The Functionality of Ms. Dawn Summers
July 19th, 2010
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The conclusion to “Buffy vs. Dracula” is one of those moments where I wish I could go back in time and experience it without any future knowledge: the somewhat divisive introduction of Dawn Summers into the series’ narrative was something which I have known about since I started the series, but I had no idea that it was first introduced like this.
I had the benefit of being able to watch “Real Me” before writing about “Buffy vs. Dracula,” but if I had been a critic at the time, and if I had been following the usual episodic review strategy, I don’t know how I would have managed to really analyze the premiere without diverting the discussion towards “WTF”-like exclamations in regards to the conclusion. Every season begins with an uncertainty about what is about to follow, but the way Dawn is dropped into the narrative is the sort of risk which seems brazen to the point of self-destruction.
Through the first Disc of the season, the details surrounding Dawn’s arrival remain shrouded in mystery beyond a few clues, but her function within the story is much more apparent. She is an excuse to step outside of the comforts of the Scoobies, rethinking what it means to be a part of the group and seeing the existing dynamics in a new light.
And in a way, she’s sort of like Lost’s Flash Sideways.
It’s possible that I will be developing this more as the season goes on, and as I discover just what sort of magic or voodoo has created Dawn – the homeless man in “Real Me” is one clue, while Joyce’s moment in “Out of My Mind” confirms that the characters do on some level understand that her sudden arrival at the conclusion of “Buffy vs. Dracula” was unnatural, which raises comparisons with “Superstar” from Season Four – and what role it plays in the season to follow, I’ll regret making this comparison. However, in a lot of ways I’d say that Dawn’s arrival is very much similar to Lost’s Flash Sideways structure in its sixth season.
Without spoiling anything, the sixth season of Lost is divided into two parts, and one of them presents itself as a hypothetical of what would have happened if Oceanic Flight 815 hadn’t crashed in the series’ pilot. Immediately, fans speculated whether it was an alternate universe, or whether it was all a dream, or whether this was the result of some sort of action. However, until the point when its origins were revealed in the series finale, its function was less to confuse the audience and more to offer important reference points for its characters. Characters who were in one position on the island were in a very different position within the Flash Sideways, allowing the show to look at the same character in a different light than if the device didn’t exist. Regardless of what you thought of the conclusion (which I would request we don’t discuss in spoiler terms in the comments, as tough as that might be), the real impact of the Flash Sideways was the way it forced us to reconsider the series and its characters rather than the mystery of what had created this hypothetical scenario.
At this point, I don’t know what explanation Whedon has up his sleeve in terms of how Dawn exists, but I do know that her impact is immediately felt. For the most part, Dawn isn’t really a character: she embodies every teenage sister cliché, wishing she could be like her big sister and desiring to be a part of her social circle, so it’s not as if she represents a new frontier of character development. However, those clichés are convenient for addressing the current state of the Scooby gang, in that her position as an outsider draws attention to the ways in which characters like Riley and Tara are defined entirely by their relationships to characters within the group, or how Giles felt unneeded, or how Xander worries about his directionless life. She may be yet another part of Buffy’s life which villains can kidnap in order to get her attention, but she fits that role so perfectly that we’re forced to examine everyone else’s role and discover just how far they are from being minions.
It’s a theme which runs through all three of these episodes: “Real Me” positions Dawn as an outsider, “The Replacement” places Xander outside of his own body and forces him to evaluate his own identity, and “Out of My Mind” gets into the heads of both Riley and Spike as it relates to their shared object of affection. Central to all of these episodes is that sense of the group and the individual, seeing how these characters fit or don’t fit into the current way of things: while Giles buying the magic shop is a way for him to keep busy, it’s also a way for him to remain central (which is both convenient for the writers and logical for the character considering his fourth season arc). However, the younger characters are at a point in their lives where a mid-life crisis is not socially acceptable, and so fast cars and impulse business purchases are not an outlet for one’s frustrations in life. Being college students, their feelings tend to fester instead, bubbling under the surface like they did last season, leading to the breakdown in “The Yoko Factor.”
However, just as Spike was a catalyst for those feelings to emerge in a destructive sense, Dawn is a catalyst for those feelings to emerge in a positive sense. In “Real Me,” we see Tara open up to Willow about feeling like an outsider because of their conversation of Dawn suffering in such a position, while in “Out of My Mind” it’s Dawn who discovers Riley’s rapid heart rate while playing with the stethoscope. As a kid, she tends to say the things that older people don’t say, or do things which older people might not do. On Buffy, this role is normally played by demons, whose unpredictability and supernatural powers can create scenarios like “Hush” which are ideally suited to the characters and their current states of mind – it is the Toth demon, after all, who splits Xander into two different personalities in “The Replacement” (creating an existential journey I’ll talk about more in a bit). However, Dawn is able to bring this sort of reflection into the realm of humanity, her arrival sparking topics of discussion and thematic considerations which speak to the characters and their current positions in life.
I don’t want to suggest that Dawn is exclusively functional: she may not be a real character yet, but “Real Me” did some nice work capturing her point of view with the voiceover, and Michelle Trachtenberg is a strong young actress who nicely captures the character’s immaturity (which is key to her relationship with Buffy as well as Buffy’s friends). And, once we eventually learn what it is that Dawn represents or how it is she has been wished into existence or some such development, it’s possible that these early episodes will have even greater meaning.
