Thursday, March 26, 2009

A Post In Which I Review Dollhouse's "Man on the Street"

"Man on the Street" put a nail in the coffin of whether Dollhouse is going to be an exploitive show or a show that examines exploitation, coming down on the side of the latter. Whether or not that is the final nail is yet to be seen; considering that Joss Whedon is human, I doubt it. I'm sure there will be missteps and stumbles. Nonetheless, it was incredibly satisfying; it demonstrated what the show could be, and how it could be. It deftly opened the door to the disturbing precipices the Dollhouse as an organization occupies, as well as the cracks the show seeks to shed light into. First things first, though; the man on the street aspect of it, having the action and arc of the episode intercut with the news report and 'real' people on the street was a stroke of brilliance that would have been better suited for an earlier episode. Like, the first one. I know John hates exposition dialogue, and I do as well. But what gets me about Joss Whedon is his ability to have exposition dialogue suit a purpose; characters very rarely actually step outside of the drama to tell the audience what the Really Important Point Is. That isn't to say that he doesn't telegraph what that Really Important Point may be, but he usually works it into the actual action. Like the reporter telling his viewers, and thereby us because we are them, "what's interesting about this urban legend is the wide spectrum of reactions we encountered from every day Angelenos to the very idea of a Dollhouse". And by presenting a wide range of those views, both in interviews and through situations, we become more aware of our own reactions.

But first things first; I hate to say it, because I don't need any more reasons to love Whedon, but I can't help but feel as if he writes women better than any other writer for television. And that is because he doesn't write them as "women", but as "people". Case in point: Mellie. Prior to "Man on the Street", I disliked Mellie. Somewhat severely, actually. She was bland, and she acted bland, and she sat at home baking Italian pasta dishes and then mispronouncing them. She was, in a word, pathetic - and more than slightly. But within two seconds of being written by Whedon, she was whole; she had a personality, a sweetness and an edge and a spark. She was an actualized character. After all, she "do[es] have access to important government information that" she doesn't understand. If Ballard told her that sleeping together was a mistake, she would be "cool"; and if he didn't, she would still be cool, just not as cool. And for a second reason to love Whedon in regard to Mellie: he broke his own trope. Usually in a Whedon work, the main character will experience some sort of monumental happiness (usually revolving around sex or a sexual activity or the hint of a sexual activity), and then have that moment (as well as, generally, another person) ripped away, by soul lossage or horrible death or being sent to hell. It happened with Buffy and Angel; it happened with Jenny and Giles; it happened again with Buffy and Angel; it happened with Tara and Willow. It is a theme he goes back to again and again, because it is easy; because it is shorthand for his omnipresent theme of "life is shit". And I will be perfectly honest in that I was swearing at the television screen during the commercial break and when Hearn was beating up Mellie, and I was prepared to foreswear Dollhouse forever and Whedon until his next project (what? Whedon is my drug!). But he surprised me by having Mellie actually be a Doll. That, in turn, explained so much about Mellie as a person. Questions like why she was so fixated on Ballard and how she could afford to just hang out all day in her apartment were answered. She is fixated on Ballard because she is programed to be; she can hang out all day in her apartment because her rent is probably covered by the organization.

One more thing before I get into the meat and potatoes, philosophical/major themes of the episode. This scene:

Echo/Rebecca's appalled "Porn!" at the end to Boyd is all kinds of wonderful, including but not limited to the fact that this highly tense moment has the release of the comedic moment, and the fact that in a way, it really is porn in that it is simulated intimacy. What Joel Myner planned to do with Echo/Rebecca was to live in a fantasy world; it was to create that magical moment he never got to actually have with his 'real' Rebecca. And in order to fulfill that desire, he has to hire an actor, even though the girl in question never knows that she isn't the real Rebecca.

This leads directly to Hearn, and this scene:
DOMINIC: You're disgusting.
HEARN: Don't give me that! You put her under some fat, old emir, it makes it better because she thinks she's in love for all of a day? We're in the business of using people.
DEWITT: You understand less about this business than you think.
HEARN: And you don't get how it actually works down there. You put a bunch of stone foxes with no will power and no memory running around naked. Did you think this wouldn't ever happen?
While Hearn is disgusting, he is also right; the difference between what his raping of Sierra and what DeWitt, Dominic, and the Dollhouse organization do to Sierra and the Dolls on a daily basis is not large. DeWitt and Dominic attempt to maintain the moral high ground because they personally would never violate any of the Actives, but they send them out, night after night, to do things they would never do and be people they aren't. Just because the Dollhouse creates a situation of coerced consent doesn't make it so the Dolls are truly consenting. And at the end of the day, they are violated further by having all events stripped from them. As Ballard tells Myner, the circumstances surrounding that violation "doesn't make [them] anything other than a predator". That line follows up another thought present in Whedon's work, spanning back to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Lie to Me"; in it is the idea that your circumstances do not absolve you of your actions. Dying? There is still a choice to be made, and if you make the wrong choice, you are still the villain. Grieving? The same thing. Myner's exposition of why he hires the Dollhouse, why his fantasy is what it is makes him more of an understandable predator, but it does not change the very violation his actions bring.

