Dollhouse


The Wife:

This weekend, I was able to watch the original Joss Whedon pilot for Dollhouse (included on the DVD that comes out Tuesday, July 27), as well as the futuristic mind-fuck that is the unaired “Epitaph One.” And even though I have some slight misgivings about certain things in Whedon’s original pilot, I ultimately believe that it would have set the show up for a better, more consistent run, leading ultimately to “Epitaph One,” which is one of the most interesting episodes of science-fiction television I’ve seen in some time. Let’s look at these things one at a time:

“Unaired Pilot”

The only thing I didn’t like about this pilot is that it reveals that Sierra and Victor are dolls right away. Therefore, if this had been the pilot, the Victor reveal that happens a few episodes later wouldn’t have been shocking. Nor would have Echo witnessed Sierra’s making and called into question her own making. However, for all that was sacrificed, the episode managed to explain a lot about the business strategy of the Dollhouse in a very believable, naturalistic way. In fact, the opening scene here is of Miss DeWitt explaining the process to a skeptical client. Likewise, there’s a scene where Topher explains to Boyd, not quite as new to the operation as he appears in the reshoot we all saw, how his tech works and why he’s so concerned over the dolls flocking together. Sometimes, these parts felt a little too “telly,” but in the end, I really didn’t mind them. A pilot should establish your universe, and Whedon’s original pilot does that a lot better than the one Fox made him rewrite.

And if there’s any positive spin I can put on not having the Victor/Sierra introductions appear a few episodes in, it’s that Echo’s problems don’t surface right away and it establishes the possibility that her “evolution” might also be happening to other dolls. There’s also a better character introduction to Whiskey, although it still doesn’t affect the game-changing 11th hour reveal that she’s a doll. It simply hints about the Alpha problem earlier and actually answered my question about how many people in the Dollhouse’s employ were aware that Whiskey was a doll. It’s clear from a scene she shares with Topher (about how pro bono engagements with purely altruistic purposes are good for the dolls’ health) that he, as well as others, are aware of what she once was. They simply do not address it.

I do like that this version of the pilot established a prior connection between Echo and Ashley Johnson’s character who, in the finale, has Caroline’s personality uploaded into her. It would have been great for Fox to have allowed that to stay so that the season finale would have included a great big payoff for those who had been watching since day one (“Honey, I am you,” Echo growls at alcoholic Ashley Johnson, in a delightful bit of foreshadowing before launching into a screed about how she once was addicted to booze and men. Echo is a better Cleaner than Benjamin Bratt is, and I appreciate that altruistic engagements can still involve kicking out barstools from under people.) And it would completely explain why that particular mall employee is the one that Echo and Alpha as Mickey-and-Mallory kidnapped, as she would have looked familiar, thus triggering Echo’s memory issues.

There’s also not a hint of Mellie/November to be found, which is great, because Miracle Laurie was always the worst part of this show.

But the most important and necessary part of Whedon’s pilot is the way in which it establishes Echo’s relationship to Paul Ballard. See, she was originally sent to kill him, in the guise of a woman looking for her lost sister (“Caroline”), and, once she got close enough to him to seduce him, she’d off him and rid the Dollhouse of the Paul Ballard problem forever. But Echo fails to kill him, and though she is called off her mission before she can snuff his life out in his hospital bed, this gives Paul Ballard a good reason to be obsessed with this woman who looks like Caroline and why it’s vitally important for him to find the Dollhouse.

Whedon’s original pilot only makes me wonder how much more solid the whole series could have been had Fox not asked him to make the series conform to some sort of case-of-the-week format. This episode definitely felt more like a Whedon episode, from ass-kicking ladies to corporations with less-than-forthright intentions to excellent character building and witty zingers. (More Topher = more goodness.) All I can say is that I’d have loved to see the show jump off from this point, rather than where it actually started. I can only imagine how much better it would have been.

The house that Echo built.

The house that Echo built.

“Epitaph One”

If you regularly read my Dollhouse posts during the season, you would know that one of my chief complaints during the course of season one was that the show always skirted issues of consciousness and embodiment, both physical and digital, as well as other cyberpunk-esque conceits. Here, Whedon treated us to a future, only 10 years down the line, in which the technology employed at the Dollhouse and other similar houses has gotten out-of-hand and basically caused the apocalypse. Not only has most of the world as we know it been destroyed by weapons technology from China (obviously, this is prior to the Sino-American alliance of Firefly), but there’s also an all-out war between natural humans and those with imprints, specifically those who have been imprinted so often that they no longer have a memory, roaming the land, it seems, like vacant zombies, capable of basic human function but incapable of emotion or real thought. The “actuals” have taken to tattooing themselves with birthmarks of their own names so that they never forget who they are – something which, for the sake of my continued work on tattoos and body marking, I hope is further explored as Dollhouse progresses.

In this episode, a group of actuals are heading underground to find a place called “Safe Haven,” and find themselves inside ruins of the Dollhouse. They’re mission is to protect a little girl, who turns out to not be quite what they thought she was, and by encountering Whiskey and experimenting with Topher’s chair on a captive “blank slate,” they learn about what happened to the Dollhouse that made things get so bad. Among these incidents: Victor and Sierra also underwent the multiple consciousness uploading processes that Echo went through, allowing them to be many people simultaneously; the Dollhouse acts as an underground safe haven, with Miss DeWitt heading up vigils for people’s memories, as forgetting seems to be a plague affecting the world; Topher, unable to cope with the fact that his technology, a technology he revolutionized so that uploads would happen in minutes, rather than hours, has wrought such horrors upon the world, is reduced to a blubbering mess, sleeping in the pods the dolls used to occupy and desperately trying to find the right math to fix things. There are many other things we learn here, but no image was more powerful for me than the image of Topher, scratching symbols into the walls of his pod with chalk, rocking back and forth in Miss DeWitt’s arms and crying, a mere shell of the brilliant, confident man he once was.

