Monday, December 28, 2009

On the metaphor of the closet

When I wrote a post which praised people for breaking silence around abuse, I expected some push back. The push-back was the reason I'd written the post - I knew it was coming and wanted to get some praise in first.

I haven't received much response to me personally.* The one negative response I did receive was critical that I 'outed' Ira Bailey. I can see that the point of my post, which wasn't to name him myself but celebrate those who did name him, was lost because the silence around abuse is so strong, that any break in that silence is shocking.

But I was taken by the word 'out' - by the metaphor of the closet for abusive men. I've seen it used before, when someone got angry at a survivor of abuse for 'outting' her abuser. To me it seems so horrificly inappropriate, that I can imagine where people who use it could possibly stand on issues of abuse. But then it occurred to me that it may be a word people use without thinking about it, and that unpacking the implications of this usage might be worth doing.

The closet is a powerful idea and the metaphor carries important ideas about people's sexuality, and society's attitudes towards your sexuality. In particular the idea that 'outing' someone's sexuality is wrong is based on an analysis of the way society treats people's sexuality.

The first aspect of this analysis is that society unjustly judges people's sexuality as shameful. People stay in the closet because they are ashamed of a part of themselves. Coming out of the closet is worth celebrating because its a rejection of society's shaming.

Abuse is not a part of a person, it is a way they have hurt other people. Any (very limited in this society) judgement and shame that abusers experience is a reaction to what people have done, not who they are.

The second aspect of this analysis is that the negative consequences of being open about your sexuality can be significant. People die, they lose their jobs, they get harrassed - all because of an aspect of who they are. The unjustified shame around some people's desires has serious consequences.

The negative consequences for being abusive are much less pervasive than the consequences for being open about your desires. While there are some notable exceptions (particularly violence against pedophiles), generally people's response to those they know are abusive will be muted. If people don't want to be around someone who has been abusive that is a boundary that they are perfectly entitled to draw, and it is the person who has been abusive who should face the consequences of that boundary.

The third aspect of the analysis Your sexuality is yours and yours only. Your desires are yours to keep secret or share, when and where you want to, or feel safe.

Abusive actions do not belong to the person who did them - they something that you do to someone else. No one is entitled to ownership of the way they have hurt other people.

These three aspects of the closet, shame, consequences, and ownership do all in our society apply to people who have been abused. But they do not apply to abusive men (or women).

I'm sorry if this post seems to basic and didatic, but it offends me so much when people misappropriate the language of the closet for abusers. The metaphor does not apply to them and they do not deserve it's protection. I imagine that some people who use this language are not thinking about what they are saying, and are making an honest mistake. But words do matter, so I've tried to articulate why this usage angers me so much.

* The push-back against the women who named Ira Bailey has been significant though. Climate Camp, and particular their safer spaces comittee, have a lot to be ashamed of.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Love Supreme: Dollhouse Review 2.08

This two episodes a week schedule is really hard to maintain. This is a trucated review of episode 8. I enjoyed it (despite the presence of both Alpha and the supposed love between Ballard and Echo), but I didn't love it the way I loved the previous episode, so there's less ranting.

I didn’t talk a lot in my last review about what had happened to Adelle – I felt that this episode shed so much light on her character, that it was worth holding some of the discussion off to this review. Adelle’s bargaining, craven reaction to Alpha, was very telling about how the three months we missed had changed her.

As Alpha said to her “All this bargaining, you don’t have anything I want that I can’t just take.” She’s lost her ability to bluff and negotiate – she didn’t just have her power taken away in that time, but her ability to use power, the desire to be in control and her belief in her ability to do so. (I don’t think any of the characteristics she lost were characteristics to be admired in a human being, but she’s definitely a very different character without them)

I think part of it is that she’s lost the lies she used to tell herself, the ones where they were doing good. She knows she’s brought about the apocalypse for her own personal power, and I think that knowledge is one of the reasons she can’t assert herself the way she used to.* She told herself all sorts of lies, and she doesn’t have those lies anymore. All she has left is the will to survive.

I don’t think she’ll stay like this forever though, something must happen. The Adelle we saw in this episode would let Clive Ambrose take Victor’s body to eat crab in for the rest of his life. (Making the Adelle we see now compatible with Epitaph One is, I think, an extreme challenge for the writers. I think they’re probably up to it).

The new Adelle has implications for the rest of the dollhouse. One of the things that we had been seeing, over the course of the show, is that those running the dollhouse were regularly deciding that it was easier to let people have some freedom than maintain total control. (This bares more than a passing resemblance to real life) Echo wasn’t really acting like a doll, Victor and Sierra were spooning. The process some dolls went through in Needs worked (from the point of view of the dollhouse) in making them easier to manage, as did some freedom. But Adelle doesn’t feel like she can allow them that freedom anymore. Her grasp on power is too tenuous.

Her reaction to Echo, Ballard and Boyd makes perfect sense. Her response to Echo seemed particularly cruel, and well designed. I found it distressing to watch Adelle use Victor against Echo. Echo and Victor had been allies – and the situation she was in was terrifying enough without the breach of trust there. (Not that poor Victor could help it – and more in the “is there anything Enver can’t do” files)

We even got a tiny Victor and Sierra moment, and I’m all about tiny Victor and Sierra moment. (although obviously I prefer large Victor and Sierra moments, or Victor and Sierra episodes, or “The Victor and Sierra Show”) I enjoyed Noir Sierra (that’s what she was right? I’m not an expert on film genres). It’s a shame that we haven’t seen more of that sort of thing, in the show. One of the many aspects of the show that Fox didn’t support.

I wasn’t overcome with excitement when I learned Alpha was going to be in these . I think Alpha was one of the biggest missteps of season one. Serial killers are profoundly uninteresting, and every decision they made about Alpha’s store made him more boring. I’m not a massive Alan Tudyk fan anyway.

But if they have to bring back Alpha I can think of worse things for him to do than go round systematically killing all the men who have hired Echo. In fact, by the old measure that the character who is meanest to Ballard is my favourite character for the episode, he was my favourite character for this episode (more on that later). It was particularly enjoyable to see him blow up Matt of the inane fantasies, because I hated that guy and who doesn’t love a pun?

Of the characters we’ve seen on screen that have had sex with an active 6 are dead (Hearne, bow-hunting guy, Matt of the inane fantasies, Nolan, teaser guy in a caravan and Ballard), 1 got stabbed in the neck, 1 is in prison, and 2 (Joel Myner and Adelle) seem to be intact. (I am assuming that baby guy didn’t have sex with Echo – because they were new parents and she wasn’t what he needed). That’s a much better ratio of rapists to consequences than in the real world.** Although how the dollhouse remains open with that survival rate among it’s clients is becoming more and more of a mystery.

I liked the return of Joel Myner (and the visual image of him running away from Paul Ballard down the beach was hilarious – I’d run too). Obviously he’s an entitled rapist creep, but I always thought it was interesting that the dollhouse was giving him what he wanted – not what he needed. That by giving him Rebecca every year they were ensuring that he could never really live in this world. He appreciated Rebecca in Echo, which I thought was awesome.

The bait and switch was beautifully done. Even if I had to grit my teeth through Alpha’s speech about how Ballard must really love Echo because he didn’t sleep with her. He quotes Nietzsche, what on earth does he know about human relationships?

But, clearly all that is forgiven, if Ballard is truly dead. At the end of watching Meet Jane Doe I was talking about how much I hated Ballard and the many ways I wanted him to die. But I knew that none of them could possibly come through “Ballard can’t die,” I said “But he could go into a coma, wouldn’t it be awesome if he was in a coma.” Dollhouse has a weird habit of granting my wishes,*** so now Ballard’s in a coma.

Let’s hope it’s the permanent sort of coma. I understand that Tahmoh Penikett probably hasn’t been written out of the series and Epitaph One gets a little pesky at this point, but they could have imprinted Ballard with someone else (or that could be Alpha with Paul’s personality viewed through Echo’s brain). The only problem there is that I don’t think Tahmoh Penikett’s two and a half emotions make him doll material as an actor.

It’d be annoying if Echo and Ballard were a tragic love story (they were together and we killed one of them – it’s a new things Joss is trying). But far less annoying than watching him. How are we supposed to view Ballard? How do the writers see Ballard? At this stage I honestly have no idea. The last two episodes were constructed like an epic love story. As if the audience had been hanging out for the kiss since the beginning of the series. But they had to know that a large chunk of their audience were chanting “Go Team Alpha!” Ballard was always creepy, they knew he was creepy – they had him having sex with a dead Caroline and raping Mellie. So why do this? Why take Echo in this inexplicable, ridiculous and unearned direction?

But all’s well that ends well I guess – go coma!

* Incidentally, I’ve seen it suggested in several places that they’re doing a season 5 of Angel and she’ll turn out to have a deep plan. I think this goes against everything we’ve seen in her character development in this episode. I also think it doesn’t make any sense – she hasn’t just joined some secret society or killed someone, she’s given Rossum the plans of how to bring about Armageddon.

