Sunday, October 4, 2009

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

So. I think that Firefly is Joss Whedon's most structurally perfect show. Each episode could (theoretically, as I've never tried it) work as a stand alone. Each episode of the 14 that were made also worked within the overarching story lines and themes. Buffy the Vampire Slayer never really caught to the "stand alone episodes working within a dominant theme" thing. Certain seasons were better at it than others (season 5, for instance, did a pretty good job, whereas season 4 was a mish mosh of absolutely brilliant stand alones that existed along side episodes that dealt primarily with the season-long arc). Angel, which I'm significantly less well versed in, especially once we go beyond seasons 1 and 2, also never could quite master the balancing act Firefly achieved so seemingly effortlessly, though they tended to go too far in the "focusing on the dominant theme to the detriment of the individual episode" thing. Buffy is still my absolute favorite thing ever, but I can give Firefly props for doing a hard thing in a genius fashion.

Why start off this post with that? Because Dollhouse doesn't have it. Dollhouse doesn't have it in a couple of different ways, but I'll start off with this one: simply due to the overarching theme and structure of the series' main plot, stand alone (or even stand alone-ish) episodes are significantly weaker than what Dollhouse is about. This episode, Instinct, was better than most stand alone(ish) season 1 episodes in terms of making the Imprint an actual character with an actual persona and an actual, workable story. This episode, Instinct, was better than most of the stand alone(ish) season 1 episodes in terms of taking a trope and twisting it on its ear. How many horror films are made like this one? I don't watch a lot of horror, but the scene with Echo coming back from the "dead" to reclaim her child and take out her captor/killer is fairly recognizable stuff. And that? Was done well. It's just that, unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, the stand alone episode falls far short of the interesting contained in the mystery of the Dollhouse itself. In Buffy, we could take an episode out to deal with Joyce's death. We could take an episode out to mind wipe everyone and have a bit of fun. We could take an episode out to turn a swim team into a bunch of fish (okay, maybe I'm one of the only people around appreciative of that last one). On Angel, we could take an episode to turn Angel into a puppet. We could take an episode to go to the ballet. We could take some time out to deal with Doyle's ex-wife. And I'm not entirely sure what Dollhouse is missing that makes the unbalance it contains less palatable than the wonder that was the unbalance Buffy and Angel struck - but I think it comes down to this: the nature of Buffy and Angel as shows was that we were seeing people we'd grown to love do sometimes crazy things, and we cared because their individual lives were just as important- if not oftentimes more - than that thing that made this season a separate journey from the one that preceded it and the one that would come after. Not only was what they were dealing with generally interesting, but they themselves were a familiar sort of interesting as well.

Dollhouse, if its stand alone episodes were about Topher or Adelle or Boyd, may be slightly more in that vein. As it is now, Dollhouse's stand alones are primarily about the trials and tribulations and wants of people we don't know and don't care about, and the Personas the Actives take on in order to fit into those people's individual worlds.

Take, for instance, this episode. "Instinct". Nate Jordan seems like a pretty okay guy dealing with some pretty traumatic events and who had enough money to make a custom wife and mother for himself and his child while he processed his grief. And I empathize with that plight, even as I consider this episode the bookend to Joel Myner recreating that magic moment he never got to have with his wife in "Man on the Street". But, even though I empathize with Nate Jordan, I don't particularly care about Nate Jordan or his life, even if he does have one of the more adorable infants ever on TV. In order to succeed, and even with the dire news emerging I truly hope Dollhouse does, Whedon is going to have to figure out how to do what he's never done before - make a show not so much about the characters but about the message. Or, he's going to have to focus almost all of his attentions on the Dollhouse, because regular people's lives and what they want Actives for are about as interesting as you'd imagine. Which is to say, even with the money to buy an Active for any length of time, not very interesting at all. Certainly nothing compared to governments turning teenage girls into killing machines, Vampire Slayers dealing with apocalypses on an almost yearly basis, vampires fighting for redemption and dealing with the scurvy demon underbelly of L.A., or a powerful corporation turning people into zombies who can be programmed and reprogrammed. The ethics behind that are far more interesting than what the people are actually programmed to be.

So, now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's get on to this episode. And how it actually is pretty good, once all the above is taken into consideration. Let's talk, first, about that Man in the Street comparison. Because I think it's an apt one. Refresher: Joel Myner is a bit of a dick. Electric Peeps has more on this, and it should be read, but the gist is this:
Whatever motivated Joel to do things the way he did, it wasn’t love. His desire to be a hero in his wife’s eyes turns him into something of a villain, a man responsible for the death of his wife. His engagement with the Dollhouse is an extension of his self-deception, both his chance to play the hero and the proof that he is not.
Nate Jordan? I'm not sure if he is a dick. He's a man in mourning. He's a man who has done a dickish thing. But, unlike Joel, he gets that what he's done was not the best thing in the world to do. He is also a widower, but instead of recreating his wife so he could have her, he was recreating his wife so someone could love their child, until he could do it himself. He is more in line with what Pointy anticipated the first time around:
I think that hearing one’s sainted wife’s words and seeing her gestures in an entirely different body would end up being kind of traumatic, an especially cruel reminder that the one you love was gone. I thought it would be heartbreaking to watch the widower growing more upset, and watching Echo/Departed’s resulting confusion and distress at the realization that she was upsetting someone she thinks she loves.
Nate, as "Emily" explains, "just... went away, you know? It's like the person I knew isn't there any more. It's like he's been replaced by a stranger". And that? Is because "Emily" is the stranger, replacing a beloved wife. What stops this from being a reprise of Joel is the fact Nate won't be going back to the Dollhouse for replacement Karens until the end of time, and also because he recognizes what he's done to Echo:
I'm sorry. This is my fault. I put you through hell.
And that makes his story different. It doesn't make his initial turning to the Dollhouse better; but it makes Nate better.