I think “Epitaph One” gives us an excellent look at where this series could go, getting darker and darker as it progresses. I’m not sure I’d like to see Dollhouse play out for 10 years (nor should it, as it would be hard to maintain being your best as a doll once aging takes its toll), but I’d love to see Dollhouse function on a five-year plan, exactly the length of each doll’s contract, building a momentum toward this destructive and horrible future, preferably with some episodes like “Epitaph One” thrown in. Lost revolutionized and reinvigorated its narrative by tossing in some flash-forward storytelling, and I think that Dollhouse would do well to include a few glimpses into the future, as well. I like every idea presented in “Epitaph One,” and I liked its execution. I’d like to see more like this, and it gives me great hope for the potential of this series.

The Husband:

If IMDb is to be trusted (which is should be about 80% of the time), the show is intended to run, as mapped out, for five years. This is a good, comfortable number, as that is the longest amount of time any Whedon show has lasted on one network. So it’s optimistic while still being realistic. And if you’re like my wife and you pay attention to the show (which I clearly did not do nearly as well), then you’re already ahead of this information and now I look like a fool. But hey, at least I’m confirming your estimates.

As far as “Epitaph One” goes, I hope more people don’t complain about its spoilerishness, because I don’t really look at it this way. For one, I don’t think anybody behind the show has said whether or not this episode should be considered canon. Then again, I didn’t listen to Whedon’s commentary on the disc, so I can’t be certain. Maybe Whedon mentioned something at Comic-Con this past weekend that could illuminate this discussion. But I do know that he mentioned (at least allegedly, as I read this on a blog review of “Epitaph One”) that even if it is canonical, we have to realize that the memories we see throughout the episode can’t be entirely trusted, as memories are, by nature, not always the truth.

But I often subscribe to the Sophocles version of storytelling mentioned in what I refer to as Ebert’s Theory of Sophocles vs. Shakespeare as found in his review for Road to Perdition, which raises the question of whether or not a reader/viewer wants their story’s conclusion fated/preordained/foreshadowed. Oftentimes, by knowing the direct ending of a story, it does not spoil what comes before but makes the events even more suspenseful, exciting and even heartbreaking. In Sophocles’ Oedipus Cycle, we know how it’s going to turn out, but we don’t know why, and it makes the story that much better. It’s obvious from Death of a Salesman what is going to happen at the end, so it’s the journey that is the important element of that play. And, to go way-mainstream as an example, knowing that a major character was going to die in the Ministry of Magic battle climax in Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix (thanks to a shrewd marketing move by J.K. Rowling), that climax was that much more dangerous and readable, as almost all of the major participants within the fight came close to death at one point or another. (Ebert oddly misses the concept that, in most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, we are told almost immediately who is going to die, or at least that there will be a mega-bloodbath, but whatever.) And for Dollhouse, I don’t mind the “spoilers” at all. It’s the journey that matters. It’s Sophocles.

Lost is Sophocles. You heard it here first.

The Wife:

The Dollhouse season/series finale (and I’m betting it’s the latter) was certainly some of the series’ finest work, confirming my Dr. Saunders-is-a-doll theory and engaging in some interesting cyberpunk conceits. As a finale, I think this episode admirably wrapped up the season and, since the central arc was essentially completed, could serve to wrap up the series, as well. But, as any good season finale-that-might-be-a-series-finale should be, there are open doors through which to proceed should FOX get Dollhouse a greenlight for 12 more episodes. (Or 13. Depending.)

When Alpha abducted Echo from the Dollhouse, he stole all of her former imprints, and destroyed the backup copy of her original “Caroline” personality. Topher struggles to find out which of her imprints he would have uploaded into her before absconding, and discovers that it was never one of Echo’s imprints at all, but one of Whiskey’s.

A tall glass of Whiskey.

A tall glass of Whiskey.

Three or so years ago, Whiskey and Alpha were sent out on a paired engagement, basically playing Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers in some dude’s totally weird torture/porn fantasy. Alpha, programmed with a personality prone to paranoid delusions, started to take things too far, which in turn called in the handlers to break things up, but not, of course, until after the reveal that the silhouetted woman he was working with wasn’t Echo at all, but Whiskey . . . and after Whiskey and Alpha proceeded to have some totally hot foreplay with their captive. (This is, I guess, the only reason one should ever want to be kidnapped by Mickey and Mallory, because otherwise that’s a pretty fucking terrible idea!)

And here’s where I take a moment to thank Joss Whedon for giving us Amy Acker in stripper clothes. She’s so much more beautiful and has so much more range than Eliza Dushku that I’d rather watch a spin-off prequel about her character. I mean, really, Dushku has basically only been Faith for most of this series, whereas Acker has been someone completely different than Fred. And we already know she’s a great actress. Let’s all take a moment to shudder in remembrance of the Ilyria arc on Angel.

But as to the Mickey-and-Mallory imprints, it seems Alpha chose them in part because his Mickey personality was dominant at the time, and in part because it was the most convenient way to go on a kidnapping spree. He and Echo-as-Mallory, only minutes out of the Dollhouse, kidnap a young girl named Wendy and drag her back to Alpha’s lair. He was astute enough to call in a bomb threat to the building and lock everyone else inside the Dollhouse so they’d have greater difficulty finding him, and Paul Ballard (who also doesn’t have a whole lot of range or characterization, thanks to Tahmoh Penikett) puts himself in charge of reconstructing what happened on the day Alpha went rogue.

