Sunday 15 August 2010

Dollhouse - And we will be over. As a species. We will cease to matter

Dollhouse: 1x06 Man on the Street.

The question of how the technology that is the premise of “Dollhouse” shapes and changes society has been in the background of the show so far. The episodes leading up to “Man on the Street” were about Echo’s self-realization, about the question of whether the promise of a tabula rasa is real or not. “Man on the Street” starts outside the confines of the Dollhouse, on the streets of LA where the reality we’ve been confronted with is nothing but an urban legend. How people react to the potential of that urban legend being true reveals a lot about society. The reactions range from “where is the dotted line” at the promise of money and partying with rich people without remembering anything to the compelling conclusion that :
“Oh it’s happening. If there is one things people will always need it’s slaves. […] There's only one reason why someone would volunteer to be a slave, and that's that he is one already.”
, which mirrors what Echo, after Alpha’s intervention, is going to tell the original copy of Caroline (“I have thirty-eight brains. Not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave.”)

Ballard / Caroline

There is a progression in this episode: in the beginning, Ballard watches that video he received of Caroline on campus. Later, we will find out that the seemingly innocent girl was already involved with a terrorist cell, but in Ballard’s head, she is the personified evil of the Dollhouse, robbing an innocent woman of her identity. He can’t put a face to the Dollhouse, but through the items he receives, he has a very clear image of the victims in his head. Ballard isn’t introspective enough to realize that this very mechanism, of casting Caroline as the damsel in distress, he is doing exactly the same thing the clients of the Dollhouse do with the Actives. He casts her in his fantasy of himself as the knight in shiny armour, and it takes one of the hated clients of the Dollhouse to point that out to him.
It starts in a conversation with Mellie.
Ballard: “That’s one more tiny step closer to bringing her in.”
Mellie: “Them.”
Ballard: “What?”
Mellie: “Bringing them in. You said her.”
One of the many twists in this episode is that Paul has such a clear picture in his head of what a client of the Dollhouse is going to be like, and then Joel tells him the story of how he lost his wife and this is his way of coping with it. Paul never comes close to grasping what the Dollhouse is, not even when he starts working for it, and he only comprehends Echo’s complexity after he has the architecture installed himself, but this is a first glimpse into the concept that the world isn’t black and white. For Ballard, everything that’s happening in this episode is a box in a box in a box (although he won’t really notice until he finds out what Mellie is) – but we do, and it casts him in a new light, it destroys what has been a fairly conventional structure so far (good cop pursues morally bankrupt evil-doers with limited resources).
Ballard: “What’s her name?”
Joel: “Rebecca. She told you.”
Ballard: “Really. How do you know Rebecca?”
Joel: “We’ve been married for seven years.”
Ballard: “So that’s your fantasy. All the money in the world, the most elaborate high class underground operation ever designed and you just want to play house. I guess the rich really are different.”
Joel: “Why? What’s your fantasy?”
Ballard: “Oh I’m okay right here in the real world, thanks.”
Joel: "You have a fantasy ok?. We all do. We need it to survive. And I think your fantasy is about my Rebecca.”
Ballard: “Her name is Caroline. […] A few years ago she was a student and then she had her identity ripped from her so she could play love slave to every little loser with a wad of cash.”
Joel: “…Then the brave little FBI agent whisked her away from the cash-wielding losers and restored her true identity, and she fell in love with him. […] I mean, she, she changed things for you. So you’re the head of this FBI task force to uncover the Dollhouse, and you’re working hard, you’re chasing leads, you’re cracking skulls, but it’s just work. And then you meet this girl or you… you see her somewhere, huh? Caroline? And suddenly it gets personal. Tell me you haven’t thought about it. You know, her, her grateful tears, her, her welcoming embrace, her warm breath. Are you married?
Ballard: “Was.”
Joel: “Oh, that’s… Is there someone in your life right now?”
Ballard: “This is getting old.”
Joel: “Of course not. No, there’s no room for a real girl, is there, when you can feel Caroline beckoning? You know, I have to say I-I think your fantasy is even sadder than mine.”
Ballard: “This is all going to come apart. You might not be punished and I might not be alive, but this house will fall.”
Joel: “The first hurdle in my business is the people who will not accept the change that’s already happened. Go. Go live in your real world. If you ever did.”
“Dollhouse” is going to spend the first half of the second season to drive home the point that Echo isn’t Caroline anymore. The person Ballard has in mind when he says “Caroline” does not correspond with any reality, it’s a construct just as much as Echo performing as Rebecca is (with the difference that Echo believes in that second construct).

The scene in which Ballard comes home after hearing all of this, and it has left marks, is also all about interpretation and attribution. We see Mellie, the good-hearted neighbour, who has obviously been pining for Paul all this time, and finally, she gets what she wants. We see Paul, who has just been told that the fact that he doesn’t have a girlfriend shows that he isn’t any better than a client of the Dollhouse, trying everything to prove Joel wrong. The reveal that Mellie is a doll and therefore Paul has done exactly what he was trying to avoid by sleeping with her, works so well because it completely destroys our expectations. At the same time, OF COURSE Mellie is a doll, how couldn’t she be. She spent most of her days waiting for Paul to get home, but there are so many romantic movies that use this old plot, the plain-looking girl pining for the hero and finally succeeding, that this single-mindedness doesn’t even appear strange anymore.

