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“Nobody knows who I am. Not the real me. It’s like, nobody cares enough to find out. I mean, does anyone ever ask *me* what I want to do with my life? Or what my opinion is on stuff? Or what restaurant to order in from?”

How do you discuss a problem like Dawn?

Dawn smiles as she writes in her journal.

As we’ve approached season 5, I’ve been wondering what I was going to say about Dawn. Eleven years after the end of the show, she remains a practically, and probably unfairly, reviled character. She’s absolutely central to the plot of season 5, but she disrupts our familiar and tightly bound Scooby Gang. Dawn is clearly a play on the ‘introduce a cute young child to a television show when the main cast gets stale’ trope that unfortunately falls into many of the same traps it makes fun of. Her existence in this story arc is essential, but her continued existence past this story arc feels like a giant plot hole.

Ugh, Dawn, basically.

I’ve made much over the words DreamFaith says to Buffy in “Graduation Day.” During the dream sequence, the two slayers are making a bed for little sister, which at the time seemed to imply that Faith would die and a new Slayer would be called. But with the benefit of hindsight and the beginning of season 5, we know that Faith wasn’t referring to another Slayer, but the introduction of Dawn.

Faith: Oh yeah. Miles to go. Little Miss Muffet counting down from 7-3-0.

While we catch a glimpse of Dawn in “Buffy vs. Dracula,” “Real Me” is her real introduction to the Buffyverse. During the murder investigation at the Magic Box, Dawn is banished to the street where she is accosted by a stranger behaving oddly. (This, in itself, will become important through the season.) What does he say to her?

GUY: I know you. Curds and whey. I know what you are. You … don’t … belong … here.

In “Real Me” we’re getting a character that was predicted two years prior to these events, foretold in the prophetic dream sequences in both “Graduation Day” and “Restless.” (“Be back before Dawn.”) She ends up being a 15-year-old teenager, a younger sister to the Slayer who is presented to us as this character who has always existed and who took part in many of the show’s major conflicts, but whom we, the viewers, cannot recall a single reference to. Was she living with Buffy’s deadbeat dad? Shipped off to care for a “sick” aunt to hide an embarrassing teenage pregnancy?

The Summers women prepare breakfast

BTVS’s complete resistance to explaining Dawn’s initial appearance is actually downright brilliant. They’re forcing us into the same role that the destabilized Sunnydalers will eventually inhabit. We know a different reality than the one that’s presented to us; trying to make sense of this new order makes us uncomfortable and angry and makes us question in-show reality. Seeing Dawn hug Willow and treat her like a favored aunt is upsetting. Watching Tara and Willow discuss Dawn outside of her presence as a person who has been around all along doesn’t allow you to assume there’s a localized spell at work. Is she a grand scale version of Jonathan’s “Superstar”? A background character we’ve managed to overlook?

“Real Me” doesn’t even deign to discuss Dawn’s presence. She’s just there and we just have to deal.

The episode begins with an “introspective” journal entry narrated by Dawn in which she outlines a litany of issues, all of which surround how she feels ignored (because we don’t know her, right?) because her sister is The Slayer. Everyone “overlooks” her. No one knows the “real” me. I can imagine that gleeful chortles that must have consumed the writer’s room as they put together this dialog, because it’s just a giant raspberry at the viewers.

Dawn and Tara play thumb wars.

So we’re presented with this strange character who frames the episode as one of identity. Hers is not resolved, but we’re giving some glimpses into other storylines that involve this concept of realness. Buffy and Giles have begun their investigation into the Slayer’s origins and taken up training again. Willow remarks on Buffy’s diligence in trying to solve the mystery of who she is as the Slayer. Giles, who has wandered around aimlessly for a year, finds a new identity as the owner of The Magic Box, a job with the life expectancy of a Spinal Tap drummer. Anya discovers the pleasures of money during The Game of Life, something that will become a defining characteristic for her. We see hints that we don’t know the “real” Tara during an intimate chat with her girlfriend, in the way she avoids agreeing that she’s part of the Scooby family.

And then there’s poor Harmony, trying on the “real” mantel of fearless vampire killer. She’s returned to Sunnydale again with a gang in tow, which includes an ex-high school flame and, in vamp face make up, Tom Lenk, who would go on to play Andrew in seasons 6 and 7. Harmony’s new gang is going to take over Sunnydale and they’ll do this by killing the Slayer, which anyone with any perspective on the situation finds laughable. Harmony finds it plausible.

at last we meethalfwit

The closest she gets to harming Buffy is attacking Xander after Dawn accidentally invites Harmony in to prove she’s a badass killer. The moment is framed as impetuous teenaged bravado, the kind of thing the younger sister of the Slayer should know better than to do. But when Buffy mentions later on that Dawn’s invitation means that Harmony can sneak into the house at night and kill them all in their sleep, Dawn’s unknown status suddenly becomes a little more ominous. Did she make a mistake, or did she invite a vampire inside on purpose?

Overhearing Buffy bitching about her potentially deadly mistake, Dawn storms out of the house in a fit, where she’s captured immediately by one of Harmony’s minions. Anya is seriously wounded trying to protect her. And Buffy is forced to storm a vampire’s lair to rescue Dawn.

Of course rescuing Dawn is easy-peasy in comparison to fighting, say, Sunday’s gang of much-more-competent vamps. The two sisters get home with nary a scratch on them and jointly lie to Joyce about their evening’s adventure, much like any other pair of sisters might want to fleece their mom to avoid getting yelled out for that kegger they weren’t supposed to be at. It’s a normal moment in an abnormal household.

The episode ends with another Dawn voice over, one that given her sudden appearance, is very ominous and casts the events I just outlined in a much different light:

DAWN: She still thinks I’m Little Miss Nobody, just her dumb little sister. Boy, is she in for a surprise.

trading children for cash

All images are curtesy of 21st Century Fox and Goodbye, Piccadilly.

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