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 clichés. 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.


  1. Anonymous10:20 pm

    I thought Echo's imprint's "paranoia" in this episode was entirely justified; her husband _was_ behaving bizarrely, and interpreting his intention to get rid of her and the baby as wanting to kill them wasn't an unreasonable one (and being sent back to the Dollhouse really is a death sentence for that imprint, or would be if the wiping still worked on Echo), and her actions did postpone her death. I didn't get a "lactation makes you crazy" vibe at all.

    I didn't have a problem with her erratic behaviour and abilities post-wipe either; she's only just beginning to learn to integrate multiple personalities to work in concert. The car bit showed this - it took her a moment to access a personality that knew how to drive, but she managed it.

    I knew you'd like the Topher/Ballard scene :)

  2. Alexander10:51 am

    I thought this quite possibly the weakest episode of the show. It had an intriguing basic idea, but the actual action was very slow, predictable and dull. Adelle's generally an interesting character, but she was prominent in this episode in all the worst ways, long speeches and prodding dialog along in a way that's supposed to make things seems credible but instead just undermines the credibility of the narrative.

    Agree on how much Sierra as a character was wasted. It was never explained why the client bothered paying for another Active with a fake assignment just to be a pointless friend for Echo's character. Or was that supposed to be a security precaution put in by the Dollhouse like in 1.3? Either way it seemed pointless, and last episode made a point of saying how high the demand for Actives was.

    The post-Mellie interactions were better, but they were completely unconnected to anything and weren't as interesting as they should have been. Unlike this review I didn't think they delivered that much, except perhaps to establish that November was actually let go rather than grabbed by people in a van and transferred to another Dollhouse after the end of last season.

    Thematically, in the first minutes of this episode I thought they might make some interesting dramatization of the totalitarian constraints that maternity often functions in, and the parallels between the sadly far-too-prevalent patriarchal terrorism and the type of further-reaching domination that the Dollhouse forms. Ultimately they didn't go there, focusing too much on the impact of Echo's psycho-physical lactation change, and breaking down completely with the move into horror-movie shenanigans at the end.

    I agree that in many ways Dollhouse is the most amazing thing ever, but there are other times when neither the themes, plot nor moment-to-moment action is compelling. This was one such time.

    In other news, just watched 2.3 and thought it was a lot stronger, I'll be curious what you think of it.

  3. Anonymous4:41 pm

    I wonder if the actives would recognize themselves if they saw photos. Is that something that Topher controls? Last season had the episode where the mom came back to see her funeral in Echo's body. This season has Echo's character freaking out when she finds pictures of the client's dead wife. Perhaps it's something Topher tinkers with which would explain why if an imprint was, to use your example, missing a leg, the personality would still fit the active.