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(Meta) Brief Thoughts on Dawn

9th July 2010 (10:54)
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goldenusagi  posted a question about Dawn's role and character development, whch has inspired the following short thoughts from me:


In Season 5 the whole world revolved around Dawn. She literally carried the fate of the universe within her veins. Hellgods and ancient mystical orders were chasing her. Her sister and her friends were totally devoted to protecting her; she was their number one concern. Dawn's personal issues - her need to believe she was real, that she had a family - were taken seriously by everybody.

In Season 6, none of that was true anymore. Not only was she no longer the centre of attention: people seemed to be actively ignoring and avoiding her. Buffy died, and when she came back she seemed to have no love or energy to spare for her sister. Willow and Tara, who had become her surrogate parents in a way after Buffy's death, had problems of their own -- and then Tara walked out and Willow tried to kill her. Spike spent all his time chasing after Buffy and forgot about Dawn. Even Dawn's first boyfriend turned out to be a vampire and had to be slain.

It's no wonder she felt abandonment issues. In response, she started acting out, trying to get noticed. She started stealing things -- partly, I guess, out of spite: if they were going to ignore her she might as well take advantage of that fact; and partly out of a subconscious desire to get caught, because having people angry at her would at least be a step up from having them ignore her.

By Season 7, most of Dawn's personality issues had been sorted out. She no longer doubted she was real, that she had a place in the world; and once Buffy recovered from her depression Dawn once again had a family and people who could show her that they loved her. In Season 7, by consequence, she's much more well-balanced and likeable. Her main issue now is that she wants to be respected; she wants to be taken seriously as an adult. She's eager to prove she can help, and resentful of any attempt to shunt her off to the sidelines.

Describing Dawn's character arc in Season 8 is more problematic because it's still in progress, but I'll take a stab at it. She's now an adult for real, independent and able to make her own decisions -- but she screws that up. In her own eyes she makes a mistake, does something wrong, something she deserves to be punished for. She's simultaneously resentful of her sister for not being there to help her, but at the same time rejects all attempts to offer help because this is her own problem to deal with, no-one else's. Eventually she is able to move on -- not, disappointingly to many, by shifting the blame for her difficulties to someone else (however justifiably), but by putting the whole episode behind her and getting on with her life. In the later season she's pro-active, forward-looking, even giving signs of growing into a leadership role, and is fully integrated into her social circle -- but still, to her annoyance, not always taken seriously enough by those older than her.

In short, while Dawn was no longer the focus of a season arc after Season 5, the writers actually integrated that into her character development, and gave her a consistent pattern of growth which was reflected and built on in the episodes - like 'All the Way', 'Wrecked', 'Older and Far Away', 'Lessons' and 'Potential' - which were Dawn-centric.


Comments

Posted by: Beer Good (beer_good_foamy)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 10:37 (UTC)
Dawn

In response, she started acting out, trying to get noticed. She started stealing things -- partly, I guess, out of spite: if they were going to ignore her she might as well take advantage of that fact; and partly out of a subconscious desire to get caught, because having people angry at her would at least be a step up from having them ignore her.

Well put, and agreed.

Her main issue now is that she wants to be respected; she wants to be taken seriously as an adult. She's eager to prove she can help, and resentful of any attempt to shunt her off to the sidelines.

I would say that there's also the element of her wanting to prove to herself that she has a role to play, and finding that role. Her season opens with Buffy teaching her how to stake a vamp, pointing out that the stake is not the power. Well, neither is muscle strength, in Dawn's case. So, what is it she's fighting for, and how can she? In a way, Dawn's s7 arc isn't completely unlike Willow's s2-s3 arc, the search for a cause and a weapon of her own.

Describing Dawn's character arc in Season 8 is more problematic

Well, I can agree with that bit too. ;-)

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 10:44 (UTC)

finding that role

You're right; she wants to be taken seriously but at the same time is still trying to find out exactly what she can do.

It's interesting that in S8 she temporarily does acquire superpowers, and can use them in battle the way her sister does; but they don't become part of her identity. She's much more pragmatic than that, not letting herelf be defined either by having powers (Buffy, Willow) or not having them (Xander): Dawn's view is "Whatever it takes. All's fair."

