Thursday 17 December 2009

Dollhouse – I’ve been saving this body for her / I rule this house

Dollhouse: 2x07 Meet Jane Doe.

Echo / Jane Doe

In the last episode, Bennett, unable to make the distinction between Echo and Caroline, said about her: “Caroline has a power over people”. While Bennett is indeed unstable and not very trustworthy, she still has a point here: As the episode goes on, we find out that Echo’s alliances are stronger than those of the far more obviously powerful Adelle. When we see her outside, right after we are shown the massive effort Adelle and the Dollhouse are putting into finding her (what makes Echo more special than Whiskey? Where is Whiskey?), she is living off dumpsters, trying to find out how to live outside with the limited amount of information she has as Echo. When she is cornered in an ally after stealing food from a supermarket and sharing it with a Spanish speaking immigrant (“Where do I get [money])” / “Well here it grows on trees.” / “Where is that tree?”), the necessary imprints once again provide the skills she needs to escape.

Babysteps towards the apocalypse / taking a leap

The idea that we would see small hints on what exactly brought about the end of human civilization in “Epitaph One” worked very well over the past episodes; but in “Meet Jane Doe”, “Dollhouse takes a leap into the future that comes as a huge surprise. Instead of continuing to see how everything slowly crumbles, how all the small pieces of the puzzle come together (the ambition, the power, the tech, the irresponsibility), we see Echo and the Dollhouse three months into the future, and everything has changed.
Echo is meanwhile working as a nurse in a hospital, and slowly learning to take the necessary elements from her past imprints that she needs to survive. As we saw in “Epitaph One”, this comes at a price: excruciating headaches.
When we see her get attacked by Ballard in her apartment, our first instinct is to assume that he is trying to bring her back to the Dollhouse – but in fact, the two are training to bring down the Dollhouse, and the first exercise to prove that she is ready is getting the Spanish speaking woman out of prison (that Echo landed in prison, although that doesn’t seem a source of contentment between the two). The story surrounding Echo takes a very long time compared to the massive plot advancements back at the Dollhouse itself and is meant to show us how difficult it is for her to control her “powers” – and to shed some light on the relationship between her and Ballard. Echo thinks she is in love, but the question is whether someone who has been programmed to trust him with her life can actually have authentic feelings, can entangle the programming from the “real” thing – and also, whether that distinction actually matters. An even more difficult question is whether Ballard has finally realized what he is actually doing her. He is still obsessed with the idea of saving Caroline, not Echo (that makes him the exact opposite of Boyd, who has no interest in Caroline). In her discussion of why Echo is able to control her imprints now, and not when Alpha imprinted her, Ballard reveals that he still doesn’t understand:
Echo: “I think it was because of Bennett.”
Paul : “The DC programmer.”
Echo: “She showed me something Alpha didn’t: Caroline.”
Paul: “You said Bennett gave you her own memory…”
Echo: “Of Caroline. And it wasn’t… I didn’t like it.”
Paul: “Well that’s Bennett’s perception. And she doesn’t sound remarkably stable.”
Echo: “But the idea that Caroline might not be … I’ve been saving this body for her. But I’m not her.”
Paul: “You don’t know that. You’ve resisted the wipes from the start. […]”
Echo: “I’m not HER! My name is Echo.”
Echo already mentioned that she was afraid to “go asleep” and become Caroline to Daniel Perrin – we saw the same reaction in Whiskey, who didn’t even want to know who she was before, and immediately felt an intense instinct for self-preservation when she figured out that she was a doll. Echo’s case is even more complicated because she actually had a chance to “meet” Caroline in “Omega” – and confront her with the decision to become a part of the Dollhouse (“not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave”). Echo is starting to think that maybe Caroline doesn’t “deserve” her body back – and over the course of the past episodes, and with the little bits and pieces we saw of Caroline so far, the viewer might concur. But Paul is still trying to save the girl on the photograph, not Echo, although he had the exact opposite reaction when he saw Madeline (not realizing that she wasn’t Mellie).
The person who does understand this about Echo is Boyd, and he is the one “walking in” on them just as they are about to bound (playing into the impression that Boyd is the reliable father figure, while Ballard is more of a brave but reckless boyfriend).
Boyd. “Hello Echo, are you ready to come home?”
Echo: “I try to be my best.”

