When Dawn Summers appeared on our screens during the closing moments of the Season five opening episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she elicited mixed emotions, and that seems to be true to this day. And I’m starting to think, maybe we should give her another shot, because really, was she all that bad? Den of Geek certainly thinks so, naming her one of the most disappointing female characters in sci-fi. From my point of view, no she’s not that bad (I’ll come to that). But she has certainly been divisive, even in my own household where the Hubster on the other hand cannot stand her, something that has not lessened on repeat viewings.
I was not the only one, who on Dawn’s first appearance muttered “what the heck!” or versions thereof. What was going on!? The immediate conclusion, encouraged by the show, was to believe she was this season’s potential big bad, or at the very least something insidiously nefarious. This added something of the horrific to it, because as evil as some of the opposition had been in past, they were never so close (physically and emotionally) to Buffy and Joyce – it was unsettling – even vampires could only come in if you invite them!!
So maybe we didn’t get off on the right foot. We were left a week wondering who this girl was, and it wasn’t until episode 5 – No Place Like Home – that we discover she has in fact been sent to Buffy for protection. Although this changes the game and lets the audience in on this secret, it doesn’t make Dawn any more likable and dislike for her and her disruption to normality amongst the viewers was already deep set.
What some people found annoying was that we had gone from a now group of young adults, to one which included an annoying teenage sister. And although Buffy wasn’t winning any popularity contests at her age, Dawn is certainly more the doofus and more annoying than Buffy ever had been. Clumsy, annoying, bratty, and mommy’s little girl – she was annoying to us because she was annoying to Buffy, and that was kind of the point. But there were other aspects to their relationship than just the bratty sister/older sister dynamic.
Many people found Dawn annoying as she started off as a whinny teen. The archetype brat sister that everyone could do without, let alone the Slayer. Arguably she improved once she accepted she was “The Key”. Her initial reactions to discovering this in Blood Ties still confirmed her whinny teen status – but when you put it in the context of her discovery, this sort of reaction seems appropriate. In the episodes and seasons to follow she became a much more rounded character and person partly because she had something most of us didn’t have at her age – a greater knowledge of who the heck she was and her fate in life! Even so, first impressions often count for a lot, so it was easy to be put off by having the equivalent of your annoying younger sibling shoved into your favourite show.
I’ve said it before, but will say it again – it is important to remember that you are meant to find her annoying, you’re maybe even kind of meant to hate her a little. Because she is that brat kid sister, something so normal, mundane and annoying. She didn’t have to grow up real fast like Buffy. She is meant to grate on us. Once you accept that you’re not really meant to like her all that much, it’s possible you might start to – because although Buffy doesn’t seem to like her all that much in the beginning, she still loves her. Basically, Dawn is our annoying kid sister.
What shouldn’t be overlooked is that the differences Dawn made to Buffy’s life weren’t necessarily all bad. In adding her in the way they did the show was able to maintain the previous history of events and characters but still create a new family bond. Arguably, Buffy as a character became more accessible to viewers with siblings who could relate to the issues Buffy now faced on a different level.
It made the show accessible for younger viewers on a couple of levels. Many of us grew with Buffy – Season 4 aired in the UK in my first year at University, so for me our lives were totally parallel in that sense. Younger viewers now had a character they could relate to. Robin Hitchcock over at Btchflcks says she loved Dawn partly because she was able to relate to her, as the younger bratty sister in her older sibling’s shadow.
Dawn also gave all the viewers the chance to watch the show from the perspective of a relatively ordinary person (Key aspect aside) in a show full of increasingly extraordinary characters. And the Dawn-heavy episodes harked back to the early days of Buffy, but looked at through experienced eyes – Dawn dating a vampire in All The Way (season 6) for example. In fact All The Way is a nice episode in which to explore the relationship of the sisters and the differences in their lives. Compare Dawn’s experience of dating a vampire and having to kill him, with Buffy’s – one a normal girl the other the Slayer and the differences this makes in their lives.
Moreover, her introduction changed the emotional charge of the show. The fact is, the very existence of Dawn made the audience confront emotions they’d never had about this show before. Buffy being an only child, and Joyce being almost non-existent in Season 4, we had gotten used to just worrying about the main gang – all of which could handle themselves to one extent or another. So add into this scenario a frightened, helpless being that Buffy has to protect (much like those eggs in Bad Eggs season 2), and add to it a villain that even Buffy seems unable to defeat!?!? Suddenly you’re watching a show that has you on edge with worry, because you are emotionally invested in Buffy, even if not Dawn.
The part of the show Dawn arguably effected the most was the idea of family. In fact it was her relationship with her mother Joyce, the change in the family set-up and the division this caused between Joyce and Buffy that many viewers disliked. In defense of Dawn, Buffy and Joyce always had a difficult relationship because of Buffy’s status as the Slayer – which arguably improved once Joyce understood Buffy’s situation. Add to that the fact that Buffy barely visited her mum whilst living away in Season 4, means that Dawn likely had that opportunity to develop a very different relationship with Joyce than she had before, of which Buffy was jealous on her return to the family home. It also effected the dynamic of Buffy being the troubled only child with the expectations of her struggling single mother and distant absentee father resting solely on her Chosen One shoulders. Although I can understand the frustration many had with this, I would argue that though the character was retconned, the show itself wasn’t so in essence nothing before season 5 changed, including the relationships and experiences up to that point in time. At the end of the day, that is one of the things viewers of a fantastical and supernatural show have to accept.
