TV review: Dollhouse season one

So in the spring of 2009, while my friends and I were concluding what was to be the last term of Antioch College*, Joss Whedon released a brand new television series called Dollhouse. And it was really, reeeeally bad.

*Meaning the institution I refer to when I say “Antioch College,” as opposed to the legal entity formally known as “Antioch College.”

My sister linked me the first two episodes, and the overall feeling they provoked in me was one of acute boredom. I probably would have stopped there, but ptolemaeus was sufficiently engaged by the show to get me to watch most of the rest of the season with her over the summer. We skipped over episodes three and four, though, and from all I’ve heard of them, I didn’t miss much. We also didn’t see episode thirteen, “Epitaph One,” because it wasn’t broadcast with the rest of the series, and by the time it was available, even ptolemaeus had lost interest.

The season never stopped being incredibly bad, but it did grow a lot more engaging, to the point where I ended up doing a write-up of some of the later episodes. For this re-post, I figured I’d go ahead and discuss all the episodes of the series that I’ve seen.

Warning: this post contains potentially triggering discussions of rape and child sexual abuse.

And as always, spoilers.

Premise:

Caroline (played by Eliza Dushku) accepts a five-year contract with a mysterious organization called the Dollhouse. This contract involves having her personality wiped and put on a hard drive, so that the Dollhouse can imprint her with … whatever personality they like.

In between missions, Caroline—now called Echo—and the other “Dolls” or “Actives” are kept in a zombielike state of emotionless obedience. Ostensibly, they have no personalities when they’re like this, but in practice, they act more like well-behaved children than robots.

Not long before the series begins, an Active called Alpha went postal and murdered or mutilated several Dolls and Dollhouse staff—deliberately leaving Echo untouched. Alpha is still at large and still very interested in Echo. (Sound familiar?)

Over the course of several missions in which Echo has essentially the same personality with different wardrobe and trappings, she begins experiencing memories of previous Engagements, of her time at the Dollhouse, and even her original personality, Caroline.

The series attempts to address themes of personal identity, slavery, human trafficking and sex work, but the discourse falls flat for numerous reasons, most prominently the utter ineptness of the delivery coupled with Whedon’s conviction that he’s writing something profound and his aversion/inability to integrate “the Dollhouse is human trafficking” with “the Dollhouse helps people out and has scantily-clad Eliza Dushku kicking evildoers’ asses” in any coherent manner.

Dollhouse recruitment policy also skews noticeably towards young, conventionally-attractive, white, and female, in that order. There’s significant potential here for social commentary about the way the Dollhouse’s biases—reflecting, as they do, contemporary US television’s biases—create a distorted picture of reality by overemphasizing some demographics at the expense of others. Unfortunately, for that to happen, the show would have to—for a start—acknowledge the distortions, and it sadly doesn’t go even that far.

I should also put a word in about the theme song. It’s not that it’s bad as such, but it’s badly out of place. It would be more appropriate coupled with one of those sad, nostalgic, slightly surreal Irish fairy tales. Or the tenth anniversary of a close friend’s death. I suppose it’s just another example of Whedon trying to make out that what he’s writing is grim and serious despite the evidence.

Episode 1: Ghost: The series begins with a conversation between Caroline and the head of the Dollhouse, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), wherein the latter convinces her to sign a five-year contract to be an Active. We then cut to Echo partying with a random charming stud and saying she could do this forever, minutes before she’s taken back to the Dollhouse to have her current imprint extracted. This is played up as tragedy, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

About the first half of the episode is comprised of showing us the Dollhouse’s setup, and introducing the other major players. These include Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), Echo’s handler, who harbors misgivings about the Dollhouse’s mission and is thus the closest thing to a two-dimensional character in these early episodes; Topher Brink (Fran Kranz), the amoral geek in charge of all things Dolltech and the only source of anything resembling fun or snappy dialogue for much of the season; Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a new Active whom Echo strikes up a sort-of friendship with; Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond), the hard-nosed and generally suspicious head of Dollhouse security; and Dr. Claire Saunders (Whedon veteran Amy Acker), the Dollhouse medic, whose sole claim to anything approaching originality is the faint scars on her face she received during the Alpha incident.

Finally, the call comes down to have Echo brought in as a hostage negotiator. One wonders why the client couldn’t have just sprung for an actual hostage negotiator, which would probably have given you the same skill set, be much cheaper, and not be—as it turns out—so appallingly bad at the job.

First she nearly doubles the kidnappers’ ransom on her own initiative—so they can get used to playing things her way, which I somehow doubt is standard procedure for hostage negotiations. Then she bungles the trade-off so the bad guys get away with the loot and the little girl they kidnapped.

Echo freaked out because one of the women who was a template for this imprint was taken as a girl by the lead kidnapper, who killed his accomplices and systematically raped her. That girl grew up and studied hostage negotiations (because obviously, the only reason a woman could have for going into this kind of profession is to work through personal trauma) and eventually committed suicide.

Even accepting the mawkish baskstory, you’d think a technical genius like Topher would have managed to incorporate the template’s knowledge into Echo’s imprint without giving her the accompanying PTSD—or failing that, used an equally knowledgeable template without a history of trauma in the first place. Oh, and he also gave her imprint asthma for some bullshit contrived reason about having to “balance her out”—because apparently putting together a Dollhouse imprint works on the exact same principles as D&D character generation.

Adelle is ready to give up the mission as a bad job, but is convinced to give Echo’s hostage negotiator persona a second shot, because she believes the Dollhouse’s mission is to be a force for good in the world. How on earth she manages to square that belief with the Dollhouse’s use of mind-rape and treating their Actives like living furniture is anyone’s guess.

Anyway, Echo enters the kidnappers’ hideout and convinces the head kidnappers’ two accomplices that he’s planning to betray them. With their help, she rescues the girl and defeats the kidnapper, thus providing a very esoteric kind of closure for the victim strand of her personality.

Then Sierra blows in with a black ops team and kills the kidnappers. This is supposed to be all edgy and shit, but it just comes off as melodramatic.

