously troubled in the first half of Season 6, what with her obsession with magic getting out of control. However, we’re also told that the Trio are the supposed Big Bad of the season, as laughable as they may seem during this time. When Willow’s overuse of magic causes Tara to break up with her and evolves into a serious addiction, we’re properly paying attention. Going cold turkey, starting to recover, and winning Tara back in the process makes us think there’s no need to worry about Willow quite as much again. And then Tara is murdered by Warren.
When Willow snaps, she snaps. Releasing all her grief and rage and power, she goes on a vendetta against the Trio to avenge her girlfriend. Along the way, she powers up by absorbing dark magic from books and people such as Rack and Giles—hence where her coined villain name comes from, as well as her black hair, eyes, and veins on her forehead. In a wonderfully cathartic moment, Willow telekinetically pushes the bullet that Warren shot Buffy with through his torso, then flays him and incinerates his dead body. It’s absolutely brutal and powerful to watch.
Since she’s been taken over by magic at this point, Willow continues to hunt down Jonathan and Andrew, threatening her friends for getting in the way. Boss fights with both Buffy and Giles ensue, and Willow technically defeats them both in battle. The only reason she doesn’t end up causing (yet another) apocalypse is that Giles intended for her to steal his borrowed, pure magic which taps into her spark of humanity and allows Xander to talk her down. The scene in the desert with Xander standing right in front of her and relentlessly repeating “I love you” before she collapses into his arms brings me to tears every time without fail.
Although Willow being a Big Bad is a lot of fun to watch, it’s also devastating and painful because of Tara’s death and how self-destructive it is for Willow too. It’s a whole whirlwind of emotions, and the pay-off is fantastic.
This is only one Buffy fan’s opinion, and even my ranking is extremely tight considering each Big Bad has their merits in different ways—I’d love to see other people’s opinions in the comments!