Saturday, May 16, 2009

Omega: the semi-finale - Dollhouse review

While I was watching Omega I enjoyed it quite a lot. The pacing was good, and the dialogue was great – at times it was fantastic. But at the end, with the montage and music, I felt nothing. And when writing this review I’ve had very little interest in watching the episode, or even any of the individual scenes, again.

For me this was a huge disappointment. I’ve always thought that season finales were Joss’s forte. Although I love some of the series, and season, openings they’ve never been the strongest episodes. I wasn’t surprised when Dollhouse started slowly. But endings, that’s completely different. There are scenes from Buffy season finales that I’ve watched over 100 times* – every single Buffy finale Joss wrote would be a contender for one of my top 10 Buffy episodes. Maybe, when I finally see the thirteenth episode, my faith in Joss finales will be restored. But Omega wouldn’t even be in my top 5 Dollhouse episodes.

The more I’ve thought about this episode, the more I’ve realised the ways in which an episode of television can fail slightly, and the culmulative effects of these failings. I’ll be focusing my review on the issues that I had with this episode, not because I thought it was irredeemably bad, but because I want to know how the season finale of a show I have become so engaged in in such a short time can leave me so cold.

I thought there were several serious execution problems, which I’ll cover first. But also that the underlying concept would have never made a season finale of the strength that I’d come to expect. Even if it had been perfectly executed, this episode was never going to be a Becoming, Gift or even Not Fade Away.

My first big problem with the execution surprised me. I thought the Whiskey/Dr Saunders plot was the strongest part of this episode. But I really, really didn’t like the reveal, or more importantly the sexy killing someone scene immediately after the reveal. It may seem strange, at this point in the series, to start complain about objectification. Eliza Dusku started the series in a dress that wasn’t, and that hasn’t changed.

But, until the scene with Whiskey and Alpha, I’ve felt that the camera remained neutral in these scenes. Yes Eliza Dushku in particular wore some ridiculous clothes, but the camera didn’t say ‘oh look Eliza Dushku is a dominatrix you must think that’s sexy’. Instead we get to choose whether we think the short pleated skirt and ugliest stockings in the world from Echoes were sexy, or whether we just spend time laughing at Matt, for being a dick. The only exceptions to that neutrality were the scene with French-Tango in Needs, where Tango’s objectification is emphasised by the camera to demonstrate Echo’s horror at the Dollhouse. And when Hearn tries to rape Mellie, where I felt there was a concerted effort to not eroticise that scene.

When Whiskey and Alpha torture the guy I felt every choice about the directing and editing was eroticising the scene. For the first time I felt that the show was leaving no room in the scene for the fact that the dolls were unable to give meaningful consent, and was actively promoting an eroticisation of sexual violence.

I’m not sure if it’s fair to call this an execution problem – but I wanted some Victor/Sierra. The shot of them getting into the pods together at the end of this episode is the first time they’ve shared a scene or a shot since the end of Needs.** I am so invested in Victor and Sierra’s relationship, and there was such an opportunity here – for her to be the one comforting him. I was really disappointed they didn’t take it.

A lot of my other problems were with the ending at the power station, which felt v which felt very anti-climatic. Some of these problems were less severe in the shooting script (which is available here and is well worth a read). These cuts are pretty obvious watching the episode, with the non-appearance of bounty-hunting Sierra and November. In the shooting script, Alpha doesn’t just drop Caroline because he feels like it, and the entire end sequence is less perfunctory. I think cutting the end, rather than the sexy torturing someone scene, or editing down some of the flash-backs, was a very poor one. It reduced the impact of the ending, and the episode had enough plot-holes without introducing more.

Plus Sierra and November are many times more awesome than Alpha.

I was pretty annoyed that they ended with Ballard saving the girl.*** In fact I felt this episode undid all the interesting things that they had been doing with his character over the last few episodes.

