Saturday, September 26, 2009

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

TOPHER: But this is the Dollhouse, frenemy. And nothing happens without my... What the hell?
Hello, second season of Dollhouse! Hello, Topher! Hello, Dr. Claire Saunders! Hello, Adelle! Hello, uncomfortably dark greys and philosophical issues! I think Topher's above line pretty much sums it all up. This is the Dollhouse, where the carefully created controlled environs begins to butt heads with chaos. Events are beginning to take shape without Topher's knowledge or consent. As Dr. Ian Malcolm so artfully described in Jurassic Park, "If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, expands to new territory, and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously." And this is what makes the Dollhouse (and, in part, Dollhouse) so exciting.

Let's take care of the bad first, shall we? The Engagement of the Week? Still the weakest part of the episode. I'm not entirely willing to blame Eliza for this, although this brings me straight to the next bad. Echo is still the weakest link in terms of characters. She's just kind of blah. Her story - so far - has been kind of blah. It is all wrapped up in things happening to her, rather than things she is doing. Adelle tells Ballard Echo is special, but there is no sign (outside of the unaired pilot) that assertion is correct. Echo is intriguing everyone, but there is nothing there pulling me in. It would be better if she wasn't on everyone's "sparkly" list, because then I could empathize with Boyd's devotion or wonder over Ballard's obsession. But with everyone on board, I'm less so. It is hard to find a character utterly special when all that is there is tell. And while Adelle may be correct in Echo's evolution before Alpha dumped all of her personas into her, she isn't correct in asserting that Echo is special because of that evolution. Victor started to evolve beyond the parameters of the Doll State. Sierra remembered past trauma while in Doll State. Hell, even Alpha evolved, if not admirably. If the unaired pilot was cannon and the story had been continued from there, I'd be on board. But what I've got to work with is that even the psycho Doll latches on to some brilliance that has yet to be properly introduced to us in the viewership. That's going to be a problem.

Another bad, or baddish, is Ballard. I'm not feeling his storyline. Part of it may be the fact that his obsession with Echo is just full of grossness. Part of it may be that he seems to not recognize how his "extreme devotion" to Echo is unhealthy at best and destructive (potentially to both her and him) at worst. But it could also be because I don't want him being rewarded for this weird fixation, and I'm completely not clued into whether or not I'm alone on this, if we're actually supposed to recognize Ballard as being the White Knight who gets a bit of grey on him in his determination to do right or if Ballard is supposed to not be a knight at all, and all the White Knight stuff is just a part of his own hang up and not something we should be rooting for or taking a hold of. In other words, of these two thoughts:
ADELLE: I expect he's looking for something else. A darker purpose, perhaps, or a weakness. And there's his extreme devotion to Echo.
BOYD: So he uses her to fulfill some sad fantasy about righting old wrongs by doing something worse.
which are we supposed to identify with? I'm hoping for Boyd's to come out on top in the end.

I was also taken back (but in a good way) when the client of the "sick" assignment turned out to be Ballard himself. From an unwitting player in the victimization of a Doll in Man on the Street, to an active one in Haunted, Ballard now fully completes the circle by becoming an actual client and a full and equal participant in the game. No wonder Boyd seemed so disgusted with him.

Another baddish moment (perhaps more "bad" than "ish") was Sierra's assignment:
SIERRA: I'm not comfortable with, uh, Orientals.
IVY: It'll only take a second.
SIERRA: It's not a racialist issue. It's just that... Well, your culture's not really the thing, is it?
Ivy: Have a seat.
SIERRA: I suppose I'm at your mercy. In fact, if you were to tie me down and spank me, I could hardly be expected to resist, could I?
IVY: I'll keep that in mind.
It could have been potentially good, potentially mocking the reference to Asia as one monolithic culture, potentially pointing out the insidiousness of internalized racism, recognizing how Asian fetishists are still racist, and demonstrating how difficult it can be to respond to gross stereotypes and blatant sexualization that can often occur in racial interactions. And maybe it was meant to do all of those things; perhaps it even succeeded. Unfortunately, Asians have not faired well in Whedony productions in the past. Whedon has, to put it bluntly, a bit of a race problem in regard to his work. The most blatant example of this is, in fact, Firefly. As Leigh Adams Wright's essay Asian Objects in Space notes - like Sierra merging all Asian cultures into one, undesirable, thing - Whedon's set pieces take all Asian cultures and merge them as well, and without any Asians with speaking parts to make the whole East-West merge seem realistic - or to counteract the "Asians as exotic objects" thing. Which is something Thea Lim from Racialicious also has a certain set amount of problems with (and she mentions Dollhouse, albeit pre-Sierra) in her article Joss Whedon and the Blurry Line Between Homage and Appropriation. Maybe Whedon wants to work to redress those issues present in his past works (and, if DMike from Television Without Pity is to be believed, may already be doing so by giving Sierra a Napalese name in in Epitaph One), but this scene only uncomfortably seems to harken back to his own failures without doing much to acknowledge them as such. "Racialists", it seems, are other people.