In the closing scene, we see a naked man who is implied to be Alpha sitting in a living room watching a television broadcast of Echo.

A subplot running throughout the episode involves painfully stereotypical “maverick” FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) being convinced that the Dollhouse is real and using ethically questionable methods to get information out of small-time Russian mobster Anton Lubov (Enver Gjokaj).

The characters in this episode are dull, the plot is dull, and even the dialogue—normally Whedon’s staple—is dull. Strap in folks, we’re in for a very long ride.

Episode 2: The Target: This time around, Echo gets an engagement to go on a romantic camping trip with outdoorsman Richard Connell, but it turns out her client is harboring a deadly secret.

… Specifically, Connell’s secret is that he gets off on hunting women like animals and Echo, naturally, is the eponymous target.

Oh my god, what do I do with this character? As cartoonish as Whedon’s Straw Misogynists can get, this is the one who stands out to me as by far the most ludicrous of the bunch. As always, though, the character is played with the utmost seriousness. After I first saw this episode, I got onto a chat with ptolemaeus, saying “I wonder what the world will look like when that man [Whedon] re-discovers subtlety.”

(You have to wonder how Connell expected to escape the wrath of the Dollhouse, as they wouldn’t be too keen on a client murdering one of their Actives.)

What follows is an uninspiring game of cat and mouse through the woods, punctuated with atrocious dialogue. The crowning example would be Echo’s response to Connell’s typical cardboard villain blather about people like her having to earn their right to continued survival: “You know what gives someone the right to live? Not hunting them!”

Langton attempts to intervene and help Echo, but fails—and if I remember correctly, is injured as well—leaving her to face down Connell by herself. Echo kills Connell, and this is supposed to be all empowering and shit. yawn. Because he was an Evil Misogynist, killing him entails no long-term ethical, moral, or legal consequences whatsoever.

A subplot involves flashbacks to Langton’s introduction to the Dollhouse, in the wake of Alpha’s murder spree which left Echo’s previous handler dead and Doctor Saunder’s face scarred.

There’s more boringly cliché antics between Ballard and his stereotypically skeptical colleagues and between Ballard and Lubov. We also meet Ballard’s neighbor Mellie (Miracle Laurie), who is set up as a romantic interest.

Episodes 3 & 4: never watched them, sorry.

Episode 5: True Believer: Echo is engaged by the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives) to infiltrate a religious cult, which for some spurious reason requires implanting video cameras in her eyes, while making her imprint for this mission blind.

The title comes from the fact that Echo’s persona is not programmed to be an undercover agent, but an actual believer in cult leader Jonas Sparrow’s teachings. I suppose this is going by the theory that if even she doesn’t know she’s an agent, she’s less likely to get caught. Whether this is more effective than imprinting her with all the training a regular agents gets is debatable, but it does ensure she’s much less capable of defending herself when things go wrong. Oh, and because she’s not programmed to do any actual investigating, one wonders how she would’ve found the weapons’ cache if Sparrow hadn’t conveniently locked her up with it.

Okay, so the mission here is even more contrived than the hostage negotiation in episode one. Seriously, why not just send in cockroaches with cameras, instead of using Echo’s eyes?

Oh, and at least some branches of the US government are perfectly aware of the Dollhouse’s inhumane and probably illegal activities, but are happy to turn a blind eye so long as they can make use of the organization’s services. Can’t say I’m surprised, really.

Anyway, it turns out the note which implied some of the cult members were being held against their will and triggered the investigation was actually planted by the ATF agent who’s coordinating the mission with the Dollhouse. Sparrow’s an ex-crook, and the agent was convinced this whole cult thing was just a smokescreen to allow him to continue his life of crime. There’s some room to believe Sparrow really is sincere, and the guns are just a precaution—against trigger-happy law enforcement, for instance—but they’re still illegal, so trigger-happy law enforcement gets to swoop in and clear everybody out.

Certainly, Sparrow’s response to the assault, “let’s burn the building around us and trust that God’s power will protect us, just like in the Bible” makes more sense for a true blue zealot than a cynical con man.

However, during the proceedings, Echo receives a bump on the head which shorts out the cameras and restores her eyesight, which in turn gets interpreted as a miracle. Echo also decides that burning to death inside the building is not a great idea, and gets some of the cult members to start organizing an evacuation, saying the fact her eyesight is restored proves God sent her to the cult with a message, “and that message is move your ass! Go!” It’s a classic Whedon line, and I don’t know if it’s Eliza Dushku’s delivery or the line itself is just trying too hard, but for whatever reason it doesn’t work. (Also, so much for “true believer.”)

Sparrow, realizing Echo is big trouble, attempts to kill her, but is shot in the chest by Dominic. This is not precisely a rescue—Dominic has been growing concerned at Echo’s increasing propensity towards self-awareness, which he compares to Alpha’s behavior leading up to the latter’s killing spree. So he hits her in the head with the butt of his gun but for no clear reason whatsoever refrains from shooting her like he did Sparrow.

Surprise, surprise, come next morning, the building has burned down but Echo has survived, and is brought safely back to the Dollhouse, thus making Dominic officially the World’s Most Inept Assassin. What would have made for a great twist ending would’ve been a closing shot showing that Sparrow had—miraculously—survived as well, but no such luck.

This episode’s subplot involves Topher and Dr. Saunders investigating the strange behavior of a Doll named Victor, who by now has been revealed as Lubov’s true identity. Despite the fact that Dolls are supposed to be stripped of all personality when not given an imprint (and this is apparently supposed to extend to hormones), video evidence reveals that Victor has been getting hard-ons when in the communal shower with Sierra. This will become important later on. (Well, not the part about the Dollhouse staff using spy cameras to watch the Dolls while they’re in the shower, although since the staff’s hormones definitely haven’t been suppressed, you’d think it would become an issue at some point.)

Episode 6: Man in the Street: Echo is engaged by a millionaire programmer to play his deceased wife for an evening, when Ballard finally catches up with her.

