An Ode to “Pangs,” the Iconic “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Thanksgiving Episode

Decades down the line, the episode’s theme of chosen family still resonates.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a show that, more than 20 years after it ended, still has a devoted queer fanbase. If you’re gay and open Twitter on any given day, you’re bound to find a few memes about the show or star Sarah Michelle Gellar herself.

The show didn’t become explicitly queer until an episode from Season 4 called “Hush,” when fans were introduced to lesbian witch Tara Maclay (played by Amber Benson). Tara’s relationship with Alyson Hannigan’s Willow was both revolutionary and beautiful. They became one of the first out couples on network television.

But their relationship isn’t the only reason the show is still so beloved by fans. Queer themes were strong within the show from the start, Buffy writer Jane Espenson tells NewNowNext: “Buffy, starting from the beginning of the series, was different, and her mom didn’t know, and she couldn’t talk openly about it. And when Joyce eventually did find out, she was all, ‘Have you tried not being a Slayer?’ So that kind of high school pre-coming-out sense, it was built in.”

The friend group at the center of the show, lovingly referred to as the Scooby gang, quickly became a family unit. The show’s only Thanksgiving episode, season 4’s “Pangs,” which originally premiered in 1999, showcased one of the biggest reasons the show resonated with queer fans: the theme of chosen family.

Anya: “To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal—it’s a ritual sacrifice, with pie.”

The episode has Gellar’s Buffy fighting a monster-of-the-week all while planning a Thanksgiving dinner with her Scooby gang. While each member of the group has their own struggle for the episode — Willow rallies against the problematic holiday, James Marsters’s Spike looks for a place to crash, and Nicholas Brendon’s Xander battles the funny syphilis” magically given to him by said monster-of-the-week. They’re also experiencing post-high school graduation growing pains like break ups, bills, and evil college professors that create Frankenstein monsters.

“I think the Scoobies work well together as a Chosen Family for that distinct reason… they chose each other,” Buffy costume designer Cynthia Bergstorm tells NewNowNext. “They each carry within themselves qualities of empathy, compassion, humor, and strength that the other has… they mirror each other perfectly and reflect back to one another the qualities that each already possesses inside.”

Bergstrom said she was going for a holiday theme with the outfits, but as for the cowboy hat Buffy wears in the beginning, “I seem to recall that Sarah saw it during a fitting and asked if she could wear it.”

Epsenson adds that Buffy creator Joss Whedon loves the idea of chosen family, hence why the episode leans hard into the theme.“Xander’s line near the end about how this was kind of a normal thanksgiving—a fight and a big meal—that line was written late in the process, but it helps capture that family feeling.”

Season 4 is all about the characters going through changes, emotional and otherwise, hence the title of the episode. “Pangs” even takes Buffy’s mother out of the picture (but not in the way “The Body” does), so the gang, now all in college, must fend for their own on this holiday.

Buffy: “And the thing is, I like my evil like I like my men—evil. You know, straight up, black hat, ‘Tied to the train tracks, soon my electro-ray will destroy metropolis’ bad. Not all mixed up with guilt and the destruction of an indigenous culture.”

The episode is pretty progressive for 1999 standards when most TV shows had their Thanksgiving episodes sans any critical discussion or nuance about the holiday itself. Buffy is the friend who hasn’t really given it any thought and Willow is the friend who has given it all the thoughts. They argue like sisters about the holiday throughout the episode. But of course, the episode was written over 20 years ago, so there is a lot of space for improvement— especially in the discussion about Thanksgiving. “Indigenous People’s Day isn’t even mentioned—for sure that would be in there if I wrote it today,” Espenson adds. “I like to think that the whole discussion would be subtler.”

Spike comes down pretty hard on the gang for even giving the holiday a second thought, but also, Spike is very much still a villain at this point in the series’ run. He spends most of the episode like a drunk MAGA uncle, rolling his eyes at the situation while also doing absolutely nothing to help problem-solve.

“And Buffy, obsessing about dinner, considers neither brining nor deep frying the turkey, both of which I think would certainly come up now,” Espenson jokes.

Willow: “Buffy, earlier you agreed with me about Thanksgiving. It’s a sham. It’s all about death.”
Buffy: “It is a sham, but it’s a sham with yams. It’s a yam sham.”
Willow: “You’re not gonna jokey-rhyme your way out of this one.”

Angel may be in town to help fight the new evil force facing Buffy, but most of the episode just feels like a fun, holiday watch. The gang never seems fully in danger, and that’s what makes it such a fun one. Angel thinks it’s better he does not see Buffy, so instead, he sees everyone else and tries to not-so-stealthily help her from the shadows. The jokes all land, and Buffy’s “yam sham” line is the ultimate Thanksgiving quote if you’re a queer Buffy nerd.

The show always delivered on metaphors that are both relatable and hysterical, and this episode is no different. This chosen family bickers for most of the episode before having to literally fight side-by-side. Willow and Emma Caulfield’s Anya even pick up some shovels and throw themselves into the demon-fighting mix.

Buffy ultimately defeats the demon-who turns-into-a-bear, and we end on the Scoobies having their Thanksgiving dinner. Spike is tied to his chair, and the decorations have arrows through them, but this chosen family still gets to celebrate together as a unit.

Ian Carlos Crawford is a writer and podcaster from New Jersey. His work has appeared on sites like Geeks Out, BuzzFeed, NewNowNext, and he co-hosts a podcast about "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" called Slayerfest 98.