It seems Alpha was obsessed with Echo from the day Caroline strode into the Dollhouse for her pre-Activation tour. Caroline makes a comment about how the Dolls all seem like zombies waiting for tasty brains, which I thought was a pretty cute, sly nod to her Hulu commercial, as well as an accurate assessment of living without a personality. Per the Mickey-and-Mallory flashback, it seems Alpha was routinely paired with Whiskey on engagements, as she was, at the time, the Dollhouse’s most requested Active. And because of his fascination with Echo, he one day took a pair of scissors to Whiskey’s face during art class, eerily demanding, “Whiskey, let Echo be number one.” And so Whiskey was broken, and Alpha was to be given a full diagnostic, wiped and then sent to the Attic (despite his protestations that “I was making art”). During the diagnostic, though, he resists, creating that famous composite event where all of his former imprints uploaded into his brain, causing him to not have multiple personalities, but to be multiple personalities, as other brains shifted, randomly, into his own consciousness at any given moment. And so that killing spree occurred, in which he preserved the one person he thought was different and special: Echo.

At his power plant lair, Alpha uploads Caroline’s brain into poor unsuspecting Wendy with his own version of Topher’s chair, and forces “Caroline” to confront her own body. This was absolutely my favorite part of the series so far, as I felt it finally engaged in some commentary on theories of consciousness and embodiment rather than just bringing something up through a moral lense (such as the show’s constant dialogue about slavery and freedom, which also is brought up in the most eye-rolling way possible during this otherwise great scene). Alpha shows “Caroline” her body and chastises her for abandoning it, making a strange bid to privilege the corporeal and temporal over permanent, ethereal cyber-consciousness. I found this bid to punish Caroline’s mind for abandoning her body especially strange in light of Alpha’s next assertion that, if he makes Echo like him, they can be supreme beings, gods or supermen (or, literally, the Alpha and Omega), because they are not one person with multiple personalities, but one body comprised of many people, able to shift in and out of consciousnesses at any minute.

To make her into Omega, Alpha uploads all of Echo’s imprints into her, hoping that she will do as he did when he emerged from his composite event and destroy her original consciousness. In this case, to kill “Caroline.” But Echo as Omega seems to have a slightly better grip on reality and juggling multiple consciousnesses than Alpha does, and realizes it’s pretty insane to destroy one’s primary consciousness, so she instead swings at him. She disagrees with his theories on the übermensch, because even though they may be everybody, in the sense that they are many people, they still aren’t someone without their original personalities.

That notion of being “someone,” I think, is what Alpha’s addled brain is rallying against by destroying his own original brain and asking Echo to destroy hers. To Alpha, a body with just one brain in it, one consciousness, is to be “someone,” which is to be less than “everyone,” privileging a multiple consciousness, an ever-shifting collective over the singular, individual consciousness. I really like this conceit as it subverts the notion of what it means to be an “everyman” in narratives. This whole time, we’ve looked at the Dolls as “everymen,” capable of having attributes projected onto them, but now we’re asked to read Alpha and Omega’s composite personalities as “everymen” in a literal sense, which renders them godlike, in Alpha’s conception, and, therefore, utterly singular. Uniqueness here is achieved by subverting the traditional notion of an “everyman,” and that’s pretty clever.

Barring that reading, I would find it very odd for Alpha to spend time punishing Caroline’s brain for abandoning her body, when he went on to destroy his own. Especially when he utters the most cyperpunk line in the entire series as he uploads Caroline into Wendy: “A body’s just a body. They’re all pretty much the same.” And he’s right: bodies aren’t special, but consciousness is. This show’s entire conceit has privileged the consciousness over the corporeal, uploading new people into blanked out bodies and sending them off to do the extraordinary or the ordinary. A body is only meat and flesh and organs, something that can be marked, scarred, broken or destroyed while the consciousness, especially the kind that is downloaded or uploaded at will, that lives on. And I couldn’t be happier that Dollhouse finally made it to a point where it engaged in its own conceits. (Props to you, Tim Minear!)

Thus ends our brief, poorly-executed literary theory section of this post. I promise only summary/brief commentary from now on.

While Alpha, Wendy/Caroline and Echo/Omega are having theoretical fun in his lair of doom, Ballard manages to get the bomb threat called off so he and others can go hunt down Alpha and their missing Doll. Sierra and November are imprinted as thieves, for some reason, in the one plot thread that never actually goes anywhere, which I think was added just to make Ballard uncomfortable at seeing the woman he kind of cared for uploaded with a new personality. He also discovers that Alpha and some of the other original dolls were taken from a prison population, and that, as a convict, Carl Craft (later known as Alpha) was also prone to carving up people’s faces and kidnapping. (So perhaps one never leaves one’s original consciousness behind, even when erased?)

Meanwhile Dr. Saunders tends to Victor, whose lovely face will now be scarred worse than her own. She’s actually not very kind to him, reminding him that he will never, ever be able to be his best again, that he’ll basically suffer the fate she suffered: being uploaded with a new personality for the remainder of his contract with the Dollhouse and working on the inside, as a Doll with scars is a broken Doll. (I’ll spare you more theory/analysis on bodily marking, abjecta and the horrific powers of scars, even though I assure you I really, really, really want to say something about it.) You see, once Whiskey was broken by Alpha, and he killed the original Dr. Saunders (who was an old dude who liked lollipops), they made her useful by uploading his skillset and temperament into her body. I feel so badly for Victor, whose life will never be normal again. He won’t notice it now, but when his contract is up, he will. Maybe Topher can make one of the Dolls into a plastic surgeon and fix most of Victor’s scars. He’s almost too valuable to lose as a Doll.

Why couldn't she climb to the top of the ratings? She can do practically everything else.