However, for now, the important thing is what Dawn’s arrival has created, as there is a definite risk with introducing a new character period, yet alone in this fashion. But what’s so genius about Dawn’s introduction is that there isn’t that awkward period where the characters adjust to a new arrival, as for them she isn’t a new arrival at all: while we as the audience have to adjust to the new dynamics she creates, the false sense of normalcy that the show is working with keeps her from taking over the show. She might be the centre of attention in “Real Me,” but Harmony’s desire to serve as Buffy’s arch-nemesis and gather her very own minions is still developed, and her position as a nuisance raises questions about who the Slayer should be protecting, and where her priorities should be, and how that all relates to the First Slayer’s objections in “Restless.” The show doesn’t suddenly revolve around Dawn now that she has arrived, and whatever obsession we might have in discovering the truth surrounding her arrival is pretty easily dispersed in favour of the characters we know and love.
I think this is most clear in “The Replacement,” which for me captures a lot of the best of the series: there’s some broad comedy in there, as one would expect when the hapless part of Xander’s personality is isolated, but the existential experience of watching (as we learn later) the embodiment of your strongest qualities live your life better than you had imagined was really well-developed by Espenson and Brendon. It was like the universe’s way of showing Xander that he’s actually a capable carpenter, that what he presumed to have been mind tricks were actually something he actually possesses when he’s not bumbling over himself. While “The Zeppo” re-evaluated Xander’s position within the group, “The Replacement” is much more focused on Xander’s identity, his own “Doppelgangland” of sorts which is similarly effective in terms of revealing that which is often hidden within the show’s characters. Dawn appears only briefly in the episode, and yet her arrival placed so much focus on analyzing character dynamics that it made “The Replacement” seem that much more natural.
“Out of My Mind” is all about Riley, which plays into the outsider element of Dawn’s arrival considering that I had some issues with Riley’s relevance as soon as the season started. While Tara’s desire to fit in does not yet have any sort of deeper meaning (although there was a look in “Real Me” that I’m filing alongside the spell sabotage from last season), Riley very clearly worries that he is changing, and that leaving the Initiative has resulted in a loss of identity. He holds onto his “powers” because he thinks Buffy needs someone just like her, or someone who happens to share certain qualities with a friendly neighbourhood vampire who recently relocated to L.A. However, what the episode sort of captures is that Buffy doesn’t need someone just like her, but rather someone who understands her. Even without the strength offered by the Initiative’s drugs, Riley knows what it is like to have responsibility, and to feel as if you can’t control your own powers, and so he and Buffy can connect on that level. It’s a nice parallel to Buffy and Dawn’s struggle to connect: Buffy can’t understand why Dawn isn’t happy to live a normal life, while Dawn doesn’t understand why no one wants her to be involved in Slayer activities. Riley eventually gets the help he needs and realizes that he is not wholly defined by his Initiative past, but yet there’s still that tension hanging over his relationship with Buffy (and his place in Sunnydale, as Grant’s comment suggested), and the episode didn’t solve their drama so much as it brought it to the surface the central issues they will need to face.
And this is Dawn’s function, reflecting the way in which dreams (Spike’s realization he desires Buffy) or demons have played this role in the past. While it takes a bit of time to adjust to her arrival, it doesn’t change the trajectory of the season in any way, and in some ways justifies a more thorough investigation of some of the key issues which emerged out of the premiere. As with the Flash Sideways, so long as the function of the change is effective, I’m along for the ride until they decide to reveal their cards, which should be a rather intriguing bit of narrative.
- As noted in my review of “Buffy vs. Dracula,” I liked the way some of the elements from the premiere were brought up in subsequent episodes, in particular with Xander. I wasn’t a huge fan of his role in the premiere, and yet the way his time with Dracula directly played into “The Replacement,” and emerged in a few other moments, was a nice tough that gave me a greater appreciation for the earlier comedy. Also, as I hinted, my concerns with Riley and Tara feeling out of place were immediately answered by the series, so they go from concerns to plot points quite quickly.
- It’s fitting that Spike experiences his feelings for Buffy in a dream, which is the same way in which Dawn’s arrival was foreshadowed – dreams as prophecy is one thing, but dreams as “truth” about one’s feelings is another, so I’m curious to see how Spike confronts this particular turn of events.
- More fun stuff for Mercedes McNab – Harmony’s catfight with Xander is still likely her highlight, but her attempts to serve as the season’s Big Bad were a really clever bit of writing/performance, and I was very pleased to see her return in such a capacity.
- Favourite moment: easily the scene where Xander convinces Willow it’s really him, both because of the Snoopy dance and because of Willow’s reaction when he claims that she can’t know how it feels to have an evil twin – Hannigan’s line reading was just perfect, and it nicely parallels the notion that some of the characters’ struggle is in how no one else understands what they’re going through. Of course, in that situation, Willow knows exactly what Xander is going through, but he’s so insulated in that moment that he can’t see it.
- Another reminder: I know talking about Lost in any capacity, especially in regards to its final season, is a Pandora’s Box, so let’s keep things spoiler-free, shall we?