Sunday 4 July 2010

Dollhouse - Special isn’t always a good thing here.

Dollhouse: 1x04 Stage Fright.

“Stage Fright” is the “Beer Bad” of “Dollhouse”. Barely anybody calls this episode their favourite one, and there is so much in it that doesn’t work (like, for example, the initial premise that a bodyguard who “instinctually” protects is better than a normal one, which is a very lame excuse to make Eliza sing… but I do concur that the appearance of a demon might have been even more unlikely in the “Dollhouse”-universe, so whatever). “Stage Fright” kind of works in the greater context of the entire show, so maybe all the little flaws are necessary. There is a subtle and well-exercised theme in the episode: that Rayna, the pop singer, is like Echo. People project their own ideas and dreams on her, and she feels trapped in the world this creates. The question is what happens to personal freedom and free will if someone is always in the spotlight, always watched (Claire tells Boyd, as they are trying to have a private conversation in the Dollhouse: “Someone else is watching”, and Boyd replies, “Someone always is”. That’s exactly how Rayna feels). In the beginning of the episode, she literally emerges from a large cage to give her performance (not soon after, one of her background dancers catches fire).
The second, more relevant thread: Echo isn’t just discovering herself in the Dollhouse, she doesn’t just retain fragments of her imprinted personalities but also discovers the tightly controlled world that surrounds her in a fashion that should not be possible for a “wiped” Active.
Echo: “I didn’t want you to get hurt. You’re my friend.”
Sierra: “Friends help each other out?”
Echo: “Yes. They do.”
Later in the series we see that this desire to help and save is something Echo got from ghost Caroline, and eventually perfected much more than the flawed Caroline ever could.
Rayna’s death wish is a misguided attempt to regain control and independence in a life that is mostly controlled by others (“I’m not crazy / I just want to be free”). When Jordan/Echo finds and reads some of her fan mail, she says “these people think they actually have a relationship with you” – paralleling the relationship clients have with the Actives when they book them for an engagement.

Echo/Jordan: “What misery? What have you got to be miserable about?”
Rayna: “No. Right, uh… I got to be happy. I got to be grateful. I got to be rebellious—but just enough to give me cred, so people know I’m not a factory girl. But I am. I don’t exist. I’m not a real person. I’m everybody’s fantasy. And God help me if I try not to be. No, you weren’t grown in the lab, but I was. Been singing for my supper since when and before when and for everybody else! God put this voice in me and forgot to make it mine. I don’t feel it. I don’t feel anything. For a long while. But I know he’s out there, the reaper, and any minute now, Boom, freedom. There’s your rush. There’s your joy. I can hear. I can hear myself.”
Echo/Jordan: “I think you hear yourself just fine. Maybe you want to listen to somebody else, like, say, ever. You don’t like your life, change it.”
Rayna: “They won’t let me!”
Echo/Jordan: “You make them let you. You’re feeling pain, but all you’re doing is spreading it around. God, the last thing I ever thought you’d turn out to be was weak.”