Why couldn't she climb to the top of the ratings? She can do practically everything else.

Back in the power plant, Echo agrees that she won’t kill her own consciousness (after the world’s most eye-rollingly on-the-nose speech about how she has 37 different brains in her head and not a one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave, especially when there’s a black president), Alpha threatens to break Wendy’s personality so that she can never have it back, revealing his plan to basically live out his days kidnapping people, and putting Echo’s consciousness into them so that she can repeatedly kill herself (and yet never kill herself . . . which is where his argument descends into crazyville). She chases him outside to save Wendy’s consciousness and literally goes out on a limb for the girl, crawling on a construction beam to get to the wedge. Conveniently, Boyd and Ballard have figured out where Alpha’s lair is by this point and Ballard manages to position himself right under Echo, catching the wedge as it falls and saving the girl. Alpha escapes (thus setting up the chase to continue should there be a next season).

Back at the Dollhouse, Ballard agrees to contract for DeWitt to help track down Alpha, but only if November’s contract is voided and she gets to return to her own life, which was pretty sweet and unexpected of Ballard to do, and proves that, in some small way, he did care about Mellie, even though she was never real. And Echo? She gets wiped clean, at least for the foreseeable future.

I’d be surprised if Fox gives Dollhouse a second season, but with such a strong sweep (save for “Haunted”) heading into the finale, they’d be remiss not to. It’s not the smartest show on TV, but it tries hard enough to be. And I’d rather watch something with which I can engage than something that doesn’t ask me to at all.

The Husband:

Hell, I can ignore about half of the Dollhouse episodes and still be confident enough with the other half, especially the last two and the Rashomon episode, to demand a second season. Just like Buffy and Angel, it took its time to get its intelligence and cleverness past the network and finally become a true Whedon show, one of big ideas, big laughs and big action. While I felt the first handful of episodes really talked down to its viewers (something that FOX surprisingly does not do very often with its dramas, and far less so than the #1 network, CBS), it finally started asking us to put the pieces together, and play along with the show as it progressed through its actual mytharc.

As I didn’t really give a crap about this show for a few weeks, I was surprised at how emotional I felt during this finale, especially during the Alpha flashbacks. This may have a great deal to do with how much I have grown to love Amy Acker over the last nine months while I watched Angel, but also my extreme amount of respect for Alan Tudyk as an actor ever since I saw him in A Knight’s Tale. (It took me another three years to discover that he wasn’t British.) The moment he slashed up Whiskey’s face was probably the series’ best moment, one of both great despair and, in a really fucked up way, love. I’m so glad I called the fact that Whiskey only became Dr. Saunders after she was slashed up, and that she wasn’t necessarily the second Doll, and that it in turn gave me a reason as to why Dr. Saunders would be afraid of Alpha, even if she wouldn’t have remembered him as an activated active and not as Whiskey.

While my wife geeks out on cyberpunk, I’m more interested in the broader concept of a soul, or in this case, how despite being a superpersonality, Alpha original form, Carl Craft, tends to dominate and thus fucks up the rest of the Dollhouse by basically being Jack the Ripper. It explains away some of the contradictions in Alpha’s “quest” versus his own killer instinct, the highbrow and lowbrow of what’s going down in that fried brizzain.

Ballard still sucks, though, but now that he’s in cahoots with the Dollhouse, maybe he can redeem himself as a character if the show gets renewed.

Which brings me to the renewal question. I wholeheartedly think that had FOX not dumped it on Friday nights, pairing it with the sinking second season of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, it would have definitely earned a second season. Can you imagine how Fringe would do on such a shitty night with such a shitty pairing? Why not put Dollhouse on Mondays after either House or Bones (the ever-shifting hits of different proportions)? I think going up against Heroes, which some might consider stupid, would actually be a great concept. Heroes is hemorrhaging viewers each week, viewers who’d do better with the similar-but-better Dollhouse, so FOX could easily snag those viewers away, viewers who’d perhaps prefer something a bit more rewarding. And at 9, it could basically take all of those viewers who love Chuck at 8 but ignore Heroes (…as I raise my hand…), because Chuck was designed for Whedonites, the smart nerdy crowd who’d follow Adam Baldwin anywhere. It’s a dirty tactic, sure, but it’s not a new concept.

Come on. Even if many great shows have failed ratings-wise this season, at least they were given a second chance after the WGA strike. Money is money, so wouldn’t you love to capture the intelligent 18-34 bracket who are smart enough to have a disposable income? Because those people are called Whedonites.

The Wife:

I have mixed feelings about the most recent installment of Dollhouse, and that’s odd to say considering this is the penultimate episode that will be airing. But I couldn’t stand the first half of this episode. The Sleeping Beauty story was far too heavy handed, and the sections at the beginning with the young Susan meeting the older, wiser “best possible future” version of herself were the most insufferable of all. It’s perfectly fine to allude to the fairy tale (and I think there ultimately was a good payoff for its use at the end, albeit one that I think produces a very complicated reading), but it isn’t fine to lay that allusion on so thick that it isn’t an allusion anymore and it becomes completely insulting to your audience.

Echo-as-Susan tells little Susan to think of herself as the prince when she reads the story, to think that Briar Rose willed the prince into being, thus saving herself, but in the end, it’s Alpha that imprints Echo/Caroline or whomever she is with that personality, and I am uncertain what we’re supposed to assume about his act of heroism here. I think the best and most likely reading is that Caroline made a pact with Alpha before they both entered the Dollhouse to somehow destroy it from the inside, with Alpha “malfunctioning” and going rogue in order to manipulate Ballard into letting him back in so he could save Caroline, which is the personality I’m presuming he imprinted Echo with, prior to their make-out session. However, does that count as Briar Rose/Echo “dreaming” her prince/Alpha into being, and thus saving herself? I suppose it does, since the plot was hatched long before she became one of many sleeping beauties in the Dollhouse.

