Sunday 12 September 2010

Dollhouse – Freedom has to be earned.

Dollhouse: 1x08 Needs.

“Echoes” and “Needs” could almost be the first two-parter of “Dollhouse”. This episode does not resolve any of the new conflicts from “Echoes”, but it builds on them. It also follows the strategy to break the usual format – last episode, we saw the Actives (and the non-Actives) under the influence of a drug that worked differently on both of them, reactivating memories in the Actives, removing inhibitions from those without the Architecture. This episode, we see who Echo, Victor, November and Sierra were before, but without their memories. It’s an interesting experience, especially with November and Sierra: we haven’t really seen them yet, and the person November becomes is so incredibly different from the lovely Mellie. It’s hard to admit that the Actives are easier to like than the real people they used to be, but maybe that’s also one of the points “Dollhouse” makes: human beings with all their contradictions and flaws are more difficult to like than programmed Actives.
After “Needs” aired there was a very vivid discussion of whether “Dollhouse” was making it too easy for the viewers, making things explicit that an active and engaged viewer could also understand without being told. Paul’s dream ties in perfectly with what Joel told him in “Man on the Street” and what Mellie accused him of before leaving: he is obsessed with someone who might not even exist. He dreams about Caroline coming to his door and seducing him (“I’m not a client. I don’t need that.”), giving him permission by saying the magic words (“Save me Paul”). In the back of his mind, the story about the brave knight who ends up getting the girl because he haves her, is true, and he feels guilty about it (on cue, Mellie comes in, and in the end, he can’t save either of them).

“This house is out of balance.”

This is the first time that Adelle addresses the recent problems to the staff of the Dollhouse, and the following discussion reveals how each of the main characters that aren’t Actives (and one who is one, but we don’t know that yet) feel about the people they are responsible for. Adelle must think about the bigger picture, of course. I had a very hard time rooting for Mr Dominic in “The Attic” after this episode:
Dominic: “It’s easy to become to your assigned Active, in fact it’s necessary. Don’t think of them as children, think of them as pets.”
Claire: “Is that supposed to be funny?”
Dominic: “If your child starts talking for the first time, you feel proud. If your dog does, you freak the hell out. Any developmental progress any Active makes is dangerous to the house, and a possible first step towards the next Alpha.”
We perceive that there is an essential divide between two different approaches here, and Dominic and Topher are one side, while Boyd and Claire are on the other. Boyd (still first season Boyd, not yet meant to be the Big Bad) thinks only of Echo and her well-being, and Adelle’s response to his doubts is “In here we protect the house. A tide is rising, and until we learn how to turn it back we pile up the sandbags together.” Topher wants to meddle to fix things, and Claire reminds him that he might be over-estimating his own abilities again.
Topher: “I know what I’m doing, Doc.”
Claire: “So do I. You should also care what you’re doing to our pets.”
Claire Saunders was created for this argument, but at this point, it worked to showcase how uncaring Topher is (and we’ve seen him fail before, we’ve seen what happens when he overestimates what he can actually do).

The first sentence each of the Actives speak after waking up with their personalities in place, but their memories still gone, is about the one thing that they can’t get over. Some things persist and cannot be erased. Anthony knows that he remembers Priya, but not how and why. Caroline says “I think I have to get to the mountains. Everything’s okay there.” – and it is only later that she realizes that saving others is more important to her than to be safe. Madeline says “I lost something. Maybe it’s here somewhere.” (the tragic thing being that the only thing that is still retrievable is the memory, which is indeed here, somewhere, stored on a wedge). We understand everything through our particular frame of reference, and now we are trying to reconstruct who they were before. Anthony was a soldier. Caroline used to think of others. Madeline is the one person in the group who asked to become an Active – and she says “Maybe something bad happened to us and they’re helping us heal”.

Caroline is the only one taken to Claire (“I’m not your friend in here, Echo. I’m sorry, I can’t help you”) – and her reaction to her is incredibly foreshadowing (“I think she’s a prisoner. Like us.”).

