1st Anniversary Character Posting Party - Dawn
mundusmundi - August 1, 2001

The Dawn-Haunted World:
Good, Evil and the Key in the Buffyverse

The WB certainly didn't say, 'Can you add a moppet? Everyone likes a moppet!'
-Joss Whedon, re: the casting of Michelle Trachtenberg (quoted at E!Online, 7/16/00)

Maybe I'm not evil, but I don't think I can be good.
-Dawn Summers, Tough Love

Say your life were a television show, that the family you love were transitory TV kin. You could wake up tomorrow morning, discover your husband looks like a completely different person, and you wouldn't even think to call the cops on the stranger in your house. You could have an older brother, a basketball freak always shooting hoops in your yard, who one day vanishes without a trace, and no relative, friend or neighbor would ever inquire about his whereabouts. Or a baby sibling, born in a taxicab after all sorts of wacky hijinks, who evolves into a sickeningly precocious five-year-old over a single summer, and nobody would find this freak of nature odd. (Though what is the deal with his peculiar habit of glancing off to the side every time he speaks, as if he were reading off cue cards?)

Or, you could have a fourteen-year-old sister who isn't really your sister, whose memories of your life together are false, as are your own. And one day you would have to make a Sophie's Choice and decide if she were less than real or something more, if she were worth the world to save....


The image of Dawn limping and bleeding her way down the tower at the end of The Gift vividly illustrates what Joss Whedon must have felt like after pulling this season off. Like Dawn, the show survived, but not without a price: other characters and storylines got lost in the shuffle, and I detected a few more bumps than usual on the Plot Hole Expressway. Nevertheless, the arrival of Little Miss Summers-both the youngest and oldest of the Scoobie Gang, "brat kid sister" on one hand, "mystical glowy key thing" on the other-has created some nifty moral conundrums and matured Joss's understanding of family (which, prior to this year, always seemed a tad juvenile). What could have been a disaster wound up being a highlight. What could have been a cheap gimmick-the Incredible Appearing/Disappearing Family Member, from Bewitched to Happy Days to Family Ties-has breathed new life into Buffy the series, even as it led to the death of Buffy herself.

Which raises a troubling question. Make no mistake, I think Dawn has been a great addition to the show. I liked her right away and grew only more fond of her as the season progressed. ("Not in a creepy way," Willow would hasten to add.) But has she been good for the Buffyverse? That is, are the SG and the world they inhabit a better place with her in it, or has the presence of the Key in human form caused irretrievable damage? The Key is the link, the Knights of Byzantium believed, the metaphorical dark matter that holds the Buffyverse together. (I'm reminded of Carl Sagan's observation that we are all "starstuff.") Whether that link must be severed or spared depends on how one has come to view this complex character. Let's take a closer look, then, at some of the essential Dawn episodes of the past year.


We first meet the Dawnster at the conclusion of Buffy vs. Dracula-not the greatest episode, as has been thoroughly opined. But its tantalizing coda, in my mind, makes up for any shortcomings. Early on, Joyce mentions how lonely it's going to be in the house again with her only daughter off to college, yet at the end we see this strange girl rifling through one of Buffy's boxes. (Already a klepto, or just unconsciously finding her bearings in her new home?) Others have pointed out that when Buffy sees her "sister" in her room, there is a fleeting moment of uncertainty when she asks (actually demands), "What are you doing in here?" The moment passes and Dawn is accepted, but on some level Buffy appears to sense a disruption in the natural order of things.

There was a considerable risk that the viewers might come to resent Dawn as much as Buffy does. But the next eppy, Real Me, cannily gets us to identify with the niblet by filtering a day's events through her perspective. We gather that she's smart ("I heard [Giles] use the word 'newfangled' once, so he must be pretty out of it"), witty ("I'm not going to Hogwarts"), empathic (relating to Harmony's self-esteem issues), and basically good-natured (her sweet crush on Xander). She is also something of a brat, constantly bitching about Buffy and feeling overshadowed by her sister the Slayer. In sum, she appears blessedly normal, yet something ominous begins to creep around her and into the Buffyverse. Starting in Real Me and carrying over through the next few episodes, Dawn encounters a rash of mentally ill people who finger her as something unnatural. "I know who you are. Curds 'n' Whey," one tells her. "You don't belong here."

A few weeks ago (7/11), Wiccagrrl started a good thread about Real Me being the entire season in miniature. In a lighthearted way, it does play like a dry run of The Gift, with Harmony and her minions kidnapping Dawn and tying her up as Slayer bait. However, it's important to note that the Dawn we meet in RM is not the same person by the time of The Gift. This "innocent" girl, who enjoys school and seems largely oblivious to the dangers of the Buffyverse will be by season's end a rebellious social outcast in the midst of a hellish identity crisis.