I would have been Ok if Ballard’s arc for this episode had been that he came to realise that actives were people, and his attitude towards Caroline was everything Joel Myner had said it was, and this led to his changed his attitude towards Mellie. It’s not where I would have gone with the character, but I wouldn’t have minded if they’d done it. But instead they just ended on him choosing Mellie, as a twist. In Haunted and Briar Rose, the character had gone to a dark place, but a necessary and inevitable dark place. But rather than develop that they just ignored it. It was a cheesy catch, a hand-shake with Madeline (sorry about that time I knew I was raping you) and that’s it. I didn’t think his reasons to start working for the Dollhouse made much sense, but their sense-that’s-not-ness paled compared with his change in attitude.*****

Although that plot-line left me in a bit of a quandary, because I think it’d be better from a story perspective if Madeline left, but I really love Miracle Laurie. I’d be very sad if she wasn’t in season two.*****

And Ballard wasn’t even the character whose actions made the least sense in this episode. How did they get Echo back to the Dollhouse?

When she talked with Wendy as Caroline composite-Echo had decided that she wanted to put Caroline back. Once Ballard had caught the wedge, why didn’t she go downstairs and fulfil the plan? I don’t care what sort of arc Ballard was on, there is no way he wouldn’t have sided with her, and given her herself back if she’d wanted to. Or why didn’t she walk off into the sunset? It’s no good suggesting that Boyd came up to her and said “Do you need a treatment?” If that could work with a composite then they would have done it with Alpha. To have composite-Echo decide on what she wants to do and then just ignore it is lazy writing of the worst kind.

I think the only reason that this didn’t hit me harder when I first watched it, is that I didn’t believe the scenes between composite-Echo and Wendy-as-Caroline. I’m inclined to blame this on Tim Minear, because the dialogue for Wendy-as-Caroline was terrible. Caroline, even the most pathetic, analysis-lacking, Caroline that I could imagine, does not respond to the possibility of freedom from the corporation that shot her boyfriend, held her hostage and she ran from for two years with: “I did sign a contract.”

Tim Minear is a libertarian, so it’s possible that he likes to think that he’d honour a contract signed under such duress (not that he would sign a contract under duress, because there’s no duress when it comes to contracts, they’re shiny), but Caroline is not, and so she wouldn’t.******

Neither the dialogue nor the performance convinced me I was watching Caroline. I liked the actress, but for those scenes to work, we needed to see an Enver Gjokaj as Dominic sort of performance, where there was never any doubt who we were watching. I don’t know if that was the actor’s choice or the director’s, but we’d seen enough of Caroline that Wendy could have embodied her (except when saying the stupid contract line), and it was a real problem that she didn’t.

The reason it was such a problem, the underlying problem of the episode was Alpha. Dangerous psychopaths don’t automatically have resonance, they’re not automatically interesting. If you’re going to make the big bad interesting you have to make the story that you’re telling about the main characters, the ones we already care about. Not just stories that include the characters, but that matter to them. I can’t believe I’m saying this about a mutant enemy production – I know they know this. I have no idea why they thought Alpha was interesting. Why was anyone supposed to care about some psychopath?*******

To make it worse, I felt that every decision they made about Alpha’s character this episode made him less interesting rather than more - made this story less about anything that might resonate.

Alpha’s obsession with Echo – that we were supposed to get the answer to this episode – appears to come down to he thinks she’s pretty.******** It would have been much more interesting to me if Alpha has been angry and resented the Dollhouse, and had identified with Caroline’s anger and resentment (and prettiness). That would have been a starting point that had depth and potential.

The ‘composite event’ that I’ve been wondering about all season was actually just a technical glitch, a literal technical glitch that can be reproduced, and didn’t bear any necessary relation to Alpha’s self-awareness, that had already been referred to. It didn’t say anything about self, awareness, or the nature of what the dollhouse was doing. It’s just something the chair can do.

Then, my ultimate disappointment – ‘Alpha was always a psychopath’. Neither compelling nor resonanant. And worse – that’s what they’ve got to say about people? Some men just want to cut up women – it’s in their essence, they’ll always want to do it and you can’t stop them, even if you wipe their brain.