In retrospect, the most interesting fact about the episode is that it really doesn’t resolve anything. It is supposed to bring closure, but in fact, “Dollhouse” returns to all of these issues later. Anthony and Priya do confront Nolan, but she later has to return to her promise that she will be back and really punish him. Madeline finds her daughter’s grave and grieves, but when we see her after her contract runs out, she clearly hasn’t moved on, and is still an incredibly sad and depressed character (possibly the most tragic one in the show). Anthony is still eternally in love with Priya (or rather, Victor is still in love with Sierra, and this gets complicated once they become Anthony and Priya again). Caroline’s decision to stay behind as the others are leaving the Dollhouse (“trying to make a difference”) is also the one thing Adelle did not see coming: As she watches everybody leave, she assumes Caroline is gone too, and is thoroughly surprised when she manages to turn off the power and attempts to free everybody.
Adelle: “I should have seen this coming. This is Caroline minus the memories, but it’s her, and it’s exactly what Caroline would do.”
It’s an empty promise again, the grand gesture: Walking outside, into the light, with the Actives that she thinks she is freeing around her – and just like that, it ends, and she falls asleep. It’s a powerful image, just as the idea of freeing Caroline is an incredibly powerful fantasy for Ballard. The ending of “Epitaph Two” references this scene, with the difference that the world outside that Adelle leads the Actives to is a former battlefield, the remains of civilization after the apocalypse.

“Dollhouse” is about information: interpreting it, removing it, withholding it, and how memories or the lack of it shape an identity. The viewer is also a part of this: sometimes, the show decides to withhold necessary information from us. It’s a basic instrument for good storytelling, the idea that the narrator is not necessarily reliable. The exact same mechanism of only showing one part of a conversation and leaving out the necessary ending that changes the meaning of everything we’ve seen is later used in “The Attic”. We see the Actives wake up and think it is some kind of flaw in the system that returned them to their original state, and just as we think that they might go free, that they might be able to save themselves, we see that Adelle and Dominic are always watching, that they are expecting every little step on the way (“Right on schedule.”).

The devil that you know is better than the one you don’t.
Adelle: “…unless anyone here thinks they’ve got a better idea.”
Claire: “We give them what they need.”
Adelle: “Doctor Saunders?”
Claire: “Closure. If Actives have particularly poignant or reoccurring experiences, these can cause desires, emotional needs or reactivate old ones that existed before they came here. Open loops. If they’re able to close these loops to get some sense of resolve. Let the tide come in. It’s the only way to wash it back out.”
It’s also in Claire’s programming to fear the world outside, to fear the chaos and potential dangers, because without these phobias, she would not stay in the Dollhouse. Claire feels responsible for all the Actives, and she can not imagine that they would be safe with the freedom that Caroline believes she gives them.
Boyd: “When Echo was leading them out, I would like to have seen that. Even if it was all a game. Your game.”
Claire: “Do you think I had fun?”
Boyd: “I don’t know you very well.”
Claire: “You have to look after Echo, I have to look after all of them. She wasn’t leading them to freedom, she was leading them to a world of terror and chaos that would have destroyed them.”
Boyd: “She isn’t leading them anywhere anymore.”
Claire: “You should be grateful.”
Boyd: “Yeah. I’ll work on that.”

Random notes:

I once had the idea of comparing “La Femme Nikita” (the tv show, not the film by Luc Besson) with “Dollhouse” but failed because it’s such a long series that had a lot of ideas, but never really elaborated on them (in a way, it’s the opposite of the rushed and incredibly condensed ending that is the second part of the second season) – but it really took me eight episodes to realize that Adelle’s office is overlooking the Dollhouse in exactly the same way Operations and Madeline were always watching Section, behind a glass window and above everybody else.

Active Mike = The Red Shirt of the Dollhouse.

Active: “I like pancakes.”
Anthony: “We’re all gonna die.”

In the very end, Ballard listens to a message Caroline must have left him while she was rogue, in which she tells him that they are “underground” – the necessary piece of information he needs to find the man who designed the Dollhouse.

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