** A fact that almost makes me uncomfortable. One of the things that bothered me most about X-files was that it was a moralistic universe – almost all the time, particularly in the early seasons, everyone who died deserved to die. While it’s satisfying to have people killing rapists left, right and centre, that’s not how the world works. I’d much rather watch an uncaring universe than a moralistic one, even a moralistic universe which shares my moral understanding

*** I complained that there wasn’t enough relationships between the dolls and I got Stage Fright (which I still think was under-rated). I complained that they were using sexual violence to tell stories, rather than telling stories about sexual violence and I got Man on the Street.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Meet Jane Doe: Dollhouse Review Episode 2.07

It is hard to review an episode where you adored most of it, but had to watch some scenes through your fingers because you didn’t want to know (the closest I can come up with is the last episode of Buffy – there’s a special feminist cut that only exists in my head and doesn’t include Spike).

I’m going to start with the non-awesome: the unnecessary, unearned, out of nowhere, unawesomness of Ballard and Echo.

To start with the scenes in her apartment were badly written. Echo actually starts a conversation “So about that thing that happened three months ago, which we would have talked about already so I don’t need to explain it to you, but the audience has just seen it so I’ll start talking about that.” Then it’s exposition central, not made any less exposition central when Echo tells Ballard ‘you knows this’ and he doesn’t have the wits to reply ‘but the audience doesn’t.’ Even a plausible, non-creepy love story would be hard to tell with such clunky dialogue.

The three month skip forward was a real problem, Ballard and Echo’s relationship and (I can barely type this) the fact that she’s in love with him feel completely unearned. And as someone who would never have liked this development, no matter how well it was done, part of me is glad that we missed out watching most of it.(Although I could have totally got behind it if they’d made it all about Ballard’s creepiness) As it was I had my fingers over my eyes for some of the scenes. If they’d taken the time to do it right it would have gone longer, and that’s the last thing I wanted.

But, in terms of drama, in terms of making good TV, we need to see why she’s in love with him (if we’re going believe that she is, which obviously I’m denying – I actually think she was lonely and he was there, and you do strange things when you’re isolated and dealing with so many imprints). Until this episode we had no idea how she felt about him, except that she saw him as an ally. Now suddenly we’re supposed to see it as love?

But the real problem with Echo and Ballard was, as always, Ballard. I didn’t think it was possible for the writers to make me hate Ballard more for *not* sleeping with Echo, but oh look I do.

Ballard believes that Echo has the capacity to decide to return to the dollhouse – to a situation where she will have sex she is not consenting to on a fairly regular basis – but not to consent to sex. That’s a fucking patronising attitude to take. She expresses that this makes her feel like a freak, and he doesn’t even engage with her feelings. He is not interested in her, or her desires, never has been, and feels entitled to make decisions for her.

Which isn’t to say that I think that Echo and Ballard should have slept together (I really don’t). Just that the way the writers have portrayed them not sleeping together has made me hate him even more.*

I think the writers could have told this story but made Ballard less obnoxious - if he’d expressed his unwillingness to have sex with her as something about him rather than something about her. For example, if they referenced what Ballard did to Mellie and Madeline – if he’d told Echo the story and made that the reason he didn’t feel uncomfortable.

My favourite line with the episode (and Eliza Dushku delivered it perfectly) was “I try to be my best” – full of attitude. God he deserved it.

OK that’s most of the whining about this episode – now to the awesome. Apart from the problems with the Echo/Ballard relationship, the three-month skip forward really worked for me. This clearly could have been a seasons worth of material, and a lot of the stuff in the dollhouse would have been more satisfying with a build-up over time. But I found this episode fascinating and easy to follow.

I enjoyed not knowing exactly where the characters were, and making increasingly accurate guesses. The slow reveal of Echo’s actual situation were great (except where this revealed Ballard’s continued existence). But it was within the dollhouse that this story telling method had real strength. I think our lack of knowledge illustrated a truth about the situation where no-one was sure what was going on, or where they stood, or who they could trust.**

My only concern was that the episode felt a little bit weirdly structured. In the teaser we had a brief scene inside the dollhouse and an even briefer scene of Echo. Then we cut to a longer scene with Echo, which covered everything in the teaser scene and more, and then we cut to three months later. I think the episode would have been more coherent if the teaser had established the situation, and the rest of the episode was three months later. It’s not like Dollhouse hasn’t had long teasers before – the teaser for Spy in the House of Love was ten minutes.

The politics, and implications, of Echo and Ballard were completely fucked up, but I did appreciate that it wore the rest of its politics on its sleeves. In the scene at the grocery store they brought out the reality of hunger by focusing on the food and people eating. It was just a tiny segment, but it asked questions that very rarely get asked on TV, about the distribution of resources. This wasn’t some sci-fi, unreal sort of poverty, this was linked in with the very real poverty of food stamps. Like Echo and Galena, this episode asked why they couldn’t have food when they were hungry.

Then there was the portrayal of police and immigration. It wasn’t just that these police were portrayed as racist and violent, or that watching Echo beat them up was satisfying. It was that there was nothing about this which suggested that these particular cops were bad apples. They say straight out that this is how the system works. When Ballard came in their only reaction was disbelief that anyone would give a shit.

Now I’m the first to admit that I am pretty highly invested in people breaking out of prison. But I thought that whole sequence was incredibly exciting and very well done. The plan went wrong, as of course it must, but it seemed like a plan which had a chance of working, and when you’ve got Echo’s ninja skills it’s understandable that that’s your plan B. Even watching that sequence on the third and fourth time I find those break-out scenes gripping. (Although I do start to think things like: since when do the underwires of bras come out that easily). And Matt may have had the most inane fantasies in the world, but his imprint came through with her motorcycle riding skills.***

There’s been a little too much Echo rescuing woman of colour for my liking (the kidnapped girl, the pop star, Sierra and now Galena. I was going to say that she’d rescued every woman of colour with a role of any size, but then I remembered Ramierez, Victor’s handler, which is telling in itself). How about Sierra rescuing Echo for once? Or even just a WoC character that Echo doesn’t rescues who is important to the plot of an episode.

What I did like was that it wasn’t just Galena being rescued, they put in some small touches of her taking an active role – particularly finding the keys. We don’t know much about her, but she wasn’t portrayed as passive.**** She had obviously learnt English when she was in jail – she was prepared to fight for her life, even if she didn’t have Echo’s resources.

Echo needs other people, and she knows that. Right back in the beginning (when she got Galena into this mess) she was looking for a friend. She really is a people-person and that’s what’ll make her stronger than Caroline.

While Echo was rescuing people out of jai, over in the Dollhouse they were bringing on the apocalypse. I could have done without the Dubai-ness of the new house. Couldn’t they have been opening a new house in Winnipeg or somewhere? Clearly we’re not supposed to see American men in charge of the Dollhouse as un-misogynist. But when there’s no need why even open the door to ‘oh look at how scary and misogynist middle-eastern men are’?*****

Apart from that I thought the power struggles inside the dollhouse were fascinating. Like I said, I think the fragility of the people and relationships in the new regime were underscored by our lack of knowledge. Were people being cautious, were they on different sides, were they playing each other?

In many ways this was Adelle’s episode just as much as it was Echo’s. We see now the monumental consequences of her paranoia in the two parter. Olivia Williams (and the costume department) did a great job of conveying Adelle’s new status and just how hard it was for her. She was clearly kept on just for the sake of humiliating her, as she had to get Topher to sign-off on things. She had already lost so much by the time we saw her.

She regained her power not through her wits, her bluffing, or her ability to play a very bad hand very well, but by stealing something. What we saw was crawling back, even though she tried to insist that she was claiming some power. I think her character has been fundamentally changed by this, and it’ll have huge implications. I think Episode 10 was very revealing about where Adelle’s character is, but I’ll leave that to my next review to discuss.

And then there’s Topher, who needs a better hiding place. Like everyone else in the Dollhouse he’d learnt to play games. And, as Harding was surprised to discover, he was smart enough to put it all together. These developments fitted so well with the Topher we saw in Epitaph One. (And I think knowing where we’re going absolutely enriches the show). I think if you told me after I saw Ghost, that Topher was a tragic character I’d end up having much sympathy for I wouldn’t have believe you, but it’s true, and it has felt very real.

While there wasn’t enough Victor and Sierra in Meet Jane Doe, at least there was some. It’s amazing how much can be done with those two in under thirty seconds. We never saw the relationships that the scientists developed, but we don’t need to. Topher wipes them, and the scientists part, but then Victor and Sierra walk away together. They really are the most awesome couple in the history of the universe (or at least the history of TV).

I’m not saying that we should forgive Adelle for bringing on the apocalypse. I’m just saying that if Victor and Sierra had been split up that might have been worse than a burning car and a smudged Felicia Day.

I think that scene had its problems though, while it’s possible they were making a point when they had black woman in an Asian woman’s body being silenced while a bunch of white people applauded, I think it was too subtle (particularly given as a sizeable chunk of their tiny audience was thinking ‘oh look Maurissa’). And the only reason I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they might have been trying to say something, is because the person being silenced was the writer of the episode, which obviously adds a layer of complexity. Plus I’ve seen some other stuff she’s done and she’s clearly thought about issues around race, appropriation and identity.

