Monday, March 2, 2009

A Review of Dollhouse's "Stage Fright", Part 1

This review, having gotten way too long, has been split. Enjoy.

First things first: I think one of the main problems with Dollhouse are the Actives themselves, by themselves, with little or no personality. The dialogue there is stilted and forced, and kind of eye-rollingly bad. I know they're adults, so they can't get away with cute little kidisms. I know that they are wiped, so there can't be any pop culture references or any emotionality other than being extremely docile. But there has got to be something to save moments like this one:

Because it just isn't working and it detracts from the rest of what is a pretty good episode.

The beginning, with Rayna in a cage, is particularly symbolic. Even as she steps out of her fake cage, she's still trapped in the cage created by her own celebrity; and she reflects the Actives' experience. In this episode, written by Maurissa Tancharoen and Jed Whedon, there is the clearest indication of what Dollhouse is trying to say through its use of the Actives. First, Rayna is manipulated by Biz into accepting Echo/Jordan as a background singer; Biz is the one who warns Rayna that Echo/Jordan seems to have "attitude", Biz is the one who motions for Rayna to discuss the decision, and we are left with the impression that Biz is the one who had Echo/Jordan sing the song that Rayna loves. Rayna's position in her pop world is also highly constructed, something she herself notes when she admits that she is a "factory girl" after confessing that she's miserable:
"I gotta be happy, I gotta be grateful. I gotta be rebellious, but just enough to give me cred so that people know I'm not a Factory Girl. But I am. I don't exist. I'm not a real person. I'm everybody's fantasy. God help me if I try not to be. You weren't grown in a lab, but I was. Been singing for my supper since when, and for when, and for everybody else. God put this voice in me, and forgot to make it mine."
There is so much crammed in that one monologue the head reels. First, it is an indictment of celebrity culture. But it indicts celebrity culture for the same reason Whedon seems to want to explore "what we want from each other sexually, how much power we wanna have over each other". Rayna is just another type of Active; she is just yet another person treated as an object. She doesn't feel like "a real person", and she doesn't have ownership over the talent that has catapulted her to stardom. At some point in her life, probably quite young since Biz mentioned 'the Mouse', she lost her autonomy and her ability to be herself for herself - and do what she wanted to do without thinking about the affect it would have on her career and how it would distract from the fantasy image her fans at large saw and demanded. We as a culture feel a right to celebrities; we feel like we know them, or that we are owed some of what makes them 'them' - because we buy their CDs and tickets to their movies. The whole reason there are magazines like the National Enquirer and Star and shows like Entertainment Tonight is because we want access to the lives of people we think we know, and who we feel should be more than happy to open up to us because we "made" them who and what they are. And then we wonder why they crumble, why they have "'shave your head, flash your junk' whacky phase[s]", and we gawk all the more. Because they exist dually as both people and products in our society, and neither are very much respected.

The second part of it all that lends to the strange vertigo that partially makes this show so uncomfortably compelling. For the first time, the client engaging in double entendres doesn't know she's engaging in any such thing, or that she is a client. Rayna may not know that Jordan is a Factory Girl, grown in a lab, but we do. And that makes both of their stories all the sadder; they're interconnected in this life without knowing it, both are being manipulated without knowing it, and their friendship is as false as any other relationship Echo is programmed to have. It makes Rayna all the more tragic a figure, even as she becomes one of the less than savory people of the piece. She is ultimately alone.

The other aspect of Rayna is that even as she is that tragic figure made into an object by her handlers, she is not a good person. One could theorize that her position as an object has been one that has dulled what she sees as her obligation to others, has left her cold, miserable, and unable to feel. This same story has played out in Whedon's works before, first with Dushku's own Faith and later with Firefly's Saffron (or, Yo-Saf-Bridge). These three women operate under the assumption that they are alone and that everyone else in the world merely wants something from them. Yo-Saf-Bridge sums up this philosophy best when she says, "Everybody plays each other. That's all anybody ever does". And though she is not outrightly evil as the first two are, that is what Rayna does, because that is life as she experiences it. She is played by Biz, so she in turn plays her stalker, and her fan. She plays so many people and has been played by so many people, she doesn't know what to do when a (falsely created) genuine friend doesn't play the game. What she wants is for the game to stop and for the cage to open, to be free. She just doesn't know how to go about getting it, because without the realization that there is a world in which genuine relationships can thrive, she doesn't know there is any other escape from the game other than freedom from life itself.

Along with Rayna's predicament come two ideas consistently present in Whedon's work, and those are self-determination and strength in living. Echo/Jordan brings up both, telling Rayna, "You don't like your life? Change it"; and when Rayna responds pitifully with, "They won't let me", Echo/Jordan drives it home with "You make them let you." This is an idea that Whedon has explore before, both with Buffy Summers doing things like breaking away from the Watcher's Council to restructuring that same Council when she needed them to changing the very nature of what slayerdom means; and with Malcolm Reynolds, who couldn't live under Alliance rule and so bought a ship and just kept flying in the spaces the Alliance hadn't yet reached. Life, Whedon seems to postulate, is what you make of it; and his other postulation is that you'd better damn well make something of it. When Rayna would rather die than fight, Echo/Jordan tells her, "You know, the last thing I thought you'd be was weak". Maybe it is Whedon's atheism, but the idea of not living, of taking the easy road off of this mortal coil, seems to not be a real option in his world. To want to die is weak, like Rayna is described as and like Angel claims that he is in the BtVS episode "Amends". Buffy herself puts it best when she says, "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live." At the end of the episode, faced with real and everlasting death that doesn't create a grand finale, Rayna rediscovers this will to be brave and to remake her life.

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