So, completely insufferable Sleeping Beauty allusion aside, once Ballard and Alpha-as-Stephen A. Koepler-who-designed-the-Dollhouse enter into the inner sanctum, things got really good. My husband has long since wondered why the Dollhouse has such a terrible security system, and I came to the same conclusion with this episode. Even thought the place is underground, that doesn’t mean a secret corporation should be so damned easy to access! This place has barely a fraction of the kind of security protocols a bank vault has, so it’s basically been begging for Alpha to come back and slaughter everyone, etc.

I told you not to touch my organic, medicinal, personal-use carrots!

I told you not to touch my organic, medicinal, personal-use carrots!

It is, however, pretty clever on Ballard’s part to break up with Mellie in order to track her back to the main site of the Dollhouse, and then to track down the man who designed the sustainable environmental life support system that an underground building would need . . . and much more clever on Alpha’s part to engineer Paul’s manipulation to get himself back in. And even cleverer to affect such a horrible, annoying personality as to not arise any suspicions that he may, in fact, be a killer Doll.

There were some great payoffs once Ballard and Alpha were inside the Dollhouse as well. I really liked the moment where Alpha refuses to go down the stairs that don’t have risers for fear something will reach out and grab him, which was reiterated when Ballard battles Boyd and Echo reaches out to grab Ballard’s ankles and trip him. This was, perhaps, the best payoff to that Sleeping Beauty story, as Echo (basically asleep as a human being) manages to defend herself. I also enjoyed Alpha’s confrontation with Claire Saunders, as he lovingly fondles the face he carved up, moments after taking a blade to Victor’s face.

There was also some good misdirection before these wonderful reveals occurred, in which some Alpha-like murders turn up in Tucson and so Adele imprints Mr. Dominic’s consciousness onto Victor in order to get access to his USB files. There’s a wonderful moment when Dominic realizes what’s happened to him and he cannot handle being uploaded into another body, which is probably the first true cyberpunk crisis I’ve seen on this show. (Also, the actor who plays Victor does a pretty good Reed Diamond impression.) Dominic-as-Victor suggests they look for Alpha in Tucson, so they send Sierra out there to examine the body as a forensic biologist . . . and she discovers that the body was killed in L.A. and brought to Tucson and that it’s the body of one Stephen A. Koepler, which was a stellar reveal as Alpha had done such a convincing job of being Keopler until this point.

Also, I definitely got some confirmation for my theory that Claire is an Active when Dominic screams out “Whiskey” and she shirks away, trying to pass it off as though he just wanted a drink. I find it hard to believe that the folks who run the Dollhouse would be ignorant of their own naming conventions, so perhaps Claire is a Doll made by someone else, masquerading as a real person? (Whiskey, by the way, is the phonetic equivalent of W, the letter right after V for Victor.) If she’s Whiskey, then I have no idea how the Dollhouse chooses to name its Dolls. I had assumed they went in alphabetical order, in chronological sequence, which would make Alpha the first and Zulu the last. Surely, I thought that Claire would have really been Bravo, someone with the Dollhouse so long that the other Dolls would have no idea she was one of them. But she’s Whiskey. And I no longer know if there is a logical system in place for the naming of Dolls. Curious, that. But mark my words: Claire Saunders is an Active. And her name is Whiskey.

Because the end of this episode was so damned good, I’ll try my best to forget that the beginning of it ever happened. I am really looking forward to the upcoming season/series finale, but it’s a pity we won’t get to see Felicia Day’s to-be-unaired 13th episode until the DVD release.

The Wife:

I think my husband will most definitely disagree with me, but I was very much not into this whole “solve your own murder/attend your own funeral”-Agatha Christie-Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous-style plot in the most recent edition of Dollhouse. He said something to me during the show that if he were to use the Dollhouse, he’d be using it to solve mysteries, which is fine and all, just not this mystery. Just not this way.

I’ve been reading Thomas Foster’s Souls of Cyberfolk: Posthumanism as Vernacular Theory and I have come to realize that the interesting things about Dollhouse, to me, reside in the fact that it’s constantly bordering on some really heavy theory and criticism regarding cyberpunk fiction tropes and, more importantly, issues of posthumanism. I’ve sadly not read William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, but in Foster’s critical study of posthumanist bodies, I realized that the entire concept of Dollhouse has its roots in Neuromancer’s Molly, who rents her cyborg body out for money for people to upload their own consciousness into. She’s a meat puppet, a kind of cyber prostitute. And so are Echo, Sierra, Victor and November.

It's such a shame that these bodies are frail and weak.

It's such a shame that these bodies are frail and weak.

When Adele’s friend Margaret is uploaded into Echo’s body after her death, she sets about on the plan she’d conceived one year prior to her death (when she was rich and suspicious) to reintegrate herself into her family as another person, Julia. She would be a ghost at her own funeral. I think there could have been something really cool with the concept of uploading a dead person into an Active and then having to hunt down that person when they realize they can have “eternal” life as an uploaded consciousness in a new body, but Margaret instead went to her second death voluntarily, citing that she knew Adele would easily catch her. That’s consistent with her character, yes, but I’m surprised that more Dollhouse clients haven’t thought about uploading their consciousnesses to Dollhouse files and making arrangements to have their personas uploaded into new bodies from time to time, allowing them to experience life after life. That is, after all, a major trope in posthuman narratives, the idea that bodies are unimportant, only as vehicles for consciousness and that eternal life is achieved not through deity, but through technology.