Then just as Adelle has reclaimed her house, asserted her dominance over Topher and made it clear that no one is ever going to challenge her again, Echo comes back. (Don’t these people know they’re on Joss shows, saying things like that is asking for trouble) Now usually I’d make fun of slow-motion sequence with swelling music. But Echo’s return was epic and I loved it. I think it was something about Eliza Dushku’s performance made that whole sequence. That and the moment when she recognised Victor and Sierra and they recognised her. Seriously this show needs to build on those relationships rather than show Echo always interacting with Boyd and Ballard, the tag-team of annoying masculinity.

Eliza Dushku was really good in this episode – really phenomenally good. She nailed every moment (even the ones I didn’t want to see). I’ve always thought she was engaging, but sometimes her performances quite work for me (in particular I had real difficulties with the eyes half shut remembering Echo of early season two). But in this episode it all came together. Every single one of those changes, and characters and emotions was clear. She wasn’t alone, of course, Olivia Williams was the other stand-out, and everyone else, except Tahmoh Penikett and his three expressions, were fantastic.

I’m so very sad there’s only 5 to go (given that I’ve already watched A Love Supreme).

* Although at this point, Ballard could lead a revolution, solve my internet problems, provide me with a lifetime supply of Whittakers Dark Almond Chocolate and magic the ideal sources for my PhD out of thin air and it’d probably make me hate him more.

** At the beginning of the ep Topher states that he will never trust a woman again, and by the end of the ep he’s set the apocalypse in train by trusting a woman. Dramatic foreshadowing is a dangerous thing

*** Possibly the woman who wore the dress that was actually a shirt, also modified the scrubs Echo wore. I’m pretty sure standard issue scrubs don’t include bust shaping. You know Fox is getting desperate when they’re like “But, but, but, this script says Eliza Dushku is just wearing baggy clothes and scrubs – we have regulations against that kind of thing. Can they be sexy scrubs?”

**** I don’t really know how to talk about this; the whole terminology around being traumatised due to your powerlessness is so messed up. ‘Victim’ has been pathologised almost beyond redemption. ‘Survivor’ feels pointed at those who don’t survive. I think it’s important not to create a hierarchy of correct ways to respond to trauma. I feel that this thought should possible be a blogpost and not a footnote.

***** OK and this is a bit of an extended rant, but the whole OMG Harding is bad because he’ll send the actives out to a guy who likes to inflict pain thing didn’t work for me. Just as the ‘we don’t hire out the actives to be submissive, didn’t work for me. Dominatrix Echo liked to inflict pain, I’m sure she’d be a perfectly fine person to send out an active too (if the universe wouldn’t collapse from the weight of that one.) Boyd in particular has always taken the position “the most objectionable sex for actives to have is sex that I’m not into.” To me the key question seems to be will they hire out dolls on engagements where the imprint isn’t going to consent? I think that was supposed to be the implication of him quoting Marquis de Sade, that he didn’t want someone who would enjoy it. But that whole side of the dollhouse, and the lines people draw has been so muddy. I know the original desire to explore desire was destroyed by Fox, and maybe there was a point to these lines but never got to be explored. But I think it’s unfortunate that the show has ended up drawing boundaries around acceptable desire based on categories other than consent.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

On People Being Brave

Today people I knew were incredibly brave. They refused to be silent about violence against women and named Ira Bailey (or Tim Bailey) as someone who had physically, emotionally and sexually abused women. They did this in a space which accepted him, and tolerated his abuse.

I'm writing this, because I know the pressure they will be under; I know the pressure to stay silent; I know how the words stop in your throat, even when you don't want them to. I want to praise the noise, the naming, and the trouble-making.

I want the people who named abuse to hear something besides the push-back.

In particular, I want the women Ira abused to hear something besides push-back. Those who spoke up were brave, but survivors of abuse have to be braver, theydon't get the choice of picking and choosing when it'll effect them. They should be celebrated for their strength. I wish I believed that's what'll happen in response to people naming Ira's abuse, but I know it won't. I want them to hear something that isn't silencing, I want to celebrate their noise.

God there's so much I could say, about the thousand of different ways of silencing someone. But it's late, and I just wanted to write a celebration of the amazing work people have done in fighting abuse.

NB I have enabled comment moderation.

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.

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.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Belonging Review: Dollhouse 2.04

I’d really been looking forward to this episode. In fact a couple of days before I dreamed that I’d watched it and in my dream I thought “That was good, but not as much Sierra as I was expecting”. (I never used to dream about television, but since watching the Joss commentary on Restless where he describes having dreams where you watch movies and they’re weird as, I’ve had dreams like that twice. That Joss is part of not just the content, but the form of my dreams is probably just predictable at this point.) As we were sitting down to watch Belonging I said “At this stage my expectations are so high that if this episode doesn’t change my life it’s going to be a let-down.” I’m not saying it changed my life, but it certainly wasn't a let-down.


You know how good this episode was? The fact that it contained 0% Paul Ballard isn’t even on my top ten list of awesomeness. But, before we begin, lets have a moment of ‘Yay’ for the absence of Ballard. I don’t even need to choose my favourite character of the episode by who insults him the most. (If you didn’t know who my favourite character of the episode is you a) haven’t been paying attention to my reviews and b) Didn’t watch that episode.)

Everyone was their best in this episode, including Eliza Dushku. I know some people aren’t interested in the character Echo – but I always have been. From the first episode I have liked both Echo and Eliza’s performance. And this was a very fine episode on both counts. There are real subtleties in the differences in the way Echo interacts with people now. I loved that they drew out Echo’s growing understanding of language with Topher’s ‘they’re in my shirt’ line.

This season she’s been a bit closed off and inaccessible – as Boyd said she’s learned how to lie. How deep a game is she playing? How much is she conscious of what she was doing. Did she just want to help Sierra, or did she also want to change Topher? Is she using the doll persona as an act? It’s a challenge, both acting and directing, to take this path of her development, but at the moment I’m finding it very satisfying.

My favourite aspect of it all is that Echo is doing a great job of organising in the dollhouse – she’s got Boyd and Ballard completely committed to covering for her, Victor and Sierra developing their solidarity, (in fact she seemed to be working the Anger-Hope-Action technique with Victor pretty well – not that he needs much proding to any of those things when it comes to Sierra) and she even seems to be able to get Topher to do what she wants. After her individualism in Echoes and Needs, I’m really appreciating that. Next I’d like to see her actually talk to Sierra – there’s so much potential just sitting there with that friendship – make it happen writers.

Although in this episode, I even appreciated her individual acts of resistance: reading and writing. The leaf as her only book mark, really emphasised how much what is taken from people is the ability to experience time, to grow and to learn – to read one page and then another. The notes that she left herself on the lid of her pod are heart-breaking. Not just because they’re so simple - the ‘Victor loves Sierra’ ‘Sierra loves Victor’ couple could have been written on a school toilet. But because of how hard she’s fighting to retain what was done to her. “Friends help each other”

I finally liked Boyd again – give that character something to do other than punch people and pass moral judgements and I start to enjoy him. Although I felt like he was given a little bit too on the nose dialogue “so she can remember”, “now the lies begin” and “She does [belong in the dollhouse] now”. From an episode of TV point of view all of this felt unnecessary and a little insulting to the audience. As a character trait it makes him pompous – which doesn’t go well with morally judgemental (and completely hypocritical). But I’m so happy he got something to do that I’ll ignore it.

Dr Saunders was being felt in her absence this episode. We learned that she had projected her own feelings on to Sierra. Claire hated Topher so much, that she missed what was happening to Sierra. In turn, Topher was driven, on some level, by proving the absent Claire wrong, and that desire not to be the bad man took him far further than he knew how to deal with.

The whole episode was very well shot (and I don’t usually notice that sort of thing until I’m listening to a DVD commentary and Joss tells me that a scene is a oner and I go ‘oh’ and feel knowledgeable), but the first Topher scene where we saw him through his magnifying lens was particularly brilliant. The dialogue and image worked together to make it clear that he is on the path to Epitaph One. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the events of this week affect him.

And a special shout-out to ‘this is your brain on drugs’ (It makes me want to search out the 90210 scene from the Peach Pit where Andrea is explaining this to Brandon. Television gold that was) Fran Kranz is just amazing in every way – to deliver such a silly line so perfectly in the same ep as he signalled Topher’s eventual downfall, and his present uncertainty followed by pain, is skill indeed.

I’ve always found the relationships between the staff at the dollhouse fascinating, and I love that they developed Topher by developing his relationships. I was glad that they built on Boyd and Topher’s relationship, it brings out the interesting in both of them. As for Adelle and Topher - I found Adelle’s creepy maternal/sexual vibe with him just as disturbing as it was supposed to be: “You have no morals so I’m going to touch your face.” I can’t wait to see where they take that.

I was unsure, at first, what I felt about our main characters being ignorant about what had happened with Sierra. The end of Needs was obvious Retconned – when Dr Saunders and Boyd talked about the man who took away Sierra’s power, they meant Nolan. And the new interpretation is a bit of a stretch. But that wasn’t my problem – I felt unsure about all of them being so clearly anti-Nolan. It felt a little clean, a little artificial, a little like they couldn’t slip below a certain level on the ‘likeability scale.’