The question is how much freedom and control over their own life people have who are faced with so many expectations. Echo is the extreme case of someone created to do nothing but reflect other people’s expectations; the twist in the scene is, naturally, that Rayna and Jordan both don’t know (that she was, literally, grown in a lab). There is the imprinted instinct to help Rayna any way Jordan can, but there is also the essential character trait Echo has, which is to help people who are in need. Once again, she goes far beyond the parameters of her programming, realizing that saving Rayna’s life isn’t the same as saving Rayna, and there is the conflicting need to help Sierra (who for some entirely inexplicable reason was sent in as back-up, yet lacks any powers to work as such), who was kidnapped by the crazy fan. She has conflicting allegiances: there’s Jordan/Rayna, but there is also Echo/Sierra.
Echo/Jordan: “Getting what you want may not be the best thing for a person. […] I have to help her.”
She fulfils everything that was expected of her, but as Dominic will say later: you’re just worried when your dog starts to speak. She saves Sierra and “cures” Rayna of her death wish, which is much more than just protecting her from a crazy stalker. The following dialogue between Adelle and Dominic is well in character, and Adelle’s infatuation with Echo will continue until the end of the show – she is, under the surface of the harsh business woman, a scientist and curious about Echo’s potential, while Dominic only sees her as a security risk.
Dominic: “She’s a risk. An increasing risk.”
Adelle: “She had control over the situation.”
Dominic: “But we can’t control her. I’m recommending that we send Echo to the Attic. Before someone else ends up dead, or worse, she compromises this organization.”
Adelle: “I believe she acted in our best interest.”
Dominic: “She went off mission.”
Adelle: “In fact, I believe she did quite the opposite. She stopped the person who wanted Rayna dead. It just happened to be Rayna herself, and by quite literally dangling the threat of death in front of her, she prevented Rayna from ever being a danger to herself in the future. Echo took the mission parameter…”
This is one of the first times that it really becomes clear how deep the trenches within the hierarchy of the dollhouse are; and that there is a divided interest, a no consensus at all between everybody who isn’t an Active. Dominic and Adelle, we assume at this point, constitute the team that will protect the Dollhouse at all cost, although they have a different idea about what “protecting” means. Boyd and Claire, on the other hand…
Boyd: “And did even better. She seems to have the ability to think outside of the pieces that we give her and then create…”
Claire: “Create a new approach to the problem.”
Boyd: “It’s impressive. I don’t know what it means, but it’s impressive. She really is special.”
Claire: “Special isn’t always a good thing here, Boyd.”
Boyd: “DeWitt’s a businesswoman. Is she really going to harm her best Active?”
Claire: “Echo wasn’t always the best.”
Boyd: “You’re talking about Alpha.”
Claire: “I’m just saying, sometimes the best thing to hope for is good enough.”
Apart from the incredible foreshadowing to “Omega” (because WHISKEY used to be the best, this wasn’t a reference to Alpha at all, even though Claire doesn’t know it herself), this is also significant because this is exactly how these characters are going to develop this season. Boyd sees the potential in Echo the same way Adelle does, but he sees it as a revolutionary potential, not as something that helps to keep the status quo. Claire is cautious because she understands that the Dollhouse is a machinery and that you don’t win against it, so sometimes you have to act against the interest of the people the Actives were before to protect them.

The last moment is Echo’s. She realizes that she isn’t supposed to be friends with Sierra, and to protect her, she signals “no” when she tries to come over.

Paul: “The technology exists.”
Lubov: “It… somebody made a monkey tango, right? It doesn’t mean it’s being used on people.”
Paul: “It does. It means that.”
Lubov: “How do you know?”
Paul: “We split the atom, we make a bomb. We come up with anything new, the first thing we do is destroy, manipulate, control. It’s human nature.”
Lubov: “Yeah, people are mostly crap. I don’t think there’s a Dollhouse. I hear different, I’ll get word.”
It was so hard to dismiss Paul (I did until the Boyd-reveal), but of course here he presents the central idea of Dollhouse: something that can be thought can’t be unthought (thunk?). I always thought that Vincenzo Natali’s “Cube” was a smart movie because it did not present a way out: the cube exists because it CAN exist. And since it exists, it must be used, because it’s human nature to try and experiment.

Random notes:

The scene in which Mellie literally catches Lubov trying to break into Paul’s apartment makes much more sense knowing that she was programmed for this and that her entire existence is about Paul. When Paul is not there, she is waiting for him to return. There is nothing else to do.

Every single time I watch an episode, there is this moment that takes me completely by surprise, and I remember that in-between all the complications, the philosophy, the flawed humanity, there is a lightness that would be unimaginable if anybody else had worked with the same material. There is no Scooby gang, and that took some time getting used to, but this is still so essentially Whedon…

Topher: “Boyd? What you guys buddies now? Oh god. Of course you are. You both disapprove of everything. You’re gonna get married and have scowly babies.”

Was the Victor-Lubov reveal a great deal when it happened because it introduced the idea that any number of people we’d already met might be dolls (or, as I felt back in February 2009, ONE OF THE FINAL FIVE!!!)? I think I completely missed it the first time around because it took me forever to pay enough attention to the show to catch it.

Oh, right, Paul gets shot.

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