Monday 7 June 2010

Dollhouse - You always see what’s on it before.

Note: There are spoilers until the final episode of "Dollhouse" here.

Dollhouse:  1x:01 Ghost.

The clean slate.

One of the most remarkable things about “Dollhouse” is how quickly and subtly the basic premise of the show is explained. Like “Buffy”, exposition is essential for understanding the show, and rather than being thrown right into the events and finding out where we are step by step, “Ghost” explains the status quo of the dollhouse with a series of flashbacks that slowly reveal what this is all about. In “Buffy”, it only takes the introductory prologue to establish the initial premise (“In every generation, there is a Chosen One…”) – but then, seven seasons to destroy that premise entirely, to break the only rule, and it’s not until the last episode that the viewers figure out that this is where it’s all going to end up. In “Dollhouse”, the initial premise to be slowly and consistently broken apart is given by Adelle, in the opening sequence:
Adelle: “Nothing is what it appears to be.”
Caroline: “It seems pretty clear to me.”
Adelle: “Because you’re only seeing part of it. I’m talking about a clean slate.”
Caroline: “You ever tried and clean an actual slate? You always see what’s on it before.”

Caroline: “Actions have consequences.”
Adelle: “I’m sorry you don’t understand what I’m offering here. But what we do helps people. If you become a part of that it can help you.”
Caroline: “Right, you’re just looking out for me.”
Adelle: “Perhaps better than you have. We can take care of this mess. After your five year term you will be free.”
Caroline: “I don’t deserve this. I was just trying to make a difference, trying to take my place in the world, you know, like she always said, and now I’m…. I know. I know. Actions have consequences.”
Adelle: “What if they didn’t.”
It’s interesting to hear this dialogue in retrospect, after the last episode aired. Adelle’s true intentions were always something nobody was really sure of: but she has expressed her belief in “the good” of the Dollhouse from the beginning. The idea that “actions don’t have consequences” probably applies more to the clients than the dolls, since we know that many of the other Actives there were either volunteers (November, Victor) or forced into it against their will (Sierra). Adelle’s promise is empty, but she herself believes it, until that very idea facilitates the end of humanity in the second season. As we will see during the first season, “Dollhouse” takes so much time establishing that Caroline’s “you always see what’s on it before” is the most essential statement – the second season is an entirely different beast, a quick and tumbling descent into something far beyond the destruction of the idea that Topher’s magical chair creates a tabula rasa.
For now, we are stuck with Adelle’s version of the story. We’ll never know what the show would have been like if Joss had gotten exactly what he wanted, and for me, the awkward mixture of action and small, meaningful moments just simply did not work for a very long time (while “Man on the Street” was a brilliant episode, the turning point, for me, when I thought I caught a glimpse of what the show aspired to be, was “Epitaph One”)

Fairy tales.

There are many direct references to other stories in “Dollhouse”, “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Wizard of Oz” being the most obvious ones. The reference to fairy tales here seems much more significant in retrospect:
Guy: “Dude. Where’s your friend.”
Matt: “It was time for her to go. Had to get to her carriage before it turned into a pumpkin. Stroke of midnight.”
Guy: “Midnight?”
Matt: “End of the ball.”
Guy: “Dude, it’s like five.”
Topher and the chair are the witch who turn Echo into Cinderella, and by the stroke of midnight (“You’re ready for the treatment?”) she turns back into the plain girl. There is barely a better way to explain the idea of the Dollhouse to the viewers than by resorting to ancient fairy tales, because they are so deeply embedded into our cultural conscience (thank you, Walt Disney!). This is particularly interesting since “Dollhouse” completely demolishes the idea of the princess being rescued by a knight in white armour throughout the series (especially when the knight turns out to be Alpha, not Paul). What is the call-and-response of not a magical spell that alters reality?
Topher: “Hello Echo. How are you feeling?”
Echo: “Did I fall asleep?”
Topher: “For a little while.”
Echo: “Shall I go now?”
Topher: “If you like.”
There is this essential desire, every time, to figure out who the good and reliable characters are; and while  I firmly believe that Boyd wasn’t cast as the big bad from the beginning, it is still fascinating to see how consequently he was built up to be that guy, the one person who always questioned authority and this unquestioning belief in the power of technology. Of course, this process always paralleled Paul’s: he WANTED to save the princess, from the firs time he laid eyes on a picture of Caroline.
Topher: “There’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so, man friend. We gave two people a perfect weekend together. We’re great humanitarians.”
Boyd: “We’d spend our lives in jail if anyone ever found this place.”
Topher: “We are also misunderstood. Which great humanitarians often are. Look at Echo: Not a care in the world. She’s living the dream.”
Boyd: “Whose dream?”
Topher: “Who’s next?”
Echo turns out to be the Active who cares about everything and everyone. Boyd turns out to be the guy who cast Caroline to fulfil his biggest dream: having the ultimate cure once the apocalypse he’s caused happens. And Topher, who is only at the beginning here, who was so very much like the evil trio for the greatest part of season one and only became the anti-hero with the biggest journey of all by season two, is still searching for ways to justify what he is doing, even though he would like everybody to believe that he doesn’t care about the “why” and the “how could you”s.