The more I think about it, the more I’m glad the writers did it this way. I think it was stretching credulity a little bit for everyone to be “I know we took dolls from prison, dolls who explicitly said “I have no choice” and dolls so ill that they couldn’t possibly give consent, but we must do something about Sierra.” But (as Joss Whedon says on the DVD commentary to the Serenity pilot) everyone believes their righteous. Not jut in the dollhouse, everyone who is exploiting or abusing someone is a hero in their own life. To be able to tell a story that shows the range of ways people can react when they discover that they were wrong – that their abuse and exploitation is just that – is what makes Dollhouse so great.

Priya’s origin story (as Adelle and Topher saw it originally), also tells us a lot about the Dollhouse’s view of consent. Of the six dolls that we have any idea why and how they came to the dollhouse three (Caroline, Alpha and the guy from Echoes) were facing jail. The other three all appeared to the Dollhouse to be mentally ill, and not coping with that. We don’t know how lucid either Madeline or Victor were, but it’s clear that they took Priya when she was completely unable to give informed consent. Adelle is used to this, she is the one who give Caroline the contract after she says “I don’t have a choice" She is at least partially aware of the lies she is telling herself. That is why she chose not to fight on this one, even if she couldn’t do it sober.

Another interesting aspect of the relationship between the staff and the dolls was in the tiny call-back to Haunted. Topher told Sierra she was allowed beer – on special occasions – the last time we’d seen her with beer was at his birthday – when she was his friend. Like Adelle, Topher seems to protect, to care for, to identify with, the dolls that he’s interacted with. Even interacting with an imprint that has been constructed for their needs, makes the workers in the dollhouse see the dolls as more human.

But this story wasn’t about Echo, or Adelle, it wasn’t even about Topher or Sierra, it was about Priya. We’d only seen snippets of her before, but they’d been very compelling snippets, particularly in Epitaph One. From the very beginning of this episode, with the jewelry selling scene on the beach, Priya seemed so real. When she said to Nolan: “I don’t have a work visa ‘do-do-do’” – it was such a silly, little, normal moment. It made the rest of the episode even harder.

When I mentioned that this episode was going to be about Sierra, my friend was all ‘Does she get to kill Nolan?’* Dollhouse is, among many other things, a story about the nature of fantasy. This episode didn’t have an engagement, but it did have a fantasy –– the fantasy of killing your rapist. Or, in the case of the viewer, watching someone else kill their rapist. Dollhouse has given this before – the fact that Mellie was being controlled by Adelle didn’t make it any less satisfying when she broke Hearn’s neck. But that was the fantasy of killing a rapist – we didn’t watch Mellie dealing with the body, the police, or the effects on her of killing someone.**

Belonging wasn’t the fantasy of killing a rapist, there was a body and it traumatised Priya even more. The fight was messy, Priya had a normal person’s strength and was lucky. Although I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who shouted at the screen “Topher couldn’t you have helped by providing her with Kung Fu skills. But it wouldn’t have worked if he had. And after there was blood, a body, and very few options. There were still fantasy elements – Boyd arrived on cue with body disposal skills, but it was the reality, not the fantasy that we were left with. The scene, or story, didn’t end with her stabbing him.

I’m not saying it’s not satisfying to watch women killing rapists, because it is. But it fills an emotional need, an expression of our anger, life doesn’t work that way. I was really glad we saw just a bit more of the picture.

In an episode this brilliant, there was only one moment missing. Why did Priya go back to the Dollhouse? When I think about it, I can see why she would feel as if going back was her only option. But as I was watching it for the first time, I kept get pulling out of the story and asking why?

I think there are lots of answers to that question – actually that’s the problem, there are too many reasons (she was coerced by Topher and Boyd, she didn’t feel able to go on the run, she wanted out of her life). When I first watched the episode, it felt disjointed and unsure. When I thought about it (and rewatched it a fourth or fifth time) I put myself in Priya’s head, and going back made emotional sense to me.

I think conveying to the audience that Sierra was going to go back to the dollhouse in a conversation between Boyd and Topher was a mistake. We should have learned that with Priya – then her reasons would have been our reasons, and I think it would have made more sense. It could have been as simple as Topher telling Priya that she was microchipped – we only needed a beat, but the beat they gave us didn’t work for me.

Which isn’t to say Priya going back was simple, or should have been portrayed as such. The scene between Topher and Sierra at the end was so powerful, because thre was so much going on (and both Fran Kranz and Dichen Lachman kicked their incredible performances up a notch for that scene). She wanted her memories gone, and she didn’t care about the price (‘if you wake me up again’), but there was also determination, and even hope. In the end her story was about the complexity of survival.

It wasn’t ‘empowering’ (how I hate that word). But it was real, which is far more important.

As well as having just the right amount of Paul Ballard, this episode had almost enough Victor and Sierra. I’m obviously on record as a Victor/Sierra Shipper (Vierra? Sictor?). But my one concern has been the way the relationship was set up. It seemed to rinforce men as desiring/women as desired dynamic. I always believed that the relationship was reciprocal, but there was little textual evidence of that. There had been a scene of Sierra enjoying looking at Victor in episode 4, but they cut it out. (If you ask me it’s worth buying the DVD just to see that scene. I’d have cut the scene of Echo being remote wiped, before I’d have cut that)

Which was what made the art gallery scene so glorious. It became clear that Sierra been attracted to Victor, just as long as Victor had been attracted to Sierra. (There may have been a call from the cheap seats ‘You can ask me many boring questions. It may have come from me) Everything about their interaction was charming, without being ridiculous ‘love-at-first sight’.

But, sweet as it was, that was nothing compared with what followed. As I said during Man on the Street, one of the most powerful aspects of Sierra’s storyline is the portrayal of institutional abuse. Even more importantly, Sierra’s pain would have remained invisible if she didn’t have friends. The role that Echo and Victor played in making Sierra’s experiences public ((and the fact that that publicity didn’t result in unmitigated improvement for Sierra’s life was very realistic)) and supporting her was beautiful.

Echo wasn’t the only one who had a plan; Victor saw the black paint as something he could deal with (and probably his plan was less likely to have negative effects of Sierra than Echo’s). The scene in the shower was lovely in so many ways, his earnestness – their playfulness.*** Then we saw Victor’s vulnerability as well, and Sierra comforted him.

They have such an equal, reciprocal relationship (particularly now they’ve shown us the origins). I really like that. Just like I was relieved when Victor didn’t ‘invent rape’ I love the idea that in a world that doesn’t use gender as a system of control, relationships would look different.

But what was most powerful about this episode was it’s depiction of love. What I think is so beautiful about Sierra and Victor’s love is it’s simplicity. “I’ll wait here” and he does, and until she comes back every time the camera cuts to him it breaks your heart. They like being together, they want to help each other, they make each other feel better. On some level love (and I don’t just mean romantic love or love paired with sexual attraction here) is that simple.

In real life, the simplicity of love is often only really apparent in times of great stress, or absolute relaxation. All the rest of the time messy life stuff gets in the way. But the feeling is still there. The feeling that you would get the black paint pots of your friends, families and lovers and wash them out if only you knew how, the desire for someone to wait about the bottom of the stairs – those are the reasons Victor and Sierra’s relationship resonates.

The episode is incredibly sad, but the ending is beautiful. The way the dolls walked into their pods at the end of Needs was heartbreaking. They’re not doing that anymore. Their acts of resistance are intimacy and retaining information. It won’t be enough – the dolls won’t bring down the dollhouse this way. Like most institutions they’ve learned if they loosen their control it makes it easier to maintain their power. But in the meantime, it keeps Echo, Sierra and Victor strong enough to keep fighting.

* One of the things I’ve loved about this season is the consequences for the Johns. Of the people we know have, or planned to have, sex with an active, we’ve had two stabbings and one jailing. That’s the sort of ratio which is fun to watch, even though it throws the profitability of the whole operation into more than a little bit of doubt.

** Buffy, of course, was designed around fantasy killing rapists. The bodies went poof – there was no stress no trauma, and when men got really misogynist she cut them in half from the balls up.

*** Small quibble the ‘indian chief’ line rang a bit false to me. So far we haven’t seen dolls have any cultural references. So far dolls comprehension seems limited to the idea that Dr Saunders is nice, and they should try and be their best. Victor didn’t understand Echo’s metaphor. The idea of ‘an Indian Chief’ that Victor and Sierra seemed to share was far more specific than that

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Belle Chose: Dollhouse episode 2.03 review

Sorry for the delay in this week’s dollhouse episode. I’ve been a bit busy, and this was a solid episode. Not so world-changing that I had to spend the next three days searching for superlatives, or so incompetent that I was instantly driven to rant. Just solid. I think in some ways it proves that Dollhouse can have solid Engagement of the week episodes, so I was wrong last week.

So for those who haven’t been following dollhouse ratings from the edge of your seats – the news has been all over the place. The episodes were appalling, they were better but still awful, Fox was going to pull it, Fox was committed to making and airing all 13 episodes, Fox had confirmed airdates for the next 5 episodes

Well four days or so after that good news Fox has announced that they’re not airing Dollhouse during sweeps, but instead they’re airing double episodes through December. This means I’m going to be in withdrawl all through November, and also I’m grumpy. If anyone out there has a Nielson box, the offer is still on for a very small bribe.