Dollhouse is always skirting these tropes, but never really engaging with them. I don’t find this problematic, just curious. I’d have liked the “solve your own murder” plot more if it were attached to another character, something that didn’t involve race horses and old money and Oedipal complexes, but something more criminal, something darker. Something engaging and, most of all, something in Eliza Dushku’s tough-gal range. She wasn’t nearly as bad in this episode as the guy who played Margaret’s son was, though. He is the worst on-camera cryer. Truly.

The Husband:

Yes, I proclaimed halfway through the 42 minutes that I really liked the episode so far, and got a very funny look from my wife in response. I am quite aware that the episode was silly and majorly un-Whedon (even though one of his brothers was a co-writer), but for some reason I really gravitated toward it. It felt like it was from a different show, but that’s not entirely a bad thing due to the show’s central conceit. Let’s put it this way – it felt like a good episode of another show. It was simply that I felt it was a good use of the Dollhouse, and that ten episodes in I think that the detective episodes capture my interest the most. (Except for the mystery of who’s shooting at the pop star. That sucked balls.) If we’re talking about the best detective story this show has had, it would obviously be last week’s episode as the three Actives crossed stories, and that is indeed the level each episode should be aiming for. I’m just sick of how many plots revolve around Actives malfunctioning, because it’s already old hat.

Or maybe I like stories where spirits return to stalk their family post-death, like Hello Again or Chances Are. I’m sure there are more serious films about the same thing from better directors than, say, Emile Ardolino or Frank Perry, but my concept of spiritual rebirth is sadly focused entirely on the wacky 1980s.

And the bad cryer? He learned that leftover pain from his short stint on the rightfully canceled Bionic Woman last season. And Convicted. Because that sucked.

The Wife:

Of all of Dollhouse‘s good episodes, I think this one is arguably the best of the series, especially because it contained two really great twists that I did not in any way see coming. Well, three if you count that chip . . . the thing upon which this plot is founded.

With Adele DeWitt out on leave, Lawrence Dominic is put in charge of the Dollhouse and on his watch, Topher finds a chip in the chair, a chip that could alter the imprint he put on any Active, like Echo, for instance. If he programs a cheerleader, that chip could make her a cheerleader assassin. So Dominic puts the whole Dollhouse on lockdown and imprints Sierra as a spy-catcher to find out who amongst them has betrayed him. The only people allowed out are Victor, send on a routine Miss Lonelyhearts engagement, the tenth of his missions as the paramour of the octogenarian, and November, imprinted again as Mellie and sent back into Paul Ballard’s life.

Ballard has started to go totally nuts in her absence, obsessing over Echo’s last message to him and using his time without a badge to become a conspiracy theorist. In the middle of a romantic embrace, Mellie snaps into November mode, delivering a message to Ballard the same way Echo once did. She reveals that she is an Active and that the Dollhouse has found out that someone is sending him information. She urges him to stop discussing the case with Mellie, as she is a spy, but to continue his investigation into the Dollhouse’s purpose.


“You can make people different. You can make me help.” – Echo


Even in her Doll state, Echo realizes that Topher changes people. She offers to help find out who the spy is by asking him to imprint her. He does so, imprinting her as an interrogation and body language expert, and she begins questioning the interior of the Dollhouse while Sierra is sent out to infiltrate the NSA and steal covert documents that would reveal who is leaking Dollhouse information. Sierra’s adventure is pretty cool; she dresses up like a cute Asian NSA agent and knocks her out on a train, makes herself some contact lenses with her phone so she can fool the retinal scan (uh, I totally want that technology – is that standard with an iPhone these days?) and takes out a security guard who catches her stealing, all in 4″ heels with amazingly gorgeous zippers up the back. From Sierra’s report, she pegs Ivy, Topher’s lab assistant, as the mole, but Echo thinks its Mr. Dominic. He is none-too-pleased with this accusation and gets into a crazy broken-glass fight with Echo before she bests him and forces him to admit this by dangling him out a window.

Dude, I am so not afraid to cut you.

Dude, I am so not afraid to cut you.

As for Victor, it turns out that Miss Lonelyhearts isn’t the 80-year-old woman his handler has been lead to believe he’s seeing, as he delivers roses to some random octogenarian, but speeds off in an Aston Martin to meet up with Miss DeWitt. They share a romantic weekend together, fencing and making love, until DeWitt enters the bedroom, clothed and crying. We later learn that she has been betrayed, as Echo delivers Lawrence Dominic to her for her judgment. He tells her that his mission was to keep her from bringing the Dollhouse down herself, and that by baiting Paul Ballard, he has driven Ballard further from the truth. Nonetheless, having worked by her now-betrayed side-by-side for three years, she condemns him to the Attic, which, by the way, is a complete mind-suck where the Dollhouse basically downloads your entire brain and turns you into a vegetable. Death without dying, and pretty frightening to watch, especially because Dominic manages to fire a shot into DeWitt’s stomach before his mind is completely blanked.

As DeWitt applauds Topher for using Echo to find the spy, he informs her that Echo came up with the idea herself, meaning that she’s still evolving and that the wish-fulfillment exercise suggested by Claire didn’t entirely work. Still, DeWitt thinks this might be useful, as without Dominic in the way, there’s no one to complain about Echo’s “brokenness,” suggesting, as Echo herself does, that her brokenness is actually an asset. She does, however, ask Topher to delete the Roger persona for the Lonelyhearts engagements, as Miss Lonelyhearts has realized how indiscreet her passions are, and Boyd gets bumped up to Head of Security, leaving Echo in the lurch as she bonds with a new handler at episode’s end.