Ballard finds Echo by way of the client, Joel Mynor, a not conventionally attractive man whose conventionally attractive wife supported him financially up until the day he struck it rich in the dot com bubble—the same day she died tragically in a car accident (melodramatic, yes, but tame by Whedon’s standards). Every year, Mynor engages an Active to be imprinted with his wife’s personality, take her to the luxurious home he bought for her, have a romantic dinner together, and then get freaky between the sheets because, as he says to Ballard, “It is a fantasy.”

Ballard finds Mynor’s use of brainwashed women to live out this fantasy disgusting, but Mynor has worked out that Ballard has his own less than altruistic motives for pursuing Echo, and calls him a hypocrite in turn.

Ballard goes after Echo anyway, but he also starts a relationship with Mellie, whom he’s told about his Dollhouse investigations. Seems like a sensible decision to me—stop chasing fantasy figures and see how things go with the person sitting right next to you.

Ballard catches up with Echo, but it’s been determined that he’s getting too close, and Echo has been given ninja programming to remove him as a threat. In the midst of kicking Ballard’s ass, though, Echo suddenly stops as a sleeper personality takes over, with a message for Ballard from a mysterious ally inside the Dollhouse. She informs him that the Dollhouse’s stated mission of supplying custom-made personalities for such varied purposes as hostage negotiations, bodyguarding, safe cracking, midwifery, cult-busting, and various glorified forms of prostitution is just a front, and that he needs to figure out what the Dollhouses (there are more than one) are really up to. Her original programming then takes over and she frames Ballard for shooting a fellow cop, thus adding “edgy cop on a mission gets suspended” to our list of law enforcement clichés.

Meanwhile, back at the Dollhouse, the staff discover that someone within their organization has raped Sierra. They discover this because she starts screaming bloody murder when touched by a male Doll, and of course the only possible reason she could have for doing so is rape.

Suspicion initially falls upon Victor, because of his obvious attraction to Sierra. However, it transpires that the true culprit is Sierra’s handler, Hearn. On the one hand, Whedon is really pulling his punches—not to mention his social commentary—by having the person who raped Sierra be not lovable Victor, but complete scumbag Hearn. Because only utter bastards are ever guilty of raping a woman—which is why so many rape cases hinge upon the character of the accused male rapist, rather than the actual facts of what he did or didn’t do.

On the other hand, well, Victor really is lovable, when not playing the annoying Lubov, and pulling him off the hook for abusing Sierra means we get to preserve the fun of having his character around without any unpleasant associations. Admittedly, that’s an incredibly shallow perspective to take, but heavy-handedness notwithstanding, this is a show which often takes the “safe” route when it comes to its storytelling, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to engage with it on that basis, shallow or not.

DeWitt and the rest of the staff are outraged with Hearn, which, as Dan Hemmens points out, is kind of incongruous for a bunch of human traffickers.

Hearn is the poster boy for the stereotypical male-on-female rapist: a slimy asshole with no redeeming qualities who uses his superior physical and/or institutional power to force himself upon a woman. I’m not saying this sort of thing never happens, but making this the canonical “story of rape” and vilifying the perpetrators is actually a key element of perpetuating rape culture: it ensures that perpetrators, bystanders, and even victims will have a harder time identifying rape in all other cases, such as when, e.g. a man takes advantage of a woman under the influence of mind-altering substances such as drugs or alcohol, or spikes her drink with the express purpose of taking advantage*. The latter scenario is roughly equivalent to Dollhouse clients like Mynor hiring brainwashed Dolls like Echo into having sex with them, and is no less rape than Hearn physically overpowering Sierra. Yet Mynor—despite getting called out by Ballard—is still treated with a level of sympathy which is not afforded Hearn.

*And, of course, any instances which aren’t male-on-female.

Mynor, and Ballard, and other characters related to the Dollhouse are painted in shades of gray (dull gray), as is their behavior, whereas Hearn and his behavior are painted in stark black-and-white. The episode asks the viewer to consider whether there’s really any difference between Mynor’s treatment of Echo and Hearn’s treatment of Sierra. The problem is that with this set-up, Whedon leaves plenty of interpretive space open for viewers to arrive at an affirmative answer, especially if they’ve already been primed with rape myths such as the one outlined above.

DeWitt sends Hearn to assassinate Mellie, ostensibly because Ballard has told her too much, but in actuality to be executed by her. Mellie, it turns out, is another Doll, November, whose mission is to spy on Ballard for the Dollhouse, and also has a sleeper ninja personality for some reason or other which DeWitt activates. With Hearn dispatched, DeWitt gives the counter-phrase and November reverts back to Mellie, who’s understandably distraught by the dead guy in her living room. Ballard arrives on the scene and comforts Mellie, apparently harboring no suspicions about the improbable circumstances of Hearn’s death.

By contrast, Mynor’s ending is that Echo gets re-imprinted with the personality of his wife, and is sent back to him to complete the fantasy. Some people have seen ambiguity in this ending, but again, even ambiguity distances it from the straight-up condemnation of Hearn’s conclusion.

The episode title refers to a series of sound-bites sprinkled throughout the story from interviews with random passersby. Apparently, in the show’s universe, the existence of the Dollhouses is kept secret from the general public, but is still subject to rumor, and some journalist has been going around asking people to comment upon this semi-mythical organization.

In his breakdown of the show’s first six episodes, Dan Hemmens had a lot to say about the discursive meaning behind the various answers, which is well worth considering. Personally, though, I just found the whole thing a boring gimmick, along with—in hindsight—some pretentious foreshadowing of the post-apocalyptic world of “Epitaph One.”

Episode 7: Echoes: A psychotropic drug gets loose on a college campus—coincidentally, Echo’s old campus—killing one person and getting several others drunk.

The drug was created by the Rossum Corporation, the company which owns the Dollhouse. Topher exposits some technobabble about the drug attacking people’s memories, and the Dolls being immune because their memories are fake. DeWitt sends in the Dolls to contain the outbreak while Topher works on a cure.

Echo, meanwhile, is on an unrelated assignment, but the television set she’s working with conveniently malfunctions, cutting to news coverage of the campus psychosis outbreak. She starts having flashbacks to her original personality, and feels the overwhelming need to head over to campus and … do something undefined, leaving her “client” tied to a bed.