This episode was filmed as the second episode, and it’s obvious after watching them out of order that they’d been changed. (according to reasonably reliable internet sources it was Joss and Tim who decided to change the episodes round – which is surprising to me – messing with continuity isn’t usually their style). This episode fits straight on from ‘Vows’ – the mention of Dr Saunders, and Ballard clearly new to the dollhouse.

The one advantage to all this is that it makes Ballard look much, much worse (and since no-one really insulted him this week and so I’m therefore favourite character-less I’ll take what I can get). In his first engagement, his behaviour is just standard-issue-creepy. But if this is even his second engagement he isn’t just confused, stupid and gross – he’s predatory. Although, despite the advantages of Ballard looking worse, I’m going to go with the original continuity, in the rest of this review and in my head.

Oh and there was an extra special Ballard hating moment of putting down the client: ‘Some egghead English professor who can’t get any of his real students to sleep with him’. There’s some masculinity dissing in the first half of that, which makes the second part particularly gross. Apparently Ballard thinks “he’s a non-manly man who can’t even take advantage of his power over women” is an insult. Seriously – why did no one insult him this episode?

But the most exciting aspect of all this was that we got to see the wardrobe. The mechanics of the dollhouse are far more interesting to me than most engagements. The wardrobe guy’s commitment to his job was great – I really hope we see more of that character.

We also saw another African-American watcher. I do wonder if the casting of people of colour as handlers is deliberate. In terms of how the dollhouse would work, I think that would be an interesting decision. To build your world with an understanding of ethnicity, and the segregation of the work-force is a real step up when it comes to Joss-verses. However, the TV show ‘the dollhouse’ doesn’t tell stories about handlers - it tells stories about dolls, management and professionals. So the effect of what may (or may not be) realistic world-building, is that the stories revolve around white people, which is not a good solution (I’d love to see some stories about handlers – that is handlers that aren’t Ballard).

I should warn you now that I’m not an English major, I’ve never read Chaucey (or Chaucer), and so the insightful parallels with English literature will have to take place in the comments.* Given that the professor wrote non-fiction bestsellers I guess it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that he’s saved up everything he’s ever earned to pay for the dollhouse. Although that is one inane fantasy to spend your life savings on – unless there’s a literary layer I’m missing.

And while I usually rag on Tim Minear for being a libertarian, there was some straight up feminism in there. (As there was in Out of Gas – Kaylee and Fester the mechanic was a moment of true beauty) The way the Professor’s ridiculous speech on the power all women have was undercut by the fact that he only wanted a women with that power over him if he’d constructed her. And the parallels between the professors’ refusal to acknowledge his own power and control and the serial killer’s explicit violence against women were nicely done.

None of these themes were subtle, but after the thematic hot mess that was ‘Insticnt’ I’ll take obvious any day.

Echo stabbing the client, was a very satisfying moment. (Although I don’t know what’s more implausible – the dollhouse’s profitability or its (lack of) security.)

Neither Boyd, Adelle or Topher really got much to do this episode, but their interaction was nicely done (“Topher has ethical problems *Topher*”). I’ve been disliking Boyd for a while now, mostly because I hate the moral posturing about the dollhouse for one so complicit. And also because I find the way he gets so worked up when Echo has sex in a way he doesn’t want to have sex – the problem is that she’s having sex with no meaningful way of giving consent, not that that sex involves whips and tempura. Although I think the real problem is that he hasn’t had a plot-line since The Target. His translation of Adelle made me remember that I might like him if we ever saw anything from him but hypocrisy and punches.

When the serial killer was loose in Victor’s body, Adelle was clearly more concerned about Victor than say him killing people. I wonder if she’d have tried something that risky if it had been any other doll.

Clearly Victor as Kiki was one of the highlights of the episode. And Ballard had a small moment of not-sucking when he stood with Victor. Enver is a fabulous actor and he committed. But it was also an example of the show having it both ways. The scene was a commentary on social norms, why are those behaviours normal in Echo’s body, but ridiculous in Victor’s? Why does the same person get such different responses?

But the only reason the scene is funny is that he’s a boy acting like a girl.

The show is going to continue to have it both ways (see the wardrobe). The question will always be, how did the balance come out? Dollhouse is usually going to have to show the ideas it’s critiquing. Which is stronger: what we see or what the show is saying? I think in this case it works, at least partly because of Ballard’s position, but it’s always a fine line.

I was a little disappointed with the ending. It seemed to be another season one “Ba-Boom! Echo remembered something!” I really like the idea that Echoline (I’m pretty sure I got that from Whedonesque) is fighting back against the imprints if it’s something she doesn’t want to do. But to end it all on such a repetitive note was a real let down.

That just leaves the serial killer plot. Eh – serial killer plots aren’t really my thing, even at their best moments of parallels I’ll talk about the parallels not the plot themselves. Enver Gjorkaj is very talented. The dialogue between the women in the cage “we have names” was clunky in the extreme. I was engaged, it was watchable, but if I never watched another story about serial killer, it would be too soon.

See I don’t even care that Ballard killed someone – that’s how much I’m not interested in serial killer plots (I’m more grumpy that he made fun of his name – two masculinity insults in one episode – I hate Ballard so much).

Enjoy the next episode – it’s the last till December (and this makes me very, very sad).

* Although I have read ‘Writing Your Dissertation in 15 minutes a Day’ and the author of that started her dissertation on The Wife of Bath. Although all I remember is that is based on hideously misogynist source texts, but whether it is itself as misogynist is up for debate. I’m guessing that the parallels lay with the way men use ideas of women having power – discuss…

Sunday, October 18, 2009

On ACC...

When writing about my analysis of sexual violence and prisons, one of the points I keep coming back to is how centred it is on the perpertrator. It's not a new or original thought to point out that everything about the way a criminal law system deals with sexual violence is entirely focused on 'the offender'. The follow-on from this is our society's way of dealing with sexual violence revolves around the court system.

A few year ago, I wrote about a nursing student, who was raped by a fellow student, after a typical, ridiculous, defence, the rapist got off. She had to drop out of school, because the school wouldn't do anything to ensure she wouldn't have to see her rapist regularly. I think it's important to understand how structural the problems within our justice system are. These systems are not designed to support survivors of sexual abuse, and therefore they will always fail at that task.


But, in New Zealand, we do have a system that is set up to meet, to revolve around, what survivors of sexual violence need. There are many things it cannot provide - ACC will not help student find a way to continue to study without seeing her rapist. But it can provide counselling and income support.

I don't have any personal experience, or depth of knowledge, of ACCs sensitive claims system. I am sure, as it currently operates, it has flaws, and some people fail to get the help that they need. But, at the moment, it can be centred around what a survivor needs, based on her relationship with her counsellor (or his).

If these changes go through, it will be much harder, maybe impossible for ACC to be survivor-centre. Currently, a survivor can have up to four sessions of counselling to disclose their abuse, but the changes will cut this down to one session (or maybe two, Peter Jensen, the person in charge of the proposal, was unclear on nine to noon).

At the moment a survivor can access up to 50 sessions with a counsellor before they have to obtain a psychological assessment. The changes will require psychological assessments much earlier in the process, and that process will be directed much more by clinicians. In order to get funded counselling, a survivor of sexual abuse will require a DSM IV diagnosis.

This is not a survivor-centred approach to sexual abuse; it is a clinician-centred approach.

ACC has already begun tightening the screws. And in doing so it has turned funded counselling into another area where a survivor has to prove her (or his) experience – maybe not beyond reasonable doubt, but close.

Dr Kim McGregor explained how ACC restricts access to counselling on an interview on 9 to Noon 9 to Noon. ACC declined cover for a young boy who had been sexually abused as the behaviour described: mood swings, tearfulness, and sitting alone sucking his thumb, did not necessarily have a clinical link with sexual abuse. They said these behaviours could just as well have been caused by settling into school and a new environment rather than the sexual abuse events.

Imagine the difficulty of someone who has survived sexual abuse will have in proving that the difficulties she (or he) is experiencing are directly and only a result of the abuse. Those who had what insurance companies call ‘pre-existing conditions’, could find support denied – if they had previously been depressed, how can they know that depression after the sexual abuse is a result of that abuse? (not a question that could be asked by anyone who cared about the experiences of survivors of sexual abuse, but a question that is being asked by ACC). While those who do not seek help for a long time, will have to prove the effects the abuse has had on them, and the more complex their survival strategies in the intervening time, the harder it will be for them to access the support they need.

The parallels between the perfect victim of the court system and the perfect survivor of ACC are strong. In both cases the onus of proof falls on those have been abused to prove either that there was abuse, or that that abuse affected them. Just as previous sexual history is used against survivors in the court system, ACC can use previous mental health history against survivors.

My point is not just that the changes to ACC need to be fought (although they do – Monday is a national day of action – come along), but to show how important, and how fragile, a survivor centred approach to sexual violence there is.

As well as pushing against these threats to survivor support, I want us to push further. I want us to imagine what a response to sexual violence which prioritised survivors look like.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Instict Review; Dollhouse 2.02

I seem to be having two completely contradictory reactions to Dollhouse at the moment. Half the time I think:

“This is the best show and concept that ever has, or ever will be made. I can’t believe how amazingly brilliant it is and want to watch it for ever and ever and ever.”

