Buffy has only just begun her shiny new post-Dracula training regime with Giles, boring Dawn to tears and eventually, thereby, meeting with disaster when little Sis makes one of her classic distracto-moves and sends Buffy crashing to the floor in a pile of what the hell was that noise?
It’s not really Dawn’s fault. She’s been doing this for so long, after all. The only thing more boring than training is watching it, you know? By now one of the three Summers women should have noted that Slaying and sister-care do not a multi-task make.
Anyway, it’s been practically forever since we had a Dawn-centered episode, and so “Real Me” is a sort of State of the Buffyverse address, bringing us up to speed on the whos and wheres of season five, via the fresh young eyes and much put-upon point of view of Michelle Trachtenberg. In other words, she’s having a good old whine in her diary about Buffy, Joyce, more Buffy, the way that Riley’s infatuated with Buffy, the way everyone’s infatuated with Buffy and by the way, nobody understands her.
This is what both teenagers and their diaries are for, pretty much, so that’s fair. Maybe we find it all a little tiresome, but remember, we’re eavesdropping.
The morning’s inevitable encounter with death gets off on the wrong foot when Joyce obliges Buffy to take her sister shopping for school supplies. Sure, everything’s marvellous at first—especially Giles’s midlife crisis car, a shiny red convertible simply packed with vroom. He and Buffy are having a lovely adult conversation about how very much at loose ends he feels. Even though he’s decided to stay in America for the sake of Buffy and their mutual calling, he’s clearly realized it’s not enough to fill his days. He’s also starting to figure out that unless he plans to spend those days cruisin’ the Interstate, seeking hints of demonic activity within easy sight of the California highway system, he bought the wrong type of time-waster. Still, we’ve all fallen for a pretty toy.
On the way to the magic shop, the trio runs into WillTara, whom Dawn likes very much. From what she says about them, we can deduce she doesn’t yet know that they’re an item. But she does think their witchy mojo is very cool and enviable.
Everyone’s a-bubble about the Slayer’s new work ethic, right up until Willow finds out that more slay equals less drama in Buffy’s life. By which I mean: she’s dropping drama class. Two seconds later, though, they all get a reality check on the true meaning of “this sucks!” when they find the Magic Shop owner devoured and dumped in his own workplace. Once again, running the boogety boogety store has proved fatal to a hapless entrepreneur.
Buffy hustles little sis out of the shop to spare her the sight of a dead body. There, a disturbed guy who thinks he’s a cat (he should be so lucky!) accosts Dawn, telling her that not only does he know what she is but that she doesn’t belong there. Where? Sunnydale? The parking lot?
Still. Weird, right?
In time, Tara comes out to keep her company and thumb-wrestle. They’re there awhile, because even as the Scoobies hunt for answers, Giles is going through the books and getting one whopper of a new concept for how to spend his days and dwindling savings.
The upshot of the clue hunt is that Harmony, of all vampires, has formed herself a gang. She has decided to kick ass, take unicorns, and kill the Slayer. One of the guys she sired is the massive, muscle-y and utterly humorless Mort. Another is Tom Lenk, which is pretty distracting, I must say. As in: I’m trying to pay attention to the episode and it’s all: “Hey, Andrew-vamp!”
Later in the day, Joyce is hosed about Buffy’s failure to buy school supplies and Dawn’s having been proximate to a corpse, yet again, on the sunny, so-safe Hellmouth. Since Buffy has to go on a little Harmony hunt, the elder Summers agree that Dawn needs a sitter, a proposition she violently resists until it turns out to be Xander.
Because, you know, Xander.
Who else would Dawn have a crush on, after all? She’s no dummy, and she likes that he treats her like an adult. She’s less enchanted when Anya turns up, but so it goes.
Elsewhere, WillTara are moving in together. Tara tries to gently hint to Willow that it’s tough for Dawn to be Scooby-adjacent but forbidden to help with cases. Willow takes this as code for “I don’t fit with the gang.” She tells her honey she’s one of the good guys, and this makes Tara visibly uncomfortable. She kept meaning to mention that Career Day seminar where her aptitude tests came out 1) Supervillain; 2) Martyr; 3) Total Bleeping Demonbait. But it was never the right time.
