Some of you may remember the controversy a couple of years ago about 'The Long Way Home', when Dawn says "Will is like a mom to me". That provoked a lot of negative comment back then, along the lines of "Since when?" and "Did Joss even watch the last two seasons of the show?" Speaking for myself, I was a little surprised to see that Dawn would go quite that far in how she described their relationship, but thinking about it, I could well understand how she'd feel that way.
Look at it from Dawn's angle. She had a happy childhood with her mother, her father, and her big sister. Then she discovered that all of that was a lie: she had no real parents, no real existence. She was just a fake memory. In reality, Dawn has never set eyes on Hank Summers. Joyce Summers died just a few months after Dawn became human. Buffy Summers died a few weeks after that. So who is Dawn's real family? Well, how about the two women who took her in when her sister died, and looked after her as if she were their own daughter. Two people who cared about her not because they were magically programmed by a bunch of Czech monks to protect her, but because they genuinely liked her and valued her as a person in her own right. To someone like Dawn in Season 5 and 6 whose personal sense of identity was so fragile, I think that would be a very powerful emotional affirmation.
And so as Season 6 begins, we see Willow, Tara and Dawn living together as a family. Tara's "Funny shapes or rounds?" question as she makes pancakes for Dawn's breakfast is the epitome of domestic bliss. Rather symbolically, not only have they set up house together, but Willow and Tara are now sleeping in the bedroom Dawn's mother used to use.
Of course, it's easy to miss this because Dawn's fraught relationship with her sister, once Buffy returns from the dead, takes centre stage. It's only to be expected given that Buffy's emotional conflicts are the centrepiece of the show, and I'm not denying that Dawn loves her sister. Also, Buffy is her legal guardian and thus supposed to be responsible for her welfare. But it's Willow and Tara who seem to pay most attention to Dawn's wellbeing, such as making sure she gets off to school okay. Whenever Dawn gets injured, it usually seems to be Willow who takes care of her, bandages her wounds and makes sure she's comfortable. When they find the online webcam showing Spike and Anya having sex in 'Entropy', it's Willow who stops to think that maybe Dawn shouldn't see this, and tries to cover her eyes. Lots of little hints to show the relationship between them.
Most obvious, though, is Dawn's devastated reaction to Willow and Tara splitting up, the unsubtle way she tries to manipulate them into getting back together, and her overwhelming squeefulness when they finally do. She doesn't react in nearly the same way to Xander and Anya or Buffy and Riley or Spike. I'm not the first to observe that the scene in 'Smashed' where Tara takes Dawn for a movie and milkshakes reads just like a divorced parent on an access visit.
For the record, I would argue that it's really Tara whom Dawn would say was "like a Mom to me". Willow's relationship with her seems to me more like a cool but slightly disreputable aunt; the one who spoils her and leads her astray by letting her get up to things the more responsible adults frown on. (References include 'Forever' and 'Wrecked'.) But Willow and Tara came as a unit, and if Dawn sees Tara as her foster-mother, what else can she call Willow?
I realise this view is controversial. Opponents point to the negative feelings Dawn expressed for Willow after 'Wrecked' and again after 'Grave'. My point, though, is that Dawn's feelings of hurt and betrayal were all the stronger exactly because Willow was a person she loved and trusted so much. If Willow were just "one of her sister's friends", I doubt she'd be so upset... and even so, one episode after Willow returns in 'Same Time, Same Place' Dawn is happily chattering away with her while hanging out and helping her pack for college, exactly as if nothing had happened between them.
A more reasonable objection to the central importance of Willow and Tara in Dawn's life is really that the show spends so little time on it. As I said above, it's her relationship with Buffy that gets most camera time and dialogue. It's easy to just pass over her interaction with the two witches as being no different in essence to her relationship with, say, Giles or Spike or Xander. However, I've been noticing several signs recently that the actual writers and actors on the show saw the link between Dawn, Willow and Tara as being stronger than, perhaps, comes across on screen. It's nothing specific, just a matter of phrasing and emphasis. It does suggest to me, though, that it might be something that Mutant Enemy took for granted about their characters and would be surprised to discover that many of the fans didn't see it that way...
The first example is the dialogue from 'The Long Way Home' I quoted before:
"I'm not trying to slam you, I swear, but Will is like a mom to me."
Another line by Joss from a later issue of the comic gives Willow's own perspective:
"When Buffy died... I couldn't admit it, but Tara and I were happy. Not in general, I mean we mourned, but together... [...] We could have moved on. Raised Dawnie, moved somewhere nice. But I chose. I chose to put Tara in a bullet's path."
However, Joss isn't the only one to see things this way. This is Amber Benson's opinion on the Willow/Tara relationship, speaking at the Paleyfest reunion panel:
"I just think that Joss did a beautiful thing; he created this relationship, and that's what we need to focus on. The fact that we had this beautiful relationship with two people, who happened to be women, and I think they had the best relationship on the show. I think... they raised, or helped to raise Dawn, I think they were there for her."
Although Sarah Michelle Gellar's interjection after Amber's comment is very funny, especially for the pouty tone of voice she put on:
"Hey, I was there! I participated! I was a little dead but I participated!"
It's interesting that Sarah herself sees things as "While Buffy was dead, Willow and Tara became Dawn's new parents." Realistically, it was just a short time that Buffy was in the grave - 147 days, as I believe someone once observed - but it feels as if it were a lot longer for the characters.
Finally, I recently bought the final Buffy Omnibus of the old Dark Horse comics, and this one contains a story, 'Wilderness', that was written by Amber Benson along with Chris Golden. And in it, Willow and Tara take Dawn with them on a driving holiday looking at mystical sites in northern California. Just like a family. :-)
(I was also tickled by the way Amber wrote a scene for Tara where - reluctantly and against all her principles, but as a last resort to save human lives, including her own - she has to use dark magic to incinerate a demon, and her eyes go all scary and black. I think she was jealous that she never got to do that on the show herself.)
So my view of Dawn's relationship with Willow and Tara may not be universally accepted in fandom, but at least I can take comfort in knowing that Joss Whedon, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Amber Benson agree with me. :-)