Thursday, March 26, 2009

Doll house Episode Six: Man on the Street - it deserves a mammoth review

Wow. Wow. Wow.

If you haven’t watched “Man on the Street”, the sixth episode of the Dollhouse, don’t read another word. This episode is available on Hulu and itunes for those in the US (and through less legal means for those outside), go watch it and then come back. You really don’t want to be spoiled.

Where was I? Oh yeah – Wow.

I’m sure I’ve talked before about the strength of serial storytelling – of the depth that can be explored by developing characters over time. Man on the Street had all the elements of great TV. It had zippy plot twists,* people we care about, and something to say, and all three elements fitted together organically and didn’t feel forced. If the sixth episode of Dollhouse is this powerful, I can only imagine how strong the show will be in its second season (please let there be a second season. I really love this show).

In an episode this densely layered, I’m not going to try and talk about everything. I just want to look at three of the key ideas this episodes, the nature of the dolls, rape and love.

There’s only one reason someone would volunteer to be a slave is that they is one already

Like many other people, I was worried about how the actives would play as characters, if they’re just blank states then why would you care about them? I had no idea how quickly and how deeply I’d come to care about the actives. When Ballard called the actives “zombies” in his conversation with Joel Myner, I got mad at him for being so very wrong. Whatever Sierra, Echo, Victor (and now November) are, they’re not Zombies. Ballard has the same idea about actives as Boyd did in the flashbacks of The Target. After only six episodes I find any character who denies the humanity of the actives instantly less likeable.

There are people who have asked who you’re supposed to root for in this show, and I don’t really understand the question. You root for the actives. Each episode makes it clearer that the mindwipes don’t take away their humanity, and whatever is taken away from them their capacity for friendship and love is still beautiful.

While my empathy and support for actives in their inert state only increased this week, what really changed was my attitude towards the imprints. Although I’ve enjoyed some of the imprints, and sad when we weren’t going to see Lubov any more, I’ve never really thought about how I thought about them. They would be there and then they’d be gone, and they were not why I was watching the show.

But with Mellie as a doll I think about the imprints differently. I don’t know how Joss Whedon and Miracle Laure did it, but she’s like Willow on steroids, in terms of being the character that every female viewer (and I’m sure a few male ones) identify with instantly.**

Even knowing that she’s an active I’m still on her side, and I still care for her. For example, I’m worried because the catalyst for Paul kissing Mellie was clearly his conversation with Joel Myner.*** Because he was trying to prove that he wasn’t obsessed with Caroline, he was on one level thinking of her while kissing Mellie. I’m sure this is going to end up making her sad, and I don’t want her to be sad, even though she is on some levels not real. I think this show is so much deeper and more interesting when we care for the imprints as well as the actives. And I’m still untangling the many ways I do think Mellie is real.

There's a difference between being attracted to someone and hurting them

I was going to say that this was the most honest portrayal of rape that I've ever seen on television, but decided that would be damning with faint praise. This episode portrayed sexual abuse in a way that was powerful, unflinching and real.

I had been anxious, ever since I saw the preview,that they were going to show Victor raping Sierra. It would have been a deal-breaker for me, I think, if Dollhouse portrayed rape as something inherent in a man. I was very glad when I was sure they weren’t telling that story.

Instead the story they did tell was about institutional rape. It wasn’t just Claire Saunders perspective, the show made it clear that rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power.**** Institutional rape isn’t discussed nearly as much as it should, and I really appreciated the stark, unequivocal stand the show took. And while the situation in the dollhouse is different from institutional rape as it exists, nothing about the writing, directing or acting, ***** was trying to make that distinction. Instead I felt they were emphasising the similarities between this and what actually exists. The scene between Sierra and the Handler, reminded me of passages from Louise Nicholas’s autobiography.

The conversation between DeWitt and the handler was as powerful as it was disturbing. The handler’s answer to Dewitt’s “Did it make it better that she didn’t struggle?” made the audience sit with the reality of abuse. And by having the Handler place blame on the institution they left space for the view that abuse is impossible to eliminate in situations with these power imbalances (which is my view). The Handler wasn’t portrayed as an inscrutable monster, but a person, with a point of view, who had done monstrous things. That conversation depicted both the horror, and the normality of sexual abuse.

