“Great, a Dawn episode.” That’s what I thought during the cold open and I must admit to being pleasantly surprised. Not that this was somehow a good Dawn episode, but that it’s a good episode in spite of her. It speaks a lot about how far the character’s stock has fallen than I, once a staunch Dawn apologist, now sigh anytime she’s on screen. She’s the weakest part of this episode, despite being the ostensible centre of it. Fortunately, the rest of Scoobies are more than capable of carrying the episode, with Dawn’s loneliness driven angst being far less relevant than the increasing stress of their enforced confinement.
“Older and Far Away” qualifies as a bottle episode, despite the early scenes around Sunnydale. Not only is the majority of action confined to the Summers residence, but the hook is, specifically, that they’re all trapped there. As Buffy’s cast has expanded, it’s become increasingly rare to see them all operating together, and so this development is as welcome for the audience as it is alarming for the gang. To some extent, this is normal in any large group, but the fact of the matter is that the Scoobies aren’t quite the team they used to be. Willow and Tara are broken up and there’s a sad awkwardness anytime they’re together. The hostility in Spike’s jabs bespeak a growing frustration with the way Buffy’s been treating him. Xander and Anya have become a bit of an island within the team, their wedding planning and cutesiness alienating their friends. Finally Buffy, the girl whose party this is, seems to spend a concerted amount of effort avoiding her guests.
The genius of this episode is in forcing the characters together in order to illustrate how far apart they are. The one major problem is that it seems to miss this point in the end as it becomes all about Dawn. In the younger Summers’ defence, my irritation is as much about the poor thematic choices as it is about poor characterization. The gang all realize how alone Dawn’s been feeling and hang their heads in shame when, in fact, Dawn ought to have realized that she isn’t alone in feeling alone. It’s a turn that only serves to highlight her immaturity and undermine the rest of the episode.
Despite fumbling its own messaging, I’ll still call this episode a winner, there’s just too much to enjoy in the rest of it. Tensions mount as the enforced confinement drags on, with Buffy and Spike’s extended sniping being particularly fun and the pressure on Willow to use magic being particularly worrisome. Add to that some nice moments for Tara in looking out for Buffy, an interesting threat posed by the villain, and an always welcome Clem appearance and you’ve got yourself a really good episode.
This was the payoff to the Dawn’s a Klepto arc? Pretty weak.
The fifth wheels are particularly fun as Buffy and Xander/Anya both try to introduce an outsider to the group with lousy results; what’s his name strikes out with Buffy and then gets stabbed, while Sophie appears to be allergic to socializing. Appropriately, it’s Clem who fits in best with the gang, taking all the weirdness in stride and declaring it a “great party” upon leaving.
I love the way the MoW was used to play up the claustrophobia everyone’s feeling; the walls are literally a threat.
This episode also illustrates the other big problem with Dawn; Michelle Tracheberg’s too old for the part. It’s not that girls Dawn’s age don’t act this immature, it’s that the characters of the Buffyverse don’t, at least not this deep into a crisis. It’s seems that once you realize that you and all your friends are cursed, you stop complaining that you feel neglected.