Friday 11 December 2009

Dollhouse - I think her bad guys are badder than my bad guys.

Dollhouse: 2x05 The Public Eye.

 “Dollhouse” works like a zoom-out: we started out firmly focused on one character’s discovery of self, and over time, we slowly panned out, on the other dolls in the LA Dollhouse, the power structure within the Dollhouse. Now the thing is that we saw the final picture of that zoom in “Epitaph One” – we know the bigger picture already, which will become reality in 2019 because of the decisions made ten years earlier – but as we progress towards the inevitable end of the show, we get a clearer idea of how an unfortunate configuration of circumstances lead there.

“They made a senator”

We discover the greater world that lies beneath the walls of the Dollhouse (which we have, so far, mostly left for engagements) along with the characters of the show – In “The Public Eye”, it first enters our perception on a TV screen, with the zealous Senator Daniel Perrin (Alexis Denisof) revealing that he has finally found proof of the existence of the Dollhouse – Madeline Costley (Miracle Laurie), the Active Paul freed at the end of season one. Previous to that, we see a short scene between the Senator and his wife Cindy (Stacey Scowley), that would under any other circumstances be a cute portrayal of a loving relationship between a man and his supportive wife, but of course that wouldn’t be “Dollhouse” then:
Cindy: “Remind me why I love you so much?”
Daniel: “I’m your white knight.”
Cindy: “And I’m your beautiful damsel.”
Daniel: “Ever after.”
The script strikes us as odd because we’ve seen the fairy tale imagery before (in an episode aptly named “Briar Rose”, where the white knight who saved the damsel in distress turned out to be someone unexpected), and the idea of a script used to reinforce a programmed bond between Active and Handler, although worded differently (“do you trust me?” / “with my life”) is something we’ve seen before. We suspected Cindy Perrin to be a doll from the first time we saw her.
Just as Harding (Keith Carradine), the character who we saw winning an argument with Adelle before, confronts her with what he perceives to be her mistake (“I’m not questioning your protocol, Adelle. It’s your judgement that’s become the issue here. There’s some concern you may have developed a soft spot with this one.”), the new and serious Echo we saw first in “Belonging” when Boyd realized how perceptive and self-aware she really was sees Madeline, Cindy and Daniel on the screen. Her first remark is “November is sad” (revealing that she remembers someone from the past) and, as she watches Cindy Perrin more closely, “she’s not right”. Sure enough, the next scene on the screen is an interview with Perrin in which he states “She’s perfect. It’s like they made her just for me.”.
Dealing with a rogue Senator who is out to seek the truth is one thing, but now Adelle suspects that another Dollhouse has a hand in this, and she doesn’t like not knowing the intent and purpose of other people who might become dangerous. Convinced that Cindy Perrin is a doll, she makes use of the two weapons she has: Topher’s tech, and Echo’s mind, to try and discover what is going on. It is nice to see how things go along in the background with the tech – Topher’s been struggling to make Alpha’s tech (the “remote wipe) utilizable ever since Adelle asked him to do so, and by now he is ready to turn out a geekily named gadget (“the Disruptor”) that happens to be exactly the thing they need to reveal a secret doll.
After the events that took place in “Belonging”, Topher has seemingly returned to his previous, morally unconcerned state (it didn’t work out to have a consciousness, so why dwell, right?), but the scene in which he shows off his brilliant new tech is probably more revealing that we realize it first: it is played for the slapstick comedy of having Topher once again not realizing the consequences of his actions, which results in a Doll falling down the stairs in the background (“make that a fifty foot radius”). He is also unfazed by the pain he causes the Kilo (Maurissa Tancharoen, usually a writer).  The scene encapsulates his character: the brilliant genius who now lacks any kind of oversight or balance, who is in a position now where Adelle doesn’t even have a choice of whether to use him or not (she doesn’t like being backed into a corner).
Adelle is in a position we haven’t really seen her in before: we saw her interaction with Madeline and her power-play of whether or not she would come in for a check-up a couple of episodes ago, and thought that the scene proved that Adelle was still the one holding the better hand. Seeing Madeline in front of the cameras now, Adelle is clearly taken by surprise that she underestimated the former Active. Paul on the other hand, who has always used his “rescue” of Madeline as an excuse for why he is working for the Dollhouse (one of many of course: he is also bringing down the Dollhouse, single-handedly freeing all the Actives but especially Caroline, and using the Dollhouse to bring down terrorists the FBI couldn’t get to), finds out that freedom is a relative term in the post-Engagement life, since the architecture is still inside Madeline’s head so the Disruptor would also work on her (“No one ever really leaves here, do they?”).
The Engagement to discover the truth is interesting because it is probably the least creative and most mundane possible solution for the problem. Echo is imprinted as a call girl (Bree) sent out to make an unflattering video of the drugged Senator. He realizes that she must be a doll and meets her with a strange mixture of pity, revulsion and genuine curiosity (“Try to understand what I’m saying. You are not you. This place, the Dollhouse, has altered you, brainwashed you. They’ve turned you into someone else.”).
Just as the Senator and Bree park the car in front of his home, Paul uses the Disruptor on Cindy – just that it doesn’t work on her, while Bree and Daniel Perrin show the same signs of pain.
Adelle realizes her mistake: Rossum didn’t plant a sleeper on the Senator, they “made” one. The roles in the call-and-response script are reversed because Rossum programmed him to be the white knight in shining armour, and she also realizes the unfortunate mistake of sending Echo, of all possible Actives, to him, because instead of returning to the Dollhouse, she goes on a road trip with the Senator.
Meanwhile back at the Dollhouse Topher figures out that Perrin is a different kind of doll: he really used to be Daniel Perrin, but the Washington Dollhouse added ambition and idealism to a man with a long proud family history, who was a screw-up himself. Like Echo and Whiskey, Perrin’s first impulse upon becoming self-aware is to try and preserve his precarious identity. When Cindy, who has tracked them down, tries to script on him again, he remembers how it was programmed, and realizes that even the love for her is not real. Echo/Bree’s showdown with Cindy consists of fragments of previous encounters, her muscle memory of many of the fight scenes we saw so far. In the end, with the help of Topher’s disruptor which Cindy took from Paul, the Washington DC Dollhouse brings both of them in.

