Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Post In Which I Review Dollhouse's "Belle Chose"

Episodes like this one are why I adore Tim Minear; episodes like "Omega" (an episode I still haven't reviewed! Gah!) are not. That's the line of delineation. Well, truly, episodes like "Epiphany" and "Out of Gas" and "Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been" are why I adore Minear. This one just kind of confirms that I'm right to. First, though, I'm going to jump in with the bad.

Every week I watch Dollhouse, and I see problems. Last week was the whole structural-vs-episodic nature of the show. This week? I'm back to ragging on Eliza Dushku. It isn't that she's bad. Okay, it is that she's somewhat bad, but she isn't totally bad. She just isn't versatile. At all. As a serial killer, she rocks. As a person fighting off serial killer personas and trying to keep some women alive, she also rocks. As Kiki? There is no rocking. What there is are a bunch of stereotypical bounces? and hair twirls? and ending each sentence like it is a question?, but no actual Kiki. There is Eliza Dushku not understanding how to make Kiki a character. There is very clearly Eliza Dushku playing the stereotype of a possible former non-rocket science cheerleader, whose wit (and she does have some, what with the "Scarlet Lady" remark) doesn't make it clearly into the presentation. Which is strange, because Buffy the Vampire Slayer could have easily been Kiki the Vampire Slayer. Going back to the books and watching how Sarah Michelle Gellar or Mercedes McNab or Charisma Carpenter managed to be ditzy and human, recognizing that there is more to that girl than the hair twists and the awkward delivery of sentences would have been a real help. This line:
Okay, so I probably never should have taken this course to begin with. But I figured it was Mid-Evil lit, not Advanced Evil. How hard could it be? So I skipped Intro to Evil or whatever, but how is it I get an "F" when this guy that we're reading, Chauncy, can't even spell?
was so incredibly painful to watch. Made even moreso by the fact that Enver Gjokaj managed to pull off a much more complete Kiki later on in the episode, and most of that was just dancing his heart out - and his tearful reunion with Paul. I long to see Gjokaj in the above scene with the professor, just to show Dushku how to knock it out of the park. As an aside, I join the list of people who think Enver Gjokaj is the most talented member of that cast. That, by the way, is probably the end of the bad from me this time around. Unfortunately, that bad is the star of the show, and should be able to pull off ditzy/dumb-but-beautiful better than she does. The rest of the episode? Aces.

Here's why: this episode succeeds in doing what I just complained the Dollhouse episodes weren't doing in my last review! See how that works? It is an amazing thing. It's more of an amazing thing if you've seen Epitaph One (And if you haven't, what are you waiting for? Go. This review will be here when you get back). But it is amazing all the same in that it is substantially a stand-alone episode that explains a majority of how the Dollhouse works and what it does, and advances the end game. I should also point out that this episode was supposed to be 2.02 and was bumped to 2.03 for the not-so-goodness that was "Instinct", for whatever the reason. We're introduced to a large portion of the procedure part of the Dollhouse through Ballard navigating his first assignment as Echo's handler. The explanation about the "R" for Romantic Engagement, seeing how the Dolls are dressed, all cool, and lead to this tickle-the-funny-bone exchange:
RANDOM HANDLER: I won't even do this for my wife.
BALLARD: I was trained at Quantico.
This brings us to Ballard. Who is, in a word, a creeper. The somewhat pornorific slow shots of "Kiki" taking in her new outfit with pleasure while being watched by Paul wasn't very pleasant. When Boyd came to take Ballard's place as the Handler, I was with Ballard in his "Serial killer? Thank God" remark. What makes the tension kind of wonky (and quite probably in an intentional way) is that the show makes it hard to tell if Paul is upset by the fact a dirty old professor would be making a student to seduce/be seduced by simply because it is Echo and he has a thing for her or if he would be just as revolted if any Doll - say, Victor - were to be put in this play situation. After all, he felt fine making an Echo to be married and sexed up when he was in control. And that, my friends, is why I can't like or trust ex-agent Paul Ballard - too much.

And yet, I do like him. I acknowledge that Tahmoh Penikett, has, as Maia says, "so little range it’s embarrassing". He's an "upset-frown, confused-scrunch up your face" kind of actor. And yet, for Ballard, it kind of works. It could just be that he continually gets lines that are inherently funny, like:
So... Terry. I gotta ask and I think you know I gotta ask. Have you been practicing dentistry on large cats? Leopards? Pumas?
Out of the many things Ballard had to ask or that Terry knew he had to ask, I don't think that was even on the list. He is also one of the most forthright in being able to put in direct terms what Terry is, and as a by-product, what with the intercutting scenes of Echo's engagement, what the Dollhouse is and caters to:
No, you're weird, Terry. But what you're not is special. It doesn't take a criminal profiler to figure you out. Maybe a pimp. It's ordinary. You're ordinary. Maybe you got bottle-fed, maybe you got dumped. It doesn't matter. At some point, you decided real people weren't worth it. You pushed them away. Alienated everyone in your life so you could surround yourself with the fakes, the copies. It made you feel like you had some control.
Since Ballard is both a criminal profiler and a pimp, he is uniquely qualified to diagnose Terry.