Paul gets what he wanted for years now in this episode; and at the same time, everything is taken away from him with the same breath. Someone meddles with Topher’s imprint of Echo and makes her a messenger, but she also follows her original purpose of having Ballard lose his job.
Echo: “The Dollhouse is real. They know you’re after them and they are going to have you taken off the case. That’s why they sent me.”
Paul: “Why are you telling me this?”
Echo: “We have a person inside. This person corrupted the imprint while the programmer wasn’t looking, added this parameter.”
Paul: “Is this the person that sent me the tapes and pictures?”
Echo: “No. This is their first communication. Security inside is very tight.”
Paul: “Where is it?”
Echo: “You can’t know that. You’re going about this the wrong way.”
Paul: “I have to take down the Dollhouse!”
Echo: “There are over twenty Dollhouses, in cities around the world. They have ties to every major political power on the planet. You cannot possibly stop them alone. You’re going to help me? The person that sent this message is.”
Paul: “Why?”
Echo: “The Dollhouse deals in fantasy. That is their business, but that is not their purpose.”
Paul: “What is?”
Echo: “We need you to find out. We’ll contact you again, if possible with this same body. But you have to let the Dollhouse win. Make them back off. You have to trust me.”
(first of: why would Alpha choose to have Echo lie about this being their first conversation? We saw him watch that video in the first episode, so I assumed that he sent it to Paul. It was also established that only Alpha would have the technical skill to hack Topher’s imprints. Am I missing something here? Alpha’s ultimate goal is having Ballard get him into the Dollhouse, right?)

The question for the “purpose” is of course another thing entirely. Ballard knows that technology, once it exists, will be used. We later find out that Boyd understands completely where this technology is going to lead, and has been working on a way to cop-out of his own creation all these years. The purpose, of the Dollhouse, is changing society completely and fundamentally, to an extent, as the theologian (note: not a man on the street, but someone in a class room) in the end of the episode argues, that it becomes unrecognizable and brings the end of civilization.

“Forget morality. Imagine it’s true, all right. Imagine this technology being used. Now imagine it being used on you. Everything you believe, gone. Everyone you love, strangers. Maybe enemies. Every part of you that makes you more than a walking cluster on neurons dissolved at someone else’s whim. If that technology exists—it’ll be used. It’ll be abused. It’ll be global. And we will be over. As a species. We will cease to matter. I don’t know, maybe we should.”

“Man on the Street” is also the first complete destruction of the seemingly safe haven that is the Dollhouse. Sierra’s handler has been abusing her, and when Adelle confronts him with it, after Boyd figures it all out, he says “You put a bunch of stone foxes with no willpower and no memory running around naked. Did you think this wouldn’t ever happen?” After all, the Dollhouse deals with the things that make human beings work, they profit from exactly the kind of urges, and yet, there were no precautions against this. Hearn uses a cruel call-and-response before raping Sierra – exactly the thing that “The Target” established as this comfortable, ultimate human tie to establish trust between a handler and an Active.
Hearn: “Do you trust me?”
Sierra: “With my life.”
Hearn: “Do you want to play the game?”
Sierra: “No.”
Hearn: “But you remember to be very quite during the game, right?”
Sierra: “Noise is upsetting.”
Hearn: “Lift up your dress.”
We will get hints that Adelle has an infinitely more optimistic view of what they are doing than others do, but this really begs the question of whether this kind of naivety didn’t contribute to the Dollhouse getting “out of order”. We also see how heavily Adelle is starting to rely on Echo, who is all-too ready to come and help (when Boyd and Claire discuss Victor and Sierra, she volunteers “When we go to sleep, when we go into the pods, Sierra cries”, although she shouldn’t even be able to understand that there is an issue.)

For me, the most touching scene of the episode is actually almost small compared to the enormity of what is happening. It happens when Claire, Topher and Boyd are interrogating Victor.
Claire: “How is she different?”
Victor: “I’m sorry.”
Claire: “Victor, do you remember being in the showers with Sierra? You were watching her? How does Sierra make you feel?”
Victor: “Better.”
So much of what is happening in the Dollhouse is about specific fantasies, written scenarios, urges shaped into stories that are then performed by the ultimate actors. Hearing Victor say something so essential about humanity, about what makes us function as human beings, is just completely heart-breaking.


While we get to know all these secrets and learn more about Ballard, Adelle still remains a mystery, a wild card in a way.
Dominic: “You played a good hand, ma’am.”
Adelle: “I played a very bad hand very well. There is a distinction.”
She knows that she is potentially losing control (we know to what extent, as she doesn’t even know that Echo’s imprint was tampered with). When Echo, afterwards, tells her that “It isn’t finished” (a picture of a house that she has drawn), and Adelle realizes that she is referencing her meeting with Joel that isn’t completed, she looks at her like she is a child that has just spoken her first words; with pride, in a way, yet already with an inkling that this might go terribly wrong.

Random notes.

When Claire and Boyd first realize that Victor is the prime suspect for what has happened to Sierra, they have this subtle little bond over the fact that both know about Victor’s feelings, and are touched by their sincerity.

Rebecca Mynor, pointing at the rose-petal-covered bed: PORN! Still a favourite.

Ballard: “Tell me about the Dollhouse.”
Joel: “Erm. It’s pink and it opens up and there’s teeny furniture and you put the boy doll on top of the girl doll and we learn about urges.”

“I was the guy with the almost great idea– Floogle and Blahoo! And Facebooger. I was, I was just always one step behind, and she was cool with it.”

The music playing after Mellie is activated is the Concerto For Oboe & Orchestra No. 11 in B-Flat Major, Op. 9: Adagio by Tomaso Albinoni.

Adelle, after Topher removed the experience from Sierra’s head, says “Ignorance in this case truly is bliss”. Once again, a broken promise, as we later find out.

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