When I called Adelle’s behaviour towards Harding “docile” last episode, I thought I’d feel bad about that – if there is one thing Adelle never is, it’s helpless and submissive. But three months into the future, after she unsuccessfully tried to find Echo, everything has changed: Harding is now in her office, she is serving tea for his guests, and while Topher enjoys the increased resources, Adelle silently boils in her anger and helplessness over the situation. As one might suspect from the little we actually know about her, she is most dangerous when cornered.
Boyd: “Another engagement from upstairs.”
Adelle: “This client seems to quite enjoy pain. Or should I say, derives pleasure from afflicting it.
Boyd: “You don’t approve?”
Adelle: “I don’t have to. It’s already in the pipeline. IT feels like ages ago that we actually weighed a request against an Active’s chance of survival, let alone well-being.”
Boyd: “We’ve always put them at risk; we just don’t lie to ourselves about it now.”
Adelle: “You sound like Harding.”
Boyd: “I can never say if you’re a bit out of fact because you’re no longer in control of the welfare of our actives or because you are no longer in control.”
That’s the same question the viewers are asking themselves: on the one hand, we see the brutality with which Harding runs the Dollhouse. He promises a good part of the LA Dollhouse’s Actives to a new house in Dubai, he has no concern about the safety of the Actives, but at the same time, he has also taken everything from Adelle that she values so much: she is cut out of the loop, doesn’t know what’s going on, has lost her shiny office, and her only job is to serve tea and chase Echo (“Don’t you have to chase a ghost”, says Harding as she is trying to find out what Topher is working on).

Topher – Anything in the name of progress

Topher’s return from the DC Dollhouse has left him somewhat scarred – he still has a crush on Bennett, but also promises to “never trust a woman again”. Three months later, Ivy has his job in programming and he is running the Research and Development department of the Dollhouse, with increased resources and the help of Victor and Sierra, who he has programmed “to brainstorm”.
We find out what Harding has him working on: A remote wipe that can also program dolls without having to use the chair (Kilo, once again is the guinea pig for his little experiment, and Maurissa Tancharoen clearly enjoys her lines. “I ain’t got time for no nerd convention” – before being wiped into doll niceness)
Topher: “A perfect doll state. No call-and-response needed. Just an easy, herdable Actives ready to head home”.
In many ways, we feel that he only realizes who he’s been working for in this past weeks when Harding notices that Victor and Sierra “have been grouping”, and tells Topher that the easiest solution for that common problem is putting them into different houses. In “Belonging”, Topher showed that he understood the relationship between the two, and probably even envied how “pure” it was, and he clearly has a soft spot for Sierra, so the proposal of causing either of them that much pain appals him – not morally, but emotionally.
This new insight leads him directly to trusting Adelle, although he started this episode swearing he’d never do that again. He reveals that he has much more insight into Harding’s plans than anybody else in the Dollhouse:
Topher: “Each working on their own small specific relatively harmless technology. So I got to thinking.”
Adelle: “It’s a component. It’s a piece of a larger whole.”
Topher: “The next question is…”
Adelle: “Whole what?”
Topher: “I think they’re trying to build a portable device that will be able to imprint anyone. Without any active architecture implants. Any innocent on the street with a new personality.”
Adelle: “That’s unnerving.”
Topher: “Oh. What’s unnerving is I figured out how to do it.”
This ties back in directly to the Topher in “Epitaph One”, who realized that he was the one who caused all this: “Oh god, did I think of that? I know what I know, I know what I know”. He is hiding the device from Harding, but his curiosity has still led him to building it.
Adelle must understand the consequences when she decides to use Topher’s plans to get back power over “her” Dollhouse: maybe she believes that in the end, it doesn’t make a difference, because with the resources Rossum has, they would just find somebody else to build the device? Maybe she believes that Rossum would ultimately get what they want, even if it takes a little bit more time this way, and it is better to be in a position of power when the moment comes that to be the person who delivers tea.
Adelle: “I accept the situation. I did believe that the power we have could be used to help people.”
Harding: “It can, and it is, Adelle.”
Adelle: “But in the end power is always used to get more power. And if Rossum has this much I have little interest in being in the other team.”
Harding: “I have to ask, did you ever consider just imprinting a doll to kill me?”
Adelle: “I’d like to think I would have the courage to do it myself.”
Harding: “Ever the idealist.”
 In “Epitaph One”, she obviously considers what she has done here an unforgivable mistake and miscalculation. It’s amazing how much her body language changes the minute Harding reinstates her: she immediately consolidates her power, forbidding him to smoke in her office (“there is no smoking in my office” – she is the one making the rules again).
When Topher confronts her (“You gave Rossum the deadliest Tech I have ever heard of”), she returns to an argument she made in “Belonging”: Topher is a boy playing with his toys, not realizing the consequences of his actions, and he designed the ultimate weapon because he could, out of curiosity, out of fascination.
Topher: “You are the coldest bitch on this planet”

