Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Post in Which I Review Dollhouse's "The Target"

I kind of thought that the review of "The Ghost", along with my haphazard posting about Whedon and his various themes in his works, would be the end of my need to write about individual Dollhouse episodes. Themes, sure; but I thought that what could be found within taking the episodes as individual entities would get a bit repetitious. And who knows, maybe it will. Maybe it already has. But (a) I was kind of impressed (read: very impressed) with "The Target", and I've been very not in a writing mood, along with generally just tired and apathetic lately. So, I figured I might as well write about something I'm actually interested in writing about; and for right now, that is Dollhouse.

I am slowly coming around to Eliza Dushku. I still don't think she's all that great, but I'm recognizing the potential truth in what mzbitca wrote, that "in the long run it may help Dushku that, even when she's playing other characters, she's always slightly similar". Those similar personalities through various people may even be enough to understand how one Active could be more requested than another, something Adelle DeWitt claimed Echo is.

Overall, I am impressed with Steven DeKnight's writing; he wrote one of my favorite Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes (that being season 5's Blood Ties), and so he already had a bit of good grace built up but I was amazed at some of the skill "The Target" encompassed. There have always been stories - mostly stemming from Jane Espenson - that no script that reached the screen was without Joss Whedon's finger prints being all over it (she is quick to remark that the whole last half of BtVS' season four episode "Pangs" was almost completely reworked by Whedon), and I'm sure that's true. But the overall structure of the episode, with lines that reflected other lines, scenes that reflected other scenes, and lines and scenes that foreshadowed the action of the episode, was just cool. And I'm willing to give at least some of that to Steven DeKnight. When Richard Connell, the episode's baddie, remarked, "I thought everything was good with the background check", it wasn't played deviously enough to ring any alarms or even go noticed until my second watching. And yet we learn at the end that Richard Connell's entire background, including his name, was a fabrication; and so the line and its very innocuousness within the scene becomes, for me, a cool little treat. As was this:
TOPHER: What's the magic word?

BOYD: Please?

TOPHER: I was actually looking for 'abracadabra', but that'll do.
with a flashback revealing:
BOYD: ...Just an empty hat. Till you stuff a rabbit in it.

TOPHER: Abracadabra.
That's just the little stuff, though. The word play is great, but it is the thematic workings that are truly of interest. I loved the juxtaposition between Boyd and Echo, with Boyd asking during the handler imprinting "Do you trust me?" and Echo's programed response of "With my life" and Echo's Jenny asking Boyd, "Do you trust me?" and Boyd's voluntary, considered answer of "With my life". It demonstrated the entire episode was working toward, and that was Boyd's own progression of thought.

Boyd begins the current assignment in the woods, asking Topher about Echo's state, asking specifically, "What about her adrenaline?" and when Topher offers the evaluation that it is "within engagement parameters", questions him further by asking, "Are you sure? She's elevating toward redline". Now, aside from giving Topher the set up for an excellent next line ("I've been reading the squigglies long enough to 'cern the dif between excitement and 'Sweet mother, I'm gonna die'"), it also reinforces the notion that Boyd actually cares for and about Echo, whoever she may be imprinted with and whatever she may be imprinted to do. However, the episode in its entirety is meant to show how far Boyd has come; unlike Buffy and Giles, we are dropped into this odd relationship already in progress, so these flashbacks are probably the best way to show us Boyd's transition from seeing Echo as an object to be used by others and looked after in a professional manner to seeing Echo as a person. By the time we meet him, Boyd has come a long way from saying things like, "She's not a girl. She's not even a person". He's come a long way from the disengaged man who cared not about the girl who excitedly got out of the van, who reacted as if he were merely in the presence of a robot. It seems clear by the end, when he takes Echo's hand after she's been wiped, that Echo has become more to him than simply his assigned Active, even if she does not have a consistency in who she is. She is, by way of being human, of value. And Boyd seems to be coming along to that conclusion - or has already reached it. Also, I stand by my original assessment of the Boyd-Echo relationship. Echo doesn't have to develop a true and independent personality any time soon for me to remain engaged in the show; Boyd's interest in her as a person is enough for me right now. His emotional connection allows me to forge my own with the girl assumed to be a blank slate.

