Friday 22 January 2010

Dollhouse - You want to be destroyed, or the destroyers?

Dollhouse: 2x12 The Hollow Men.

Before I start with „The Hollow Men“, two things that I might have gotten wrong or missed in „Getting Closer“: first of, it didn’t even occur to me that Claire’s intention in shooting Bennett was to PREVENT her from imprinting Caroline on Echo, although with the Boyd-reveal at the end it should be clear that this was what she was doing. She asked the question to make sure that Bennett did indeed pose a threat, waited for Topher to return to the room, and then expected that he’d be unable to perform after the shock. I still want to believe that part of the brutality of the act can be attributed to Claire’s feelings for Topher, but if anything, “The Hollow Men” has made that even more unlikely.
The second mistake I made was even more obvious. The last bit Caroline said as she walked away from Bennett in the lab was easy to miss, and apparently, Bennett didn’t hear her when she said that she’d make sure she’d be the only one caught. Bennett only heard the “You’re not with me” part, and that’s why her memory lacked the essential last part.

Before it was announced that the finale would only air in two weeks, I actually considered reviewing the penultimate and last episode together, as “The Hollow Men” felt incomplete in many ways. It’s a classic final battle for a Whedon-show: There’s the only recently revealed “Big Bad”, the “head of the snake” that needs to be cut off. There’s the explosion and fights, as the team is once again reunited after splitting up before the Dollhouse was breached. There’s the unfortunate sacrifices that drive home the point that everything’s at stake here.
In that regard, “The Hollow Men” is very much like “Primeval” (the final battle against Adam in the fourth season of “Buffy”) and “The Gift” (the final battle against Glory and last episode of the fifth season).
The “Big Bad” is a comforting concept: once Voldemort is defeated,  the characters of "Harry Potter" marry and live happily ever after. The Big Bad represents everything evil, and his downfall means the very end of evil itself (or at least until the next Big Bad shows up). This is why Boyd in this episode seems so out of place as the manic, crazy enemy: he was such a strong character because he was so calm and collected, and ultimately, “Dollhouse” isn’t about the fight of good against evil. It’s a show about what happens when technology threatens to change the very fabric of human society. The core sentence in this episode is Boyd’s “It can’t be unthunk” – so even if Echo sends in Boyd, the first victim of Topher’s new tech, into the mainframe of Rossum to blow it up, even if there is this very “Chosen”-esque feeling at the end of the episode, as Team Echo regroups amidst all these giant corporate skyscrapers, entertaining the notion that this is it, apocalypse prevented, we, the viewers, already know that this is wrong. The grand gesture, in this case, doesn’t prevent anything, and at the very end, Ballard and Echo, ten years later, are running through the apocalyptic streets of LA, which we already saw in “Epitaph One”.

“I want to see exactly how far you can go”

I have issues with the idea that Caroline was biologically predestined to become Echo. If everything that happened to Echo in the course of the past two seasons can be explained with funky medicine, then the entire process of becoming self-aware, of fighting to become her own person, of asserting her own identity, all of a sudden seems like a given, nothing she even had to try for. We find out that Boyd picked her specifically (because Rossum has insight into thousands of medical files) because her body can resist imprints, and it’s not Echo’s personality that is supposed to save “a chosen few” when Boyd brings about the end of human civilization, it’s a substance that can be harvested from her spinal cord. Caroline is “interesting on a microscopic level” (Boyd). Essentially, with this reveal, Echo falls into the same category as Buffy: chosen by others for a specific purpose, endowed with powers that she did not have to work to get, she must overcome the very prophecy and become more than what she was chosen to be (the final episode of “Buffy” brought the resolution to the initial premise: that only ONE slayer bears the responsibility of the world on her shoulders). Echo, after the events of this episodes, has to find a way how she can become not only a saviour to the select few, but to humanity itself.

“They said the way I feel about you is just a program, I’m trying to remember that.” -Mellie
Poor Mellie is probably the most tragic character in this episode. She proves how important she might be in the future when she is the one to figure out how they might destroy the mainframe (by sabotaging the cooling system). Ballard, after having lost his connection to Echo, falls back on the next most recent feelings he has, which is his love for Mellie. After becoming a doll himself, he is willing to accept that even Actives can be autonomous people with valid emotions (which he never allowed Echo to be). There is a clear indication that they might have a future together after the end of the world is prevented. It’s even harder to watch when you realize what that means for her as a character. Boyd tries to force Adelle to activate her (“There’s a phrase I want you to say. How does it go? Something about flowers in a vase?”), which raises the question why Adelle decided to leave this specific part of her imprint in Mellie (was she going to use it? Did she forget?). Adelle declines (“I’m sure I’ll be far more talkative with my brains splattered all over Topher” – a prospect Topher clearly doesn’t look forward to after the events of “Getting Closer”), but Boyd has a recording of when Adelle activated her in “Man on the Street”. It’s heartbreaking when Ballard hears the first lines over the speakers, realizing what’s going to happen. Love, “Dollhouse” argues once again, is a strong feeling that can sometimes overwrite imprints, but as Ballard successfully uncovers the part of Mellie that loves him (“When we were together, you  made me feel like a real person”.), and she can’t kill him, he also only leaves her one option. Unable to completely turn off kill mode, Mellie kills herself (and, naturally, splatters Ballard with her blood). 