I liked the way this episode was told, too, in addition to its content. I liked the framing with the BDSM engagement in the cold open, as it set us up to think about trust and trustworthiness, which is exactly what this episode was about. It was brilliant to show us how Echo realizes what’s going on, as well as to then follow each of the four imprints to see how they added up to what Echo was seeing. It kept me guessing, as I totally wouldn’t have seen that Lonelyhearts reveal coming, nor would I have necessarily suspected Dominic. My previous inkling was that Dr. Saunders was a spy, but now I return to my original thought that she, too, is an Active – just one that never disinhabits her very useful imprint. She mentioned in her interview with Echo that she never leaves the Dollhouse, so I have to wonder if, at the end of a day, she also cozies up in a pod.

I wonder, though, where the final episodes of this season will take us now that no one will be sending messages to Paul Ballard anymore. Perhaps Alpha will find him before the Dollhouse finds Alpha?

The Husband:

Can we agree on a couple things?

1.) Ballard is a terrible detective.

2.) I’m getting pretty fucking sick of every problem this show encounters comes from within their own headquarters, either through technological fuck-up or evil mole shenanigans.

Yes, it’s a pain in the ass how nothing ever seems to go right at the Dollhouse, and for such a secretive, mythological company, they have terrible security problems. That’s why I liked the episode “Man on the Street” so much, because it was more about the outside issues everyone was encountering, so much so that the Actives had to take on several different personalities in the same ep.

I am just doing my best not to look suspicious! And to cover up for Dan Vassar  . . .

I am just doing my best not to look suspicious! And to cover up for Dan Vassar . . .

But this was, despite its problems, a damn good episode. I always like the Rashomon approach to storytelling, as it’s not necessarily what’s coming up next that’s important to a story so much as what has already happened. It also takes one moment and allows it to evolve several times over until its life is no longer unexamined, and is therefore worth watching.

I did find it a little strange that Sierra was able to so convincingly pull off her disguise despite being a completely different kind of Asian woman than her target. (The actress is Nepalese, in case you were wondering.) Her story, however, paid off in wonderful amounts of tension, as her fate in re: the rescue helicopter wasn’t even seen, and only brought up again several minutes later as Reed Diamond does his best to hold onto his final bits of Dominic before, as the actor would know, he was to be completely wiped clean of mind and sent to the Attic. (Dun dun duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuun…) As a fan of the actor, I hope to god they keep him on as an Active, especially so I can make more random references to such shows as Homicide: Life on the Streets and Journeyman (as I did when he appeared on that two-parter on Criminal Minds this year).

Oh, and using Echo as a spy hunter was a great and proper use of this show’s central conceit, much better than being a fucking midwife.

And as my wife and I have finally finished watching all five seasons of Angel, all I can say about this show is the following:

More Amy Acker, please.

(Seriously.)

The Wife:

At first, I felt like “Needs” was taking Dollhouse a few steps back from the heights of the past two episodes. The plot – kind of a hoary trope in which people awaken in an unknown situation and have to figure out what is going on – felt really tired to me, and even though by the end I was accepting of the purpose of it, it wasn’t all that fresh a take on it. My biggest problem with this episode was that it felt like something the viewers needed, not the characters or the story itself. As Echo, Sierra, Victor and November (minus Mike, who was the first of the bunch to get reprogrammed for not playing along with the whole “act like a doll and you’ll live” concept) band together to find a way out of the Dollhouse, they end up exploring some of its inner workings that we as viewers don’t normally get to see, like the weapons arsenal, the costume and prop shed and the kinds of ass-less chaps Victor has to wear on romantic engagements. And, because of some chemicals released into the sleeping pods of these five Actives, we got to understand the kind of people they were before they came into the Dollhouse.

Although, even then, not by much.

November had a daughter who died. Sierra was basically sold into slavery in the Dollhouse. Caroline was tough and clever, Mike was a conspiracy theorist and Victor was . . . uh . . . a take-charge kind of guy? All we learned about him was that, even without an imprint, he knows how to strangle someone with a towel.

Dude, I was sleeping in here just fine until you started screaming about alien abduction and shit.

Dude, I was sleeping in here just fine until you started screaming about alien abduction and shit.

These facts allegedly told us how these people ended up in the Dollhouse, and were all revealed as part of Dr. Claire Saunders’ master plan to stop said Actives from glitching. If they were imprinted with their old personalities, but no memories, and allowed to experience a controlled version of the outside world, they would eventually find closure and, thus, stop glitching. So November shuts down when she finds her daughter’s grave, Sierra finds closure in Victor’s arms after confronting the man who took away her power, Victor finds closure by getting the girl and Echo gets hers by “freeing” the other Actives.

The reveal that the “washing” of these Actives was a way to reindoctrinate them, I think, was the only part of this episode that worked. Otherwise, it was generally pretty blah and devoid of Whedon’s usual wit and storytelling style. Writer Tracy Bellomo doesn’t have many credits to his name, and perhaps that’s why this episode just doesn’t feel right to me. Or maybe it’s because I watched it after watching two of the best season 5 episodes of Angel, ever, “Smile Time” and Whedon’s own “A Hole in the World.” It’s hard to accept something this middling when you know how awesome Whedon and his team can be. I mean, Puppet Angel and Demon-God Fred? Those things are damned hard to top.

The Wife:

Eliza Duskhu was right: Dollhouse is officially totally on an awesome streak. “Man on the Street” was a seriously game-changing episode that had exactly the mix of ass-kicking awesomeness and sentimentality that I look for in a Whedon show. We finally got a good picture of the kind of person who might use the Dollhouse for romantic engagements in Patton Oswalt’s Joel Minor, who hires Echo every year on the anniversary of his wife’s death to live out the moment he never got to have with his beloved Rebecca before her life was cut short in a freak accident that very day. And yet, for that sweetness, Joel was dynamic, as well, in his confrontation with Paul Ballard, who finally caught up to Echo in this episode on her engagement with Joel. Joel called Ballard on his bullshit, comparing the agent’s desperation to find a mythical agency to Joel’s own desire to recreate his lost wife. It was all good stuff.