I don’t understand the need for a ‘big bad’ – everything in the show that has been interesting so far has been about the evil normal people do (and the resistance normal people do). Introducing a homicidal maniac to end the season shows a lack of faith in Dollhouse’s strengths.

I think Needs would have made a much more fitting and compelling season finale (although I think as a season finale, with no certainty of renewal, I would have needed a smidgeon of hope at the end)

There was one plotline that was interesting and resonated with me – and that was Dr Saunders and Whiskey. I thought that was interesting, resonant and well done. It had been very well sign-posted in the rest of the series. Hitting the balance between something that feels right, and is surprising is one of the glories of TV, but it’s very hard. Dr Saunders’s line: “Echo wasn’t always the best” has a completely different meaning now. My only fear that the potential in this concept won’t be fully explored in the second season********* because Amy Acker has another job.

I was particularly impressed with the scene between Topher and Dr Saunders at the end. It was an interesting and powerful scene that asks so many questions, and the acting was fantastic.

But I felt it didn’t get much space in this, already overloaded, episode. I think it should have had an episode for itself. I understand that Dr Saunders’s origin story was connected to Alpha, but that didn’t seem enough reason to include it the same episode. There didn’t seem to be significant thematic unity between the story of Alpha that they ended up telling and Dr Saunders’s, and our, discovery that she was Whiskey.

More than that, I felt they weren’t doing the questions they raised justice. Why do scars render Whiskey unhireable? I don’t think that’s a given. Even if you assume that every sexual fantasy requires beauty, and scars cannot be part of beauty (and I don’t think either assumption is supportable), many of the engagements we’ve seen haven’t been sexual. Whiskey could have been any of Sierra’s imprints, or a hostage negotiator, cult member, Taffy, the person who beat up Ballard, a NSA agent, a spy-catcher, Adelle’s friend, or Susan.

I don’t necessarily think that makes the Whiskey story line untenable. I can think of many reasons why the Dollhouse wouldn’t hire out scarred Whiskey, besides there being no assignments. I don’t want to theorise about what they might be here. I’ve got a long post, which started out being about race and the dollhouse and has become about identity embodiedness and the dollhouse (it’s that long), and I will explore these ideas more now.

I felt that they hinted at some of the interesting ideas about bodies that they could explore with the first scene between Dr Saunders and Victor, where he wants to know how to be his best, and she takes out her anger with him. To me, particularly given the meaninglessness of dolls idea of their best, that scene could have been the beginning of something interesting. But they didn’t develop it. There’s this big well they’re circling round, and so many interesting ideas they could explore. But by not going far enough I felt this episode ended up normalising the idea that scars are disgusting, more than it said any of the interesting things it hinted at.

I know I’ve made it sound like I hated the finale – and I didn’t. I just didn’t love it, and wanted to know why. I’ve mentioned most of the aspects of this episode I liked somewhere in these rants (although I don’t think I’ve mentioned the scenes in the imprint room when Sierra and November were being imprinted, which were very well done). While I was watching Omega I was really engaged. But it hasn’t stayed with me. I don’t think it reflected what was great about previous episodes or what is interesting about the show. And the greatest dialogue and pacing in the world won’t save you from that (although “…and I’m smarter than everyone in this room – but not as scary” tries pretty hard).

* the end of Becoming II starting from the fight between Buffy and Angel and the sharing the power moment of Chosen, for those curious

** That scene of them going to the pods is cannibilized from the original pilot. So I guess I can’t blame them for not including Victor and Sierra in that scene, since they’d shot it months before.

*** Although a special shout-out to Adele’s “Alpha’s a genius” when explaining to Paul why Alpha could get out and he wouldn’t. No, Mr-Mind-Control-? is not a genius.

**** And I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s more going on with his decision to join the dollhouse than we know at this point. But if there’s not, it’s not earned at all.

