Monday, May 11, 2009

A Post In Which I Review Dollhouse's "Briar Rose"

There was one main query that emerged from watching "Briar Rose", and that is why isn't Alan Tudyk in everything? Seriously, the man is made of win. I'll admit that I'm not the world's biggest lover of sliced bread (I love bread in all of its forms, so sliced isn't all that different from unsliced if you're me), but if sliced bread is the pinnacle of great, then it just got owned by Tudyk.

But first, there's the whole Briar Rose thing to deal with. I'm of the belief that Whedon is as devoted to fairy tales as he is to genre-mashing and kick-ass heroines, which is to say very. Several of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's episodes, including one of its greatest, were directly built around the theme of the fairy tale; Buffy herself could be seen as a modern take on the fairy tale princess. That, however, is a theme for a whole other post. Here in this episode Echo is for all intents and purposes Briar Rose. Echo is the sleeping beauty; Echo is moving toward self-awareness; Echo has several 'princes' seeking to rescue her. At the same time, Susan-Echo is cast as the prince, someone willing to step in and clear away the bramble from a young, traumatized Susan. Echo is thus both passive and active; she fulfills both roles at different times, for others and for herself. That, I would posit, is part of the genius of Whedon. As it stands, Echo seems the epitome of the princess in need of rescue; but that isn't entirely the case. Since she is slowly evolving, slowly becoming more than just the blank slate, she is becoming an amalgam of the two roles. She may still need to be rescued, but she will also take pains to rescue herself.

Another aspect of the genius of Whedon is the casting of the traditional princes. Ballard, Boyd, and Alpha all seem to take on the prince role; all want to save Echo; all want to protect her; all have their own needs and wants and beliefs take center stage over Echo's own. One of the more compelling reasons for Echo to evolve the hell up and rescue herself is that she has such fractured princes wanting to do the rescuing. One of the more interesting scenes was Echo tumbling down the stairs whilst Boyd and Ballard battled it out without pause. In one stark moment, we are witness to the idea that as much as Boyd cares for Echo and as much as Ballard wants to rescue the innocent girl, both are more compelled by the other than to take actual care of the girl. And Alpha... Well, Alpha is more than a bit touched, and his version of rescuing Echo is like the other two, more determined to make her in his image and to play the role of the romantic prince than he is in figuring out what Echo wants and what would be best for her.

Another compelling part of the episode is the tension inherent in the evolution of Young!Susan. As Topher says:
The kid's a mess. Past trauma has her emotions, reactions, intellectual development all frakked up beyond recognition. But if she gets help, really works, deals with the soup of her life, she gets to be... the nice lady with the tragic past but... the healthy head.
Young!Susan has the ability to become Echo-Susan. She also has the ability to not, to become a darker figure, to become - in a hopefully less psychotic and homocidal way - an Alpha. She can work to minimize the effect her deeply troubling past has on her future, or she can have that past continue to write the story of her life. Her deep anger at herself, at the situation, at where she is and how she got there, could continue to damage her. And through Young!Susan's interactions with Echo-Susan, we get the idea that:
It's okay to get rescued by someone else if you're young or small or you just can't do it yourself.
This gets to what I think is the heart of Dollhouse's feminist dilema. There is work upon work of feminist women getting it done. Whedon himself is responsible for two female characters who were the ultimate rescuers against what seemed almost impossible odds. And as awe-inspiring as those scenes are, it is as important to make it clear that being in a position to be rescued isn't inherently unfeminist. Needing help isn't something we should scoff at, or deplore. And one of the interesting things about Dollhouse is that the show isn't from the perspective of the rescuer, unlike BtVS or Angel or Firefly, but from the people who, by virtue of what has been done to them, may need to be rescued. As long as being rescued doesn't put the rescuee in the debt of the rescuer, as long as there is no big "my big hero, let's get married and have babies" reveal, then it truly is okay to see people get rescued because it doesn't inherently create an inequitable power differential. And to demonstrate that, the idea that being rescued isn't necessarily the bad part of the equation, is a good. Because there are plenty more people in the world who need rescuing than those with the ability to rescue.

