Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Post In Which I Review Dollhouse's "Gray Hour"

I'm going to start this review in a weird place; I'm going to start it with why I don't like Jane Eyre. Well, there are a lot of reasons why I don't like Jane Eyre, actually. Much of the book left a bitter taste in my mouth, and because of that I was surprised that I loved Wide Sargasso Sea as much as I do. I'm definitely an Austen girl. But back to the topic at hand. If you haven't read Jane Eyre, and are interested in doing so, skip this part. I'll let you know when to come back:

I hate Jane Eyre because of the ending. Yes, I hate how Jane ends up with Rochester again, because I'm forced to ask, "Why is she with him?" just like I do when I watch crappy romantic comedies like 27 Dresses or Knocked Up. And that sucks, but the real reason I hate it is because Charlotte Bronte tries to make both Jane and Rochester equal in the end. She gives Jane an inheritance so she isn't in a subordinate economic position to Rochester. And Rochester? Well, he loses a hand and his eyesight in a fire caused by his insane wife. In order to make the characters equals, Bronte gives Jane money, and cripples Rochester. For me, that isn't really a twist that supports gender equality. And here's where I'm starting to develop a bit of a problem with Dollhouse. In "The Target", it is only after Boyd is shot and out of the save-the-day picture that Echo-Jenny is able to step up and take care of business. And for that one episode, I was more than alright with that; it flew completely in the face of Jacki Lyden's assertion that Echo-Jenny needed a man to save her, because she didn't. All she needed was a gun, and she was able to save herself, and the man. However, this same sort of situation played out in "Gray Hour" as well. Walton gets skewered, and only after he gives Echo the means to escape does she rescue herself - and him.

Now, I'm down with this sort of thing happening once, but twice in two episodes is a little much for me. Especially when Whedon's never needed to do it before. Buffy didn't need any of her guys to be knocked down before she was able to kick ass - and before anyone says "vampire slayer", think "Helpless". She's able to rescue herself and her mother with just her wits about her, and Giles remains unharmed. Hell, he even gets a bit of the credit by dusting a surprise vampire. Zoe didn't require Mal to be hurt before she was able to take up arms and shoot some people dead. And by doing it that way, by having both men and women able to save each other and save themselves without the traditional rescuer being incapacitated, there was a much stronger message of gender equality. Women could rescue men, even when the men were at their full and manliest of strengths. Much better than the Jane Eyre way of male-female power relations.

***If anyone actually stopped reading, it's safe now. After ranking the episodes for John, I'm kind of forced to conclude I was a bit off. I had them ranked "The Target", "Gray Hour", "Stage Fright", and then "The Ghost". I think "Grey Hour" may have fallen a bit in my second watching, and my excitement over the plot overrode my ability to judge the episode on its other merits (or lack thereof). I also caught about the last 10 or 15 minutes (probably closer to 10, but felt more like 15) of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and although I love Summer Glau muchly, it was still pretty painful. Thus, the comparison between "Gray Hour" and what came before made "Gray Hour" seem brilliant by comparison.

The script was lacking; there are no other words for it. There were no cool twists of dialogue like there were in "Stage Fright". There were no truly rememberable lines, sans "You are a talking cucumber"; and I think that line was really made by the delivery instead of the actual writing. And there was very little Boyd-Echo connection. The midwife scene in the beginning didn't resemble reality. And as Lauredhel says,
There are fields of endeavour in which the vast majority of experts are women. those women possess knowledge gained through years of study and experience, and they bring something very worthwhile to the world. One of those fields of endeavour is midwifery.
It seems exponentially problematic that a male feminist would not recognize this and either consult with a midwife about proper procedure, or just research the thing. I mean, if we can get that there is no noise in space right for Firefly (ignoring the many other sciencey issues), then could we get a good birth scene? Apparently not.

This isn't to pick on Joss. Well, not entirely. And the bloom is not off the Dollhouse rose. I still really enjoyed the episode. It just wasn't as good as I first thought, and that realization was a bit disappointing. I'm going to mention two other aspects of this episode that bugged me, and then move on to what I did like. First, there is Whedon's notorious time issue. There have been write ups about the time issues in otherwise excellent episodes like "Passion"; I'm not saying he's as bad as the Sherman-Palladinos having multiple fridays in their weeks on Gilmore Girls, but it does sometimes throw me. Like last week, when Crazy Stalker Dude first constructs his crutch-gun. What stopped him from firing it at that show? Why did we see him construct the entire thing, and then not see him try to use it until the next concert? And this week, with the 45 seconds it would take the guards to breech the vault once the alarm had been sounded. I don't care how fast he moved, if Vitas isn't secretly Superman, there's no way he would be able to construct a barricade out of that much art in 45 seconds - and still have time to remind Echo of his breaking-broken people theory.

