Lesson the First: The Actions Of A Small Group of People Is Not Enough To Change the World
Whedon seems to be veering wildly away from a theme that permeated much of his earlier work; unlike the small group of friends and colleagues who were able to defeat demonic threats, and - in another 'verse - weaken an authoritarian government, the 'awakened' Dolls still are controlled, still cannot escape the overarching reach of this dominant global force. Although Sierra declares, "We decide for ourselves now", nothing could be farther from the truth. The tragedy present is the hope these four have while exiting the Dollhouse, the hope that they are now free and autonomous beings who can do what they want and go where they want. Unlike Buffy, they haven't 'graduated'. They speak in Whedonesque terms about freedom and sacrificing to make a difference, but what makes the show so dark is how they aren't even allowed to fail; their success is part of reaffirming their place in the system. Their small victories only succeed in making them more compliant cogs in the machine, because they feel as though they have accomplished something. It is a much more negative view of the world, and all who happen to live in it. Several bloggers note that the whole structure of the Dollhouse can be read as a broad metaphor for the oppressive structures of our world, as well as examining our own false consciousness. What also seems to be addressed in show is how we can never fully escape these structural oppressions on an individual basis; we can attempt to battle them, we can recognize them, we can work to check our privilege, but we as individuals will never truly beat the system. It is an interesting reading, and one I'm more and more attracted to - though that does mean that Whedon and I will soon have a philosophical parting in this particular area. I may be naive, and I'm definitely an optimist; but while in my most cynical moments I may feel like this dystopian reading of society is in all probability right, I'm still going to hope beyond hope that we can each be Mal, or Buffy. That we can, individually, strike critical blows to these things that chain us.
Lesson the Second: Rape Does Not Diminish Personhood
This doesn't really feel like it should be a necessary lesson, but between Badger's FBI Guy in Man on the Street and Nolan here, it seems imperative to note that if nothing else, Dollhouse the show seems intent on demonstrating the Dolls' humanity; that humanity is important, because the Dollhouse as an organization can be a metaphor for sex work, and of course sexual slavery. I don't really want to delve too far into the ethical and feminist pros and cons of something like prostitution; I recognize there are women (and men) who choose of their own free will to be sex workers, who enjoy sex work, and who have not suffered whilst pursuing sex work. But there are many women and men who become sex workers because they are coerced, because they are forced to, or because of the economics of their particular situation. What is clear is that no matter the way in which one becomes involved in sex work, in many ways, one's worth in the eyes of many seemingly dissipates. Badger-FBI Guy represents one view about women who have been in sex work, either voluntarily or not, when he describes Caroline as "a mindless whore". The victim becomes the person to be looked down upon. Sierra's Dollhouse 'benefactor' goes another way, gaining satisfaction and power from the fact that they woman who turned him down can now turn down nobody. When Sierra tells him, "I'm more of a person than you", Nolan tries to strip her of her personhood simply by referring to the coerced sex acts he has forced upon her, boasting, "Honey, you're programmed to give me and - and anyone else whatever we want, whenever we want it. Which... you do, with pleasure. And sometimes you even beg". And yet, Sierra, and Victor, and Echo, and Mellie, do come across as being more of a person than the twisted Nolan. Although he now views her as less of a person, although Badger-FBI Guy sees Echo/Caroline as less of a person based on their "mindless whore"ing ways, that does not make it so. In a major way, Whedon both presents and discredits this idea.
Lesson the Third: There Is A Difference Between Needs & Wants
Topher tells Not-Caroline, "We help people become better people by giving them what they need". Except it is hard to see how Nolan becomes a better person by being able to - even if only in his own mind - humiliate Sierra. It's hard to see how Matt, the dancing and biker guy, becomes a better person. The Dollhouse deals mostly in want. Nolan wants Sierra; Matt wants the porntastic version of a school girl; Biz wants someone to take care of Rayna. Sometimes, the people may change for the better; Rayna is probably a good example, as are the people in the religious compound. But that seems to be more of a side effect of the main mission of making the whims of the rich and powerful come true. The idea that they are making better people, not by programming them but by giving them the programmed, is merely a rationalization. Which brings us to:
Lesson the Fourth: Rationalizations Are Weak
Topher's declaration that he is "just the science guy", after describing what the process is to make the Dolls comes off as incredibly craven and pathetic. Adelle telling Not-Caroline, "I eased your suffering" and making it clear all there are volunteers even though Not-Caroline has a pretty good idea at least one of them isn't comes off as simplistic, at best naive and at worst deceiving. Dr. Saunders, when she says, "She wasn't leading them to freedom. She was leading them to a world of terror and chaos that would have destroyed them" employs yet another. We have at least one example how the world of terror and chaos is not guaranteed to destroy the Dolls; it may or may not, just like the world may or may not destroy anyone. But only from adversity and conflict comes growth, as demonstrated in Gray Hour. The Dolls aren't really living in the world because they are denied that ability to develop, to grow. The fact that Dr. Saunders is employing her own technique of 'hide and the world will go away' to the well-being of the Dolls may indicate how badly scarred - internally - she really is.
Sierra's "I trusted him. Why did I trust him?" was heartbreaking for many reasons, one being that most rape victims know their attacker.
Topher remains fairly adorably kiddish, even with his amoral ways.
There was way too little Boyd.
Enver Gjokaj, and Victor sort of by proxy, is incredible. His recitation of the Mets' line up, his "We're gonna die" reaction to "I like pancakes", his face when he discovered the Sex Pants of Doom, all wonderful. If only he were our main Doll! Or Sierra; I could handle Sierra.