Now that we've touched on the bad, let's go back to the straight up, undeniable good. And that is Amy Acker. I'm going to be honest. I didn't like Amy Acker on Angel. I'm coming to the conclusion that it wasn't Amy Acker so much as it was Fred I didn't like, and that is a sweet, sweet revelation because Amy Acker can act the heck out of a script, let me tell you. This is the beginning of Acker's 3 episode swan song before she departs for Happy Town, and Whedon is giving her a lot to work with as Dr. Claire Saunders deals with the fact that she isn't exactly what those in Epitaph One call Actuals. Her method of dealing with actually being a Doll seems to be becoming slightly unhinged and creeping the crap out of Topher. Which is always fun:
TOPHER: Is this your idea of a joke?
SAUNDERS: You designed me, Mr. Brink. I guess it must be your idea of a joke.
TOPHER: I designed you to be a not crazy woman! You've gotta stop messing with me.
SAUNDERS: I don't seem to be able to. Maybe your work's not up to par.
TOPHER: My work is pristine. If you're losing it, that's your fault.
But the most heartbreaking scene for the both of them is this one:
TOPHER: What the...? What the hell?! Are you drunk?
SAUNDERS: I'm just trying to be my best.
TOPHER: Oh, whoa, I-I-I don't want your best.
SAUNDERS (looks down): Well, I think you do.
TOPHER: Okay, that is the minority vote. And you tricked it. Okay? A guy's asleep. Could have been Fozzie Bear and it would have (hand motions upward)... Not that I think about Fozzie Bear.
SAUNDERS: Let's stop playing games.
TOPHER: Okay, huh - how does this qualify as not playing games?
SAUNDERS: Because this is the endgame. This is where it all leads. You design someone to hate you so you can convince them to love you.
TOPHER: Hey, I could whip up a love slave any day I wanted to.
SAUNDERS: But that wouldn't be a challenge, would it? Slaves are just slaves. But winning over your enemy - the one person guaranteed to reject everything you are - that's real love. More real than anything up in the world. And I understand it now. I love you.
TOPHER: You need a frickin' treatment!
SAUNDERS: Why shouldn't I love you? Aren't you lovable? Aren't you Big Brother? Aren't you the Lord my God? Why should I fight your divine plan?
TOPHER: Because you're better than that! Because you're better than me! Dr. Saunders was dead. And Whiskey was out of service, at least temporarily. So DeWitt gave me the call. "We need a new doctor. One who's committed to our cause, who's kind and efficient and will look after our Actives."
SAUNDERS: So why didn't you stop there?
TOPHER: Because I was designing a person, not a Roomba. I needed you to be whole. If you agreed with everything I said, then we would miss something and someone would get hurt.
SAUNDERS: You don't care if people get hurt.
TOPHER: You don't know me! That's the contract. You don't know me, and I don't know you. Not fully, not ever. I made you question. I made you fight for your beliefs. I didn't make you hate me... You chose to.
SAUNDERS: How do I live? How do I go through my day knowing everything I think comes from something I can't abide?
TOPHER: So you weren't really going to sleep with me.
SAUNDERS: I can't stand the smell of you.
TOPHER: I did that - so we never... Why didn't you find out, who you really used to be? You had your chance. Maybe DeWitt would even reimprint your old identity. You've earned it.
SAUNDERS: Because I don't want to die. I'm not even real. I'm in someone else's body, and I'm afraid to give it up. I'm not better than you. I'm just a series of excuses.
TOPHER: You're human.
SAUNDERS: Don't flatter yourself.
One of the key things about that scene is the amount of depth both actors gave it, and what we learn about each character. As Boyd told Claire earlier, "Every person I know is pretty poorly constructed." Topher doesn't seem to like himself very much. He is a genius, and he's good enough and smart enough and skilled enough to know that making a Roomba isn't going to get the job done. But he is also explicitly clear that he made Claire to be a better person than he sees himself as. He created a person who could and would challenge him, who could and would win against him, because he wanted a safeguard. And because he doesn't seem to trust himself - or even like himself - that much. And yet, he seems kind of broken by the idea that she would choose to hate him. And by the end, he's closer to the Topher in Epitaph One's future than he is to the Topher we were first introduced to. That is what I call tragic goodness.

What is also interesting is the extent to which he goes to make certain there will be no sexual relationship between himself and Saunders. He explicitly makes sure his very scent repels her. Which leads to the question, if he could make a sexbot at any time he wanted, has he ever? Would he ever? Is the scent provision just for Saunders? Is it there because he knew Whiskey before, or is it there because he feels distinctly squicky about sleeping with someone he had created? Is it a way for the creator to never abuse his creations, to never cross an invisible and intractable line? I want to know.

I also find it so very cool that the premise Saunders presents, the challenge of getting someone who hates you to love you, is practically the basis for a whole huge swath of romantic comedies, ranging from When Harry Met Sally to 27 Dresses to The Ugly Truth to 2 Weeks Notice. And it is presented here as a sad notion. Which, even though I liked the two non-Heigl films above, was kind of refreshing. The idea that we'll eventually end up with that guy or girl we first hate is a weird one to push. Because, well, it means spending a lot of time (I mean, a lot a lot) with people we don't like at all. And that? Not a fun way to spend your days.

But let's forget about the incredibly talented Fran Kranz and the hidden layerness of Topher in order to discuss Claire Saunders' philosophical and ethical dilemma. Because she does so well and hits it right out of the park almost immediately. She embodies one of the main issues with the Dollhouse - leaving aside the whole "the technology gets out and makes rampaging zombie-like creatures" part out of it for now. Saunders is a real person, no matter how often she verbally contradicts that statement. But whoever Whiskey was before she was Whiskey is a real person as well. She had real thoughts and real feelings, and this body is hers just as much - if not more - than it is Saunders'. To do the right thing and trying to give the body back means submitting to death. Which isn't fair to the good doctor, who never asked to be made. The person Whiskey once was may want to be reimprinted, but Dr. Saunders can't let herself go off into that good night. And I can't blame her. And there is no easy or righteous answer to this dilemma, because no matter what the process results in the 'death' of a persona.

Grade: A-

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