Posted by: curiouswombat (curiouswombat)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 11:56 (UTC)
Tindome 2

It is interesting to see that you read her very much the same way that I do through seasons five to seven.

As for the comics - in my mind she saved the world at the end of season seven by being sucked into Middle Earth...!

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 11:58 (UTC)

I think this thread was inspired by a moment of clarity rather than a moment of revelation, if that makes sense. :-)

Posted by: dark_wolf_10 (dark_wolf_10)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 12:06 (UTC)

Agreeing with your thoughts. A lot of people like to complain about how whiny Dawn was in Season 6. She was pretty whiny but with good reason, and whenever someone showed signs of positive interest in her she was normal and nice enough.

Not only was she no longer the centre of attention: people seemed to be actively ignoring and avoiding her.

Hee. I always found it amusing that it seemed the Scoobies payed more attention to her while Buffy was dead as compared to when Buffy came back to life.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 12:34 (UTC)

The interesting thing is, Buffy was pretty whiny in season 1 when she was Dawn's age, but she never gets the same level of criticism for it. In S1 the 16-year olds were the protagonists; in S7 she's the whiny little sister.

Edited at 2010-07-09 12:34 (UTC)

Posted by: lusciousxander (lusciousxander)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 12:10 (UTC)
Parents made by adis723

Great thoughts. I find it interesting that by S7, Dawn is the same age as Buffy in S1, yet Dawn appears more mature because she dealt with a lot at a younger age than Buffy did.

I wanted to write an essay about Dawn's role in S8, but as you said, we need to finish the season first, especially when we were told that Dawn's relationship with Xander will be explored, so Dawn's story isn't finished yet.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 12:40 (UTC)

Interesting that you say Dawn was more mature than Buffy at a similar age; most people say the opposite. I think I agree with you, certainly if we're comparing her in S7, not S6, to S1 Buffy.

I suspect there's not going to be an awful lot of story left to tell about Dawn in s8; only five more issues and obviously Buffy, Angel and Spike are going to take up a lot of the focus. But it would only take a small scene to focus the message - like Dawn tasering Xander in S7 confirmed that her character arc for the season was all about "Take me seriously and don't try to sideline me for my own protection; I want to help".

Joss usually tries to tie up all the loose threads of emotional, character-development plot strands even if it's only with two lines of dialogue... that sound really meaningful and convincing when you hear them, but later on have you scratching your head and saying "Hang on, what about--?" :-)

Posted by: lusciousxander (lusciousxander)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 13:09 (UTC)

most people say the opposite. I think I agree with you, certainly if we're comparing her in S7, not S6, to S1 Buffy.

Well, it's not fair to compare 16 year old Buffy to 15 year old Dawn. Dawn in S7 is 16, so that's a more fair comparison.

But if they want to compare Cordelia-like, lollipop sucking 15 year old Buffy with S6 15 year old Dawn, then, well, Dawn also wins.

Posted by: dark_wolf_10 (dark_wolf_10)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 13:54 (UTC)

Hee. I've never thought about that, but now that you bring it up, the idea of comparing the two sisters at 15 is hilarious. I bet most people don't think of it that way.

Posted by: 2maggie2 (2maggie2)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 13:12 (UTC)

Nicely laid out, but I would make a few amendments.

Season 5 was sort of all about Dawn, but it was really all about Dawn as a key, not Dawn qua Dawn. Or at least the part that was about Dawn qua Dawn was about Buffy loving Dawn because Dawn was made of Buffy. I think the reason she gravitates towards Spike in season 5 is that Spike is the one person who takes her seriously as Dawn, full stop.

Season 6 has a layer of suspected or actual resentment. Buffy died for Dawn and Buffy is the one who mattered to everybody. Dawn at least suspects everyone wishes she were the one who were dead. And Dark Willow at least gives voice to the thought that her keyness (and consequent lack of reality as a human) is still in her mind.

