Sunday 26 September 2010

Dollhouse - They still won’t see it coming.

Dollhouse: 1x09 A Spy in the House of Love.

Considering what a massive secret the Dollhouse is, it’s quite remarkable how open the building itself is: there are doors that people do not close, even though they have important conversations. There are glass panes where you’d expect a solid wall. All of this, because the non-Actives feel safe and sound with the knowledge that the Actives they are responsible for are not able to comprehend what is going on anyway: just that one Active is, and the biggest achievement of “A Spy in the House of Love” is to show just how perceptive Echo has become, and how well she can put the pieces she picks up as she wanders around together.

The bit at the beginning, when Victor is taken to his Lonelyhearts-engagement and meets Echo on her way home in a S&M-costume, provides for an interesting bit of conversation between her and Boyd:
Echo: “You can trust me. I’ve already shown that I trust you. I got in the van, didn’t I?”
Boyd: “You sure that was a wise decision?”
Echo: “I’ve got a good feeling about you. And I’ve got the whip.”
The relationship between handler and active is based on power and trust, and it is the very basis for everything that happens in the Dollhouse. Topher imprints assassins and killers whose abilities would make them impossible to control, if it wasn’t for the call-and-response. At the very ending of the episode, when Boyd takes over Dominic’s position unwillingly and Echo gets a new handler, there is the slightest indication that Echo realizes what is happening. She looks at Boyd as she repeats the script, conscious of a kind of betrayal on his part.

November / Mellie
“I can’t sleep. The only thing I think about is finding this place, and sometimes I don’t even know why I’m after it anymore.”
“A Spy in the House of Love” works like a puzzle: each of the imprints has their own story, and in the end, it all comes together somehow. As Mellie, November contrasts perfectly with Ballard, who is slowly descending into madness after Echo contacted him. Mellie is the one thing in his life that still connects him to a reality outside the Dollhouse – and in the precise moment when he tries to embrace that, he finds out the truth about her.
November: “I have a message for you from inside the Dollhouse. My name is November. We knew this would be hard for you to hear. This body belongs to a doll. I’m sorry we had to deliver the news to you like this, in this body. The Dollhouse has likely discovered that we’ve been putting messages in their imprints. This is the only way we could get the message to you. They did this to you. They did this long before you met me. They’ve been using this body to spy on you for months. They only reason Mellie exists is because of you. […] You need to investigate why it exists. The dollhouse deals in fantasy, but that is not their purpose. Investigate their purpose.”
So the thing Joel said to Ballard in “The Man on the Street” is quite literally true: he is a client of the Dollhouse unknowingly, and he has, in a way, used her exactly the same way clients use the Actives. Even more shockingly, he seems to struggle at first when he has to pretend like everything is normal, but eventually, he lets all her frustration out on Mellie and REALLY uses her, which is probably one of the reasons why I viewed everything he did after this episode as essentially flawed and potentially harmful to Echo. I actually enjoy that his idea of being the knight in shining armour gets taken apart and perverted completely in the final two episodes (not counting “Epitaph One” as a regular episode).


Sierra’s story is a perfect exercise in the spy genre – Dominic sends her into the NSA to retrieve the name of the informant inside the Dollhouse.

Victor/Roger, Adelle
And suddenly Adelle, the great enigma of the show so far, the woman who never lets her guard down, unless forced to do so by substances, turns out to be a client of her own house. She is not only in the business of giving people what they need (and apparently her understanding that it isn’t about wants, but needs, comes from her own experience), but also of keeping secrets, so it would be almost impossible for her to have a functioning relationship outside the Dollhouse. Roger knows everything about the Dollhouse. Even more so, he understands it because she has imprinted him with her understanding of it.
Adelle: “I used to head a division that grew replacement organs out of stem cells. I could tell people what I did for a living.”
Roger: “You’ve told me what you do. Isn’t it just helping lonely people?”
Adelle: “Pathetic, self-deluding souls.”
This might in fact be my favourite part of the episode because it is the first time, apart from maybe Joel, that we are really meant to understand the motivations of clients who use the Dollhouse.
Adelle: “I’m not suggesting you become a client. In fact the universe might collapse under that one.”
Roger: “Good. Cause I don’t want an ersatz that’s you. I want the real you.”
Adelle: “And I want the real you. It’s ironic that sometimes I think you’re the most real person I’ve ever met.”
Roger: “That’s not irony. No one gets that right.”
Adelle: “With you, there is no reason to hide anything real.”
Adelle: “You aren’t…”
Roger: “I’m not who you need?”
Adelle: “Oh no. You’re exactly who I need. We just can’t have that. You have to trust me.”
Roger: “I do. I trust you. Completely.”
The authenticity of emotion will be a bigger issue in the coming season, but it already dealt with here. Is Adelle more “real” when she is with Roger? Can she only trust people she knows she controls completely? Her breaking point in the second season comes when she discovers that Victor’s lingering feelings for Sierra also carry over to Roger – that Roger isn’t entirely hers anymore, that she has lost grip of that last thing that she thought she controlled.


