Sunday 10 October 2010

Dollhouse - I remember everything about you.

Dollhous: 1x11 Briar Rose.

Fairy Tales

So much about the Dollhouse is a fairy tale. There is the promise itself: fall asleep for a couple of years, wake up new and free with all your burdens gone, a liberated person. There is Paul, quite literally trying to become the prince to liberate Caroline from her castle and her sleep. All the more fitting that the finale of the first season is a fairy tale with a twist at the end.

The fairy tale in “Briar Rose” is a story Echo reads to a group of children in the beginning, the story of the princess who fell asleep for a hundred years only to be woken up on the last day of the sleep by a prince. The engagement itself is unlikely – it’s a charitable cause (“Everybody wants to be righteous when they can afford it”), with Echo having an imprint of one traumatized little girl, an imprint that is the best case scenario for someone with that kind of terrible childhood. This is the first time that Ivy respects Topher, when she realizes how much thought he has put into this – and we realize, at the same time, that this is why Topher is working for the Dollhouse, even though he wouldn’t admit it, and he is crestfallen when his next job is to resurrect Dominic’s imprint.
Echo has the same memories Susan has – of abuse, of being trapped in an impossible situation – but the way she talks about not being able to escape is exactly how we would expect Echo to describe her situation. Echo made someone help too: she called Ballard, when he was almost willing to give up his search for her. Echo recruited her prince, but she doesn’t know yet that already recruited one earlier, on the very first day she entered the Dollhouse (still Caroline) when she wasn’t even conscious yet.  
Susan: “You can always run away.”
Echo: “Really? I couldn’t.”
Susan: “When did you wanna run away?”
Echo: “In the middle of the night. It always seemed like I could run away when it would get light. Sometimes I’d get dressed and lie there, waiting for the sun. But when it came up he’d be there, pretending things were normal, and it seemed so much better to just pretend, you know? It seemed like I’d imagined all the other stuff and I really wanted all of that something I had imagined, and I ended up feeling like I was just as guilty as he was, like it was a crime we were committing together, and every time someone calls me a victim, I feel like I’m the biggest liar in the world.”
Susan: “Four times I saw a way to go, and I didn’t go.”
Echo: “You couldn’t have gotten away. He was bigger and stronger and older. It’s okay. It’s okay to get rescued by someone else if you’re young, or small, or if you just can’t do it yourself. Hey, you know this story? Read it again, okay. But this time, think of yourself as the prince.”
Susan: “I didn’t save anyone.”
Echo: “Hey, remember what you said: “The Prince shows up at the last minute and takes all the credit.” That means Briar Rose was trapped all that time sleeping, and dreaming of getting out. The Prince was her dream. She made him. She made him fight to get her out.”
Susan: “But the Prince was a boy.”
Echo: “Yeah. But that’s not his fault.”

The knights in shining armour

Paul’s actions in this episode are particularly dislikeable, although he somewhat redeems himself in the next one. He breaks up with Mellie, expecting that this will eventually lead him to the Dollhouse. It’s hard to tell whether he realizes the impact this has on Mellie, whose entire existence is based on him – it isn’t in her programming to ever get over him, and she is considering suicide before her handler picks her up.
Paul ends up seeing the Dollhouse from the outside; where it is only an inconspicuous office building, and he realizes that it really must be underground. The way he talks about Mellie after deciding that she is only useful for finding the Dollhouse reveals one of his biggest flaws:
Loomis: “Your neighbour? The one with the fingerprints? You’re certain now that she is…”
Ballard: “A doll.”
Loomis: “Well, I was gonna say a victim.”
Mellie is now nothing but a doll, a tool he uses to his advantage (and he also feels used by her, even though it isn’t her fault). Caroline remains the princess that must be saved. Paul isn’t really trying to “Free the dolls”, he is trying to rescue the one person whose face has been stuck in his head ever he first saw a picture of her. Later, Stephen/Alpha even asks him if he is going to save Mellie, and Paul responds: “No. She told me herself she can’t be trusted. She warned me. After I get Caroline out I can come back.”

