Sunday 24 October 2010

Dollhouse - I’m just the porch light, waiting for you.

Dollhouse: 1x12 Omega.

Throughout the first season of “Dollhouse”, I was waiting for its potential to be realized. I remember watching it for the first time, wondering where the show was going, desperately waiting for an episode that would give it some kind of direction. Prior to “Man on the Street”, I probably even considered giving up on it entirely, and the episodes right after didn’t exactly live up to my expectations (although I found them much more relevant watching them again after the second season).
The ending of “Briar Rose” changed everything, and I still remember the feeling I had after “Omega”: like something I had somehow put into a drawer of “interesting, but not fully realized” had punched me in the face, in a good way. It’s not even the grand finale in this episode that I find so stunning (strangely, I feel exactly the same way about the final scenes of “The Hollow Men” – the set-up feels way more interesting than the solution).

“He asked me if I always wanted to be a doctor.”

It is probably obvious from my re-caps that Claire / Whiskey is my favourite character in “Dollhouse”. She is the one who is as sentient of her existence as an Active as Echo is, but she is also the one who doesn’t get out – the tragic counterpart to Echo’s success in freeing herself. As the ruddy band of renegades makes its way towards safe haven, Whiskey guards the Dollhouse, finally dying in it after fulfilling her final purpose. The Topher-Claire thing starts right there, after Alpha managed to plant seeds of doubts about her identity in Claire’s head: After Topher asks, “Who could fathom the mind of a crazy person”, she responds “the one who made him crazy? Maybe?”
“Omega” is one of the few instances where the viewers knows more than one character. I even prefer the reveal that we get in the terrifying, “Natural Born Killers”esque flashback to Boyd being the Big Bad in “Getting Closer”. It can’t really be that big of a surprise, considering that Joss Whedon already cast Amy Acker as two completely different characters in “Angel” – we should expect her to be versatile enough to potentially be an Active. The scene still works if you go into it with the knowledge that the silhouette dancing in the background is going to be Whiskey, not Echo – in a character that is as different as possible to the quiet Doctor Saunders who doesn’t dare to leave the Dollhouse.
The thing about the characters of this show in the final episode (not counting “Epitaph One”, which wasn’t actually aired) is that we have a vague idea about what they stand for: Their convictions, their priorities, how they view the Dollhouse and what it does. We have absolutely no clue about their past, about where they come from. The “Dollhouse” is twelve episodes old and it could still go anywhere with its characters – and it is that kind of freedom that made the second season as surprising as it is. Usually, when characters float like this, with no real anchor that connects them to a certain past, they become weak, but in this case, it works to their advantage.
Victor: “It hurts.”
Claire: “I know it does. It won’t always.”
Victor: “I’m not my best anymore. I want to be my best.”
Claire: “Yes. I know you do.”
Victor: “How can I be my best now? Doctor Saunders? How can I be my best please?”
Claire: “You can’t, Victor. You can’t be your best. Your best is past. Your past you can’t even remember. You’re ugly now. You’re disgusting. All you can hope now is pity and for that, you’re gonna have to look somewhere else.”
Claire UNDERSTANDS Victor because this is what she went through, even though she might not remember it, but at the same time, she has no sympathy – she is not programmed to offer empty promises, and this is Claire in the process of realizing who she is. As she is treating Victor, her brain is trying to put together the pieces. This craving to be their best is an essential part of the programming of every Active – part of Claire’s denial of consolation is her disgust, or dislike, of things that are imperfect, including herself. This is what makes her one of the most intriguing and tragic characters Joss Whedon has ever created.
Topher: “Doctor Saunders?”
Claire/Whiskey: “I think you gave me more Computer skills than required by a medical doctor. It was very easy to hack your system. I’m curious…”
Topher: “About?”
Whiskey: “Well, I guess I understand why you wouldn’t want to waste an investment, and I suppose why hire a new physician, when you can just imprint the broken doll. But why did you decide it was so important for me to hate you? I think that’s strange.”
Topher: “You didn’t open it.”
Whiskey: “No.”
Topher: “Aren’t you curious to see who you really are?”
Whiskey: “I know who I am.”
Apart from the fact that FOX only gave Dollhouse two seasons, I think the loss of Amy Acker for a good part of the second season is probably one of the worst things that could happen to the show. She is LIKE Echo. She is an Active who so desperately clings to the idea that she has a right to exist, not as the person her body used to belong to, but as the person she has become. She is afraid of disappearing. Claire is doomed to become the ghost that haunts the Dollhouse, but before that, she is even more eager than Echo to assert her own identity. She does not want to die. At the end of the episode, she allows herself to be kind, giving Victor a lollipop, just as the original Doctor Saunders used to: This is her place now. She has a reason to exist, and the person that used to occupy her body before is irrelevant.