Out on patrol, Buffy is ranting about Joyce’s weird insistence on trying to protect at least one of her daughters from death, demons, disfigurement, dismemberment, desanguination, monsters, homicide, summonings, zombie attacks, sea monsters—remember how the guys in “Go Fish” tried to grab Dawn from the junior high school pool? Ah, good times!—curses and harsh language. Riley notes that Buffy seems unusually tense about it all. He reminds Buffy that she is, after all, Dawn’s idol.
(He then turns this into an opportunity to remind her she has a studly yet sensitive boyfriend.)
Over at Casa Slaya, meanwhile, Anya is winning at Life when Harmony and the gang show up, looking to call Buffy out. Xander finds this hilarious and it’s all a big yuckfest until Dawn semi-inadvertently invites Harmony in. Anya and Xander fight Harmony off, but they can’t save Dawn from the righteous wrath of her sister when the truth comes out.
No harm done! But it is, we have to agree, a bit of a faux pas.
As Harmony and her minions are regrouping, they run into Spike. As is her wont, Harmony tells Spike all about what she’s up to. He asks if she’s planning to kidnap a Scooby to serve as bait. No, Harmony says, meaning Yes!
Fortunately for her, Dawn bolts from the house, pretty much on cue, when she hears Buffy declaring that the policy of total sheltering of the sis is good for nobody: “We’re doing nothing but turning her into a little idiot who will get us all killed!”
Ouch. I’d bail, too, if I’d overheard that.
So Dawn runs out and gets grabbed by Mort the Massive Minion. Anya gets a head wound and a dislocated shoulder out of the deal, but avoids being eaten by falling backward into the Summers kitchen.
At this point in the episode, Harmony is just beginning to suspect that things aren’t breaking her way. The minions are not so keen on her leadership style, and they’re feeling underfed. They want to eat Dawn, on the theory that what Buffy doesn’t know will still lead her into a perfectly functional trap.
Confronted with the insubordination, Harmony commences whining to the nearest sympathetic hostage. She sounds, not coincidentally, just like Dawn’s self-pitying diary entries. Her captive audience entirely fails to take a lesson from this, but to be fair, they’re both pretty wrapped up in the minions’—including Tom Lenk!—ardent desire to darn well have their nosh.
Of course, this has all taken just long enough for Buffy to have had time to punch their location out of Spike and catch up with the group.
Harmony flees. Mort is really huge. There’s a big Slayer on Meathead fight and eventually someone gets a carousel unicorn horn through the chest. Evil hates it when that happens. Dawn is saved! Again! Yay!
(Or, perhaps: yay?)
After a brief squabble, Buffy decides not to rat her sibling out to Mom. So Dawn’s happy with the final reckoning: nobody’s grounded, Anya’s gonna be okay and Xander isn’t mad at her. Still. She feels unappreciated. Nobody gets the real her.
What can you say about a retcon, really? “Real Me” reminds us that Dawn’s been hovering on the edges of the Buffy universe since “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” and it gives us the quick tour of her relationships with all the important characters. It completely changes the dynamic in Buffy’s home life, and there’s a little snippet of the bigger S5 arc in there, in Dawn’s encounter with cat man.
It’s also another episode that shows the vampires to be lightweight comedy villains, rather than true threats. Maybe at one time vampkind could throw up a fair fight for Buffy, but now the best they can do is . . . well, not so good. And yet I feel for Harmony. Part of me wishes she could beat the odds, last a couple centuries, and actually grow into the secure, empowered and charismatic bitch-goddess she so desperately wants to be.
Next: Why can’t he have nice things?
A.M. Dellamonica has so much fiction up here on Tor.com! Her ‘baby werewolf has two mommies,’ story, “The Cage,” made the Locus Recommended Reading List for 2010. There’s also “Among the Silvering Herd,” the first of a series of stories called The Gales.