Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Post In Which I Review Dollhouse's "Haunted"

I will give "Haunted" this: it was much better the second time than it was the first.

Topher was, once again, brilliant. And I like Fran Kranz's hands. A lot. Actually, a big issue I had with "Haunted" the first time I saw it was the big knot of tension I had worrying over whether or not Topher was going to be yet another man to rape Sierra. I shouldn't have worried, but with Hearn and Nolan, and Adelle's use of Victor last week, it seemed like a distinct opportunity to make this particular show all the more stomach churning. Luckily, Topher remained his child-like, amoral self, and only wanted to build a friend to share his birthday with. That friend-building was sweetly sad; and yet, totally awesome. I loved Sierra's imprint; I loved Topher. And while there are still philosophical and moral and ethical issues with using people to house other people, created and not, I couldn't help but get drawn in from the opening exchange:
SIERRA: Tell me you got Speed Force 3.

TOPHER: And downloaded the bonus maps.

SIERRA: Pizza?

TOPHER: On its way. Beer in the fridge.

Between that and:
SIERRA (tossing a football back and forth): Earth-identical gravity and atmosphere on other planets. Is that two?

TOPHER: I'll give you one.

SIERRA: That's fair. One ecosystem for a whole planet.


SIERRA: Human-alien cross-breeding without scientific intervention.


SIERRA: Flame-y explosions and sound in a vacuum.

TOPHER: Yes! Good job!

SIERRA: Oh, but there's so much more. Light speed travel, space storms, and sexy, sexy aliens.

TOPHER: Ah, I said classic sci-fi errors. Now you're just attacking good storytelling.
I was hooked. It was wonderful to see Topher not expounding on his genius for one episode, and it was great to see him relax, have fun, and be himself. Although I don't approve of the Dollhouse in the least little bit, I must say it is an interesting tool to utilize in terms of storytelling; a quick fix to learning about even the most guarded of characters. Because each of them can build someone they can be wholly themselves around without risk of rejection or derision, we get glimpses into these broken characters we otherwise would have never been afforded.

Another thing I liked about the Topher-Sierra scenes, aside from the fact that I find the both of them charismatic, wonderful, and talented, is that it showed a more mature side to Topher. Sierra seemed to be based on Topher and Topher's own wants and needs and impulses. And so to have an exchange like this:
SIERRA: ...can we play with the sleepies?


SIERRA: Come on, Topher. We could have them battle one another and bet on them like gladiators.

TOPHER: We can't play with the sleepies.

SIERRA: Or we could have them act out skits we write, film it, and see who gets more hits on YouTube.

TOPHER: That's not a bad idea, but no.
In the episode Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "The Replacement", Xander gets split into two separate parts, and Giles remarks, "He's clearly a bad influence on himself." The opposite seems true here. With Sierra around to spout the random, immature impulses, Topher seems to experience less of them.

That isn't to say there isn't a disturbing element to the above; Sierra is, categorically speaking, one of the 'sleepies', there but for the grace of Boyd to be contemplated for gladiatoral use. Sierra may be one of the 'sleepies' next year, on Topher's next birthday. Sierra is still being used, and yet still sees herself as separate from the Dolls below. In a very real way, Sierra is still being violated by Topher's venture, and that doesn't get wiped away merely because Topher is achingly lonely, a year older, and adorable. With all of that said, though, the twinkie scene at the end did make me tear up more than a little.

Unlike Topher and Sierra, Ballard and Mellie's scenes did nothing to counteract the creepy vibe on the second watching. Mellie is, actually, adorabubble; and innocent. It sucked, in a well-written way, to see this woman, through no fault of her own and no idea why it was happening, be completely and totally shut out of her boyfriend's life. On the other hand, it was terrible to watch Ballard have to keep up the appearances of a normal relationship, to have to hide his investigation into the Dollhouse when his girlfriend innocently asks because she is being not-so-innocently used by an underground organization. It sucks for Ballard to become ever more complicit in the violation of another human being. And it demonstrates something very not good that Ballard lets go, lets himself be weak, and lets himself be persuaded by Mellie to use her. That Ballard uses Mellie for Angry Sex makes him actively complicit in the Dollhouse's victimization of the Mellie, instead of just passively complicit. As Ballard said at the end of the episode, he has found another client.

Mellie's (or rather, the person who Mellie's body belongs to) criminal record seems to be more than a little bit of a catalyst for Ballard's feelings of betrayal. Before he saw that, he was angry and withdrawn; but he seemed to recognize Mellie was a victim, was a missing person, was someone worth finding again. Afterward, he seemed even more betrayed, like his vision of the Perfect Victim disappeared from right in front of his eyes and left him with someone he may not typically feel sympathy for, left him with someone he may not be driven to save, someone he would have worked to put away. Mellie's reveal left Ballard seemingly on a ledge, but Mellie's possible record seems to have made him unhinged. It leads him to using her, and shows the audience that Ballard is also more than a little bit grey. He isn't going to be the dashing prince; he isn't going to be the hero of the piece. He isn't a bad guy, but he certainly isn't the best of guys either.

The part of the episode that was most uncomfortable was Margaret-in-Echo living after her death, though not for the same reasons Boyd was disturbed. It started out pretty awesome, what with:
MARGARET: Addy! Adelle. What's wrong? You look terrible.

ADELLE: Margaret. I'm so sorry to be the one to tell you. You're dead.
It seems unfair that such an awesome beginning could lead to so much uncomfortable badness. Part of it was Eliza Dushku. Her Margaret was uncomfortable to watch; and as much as I would love to chalk that up to an older Margaret trying desperately to imitate the manners, world view, and speaking patterns of someone 25 years younger than herself in a highly stressful situation, and as much as that did seem to sum up the nature of the awkwardness at times, almost as often it just seemed to be Dushku unable to fully get around the character. The scenes where she was good, she was very good. The scenes where she wasn't, she was pretty bad. But Dushku was not the the only problem. The other issue was this:
MARGARET: To see my own funeral? Who wouldn't want that?
Me. I wouldn't want to see that. I wouldn't want to know what my family and friends thought of me. I would rather die with the happy illusion that I was everyone's favorite person. It only now occurs to me that the very notion of having to live again in another's body in order to see one's own funeral and discern how everyone really feels is really the fantasy of the atheist. Presumably, those who believe in a higher power could simply look down - or up - if they were really that curious.

The other barrier was that I could see how that original premise - seeing your own funeral - could be an interesting one to explore, and so the addition of the murder mystery seemed unnecessary. It made for an exciting conclusion and a true bad guy (who was more than a little distracting, what with his name being Nicholas and his resemblance to Whedon alum Nicholas Brendon), but Margaret having to deal with the disappointments and regrets of her family without that crutch could have been incredible. Plus, she would have had to figure out another way to give Jack more than just the horses without the ease of "He's never going to use that money, because he's going to rot in jail".

And, of course, every episode of Dollhouse should have some Enver Gjokaj. Because I love him. And because he's one of the best damn actors on the show. Shame on the show for not giving us Enver!

Grade: B/B+

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