Despite the connotations of Dawn with Little Miss Muffet, it's more a reverse Alice in Wonderland who comes to mind. Both are bright-eyed girls struggling to survive in hostile new environments. But whereas Alice is a "real" person who stumbles into a fantasy world, Dawn is a living fiction stuck in the "reality" of the Buffyverse. Alice's trial, of course, is rendered ultimately bogus; Dawn's sentence, on the other hand, has devastating consequences.


In No Place Like Home, several plotlines that had been painstakingly set up are finally set in motion. Besides the introduction of Glory (i.e., the Queen of Hearts, only a brain-sucker not a head-lopper) and Joyce's encroaching illness, Buffy learns that Dawn is not really her sister. She is, a dying monk informs her, something else entirely:

MONK: You have to... the Key. You must protect the Key.
BUFFY: Fine. We can protect the Key together, okay, just far, far from here.
MONK: Many more die if you don't keep it safe.
BUFFY: How? What is it?
MONK: The Key is energy. It's a portal. It opens the door...
BUFFY: The Dagon Sphere?
MONK: No. For centuries it had no form at all. My brethren, its only keepers. Then the abomination found us. We had to hide the Key, gave it form, molded it flesh... made it human and sent it to you.
BUFFY: (gets it) Dawn.

At first Buffy is understandably angry and refers to Dawn as if she were a stray pooch left on the Summers' doorstep. But the monk persuades her that sending the Key was an act of trust, and that protecting it requires an act of love:

MONK: Please... she's an innocent in this. She needs you.
BUFFY: She's not my sister.
MONK: She doesn't know that.

From Dawn's perspective, every moment of her fourteen years has been real, every epoch as the Key unknown. It's a lovely metaphor: When young, of course, each day feels like an eternity. But what's most striking about her "memories"-playing on a swingset, picking up seashells on a beach, riding a merry-go-round-is how generic they are. Though the monks meant well, the harmlessly bland past-life they created left her, in some respects, unprepared for a harsh reality. Dawn's story is about innocence lost. She aged a lifetime in only one year; she can never go back.


'Who are you,' said the Caterpillar.
Alice replied, rather shyly. 'I hardly know, Sir, just at present-
at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think
I must have changed several times since then.'
-Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Dawn vanishes for a while down the rabbit hole after NPLH, yet the few times we see her are actually quite revealing. In Family, jenoff notes at his/her website, Dawn allies with Buffy for the first time, the "hair puller" standing for Tara against her family. In Shadow, she tries to compliment Riley-"I think you've been really good for (Buffy)"-only to unwittingly send him over the edge. In both Triangle and Checkpoint, she (re)plays Harriet the Spy by adding eavesdropping to her repertoire of dubious talents. At the start of the season, we were teased into thinking Dawn was evil or at least somehow responsible for Joyce's condition (a fail-safe option, I've a hunch, in case the actress, the character or the chemistry didn't pan out). Now it's Dawn with whom we are meant to empathize. As the last of the SG to learn the truth about herself, she is pushed increasingly further into isolation.

When Dawn finally discovers her true identity in Blood Ties, nothing in the Buffyverse is ever really the same. The SG's awkward reactions (e.g., Xander tickling her half-disbelievingly, as if she were the Pillsbury Dough Girl), Dawn's mounting suspicions, and the traumatic moment where she cuts herself with a knife are all wholly credible. Moreover, the burning of her diaries-her phony memories-drives home the point that although she may not be "real," her feelings are. It's touching and painful to see her thinking she's worthless (even if it's prompted by a hoary device, the Misunderstood Overheard Conversation Scene), when she couldn't be more special.

Blood Ties is also crucial for launching the Dawn/Spike relationship, one of those happy accidents of actors' chemistry and superbly written characterization. They share a priceless scene after the former flees Buffy's birthday party and stumbles on the latter loitering in the front yard:

DAWN: Jeez! Lurk much?
SPIKE: Wasn't lurking. I was standing about. It's a whole different vibe.
DAWN: What is- (Folds her arms and smirks) Are you giving Buffy a birthday present? Oh my god. Weird. And chocolates? Lame. And the box is all bent and you know she'd never touch anything from you anyway.

It's easy to forget how unimpressive Spike originally was in her eyes. Back in Checkpoint, she expresses revulsion at being couped up in his lair (or maybe just the fact that she has to watch Passions). Here, though, the pair realize that they share at least one favorite pastime.

DAWN: I'm breaking into the magic shop. To steal things.
SPIKE: Magic shop, eh? (looks over his shoulder) All number of beasties between here and there. Bet they'd really go for a little red riding hood like you. Bet that wouldn't sit too well with big sister.
DAWN: (uncertain) I can take care of myself. (pause) You wanna come steal some stuff?
SPIKE: Yeah, all right.