Even better? The excellent reveal that someone inside the Dollhouse is using Echo to communicate with Paul Ballard to lure him to them. Because I didn’t think of this and I like to give credit where credit is due, my friend Magen thinks that Amy Acker’s Claire Saunders is the one co-opting Echo’s body to deliver her messages, citing evidence of Claire’s shifty eyes and familiarity with the imprinting process. I’d add that it isn’t altogether un-possible for it to be Topher’s assistant, either. But Claire seems like a good bet to me.

I even liked Boyd’s plot about finding Sierra’s rapist and going all rogue on him. First of all, it is super fucked up for a handler to abuse his relationship with an Active, especially because the Active-Handler relationship has been conceived of as parent-child in nature. This was all extra-creepy to me because it carried with it all of these incestuous, pedophilic undertones. And frankly, Sierra’s handler got what he deserved. He did something fucked up and died in an equally fucked up way. Yeah, about that . . .

Where the bloody hell are those crisps I was promised?

Where the bloody hell are those crisps I was promised?

The big reveal that Mellie is an Active would have been much cooler for me if the fact that I regularly use IMDB hadn’t totally spoiled it. Way to go, IMDB. Way to change a character’s name halfway through the season. The minute I saw that her name changed from Mellie to November, I was like, that girl is an Active. I suppose for people who hadn’t yet caught on to the whole NATO Phonetic Alphabet naming system for Actives, that wouldn’t have been a spoiler, but I grew up a sailor’s daughter. That was definitely spoiled for me. Nonetheless, the execution of that reveal was pretty awesome in its own right, in which a call to Paul Ballard’s answering machine wakes up the killing portion of November’s brain so that she can murder Sierra’s handler, her own potential murderer. This was a truly ruthless way to do that guy in, and I think it demonstrated a particular ballsyness to Olivia Williams’ character in addition to showing us something super cool.

The show built on the momentum from “Man on the Street” by giving us an episode, “Echoes,” that looks deep into Echo’s past as Caroline. While everyone else from the Dollhouse is out pretending to be the government containing a potentially lethal drug exposure at Fremont College, Echo is off on a romantic engagement with her boy toy from the first episode. In the middle of their light bondage play, she turns on the TV, sees the Rossum Building at Fremont College and feels the instant need to leave. You remember all those other times Reed Diamond thought she was going off task? Well, this time, she really was.

“Man on the Street” utilized an excellent framing device by peppering the story with news interviews of real people’s opinions on the legend of the Dollhouse. “Echoes” builds upon this narrative frame foundation by showing us how Echo wound up at the Dollhouse and the events that lead up to it. Seems that while Caroline was at Fremont College, she discovered that one of the school’s major donors was into some heavy animal testing and she convinced her boyfriend at the time to help her break into the lab and film the abuses there. Once inside, they discovered that Rossum Corporation, the company that owns the Dollhouse, had started experimenting on humans as well. Her boyfriend was killed, and she was captured and presented with a deal over tea: give the Dollhouse five years of her life, and she will walk away scot free.

Seeing the college triggered something in Echo that made her remember and want to reenact the event that ultimately lead her to the Dollhouse, and this leads her into the main plot full of craziness at Fremont College. That drug the other Actives are trying to find is a powerful memory drug that, when administered in large doses, makes people trip balls. With no hippocampus, the Actives should theoretically be immune to it, but as Topher and Olivia Williams realize that it’s administered from person to person by touch, it’s already too late and every single person involved in the mission is tripping balls. For Topher and Olivia Williams, this is really funny, as they too are tripping balls. Some favorite Joss Whedon-y quotes from their drug-trip:

  • “I find lentils completely incomprehensible.” – Miss DeWitt
  • “I’m very British, don’t you think?” – Miss DeWitt
  • “You haven’t seen my drawer of inappropriate starches.” – Topher

Reed Diamond is also affected with the giggles (he tried to pet an invisible cat, for God’s sake) from exposure to the toxin, and when he sees Echo in the hallway of the Rossum building, he confronts her and apologizes for trying to kill her:

“I tried to burn you to death – who does that?”

But for Sierra and Victor, the drug affects them much more slowly, but also much more intensely. Instead of tripping happy fun balls, they both have bad trips, where Sierra flashes back to her recent rape and Victor remembers being a soldier and failing to rescue a woman from a warzone before she died. Back at the Dollhouse, even November starts to glitch, flashing back to her last engagement. You know, that one where she killed a guy all of a sudden.

After all of these shenanigans, it turns out that Echo’s guide through the Rossum building is also the person responsible for the death of the graduate student that started this whole crazy mess. But even after dosing her with the drug, she can’t shake the echoes of her first time in that laboratory and ends up chasing him out of the building the way she chased her dying boyfriend, pinning him to the ground so that Boyd et al can capture him and retrieve the other vial of the drug that he had hoped to sell to a rival company.

Stir of echoes.

Stir of echoes.

Another excellent echo? Drug-Stealer Sam ends this episode where Echo began it: having tea with Miss DeWitt, being propositioned for a stint in the Dollhouse.

Dollhouse delivered what was promised, and I am definitely in it to win it for the rest of the season.

In another Whedonverse-related note, did you guys know that Andy Hallett passed away yesterday after a long battle with congestive heart failure? I’m not even done with season 5 of Angel, but that makes me really sad. Please honor his memory by reading this post from PopWatch’s Mandi Bierly. It made me a little misty earlier.

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