****** la-la-la I can’t hear you

****** Oh and while I’m on it the “especially we now have a black president” is the worst line of the entire season. The line itself was ridiculously stupid, but Caroline’s response was incromprehensible. Given the likely dates of her capture by the dollhouse surely the most likely candidates for first black president would be Condeleeza Rice and Colin Powell. I would guess that Caroline’s politics would fall somewhere on the “Shill for the Democrats to Ignore Electoral Politics, Change Happens in the Streets” scale – that’s not a scale that decides to live because Colin Powell might be president

******* I decided to relegate this rant to a footnote, because I know people who read this don’t necessarily want a complete history of Buffy. But the Master wasn’t automatically interesting, that’s why they had to make the story about prophecy, Buffy’s fear of death, and the role of her friends. Angelus is interesting, because Buffy cares about him. Faith is more interesting than the Mayor, so the story in Graduation II is about everyone banding together to fight the Mayor, not about the Mayor himself. The Initiative was never interesting, and Adam sucked all the interesting from a two mile radius. That’s why the finale of that season is Restless. They know this stuff. Joss has talked about it in every commentary that I’ve ever listened to. How did they forget it?

******** Although there was something awesome about the scene where he kissed her and she kept talking. His sexual violence had no meaning for her, and therefore lost its power and control. This was underscored by his Handler’s complicity.

********* la la la la la I can’t hear you

********** I’ve always liked Fran Kranz as Topher, but I’ve read a lot of negative comments, mostly I think because Topher is really annoying. I think this scene made clear that Fran Kranz is more than capable of creating the layers

7 comments:

  1. Maybe I just tend to think that anything Joss Whedon produces is brilliant, but I actually loved this episode!

    I didn't perceive it as having plot holes--I thought they were setting up the next season (la la la can't hear you).

    My take is that there is a coordinated conspiracy to take down the dollhouse, and Boyd is a huge part of it (notice his interaction with Ballard when he first breaks into the Dollhouse--what kind of head of security lets someone trying to take the organization down go?).

    In the time between Ballard catching Echo's imprint and Echo going back to the dollhouse, there was plenty of time for lots to happen. For example, for Echo to reimprint Caroline into her body, and for Ballard, Boyd, and Caroline to decide together to take the dollhouse down from inside.

    As for Ballard "saving" Caroline, there is no doubt in my mind that this series was always supposed to end with Caroline slamming the door a la Nora in A Doll's House. No dude is going to save her. There's obviously more to the story.

    Plus, maybe it's just that I'm a theology student, but the whole reimagining of the creation myth? Brilliant! I love the idea of Adam as this totally fucked up megalomaniac, and Eve as a rockstar. I love the idea of there being some kind of free will and agency that even the dollhouse (in the metaphorical sense) can't take away.

    I'm dying to see the next episode. I thought this was great!

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  2. When Whiskey and Alpha torture the guy I felt every choice about the directing and editing was eroticising the scene.Oh, one more thing... I thought that bit was an intentional commentary on movies like Natural Born Killers, and the real evil we create out of our supposedly harmless fantasy/voyeurism (including our voyeurism watching Dollhouse). Real 4th wall screw with your head stuff. I thought it was quite interesting.

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  3. I, too, was underwhelmed by 'Omega.'

    However, didn't Alpha kill his handler? Given that each Active is specially imprinted to react to their handler it's quite possible that Alpha would react to the right person asking them whether he wants a treatment. We've already seen that Echo reacts to Boyd despite having been re-imprinted; given that Omega is just super-Echo maybe Omega reacts to Boyd too...

    Also, you'll be happy to know that it looks as if Dollhouse is getting a second season. (http://scifiwire.com/2009/05/is-dollhouse-actually-on.php)

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  4. You be the awesomeness! I had not the energy to be writing an entire review, but I felt compelled to write the top reasons why I didn't like the episode.

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  5. Great review, regarding the scar question: scars are noticeable and recognisable. They draw attention to the active. The Dollhouse is paranoid. Seems a pretty simple decision that someone like Adele would make without blinking.

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  6. Anonymous6:48 pm

    I found Alpha interesting simply because he was acted by the guy that played Wash. But I do get your point for non-firefly viewers.

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  7. It's worse if you end up with a savannah dollhouse in your yard.

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