Now, part of that is definitely due to what Whedon has already contributed to the 'women can be the rescuer' side of the scale, but more of it goes back to the fact that I can't be a Buffy and I don't know a woman (or a person, really) who could be. I can't be a River, and I'm equally bereft of River-like people in my life. I could, however, potentially be a person in need of rescue, and I like that Whedon is acknowledging the small heroics of dealing with the aftermath. Because Young!Susan, if she manages to grow into Echo-Susan, she has done her own bit toward rescuing herself. Whoever got her out of her forced child-prostitution situation rescued her physically, but it is up to Young!Susan to do the same for herself mentally. She, like Echo, has the potential to be both princess and prince.

Speaking of princes, our cracked prince Ballard is directly compared to one by Loomis:
You just flashed your badge and swooped in like Prince Valiant?
There are several shows I would watch with the Dollhouse characters; Loomis and Ballard in a whacky sit-com about a crazy guy and his eternally patient friend would be one of them. Another one of them? Would be any sort of show focusing on Ballard and Stephen Keplar. Comedy gold.

There was so much goodness to Tudyk's Stephen Keplar/Alpha I don't even know where to start. There was the opening introduction:
BALLARD: Stephen Keplar - is that you?
ALPHA: Well, there's a lot of aspects to that question.
If you were unspoiled, that line opens up like a pinata after the fact. But there was also just Alan Tudyk being awesomeness personified:
"Carrots! Uh, medicinal carrots. Personal use for medicinal carrots that were here when I moved in, and I'm holding it for a friend."

"Recycled urine? I'm kidding. It's not fully recycled. I'm tinkering with that. I also have Pom."

"I'm not comfortable having people in my home that aren't delivering me Thai food.
Riding up, riding up! I'm getting a wedgie."

"Just because we can move forward, we must? That is the same expansionist thinking that lead to the Trail of Tears, man!"

"This is - I'm not comfortable. My arms are chilly."

"Oh, change is good. Go change. Yes we can! You know, this cotton - it's organic. I'm pretty sure. That's a plus."

"I'm going to die. I'm going to die in pajamas."

"I could, if this guy wasn't a paranoid freak. There's like a thrillion layers of passwords on here. This isn't company stuff. This is his own personal mindfield. I need a different computer."

I'm not entirely sure if the lines said by anyone else would have had the same affect, but in Tudyk's hands they were magical. Likewise, I'm not sure if the lines are all that funny separated from context; but I laugh whenever I think about them, so here they are. On pretty much the same line of thought, I would watch a show devoted to Alan Tudyk and anyone else with Jane Espenson writing it.

Another absolutely inspiring scene was Victor-as-Dominic. From the onset, I have been enamoured with Enver Gjokaj; he has consistently been the best actor amongst the Dolls, both in their Tabula Rasa state and as an Active. But he soared to new heights as Dominic. From the speech patterns to the facial movements, he was Dominic. Unfortunately, this only highlighted how great a disparity there is between him and Dushku, whose abilities are pretty much a necessary piece of the puzzle. Victor also got one of the best lines of the night (and again, much of this comes down to phenominal ability) with his "People were fighting on me" line.

Which brings us back to Alpha, and the Alpha reveal. Alan Tudyk did such a great job as Stephen Keplar, even though I was spoiled (through no fault of my own!) I thought I had received faulty information. But no. During his take down of the security systems, the agoraphobic facade began to crack. And by the time he sliced up Victor's face, Alpha was there, terrifying and real. Which brings me back to the original point of this whole fangirl squeefest, which is that Alan Tudyk should be in absolutely everything. And also, that Jane Espenson should have written more Dollhouse episodes.

Grade: A+

1 comment:

Rebekah said...

Agreed! Alan was amazing! I could have lived with and loved him just as Keppler (nonstop awesome) but I was lamenting even as I watched because the character was so good I didn't want him to just be a guest star. And the Alpha reveal totally caught us off-guard and was equally amazing.