Season 7 does have things a bit straight -- but I don't think they've dealt with the dark matter of seasons 5 and 6, and if Dawn's giantness points to a larger role in season 8, then it'll be to do with that dark matter. Her 'screw up' plays off the issue of whether it's Dawn who matters, or Buffy's sister, the former (?) key. She seems to have grown into Dawn mattering (which is a development I like), but I think it's sitting there on the table to be part of the upcoming tragedy. The world changes when Dawn enters -- and it's possible to read the Twilight symbol as the jump in time line when Dawn arrives -- one which first rises and then craters. The current events being the crater.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 15:12 (UTC)

Season 5 was sort of all about Dawn, but it was really all about Dawn as a key, not Dawn qua Dawn.

Maybe from a meta point of view, to us as viewers. From Dawn's own perspective, I suggest, it was all about her in S5. In later seasons she was relegated to being Buffy's Kid Sister instead, and it stung. But sure, part of her angst in S5 was the question of whether she was Dawn Summers or The Key, and how other people treated her as a result.

I was trying to keep this meta succinct rather than rambling on for thirty paragraphs as I usually do... but it did cross my mind that S8 shows some of her old issues (abandonment, etc) resurfacing but in a new and more complex way. She's grown up, moved away from home, making her own decisions - but the basics of her personality are still shaped by the child she once was, as for all of us. And like Buffy in S6, she has to learn that "sometimes the most adult thing you can do is ask for help". (And on a similar note: compare and contrast her sleeping with Nick because she was too afraid of commitment with Kenny, to her deliberately pushing Xander into making a commitment to their relationship rather than letting things drift along. She's learned a big lesson there.)

The big thing I'm waiting for before deciding how to interpret Dawn's S8 arc is whether the Key will turn out to have some major role in preventing the Twilight. That will put everything else into a different light, depending on which way Joss goes. (And at the moment, I'm not putting money on either direction.)

Posted by: eowyn_315 (eowyn_315)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 14:45 (UTC)
Dawn milkshake

Nitpick: Dawn actually started stealing things back in season 5 - she steals a pair of Anya's earrings in "Intervention."

Also, on a more general note, you haven't described arcs. You've described static states of being for each season, which is precisely why I said Dawn doesn't have much to do. Her "arcs," such as they are, aren't dynamic. She doesn't develop relationships (anyone not Buffy or Giles tend to have relationship-driven arcs) and she doesn't get to have a job or learn magic or even have friends. She's just... there, being teen-angsty or well-balanced or whatever her characterization is for that season.

I think part of the problem with Dawn is that her character development is never really about her. As 2maggie2 points out, season 5 is all about her, and yet it's not - because it's all about Buffy protecting her, and Glory trying to find her, and the world needing to be saved, and Dawn's largely a football to be tossed around. But she does have some nice moments surrounding her identity issues and a fun relationship with Spike, which provides an arc of sorts.

But in season 6, she doesn't actually arc. She's being avoided and ignored and has abandonment issues - and that's a totally static state. It was caused by other people, and it's resolved by other people. Dawn doesn't change or grow. She steals things, and she gets caught, but it doesn't seem to have any affect on her. It's Buffy who prompts all the changes in the relationship. She changes and grows and by the end of the season has stopped ignoring her sister, and so Dawn's issues go away.

I'm not saying that Dawn does nothing interesting. I love Dawn, and I wouldn't love her if I didn't see the potential (no pun intended) in her character. But she doesn't get a substantive arc (related to the main plot or otherwise) after season 5.

And I don't think it's just about Dawn, either - I think there were a lot of balance problems, particularly in season 7, that left certain characters with not enough to do (Xander in particular also suffers from this at times). But I think it's most frustrating with Dawn because she was brought in so late in the game. She's not like Xander, where they'd exhausted all of their ideas for him after six years. They introduced her in season 5, and had big ideas for that season... and then not much else.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 15:33 (UTC)

But she doesn't get a substantive arc (related to the main plot or otherwise) after season 5.

My problem with expressing this as a criticism of the show is that, well, very few of the main cast characters do. They have individual episodes focussing on them, they have occasional storylines going on in the background, but they rarely have entire arcs devoted to them. Dawn in S5, Willow in S6, Spike in S7: they have arcs. Expecting Xander and Anya and Riley and Tara and Giles and Oz to all have equal prominence is, I feel, a bit over-ambitious; and so is expecting a character who is in focus one year to have the same prominence every year. It's called 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' not 'Sunnydale Stories'.

