Thursday, December 17, 2009

Meet Jane Doe: Dollhouse Review Episode 2.07

It is hard to review an episode where you adored most of it, but had to watch some scenes through your fingers because you didn’t want to know (the closest I can come up with is the last episode of Buffy – there’s a special feminist cut that only exists in my head and doesn’t include Spike).

I’m going to start with the non-awesome: the unnecessary, unearned, out of nowhere, unawesomness of Ballard and Echo.

To start with the scenes in her apartment were badly written. Echo actually starts a conversation “So about that thing that happened three months ago, which we would have talked about already so I don’t need to explain it to you, but the audience has just seen it so I’ll start talking about that.” Then it’s exposition central, not made any less exposition central when Echo tells Ballard ‘you knows this’ and he doesn’t have the wits to reply ‘but the audience doesn’t.’ Even a plausible, non-creepy love story would be hard to tell with such clunky dialogue.

The three month skip forward was a real problem, Ballard and Echo’s relationship and (I can barely type this) the fact that she’s in love with him feel completely unearned. And as someone who would never have liked this development, no matter how well it was done, part of me is glad that we missed out watching most of it.(Although I could have totally got behind it if they’d made it all about Ballard’s creepiness) As it was I had my fingers over my eyes for some of the scenes. If they’d taken the time to do it right it would have gone longer, and that’s the last thing I wanted.

But, in terms of drama, in terms of making good TV, we need to see why she’s in love with him (if we’re going believe that she is, which obviously I’m denying – I actually think she was lonely and he was there, and you do strange things when you’re isolated and dealing with so many imprints). Until this episode we had no idea how she felt about him, except that she saw him as an ally. Now suddenly we’re supposed to see it as love?

But the real problem with Echo and Ballard was, as always, Ballard. I didn’t think it was possible for the writers to make me hate Ballard more for *not* sleeping with Echo, but oh look I do.

Ballard believes that Echo has the capacity to decide to return to the dollhouse – to a situation where she will have sex she is not consenting to on a fairly regular basis – but not to consent to sex. That’s a fucking patronising attitude to take. She expresses that this makes her feel like a freak, and he doesn’t even engage with her feelings. He is not interested in her, or her desires, never has been, and feels entitled to make decisions for her.

Which isn’t to say that I think that Echo and Ballard should have slept together (I really don’t). Just that the way the writers have portrayed them not sleeping together has made me hate him even more.*

I think the writers could have told this story but made Ballard less obnoxious - if he’d expressed his unwillingness to have sex with her as something about him rather than something about her. For example, if they referenced what Ballard did to Mellie and Madeline – if he’d told Echo the story and made that the reason he didn’t feel uncomfortable.

My favourite line with the episode (and Eliza Dushku delivered it perfectly) was “I try to be my best” – full of attitude. God he deserved it.

OK that’s most of the whining about this episode – now to the awesome. Apart from the problems with the Echo/Ballard relationship, the three-month skip forward really worked for me. This clearly could have been a seasons worth of material, and a lot of the stuff in the dollhouse would have been more satisfying with a build-up over time. But I found this episode fascinating and easy to follow.

I enjoyed not knowing exactly where the characters were, and making increasingly accurate guesses. The slow reveal of Echo’s actual situation were great (except where this revealed Ballard’s continued existence). But it was within the dollhouse that this story telling method had real strength. I think our lack of knowledge illustrated a truth about the situation where no-one was sure what was going on, or where they stood, or who they could trust.**

My only concern was that the episode felt a little bit weirdly structured. In the teaser we had a brief scene inside the dollhouse and an even briefer scene of Echo. Then we cut to a longer scene with Echo, which covered everything in the teaser scene and more, and then we cut to three months later. I think the episode would have been more coherent if the teaser had established the situation, and the rest of the episode was three months later. It’s not like Dollhouse hasn’t had long teasers before – the teaser for Spy in the House of Love was ten minutes.