But then I also think:

“This show is irrevocably, structurally flawed”

After watching Instinct, I decided they were probably both true.

I’m not a fan of stand-alones or procedurals. Television is a medium that is built for serialised storytelling (the most powerful narrative form ever invented), I don’t understand why you’d squander it by not telling a story. But I also think you can take things too far in the other direction. If you don’t have stand alone plots that finish off each episode, you actually have reset TV of a different sort, as the plotlines come and go, and they’re never given due weight. You get Gossip Girl, where killing someone can be fixed in half an episode, or BSG, where they’d be these dramatic changes for a few episodes, but they’d always be reset so the captain was still the captain the president was still the president and so on. If all your plot is on-going then that makes it very difficult.

That was one of the many things that was so great about Buffy. There was a perfect balance between serial, and So even a relatively mediocre episode could still have interactions between our core characters (My friend dissed Inca Mummy Girl the other day – and I reminded her that was the origin of the genius “I didn’t choose yet” exchange) and at the same time something like your boyfriend going evil could be given the emotional significance it needed

Dollhouse’s on-going story is so powerful, resonant and exciting, that I will be devastated if they cancel it. But they haven’t figured out how to tell interesting short-term stories, and I don’t think it’s possible (because the short term stories involve only new characters).

So an episode of Dollhouse is either going to make everything right with the world for ever more, or not be that interesting. There is very little in between. Even Vows, which is I think the closest Dollhouse has come to middling, was actually just some scenes that would cure cancer, intermingled with some other scenes that there’s no reason to re-watch.

It think exacerbating these problems, is that Fox does not want to the best version of this show.

This is all a long winded introduction to the fact that I wasn’t particularly sold on this week’s episode.

Although having written all that, I’m not as sure as I was that the problems are structural. I wonder if the problems with the execution with this episode were actually about the episode itself. There were so many clich├ęs. The most inexcusable was the father finally bonding with the child towards the end.

But rewatching it, I think maybe the problem was more that they focused on the most boring aspects of what could have been an interested story. There was an inordinate amount of time wasted on ‘what is going on’ from Echo’s point of view. I didn’t find this particularly interesting, because we knew it was an engagement, so her point of view on her husband trying to kill her always felt ridiculous.

And now is as good a time as any to say how annoyed I was with the portrayal of ‘mother instinct’. If you are going to spend the teaser talking about how amazing it is that you’ve used the brain to trigger lactation and then you show the lactating woman being paranoid, and saying people threatened to kill her when they didn’t. Then that’s pretty offensive, and reinforcing derogatory harmful ideas about women and mothers.

I think maybe I would have been more interested in the engagement if rather than focusing on the ‘have baby: go crazy’ angle they had told it from the husband’s point of view. Because to me that was interesting – the dollhouse couldn’t provide what he needed. It could have been a critical interrogation of the Patton Oswalt engagement in Man on the Street. If someone you loved died, would having them for one day a year or even longer really help? But rather than getting any of him we got boring scenes setting up false tension (and on the Sierra rating scale this episode fairs very poorly – she probably had more screen-time last week, but there was no purpose to her character. Come on people)

I thought the central scene in the police scene was amazing. (Although the police officers seemed deeply implausible to me – if only women who were scared were taken that seriously) Eliza was fantastic, and the impact and horror of what they were doing was very clear. From there the episode definitely had more of a purpose.

A purpose that was built on with the awesome [punch] “Can I Go Now?” That’s just the sort of pay-off that the rituals around the dolls was made for.

The final scene between a confused Echo and the boy’s father had some great stuff (and again I was impressed with Eliza’s acting). But then I there were the same tone and focus problems as earlier in the episode.

The switching to horror felt completely unearned. Why did someone who thinks a car is driven by saying ‘go’ cut the lights and electricity? (And it’s even more unearned if that’s supposed to be a coincidence) Why does she have a knife? Why does Echo say “Mummy’s home”? None of these things make sense in the world they set up. They also didn’t add anything to the scene. Why didn’t the writers trust themselves to write a powerful scene between two people without the irrelevant pyrotechnics?

So maybe, in the course of writing this review, I’ve persuaded myself I’m wrong. Maybe the structural problems with the dollhouse are not inherent. Maybe this could have been a very satisfying episode, and the problems were in the execution. If it’s possible to do good engagements of the week, then they better learn fast.

That all sounds as if I didn’t like the episode at all, and it had some great moments. But it feels such a waste to go from Topher and Dr Saunders to something completely incoherent about motherhood instinct.

In the dollhouse itself, I have a new rule: whichever character insults Ballard the most in any given episode is my favourite character of this week. (And I know everyone disses on Eliza’s acting, but Tahmoh Penikett has so little range it’s embarrassing.) This week Topher wins the prize - go Topher – like I said last week Fran Kranz is amazing and Epitaph One is adding so much depth to the character.

Obviously the most exciting long-term development was the return of Madeline (and Miracle Laurie rocked in a very different role). I don’t quite know what I think of it yet. I enjoyed the scene with them together, because it’s all about what an asshole Ballad is (well it is in my head anyway). But from a narrative perspective it’d be very annoying if she reappeared just to help Ballard learn about the Dollhouse.

Although I strongly suspect they’re going somewhere far more interesting with this. Because she’s spent her time finding the perfect dress, and the perfect apartment, and now she’s ‘not sad’. Her grief that was so strong in Needs has been taken away. The parallels between her and Echo, who chose feeling something over being asleep were obvious. But I wonder if there are also going to be, in the end, parallels with the father, if the Dollhouse won’t be able to give her what she needs.

The final scene, between Echo and Ballard was very powerful. She undercut the lies he’s telling himself (and Madeline) about it not being real. I really love that they’re exploring Echo’s agency, and that she’s making a choice to keep everything she’s feeling. I think it even offered an alternative explanation to the ‘mothers are crazy’ idea that dominated the episode. I don’t love that the only person she’s bonding with is Paul, but he’s at his least obnoxious when he’s actually talking to Echo, since that’s when he comes nearest to treating her like a human being.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Vows Review: Dollhouse 2.1

So currently I’m continuing to review dollhouse as my main form of blogging (although I do have a post about Roman Polanski half written – nothing like prisons and feminism to get me writing – except of course the new season of Dollhouse).

Ethical Martini asked in the comments whether Dollhouse is airing here yet. Unfortunately not. You can get order the DVD on Amazon. To get more recent episodes it’s illegal or semi-legal avenues only (is IP address marking to buy episodes from overseas illegal?)

Thursday, August 06, 2009

November and Sarah Haskins

I can’t remember when the character descriptions for Dollhouse first leaked. I was surprised, and happy to read November’s:

20’s, any ethnicity, beautiful and heavy. Another Doll, a hopeful child in the house and everyone else you need her to be outside. A comforting, radiant presence, who tends to get fewer of the criminal gigs and more of the personal ones. Recurring.

Later, when the casting was announced and I saw Miracle Laurie, I was disappointed, more than surprised. Like Amp, I assumed that ‘heavy’ had turned out to be an optional part of the character description.

Miracle Laurie is only a recurring character, and her media appearances appear to be arranged by her saying yes when people ask her, rather than by any publicity department. She’s given several, reasonably in depth interviews with fans of Dollhouse, and I’ve realised that I was wrong. Heavy wasn’t, in the end, treated as an optional part of the character description. The truth is far more disturbing.

In two recent interviews Miracle Laurie talked about being cast as November. She says that she read the cast break-down and thought: “This is it – this character is perfect for me. If I don’t get this part it’ll be my fault for not working hard enough.” In one of her interviews she even recites the character description. When I read the character description, I had no idea of how limited “beautiful and heavy” really was. Miracle Laurie may only have one other credit to her name, but she understands Hollywood better than I can.

But there was more to it than that, because Dollhouse had quite a complicated development process. Fox didn’t like Joss’s original plan for November, (I’m really curious about what the original plan for November was, but there’s been no leaking in that department. I can’t imagine it’d be cooler than what they ended up doing with Mellie, but I could be wrong) so pretty much on the fly (as Miracle Laurie describes it) the writers came up with a new idea for November as Mellie, as Paul Ballard’s next-door neighbour.

Miracle Laurie has said that Joss had to fight to keep her in the role, to keep his vision of November. To take a small step and there conclusions are, Fox wanted to recast November when it was decided that the character would have sex with Tahmoh Penikett, and that this would be the only on-going sexual relationship in the first season

I want to tease why I think Fox wanted to recast November. I don’t think it was as simple as her not being ‘attractive’ enough, or at least not in the sense of being sexually attractive. Dollhouse is not short of scenes designed to appeal to those attracted to women, the dress that is actually a shirt, or the dominatrix outfit are only the most obvious. Fox has plenty of material that is geared to what it thinks its 18-34 year old male viewers want to watch.

The casting description made it clear that November would be having sexual scenes. There is no reason that November being Mellie would change the extent to which Miracle Laurie would be in scenes that were sexual. (I’m deliberately ignoring the fact that I find the idea that Miracle Laurie would be considered ‘not attractive’ enough for, well anything, patently ridiculous.)

