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?)

So it’s a new season and we get sparkly new opening credits. The new credits achieve the two tasks set for them: they explain the premise of the show very well, and they show Eliza Dusku as a wide variety of clichéd male fantasies. (Although at this point it feels insulting to leave out the shirt pretending to be a dress.) I’m really disappointed that they didn’t include the rest of the cast – this show is an ensemble show as this episode demonstrated.

I am always a bit apprehensive about the first episode of Joss shows, as beginnings aren't his strong-point. And beginnings of Dollhouse are even less his strong point (I have a half written review of the DVDs including the unaired pilot - I probably won't be able to finish it till they pre-empt Dollhouse for basketball though). But this felt like "When She Was Bad" or "Anne" a great episode, that is providing a solid base for a great season.

Obviously the greatest part of this episode was every time Dr Saunders was on screen – everyone was their best then. It was fantastic that they just committed to the premise and took it all the way.

I loved that they showed a scene between Echo and Dr Saunders. There are so many parallels between there experiences, but they can’t connect. (Failing to connect with the one person who has the same goal as you was also the theme of Ballard and Boyd. Although that was less about emotional complexity, and more about what hypocrites those two are. If their special combination of self-righteousness and complicity was really about protecting super-special-Echo then they’d be glad to find an ally). Echo doesn’t know how, and Dr Saunders can’t forget. I think the many way the Dollhouse throws up barriers between people, gives the relationships on the show so much more power.

But the scene that owned this episode was Fran Kranz and Amy Acker in a room.

I could write my entire review about that one scene, and still not do it justice. I’ve been writing stuff and then deleting it, because everything I say about that scene seems to detract from its brilliance.

So I’ll skip to the end when Dr Saunders drives away. She shows faith in herself (a faith that seems pretty non-existence among the non-imprinted Dollhouse employees) and it’s beautiful.

After watching Epitaph One I wasn't sure how it would effect viewing the show. It seems to be a big risk to say "this is where we're going to end up." I still have reservations, after the after the brilliant reveal of Echo's awareness in Epitaph One, the ending of this episode felt a little anti-climactic. But with Topher, I think Epitaph One has brought his story to life. We know that he will have to the arc of a tragic hero - that he flew too close to the sun, and the inevitability of that ending makes his scenes stronger not weaker.* The echo of his eventual madness is already there when he says "I know what I know" to Dr Saunders on the phone. I think whatever we lose from knowing where the show is going, will probably more than be off-set than the power given to Topher's storyline.

I think for pure joyful "Ha-take-that-ness" the scene between Adelle and Paul was my favourite in the episode. Paul is so much more bearable when Adelle has said everything that needs to be said to him. (That scene also did a very good job of making why she's keeping echo around believeable. She used to a head a research lab and if Echo's evolving that is interesting to her. Olivia Williams makes Adelle layered even when she appears straight-forward, but the more complex Adelle is revealed to be, the more believeable everything that she does (and everything the plot needs her to do) is.)

I don't have that much to say about the Engagement this week, apart from "Lee Adama is British, and less annoying than I remembered." I enjoyed it, but I think the problem with engagements is pretty fundamental. There’s no way I’m going to care a much about two people I’ve never met the same way I care about even the small things among characters I care about (Whiskey’s drinking Whiskey – it’s awesome!). It’s not about the acting (I am completely sold on Eliza as an actress at this point) or the writing, engagements just can’t compete.

What was interesting about this engagement is what it says about Ballard. Which is a lot, none of it nice, and most of it not airable on broadcast TV. Because this week he's fighting crime by listening to Echo have sex - it's terribly noble. I've always said Joss shoots good sex scenes, but I think Paul Ballard's press ups take it to a whole nother level (although if the networks were a wee bit less afraid of female orgasms I think Buffy's Once More with Feeling or Dollhouse's Man on the Street would win).

I do wonder what the purpose was for the extra level on the engagement - why was Echo Paul's partner pretending to be in love with Lee Adama, rather than just Lee Adama? On a storytelling level I'm not sure it worked that well, it added an extra layer, which was never resolved. I think they needed to go back to the 'partner' character somewhere in the end sequence, because as it was that just dangled.

But also inside the story why did the dollhouse, whose skill is actually creating people, create someone to play a part? The implication is that it's because he couldn't handle creating an Echo that fell in love with someone else. And that is twisted, in a gloriously Paul-Ballard-hating kind of a way. He laid it straight out there, all through season 1 "this is rape". He makes it better for himself, because at least this created character knows what's going on - and is consenting to have sex with Lee Adama to get the information. But if you're built to consent, you can't say no, and if you can't say no, you can't consent.

Although the discussion about shoes between Paul Ballard and Echo as his partner, undermined my silliest theory about the dollhouse. After various discussions about shoes in the dollhouse, I decided that the female dollhouse profile defaulted to an ability to run in, and preference for wearing, very high heels. In fact the first sign that Dr Saunders was a doll was that she was wearing improbable heels. I thought it explained a lot. But then they had Echo complaining about her stilettos and my entire theory has been undermined.

I think Sierra's imprint at the beginning of the episode needs to be unpacked (translation: I'm going to write more paragraphs on the scene than there were lines of disalogue in the scene). It was played as a simple funny scene, but in many ways it was actually the darkest, and most interesting, scene in the episode.