(Which isn't to say that an ensemble show wouldn't be interesting in its own right, and I know Joss expressed some discontent at the overwhelming focus on Buffy to the exclusion of the other characters. I suspect it's why he went off and wrote 'Firefly' at around the same time, which was an ensemble show. But that was how 'Buffy' was set up, for better or worse.)


There is movement in Dawn's character over the course of a season: compare her in 'Bargaining' (grieving but pretty well-adjusted otherwise) to her in 'Older and Far Away' (angry, lashing out, feeling abandoned) to her in 'Grave' (well-adjusted again), and that seems pretty much the definition of an arc. :-) It's just a broad-brush one because she's not a major focus of that season.


I think part of the problem with Dawn is that her character development is never really about her.

As I said to Maggie; maybe in our eyes as viewers, sure. But probably not to Dawn herself, which is the perspective I was coming from here. As for her issues being resolved by other people; yes, I agree with you, at least in the earlier seasons. To me, that's natural: Dawn is a dependent child. Solving her problems is Buffy's responsibility, as her guardian and parent stand-in. The show reflects that. Later on, we see Dawn maturing and learning to take responsiblity for her own emotional well-being - in S8 maybe taking it too far and rejecting offers of help even when she really needs it.

Posted by: eowyn_315 (eowyn_315)
Posted at: 9th July 2010 16:22 (UTC)
Dawn

Expecting Xander and Anya and Riley and Tara and Giles and Oz to all have equal prominence is, I feel, a bit over-ambitious

And yet, many of them DO get more substantive development than Dawn. The season isn't focused around them, but their development is more about them than about other people.

Tara and Oz, I'd say, are on the same level as Dawn. They both have relationships with Willow, but their development is largely about how it affects Willow, and very little is done with them personally. Tara does gain more confidence, and Oz has the werewolf thing, but they - like Dawn - are more often defined by the arc of a more important character.

But Xander has had two long-term relationships that affect his character: he gains an incredible amount of confidence from dating Cordy, and his relationship with Anya starts out as an ego boost, deepens into something real, and then triggers his commitment phobia.

The others, I think, are somewhere in the middle. Anya is often a function of Xander's arc, but her return to vengeance in late S6 - early S7 gives her a chance to develop independently, as does her job in the Magic Box. Riley is part of the Initiative arc in S4, and then has his relationship with Buffy in S5, where the entire point is that he doesn't fit into Buffy's arc, lol. Giles has his relationship with Jenny, his job at the Magic Box, and his changing role as a Watcher, which is again sometimes a function of Buffy, but is also about him personally.

But probably not to Dawn herself, which is the perspective I was coming from here.

Well, of course. Everyone is the star of their own story. But that's not the story we're being told - and my point is that I'd like to hear more of it sometimes.

Posted by: Emmie (angearia)
Posted at: 10th July 2010 09:08 (UTC)

My problem with expressing this as a criticism of the show is that, well, very few of the main cast characters do.

Rather, that should be the easiest criticism of the show: very few main cast characters get substantive arcs after Season 5.

Actually, I'd disagree that Xander doesn't have one in Season 6. His is just as much about screwing up, but it's about his battle to believe. He has trouble believing in a better world and working for it, and this doubt leads to him standing Anya up at the altar. But then, in the end, he finds his faith restored and manifest in his belief and love in Willow. No matter how bad it's going to get, no matter if he's going to make it worse or do nothing to help, he's going to be there for her. He's not going to run away, he's not leaving her, he's just gonna love her.

What instead you have is a reduction from Season 5 to 6 to 7, 7 being the one that pulls the least amount of main cast character arcs.

Posted by: William B (local_max)
Posted at: 10th July 2010 10:30 (UTC)

I disagree about the reduction from five to six. You do back off and say that Xander doesn't have an arc in season six, but I'd go further and say that what there is for Xander is just as significant, if not more so, than his season five maturation (and it's the dark side attached to it). It's difficult to see sometimes, because part of Xander's arc this year is blinding himself to the problems of those around him, including his own issues.

