Saturday, May 09, 2009

Briar Rose: Dollhouse review

I don’t like the first part of two-part episodes. It’s fine when you’re watching them on DVD (unless it’s late and you know you shouldn’t watch another one, but you do it anyway and then it turns out to be a cliff-hanger so you have to watch the next one as well), but a week is a long-time between Echo walking out the elevator with Alpha and finding out what the hell is going on.

Or at least I don’t like the first part when I haven’t read spoilers, which has happened to me exactly once (I’ve been spoiled for every show that I was a fan of since 1995). I’m not sure that’s a good sample. But I’m sure I hate it.

But reviewing the first part of a two-parter is particularly difficult. So much of the meaning and point of this episode depends on what happens next. This episode raised far more questions than it answered, and while there is a lot to talk about, there’s a lot I won’t comment on (like who was Echo when Alpha left with her. We’ll all know in a couple of days, and speculating on it wastes precious review time that should be spent laughing at Paul Ballard). So consider this the first part of my review as there are many things that I am reserving judgement on, although my cliff-hanger won’t be as exciting as the show’s.

The theme of this episode - an inversion of Sleeping Beauty - couldn’t have been more clearly signposted if they’d spelled it out in flashing neon lights. But I think I liked it. I found the literal inversion of the sunken tower quite a compelling image.

I’ll talk more about the general ideas of rescue and waking when I talk about the whacky cop adventures of Ballard and Alpha. But I really appreciated that in the end Susan was the only person in this episode who rescues anyone. And she does from a place of solidarity and support, not from chivalry.

I liked the counter-point between the men’s selfish attempts to capture Caroline’s body, and Susan’s advocacy of rescue. Because obviously Ballard’s ridiculous effort to save Caroline needed to be undercut. But I don’t think that’s enough – to reject rescue without offering an alternative is dangerous individualism. The way Susan reached out to Susan shows that there is an alternative

This felt like a reworking of some of the ideas of Ghost, and generally I think this episode was a much stronger take on those ideas. But the similarity between the two did bother me. I find it hard to find the language to describe what I mean, so I hope people will understand the point I’m trying to get at. To me, it feels exploitative, how extreme the abuse depicted in this episode and Ghost. The abuse that Susan, and Eleanor Penn experience is a stand-in for abuse, rendered less real by its enormity.*

Also, I think the issues that Ghost brought up are still sitting there - while there was no space in this story to explore the ethics of inserting memories of abuse into people, I hope they will acknowledge it at sometime in the second season.** Because, no matter how altruistic the assignment, forcing memories of abuse on people is horrific.***

But what was strongest about this plotline was what Susan offered Susan. And it wasn’t help retelling the story, (although I enjoyed the Firefly reference) or giving up her knife, but the hope that she represented, the hope that she was. Hope.

I know everyone has said it, but Enver Gjorkaj was mind-blowingly amazing as Laurence Dominic in that chair (and his “people were fighting on me” is possibly my favourite line of the series). It was a deeply, deeply creepy scene that worked because of his acting.**** It was a great way of showing the power, reach, and creepiness of the Dollhouse.

One of the questions I’m not going to leave unasked, even though we better know when the finale airs, is what did Dominic mean when he said “Whiskey” to echo. Whiskey like Echo, Sierra, Victor, November, and Alpha is part of the military alphabet. He clearly wasn’t asking for a drink. I still like the theory me and my friend Betsy developed that she’s an ex-doll (or maybe doesn’t know it, since she thought he was asking for a drink). But it’s looking possible that she is actually a doll. Which by itself doesn’t make much sense, since they can surely hire a doctor for a lot cheaper than the labour that they’re foregoing by having her not active, but we’ll see where it goes.

But the centre of this episode was Ballard and Alpha – the relationship and resonances between them.

Like everyone on the internet I knew that Walsh was playing Alpha. I was really annoyed when watching the episode that I’d been spoiled.***** I loved the conspiracy-theorist-environmentalist-stoner-misogynist persona of Alpha for most of the episode – hilarious and familiar. Although it did leave me wondering how Alpha worked. Are there different imprints competing in his brain – had the Dollhouse once imprinted him with the character we saw, or someone who could act like the character we saw? Or can he create imprints in his head, the way Topher can on the computer? Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

I’m sure the nature of Alpha will be explored more next episode, that wasn’t really the point of this episode. This was about Alpha, and Ballard’s quest to rescue Echo, Caroline, and maybe just Eliza Dushku’s body.