Another sweeping theme occurred to me when Killer Echo told Ballard, "There are over 20 Dollhouses in cities around the world. They have ties to every major political power on the planet. The Dollhouse deals in fantasy. That is their business, but that is not their purpose". Echoes (pun very much not intended) of Firefly's Blue Sun Corporation waft around this very idea of a shadowy, larger than life corporation whose purpose is not its business. After all, the original schematic for Firefly was to have River's violation come at the hands not of the government but of Blue Sun; hence the men with hands of blue. It looks like Whedon is getting his second chance to tell that story.

Another overarching theme in Whedon's work is this idea of the individual fighting a Sisyphean battle against an unbeatable foe. Buffy against the forces of darkness; Angel against the evils of humanity; Mal against an authoritarian government. Each of these people pushing on because of the idea that "this is all gonna come apart. You might not be punished and I might not be alive, but this house will fall". For each of these characters, the idea that there is something grander worth fighting and dying for is what pushes them on. I find that thought to be oddly optimistic, because what is precluded is that there must be something worth dying for. Oftentimes in Whedon's work, that something is individual autonomy. So even though he might write this:
Forget morality. Imagine it's true. Imagine this technology being used. Now imagine it being used, on you. Everything you believe, gone. Everyone you love, strangers. Maybe enemies. Every part of you that makes you more than a walking cluster of neurons dissolved at someone else's whim. If that technology exists - it'll be used. It'll be abused. It'll be global. And we will be over. As a species. We will cease to matter. I don't know, maybe we should.
Dire and depressing. And yet, there is this spark that even if we should cease to matter, we don't - and that we need to keep fighting another day, even if that fight seems ultimately futile and useless. Because if we don't fight, we've lost everything.

A few other things of note: I thought it interesting that we see Boyd's moral code sharply contrasted with DeWitt's. Boyd does something because it is the right thing to do; stopping Hearn from hurting Sierra is built into his very fiber. But DeWitt cannot operate on a purely moral level, and so has to offer compensation. She has to create controlled circumstances, because otherwise her house of cards can easily come crumbling down. Her business only works if variables are quantifiable, and manageable. Someone who will go above and beyond his prescribed role because he feels he must, without any expectation of reward, is not a desirable variable. I also found it intriguing that Dominic's main concern seems to be DeWitt herself, her safety and her comfort. He is hired to protect the Dolls, and yet he seems to gravitate toward doing what he can to protect her.

Final Grade: A+


John said...

Hey now, let's be fair. I don't hate all exposition dialogue, just horribly ham-fisted uses of it. If it's even remotely plausible for the character to be delivering the exposition within the framework of the story (as it was with the "man on the street" interviews in this episode) I'm fine with it. It's when the character suddenly gets an incoming message from the Big Giant Head (read: the writer) and starts delivering exposition in a completely incongruous way that I can't stand.

By the way, DeWitt's "grounding" of Boyd may have had less to do with her stance on heroism and more to do with something else entirely (which would be consistent with my current "mole" theory.)

John said...

Also, I have a fresh quote for you:

"Ask yourselves: If we falter now, if we give up, where does that leave us? Where does that leave those in need? If we really have lost our way, how does welcoming death ensure our return to righteousness? I don't have all the answers, but I'll say this: I plan to stand, I plan to fight, and I will do so with pride if even one of our would have the courage to stand at my side. This is a war I still intend to win." - Optimus Prime, Transformers: All Hail Megatron #9. It may not quite be Whedon-caliber dialogue, but I'd say the sentiment is pretty close to speeches given by Buffy, Angel, Mal and now Ballard.

Rebekah said...

OMG- this episode was night/day so exciting, and I just saw the newest episode, not to mention the preview of next week. I am just angry now that Joss was so hard to find in the first 5 episodes- they almost feel like wasted time when the show could have been this good all along! Just when I was starting to wonder if I could ever get enthusiastic about the show- now I'm pumped!

petpluto said...

It may not quite be Whedon-caliber dialogue, but I'd say the sentiment is pretty close to speeches given by Buffy, Angel, Mal and now Ballard.

Nah; don't get me wrong, it's a good speech - but Whedon's line is more "we're all fucked, but we may as well fight because we'll hate ourselves in the morning if we don't"! I don't think Buffy, toward the end, or Mal, after the War, ever thought they were going to win; they just hoped they would.

"I am just angry now that Joss was so hard to find in the first 5 episodes- they almost feel like wasted time when the show could have been this good all along!"

I know! F- Fox!