Dawn is suffering from the Riley factor. Once a vital character, she's being sadly neglected by the show's writers, says Jeff Jensen
Michelle Trachtenberg, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Dawn is suffering from the Riley factor

In the past, ”Buffy the Vampire Slayer” has fielded curious episodes in which weaknesses seemed to be acknowledged, then leveraged for drama. Take the penultimate episode of two seasons ago: After a year tracking the separate post-high school destinies of the Scooby Gang (a move that boldly played against one of the show’s strengths: the cast’s group chemistry), Buffy realized the only way to defeat the Frankenstein monster Adam was with a little help from her friends.

Or take last season’s exit of Buffy’s first post-Angel boyfriend, Riley. The season before, the beefcake super-soldier served a purpose in the epic Adam storyline; the following year, with Adam gone, there was nothing for him to do. Hence, Riley’s ironic reason for breaking up with Buffy: He just didn’t feel needed anymore.

To this suspect tradition, let us add ”Older and Far Away,” which aired on Feb. 12. The weakness acknowledged: Dawn — who, you might recall, is not really Buffy’s teenage sister; she and everyone else just thinks she is. She actually is the incarnation of a magical key, made flesh last season by monks who cast an irreversible spell that reorganized all of reality to accommodate Dawn’s existence in order to… oh, never mind. Remarkably, Dawn proved magnificently viable last year because the writers made this loopy idea work. Alas, now Dawn is suffering from the dreaded Riley Factor: She has no compelling reason to be here.

Once again, the writers have tried to work this to their advantage. All season long, Dawn has felt ignored by her big sister. In ”Away,” her angst reached its apex; after unwittingly unburdening herself to a vengeance demon, the Scoobies found themselves cursed to be trapped together under one roof. When the inevitable cabin fever stir crazies settled in, Dawn angrily suggested it was because they just couldn’t stand being around her — a rather suspicious outburst, which prompted an investigation that finally exposed Dawn’s kleptomania. Of course, getting caught was what Dawn subconsciously wanted all along, just so she could force the confrontation with her sister she’s been yearning for.

Yet despite a valiant effort, ”Away” failed to succeed in justifying Dawn’s continued presence on this show. It?s obvious ”Buffy” has nothing left to say with her. Dawn isn’t a rich, vital character; she’s just a tool — a mirror to reflect ideas in other characters (like Buffy’s twentysomething irresponsibility). Instead of giving her character development, she gets little moments to literally and figuratively ”act out”: a little kleptomania here, a little temper tantrum there, all adding up to a big So What?

What frustrates me most is how ”Buffy” seems to be missing Dawn’s most interesting aspect: I mean, she’s a magical key. That’s some wacky stuff, don’t you think? But ”Buffy”’s writers have forgotten all about this. Instead, the show dwells on the least interesting facet of her identity: her solipsistic teenagerness. What’s even more disappointing is that a truly talented actress, Michelle Trachtenberg, is being wasted.

It pains me to say this, but Dawn is a drain on this show. ”Buffy” must either turn this key in a different direction — or throw it away.

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