It’s been a long time since Buffy’s had to portray teenaged angst, so I could forgive them being a little rusty. The problem is that “rusty” doesn’t begin to describe what’s wrong with “All The Way.” If you only watched this episode you’d never believe that this series was once a masterful portrayal of high school. The problem is not that Dawn’s incredibly immature and stupid here (teenagers are often immature and stupid), the problem is that absolutely no effort is made to help us understand where she’s coming from. We don’t even need to agree with her motivations for this to story to work, we just need to know that she has them. Sadly, Dawn’s behaviour can only be explained as “acting out,” a reductive assessment of adolescence that this series contrasted with so sharply in the early days.
To begin, Dawn’s stealing. Gasp! Wait, no, not “gasp.” Huh? Yes, “huh” is the appropriate response. It’s not that shoplifting is such a heinous crime that we could never conceive of sweet little Dawn doing it, it’s that we’re left guessing as to why she would. Cheap thrills? Cry for attention? Funding a drug habit? Anything’s possible, though I think that there are other sources of excitement on the Hellmouth, but the series needed to demonstrate the cause before the effect, particularly when this episode doesn’t even lead to why. A climax with Dawn telling Buffy “I learned from watching you!” wouldn’t have been much better, but at least it wouldn’t have had character traits being developed at random.
Next, Dawn’s sneaking out. Meh. Kids lie to grownups so that they can do the things they really want and it’s not such a surprise that Dawn would fall into this category. What is a surprise is that what she’d want to do is a night of petty vandalism. Again, huh? Yes, teenagers can do some dumb shit, but since when are 15/16 year olds smashing pumpkins and letting air out of ties? At that age, you don’t meet at the park so you can prank some senile old man, you do it so no one catches you with the forty you stole from dad’s liquor cabinet. Painful contortions are made here so that Dawn’s rebellion remains harmless and it just makes the whole thing seem unbelievable.
Finally, Dawn’s date is a vampire. Sigh. He’s not a very good one. Vampires are sexual predators. It’s the cornerstone of their mythology and the reason they were the primary baddie at Sunnydale High. Dawn’s date isn’t a predator. In fact, his aforementioned antics are so juvenile that he’s almost nonsexual. I suppose there’s a story to be told about a vampire that isn’t sexually mature, but such a deviation from the established metaphor really needed an entire episode’s exploration.
What makes this episode so bad is that it actually could’ve been great. Three years was too short a time for Buffy to explore all the story potential of “high school is hell” and Dawn presented a golden opportunity for the series to deliver the occasional throwback episode regarding teenage problems. Sadly, this story is such a complete misfire that it puts us off ever seeing Dawn in that sort of spotlight again. Buffy excelled in its early years by treating teenagers like people. They could be juvenile and stupid at times, but their motives were always understood if not accepted. It’s unfortunate that Dawn’s little rebellion wasn’t given the same attention.
Shirking her responsibilities with Dawn makes for a much better reason for Giles to be worried about Buffy. Bills: not really worth a Slayer’s time. Family: universally important.
Nice to see Giles being a badass for a change. He far too often becomes comic relief when faced with such situations.
The scene at the make out place was definitely the highlight of the episode. “Didn’t anybody come here just to make out?”