Sunday 20 June 2010

Dollhouse - You need to stop talking now, and start running.

Dollhouse: 1x02 The Target.


The composite event that turned Active Alpha into the reckless killer is the central trauma of “Dollhouse”. Even before there were any concerns about what it means for a civilization when identity can be simply written and taken away, there was this strange creature, only alluded to like a myth (the Attic is kind of the same, a mythical place with a catchy name that obviously causes distress and terror in everybody who invokes it, but the viewer doesn’t know why yet). “The Target” reveals bits and pieces of the initial trauma.
“Dollhouse” is an entire show about memory and identity – during the first season, in the context of individuals, in the second, with the entire society at stake. It’s interesting to see the backstory revealed in blurry-edged memories.
Topher: “Doc Saunders looks like a jigsaw puzzle, and what he did to Samuelsen…”
Dominic: “Who?”
Adelle:  “Alpha. It appears we’ve had a composite event.”
Dominic: “What he gets wiped after every engagement, how can he composite?
Topher: “Can’t. Shouldn’t. Did.”
While we will learn a little bit later, in “Epitaph One”, that memories can be manipulated and only show a fragment of what actually happened, the flashbacks are equally manipulative and work exceptionally well in a show that requires so much exposition to work. In retrospect, we know that the Doctor Saunders Topher refers to here is actually not Whiskey (who also looks like a jigsaw puzzle, but is alive). The scene is also, in a way, a birth for Echo: Among the naked, dead other Actives in the shower room, the only one left alive (“they won’t wake up”).
This is also the story about how Boyd came to the Dollhouse, a story that we now know was fake. There is the moral indignation about this place, right from the start (“So the stories are true. Programmable people, made to order.”). There are allusions to some past that never gets fully explained. He asks the relevant question: “Why didn’t he kill Echo?” In a way, Alpha and Boyd share this: Both think Echo is special, and both try to shape her so she fits their idea of perfection. Both see different kinds of potential in her.
Naturally that isn’t the point of the episode. Boyd comes into the dollhouse with his preconceptions, and he meets Echo for the first time with prejudices.
"She’s not a girl. She’s not even a person. She’s just an empty hat, until you stuff a rabbit in it. Abracadabra”
The point of the episode is that the relationship between the handler and the Active, and more specifically the relationship between Echo and Boyd, is two-sided, not just one-sided, and while it only takes the “ritual”, the first time the call-and-response is imprinted into Echo, for her to trust him completely, it’s a longer and more complicated process for Boyd, and this comes full circle by the end of the episode, when they switch roles.
Topher: “This isn’t about friendship, man. This is about trust. From this point on Echo will always trust you, without question or hesitation, no matter what the circumstance. You’re about to become the most important person in her life.”
This is a moment in the show where I wish that it hadn’t reversed everything we know about Boyd, because it takes so much away from this scene. Echo’s imprints only take a minute, but Boyd’s takes a long time to really settle in.
Boyd: “Everything’s going to be alright.”
Echo: “Now that you’re here.”
Boyd: “Do you trust me?”
Echo: “With my life.”
Adelle: “In their resting state our actives are as innocent and vulnerable as children. We call it the Tabula Rasa, the blank slate. Now imagine the imprint process filling it, creating a new personality, a friend, a lover, a confidante in a sea of enemies. Your hearts desires made flesh. And… when the engagement has been completed all memories of you and your time together will be wiped clean.”

Richard: “You need to stop talking now, and start running. I give you a five minute head-start, and then I’m coming after you.”
The concept of a client hiring an Active to fulfil a sick fantasy about the idea that only those who have won a fight for their life actually deserve to live seems much more likely in the context of the Dollhouse, of the specific thing the Dollhouse offers, than the idea that someone would hire an Active as a midwife, or a hostage negotiator.
Echo/Jenny: “Why are you doing this?”
Richard: “Cause I wanna know.”
Echo/Jenny: “Know what you sick son of a bitch?”
Richard: “If you deserve to live. You’ve earned the right.”
Echo/Jenny: “You know what gives someone the right to live? Not hunting them.”
Richard: “That’s it. Shoulder to the wheel. Prove you’re not just an echo.”
Echo/Jenny: “You want proof, you psycho, I’m gonna kill you.”
“Prove you’re not just an echo”. This makes much more sense knowing that Alpha set up Richard for this, even though it diminishes the “homo humini lupus” thing. Alpha is asking Echo to prove that she is more than what the dollhouse has made her, and in a way, he succeeds, because once again, she breaks the confines of her imprint, and at the same time, memories from the first traumatic event return to her.
The event that facilitates Echo becoming more than just an imprint is Boyd, unable to protect her. She realizes that she needs to protect him, and they go through the call-and-response with switched roles.
Echo/Jenny: “Do you trust me?”
Boyd: “What?”
Echo/Jenny: “Do you trust me?”
Boyd: “With my life.”
She kills the evil man, who says “He was right about you. You really are special. / Shoulder to the wheel baby”, and when she is confronted with Dominic, who doesn’t trust her because he understands that the dollhouse can only function if everything is predictable, she remembers something, although she shouldn’t. He, in a way, questions her right to live in the same way Richard did before, just that refers to her identity, not her body.
Dominic: “A lot of people seem to end up dead around you? How does it make you feel? Oh right, you don’t, unless we tell you how and what and when. […] If it were up to me I’d put you in the attic, or the ground. Not like talking to you makes a difference. No, there’s nobody in there.”
And she touches her shoulder: Shoulder to the wheel. She has earned the right.

Random notes:

As almost everybody meanwhile knows, Richard Connell is a writer who published a story that later became famous under the name “The Most Dangerous Game” in 1924, which is a bout a Rich Russian Aristocrat hunting an American big-game hunter stranded on an island.

Topher: “You’re in the middle of “why would anyone wanna be there”. What did you expect? HBO?”

The driver of Boyd’s observation van says “The Woods? I hate the woods”. Anya, in “Bargaining Part II”, says “The woods? Are we going back to the woods? I hate the woods. All those woodsy trees.”. And of course, “Into the Woods” is a musical by Stephen Sondheim. Make of all of this whatever you will.

It should have been clear from the beginning that Mellie can’t be real. She is so ridiculously lovely.

Mellie: “You wanna have some lasagne? I have leftovers.”
Paul: “You know it’s only leftovers when you’ve already had some, Mellie.”

They put a lot of effort into establishing the relationship between Boyd and Dr Saunders: she is trying to lie to herself about the possibility of Alpha still being alive, and he reminds her: “And they’d never lie to us about something like that, would they?”

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