Thursday 24 December 2009

Dollhouse - It's better to look good than to feel good.

Dollhouse: 2x08 A Love Supreme.

Alpha and Echo

There is something about Alpha that makes him the perfect comic book villain. For once, he has a relationship similar to the dark/light thing that sometimes goes on between heroes and villains with Echo: Both have been created in the same “technological anomaly”, but the result couldn’t be any more different. In Alpha, this anomaly has brought out the worst in the body that was there previous to the doll architecture. In Echo, the result was completely different: it was Caroline’s originally mislead sense to help people that only got stronger in the person that is now Echo, the person that has decided probably the original person who inhabited the body doesn’t deserve her body back.
The difference to the Joker, who has come up in some comparisons after “A Love Supreme” aired, is that Alpha isn’t just looking to create chaos and destruction with the brilliant mind of his: after “Omega”, he’s not just out to take eternal revenge on Caroline, but he is also obsessed with Echo, who he considers his own creation (and Echo herself admits to Alpha’s contribution to her being – that has now been improved on even further by the craziness that is Bennett Halverson).
Alpha is hunting down previous clients of Echo, clients who tried to find “real love” in their engagements (disturbingly enough, the wedding we saw in “Vows” wasn’t a singular event as part of a long-term engagement – in fact, Echo has had several male and female clients who married her). When Bennett failed to distinguish between Echo and Caroline in “The Public Eye” and “The Left Hand”, “A Love Supreme” somewhat returns to the idea that both hold a special kind of power over people. The first of Alpha’s victims that we actually see is a former billionaire who spent his fortune on engagements with the “Number One” of the LA Dollhouse.
“I loved her to abstraction. To destitution. I blew my fortune on engagements. Now only my love sustains me. Love for a woman who doesn’t exist. That’s my sad story.”
But, as Echo herself argues in this episode, this woman does exist. When, after enduring a painful period of testing by a deeply mistrusting yet curious Adelle, she is finally sent to an engagement, she tells Ballard that one part of her identity does love the man she is sent to. Echo doesn’t, but whatever imprint is the currently relevant part of the “choir” does, and it isn’t acting. Now that she can control her ability, she doesn’t even need the treatments: she can just recall the imprint of a repeat engagement (“I’m obsolete. This is what old people must feel like. And Blockbuster” says Topher, who is freaked out by what he did not expect and doesn’t really understand yet – but in the end it’s Boyd who gives the best description of her state – “she’s not a blank slate, she’s a person”).
Topher raises the question that was already relevant in “Jane Doe” when he asks Boyd whether Echo trusts him because he’s “a swell guy” or because she was programmed to trust him. We saw Echo become self-aware and control her imprints, but to what extent are her emotions still bound to her programming, especially in her relationship to Ballard? Is this question even relevant (if we consider that everybody is conditioned to feel to a certain extent?) Echo argues that she is “her own person” and not Caroline, yet Caroline’s instinct to help others was the first thing that came to the surface in Echo’s individuation. Alpha inherited aspects of Karl William Kraft’s brutality (his first act was slashing Whiskey’s face in a similar fashion as Kraft’s victim), even though his first instinct after the composite event was to destroy who he used to be.
Alpha: “You know what’s not funny? It’s that she actually cares about these guys. You know what I mean. She loves. But they’re just using her. Not even every part of her, just the piece that serves them. They’re wasting her. So I will waste them.”
Alpha’s argument is that he is the only person who can truly love Echo. He created her, he thinks that they are the same, and he understands that Echo is more than just the sum of her parts. Of course his idea of her doesn’t correspond with the truth either, but it makes for an interesting turn that the villain and previous doll believes to be more authentically and truthfully in love (in a show in which the most authentic and “pure” feeling is the love between Sierra and Victor).
Another very comic villainy thing about Alpha is that he loves big scenes, great entrances and orchestrations. He arranges a tableau for Echo, who finds the person her imprint loves at the end of a path of rose petals, dead for quite some time now on a dinner table, he blows another man up on a roof, and while Adelle tries to fortify the Dollhouse, he is already inside (“tell me the truth: what do you think of the suit?”).

Adelle / Ballard
Victor as the psychologist: “No wonder you despise that girl, Echo, she gets to be the virgin and the whore and for both she’s celebrated.”
Adelle is still in the process of collecting herself in this episode, and she assumes that Ballard and Boyd betrayed her somehow, as she does not really have an explanation how Echo survived on the outside (“I will not be managed”). One of the first things Alpha does inside the Dollhouse is showing her pictures of Ballard and Echo – giving her the answer she didn’t get while keeping Echo confined. Adelle’s relationship with Echo is complicated: on the one hand, she is interested because Echo is something new, on the other hand she realizes that she might have the power to bring down the Dollhouse, and it’s a question of power to control her, while Adelle tries to figure out how to deal with Rossum. She willingly offers Echo to Alpha (“that’s not very chivalrous of you” / “I’ve moved beyond chivalry onto self-preservation.”) – but he has a different plan. First, he turns the Actives into zombies with a remote-assassin-mode – that is another piece of the puzzle of how the future of “Epitaph One” might come into existence. Then “Dollhouse” once again employs the idea of a red herring: it turns out that he wasn’t after Joel Miner, but after the man who Joel Miner accused of not being any different from himself back in “Man on the Street”, as obsessed with the idea of Caroline as he was with Echo’s imprint of his late wife. Turns out, after seeing the pictures of Echo and Ballard and the look on her face that he interprets as “true love”, Ballard is his true victim (“bait and switch”).
Paul: “What are you doing?”
Alpha: “What every great philosopher since time in memorial has attempted to do. To answer THE question. What is this thing called love, this funny thing called love, and who can solve it, etcetera. You, it’s different. And I want to crack open that head and see what’s inside.”
He puts Ballard on the chair to find out, in true Dollhouse fashion, what true love is (like I said about Bennett: There is no subtlety when you have technology that alters the brain). Then, after Paul is brain-dead (“when did you die?”), he imprints himself with Paul, and when Echo realizes what has happened, she can not bring herself to kill him, as he now contains fragments of the man she loves (and believes to be dead).

Random things:

Ballard criticizing Adelle for her decision to torture Echo in order to find out the limits of her powers: “so if she floats, she’s a witch?”. Humour, how…unexpected.

And then, shortly after, Boyd’s “man up”. Also much appreciated.

Topher calling Victor’s imprint “Dr Freudenstein” (also a nice tie-in to back when Dr Saunders hacked into his computer and played a clip from “Frankenstein’s Bride)

Adelle’s diabolic enjoyment of telling Ballard about the romantic engagement, knowing fully well that he wouldn’t like that idea (also “[Alpha’s] the only one out there with a knowledge of this place and an obsession with Echo” / “I thought this was you, Mr Ballard.”) – heh.

REAVERS!! (and Topher’s “did they eat my brains”) – the whole zombie thing was extremely well done, with visual quotes from the genre, especially when Adelle locks herself into her office and we see the dolls pressing against the semi-transparent glass.

“Huh, when did you die?” – very Firefly-moment (“The Train Job”)

The cover of Michael Stipe’s and Kristin Hersh’s “Your Ghost” by Greg Laswell is a beautiful choice for the final scene.

Is this how evil Alpha turns into the potential saviour “Epitaph One” alluded to? For a short moment, I also had this idea that when we saw the scenes between Ballard and Echo from “Epitaph One”, we were seeing them from Echo’s perspective, and she was actually with Alpha as Paul, not with the real Paul.

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