Season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer begins not unlike former seasons. In episode one, Buffy vs Dracula, we see Buffy and the rest of the Scoobies wrapping up their summer after the previous season's conclusions. Following the Monster of the Week format, that episode's vampire (Dracula himself) disappears and in very last minute of the episode, we are introduced to Buffy's never-before-seen sister, Dawn.
For anyone who watched Buffy during its original airdate back in 2000 or for any first-time watchers, the moment was elicited an IRL Mr. Krabs meme reaction. With her out-of-nowhere introduction, immediately following a lacklustre season 4, Dawn is thrust upon us with no context. In Dawn's first scene, Buffy's mother suggests she take her to movies only for them to both whine, "Mom!" in a way anyone with a sister recognizes instantly. Without knowing what is going on at all, we're aware of one thing only: Buffy and Dawn do not like each other.
Ask any Buffy fan who the least liked character in the series is, and they will likely tell you it was Dawn (followed by Xander who is more or less useless most of the time). Frequently topping lists like, "most annoying television characters ever" the most shared opinion within the Buffy fandom is, "Dawn is the worst." Asking several die-hard Buffy fans I know, one explained it's pretty much canon to hate Dawn or at the very least find her extremely annoying. But when you ask why, most people stop at "she's just so annoying!"
In the following episodes, while we're still unsure as to exactly where the hell Dawn came from and why everyone is acting like she's always existed and the audience is expected to go along with the ride. The second episode of the season features Dawn's own perspective via diary entries and we're introduced to how she fits into Buffy's life as a slayer. She tags along reluctantly to the magic shop with an annoyed Buffy and Giles. She hates Buffy, she isn't impressed with anything to do with being a slayer. She somehow messes everything up throughout the episode by inviting a vampire inside their home and after hearing Buffy complain about her, she runs away and gets kidnapped by a vampire. (This becomes a pretty common theme for Dawn. In Season 6 her first kiss is with a vampire named Justin, but at least she stakes him herself.)
Yes, Dawn is annoying as hell, but how could she not be? Let's contextualize this—she is a pre-pubescent tween and her sister is a vampire slayer. Have you ever been a little sister? As a professional little sister, I can tell you it sucks a lot of the time, especially you're that age and my sisters weren't even slayers. You're trying to form an identity while constantly being reminded of what a grown woman should be. You're stuck in a place between feeling resentful and feeling admiration and all your feelings are amplified by a lot of hormones. She makes the same mistakes any young person would, only they're seen as bigger mistakes because they lead to putting her life and the life of others in danger. But despite all this, Dawn's defining trait is that SHE'S NOT EVEN SUPPOSED TO EXIST.
As we soon find out in episode five of the season, Dawn is actually an object called the Key that was transformed into a human being. A bunch of monks decided to transform the Key to several hellish dimensions into a person Buffy would protect from the demon (and the season's Big Bad) Glory. All of Dawn's memories, her existence—every single thing about her was fabricated by these monks. Not only does she find out she's not a real person (in the most traditional sense), she also has to deal with her mom's death shortly after. This is why season five is arguably one of the best of the series—it's complex and full of twists. We see a new side of Buffy and see her grow up in a way she hadn't in previous seasons.
Buffy is at times childish throughout the series, because she is a literal teenager, but she's still the hero. She saves the world (a lot), she's mature as hell—but when it comes to Dawn, she turns into a straight-up mean older sister. Their dynamic creates a perfect foil in Buffy, who up until then was more or less perfect and uncomplicated. After finding out Dawn's purpose and facing Joyce's death, Buffy has no choice but to take on the role of a mother. Her reluctant acceptance of Dawn transforms and her role as a protector completely. In the season five finale, Dawn realizes in order to save the world she must die. That's right, annoying ass Dawn opts to sacrifice her life to save the world. Of course, Buffy sacrifices her own life instead—but that is her literal job. Despite all of Dawn's shortcomings of being A PRE-TEEN GIRL, she is willing to die so others don't have to. Also, without Dawn we wouldn't have the single greatest moment in Buffy history.
The first time I watched the series all the way through, I was in my early twenties and just beginning to get out of my role of the whiny younger sister. Around the same time my oldest sister said to me after a late night discussion, "When did we start talking to each other like real adults?" As a character, Dawn's only real crime is acting her age while being thrust into a world full of demons, witches and vampires. Maybe I have a soft-spot for Dawn because her own progression to becoming an actual person mirrored mine (minus the vampires), but it's time fans lay off the collective Dawn hate.
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