When she arrives on campus, Echo starts remembering how she and her old boyfriend broke into the Rossum building on campus to document the corporation’s cruelty to animals. Despite obviously being confused and disoriented and generally acting exactly as if she were under the influence of the drug running loose, she manages to recruit one of the students to help her break back into Rossum.

Dull story short, her incongruously trusting ally turns out to be the person who set loose the drug in the first place, and he broke back in to get the rest. Still not sure why he trusted Echo to get him in, but whatever. He gets captured, and the drug wears off after a few hours.

The flashbacks imply but carefully do not say that Caroline’s boyfriend was killed by Rossum security after the two of them broke in and found incriminating evidence about the Dollhouse project. (Incidentally, Rossum security is crap.) At the time, ptolemaeus guessed Echo’s “dark secret”—the reason she signed on with the Dollhouse—would eventually turn out to be something other than “I got my boyfriend killed,” though I had my doubts.

There are some cute scenes, such as when Dominic and Victor’s Imprint-of-the-Week tussle over rank. Victor settles the dispute by going “NSA, bitch; outranks lowly private security,” and Dominic curses Topher. That bit also makes for some halfway-decent if heavy-handed foreshadowing.

When Dominic gets drunk, he also apologizes to Echo for trying to kill her as she wanders bye, and it’s actually a touching moment for him.

Watching the interactions of Victor’s and Sierra’s imprints, knowing what we do about their “relationship” is fun, too. If this show focused more on the characters’ relationships, and how they enact those relationships through a host of personalities, instead of wallowing in moral complexities and similar shite, it might actually have been worth watching.

Oh, and the drug also somehow gets loose in the Dollhouse, leading to some great scenes of Topher and DeWitt getting completely plastered in Topher’s office and acting, well, like two very drunk people. (No, they do not have sex.)

Episode 8: Needs: In order to cut down the dangerously independent behavior of the Actives, Dr. Scarface Amy Acker suggests they give their most “unstable” Dolls an outing to work through their original personalities’ unfinished business.

Echo, November, Sierra and Victor—along with a blond throwaway character named Mike—wake up in their sleep pods, sporting their original personalities but suffering amnesia. The five of them try to figure out what the hell is going on (among the leading theories: alien abduction), giving us a chance to see who these people really are. Victor quickly establishes himself as the coolest of the bunch by far, because he’s funny and competent and has a refreshingly take-charge-and-get-things-done attitude. Perhaps, as Dan Hemmens has suggested, Whedon just Does Guys Better.

Our heroes quickly discover they are not alone, and decide they must try to blend in with the other Dolls. This leads to an … interesting scene where the characters realize they’re supposed to enter a communal shower. If it were me, I would have hesitated a liiittle more than they all did, but maybe I’m just particularly self-conscious. Victor goes in last and is warned by Sierra not to look at anything, which he semi-accidentally does anyway. Because only men can be pervs, women having no sex drive of their own.

Mike is soon captured and turned back into a zombie. The remaining four musketeers are shaken by this, and decide to escape the Dollhouse. This accomplished, they each set out (without consciously realizing what they’re doing) to settle their unfinished business.

At this point, I was thinking that this might be a show that I could actually enjoy watching. Yes, the “fugitives from the Evil Laboratory” scenario is awfully cliché, but at least the main characters had actual personalities which could connect to the audience and each other. It set up something both they the writers and we the viewers could work with, and I found myself actually liking the main characters.

Unfortunately, Dr. Scarface implanted them all with some device or other which pumps sleep gas into their blood streams as soon as they’ve “worked through their issues.”

So, November falls asleep standing over her daughter’s grave (oh, yeah, how very poignant).

Sierra confronts the man who had her put in the Dollhouse against her will because she refused to have sex with him, and then Victor punches him out. Victor, not Sierra. This is more or less a textbook example of Nice Guy Syndrome, and it’s not pretty, let alone empowering. Quite the opposite.

To drive the point home, Victor then gets his “issues” settled by finally making out with Sierra—their relationship is pretty sweet—and then it’s nap time for both of them.

Before they go under, Victor and Sierra also get shot at by a couple of security guards, rather like Caroline and her boyfriend when the broke into the Rossum building. Around the time I first wrote up these episodes, I realized that in the Whedonverse, security guards and police officers deploying their firearms with intent to kill against unarmed suspects is not cause for surprise, much less a formal inquiry. (This does happen in real life, but since hardly any of Whedon’s characters are young African or Latino males, he still fails the plausibility test.)

Possibly this laissez-faire attitude toward shooting at people who pose no immediate danger is related to the attitude that kicking people who pose no immediate danger into engine intakes somehow makes a character more heroic, rather than murderous and sadistic.

Echo stays in the Dollhouse, shoots up Topher’s lab, and then forces DeWitt to set all the Dolls free, over the latter’s protests that they’d be helpless in their zombie states. Apparently, Echo didn’t think to have Topher return their personalities before springing them. As soon as she has “saved” all the Dolls by leading them out into the sun, she loses consciousness, and Dollhouse security quickly recaptures the mindless Actives.

The episode ends with the revelation that before going after Topher, Echo found Agent Ballard’s phone number somewhere, and called him up to enlist his aid. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be bothered to tell him anything more specific than that the Dollhouse is somewhere in Los Angeles and that it’s underground. That’s a lot of help.

Episode 9: Spy in the House of Love: We begin with a pointless flashforward which serves no purpose whatsoever. Cut to “Twelve hours earlier” with Echo returning from an engagement in Dominatrix gear. Here we get a patent Whedon scene with Echo explaining “It’s not about the pain, it’s about trust.” 75 seconds later: “Okay, sometimes it’s about the pain.” I don’t know if it’s that Whedon’s act is getting old, or if it’s that most of his jokes are only moderately funny by themselves, and need all he other entertaining material he cut out of this series to shine properly.

