Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Needs: Dollhouse Review, Episode 8

Just before watching the latest episode I was talking with my friend Betsy about the costumes on dollhouse, most notably Alice's, and what a crazy job being in charge of the wardrobe for the dollhouse organisation would be ('so for this engagement he wants her to be really naieve and innocent, but a sexual object. What's your ugliest pair of white stockings look like?'). And then they showed us the dollhouse wardrobe - talk about giving us what we want.

This episode had everything great television needs: it was hilarious, upsetting, character-centred, and thematically unified. Clearly “the dolls wake up” is a great premise for an episode, and that premise was well utilised (“we’re all going to die” from Victor was my favourite line, but it’s not alone in its greatness). But the writers weren’t content just to milk that premise for its jokes about fruit, they took it much further, and much darker.

This episode explored six characters needs: Echo, Victor, Sierra, November,* Paul Ballard and Adelle Dewitt. I think it’s very important that this episode extended its exploration of needs beyond the dolls that were being experimented on. Adelle tells Caroline that she signed on to escape her memories. Even though Caroline ran for two years, and was being held captive when she signed (which does away with any idea of meaningful consent). Adelle clearly needs to believe that people volunteer for this, and that they are benefiting from having their memories removed. I have wondered a lot about whether they really let people go at the end of 5 years, and it seems to me that if they don’t, then Adelle must be able to maintain her belief that they do.

Paul Ballard’s needs were complicated, but they certainly make the character more interesting than they were previously. A few episodes ago it would have enraged me, that the only hope we got at the end of this episode was his message from Caroline. A lot about Paul Ballard is both boring and obnoxious - how dare he provide me hope. But I’ve felt much more engaged with the character since Man on the Street acknowledged how creepy his obsession is. I felt that his dream at the beginning took that creepiness to another level (nothing like having making out with a corpse to up the creepiness). The ending wasn’t so much hope as Paul Ballard also getting what he needed, or possibly just what he wanted – at this stage it really isn’t clear.

Of the dolls, November’s needs (and plotline) were least integrated with what we already knew. In fact I think her plotline didn’t make much sense. We had seen Victor, Sierra and Echo grouping, and Echo going off task. Each of these were connected to what they resolved in this episode. But we'd only seen November glitching when she was remembering the trauma of being attacked as Mellie. The idea that she needed to grieve for Katie was not connected with anything we've seen of her up to this point. It also wasn't at all clear to me why November was picked out as one of the four priority cases – she only glitched when directly injected with the drug, and previously her performance had been described as perfect. The writers included November in the dolls who woke up because the audience care about her, but did not do enough work for it to make sense within the story. That made her whole storyline less than satisfying for me (and I'm vocal about my Mellie/November love and desire to know about her). I think it says a lot for my general engagement with the character, and Miracle Laurie’s mad skills that I still felt for her. But the feeling was an abstract one, it wasn’t feel connected with what I knew about her.

Caroline’s needs were neither new or a surprise. I don’t have a lot more to say about them, although the scene with Topher and Dewitt was very satisfying. And the scene where the actives all walk out the tunnel is beautiful.

I hope that Caroline or Echo realises that she can't save the world be herself. That freedom isn't won by the actions of one individual fighting alone for others, but everyone fighting collectively for themselves and each other. I've no idea if that's where they're going with this show. If it wasn't a Joss show I don't think I'd even bother to hope that the writers set up Caroline's acting alone as a limit deliberately. But after Chosen, Jaynestown and The Chain, I don't think it's beyond the bounds of possibility that that's where they're going.**

But the heart of the show was Sierra, Victor, and their relationship. I could seriously spend all my episode reviews praising Dichen Lachman and particularly Enver Gjokaj. The first great moment of the episode was the scene of them going to bed. It’s such a beautiful portrayal of love, and it doesn’t need words.*** The scene in the utility closet was just as powerful, because they articulated the role of their relationship when they’re enslaved. Their relationship is about love and connection as resistance.

It broke my heart when Victor went straight into bed, and didn’t wait for Sierra.

