I like Real Me quite a bit, but I’m kind of trapped by my no spoilers policy when it comes to writing about it. The episode is telling us so much about the rest of the season that anything I say might give away key details of plot or metaphor.
We know from experience with previous years that the first 3 episodes of each season set the stage for events to come. Real Me foreshadows the plot of the season finale, which I won’t spoil, but it also introduces us to Dawn. Early on we get a clue that Dawn’s arrival was foreshadowed. From Buffy’s dream in Graduation Day 2:
Buffy looking down: "There's something I'm supposed to be doing."
Faith: "Oh yeah. - Miles to go - Little Ms. Muffet counting down from 7-3-0."
In the scene outside the Magic Box, the crazy man tells Dawn “I know you. Curds and whey.” That’s an explicit reference back to the “Little Miss Muffet” line (“Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet/eating her curds and whey”). This is in addition to the prophetic dreams from This Year’s Girl and Restless which I discussed in my Buffy v. Dracula post. The crazy man then tells her what we in the audience know but those inside the show don’t: “You don’t belong here.”
If Dawn’s arrival was foreshadowed so often and so long before, we know she must be important. Indeed she is. But since I can’t talk about the details yet, I want to emphasize one aspect of Dawn’s role in S5. I’ve argued repeatedly that other characters can serve as metaphors as well as being characters in their own right; the events of Primeval and Restless made this explicit. It won’t surprise you, then, to learn that I think Dawn plays a metaphorical role as well as being a character. I’m not going to say, yet, what she stands for, but Buffy will eventually tell us in the season finale. If Dawn is here to teach us something about Buffy – and that’s the whole point of the entire show in my reading – then Dawn’s metaphorical role ought to lead us to wonder about the title of this episode and who it refers to.
For discussion later, I want to list some of Dawn’s characteristics which we see in Real Me. She keeps a diary. She loves Willow, she loves Xander, she loves her mother. She thinks Giles might not like her because he’s so old, she finds Buffy’s training boring, and she resents the fact that Buffy is always telling her what to do even if, in some sense, she idolizes her sister. She likes Tara, she’s not so sure about Anya. Interestingly, she expresses no opinion about Riley. She feels isolated at times, and she gets to be the child of the family in a way that Buffy wishes she could. I’ll come back to these in the finale.
The teaser shows us Buffy starting her journey of self-exploration with Giles, the one she said she wanted to make at the end of Buffy v. Dracula: “GILES VOICEOVER: Focus inward. Let the world fall away….” At this point, Dawn interrupts the session. That’s not merely the kind of thing a younger sister would do, it’s directly related to Dawn’s role this season.
Some of what happens in this episode is very subtle. There are looks, for example, which will become meaningful only in hindsight. The fact that they’re here demonstrates how far in advance certain stories were planned.
Trivia notes: (1) Riley’s mention of “the invasion of Normandy” refers to the D-Day landings in World War II. (2) Giles lost his last car when Spike crashed it in A New Man. He hasn’t driven one since. (3) Willow’s intent to take drama class was mentioned in The Yoko Factor and became part of her dream in Restless. (4) The name of the dead shopkeeper, Mr. Bogarty, was a joke based on Angelus calling the Magic Shop “the local boogedy-boogedy store” in Passion. (5) Buffy refers to the Magic Shop as a deathtrap because previous owners were killed in Passion and Lovers Walk. (6) For non-native-English speakers, this dialogue contains a pun: “WILLOW: You're on Dawn duty. (Buffy looks annoyed.) BUFFY: Oh, duty.” The word “dooty” (pronounced like “duty”) is slang for “feces”. It’s a way for Buffy to say “Oh shit” without being censored. (7) Harmony’s love of unicorns was, believe it or not, shown when we saw her hanging a unicorn poster in The Initiative. (8) When Xander greets Dawn with “Dawn patrol”, that’s a reference to a 1930 movie of that name. (9) Xander’s “Here comes the judge” quotes a famous line from the 1960s comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. (10) Xander tells Harmony that he doesn’t want to get into a hair pulling contest with her because they previously did that in The Initiative. (11) Xander’s “Ruffles have ridges” refers to the old advertising slogan for the potato chip company. (12) Xander’s mention of the Fortress of Solitude refers to Superman’s fortress. (13) Buffy’s mention of “the life expectancy of a Spinal Tap drummer” refers to the movie This Is Spinal Tap. (14) Giles watched Passions with Spike because, as we learned in Something Blue, that’s Spike’s favorite show.