Monday, March 2, 2009

A Review of Dollhouse's "Stage Fright", Part 2

This is Part 2 of an extremely long post. Part one is here.

Perhaps one of the more intriguing aspects of this episode was something mzbitca foreshadowed when she said, "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". The Lubov/Victor reveal completely blew my mind, because I'm pathetic and couldn't see the signs a-coming. Like, Adelle DeWitt telling Dominic, "All the appropriate measures have been taken"; that one should have sent off warning bells upon warning bells. And yet, I remain completely oblivious to the twists and turns. At the same time, this whole Lubov/Victor thing opens up a whole new host of questions. Questions like, Does Victor/Lubov genuinely want to help Ballard in his quest, or does he know the information he gave Ballard was meant to get him killed? Has Lubov always been Victor? If so, how was he programmed to talk about Dollhouse without becoming disoriented, like we saw Echo become in "Ghost"?

For the record, I think Victor/Lubov didn't know about the death in the basement; my assessment comes purely from the "Watch your back" line, though, so it may be what I want to read in that more than what is actually there. And I tend to think, though I could be wrong, that Lubov has always been Victor and has been sent specifically to mess with Ballard. The other, almost more upsetting, way to read this is that Ballard's own dogged pursuit of the Dollhouse mystery ended up with the Borodins sending Lubov to the Dollhouse to get wiped - giving a whole new meaning to him not getting the "nice" death. Which, in a way, is better in terms of the actual story, the idea that no one is above implication in a system that is as widespread and as insidious as the Dollhouse is. It makes Ballard less the white knight, since he would be principally responsible for Lubov's wiping; it would also go toward demonstrating how Ballard has to this point treated Lubov as someone to be used as well, though for an ostensibly greater good. And by using Lubov, he has condemned Lubov to be used. Actually, I kind of hope that it is the second one. It makes the primary message of the show all the more potent, that using people as objects is a no-no, no matter how you do it or why.

And yet, Whedon (or at least one of the Whedons and Maurissa Tancharoen) also seem to suggest that this is rooted in who we are, and that we must struggle to overcome it:
PAUL: The technology exists.
LUBOV: Somebody made a monkey tango, right? It doesn't mean it's being used on people.
PAUL: It does. It does mean that.
LUBOV: How do you know?
PAUL: We split the atom, we make a bomb. We come up with anything new, the first thing we do is destroy, manipulate, control. It's human nature.
LUBOV: Yeah, people are mostly crap.
Aside from making me really like Lubov (and so, kind of sad to see him be Dollified), it is yet another strong, in-episode criticism of the very idea of a Dollhouse. It is yet another, poetically downer, message that this is a really bad thing that is happening and that we should recognize it as being a destructive force that deserves to be confronted and shuttered. It also demonstrates the dark side of Special Agent Paul Ballard; this is not a happy philosophy to live by. Neither is Lubov's "people are mostly crap", but he just sounds less affected by it than Ballard does. And yet, even with this pessimistic view of the world and humanity, Ballard still seems to feel that we can become better; it is not nihilistic, because he pursues a goal of the destruction of a destructive force.

This episode also deepens the audience's understanding of the Dollhouse's operation, and who are the more moralistic forces of the Dollhouse:
DR. SAUNDERS: I have her flagged for romantic or altruistic engagements only. Does anybody read these?
TOPHER: Her last romantic engagement turned out to be extremely high risk; maybe her engagement with Rayna will turn romantic. Ooh.
DR. SAUNDERS: She's a bodyguard?
TOPHER: She's a singer. Persona and parameter. Two separate elements. Persona: She's a struggling singer who just got her first break, yay. Parameter: She must protect Rayna. Which she will do instinctively and unconsciously at all times.
DR. SAUNDERS: So, she doesn't even know she's a bodyguard. And this makes what better?
With this, we see Dr. Saunders as an okay force; not a good force, just a better force than Topher. As Do Lurkers Dream of Electric Peeps? says, "Boyd Is Better Than The Rest. Better Doesn't Mean Good", the same can be said for Dr. Claire Saunders. She may not approve of unconscious bodyguarding, but she still approves of creating unconscious romantic attachments. It seems like Dr. Saunders and Boyd have incomplete moral codes, Adelle DeWitt and Lawrence Dominic have skewed moral codes, and Topher is just amoral. No one is morally righteous here, and no one has the high ground.

The progression of Echo, the bleeding of the CEOP (Current Echo Occupying Persona) into Echo, and the bleeding of Echo into the CEOP continues apace. Although I hated the beginning, the imprint of the importance of friendship upon Echo bled into her Jordan persona; that could have been because she was meant to be Rayna's friend, but Echo/Jordan also reacted to the fact that Sierra/Audre was in danger. When she said, "I have to help her", Echo/Jordan was looking at Sierra on the computer screen. She repeats Sierra's "Friends help each other out", and stretches the parameters of her assignment to reacquire Sierra as well as knock some sense into Rayna. She is special, because she makes her whole more than the sum of the parts the Dollhouse deigns to give her. But as Dr. Saunders tells Boyd, "Special isn't always a good thing", and that "sometimes the best thing to hope for, is good enough". There will probably come a time when Dominic's suggestion of sending Echo to the Attic will be more plausible, and harder for DeWitt to override.