Certainly Dawn's role is reduced--I'll agree with that. But Tara's increases. Giles has more to do, despite being in fewer episodes (in season five, he's extremely important to Checkpoint and The Gift, but not as critical as he is to virtually every ep he is in in S6). Anya plays a lot more different notes in season six, and gets a character foil in Hallie to play off. Willow plays the star. Buffy and Spike have major material.

The big thing that season five has that season six doesn't is balance: there are Willow, Xander, Spike, Anya moments and episodes throughout the season, whereas season six is a little less diffuse. The Scoobies (Willow, Xander, Anya, Giles, Dawn to an extent) pretty much take over for the first and last third of the series, with Buffy at times even playing a supporting role to Willow. The middle third of the season pushes most of them aside though and focuses very strongly on the Spuffy of it. I think this hurts the season, ultimately, because there is a lot of great material for Xander early in the season, with the doubts about resurrection, the delay in the announcement of the engagement, but there is very little for him & Anya to do between Tabula Rasa and Hell's Bells, so it's not easy for the audience to connect the two parts to the season. Similarly, Buffy and Spike get somewhat shunted aside at the season's beginning and end.

Season seven, similarly, has a lot of Scooby material and genuine arciness for most of the cast up to about Never Leave Me, and then in the middle of the season it's a bit of a muddle. Unfortunately, unlike season six, the various arcs aren't quite taken up again. I've always believed it was really because everyone's arc was basically nearly finished, and so the writers, while in somewhat of a holding pattern with Joss & Marti & Fury out of reach and a leadership vacuum, didn't want to make any big changes to the characters' stories for fear of setting them off course. This unfortunately leads to many arcs being left incomplete.

So for me I'd say it's an increase from 5 to 6, then a decrease from 6 to 7. :)

Posted by: Emmie (angearia)
Posted at: 10th July 2010 10:36 (UTC)

See, I was more starting with the premise of what Storm said, then I added the addendum as I went on. My post was more a process of thought there.

So for me I'd say it's an increase from 5 to 6, then a decrease from 6 to 7. :)

For Dawn, it's not the case though. Dawn gets more of an arc in relation to Buffy's in Season 5, but then it continues down in 6 and 7. At least with Season 5 Dawn had heavy identity exploration about what it means to be her.

But I think you can safely read my critique as being more specifically about Dawn. That while other characters may get more arcs, it's the lack of Dawn getting arcs that's the focus. And that Giles and Xander fall prey to Dawn-state in Season 7.

Posted by: William B (local_max)
Posted at: 10th July 2010 10:42 (UTC)

Oh, in that case yes I agree. :)

Giles and Xander do fall prey to it--Xander is a bit of a "aaaaand now he's doing great!" case, where some of the middle was cut out. Was First Date supposed to be his character development episode? I love the Storyteller moments between him and Anya, but MORE PLEASE. LMPTM is good stuff for Giles but it would have benefited from better setup before and work after....

Posted by: Emmie (angearia)
Posted at: 10th July 2010 10:46 (UTC)
Xander Loves You This Much

I think Xander was supposed to have more of an arc about questioning Buffy's authority. First in Selfless. And then when Buffy runs to Spike's side in First Date, that was probably supposed to inspire more of a reaction in him. And then you have him not being able to see Buffy's point in Empty Places. But then it all gets magically resolved (when I imagine the point was about and how his having faith in her helps her to have faith or something, but that's more what Spike did and Xander didn't get the chance) and he's there for Buffy by the end.

It's like there was an idea for an arc, but it never actually coalesced. So thus, Xander doesn't have an arc because what they were trying to do never really connected into a full story.

Edited at 2010-07-10 10:47 (UTC)

Posted by: William B (local_max)
Posted at: 12th July 2010 02:59 (UTC)

I think that might have been the intention. You can see it in Get it Done, too. It's interesting how in the "Everyone sucks but me" speech, Xander is actually the one person in the room who Buffy doesn't go after--and one of the people who is most willing to tell her that he thinks she's being out of line.