The engagement.
Gabriel: “I don’t want Rambo, I want a negotiator. This goes like clockwork, that’s who I need. Clockwork.”
Adelle: “Well, our actives are not robots, but I think we can make this work for you.”
One of the biggest burdens “Dollhouse” had to bear was the idea that rich people would actually prefer to have an Active do things like “be a midwife” or “be a mother” or “be a hostage negotiator” instead of an actual professional. You can easily believe in the existence of a technology that imprints identities on Actives, but human nature remains the same, even in sci-fi. Echo as an asthmatic, myopic hostage negotiator sounds interesting in theory, but it’s an unlikely scenario (the idea that someone would hire an Active to feel truly loved, on the other hand, works completely).
Gabriel: “All these terrible memories these men put into your head. Why would they do that?”
What Topher considers building “a complete person” seems brutal to the client, who profits from this. Eleanor Penn/Echo thinks Gabriel is referring to the kidnapping she remembers from the childhood memories Topher imprinted; Gabriel questions Topher, who decided this was relevant for the engagement. There are other mix-ups here, where statements apply to more than one version of Echo: Eleanor says “You can’t fight a ghost” (this statement will return much later, in “The Attic”, and a version of Paul in Echo’s head will say it).


Echo walks around, into Topher’s lab, and sees through the screen the lightning of Priya’s first imprint.
Echo: “She’s not asleep!”
Topher: “Echo. What are you doing here?”
Echo: “She hurts.”
Topher: “She does. That’s because it’s her first time, and we have to do more extensive work on her.”
Echo: “Work?”
Topher: We’re making her better in a little while she’ll be strong and happy and she’ll forgot all about this and you will have a new friend living with you. Her name is Sierra.”
There are two remarkable things about this scene: one, Echo is already so much more than she was supposed to be. She notices things other Actives don’t. She cares when others suffer. Claire is watching the entire exchange, watching Topher, who she is supposed to antagonize, and, as we now know, being able to help Sierra (which is what he believes to be doing here) is going to become such an important part of his mind-set.

Paul and Boyd.

There is this odd race between Boyd and Paul until the end of “Getting Closer” in which the two fight about who is helping Echo/Caroline more effectively. Until the very end of that episode, I thought Boyd did a better job because he understood that Echo was more than Caroline, that she did not need to be saved, but to be given the resources to help herself. Paul, on the other hand, always seemed limited in his understanding of a situation.
Paul: “Nobody has everything they want. It’s a survival pattern. You get what you want, you want something else. If you have everything, you want something else, something more extreme, and something more specific, something perfect.”
Paul believes that the Dollhouse exists, despite all the resistance and ridicule he’s met with in his department, because he knows what money and power combined with technological capacity can do.

Boyd, on the other hand, is inside the Dollhouse, with all his moral reservations (let’s forget about what we know about Boyd  now for a second for the sake of the argument). He feels obligated to help Echo, not Caroline (we think because he never met Caroline, until we find out that Caroline is nothing but a vessel for his purposes and Echo is the person who proves her capabilities). He sees how she excels, how she defies all the expectations and performs far beyond her limitations. He understands that Eleanor Penn can help far beyond what was originally intended, and keeps Topher from wiping Echo so she can help (to Adelle: “I’ve been here long enough to know that you like to tell yourself what we do helps people. Let Echo help this girl.”). When Eleanor Penn wakes up once again she doesn’t ask “did I fall asleep”: She says “where are my glasses”. We see the Dollhouse and Adelle’s control over it falter, step by step, and this is only the beginning.


We never find out who Alpha killed in the last shot; who those dead bodies are; he is watching that video of Caroline, this tiny bit of her the viewer sees before the flashbacks: “I’d like to take my place in the world”. Alpha, like Caroline, haunts this show until he turns up in person. They are both myths and mysteries.

Random Notes:

Matt, the guy who ordered the engagement we see first, is the same poor dude Alpha blows up in “A Love Supreme” – which is neat, considering that Echo thought it was true love when she returned with Boyd.

I know, I reference “Skins” way too often, but it was hard to ignore the similarities between the dancing Echo does in the first engagement we see and Effy Stonem – but of course, is was more likely a reference to Faith.

I know, it’s not fairy tales as much as Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods”.

Topher: “Imprint’s gone. The new moon has made her a virgin again.” I KNOW IT’S A REFERENCE, PLEASE EXPLAIN.

Why oh why were there not more scenes between Claire and Echo?

Gabriel: "In my experience, a beautiful woman never puts anyone at their ease. Fatherly types do that, they're warm and comforting, make people feel safe. A beautiful woman distracts people, makes them nervous or jealous... I can't afford that, not with what's at stake here. I think our friend sent the wrong person."
Eleanor Penn: "Fatherly types."
Gabriel: "Like Edward James Olmos. Hope there's no offense."


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