Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Public Eye and The Left Hand: Review Dollhouse Episodes 5 and 6

I may someday soon go back to writing about things that aren't a TV show that hasn't even aired yet. But at the moment my internet access is patchy and my Joss love is strong, so it'll probably have to wait till January, when Dollhouse will be gone

So after a month off Dollhouse has returned with double episodes. This means my reviews will probably be even later, and a little shorter than usual. This week’s episodes were a two parter, so I’m reviewing them together. I’ll be reviewing the episodes that aired on the 11th separately (and they’ll be long reviews, even for me)
As you probably know the show has already been cancelled. For anyone who is interested in its history I recommend this interview with Mo Ryan. This quote is particularly telling:

The problems that the show encountered weren’t standalone versus mythology. Basically the show didn’t really get off the ground because the network pretty much wanted to back away from the concept five minutes after they bought it and then ultimately, the show itself is also kind of odd and difficult to market. […]But there was… We always found ourselves sort of moving away from what had been part of the original spark of the show and that ultimately just makes it really hard to write these stories. It makes it twice as hard as usual. [Normally] you have that sort of kernel that you’re building on that’s completely solid. You know, "She is a little girl with super powers." "He is a cranky doctor who always gets it right." Whatever it is you sort of can build off that. When you’re trying to back away from your central premise at the same time as you’re making that [show,] it gets complicated.

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So Wesley’s a doll. Who saw that coming? The reveal was masterful. Although the nauseating ‘Beautiful damsel’ was a clear sign that something was up.

One of the questions that I’ve kind of wondered about is why they’re only selling the ability to hire dolls. Why weren’t they selling upgrades? Lots of people would want ninja skills. It appears to be that they’re harder – to maintain an original personality but add to it, is harder than making the perfect person from composites (which actually fits with the asthma idea from the first episode). When Rossum does it, they do it to further their own agenda – to give them the ideal senator (and while Bush jokes are pretty dated, they’re still hard not to enjoy).

Although Cindy’s rant about how much she hated having sex with him made no sense to me. Surely they could have either programmed him to be sexually compatible with her – or if that wasn’t what she wanted, to have no sex drive. In theory it was an interesting example of the messed up power dynamic between them, but as it was I was just “Where’s Bennett’s programming skills if she can’t nuke the senator’s sex drive?”

It was pretty exciting to see another Dollhouse – they clearly have a lot of freedom in how they operate and they’re not all spas. I wasn’t all that interested in the new higher up, but the inner workings fascinated me (I’m sad we haven’t seen the wardrobe guy again). Greek Gods seems a much more sensible naming system than the phonetic alphabet; you don’t run out of names. (Although you also wouldn’t get as much fun when watching army movies – I get so distracted now – when I was watching Generation Kill whenever they said “All Victors on the road” I wouldn’t be thinking about the vehicles).

And we met Bennett. Oh Bennett with your pretty hair clips and dead arm. I was hoping that Summer Glau would be less type cast - maybe she wouldn’t speak in sentence fragments that reveal her state of mind. But I enjoyed the performance and the character.

Her history with Caroline is tantalising, although I strongly suspect they’re playing with memory here. What we saw didn’t look like Caroline, or sound like Caroline. Although it’ll be interesting to see how Caroline’s abandonment of Bennett, and her determination not to abandon people in Needs fit together.

Her scenes with Topher were charming – they were equally socially awkward, equally star-struck, equally playing an agenda. I really enjoyed the non-gendered nature of the roles they were playing. The idea that Bennett and Topher were such a match for each other really underscores their isolation.

While we’re on Topher it goes without saying that Enver Gjokaj was ridiculously brilliant as Topher. Everything about the two Topher’s was pure genius. I particularly loved at the end, Topher’s struggle for survival, and attempt to argue as he is put in the chair (and Topher’s relief that he no longer has to deal with himself). It was a simple note in the on-going theme about people’s will to survive – when we build one experience on another we want to keep what that makes us. By the end of the episode the Topher who had stayed in the Dollhouse was a different person from the Topher who had gone to Washington, and Dollhouse Topher wanted to keep what he had.

Also for an extreme, Topher related tangent, this episode we met ‘kilo’ a random doll whose sole job it was to fall down. This doll was played Maurissa Tancharoen – one of the writers of dollhouse (and if you don’t know the writers of dollhouse by sight what have you been doing with your time?). It felt jarring to me – I think both the writing and the acting were a little off, and this was underscored because my brain was thinking ‘Hey it’s Maurissa’ rather than ‘I wonder what Topher is doing with his wonderflonium?’