The narrative follows the Dollhouse’s Four Musketeers on various engagements. There’s a bit of overlapping of stories with Echo witnessing part of a scene from another Doll’s story, which then gets shown in full when their turn is up. It made me think the writers were trying to copy that old Simpsons episode showing Homer’s, Lisa’s, and Bart’s day in sequence, with each story tying back into the other two.

The difference is that in the Simpsons episode, each jigsaw scene was important to its own story thread, and to the story thread of the other scene it joined with, and vice versa. In this episode, we could’ve cut Echo’s jigsaw scene and not lost anything in either her story or the other Musketeers’. In the Simpsons example, jigsaw scenes served to enhance the plot; in the Dollhouse example, they provided a cheap gimmick.

Anyway, the main story thread of this episode is that in the process of fixing his mind-rape chair following Echo’s attack in the previous story, Topher finds a chip which was used to implant secondary instructions into the Actives. This is apparently the device used in “Man in the Street,” to get Echo to give a message to Ballard.

While DeWitt is away on business, Dominic is in command at the Dollhouse. Topher informs Dominic of his finding, and that the device is NSA. Dominic acts suspicious of Topher (after all, he is the head programmer) and orders a lockdown of the Dollhouse. He then has Sierra programmed to infiltrate NSA HQ and find information on their mole.

Echo wanders into Topher’s lab, asking if she can help. When he says she can’t, she replies that he has a process which makes people able to do things and volunteers to be imprinted. This incredible outburst of personality raises not a single red flag for Topher, who happily imprints Echo with the persona of a spy-catcher and takes her to see Dominic. Echo reveals her intention to start her interrogations with Topher himself, which, as Dominic remarks, restores his faith in Topher’s programming skills.

Sierra escapes NSA HQ with information implicating Topher’s assistant, Ivy. Echo realizes the information was planted, and that Dominic is the real spy. Cue the Obligatory Fight Sequence between Echo and Dominic, in which Dominic is captured.

DeWitt interrogates Dominic, who claims that he wasn’t trying to bring down the Dollhouse—he was, in fact, trying to keep DeWitt from bringing it down. DeWitt has Dominic sent to “The Attic,” where he’ll be kept in a state of perpetual forgetfulness. She then promotes Langton to chief of Dollhouse security, much to the latter’s chagrin.

We wrap up with Echo meeting her new handler, Travis, who is never seen or heard of again. (Whedon should take a lesson from Rob Thomas when it comes to handling bit characters.)

There are also a couple subplots. In November’s, she gets sent back to spy on Ballard, but also carries a secret message from his ally within the Dollhouse (presumably Dominic, but possibly not) explaining that Mellie is a Doll who can’t be trusted with information about his investigation.

In Victor’s, we learn that the “Miss Lonely Hearts” he’s been assigned to several times recently is DeWitt herself, who used the “out on business” excuse for a “romantic” getaway. However, during one of the boring, shallow sequences which stand in for character development in this show, she has some sort of revelation which convinces her to end these “Miss Lonely Hearts” meetings because … no, I’m not even going to pretend I followed whatever tired, trite, incredibly bo-ring line of reasoning they cooked up for that one.

Ms. DeWitt—or may I call you Adelle?—let me get this straight: your position is that it’s unethical for a Dollhouse employee to have sex with a Doll … unless the Doll in question has been programmed to like it? Just checking.

DeWitt’s behavior in this episode highlights the show’s incoherent approach to morality. Aside from the obvious Hearn parallels, in one scene she’s defending the Dollhouse’s practices to someone (probably Langton) by saying that while yes, they do send their Dolls out to do BDSM, they never take a contract for their Actives to play the submissive. Mortal danger? Fine. Illegal activity? No problem. Having all kinds of sex with any man sporting a big enough wad of cash—or, you know, herself? Absolutely. But contracting as a submissive? No way. Because that would be wrong.

And then there’s her confrontation with Dominic, where he insists that Dollhouse technology can’t be released to the general public, that it has to be kept under control. DeWitt, assuming he means “control by the NSA” is horrified at the idea of the Dollhouse coming under the purview of “a clandestine organization with little government oversight.” Yes, she actually says that, and if there was any conscious irony there, I sure as hell missed it. Sometimes this show makes no goddamn sense.

Episode 10: Haunted: DeWitt imprints Echo with the personality of her old friend Margaret, who has recently died, and now wants to find her killer. This gives Eliza Dushku the opportunity—for the first time in the show’s history—to play a character truly distinct from all her previous roles.

It’s also the first episode in the series in which none of Echo’s old memories push through her programming. ptolemaeus suggested they finally had an episode premise which was interesting enough in its own right. My theory is the writers were so caught up with the fact that this time, Echo’s imprint was a fully-formed human, and not something cobbled together like her other personalities, they forgot she’s still Echo rather than Margaret, and her original personality is supposed to be breaking through.

The exciting premise is quickly squandered with interminable scenes of Echo-as-Margaret interacting with her husband, brother, daughter, and son, all the while failing miserably at the pretense that she is anyone other than Margaret Whats-Er-Name. (Seriously, even Little Kuriboh of Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Abridged Series can’t make this sort of scenario entertaining.) This being Joss Whedon we’re dealing with, there is, of course, a scene where Margaret’s son tries to make out with Margaret-as-Echo. Dollhouse! The television series that Goes There!

Hear that? That’s the sound of ten thousand people not being impressed. Or entertained.

The investigation begins with Margaret’s ex-husband acting creepy and weird, so we know right away that he didn’t do it. Then he reveals some vaguely incriminating information about her brother, so he’s in the clear, too.

In modern mysteries, the culprit is always the person the observer is never supposed to suspect. Therefore, the “detective” character can never be shown to suspect that person either. Unfortunately, in most such mysteries, the writer doesn’t do anything to divert the viewer’s suspicion from the real perpetrator aside from keeping the “detective” off the scent. Nineteen times out of twenty, you can figure out the culprit by singling out the one potential suspect who—for whatever reason—never falls under suspicion before the reveal.