The attack on Mellie is terribly painful to watch, even when you know the outcome. But it wasn’t eroticised, and it wasn’t glamorised, even though she’s only wearing a shirt.

There were a lot of subtler notes in the show that I really valued. The only reason Sierra’s rape was acknowledged was because she has friends. Because Victor noticed that she was behaving differently, and Echo remembered her cries. The scene where Topher and Claire were interrogating Victor drew an explicit connection between Topher’s objectification of women and his indifference towards rape.

This episode hit so many feminist ideas about rape, without seeming didactic. I think it’s hard to tell a story about rape without being feminist. The problem is that most of the time rape is portrayed on television they’re not telling stories about rape, they’re using rape to tell some other sort of story.****** One of the most exciting things about the concept of the dollhouse is it’s ability to look at such realities head on. I’m really glad they’re taking that challenge seriously.

"How does Sierra make you feel?"


I would argue that, despite how much this episode had to say about rape, it was actually about love. The strength of love stood out in this episode even more as it was contrasted with the degradation of abuse. Victor was brilliant in every scene. But the ending with him and Sierra was beautiful. And, as I’ve said, like Adelle I value Mellie’s love for Paul Ballard, programmed or not.

The interviews were clearly all supposed to be true on some level. But the one I had the hardest time with was the young woman who thought maybe it would be OK. I thought she was just being a hippy; I didn't think I could sympathise with a client. But in the end, I think maybe I got there. In the end Echo's desire for things to be finished was beautiful.

* Since I’m not going to talk about it in my main review, I want to say that I don’t think there’s an insider in the dollhouse. I think the parameter that was supposed to be an insider, was in fact the dollhouse giving Paul Ballard what he needs – their speciality.

One of the thing I’m undecided on is Mellie’s whole “I know I’m not the gold standard in LA”, which is clearly a reference to the fact that she’s larger than tiny. On the one hand (unfortunately) it’s realistic. Women say and think all sorts of derogatory things about their bodies, and I’ve heard people just as close as Mellie to society’s vision of ideal say just as fucked up things. But it bothers me in a number of ways. First, by making Mellie’s body the only one which is discussed critically that reinforces the idea that the other female active’s bodies are normal and hers is ‘other’. Second, I found the scene reinforcing a kind of faux-body-diversity – “Don’t hate yourself it’s OK to be a size 12 (or 8 in the US)”. And third (and I mean this as no insult to Miracle Laurie who is doing an amazing job) it reminds me that the casting call asked for someone ‘heavy’, and I wonder if those who produced and cast dollhouse really think Mellie is heavy. But I get why that line is in there, and what it’s doing for Paul and Mellie’s relationship – and it does the job.

*** I thought this scene was very well done (despite the cliche of the insightful one off character). I particularly like that they covered the messed up nature of Paul Ballard's quest for Echo. I hope they don't lose that note later in the season (not least because it would make Mellie sad).

On that note, I’m wondering about the scene at the beginning between Paul and the bad FBI Agent/Badger/lawyer dude president (depending on which show you’re watching). First time I watched it I didn’t like it at all: “I am a manly man, who will prove his man-ness by beating up other men who insult the woman I love.” But the more I think about it, the more I think that it was underscoring the points that Joel Myner’s was making about the ridiculousness of Ballard’s position.

**** Not to go on a huge tangent, but I want to acknowledge while that idea is an important feminist concept, I don’t think it’s the only truth there is. Rape is sometimes about sex, both for perpetrators and survivors, and I think it’s important not ignore that reality. In particular to say “rape is entirely different from sex” ignores the way that many of the ways that we’re socialised to think about sex involve pressure and non-consent. None of this takes away from the importance of making it clear that rape is about power. But once we’ve got that idea across I think it’d be useful to talk about the way rape is about sex (or sex can be about rape).

*****The scene where Sierra is walking along the corridor is so powerful. If I was going to rave about the acting I would be here all day, but Dichen Lachman (Sierra), Miracle Laurie (Mellie), Enver Gjokaj (Victor) and Olivia Wililams (DeWitt) all excelled in this episode. I am also more and more convinced with Eliza Dushku’s many personalities. I felt like Rebecca was unlike anything I’d seen before.