Of course it must have been a deliberate choice to cast the one person in the role of Alpha that a good part of the “Dollhouse”-viewers still sees as the loving, quirky, nerdy, “semi-muscular” and incredibly brave Wash from “Firefly”. Paul’s first encounter with Stephen Kepler, the environmental designer who created the closed systems that make the Dollhouse independent from the outside world, plays into our expectations: he is a neurotic shut-in, afraid of the terrible world outside, experimenting with his own urine.
Stephen is the ridiculous part of the buddy-cop-movie vehicle. He is the angsty guy afraid of guns, unwilling to go down the rabbit hole (literally, the only way into the Dollhouse is a hole in the ground) with Paul, so that we perceive it as the Prince entering along with his sidekick rather than two potential knights in shiny armour with entirely different motives for their actions. They enter just as Echo wakes up in her pod, and it is hard to deny that the t-shirt they steal from an Active fits him a little bit too well.
Ballard: “This is a bad place.”
Stephen: “Bad people maybe, good place. This is the future. The machine feeds them what they need; the machine takes away what it needs. It is a closed system, the earth is not harmed. We are all cells in a body.”
Ballard: “Cells in a body? That’s the future. We’re all functional, interchangeable.”
Stephen: “We already are, man. What, you didn’t know that? I was trying to tell you. We’re all just atoms in the big continuous universe and the best... the best we can do is try not to kill it from the inside.”
Ballard: “No, there’s more we can do.”
The scene in which Ballard first finds Caroline, the sleeping beauty, in her pod, plays out just like the fairy tale. He says “Caroline”, she abidingly opens her eyes although she shouldn’t respond to that name. But then, the other man in her life, the one she trusts more than anybody else (and, as we’ve seen before, it is more than just programming, their connection has evolved), breaks the spell: “Sorry, Agent Ballard. You don’t get the girl.”

Stephen, meanwhile, follows his own agenda, avoiding to be seen by those who might recognize his true identity, until finally, we see who he is on Claire Saunders’ face, right before he slashes up Victor’s. His interrogation of her is cruel, as if he is trying to find traces of her sentience and finds it utterly amusing when he doesn’t.
Alpha: “Have you always wanted to be a doctor? It’s a simple question. Answer now.”
Claire: “Yes.”
Alpha: “That’s a lie. Let’s try another. Tell me about the first time we met.”
Claire: “You were new. You signed the agreement and they just… you’d just been wiped for the first time. Your handler brought you in for an exam.”
Alpha: “And, did you examine me? My whole body?”
Claire: “Yes.”
Alpha: “And was I fine, healthy, intact?”
Claire: “Yes.”
Alpha: “This is so interesting. I wish we had more time.”
Claire: “We don’t have time?”
Adelle’s first confrontation with Paul is equally stunning: She laughs at his sense of righteousness, at his naivety.
Adelle: “Did you really think you could just walk into the Dollhouse, when everyone knows it doesn’t exist? “
Ballard: There is no provision for consensual slavery. It is wrong. You know it’s wrong. You feel it in your bones. What you did to Caroline is wrong.”
Adelle: “You know so many things but their names. […] Alpha isn’t in Tucson…”
My prince
Alpha: “Echo.”
Echo: “Oh. I know you. I remember something about you.”
Alpha: “I remember everything about you.”
And then Alpha puts Echo into the chair and imprints her.
Echo: “Oh, I know you!”
Alpha: “Of course you do.”
Echo: “My prince!”
And thusly, the knight saves the princess from her sleep and triumphantly walks out of the castle with her.

Random thoughts:

The fade-over when Ballard first sees the building under which the Dollhouse lies, to the castle in the book of fairy tales, is brilliant.

When Susan “fixes” the tales, it always reminds me of River fixing the bible. “Noah’s Ark is a problem. We'll have to call it early quantum state phenomenon.”

Within one episode, the whole idea of putting the identity of an existing person into the body of an Active turns from an entertaining murder-mystery into a horror-movie scenario. This is also the first time that we see how perfect Enver Gjokaj is when he is playing someone else’s character (the moment when Dominic cries out for “Whiskey”, and Claire interprets it as a plight for something to help him deal, is still one of my favourites in this episode).

“Medicinal carrots.”
“Earth is gonna have a people day”

Alan Tudyk doesn’t look “semi”-muscular to me.

After Boyd stops Ballard, the only line in my recap is “And then they commence their manly fighting”.

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