An unfortunate technological anomaly

It’s interesting to see Ballard in the position to dictate terms in this episode, after weeks of seeing him always a step behind the Dollhouse, and essentially hopelessly overpowered by its power and influence. After bringing Alpha into the Dollhouse, he actually finds himself in a position of relative power, and he uses it surprisingly well: First, he sends away the despised FBI agent who replaced him (played by the actor who must have at least five twins). Then he decides to help Adelle and Boyd in their search for Alpha and Echo – which negates the idea that the Dollhouse is the ultimate evil. On the other hand, “Dollhouse” works so hard at creating the idea that Ballard is morally corrupt for getting involved in something he morally despises that we completely overlook Boyd’s actions.
Ballard is also the one person who understands who Alpha once was: he discovers that the Dollhouse used to experiment on prisoners. It’s not just the sense of righteousness that prevails in an Active, even after wiping and imprinting: unfortunately, there are also some particular violent streaks that Topher’s magic chair can’t cure. Alpha’s existence is based on an accident, an unfortunate chain of events, but this is how identity is sometimes created: incidentally. Echo is a product of a very similar incident.

Welcome to your castle, my princess. Behold, your throne.  / Wait, what, it’s like a magic trick? We’re gonna make her disappear?

Even the most crazy and sociopathic creature that Joss ever created craves nothing more than an equal, a person who might understand him. Being one of a kind, unique, might make Alpha powerful and dangerous, but it also makes him the loneliest person on this planet. Remember: in the second season premiere, Claire plays clips of “Frankenstein’s bride” to Topher, arguing perhaps that not only Alpha craved to create a counterpart, but Topher himself also created her to even out his flaws.