Now, to what I didn't like about the assignment: "The maternal instinct is the purest". Blech. Bleckity Blech. Once more, for good measure. Blech! My problem is not that Echo flipped the hell out and punched Topher in the nose. My problem is that this particular imprint was so powerful, because it was connected to motherhood, that Echo would punch out Topher and go looking for her child. In the episode before, she could tell that she was all the imprints, but none of them were her. Why not now? I can't really even form my utter gahness at such a development into words, so I'll just crib from EW:
But I just keep coming back to the idea that what turned Echo into a homicidal crazy person was the glandular change that allowed her to nurse. Her girl parts. Couch it in whatever science-y mumbo jumbo you’d like, that’s what sends her off the deep end: Chicks are crazy because they’re chicks. They just get…hysterical. For a dude like Joss Whedon, who’s made a career of writing strong female characters, for a writing staff with its fair share of ladies on it, for an episode that was WRITTEN BY TWO WOMEN…that’s kind of inexcusable.
Yeah, that's it. Right there. That, and the fact that motherhood has a tendency to be portrayed as such a sainted thing, that any mother - even one suffering from technologically induced personality removal - would be able and willing to go to any lengths to get their child back. Because that's just 'natural'. You can't protect your kid, always and forever? Bad mother. This is why Marlin in Finding Nemo is considered an incredible father; but if Marlin were Marla, it would just be another Jodie Foster film.

I agree with EW on one other turn, and that is Eliza Dushku gave her best acting performance to date here. Yes, there were times when she reverted to her stash of acting quirks (she tends to do this squinty thing with her eyes - for every single emotion and for every single character); but for the most part, she did a very good job becoming the character(s). Her line as Echo to Nate:
I'm not real. Do you know who's real?
Was like whoa. I'd put it up there with some of Summer Glau's moments. The difference is, of course, that Summer Glau is continually brilliant and heartachingly wonderful. And Eliza Dushku is still hit and miss.

This is already really long, but I forgot to mention him last week, so here's Wesley! Or, rather, Daniel Perrin. It is exceedingly odd to hear Alexis Denisof's real - American - accent. It's slightly surreal. Also, a little nasally. What I see so far, I like. And what I see so far is a guy who isn't Ballard; that is, a guy who isn't really interested in playing the White Knight so much as he is in righting a wrong that hit him too close to home. His vendetta isn't specifically to save the girl. It is to avenge his dying mother, and maybe do some good along the way. Right away, though, Perrin comes off as less of a creeper than Ballard ever did. And I speak as someone who doesn't dislike Ballard.

I also have to say that I love his wife, Cindy. Her "What about the man with the tin foil hat? Didn't he say Rossum mailed his liver to Saturn?" combined with, "Focus. You are Foil Hat Man's only hope" quickly made her a favorite. Plus, they seem so supportive of each other in the five minutes we've gotten to see them.

Also of note? Adelle arranging for Madeline to come back to the Dollhouse. I'm sure there were actual diagnostic tests that could - and should - be run. But it seems so... interesting that the week after she's told Ballard she got his number in regard to Mellie versus Echo that she gets Madeline back into the Dollhouse.

Other random things: Madeline correcting Ballard when he asks her if she's happy, telling him, "I'm not sad" versus Echo choosing to remain fully in contact with her emotions, because "I'm awake now. I don't want to go back to sleep". In Whedon's world, generally, pain is necessary. Pain is the flip side of the passion for the fight. Pain is what allows us to know of pleasure. Pain is not a side effect of existence but a necessary part. To not feel pain is not the preferred option. The preferred option is to feel pain, to know what goes bump in the night, and to face it with all the knowledge you could amass. What the Dollhouse offers, if Whedon's prior works are any indication (and I think they are) is a false sort of existence - it is the ability to sleep walk through life. And awake, for Whedon, is always better.

Grade: B-

Quote of the Episode: The human mind is like Van Halen. If you just pull out one piece and keep replacing it, it just degenerates.


Anonymous said...

I thought that Ballard created the motherhood explanation to make sure that no one realized that Echo can feel/remember her imprints after they are over. I interpreted Echo punching Topher as her making sense of what happened as best she could and not as the "glandular changes" explanation I thought Ballard designed to keep everyone (and Topher especially) from inquiring more deeply into what was going on with Echo.

petpluto said...

I thought that Ballard created the motherhood explanation to make sure that no one realized that Echo can feel/remember her imprints after they are over.

I think that's why Ballard stepped in and deftly handled the situation (and that's why it's good to have an ally in the House), but previous engagements - even though Echo could still feel them - didn't leave her following the urge to hit Topher.

I interpreted Echo punching Topher as her making sense of what happened as best she could and not as the "glandular changes" explanation

I'm a little leery, partially because the episode was entitled "Instinct". I don't know if Topher was right about the glandular changes, but something made this imprint more powerful than the others. And I found it a little too much that it was with motherhood.

petpluto said...

I interpreted Echo punching Topher as her making sense of what happened as best she could and not as the "glandular changes" explanation

Also, for me it's more of an Elle Woodsian, "Why now? Why this wipe?" sort of deal. The fact that it happened with motherhood, a 'hood already fraught with societal implications and the mother wars and what not, just made me go, "Wha?" Followed quickly by, "Why?!"

Anonymous said...

Was it more powerful than the others? I'm not sure.

It was also the first time since Echo started remembering her implants that she believed someone else was in danger after the assignment ended.

Maybe the title points in a different direction, but it seems like the motherhood "instinct" explanation saved at least Echo and probably Ballard too from having to run from the Dollhouse.