One of the things that frustrated me with the first season of the dollhouse is their lack of interest in the embodiment of identity. What does it do if they take a personality of someone who was Chinese-Americans and put them in Eliza Dushku's body? Or someone with only one leg? Or someone who is fat? Can the effect of living in a body that society deems wrong be tweaked away by Topher fiddling with some buttons? Now this scene didn't answer those questions, but it did acknowledge them. What does she see when she looks in the mirror? What do any of the imprints (apart from those who are imprinted with a knowledge of the dollhouse) see when they look in the mirror? What happens when the person the dollhouse wants them to be, and the body they are in don't match?

What the show did not acknowledge at all was the horror at what was being done. Because the person who did this to Sierra is a psychopath (as well as the sociopath in a sweater vest who enabled it). To take someone and make them hate themselves is deeply degrading. If that's all there is to that character, or that storyline, then that scene was doing what this show should and can't afford to do, which is not taking its premise seriously.

But I think it's possible, maybe even probable, that this was played for laughs, precisely so the horror can be drawn out later. One of the people I was watchin this with pointed out that Sierra is wearing the same outfit she wore in the unaired pilot in a short sequence where she'd been bleeding from her head. It could be just that they were re-using the outfit, but I think they could also be re-using the engagement. Given everything we know about Nolan (the man that put Sierra in the Dollhouse), then imprinting her with this personality to degrade her, would fit his character exactly. (Although this asks a whole set of other questions. Who within the staff knows that Nolan put Sierra in the Dollhouse? Surely sending her back to him would cut through whatever lies they're telling themselves about the reason they're there.)

If they're going somewhere with this, then I think giving it to us a comedy first could work. But if they're not - then that scene is despicable. Funny, but not OK. The show has no purpose if it's going to turn the degradation of the actives into cheap jokes. If there is no comment on the person who would do this to Sierra, then the writer becomes the client, degrading Sierra for their own reasons.

Even if there is a reason, I'm still not sure about doing this. Being a bastion of multiculturalism when compared to Buffy is nothing to boast about, it's still a very white show. To take the white-washing of characters of colour further, is something that has to be earned, and I don't think Dollhouse has done that.

Also does anyone have an opinion whether this scene is an example of passing the PoC Bechdel test?** Because I really can't make up my mind. It is one of the key questions of the dollhouse, who are dolls when they are imprinted?

But that's not all Sierra did in the episode, because she touched Victor's face and they held hands.*** This is like watching X-files again - as a 17 year old X-file fan I'd spend all my time going "Mulder and Scully smiled at each other, clearly they're in love". But rather than being the product of great acting and under-developed writing, the beauty of Victor and Sierra's relationship is an intentional part of the show. One of the most powerful, moving aspects of the relationships in the dollhouse is that every connection is an act of resistance.

Like I said, the final scene felt anti-climatic to me, as a reveal. I think partly because I was so much more engaged in Dr Saunders leaving, and Victor and Sierra existing, that to end on Echo's awareness was a let down (particularly because we knew it was coming).**** As a reveal it didn't work - but as a set up for this season? I'm very, very excited. I think this is a great way to take it. I'm less excited about the Paul Ballard-ness of this storyline, but as long as Adelle insults him every episode and Echo makes an ally of Sierra soon, I couldn't be more stoked about the direction of Season two.

(Oh and because I couldn't fit it in anywhere else - the Jonas brothers line was awesome - how did they get Fox Legal to clear that?)

* Topher seems to be so fascinated in creating whole people, because he doesn't feel like one himself. It's a powerful point for a writer to make.

** Although I disagree with that post that Dollhouse hasn't ever passed the PoCBechdel test - Sierra as Audra and Rayna in Stage Fright and Boyd and Sierra in Man on the Street are both passes. Although two out of thirteen is not a good ratio

*** incidentally that wasn't hard - why didn't they include something like this in Omega? My problem with that episodes were multiple, but I would have been 60% less annoyed with the whole episode if they'd just shown me a moment of Victor and Sierra. It only takes 15 seconds. Cut something Alpha said to get the time

**** Although to go off on a tangent – where’s Travis? I’m guessing the actor got other work. But it felt as if they were beginning a story when they made Travis Echo’s handler and the end of Spy In the House of Love now feels cheaper knowing that it was never paid off


  1. YAY I'm so glad you're reviewing still!

    I don't have much to say otherwise except that you're spot-on in your comments that Ballard is much more tolerable when Adelle is pointing out exactly how gross he really is - and that he doesn't seem to be The Main Character anymore, thank ye gods and little fishes. Also completely agree w/everything you said about Sierra. Actually, just everything you said. (Except that I am not that keen on the idea of Epitaph One as a definite future. I'd rather it is a maybe-scary-future.)

    Finally: havr you had any casting spoilers?

  2. "I do wonder what the purpose was for the extra level on the engagement - why was Echo Paul's partner pretending to be in love with Lee Adama, rather than just Lee Adama? On a storytelling level I'm not sure it worked that well, it added an extra layer, which was never resolved."

    I saw it as Ballard trying for some plausible deniability - the implication being that if Echo WERE his partner and as part of her FBI duties decided to pretend to be in love with Adama the Lesser, then that is somehow ok, so therefore, it is "more ok" to program her to be a person who would make that "choice" as opposed to programming her to think she is actually in love with him. It demonstrates the lack of depth to Ballard's thought process about the entire Dollhouse.

  3. Anonymous11:51 pm

    I'm glad the show is only too happy to acknowledge how messed up Ballard is :)

    Also, very happy you will continue with your reviews!