Buffy the Vampire Slayer (henceforth BTVS) has been ‘family viewing’ for myself, my wife, and my two daughters since it first aired. Back in the days of ‘appointment TV’ we would gather around the television (well, the computer monitor, as I was illegally downloading episodes to keep up – sorry, but I do own all the DVD sets and quite a bit of merchandise, so…). Later, it was the series we would pull out every 2 years or so and watch ‘Best ofs’, or a particular season. Then, maybe 4 years ago, we stopped.
We were sated. We were more than sated, we were oozing BTVS from every pore like a family of overeaters at a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner. Watching BTVS had become painful and a little sad.
So, when in late 2015 we decided to give it another go, from Season One to Seven, without skipping an episode, we went in tentatively, completely prepared to pull out before the end of “Welcome to the Hellmouth”, pretend nothing had happened, and move along.
However, to our surprise, it was an absolute joy again. Our BTVS hearts were emptier than we realised, and we were indeed ready to have them filled once more. There have been laughs, and tears, and there have been surprises as well, things we never felt even after so many viewings. Chief amongst them was our unexpected love of Dawn. Yup, you heard that right. Dawn. She’s actually pretty great. And before you walk away, shaking your head and muttering, “They’re lost to us.”, let me explain.
Firstly, a confession: I’ve never really admitted my true obsession with the show to anyone. I mean OBSESSION. I read EVERY BOOK published in the English language at the time (as well as an online academic paper in Spanish), I bookmarked every ‘serious’ (really? Serious?) BTVS website, I even dreamed about it. Frequently. And, since I’m being honest, for about 12 months I believe I developed a pychosexual obsession with Buffy herself (which explains my love and empathy for Spike, I suppose).
So, I loved BTVS. And I watched it as a ‘fully fledged adult’ (well, truth also be told I only became a ‘completely mature adult’ – maybe? – in my forties). So, I shouldn’t be able to claim teenage or even twentyish emotional vulnerability (but can I?…). And I adored everything about it – even the shit parts. But never Dawn. Like everyone else, she annoyed the piss out of me.
So, why this sudden change in feelings? Nostalgia, you say? No. While I’m not completely immune to that most nefarious of emotions (yeah, the Stasi, the Cold War, Generalissimo Franco, they weren’t that bad…), I do resist it’s sweet pull as much as possible. So, if not warm, fuzzy feelings then what is bringing on this late change of heart.
Actually, I suspect it’s the opposite: an emotional, albeit not critical distance. A letting go off of our rabid love for the show has enabled us to watch it with both an open heart and an open mind.
The ordinary episodes were still ordinary, the great ones great (the musical is still superb, and The Body still deeply moving and original), and seeing the cast again was like reuniting with old friends. It was Dawn’s appearance in (still very stodgy, particularly in the second half) Season 5 that was the real treat. Gone were feelings of “Urgh!” and “Meh!”, and in came feelings of “She’s sort of decent” and “Why did we dislike her so?”.
In hindsight, Dawn is sweet, funny, irritating, and sad in varying measures. That is, she’s a teenager. She’s erratic, she does dumb things, but like any good piece of writing, everything comes from her character (well, the shoplifting was a little stuck on). She is, in fact, very well realised. And, to give credit where credit is due, Michelle Trachtenberg puts in a professional shift, including moments of true pathos (self harming after she discovers she’s The Key – powerful stuff), that leave seasoned pros like Nicholas Brendon and Emma Caulfield (maybe Sarah Michelle?) in her wake.
So why did so many people dislike her? Why was she barraged with hateful comments? I’ll posit something: BTVS is a FANTASY – in one important way. We talk about how real the characters were, how truthful the show was, how clever blending the horror genre with a coming of age drama. However, the truth is that the show was our fantasy of teenage life. No teenager I recall was anywhere near as cool as Willow or Xander. No one dressed anything like Buffy or Cordelia (well, Western Sydney public school generally don’t encourage it). And no one ever spoke with the humour and intelligence that the characters of BTVS do. Truthfully, we were more like Dawn. And that, I suspect, is the problem.
In the midst of this teenage fantasy, Joss Whedon thrust someone pulled directly from real life (sort of). She whined, she misbehaved, and most importantly she didn’t tow the line of the 20-something year old cast -playing teenagers – being fed words by 30-something year old television writers. In fact, a number of the show’s writers have spoken about how BTVS was an opportunity to give themselves (as represented by the characters) the cool lines they never thought of in real life. Joss chief amongst them, I suspect.
Then there was Dawn. And we didn’t like how she upset the balance. How she didn’t say cool stuff. How she grated. Just like real teenagers. Looking back, I’m feel a little bad at how dismissive I was of her. Watching BTVS one more time (with less feeling, perhaps) has been a revelation in regards to Dawn and her importance, especially to the development of Buffy across the last two seasons.
Like it or not, Buffy had to change. And Buffy’s journey was always one of resistance to acceptance. Resistance to her destiny. Resistance to a leadership role. Acceptance that she is responsible, that people look to her, that she has an important role to perform. The id must be subsumed. And Dawn’s arrival played an important part in that, particularly after the death of Joyce, their mother.
Was Buffy kinda annoying in the last season of BTVS? Maybe. She certainly lost the perkiness of the first few seasons. And why shouldn’t she? So much had happened to her in her young life, she had to change. And that is the essence of story. A story opens with a question and ends with an answer. Often when stories leave us cold it’s because they didn’t answer the question they asked at the beginning. Stories that don’t ask and don’t answer can work fine. It’s when you don’t fulfil your promise to the audience and answer the question that people feel dissatisfied.
Buffy had to grow into the adult she became, otherwise BTVS would have cheated us out of an answer. Maybe the answer could have been different (she could have run away, refused responsibility, and let everyone die…yeah, right), but there needed to be an answer. And a huge part of that journey from child to adult was Dawn, and her sense of responsibility for Dawn as big sister.
And Dawn had to grow too, particularly in that last season. As for me, I’m looking forward to seeing her change and grow. And make no mistake: Dawn had it tough. She had to face who she was (meaning who she wasn’t) and find her particular place in the world, as an ordinary person just trying to do the right thing. Just like us.
Come back, Dawn. All is forgiven.