Now, let's jump to the very thing Ballard is describing, the engagement. The Dollhouse operates under the premise that it gives people what they need, when instead it becomes clearer and clearer that they generally traffic in what people want. Case in point: the engagement of the week. I can't imagine that a professor ever truly needs one of his students to sleep with him. I can imagine that a weaseling one like the guy we see may want one of his students to sleep with him. To the point where he'll actually make a fake student to seduce through the words of Chaucer and sleep with her, all the while asserting the student is in control of the situation, and making that clear to her:
DIRTY PROFESSOR: No, [Alisoun]'s not a whore.
KIKI: You're saying she uses sex to get what she wants.
DIRTY PROFESSOR: Yeah, I-I'm saying she's a lusty, bawdy, self-aware woman. She doesn't allow men to define her. She knows she's the one with the real power.
KIKI: What power?
DIRTY PROFESSOR: The same power that all women have.
This is one of my favorite scenes, because it demonstrates the lie the professor weaves. The professor is the one with all the power, both because he created Kiki to play out this fantasy and because he is the one who has the option of turning that "F" to an "A". He is the one who wields his intellectualism like a weapon; he is the one who is determined to 'teach' Kiki about this inherent 'power' she has over him. But the only power she has is the power he is willing to grant her. She isn't allowed to have an alternate reading of the text. She isn't allowed to argue her point in a salient manner or to ask if she can rewrite the paper with his critiques in mind, if she can do extra credit. Her power is purely relational to his attraction to her; her power is purely relational to how far he is willing to allow that attraction to go. Her power is wholly contingent upon him. And in one scene, the meme of the sexy worldly woman who successfully seduces the men powerless before her is revealed as a sham. Because the men she seduces aren't powerless, and because her power is determined by how much they are willing to give her - how much they are willing to take. And the professor may truly believe that he - and men - are helpless before the power of women. But that just makes him, well, wrong.

This connects to Terry, the serial killer. He also is under the mistaken belief that women are incredible masterminds - that the women he abducted orchestrated his getting hit with a car and then transferred into Echo. He's the one who the show opened upon, arranging his very own, slightly more mannequinesque fully human dolls. And, by the by, with my mannequin fear, I'm not going to be able to go to a department store for a very long time. It is exceedingly clear who has the power, and it isn't these women being used as Terry's playthings. As Uncle Bradley put it:
There have been other... indiscretions. Women, "survivors", I should call them. And when you have a survivor, you have a person who might be persuaded - monetarily or by other means - to stay quiet.
The rich and the powerful get to do their thing and have their way with the women of the world, and it is swept up and under the rug by money or other means - because the happiness of the Terrys and the Dirty Profs are inherently more important than the women; you know, those women with all the power.

Boyd, either because he's a better person than most in the Dollhouse (and that includes Ballard) or because he's an ex-cop, has issues with that before the whole "potential serial killer" thing comes rattling on out:
BOYD: Do we really want to wake this guy up?
ADELLE: Mr. Langton, have you no charity? We are working to reunite a desperate family with their wayward loved one.
BOYD: By "wayward", do you mean that they've been looking for him ever since he skipped his last bail hearing?
ADELLE: A bail hearing over a minor matter which has since been resolved.
BOYD: And, by "resolved", do you mean -
ADELLE: Yes, yes. A judge was bought off. There is no need to continue to translate me.
And is it just me, or is Boyd becoming more and more Oz-like? All I could think of in this scene:
BOYD: What are you trying?
TOPHER: Uh, a remote wipe?
BOYD: Why?
TOPHER: Oh, well... Victor's loose, doesn't have GPS and apparently he's a serial killer?
was how Oz would have a remarkably similar reaction. Well, that, and how Fran Kranz's nervous, making-statements-into-questions thing also put him in the running for being able to create a more believable Kiki than Eliza Dushku.