****** See I was being really restrained and didn’t even mention Spike.


  1. I was totally watching the show and thinking that, wow, it reads like your wishlist from your last review - sexual violence used to discuss sexual violence, Mellie being an active, Echo discovering things about relationships through art - I LOVED the scene with the painting. It tied so well into both of the episode's subplots - Echo's engagement and her understanding of the relationship between Sierra and Victor. I found it really thoughtful.

    Anyway, I agree that this episode was - ah! Fantastic! Man, I am so relieved, I think I would have just about cried if it had stayed like the pilot, which wasn't bad but it just wasn't Joss. This was more Joss, it was funny and clever but it was also THOUGHTFUL.

    Re: Mellie. There's been some really good discussion about Mellie and consent all over the place, and I agree that it's because Mellie, the imprint, is like a character to us and so we want to talk about *Mellie* and consent. November clearly can't consent, just like Sierra couldn't consent, or Echo or Victor. (Except, hm, if Sierra and Victor were to sleep together... I'm not sure about that, I'll have to let it percolate.) But as an audience member I want to think that Mellie *can* consent, because I want to talk about Mellie as a person, and I can't really do that by denying her capacity to consent. I actually thought that there was a little more going on in terms of Paul and Mellie - um, I kind of thought he was using her to get access to the information network she mentioned she had earlier in the episode. (A scene which I really disliked - there's nothing less attractive to me than a woman talking about her ignorance - but I have a feeling that that was deliberate, that Mellie's playing down of her own intelligence was supposed to be gross and not to imply that Mellie was actually dumb.) Anyway, that hardly makes Mellie less likely to be hurt...

    I have to say I thought the scene where asshole handler dude was beating her up in her shirt and underwear was pitch-perfect. And I actually think her costuming was brilliant, because it made the scene such a clear send-up of all the other women in refridgerator/eroticised violence scenes - it was a compelling criticism of eroticised violence against women. I really loved that. And the November moment - it reminded me a little of the pivotal Buffy idea, the cheerleader walks down a dark alley and beats up some vampires inversion.

    I really disliked the Paul-beating-up-Badger thing, until Badass FBI Lady (whose name I still haven't caught, which is a bummer 'cause I love her) said something sarcastic about it and it ultimately resulted in Paul being suspended. Because, you know, YES: violence is just not a good way of dealing with that shit and I was thrilled there was a voice in the show to express that, especially since they've been allll over Tahmoh beating people up and looking hot while doing it. Which, yeah, dude is hot, dude would be hotter if he was less violent.

  2. Hey Maia,
    But the one I had the hardest time with was the young woman who thought maybe it would be OK. I thought she was just being a hippy; I didn't think I could sympathise with a client.

    On a forum I read a couple of posters swear blind that this person is an Active. I just looked at the ep myself and can't decide either way - look at her interview (22.53ish on my copy) and then see someone who looks like her walking with sierra (27.04 on my copy). If this is true, then it clearly undermines the difficulties of her interpretation about how it could be 'beautiful' - but hiding this away as an easter egg puts yet another spin on things.

    Of course, if they're just two performers who look kinda similar, then this don't mean anything :-)

  3. Wow, I just watched it and that's definitely possible. I wouldn't conclusively say it's the same person, but it could be...

  4. Anonymous12:24 pm

    Hmmm... if you see the imprints as actual people in their own right rather than just programs forced upon the actives, then does the biggest moral problem with the Dollhouse become mass murder rather than slavery?

  5. "if you see the imprints as actual people in their own right rather than just programs forced upon the actives, then does the biggest moral problem with the Dollhouse become mass murder rather than slavery?"

    Good point!

    I don't think I've ever watched a tv show that had me thinking about stuff like the definition of personhood and agency and religion and capitalism... Every week it blows me away!

    I heart Joss Whedon.

  6. After seeing this review I can wait to see the film! I have heard of a lot of negative feedbacks about this so far although others have attested that this is indeed ingenius - I will see it now! Thanks!