Clyde 2.0

Whiskey/Clyde: “Adelle DeWitt. We haven’t met but I’ve heard all about you.”
Topher: “She killed Bennett.”
Boyd: “She’s not Claire”
Clyde: “He’s quick. Very quick.”
Boyd: “What did you do with her?”
Clyde: “I guess I just sorta evicted her. Tossed her out on the digital street, as it were, I’m not big on sentimentality. And you my dear, so excited to see you again. You never know how these types of experiments work out. I am a lucky boy, right here at my doorstep. All you’re missing is a little bow.”
Ballard: “Who the hell are you?”
Adelle: “Clyde Randolph, co-founder of Rossum.”
Topher: “I thought Clyde was stuck in the Attic.”
Clyde: ”Not anymore. My original got himself caught in a loop. This world is for people who can evolve.”
Adelle: “And does that include us?”
Clyde: “Isn’t that what you’re here to find out?”
The three versions of Clyde we’ve seen so far: the man stuck in the Attic, the man greeting Caroline in “Getting Closer” and finally, the version stuck in Whiskey’s body, are all completely different. They have different accents, different mannerisms, and this one is particularly malicious. Later, before his fight with Echo, Clyde mentions that he hasn’t remained the same, but “updated his OS” – which begs the question whether each version of an imprint brings the resulting person further from the original, whether imprinting again and again results in a degeneration of whatever humanity remains (or maybe Clyde made an active choice to become this way?). This idea is interesting because it would indicate that the world Boyd is trying to create – a world where only he, “his family”, and a select few, have eternal life, would actually eventually become post-human (apparently humans without the fear of death lose any moral inhibitions). At the end of “The Hollow Men”, Echo prevents that scenario from happening (the remaining “Actuals” in “Epitaph One” were anything but a select few who ruled the earth).
Clyde: “You know Adelle, I have to thank you. None of this could have happened without you. It’s an exciting time, and you have been a good little worker bee.”
Adelle: “I’m happy to be of service, Mr Randolph.”
Adelle: “Caroline’s going to save the world?”
Clyde: “No, not the world, just the deserving few. You’ll be happy to know you’ll be counted among them.”
Clyde: “The mind doesn’t matter, it’s the body we want.
Clyde: “HE always knew you’d be the one delivering her to us.”
Adelle: “Our mysterious founder. I’d like to thank him for his faith in me.”
Clyde: “I know he’s looking forward to that moment.”
The epic showdown against Echo was perfect for the classic finale (and evoked nostalgia for other such battles, like Faith/Buffy and Buffy/Willow) – but it wasn’t really the final confrontation between Whiskey and Echo. It’s also interesting that Paul managed to appeal to Mellie’s humanity and love after her sleeper mode was activated, while Echo completely fails with Clyde 2.0 (the “I know you’re still in there” speech). Clyde reminds Echo that she still cares about “this body”, while he has others waiting for him in different houses – and in the end, Echo prevails, and Topher mentions after the battle is over and the mainframe destroyed that he managed to save Whiskey’s body (I wonder whether we will get the fall-out of Topher having to deal with Whiskey in the next episode).

