Thursday, November 05, 2009

Belonging Review: Dollhouse 2.04

I’d really been looking forward to this episode. In fact a couple of days before I dreamed that I’d watched it and in my dream I thought “That was good, but not as much Sierra as I was expecting”. (I never used to dream about television, but since watching the Joss commentary on Restless where he describes having dreams where you watch movies and they’re weird as, I’ve had dreams like that twice. That Joss is part of not just the content, but the form of my dreams is probably just predictable at this point.) As we were sitting down to watch Belonging I said “At this stage my expectations are so high that if this episode doesn’t change my life it’s going to be a let-down.” I’m not saying it changed my life, but it certainly wasn't a let-down.


You know how good this episode was? The fact that it contained 0% Paul Ballard isn’t even on my top ten list of awesomeness. But, before we begin, lets have a moment of ‘Yay’ for the absence of Ballard. I don’t even need to choose my favourite character of the episode by who insults him the most. (If you didn’t know who my favourite character of the episode is you a) haven’t been paying attention to my reviews and b) Didn’t watch that episode.)

Everyone was their best in this episode, including Eliza Dushku. I know some people aren’t interested in the character Echo – but I always have been. From the first episode I have liked both Echo and Eliza’s performance. And this was a very fine episode on both counts. There are real subtleties in the differences in the way Echo interacts with people now. I loved that they drew out Echo’s growing understanding of language with Topher’s ‘they’re in my shirt’ line.

This season she’s been a bit closed off and inaccessible – as Boyd said she’s learned how to lie. How deep a game is she playing? How much is she conscious of what she was doing. Did she just want to help Sierra, or did she also want to change Topher? Is she using the doll persona as an act? It’s a challenge, both acting and directing, to take this path of her development, but at the moment I’m finding it very satisfying.

My favourite aspect of it all is that Echo is doing a great job of organising in the dollhouse – she’s got Boyd and Ballard completely committed to covering for her, Victor and Sierra developing their solidarity, (in fact she seemed to be working the Anger-Hope-Action technique with Victor pretty well – not that he needs much proding to any of those things when it comes to Sierra) and she even seems to be able to get Topher to do what she wants. After her individualism in Echoes and Needs, I’m really appreciating that. Next I’d like to see her actually talk to Sierra – there’s so much potential just sitting there with that friendship – make it happen writers.

Although in this episode, I even appreciated her individual acts of resistance: reading and writing. The leaf as her only book mark, really emphasised how much what is taken from people is the ability to experience time, to grow and to learn – to read one page and then another. The notes that she left herself on the lid of her pod are heart-breaking. Not just because they’re so simple - the ‘Victor loves Sierra’ ‘Sierra loves Victor’ couple could have been written on a school toilet. But because of how hard she’s fighting to retain what was done to her. “Friends help each other”

I finally liked Boyd again – give that character something to do other than punch people and pass moral judgements and I start to enjoy him. Although I felt like he was given a little bit too on the nose dialogue “so she can remember”, “now the lies begin” and “She does [belong in the dollhouse] now”. From an episode of TV point of view all of this felt unnecessary and a little insulting to the audience. As a character trait it makes him pompous – which doesn’t go well with morally judgemental (and completely hypocritical). But I’m so happy he got something to do that I’ll ignore it.

Dr Saunders was being felt in her absence this episode. We learned that she had projected her own feelings on to Sierra. Claire hated Topher so much, that she missed what was happening to Sierra. In turn, Topher was driven, on some level, by proving the absent Claire wrong, and that desire not to be the bad man took him far further than he knew how to deal with.

The whole episode was very well shot (and I don’t usually notice that sort of thing until I’m listening to a DVD commentary and Joss tells me that a scene is a oner and I go ‘oh’ and feel knowledgeable), but the first Topher scene where we saw him through his magnifying lens was particularly brilliant. The dialogue and image worked together to make it clear that he is on the path to Epitaph One. I’m really looking forward to seeing how the events of this week affect him.

And a special shout-out to ‘this is your brain on drugs’ (It makes me want to search out the 90210 scene from the Peach Pit where Andrea is explaining this to Brandon. Television gold that was) Fran Kranz is just amazing in every way – to deliver such a silly line so perfectly in the same ep as he signalled Topher’s eventual downfall, and his present uncertainty followed by pain, is skill indeed.

I’ve always found the relationships between the staff at the dollhouse fascinating, and I love that they developed Topher by developing his relationships. I was glad that they built on Boyd and Topher’s relationship, it brings out the interesting in both of them. As for Adelle and Topher - I found Adelle’s creepy maternal/sexual vibe with him just as disturbing as it was supposed to be: “You have no morals so I’m going to touch your face.” I can’t wait to see where they take that.