The politics, and implications, of Echo and Ballard were completely fucked up, but I did appreciate that it wore the rest of its politics on its sleeves. In the scene at the grocery store they brought out the reality of hunger by focusing on the food and people eating. It was just a tiny segment, but it asked questions that very rarely get asked on TV, about the distribution of resources. This wasn’t some sci-fi, unreal sort of poverty, this was linked in with the very real poverty of food stamps. Like Echo and Galena, this episode asked why they couldn’t have food when they were hungry.

Then there was the portrayal of police and immigration. It wasn’t just that these police were portrayed as racist and violent, or that watching Echo beat them up was satisfying. It was that there was nothing about this which suggested that these particular cops were bad apples. They say straight out that this is how the system works. When Ballard came in their only reaction was disbelief that anyone would give a shit.

Now I’m the first to admit that I am pretty highly invested in people breaking out of prison. But I thought that whole sequence was incredibly exciting and very well done. The plan went wrong, as of course it must, but it seemed like a plan which had a chance of working, and when you’ve got Echo’s ninja skills it’s understandable that that’s your plan B. Even watching that sequence on the third and fourth time I find those break-out scenes gripping. (Although I do start to think things like: since when do the underwires of bras come out that easily). And Matt may have had the most inane fantasies in the world, but his imprint came through with her motorcycle riding skills.***

There’s been a little too much Echo rescuing woman of colour for my liking (the kidnapped girl, the pop star, Sierra and now Galena. I was going to say that she’d rescued every woman of colour with a role of any size, but then I remembered Ramierez, Victor’s handler, which is telling in itself). How about Sierra rescuing Echo for once? Or even just a WoC character that Echo doesn’t rescues who is important to the plot of an episode.

What I did like was that it wasn’t just Galena being rescued, they put in some small touches of her taking an active role – particularly finding the keys. We don’t know much about her, but she wasn’t portrayed as passive.**** She had obviously learnt English when she was in jail – she was prepared to fight for her life, even if she didn’t have Echo’s resources.

Echo needs other people, and she knows that. Right back in the beginning (when she got Galena into this mess) she was looking for a friend. She really is a people-person and that’s what’ll make her stronger than Caroline.

While Echo was rescuing people out of jai, over in the Dollhouse they were bringing on the apocalypse. I could have done without the Dubai-ness of the new house. Couldn’t they have been opening a new house in Winnipeg or somewhere? Clearly we’re not supposed to see American men in charge of the Dollhouse as un-misogynist. But when there’s no need why even open the door to ‘oh look at how scary and misogynist middle-eastern men are’?*****

Apart from that I thought the power struggles inside the dollhouse were fascinating. Like I said, I think the fragility of the people and relationships in the new regime were underscored by our lack of knowledge. Were people being cautious, were they on different sides, were they playing each other?

In many ways this was Adelle’s episode just as much as it was Echo’s. We see now the monumental consequences of her paranoia in the two parter. Olivia Williams (and the costume department) did a great job of conveying Adelle’s new status and just how hard it was for her. She was clearly kept on just for the sake of humiliating her, as she had to get Topher to sign-off on things. She had already lost so much by the time we saw her.

She regained her power not through her wits, her bluffing, or her ability to play a very bad hand very well, but by stealing something. What we saw was crawling back, even though she tried to insist that she was claiming some power. I think her character has been fundamentally changed by this, and it’ll have huge implications. I think Episode 10 was very revealing about where Adelle’s character is, but I’ll leave that to my next review to discuss.

And then there’s Topher, who needs a better hiding place. Like everyone else in the Dollhouse he’d learnt to play games. And, as Harding was surprised to discover, he was smart enough to put it all together. These developments fitted so well with the Topher we saw in Epitaph One. (And I think knowing where we’re going absolutely enriches the show). I think if you told me after I saw Ghost, that Topher was a tragic character I’d end up having much sympathy for I wouldn’t have believe you, but it’s true, and it has felt very real.

While there wasn’t enough Victor and Sierra in Meet Jane Doe, at least there was some. It’s amazing how much can be done with those two in under thirty seconds. We never saw the relationships that the scientists developed, but we don’t need to. Topher wipes them, and the scientists part, but then Victor and Sierra walk away together. They really are the most awesome couple in the history of the universe (or at least the history of TV).