And Ballard’s version didn’t come across as righteous. Ballard has reclassified Mellie as a thing, not a person. It was clear in the break up scene and when he talked about her with Loomis – she called Mellie a victim – he called her a doll. And it was horrible to watch not because it was strange, but because it was familiar. Ballard doesn’t trust the women he knows because she’s in the same state that makes the stranger Caroline pedestal-worthy – that’s a nasty truth showing.

Ballard had a purpose to his actions; he was breaking Mellie’s heart, so he could use her reaction to find the dollhouse. That makes it worse to me – he has no more respect for the dolls humanity than Topher. And now, because of Ballard’s actions, she is, in all probability, dead.

When he actually finds Echo he has no respect for her as a person, or her autonomy. He talks to her slowly about being brainwashed, as if that’ll make a difference.****** And when she doesn’t come he drags her where he wants her to go, just like Alpha.

In fact, Echo made a choice, and fought against him.******* I loved the ridiculous over-signalling of Ballard’s eventual down-fall through the steps by Stephen’s fear (a combination of very fine writing from Jane Espenson and fantastic acting from Alan Tyduk), and that his downfall was at Echo’s hands.

I think there’s a lot packed into that fight, because people do choose oppression over alternatives, and for many different reasons. This episode makes it clear why Echo sides with Boyd over Ballard, and makes you side with her - partly it’s lack of information, partly it’s relationships, partly it’s that the alternative isn’t any better. None of those are fixed, none of those are impossible to overcome, but they all exist in our world as well as in that fight.

But my favourite part of this episode was that it revealed that Ballard is also programmed – he has had less agency than Echo. Everything he has done since the beginning of the show he has done because someone wanted him to, either the dollhouse, or Alpha.********

There is much more to say, but that’s the thing with reviewing the first half of a two-parter. You’ll have to wait to find out the rest of my opinions, just like you’ll have to wait to find out why Alpha wants Echo.

* and I really don’t mean that abuse over a less extended timeframe is not enormous – just that it’s comprehensible to the viewer.

** There will be a second season. La-la-la-la-la I can’t hear you.

*** Although Jane Espenson did a very fine job with Topher’s characterisation. It was very clear that Topher’s pride came entirely from his programming skills. But clearly that wasn’t the place to explore the ethics – because Topher does not care

**** I quite enjoyed Sierra’s character, and loved Topher’s explanation that she was exposition central because he hadn’t had much time. But Dichen Lachman has been imprinted to fill the plot-hole in every episode since Needs, and she’s capable of so much more than that

***** and feeling guilty. I told my friend Betsy about Walsh playing Alpha in much the same way I told her that Fred was playing Dr Saunders. Bad me

****** One of the things that cracks me up, that I’ve never mentioned before, is that in Ballard’s web of Dollhouse obsession there’s a post it that says ‘Mind Control?’ I don’t know what’s funnier, that Ballard isn’t sure whether or not the Dollhouse involves mind control, or that they’ve shown that post-it at least half a dozen times

******** In a fight where a table broke. Every time a table breaks during a fight on this show, I expect someone to pick up the remains and stake someone with it.

******** At this stage I think Alpha was using the NSA chip to imprint the messages. If so my special review stop-watch action was pointless.

1 comment:

  1. As always, I love your reviews. I have actually seen the final episode, but I'll keep my comments limited to "Briar Rose" so as not to give anything away. BUT I was so happy to not have been spoiled by Wash=Alpha, because when he rounded that corner and slashed Victor, I was GENUINELY terrified and surprised. It was very gratifying.

    I was really impressed earlier with your theory that Dr. Saunders was an ex-doll or a doll. And the "Whiskey" thing definitely supports that. As does the exchange between Alpha and Dr. Saunders:

    alpha: Have you always wanted to be a doctor? It's a simple question. Answer it.
    Dr. Saunders: Yes.
    Alpha: Now, that's a lie.

    (Also, remember Tango from "Needs"? Also a military alphabet letter. I wonder if they have a Foxtrot anywhere.)

    I think your analysis of the fight scene is really compelling. And Paul Ballard's chauvinist chivalry becomes more and more laughable at every episode. He neglects to "save" Mellie even though she's in the same situation as Caroline. Which highlights his arbitrary obsession with Caroline as the pedestal-worthy victim of the dollhouse as even more ridiculous.

    I will say more after you see the final episode because I have a lot of other thoughts too! But I hope there will be a second season.