The heart of this episode is Buffy and Dawn's relationship. It begins with Buffy training her sister about power and how to survive in a fight, by giving her weapons and advising her on how to take care of herself. Buffy is so frantic about her sister's safety that she's obsessively lurking in the high school, a place she hates and never wants to return to again but she has come back, all because she can't leave her sister unprotected here. I love the scene where Buffy runs into Dawn's classroom blurting out how they have to leave because it's not safe. She's so panicked. Dawn's safety is the priority here. Protect the living. Protect the ones she loves.
Then in my mind, I fastforward to Lies My Parents Told Me:
Giles, we had this conversation when I told you that I wouldn't sacrifice Dawn to stop Glory from destroying the world.
Ah, yes, but things are different, aren't they? After what you've been through, faced with the same choice now, (paces) you'd let her die.
If I had to...to save the world. Yes.
Buffy can't shrug off the Potentials' deaths like she does in Lessons:
Too late. But then, you're always too late, aren't you? Sure as hell didn't save me.
She hangs up the phone.
Where's my sister?
I think she's lost.
If I'm the one who let you die, why take it out on her? I'm right here. C'mon, what're you after? Fear? Revenge? Tasty brains?
I think I'd like Dawn to be my girlfriend.
Again, wrong sister. I'm the one that dates dead guys. And, no offense, but they were hotties. I mean, I'm sure you had a great personality, but...
Busy making out with your dead boyfriend while I was ripped to death by a werewolf? Is that why you let me die?
I was screaming for help when they pulled me down—
Buffy makes a "T" with her hands, gesturing for a timeout.
Hello! Not making myself clear. I don't care how you died. I'm sorry for your loss, but where is my sister? Dawn!
In Lessons, Buffy has to fight the manifest spirits of the victims of Sunnydale High, the students and faculty she failed to save. Buffy was the Class Protector and the death rate was the lowest in Sunnydale history, but people still died and she still felt responsible. But here Buffy brushes it off. She doesn't let the guilt weigh on her. Faced with these spirits, all Buffy cares about is finding her sister. She wants to protect the one she loves the most. Protect the living.
That's her weakness. When protecting the living is combined with protecting her sister (potential) Slayers. When the weight of the living becomes personal and endangered. When she's not faced with ghosts from a distant past, but with the very real nightmare of future deaths she failed to save, the deaths of girls that slip into her dreams and who live under her roof. Buffy in Help loses Cassie, she fails to save her, and that sense of failure haunts her. Cassie told Buffy that her death was inevitable and Buffy couldn't save her, but look at how hard Buffy fought to save Cassie. That was a crushing blow--to be faced with the inevitability of death. To know that Buffy reached out and fought so hard for this one girl and she failed--it hurt. And when the Potentials arrive on the scene, that's when Buffy becomes to shut down. She can't lose another Cassie. She can't lose another sister. But if some of their deaths are inevitable, what else can she do but harden herself to not care? She has to save the ones she can save and not let the ones who die slow her down because she can't stop to cry, because she has to be a tower of strength, a warrior who protects the Potentials. She doesn't get to cry or mourn--that would be selfish. The mission is all that matters.
The First-as-Joyce tells Dawn, "Buffy won't choose you" and for a long stretch of episodes, Buffy wouldn't choose Dawn--or at least Buffy thinks she might have to sacrifice Dawn and she's been hardening herself to do what's necessary for the greater good. She's had to cut herself off to deal. She's cut herself off from her emotions, from her heart, from her humanity, all to fight a war. She hardened in Bring on the Night when she made that magnificent speech about how "we just became an army." That moment terrified her--the look of terror in her eyes as she's sitting alone in the dark as she overhears her friends discuss how Buffy might die and there might be "internal bleeding" and that Buffy was their only hope. She hears this and she hardens herself because her friends have told her that she has to win. She has to harden herself to win the battle. So she remade herself in fire and became steely in strength. That's why she snaps at Willow and Spike in Get It Done. She's had to sacrifice herself to become battle ready and she's frustrated that no one else is bothering to give what she's given--she's angry that they don't understand that this is the end, that this is the most danger she's ever faced and she's the only one giving everything she has for the mission. She has to save the girls she can save and she'll become a machine to do it. Most of the time, she doesn't even sleep because the mission is all that matters. It just kills me in Touched when she sighs and holds her head in her hands, saying, "I'm just so tired."
Of course, her true strength comes from her emotions--"My emotions give me strength. They're total assets"--and it's only when Buffy realizes how she's shut down in Touched (with the help of reconnecting with Spike) that she's able to understand that strength is about being together and having faith and building trust. About feeling and connecting. Strength through emotion and love. And this is so important that Spike makes it possible because he is her dark Other, her shadow self, the one she retreats to so that she can disconnect, but because of his own transformation, her shadow self is the one who reconnects her to humanity and to love. And isn't it love that closes the Hellmouth? A soul fought for and won out of love.
Buffy has this epiphany about connecting and she again prioritizes Dawn's safety by having Xander take her away. (Of course, it's not about protecting humanity but about enabling humanity to fight as Dawn refuses to be shunted off to a safe corner. But that's what love means for Buffy--she becomes an overprotective "dumbass.") The disconnection between Buffy and Dawn is always essential to what's going on with Buffy. It's essential in Season 6 when Buffy wants to sleep with Death; it's essential in Season 7 when Buffy cuts herself off to become a hardened general; and it's essential in Season 8 when Buffy is again cut off from her humanity, symbolized by her ignoring Dawn and prioritizing the Slayers before her sister.
Buffy's character arc has always been centered on the wax and wane of her connection to humanity and how this is embodied through her connection to her friends and her sister. She struggles to understand how being the Slayer means she is full of love. She struggles to understand how she can love with all her heart and be strong at the same time. How love doesn't make her weak. But it's not love that makes her weak, but fear of pain and grief and loss. Because she doesn't know how to love in half-measure. It's all or nothing. That's why with Spike it's a denial of love until the end of Season 7 when it's so overwhelmingly obvious how important he is to her. He's all she talks about, the person she spends the most time with, the one who reconnects her and helps her heal enough to say "I love you."
Xander, Willow, Dawn and Giles represent Buffy's connection to humanity. Through loving them, Buffy becomes more human. And Spike represents the Other who helps bring her back to her humanity. Where once she would retreat into the shadows because she "can be alone with [him] here", where once Spike tried to pull Buffy into the dark with him, now Spike has crossed that void and brought the light (his soul) into the dark where he resides. He's the one who shows her the importance of her ties to the world, the Other who understands her need to be alone, but who reminds her of the necessity to return to the land of the living. He is Buffy's bridge between the Other and the Self. This is why Buffy's connection to Spike in Season 7 is so essential. Because Buffy has cut herself off from humanity and is trying to retreat into the dark, to be "alone with [him] here" but Spike is no longer a dark void, but a beacon that brings her back to those she loves. When she goes to hide in that abandoned house in Touched, Spike is the one who urges her to go back to her friends, who inspires her to believe in herself and return home where she's "back in the bosom." If home is where the heart is, if her friends are her home, then Spike is the one who guides her home safely because he knows the dark places best. Buffy and Spike give each other strength and love and truth.