I’m not saying that we should forgive Adelle for bringing on the apocalypse. I’m just saying that if Victor and Sierra had been split up that might have been worse than a burning car and a smudged Felicia Day.

I think that scene had its problems though, while it’s possible they were making a point when they had black woman in an Asian woman’s body being silenced while a bunch of white people applauded, I think it was too subtle (particularly given as a sizeable chunk of their tiny audience was thinking ‘oh look Maurissa’). And the only reason I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they might have been trying to say something, is because the person being silenced was the writer of the episode, which obviously adds a layer of complexity. Plus I’ve seen some other stuff she’s done and she’s clearly thought about issues around race, appropriation and identity.

Then just as Adelle has reclaimed her house, asserted her dominance over Topher and made it clear that no one is ever going to challenge her again, Echo comes back. (Don’t these people know they’re on Joss shows, saying things like that is asking for trouble) Now usually I’d make fun of slow-motion sequence with swelling music. But Echo’s return was epic and I loved it. I think it was something about Eliza Dushku’s performance made that whole sequence. That and the moment when she recognised Victor and Sierra and they recognised her. Seriously this show needs to build on those relationships rather than show Echo always interacting with Boyd and Ballard, the tag-team of annoying masculinity.

Eliza Dushku was really good in this episode – really phenomenally good. She nailed every moment (even the ones I didn’t want to see). I’ve always thought she was engaging, but sometimes her performances quite work for me (in particular I had real difficulties with the eyes half shut remembering Echo of early season two). But in this episode it all came together. Every single one of those changes, and characters and emotions was clear. She wasn’t alone, of course, Olivia Williams was the other stand-out, and everyone else, except Tahmoh Penikett and his three expressions, were fantastic.

I’m so very sad there’s only 5 to go (given that I’ve already watched A Love Supreme).

* Although at this point, Ballard could lead a revolution, solve my internet problems, provide me with a lifetime supply of Whittakers Dark Almond Chocolate and magic the ideal sources for my PhD out of thin air and it’d probably make me hate him more.

** At the beginning of the ep Topher states that he will never trust a woman again, and by the end of the ep he’s set the apocalypse in train by trusting a woman. Dramatic foreshadowing is a dangerous thing

*** Possibly the woman who wore the dress that was actually a shirt, also modified the scrubs Echo wore. I’m pretty sure standard issue scrubs don’t include bust shaping. You know Fox is getting desperate when they’re like “But, but, but, this script says Eliza Dushku is just wearing baggy clothes and scrubs – we have regulations against that kind of thing. Can they be sexy scrubs?”

**** I don’t really know how to talk about this; the whole terminology around being traumatised due to your powerlessness is so messed up. ‘Victim’ has been pathologised almost beyond redemption. ‘Survivor’ feels pointed at those who don’t survive. I think it’s important not to create a hierarchy of correct ways to respond to trauma. I feel that this thought should possible be a blogpost and not a footnote.

***** OK and this is a bit of an extended rant, but the whole OMG Harding is bad because he’ll send the actives out to a guy who likes to inflict pain thing didn’t work for me. Just as the ‘we don’t hire out the actives to be submissive, didn’t work for me. Dominatrix Echo liked to inflict pain, I’m sure she’d be a perfectly fine person to send out an active too (if the universe wouldn’t collapse from the weight of that one.) Boyd in particular has always taken the position “the most objectionable sex for actives to have is sex that I’m not into.” To me the key question seems to be will they hire out dolls on engagements where the imprint isn’t going to consent? I think that was supposed to be the implication of him quoting Marquis de Sade, that he didn’t want someone who would enjoy it. But that whole side of the dollhouse, and the lines people draw has been so muddy. I know the original desire to explore desire was destroyed by Fox, and maybe there was a point to these lines but never got to be explored. But I think it’s unfortunate that the show has ended up drawing boundaries around acceptable desire based on categories other than consent.

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