“You said you freed me. When someone’s free they get to make mistakes. Am I free?” –Madeline

We don’t know Madeline well, and neither does Paul. This episode is very much about how individuals relate to information they receive, and also about misunderstandings and manipulation of facts. After finding out that Perrin was probably a sleeper agent, Paul was shown the scene from “Man on the Street”, when she was activated to kill Sierra’s handler. Madeline, on the other hand, was given pictures of the same killing scene (“For the rest of my life I’m going to know that I killed someone.”) to relate to her that the Dollhouse is evil, and of her and Paul, because this is probably the part that makes her feel most used. Paul tries to stop her on her way to Washington DC because he understands what Rossum is trying to do (when such an honest and determined Senator finds that there is nothing wrong with the Corporation, they will have even more power than before) – but fails to relate this information to Madeline, in part also because he still doesn’t understand that this person is not Mellie. 

The girl with the dead arm

“The Public Eye” lingers on Bennett Halverson when she is introduced, starting with a scene where she is talking to a female handler. We saw Topher before with Boyd and Ballard, and the first thing that comes to mind is the difference between the two: the female handler is extremely respectful, and a little bit nervous because as it turns out, Bennett’s moods change quickly.
Bennett: “The moment you start wondering about the people upstairs, they start wondering about you. That is nothing you want.”
Female handler: “Sorry”
Bennett: “Curiosity it’s perfectly natural. We have urges, and we are in the business of urges, so why don’t we indulge. … But we can’t, we never can, we have a sacred trust. We have the privilege of living inside the human heart. For which we give up everything. We give up everything.”
It’s clear that she is somewhat broken beyond her dead arm, because we see her change in front of our eyes when she realizes that Echo is the doll Cindy captured (she mumbles “Here we are” and “I need this” to herself). In the short scene with Cindy and Perrin, the differences between her and Topher and especially how the other Dollhouse-staff treat them:
Daniel: “Please don’t erase me. Please don’t. I don’t want to forget. It’s my mind!”
Bennett: “Not for some time now.”
Daniel. “Oh god. Who are you?”
Cindy. “She’s god. Honey. And you’ve heartily offended her.”
Adelle and Boyd would never call Topher “god” (it’s interesting though because Whiskey did it in “Vows” – “Aren’t you the big brother, aren’t you the Lord my God? Why should I fight your divine plan?). There is a specific cruelty in the way both she and Cindy handle Perrin – Cindy makes sure to tell him that she actually hates him, and hated being his wife, and Bennett, in a very matter-of-fact tone, tells him that he hasn’t been his own person for a long time now (“This is sick! You are sick!” / “Who’s to say?”).
The line with which she welcomes Bree/Echo is the second great reveal of the episode: Caroline. You always promised you’d come back to me. Let’s play.” – and then she electro-shocks her, turning the imprinting chair into an actual device of torture.

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