Monday, February 16, 2009

Ghost - Dollhouse Episode Review

So Joss Whedon has a new show. I've already reviewed the premise. On Saturday night I sat down with my best friend Betsy incredibly excited that I was again watching a Joss Whedon show.

And I was disappointed.

I liked the opening, even though, or perhaps because, it was ridiculous. Clearly I don't find male fantasies that involve motorbike chases and barely present dresses interesting, but it was clearly framed as being a fantasy. And I thought the opening did a really good job of portraying how creepy it was that she went from being this person to being blank. It seemed clear to me what they were taking away from her.

I also really liked the characters who work in the dollhouse. I liked the relationship between Topher (the computer geek) and Boyd (the handler). For the time being the relationships between the people who work in the dollhouse are going to be the main on-going relationships in the show. I think the work they're doing is repugnant, but that doesn't mean that they're not interesting.

I'm interested in what happens to the dolls in their blank state, and thought it was very well done. There have been lots of people question the politics of the show, but I'm not one of them. I'm fascinated with the idea of a story about people who have been so atomised and commodified. The first glimmerings of Echo's self-awareness "I don't remember what fell on me?" and her recognition of Sierra, are great.

Less great, more ridiculous, was the cliched FBI fight argument/kick boxing match. Clearly FBI agents arguing with their superiors is a hard scene to understand on TV, so we needed a second depiction of this where Tahmoh Penikett was shirtless for no reason.

But my main objection to the episode was it's plotline (which is not an incidental part of an episode of TV). Initially I thought the biggest problem with it was that it was deathly boring. If I wanted to watch a procedural about a child being kidnapped I'd watch Without a Trace.

I said in my concept review that I thought it might be difficult for the episodes of the week to engage me. Having watched the first episode I think this may be a bigger problem than I realised. Because the engagements are all going to be about meeting the needs of the obscenely wealthy. And while I do think you can tell interesting stories about the obscenely wealthy, I think it takes work that was missing from this episode.

But my problem with the kidnapping plotline ran deeper. The character that Echo was imprinted with included parts of a woman who had been kidnapped and sexually abused by one of the kidnappers.* Others have commented on the clichedness of this plotline. But I would go further, I would say that it was horrific.

The dollhouse gave a Echo memories of being sexually abused as a child in order to make her a better tool. In doing so they were taking memories from someone who had killed herself because of them. They were doing something obscene both to the woman who hadn't been able to survive those memories, and to Eleanor Penn, who was suffering from these memories they had created.

None of this was given any particular time or weight - they were just plot points, not what the episode was about. I don't think there's anything wrong with telling a story about someone who is imprinted with memories of childhood abuse. But I think if you're going to tell a story where someone is imprinted with memories of child sexual abuse to meet a man's need, then you have to say something about it. Otherwise your using that sexual abuse narratively in the same way Topher is.

I think I saw glimmers of that - Eleanor Penn calling herself a Ghost. But it wasn't central enough, and it wasn't thought through.

I know this episode was probably written in a hurry, as Joss decided Fox needed a new pilot. I understand that there wasn't time to get the script of this episode right, and I'm optimistic that the episodes will get better. But I'm worried about the lack of judgement in including sexual abuse in the opening plotline, when they didn't have time to think it through.**

When my friend and I finished watching it we talked about authenticity and identity until three in the morning. I still think the show is fascinating. But I'm worried about the weekly plotlines.

* Given that Topher did not know who were the kidnappers were this is a coincidence of the laziest sort.

** It seems to me the same sort of 'sexual abuse as plot point' which led to Spike trying to rape Buffy so they could develop his character, and not ever try and say anything about the effect of the sexual assault on Buffy.


  1. Anonymous5:09 am

    Oh, I totally disagree! I loved the episode. I thought the way it made being a survivor of sexual violence a special strength was really cool. And I thought the inclusion of sexual violence in the first episode was totally intentional--directly alluding to the rape of Echo by the motorcycle dude client earlier in the episode, and probably the beginning of a long-running theme within the show. I think you have to give Joss a chance here. He knows what he's doing.

  2. None of this was given any particular time or weight - they were just plot points, not what the episode was about.

    I think the obscenity of what the dollhouse does is being left to speak for itself, and build up mass like a rolling snowball, so that eventually we'll cheer when they burn the place to the ground. Except I'm left wondering how they get people like Boyed (who seems fairly decent, unlike the rest of them) to work for them. Did they stick him in the magic machine before the story started? (and if not, why not?)