In this case, the Culprit Criteria left us with two suspects: the daughter and the son. However, there were more than enough clues lying around for me to figure out the son was responsible well in advance. Something which may have been a clue was the revelation that the son was also a Dollhouse client, because only bad people hire mind-raped human Dolls to live out their fantasies. Except when it’s good people who hire them, of course.

What really got me, though, was the part where the son revealed that as a Dollhouse client, he’d been able to figure out that Echo was his mother. There was a rather touching scene where he told her how sad he was that she was dead, and I held out hope that I might actually be witnessing a criminal experiencing contrition.

On Whedon’s shows, people only seem to feel guilty over something they’ve done if it was by accident/they didn’t know what you were doing/they’d temporarily misplaced their soul. Apparently, unless it’s a main character, Joss Whedon doesn’t believe in a person voluntarily doing something horrible and then feeling bad about it later, despite documented evidence. Margaret’s son is no exception.

Interspersed with this narrative are a number of much cuter and more entertaining snippets where Topher imprints Sierra with the personality of a spunky, gung-ho geek he can hang out with. At the end of the episode, DeWitt reveals that she knows all about Topher programming Dolls for his own use (not difficult, as the two of them were playing catch and laser tag all over the Dollhouse), saying that he needs the companionship, and that it’s only once a year—on his birthday.

It’s left ambiguous whether Topher actually has sex with Geek Sierra, and frankly, I don’t care. If this show can’t be bothered to offer a mature and coherent analysis of its characters’ morality, I don’t see why I should take up all of the slack. Topher is the only consistently fun aspect of the show, and his scenes with Sierra-the-Geek were some of the sweetest, most entertaining moments of the entire season.

On the other hand, my opinion of Hearn’s intelligence has really gone down now that I find out the only thing he would’ve had to do to get DeWitt’s approval to have sex with Sierra was to request her services as an Active.

Ballard’s story in this episode revolves around his attempts to deal with the fact that his lover, Mellie—who’s still in love with him—is a brainwashed prostitute. His strategy consists of clumsily fending off her sexual advances and other than that doing jack shit. Clearly he’s lulling her into a sense of security which, once achieved, he will do absolutely nothing about.

Then at one point she corners him, saying that whatever he wants from her, she’s prepared to go along with, and whatever they do, “it doesn’t have to mean anything.” Under the crushing force of this unassailable logic, Ballard’s resolve crumbles like soft clay and he and November-as-Mellie go into pre-coital make-out montage. Um, morality, Joss? At the end of the episode, she’s walking around the apartment talking about how awesome the sex was, and asking if he’s going to do any more hunting for Dollhouse clients today. Cut to Ballard in the shower, looking set to challenge Angel for the title of World’s Most Epic Brooder, saying “I found one.” On second thought, don’t explore the moral implications of this sequence. Just don’t.

I suppose my real problem with that whole business was not in the moral ramifications of Ballard knowingly raping November, but in trying to fathom the logic behind it. I could understand and accept (if not approve of) Ballard’s decision if the show would only address why he caved so easily. To do that, however, would necessitate exploring territory Dollhouse has avoided like the plague since day one: characterization.

The first episode, “Ghost,” introduced Ballard as the stereotypical edgy cop on a mission, nothing more. Ten episodes later, the writing team has managed—at no little effort, doubtless—to avoid even the suggestion of character development on Ballard’s part.

Since Ballard effectively has no personality other than “stop the Dollhouse” and “save Caroline,” there’s no rhyme or reason to anything he does outside the spheres of those two objectives. We can understand most of them by filling in what a normal tv character would do at this point. But this 1) still leaves Ballard an essentially two-dimensional character, 2) doesn’t mitigate the writers’ irresponsibility in presenting him as such, and 3) still leaves us lacking any sort of explanation for the present debacle.

The writers’ aversion to characterization goes beyond just Ballard. I could see how DeWitt might rationalize her double standards when it comes to Dollhouse staff sleeping with Actives, and her curious refusal to contract them out as submissives. It would provide an interesting window onto her personality—if it were ever addressed.

Langton’s in the same boat. In “Spy in the House of Love,” when Echo interrogates him about his attitude toward the Dollhouse, he says: “We’re pimps and killers.” That’s a strong statement. And it raises the question: “If you feel so vehement about what the Dollhouse does, why the frak do you keep working for it?” but no one in the show bothers to ask. (Well, Ballard does in the twelfth episode, but the matter quickly gets swept under the rug.)

This may explain why Topher is by far the best character on the show. He’s the only non-zombie with a comprehensible personality. He does what he does because he’s a computer geek who doesn’t give a care about the ethical implications of his work; he’s in it for the cool tech.

Episode 11: Briar Rose: Echo’s “Engagement” for this episode is a special mission put together by Topher, with DeWitt’s approval. Topher takes a girl named Susan (age about 10), extrapolates a best-case-scenario grownup personality for her, imprints Echo with it, and then sends Echo out to help the kid work through her trauma and become the relatively happy and stable personality Topher has created.

Susan’s trauma? Her mother died when she was six, and her mother’s boyfriend pimped her out to pedophiles. Groaning yet? I was, too, but to my inexperienced eye, episode writer Jane Espenson did a good job with an admittedly cliché Whedo theme. At one point, Echo and Susan discuss Susan’s self-blame for not escaping her tormentor, and consequent bitterness when she’s referred to as a victim. I know bugger all about the psychology of rape victims, but I do know that internalized blame is often a key factor in victimization, and I seem to recall hearing from some authority a bit more knowledgeable than pop psych that women (and men) who have been raped or sexually assaulted often blame themselves at least partially.

We don’t get to see the resolution to this storyline, as Echo gets sucked into the ultimately duller main plot before she’s done working with Susan.

Ballard, apparently still eaten up with guilt for having slept with November (again, why did you do it?), breaks up their relationship and moves out on her in the most emotionally insensitive and tactically stupid way possible. If the writers had bothered to give Ballard an actual personality, they could have shown us his internal conflict over spurning Mellie, the woman whom he loves and who loves him, and who he can’t inform isn’t the real person who belongs in her body. If they’d bothered with more careful plotting, they could also have showed Ballard struggling to push Mellie away in such a manner as not to tip off the Dollhouse that he knows she’s a Doll.