But that’s not what I want to randomly tangent about. I want to randomly tangent about Topher’s dialogue about the teeny-tininess of Kilo. Maurissa has indicated on twitter that kilo (and her playing kilo) were Andrew Chambliss’s (the writer of this episode) idea. It strikes me as deeply creepy that Andrew Chambliss wrote completely unnecessary, tangential, and nonsensical dialogue commenting on the body of his co-worker. I think it’s a pretty creepy thing to do if it serves a purpose, but the randomness just made it worse. First, compared to whom is Kilo tiny? The vast majority of female dolls we’ve seen are extremely petite. It makes no sense that Topher, is surrounded by dolls all day would think that Kilo was particularly small for a woman. Second, the dialogue served no purpose than fulfilling Topher’s desire to talk at all times, which is an important character trait, but there’s no need to feel it with nonsensical, unintentionally creepy comments about women’s bodies (I’m all for Topher being creepy about women’s bodies; Topher is creepy about women’s bodies. But that’s no excuse for the writer to be creepy about women’s bodies)

I really appreciated Madeline’s plotline. I thought it was a really nice touch that it was killing Herne, a moment that was so satisfying to watch, which changed her mind about the Dollhouse (and it’s interesting that unlike Priya or Perrin, she decided to find a way to live with this knowledge rather than run from it).

But the most awesome thing about this episode was a Madeline view of Ballard. To her, he was a digusting predator. He was, for all his disingenuous denials to Madeline carefully ignore. It was really satisfying to see her anger, to see her name his behaviour for what it was.

And he made it clear that he saw her as someone from him to control. He went to her space and tried to kidnap her. I love that her response to his question the idea that she should trust him by lying and screaming.

I would have liked it if Paul hadn’t turned out to be somewhat right, even though his rightness was, in fact, entirely coincidental (his post-it note which says ‘mind control?’ is about as close to right Ballard can be before I get grumpy). He had no way of knowing what the consequences for Mellie would be of her testifying. He was trying persuade her not to testify because of his own agenda, not because he cared what happened to her. In fact there’s no reason to believe that Madeline wouldn’t have ended up in exactly the same position if she hadn’t gone to the hearing (she never did get to testify). Perrin would still have sold her out, and the Washington Dollhouse would probably have been able to find her. So I’ve managed to convince myself, over the course of this paragraph, that Ballard wasn’t right, and now I feel a lot better (and the Left Hand, like Belonging, had the perfect amount of Paul Ballard).

The reason Madeline got screwed over wasn’t because of her ‘mistakes’, but her isolation. She (like Caroline in her rescue attempts) isn’t organising with others like her. Echo wants to show solidarity with November, but they never meet (and that would have been awesome – Echo and Madeline on the outside taking on the dollhouse – now I’m sad it didn’t happen).

I hope we see more of her. I’m haunted by the line from Epitaph One “You don’t want to end up like November” “Which One?”

I had a problem with the plans for this episode – as so often happens on TV there’s a plan and it goes wrong. But it does raise questions about whether the plan was a good plan in the first place, or whether the writers just made up a bad plan so it could go wrong in the way they wanted it to go wrong. This was obviously the case with the ‘imprint Echo as a hooker plan.’ (and that was super-duper creepy. Did drug him, did she know he was drugged? There was a real lack of clarity about whether she was aware that she was raping him that trivialised sexual violence for me) There is no way that was a good plan, and there was no way he wouldn’t guess what was going on.

What was Rossum’s plan? Was Adelle being paranoid, or might they have targeted her. Because if what happened the episode was their plan all along, then Adelle made a very, very costly mistake, by interfering.

Despite the plausibility concerns, I really enjoyed these episodes of Dollhouse, they had a lot going for them. But, mostly, it wasn’t what I love about the show. It was twisty-turny, bad guys vs. possibly more bad guys, inevitable progression towards a not very interesting post-apocalyptic world. More rocket launchers than emotional resonance.*

What I love about this show is the relationship with the dolls to each other and the dollhouse. I love the deep resonance this has with resistance and survival in our world. (Yeah this is partly a complaint about the complete lack of Victor and Sierra).

We did see aspects of the dolls resistance this episode. In particular, we saw the feeble strength of one, how easily individual dolls were used and destroyed.

I really liked Caroline and Perrin’s relationship (minus the strangely sexualised cutting into each other’s neck). For a moment, they were figuring something out together. I think it was telling that Perrin decided to go back, decided to have his mind wiped. He chose to continue to believe that he was rescuing people, than working with people. That’s a sad choice, but in the circumstances an understandable one. This is a show about resistance, but also about acquiescence.

I wonder if we saw even more than that. Bennett’s suggestion that the brain can hold multiple imprints – maybe this integration will be the solution for the dolls we know and the other people who were devastated by the tech that’s still to come. Perhaps there’s more hope for the world in Epitaph One than a ladder that goes upwards.

*This is a reference to Joss’s commentary on Innocence where he says the two most important things to him in the work that he does are emotional resonance and rocket launchers. I think this is a great point about what great TV needs (as long as you take the rocket launchers as slightly metaphorical, but I am aware that the fact that I quote Joss Whedon’s commentaries is pretty geeky.

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