Even before it was revealed that Topher created Claire to act as a counterpoint to himself, she fulfilled that function. She doesn’t just argue against Topher; it’s even more intriguing to see her with Boyd, since they seem to share the same basic idea about keeping the actives safe and having moral doubts about what the Dollhouse is doing (again, assuming that Boyd was decided to be the Big Bad after these episodes were shot), but the actions that come from this conviction are radically different.
Boyd: “You really think it has anything to do with need?”
Claire: “Sometimes yes. Having a desire you’re afraid or ashamed of expressing can be terribly debilitating.”
Claire: “I believe the system’s flawed. Maybe irreparably. But maybe not for the same reasons you do.”
This episode also reveals that Claire never has never left the Dollhouse since Alpha attacked her, that she lives there and fears the outside world, although Echo’s questioning ends before the obvious conclusion becomes inevitable.

Echo / Dominic / Adelle

Echo goes from realizing that something is not okay (“everyone’s unhappy today”), to following her first instinct of wanting to help (“why wouldn’t I”), and finally to the realization that must scare Topher the most: That Topher controls the chair, and can therefore make her help, even if she can’t in her present state (“you make people different. You can make me help.”)

The reveal that Dominic wasn’t working to bring down the Dollhouse, but to prevent Adelle from making mistakes, already indicates that there is a power struggle about who is going to control the Dollhouse in the future, and who is going to decide what the “purpose” of the Dollhouse really is. Dominic considers Echo a threat to the security of the Dollhouse because anything out of the ordinary is potentially dangerous, and he is remarkably prescient about what is going to happen (“Do you know what the world will be like when Rossum lets the Dollhouse slip from its grasp? The technology needs to be reined in and controlled!”). For Echo, on the other hand, beating Dominic, winning against him in a fight, is essential to assert her identity (“I’m not broken”, she says, as she dangles him out of the window by his feet).
It is also fascinating how the episode re-introduces the Attic again as this kind of bogeyman to keep the children in check: “It’s a mental suck. You know that feeling you get when a name is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t say it, it’s like that, but with every thought you never have.”

The conflict in the end shows us Adelle after she realized that she let the control of the Dollhouse slip – she reasserts herself, and becomes even more dangerous because she is threatened. Dominic is right when he calls her “naïve” about the mission of the Dollhouse – if anything, Adelle’s realization about what is going to happen comes way too late in the second season – but at this point, she still is the one calling the shots, and she doesn’t even hesitate to put Mr Dominic into the attic. It’s not explicit, but she feels personally hurt for trusting someone who was playing her (“What? Did you think I'd show you mercy? Or rage? Three years by my side. I think you'd know me better than that.”).
Echo: “What’s in store for you, you don’t have much to smile about.”
Dominic: “After you beat me to a pulp they’re gonna erase me, but at first they’re gonna erase you.”
Echo: “I can take care of myself.”
Dominic: “I know. That’s why I’m smiling. Cause one day you’ll be erasing them, and even after all this, they still won’t see it coming. Sooner or later everybody gets there’s.”
The scene this episode started with, the brutal moment in which all the pretence of harmony and comfort and the wonderful tabula rasa falls away to reveal that the chair is a device out of a horror movie, is a decisive moment for many characters. Wiping Dominic’s memory and putting him into the attic is probably the first time that we see Topher questioning the Dollhouse. Adelle remains strong on the outside and even stays after Dominic shoots her, seemingly unfazed, but she shows a bit of her vulnerability to Topher afterwards (“how did I not see this coming”) and even more so, to Claire when she patches her up. She tells Topher to “shelve” Roger (a resolution we now know didn’t last too long) because Ms Lonelyhearts “realized the indiscretion was unwise”. She also indicates that she considers Echo a potential asset after she “took out her biggest threat” and “she's the one taking care of us”.
Claire: “I know you were close to Mr. Dominic.”
Adelle: “He was an employee with whom I worked closely. There's a difference.”
Claire: “It's OK to feel something.”
Adelle: “That would imply I'd lost something.”
Claire: “Didn't you?”
Adelle: Nothing I can't live without.
This is an interesting scene because once again, Adelle speaks openly to a doll, even though it is a thinly veiled conversation about Roger rather than Dominic. I am always surprised by how intimate this interaction is

Random notes:

Miracle Laurie’s acting in this episode is perfect.

“Someone is a Grumpeteer today”. Not only is Topher’s description of Dominic surprisingly accurate, it also provides for the perfect image whenever I watch Angel do his thing. 

When Echo the spy hunter interviews everybody in the Dollhouse, I always feel reminded of when the Watchers came to question Buffy’s friend and it all went terribly wrong. Boyd says: “We’re pimps and killers, but in a philanthropic way.” Ivy says: “I probably know enough about the imprint equipment to rip it down and reassemble it without Topher ever knowing. Well that didn’t sound good, did it?”

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