When you watch an entire television series alone, years after it originally aired, you sometimes end up with a different view of the series than those who watched it all along. Never was that more evident to me than last Saturday, when at Slay-a-Thon, I witnessed first hand the vitriol toward Michelle Trachtenberg's Dawn. Now, I knew that Dawn wasn't a popular character, but everyone at the event except for me was more than happy to boo her or tell her to shut up every time she spoke. And I think it's unfair.
Now, I'm not saying Dawn is one of my favorite characters, or even in my top 10, but I think the hatred for her is unfair, and shows a misunderstanding of the character.
For the first four seasons of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", the cast was relatively stable, and the comings and goings of characters happened in a natural way that allowed the viewers to welcome new characters in slowly. Then, suddenly, at the very end of the first episode of the fifth season, we were introduced to Dawn. Not only did she come out of nowhere, but we were made to believe that all the other characters already knew her, which made things even harder to accept. She wasn't Buffy's sister who'd been living in LA with her dad, or Buffy's cousin who moved from the east coast, she was Buffy's sister who'd been there all along and knew Buffy was The Slayer and had a crush on Xander and… well, you get the point. It made no sense, and wouldn't make sense until "No Place Like Home", which aired a month after Dawn debuted. That was an entire month for fans to hate her before getting to know her (I, meanwhile, blew through those episodes in about three days, so rather than growing to hate Dawn, I was blown away by the revelation of her true nature).
SEASON FIVE: DAWN AS GRATING LITTLE SISTER
Even after the truth of what Dawn was came out, fans were still annoyed by her because she had a grating personality, a need to scream too much and may have been responsible indirectly for Joyce's death. These are all valid criticisms, but as I see it, they miss the point of Dawn Summers. Think about the end of Season 5 -- Buffy is willing to sacrifice herself, and the entire world, to save Dawn, even though Dawn isn't particularly likable. Imagine if it'd been Xander, Willow, Giles, Tara, Spike, or even Riley in the position of being the key. Buffy's sacrifice wouldn't have meant as much, because she would have been saving a character we WANTED saved. By saving a character who most fans would have easily sacrificed, we learn how much the familial connection -- even if contrived by monks out of mystical energy -- meant to Buffy. The Slayer sums it up perfectly early in "The Gift", after Giles reminds Buffy that Dawn's not really her sister.
"No, she's more than that. She's me. The monks made her out of me. I hold her, and I feel closer to her than… it's not just the memories they built. It's physical. Dawn is a part of me. The only part that I…"Maybe this is coming from someone that grew up with a little sister, but no matter how annoying they can be -- and sorry Marcy, but little sisters are universally annoying -- you still love them, and you'd still do anything to protect them. That's WHY Dawn had to be the way she was. If she was lovable, then of course Buffy would protect her and the fans would want her to be saved. But that would have lessened the impact of Buffy's sacrifice, which would have been a huge loss for what I consider to be not only the best "Buffy" episode of all-time, but the best single episode of any TV series in my lifetime.
SEASON SIX: DAWN'S DEVELOPMENT (OR LACK THEREOF)
After Buffy returned to the land of the living, Dawn seemed to spiral downward into annoyance, via two primary character traits: abandonment issues and kleptomania. Addressing the second one first, Dawn's kleptomania was less a flaw of her character, and more a flaw of a seasonal misstep in writing. If you re-watch Season 6, you'll discover that every character was saddled with some type of stupid character flaw: Xander's cold feet, Spike's obsession with Buffy, Willow's literal addiction to magic and obviously Buffy's non-humanity. And while the flaws of the others led to incredible on-screen consequences -- Buffy and Spike sleeping together, Xander leaving Anya which led to her becoming a demon again, Dark Willow -- Dawn's petered out without a satisfying resolution.
Meanwhile, the abandonment issues were legitimate, and frustrating to deal with as a viewer. However, the struggles weren't Dawn's fault, they were Buffy's. The Slayer admitted as much in the season finale, "Grave", when she and Dawn were attacked by Willow's corpse monsters in the graveyard. After surviving the attack -- during which Dawn shows off her battle abilities for the first time -- Buffy breaks down and admits her failures of the past year.
Buffy: "Dawn, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry."There it is, right there, in bold (though, to be fair, I put in the bold). BUFFY got it wrong, not Dawn, but still, fans blame Dawn.
Dawn: "It's okay, Buffy. It's okay."
Buffy: "No, it hasn't been. It hasn't been okay. But it's gonna be now. I see it."
Dawn: "You see what?"
Buffy: "You. Things have really sucked lately. That's all gonna change. And I wanna be there when it does. I want to see my friends happy again. I wanna see you grow up. The woman you're gonna become, because she's gonna be beautiful. And she's gonna be powerful. I got it so wrong. I don't want to protect you from the world. I wanna show it to you."
SEASON SEVEN AND BEYOND: DAWN FINDS HER PLACE
If fans weren't so busy hating Dawn for two seasons, they might have noticed that she had grown up by the time the First Evil started ruining everyone's lives. There were three Dawn-centric episodes that cemented the character's growth: "Him", "Conversations With Dead People" and "Potential". While Dawn seemed to revert to some of her old habits in "Him", in reality she was actually going through some of the same relationship hardships that Buffy herself had gone through early in the series (though her destruction of Buffy's old cheerleading uniform was kind of unnecessary).
Dawn nearly gets elevated (or, technically re-elevated, since she did start life as "The Key) to supernatural being in "Potential", but by the end, she's back to being just a normal person, and, like Xander, is better for being so. In fact, it's her scene with Xander at the end of the episode that really encapsulates her entire character arc.
By this point, Dawn is no longer the little sister who needs saving (though Buffy will make that mistake again at the end of the series, again through no fault of Dawn's). She's a young woman capable of making her own decisions, and learning from her own mistakes (mistakes she'd make and pay for in the Season 8 comic). She's definitely not a woman who deserves to be hated, though I think if Dawn Summers knew how hated she was, she'd handle it just fine.
I'm sure many "Buffy" fans will disagree with me, but I'm not asking you to love Dawn. I'm just asking you to rethink how you feel about her, and maybe hate her just a little less.