Instead, he just cuts and runs.

Mellie wanders off crying and eventually walks onto a bridge, where it’s implied she contemplates throwing herself off. Wait, she’s considering suicide because her boyfriend dumped her? Goddamn it, Joss, what kind of feminist are you?

All right, it’s been suggested to me that since the Mellie personality was specifically created to spy on Ballard, without him, she has literally been deprived of her raison d’etre. Would’ve been nice to give some suggestion of this in the episode itself, though.

Her handler snatches her before she can carry out the deed, and takes her to the Dollhouse. Ballard follows, finally discovering the Dollhouse’s location.

He then goes to see Loomis, his sole remaining contact within the FBI. Those of you playing the law enforcement clichés drinking game should take a shot every time she appears, as her sole purpose in the show is to give Ballard access to whatever information he needs this time around, despite the danger to her and her skepticism about Ballard’s crazy ideas (take another shot). Oh, and to put another tick in the Affirmative Action box, as she’s slightly darker skinned than Langton—not that either of them would be in any danger of failing the paper bag test. If you’re wondering why I haven’t mentioned her before, this is the answer. There just wasn’t anything to mention.

There is a cute little moment when Ballard explains about how he found the Dollhouse, about walking corridors and exploring offices, at which point Loomis says incredulously “You’ve been in the Dollhouse?” Ballard: “Wrong building.” Contrary to the suspicions of many, Whedon hasn’t entirely lost his touch. Yet.

Ballard then reveals his theory that the Dollhouse is entirely underground, and completely off the energy grid, meaning it would have to be entirely self-sufficient from an energy standpoint. Using her magical data-sifting skills, Loomis discovers that the person who designed the Dollhouse to be energy efficient is a man named Stephen Kepler, played by Wash from Firefly.

Kepler, who’s basically a more paranoid, misanthropic, and drug-happy version of Topher, reluctantly assists Ballard in busting into the Dollhouse. He then gets into the computer system and starts unlocking the sleep pods so Ballard can get to Echo. It’s not quite as ridiculously easy as the above summary may suggest, but it’s close.

Kepler warns Ballard not to open the pods before they’re unlocked or “all hell breaks loose.” This, however, appears to be nothing more than a red herring to get the viewers to wonder what will happen when Ballard and Langton smash through the glass to Victor’s pod in the upcoming fight sequence.

So yeah, Langton catches Ballard trying to rescue Echo, and here we go with the fight scene. Dollhouse medstaff take Victor to be treated by Dr. Scarface, at which point, Kepler reveals himself to be Alpha, cutting up Victor’s face with a scalpel and taking the doctor hostage.

Clearly, one of the reasons for casting Alan Tudyk in this role was to throw long-time Whedon fans—who could never credit Wash as a dangerous monster—off the scent. Hell, I’d read who Alpha’s actor was on Wikipedia and even I had a hard time crediting it until this sequence. To give Tudyk his due, he plays the psychotic monster with serious multiple personality disorder admirably well. Of course, he has the advantage of being written better than almost everyone else on the show, so that helps.

Speaking of performances, I have put in a plug for Enver Gjokaj (Victor), in this episode. There’s a subplot about Sierra investigating the death of a man who turns out to be the real Stephen Kepler, and another about Alpha trying to send a message to the Dollhouse for reasons which presently escape me. Thing is, he apparently hasn’t heard about the recent regime change, and sends the message in care of Dominic, with a password that only he, Dominic, would know.

Instead of pulling the real Dominic out of long-term storage, DeWitt just has Victor imprinted with his personality. The ensuing scene is pure awesome, with Gjokaj providing such a spot-on performance, he had me wondering if they might have gotten Reed Diamond in to do the voice work.

Which leads me to another tangentially connected train of thought, which is that even discounting pre-existing characters, Victor, Sierra and even November have had multiple imprints over the course of the season, and they all had distinct personalities.

Sierra may be the best example. Over the final six episodes she plays a quarantine doctor, an NSA infiltrator, a spunky geek, a homicide investigator, and a flirtatious bounty hunter, all of them very well played (except maybe the infiltrator). Apparently, the writers’ incompetence at creating different personalities for the Actives only extend to Echo.

Anyway, Alpha lures Echo into Topher’s lab and imprints her with a personality which recognizes he’s come to rescue her, just as he said he would. The two then leave the Dollhouse together.

Episode 12: Omega: Throughout this episode, we’re treated to a series of flashbacks chronicling Alpha’s previous Dollhouse escapades. It turns out the bimbo imprint he’s given Echo is one he previously worked with in the body of Whiskey, before he played surgeon with her face.

When Echo née Caroline first arrived at the Dollhouse, he immediately became obsessed with her because … she’s played by Eliza Dushku, I guess? (When Echo first recognized Alpha as her “savior,” I thought maybe he somehow knew Caroline pre-Dollhood, which would’ve provided a much better excuse for his special interest in her over everyone else in the world.)

One day when he’s pruning bonsai, Alpha overhears a couple handlers discussing how Whiskey is overworked because she’s their #1 Doll. Alpha asks Whiskey to let Echo be #1, then leaps on her and carves her face with his shears.

Topher insists it must be due to a fragment of one of his earlier imprints and determines to scan them all, for which he needs Alpha strapped to the mind-rape chair. During Alpha’s struggles, Topher’s computer accidentally uploads all 48 of his past imprints into his head at once, and a psycho is born.

After killing his handler and the original Doc Saunders, Alpha destroys the hard drive containing his original personality. He then goes on a rampage, the aftermath of which we saw back in “The Target.”

Back in the present, Ballard has been captured and puts his incredible investigative powers at the Dollhouse’s disposal to help them find Alpha and rescue Echo. Topher explains that none of Alpha’s 48 imprints were potential killers, but apparently, nobody thought to check his original personality even for completeness’ sake.