Family Man
Echo: “Why bring him here? Not just me? Why the party charades?”
Boyd: “You really don’t know? You’re here cause you’re my family. I love you guys.”
Boyd intends to create a world in which he will live forever, so naturally the prospect of having people around he has come to love would be a natural instinct, even for someone so far removed from conventional morality. On the other hand, this sudden turn from the calm, collected Boyd to the almost manic psychopath, who should know better than assume that this particular speech will get anybody on his side (he knows Echo really well, doesn’t he? But in this episode he acts as if he doesn’t know her at all), doesn’t really work for me. The idea of “buying” eternal life with the tech is, even though in a really evil kind of way, rational, but the Boyd in this episode isn’t.
Topher: “You’re working with Saunders. That means when she killed Bennett, you killed Bennet.”
Boyd: “Everyone had to sacrifice. That’s what’s made you all so incredible. Your commitment, your skills. Everything I’ve thrown at you you’ve taken and asked for me. Look at you Topher, risking your life for the cause. Choosing morality over self-preservation. And you Adelle: you found a strength and conviction I bet you didn’t even know you had. I pushed you, and you pushed right back.”
Topher: “Wow Boyd. You’re right, I’m the tin man, she’s the lion, and you’re the head of the lollipop guild who’s a traitor!”
Boyd: “You’ve proven yourselves in so many ways I wanted you all with me. Except for Paul. There’s always one relative you can live without. And frankly I never understood what you saw in him.”
Adelle: “So you want us to keep you company. Fiddling while Rome burns. Thank you very much, I’d rather be dead.”
Boyd: “Death will be a blessing. When it happens you will likely be imprinted and enslaved. We have to face the facts. The technology exists. It can’t be uninvented. Once it gets out there, it will be abused. None of us can prevent that from happening, but we can choose, where we want to be, and on what side, once the end does arrive. You want to be destroyed, or the destroyers?”
Adelle: “You are spectacularly insane.”
Echo: “I believed you. You pretended to care for me and I believed you. How could you do that?”
Boyd: “I know you’re angry.”
Echo: “Don’t touch me.”
Boyd: “I did. I do care for you. More than you’ll ever know. Who do you think allowed you to grow as an individual, as Echo, while they were sending out to bed half of Los Angeles. I was here making sure you had the space to become your own person.”
Echo: “Why?”
Boyd: “You’re the key. The key to everything. You will save us all.”
Boyd is right. He hasn’t only created the technology of the Dollhouse and therefore the dolls. He didn’t just “create” Echo, he also made both Topher and Adelle into what they are right now, and he is the reason why they are in Tucson (pushing them when he returned to them with Echo, who he had drugged to prevent her from sharing the vital piece of information she received). It’s why, up to this point, we thought him to be the moral center, and resented Ballard because he was so much unlike him (and of course Boyd resented Ballard too, although the way he expresses this here in the family metaphor is great). The act of destroying Boyd and his creation at the end of this episode might not work to prevent the end of civilization – it’s not the happy ending, earned with one grand gesture – but it is the necessary act to gain independence from the overbearing father figure who turned out to be a psychopath.

Random things:

We still don’t know whether Claire was a sleeper-agent for Boyd or acted on her own: but I’d argue that she wasn’t already Clyde 2.0 in “Getting Closer”, as the initial scene in which we see her again, when Boyd comes home to her, clearly indicates that she had a female identity there, and “The Hollow Men” puts a lot of effort into establishing that this imprint identifies as male. In short: oh my, Amy Acker looks great in a suit.

Talking about that, Adelle seems to have a history with Clyde, doesn’t she? Or maybe she’s just his type.

The return of Victor/Topher: it worked particularly well to show how far Topher has come in the course of so little time, as the imprint was from before all the horrible things started to happen, and entirely clueless (upon seeing the blood in Topher’s office, Bennett’s blood, Victor/Topher concluded that he must be dead, and only Priya’s logic convinced him otherwise).

Of course Topher, even in that state of mind, would leave a post-it note with a smiley face.

The creation of super!Anthony begs the question: doesn’t this kind of thing always have consequences? Shouldn’t we question the use of technology to create “better” soldiers in the fight for good? I wonder whether Priya’s decision to allow Victor/Topher to accessorize Anthony will contribute to them falling apart in “Epitaph One”.

I love the change in Topher when he walks into the Rossum lab: at first he is excited (it’s a playground for him), then he realizes how far they’ve come with the tech, and then he is completely freaked out, starts to smash things (“I’m going for mindless destruction now”) – until Boyd convinces him that they can use the tech “for good” – I wonder whether it’s really this moment in which Topher figures out the problem within seconds that is going to bring about the end of the world, or whether that has already happened before.
Topher: “I did all this. I’m the one who brings about the toughtpocalypse.”
Adelle: “Toughtpocalypse?”
Topher: “Is brainpocalypse better? I figure, If I’m responsible for the end of the world, I get to name it.”
I loved Adelle’s and Topher’s bonding when they realized the consequences of their actions (also Topher’s “Wow, Army of one. Are you still me? Cause I could use someone to shoulder the guilt!” when Anthony saved them) – but Topher, in this episode, was much more calm and collected than I expected him to be, compared to the complete mess he was in the last episode, where he had almost reached the level of “Epitaph One”. What else is going to happen to him? Does it only happen when he realizes that they didn’t prevent the apocalypse, that the outcome is even worse than that?

Ballard, realizing that Boyd is the bad guy only at the very end (“What did I miss”) – immediately jumping at the chance of suspecting Adelle DeWitt (he doesn’t know that Boyd only played a tape of her voice to activate Mellie). Oh Paul. 

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