I was unsure, at first, what I felt about our main characters being ignorant about what had happened with Sierra. The end of Needs was obvious Retconned – when Dr Saunders and Boyd talked about the man who took away Sierra’s power, they meant Nolan. And the new interpretation is a bit of a stretch. But that wasn’t my problem – I felt unsure about all of them being so clearly anti-Nolan. It felt a little clean, a little artificial, a little like they couldn’t slip below a certain level on the ‘likeability scale.’

The more I think about it, the more I’m glad the writers did it this way. I think it was stretching credulity a little bit for everyone to be “I know we took dolls from prison, dolls who explicitly said “I have no choice” and dolls so ill that they couldn’t possibly give consent, but we must do something about Sierra.” But (as Joss Whedon says on the DVD commentary to the Serenity pilot) everyone believes their righteous. Not jut in the dollhouse, everyone who is exploiting or abusing someone is a hero in their own life. To be able to tell a story that shows the range of ways people can react when they discover that they were wrong – that their abuse and exploitation is just that – is what makes Dollhouse so great.

Priya’s origin story (as Adelle and Topher saw it originally), also tells us a lot about the Dollhouse’s view of consent. Of the six dolls that we have any idea why and how they came to the dollhouse three (Caroline, Alpha and the guy from Echoes) were facing jail. The other three all appeared to the Dollhouse to be mentally ill, and not coping with that. We don’t know how lucid either Madeline or Victor were, but it’s clear that they took Priya when she was completely unable to give informed consent. Adelle is used to this, she is the one who give Caroline the contract after she says “I don’t have a choice" She is at least partially aware of the lies she is telling herself. That is why she chose not to fight on this one, even if she couldn’t do it sober.

Another interesting aspect of the relationship between the staff and the dolls was in the tiny call-back to Haunted. Topher told Sierra she was allowed beer – on special occasions – the last time we’d seen her with beer was at his birthday – when she was his friend. Like Adelle, Topher seems to protect, to care for, to identify with, the dolls that he’s interacted with. Even interacting with an imprint that has been constructed for their needs, makes the workers in the dollhouse see the dolls as more human.

But this story wasn’t about Echo, or Adelle, it wasn’t even about Topher or Sierra, it was about Priya. We’d only seen snippets of her before, but they’d been very compelling snippets, particularly in Epitaph One. From the very beginning of this episode, with the jewelry selling scene on the beach, Priya seemed so real. When she said to Nolan: “I don’t have a work visa ‘do-do-do’” – it was such a silly, little, normal moment. It made the rest of the episode even harder.

When I mentioned that this episode was going to be about Sierra, my friend was all ‘Does she get to kill Nolan?’* Dollhouse is, among many other things, a story about the nature of fantasy. This episode didn’t have an engagement, but it did have a fantasy –– the fantasy of killing your rapist. Or, in the case of the viewer, watching someone else kill their rapist. Dollhouse has given this before – the fact that Mellie was being controlled by Adelle didn’t make it any less satisfying when she broke Hearn’s neck. But that was the fantasy of killing a rapist – we didn’t watch Mellie dealing with the body, the police, or the effects on her of killing someone.**

Belonging wasn’t the fantasy of killing a rapist, there was a body and it traumatised Priya even more. The fight was messy, Priya had a normal person’s strength and was lucky. Although I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who shouted at the screen “Topher couldn’t you have helped by providing her with Kung Fu skills. But it wouldn’t have worked if he had. And after there was blood, a body, and very few options. There were still fantasy elements – Boyd arrived on cue with body disposal skills, but it was the reality, not the fantasy that we were left with. The scene, or story, didn’t end with her stabbing him.

I’m not saying it’s not satisfying to watch women killing rapists, because it is. But it fills an emotional need, an expression of our anger, life doesn’t work that way. I was really glad we saw just a bit more of the picture.

In an episode this brilliant, there was only one moment missing. Why did Priya go back to the Dollhouse? When I think about it, I can see why she would feel as if going back was her only option. But as I was watching it for the first time, I kept get pulling out of the story and asking why?

I think there are lots of answers to that question – actually that’s the problem, there are too many reasons (she was coerced by Topher and Boyd, she didn’t feel able to go on the run, she wanted out of her life). When I first watched the episode, it felt disjointed and unsure. When I thought about it (and rewatched it a fourth or fifth time) I put myself in Priya’s head, and going back made emotional sense to me.