What I also found interesting was the man who called himself Richard Connell; we don't know who hired him or why he wanted to kill Echo. We don't know who falsified his records. Obviously, it was someone who knows something of the Dollhouse operation. I can't quite believe that it was Alpha, because there would be easier ways and there would be no real reason to send Ballard Caroline's photograph. That being said, I think there are some interesting things about Richard Connell and what he and his guy in the woods represent. One practical matter is that Richard Connell squelched the run of nice guys hiring Actives; some of the complaints last week that I heard were about that very fact. But perhaps even more interesting is the idea that a person should have to fight to survive, that a person alone isn't deserving of life, that the person has to 'prove' that right somehow. That sort of thinking seems to justify the whole of Dollhouse; if people had intrinsic worth and being a person alone freed one from the threat of violation, there would be no Dollhouse - and no Actives. Only when a society (even a secret organizational one) believes otherwise and commodifies humanity does this become possible. The psychopathic Connell is only a couple of steps removed from those like Adelle DeWitt; after all, Connell would have been erasing Jenny (and Echo) from existence by killing her; DeWitt erases Jenny in an almost more insidious fashion. And treating humanity as nothing more or less than a commodity is what allows people like the man who came after Boyd to do what they are paid to do; there can be a price at which it is morally okay to kill people only if humans are not invaluable in and of themselves. When the hired killer tells Boyd "Hey, it's business. Don't take it personal, dude", he is summing up the whole of Dollhouse's operation. It is a business, and the Actives are not to take what happens to them personally. And that works well, because the organization ensures they cannot.

I am also both enamored with and repulsed by the dual meanings of conversations that fly right over the Current-Echo-Occupying-Persona's head. Last week, there was "Yesterday you weren't a nurse or a clown in the circus." This week, there was, "You know how much trouble I'd be in if you went splat?" Jenny thinking it was merely a reference to her brothers made it disturbing and sad, because the audience had not-Connell's previous interaction with Adelle - complete with "Make sure you return her safe and sound. Otherwise, there will be additional costs" - to draw upon. That along with "Prove you're not just an echo" is part of why I'm trusting Joss Whedon knows what he's doing. Because those are lines highlighting and emphasizing Echo's lack of control and lack of autonomy and lack of consent. Even if the C-E-O-P (shorthand for Current-Echo-Occupying-Persona) is a fully autonomous being who has free thought and free will and who has just been created to be compatible with the person paying for her company, she is still at a distinct disadvantage because she doesn't have all of the information. She meets the men under false pretenses; she is programed with a personality amenable to things like whitewater rafting and tent sex. And even if we should examine whether or not the CEOP has full body autonomy even though she occupies someone else's body, any action taken by the CEOP is still a coerced action due to the very nature of her unusual creation.

That being said, there were a few aspects of "The Target" I wasn't completely cool with. Ellie in apartment 205 left a lot to be desired. Maybe she's going to be a good character, but at the moment she's sitting passively in her apartment waiting for Ballard to get home so she can offer him a bit of home-made food. And while I liked the indication that Echo is keeping more within her than anyone (aside from now Boyd) recognizes, that there is, in point of fact, someone in there, the shoulder-to-the-wheel movement there was just awkward. Some of the moments were a bit jumpy; but overall, I'm feeling like my optimism and belief in Whedon is still well placed.

Overall Grade: B+/A-


John said...

Ellie in apartment 205 is totally a SPY!!! Not sure for whom yet, though.

Anonymous said...

I saw a LOT more that I liked in this episode. Episode 3 is on TIVO right now and I will watch it tomorrow but I heard the buzz is good again.
What I'm discovering in this show is that I'm okay with being uncomfortable but I want it to eventually be for a reason and not just because I'm aware of all the issues of consent and fucked-upness about the Dollhouse. I think that is something that will come around based on what's going on with Echo and her connection to Alpha.

What I think will become clear is that we are not going to truly know who's operating on their own free will and who is truly a doll which I believe will turn the show completely upside down at one point.

John said...

okay, okay, I was wrong about who the spy was (but I knew there was one!) but I still say her appearance in this episode was all-too-reminiscent of Suresh's next door neighbor(who WAS a spy)in the first season of Heroes.

also: Middleman!

petpluto said...

"Episode 3 is on TIVO right now and I will watch it tomorrow but I heard the buzz is good again."

Let me know what you thought of ep 3, because I was wary of it until about midway in. I think it was because I thought The Target was so good, that I was expecting a continued and vertical ascension of goodness that I really didn't see until a little while in; of course, it is completely possible that I missed the whole goodness of it because in order to fully get the beginning you have to see the end. I'm going to watch it again before I review, hopefully today, but I would love to know your thoughts!

"What I think will become clear is that we are not going to truly know who's operating on their own free will and who is truly a doll which I believe will turn the show completely upside down at one point."

Word. And I might steal this line for ze review.

"I was wrong about who the spy was (but I knew there was one!) but I still say her appearance in this episode was all-too-reminiscent of Suresh's next door neighbor(who WAS a spy)in the first season of Heroes."

You silly, silly boy, thinking Whedon's going to go completely conventional!

Seriously though, the reason why I love Whedon's work so much is the fact that it is often hard to track a specific plot point by looking back on the conventional wisdom of how these stories play out in the broader context of outside Whedon's work. The real clues to how things are going to go down are how often he mimics himself and the plotlines he likes best. Which (I think) can be a strength but also a really, really huge weakness as well.