The First Date thing (Buffy checking on Spike's injuries, not Xander's) is interesting. I hadn't really noticed it before I read someone pointing it out recently. This could contribute to Xander's feelings that Buffy doesn't care about him (which is a part of his Empty Places, post-eye poke funk), but I don't read him as being jealous of her affections Spike, post-Selfless, and he never brings the Spike card up (whereas Anya, Giles and some of the potentials do). Anyway, Dirty Girls seems to make clear that Xander believes in her before she seems not to care about his injury, but I guess in the Buffyverse characters' motivations are always complex....

Posted by: William B (local_max)
Posted at: 10th July 2010 10:32 (UTC)

Very good! I think I'll have to ponder on this for a while.

Posted by: candleanfeather (candleanfeather)
Posted at: 25th July 2010 17:46 (UTC)

Hi, Stormwreath.
I've been away for a while and couldn't participate to this discussion when it took place. It's propably a bit late but I enjoyed this little piece of meta about and here're some of my reactions to it: I agree with you she’s not a static character for more than one reason: even though she is used from a technical POV as Buffy’s reflection she’s not reduced to that sole role, and she has her own problems to solve in every season: identity and Glory in season five, loss and isolation in season 6, finding a role in season 7. She has been growing for three (and now four) seasons even though this growth often happens in the sideline.

In regard to Dawn in season six, I may be in a minority but I like the portrayal the writers made of her and find it quite realistic. Being “whiny” doesn’t seem such a sin when you think what she had to face as a character. Granted she doesn’t have the fate of the world on her shoulders –though it’s debatable in a way, if one thinks about season five- but like Buffy she has had to accept their parent’s divorce (granted these memories are false but it doesn’t mean they aren’t lived as real), to suffer their mother’s death, her sister’s death and the guilt for being the one responsible for this death, her sister’s depression and seemingly indifference, the shock of a first lover being a vampire that she kills at her own hands (hello Buffy!), Tara and Willow’s separation, discovering Tara’s death, having her sister and Willow trying to kill her… As for her sticky fingers I found it was quite a good choice on the writers’ part to manifest her problems: it kept her in character (she had already shown this tendency in season five), petty theft for various reasons is not foreign to teens’ behavior and they probably played on a little anecdote about Buffy having had sticky fingers too in her younger years.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 26th July 2010 20:45 (UTC)

It seems to me that Dawn was mostly (not entirely) a plot device in S5, but after that she was allowed to simply be another character on the show. That meant she wasn't as crucial to the plot in later seasons, sure -- that's what being "a plot device" kind of means. But it doesn't mean she was ignored.

One idea I've seen discussed that I like is that Dawn in S6 is very much like Buffy would have appeared in S1 from an outsider's perspective, such as that of her mother. Sulky, self-centred, and engaged in frequent criminal behaviour. :-) Except that in S1 we were watching from Buffy's own perspective and she was the hero of her own show; in S6 Buffy was now the adult, looking at how she used to be in S1 and not liking it.

Posted by: Sculllaaaaaaaaay! (blackfrancine)
Posted at: 5th August 2010 01:08 (UTC)

I sort of think that Dawn started stealing as some sort of reaction to her mother's death--because the first time we see her steal is in Intervention, I believe--while she's still the center of the world. But I think you're probably right--that she was the center of the world only because she was the Key, so she still felt ignored.

Anyhoo. Good character analysis. And, also, I hope it's OK if I add you as a friend.

Posted by: StephenT (stormwreath)
Posted at: 5th August 2010 01:44 (UTC)

Thanks! and yes, of course.

It's possible, of course, that Dawn's motive for stealing was different at different times. We know that Buffy at her age stole lipstick from Macy's, so maybe the monks just programmed in a little generic light-fingeredness whic eventually became moreserious.

Or maybe it's all a reaction to Dawn not being sure she's really real. If she steals and gets caught, that proves she's real. but if she's not really there, she'll be able to take things as much as she likes, and nobody will even notice or care. when her mother dies, her feeling of isolation and not being real increases. So she steals more and more often, hoping (subconsciously) that she'll get caught...

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