And we're jumping to Topher, who I've saved for last (perhaps erroneously, if no one has managed to get this far) because he has become my absolute favorite. Topher is one of the least complicated moral agents in the Dollhouse, and one of the most complex characters. He's one of the least complicated on the moral front because he won't do what he feels is ethically unsound. He's one of the most complex characters, because the list of things he feels are ethically unsound so far begins and ends with purposefully waking up a serial killer. Also, we have learned that Topher is not, in point of fact, a sociopath or a psychopath. Which makes where his ethical divides begin and end slightly more problematic. And, I have to give the scene, because I love Tim Minear's writing:
ADELLE: Good news on the coma front?
TOPHER: Uh... yeah. Good news is that he's in a coma.
ADELLE: I beg your pardon?
BOYD: Just show her what you showed me.
TOPHER: This is a brain - a healthy brain. Frankly, an overly smart brain. It's my brain. And this is Terry Karrens' brain. See these dark areas? How they extend all the way out to here? You know what that looks like that? That's because Terry Karrens doesn't use that part of his brain. And that'd be where you find stored such things as empathy, compassion, an aversion to disemboweling puppies. Basically, this is what some of your more famous serial killers' brains look like.
ADELLE: You're quite certain of this?
TOPHER: Certain enough that I have serious ethical problems trying to wake him up.
BOYD: Topher has ethical problems. Topher!
One of the questions that arises from this scene, as well as from the scene in "Vows" with Dr. Saunders and the broken Topher we see in Epitaph One, is when does Topher's moral code grow beyond that? When does he recognize that just because an idea may be intellectually brilliant, it can also be morally bankrupt? That, and Fran Kranz, is why Topher is my fav.

The other scene I loved with Fran Kranz was when he is encouraged by Adelle to create the tech know how that will eventually bring about the end of the world as we know it, the remote wipe:
TOPHER: A remote wipe? It can't be done!
ADELLE: It can be done. Alpha did it with Echo.
TOPHER: But he used a tonal interface! Serial Killer Victor would need to have a phone. I need to have a tone. I'd have to get him to answer the phone. Do you have his number?
ADELLE: Obviously not.
TOPHER: Well...?
It is odd to know the end game, and to see the beginnings of the evolution of the tech start as a way to save people, and Victor. It is odd that, for all the Dollhouse does that is destructive, that we can assert is actively destructive, it is this thing that is hard to characterize as such that helps bring about the dystopian version of the future.

Now, to the character the show is ostensibly based around: Echo. Echo is able to reassert control just as Terry Karrens is about to kill his next victim. Which inevitably leads to the question: Does Echo have some form of control?

If she does, is her willingness to go along with engagements now a tacit acceptance of that engagement? Is it a coerced (unknown, to the Dollhouse at large) consent based purely on a need to survive and the understanding that if she broke rank under almost all circumstances other than smashing someone's head in with a croquet mallet, she would be either wiped thoroughly or sent to The Attic? Or is her ability to assert control minimal, only in situations that go against the very core of who Echo/Caroline is, that there are certain imprints that won't take simply because they are so far removed from the lingering persona that makes one Active #1 over another?

I don't think she ever will have the ability to accept or reject an engagement while she is in the Dollhouse, but I do wonder if she is making a deal with the devil on a conscious level or if she only comes out to play when she glitches or when something occurs like a serial killer tries to murder some people whilst in her body. Either way, it is pretty interesting.

Grade: A

Quote(s) of the Episode:

BOYD: Then what? Just leave him out there in his Doll-State? Totally wiped?
TOPHER: He'll be an empty-headed robot wandering around Hollywood. He'll be fine.

ADELLE: We cannot allow Victor to be used as Terry Karrens' vehicle for abduction and murder.
TOPHER: I'm personally against it.


MediaMaven said...

Can't see how an episode with all of these "problems" warrants an A. The entire Echo subplot bored us to tears and I could barely stand to watch the scenes with the professor, they were just so bad.

I generally agree with you--I was loving Topher, Boyd had the best line, and as always, there needs to be more Enver Gjokaj.

petpluto said...

Can't see how an episode with all of these "problems" warrants an A.

The only problem I had was that Eliza can't act. Which isn't a small one by any means, I grant you.

But the rating system is sometimes based on how intellectually grabbed I am by the philosophical intent of the episode. I actually really liked the professor-student thing because it related so well to the serial killer thing. The idea that none of this exists as a dichotomy, that the prof and Terry existed on the same plane in how they saw women - and how they both had to exist within a controlled environment around the women they wanted attention from - was infinitely cool. The cuts between the two things - Terry and the prof - just hit that matter home.

Plus, it corrected one of the major, major, major issues I have with the series in that there was forward momentum on the grander narrative and yet the stand alone story (stories) were still compelling. It probably won't continue, and I'll probably get mad about it again, but in this episode that aspect was golden.

jjfs85 said...

I agree. It became clear to me a couple episodes ago that she's not the right actor to play Echo. She unfortunately lacks the ability to play more than 3 different types of characters. Sorry Whedon, bad casting choice.

petpluto said...

It became clear to me a couple episodes ago that she's not the right actor to play Echo.

Only a couple? Wow, you are so much more generous with the judgement time than I am. But, I'm pretty sure we already knew that...

Sorry Whedon, bad casting choice.

It is especially sad that he built the whole show around the premise that she can act. I guess that whole "love is blind" thing really is true.