She hits him

Adelle: “That is the last time you will ever speak to me like that. Or at all unless you’re spoken to. You are off R&D and back on programming. You will imprint these Dolls with dedication and precision. And you will follow every single one of my commands as if they were your heart’s most deep desires.”
Topher: “What happens if I don’t.”
Adelle: “I would hope as someone who does care for you that you will never find that out. I rule the house. I won’t let anyone challenge that. Not ever again.”
Ballard, Boyd and Echo walk back into the Dollhouse right after Adelle has returned to her old self, and she does realize that something is wrong, that someone betrayed her. She decides to place Echo in isolation instead of imprinting her, to study her like a science project.
Adelle: “Come on. We all know Echo is special. Let’s see what she’s capable of. It’s good to have you back, love.”
And that must have been one of the creepiest moments in “Dollhouse”, ever.

Random notes:

The sweaty training scenes with the sexual connotation were very “Buffy” Season Two, and a good chance for extended shots of Paul Ballard shirtless, which I’ve heard some people enjoyed. It also reminded me of the audio commentary for “Serenity”, were Joss was deeply sorry that he only showed Nathan Fillion “from the clavicles up”.

Olivia Williams was brilliant this episode: She doesn’t often get to put on a great show like Enver Gjokaj does, but her subtle anger, the tension in her body as she walked around in the Dollhouse that was no longer hers – and my favourite moment, when she walked into the meeting with the Dubai Dollhouse staff she wasn’t invited into and actually composed herself in front of the office, so she could walk into the cigar-smoke filled room (consequently it was only men in there) with a cold smile on her lips – and then the small explosion in the elevator (“feel free you use my elevator”), when she actually punched the door in frustration. Perfect and brilliant.

When a client remarks that Adelle is “quite a beauty herself”, Harding answers “in her day”. I wonder if we will see him die before the end of the show?

When Boyd said: “The Adelle that I knew would never ask me that question” (how to take the Dollhouse back), he probably didn’t realize what he was doing. “Die Geister, die ich rief”, etc.

The idea of easy and herdable Actives will brutally turn on Topher next episode.

When we found out that Topher did indeed create the tech that would bring about the end of human civilization, but tried to keep it a secret, I thought: "well, but something that is known can not be unknown", and it is in the nature of information to get out. But then I remembered that I just thought that about a show that is basically about writing information into the human brain, then deleting it, ideally without leaving traces. And then I realized that it is really a show about how that "not leaving traces" part is impossible (once again: the impossible Tabula Rasa). So it all makes sense, right?

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