And over time this does change, especially after the death of Joyce, when Buffy has to become her sister’s primary care giver. We can really start to see what creator Joss Whedon meant when he says he introduced Dawn so that Buffy could experience a “really important, intense emotional relationship” with someone other than a boyfriend. And ultimately she sacrifices her life for her sister.
It’s worth considering a scenario where Dawn doesn’t exist, but Joyce still dies – it could have been pretty bleak, maybe we would have seen a glimpse of how cold and hard doppelganger Buffy as seen in Season 3’s The Wish. Dawn is one of the few things that keeps Buffy going after Joyce dies and after Buffy is brought back to life at the start of Season 6, having sacrificed herself in Dawn’s place. Although on Buffy’s return she is at first detached, Dawn is one of her strongest connections to the world and the reason she has to start pulling it together. And we get to see this co-dependence played out in a variety of ways, sometimes with Dawn as the caregiver and/or reassure – the most poignant example being when Dawn tries to resurrect Joyce in Forever. It is Dawn who had originally begun the ritual, that ends it, seeing the reaction from her grieving sister.
Having Dawn around also gives us a whole other side to Buffy – through Dawn we saw her struggle with the pressure and responsibility of guardianship, we wanted her to succeed in a life where even her own sister acknowledged that she had no future prospects thanks to being the Slayer. Dawn’s introduction at the point in Buffy’s life where she is reaching adulthood proper (job, money, responsibilities) is given added gravitas. Not only does her existence give Buffy extra responsibility but it also serves to highlight how Buffy will never have a normal life. All the more interesting for the fact that few Slayers live as long as Buffy has.
Her relationship with Buffy, Willow, Tara and Spike especially are great to watch for both their sad and happy moments. She brings something out in all these characters, that although wasn’t missing before, transformed the show a little – and somehow for the better. Dawn’s existence kept the Scoobies together after Buffy’s death, Spike became a little more selfless (before soul-having) because of her. Dawn was also able to illustrate more so than any other character that the Scoobies were in fact a family. With Tara and Willow stepping in as parents and the subsequent break up and loss of Tara almost mirroring the divorce and loss of her mum that she had already been through – it was quite the harrowing experience to watch.
Conversely, seeing things from Dawn’s point of view gave the show some amazing moments – I still think one of the saddest and most bittersweet moments of the show is the young Dawn (who at this point has had her life completely ravaged by death and destruction), cuddles up next to Buffybot whilst her sister is dead. And the time Buffybot hugs her like a real sister… *whimper* you get the idea, because that’s how we were all feeling too!
As already mentioned, after she found out she was the Key, Dawn changed. She had to grow up and face her fate as much as Buffy had to with being the Slayer. But from Season six onwards now that she is no longer The Key, she is definitely a changed character – more grown up and yet still the baby sister to them all, and certainly less annoying. I think her time to shine comes in Season 7. It would have been ridiculously obvious and in some ways easy to have her a potential – so much so that there’s even an episode about it with Potential. So instead she has to take a back seat, and she does it gracefully, productively, with no whinning. She becomes “Watcher Junior” and you start to think about that. I often wonder what will actually happen when she grows up – a bit like how you always wonder if Harry Potter ended up playing on the national Quiddich team.
The joy of re-watching are those little nuggets that pop up to hint at the future. In the case of Dawn some of these were quite obscure – the reference to her as Little Ms Muffet in the bed making dream sequence in Graduation Day part 2 at the end of Season 3. This sequence is referenced again in Season 4’s This Year’s Girl and Restless – in which we also hear the words “Be back before Dawn”.
When I first watched season 5 onwards, I was as annoyed by Dawn as many of the other viewers out there. But on re-watching I changed my mind. Once I was over the initial resistance to her inclusion (I liked my Scoobies just fine the way they were), and her annoyingness, I began to really like Dawn. She becomes an asset to the show,
Yes, Dawn could be annoying, but she’s a teen! Yes, she needed rescuing on occasion, but that only goes to illustrate the dangers of being an ordinary person in the world of the Slayer – not like Xander never needed help! Yes, she made some stupid choices and got into trouble she might have been able to avoid, but who didn’t? Buffy’s judgement was off when she started sleeping with Spike and Willow went completely off the rails, so really is anything Dawn did as bad as that? Kleptomania seems quite tame in comparison.
Most viewers would seem to agree that the biggest episode for Dawn and the one that defines her character is Potential. Throughout Season 7 Dawn had once again become the outcast – at the end of Season 6 Buffy had said she wanted to show her the world not protect her from it, but then she became protector and trainer of the Potentials and Dawn was once more sidelined. Potential opened that opportunity back up for her and yet she handed that power over as soon as she realised it wasn’t hers, and she was once again ordinary. And as Xander pointed out, that is exactly why she is special – extraordinary.
Dawn’s a lovable dork, who may have taken a while to get used to, but only in the same way our own bratty siblings are hard to put up with. With the combined influence of her “family” – a slayer, a witch, a watcher for example, she began to carve out her own path as a productive member of the scooby gang and a lovely young lady.