Speaking of "The Attic", Dominic mentioned it last week, but I didn't delve into it. At the same time, the amount of references to feminist and prefeminist literature are piling up. The Attic plays a key function in Emily Bronte's Jane Eyre, housing Rochester's first wife Bertha; she is the madwoman housed in the attic, and she is the primary player in Wide Sargasso Sea (which, in my estimation, is heads and tails above the work it was inspired by). The nameless protagonist of "The Yellow Wallpaper" was confined to an upstairs bedroom, possibly in an attic. And, of course, there is The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, the 700+ work by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. As a feminist, I would imagine Whedon would be well aware of this tendency to put uppity women away and in an attic - especially in literature. Along with the Attic, there is the name, Dollhouse. Since those who are wiped are called Actives and not Dolls, there is more than a possible allusion to the Henrik Ibsen play "A Doll's House"; in fact, the first conversation I had with my father about Dollhouse went something like this:
ME: Jess is coming over friday to watch Dollhouse.
DAD: Oh?
ME: Yeah, because we have the big screen.
DAD: Oh. Right. Well, we'll probably be out at a basketball game.
ME: I could tape it for you.
DAD: Tape?! Ibsen?!
ME: What? No! Whedon! His new show?
DAD: Oh. I was wondering why you'd need to watch Ibsen on the big screen.
They made it back in time to see the show, by the way. 

Perhaps even more compelling is the fact that Nora was without agency until she discovered that there was more to life than being her husband's "little bird". She had to go on a journey of self-discovery, a discovery that had not ended when the play did. So who will Echo most emulate as a character? The unfairly maligned and destroyed and eventually dead Bertha? The broken and insane protagonist of "The Yellow Wallpaper"? Or will her story be the more hopeful one of Nora, a journey in which she leaves behind a life of being many someone else's plaything and aims to discover who she is and what to make of her life? The tension of Dollhouse may be the tension between these two divergent feminist story trajectories, between the destruction of woman by her society or the woman who escapes those bonds and works to create her own person. Based on Whedon's previous work, I think it will probably be more of the latter than the former but with bits of the former mixed in liberally.


John said...

I thought they called it "the attic" because that's where you put the dolls you aren't going to play with anymore. "Dolls in the Attic" was a specialty toy store down the street from where I lived when I was a child, in fact.

You and I had drastically different opinions on Rayna's "Factory Girl" speech. As soon as she started, my mind translated it to "Hi, my name's Jed Whedon, and this is the theme of the show. I wrote it backwards on the head of this mallet. Can't read it? *WHAM!* *BANG!* Now run to a mirror and read the words on your forehead." It was about as subtle and nuanced as Star Wars prequel dialogue.

I believe that Lubov was always Victor, and that the Dollhouse has been manipulating Ballard for longer than he realizes. As far as being able to talk about the Dollhouse goes, it's probably something they haven't written the hard-and-fast rules for yet.

petpluto said...

"It was about as subtle and nuanced as Star Wars prequel dialogue."

Whoa, there, hold up. That's a pretty serious contention you're throwing down; I think you may want to go back and watch Eps 1-3 before you go bandying that about! Also, way to go posting this criticism on Part 2, where I can't go back and immediately reread the monologue in question.

Seriously though, dialogue doesn't have to be unsubtle for me to appreciate it. Aaron Sorkin's dialogue has the tendency to be about as unsubtle as being hit by a Mac truck - twice - but it is the other stuff brought to it that makes it worthwhile. I liked that the Jed Whedon speech had cadence and rhythm, and was actually compelling to listen to. The problem with eps 1-3 dialogue in my eyes wasn't that it was unsubtle (at least, that wasn't the complete problem); the problem was that not only was it awkward as hell, but the actors couldn't act and say it at the same time! Natalie Portman looked like she couldn't emote worth a damn! Plus, sometimes it just didn't make sense. "I've got the high ground!" Dude, you're Jedi knights. It doesn't matter who has the friggin' high ground, okay? It just doesn't. *Grumps*

Anyway, the woman playing Rayna could act (or at least, had good direction), and I thought some lines were actually very beautifully constructed, in terms of balance and content. The whole "God put this voice in me, and forgot to make it mine" was especially good.

"I thought they called it "the attic" because that's where you put the dolls you aren't going to play with anymore."

Ah, but they aren't called dolls! Actually, that's probably part of it as well (touche); but Madwoman in the Attic is a well-known feminist article, and since Joss Whedon took feminist classes at Wesleyan I don't think it would be too much of a leap to think that he'd at least have heard of the concept in passing. So, I'm going with it, because (a) that was one of my favorite paper topics in college to write about and (b) any chance to bring Wide Sargasso Sea into the mix is worth it.

MediaMaven said...

I like Ibsen.

John said...

Okay, perhaps I went too far with that comparison. But it's a pet peeve of mine when a character in a story (no matter the medium) suddenly breaks into monologue and becomes nothing more than a mouthpiece for the author, who is clearly worried that his audience hasn't gotten the point yet. I half-expected Rayna's speech to go the full nine and say "It's like I'm some sort of doll, trapped forever in the dollhouse of celebrity."

It's possible, of course, that I'm judging it unfairly because of a similar monologue in a recent issue of The Walking Dead (where the main character spells it out for anyone who's never heard of irony by yelling at the top of his lungs, "it is WE, not they, who are the walking dead!") For a comic series that had been using subtlety and pacing beautifully up to that point, it really let me down. To hear a similar thing on Dollhouse, a series that I'm not nearly as impressed with, was just too much.