Ballard then produces the Themehammer and proceeds to beat top Dollhouse staff and viewers alike over the head with a load of bollocks about the Human Soul and how it Goes Deeper Than Mere Programming. As has been pointed out in the comments section of Dan Hemmens’ review, this is dreamy-eyed nonsense. Human personalities can indeed be altered by the right kind of head trauma, so it’s not like the soul is somehow mystically protected, or anything.

Turns out before joining the Dollhouse, Alpha was imprisoned for attempted murder, cutting up his victim’s face in the process. Apparently, everyone at the Dollhouse was so sure their procedure affected the part of the human psyche which turns some people into monsters, they offered an attempted murderer a contract without the slightest reservation.

Ballard uses this information to locate one of Alpha’s old haunts, and he and Langton ride off to save the day.

The old haunt in question is Alpha’s current Evil Lair, where he’s rigged up an ad hoc version of Topher’s lab, complete with mind-rape chair. Alpha uploads the personality of Wendy—a young woman he and Echo kidnapped—onto a hard drive and downloads all 38 of her previous imprints into her. He expects her to become an Übermensch just like him (“Alpha, meet Omega”), and to prove herself by killing Caroline in the body of Wendy.

Unfortunately for Alpha, all but two of Echo’s personalities are indistinguishable from each other, and none of them have a hankering for mass murder. In a classic Whedon moment, she begins to take a swing at Wendy/Caroline with a heavy pipe, then spins and hits Alpha instead. Like most aspects of this show, it’s horribly executed, and the “surprise twist” must rate at least a KiloBrooks on the predictability scale.

Alpha and Echo trade a few more blows and pseudo-philosophical snipes to the long worn-out tune of domination-based, Social Darwinist morality versus tolerance-based, liberal humanist morality, none of which rise above the level of the painfully trite argument between Echo and Connell in episode two.

Echo floors Alpha, and Caroline tells her she needs to go back into her hard drive so Wendy can have her body back. During the ensuing conversation, Caroline reveals that while Wendy was forced into having her personality wiped, Caroline signed a contract. And then we get this exchange:

Echo: “I have thirty-eight brains. Not one of them thinks you can sign a contract to be a slave. Especially now that we have a black president.”
Caroline: “We have a black president? Okay, I am missing everything.”

I’ll admit I kinda appreciated the Presidential reference. Maybe it’s just that I like it when shows ostensibly set in the real world make references to stuff actually happening in the real world.

But, 1) I find it depressing that the first Obama reference they managed to slip in was all about his racial makeup, and had nothing at all to do with his policies, his personality, his actions, or anything else distinct to him. It’s about what he is, not who he is. How progressive.

Also, 2) What the crap does the president’s race have to do with whether it’s okay to contract yourself into slavery? Yeah, I get the black/slavery connection, but how is it relevant to this particular situation? At all?

Caroline’s surprise coupled with her apparent inability to guess the name of the black president in question dates her initial contract to somewhere before November 2008. Furthermore, unless she was hiding under a political rock (unlikely, given her remark in “Echoes” that yes, she does have to attend every single antiwar rally in the state) we must push this date back to November 2007, if not earlier. This would put Echo towards the end of the second year of her contract. Since the contracts are five years long, the seasons presumably cover one year, and Whedon reportedly had a five-year plan for the series, I think this scenario was headed for a massive continuity error before the show was was canceled early.

Inevitably, and rather to my annoyance, Alpha shoots Wendy dead before Echo can restore her personality. (What does it say that I like Caroline much better as played by someone other than Eliza Dushku?) For the first time putting selfishness over do-gooding, Echo forebears from seeing if she can help Wendy in favor of chasing after Alpha, who skives off with the hard drive containing Caroline’s personality.

Alpha high tails it to the top of a water tower and drops the hard drive to get Echo off his back (his motivations after Echo turns on him are very confused). Echo once more puts herself over the greater good and tries to catch the hard drive, letting Alpha escape. She misses the hard drive, only for it to drop right into the hands of Ballard, who gets to save the girl after all.

Echo returns to the Dollhouse where she gets the reset button pushed on her yet again. Langton tells DeWitt they’ve made arrangements to compensate Wendy’s family, and she remarks what cold comfort it will be for them. Dude, you’re not Melina Marchetta.

Ballard agrees to work with the Dollhouse on the condition that they terminate November’s contract with full pay. In her farewell scene, November is happy, grateful to DeWitt, and—unlike Caroline—remembers absolutely nothing about her time in the Dollhouse. Human trafficking is good because it makes its victims happy and they conveniently forget all about having been sex slaves!

Ballard is there to see November off and ask her name, Madeline, but when she asks his in return, Ballard responds, “I’m nobody.” This is treated as a poignant ending to a beautiful relationship, which Whedon aficionados are quite accustomed to by now.

For comparison, in the commentary track to the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon revealed that the reason Buffy and Spike never have sex again even after Spike’s soul is restored is that he didn’t want to “repeat that Luke and Laura ‘he raped her, they got married’” nonsense. Oh Joss, how far you’ve fallen.

There’s a subplot about Whiskey discovering she’s a Doll imprinted to replace the original Dr. Saunders. It’s all very boring and inconsequential, but it contains one overblown insensitive, and projection-heavy outburst when she’s treating Victor’s face, telling him how he’s got ugly, ugly scars now that will never go away, and she doesn’t pity him in the slightest.

I can just see Whedon, mid-season, composing a memo to the makeup department. “All right you clowns, you’ve had your little fun, but enough is enough. I’ve told you over and over I want big, ugly, highly visible scars on Ms. Acker’s face, not the pathetic little traces she’s sporting now. Her character is supposed to be disfigured, not modeling the latest in Designer Scars.”

Unfortunately, FOX studios suppressed this memo, because they’re just too small-minded to handle Joss Whedon’s revolutionary vision.
And that’s the lot. In the summer of ’09 (before “Epitaph One” came out) a friend of mine told me that Dollhouse is a bit like the first season of Torchwood: one good episode and the rest utter crap. To this day I don’t know what the “one good episode” in Dollhouse was supposed to be.

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One thought on “TV review: Dollhouse season one

  1. Pingback: Film reflection: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 | tothemarx

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