Sunday, March 15, 2009

A Review of Dollhouse's "True Believer", Pt 1

Once again, my review has gotten way to long, and has been split.

This post could alternatively be titled "Why I love Tim Minear"; which, I do. A lot. Minear is responsible for some of my favorite episodes of Angel - a series that continues to occupy the bottom rung on my "Favorite Joss Whedon Creations" list. But "Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been" and "Epiphany" are two of my favorite Buffyverse episodes, and I've got Minear to thank for that. For anyone who has no idea what I'm talking about, I'm sorry and I'll stop gushing about Tim Minear in a second. Except to say that if you really want to see what the man can do, run - seriously, run - to the nearest Firefly DVD set and pop in "Out of Gas". I will say this: Minear's talent in structuring episodes, as demonstrated in episodes like "Out of Gas", is seemingly in full effect here. I know that Whedon and Eliza Dushku implored fans to wait until after the first six to see what Dollhouse could do, to wait out Fox's interference and witness where Whedon wanted to go, but episode 5 has leapt to the top my list. I think it is the strongest effort so far, and I've liked all of the episodes so far - though I've not been enamored with them all.

The episode makes clear that there are few, if any, less than selfish and small-minded motivations among many of the people we witness, though those motivations range from the seemingly benign to the truly despicable. Mellie brings Ballard his prescription because she has a thing for him. Senator Boxbaum seems to only be open to investigating the Children of the Temple cult because "this is an election year. I got the Family Value voters on the right, the Women's Issues constituency on the left - all coming after me if anything untoward is going on behind those compound walls". Meanwhile, Agent Lilly is interested in Jonas Sparrow less because he may be in violation of Alcohol, Tobacco, or Firearms laws than because Lilly has had run ins with Sparrow before, and "back then he wasn't calling it a church, and they were mostly underage girls. We put him away for what was supposed to be forever. Forever turned out to be just shy of two years". For Boxbaum and Lilly, this is a battle to fight not because they necessarily believe that people within the compound want saving or need it, but because to "save" those people would further their own agendas. They play at presenting their actions as stemming from the motive of "doing the right thing". Boxbaum tells DeWitt, "Happy? No. This is something quite apart from happiness. Call it a kind of bliss, an unquestioning serenity. True happiness requires some measure of self-awareness. We're talking about people here who have their - their very wills taken away". As Adelle replies, "Imagine such a thing". 

Before we see who he is talking to, we could assume he was describing the Dollhouse itself; before we learn that he is a valued and valuable client of the Dollhouse, we could almost assume a sincerity on his part to truly help those who are forced to exist without self-awareness. Before he utilizes someone else trapped within a forced state of bliss to help him with his election year problem, we could believe that he was, in his own way, a 'true believer'. Afterwards, we know exactly what he is; an opportunist. Hell, he may actually even believe the part about happiness being something that indicates self-awareness and reflection. But that doesn't change the fact that the only reason he gives for actually doing a thing about this situation is the fact that there's finally an issue where a whole bunch of people on the Right side of the ideological spectrum and a whole bunch of people on the Left side of the ideological spectrum could find common ground, and to not show some sign of action would be a death knell to his political career. Same song and dance for Agent Lilly; I have no doubt he truly believed that Jonas Sparrow was a bad person. But his reason for going after Sparrow had less to do with Sparrow's actual current crime and more to do with a vendetta. Boyd sums it up the best when he said:
"You knew he sent his people into town once a month. You were waiting. You ginned up tempers. Started rumors in the town. Created a diversion. And then you wrote that note. That's how you got your warrant. Nobody ever asked to be saved. Not by you."
That is the interesting conundrum. Nobody asked to be saved. None of the cult members we saw seemed particularly perturbed or worried or trapped, until the end. We saw no kool-aid moments. We saw no indication that this cult had any sort of sexual component, and it could have just been that Sparrow simply wanted to revisit the heyday of the Shakers (an odd choice, but whatevs). Agent Lilly, in his selfish and myopic view, believed that those on the compound both wanted to be saved and should be saved - from themselves. Because his agenda and his belief about what was best for them trumped their own. At the same time, no one in the Dollhouse can ask to be saved. That is other side of this coin, the question of when is it right to save those who didn't ask for it? When is it right to presume that those being saved did not speak because they didn't want to, but because they couldn't? Ballard is on a mission similar to Lilly's; he is pursuing his singular line of investigation with determination and more than a pinch of obsessiveness. But we see his mission as good, because he is saving the voiceless. We have visions of Waco, of Jonestown in our collective societal memory. Sparrow trapped his followers in a burning building, trapped them with two armed men and a cry that to fear the fire and to desire to leave meant betraying one's faith. Echo-Esther took the opposite route, freeing those trapped within the building by conking Sparrow on the head, persuading the majority to leave with her "God has a message for you, and that message is 'Move your ass!'" bit, and knocking the unwilling out in order to save him when he was unwilling to save himself.

The difference between Ballard and Lilly is mostly present in the motive; Ballard's pursuit seems to be less about him and more about the injustice inherently present in a Dollhouse-type institution. The difference between Sparrow and Echo-Esther isn't; both of them are following what they believe God compels them to do. They both make a majority's decision for them, but one's decision is to condemn people who otherwise would not be interested to death and one's decision is to keep those people alive for another day. But what is also present in the difference between Sparrow and Echo-Esther is their fundamental belief in God; Sparrow created a situation in order to facilitate a miracle. Unlike the biblical passage he took as inspiration, Sparrow was not only depending on God to save him and his flock but also responsible for the situation they needed salvation from. Meanwhile, Echo-Esther refused to depend upon God as her sole savior when she could move to save herself and others. Moving forward with faith in God was life; staying stagnant and waiting for God's intervention was death.


John said...

I'll save my major complaints for Part II, but for now I'll say this:


2) I think you're being a little unfair to Mellie. She may have a thing for Ballard, but she's also just a considerate neighbor who won't refuse a request for help. I've broken into neighbors' houses at their request before, for no reward other than the satisfaction of doing the right thing.

3) The constant use of dramatic irony is getting tiresome. As an audience member, I get that whenever any character is talking about being trapped, or bereft of free will, or wanting to be a different person, they're really talking about the Dollhouse. I'm as sick of hearing the ironic statements as Adelle (apparently) is. "Imagine that."

petpluto said...

"I think you're being a little unfair to Mellie. She may have a thing for Ballard, but she's also just a considerate neighbor who won't refuse a request for help. I've broken into neighbors' houses at their request before, for no reward other than the satisfaction of doing the right thing."

I don't really think of her as a considerate neighbor. Well, I mean, I'm sure she is, but I don't think that is her primary motivation in helping Ballard out. She's got a major jonesing for him, and she's like a Willow who grew up without recognizing how to let the other person know she was interested.

I don't really think there's anything truly wrong with her, or that, though she is creeping me out something awful with all of her offerings of food; but her sad puppy look when Ballard doesn't get it, doesn't get the reason why she's into going down to the Federal Building and why she's constantly offering him food definitely isn't as endearing as it was when Willow was pining for Xander. They have no real relationship, and if Mellie wants one she's going to have to do more than wait by her door like some woman out of a Romantic Novel of the week. And yet, every week she looks so disappointed that he doesn't pay more attention to her.