I do have one reservation about the way their relationship is portrayed, that was only exacerbated by this episode. So far Dollhouse has focused on Victor’s desire for Sierra, and Sierra only as an object of desire. It is Victor’s need to get the girl that Boyd and Dr Saunders discuss at the end of the episode.**** Even though she didn’t feel closure until she’d kissed him either. If all she needed was to confront Nolan, then she would have shut down once she left her apartment.

Clearly they can’t show Sierra’s desire for Victor, using the same ways they’ve been showing Victor’s desire for Sierra. But the most powerful statement about his desire for her isn’t his man reaction, or his recitation the Mets (or was it the Yankees) to avoid it, but that she makes him feel better. And we could see that from Sierra, we could see her desiring him. I think it’s really important that we do.*****

Obviously there was more to Sierra (and Victor’s) plotline this week than that relationship. I am really glad that they’re dealing with the issues of consent and the dollhouse head-on. It’s now explicit that Priya (the woman Sierra was) did not give any kind of consent. I think it’s important to acknowledge that not only can consent be coerced, but the very notion of consent can be ignored for people with enough power. Like ‘Man on the Street’ this episode didn’t shy away from the horror of abuse. I think “It’ll be ever better now” from Nolan after Sierra left, might just be the most disgusting statement I’ve ever heard. Despite this they still managed to normalise Nolan. Nothing about the music or the way the scene was shot implied that he was a strange psychopathic variation; it was made very clear that his abuse was a result of his power.

I have duelling analyses in my head about the scene between Priya/Sierra, Victor and Nolan. I find it frustrating that the show again showed another man punching the abuser as a solution to a woman being abused (and made the link explicitly in the scene between Dr Saunders and Boyd, although clearly Dr Saunders isn’t as reliable a character by the end of the episode as she was in the beginning).

But I'm really not asking that every rape survivor do their own punching. I think our limited visions of what it means to be strong can be really damaging; there's strength in breaking down, strength in letting other people helping you, and strength in ignoring it all and finding a way to continue anyway. While I was rewatching the episode, I was wondering about the director’s decision to have both of them in every frame in the conversation with Nolan, as I felt it didn’t give Sierra space in her own story. But the other option would have been to have Sierra more alone.

I think, in the end, that what makes me OK with what they showed, is that Sierra wasn’t silenced by Victor’s presence, or his punching – that it was her voice that rang out in that scene “I’m more of a human than you.” I don’t think it takes away any of the strength Sierra needed to confront Nolan, by showing her having support. And more importantly I think the show portrayed the strength Sierra had, and didn’t diminish her through the support she had.

But like I say I’m not sure, and I’d be really interested in other people’s views. Does the desire for representations of rape survivors as strong put additional pressure and limited views on what strength is? Does his punching take away from her words? Could we have done without the punching?

The show ends with a reveal, and what for me is quite close to despair. Amy Acker is an amazing actress, I was distraught when I discovered this whole, horrible, solution was her idea. It also felt very real to me, that is possible to control actives better by giving them some freedom. We appreciate that she sees actives as people not pets, but she is using that knowledge to deepen the dollhouse’s power. Liberal control can, at times, be more effective than totalitarianism.

* After considerable thought I decided to refer to them with their doll names even though we know Echo and Sierra’s actual name. I think the needs that were being explored in this episode were the needs of their doll-selves. I think the people they had been would have needed much more than they got in this episode

** Although it's probably beyond the bounds of possibility that we'll never found out where they're going because Fox is going to cancel the show. Anyone know anyone with a Nielsen box who accepts bribes?

***Also I swear Enver Gjokaj’s ears stick out more as Victor than as pre-Victor – how is that even possible?

****I’ve gotten mightily bored of Boyd, who has done very little but punch people since Stage Fright, but there was a lot of depth in that scene

*****Oh and while I’m constructing a wish list for future episodes (which have been remarkably successful so far: I wished for more friendship between the dolls and I got Stage Fright. I wished for the writers to take sexual abuse seriously and I got Man on the street). Echo and Sierra's friendship was important to me. We have barely seen anything of them since episode three, and I am really disappointed that they didn't take this opportunity to build the only friendship (at the moment the only relationship) between women on the show.

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