What changed, when November became Mellie, wasn’t the way her body would be seen on the show, but the meaning of those scenes. Fox didn’t want to re-cast November because Mellie was going to have sex scenes, they wanted to re-cast November because she was going to have a sexual relationship with the male lead character.

It’s not about what Fox thinks its male viewers want, it’s about want Fox thinks its female viewers need - in order to buy whatever is being advertised. Ratings may be king in TV-land, but the raison d’etre of TV isn’t actually to get viewers, but to get viewers to watch advertisements. Or, more precisely, get viewers to watch advertisements and for those advertisements to work.

Which is where Sarah Haskins comes in. For those who don’t know her, Sarah Haskins is the genius feminist comedian who focuses on the way media targets women (really if you haven’t seen her stuff – just go and spend a couple of hours on youtube and come back – its that good). She shows how inane and ridiculous media targeted at women is. Here is her segment on yoghurt:

Here is her segment on chocolate:

Everyone who watches those ads knows that 150 calorie warm delight minis aren’t going to be that good (Whittakers Dark Almond chocolate isn’t as good as they make warm delight minis look, and it has sugar and cocoa butter in it), and calling yoghurt key lime pie doesn’t make it key lime pie rather than yoghurt.

But the advertisements make more sense if you think about the programs that contain them.

The women screaming and rioting in the 100 calorie oreo advertisement will only resonate with a woman who believes she should take up no space. Comparing yoplait to a private island makes sense only if you think you should be denying yourself the sustenance and pleasure that comes from food and yoghurt is as good as it gets.

And all these ideas fit better after watching a sex scene between Tahmoh Penikett and (hypothetically) Amy Acker than they do after watching a sex scene between Tahmoh Penikett and Miracle Laurie.

For most women, looking like Miracle Laurie is just as much as an unattainable beauty standard than looking like Amy Acker (who is an awesome actress, and I’m just using as an example because she’s also in Dollhouse). Miracle Laurie is somewhere round the bottom 15% of American women when it comes to height and weight ratio and her body is of a particular type (plus her hair looks like shampoo commercial).

But Miracle Laurie as Mellie, given her story arc, does disrupt an idea that advertisers rely on. I think any single image of what is attractive is damaging (particularly for women, given how we are taught to view our attractiveness as a primary factor in our value). But one of the things that I think is particularly damaging about the standard of beauty in our society is that there is no end, there is no ‘thin enough.’ Our society has an anorexic vision of women – where any flesh, any fat, any space is too much.

And it’s a profitable vision. Advertisers, and therefore executives, don’t want it disrupted.

This may sounds conspiratorial, clearly television works that way, at least in part, but is it conscious I it designed? What justification do the Fox executives themselves give when they want to recast November? Obviously I have no idea, I live in New Zealand. But I think it’s important to understand that such profitable ideas don’t just exist, they have to be created and maintained.

I think the easiest ways to understand this is to turn to an earlier way of selling women things. The Feminine Mystique is an incredibly strong exploration of one of the problems women faced in the post-war period (it’s much weaker as a total explanation of women’s situation at the time). Betty Friedan’s famous book outlines the ‘problem with no name’, a situation where women who are trying to be what women are told they should want, are in fact miserable, even if they succeed. Of particular relevance to this discussion, she asks “How did this happen? How didso many women get persuaded that they needed to be something that would never make them happy.”

In the second chapter, Betty Friedan outlines how, in the 1940s, the parameters of what a heroine was allowed to be changed in fiction aimed towards women. She talks in some details about how women with jobs, careers, education, or a desire for any of these things, were slowly written out of the fiction that ran in the women’s magazines. Then in Chapter 9 she starts to ask some of the bigger questions:
Some months ago, as I began to fit together the puzzle of women’s retreat to home, I had the feeling I was missing something. I, despite the nameless desperation of so many American housewives, despite the opportunities open to all women now, so few have any purpose in life other than to be a wife and mother, somebody, something pretty powerful must be at work.

There are certain fats of life so obvious and mundane that one never talks about them. […]Why is it never said that the really crucial function, the really important role tat women serve as housewives is to buy more things for the house In all the talk of femininity and woman’s role, one forgets that the real business of America is business. But the perpetuation of housewifery, the growth of the feminine mystique, makes sense (and dollars) when one realizes are the chief customers of American business. Somehow, somewhere, someone must have figured out that women will buy more things if they are kept in the underused nameless-yearning, energy-to-get-rid-of-sate of being housewives.

She doesn’t just state this as a theory; she explores how this happened. She talks to advertisers’ researchers and survey takers. They tell her how important it is that women are persuaded of the validity of roles that they actually find unsatisfying in order that the advertisers can sell products. They describe the research they do to measure how women respond to different ideas. How they use the research that they have, and the media that they have access to maintain the image of women that will allow them to sell the most stuff. She ties it all together, by going back to the magazines that changed the sorts of stories they carry, and showing the connections between them and the advertisers.

The Fox executives probably didn’t say “If November’s sleeping with Ballard we want her re-cast, because otherwise she won’t make women feel bad enough about themselves.” The process has probably got more complicated sine the 1950s, but the process will have remained the same. Researchers and marketers will tell the networks what the advertisers want them to hear.

The range of bodies that get shown on TV is so narrow, that Miracle Laurie has been trumpeted as exceptional. She was asked what it felt to look different from other women on set – as if the difference between a size zero or two and a size six or eight or whatever was a rubicon between the normal and the great unknown and unaccepted. She answered:
Let me start by saying thank you to those of you who have said ridiculously kind and sweet things about my work on the show, but also about my figure. It’s a very satisfying feeling to have one of the most influential creators, producers and writers in the industry fight to have “normal-sized women” on his shows. To have Joss Whedon say, “You’re beautiful, sexy, strong and normal and there should be more women like you on TV and I don’t know why there aren’t” feels incredible, as you could imagine. I think everyone wants to be skinnier than they are, it’s just the way it is

That Miracle Laurie is an exception when it comes to the amount of space women are allowed to take up on screen is ridiculous. That this is how far Joss Whedon can get when he fights is an indictment on the industry. Television can portray many things – but it needs to deliver an audience in a frame of mind to buy stuff - and self-hatred is a starting point advertisers love.


At comicon Joss was asked why he was fascinated by the idea of The Dollhouse:

Have you been in America? I mean I like to consider a myself great documentarian. The entire structure is designed to mess with your mind to combined selling you things with entertaining you. To keep you in line, to think that you need the thigns they want you to need, and to stay away from the things they want you to stay away from. To keep them in power, to share none of it. This is all happening. There are lights in the darkness. The art that we get to create because the powerful patrons let us is one of them. But sometimes, yeah, it’s like running the daycare on the death-star.

I love Joss; I love the television he creates. I’m convinced his politics have got more radical and outspoken since the writers strike, which is awesome. And if this speech is a tad self-indulgent, I’d be self-indulgent too if I got treated the way Joss gets treated at Comic-con.

But sometimes it’s not the daycare.

Thursday, July 23, 2009


The following advertisement aired on Israeli TV:

The following clip was filmed in Palestine:

Fantasy is a strange thing. (via Lenin's Tomb)

Epitaph One: Dollhouse Review (Spoilers)

I don’t understand by blogging habits anymore. I have thoughts, and half composed posts. Big events, blog-storms, and repulsive media trials come and go, but I just don’t prioritise writing them. But then comes a new episode of a Joss Whedon show and I’ve written thousands of worlds before I even know. (This is one of the reasons why the ‘why do people write about X and not about Y arguments never really work for me. I think writing, and what people have something to have something to say about is a complicated process)

Epitaph One is the mysterious 13th episode of Dollhouse, exclusive to DVD. Why is there a mysterious 13th episode of dollhouse I hear you ask? Because Fox has spectacularly bad taste in TV. Fox didn’t like the original pilot of Dollhouse. They thought interesting might confuse people and the skirts were too long (the unaired pilot was also included on the DVD and I’m going to be reviewing that next). So then Joss wrote a new first episode (the not very good Ghost) and the original first episode was scrapped for parts (many of scenes have been inserted in subsequent episodes). Fox (the network) had ordered 13 episodes of Dollhouse, but they included the scrapped pilot in that 13. Fox (the studio) wanted 13 actual episodes to put on the DVD. They were talking about a clip show, but instead Joss and Jed and Maurissa wrote Epitaph One. It was written to be cheap (it cost half of what a normal episode cost), to use existing sets, but not to rely on the main cast (who were busy shooting the actual series).

It is an exponentially better season finale than Omega, and worth the price of the DVD.

“Felicia Day is a tough yet tender freedom fighter in a post-apocalyptic future”

When I read that description of Felicia Day’s character, back in February, before a single episode of Dollhouse aired I thought “That Joss, he’s so funny”. Instead he was just letting us know what the first few seconds of Epitaph One would contain: burning cars + walkie-talkies + guns + tears = a tough yet tender freedom fighter in a post-apocalyptic future”

We only saw a small amount of the post-apocalyptic future future, but I found what we did the weakest parts of the episode. It was neither interesting nor convincing. The future we saw appeared to be more a logical extension of the ideas of the dollhouse than a coherent comment on current society. But as a logical extension what we saw didn’t really work for me. I can see that the rampant body-stealing and constant imprinting could develop from the technology we’ve seen, but that doesn’t mean that it would. New technology is controlled, and used to uphold the power structures in society.* Media which shows technology leading to anarchy (of the scary fictional sort, which bears no relation to what anarchists believe), says more about the fears of the people creating it, than it does about history and society.