Alpha has an argument for the destruction of Caroline: unlike Sierra, she actually signed a contract. She did give up her identity and “betray” Echo – and is no longer a person Echo can rely on, especially now that she is in the process of becoming her own, independent person (which is what a good part of the second season is going to be about). “She is responsible for all the terrible things you can’t remember”. This play well into the fact that the literal Caroline, the woman now occupying the body of the woman Alpha and “Crystal” took hostage, seems so naïve and helpless in comparison to the person Echo has become in the course of this season. We, the viewers, aren’t really supposed to like Caroline. She is imperfect and flawed, like human beings usually are.
Topher: “She will ascend, she will know, and then she will kill you.”
Caroline: “What? Why?”
Alpha: “Because… that’s what we need. A blood ritual. Yes, yes, we’ve got to have one of those. I mean, the Aztecs knew it. The pre-Hellenic Minoans knew it, for God’s sakes. From the moment man first clawed his way out of the primordial ooze and kicked off his fins, he’s understood that the gods require blood. New life from death. The ancients had it right. But the old gods are back. Alpha, meet Omega.”
Echo is not predictable. Adelle ends up underestimating her abilities, and so does Boyd, eventually. Alpha thinks that he is creating a counterpart, when in fact, the person emerging from the blood ritual, from the twisted version of the magic chair, is a perfect antagonist. Echo becomes conscious of all her imprints (everybody, apart from the original, is now living in her head), but that doesn’t make her a willing companion, because that part of her that wants to help, that has a very clear sense of right and wrong, that essential part she got from Caroline and perfected, is still present.
Echo: “Her is me. You made that very clear.”
Alpha: “No. Her is the old you, try and keep up.”
Echo: “I’m way ahead of you. You think we’re gods.”
Alpha: “We’re not just human anymore, we’re not multiple personalities, we’re many personalities.”
Echo: “We’re not gods.”
Alpha: “Fine. Übermensch. Nietzsche predicted our rise. Perfected, objective, something new.”
Echo: “Right, new superior people, with a little German thrown in. What could possibly go wrong? We’re not new. We’re not anything; we’re not anybody, because we’re everybody. I mean, I get it. I understand it. I’m experiencing, like, 38 of them right now. But I somehow understand that not one of them is me. I can slip into one, actually it slips into me. They had to make room for it. They hollowed me out. There is no me. I’m just a container.”
Caroline: “There is a you. She’s right here.”
Echo: “He may be crazy but he’s right. You walked away from me. You left me alone in that place. Why did you do that?”
Caroline: “It’s complicated.”
Echo: “Sweetheart, however complicated you thought our life was before…”
Caroline: “Who are you?”
Echo: “I’m Echo.”
Caroline: “And who is that?”
Echo: “She’s nobody. I’m just the porch light, waiting for you.”
Caroline: You have to put me back. You have to put me back in that wedge. You need to get Wendy back in her body.”
Echo: “Why do you have to go back in the wedge? Why don’t you come home?”
Caroline: “I did sign a contract.”
Echo: “I have 38 brains. Not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave, especially now that we have a black president.”
Caroline: “We have a black president? Okay. I am missing everything.”
This exchange is the central moment of “Omega”: Echo is unlike Alpha. She isn’t his Omega. But she is also very much unlike Caroline. Her sense of wrong and right is more accurately tuned. She understands the Dollhouse better than Caroline ever did, and she would never honour that contract Caroline signed. There is also an identity crisis in the realization that she is different from the person she emerged from: who is Echo, if she isn’t Caroline? Is she more than just a place holder, more than a hollowed-out human being waiting to be given a purpose by somebody else?

In the end, it is Ballard who “saves” Caroline. He catches the wedge on which her identity is stored. He finally, in a very twisted way, is the knight in shining armour, but the princess he does rescue from the castle isn’t Caroline, isn’t Echo: The woman leaving the Dollhouse is Madeleine.
Finally, The ghost that haunts is Caroline: It’s her name Echo whispers, after being wiped. It’s the name she should not know or remember, but does anyway.

Random notes:

About two minutes into enjoying the company of “Crystal”, Alpha is probably questioning his choice of imprint.

And yes, Fred is my favourite character in “Angel”. OF COURSE SHE IS.

I love how the client of the wacky serial killer fantasy just sits alone sobbing at the end. The real world, dude.

“When does the hankering for tasty brains kick in? These people are zombies.” Not yet, Caroline, not yet. But very soon, their full Reavery potential shall be realized.

Also, note that Alpha first saw her as Caroline, not as Echo.

Ballard: “So this is it. This is where you steal their souls.”
Topher: “Yeah. And then we put them in a glass jar with our fireflies. Why is there a tall, morally judgemental man in my imprint room beside him [Boyd]?`”


The fact that November and Sierra as bounty hunters ended up cut makes me infinitely sad. “If you’re done molesting the furniture, can we get these guys?” SPIN-OFF, ANYONE?

“Oh god, the wrongness of this is so large.” Or, as I would like to call it, reasons why viewers will always tend to prefer Echo over Caroline.

“Right. Why would I want to live in a luxurious spa-like environment when I could live with you.” File under: Accurate description of the Dollhouse. 

Echo touches Topher’s heart, literally: Topher, who is the Tinwood Man, in search for a heart. And he will, eventually, find it.

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