I think conveying to the audience that Sierra was going to go back to the dollhouse in a conversation between Boyd and Topher was a mistake. We should have learned that with Priya – then her reasons would have been our reasons, and I think it would have made more sense. It could have been as simple as Topher telling Priya that she was microchipped – we only needed a beat, but the beat they gave us didn’t work for me.

Which isn’t to say Priya going back was simple, or should have been portrayed as such. The scene between Topher and Sierra at the end was so powerful, because thre was so much going on (and both Fran Kranz and Dichen Lachman kicked their incredible performances up a notch for that scene). She wanted her memories gone, and she didn’t care about the price (‘if you wake me up again’), but there was also determination, and even hope. In the end her story was about the complexity of survival.

It wasn’t ‘empowering’ (how I hate that word). But it was real, which is far more important.

As well as having just the right amount of Paul Ballard, this episode had almost enough Victor and Sierra. I’m obviously on record as a Victor/Sierra Shipper (Vierra? Sictor?). But my one concern has been the way the relationship was set up. It seemed to rinforce men as desiring/women as desired dynamic. I always believed that the relationship was reciprocal, but there was little textual evidence of that. There had been a scene of Sierra enjoying looking at Victor in episode 4, but they cut it out. (If you ask me it’s worth buying the DVD just to see that scene. I’d have cut the scene of Echo being remote wiped, before I’d have cut that)

Which was what made the art gallery scene so glorious. It became clear that Sierra been attracted to Victor, just as long as Victor had been attracted to Sierra. (There may have been a call from the cheap seats ‘You can ask me many boring questions. It may have come from me) Everything about their interaction was charming, without being ridiculous ‘love-at-first sight’.

But, sweet as it was, that was nothing compared with what followed. As I said during Man on the Street, one of the most powerful aspects of Sierra’s storyline is the portrayal of institutional abuse. Even more importantly, Sierra’s pain would have remained invisible if she didn’t have friends. The role that Echo and Victor played in making Sierra’s experiences public ((and the fact that that publicity didn’t result in unmitigated improvement for Sierra’s life was very realistic)) and supporting her was beautiful.

Echo wasn’t the only one who had a plan; Victor saw the black paint as something he could deal with (and probably his plan was less likely to have negative effects of Sierra than Echo’s). The scene in the shower was lovely in so many ways, his earnestness – their playfulness.*** Then we saw Victor’s vulnerability as well, and Sierra comforted him.

They have such an equal, reciprocal relationship (particularly now they’ve shown us the origins). I really like that. Just like I was relieved when Victor didn’t ‘invent rape’ I love the idea that in a world that doesn’t use gender as a system of control, relationships would look different.

But what was most powerful about this episode was it’s depiction of love. What I think is so beautiful about Sierra and Victor’s love is it’s simplicity. “I’ll wait here” and he does, and until she comes back every time the camera cuts to him it breaks your heart. They like being together, they want to help each other, they make each other feel better. On some level love (and I don’t just mean romantic love or love paired with sexual attraction here) is that simple.

In real life, the simplicity of love is often only really apparent in times of great stress, or absolute relaxation. All the rest of the time messy life stuff gets in the way. But the feeling is still there. The feeling that you would get the black paint pots of your friends, families and lovers and wash them out if only you knew how, the desire for someone to wait about the bottom of the stairs – those are the reasons Victor and Sierra’s relationship resonates.

The episode is incredibly sad, but the ending is beautiful. The way the dolls walked into their pods at the end of Needs was heartbreaking. They’re not doing that anymore. Their acts of resistance are intimacy and retaining information. It won’t be enough – the dolls won’t bring down the dollhouse this way. Like most institutions they’ve learned if they loosen their control it makes it easier to maintain their power. But in the meantime, it keeps Echo, Sierra and Victor strong enough to keep fighting.

* One of the things I’ve loved about this season is the consequences for the Johns. Of the people we know have, or planned to have, sex with an active, we’ve had two stabbings and one jailing. That’s the sort of ratio which is fun to watch, even though it throws the profitability of the whole operation into more than a little bit of doubt.

** Buffy, of course, was designed around fantasy killing rapists. The bodies went poof – there was no stress no trauma, and when men got really misogynist she cut them in half from the balls up.

*** Small quibble the ‘indian chief’ line rang a bit false to me. So far we haven’t seen dolls have any cultural references. So far dolls comprehension seems limited to the idea that Dr Saunders is nice, and they should try and be their best. Victor didn’t understand Echo’s metaphor. The idea of ‘an Indian Chief’ that Victor and Sierra seemed to share was far more specific than that