This isn’t necessary a criticism of the future that’s envisioned, we only saw a tiny snippet of that world. Just because there is chaos and fear in one particular geographical area doesn’t mean the technology isn’t being used to uphold existing power structures. 2019 could turn out to be both interesting and convincing, it’s just that the few minutes they showed us were not.

On the other hand, I loved the weird new religion, complete with alters and prayer circles that had developed within the dollhouse. That sort of coping strategy made perfect sense (and Priya’s frustration with it was awesome).

They didn’t have/take time to develop the post-apocalyptic future in this episode, which is understandable given how much new material was in this (although the ‘dollhouse 101’ clip from the original pilot probably wasn’t necessary – if a viewer doesn’t know what the dollhouse is they’re very unlikely to understand the rest of the episode).

It’s hard to lean an episode so entirely on one-off characters, and I think this did a reasonably effective job. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of the deaths, and the characters that had personalities and therefore were going to live were a little too strongly signposted. They made a very good decision to centre the story around the little girl. The twists were great, but it was more than that. When she became Caroline, the two threads of the story were unified in a very powerful way.

From the moment they mentioned ‘safe haven’, the story reminded me of Children of Men (although obviously Children of Men’s distopia is much better imagined, and more interesting).*** The ending, was inevitable from that moment, but important. (“Why are they climbing up” my friend Betsy asked “Because it’s better symbolism” I replied). There is no certainty, but there is hope.

But the tough yet tender freedom-fighters in a post-apocalyptic future were only a part of the story. Interwoven was the backstory and, for me, why I cared about any of this. In a series of flashbacks, each set at an unspecified time, most set after the end of Season 1, we saw the characters we know and love (and Ballard) and how the future came about. In these flashbacks we saw glimpse of the relationships between characters: Ballard and Echo, Dr Saunders and Boyd, Victor and Sierra, and Adelle and Topher.****

I am not at all sure about the glimpses we saw of Ballard and Echo’s relationship. Mostly this is because I’m still furious at the “creepy saviour complex? What creepy saviour complex” – turn around in Omega. The first scene, where Echo was Russian, was pretty cool. But I think it would have been more effective in a normal episode. There was a lot to take in Epitaph One, and just in that scene it was all: “He’s a handler now? Wow that changes things.” The more I think about it the more I’m not sure that particular revelation was necessary in this episode. Most of the moments we saw were ambiguous enough that I don’t think they necessarily took anything away by showing us now, but that scene was pretty specific.

Then there’s the meaning of the word ‘together’. I really liked the scene between Echo and Dr Saunders. I like that things between Ballard and Echo clearly got complicated. But if the intended meaning of ‘together’ includes a sexual relationship, I think I’d rather watch season 7 Buffy/Spike.

Turns out Topher was wrong a lot, but he was right about the possibility of scowly babies. I was much less disturbed than I expected to be about the implied relationship between Dr Saunders and Boyd. While obviously on some levels it makes Boyd a hypocrite (which he had always been, disapproval is cheap when you’re on the payroll), Claire Saunders’s awareness that she is a doll changes the dynamic a little. She can give meaningful consent in a way that Alice, for example, can’t. Her attraction to Boyd hasn’t been programmed. Although I’d wonder if either of them had even tried to justify what happened to the woman Whiskey had been, and her consent. *****

Here’s my guess what was happening at the end. The people who came down were Butchers, who are people who have been imprinted with a particular violent imprint (the army brought about in phone call that Topher talked of). I don’t think the gas that Whiskey let off was fatal (why would the dollhouse have a gas that would kill all its precious actives?), I think it knocks out people and wipes their imprints. When everyone wakes up the butchers will be blank. Whiskey has pointed the way forward before (and will again).

The question is why is she still there? Why does she say she must not leave? Caroline implies that Dr Saunders had decided that if she was going to stay there alone she’d rather be Whiskey than herself. But why did she make that decision? I hope it’s not just that she’s waiting for Boyd, because that would be mega-annoying. But perhaps, it’s also because she’s not prepared to give her body up to its original owner. Dr Saunders is an imprint after all.

But, for me, the most interesting relationship was between Adelle and Topher. On the timeline we’re dealing with now the workers of dollhouse are so atomised. Topher and Boyd’s man-friendship is the closest we get to solidarity. I found it very powerful that after the workers at the dollhouse had changed their position, and opposed Rossum, their relationships changed. The scene between Topher and Adelle in Topher’s coffin-alter was brilliantly acted and very effective.****** Poor Topher, he was unable to hold both his brilliance and awareness of what he’d done.

Victor and Sierra haven’t been in the same shot since the end of Needs, which is leaving things hanging more than a little bit.******* So I was happy just to see them in a scene together. Their history is vague in the episode, at one stage their relationship was sexual, although it did not appear to be so in this episode. The scene between them was extremely powerful. I liked that (in contrast to Adelle and Topher) a love that had survived complete wiping of personality, had still been affected by the stress and horror of the life they were living. I felt they hit a pretty perfect balance, of paying off what we’d seen in Needs, without telling us what was going to happen between Victor and Sierra.********

I loved what we saw of Priya – her frustration at the hippies, her determination to maintain her self. Everything we saw felt directly developed from the glimpse of Priya in Needs – where the character (and Dichen Lachman’s performance) did a good job of conveying that strength in the face of oppression was about more than hitting someone. She was the one that developed the tattoo as an act of resistance, and we saw that its use had spread.

Although what that scene also brought out was that both characters are being ridiculously underused. Personally I’d be happy to watch “The Victor and Sierra Show”. But if the writers aren’t going to give me that I hope that in season two Victor and Sierra won’t spend quite as much time infiltrating the NSA and horse whispering.

I loved this episode, and not just because Victor and Sierra shared a shot. While I think there was slightly more there than 50 minutes can do justice to, it was an amazing exploration of both the characters and ideas of the dollhouse.

Dollhouse was almost cancelled. Omega would have been an incredibly unsatisfying end. Epitaph One would have been a sketch of the rest of the series that never happened. As a final episode of the series Epitaph One would have been fundamentally satisfying (if superficially frustrating at what we never got to see). I’m very glad they made it. I’m very glad that if the show had been cancelled we would have had an ending.

But, of course, Fox forgot to cancel Dollhouse, so they’re making more of it, which raises some interesting questions about story-telling. We know bits of what happens next. How will that affect our experience of watching the show this season (and hopefully the season after)?

In some ways we know very little. We know that at one point Victor and Priya/Sierra were having a sexual relationship, and at another point they stopped. We know that something happens between Dr Saunders and Boyd. We know that at one point Ballard works as Echo’s handler, and they hide her level of conciousness. Then, sometime, things get complicated between them. These vignettes were definitely well crafted, they suggest a destination, but are very unclear about the journey.

However, there are dangers in showing us even glimpses of where the story is going. Not just because they may write their way into corner, or be unable to tell the story they want to tell for casting reasons (Amy Acker, who plays Dr Saunders, is only available for three episodes next season). But because for those of us who have watched Epitaph one (which will not be the entire audience), our knowledge of the series will change our understanding of the stories they tell. Will the flash forward we’ve seen Echo’s self-awareness reduce the impact of those developments? Will our knowledge that the main characters live dull the impact of some episodes? Will the way we wait for what we know is coming, change the way we see what’s happening? They cut off a lot of possibilities in Epitaph One.

Will the writers miss those possibilities? Will we? At this stage I don’t know. I think it’s possible to tell a story in a flash-forward framework (although harder if only some of your audience have seen the flashes-forward). I think the questions about storytelling will only be answered in Season Two.

In the meantime I’ll watch Epitaph One again, and hope that the series will realise its promise.

* My analysis is actually much more complicated and nuanced than this, but this is the point that is relevant to this review.

** I was convinced on first watching that she was Adele, but having rewatched it I’m not convinced that she was. Although some of the cutting implied it might be, it doesn’t seem to fit with where Adele (and her comfy cardigans) was in the scene with Caroline/Echo.

*** Children of Men is one of my favourite movies – my two favourite movie genres are politically conscious action movies and teen movies that don’t entirely revolve around males.

**** I could complain that all these relationships were hetro, but I think the episode made very explicit that the relationships we spent time with were not the only, or most important, relationships between these characters. Echo’s relationship with both Dr Saunders and Adelle were both given space.

***** There are so many interesting issues to explore there. What does Dr Saunders owe to the woman who was born in that body? Why didn’t she give the body back? I hope Amy Acker’s new series won’t get in the way of exploring these ideas

****** The earlier scene, when they realised where Rossum had taken the tehonology, was also very well done. They managed to convey what a pivotal moment it was for both of them in a very little time.

******* They were both in the last shot of Omega, but that was one of the scenes that was supposed to go in the original pilot.

******** And while I’m talking about Victor I need some kind of macro about Enver Gjorkaj’s acting skills. He transformed into Clive Ambrose.