Some have objected that Dawn's crush on Xander got short shrifted. But the switch to Spike, from a "good boy" to a "bad boy," makes perfect sense in psychological terms of the character. Aquitaine mentioned in her excellent Spike essay that it just seems natural these two outsiders would gravitate toward one another. "They are equals in freakdom," she wrote. "They can talk to each other, forgive each other, care for each other" (7/18). They have an unforced connection that carries over into Crush, where the "little bit," feeling out-of-sorts at home, seeks asylum with the same vampire who initially repulsed her. "I like how you talk to me," she tells him, "like I can understand things." She also shares the bleached-blonde one's gifts of perception, as when she clues Buffy of his infatuation. This leads to a terse debate over the nature of morality. "Angel's different. He has a soul," Buffy says. "Spike has a chip," Dawn retorts. "Same dif."

Does Dawn have a soul? This question was brought up in a fairly recent thread (vampire hunter D's "fate of the key," 7/11) with convincing arguments on both sides. Marie reasoned: "They were monks, after all, presumably with some sort of religion and god (by that I mean not necessarily our God - whoever or whatever He may be to any of us), so above all they would think of giving their new little human not only physical protection (Buffy), but afterlife protection." But Greta countered with an equally compelling point: "(M)aybe the question is COULD they give her a soul?....we don't know if it's possible to create a soul out of thin air or even out of pure energy."

Rufus took a different tack: "Does it matter if she has a soul? The soul as Joss has defined it sure is no guarantee of good behavior...To me it matters little how she started and if she has a soul, her actions are what counts."

Her actions prompt a question of my own: Is Dawn an atheist? I don't mean that critically. It'd be a fascinating irony if someone made via elaborate spiritual/mystical means doesn't believe in a Creator. Starting with Crush, I began to entertain the idea that she has become Joss's mouthpiece. This struck me again a couple eps later, in The Body.

For my money, the two best scenes in The Body both involve kid sis. The first, of course, is the gut-wrenching sequence in school that begins with Dawn in tears at being called a "freak" by a bully and ends with her having a breakdown over Buffy's bad news. The second is the climactic moment in the morgue. Dawn has been determined to see Joyce, and now that she does she still can't accept that her mother is dead:

DAWN: Is she cold?
BUFFY: It's not her. It's not her. She's gone.
DAWN: Where'd she go?

Good question. And not only Dawn's, I suspect, but Joss's as well.


Although no real answers are found in the follow-up, Forever, Dawn's bonds with Buffy and Spike become stronger than ever. It's interesting to see the Summers sisters' reactions to the tragedy: while the older keeps a stiff upper lip, the younger is pro-active. Feeling like "negative space" (the metaphor from the art-class scene in The Body), she wants her mother back at any cost, even if it means another five-finger discount on Giles's spell books and a fateful meeting with the uber-demon, Doc. Her resolve holds until the climax, when she and Buffy seamlessly trade places. Hearing zombie-Joyce's knock at the door reduces Buffy to a childlike state ("Mommy?" she asks hopefully), while Dawn becomes the strong one, tearing the photo and stopping the spell.

Besides sharing an adventure with Spike, thereby deepening the trust between them, Forever is also noteworthy for how Dawn's obsession with raising Joyce inadvertently causes the first rift we've seen between Willow and Tara pre-Tough Love. Tara insists that resurrection has dark consequences. Willow, however, is obviously more open to the subject and helps Dawn by covertly directing her toward a spellbook without Tara's knowledge. Dawn can be a divisive influence in the Buffyverse. The other characters are always reacting to her, and their reactions have led them to reveal themselves in surprising ways, at their best and worst.


I'm going to refrain from delving into The Gift, as the particulars of that episode-the blood debate, the folding of the clothes, the look between Dawn and Spike-have been hashed out quite a bit already (though feel free to discuss them if anyone likes). Instead, I will close by submitting that Dawn, for good or ill, has become the Buffyverse's impetus for change.

Contact with the Key spurred Riley's emotional tailspin, precipitated Willow's fascination with the dark(er) arts, forced Giles to realize the evil he will do for a noble cause. By the same token, Xander matured before our eyes, Spike showed reservoirs of virtue that seemed to astonish even himself, and Tara made a great sacrifice, topped only by Buffy's ultimate love-offering. Buffy's gift to Dawn was momentous, but we shouldn't undervalue the gift Dawn gave her in return: a sister to love, a person to care about just as she was becoming a terminatrix, hard and unfeeling. "Dawn allowed Buffy to reconnect with humanity and the people she saves," Kerri wrote in a 7/22 post. "Because of Dawn, Buffy realized why being the slayer was so important. She realized that people are good and worth saving."

As Glory might say, it depends how you look at it. But I believe that Dawn can be great. She can be anything she wants to be. She's got the goods, she has the right genes. She is, after all, Buffystuff.


All script dialogue adapted from my tapes and/or (natch) Psyche's site.
All quotes, unless stated otherwise, from ATPoBtVS. Many thanks to my fellow posters for their amazing insights, and for deepening my appreciation of an already great show.
All errors are mine. (Sinus headache...*throbbing*...must lie down now. :)

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