July 24, 2006

To some people, Dawn is an irritating girl character that ruined their bestest show when she showed up in Season 5.

But such people are fools. Dawn is excellent for at least three reasons.

1. The audacity of her introduction.

References to the arrival of Dawn occur as far back as season 3, but the problem to be solved was that of dropping a new character into the show, a new core family member that had never even been mentioned in four years except in those obscure references to “Little Miss Muffet”.

The practical foundations were laid in Season 4’s Superstar. The episode begins with an altered premise for the whole show, different rules (even different opening titles), and no explanation for the viewer, crediting us with the intelligence to hang in there for half an hour with no one to hold our hands and talk us through what has happened. Jonathan is in charge now, deal with it. This is the kind of thing that “network executives” always say you absolutely cannot do, because the audience just isn’t that clever.

Slowly Jonathan’s spell begins to unravel, but not before we’ve started to seriously enjoy discovering how each familiar character has been affected by it. By the end of that one episode, everything is back to normal, but we’ve learned to cope with an almost total disorientation caused by a magic spell, in which everything we thought we knew is in now doubt.

The difference with Dawn’s arrival is that there are three whole episodes where there is almost no acknowledgment that they’ve fucked with the premise of the show, and yet it keeps going. It’s a miraculous combination of disorientation and seamlessness. This is clearly excellent.

2. Makes a mockery of the notion of “canon”

To the genuinely autistic, enjoyment of a fictional television show consists of classifying posited facts and events according to whether they are canonical (they are true, or they happened) or otherwise. A typical example is the issue of Faith’s last name, which is never mentioned in the the whole of the TV series, but is in some shitty book that the show’s writers never read, much less had any input into.

Who cares? The whole pointless business of arguing over which year Anya stopped being a communist is rendered utterly ridiculous by the fact that the TV series itself has two very different but equally “official” versions of its history prior to Season 5: the one we saw, without Dawn in it, and the one that all the characters remember.

It’s no good saying that Buffy discovers the “truth” of Dawn’s invention in a magic spell. The point is that the spell is so perfect and all-pervasive in its effects, changing everyone’s memories of the past, that it effectively changes the past. The ultimate authoritative account of Buffy’s life should be her own autobiography; and what would she write down, lounging in her apartment in Rome after Season 7?

As if to deliberately indicate the dual reality of the show’s history, the original writers played with this concept in their scripts for the still-to-be-made animated spin-off show. This would be set in the early years of High School, and yet Dawn would feature in it. It’s an account of those times, as if told by someone who was there (and thus they have the modified memories).

Therefore it’s probably naive and simplistic to talk about “modified memories” in any case. What if the memories with Dawn in are the truth, and the story that Dawn was only recently created was the lie? What if the first five years of the show were an unreliable account, an unprecedentedly long mislead?

The more good-humored fans tend to play along with this duality, and it was a long-running gag on some Buffy forums to confuse newcomers by reminiscing about old episodes as if Dawn had appeared in them.

The really, really stupid fans reacted to the early episodes of Season 5 by suggesting that a huge “continuity goof” had occurred. According to Himiko, an unusually sane regular on alt.tv.buffy-v-slayer:

The real shocker to me was how many viewers carried on about the “continuity” problem: “hey, Buffy doesn’t have a sister. The writers don’t know what they’re doing.” Some never did catch on that this was a plot point, not a mistake, until the denoument.

Yes, you read that right. There were people at the time who thought that the writers had simply forgotten that Buffy didn’t have a sister in the previous four seasons.

Forums and newsgroups attract the kind of person who is seemingly in love with the idea that their own notion of where a show should be going is unassailably correct, and if they ever appear to be wrong then the explanation is simple: the show’s actual authors have simply made a terrible mistake. Wurst episode evur.

3. Represents adolescence

The experience of becoming an adult is strange, because it involves one individual (the child) vacating a body so that another individual (the adult) can take up residence.

The new occupant feels as if she has little in common with the previous one. She inherits all the memories of that previous existence, but they now seem faraway and false. Looking back at her old diaries, the new adult can barely believe it was she that wrote all that silly junk (it wasn’t – it was just a kid). They don’t seem like real memories. It’s as if they happened to someone else.

A kid is a blob of energy, with no strong connections to the world, just flitting around in it, having fun, but with the potential to turn into a real person, a far more complicated thing.

This is what Dawn is all about.


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