The second of these two issues is Ivy. I liked Ivy as a character, and I appreciate Joss (slowly) becoming more multicultural in his casting. However, I would have liked Ivy all the more if she hadn't been like Chuck's Anna with her funky-cool clothing. As much as I coveted her tights, I would have preferred Ivy being more Willow and less Buffy. Barring that, I would have liked a slightly longer skirt because hers was far from "serious". And yes, Topher wearing crazy "Xander" outfits and drinking out of juice boxes isn't very professional either, but my issue is less with the lack of professionalism than it is with the sexualization of the character. It all goes back to girls can be anything, even nerds/geeks, as long as they are beautiful and dress like they know it. I expect better from the guy who gave me Willow and Fred and Kaylee, even though all of whom were beautiful. They were all allowed to be beautiful, and be sexy and sexual, and yet still not always dress the part of the sex kitten.

What I did like, I liked a lot. I think an episode like "Gray Hour" was necessary to fully introduce Echo, who she is and what she has to offer even as a "blank slate". Echo's evolution from "Shall I go now?" to someone with a bit more range of emotion than her normal Dollhouse Active persona was interesting to watch, as was her interactions with the two different philosophies in the room. While Topher was probably right to be concerned about sensory overload being dangerous for a newly wiped Active, that florescent lights and forceps would be jarring, there also seems to be an undercurrent here; without conflict, without things that challenge us and people who make us think, we don't grow - or at least, we don't grow as quickly. Echo developed more of a personality in the course of 31 minutes than she does during her routine in the Dollhouse. Part of it is probably that she was interacting with other people who had a full range of emotions at their disposal in a way that the other Actives do not. But part of it had to be the lack of throw pillows and crunchy lettuce. Part of it had to be that Echo had to evolve, because to not evolve when confronted wouldn't be the way to survive. And yet, at the same time this trauma of being wiped and rewiped is on display as a fairly bad thing. If it is so traumatizing, it cannot be good to do over and over again to a person. In this way, Echo's declaration, "I'm not broken" is both a clarion call of strength, and yet also an implicit demonstration of what Echo and the other Actives lack, what they have stolen from them time after time. They aren't broken, and that is part of what disrupts their evolution. It is so much more tragic than "I'm Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and you are?" is, than "No more running; I aim to misbehave is", than "My turn" is. This is a show without the truly triumphant moment.

I also liked the mystery. Why would Alpha wipe Echo in the middle of an incredibly dangerous assignment? Why would Adelle DeWitt so readily believe Topher after he kept screwing up by doing things like calling the Active and her Handler?

The other thing, the actual mythos, seems to be solidifying. "Michelangelo believed his sculptures already existed, inside the marble. Waiting to be freed" could be describing the Actives themselves, existing in these blank slate states, just waiting to actually be allowed to develop. Instead of having the Actives be an actual example of tabula rasa, Whedon seems to be going more toward his Buffy the Vampire Slayer "Tabula Rasa" way; in other words, people aren't blank slates. You can wipe away their memories, the traumas and conflicts and joys that work to refine each person into who they are; but in many ways, the essence of the person remains. This is a little more extreme than BtVS' "Tabula Rasa" in the wiping of everything, but it seems clear that there are minute yet important differences between the Actives, even in their programed state. Lurker said, "Eliza Dushku and Dichen Lachman even sounded alike when they portrayed Taffy. Insanely awesome acting!" I don't disagree. But I still found myself thinking of their Taffys as two different people. Echo-Taffy was, and it could have just been a product of the atmosphere, more hyped up. She was more impassioned, wilder. Sierra-Taffy was cooler, just as confident, but seemed to have a different sort of edge. She was calmer, and exuded more control than Echo-Taffy, even though Echo-Taffy was the on with Taffy Standard Time. Still excellent acting, and the two did create very nearly the same character. But the people underneath still influenced - I think - the formation of that character; because you can never truly clean a slate, and there is still something present underneath.

Grade: B-/B


John said...

Wow, can it be that for once I liked an episode of Dollhouse more than you did?

Gray Hour was my favorite so far (though The Target gets bonus points for including not one, but two actors from The Middleman) mostly because it was a chance to see Eliza Dushku playing a variation on what I feel was her best performance to date: Sissy the jewel thief from Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back. (and what does THAT say about her career?)

Ivy wore a skirt? I don't even remember what she was wearing besides ... a lab coat, I think? She seemed like she was being put there as a red herring, to make you think that she was the one who hacked Topher's system until the big Alpha reveal. Or maybe that was just my imagination.

FOX has earned my enmity once more for airing the episodes out of order. If you put The Gray Hour BEFORE The Target (as was intended), suddenly everything about those two episodes makes much more sense. Otherwise the Alpha reveal is old news by the time Topher figures it out, and Echo suddenly starts remembering things BEFORE the remote mindwipe and forced evolution that could have long-term after-effects. I guess FOX thinks that order only matters if it's a two-part episode or a season finale.

I thought the second Taffy was just a bad impersonation of the first (a great strategy: show that Eliza can act by having someone worse than her do the same part as a comparison,) and that "Taffy Standard Time" was the most cringe-inducingly bad line of the episode. Also, I had just listened to a cover of "Blue Skies" earlier that day, so the fact that it was her tagline was downright spooky.

Oh, and the Midwife thing? I don't know about the technique, but I can think of one reason why someone would hire a doll to do that: If they wanted the best midwife who ever lived, who happens to be dead or otherwise unavailable (but her brain patterns are still on file.)

petpluto said...

"Wow, can it be that for once I liked an episode of Dollhouse more than you did?"

I think probably, yeah. I don't know; maybe I wasn't in the right frame of mind when I rewatched. Maybe if I'd watched it on saturday I'd be less harsh. But the Jane Eyre thing does bug, and that may be part of my problem. I liked the episode - really, I did - but generally I get a Whedon high when I watch his stuff. This? Didn't do that for me. Maybe its like all drugs, and at some point in time you need stronger stuff to get the same high. That'd be depressing.

On a completely different note, this episode did make me want to watch Tabula Rasa and Helpless.

"Ivy wore a skirt? I don't even remember what she was wearing besides ... a lab coat, I think?"

Yeah, a very short, very cool skirt. With some kickass tights. But still, issues.

"Oh, and the Midwife thing? I don't know about the technique, but I can think of one reason why someone would hire a doll to do that"

I think the problem was more of a 'behind the scenes' issue, all with the technique. I don't think (at least, I didn't have a problem) that anyone was upset that there wasn't an actual midwife.

One of the reasons I think I can get into the show is because getting an Active to do almost anything makes perfect sense to me. Yeah, it seems a bit strange to use it for something as mundane as midwifery, but I could totally dig it.

John said...

As far as the Jane Eyre thing goes, that's another reason why the episodes should have been aired in order. If "The Target" comes after this, she's slowly but surely getting more independent and capable on her own (though she can't spontaneously manifest firearms, so there's still SOME reason for Boyd's involvement.)

Speaking of Echo's progress, I think that was the real objective of Echo's mindwipe. He wasn't just trying to screw up the operation and kill Echo, far from it. I think the wipe had bigger repercussions than Topher thinks, specifically that subsequent mindwipes won't be completely effective. Short of "she's the Chosen One," I see it as the most likely explanation for why Echo will develop into the bad-ass hero we all expect her to become.

petpluto said...

"she's slowly but surely getting more independent and capable on her own (though she can't spontaneously manifest firearms, so there's still SOME reason for Boyd's involvement.)"

I didn't have a problem with Boyd's involvement; and truth be told, I probably wouldn't have had a problem at all if this method had only been used the one time (or if the time between the two uses had been broken up by a season instead of merely an episode). My problem is really and truly just that men have to be incapable of saving Echo in these two situations - and yet still give her the ability to save herself - in order for her to save the day. If one has to diminish men in some physical capacity before allowing for the possibility of female competance/female-male equality in the saving, there's a problem for me in the story telling.

I suppose another problem came up in the two guys; the guy we're supposed to like was pretty much an ass until Echo-Taffy just became Echo. Taken in context with the Jane Eyre thing, that more paternal behavior on his part becomes more problematic than it would otherwise have been.

"Speaking of Echo's progress, I think that was the real objective of Echo's mindwipe. He wasn't just trying to screw up the operation and kill Echo, far from it. I think the wipe had bigger repercussions than Topher thinks, specifically that subsequent mindwipes won't be completely effective."

I think so too, and I'm looking forward to the larger story moving forward.